Intellectual Transitions

Eliot, Hulme and Pound were born and educated during a time of intellectual upheaval. The scientific advances of the nineteenth century had given the period a remarkable sense of confidence in its own ability to explain the natural world in all its complexity. But towards the end of the century it became clear that this confidence was misplaced. The limitations of science began to be felt as previously secure scientific formulations were questioned and interest began to turn to areas that seemed to evade scientific analysis, areas better approached by the new subject of psychology, or by philosophy, or even by studies of the occult. Modernism might be understood as the product of this intellectual crisis, occurring when the structures of enquiry were overwhelmingly scientific, yet the limitations of those structures were palpably felt. The legacy of the nineteenth century is felt in modernism's urge to question, analyse, and categorize — all three of these writers use noticeably scientific vocabularies — but at the same time, they deliberately focus their attention on that which cannot be scientifically proven. Although these three writers come from quite different backgrounds, they begin their careers by asking remarkably similar questions, and even come to some of the same answers independently of each other.

Hulme, the eldest of the three, appeared destined to be a mathematician or a scientist. But his 1906 trip to Canada, and the writing of his 'Cinders', constituted a turning-point in his intellectual development. It appears that the sheer size of the Canadian prairies challenged Hulme's previously confident belief that the world could be explained in terms of mathematical principles: 'formerly, one liked theories because they reduced the world to a single principle', he wrote, 'now the same reason disgusts us. The flats of Canada are incomprehensible on any single theory. The world only comprehensible on the cinder theory' (1994: 10—11). Hulme's 'cinder theory' conceives of the world as essentially plural, made up of a mass of disordered elements, like cinders in an ash-heap. But, Hulme goes on to explain, we are unable to comprehend the world in all its plurality, so we create artificial ordering systems for it, which he likens to placing a 'manufactured chess-board' on the ash-heap (1994: 9). These ordering systems take a number of forms: religious beliefs are one way of making sense of the world, mathematical formulae are another, and perhaps the ultimate ordering system is language itself. The trouble is, Hulme says, we tend to forget that these systems are simply an approximate, often arbitrary, means to understand the chaotic 'real' world lying underneath: we find ourselves thinking that they have some kind of intrinsic connection to reality, or indeed are reality. This, for Hulme, is where mathematics goes wrong.

Hulme was by no means alone in conceiving of the relationship between reality and our understanding of it in this way. The opposition between immediate experience and organizing concepts was widespread in turn-of-the-century thought, and the following year Hulme would encounter an exploration of this opposition in Bergson's work. But what is interesting for our purposes is that Hulme connected this philosophical insight with a need to write poetry: 'the first time I ever felt the necessity or inevitableness of verse', he wrote, 'was in the desire to reproduce the peculiar quality of feeling which is induced by the flat spaces and wide horizons of the virgin prairie of western Canada' (1994: 53). For Hulme, poetry could compensate for the gap between experience and understanding, because poetry's 'direct language' of images 'arrests your mind all the time with a picture' (1994: 55). In other words, poetry constantly brings us up short and forces us to attend to the process of perception by which we are making sense of the world. In doing so, it makes us look more closely at the world itself, instead of relying on the clichés and lazy habits of thought that make up our everyday use of language. For Hulme, to perceive things in terms of atomized images, instead of coherent narratives, was modern, an explicit reaction against nineteenth-century habits of thought.

By the time he met Hulme, Pound had also come to some of these conclusions, despite the fact that his educational background and early career initially appear very different. He once said that he had gone to college with the 'intention of studying comparative values in literature (poetry) and began doing so unbeknown to the faculty' (Carpenter 1988: 37). The phrasing of that sentence is telling, because Pound saw his study of 'comparative values' in direct opposition to the way he was actually taught. Pound was trained as a philologist: he was taught to study the literature of the past by researching the historical use of individual words and analysing etymologies. Philology was an explicitly scientific take on literary study, and although it had a substantial impact on the way Pound thought about literature, his early writings show his frustration with its limitations.

Pound insisted that his first book of criticism, The Spirit of Romance, was 'not a philological work'. Although it grew out of his university studies, it attempted to find a different intellectual approach, one which was not 'archaeological or "scholarly"'. Pound's avowed aim was to find a 'literary scholarship, which will weigh Theocritus and Mr Yeats with one balance, and which will [. . .] give praise to beauty before referring to an almanack' (1968: 5—6). Where Hulme found that the Canadian prairies refused to be included in a mathematical formula, Pound found that philology could not explain the beauty of his favourite poetry: both poets wanted to express something which existed beyond the reach of their empirical disciplines. Pound's introduction a year later of the 'method of Luminous Detail' as a 'New Method in Scholarship' proposed to replace the mass of information collected by the philologist with a single carefully selected detail that would unfold to reveal the culture that produced it. It is difficult to miss the similarities with the imagist poetry he began writing the following year, made up, like Hulme's, of isolated details, juxtaposed, and intended to yield 'an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time' (1960: 4).

In 1914, when Eliot showed Pound the poems later published as Prufrock and Other Observations, Pound expressed amazement that Eliot had 'modernised himself on his own (1971: 40). But what did it mean to look modern in 1914? Eliot also wrote in free verse and privileged the closely observed detail. Evidently his work somehow expressed the same values Hulme and Pound associated with modern verse. This can be explained in part by a shared literary source, that of French symbolism, but the use of that source itself was conditioned by a common aim to express the relationship between experience and understanding. Eliot, like Hulme, knew Bergson's work in this area. But by 1914, his thinking was far more deeply indebted to the philosophy of F.H. Bradley. I will return to Bradley in Chapter 3, but it will be helpful here to briefly indicate some general correspondences between Eliot's use of his philosophy and the contemporaneous concerns of Hulme and Pound.

Like Hulme, Pound and Bergson, Bradley was interested in the problem of registering immediate experience, and like them, he believed it could only be understood through the practical compromise of abstract concepts, what he called 'appearances'. But Bradley was troubled by the implication that we are all locked into our individual consciousnesses, experiencing absolutely individuated sensations that cannot be accurately expressed to each other. Bradley's solution was that our individual consciousnesses only appear to be divided off from each other and in fact they are all part of a single, all-encompassing consciousness, which he called 'the Absolute'. While one can immediately see a certain correlation with Hulme's 'cinder theory', Bradley's Absolute indicates a difference in emphasis: where Hulme emphasizes the plurality of the cinders, or the world, Bradley emphasizes its singularity and continuity. Like Hulme and Pound, Eliot is critically aware of the implications of this theory for the poet, who wants to express not appearances, but the immediacy of experience itself. Where Hulme's and Pound's response was to develop a concept of the verbal 'Image', which mediates between the real world of experience and the conscious world of appearances, Eliot developed a concept of the 'objective correlative', which he described as 'a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events' which can be 'the formula' of the emotion the poet wants to express (1980: 145). Although Eliot's objective correlative is not the same as the Hulmean or Poundian Image, it does suggest that these three poets agree on some important points. They agree that poetry aims to express experience, rather than the appearances or concepts by which we make experience intelligible to ourselves. They see that this creates a problem for language, since language tends to falsify experience, even as it enables us to express some approximation of it. Therefore, they think the poet needs to find some means of making language have a more direct impact on the reader, and the answer for all three of them is to create poetry around concrete details, which might act as a trigger or catalyst for experiencing the poem's subject directly.

The major point to emphasize is that, according to these poets, language cannot be understood as a transparent window through which one sees reality; it is a medium that is more likely to obscure reality. Their poetry will attempt to get behind language, as it were, by highlighting the mismatch between what we feel and what we can say. And, as we might expect, that decision will give rise to considerable difficulties not only for the poet, but for the reader too. As Eliot wrote in 1921:

It appears likely that poets In our civilization, as It exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

The aim of this book is to explore Eliot, Hulme and Pound as critical thinkers, as well as poets, though of course those two identities frequently converge. The chapters proceed roughly chronologically, tracing the development of the poets' thought and poetic practice from the beginning of their careers. The first chapter outlines the turn-of-the-century literary context in which these poets first began to write and to think about what it meant to be a 'modern' poet, and the second chapter provides the philosophical background for their early work. The third chapter addresses the poets' pre-war and wartime political thought and its relation to their poetry. The fourth and fifth chapters discuss the major theoretical issues Eliot and Pound confronted in composing their masterpieces, The Waste Land and The Cantos: Chapter

4 focuses on the poems' concepts of history and tradition and Chapter

5 is concerned with the modernist renovation of the long poem against the backdrop of the First World War. The sixth chapter discusses the later poetry of Eliot and Pound in the context of their social criticism.

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