A wasted ‘life’ of The Waste Land

Image: Derek Turner

The Waste Land – A Biography of a Poem

Matthew Hollis, Faber & Faber, 2022, 524pps., £20
LIAM GUILAR is disappointed by a would-be biography of the landmark poem

If any twentieth century poem deserves a biography, it is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. First published in 1922, it was, and is, an extraordinary poem. Stripped of all the accumulated analysis, commentary, criticism and fashionable condemnation of its poet, it remains as new and startling today as it was a hundred years ago.  

Its significance for many of the century’s literary developments cannot be underestimated. It has also been a fertile source and target for successive fashions of criticism and a starting place for an astonishing number of academic performances.

Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land – a Biography of a Poem promises to be just that. It isn’t. Instead of telling the story of the poem’s life after it was published, he narrates the lives of the Eliots and Pound up to its publication, reducing the poem to an incident in their lives.

The story of the poem’s creation has been known for fifty years. In 1914, T. S. Eliot had come from America to Europe to study. Instead of working diligently in the philosophy department at Oxford, he had married in haste and abandoned his Harvard PhD. He was determined to become the leading literary critic and poet in London, at a time when London was the centre of the English literary world.

By 1920 he had a secure, well-paid job at Lloyds Bank, a growing reputation as a reviewer amongst the people who mattered, and a circle of the necessary acquaintances. He was also struggling with the knowledge that he had written nothing outstanding since ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in 1911. He was keen to write a long poem. Great poets wrote long poems and he wanted to be a great poet.

Lurching from one illness to another, unhappily married, and ‘overworked’, his doctors had recommended he take time off and the bank had obliged by giving him three months paid leave. He went first to Margate, and then Switzerland. Soon after returning, having discussed his poem with Ezra Pound, The Waste Land was published to critical acclaim, scorn and baffled incomprehension. It divided the readership then and continues to do so now.[i]

The story was qualified when the manuscript resurfaced and was published in facsimile in 1971. It was then possible to see that the poem was initially twice as long. An assemblage of parts called ‘He Do The Police In Different Voices’, it began, not with ‘April is the cruellest month’, but ‘First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place’. There was a long section in rhyming couplets describing a woman, Fresca, getting out of bed, which reads like Swift doing Pope with all the disgust but none of the rage or energy. What would become the shortest section of the poem, ‘Death by Water’ was originally a long narrative about a sea voyage. It became obvious from the facsimile that Ezra Pound and Vivien Eliot had played a significant part in shaping the final poem. Pound had cut the draft by half.

T S Eliot. Image: Sneh Vatsa. WIkimedia Commons

By the late 1970s, one source put the total of published books and articles about Eliot, his poetry and criticism, at 4,319. A bibliography for the years 1987-2013 adds another 1,624 items. Neither figure includes unpublished dissertations, theses, book reviews and conference papers or lectures. Hollis’s own bibliography runs for over twenty pages. There are at least two biographies of Vivien Eliot and a recent three volume biography of Ezra Pound. T. S. Eliot has been the subject of several, the most recent biography being Robert Crawford’s justly acclaimed two volume life. With all this information available, what hasn’t already been said? 

Hollis tells the story of the poem by tracking Pound and the Eliots through the years leading up to its composition, starting in 1918 but moving chronologically backwards and forwards. He writes eloquently, keeping his story moving, bolstering it with details and anecdotes to bring it alive, as when Eliot’s car breaks down and he must walk home “passed only by a wagon of Boy Scouts and pursued by a line of three ducks” (p.87).

Here, in one place, is a very readable version of many well-known stories. Hollis can make typing sound exciting.

“Eliot’s typewriter had seen better days. […] as he sat before it in the winter of 1921, he centred the carriage and depressed the shift lock. The strikers swung up from the type basket, prompting the escapement forward, letter by letter: a title, concluded as were all titles, with a terminal point.


He rolled the platen twice for a two-line drop, and began to type the poem’s opening. But it was not ‘April is the cruellest month’ the line that would become synonymous with the poem, but something altogether different.”


The dating and sequence of the manuscript’s composition are revealed – which typewriter was used, where, and when. One can only admire the patience that went into the study of typewriter ribbons and paper to excavate this information, while wondering what it adds to an understanding or appreciation of the poem. Hollis also tracks Pound’s editing, Eliot’s dithering over the final shape of the work and the negotiations leading up to publication.

The poem is returned to the human context which produced it: the sometimes spiteful, claustrophobic world of literary London in the years immediately after the First World War. Hollis quotes William Gardner Hale’s famous critique of Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ which ends: “If Mr. Pound were a professor of Latin, there would be nothing left for him but suicide”. It stands as a good example of period criticism that could border on libel and be viciously personal. Such treatment humanises the production of literature, as does Hollis’s suggestion that Eliot cut the first page of the manuscript, not because it was tedious, but because it described a visit to a brothel, and he didn’t want to offend his mother.

However, the claim that Eliot was ‘the greatest poet of the twentieth century’ rests to a considerable degree on the fact he wrote The Waste Land. The story of the writing of the poem, as told here, is not the story of an artist in control of his material. 

Neither Pound nor Eliot seemed to know what they had created. As late as March 1922, Pound was describing ‘The Waste Land’ as “a series of poems”. Having allowed Pound to hack the original in half, Eliot was worried the poem, as it then stood, was not long enough for stand alone publication. In January 1922 he was thinking of padding out the final poem and giving it this form: “(1) Sage Homme by E.P.-(2) Gerontion-(3) The Burial of the Dead-(4) A Game of Chess-(5) The Fire Sermon-(6) What the Thunder Said- (7-9 in order unknown) Song-Exequy-Dirge.” (p.361)

Eliot may have gone on to dominate the critical and literary landscape, but in the early 1920s he seems to have had difficulty evaluating his own work. He had tried to convince Wyndham Lewis to publish ‘The Triumph of Bullshit’, a rhyming obscenity which would not have been out of place sung in the communal bath of a 1970s Rugby Union club.

Robert Crawford records that in Margate, Eliot had been “practising scales on the mandolin”.[ii] Not picking out tunes, or singing songs and accompanying himself, but practising scales. It’s a telling image for Eliot the poet: a master of technique who at that time was struggling to find a use for it. The picture that emerges is of someone eager for fame and publication, but with no real idea of what he was doing other than trying to become famous and published.

For all Hollis’s entertaining eloquence, the book feels unbalanced and becomes frustrating as it progresses. The problem lies with the title. A biography which did not tell the life of the subject would not warrant the name. This is not the biography of a poem, which would have been an original contribution to celebrate the centenary.

Ezra Pound. Image: Alvin Langdon Coburn, NPG. Wikimedia Commons

The book ends triumphantly, with Pound vindicated, and Eliot beaming. The last chapter, a coda of sorts, ‘London 1960’, focusses on Eliot’s attempts to challenge Pound’s growing sense of failure. In the rush to the end and the desire to reconcile the characters, the poem goes missing. Eliot’s public ambivalence about it is brushed aside, and the mixture of astonishment and derision which greeted its publication is reduced to two pages of decontextualised quotations. There’s very little discussion of the notes Eliot used to pad out the page count. He helped fuel an academic industry by claiming:

Not only the title but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss. Jesse L. Weston’s book on the Grail Legend: From Ritual to Romance (Macmillan). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes do; and I recommend it (apart from the greater interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.

Whether he’d read From Ritual to Romance is a moot question Hollis skips over.[iii] Given the obvious lack of ‘plan’ in the poem’s writing and the late addition of the title, the statement is at the very least an impressive piece of misdirection.

To tie the poem to the poet is to divert attention from the poem and go ferreting in the dusty scandals of our grandparents’ lives. Instead of asking what the printed poem does, or why it is was so successful or so useful to a fledging critical industry, one can speculate pointlessly about who was the “Man from Cologne” (p.352) or how often, when and where Vivien Eliot “slept” with Bertrand Russell.  

Narrating the lives leading up to the publication of the poem creates a problem of relevance the book ignores. The text runs for 386 pages. 217 pages detail Eliot and Pound’s movements before the poem is begun. When Eliot begins his rest cure in Margate, Hollis has discovered how many days he spent there, whether he had a hot bath, what he spent his daylight hours doing, who he phoned and how much the call cost. We get a potted history of Margate as a tourist resort. The other stories are well known and entertaining but why, for example, does the story of Eliot, Lewis, Joyce and the second-hand shoes have to be repeated? What did the floor plan of the Pounds’ apartment in Paris, or the fact Pound enjoyed boxing with Hemingway contribute to the poem?

The same seems true for the historical excursions. Because they exist at the level of generalised context, Hollis could have picked any distressing incident from 1900-1920.

The first chapter, ‘Armistice’, begins with the story of the death in combat of the last allied serviceman in the First World War. Like the excursions to the Irish wars in 1920, the burial of the Unknown Soldier, and to various international calamities, the link to the poem is never made explicit. Hollis’s Eliot is far too self-obsessed to be affected by what the Black and Tans were doing in Ireland, and there’s no attempt to prove that he knew about them, let alone that their behaviour affected his thinking or writing. A Poundian editor would have cut the first two hundred and sixteen pages: ‘Interesting/ enjoyable/ been done before/ irrelevant.’

Or perhaps there is a sly Eliotic irony at work, and Hollis is undercutting the usual ‘Poor Tom’ narrative. How depressing to have a steady job in the 1920s, earning 500 pounds a year, with an employer willing to give him three months paid leave. How oppressive to have to leave the rural weekend cottage to go to work to earn a living. Robert Graves was more blunt: “Who forced him, during the Battle of the Somme, to attend London tea-parties presided over by boring hostesses?”[iv]

There’s also an inconsistency in the treatment of the material. It is now compulsory for any writer on Eliot to excoriate him for his antisemitism. Hollis does so at every opportunity, but while Eliot deserves the criticism, it’s a modern, retrospective interpretation of the views of a man who was the product of his class and place and time. It draws attention to the things Hollis doesn’t criticise from a similar perspective.

Much of the narrative moves smoothly over the surface presenting the official version which tends to minimise the strangeness of the story. He quotes admiringly from Eliot’s early criticism, but a century has passed in which that criticism has been picked apart. While Hollis sees the relationship between the criticism and poetry as unproblematic, the much more interesting symbiotic relationship between The Sacred Wood (1920) and The Waste Land goes unexamined. In a book about the poem this wouldn’t matter; in a book focussed on the poet it seems like a major flaw.

Far from being objective statements of scientific truth, as some readers were willing to accept, Eliot’s early criticism is a brilliant game of smoke and mirrors, in which T.S. Eliot, Harvard-trained philosopher, wielding an intimidating erudition, justified the kind of poetry T.S. Eliot wrote or wanted to write, and rationalised his inability to produce poetry with the facility of a W.B. Yeats. Hollis quotes approvingly from a letter Eliot wrote in 1927; “The only criticism of poetry worth noting is that of poets” (p.211). The phrase is representative of so much of Eliot’s early writing about literature. It cannot be accurate without the absent qualification: ’Often’, ‘Sometimes’, ‘For my purposes’, ‘In terms of…’. Once the qualifications are added, the statement is revealed as little more than a personal preference.

Ezra Pound is the real hero of this book. Here too the retrospective critique is absent. It is obvious from all the available contemporary accounts that Pound was a tempestuous character, a tireless and passionate advocate for writers he admired. But his criticism and poetry from this period have not aged well.

Pound’s antisemitism is appropriately chastised, but otherwise Hollis takes him at his own evaluation. The reader is positioned to see criticism of Pound’s poetry as misguided, if not driven by malice and envy. To read Hollis you’d think poor Ezra was driven out of London by a conspiracy of jealous mediocrities who simply didn’t understand his genius. The fact that he was a self-appointed expert on a range of topics he knew little about is passed over, as is the fact that much of his criticism from this period consists of aggressive statements of personal preference masquerading as objective truths. The myth of Pound the brilliant editor is based on the idea that he was able to see The Waste Land in the draft and, in his own phrase, perform the caesarean operation to bring to light the poem Eliot wanted to write. 

Joyce’s comment about Pound’s attempts to edit Ulysses is telling on two counts.

I never listened to his objections to Ulysses as it was being sent him once I had made up my mind but dodged them as tactfully as I could. He understood certain aspects of the book very quickly and that was more than enough then. He makes brilliant discoveries and howling blunders[v]

Firstly, if critics have seen method and intention in the manuscript, Pound either didn’t understand them or didn’t care. With The Waste Land manuscript he slashed away at the level of word, line, and passage, regardless of the effect his deletions had on the whole. It was the action of a man with a cast iron sense of his own infallibility and a complete disregard for the writer whose work he was cutting. He noted his reasons in the margins: “Georgian”; “verse not interesting as verse to warrant so much of it”. He either had no interest in, nor understanding of, Eliot’s intentions, which allowed him to hack away knowing that nothing essential would be removed, because as far as he was concerned nothing was essential.

Critics tend to assume that Pound’s editing was entirely disinterested and for the greater good of ‘Poetry’ because that was Pound’s version. However, as Hollis writes, the cutting of the original ‘Death By Water’ is more difficult to justify as “powerful passages had been sacrificed” (p.64). Hollis takes the time to note the similarities between the sea voyages in the original ‘Death by Water’ and the Canto Pound was working on at the same time. He avoids describing this as plagiarism while providing enough evidence to support the accusation. He’s too kind to suggest Pound may have demolished ‘Death by Water’ so his sea voyage Canto had no competitor. Hollis also records that Pound didn’t show the Canto to Eliot when he wanted someone to help him to edit it. Hollis prefers to believe “Perhaps it was Pound’s sense of selflessness that left him unwilling to disturb Eliot” (p.352) rather than an unwillingness to offer up a poem for criticism to someone who might return the recent favour and demolish it on the same grounds – or who might be so crass as to point out the similarities.

Pound’s motives are lost. The truth about the writing of a poem, especially a hundred years after the event, is unknowable, and was perhaps only vaguely understood by the people involved. Hollis’ approach raises so many questions that it cannot answer, at the same time softening the strangeness of this poem’s creation.

Many writers solicit comments on their drafts, but Eliot was eagerly soliciting comments on fragments of an unfinished long poem. This is strange, but the real curiosity, obscured in retrospect, is why he was so willing to put himself under Pound’s direction.

Hollis claims of Eliot’s 1919 Hogarth Press selection of poems that “more than any gathering they would bear the fruits of his [Pound’s] management of Eliot’s work” (p.79). ‘Management’ is aptly chosen. Pound liked to manage his discoveries. But as Hollis also explains, these poems are unimpressive compared to Eliot’s best work: “caricatures wearily reappear; predatory males, wanton females, unscrupulous outsiders, untrustworthy Jews”. The poems exhibit a “claustrophobic formality buttoned up in iambic tetrameter” (p.82). The reviewer for The Times wrote that Eliot was “laboriously writing nothing” and “in danger of becoming silly”. Except for The Waste Land, little that Eliot wrote under ‘Pound’s Management’ advanced his reputation as a poet.

Hollis ends one section of the book with a summary of Eliot’s debt to Pound before the latter left London in 1920. The mystery is not why Eliot felt indebted to Pound for his genuine assistance in getting his work published, but why he was so willing to submit his poetry to Pound’s literary judgement. Was it really so infallible, or merely human as the Joyce comment suggests?

Were the Fresca couplets such a bad imitation of Pope? Pound told him “You cannot parody Pope unless you can write better verse than Pope-and you can’t.”[vi] Why did Eliot timidly accept this verdict? If he were following Joyce and using a range of historical styles, why didn’t he just shrug and follow Joyce in ignoring Pound’s dismissive comment?

The answer lies in the psychology of T. S. Eliot, and in his specific state of mind while he was writing the poem. Both are unknowable. What we do know is that he did not repeat the process and seems to have felt uncomfortable about the end product for the rest of his life.

If this really were the biography of the poem, then its life in the twentieth century should have been its focus[vii]. Eliot was born a year after the attempt to introduce an Honours school of English Literature at Oxford University was voted down. It was not until 1894 that resistance was overcome. If scholarship were replaced by criticism, how could the study of English Literature be more than “mere chatter about Shelley”?[viii]

The question haunted literary studies until they self-destructed in just over a hundred years. Poetry like Pound and Eliot’s, baffling to a contemporary reader bought up on Kipling, Yeats and the majority of poetry in the bookshops, supported the rise of the professional explainer and with it the cult of the ‘difficult poem’. If T.S. Eliot and The Waste Land did not exist, university English departments would have had to invent them to justify their existence.   

The Waste Land became an almost inexhaustible resource that could be quarried for allusions and biographical connections. It challenged established ideas about originality and plagiarism. Critics could announce that they had finally unearthed the poem’s meaning only to have their findings challenged by other critics. The notes provided starting points for careers. To be ‘The Greatest Living Eliot Scholar’ became a desirable title. With the inevitable reaction against Eliot’s perceived ideologies, the poem could be a target for every new fashion of criticism that could prove its own virtue by finding faults with the poem and the poet.

Yet despite all the critical attention, paradoxically, after The Waste Land, a single history of poetry in English becomes impossible to write. Despite Pound and Eliot’s insistence that their version was the only correct one, there are now many competing, sometimes mutually exclusive, assumptions about what a poem is and should be. The Renaissance or the Romantic Period mark definite shifts in the writing of poetry but the same cannot be said for the ‘Modernists’.[ix] Today, highly regarded poetry is being written which reads as though The Waste Land or the Cantos were never written. The temptation to naturalise all this could be resisted and a biography of the poem would have been a good place to start.

Despite all this chatter about Pound and the Eliots, despite the proof that the final version was an accident, The Waste Land remains: 433 brilliantly memorable lines. Whether Eliot knew what he was doing and whether Pound hacked away indiscriminately are questions that ultimately can’t be answered, and might not be worth asking.

Eliot’s undeniable ability to turn a memorable phrase and pack it with meaning – “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” – to create resonant images – “A woman drew her long black hair out tight/and fiddled whisper music on those strings” – and his superlative ability to manipulate sound and syntax (read the poem aloud for yourself) transformed what one admiring critic called “a cultural scrap heap” into a unique, never to be repeated or successfully imitated piece of writing. A hundred years after it was published, it still feels strange and new, still divides readers, and still rewards repeated re-reading. And its biography is yet to be written.

[i] On 29 December 2022 the New York Times published an article by a Mathew Walther entitled, ‘Poetry died 100 years ago this month’ with the line ‘I’m convinced. Eliot finished poetry off.’ https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/29/opinion/eliot-waste-land-poetry.html

[ii]  P.389. Crawford, Young Eliot. From St. Louis to the Wasteland.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

[iii] “Eliot’s first edition of Jesse Weston’s book is in the Houghton Library in Harvard with his inscription ‘This is the copy I had before writing The Waste Land’. It is virtually unannotated. Pages 137-40 and 141-4 remained uncut.”, Crawford, Young Eliot, p.352

[iv] ‘These be your Gods Oh Israel’ in Collected Writing on Poetry, Paul O’Prey (ed.), Carcanet, 1995

[v]  Letters of James Joyce Vol. 1 ed Stuart Gilbert, New York, Viking Press 1957 p.249

[vi] Qtd p.127 in T. S.Eliot. The Waste Land. A Facsimile And Transcript Of The Original Drafts Including The Annotations Of Ezra Pound, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York, 1971 

[vii] There’s a good summary up to 1995 in John Harwood’s, excellent, iconoclastic, Eliot to Derrida. The Poverty of Interpretation, St. Martin’s Press, 1995

[viii] The remark is attributed to Edward Augustus Freeman, then Regius Professor of Modern History

[ix] It’s obviously possible to argue about when the Renaissance or the Romantic period began and ended, but it would be wilfully obtuse to argue that the majority of poetry written after 1650 is not markedly different to the poetry written before 1550. And the same would apply to 1750 and 1850

“Once upon a time I was a poet”

Basil Bunting. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons licence
Letters of Basil Bunting
Selected and edited by Alex Niven, Oxford University Press, 2022, £35
LIAM GUILAR welcomes new insights into a little-studied modernist’s mind

Basil Bunting died in 1985. Despite having been praised as one of the twentieth century’s ‘greatest poets’ critical attention to his work has been rare. A reliable biography didn’t appear until the publication of Richard Burton’s A Strong Song Tows Us in2013; an annotated collected poems, edited by Don Share, not until 2016. Now, with the publication of Alex Niven’s much anticipated edition of Bunting’s correspondence, it’s possible to eavesdrop on one of the twentieth century’s most interesting conversations about poetry[i].

In his eighties, Bunting looked back on his life:

Once upon a time I was a poet; not a very industrious one, not at all an influential one; unread and almost unheard of, but good enough in a small way to interest my friends, whose names have become familiar: Pound and Zukofsky first, Carlos-Williams, Hugh MacDairmid, David Jones, few indeed, but enough to make me think my work was not wasted.[ii]

If you recognise the names of his friends, that ‘good enough in a small way’ is an excellent example of the English art of understatement. But it’s not a popular list and despite the excellence of his poems, Bunting remains a marginal figure. No one reviewing the letters of T. S. Eliot needs to explain who T. S. Eliot was, or why he is of interest. 

The life

Born in 1900, Bunting was imprisoned as a conscientious objector immediately after leaving his Quaker school in 1918. He studied economics before drifting to Paris where he met Ezra Pound and worked, alongside Ernest Hemingway, for Ford Madox Ford. Following Pound to Italy, he met W.B. Yeats and Louis Zukofsky in Rapallo and began a life-long and life altering affair with Persian literature.

His first published poem, Villon, is one of the finest long poems of the 1920s[iii], but by the end of the 1930s Bunting’s career as a poet had stalled: his first marriage had failed, he was out of work and separated from his children. The war rescued him. He discovered he had skills that others valued. He rose through the ranks to Squadron Leader, worked for British Intelligence, then after the war, returned to Persia, first as a diplomat, before resigning to marry a Persian and becoming the Persian correspondent for The Times.

Expelled from Persia and then unceremoniously dumped by The Times, he struggled to find work in post war Britain.

Despite the excellence of his poems, the story could have ended here, with Bunting as a footnote in histories of literary modernism, remembered as one of Pound’s ‘more savage disciples’[iv], but in his sixties, spurred on by his meeting with a young Tom Pickard, he wrote Briggflatts; at 700 lines a short long poem, praised as the ‘finest’, ‘greatest’ or ‘most important’ long poem either of the twentieth century or ‘since The Wasteland’. He enjoyed a brief period as ‘Britain’s greatest living poet’ before fading away in a series of university jobs and poetry readings.


From such a long and varied, life Niven estimates only about 800 letters have survived, of which approximately 600 relate to Briggflatts and the period after its publication. He has selected almost two hundred and thankfully decided to print complete letters rather than extracts.

Divided into three sections, the bulk of the book is devoted to the 1960s and afterwards. For anyone interested in poetry, rather than Bunting’s biography, the core of the book may be the pre-1960s letters to Pound and Zukofsky.

Briggflatts was praised by critics of the stature of Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie and poets as diverse as Thom Gunn, Allen Ginsberg and George Oppen, but Bunting’s status in the critical hierarchy has never been secure.

Perhaps his version of poetry is too austere to be popular. In a letter to Poetry Chicago (not printed by Niven), he wrote:

We are experts on nothing but arrangements and patterns of vowels and consonants, and every time we shout about something else we increase the contempt the public has for us. We are entitled to the same voice as anybody else with the vote. To claim more is arrogant.[v]

Throughout these letters and in later interviews he repeatedly stated the belief that politics, philosophy and theory harm poetry. The poet’s job is to write good poems.

What I have tried to do is to make something that can stand by itself and last a little while without having to be propped by metaphysics or ideology or anything from outside itself, something that might give people pleasure without nagging them to pay their dues to the party or say their prayers, without implying the stifling deference so many people in this country still show to a Cambridge degree or a Kensington accent. [vi]

It’s possible to go through these letters and compile a list of quotations to show he had little time for academics or literary criticism. He was publicly dismissive of creative writing courses and poetry competitions, while working on the former and once, memorably, judging the latter. He didn’t think poems should be explained; if a poem requires footnotes it’s a failure and tying the poem to the poet is a fundamental mistake.

What characterised Bunting and his correspondents was the intense seriousness with which they applied themselves to writing. Poetry was a craft and writing it involved ‘sharp study and long toil’. The ‘study’ involved arguing into existence a standard of excellence selected from poems going back to Homer. Once tentatively established, they attempted to excel their models, supporting each other through stringent criticism.

Bunting’s criticism, shown here in his letters to Zukofsky, was not for the faint hearted, but it was driven by the belief that some poets, Pound and Zukofsky explicitly, were ‘entered without handicap against Dante and Lucretius, against Villon and Horace.’ In the same letter, he explains: ‘At least for my part, I’d rather have somebody who is thinking of Horace call my poems bloody bad than to hear them praised by somebody who is thinking of-who-Dylan Thomas?’ (p.194).

Two other reasons for Bunting’s odd position in the critical hierarchy stand out. In some quarters he is tainted by his association with Pound, especially where Pound is only known, vaguely, for his political and racial opinions. The other is the insistence that ‘All Roads lead to Briggflatts[vii] which condemns him to the role of a minor poet who pulled off one great poem and consistently ignores the quality of the rest of his work.   

The letters qualify the first of these, while Niven’s editing and commentary seem driven by the second. If there ever was a tribe of Ezra to match the tribe of Ben, with Rapallo replacing the London taverns, Bunting was always too obdurate an individual to be anyone’s acolyte. [viii].

The explosive end of the pre-war correspondence with Pound is well-known, though the full text of the letter hasn’t been available until now. What becomes obvious is that from the late 1920s and through the 1930s the letters show Bunting becoming increasingly resistant to Pound’s politics. Bunting’s repeated statements that poetry is hampered when it tangles itself in philosophy and politics became focussed in his insistence to Pound that banging on about ill-informed economic theory was a waste of Pound’s time and literary talent, although Bunting himself isn’t adverse to sharing his ‘theories’ with Pound.

Initially refusing to believe Ezra was writing for the British fascist movement, he finally reached the limits of his patience when he learnt that Pound was ‘spilling racist bile’ in his letters to Zukofsky. His angry letter to Pound ends:

I suppose if you devote yourself long enough to licking the arses of blackguards you stand a good chance of becoming a blackguard yourself. Anyway, it is hard to see how you are going to stop the rot of your mind and heart without a pretty thoroughgoing repudiation of what you have spent a lot of work on. You ought to have the courage for that; but I confess I don’t expect to see it. (p.136)[ix]

It says a lot about the robust nature of their friendship that despite this, Pound would continue attempting to promote Bunting’s poetry, and Bunting would continue to acknowledge his debts to Pound. After the war, when Pound was incarcerated in Saint Elizabeth’s hospital for the mentally ill, Bunting picked up the correspondence, encouraged by the news that a letter from Basil brightened up Ezra’s week. Pound’s letters to Bunting, by turns abusive and incoherent, didn’t put him off.

As he wrote to Zukofsky: ‘The difficulty is how to avoid being involved in the network of fallacies while profiting from his illuminate faculty for verse and enjoying his energy and kindness.’

The same problem faces everyone today: how to see beyond the politics and racism to profit from what any poet in the past had to say about poetry and learn from what he or she achieved as a poet. Bunting managed it with his two closest friends, one a communist, one a fascist. It seems an important precedent.

Anyone interested in Basil Bunting or twentieth century poetry owes Alex Niven a great debt for the time and work that must have gone into this project.

How different the picture would be if this were a complete edition of the letters, only he knows. When Jonathon Williams published a selection of his letters from Bunting, he wrote: “What a stern, serious, funny, extraordinary ‘literary’ (LETS HEAR IT FOR LITERARY) North of England person he was’ (Williams, p.252).[x]  The Bunting of those letters, watching the birds and wild life in his garden, is absent from Niven’s collection, as are the descriptions of Persia that suggested to Burton that Britain lost a major travel writer to the Official Secrets Act.

The book’s sense of its reader is uneven. Niven explicitly describes a model reader who knows the outline of Bunting’s life and is not put off by occasional difficulties (p.xxvii). This model reader has a positive effect on his annotations, but seems to have been forgotten when he came to write his commentaries.

Why Niven thinks such a reader needs to be told what to think about the letters and how to interpret them, is a mystery. You buy an edition of a poet’s letters, wanting to read the poet’s words, and find a portion of the book contains the editor’s personal opinions and interpretations which you will never reread.   

Based on his model reader, Niven’s annotations are usually deft and show a shrewd judgement of what this reader could be expected to know. He assumes that anyone reading these letters won’t need a gloss on Dante, Swift, Winston Churchill, or others. He is also unwilling to overload the letters with commentary, assuming, (rightly), that anyone who wants to follow Bunting’s detailed responses to Pound’s books; ABC of Reading, Guide to Kulchure, will have a copy.

In his letters, Bunting could be crudely dismissive of poets he didn’t like. It’s disappointing to see his editor join in: ‘Philip Larkin (1922-1985) hard right British poetaster and trad jazz critic.’ (n.277 p.384).

Sometimes the annotation strays a long way from objective facts: ‘It must be said that Briggflatts faintly resembles certain of [Dylan]Thomas’ work in form, subject and (marginal sense of) place’ (p.194). Briggflatts probably ‘faintly resembles’ a lot of things, but it also must be said it’s hard to imagine Bunting admiring Thomas enough to be influenced by him.

The introduction includes a clear and necessary discussion of editing methods. Whether an introduction to a selection of letters needs a dramatic retelling of the first reading of Briggflatts, or is an appropriate place for a summary and critique of existing criticism, depends on the individual reader. As I don’t agree with his evaluation of Don Share’s edition of the Collected Poems, unless ‘the book’s only major limitation’ is intended ironically, or his criticisms of Burton’s biography, and I think he misreads the Pound-Bunting disagreement over Bunting’s translations of the Shahnemeh, I’m suspicious of his statements about literary matters where he strays from simply providing factual biographical context.

He uses his introduction to stake out his version of Bunting’s life, at times in explicit opposition to other published versions. I’m not convinced this is the right place for it. His dissent from Burton’s views of the significance of Bunting’s Quakerism is pointed, but his dismissal of Burton’s biography as ‘relatively light on critical explication’ is baffling. Eager to point out that book’s ‘shortcomings’, he seems to be criticising Burton’s biography for being a biography while temporarily forgetting just how problematic and limited letters are as biographical evidence.

The trust in the reader, obvious in the annotations, is not evident in the editorial commentary running between the letters. I think there’s too much. Rather than let the letters speak for themselves, he interprets the evidence and intrudes his opinions, unnecessarily:  

For all that his language and actions often fell a long way short of today’s ethical standards, Bunting certainly thought of himself as a determined anti-racist-and this letter would seem to support that view. In the context of his historical moment, Bunting’s basic philosophical views about race were, to put it mildly, considerably more progressive than Pound’s. (p. 134-135)

Comments such as this one and less lengthy interventions like ‘even if the age difference of over thirty years was problematic in more ways than one (p.140)’ seem to miss the point that adult readers are capable of coming to their own conclusions.

Sometimes the comments have nothing to do with the content of the letters: ‘There is a pressing need to apply more and deeper scrutiny to Bunting’s colonial phase than has been evident in previous scholarly and biographical treatments. But whatever its unexamined moral and political complications’ […]. (p.139)

Superfluous in terms of contextualising a letter, this manages to suggest something sinister without being informative. Even for a reader who knows the biography it’s not clear what the unexamined ‘complications’ are, or how ‘scrutinising’ them would add to the enjoyment of the poems or why or to whom such a need is ‘pressing’.

Letters encourage the tendency to tether the poems to the poet. The results of failing to distinguish between the two is a depressing characteristic of contemporary discussions of poetry, obvious in attitudes towards writers as diverse as Ezra Pound, Phillip Larkin (see above) and most recently, Dorothy Hewett[xi].

As Bunting wrote to Zukofsky:

Letters are meant to be written to affect one bloke, not a public. What is true in the context of sender and recipient may be a bloody lie in the context of author and public…secondly: the bane of the bloody age is running after remnants and fragments and rubbish heaps to avoid having to face what a man has made with deliberation and all his skill for the public’. (June 1953 qtd in Burton, page 354 Ellipsis in Burton.)

There’s nothing anyone can do to prevent that, it’s still the bane of this age, but its sad inevitability is outweighed by the opportunity to eavesdrop on one of the century’s most interesting conversations about poetry. Hopefully, Niven‘s suggestion that a complete collection of the Pound Bunting correspondence should be published will be taken up sometime soon (preferably with the letters to Zukofsky). What they had to say about poetry transcends their time, politics and personalities.  

‘Long awaited’, ‘much anticipated’ and ‘ground-breaking’ are cliches of the blurb writer.  For once they can all be applied honestly and accurately to Niven’s work in making these letters available. The good news is that the long wait and the anticipation have been generously rewarded.   

[i] Page numbers are to Niven’s book. Richard Burton’s Biography, A Strong Song Tows Us is referred to throughout as Burton.

[ii] I transcribed this from Peter Bell’s film, Basil Bunting: An introduction to the work of a poet (1982). He seems to say something after ‘David Jones’ but I can’t understand it.

[iii] The poem was written sometime in the 1920s but first published in 1930. As Niven explains, the letters cast doubt on the standard dating and chronology of some of the poems.

[iv] The description belongs to W.B. Yeats. He surprised Bunting by reciting one of Bunting’s poems from memory when they met.

[v] Poetry, Vol. 120, No. 6 (Sep. 1972), pp. 361-365 http://www.jstor.org/stable/20595781

[vi] Another transcription, this time from a talk Bunting gave in London, in Keats’ house, in 1979.  From ‘The Recordings of Basil Bunting’ with thanks to the late Richard Swigg who looked after ‘The Bunting tapes’.

[vii] Julian Stannard. Basil Bunting Writers and their work.  p.88

[viii] Consigning Bunting to the role of ‘Pound’s disciple’ is to misrepresent him as badly as Tom Pickard is misrepresented when his own excellent poetic output is ignored and he’s remembered simply as the boy who midwifed Briggflatts.

[ix]  Zukofsky’s response to this letter and whatever Pound had written that offended Bunting so much, can be read in Pound/Zukofsky Selected letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky ed Barry Ahearn.  

[x] Williams, Joanthan, ‘Some Jazz from the Bazz: The Bunting-Williams Letters’ in The Star you Steer By. Ed, McGonigal and Price.

[xi] For Hewett and a recent example of this problem of confusing poet and poem see the remarks in https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/apr/04/the-whole-canon-is-being-reappraised-how-the-metoo-movement-upended-australian-poetry

The epistolary Eliot

The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Volume 8: 1936-1938

T.S. Eliot, Valerie Eliot, John Haffenden (eds.), Faber & Faber, 2019, 1,100pp + li, illus., £50

The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Volume 9: 1939-1941

T.S. Eliot, Valerie Eliot, John Haffenden (eds.), Faber & Faber, 2021, 1,072pp + lxix, illus., £60

ALEXANDER ADAMS loses himself in a great litterateur’s letters

In the ongoing Faber & Faber publication of T.S. Eliot’s letters, the project has reached the late 1930s and the wartime years. These were years in which Eliot was involved in writing Four Quartets (1936-42), Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) and The Family Reunion (1939); this was in addition to his work as a director of Faber & Faber. Devotion played an important part in Eliot’s life, never less than in the dark years when his wife was confined to an asylum. The confinement was something for which Vivienne’s family were responsible and with which Eliot acquiesced, and that weighed on Eliot’s conscience. The punishing routine of work between early-morning prayer and late-night fire-watching during the Blitz seem at least in part a form of penance. Eliot’s engagement with the place of Christianity in a secular society is frequently the prompt for letters and solicitations for book reviews.  

These letters cover Eliot’s private life, professional correspondence and publishing business. We get his letters to James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Henry Miller, Djuna Barnes, Louis MacNeice, Lawrence Durrell, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Herbert Read and John Betjeman. Most are cordial and unrevealing. His long-standing correspondent Ezra Pound is ever present, mainly writing about publication matters. Eliot approves of a critical review of a collection of Pound essays, anticipating Pound’s reaction: ‘a furious letter, which I shall have to suppress in his own interest.’[i] In these volumes, Eliot seems wearied by Pound’s relentless passion, quixotic changes and prickliness.

A more regular correspondent was John Hayward, the brilliant and difficult English-literature scholar and editor, who would play a significant part in Eliot’s life. Hayward would become a housemate of Eliot’s in the 1940s and 1950s, an arrangement that lasted until Eliot’s second marriage. Hayward was assiduous in collecting letters, books and other Eliot material, which he later bequeathed to King’s College, Cambridge. In that case, Eliot was aware that his playful badinage was being preserved and would be read by others. Hayward consulted Eliot about bibliographical rarities and letters that appeared in booksellers’ catalogues.

Among numerous letters tactfully declining volumes of poetry by obscure writers and evading explaining ‘The Waste Land’, there are some more weighty letters. He declines publishing Céline’s anti-Semitic Bagatelles, while appreciating the inventiveness of the prose. An internal memorandum from Eliot to fellow Faber director Geoffrey Faber puts the case for publishing Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.

Lesbianism merely happens to be the variety of the dis-ease that Barnes knows the best, so it is through that form that she has to get at something universal (she has obviously a great deal of the male in her composition). […] And as for her style, it has what is for me the authentic evidence of power, in that I find myself having to struggle, directly after reading, not to ape it myself: and very few writers exercise that pull.[ii]

There are numerous letters displaying Eliot’s tireless support for poet George Barker. ‘[…] I believe in your genius, so far as one is ever justified in believing in genius except in retrospect, and I believe that it is genius if anything and not talent.’[iii]

There are flashes of wit and acerbic commentary. ‘[…] what horrifies me is that your young people should actually be set to study contemporary verse in qualification for the degree of B.A. They ought to be reading Aristophanes.’[iv] He includes general rules for poets. ‘Nobody ought to attempt free rhythms until he has served an apprenticeship in strict ones.’[v] Eliot states that poets must continually develop. Unlike a novelist, who can produce books that conform to a successful formula, a poet ought not to publish books too similar to previous ones, lest he bore his readership. His pragmatic business side took over when he recommended winding up the quarterly journal The Criterion, which he had edited for sixteen years. Facing a drop in subscriptions and the storm clouds of war, the journal was closed in 1939.

We get a few insights into Eliot’s verse writing during a period when he was moving to verse plays. He posted sections of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to the children of the family he stayed with in the countryside. Eliot never had children, and these children – and the children of his fellow director Geoffrey Faber – became his surrogate offspring. Enclosed is a pre-publication report from one reader of the manuscript of Practical Cats, damning it as ‘Personally, I find them pretentious, and cannot recommend publication.’[vi] There are mentions of visits to Little Gidding, East Coker and Burnt Norton, but these are arrangements rather than reflections. Even if he enclosed verses and composed nonsense verse to amuse recipients, Eliot was not given to poetic flights in his letters.

By and large, politics and current events go undiscussed in Volume 8. The abdication is mentioned but the events in central Europe cause barely a ripple in the volume. During the war, Eliot lived a peripatetic lifestyle, staying with Geoffrey and Enid Faber and others. He often travelled by train and bus, laden down by manuscripts and reference books, as he worked on the last of the Four Quartets. He joined the A.R.P. as a fire warden, seeing relatively little action in his allotted sector. We encounter little description of the impact of the Blitz, outside of the ways in which it disconcerted people and disrupted daily life.

The introduction of Volume 9 approaches discussion of the poet’s anti-Semitism. While it is true that Eliot published poems with disagreeable portrayals of Jewish characters and wrote in 1934 ‘reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable’, Eliot was solicitous of the safety of Jews he knew personally. The volumes contain many letters of recommendation supporting the candidacies of Jews (including refugees) for employment positions. He also was unable to allow Pound’s anti-Semitic screeds being included in Faber’s editions of the Cantos. Eliot preferred for Pound to rewrite the parts but Pound made a point of leaving the censorship apparent. The intensity of Jewish condemnation of Eliot seems to be due to the potency and prominence of his negative depictions of Jews. Eliot’s dislike of Jewish material success and cultural influence seemed a strong instinctive aversion rather than malevolence.   

We get a few retrospective glimpses of the poet in earlier years. Eliot wrote to his brother Henry of his early life in London:

I was of course too much engrossed in the horrors of my private life to notice much outside; and I was suffering from (1) a feeling of guilt in having married a woman I detested, and consequently a feeling that I must put up with anything (2) perpetually being told, in the most plausible way, that I was a clodhopper and a dunce. Gradually, through making friends, I came to find that English people of the sort that I found congenial were prepared to take me quite as an ordinary human being, and that I had merely married into a rather common suburban family with a streak of abnormality which in the case of my wife had reached the point of liking to give people pain.[viii]

He goes on to comment that the only blasphemous poem that he ever wrote was ‘The Hollow Men’. ‘[…] this is blasphemy because it is despair, it stands for the lowest point I ever reached in my sordid domestic affairs.’[ix]

The shadow of Vivienne’s instability looms large in Volume 8. Eliot apologises to Henry for her sending a Christmas card from her and her husband. He notes that (even though long separated) she has put his residence as hers, in the telephone directory.[x] Her letters are included here. She wrote to the Faber office about her husband’s health and offered herself as an illustrator for one of his poems. Her communications are odd and inappropriate, mainly. Sometimes there are glimpses of darker thoughts, such as when she announces to a Faber employee that she is being followed. 

Printed in full is a letter from Vivienne’s brother, dated 14 July 1938.

V. had apparently been wandering about for two nights, afraid to go anywhere. She is full of the most fantastic suspicions & ideas. She asked me if it was true that you had been beheaded. She says she has been in hiding from various mysterious people, & so on. It would be deplorable if she were again to be found wandering in the early hours & taken into custody.[xi]

As a result of a pattern of alarming behaviour, Vivienne was committed to a secure residential home, Northumberland House. Eliot did his best to punctiliously sort out her financial and legal affairs, as discretely as possible. Even though he did not visit her – such an encounter would have been too distressing and destabilising – Vivienne was never too far from Eliot’s conscience.

This review is written in the shadow of the impending publication of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale (on 1 June 2023, by Faber & Faber), which seems set to be a publishing sensation. That collection of 1,131 letters was deposited by Hale at Princeton University and was only unsealed on 2 January 2020. That book promises to show the most intimate side of Eliot, that which was so carefully hidden by the poet. It was during the late 1930s, while Eliot was living in London and Hale was teaching in Massachusetts, that they corresponded most often. In a rather defensive statement of 1960, Eliot wrote of the difficulty of marriage for him as a poet. After explaining that his marriage to the unstable Vivienne would inevitably seem inexplicable, he conceded that the tensions of an unhappy marriage provided inspiration for poetry.

Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Viviennene nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive. In retrospect, the nightmare agony of my seventeen years with Viviennene seems to me preferable to the dull misery of the mediocre teacher of philosophy which would have been the alternative.

He went on the state that Hale did not understand or love his poetry, even though it seems they discussed his poetry at length and that ‘Burnt Norton’ (1936) of Four Quartets was written as a coded love poem to her. It should be noted that when Eliot wrote this statement he was defending his decision to marry his second wife, Valerie, and aiming to downplay his commitment to Hale and hers to him. Hale does appear indirectly in the letters in Volume 8. She visited Eliot in England and there are comments from him about her arrival, departure and activities during her time with him. In his statement of 1960, Eliot affirmed that he had never had sexual relations with Hale.

The publication of this separate volume will be significant in its revelations about the life and ideas of a great poet, showing him at his most unguarded. The ethics of publishing such letters is redundant. As the letters were deposited at Princeton University and due to be the subject of study, it is the correct decision to publish them in full, annotated, rather than allowing salacious snippets from circulating out of context.

The preceding review does not do full justice to the pleasure of having to hand such first-hand testimony of such a major figure. Being presented with such a huge body of letters – not even all of them, apparently – is a sort of treasure store, one unavailable for most cultural figures. One is impressed at Eliot’s indefatigable diligence; writing to colleagues and strangers, editing, reading, publishing, serving his church, not to mention finding time for his own writing, Eliot’s work rate is formidable.

We get an understanding of Eliot the man – driven by a moral core of Christianity, passionate about culture (especially literature), a loving godfather, cautious in his romantic attachments. Being such a prominent figure – author, publisher, cultural commentator, public intellectual – Eliot knew that his most private and informal communications would be bought, sold and scrutinised. Although Eliot bore the burden relatively lightly, there remains the suspicion that Eliot was curbing his most cutting comments for the sake of his posthumous legacy.   

The editing is exemplary. I spotted only one error (in footnote numbering, on p. 626) in over 2,000 pages. There are notes on recipients, context provided and often extensive quotes. These quotes are of letters that Eliot was replying to or extracts of books and journals. The editors have dug through archives of journals and newspapers and long-forgotten books. Letter text not in English is translated and many passing references tracked down. The only failing is omitting to indicate the place of writing. That sort of information seems more pertinent than the location of the letter manuscript. Unfortunately, this seems Faber policy regarding letter publication, so there seems no hope of the publisher revising its practice. Great care has been taken in the printing and binding. This series provides an unparalleled view of multiple aspects of the greatest poet in the English language of the Modernist era and gives us a glimpse of history as it was being made.

[i] Vol. 8, p. 585

[ii] Vol. 8, pp. 151-2

[iii] Vol. 8, p. 665

[iv] Vol. 8, p. 83

[v] Vol. 8, p. 676

[vi] Vol. 8, p. 871

[vii] Vol. 9, pp. 517-8

[viii] Vol. 8, P. 10

[ix] Vol. 8, P. 11

[x] Vol. 8, P. 52

[xi] Vol. 8, p. 91

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