“T.S. Eliot” by Ezra Pound (from Instigations)
Il n’y a de livres que ceux où un écrivain s’est raconté lui-même en racontant les mœurs de ses contemporains—leurs rêves, leurs vanités, leurs amours, et leurs folies.— Remy de Gourmont.
De Gourmont uses this sentence in writing of the incontestable superiority of “Madame Bovary,” “L’Éducation Sentimentale” and “Bouvard et Pécuchet” to “Salammbô” and “La Tentation de St. Antoine.” A casual thought convinces one that it is true for all prose. Is it true also for poetry? One may give latitude to the interpretation of rêves; the gross public would have the poet write little else, but De Gourmont keeps a proportion. The vision should have its place in due setting if we are to believe its reality.
The few poems which Mr. Eliot has given us maintain this proportion, as they maintain other proportions of art. After much contemporary work that is merely factitious, much that is good in intention but impotently unfinished and incomplete; much whose flaws are due to sheer ignorance which a year’s study or thought might have remedied, it is a comfort to come upon complete art, naïve despite its intellectual subtlety, lacking all pretense.
It is quite safe to compare Mr. Eliot’s work with anything written in French, English or American since the death of Jules Laforgue. The reader will find nothing better, and he will be extremely fortunate if he finds much half as good.
The necessity, or at least the advisability of comparing English or American work with French work is not readily granted by the usual English or American writer. If you suggest it, the Englishman answers that he has not thought about it—he does not see why he should bother himself about what goes on south of the channel; the American replies by stating that you are “no longer American.” This is the bitterest jibe in his vocabulary. The net result is that it is extremely difficult to read one’s contemporaries. After a time one tires of “promise.”
I should like the reader to note how complete is Mr. Eliot’s depiction of our contemporary condition. He has not confined himself to genre nor to society portraiture. His
lonely men in shirt-sleeves leaning out of windows
are as real as his ladies who
come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
His “one night cheap hotels” are as much “there” as are his
four wax candles in the darkened room,
Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
An atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb.
And, above all, there is no rhetoric, although there is Elizabethan reading in the background. Were I a French critic, skilled in their elaborate art of writing books about books, I should probably go to some length discussing Mr. Eliot’s two sorts of metaphor: his wholly unrealizable, always apt, half ironic suggestion, and his precise realizable picture. It would be possible to point out his method of conveying a whole situation and half a character by three words of a quoted phrase; his constant aliveness, his mingling of very subtle observation with the unexpectedness of a backhanded cliché. It is, however, extremely dangerous to point out such devices. The method is Mr. Eliot’s own, but as soon as one has reduced even a fragment of it to formula, some one else, not Mr. Eliot, some one else wholly lacking in his aptitudes, will at once try to make poetry by mimicking his external procedure. And this indefinite “some one” will, needless to say, make a botch of it.
For what the statement is worth, Mr. Eliot’s work interests me more than that of any other poet now writing in English.The most interesting poems in Victorian English are Browning’s “Men and Women,” or, if that statement is too absolute, let me contend that the form of these poems is the most vital form of that period of English, arid that the poems written in that form are the least like each other in content. Antiquity gave us Ovid’s “Heroides” and Theocritus’ woman using magic. The form of Browning’s “Men and Women” is more alive than the epistolary form of the “Heroides.” Browning included a certain amount of ratiocination and of purely intellectual comment, and in just that proportion he lost intensity. Since Browning there have been very few good poems of this sort. Mr. Eliot has made two notable additions to the list. And he has placed his people in contemporary settings, which is much more difficult than to render them with mediæval romantic trappings. If it is permitted to make comparison with a different art, let me say that he has used contemporary detail very much as Velasquez used contemporary detail in “Las Meninas”; the cold gray-green tones of the Spanish painter have, it seems to me, an emotional value not unlike the emotional value of Mr. Eliot’s rhythms, and of his vocabulary.
James Joyce has written the best novel of my decade, and perhaps the best criticism of it has come from a Belgian who said, “All this is as true of my country as of Ireland.” Eliot has a like ubiquity of application. Art does not avoid universals, it strikes at them all the harder in that it strikes through particulars. Eliot’s work rests apart from that of the many new writers who have used the present freedoms to no advantage, who have gained no new precisions of language, and no variety in their cadence. His men in shirt-sleeves, and his society ladies, are not a local manifestation; they are the stuff of our; modern world, and true of more countries than one. I would praise the work for its fine tone, its humanity, and its realism; for all good art is realism of one sort or another.
It is complained that Eliot is lacking in emotion. “La Figlia che Piange” is an adequate confutation.
If the reader wishes mastery of “regular form,” the “Conversation Galante” is sufficient to show that symmetrical form is within Mr. Eliot’s grasp. You will hardly find such neatness save in France; such modern neatness, save in Laforgue.
De Gourmont’s phrase to the contrary notwithstanding, the supreme test of a book is that we should feel some unusual intelligence working behind the words. By this test various other new books, that I have, or might have, beside me, go to pieces. The barrels of sham poetry that every decade and school and fashion produce, go to pieces. It is sometimes extremely difficult to find any other particular reason for their being so unsatisfactory. I have expressly written here not “intellect” but “intelligence.” There is no intelligence without emotion. The emotion may be anterior or concurrent. There may be emotion without much intelligence, but that does not concern us.
A conviction as to the rightness or wrongness of vers libre is no guarantee of a poet. I doubt if there is much use trying to classify the various kinds of vers libre, but there is an anarchy which may be vastly overdone; and there is a monotony of bad usage as tiresome as any typical eighteenth or nineteenth century flatness.
In a recent article Mr. Eliot contended, or seemed to contend, that good vers libre was little more than a skilful evasion of the better known English metres. His article was defective in that he omitted all consideration of metres depending on quantity, alliteration, etc.; in fact, he wrote as if metres were measured by accent. This may have been tactful on his part, it may have brought his article nearer to the comprehension of his readers (that is, those of the “New Statesman,” people chiefly concerned with sociology of the “button” and “unit” variety). But he came nearer the fact when he wrote elsewhere: “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”
Alexandrine and other grammarians have made cubbyholes for various groupings of syllables; they have put names upon them, and have given various labels to “metres” consisting of combinations of these different groups. Thus it would be hard to escape contact with some group or other; only an encyclopedist could ever be half sure he had done so. The known categories would allow a fair liberty to the most conscientious traditionalist. The most fanatical vers-librist will escape them with difficulty. However, I do not think there is any crying need for verse with absolutely no rhythmical basis.
On the other hand, I do not believe that Chopin wrote to a metronome. There is undoubtedly a sense of music that takes count of the “shape” of the rhythm in a melody rather than of bar divisions, which came rather late in the history of written music and were certainly not the first or most important thing that musicians attempted to record. The creation of such shapes is part of thematic invention. Some musicians have the faculty of invention, rhythmic, melodic. Likewise some poets.
Treatises full of musical notes and of long and short marks have never been convincingly useful. Find a man with thematic invention and all he can say is that he gets what the Celts call a “chune” in his head, and that the words “go into it,” or when they don’t “go into it” they “stick out and worry him.”
You can not force a person to play a musical masterpiece correctly, even by having the notes “correctly” printed on the paper before him; neither can you force a person to feel the movement of poetry, be the metre “regular” or “irregular.” I have heard Mr. Yeats trying to read Burns, struggling in vain to fit the “Birks o’ Aberfeldy” and “Bonnie Alexander” into the mournful keen of the “Wind among the Reeds.” Even in regular metres there are incompatible systems of music.
I have heard the best orchestral conductor in England read poems in free verse, poems in which the rhythm was so faint as to be almost imperceptible. He read them with the author’s cadence, with flawless correctness. A distinguished statesman read from the same book, with the intonations of a legal document, paying no attention to the movement inherent in the words before him. I have heard a celebrated Dante scholar and mediæval enthusiast read the sonnets of the “Vita Nuova” as if they were not only prose, but the ignominious prose of a man devoid of emotions: an utter castration.
The leader of orchestra said to me, “There is more for a musician in a few lines with something rough or uneven, such as Byron’s
There be none of Beauty’s daughters
With a magic like thee;
than in whole pages of regular poetry.”
Unless a man can put some thematic invention into vers libre, he would perhaps do well to stick to “regular” metres, which have certain chances of being musical from their form, and certain other chances of being musical through his failure in fitting the form. In vers libre his musical chances are but in sensitivity and invention.
Mr. Eliot is one of the very few who have given a personal rhythm, an identifiable quality of sound as well as of style. And at any rate, his book is the best thing in poetry since … (for the sake of peace I will leave that date to the imagination). I have read most of the poems many times; I last read the whole book at breakfast time and from flimsy proof-sheets: I believe these are “test conditions.” And, “confound it, the fellow can write.”