Ezra Pound: Personae

(1052 words)
  • Jon Elek (Queen Mary, University of London)

Pound’s third volume – his first commercially successful one – was published by Elkin Matthews, the proprietor of a prominent London bookshop just off Piccadilly Circus. It should not be confused with a 1926 book of the same name, which gathers most of Pound’s poetry outside his Cantos. Both volumes are in effect collections, although the 1909 Personae includes seventeen poems published for the first time. These represent a key phase in Pound’s poetic development, and are the subject of this entry.

The concept of the “persona” (or its plural, “personae”) occupies a central position in Pound’s poetic process. It translates into English as “mask” but Pound’s fidelity to the Latin reflects a particular literary parentage, namely that of Robert Browning. Browning’s Dramatis Personae (1855), a series of poems written from the perspective of different dramatic characters, was spectacularly influential on the young Pound. It provided him with a set of schemata by which he could blend historical source material with the passion of the lyric moment. He explained this strategy to his university friend and fellow poet, William Carlos Williams, in a letter of 1907:

To me the short so-called dramatic lyric – at any rate the sort of thing I do – is the poetic part of a drama the rest of which (to me the prose part) is left to the reader’s imagination […] I catch the character I happen to be interested in at the moment he interests me, usually a moment of song, self-analysis or sudden understanding or revelation.

This is not a precise echo of Browning’s position, nor is it intended to be. In Pound’s view, Browning’s efforts to evade the expressive subjectivity of the Romantics left his writing somewhat anaemic. Still, in both form and language, Pound’s poetry is indelibly stamped by this almost filial association (he calls Browning his poetic “father” in a later letter). We see this in one of the strongest poems in Personae, “Marvoil”. Based on a sketch of the life of the medieval troubadour Arnaut de Marvoil, it opens in an Avignon pub, where we find our protagonist in the kind of “moment of song” that Pound has in mind:

A poor clerk I, ‘Arnaut the less’ they call me,
And because I have small mind to sit
Day long, long day cooped on a stool
A-jumbling o’figures for Maitre Jacques Polin
I ha’ taken to rambling the South here.

The opening line here recalls Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” (“I am poor brother Lippo by your leave”), therein signalling the poem’s own poetic pedigree. With characteristic humour and pathos, Pound sketches out the poet’s wanderings since his ejection from the idyllic court of Béziers, where he had spent happy years writing “vers and canzone” for a Countess. Eventually, Pound tells us with slightly vulgar pun, “Alfonso the half-bald, took to hanging / His helmet at Béziers”, squeezing out Arnaut and sending him on his way.

“Marvoil” typifies the potent sense of exoticism in Pound’s early writing, especially his fascination with the troubadour poetry of early medieval (especially Southern) Europe. These enthusiasms earned him a reputation as something of an oddity. But, as T.S. Eliot stressed in 1928, “one of Pound’s most indubitable claims to originality is […] his revivification of the Provençal and the early Italian poetry”. Eliot is spot on here, for Pound saw something in these poets that had been neglected by his contemporaries, chiefly their rich sense of musicality. If the poems in this style – “Alba Belengalis”, “From the Saddle”, “Gaillaume De Laurris Belated” and so on – seem disconcertingly recondite, they must be understood as celebrating the crucial rhythmic developments of what Pound felt had been a truly vibrant poetic age.

Another reason that Pound found these poets so attractive is that many of them were self-styled outcasts. The longer poem, “In Durance”, is a record of Pound’s corresponding sense of alienation and exile. At the same time, however, it reflects the deep current of ostentation that runs through Pound’s early volumes:

I am homesick after mine own kind,
Oh I know that there are folk about me, friendly faces,
But I am homesick after mine own kind

It is not hard to see here that Pound feels distanced and estranged from the social commonplace – what he later in the poem dismisses as “ordinary people”. Here the poet sees the material world and its machinations as something base and beneath him. Thus he keeps his mind set on conjuring up “the mist of [his] soul” and continues to long for the company of those who “have some breath and beauty for beauty and the arts”.

It is all too easy to fault this kind of pretension now that we possess nearly a century’s worth of hindsight. We must remember that these sentiments belong to a period in Pound’s life when he was a young expatriate American newly transplanted to the cultural capital of London. He was in his early twenties, ambitious and extraordinarily talented, but there still lingered in him a sense of having to prove himself.

Like most of Pound’s first five volumes, Personae is a transitional one. Some poems show him unable to resist the bloodless archaisms and stilted diction that marks so much of his early verse. Others, however, look forward to the more modern style of Ripostes (1912). One poem, “Revolt (Against the Crepuscular Spirit in Poetry)”, falls precisely in between these two modes. The poet boldly announces that he “would shake off the lethargy of this our time”. This challenge serves as a kind of call to arms against the lulling of contemporary English verse, which, as Pound would remark in a later essay, was “an horrible agglomerate compost, not minted, most of it not even baked, all legato, a doughy mess of third-hand Keats, Wordsworth, heaven knows what, fourth-hand Elizabethan sonority blunted, half-melted, lumpy”.Yet there is a paradox intrinsic to Pound’s “Revolt”: while the poem expresses a commitment to the new, the terms in which this is expressed are, as one critic puts it, “equally crepuscular”. Even so, we might consider that the term “revolt” anticipates Pound’s activities in the years that followed, when his revolutionary impulse became one of the motivating factors of modernism.

Elek, Jon. "Personae". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 April 2004
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=2841, accessed 07 February 2016.]