Ezra Pound, his metric and poetry by T S Eliot


This is a selection from a pamphlet which illustrates the relationship between the poets T S Eliot and Ezra Pound. The frontispiece is a drawing of Pound by the artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891–1915). Pound had commissioned a portrait sculpture from Gaudier-Brzeska in 1914. When he was killed in the Great War the next year, Pound wrote a book about him.

How did Eliot and Pound meet?

Eliot moved to England in 1914 in order to study philosophy at Oxford. A mutual friend, Conrad Aiken, showed Eliot's poems to Pound in manuscript, and they met in late September. Pound sent a letter to the American editor at Poetry magazine Harriet Monroe (1860–1936), exclaiming that Eliot had ‘actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own’. According to Eliot’s 1959 Paris Review interview, Eliot initially thought Pound’s work 'touchingly incompetent', but later changed his mind:

It seemed to me rather fancy, old-fashioned, romantic … cloak-and-dagger kind of stuff … though I now regard the work I saw then as very accomplished, I am certain that in his later work is to be found the grand stuff.

Why does the pamphlet not feature Eliot’s name?

Various reasons have been suggested for Eliot keeping his name off the book. One is genuine humility at being an unknown figure. Another is that Eliot didn’t want to be seen as merely repaying Pound for a 1917 article he had written about him in the Egoist.

Eliot begins by claiming that though Pound’s name has become well-known, ‘there are twenty people who have their opinions of him for every one who has read his writings with any care’. Eliot makes it clear that the pamphlet is not meant

to be either a biographical or a critical study. It will not dilate upon “beauties”; it is a summary account of ten years' work in poetry. The citations from reviews will perhaps stimulate the reader to form his own opinion. We do not wish to form it for him.

As promised, Eliot gives a biographical sketch of ten years of Pound’s life, taking in the move from America to Europe, the publication of the first book in Venice, the arrival in London, and the full range of responses it received in the press. He explains away many of these criticisms by admitting that

Pound is not one of those poets who make no demands of the reader; and the casual reader of verse, disconcerted by the difference between Pound's poetry and that on which his taste has been trained, attributes his own difficulties to excessive scholarship on the part of the author. … But to display knowledge is not the same thing as to expect it on the part of the reader; and of this sort of pedantry Pound is quite free. He is, it is true, one of the most learned of poets.’

What does Eliot mean by ‘metric’?

By the ‘metric’ in his title, Eliot means the rhythmical patterns of verse used in Pound’s poetry. Indeed, he pays the kind of attention to craft we might expect from a fellow poet, arguing that ‘Pound's verse is always definite and concrete, because he has always a definite emotion behind it’, and ‘the “Seafarer” is the only successful piece of alliterative verse ever written in modern English’.

Eliot also takes on the very contemporary subject of vers libre – the French term for poetry functioning outside of traditional constraints. Pound’s use of it, he argues, ‘is such as is only possible for a poet who has worked tirelessly with rigid forms and different systems of metric’.

Eliot ends by attempting to rule out any disagreement, saying that the reader needs to work through Pound’s earliest work to his most recent, The Cantos. If the reader does not like these, according to Eliot, ‘he has probably omitted some step in his progress, and had better go back and retrace the journey’.

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Full title:
Ezra Pound, his metric and poetry
1917, New York, US
A A Knopf
Book / Illustration / Image
T S Eliot, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
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T S Eliot: © Estate of T. S. Eliot. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska: This material is in the Public Domain.

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British Library

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