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What Meaning Has in Charge: on Wordsworth, Pound and Prynne

Ce dont le sens est responsable : Wordsworth, Pound et Prynne
Michael Kindellan


Cet article est composé de deux parties. La première concerne William Wordsworth et Ezra Pound et se concentre sur les multiples oppositions que ce dernier a formulées sur la théorie et la pratique de celui-là. Il y est suggéré qu’au rang des principales critiques adressées à Wordsworth figure ce que Pound considère comme la surestimation du sens comme convention sociale. La seconde partie, plus longue, relève les objections que Prynne à formulées à l’encontre des critiques adressées par Pound à Wordsworth. Cette description des désaccords de Prynne se fonde sur une lecture de diverses prises de position sur la traduction (ce qu’il dit de la traduction plus que des traductions en elles-mêmes), ainsi que sur plusieurs poèmes rassemblés dans The White Stones, recueil publié en 1969.

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1Amongst the many English language poets to have participated in the endlessly necessary task of asserting the permanent value of the writing and the reading of poems, the various prose statements of William Wordsworth and of Ezra Pound are perhaps the best known. Their defences each promote some series of innovations while polemically engaging conventions practised by misguided antecedents. For instance, in a passage introducing his ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth launches a double attack upon polite Augustan poets and their readers; describing Lyrical Ballads as written in a ‘selection of language really used by men’ thrown over by ‘certain colourings of the imagination’, he continues:

accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation. (Wordsworth 597)

2Pound himself chastised writers (and, implicitly, readers), neophyte and expert alike, over miscalculated uses of abstract expression. In an essay that has become as important to readers of Pound as Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ is to readers of Wordsworth, namely, ‘A Retrospect’, Pound writes:

don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol. Go in fear of abstractions. Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. (Pound 1918, 5)

3In this last sentence, a version of an oft-repeated dictum that poetry should be at least as well written as prose, which he admits borrowing from an observation first offered by Ford Maddox Hueffer, Pound comes extremely close to reiterating a claim Wordsworth also makes in the ‘Preface’, that ‘some of the most interesting parts of the best poems will be found to be strictly the language of prose, when prose is well written’ (Wordsworth 601); ‘the language of every good poem can in no respect differ from that of good Prose’ (Wordsworth 602).

4 Pound’s almost regular if characteristically unsubstantiated attacks on Wordsworth refuse what looks suspiciously like a kind of tacit agreement between the two poets, at least in terms of a shared concern pertaining to the intersection of poetry and prose. As David Simpson summarised it in an important and sustained examination on these poets’ interconnected aesthetic sensibilities (from which this essay takes a cue): ‘Pound’s comments on Wordsworth are some of the briefest and least charitable of all his assessments’ (Simpson 661). In one of his more restrained outbursts, one especially concerned with the question of appropriate poetic language, Pound writes that ‘since March 1913, Ford Maddox Hueffer has pointed out that Wordsworth was so intent on the ordinary word that he never thought of hunting for the mot juste’ (Pound 1918, 7). According to Hugh Kenner, ‘the Imagist recall of poetic diction to speech was more profound than Wordsworth’s, because speech in 1913 was better understood; Wordsworth had simply thought rural diction “pure” by nearly Augustan canons’ (Kenner 128). Pound however concedes:

Wordsworth got rid of a lot of trimmings, but there are vast stretches of deadness in his writing. Artists are the antennae of the race. Wordsworth vibrates to a very limited range of stimuli, and he was not conscious of the full problem of writing. (Pound 1934 a, 73)

5Wordsworth would not have believed this assessment, adjudging himself to exhibit, and recommending by way of definition of ‘poet’, precisely the opposite tendency: ‘the Poet is chiefly distinguished from other men by a greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement’ (Wordsworth 607). In fact, Wordsworth rejects as morally dangerous and regrets as contemporary fact the ‘rapid communication of intelligence’ (Wordsworth 599), a tendency of modern life and manners that strikes me as a remarkably Poundian formulation, albeit cast in the negative. We should not overlook the poignancy of the fact that Pound’s qualified approval of Wordsworth’s eschewed ‘trimmings’ is part of a denigration of his predecessor’s scientific inferiority—‘antenna’ and ‘race’ locate Pound’s comments within explicitly biological and anthropological discourses respectively and assert these faculties in Wordsworth are at best prematurely developed—because Wordsworth also made a distinction along poetic/scientific lines. In 1802, Wordsworth saw, and wanted to maintain, a difference between ‘the Poet’ and ‘the Man of Science’, a difference Pound wanted to invert (see McGann 1–8). Wordsworth writes that ‘the Poet’ converses with ‘general nature’—which Pound would label ‘abstraction’—whereas ‘the Man of Science’ converses ‘with those particular parts of nature which are the objects of his studies’ (Wordsworth 606)—which find a correlative in Pound’s adequately symbolic ‘natural objects’. Moreover, for ‘the Man of Science’, the truth is ‘a remote and unknown benefactor’, loved in solitude, while

the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.
(Wordsworth 606, emphasis added)

6In a quasi-scientific section of ‘How to Read’ called ‘Vaccine’, Pound advocates the throwing out of all such ‘vague general terms’, because he believes their use results in the propagation of either deceit or ignorance (Pound 1929, 37).

  • 1 For an extended discussion Ellmann 136–60.
  • 2 For an account of Pound’s notion of a poem’s original exteriority situated in a broadly modernist c (...)

7Simpson elsewhere suggests that Pound’s antipathy for the Wordsworthian persona or ‘speaker’ stems from this persona’s ‘struggles with the activity of trying to make poetry, to achieve “meaning”, thus bringing to attention the status of the subject as it interprets and perhaps even manipulates the messages it purports to receive from nature’ (Simpson 662). From here it is a rather short route to a species of ‘impersonality’ characteristic of Pound’s modernist experimentations;1 but it could equally be the case that Pound reacts negatively not solely to the elevated office of the poet’s own subject, but to the fundamentally discursive, and fundamentally social, concept of ‘meaning’ this subject commits to. In the ‘Preface’, Wordsworth expresses concern that Lyrical Ballads breaks a kind of social contract, a ‘promise’ and an ‘engagement’ voluntarily contracted (Wordsworth 596)—he breaks the contract only in the hopes of drafting another in which the plainer and consequently more emphatic ‘language really used by men’ replaces the existing ‘language of gaudiness and inane phraseology’ (Wordsworth 596). The definition of ‘the Poet’ as ‘a man speaking to men’ presents his sociality as significant, whereas Pound normally construes almost every act of language use, poetic or otherwise, as facilitating loss and degradation. Drawing for a moment an ‘ideograph of the good’ indicating ‘what he considers valid writing’ (Pound 1929, 37), very few writers indeed qualify as ‘inventors’ or ‘masters’ (Pound 1929, 23). The majority contribute to a schedule of dilution, so that: ‘18th century in the main, cliché. 19th mainly MESS’ (Pound 1938, 183). For Pound, keeping the language efficient was also a process of maintaining a particularity of referential capacities; it ‘is a human responsibility’ (Lan 67), but primarily a poetic one, where, importantly, the ‘poetic’ is construed not as Wordsworth does, that is, as fundamentally social and subject to general laws ‘to which the Poet and Reader both willingly submit’ (Wordsworth 608), but as an activity ranged against the very society it nevertheless endeavours to protect: ‘we are in such a beautiful position to save the public’s soul by punching its face that it seems like a crime not to do so’ (Pound 1950, 13). Wordsworth’s insistence upon the ordinary word ‘challenges the fundamental assumptions about language on which a division between the poetical and the non-poetical might be based’ (Simpson 663) so that ultimately, the ‘meaning’ of ‘a Wordsworthian lyric tends to stand outside the verbal construct which is the poem’ (Simpson 664). For Pound, poetry also becomes itself through the application of exterior force: ‘great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree’ (Pound 1929, 23). Words are ‘great hollow cones’, ‘arbitrary and conventional symbols’ (Pound 1912, 33) until the artist alone, and not in congress with the public, transforms mere language into meaningful literature.2

8On 28 December 1963, the English poet and teacher J. H. Prynne wrote to the American poet and teacher Charles Olson. Prynne, a long-time, careful and committed reader of both Wordsworth and Pound, questions ‘how certain notions came to be organised as they are, and whether their structures really have been coarsened in the ways that casual observers have suggested’; he then makes an extended, parenthetical attack on Pound (undoubtedly one of the ‘casual observers’ he castigates). Prynne complains:

  • 3 I am grateful to both J. H. Prynne and the Archives & Special Collections at Dodd Research Center, (...)

that dolt E. P. whose local ignorance is unsurpassed: wrong about Chinese syntax, and hopelessly stupid about the modern scientist’s ‘shapeless “mass” of force’ . . . . why in hell didn’t he look for the facts? There is indeed a poignant mythos attached to our thinking about the operative pressures that move our lives, and the role that this has played in the development of our modern cosmology; but it would take more than a certain precision of reference to disentangle this, and without such modest care all speculation is reduced to the merest complaint: shrill tone of the man without valid personal grounds. (Prynne 1963 a, n. p.)3

9Prynne was preaching to the choir. Between 1946 and 1948, Olson was a relatively frequent visitor of Pound’s during the latter’s incarceration at St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington. Pound’s authoritarian invective—‘obscured, as fascists can be, by a mania to save the Constitution’—exacerbated Olson (as it had Prynne) and finally ruined his patience (Olson 1975, 52). Olson’s personal notes seem to corroborate Prynne’s remark that Pound lacked ‘valid personal grounds’, when he says: ‘it is as though Pound . . . was born without an ear of his own’; ‘he does not seem to have inhabited his own experience’ (Olson 1975, 98–9).

  • 4 For a defence of Pound’s intentional ignorance see Kenner 69.
  • 5 For an extended discussion of this influence and its eventual rejection see Keston Sutherland’s ‘XL (...)

10From these two comments one can extrapolate a common observation manifest as criticism, namely that Pound normally exhibits a kind of overreach or unwarranted extension of himself into areas of knowledge he did not fully understand.4 Strictly defined horizons of concern preoccupied Olson in the early 1960s—‘limits/ are what any of us/ are inside of’ (Olson 1983, 21)—as he developed a means of being in the world that concentrated upon the local and the particular; Olson exerted no small influence on Prynne’s early poetry.5 In a poem called ‘The Numbers’ from 1968 Prynne writes:

The whole thing it is, the difficult
matter: to shrink the confines
down. To signals, so that I come
back to this, we are
(Prynne 1968 c, 10)

11Prynne’s poem is, in part, a self-sceptical questioning of the validity of the basic premises behind (democratic) elections, in which not only does one purport to speak for many, but also in which, in the very act of electing, ‘we want/ too much for the others’ (Prynne 1968 a, 11). Wanting too much for others is an ambiguous phrase that does not nominate a contradiction so much as a problem of authority, where wanting too much is a species of intense and selfish desire: instead ‘we must shrink’ (Prynne 1968 c, 11). In this poem, it might be said that Prynne broadly agrees with Wordsworth’s notion that ‘meaning’ inheres only through social convention:

That’s where we have it & should
diminish: I am no
more, than custom,
which is the vital
& signal, again, as if we tie into
so many voices.
(Prynne 1968 c, 10)

  • 6 See Prynne’s ‘Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words’ for a reassessment of Saussure’s notion of the (...)

12Granted, the syntax and line breaks categorically interfere with a straightforward assertion that ‘I am no more than custom’; ‘as if’ registers a scepticism about the poly-vocality we are. Later in the poem Prynne again points to the conflicted but nevertheless culturally-determined nature of signs,6 where an unstated conjecture creates a kind of homology between the governance of people, their obligations towards fellow citizens and the meaning of words:

Signs or array,
we should take this, we should
really do so. There is no other
beginning on power.
Such is to elect terms,
to be the ground for names.
(Prynne 1968 c, 11)

13Pound did not ignore the social orientation of language, but he sought a more expedient remedy. His early interest in the mot juste leads more or less directly to his later interest in Confucianism, particularly in concepts of zheng ming—‘to rectify names’—and cheng yi—‘to attain precise verbal definitions’ (Lan 45), in which he found special configurations of ethics, politics and semantics.

  • 7 For a criticism of Pound not herein discussed see ‘China Figures’, in which Prynne defends Anne Bir (...)
  • 8 See in this regard Pound’s translation of Confucius: The Unwobbling Pivot (1951).

14 In fact, it is precisely concerning the question of the Chinese language that Prynne (in the letter above) criticises Pound; by extension, the question of translation looms importantly in the offing. Insofar as the poetic careers of both poets offer different examples of long, sustained engagements with this language, Prynne’s engagement with Chinese could be read as a critique of Pound’s.7 Their divergent understandings of methodology when it comes to translation offers special insight into what either might mean by the term ‘meaning’. For Pound, there is a difference between meaning and saying. In a February 1935 letter to W. H. D. Rouse, Pound wrote: ‘when I suggested your doing a translation with all the meaning, I didn’t mean merely to put back words, or translations for words’ (Pound 1950, 269). A month later he wrote to the same recipient: ‘taint what a man sez, but wot he means that the traducer has got to bring over. The implication of the word’ (Pound 1950, 271). Pound tends to think of the literary artefact as language (what is said) plus author-function (what is meant), so that authorial intention is inextricable from meaning (meaning is less an abstract noun than an action word akin to being or seeing). In 1919 he published a note by Fenollosa describing a Chinese sinograph that for him provided a governing rationale for his version of poetic sincerity thereafter: ‘man and word, man standing by his word, man of his word, truth, sincere, unwavering’ (Fenollosa 41). Similarly, Pound wrote in ‘A Retrospect’: ‘the meaning of the poem to be translated can not “wobble”’ (Pound 1918, 7).8

  • 9 Suffice it to say that Prynne and Pound each write both ‘difficult’ and ‘obscure’ poems, in the sen (...)

15 Prynne construes the situation differently: ‘meaning’ is the inherently unstable domain of the poem and its readers, and is not strictly the function of a poet’s staunch persistence. We can see this idea emerge in a pedagogical note on translation transcribed in April 2007, which suggests that ‘the features that make meaning (both word-meanings and discourse-meaning) hard to determine all seem like obstacles to the translation task’ (Prynne 2007, 5).9 In considering ways of encountering difficult, ambiguous and uncertain meaning in a poem, Prynne wonders if perhaps ‘these features are not difficulties in the path towards finding out the poem’s true character, maybe they really are the poem’s character, its inward method’. He continues:

maybe the poem’s character or even its mood and activity have a relation with questions of meaning only through the words, and their difficulties, and hardly at all with meaning as a separate problem. Maybe the translator should put off the question of a fixed clear meaning to one side, and concentrate on the words. (Prynne 2007, 5)

16Put otherwise, Prynne speculates that the poet himself might bear only minimal responsibility for his poems’ meaning, because what he means (or intends to mean) will only constitute a small portion of what the writing means in total. In fact, it could be the case that Prynne thinks a poet personally might not necessarily need to ‘mean’ anything at all: in translation, ‘if an idiom seems to be broken or disordered in some way, or joined with another expression which seems to have no obvious connection, there may be no urgent need to work out what this means’ (Prynne 2007, 5). Though Prynne of course differentiates between ‘the translator’ and ‘the reader’—it is incumbent upon the former to transfer intact ‘difficulties’ from the original to the target language, while it is incumbent upon the reader(s) of either version to work through these difficulties in their own ways—the point is that Prynne’s poems characteristically exacerbate the problem of meaning, whereas Pound, for all his obvious and difficult obscurity, believes his poetry functions as a clarification of words’ meanings. Pound writes:

Unless a term is left meaning one particular thing, and unless all attempt to unify different things, however small the difference, is clearly abandoned, all metaphysical thought degenerates into a soup. A soft terminology is merely an endless series of indefinite middles. (Pound 1934 b, 185)

Prynne instead wants poems in which:

the level of predictable linkage between one text component and the next, often between one word and the next, is often so low as to provoke continuing strong surprise in the reader, and a rich uncertainty over many possibilities crowded together . . . A diversity of apparently incompatible reference is often deliberate and a valued feature of complex poems.
(Prynne 2010, 154)

17As Joshua Kotin has recently observed, speaking of an exemplary poem in Prynne’s 1993 collection Not-You, the poem’s meanings are very often both ‘over- and underdetermined’. They are overdetermined to the extent they generate a seemingly infinite number of readings, but underdetermined to the extent that, lacking a unifying voice or principle to render a significance in paraphrase, there is no ‘way to arbitrate between’ readings (Kotin 198). Meaning, in the particular sense that Pound understood it, is something Prynne believes a poet cannot do.

18 Though this has been, to certain degrees, always the case, Prynne’s major collections of the late 1960s—Kitchen Poems (1968) and The White Stones (1969)—are, unlike later volumes, ‘for the most part both rhetorically and propositionally coherent’ (Sutherland 2010, 120). In these poems Prynne makes concerted and notable uses of the first person plural pronoun ‘we’. Far from merely exemplifying a sort of communalist ethos, Prynne deploys this pronoun with a sceptical tenacity, refusing to let go of the holistically-determined collective existence it could promise, while at the same time, declining to let ‘we’ stand for a sentimental idealism or function as shorthand for the acceptable irresponsibility of anyone in particular. Risking an oversimplification, these early poems typically take under advisement separate but related questions regarding what ‘we’ means as well as how ‘we mean’. In a poem from The White Stones called ‘Star Damage at Home’, these concerns are brought forward into primary consideration. Prynne writes:

And what is the chance for survival, in this
fertile calm, that we could mean what
we say, and hold to it?
(Prynne 1969, 108)

19Commenting on this passage, Peter Middleton says that this call for an ‘integrity of utterance means careful naming (an idea central to Pound and Olson)’, but also that ‘this ethical call for a unity of word and meaning does more than repeat the time-worn ethical demand for truthful plain speaking’, it also ‘implies a doubt about the logical possibility of such adherence’ (Middleton 116). Going further, our need to ‘mean what we say’ works under threat of extinction, an ultimate meaninglessness: ‘the chance for survival’ indicates only a possibility not a probability. The ‘star’ of the poem’s title is not identified per se, but a glimpsed language of mechanical failure—‘a song like a glowing rivet strikes/ out of the circle’—combined with the frequent use of words and phrases associable with human conflict—‘celestial victim’, ‘hissing fury’, ‘entire force’, ‘torture’, ‘coarsely exploited’, ‘shrill havoc’, ‘blaze of violent purpose’, ‘consume to ash’, ‘destruction’, ‘feast of hatred’, ‘the idea of blood’, ‘embittered passion’, ‘no price/ too high’, ‘running uncontrolled’—bodes of damage from the heavens but inflicted by us upon ourselves.

20Throughout this poem the imperative to mean is framed as a contentious ethical obligation, accompanied by the modal verb ‘must’, which Middleton notes has the force of both ‘ought’ and ‘have to’ (Middleton 117). As in:

A song like a glowing rivet strikes
out of the circle, we must make room for
the celestial victim; it is amongst us and
fallen with hissing fury into the ground. Too
lovely the ground and my confidence as I
walk so evenly above it: we must mean the
entire force of what we shall come to say.
I cannot run with these deeply implicit
motions, the person is nothing, there should be
torture in our midst. Some coarsely exploited
money-making trick, fast & destructive, shrill
havoc to the murmur of names. The
blaze of violent purpose at least, struck
through : light : we desire what we mean
& we must mean that & consume to
ash any simple deflection.
(Prynne 1969, 108–9)

21Perhaps what is being suggested here is that ‘language in use is an energetics of desire’ (Middleton 116), so that meaning is a form of consumerism, in which, counterintuitively, the desire to mean one thing is a way of destroying (‘consume to/ ash’) what we do not already have (‘any simple deflection’). This idea (if you can call it that) rehearses and problematises Pound’s model of linguistic integrity, wherein a man holds fast by what he says. Moreover, it is important of course that for Pound his integral poet is masculine, but it is more important that he is singular. It could be too tenuous a connection to think that in using the word ‘shrill’ Prynne has Pound again in mind (or even to suppose that in using the word ‘murmur’ we can detect a kind of glancing reference to the fourth line of ‘Tintern Abbey’), but when the pronoun belonging to the verb ‘mean’ later in the poem switches from the common ‘we’ to ‘I’, it seems more likely Prynne does now have Pound in mind, in particular Pound’s assertion that great literature is language charged with meaning:

. . . I
mean what the name has in its charge,
being not deceived by the dispersal which
sets it down. We live in compulsion, no
less, we must have the damage by which
the stars burn in their courses.
(Prynne 1969, 109)

22Readers familiar with this poem or who consult it independently will know that the first line here quoted does not so emphatically isolate the word ‘I’—I have omitted material from the foregoing sentence (though its significant position at the end of the line makes a conceptual argument in itself). In ‘charge’ stand revealed divergent conceptions: the first is Pound’s, candidly thinking himself undeceived by the dispersal of a word’s significance by others’ lax usages; the second is another, more likely suggestion in which ‘charge’ denotes a responsibility implicating not the ‘I’ but actually the ‘name’ in a duty of care, so that language itself becomes a meaningful assurance. The ‘dispersal’ that seems to work against the first conception is nothing less than compulsion, the inevitability that meaning becomes damaged by use. We must have this damage because we do have it. The poem ends: ‘We live here/ and must mean it, the last person we are’ (Prynne 1969, 109).

23The ‘last person we are’ readily signals a kind of ‘cosmic disaster’ that threatens us entirely: ‘smoke towering above the/ mere words splitting like glass into the/ air’ (Prynne 1969, 109). It also evokes a sentimental cliché about the ‘last man standing’. But the word ‘last’ in ‘last person’ also displaces by inversion ‘first person’, and does, by virtue of this fact, a kind of lexical damage to the first person as such. The ‘last person we are’ is significantly not ‘the first person I am’. But this is less the end of the story that its permanent beginning: ‘we must mean the/ entire force of what we shall come to say’ is only the most obvious suggestion that what we mean now is not what we must mean later. In ‘must’, there is always a slippage between present fact and future need.

24‘We’ are subject to language as much as subjects of it. Language is a ‘corporate & prolonged action’: in it ‘we shine’; our songs are like the glowing rivet we must make room for because language is a capacity for infinite ambiguities, accepting every distortion; as such, ‘we also/ shine in our neglect’ (Prynne 1968 a, 137). Like Prynne, and in a way not lost on Pound, Wordsworth acknowledges that poetic language, because it is ours, ‘may frequently have suffered from those arbitrary connections of feeling and ideas with particular words and phrases, from which no man can altogether protect himself’ (Wordsworth 612). Unlike Pound, however, who sought an insistent, synchronic, and static solution to the problem of meaning, Wordsworth and later Prynne understood that a poet wanting to rectify these errors based on individual authority cannot do so without ‘great injury to himself’. It is certainly not a project anyone can complete. In a proleptic salvo against the criticisms he anticipated, Wordsworth warned that ‘the Reader ought never to forget that he is himself exposed to the same errors as the Poet’ (Wordsworth 612). The ‘errors’ Wordsworth speaks of are words themselves, more precisely the ‘fickleness or stability of the relations of particular ideas to each other’ in constant fluctuation because of ‘the various stages of meaning through which [they] have passed (Wordsworth 612). An errant language cannot be rightly meant because ‘we are what it entails and/ and we remain its precondition’ (Prynne 1968 b, 22).

25In ‘The Elegiac World in Victorian Poetry’, Prynne writes that Wordsworth represents the end of poetic tradition in which ‘the voice was human but not inevitably the property of a distinct individual’ (Prynne 1963 a, 290). This assertion is consistent with what Simon Jarvis has argued of Prynne’s universality, namely ‘that writing as if from the standpoint of universality shows that no individual could ever stand there’ (Jarvis 2003, n. p.). For Pound recovering a hierarchical individuality, and the capacity to ‘mean it’ that should subsequently arise, was a crucial poetic aim. Wordsworth, and Prynne after him, mistrusted the notion that a man (or anyone, a Poet, say) could sufficiently disentangle himself or herself from words in order to stand beside them. Between these extremely general but nevertheless seriously different conceptions of ‘meaning’ (as either authorial intention or historical determination) lies, perhaps, the basic coordinates of the possible ethical dimensions of poetry in English over the last two hundred years.

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Prynne, J. H., ‘Resistance and Difficulty’, Prospect 1 (Winter 1961): 26–30.

Prynne, J. H., ‘Some Aspects of Poems and Translations’, Cambridge: Privately distributed, 2007, 1–6.

Prynne, J. H., ‘Star Damage at Home’ (1969), Poems, Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2005, 108–09.

Prynne, J. H., ‘Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words’, London: Birkbeck, 1993, 1–61.

Rumsey, Lacy, ‘Describing Shape in the Poetry of J. H. Prynne: Rhythm and Intonation in “Again in the Black Cloud”’, Études britanniques contemporaines 39 (décembre 2010): 109–128.

Simpson, David, ‘Pound’s Wordsworth; or the Growth of a Poet’s Mind’, ELH 45.5 (Winter 1978): 660–86.

Sutherland, Keston, ‘Hilarious Absolute Daybreak’, Glossator 2 (2010): 115–43.

Sutherland, Keston, ‘XL Prynne’, Complicities: British Poetry, 1945–2007, ed. Robin Purves & Sam Ladkin, Prague: Literaria Pragensia, 2007, 43–72.

Wordsworth, William, ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ (1802), The Major Works, ed. Stephen Gill, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000, 595–615.

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1 For an extended discussion Ellmann 136–60.

2 For an account of Pound’s notion of a poem’s original exteriority situated in a broadly modernist context, see Peter Nicholls’s ‘The Poetics of Modernism’.

3 I am grateful to both J. H. Prynne and the Archives & Special Collections at Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries for their permission to reproduce this extract.

4 For a defence of Pound’s intentional ignorance see Kenner 69.

5 For an extended discussion of this influence and its eventual rejection see Keston Sutherland’s ‘XL Prynne’ in Complicities (Sutherland 43–72).

6 See Prynne’s ‘Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words’ for a reassessment of Saussure’s notion of the ‘arbitrary’; therein Prynne argues that historical context, layered associations and forms of social mores can be seen as important factors contributing to motivated signification.

7 For a criticism of Pound not herein discussed see ‘China Figures’, in which Prynne defends Anne Birrell’s ‘stiffer and less resonant’ (Prynne 1986, 370) translations against Pound’s more deviant inventiveness. Prynne contends Pound’s method interferes with the ‘social meaning’ of the poetry’s ‘allusional system’ which was managed through ‘supportive metonymy’ (Prynne 1986, 372).

8 See in this regard Pound’s translation of Confucius: The Unwobbling Pivot (1951).

9 Suffice it to say that Prynne and Pound each write both ‘difficult’ and ‘obscure’ poems, in the sense that Prynne gave these words: ‘when poetry is obscure this is chiefly because information necessary for comprehension is not part of the reader’s knowledge’; ‘when poetry is difficult this is more likely because the language and structure of its presentation are unusually cross-linked or fragmented, or dense with ideas and response patterns that challenge the reader’s powers of recognition’ (Prynne 2010, 160). On the question of ‘difficulty’ in Prynne’s poetry see, for instance, Simon Jarvis’s ‘Quality and the Non-identical’; Xie Ming’s ‘Reactualising the Unfigurable’; David Caddy’s ‘Notes towards a Preliminary Reading of J. H. Prynne’s Poems’; and Jeremy Noel-Tod’s ‘A History of Difficulty: On Cambridge Poetry’. In ‘Describing Shape in the Poetry of J. H. Prynne’, Lacy Rumsey speculates that the difficulties of Prynne’s poetry are such that ‘defining what meaning is, at any given point of the poem . . . may be impossible’ (117). See also Prynne’s ‘Resistance and Difficulty’.

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Michael Kindellan, « What Meaning Has in Charge: on Wordsworth, Pound and Prynne »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 44 | 2013, mis en ligne le 29 novembre 2013, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michael Kindellan

Universität Bayreuth
Michael Kindellan is an Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral research fellow at the Universität Bayreuth, where he is working on the late cantos of Ezra Pound. In 2012 he was a teaching fellow at the University of Sussex in 19th and 20th century Anglo-American literature. In 2011 he was an EMMA postdoctoral researcher at the université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3, where he worked on the poetry of William Wordsworth and J. H. Prynne (during which time the ideas behind the present essay were developed). In 2010 he completed a DPhil thesis on Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and Charles Olson at the University of Sussex.

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