Last flowers of Bloom

Harold Bloom
STODDARD MARTIN remembers a dedicated litterateur’s late works

One can hardly think but with affection of Harold Bloom, addict of the Word, historic lover of literature, and coiner of the phrase “anxiety of influence” among other more recondite tags.

It would be invidious not to feel that affection when considering his final books, compendious and repetitive though they may be, composed or compiled as they were during bouts of convalescence between the illnesses that led to his corporeal silence in 2019, aged eighty-nine. It is likely that more words from the indefatigable commentator may be stored up yet to come, editing angels and publishing deities willing. The prospect is daunting, to some perhaps dismaying, for after seven decades of pronouncements, more Bloom may seem less.

Of the supreme enunciator of literary rankings in recent times – “probably the most famous literary critic in the English-speaking world” of his day – posterity might require for a tidy canon. But tidy Bloom is not. In his 2019 book Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, the idealiser of Falstaff and his perceived form of “heroic vitalism”[1] tacitly put faith in excess. Bloom’s object, insofar as it ever went beyond an exuberant autodidact’s self-revelations, was to provoke more than to instruct (Possessed, p12 – all subsequent page numbers refer to this book). “I am a Nietzschean,” he declares in the last of his provisional last words (p79) after a lifetime of enthusiasm for the philosopher’s kindred spirits, such as W. B. Yeats. Thus at the end, like the author of Ecce Homo when approaching fatal dispersion into madness, Bloom eerily claims: “Something in me speaks for multitudes around the globe.” (p11)

“Oh my brothers!” is Zarathustra’s refrain, and Bloom never tired of projecting that he was carrying on a dialogue with colleagues and students, whether at Cornell, Yale or Cambridge where a boy from a Yiddish-speaking immigrant family earned degrees, or at the same or similarly distinguished institutions where a publicity-loving adult would ultimately profess. First person plural is the mode. Bloom’s method as critic was conversational, sometimes ingratiating, especially in books where he might indulge in a lifetime’s penchant for having the last word. Why argue with him? Listen. Admire. Reflect. Then, perhaps, carry on a silent conversation of one’s own in the watches of night – those insomniac hours in which, as he tells us, Bloom had his most fertile ideas and, when not idealizing, lay awake reciting favourite works to the shades – incanting, as if a religious at prayer.

This is the milieu. And it determines content. Bloom’s canon finally includes, from the beginning, what he considers to be the great literary passages of “the Hebrew Bible” (Old Testament), for as he says, beyond having become Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard, recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism, etc., he is “a literary and religious critic” (emphasis mine), whose “tradition is dying” and whose dying wish is “to rally a saving remnant”(p11). Again, a note of Nietzschean messianism, if perhaps with a hint of the disingenuous tendency of that other heroic vitalist (“the Fat Knight”) to humour and guff, “nimble believing and disbelieving”.

The lifelong lover of Shakespeare ascribes these qualities to Hamlet, whom he sees as “his own Falstaff… a consciousness so enormous that it contains all of human self-otherseeing” (p112). It might be a description of what Bloom aspired to be himself; it is also what he finds lacking in the Hebrew God – Yahweh, a dislikable presence for him at almost every turn, despite his Jewish roots. Here the old Bloom, whose early literary critical self started with Shelley, returns to youthful insurgency. Something is wrong in the heavens, as it was for the renegade Romantic: Prometheus punished by Jupiter is dealing with a false God or at least a faulty one – there is better beyond, in the pleroma. Gnosticism is in the air, and Bloom inhales it, lauding the work of his late “mentor” Gershom Scholem and concentrating passing attention on Scholem’s special study, the Kabbalah. “I have spent part of a lifetime,” Bloom states, “trying to work out a pragmatic relationship between Kabbalah and literary criticism” (p20). The provisionality implied here is matched by an achievement that is opaque and fragmentary. Bloom links Kabbalah and poetry both to “heretical subversions of orthodoxy”, “salvation by transgression”, “the frontier between the sacred and the profane” and no requirement to complete the Great Work but no freedom to desist in the attempt (pps23-5).

A Christian attempt to unravel Kabbalism, by the 16th/17th century thinker Heinrich Khunrath

From here it is small distance to Blake, Whitman and others of Bloom’s un-Leavisite “great tradition”, grounded in English literature fundamentally not only on Shakespeare but more portentously on Milton’s Satan. However – and here is an essential, perhaps under-recognised element in Bloom – heresy is only a pretext for a new/old orthodoxy and God. For Bloom’s ultimate standard is breadth and depth of vision, a vastness of sensibility and inclusion, reminding one perhaps of what a critic once complained of in the French symboliste Mallarmé: a sense that anything less than the all-embracing might be presumptuous[2].

Bloom, in short, disliking the Yahweh of tradition, sets out in effect to descry a truer God – humane, non-vindictive, invisible but glimpsed beyond Demogorgon up in starrier heavens. Like Shelley’s Prometheus being liberated from his bonds, the tireless yet mortally ill individual must rely on a bevy of maidens to help him complete the job – seven female assistants are named at the start of Possessed by Memory. This could be interpreted as Kabbalistic in the sense of Bloom’s contention that the proper mystical Yahweh can only function with aid from the Moon Queen or female spirit that resides in Malkuth, foundational pod of the Sefiroth [EDITOR’S NOTE: The Sefiroth are ten attributes of emotion, intellect or will in Kabbalistic esotericism]; it might also bring to mind accusations of “inappropriate” attention to female students that marked the professor’s later years.

Be that as it may, the inclusions in his excursion towards a summatory roundup of values betray composition by many hands: sketches, bits of lectures, notes from seminars are the basis, even in one case a funeral address. The authorial scholar gives way to the genial teacher, whose mission is foremost to enthuse. Possessed is designed to tell us why a dying man has recalled this passage or that poem and what is outstanding about it. It is a trawl, a last judgement on the canonical, as per a decent God’s instincts. And why not? Many an ailing scholar would love to engage in such a pastime, and Bloom’s range is such that he is almost always engaging at it – almost being the lively interlocutor’s operative word. In difference lies interest, in qualifications glided over or simply not made, in enthusiasms too grandly stated.

The Fat Knight Falstaff, for Bloom an exemplar of ‘heroic vitalism’

Falstaff, for instance, is not for this reader the exemplar that he is for Bloom, nor do the plays in which he appears seem the Bard’s best. Bloom has little time for the Marlovian in Shakespeare, speaks dismissively of Hotspur, and ignores the coruscating soliloquies of that supreme Machiavel, Richard. He is intriguing about the bastard Faulconbridge in the oft-neglected King John, but says little of comedies which now may strike the ear as warm-ups for Blackadder. As to Milton, he admits with Dr Johnson that few read him with pleasure (p176); re Johnson himself, he forgives eccentric pomposities. Bloom is of a generation of American Jewish scholars who began in awe of English literary tradition. He does not rate the deviations of Pound and Eliot towards Europe, attention to Dante excepted. The superior art of Baudelaire earns from him no more than an aside in a discussion of Swinburne (p301).

Walt Whitman, whom Bloom considered the greatest American poet

Much else is missing. Where for instance is Wilde, save in apt citation of a quote from ‘The Critic as Artist’ as the book’s epigraph? As for Wilde’s countryman Yeats: is he quite understood? In these summatory pages, how much space does old Bloom accord to a signal figure of his youth? His trajectory now, whatever it was in journeyman days and however much he may remain haunted by Shakespeare and Shelley, is towards fellow Americans – those who, unlike Eliot and Pound, did not “beat out [their] exile” but stayed home to “make [their] pact”, to borrow from the latter, Whitman-as-internationalist, as Bloom resolutely won’t. The god who stands at the head of American poetic tradition is for Bloom the seminal incantor – psalmic “transumptor” – of Leaves of Grass. Whitman the untidy, the vastly inclusive proto-Zarathustran – in him the professor finds a lodestone more congenial than in an Irishman whose attention to craft moved George Moore to depict him coming down to lunch at Coole Park to report to Lady Gregory that his morning’s work had consisted of removing a comma which he later restored[3]. Whitman’s incontinence, like Falstaff’s, if wilder, exposes another facet of “heroic vitalist” genius chez dying Bloom. Might we conclude that, in the light of his disintegration, a coherence strained for in youth seems no longer essential – analogous to how for the late Turner a glimmer of sun through vague clouds became preferable as subject to the detail of ship and sail? One suspects it to be partly the case. Bloom alludes en passant to Yeats’ “Byzantium poems”, but the exactitude of “hammered gold and gold enamelling” is hardly seen as a destiny. Bloom may live on as critic or at least enthuser: penning fifty-odd books suggests aspiration to transcendence beyond mere bodily existence. But if he lives on, Bloom is liable to do so as the critic permissive rather than the critic precise.

Again, why not? The third of four parts of Possessed by Memory begins to judder and creak as it extends Anglo tradition to snippets from the canonical Browning and Meredith; but the fourth part, commencing with its long devotion to Whitman, moves to some eye-opening appreciations, not only of the predictable Stevens, Williams and Crane, but more appealingly of the less obvious Edward Arlington Robinson and Conrad Aiken among others. With Aiken, comparison to his Harvard classmate Eliot leads to a fuller understanding of why Bloom felt antipathy for the most celebrated Anglo-American voice of the past century. That said, Bloom’s account of Aiken’s work falls short of full praise, and his explanation for why Aikens failed to reach “the eminence” of “Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Thomas Stearns Eliot and Hart Crane” seems partly to tell against itself – “Associative rhetoric was both Aiken’s mode and, sadly, his weakness. He did not try to make it new but to augment the foundations by relying upon the major poets of the Romantic tradition.” (p393)

Might this not be a description of Bloom’s own approach as critic? Might one even go so far as to see it as either a veil drawn over a latent, counter-canonical preference for poets of Aikens’ pitch or a subconscious admission of Bloom’s own less than supreme rank as critic? These are not idle questions. Somerset Maugham once famously quipped that his status as writer was in the first rank of the second rate. The false modesty hardly strained to disguise a popular novelist’s healthy antipathy for experimental modernists whom a cognoscenti lionized, but the common reader found unreadable: Woolf, Joyce and so on. Bloom, when set alongside the Derrida-ists, Deconstructionists, Structuralists and such fashionable ‘critics’ of his epoch, might strike one analogously as among the first rank of the middle-brow.

John Ashbery, by David Shankbone. Wikimedia Commons

Like Maugham in The Summing Up, Bloom laces his learned observations with recollection. His remarks on one of two women included in a 500-page book, May Swenson, pivot on their meetings at a café in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. His discussion of the original and vitalist ex-soldier Richard Eberhardt stems from a lecture tour at the University of Florida, where Eberhardt frightened him with the campus alligator. Bloom’s account of the master of negation, Weldon Kees, begins with an encounter at a jazz club in Harlem. Longer pieces on lesser-knowns such as Archie Randolph Ammons or Alvin Feinman are founded on yet closer association, as is the inclusion on John Ashbery, with whom Bloom’s “friendship has been continuous these sixty years… I have just phoned him at the Whittier Rehabilitation Center where he is recovering rather slowly from double pneumonia” (p431). Illness and age are constant companions in these last works, not notably cheerful ones, rather ones with whom Bloom struggles manfully to come to terms, never quite achieving reconciliation with, let alone joy in, observation of their processes – intrinsic to life, after all, thus a subset of the “heroic vital”. Bloom resists falling back into angry, non-accepting “rage, rage against the dying of the light”; rather he strives to win from these ultimate confrontations a revitalised urgency and heightened appreciation. He can still read, or be read to, and hear. He can still idealize and recite in the watches of night. Most of all he can remember. Which brings us to the ‘coda’ of the book, Proustianly entitled “In Search of Lost Time”.

Before one arrives there, one must be reconciled with Bloom’s subjectivity. One has to accept that his judgments have often to do with where he could most comfortably locate himself; that his “we” posits a community both transitory and presumptuous; that his lordly opinions, such as that Hart Crane is the great American poet after Whitman and Dickinson, may pass as gospel without being convincingly preached; that he gives himself grace to make errors and to speculate beyond what accords with known facts; that he settles scores on occasion – against Saul Bellow,  for instance (p416) – and will not always refrain from resorting to guff.

What, say, is the sense of a sentence such as “His consciousness was a plenum that could have created a heterocosm, where space and sun might have made another world” (p430)? From here it is not far to complain of Bloom’s cherished inventions such as “self-othering” or “transumptive”. But let it pass. Bloom is a character in his literary universe. He is too Shakespearean not to put a high, perhaps excessive, value on personality. That he has a big one has been part of his “body of fate”, to use a Yeats term; Bloom has embraced and cultivated it, and created a space for it to exist in and flourish and suffer. Irritating this may be, but one can also be glad for it. Bloom himself becomes a standard, not just what he says: a brand, an embodiment of forces to reckon with, if not revere – something of a god. Apotheosis may not be a fate he has worked for entirely nakedly, but he has certainly flirted with it often, notwithstanding the trademark baggy garb of being “human, all-too-human”.

God incarnate in Bloom? Will He live on as Holy Ghost? Close to his physical end, Bloom muses: “When we die, our own survival will be the extent to which we have changed the lives of those who come after us… I have to consider how little I know of time to come. Doubtless it is better that way. Foretelling can be destructive.” (p507) His coda to Possessed begins in this way to evince a becoming humility. Before sojourning with Proust, he recalls Saint Augustine’s conversations with his mother about God’s eternal light. The aptness is to what Bloom characterises as Proust’s “sublime lucidity”, which transcends Jewish and Christian roots to be “closer to Hindu philosophy”. While admitting that Proust probably never read the Bhagavad-Gita, Bloom invokes it.

Marcel Proust, for Bloom a kind of Gnostic seeker

Shortly afterwards, he qualifies a roving meditation by confessing, “I have the realisation or fantasy that simultaneously I know everything and nothing” (p481). This precedes recollection of moments of “sudden radiance” in early childhood, which “seem now to be heretical intimations of a lost gnosis” (p487). Proust’s similar epiphanies, Bloom muses, may stem from “worship of an unknown God who is yet knowable” (p492); in any case, the novelist’s truth “is compounded of perception, involuntary memory, impressionism, a search for spiritual meaning, and a kind of aesthetic mysticism” (p497). Is this not Bloom’s “truth” in a mirror? The presiding return of “childlike vision” is for him, as for Proust, “allied to phantasmagoria and to the world of dreams… modified delirium” (p501). Here one might end, or with association of “the survival of the inner self with a world founded upon benignity” (p503), or with a largeness that “could be at once atheist and mystic” (p505). But Bloom actually concludes by reverting to Dr Johnson, whose wisdom allows for ebb as well as a flow that chez Proust is continuous. Bloom has indeed already undercut his paean to In Search of Lost Time by stating that he would choose Richardson’s Clarissa in preference to it. Why? Because the heroine and her rapist lover are “more vital”.

One trusts this no more than one might accept Mozart’s sympathy to be with the survivors rather than with the deposed libertine at the end of Don Giovanni. Bloom’s coda, brave as it is in conveying what remains at the approach of his earthly dissolution, conveys one back towards his penultimate book, which occupies a more preliminary stage in the process and thus may constitute a more reliable summing-up of a career of concentrated literary contemplation.

W B Years in 1908

The book is less given to reminiscence and enthusiasm, though some is ever present. There are no chapters devoted to lesser talents such as John Wheelwright, James Merrill, Jay Macpherson or Amy Clampit, with whom Bloom ends his pre-coda trawl in Possessed. Among those, notably Merrill, Bloom remains ready to deviate back to consideration of his traditional greats: he cites phone calls “in which we explored W. B. Yeats’s A Vision, the Gnostic religion, and the relation of Yeats to Shelley and to Blake” (p449). Reader, take note. Bloom subsumes the Irish poet here to two English Romantics whom he has consistently ranked as the foremost. He glides from A Vision to Scholem’s topic as if Yeats’s mystico-historic text were self-evidently Gnostic. He considers the matter no further except to say “I suspect that Yeats would not have taken to James Merrill’s poetry” (p453), then somewhat conversely he postulates that in Merrrill’s poetry “the Byzantium of William Butler Yeats hovers and is deftly evaded” (p456). Deftly seems a loaded adverb, not least in a context where the Irish poet’s full name is iterated, as it is in most other scattered allusions to him throughout this book. Why? Shelley almost never requires “Percy Bysshe”. Is there some other Yeats that Bloom fears we may think of, or is there some more telling nuance at play??

Looking at this penultimate work, so boldly entitled Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: the Power of the Reader’s Mind over a Universe of Death, and among chapters Bloom devotes to the usual titans – Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Browning, Tennyson, Whitman, Frost, Stevens, Crane, Freud (eccentrically) and Dante (again, lone continental) – we find “William Butler Yeats and D. H. Lawrence: Start with the Shadow”. The title seems tricksy – it matters little: tags chez Bloom and others of his generation of academics often do. What does matter is the shadow of doubt that pervades. Bloom invokes an American favourite to contrast “three modes of mastery. In Lawrence it is chthonic. In Yeats it is occult. In Stevens it is massive acceptance of things as they are.” (p474) Proceeding to quote from one of the American’s poems, Bloom wonders if it is not “a critique by Stevens of the endless series of questing wanderers in Yeats” (p476). Endless series? “William Butler Yeats,” we are told (entire name again) “had the good fortune and the vital temperament to refuse any despair of his own quest” (p479). Are we to infer that a less “occult” sensibility should have despaired? Later, in parsing “All Souls” Night”, Bloom informs us that “the magnificence of gesture, metric, diction overcomes what could be judged sheer silliness” (p483); later still, in relation to Yeats’s alleged “pagan purpose”, we are told that “The force of his diction and metric brushes argument aside” (p485). “Devoted readers of Yeats learn that for him God and Death are one,” Bloom states, “a Gnostic formulation” (p486). This is of course arguable and reflects what Bloom is finally obliged to confess: “More than ever I have a mixed response.” (p490). He lauds “Adam’s Curse” in part to question the quality of what comes after; and when he reaches “Under Ben Bulben”, he decries a “farrago… much of it of a badness not to believed” (p497).

Old Bloom clearly had a problem with old Yeats. From a concluding phrase one might take it that he continued to rate or anyway grapple with the Irish master mainly out of an older loyalty: “The daemon in Yeats, as he acknowledged, was Shelley” (p499). This is arguable too and, at best, partial. But then, as I have indicated, partiality is characteristic of critic Bloom, in age as in youth. He is, to repeat his claim, a Nietzschean, as he fancies it: a “provoker”. A windbag like his beloved “Fat Knight”, he is more than a touch averse to fine concision. He is also no dedicated traveller in realms of magic and dream, however insomniac his nights may have been. Baudelaire comments somewhere that it would be impossible for a poet not to contain a critic but it would be prodigious for a critic to contain a poet. Harold Bloom adored poetry: of that there is no doubt. What may be lacking in him – one leaves it to weigh up – is a thoroughgoing sense of the poetic.

Harold Bloom bibliography (partial)

  • Shelley’s Mythmaking, 1959
  • The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, 1961
  • Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument, 1963
  • Yeats, 1970
  • The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition, 1971
  • The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry 1997
  • A Map of Misreading, 1975
  • Kabbalah and Criticism. 1975
  • Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens, 1976
  • Figures of Capable Imagination, 1976
  • Wallace Stevens: The Poems of our Climate, 1977
  • Deconstruction and Criticism, 1980
  • The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy, 1980
  • Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, 1982
  • The Breaking of the Vessels, 1982
  • The Poetics of Influence: New and Selected Criticism, 1988
  • Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present, 1989
  • The Book of J: Translated from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg; Interpreted by Harold Bloom, 1990
  • The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, 1992
  • The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, 1994
  • Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
  • Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 1998
  • How to Read and Why, 2000
  • Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, 2001
  • El futur de la imaginació (The Future of the Imagination), 2002
  • Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, 2003
  • Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, 2003
  • The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost, 2004
  • Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, 2004
  • Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, 2005
  • American Religious Poems: An Anthology By Harold Bloom, 2006
  • Fallen Angels, 2007
  • Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, 2010
  • The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, 2011
  • The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of The King James Bible, 2011
  • The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, 2015
  • Falstaff: Give Me Life, 2017
  • Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air, 2017
  • Lear: The Great Image of Authority, 2018
  • Iago: The Strategies of Evil, 2018
  • Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind, 2019
  • Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, 2019 
  • Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: The Power of the Reader’s Mind Over a Universe of Death, 2020
  • The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Re-read, 2020

[1] Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism (Vintage, 2019), p. 101. Further references by page number.

[2] See my Wagner to the Waste Land (Macmillan, 1982), 122.

[3] Moore notoriously settled a number of old scores in his memoir, Hail and Farewell.

The genial and the unintelligible – George Santayana on Ezra Pound

STODDARD MARTIN traces the connections and contrasts of two utterly different Americans

George Santayana and Ezra Pound would have known of one another for decades before they ever corresponded, let alone met. Twenty-two years apart in age, they were at least a generation distant in sensibility and more than that in temperament. But Santayana was a poet at heart, if a philosopher in the world, and Pound a poet in the world, if philosopher at heart. Both were mainly products of the American northeast, though neither was born there. Both were dropouts from academia and expatriates in Europe for much of their life, principally and finally in Italy. Santayana ended in a modest room in a convent in Rome under the care of the Little Sisters of Mary, Pound in a workman’s cottage in a relative backwater of Venice under the care of the mother of his daughter Mary.

T. S. Eliot had studied under Santayana at Harvard, and Santayana’s protégé Daniel Cory attended Pound’s Ezuversity in Rapallo in the early 1930s. The former may have provided a link between Pound and Santayana in thought, the latter would in person. A general impression had formed for each of the other before association. In 1928 we find Santayana, living in Paris, writing to a young man who has sent him some sonnets:

I have just been reading hard words written by Mr Ezra Pound on the subject of the sonnets in The Dial for this month [i]

He praises the young man for aperçus shared with Homer but chastises him for “rebelling” against his chosen form’s strict tradition of ten syllables per line. The letter continues:

Unless you can say these things better than Homer and company people will prefer to read about them in them rather than in you

It concludes:

Words, words, words are the foundation of everything – in literature. If you feel the force of each word, and its penumbra of association, the rest will take care of itself, and if ever you have anything to say, it will say itself for you magnificently

It is intriguing to speculate that this judgement may have been stimulated by Pound as much as by its recipient. Santayana’s last sentence suggests respect for an imagist method, but his view of a modernist treatment of Homer is ominous. He seems to be developing a response to a modernist aesthetic akin to Pound’s at this stage; later he will be more specific. In 1935 he writes to a young woman who has sent him her collection, praising her for “freedom from religion”, a “clear view of truth” and “naturalism” [ii]. As to her free verse, he cites Pound’s Quia Pauper Amavi, which he’s been reading:

You would deceive nobody into mistaking you for a real modern. Though your restrained voice may not attract attention so scandalously [as Pound’s], I am sure that you will give more pleasure to those who do hear you, and will be more gratefully received

Ouch. The versifier of the 1890s clearly finds it hard to adjust to what a new age is up to.

In 1936 Santayana writes to another admirer about Faulkner’s Sanctuary:

Like all these recent writers, the author is too lazy and self-indulgent and throws off what comes to him in a sort of dream, expecting the devoted reader to run about after him, sniffing at all the droppings of his mind. I am not a psychological dog and require my dog biscuit to be clearly set down for me in a decent plate with proper ceremony [iii]

Two months later, half-regretting his verdict, he qualifies it to the same recipient:

What I say about ‘droppings’ would be more applicable to other people – e.g. Ezra Pound – than to [Faulkner]

Ouch again. Such a reaction would not escape the courteous Santayana’s lips when he finally met Pound in 1939; but even given their frequent correspondence during the War, he could praise yet another young person who would send him unsolicited poems for not “threatening” his readers with

…the horror, for instance, of passing in Ezra Pound, who can write good verse, into the most vulgar journalese, and the most insolent irrelevance [iv]

That first meeting took place in Venice. Pound’s biographer David Moody records how Pound had written to Santayana, “whose clarity and integrity of mind he admired”, seeking “sidelights” on his “notes to [Guido] Cavalcanti (1) and one or two Chinese texts” [v]. They met at the Hotel Danieli, where the well-off philosopher liked to plant himself for a few weeks every year. Pound arrived with his 13 years-old daughter from her mother’s modest dwelling on the far side of the Grand Canal. Santayana, Pound would write to Eliot, “failed to see the connection” between Cavalcanti, Chinese ideograms and Scotus Erigena (2). Santayana for his part felt “talked at”, Moody surmises, and at one point he retaliated with a comment from The Education of Henry Adams which Pound would remember in Canto 74: “Teach? At Harvard?/Teach? It cannot be done”. Pound’s verdict on the visit, reported by his daughter years later, was that it was “a relief to talk philosophy with someone completely honest – a nice mind”.

Here we might pause to consider the social milieu. Santayana was not only well-off but well-connected. Less than a decade before, he had given away John D. Rockefeller’s favourite granddaughter in marriage to the Marquis de Cuevas when her father, Santayana’s dear friend the philosopher Charles Strong, failed to turn up [vi]. Santayana was of an echelon of American expatriate depicted in Henry James, whose brother William had been his instructor and colleague in the philosophy department at Harvard [vii]. A lifelong bachelor, Santayana was unencumbered by practicalities such as might interfere with aesthetic or intellectual pursuits. An admired stylist in English, he was also fluent in his native Spanish and French and to large extent Italian and German. Respected by almost all with whom he came into contact, he was belittled only by a few British empiricists such as Bertrand Russell – hardly a mark against him for the increasingly Anglophobic Pound. He was, in short, a character to appeal to the poet on many bases: American, expatriate, linguistic. He was also a socially desirable mark for an Idaho-Yankee arguably less secure in pedigree and definitely less so in income.

A crucial connective would be the War, during which both writers were essentially trapped in Italy [viii]. This was not wholly a matter of hardship: both were confirmed Italophiles, and Santayana at that time was politically indifferent as between liberal democracy and fascism. But everyone in situ in Italy at the time would share in the deprivation of heat and electricity and food as it grew, and Santayana’s chronic bronchitis worsened. What he and Pound had most in common perhaps was being cut off from funds in the UK and US and from ability to communicate with publishers. Santayana’s manuscripts had to be smuggled out to Scribner’s via the Vatican and the American embassy in Madrid. During this era, Pound was much in Rome, as we know, and visited the philosopher who, we are told, was

…impressed by Pound’s unusual appearance (his mass of frizzy red hair) and manner… Some of [his] letters, like his radio broadcasts for the Mussolini government, Santayana found incomprehensible

To Cory he would write in May ’41:

Pound was here yesterday, quite mad… Complains of people’s utter ignorance of economics, and says that it is the root of all trouble. And half his speech is indecipherable to me. I wonder if he is understood when he speaks through the radio. Why does he talk that way? Is it incapacity, or inspiration? Perhaps 9/10th the one and 1/10th the other

Such a critique is scarcely surprising. Santayana’s early writing on literature had attacked a vogue for Browning and Whitman in America of Pound’s youth.

It is a mere euphemism… to call this perpetual vagrancy a development of the soul… Crude experience is [its] only end, the endless struggle [its] only ideal… self-serving subjectivity… poetry of barbarism… stepchild of German romanticism and idealism [ix]

No fan of the transcendentalists, Santayana was in favour of objectivity vs. “emotional slither” and of an authorial use of personae to disguise personal “vent”. In such principles we may see elements of his later attraction to, bemusement by, and repulsion from Pound. “Santayana was capable of sensing danger where others felt only excitement” in the revolt against “old fogeyism in the Edwardian era”. Not for this patrician poet-philosopher to inveigh against effeminacy in American letters such as the author of Patria Mia would. Yet both had fled some tendency common to their formative tradition.

What brought them together was almost certainly one-sided: Pound’s desire for a grand old man’s imprimatur, as Moody implies. In an attempt to provide a pointer for the poet’s elusive paradiso, Santayana lent Pound a copy of his Realms of Spirit, fourth and most recently finished part of his magnum opus on religious impulses and much else. Evidently sceptical that Pound might actually read the book, Santayana writes in afterthought,

Please keep in mind that I don’t believe anything existent can be defined, only indicated; so that all sorts of different figures or words pointed at are better than any one name… Spirit is not an independent substance or centre with a persistent individuality: only a spark of light [x]

He goes on to report that he has been perusing a volume by the historian Brooks Adams, Henry’s racially biased brother, which Pound had apparently recommended to him, and states that he is disappointed by its “lack of philosophy”. Such flickers of incompatible mindset may be reflected in a paragraph Pound would insert a year later into one of his Rome Broadcasts, about Marx and materialism [xi]:

George Santayana calls himself a materialist. It rather shocked old William James. Ole William told young George, he was younger at that stage of world history, that his, Santayana’s philosophy was organized rottenness. I cannot agree with fuzzy old James. It appears to me that George Santayana rather agrees with Thomas Aquinas. I mean the materialist Santayana ends up by writin’ a book called The Realm of Spirit [sic]. I occasionally plunge into the work to calm my heated mind. I mean when I am not up to Confucius and Mencius. And Thomas Aquinas says somewhere that the soul is the first ACT of an organic body. Well, I ask George Santayana what THAT means. And he says entelechy, which seems to me to be dodgin’ behind a Greek word. But anyhow, a materialist definition of the soul seems to be that it is the first act, or first action, or first condition of an organic body. Don’t ASK me. I am merely trying to show how far the word or idea materialist can be stretched by people who play with abstractions

Santayana’s copy of Realms of Spirit, apparently his sole one, was never returned [xii] – lost in Pound’s flight following the fall of Rome, we assume, or during his later incarceration for treason. There is no clarity about how much Pound read of it or of Santayana’s earlier work, such as Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923), which might have contained much to Pound’s taste. Communication between the two broke off until May ’46, by which time Santayana was back in funds and being fêted for a novel and a fragment of autobiography which had become bestsellers in the United States as he shivered through to the War’s end. To Pound, now shut in but not shut up in a ward for the insane at St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C., he writes: “I am glad to hear directly from you” [xiii]. He goes on to discuss Pound’s Ballad of the Goodly Fere, which he caricatures as a picture of “Christ qua gangster [that] only makes me laugh”. This leads him to speculate that his own recent work on “the idea of Christ as pure spirit in the flesh… would perhaps turn your stomach.” Good-natured badinage, but not without spike. Shortly afterwards, Santayana asks his publisher to send Pound a copy of his book The Idea of Christ in the Gospels, which Pound has requested in a letter written “partly in Chinese characters” [xiv].

An individual of Santayana’s courtesy could not fail to respond to a fellow writer, especially one in trouble, but often it was not easy. A month after the preceding, we find him writing to Dorothy Pound thanking her for posting Ezra’s “letter telling me that p. 6 of my book had reconciled him to the frivolity of the rest.”[xv] “I have also received his new canto,” Santayana reports, “and should have written to him about it if a ray of light from it had been able to pierce my thick skull. But really I can’t catch the drift of his allusions.” He adds that Pound’s “subjectivity” resembles his own in his autobiographical People and Places, if at a distance. This remark seems motivated in part, if not all, by politesse. To his publisher, Cory and others he vents.

From Ezra Pound I continue to receive communications: the last was stark mad: a few scattered unintelligible abbreviations on a large sheet of paper, and nothing else. Yet the address, although fantastically scrawled, was quite correct and intelligible. His madness may be spasmodic only [xvi]

At around this time Santayana’s attention was drawn to Robert Lowell among young American poets, and he struck up a correspondence with him rivalling that with Cory. One of their first exchanges is about Pound. “I have received a letter of his”, Santayana tells Lowell,

…with a Chinese character in the middle of the page, and below, in ‘traditional’ English the maxim: ‘Respect the intelligence of a cherry that can make cherries.’ I am touched by his remembering me, as I have not answered one or two earlier letters that were wholly unintelligible [xvii]

In a subsequent letter he asks Lowell why Pound favours Propertius (3); this is in prelude to observing,

It is a pity that he prints so many mistakes in his foreign languages, even in the Greek alphabet. I thought some passages in these ‘Cantos’ [the Pisan] very good; but why so much trash? I must write to him [ xviii]

This about sums it up. Pound has a soupçon of recognisable quality for Santayana but is shoddy and unintelligible, and he would really prefer for the poet to take a hint and stop pestering him with missives, but then rather repents a lack of grace in the sentiment.

For one of Santayana’s fastidiousness, it boils down to taste. “I don’t agree in taste at all with Ezra Pound,” he remarks to another correspondent,

…whom Eliot (once a pupil of mine) thought the ‘best of workmen’, quoting Dante about the most artificially laboured of Provençal poets… Matters of taste are matters of sympathy [xix]

Rowing back again towards repentance, he adds that differences in taste are “not a sin”. To another correspondent in 1950 he complains of an article in The TLS alleging that “the chief benefit of Browning for our times” is that he “inspired the early poems of Pound” [xx]. “He, who was as good a dramatist as Shakespeare!” Santayana fumes in defence of a bard whom, as we have seen, he attacked roundly when an aspiring young poet. In a letter to his publisher about his own Christ book, Santayana varies the complaint, deploring that the work of Browning, which provides “a better (because more cheerful) moral guide than the Sermon on the Mount” should “survive only as a contributor to the poetry of Ezra Pound!” [xxi]

Santayana’s ill-temper may have been exacerbated by a concurrent episode with the poet Peter Russell, an acolyte of Pound’s who turned up at his door soliciting a passage for his journal NINE from the old man’s translation of Tibullus.[xxii] Russell went on to publish an article about the visit, “An Afternoon with George Santayana”, which Santayana found “a surprising travesty of what I said to him, especially about Mr T. S. Eliot and Mr Ezra Pound.”[xxiii] What in fact had he said about the two poets? In an exchange with Lowell about Racine, Santayana would chide that, whereas Racine’s work had plot, Lowell’s was like Pound’s: in danger of “furnish[ing] landscape splendidly, but leav[ing] us confused about your plot and characters.”[xxiv] Later when Cory reports that Lowell has called Pound “a great man”, Santayana responds crossly.[xxv] Later still, in a letter to an old Oxford acquaintance, he sheds some light on emotions lurking beneath these reactions:

I have recently become deeply interested in the new American poets. I have long known Ezra Pound, and I saw him often here during the war, but was never reconciled to his ways in speech or in writing. But Robert Lowell from the first attracted me for various paradoxes that I found realised in him; and his rugged personality now that I have seen him, has not frightened me away [xxvi]

The response is fundamentally based on aesthetics. Pound was antipathetic to Santayana in a way that Lowell was not. A streak of homoeroticism may lurk in it, also an affinity for the echt-New England patrician Lowell’s reaction against the Puritanism of his background in favour of an older Catholic tradition.[xxvii] Despite the Europhilia of his expatriation, Pound would rarely strain for a quietude or “Ewig weibliche” (4) (Mariolatry) intrinsic to this and congenial to Santayana. That said, it is worth noting that Santayana’s last effort veered like much of errant Ezra’s towards this world and its politics. A year before his death, Santayana wrote to his publisher, then preparing his book Dominations and Powers:

I have received a comparatively clear letter from Ezra Pound in which he writes ‘What about this book of yours? Are your publishers trying to suppress your indecorous opinions? Or is it merely the usual American tempo – molasses flowing uphill below zero?’… To disperse his morbid fears, will you please add his name and send him a copy… with my compliments? [xxviii]

A month later he reports to Lowell:

Pound has written me quite intelligibly and in a placid mood, on receiving my book. I am very glad I sent it to him [xxix]

After Santayana’s death in 1952, it was left to Cory to collate his papers and publish what of them appeared not to deserve oblivion. There was sufficient money and academic interest to provide annotated editions; Cory in 1963 also published a memoir based on the vast bulk of letters the philosopher had written to him since their first meeting in 1927. From these one cannot fail to see that Santayana never stopped struggling to come to terms with the expatriate moderns who dominated poetry in his later years. His friend Logan Pearsall Smith had warned Cory when a young man in London not to “go slumming with such an eccentric fraud [as Eliot]”[xxx]; Santayana would repeat this in various housebroken guises:

Eliot is entangled in his own coils. How can he publish such an indecent article as that of Ezra Pound in this number of The Criterion? [xxxi]

He deprecates Eliot for finding Pound “magnificent” and questions the value of his judgement overall. The Uses of Poetry and the Uses of Criticism he judges damningly “English” –

I don’t think Englishmen are inclined to think, unless there is something wrong with them [xxxii]

After Strange Gods, he would find more impressive, but remarks with faint praise: “Eliot is honest and brave, but limited.”[xxxiii] Murder in the Cathedral elicits the quip,

England is becoming stranger and stranger to me, and less and less appealing. I once loved it so much that this is rather a tragedy [xxxiv]

Eliot, it seems, could feel the vibrations. Cory prodded him into publishing an essay on Santayana’s later philosophy but reported his impression that Eliot was reluctant to revive interest in the Hispano-American for an English audience.[xxxv] No doubt aware of the antipathy of Russell & Co. – “nothing original in Santayana: all Plato and Leibniz” [xxxvi] – the politic Eliot may have felt it rash to sail against a prevailing wind. Reception and response of this kind in England might suggest a growing similarity between Santayana and Pound, but if so, it did not lead to solidarity. Cory, in Santayana’s pocket, refused Eliot’s request to review Pound’s Guide to Kulchur; and Santayana would scold Cory for encouraging Pound to send him the book, saying that he would return it at once as he was only an admirer of “putrid Petrarch” or “miserable Milton” [xxxvii]. Politic himself, Cory did manage to cajole Eliot into letting him review Realms of Truth for The Criterion [xxxviii], so perhaps Eliot’s view of Santayana was in fact more favourable than it appeared, or improved over time: after he closed The Criterion, he would join Pound in inviting the philosopher to help them launch a journal about education; Santayana declined the honour, and the idea was dropped.[xxxix]

Disillusionment with England and its bien-pensant certainly grew in Santayana during the War and after. He would express qualified regard for works by Cyril Connolly, Karl Popper, Arnold Toynbee and others [xl], but Russell would continue to annoy him, prompting the remark, “I feel how inhuman these high-principled self-righteous people are” [xli]. He recalls with contempt a “personal shamming involved” in mixing with such English folk, citing not only Russell but Lady Ottoline Morrell [xlii]. Reading Osbert Sitwell moves him to inveigh, “This aristocracy deserve[s] to disappear more than the French” [xliii]; and C. S. Lewis earns his disdain for a “cheap way of summing things up in two words and announcing that all else is effete”. [xliv] The scars of war, as for Pound, may have added intensity to these reactions; but there is substance in them as well. The “error of British empiricism”, Santayana would muse, “is that it reduces ideas from essences to perceptions” [xlv] – a crucial distinction, leading him to reflect, “That traditional British philosophers dislike me is perfectly natural”.[xlvi] In his view Russell et al had “missed the bus… for all [their] talent and omnipotence.”[xlvii] In the end “science is only a side development” to religion; “the bulk of human experience is incorrigibly poetical”; and “the important thing [is] to retain a sense of piety”.[xlviii]

The extent to which a half-broken and aged Ezra Pound would come to similar attitudes is debatable. As Santayana in later years laboured to understand more of the method of his two “great” American expatriate successors [xlix], so perhaps Pound came to aspire to a touch of a grace he could not have failed to glimpse in their grand predecessor. Perhaps this is part of why, when the foremost disciple of Santayana visited him in Venice in 1966, Pound chose the moment to remark that he had

…botched it… I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them in a bag. But that’s not the way to make… a work of art [l]

This verdict, reported by Cory, has disarmed or qualified formidable criticism for many, as would the equally famous aside reported by Allen Ginsberg not long after about “that stupid suburban prejudice [which] spoiled the whole thing”. But how much an otherwise substantially laconic old man genuinely meant these apparent repentances is anyone’s guess. It is plausible that, as is probable at his first meeting an eminent, well-heeled philosopher three decades before, Pound may in part have been trying simply to charm his interlocutor with a becoming humility and/or imitative courtesy.

In the words of Will Durant[li], whose vastly popular writings on philosophy Pound would have known of more than a decade before that meeting, Santayana had

…the soul of a Spanish grandee grafted upon the stock of the gentle Emerson; a refined mixture of Mediterranean aristocracy with New England individualism… the accent of some pagan scholar come from ancient Alexandria… resolved to subject all ‘the phases of human progress’, all the pageant of man’s interests and history, to the scrutiny of reason

Santayana recognised that “the poetry of [myth] helps men to bear the prose of life”; that “to love one’s country, unless that love is quite blind and lazy, must involve a distinction between the country’s actual condition and its inherent ideal”; and that “the great evil of the state is its tendency to become an engine of war… [for] no people has ever won a war”. He despised the waste of capitalism, which destroys self-realisation, yet abjured collectivist doctrines of innate equality. Ultimately he valued the importance of detached judgement and “wisdom [that] comes by disillusionment”.

All this, Durant sums up, “[wrote] itself down quietly, in statuesque and classic prose [with] an undertone of sweet regret for a vanished world”. It is hard not to see in it a marked resemblance to conditions of being and thought that an often agitated, unruly and tormented Ezra Pound yearned after in his own manner.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Guido Cavalcanti, c. 1255-1300, a major Florentine poet who wrote love lyrics in the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”)
  2. John Scotus Erigena, 810- c. 877, Irish philosopher whose translations helped promote Greek patristic writings
  3. Sextus Propertius, 55-43 BC-after 16 BC, author of four books of poetic elegies, most famously Cynthia 
  4. Ewig weibliche – “eternal feminine”, a concept popularised by Goethe in Faust

Author’s Notes

[i] 10 July 1928 to (Unidentified) Rubin. The Works of George Santayana, volume v, book 4 (1928-32), edited by William Holzberger et al (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2003)

[ii] 19 January 1935 to Sylvia Bliss. The Letters of George Santayana, edited and with introduction and commentary by Daniel Cory (London: Constable, 1955), 290

[iii] 22 June and 3 September 1936 to Robert Shaw Barlow. Ibid,312, 314

[iv] 8 December 1949 to Cornel Lengyel. Ibid, 387

[v] Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man and his Work, volume III ‘The Tragic Years, 1939-72’, A. David Moody (Oxford University Press, 2015), quoting Pound to Santayana, 8 December 1939, and to Eliot, 18 January 1940, as well as Mary de Rachewiltz in Discretions (1971), 127-8

[vi] See Santayana: the Later Years: a portrait in letters, Daniel Cory (New York: Braziller, 1963), 26-7

[vii] He disliked James and an atmosphere of intense masculinism encountered at Harvard. Ibid., 41

[viii] See Works vol. v, book 7 (1941-47), Preface

[ix] See Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), edited by William Holzberger and Herman J. Saatkamp Jr (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1990), Introduction by Joel Porte, xix-xxi

[x] Works, v, 7. Letter of 29 June 1942

[xi] Radio Broadcast #102, 26 June 1943

[xii] See Works, v, 7. Letter to John Hall Wheelock of 23 January 1947

[xiii] Ibid., Letter of 19 June 1946

[xiv] Ibid., to Wheelock, 6 October 1946

[xv] Ibid., Letter of 24 November 1946

[xvi] Ibid., See letter to Wheelock, 16 January 1947

[xvii] Works, v, book 8 (1948-52), letter of 1 March 1948

[xviii] Ibid., letter of 29-30 December 1949

[xix] Ibid., letter to Bysshe Stein of 1 September 1949

[xx] Ibid., letter to Cyril Coniston Clemens of 10 January 1950

[xxi] Ibid., to Wheelock, 3 January 1950

[xxii] Ibid., see letters to Russell and Cory of 15 August and 25 October 1949

[xxiii] Ibid., see letter to Stefan Shimanski, 8 December 1949. The article had appeared in World Review (London: xii ’49), 45-7

[xxiv] Ibid., letter of 25 December 1950

[xxv] Ibid., letter of 1 March 1951

[xxvi] Ibid., to John Brett Langstaff, 13 June 1951

[xxvii] Alluded to in the letter to Lowell mentioned in note 25 above

[xxviii] Works, v, 8, letter to Wheelock of 25 March 1951

[xxix] Ibid., letter of 25 April 1951

[xxx] Later Years, 27

[xxxi] Ibid., 120. Pound’s essay was about Housman

[xxxii] Ibid., 128

[xxxiii] Ibid., 130

[xxxiv] Ibid., 155

[xxxv] Ibid., 142-43

[xxxvi] Ibid., 268

[xxxvii] Ibid., 188

[xxxviii] Ibid., 192

[xxxix] See ‘“It doesn’t . . . matter where you begin”: Pound and Santayana on Education’, by Martin Coleman, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, volume 44, number 4 (Winter 2010), 1-17. Coleman finds Pound ‘genuinely fond’ of Santayana and that the two had enough in common for such a collaboration to make sense. Among other things, he cites the apprehension both had that pressure of social life, money and the ‘business of the universities’ could prelude proper thought and creativity and encouraged young teachers to write and lecture on subjects which they had not yet properly mastered. He also sees similarity between the two in the foundational principle of what Santayana labelled ‘animal faith’

[xl] See Later Years, 257, 262 and passim

[xli] Ibid., 264

[xlii] Ibid., 267

[xliii] Ibid., 264

[xliv] Ibid., 281

[xlv] Ibid., 272

[xlvi] Ibid., 285

[xlvii] Ibid., 292

[xlviii] Ibid., 312, 315 and 330

[xlix] He reports to Cory, for example, that reading Eliot on Pound in Fiera Letteraria ‘really throw[s] some light on the mystery of their kind of poetry.’ Ibid., 266

[l] On these late utterances of Pound’s, see, for example, Moody, 799-802

[li] See The Story of Philosophy: the lives and opinions of the world’s greatest philosophers, Will Durant (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1926; The Pocket Library, 1954), 488-508