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Yeats's Mask

Margaret Mills Harper
Warwick Gould


Sean Pryor, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and the Poetry of Paradise (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), pp. xiii + 226.

Stoddard Martin

Texte intégral

1One begins by wondering about the sense of combining Yeats and Pound. They may be the two greatest poets of the 20th century in English, against whom their contemporary T. S. Eliot seems rather puny; but the nature of their achievement is so different that one has to rely on their personal connections in order easily to link them, or perhaps their ambitions. A prior generation had produced in Nietzsche, Mallarmé and others a post-Christian desire to write ‘the book that does away with all books’; in such an enterprise both demonstrably laboured, as did their prosaic onetime protégé, James Joyce.

2The Cantos and A Vision, however, are not comparable productions: while the former may readily be seen as a singular instance of over-arching aspiration, the latter in form as in content is a wholly other kind of experiment, whose less cocksure author knew was fated to fall short. A sense that neither this most ambitious attempt at the all-embracing nor any other single work in Yeats’s opus is precisely suited to pose against The Cantos may be what moves Sean Pryor to consider for the purpose Yeats’s lyric output as if it were a kind of continuous whole. This is one of many forcings of an issue we confront in a book which otherwise has intelligence on every page.

3Ano ther is that the lyrics Pryor selects for discussion seem subject to whim or to taste. Whole swathes of output passed over – hardly a poem from In the Seven Woods, The Green Helmet or Responsibilities – and works which might be expected to be read closely are given short shrift. Yeats’s début excursion through Celtic heavens, The Wanderings of Oisin, earns a page near the beginning, then is referred to only en passant; in a book which devotes large space to the admittedly marvellous ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, this strikes one as negligent.

4Byzantium’s status as paradise in Yeats’s system is of course arguable, but other locality-based poems seem present as much for their success or popularity as their unstrained illumination of the paradisal – ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. It is obvious that a beloved earthly landscape can vault imagination towards dreams of the gods: Pound’s attraction to Catullus’s Sirmione demonstrates it. But here lurks another aspect of why these poets are uneasy to link: the earthly locales in which each specializes are close to being an aesthetic opposition. Yeats cloaked himself in Celtic mist, Pound in classical/|troubadour light. Only in a late phase when for health reasons Yeats wintered near Pound in Rapallo – the period when he wrote his ‘Packet for Ezra Pound’, comparing his approach in A Vision to what he found abstruse in the ‘fugal’ Cantos – do we see similitude in terrestrial affinity: Italy, the Ravenna mosaics, ‘Byzantium’.

5The two men’s paradises are correspondingly hard to link. Yeats’s seems often elsewhere: in passed youth, legends of old time, spirits on the wind, mythic kingdoms or platonic doctrine, moments of epiphany recalled, an unattainable knowledge or muse. ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is properly entitled with a gerund, Pryor argues, because arrival is evanescent: it’s all in the travelling. Pound on the other hand experiences paradise in the present, ‘for a flash | for an hour’, and portrays it, as Pryor aptly points out, either in present tense or in a verb-less space where aspects of divinity float unconjoined by a thing so prosaic as normal syntax. Again one feels the difference in apprehension through skryed mist and vortically shadowed light; there may also be a factor of difference in affinities to time – the preciousness of time past, the occult, for Yeats vs the obsession with time future or Futurist, make it new, for Pound.

6One may of course stand this on its head and assert that Pound sought his road-map to time future out of the past and that, in A Vision notably, Yeats searched through time past mainly to find guidance to the future; but the point is a larger one. Sensibility, prejudice and temperament separate these spirits as surely as origins: old European vs new American. Each would finally seek his goal via ‘monuments of unageing intellect’ and ‘monuments of [his] own magnificence’ yet out of different motives: Yeats to achieve ultimate unity of being, Pound to blast into some novus ordo seclorum. The overlaps are intriguing: each could see value in the other’s intimations, and both respected the other’s masterful prosody, with reservations. They occasionally shared inspiration from new sources – the Noh, for example – but each went his own way, and in the end they diverged radically. What Yeats longed for was sensual; what Pound said he wanted was ‘hard’ and ‘clear’.

  • 1 Lois Gordon in Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist (New York: Columbia University Pres (...)
  • 2 E.g. ‘The Shadowy Dill-Waters, or Mr Smudge the Medium’, Equinox I, iii (London: Simpkin Marshall, (...)
  • 3 There may be a question too, unanswerable finally, about masturbation – i.e., was Yeats another la (...)

7An erotic element may be in this – i.e., differing experience of coition, significant especially to Pound, impacting on ultimate visions. Nancy Cunard, Pound’s sometime lover, left a striking note about what it was like to feel ‘the “sharp | straight flame” of Pound’s love’, which ‘like a saint’ performed its ministrations to lend her ‘a steadfast radiance’.1 Nothing equivalent, so far as I know, has been asserted about Yeats. Aleister Crowley’s intimations of phallic feebleness is, as far as possible to judge, mere slander.2 On the other hand, the retardations, starts-and-stops and misfirings of Yeats’s sexual history is well-known; Brenda Maddox made a case that the reversion to the occult upon marriage had to do with George trying to keep Willie up to it; and then come the visits to clinics, interest in Tantric Buddhism and ‘crazy Jane’ glee for encounters of later years – interpretable signs of a progress that had partaken less of hard fact than of fantastic hoping.3

8Pryor does not deviate into such speculations, but by insisting on the centrality of paradise in both men’s works, with dense argument and at length, he makes one sit back and ponder underlying impulses. Too many words may occlude: a dream of the beyond is finally about an individual’s nature as much as fragments shored against civilization’s ruins. Pryor’s main argument is that each poet in his fashion turns pursuit into goal, that the poetry itself becomes both paradise and its undoing, a trembling on the verge as it were, a moment of beauty walking the razor’s edge, which represents the thing achieved – ‘Only the greatest obstacle that can be contemplated without despair rouses the will to full intensity’ (Au 195). Pound, I suspect, would have disparaged the aura of petty fog rising off Pryor’s pedagogy in this asseveration. Nor am I convinced he would have welcomed this exhumation of his work anymore than that of his friend.

9Pryor has read widely on The Cantos, and their Dantesque provenance justifies him in paradise-seeking through them, as it does Pound’s condemners in policing his hells. But Pryor sets about querying Pound’s formulations, poking at his seeming contradictions, taking him to task for his ‘traduction’ of Cavalcanti in Canto XXXVI for example – ‘No philosophical system would countenance this slippery identification’, he says of transformation of a seen form into an idea; ‘yet the canto’s effortless glide enacts the course of love: love ‘Cometh from a seen form’. Yeats’s praxis and integrity are rarely subject to such critique, and one wonders if Pryor feels obliged to it because of the alleged toxicity, madness or difficulty that continues to surround Pound’s reputation like barbed-wire. Going back to my musings on the erotic, much might be elucidated were Pryor simply to state that Pound’s approach to the paradisal is representational, not exact; that the point of dropping Cavalcanti into the middle of cantos which deal with earthly disgrace is to suggest where another level of possibility may lie and that at the base of it, as in Canto XXXIX, which follows more rebarbative material, is sex – ‘Sacrum sacrum inluminatio coitu’ – Pound’s relation to it overlying Cavalcanti’s sublimation of it, the relief it provides, escape into the ecstatic, a still point of beatitude where a figurative ‘unwobbling pivot’ may ‘taketh locus’. Aphrodite, tamed Circe, Olga in Sant’ Ambrogio uphill from Rapallo ... Yeats did not attach his heavens so readily to memory of the act. Biography helps understanding. Sometimes it is essential.

  • 4 At a conference to mark the 100th anniversary of Pound’s 1909 lectures at the University of Westmi (...)

10Pryor withholds mention of the line about coition. Pound studies attract literary techies who often get so bogged down in data that readers miss the extent to which, as Massimo Bacigalupo has argued,4 Pound was of a generation – Nancy Cunard, D. H. Lawrence, even the ‘wicked’ Crowley – which regarded sex as a leaping off point into the sublime. Pound did not quite advocate the Sex Magick that Crowley practiced at the other end of Italy in Cefalù, but he subscribed to his own notion of ‘eroto-comatose lucidity’. Ecstasy provides access to The Light; the moment of orgasm may offer a glimpse into an otherwise unreachable paradise, whether recalled as it must be in The Pisan Cantos – ‘dove sta memoria’ – or ready to hand as it evidently was during composition of XXXIX. The sex act is by no means all that releases divine perceptions for Pound, but it is regularly ‘part of the process’, and here part of the contrast to Yeats may have to do with origins not only in place but in another dimension of time: Yeats was twenty years older, child of the Victorian era, an ageing man by the emancipations of the ‘20s, too late for apache coteries of the Left Bank. Crazy Jane and so on exhibit his wish in this direction, but it is largely about chances past, passing or not to come.

11Pound, by contrast, from early interludes with Hilda Doolittle to liaisons during or after incarceration – Marcella Spann, etc. – was a precursor of Beatniks and the free-loving 1960s in this as in prosody, anti-war radicalism, conspiracy theorizing and much else. Pryor alludes to the ‘coitu’ motif only when he gets to XXXIX and can’t help it, and when it recapitulates in XLVII, but he appears uneasy with it, seeking ways to suggest that the ‘Splendour on splendour!’ Pound evokes is qualified or involves legerdemain.

  • 5 This is akin to Yeats’s charge in his 1937 remarks on Pound in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse tha (...)

12This tendency not to trust what the poet clearly intends spreads as Pryor moves on to what might have been Pound’s paradiso had war not intervened. On the Pisans, as elsewhere, Pryor is exact in pinpointing pertinent lines; he focuses properly on Pound’s formula ‘What thou lovest well remains | the rest is dross’ and asks the relevant question ‘What does The Pisan Cantos love?’; he lists items accurately, but then he seeks to complicate the matter by declaring, ‘The invocation of “What thou lovest well” is more vexed than it may look’. The sub-chapter in which this comes is entitled ‘Well’ and deals with that word, reminding one of President Clinton’s retort in an interview during his impeachment crisis, ‘It depends on what you mean by “the”.’ Sophisticated argument or sophistry? Pound’s paradise in the Pisans is that which gives comfort, kindness, a vision of order, balm, justice – all things a pious child might thank the Lord for in prayer.5 It is as simple as that, and that is why it moves readers in a way that rest of the complex structure does not. Like such a child, Pound has faith that beyond the seen world exists an ideal one where good may be total and that, in response to grace, fragments of that totality may be perceived and, if cherished, lead on to more being glimpsed. ‘Le paradis n’est pas artificiel | but spezzato apparently.’ Spezzato does not mean that it is qualified, only that the erring mortal’s perception of it perforce must be.

  • 6 This recalls the argument, though with less implication of Pound’s failure, which Warwick Gould ma (...)

13The last chapter of Pryor’s book is about the progress of paradise through the poets’ later work. The principal message he finds is ‘Seek ye the sacred text and read’. He locates this first in Yeats’s ‘supernatural song’ ‘Ribh at the Tomb of Baile and Aillinn’, then applies it to Sections Rock Drill and Thrones of The Cantos, which, citing Andrew Kappel, he sees as offering via their multitude of referents, recapitulated from earlier cantos or newly acquired, Pound’s ‘last suggested course of study, the paradisal curriculum’. Pryor suggests that these cantos also provide in themselves an ultimate message, erasing and writing over the curriculum like a palimpsest, or palimpsest upon palimpsest, reworking, recapping, trying to distil ever better,6 until a goal of silence is reached in the late Drafts and Fragments. All these tranches of cantos belong to the 1950s and after, decades into which Yeats did not survive, having died before the war and the Pisans.

  • 7 Pryor says 1911, but the error is trivial.

14It may be this that makes his late work seem, in Pryor’s account, riven in its way like Pound’s of the ‘30s, a ‘poetry of paradise’ set within perpetual struggle – ‘heaven and hell are built always anew’ – or Dionysian dance – ‘nymphs and satyrs | Copulate in the foam’. Pryor’s concentration on ‘Byzantium’ here seems errant – ‘the poem is so self-consciously a late instance of Yeats’s quest for a poetry of paradise’ – forcing him to reach for justification in a remark Yeats made in 1910,7 sibling to one I quoted above: ‘Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not persuade, which does not condescend, which does not explain, is irresistible’ (E&I 341).

  • 8 The breakdown of mutual admiration is laid out by Gould in the essay mentioned in n. 6.
  • 9 Or too little. No reference to the above work as well as to many distinguished critics noted in it (...)

15This could apply to Pound’s praxis, but as regards Yeats Pryor is treading on less sure ground; and in trying to link a few major works while skipping over so much, he gives an impression of the poet’s ultimate trajectory more away from paradise than towards it – opposite to his friend’s. At this point he might have taken occasion to justify his strategy of dealing with the poets together by weighing up their own barbed views of each other’s late work,8 notably Pound’s 1937 charge that Yeats was ‘dead’, which seems the implication of his inability to find much to discuss in terms of paradise beyond the 1930 poem. Is it in fact true that the later Yeats was no longer capable of believing in or reaching towards what he had so longed for as a young man setting out on the Ossianic explorations that Pryor neglects, or in the work he spent more years than any other rebuffing – to my taste the other most marvellous work in his opus – The Shadowy Waters? The question points to one reason why a reader may conclude that to have dealt with two such monumental figures in one book is ill-conceived. Beyond it one can’t escape feeling that, while the scholarship behind analysis is often impressive – Pryor has read widely in secondary materials: too much so, perhaps9 – a ready, excited response to primary texts – the necessary intimacy of appreciation – is baffled. We learn little that is new about the poets or their work; what we get is a mustering of learnèd response – again, perhaps too much. Fault may also lie with the nature of publication. In an era when so much can be tossed out cost-free on the net, we readily applaud publishers ready to produce in book form thesis-based monographs. But in this case the typeface is small, the leading and inking minimal, the paper conversely more weighty than needed – values, in short, not well-balanced. The great deficiency, however, is that no editor was willing to cast a sufficiently cold eye over Dr Pryor’s brilliance to suggest that less excruciation might have served his admirable project more persuasively.


1 Lois Gordon in Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) says that the affair began in 1921 and lasted through Pound’s Paris years, probably until he met Olga Rudge. Her chapter ‘In Love with the Artist-God’ (99–106) includes quotation from Nancy.

2 E.g. ‘The Shadowy Dill-Waters, or Mr Smudge the Medium’, Equinox I, iii (London: Simpkin Marshall, 1910), 327–31. It is possible too that Crowley shared speculations with Florence Farr, with whom both men were on varyingly intimate terms during their period in the Golden Dawn.

3 There may be a question too, unanswerable finally, about masturbation – i.e., was Yeats another late nineteenth century victim of what Wagner saw as the covert problem afflicting Nietzsche, contributing the element of hysteria in his work, which Yeats claimed to have read until his eyes went bad?

4 At a conference to mark the 100th anniversary of Pound’s 1909 lectures at the University of Westminster.

5 This is akin to Yeats’s charge in his 1937 remarks on Pound in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse that the ‘grotesque’ figures Pound rages at might be taken from ‘a child’s book of beasts’.

6 This recalls the argument, though with less implication of Pound’s failure, which Warwick Gould makes via analogy to Balzac’s tale of artistic over-reach and frustration in ‘“The Unknown Masterpiece”: Yeats and the Design of the Cantos’, Pound in Multiple Perspective: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Andrew Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1993), 40–92.

7 Pryor says 1911, but the error is trivial.

8 The breakdown of mutual admiration is laid out by Gould in the essay mentioned in n. 6.

9 Or too little. No reference to the above work as well as to many distinguished critics noted in it, Frank Kermode and Jerome McGann for example (latter cited en passant once), allied to an occasional tip of the hat to Paul de Man or Jacques Derrida indicates the intellectual texture of Pryor’s approach.


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