Making It New

The Short Sharp Life of T.E. Hulme

by Robert Ferguson
London: Allen Lane, 314 pp., £20.00


One of the mysteries of the Modernist movement in literature, especially during its experimental heyday in the first decades of the last century, is how few Englishmen were involved. Nearly all the dominant figures writing in English were either American or Irish—Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Joyce, Stevens, Marianne Moore—and even a generation later, a master technician like Auden at his innovative, nervy peak was never Modernist and experimental in a way that came naturally to Beckett. The line of English verse in the twentieth century runs directly from the Victorians, via Hardy and Housman, to Larkin and Hughes, almost as if Modernism had never happened.

With hindsight, it seems obvious that American poets needed to experiment in order to break free. When Ezra Pound talked about making it new he meant, among other things, creating a poetic language that could adapt itself to American vernacular rhythms, a language not bound by Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and unconstrained by a tradition that stretched back to Chaucer. The tradition Pound laid claim to began with Dante and the troubadours, bypassed Chaucer, and included Fenellosa’s ideograms, as though writing with an American accent meant being free to pick and choose from world literature.

Pound, of course, loved to parade his learning, especially in Edwardian London where he was greeted, at first, as a hick from Idaho. (Robert Graves accused him of getting his ideograms from the sides of tea chests.) But showmanship aside, Pound’s brand of eclectic cosmopolitanism was a great source of creative energy. His early poems were conventionally lush—two of them were later included in the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, where they seem not at all out of place—he became a Modernist by modeling himself on Gautier and Laforgue, and translating the Latin of Propertius. Similarly, Eliot made his home in England but found his style, he said, across the Channel: “The kind of poetry that I needed, to teach me the use of my own voice, did not exist in English at all; it was only to be found in French.” Having discovered his own voice, Eliot then went on to apply what he had learned to English literature, which he reinterpreted from a Continental perspective, notably in his brilliant and influential essay on “The Metaphysical Poets,” in which he praised Donne and his followers for qualities he admired in Laforgue and Corbière.

What the French had to offer, in practical terms, was vers libre. Technically, vers libre was an escape from the tyranny of traditional forms—from the classical French alexandrine and the English iambic pentameter. But free verse in the technical sense mattered less than freedom itself. Like all new movements in the arts, Modernism was driven by the urge to pull down the old order and start afresh, and in the first decade of the twentieth century the old order meant late, decadent Romanticism. There was no better antidote to the hypnotic chanting of poets like Swinburne than the casual and ironic vers libre of the new French…

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