Modern Poetry

THREE vices of contemporary poetry (all with certain strong exceptions in his favor) appear in D. H. Lawrence’sLast Poems (Viking Press, $3.00): the dissolution of metric, the mawkish saturation of the subject with the personal temperament of the author, and the exaggerated and puerile valuation of the sexual impulse and its literary expression.
Mr. Richard Aldington, editing these Last Poems from manuscript, divides the volume in two sections. The second is entitled ‘More Pansies’ from the resemblance of the contents to Lawrence’s previous volume, Pansies. Here is an example, chastely printed on a page by itself: —
The only way to settle the property question is to cease to be interested in it; to be so interested in something else that the property problem solves itself by the way.
Confronted with this, presumably as a poem, one can only make a gesture, symbolic of the pure egregiousness which modern wits can swallow with a straight face.
The truth is that many of the items, even in ‘The Ship of Death,’ the first and greatly superior section of the book, are not poems at all, but pensées which approach poetry to the extent that they become definitely rhythmical or take on an imaginative or figurative coloring in expression. Some of the most interesting of these pensees have to do with Lawrence’s conception of evil as whatever deadens or mechanizes the strong and unimpeded vitality he approves of. To this antirationalistic and anti-industrial conception Lawrence struggles with ingenuous simplicity to give expression. He has an odd air of talking down at times, but apparently not so much to the reader as to himself. It seems to be the level of his own understanding that he is trying so hard to reach. But suggestions of the febrile and the hectic hover over his efforts to rationalize and reduce to ABC the self-assured vitality which he regards as good, and which blows through Walt Whitman like a thoughtless, gusty breath. The merit of Last Poems is pretty much just the merit that Matthew Arnold granted modern poets to their disparagement: not the treatment of ‘an excellent action,’ a great subject, with success, but rather ‘happy single expressions which one could quote.’
If any poet of the three here discussed has fixed on ‘an excellent action’ for his theme, has endowed it with admirable passages yet kept the expression subordinate to the subject, and so produced a conception fine in itself and successfully treated as a whole, it is Leonard Bacon in The Furioso (Harpers, $2.50). The theme is the life of an exceptionally gifted man, the Italian poet D’Annunzio, and that blank, tragic question why a life so gifted should in the end have failed in some way to realize its high possibilities. So Mr. Bacon conceives the theme, and so he carries it out through the dawn of literary fervor in the mind of a boy, through ambition, vanity, self-questioning, and pure caddishness in the man, through the love affair with Eleonora Duse, through the war and the inflated heats of patriotism, through the debacle of the Finnic adventure. In previous volumes Mr. Bacon has grounded himself in the tradition of form which he again employs in The Furioso. It is a form adopted from the Italian, yet it is the stanza which has given to modern English its preeminent epic: Don Juan. To write in the manner of Don Juan means to write with wit and with cynicism, but does not preclude seriousness or the tragic sense. It means to divagate, to indulge in comics, in fantastic rhymes; but it means on occasion to be eloquent, to be nobly stirred and vigorously stirring; it means to make amusing apothegms and shrewd summations of human experience. Finally, despite digressions, facetiousness, and pranks, it means to be rapid, energetic, and direct in narration, and to spread the large conception open and living to the reader’s eye. All these things Mr. Bacon does, and does them well. But he is not Byron. The divagations are too frequent and too prolonged; the wit does not always crackle; above all, Mr. Bacon allows himself too great metrical laxity. None the less, The Furioso is sound at points where most modern poetry is ailing; it should be respected and welcomed.
Ezra Pound’sA Draft of XXX Cantos (Farrar & Rinehart, $2.50) is a difficult work to discuss. Ezra Pound is much more naturally endowed for poetry than the writers already reviewed. He is saturated with literature and history, a man of erudition, yet abounding in life, in quick and hearty perceptions, and a versatile appetite for all sorts of experience. In his first books he showed himself remarkably expert in metric. Some of his lyrics, whether regarded as adaptations from other literatures or as essentially his own creations, cannot be resisted; the reader responds to them with an inner leap of pleasure and delighted assent. If Pound, as by many accounts, is the fountainhead of the Imagist movement, he will have much to answer for at the bar of eternity. But no question exists that he is surpassingly endowed for poetry. The question is whether his thirty cantos are the culmination of a brilliant growth or an eccentric departure from the path taken twenty-five years ago when he printed his first book in Venice.
It would be difficult with any confidence even to state the subject of some of the cantos. We begin clearly enough with a part of the eleventh book of the Odyssey —Ulysses among the dead, consulting the shade of the old Theban prophet, Teiresias. Then, after some hocuspocus about Browning (with whom, as Eliot has noticed, Pound has marked affinities), we are told, by way of Ovid, of the adventure of Acœtes, who described to King Pentheus how the ship in which he was voyaging stood stock-still in the ocean currents, enchanted by Bacchus, while vines ascended the masts and the mariners were transformed to dolphins: —
God-sleight then, god-sleight:
Ship stock fast in sea-swirl,
Ivy upon the oars, King Pentheus, . . .
Lynx-purr, and heathery smell of beasts,
where tar smell had been,
Sniff and pad-foot of beasts,
eye-glitter out of black air.
After this, the Cantos become a welter of allusions and stories from the classics, from the Orient, from the Renaissance, from Northern, from Mediterranean, from mediæval, from modern history and culture, from Chicago, from the Western Front; and all this material intermixed and expressed with every possible idiosyncrasy of form and manner. Half a dozen languages are played with; a Greek-English pun is tossed in; smoking-room stories are told.
For most readers the difficulties of the work will prove insurmountable. It is not merely the wealth of allusions, often recondite; allusions crowd the pages of Milton, and bring no reproach to him. But allusions in large degree can be self-illuminating. Mr. Pound is so far from concerned to give any aid of this sort that he does not supply even common connections of thought which would once have been regarded as part of the normal office of rhetoric. Those who are fascinated by obscurity, by reflections in art of what they feel to be the moral and intellectual dislocations of the times, will hail this work whether they understand one tenth of it or not. Others will believe that gifts that might have furnished modern English with a truly great epic poem have been spent on idle perplexities.