Eliot’s pal, Ezra Pound: cabal criticism “sold the wares.”
“Reflections on Vers Libre,” the very short essay, published in the middle of WW I and the Russian revolution, when Eliot was still an unknown writer in his late twenties, appeared in the New Statesman, founded just a few years earlier by a couple of socialist aristocrats. If you think a socialist aristocrat sounds like an oxymoron, you probably don’t know the kinds of circles Eliot and Pound were moving in at this time, and you probably aren’t sophisticated enough to detect the trick Eliot played on his readers as he apparently dismissed free verse—another oxymoron?
Pound and Eliot weren’t revolutionaries, they were gangsters, and they were moving deeply into cheap merchandise (modern poetry) because they thought it was a good way to enrich themselves. It was working with modern art; Eliot and Pound’s lawyer (and art collector), the Irishman John Quinn, (Golden Dawn, British Intelligence) was making a killing in modern art, and Quinn would help the boys strike a multi-level publishing deal with Eliot’s Waste Land—before Pound had even finished the edits.
“Reflections on Vers Libre” is one of the top ten documents of Modernism, and famous for it’s closing line, “there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”
What was good verse?
That was easy.
It was what Eliot, Pound, and their associates were writing.
Bad verse was Romanticism and Pope and Poe and Shakespeare, the old order which was about to topple.
And chaos? Pound and Eliot’s friend: War, racism, and social instability—so that good and bad could be turned upside down. 1914–1945 would not be a pretty time in Europe, but when the smoke cleared, two men would be canonized in world literature forever, and “chaos” was the factor which made bad verse seem good. Eliot’s powers of persuasion didn’t hurt, either.
We usually don’t like it when someone publishes opinion anonymously, but there’s another dubious practice which may be worse: when we write essays as ourselves but present persons as real—who do not really exist. Keep in mind Eliot’s piece appeared during a time when young men were being slaughtered in a war, a Communist revolution was shaking the world, and women were fighting for the right to vote; he introduces us to “a lady” of obvious leisure and sophistication who he quotes as saying, “Since the Russians came in I can read nothing else. I have finished Dostoevksi, and I do not know what to do.” The poor “lady” does not know what to do. Eliot rolls his eyes at the “lady” as he unsuccessfully points out to her that Dostoevski is a mere sentimentalist, like Dickens, and then adds, “she could no longer read any verse but vers libre.” And we are off to the races:
It is assumed vers libre exists. It is assumed that vers libre is a school, that it consists of certain theories; that it group or groups of theorists will either revolutionize or demoralize poetry if their attack upon the iambic pentameter meets with any success. Vers libre does not exist, and it is time that this preposterous fiction followed the elan vital and the eighty thousand Russians into oblivion.
Pound’s school, Imagism, does exist, however, for not only does Eliot respectfully mention this school in his essay, he copies one of its founder’s poems (T.E. Hulme’s) to show the excellence of vers libre—which Eliot says does not exist. Yea, we’ll get this eventually.
T.E. Hulme, one of the original Imagists, will die in WW I, months after Eliot’s essay sees print. Eliot’s other “contemporary” samples proffered in this essay are by Pound, and Pound’s American friend, H.D. Eliot doesn’t name these “contemporary” writers in his essay, for it must have been a little embarrassing that the great modernist revolution in poetry was being fought with a sheaf of mediocre poems composed by a tiny group of friends under the banner of Imagism, a movement which, to speak frankly, had little more to recommend it than its vers libre.
The delicious irony here is that Imagism was nothing more than vers libre—a style Eliot rebukes with great fanfare in front of the house—as vers libre strolls openly into the house from the rear. Eliot isn’t really objecting to vers libre at all. He only pretends to do so. This odd mixing-yet-separating-out of the two movements (Imagism, which was Pound’s, and vers libre, which was nobody’s) occurs after Eliot smashes manifesto-ism in a dazzling display which could have been an attack on the very con of modernism itself. It is so on the mark, we must quote it in full. It occurs early in the essay:
When a theory of art passes it is usually found that a groat’s worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement. The theory which sold the wares may be quite false, or it may be confused and incapable of elucidation, or it may never have existed. A mythical revolution will have taken place and produced a few works of art which perhaps would be even better if still less of the revolutionary theories clung to them. In modern society such revolutions are almost inevitable. An artist, happens upon a method, perhaps quite unreflectingly, which is new in the sense that it is essentially different from that of the second-rate people about him, and different in everything but essentials from that of any of his great predecessors. The novelty meets with neglect, neglect provokes attack; and attack demands a theory. In an ideal state of society one might imagine a good New growing naturally out of the good Old, without the need for polemic and theory; this would be a society with a living tradition. In a sluggish society, as actual societies are, tradition is ever lapsing into superstition, and the violent stimulus of novelty is required. This is bad for the artist and his school, who may become circumscribed by their theory and narrowed by their polemic; but the artist can always console himself for his errors in his old age by considering that if he had not fought nothing would have been accomplished.
This could have been Eliot writing privately to Pound to tell him, look, I can’t go along with this madness—but here it is inserted into one of Eliot’s first published essays, an essay which transparently does Pound’s bidding. Eliot is describing modernism as a fake revolution by a small circle of ”second-rate” friends quixotically attacking “great predecessors.” Eliot knew he was selling his soul to this modernist enterprise; Eliot’s ability to pinpoint what Pound’s “revolution” was, right under Pound’s nose, while pushing the very modernist agenda he ridicules, should be proof, once and for all, that Eliot was a little more clever (precisely because of the depth of his doubts) than Pound and all the rest.
Who does Eliot quote as praise-worthy in this essay? Hulme, H.D. and Pound, the “inner circle,” as well as two of Eliot’s predecessor stand-bys, John Webster, the Elizabethan playwright, and Matthew Arnold.
Reading carefully, we can see precisely where Eliot, in a sly manner, hints that what he is actually doing is defending his friend Pound’s Imagism—under the guise of seeming to banish vers libre:
Vers libre has not even the excuse of a polemic; it is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art. And as the so-called vers libre which is good is anything but “free,” it can better be defended under some other label. Particular types of vers libre may be supported on the choice of content, or on the method of handling the content. I am aware that many writers of vers libre have introduced such innovations, and that the novelty of their choice and manipulation of material is confused—if not in their own minds, in the minds of many of their readers—with the novelty of the form. but I am not here concerned with imagism, which is a theory about the use of material; I am only concerned with the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast. If vers libre is a genuine verse-form it will have a positive definition. And I can only define it by negatives: 1. absence of pattern, 2. absence of rhyme, 3. absence of meter.
Note Eliot’s implication that imagism is a legitimate “theory” re: the “content and the method of handling the content,” which is implicitly priviledged over mere “verse-form.” We see Eliot’s true thesis: Imagism is “a theory about the use of material,” a theory which Eliot passes over in silence, and thus tacitly approves; but Eliot is “concerned with “the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast.” In other words, Eliot is afraid (concerned) a certain “verse-form” called vers libre will discredit his friends the Imagists. Given the fact that examples in the essay which Eliot gives in praise are Imagist works of Hulme and Pound, what are we to think?
This is how Eliot introduces his two friends’ extracts: “I have in mind two passages of contemporary verse which would be called vers libre. Both of them I quote because of their beauty.”
What follows is clearly second-rate verse.
First, a complete poem by Hulme:
Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy,
In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.
Is Pound’s associate and chief founder of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who repudiated the Romantics and claimed poetry must reflect the times they are written in—is this revolutionary Imagist poem—which Eliot in his illustrious essay has dragged forth as an example of good vers libre—is this poetry as well-written as prose?
“Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy“ “Now see I that warmth’s the very stuff of poesy?” Comparing the sky to a blanket? A revolution in poetry is about to happen! Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy!
Can it get any worse? It does. Eliot brings forth a second “contemporary.” Surprise! It’s Eliot’s friend, Pound, the master of ‘poetry-as-good-prose’ himself:
There shut up in his castle, Tairiran’s,
She who had nor ears nor tongue save in her hands,
Gone—ah, gone—untouched, unreachable—
She who could never live save through one person,
She who could never speak save in one person,
And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors…—
Is this the revolution? Is this the “new?” Shut up in his castle? Who needs Tennyson, when we can have this from Pound, savored by Eliot for its “beauty?”
No wonder Pound wrote in the press the same year, “Eliot has said the thing very well when he said, “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” Ah, there’s nothing like brotherly, manly, forthright praise!
Eliot, always the historian, now moves into another phase of his essay. Following the display of “contemporary” vers libre success by Hulme and Pound, Eliot ventures back to the Elizabethan era, (when people also wrote about being “shut up in castles”) in order to demonstrate how the playwright John Webster “who was in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare” (fie?) turned to vers libre when his characters were at the height of tragic emotions. Eliot’s logic runs like this: Pound wrote bad poetry, but so did John Webster—for a dramatic purpose. And since John Webster is “in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare…” well, there you go! Sold!
Eliot writes, “Webster is much freer than Shakespeare, and that his fault is not negligence is evidenced by the fact that it is often at moments of the highest intensity that his verse acquires this freedom. …In the White Devil Brachiano dying, and Cornelia mad, deliberately rupture the bonds of pentameter.”
But what happened to Eliot’s “there is no freedom in art?”
I recover, like a spent taper, for a flash
and instantly go out.
Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young.
You have cause to love me, I did enter you in my heart
Before you would vouchsafe to call for the keys.
This is a vain poetry: but I pray you tell me
If there were proposed me, wisdom, riches, and beauty,
In three several young men, which should I choose?
So here are the quotes from the playwright John Webster, and surely it’s an interesting question: is it a good thing when pentameter breaks down to signal intense feeling in the plays of John Webster? But what does this have to do, really, with second-rate, vers libre-which-is-not-vers-libre poetry by his contemporaries?
What about Shakespeare, the playwright “less cunning” than Webster, but slightly better known, and a begetter of that Romantic tradition which Pound and Eliot had no use for? Eliot only looked at Webster, but I cannot resist glancing at Shakespeare, too. Selecting Macbeth, at random, I’m curious to see how Shakespeare’s verse reacts to intensity of feeling. Does it devolve, as it does with Eliot’s Webster, into forgettable vers libre? (which is good prose, at least, unlike Eliot’s Hulme and Pound examples.) Let’s see:
I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more is none.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail. When Duncan is asleep
Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep
He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O, hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
Out, damned spot! out, I say! One; two.
Why then tis time to do’t. Hell is murky.
To bed, to bed! There’s knocking at the gate.
Come, come, come, come, give me your hand!
What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed!
Well, guess what. Eliot’s use of Webster proves inconclusive, since Shakespeare makes powerful use of verse at the height of tragic intensity.
Vers libre, so says Eliot’s irrefutable logic, is defined by lack of “pattern, rhyme, and meter,” and therefore, as a positive category, it does not exist. But Eliot knows all too well that, at least among his friends, vers libre does exist, and not as chaos, but as good verse. Bad verse is merely the Shakespeare/Romantic tradition that Eliot and his friends, with manifestos tucked in their tweed pockets, are trying to overturn.
Eliot writes, “There is no campaign against rhyme.” The vers libre invasion (which doesn’t exist) will let rhyme live. But Eliot does think rhyme can be used more creatively, more sparingly, perhaps. “There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood.”
But Poe had said the same thing 70 years earlier: “It would require a high degree, indeed, both of cultivation and courage, on the part of any versifier, to enable him to place his rhymes—and let them remain—at unquestionably their best position, that of unusual and unanticipated intervals.” This is from Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” an essay in which Poe writes on verse that does exist, rather than on verse that does not.
Here’s how Eliot introduces his rhymeless samples:
So much for meter. There is no escape from meter; there is only mastery. But while there obviously is escape from rhyme, the vers librists are by no means the first out of the cave:
The boughs of the trees
By many bafflings;
The small-leafed boughs.
But the shadow of them
Is not the shadow of the mast head
Nor of the torn sails.
When the white dawn first
Through the rough fir-planks
Of my hut, by the chestnuts,
Up at the valley-head,
Came breaking, Goddess,
I sprang up, I threw round me
My dappled fawn-skin…
Except for the more human touch in the second of these extracts a hasty observer would hardly realize that the first is by a contemporary, and the second by Matthew Arnold.
H.D. (selected as the nameless “contemporary”) and Matthew Arnold are quoted in order to prove that vers libre is nothing to be afraid of. We’re safe, you see, because Matthew Arnold didn’t rhyme. As with the John Webster example, Eliot’s point is neither strong, nor finished. Think of all the past poets who did not rhyme, from Homer to Virgil to Milton. What does Eliot think he is proving by quoting Matthew Arnold? Or H.D.?
Surely the key to Eliot’s strategy is his famous declaration that, “What sort of a line that would be which would not scan at all I cannot say.”
This idea has been swallowed by many hook, line, and sinker.
“Any line can be divided into feet and accents,” says Eliot, and here he presents the truth of an innocent child. If Eliot really stands by this absurdity, however, he has no right to say there is good verse, bad verse, and chaos. For if “any line can be divided into feet and accents” then there cannot be any chaos.
Eliot, the child, and Eliot, the astute critic, are two different persons, obviously, just as T.S. Eliot, independent man of Letters, and T.S. Eliot, servile lackey to Pound, are not the same—and we see the contradiction acutely on display in “Reflections on Vers Libre.”
Eliot, anticipating an observation he made at the University of Virginia in the 1930s, which got him in trouble, makes this general plea for purity:
Only in a closely-knit and homogeneous society, where many men are at work on the same problems, such a society as those which produced the Greek chorus, the Elizabethan lyric, and the Troubadour canzone, will the development of such forms ever be carried to perfection.
Don’t blame vers libre. Blame democracy.
“The decay of intricate formal patterns has nothing to do with the advent of vers libre.”
But, wait. Didn’t Eliot say that vers libre didn’t exist? Didn’t he say it was only something that a “lady” only thought existed? Now we find Eliot, at the end of the essay, defending it.
What is this so-called “revolutionary” essay, ”Reflections on Vers Libre,” anyway?
It’s Eliot under the sway of Pound.
It’s a couple of thugs moving merchandise.