The Anxiety Of Influence

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Even a cursory glance through the most well-known works of literary criticism by Eliot, Hulme and Pound will yield a series of statements that implicitly and explicitly oppose modernist poetry to its recent predecessors. In his 'Prolegomena' (1912), for example, Pound contrasts the achievements of the nineteenth century, 'a rather blurry, messy sort of a period, a rather sentimentalistic, mannerish sort of a period', with his hopes for twentieth-century poetry, which will, he predicts, 'move against poppy-cock, it will be harder and saner, [. . .] austere, direct, free from emotional slither' (1960: 11, 12). In 'Romanticism and Classicism' (written c. 1911/12), Hulme uses a very similar set of terms, comparing the 'dry and hard' poetry of the modern classicist with the over-emotional 'damp' poetry of the outmoded romantic (1994: 66), and that comparison underlies one of Eliot's most famous pronouncements, from 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' (1919): 'Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality' (1980: 21). This method of strong opposition is a powerful polemical tool that sharpens our understanding of the writers' claims for the poetry they are advocating. But it also simplifies the relationship between the opposing poles. These too-stark oppositions are the writers' strategies for managing and controlling a discussion that is always complicated, always intellectually and emotionally fraught: their own literary ancestry.

The American critic Harold Bloom coined the phrase 'the anxiety of influence' to describe modern poetry's engagement with its parentage. For Bloom, the history of Western poetry since the Renaissance is a history of 'anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist' (1973: 30). Eliot, Hulme and Pound were highly conscious of their poetry's relationship with literary tradition, and while their essays insist on their own originality, they also emphasize that originality in literature is compatible with learning from literary predecessors, and indeed displaying that learning. The most well-known articulation of this argument is Eliot's 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', which appeared in his first collection of essays, The Sacred Wood (1920). There he writes that:

we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of [the poet's] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.

Pound instructed new poets to 'be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it' (1960: 5), and Hulme attested to the inevitability of poetic influence when he remarked that 'your opinion is almost entirely of the literary history that came just before you, and you are governed by that whatever you may think' (1994: 64).

That last statement of Hulme's is worth dwelling on for a moment, because it highlights the fact that, although these poets were prepared to acknowledge a remarkably wide range of influences on their poetry, they were not necessarily in control of the way their literary ancestry made itself felt in their work. In particular, during the early stages of their careers both Eliot and Pound wrote extensively about their interest in much earlier periods of literary history, seventeenth-century English drama in Eliot's case, thirteenth-century French and Italian poetry in Pound's, but they were far less forthcoming about the most immediate, the most inescapable, influence on their work, that of 'literary history that came just before': the literature of the late nineteenth-century 'aestheticist' movement. Although the negative characterizations of over-emotional poetry quoted above were general enough to be applied to all kinds of literature the writer disliked, the most immediate target was aestheticist poetry. Those over-stated oppositions are excellent examples of how Eliot's, Hulme's and Pound's anxiety about their recent literary heritage was expressed, in Bloom's words, as a 'self-saving caricature' of their literary parentage.

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