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Ezra Pound

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The villanelle in Portrait has had a wide distribution and a copious commentary; the same cannot be said for two 1915 mentions of the villanelle by Ezra Pound, both of which are addressed by McFarland as though they were as important to the history of literature as Stephen’s “Villanelle of the Temptress.” In his preface to the poems of Rhymers’ Club member Lionel Johnson, Pound wrote, “The villanelle, even, can at its best achieve the closest intensity, I mean when, as with Dowson, the refrains are an emotional fact, which the intellect, in the various gyrations of the poem, tries in vain and in vain to escape” (qtd. in McFarland 83); a poem by Pound titled “Villanelle: the Psychological Hour” then appeared in the December 1915 issue of the modernist journal Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. McFarland reads these two mentions of the villanelle as intimately related: “As Pound observed, the important thing is that the refrain constitute an ’emotional fact’ and that the remainder of the poem be a vain attempt to ‘escape’ by intellectual maneuvering. Certainly that is what occurs in this villanelle” (85). I would argue, instead, that Pound’s own free-form poem stands in opposition to his casual defense of the villanelle, and is probably a more accurate index to his attitude.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 At the same time, Pound’s comment does remind us of a certain continuity between the modernists and the post-Romantics, especially the Decadents, a continuity that is also visible in the appearance of Stephen’s essentially Decadent villanelle in Joyce’s Portrait. Yeats also admired Dowson, and for that matter Johnson, never entirely repudiating his Rhymers’ Club affiliations: “Dowson and Johnson most I praise,” he inscribed in his poem “The Grey Rock,” published in Responsibilities in 1914 (104). But Yeats and Pound were increasingly committed to eliminating such characteristics as archaic diction, inverted syntax, and romantic moodiness, and Dowson’s poetry, like that of Gosse and Dobson, was heavily laden with these qualities. “Villanelle of Marguerites” seems, of Dowson’s five villanelles, the one that best illustrates the idea of refrains that represent an inescapable emotional fact, while Dowson’s “Villanelle of Acheron” (1899) may achieve Pound’s “closest intensity”: 1

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 By the pale marge of Acheron
Methinks we shall pass restfully,
Beyond the scope of any sun.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 There all men hie them one by one,
Far from the stress of earth and sea,
By the pale marge of Acheron.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 ‘Tis well when life and love is done,
‘Tis very well at last to be,
Beyond the scope of any sun.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 No busy voices there shall stun
Our ears: the stream flows silently
By the pale marge of Acheron.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 There is the crown of labour won,
The sleep of immortality,
Beyond the scope of any sun.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Life, of thy gifts I will have none,
My Queen is that Persephone,
By the pale marge of Acheron,
Beyond the scope of any sun. (Dowson 101)

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The Acheron villanelle achieves a stark effect similar to that of Robinson’s “The House on the Hill,” even without Robinson’s spare diction, and it may be this effect that Pound found worthy of some praise.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Pound himself had early on written fairly well-received examples of complex fixed forms such as the sestina and the ballade, not to mention the sonnet, most of which were associated with the troubadours of Provençal. Following Browning and the Pre-Raphaelites, Pound adopted medieval models: Dante, Cavalcanti, Villon. His poetic vocation, too, demanded of him that he gain mastery of a range of lyric forms as practice for the epic he knew he would one day write: “For a time,” writes Hugh Witemeyer, “he wrote a sonnet a day for practice” (43). Pound’s first book of verse, Lume Spento (1908), included many pieces in the conventional forms of Provençal poets, many of them dramatic monologues in the voices of the medieval poets themselves.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 By 1913, however, when “Villanelle: The Psychological Hour” was probably written, Pound had committed to the more aggressively experimental modern poetics of Imagism. Pound soon refused to be bound even by the tenets of Imagism, however, and by 1914 he would repudiate the movement and invent the new school of Vorticism, which differed from Imagism chiefly in including non-literary forms of art. Thomas F. Grieve sees some of Pound’s poetry in this era as emphasizing logopoeia (poetry of the word, of memory) rather than the Imagist phanopoeia (poetry of the image, of vision) or melopoeia (poetry of the sound, of voice). 2 Pound’s “Villanelle: The Psychological Hour” definitely seems to be an experiment in this logopoeic mode; even the designation “psychological” and the pun in the second line indicate that the poem explores mind and word:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 I.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 I had over-prepared the event–
that much was ominous.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 With middle-ageing care
I had laid out just the right books,
I had almost turned down the pages.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Beauty is so rare a thing.
So few drink of my fountain.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 So much barren regret,
So many hours wasted!
And now I watch, from the window,
rain, wandering busses.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 “Their little cosmos is shaken”–
the air is alive with that fact.
In their parts of the city
they are played on by diverse forces.
How do I know?
Oh, I know well enough.
For them there is something afoot.
As for me:
I had over-prepared the event.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Beauty is so rare a thing.
So few drink of my fountain.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Two friends: a breath of the forest . . .
Friends? Are people less friends
because one has just, at last, found them?

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Twice they promised to come.
Between the night and morning?”

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Beauty would drink of my mind.
Youth would awhile forget
my youth is gone from me.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 II.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 (“Speak up! You have danced so stiffly?
Someone admired your works,
And said so frankly.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 “Did you talk like a fool,
The first night?
The second evening?”

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 But they promised again:
‘Tomorrow at tea-time.'”)

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 III.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Now the third day is here–
no word from either;
No word from her nor him,
Only another man’s note:
“Dear Pound, I am leaving England.” 3

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 There are few aural effects in the poem, and only one vivid image (“rain, wandering busses”); the poem is most notably a collection of voices marked by italics, punctuation marks, and parentheses, and most of them are apparently Pound’s own internal voices.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 According to Pound’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter, the incident that occasioned this “uncharacteristically personal” poem concerned the French experimental sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, whom Pound had recently met at a 1913 exhibition of Gaudier’s work:

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Henri Gaudier, who called himself Gaudier-Brzeska, was twenty-one years old when he met the twenty-eight-year-old Ezra Pound.[…] He had studied art here and there, and in Paris had met and taken up with Sophie Brzeska, a neurotic Polishwoman twenty years older than he who was threatening to kill herself.[…] Following their brief encounter at the Albert Hall, Ezra took pains to discover Gaudier-Brzeska’s address, and wrote to him inviting him to supper. There was no reply, and on the day suggested, the sculptor did not appear. (215-6)

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 This neglect by an artist Pound regarded with enthusiasm seems to have made him feel beside the point, superannuated, unable to share in the limber vigor of modernism; the poem sketches a (pre-)Prufrockian emotion of extraneity and superfluity that is named explicitly as Pound’s own. The felt difference between a twenty-eight-year-old self-proclaimed revolutionary and a twenty-one-year-old self-proclaimed revolutionary should not be minimized; in this period Pound was highly conscious that he was aging. Certainly Gaudier-Brzeska seemed able to out-Bohemian the extremely Bohemian Pound: Carpenter writes that “[Gaudier-Brzeska’s] early days in London were a saga of friendships and useful connections made only to be destroyed by his and Sophie’s strange behaviour.[…H]e was, said Richard Aldington, ‘probably the dirtiest human being ever known, and gave off horrid effluvia in hot weather'” (216). Pound and Gaudier-Brzeska did become friends, and Pound exerted himself to promote the sculptor’s work, especially after the founding of interdisciplinary Vorticism. Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in France in June of 1915, and Pound immediately assembled and published a memoir of him that was published in 1916. 4 The publication of “Villanelle: The Psychological Hour” in December 1915 may well have been a kind of memorial to Gaudier-Brzeska, though there was no indication in Poetry of the poem’s origin or subject matter.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 It is difficult to know why Pound titled the poem “Villanelle.” McFarland sees it as Pound’s attempt to write a poem on his own definition of the villanelle as a form dramatizing “emotional fact, which the intellect, in the various gyrations of the poem, tries in vain and in vain to escape,” and this description does indeed seem apposite (McFarland 85). There are recurrent lines in the poem, though they do not have the conspicuous character of refrain: “I had over-prepared the event” is a repetend, as is the couplet “Beauty is so rare a thing / So few drink of my fountain.” The repeated couplet later merges into the single line “Beauty would drink of my mind” in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the way a villanelle’s two separated refrains ultimately merge into a couplet. Pound does not otherwise seem to be experimenting with or even referencing the villanelle scheme in any significant way.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 I would argue that the term “villanelle” in the title serves chiefly to underscore the themes of fogeyish superannuation in the poem: it is the kind of form employed by a man who over-prepares events, takes “middle-ageing care,” dances stiffly. Pound seems here to recant and regret his own earlier use of the old French and Provençal forms, as though that poetic phase had foreshadowed or caused his current abandonment by friends, by youth itself. Pound’s general attitude toward the French forms at this period and later, however, was to ignore them completely. He did not repeat his early experiments with them, and “Villanelle: The Psychological Hour” received little attention.


34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Notes:

  1. 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0
  2. Interestingly enough, Dowson’s 1894 “Villanelle of Marguerites” seems to be the first villanelle in iambic pentameter; Dowson’s other four villanelles, like those written by the Anglophone post-Romantics, are tetrameter or trimeter. The second villanelle to be written in pentameter would be Empson’s “Villanelle” (“It is the pain, it is the pain endures”) of 1928. The use of pentameter undoubtedly shows both that English models were in general separating from French models and that Empson in particular was trying to make the villanelle more respectable.
  3. See Thomas F. Grieve, Ezra Pound’s Early Poetry and Poetics (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997) 102-4.
  4. This text is taken from Ezra Pound, Lustra (NY: Knopf, 1917). It represents a substantial revision from the text printed in Poetry in 1915. The changes are all in the first section of the poem: Pound altered lineation and punctuation; added the four lines after “diverse forces”; removed the final line, which ran “Youth would hear speech of beauty,” and made other small changes. On April 13, 1917 Pound wrote to Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson, editors of Poetry, complaining about the fact that they had used the earlier version from Poetry, rather than the revised version from his own Lustra, in their compilation The New Poetry; an Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1917). See Ezra Pound, Alice Corbin Henderson, and Ira Bruce Nadel, The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993) 206. Also, it should be noted that there was an edition of Lustra printed privately in 1916 that contained a version of the poem with at least one substantive variant (“least” for “last”). The version as reprinted in the New Poetry anthology was as follows:

    36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 I.

    37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 I had over-prepared the event–
    that much was ominous.
    With middle-aging care
    I had laid out just the right books,
    I almost turned down the right pages.

    38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Beauty is so rare a thing . . .
    So few drink of my fountain.

    39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 So much barren regret!
    So many hours wasted!
    And now I watch from the window
    rain, wandering busses.

    40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Their little cosmos is shaken–
    the air is alive with that fact.
    In their parts of the city
    they are played on by diverse forces;

    41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 I had over-prepared the event.
    Beauty is so rare a thing . . .
    So few drink of my fountain.

    42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Two friends: a breath of the forest . . .
    Friends? Are people less friends
    because one has just, at last, found them?

    43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Twice they promised to come.
    Between the night and morning?”

    44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Beauty would drink of my mind.
    Youth would awhile forget
    my youth is gone from me.
    Youth would hear speech of beauty.

    45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 II.

    46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 (“Speak up! You have danced so stiffly?
    Someone admired your works,
    And said so frankly.

    47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 “Did you talk like a fool,
    The first night?
    The second evening?”

    48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 But they promised again:
    ‘Tomorrow at tea-time.'”)

    49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 III.

    50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Now the third day is here–
    no word from either;
    No word from her nor him,
    Only another man’s note:
    “Dear Pound, I am leaving England.”

    51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0

  5. See Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska; A Memoir (NY: John Lane, 1916).
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Source: http://amandafrench.net/villanelle/?page_id=162