Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear: Their Letters, 1909-1914

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Any reader even peripherally interested in the work and life of Ezra Pound will take delight in Omar Pound and A. Walton Litz's masterful selection and editing of Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear: Their Letters, 1909-1914. To hear the authentic voices of the letters is to meet again but anew the youthful Pound. The facts of Pound's growth as an artist and critic during these years are not altered, but a new perception of the inner workings of his mind and personality is gained. More important, the volume serves as a concise but fully detailed picture of the social and cultural life of late Edwardian and early Georgian England, an era unknowingly on the brink of irrevocable destruction within a year of the end of this chronicle.

In contrast to the manner in which the structures and conventions of late Edwardian and early Georgian society hindered Pound's courtship with Dorothy Shakespear, the existence in London of serious reviews, of clubs and societies, of bookshops and small publishers, of well-attended artistic salons such as Olivia Shakespear's worked as an advantage for a newly arrived but promising young poet such as Pound. The key to opening all of these doors was William Butler Yeats, and the key to Yeats was Olivia Shakespear. Within a year of arriving in London, Pound found his way to her literary salon, where he read Yeats's poetry aloud in what Dorothy describes as a “strong, odd, accent, half American, half Irish,” even imitating Yeats's own intonations. Pound praised Yeats's verse and spoke of the great mystical experience he expected to have and of his willingness to starve for Art and Truth. A blatant ploy, but one which worked. Of his own early poems, those which he read to Dorothy and her mother were full of early Yeatsian tone, theme, subject matter, and archaic diction, in marked contrast to the poetic standards he argued with William Carlos Williams and Harriet Monroe, back in America, and even less advanced than his own efforts in Personae and Exultations (both 1909). His ruse worked; as Olivia and Dorothy showed more and more of Pound's work to Yeats, the more entrenched Pound became in London's literary circles. By January of 1913, Pound reports that Yeats said, “[Pound's] criticism was much more valuable than Sturge Moore's: I should hope so!!!” That winter of 1913-1914, Pound was living with Yeats at Stone Cottage, where he nominally served as the great poet's secretary. Already he believed that Yeats had more to learn from him than he from Yeats.

The most fruitful work to come from the Stone Cottage sessions resulted from the vogue for things Oriental that was sweeping Europe during those pre-World War I years. The most specific influence came from Ernest Fenollosa's manuscripts of Chinese poetry and Nō dramas, of which Mrs. Fenollosa made Pound the literary executor in December, 1913. The manuscripts’ emphasis on verbal spareness that relied on the strength of the image to carry meaning influenced Yeats's poetry, his plays, and his critical theory. For Pound, the manuscripts led directly to his concept of Imagism and Des Imagistes, an anthology which he edited in 1914.

During these years, Pound also had been lecturing for money, publishing poetry and criticism in important English journals, publishing yearly books, and serving as European editor for Harriet Monroe's Chicago-based Poetry. He was attracting increasingly important reviews, the most important of which the editors of this volume have reproduced. It was also during this period that Pound became involved with the avant-garde writer and artist Wyndham Lewis and the modernist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, whom both Pound and Olivia Shakespear encouraged by their purchases. The editors have enriched the letters with reproductions of a number of these Gaudier-Brzeska pieces.

Two other stages of Pound's development emphasized by this collection relate to his poetic theories and ideas. The first is his idea of how artistic...
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