Inventing Modernism


Chapter 30
"Inventing Modernism"
[Phịa ra Chủ Nghĩa Hiện Đại]
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was born into a wealthy family related to America's cultural elite. He grew up in St Louis where his father was chief executive of a brick company. A shy, nervous child, he suffered from a congenital double inguinal hernia, wore a truss, and missed out on sports and physical exercise. As a boy he read Wild West stories and wrote poetry influenced by Edward FitzGerald's popular "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam". He seemed and unlikely person to change poetry worldwide.
Financed by his father, he pursued postgraduate study, after
Harvard, in Paris, Germany and Italy, returned to Harvard to work
on Indian philosophy and Sanskrit, then moved to Oxford in 1914
to write a philosophical thesis about appearance and reality.
In London he met Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf and other
Bloomsbury Group members, and, in 1915, married Vivienne
Haigh-Wood, partly to give himself an excuse for not returning to
America. It was a disaster. She suffered from various physical and
mental problems, and they lived increasingly apart. He later told his friend John Hayward that he had never known sexual pleasure with a woman. They separated in 1933 and she was admitted to a mental hospital in 1938. Eliot never visited her and she died in 1947.
Meanwhile in 1917 he became a British citizen (there was, he told
a friend, 'not much worth preserving' in America), and secured a
post in Lloyds Bank, working on foreign accounts. In 1925 he
became a director of publishers Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and
Faber), and in 1927 he converted to the Church of England (he had
been brought up among Unitarians, that is Christians who believe
that Jesus was a man, not God incarnate). His secretary at Faber and
Faber after the war was Valerie Fletcher and they married in 1957.
Of Eliot's longer poems two, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
and "Portrait of a Lady" were written before he came to England. He sent the typescript of "The Waste Land" to Pound, who made several alterations before it was published in 1922. "The Hollow Men" appeared in 1925, and "Ash Wednesday", the first poem written after his conversion, in 1930. "Four Quartets", also religious in theme, are meditations on time and timelessness. "Burnt Norton" came out in 1936, "East Coker" in 1940, "The Dry Salvages" in 1941 and "Little Gidding", which refers to Eliot's service as an Air Raid Warden in the London Blitz, in 1942.
Back in 1908 Eliot had read "The Symbolist Movement in Literature" by the English poet Arthur Symons (1865-1945), which has a chapter on the little-known poet Jules Laforgue (1860-1887). It was Laforgue, Eliot said, who taught him that his own experience
as an adolescent in an industrial city in America could be material
for poetry. Poetic props such as paper roses and geraniums tend to
occur in Eliot because they occur in Laforgue.
That is typical of Eliot's poetry. He was a kleptomaniac of other
poets' phrases and admits as much at the end of The Waste Land:
'These fragments I have shored against my ruins'. In his critical
essays the best bits are often the quotations. His poem Journey of
the Magi (written, he said, after church one Sunday morning 'with
the assistance of' half a bottle of gin), builds on a chance phrase
he had noticed in a sermon by a seventeenth-century preacher,
Lancelot Andrewes.
Eliot is known as a 'difficult' poet. In fact he is not. His ear for
linguistic resonance and genius for evocative phrases give immediate pleasure. The 'meaning' of his poems matters less. Asking who Prufrock is visiting, or who the Lady is in "Portrait", is pointless, because Eliot has withheld this information. Instead he depicts states of feeling, ranging from rapture (`The awful daring of a moment's surrender') to awkwardness and embarrassment, as when the speaker in Portrait is so rattled by the Lady's woeful
reproaches that he wants to stop having human feelings — 'cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape'. You can read these poems as novellas with most of the humdrum stuff left out but with feelings left in.
"The Waste Land" is different only because of its abrupt changes of
speaker, location and time.
Eliot wrote of John Donne, 'A thought to Donne was an experience. It modified his sensibility: Ordinary people, he explained, might be in love, smell cooking, and hear a typewriter, and the three things would not connect. But 'in the mind of the poet those experiences are always forming new wholes': 'New wholes' are what Eliot writes. Thought combines with emotion and sensation — touch, sight, hearing — to create lines like 'I will show you fear in a handful of dust', or 'I have measured out my life with coffee spoons', or 'Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair', or 'April is the cruellest month', or 'White light folded, sheathed about her, folded', or 'Not with a bang but a whimper':
He is a master of succinct scene-setting — 'sawdust restaurants
with oyster-shells', for example, or 'They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens', or 'Scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog', or 'the torchlight red on sweaty faces', or 'the silken girls bringing sherbet', or 'Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning', or 'Out at sea the dawn wind / Wrinkles and slides:
In "The Waste Land" even the briefest phrase can mirror the
themes of the whole poem. 'Trams and dusty trees', for example,
combines aridity and the contrast between mechanized life (the
typist with her 'automatic hand') and nature.
For Eliot the poem had more personal origins. Speaking of his
first marriage, he said it brought no happiness to Vivienne, and to
him 'it brought the state of mind out of which came "The Waste
Land"': It is partly a poem about sexual failure, from the girls
deserted by 'the loitering heirs of city directors', to Lill and Albert
and the pills Lill took `to bring it off'.
It can also be read as a meditation on humanity's need for beliefs
— from the vegetation myths, referred to in Eliot's notes, to the
Buddha's Fire Sermon and the Christian mystery:
where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.
Ezra Pound (1885-1972) came from a humbler background
than Eliot. Born in provincial Idaho (he never lost his Idaho
accent), he studied Provencal, Old English and Dante at Hamilton
College, New-York, and resolved that at thirty he would know more
about poetry than any man living. He signed on for a PhD at the
University of Pennsylvania, but left without finishing. Sacked from
an Indiana teaching job, he sailed for Europe in 1908, settling in
His early poetry imitated the fake medievalism of Pre-Raphaelites
like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). So despite his eagerness
to be modern, and his watchword, 'Make it new he seemed out of
date. The inaccuracy of his translations ("The Wanderer and The
Seafarer" from Old English; the Latin of Propertius in "Homage to
Sextus Propertius") also attracted criticism. But he made many
friends in London, including Eliot, and in 1914 married Dorothy
Shakespear, the daughter of Yeats's lover Olivia.
"Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" (1920), a semi-autobiographical poem in eighteen short parts, marked a turning point in his life. It
records his struggle to wring 'lilies from the acorn' in a 'half-savage
country': and to revive the 'dead art' of poetry. 'Out of key with his
time': he feels sterile and meaningless, and denounces commercialism and materialism, personified by the successful novelist Arnold Bennett (`Mr Nixon') in 'the cream-gilded cabin of his steam-yacht':
The poem also laments the carnage of the First World War, in
which several of Pound's friends died, including the sculptor Henri
Gaudier-Brzeska. By comparison, the culture he has lived for
seems worthless:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.
The poem was Pound's farewell to London. In 1921 he moved
with Dorothy to Paris where he made friends among Dadaists
and Surrealists and with the Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting
(1900-1985), author of the long autobiographical poem, "Briggflatts" (1966). He also began an affair with the concert violinist Olga Rudge. Their child, Mary, was given to peasant woman to bring up. In 1924 the Pounds moved to Rapallo, in Italy, where their son Omar was born. He, too, was given away to be reared by Dorothy's mother.
In Italy Pound began work on his long, formless, unfinished
poem, the "Cantos", in which he expounded his ideas about
economics. He wanted a fairer distribution of wealth, and hated
capitalism because it was not truly productive. It just made money
out of money, and he wanted to replace money with a currency that could not be hoarded, such as vegetables or natural fabrics. He favoured a system called Social Credit devised by a Scot, Major
C.H. Douglas. It would have to be imposed by the state, he realized,
and this led him to Fascism.
He met Mussolini in 1933 (recorded in Canto 41) and admired
him because he believed he would get things done. He hoped, too, that Hitler's Third Reich would be the natural civilize of Russia.
Blaming the First World War on usury and international capitalism, he became virulently anti-Semitic in the 1930s. During
the Second World War he was paid by the Italian government to
make hundreds of broadcasts on Rome Radio criticizing America
and Jews.
Arrested by American forces in 1945, he spent three months in
a military camp in Pisa and for some weeks was in an outdoor, 6
foot by 6 foot steel cage, floodlit at night. He suffered a breakdown, recorded in Canto 80. The start of Canto 84 was written on toilet paper while in the cage. The 'Pisan Cantos', 74-84, recall his years in London and Paris and the writers he met, including Yeats.
After his arrest he continued to insist that Hitler was a saint,
comparing him to Joan of Arc. Charged with treason, he was
judged unfit to stand trial and taken to St Elizabeth's mental
hospitals Washington DC, where he wrote Cantos 85-95 ('Section:
Rock Drill') and Cantos 96-109 ('Thrones'). Eliot, among others,
visited him there. Released in 1958 as incurably insane, he gave the
Nazi salute as he left.
By and large the Cantos become less poetic as they go on. An
early high-spot, in Canto 2, adapts a story from Ovid about
Bacchus rescuing a boy from pirates and turning their ship into a
magical vine-grove where leopards and panthers roam. Cantos 14
and 15 present a vision of hell populated by bankers, newspaper
editors and other villains, from which Pound is liberated by
William Blake. Canto 21 explains Social Credit, and Canto 45 - a
key canto, Pound said - is a litany against usury ('Usura'), claiming
that it destroys art, people and the produce of the earth.
Less immediately appealing are Cantos 52-61, which are based
on a twelve-volume history of China by an eighteenth-century
French Jesuit. Pound favoured China because he believed it had
not allowed usury. Confucius is one of his heroes because Pound
regarded him as the figurehead of an orderly, well-governed state,
like Mussolini. Cantos 62-71 ('The Adams Cantos') have frequent
citations from the writings of John Adams, the Enlightenment
lawyer and American president, another hero. Anti-Semitism is
mostly limited to Cantos 35,50 and 52, the last of which contains
a virulent attack on the Rothschild family. Cantos 72-3 are in
Italian, imitating Dante, and were originally published in Fascist
magazines as wartime propaganda.
Some critics, among them Robert Graves, have dismissed the
"Cantos" with contempt. But they have proved important for the Beat Generation poets, especially Gary Snyder (b.1930) and Allen
Ginsberg (1926-1997).


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