Ezra Pound Vorticism and James Joyce's a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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A Critical Review on an extract from Ezra Pound’s essay ‘Vorticism’ and its correlation to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

When reading Pound’s essay ‘Vorticism’, it is clear that he was trying to emphasise the originality of the source from which forms of art came to an ‘artist’ who embodied vorticism in all it’s splendour. Joyce’s self-portraiture style novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, envisages ideas of vorticism throughout, which can be confirmed, perhaps, by Pound’s attempt at his own self-portraiture in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, which Richard Ellman writes; “Many of the difficulties of Pound’s own attempt at self-portraiture in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley a few years later come from his desire to achieve Joyce’s variety of tone”[1]. One could also see the link from Pound stating, “Vorticism is art before it has spread itself into flaccidity, into elaboration and secondary applications”[2], and the way in which Joyce writes A Portrait. The alien layout of this piece of prose and the lack of speech marks with dialogue are but a few things which make this work such a difficult read, especially if one is expecting a novel when reading it. To appreciate and accept A Portrait in its finest and truest form, one must read it as a piece of art, rather than just a piece of literature. As Pound said, A Portrait is that piece of art before it has spread into flaccidity; it is the psychological and empirical thoughts, written straight onto a blank literary and artistic canvas.

In the essay, Pound mentions something which juxtaposes a quote from Joyce’s A Portrait, mentioning a small child going to an electric light switch, “ ‘Mamma, can I open the light?’ She was using the age-old language of exploration, the language of art.”[3] This juxtaposes what Dedalus says in Joyce’s novel; “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.”[4] This extract is towards the end of the novel, when Dedalus has grown into a young man, and the child like innocence mentioned by Pound is lost upon Dedalus by his age, so perhaps the only way to still maintain the language of art, is to be silent, as he felt that, “The language which I am speaking is his before it is mine.”[5] This shows the rejection Dedalus puts upon something which is not intrinsic to him, it is a foreign tongue. Wyndham Lewis once said vorticism "is at his maximum point of energy when stillest.”[6] This meaning that the “vortex was a still point in time and space”[7], Joyce’s A Portrait does this by creating images throughout Dedalus’ life, it is like snapshots or portraits of his progression through life, that we as the reader, have to read between the lines and fill in any blanks missing through the first person psychological narratives, and this filling in the blanks, was a popular technique of modernist writers.

The whole purpose of Pound’s essay ‘Vorticism’ is to emphasise the empirical, the natural and the importance of something brand new. He claimed that since writing came about, there have been bad writers using images as ornaments, but the point of Imagism “is that it does not use images as ornaments. The image is itself the speech. The image is the word beyond the formulated language.”[8] Joyce does this to an almost perfection. The language used by Joyce in A Portrait is almost poetic rather than standard prose and to quote Pound, that “All poetic language is the language of exploration”[9], then Joyce’s novel is not simply a novel, but a body of text that explores all boundaries that were previously not crossed in prose literature. This poetic exploration is incorporated into the diary-like entry at the end of A Portrait, in the entry from the fifth of April; “swirling bogwater on which apple-trees have cast down their delicate flowers.”[10] This poetic section embodies Pound’s idea of the...
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