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Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry
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As the chief poems in “A Lume Spento” were afterwards incorporated in “Personae,” the book demands mention only as a date in the author’s history. “Personae,” the first book published in London, followed early in 1909. Few poets have undertaken the siege of London with so little backing; few books of verse have ever owed their success so purely to their own merits. Pound came to London a complete stranger, without either literary patronage or financial means. He took “Personae” to Mr. Elkin Mathews, who has the glory of having published Yeats’ “Wind Among the Reeds,” and the “Books of the Rhymers’ Club,” in which many of the poets of the ’90s, now famous, found a place. Mr. Mathews first suggested, as was natural to an unknown author, that the author should bear part of the cost of printing. “I have a shilling in my pocket, if that is any use to you,” said the latter. “Well,” said Mr. Mathews, “I want to publish it anyway.” His acumen was justified. The book was, it is true, received with opposition, but it was received. There were a few appreciative critics, notably Mr. Edward Thomas, the poet (known also as “Edward Eastaway”; he has since been killed in France). Thomas, writing in the “English Review” (then in its brightest days under the editorship of Ford Madox Hueffer), recognized the first-hand intensity of feeling in “Personae”:

He has … hardly any of the superficial good qualities of
modern versifiers…. He has not the current melancholy or
resignation or unwillingness to live; nor the kind of
feeling for nature which runs to minute description and
decorative metaphor. He cannot be usefully compared with any
living writers;… full of personality and with such power
to express it, that from the first to the last lines of most
of his poems he holds us steadily in his own pure grave,
passionate world…. The beauty of it (In Praise of Ysolt)
is the beauty of passion, sincerity and intensity, not of
beautiful words and images and suggestions … the thought
dominates the words and is greater than they are. Here
(Idyll for Glaucus) the effect is full of human passion and
natural magic, without any of the phrases which a reader of
modern verse would expect in the treatment of such a

Mr. Scott James, in the “Daily News,” speaks in praise of his metres:

At first the whole thing may seem to be mere madness and
rhetoric, a vain exhibition of force and passion without
beauty. But, as we read on, these curious metres of his seem
to have a law and order of their own; the brute force of Mr.
Pound’s imagination seems to impart some quality of
infectious beauty to his words. Sometimes there is a strange
beating of anapaests when he quickens to his subject; again
and again he unexpectedly ends a line with the second half
of a reverberant hexameter:

“Flesh shrouded, bearing the secret.”

… And a few lines later comes an example of his favourite
use of spondee, followed by dactyl and spondee, which comes
in strangely and, as we first read it, with the appearance
of discord, but afterwards seems to gain a curious and
distinctive vigour:

“Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes.”

Another line like the end of a hexameter is

“But if e’er I come to my love’s land.”

But even so favourable a critic pauses to remark that

He baffles us by archaic words and unfamiliar metres; he
often seems to be scorning the limitations of form and
metre, breaking out into any sort of expression which suits
itself to his mood.

and counsels the poet to “have a little more respect for his art.”

It is, in fact, just this adaptability of metre to mood, an adaptability due to an intensive study of metre, that constitutes an important element in Pound’s technique. Few readers were prepared to accept or follow the amount of erudition which entered into “Personae” and its close successor, “Exultations,” or to devote the care to reading them which they demand. It is here that many have been led astray. Pound is not one of those poets who make no demand of the reader; and the casual reader of verse, disconcerted by the difference between Pound’s poetry and that on which his taste has been trained, attributes his own difficulties to excessive scholarship on the part of the author. “This,” he will say of some of the poems in Provencal form or on Provencal subjects, “is archaeology; it requires knowledge on the part of its reader, and true poetry does not require such knowledge.” But to display knowledge is not the same thing as to expect it on the part of the reader; and of this sort of pedantry Pound is quite free. He is, it is true, one of the most learned of poets. In America he had taken up the study of Romance Languages with the intention of teaching. After work in Spain and Italy, after pursuing the Provencal verb from Milan to Freiburg, he deserted the thesis on Lope de Vega and the Ph.D. and the professorial chair, and elected to remain in Europe. Mr. Pound has spoken out his mind from time to time on the subject of scholarship in American universities, its deadness, its isolation from genuine appreciation, and the active creative life of literature. He has always been ready to battle against pedantry. As for his own learning, he has studied poetry carefully, and has made use of his study in his own verse. “Personae” and “Exultations” show his talent for turning his studies to account. He was supersaturated in Provence; he had tramped over most of the country; and the life of the courts where the Troubadours thronged was part of his own life to him. Yet, though “Personae” and “Exultations” do exact something from the reader, they do not require a knowledge of Provencal or of Spanish or Italian. Very few people know the Arthurian legends well, or even Malory (if they did they might realize that the Idylls of the King are hardly more important than a parody, or a “Chaucer retold for Children”); but no one accuses Tennyson of needing footnotes, or of superciliousness toward the uninstructed. The difference is merely in what people are prepared for; most readers could no more relate the myth of Atys correctly than they could give a biography of Bertrand de Born. It is hardly too much to say that there is no poem in these volumes of Mr. Pound which needs fuller explanation than he gives himself. What the poems do require is a trained ear, or at least the willingness to be trained.