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2. Modernist Non-fictional Narratives: Rewriting Modernism

Men of Letters: W.B. Yeats’s A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929)



Si l’« imagination dialogique » de Bakhtine suggère que le discours romanesque est construit de manière à appeler une réponse, l’imagination dialogique de Yeats, elle, trouve son meilleur moyen d’expression dans la prose non fictionnelle. A Packet for Ezra Pound, qui fut publié en 1929 par la Cuala Press comme préface à A Vision (1937), révèle ici une existence indépendante, ce que l’on a rarement perçu. Cet article aborde A Packet for Ezra Pound sous un angle formel, à la lumière des lettres de Yeats, en tant que manifeste littéraire et pourtant à caractère oral; il montre que cette œuvre qui apparaît comme provisoire, périphérique et comme une préface, est malgré tout cruciale pour comprendre l’évolution de la pensée de Yeats et Pound, et offre un outil critique pour comprendre les réseaux modernistes. Ce texte, par sa vision qui transgresse les genres et embrasse tous les arts, son intertextualité et son jeu avec l’appareil paratextuel, apparaît comme une construction réfléchie typique du modernisme tout en affirmant sa distance par rapport à l’esthétique moderniste et son désaccord avec les positions politiques du modernisme.

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1When W.B. Yeats wrote prose it had a purpose. Often this purpose was argumentative, to propose or settle an argument (just as often to provoke one), but, although such arguments need not have an end, they could be creative. Prose provided a crucible to test himself, his ideas; and to test others, their responses, answers helping to forge words in new contours. As his lunar prose text, Per Amica Silentia Lunae, proposed, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric; but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” (Mythologies 331). Since Yeats often drafted arguments for poems in prose, the distinction is anything but clean-cut, formally chiselled though his poetry remained. That word “quarrel,” although excised from his poem “The Sorrow of Love” in 1925 (its sparrows now put to brawling [Variorum Poems 119]), captures a sense of self-consciously playful contrariness, and this mood of argument is joyfully set loose in prose of this period that is contradictory in all senses: saying apparently contrary things, answering back, anticipating or forestalling an expected answer. Bakhtin’s “dialogic imagination” was coined to explain the prose of the novel, made up of polylogic discourse always expecting an answer; Yeats’s dialogic imagination is perhaps best embodied in his non-fictional prose. It is in this context this essay approaches A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929), arguing that what appears a peripheral, prefatorial text is central to Yeats’s and Pound’s evolving aesthetic, and vital to an understanding of modernist interactions of the period.

2This book emerged at a pivotal moment, between the publication (and revision) of Yeats’s chief poetic testaments The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933). Moreover, as this extract attests, it was conceived in contradiction:

The other day lady Gregory said to me “You are a much better educated man than you were ten years ago and much more powerful in argument.” And I put “The Tower” and “The Winding Stair” into evidence to show that my poetry has gained in self-possession and power. (Packet 11; Vision [1937, hereafter Vision] 7)

3Appearing the same year as another non-fictional, self-published text, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, playing imaginatively with fictionality (and orality, given its first manifestation as Cambridge lectures), A Packet for Ezra Pound has proved less enduring as a manifesto, but provides rewards for scrutiny. A peculiar vocal quality, evident in the reported speech above, plays against the book’s thorough-going exploitation of its printed existence, allowing ideas to emerge in the cross-currents of headings, numbered sections, epigraphs, signs, segmented prose, cross-talk, and even poems. All this seems characteristic: One year later Woolf’s diary catches Yeats in conversation: “Wherever one cut him, with a little question, he poured, spurted fountains of ideas. And I was impressed by his directness, his terseness. No fluff and dreaminess. Letters he said must be answered. […] All creation is the result of conflict” (Diary 4, 330). Letters, ideas, speech, conflict, creation, all these find their place in this prose answer to questions it was not obvious anyone was asking. Despite its marginal status, perhaps nowhere more than in this provisional text is a self-conscious construction of modernism evident.

4Such generic instability and artistic promiscuity as A Packet for Ezra Pound presents is consistent with Yeats’s oeuvre. A habit of grouping prose writings into (textually unstable) books makes it hard to draw a line separating non-fiction prose from fiction: so The Celtic Twilight’s personal anecdotes play against locally-collected folklore; Discoveries combines essay and journal; while the plural Autobiographies arrive in many parts of varying reliability. It is striking how often Yeats’s prose writing responds directly to other texts; not only in reviews, introductions, or literary essays where this might be expected, but in journals, semi-fictional accounts, programmes, broadcasts, pamphlets, and letters, so many letters, which must figure largely in any account of Yeats’s prose (“letters he said must be answered”). Indeed as we shall see, the practice of letter-writing leaks into his other prose projects: Per Amica Silentia Lunae is bookended by open letters to “Maurice,” Iseult Gonne. Subject, like his poetry, to extensive revision both before and after publication, Yeats’s non-fictional prose exhibits both subtlety and conscious excess, formal precision and genre-bending. Although the product of one man, his prose seems determined to prove that for an argument, it takes (at least) two.

1. A Vision

5Nowhere are such characteristics more manifest than in the oddest of Yeats’s prose texts, A Vision, after Finnegans Wake modernism’s most recalcitrant book of prose. A Vision is by no means unreadable, but, as its proliferating prefaces indicate, near-impenetrable without a guide, and as a philosophical, critical, magical, autobiographical, psychological, contradictory prose text its uncertain position with regard to Yeats’s other work has long been a source of disquiet. In contrast to Woolf, W.H. Auden levels stern accusations: “in 1930 we are confronted with the pitiful, the deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India” (56). In recent years A Vision has undergone a re-appraisal. Neil Mann’s website has spawned an edited collection, while Charles Armstrong has refocussed attention, not only on the texts and contexts (for A Vision often philosophical) but modes and forms of Yeats’s publications. Following transcripts of the text’s vast manuscript sources in notes and automatic script (Adams et al.), Margaret Mills Harper’s consideration of the collaborations of W.B. Yeats and his wife George has thrown new light on the makings of these plural books: two different versions published in separate editions of 1925 and 1937 are known to scholars as A Vision (A) and A Vision (B) respectively. While they have material in common these books take different approaches, different frames, different publishers (T. Wernie Laurie and Macmillan), different audiences, and different purposes. Excellent critical editions now exist of each: in a text that is protean, diverse, and segmented to begin with, observing anew the revision of A Vision reveals an incompleteness of vision, even a text radically and ineluctably uncompletable. Its contradictions are heightened as its multiple conflicting texts answer back to one another.

6Significantly, Auden’s barbs are not voiced in propria persona. They are remarks by the prosecution in a dialogue mock trial “The Public v. The Late William Butler Yeats,” and Auden’s “Counsel for the Defence” finally exculpates Yeats by concluding “art is a product of history, not a cause” (56). A Vision’s philosophical investigations were embarked upon precisely to unpick this Gordian knot: the book functions as an explanation of history and psychology as well as aesthetics, involving not just poetry but all the arts in its mathematical whirl. If history rhymes rather than repeats within Yeats’s Neoplatonic cycles of Great Years, it is no surprise that his book finds poets in part responsible, and their psychology, along with other artists and historic figures, worthy of scrutiny. Still, just as Auden thrusts modernist poetry, politics, and aesthetics at the heart of an agonistic dialectic, so does A Vision: as well as cyclical its other major dynamic is oppositional, fulfilling Yeats’s favourite Blakean dictum “without contraries is no progression” (Blake 149).

2. A Packet for Ezra Pound

7Voicing doubts about A Vision and weighing the effect on Yeats’s poetry has a venerable history. It was begun by Yeats himself in the book’s own prefaces. In A Vision’s vexed textual history, occupying the most curious position is precisely this series of prefaces produced for the revised 1937 (B) edition. Although they found a permanent home as part of this larger work, some also, unusually, achieved independent publication in book form in 1929 as A Packet for Ezra Pound (as did the framing fictions Stories of Michael Robartes), and used this position to comment, not always transparently or politely, on a yet-to-be published revised text. Early in 1929 (6 January) Yeats wrote to James Joyce’s estranged friend Oliver St John Gogarty:

I have been doing nothing but work on it for the past two months. Lolly [Yeats] may have told you its name “A PACKET FOR EZRA POUND” but the bulk of it is the introduction for Macmillan’s reprint of “A VISION”, re-rewritten and corrected. (Letters 5211)

8Typically, the book self-consciously includes Jonathan Swift’s comment from A Tale of A Tub criticizing “this way of publishing introductions to books that are God knows when to come out” (Vision 7). Mirroring A Tale of A Tub’s bold use of an excess of prefaces, introductions, dedications, A Packet for Ezra Pound writes its own history of books. Embracing such radical textual instability contributed to generic slippage: non-fiction texts replace a series of elaborate tales involving characters from Yeats’s fiction and the Arabian Nights, leaving them as ghostly imprints on new text. Although dismissed by scholars as “numerous droll and evasive preambles” (Parkinson 195), these texts combine in form and matter to enact a powerfully contradictory modernist manifesto. At once anecdotal and deeply symbolic, generically promiscuous and wilfully indirect, privately addressed and publicly printed (at the private press of his sister “Lolly,” or Elizabeth Corbett Yeats), A Packet was planned (as the above letter makes plain) as both preface and independent work, a strategy making it a receptacle for doubts about its sister-text. Its “incomplete geometry” is acknowledged, “The Soul in Judgment” called “the most unfinished of my four books” while suggesting “all that is laborious or mechanical in my book is finished” proved optimistic (Vision 6, 19). If A Vision is recalcitrant, palimpsestic, many-voiced, contradictory, A Packet is too, while also seeming tantalizingly open and approachable.

9Charles Armstrong has pointed out the problematic enticement to critics of Yeats’s metatextual passages, noting that sometimes these “paratexts impinge upon, indeed are sometimes continuous with texts” (63). It is hard not to get sucked in, and impossible entirely to separate text from outside-the-text: A Packet is a leaky vessel. Nevertheless, considering such works formally as intertextual and paratextual phenomena, and closely observing their rhetoric and bibliographic codes must be helpful. To use the terms of Gerard Genette, a text posing as private peritext (a letter about a book) becomes a public epitext (a preface).

10Printed in stark capitals on cover and title-page the book’s unusual name “A PACKET FOR EZRA POUND” invites comment. “Packet” implies a package or parcel of some description, a container for multiples or bundle of miscellany, all fitting descriptions of this book of prefaces, especially as the term “packet” focusses as much on wrapping papers as what they enclose. The idea that these prefaces are or contain posted documents gives them direction and an intended recipient; notably, however, they are not posted directly “to” Ezra Pound, but as if left “for” him, implying a wider audience. “Packet” also advertises a packet steamer, once known simply as “the packet,” in other words a boat transporting mail as well as passengers and goods on a fixed route. Given W.B. Yeats’s family history as a scion of W. & G. Pollexfen’s merchant shipping enterprises, with their controlling stake Sligo Steam Navigation Company, this is familiar matter, and it revisits his and his artist brother’s fascination for bric-a-brac, especially things nautical and musical, as demonstrated in Jack B. Yeats’s own semi-fictional prose text Sligo:

And the things remembered should not have so much description. So I remember simply
A ship in a bottle.
A fiddle made out of an old corn-beef tin.
A bunch of roses made of beetroots and turnips.
A snow storm inside a glass ball. (100)

  • 1 Jack B. Yeats’s model boats and ships-in-a-bottle were sold for a packet on the open market in the (...)

11That packet can be slang for something expensive, as in “costing a packet,” seems to carry only light weight in this apparently ephemeral text, although the book, hand-printed at the Cuala Press in 1929 in an edition of 450, is now worth a considerable sum (as is the family’s nautical memorabilia).1 Stamped with colophon and printer’s mark, A Packet is thus identified as part of a group. Its nautical theme echoes A Broadside, begun by Jack B. Yeats at Cuala and continued by his brother in the 1930s, monthly sheets of verse and music combating their ephemeral character through hand-coloured illustrations. It anticipates W.B. Yeats’s posthumous On The Boiler (1939), supposedly mouthed by a maddened sailor from a perch on a steamship’s boiler. Like these print events, A Packet is conspicuously incendiary. In the Great War a “packet” meant a shell (not the “actual shells of Rosses’ level shore” mentioned inside [Packet 9]), thereby echoing the explosive force of Pound and Lewis’s provocative near-wartime manifestos BLAST, as well as the poetic impact of Yeats’s own October Blast (1927). Pound had been Yeats’s best man, their wives were old and close friends; as addressed to him, A Packet for Ezra Pound involves him in a family affair. Like many volumes hand-printed and bound in distinctive light-blue cloth at the press of Cuala Industries (the family business run by W.B. Yeats’s sisters Lily and Elizabeth) this book matches the selections of John Butler Yeats’s letters to his son, published in two volumes by Cuala with Ezra Pound, then Lennox Robinson as editors. Epistolary dictums from W.B. Yeats’s father like “remember that the great artists and poets have been shameless plagiarists” emerged recast in T.S. Eliot’s essays (Further Letters 34). Notwithstanding a small print-run, gathering letters as artistic manifestos thus represented an important precedent, not only in substance but in the potential for influential circulation. That A Packet embraced its name and took on an occasional, intimate, and epistolary form appears no accident.

3. A Packet Part 3: “To Ezra Pound”

12In its final version A Packet for Ezra Pound exists in three sections. The first two are dated postscript in a manner reminiscent of letters: “March and October 1928” and “November 23 1928.” However the book’s epistolary tendencies are most evident in section three. This is undated but titled and addressed “to ezra pound.” It forms thus an open letter between fellow poets, members of an “excitable profession”, beginning

My Dear Ezra,
Do not be elected to the Senate of your country. I think myself, after six years, well out of that of mine. (
Vision 19)

13Implicitly referencing Shelley’s claim in “A Defence of Poetry” that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” this open letter argues poets should not be acknowledged legislators. Poets are not worldly enough; modern politics, so the argument runs, is dominated by “old lawyers, old bankers, old business men […] all habit and memory” who plough their relentless way on with “unperturbed lucidity” despite the exigencies of war or (so much is clear) a scintilla of Shelley’s vaunted imagination (Vision 19). Notwithstanding this renunciation of practical politics by a recently retired Irish Senator, the argument is nonetheless political; as Catherine Paul notes, the text can be read as implicitly critical of Pound’s entanglements with Mussolini. Moreover the form of direct address allows a pose of weary aged wisdom that slyly yokes together both modernist poets: “you and I […] are as much out of place as would be the first composers of sea-shanties in an age of steam” (Vision 20). Addressed to a poet who hoped to “make it new,” this is an infuriating trick of rhetoric, which nevertheless plays on a theme of anachronism which runs through the text.

14Being out of time is seen as vital to the renewal of art. So the letter’s second part provocatively announces “I send you the introduction of a book which will, when finished, proclaim a new divinity” and Oedipus and Christ are wheeled in as opposite poles of religious experience (Vision 20). The recipient’s likely reaction comes already anticipated: “You will hate these generalities, Ezra, which are themselves, it may be, of the past.” Even Pound’s own poetry is used against him: “Half-awakened” Gods emerge blinking into light as Pound’s vers libre poem “The Return” is reprinted in full (Vision 22). Significant, then, that this letter is undated. It is written as if from the past to the future, reviving the preoccupations and voices of the dead, as indeed A Vision attempts to do. And in a sense the past makes the future, as history comes round again. If these two poets seem out of time, antithetical to their age (in the terms of A Vision), their works have helped shape what is “past, or passing, or to come” (Variorum Poems 345). Within this temporal complication, their association, as spelled out here and in the full title A Packet for Ezra Pound, allies Yeats closely to this thing called Modernism, now predicted by and cast into his philosophy. As Yeats had pointedly written to Lady Augusta Gregory (24 Feb 1928): “Ezra Pound has been helping to punctuate my new poems, & thinks the best of all is a little song I wrote at Cannes, just before I was ordered to stop work, so you must not think of me as out of the saga” (Letters 5081). Out of time Yeats may have been, by circumstance or inclination; notwithstanding the book’s pose of anachronism, he is nevertheless determinedly still a contemporary.

4. A Packet Part 1: “Rapallo”

15If Yeats was out of time the book also marks him as out of place. Following a winter of fever Yeats and his family had settled in Rapallo, a small town on the Mediterranean tucked in a bay on the Ligurian coast of Italy near Livorno and Pisa, the haunts of the Romantic poets Shelley and Byron (unacknowledged interlocutors therefore in this dialogue), and a distance from the Roman grave of a poet who is mentioned, John Keats. Yeats’s letter to Gregory continued: “This is an indescribably lovely place – some little Greek town one imagines – there is a passage in Keats describing such a town. Here I shall put off the bitterness of Irish quarrels, and write my most amiable verses. They are already, though I dare not write, crowding my head” (Letters 5081). I have written elsewhere about the emerging poetry of these years (Paterson “Words for Music”). It matters this new departure was begun in prose.

16Conceived, assembled, and professedly composed in Rapallo in the year of 1928, A Packet for Ezra Pound is carefully placed, taking for its opening section title the name ‘Rapallo’. Although this coastal town might appear a backwater, a country for old men, something of this sheltered existence might allow an art unfettered by money and power. The opening describes a setting composed by the arts:

Mountains that shelter the bay from all but the south wind, bare brown branches of low vines and of tall trees blurring their outline as though with a soft mist; houses mirrored in an almost motionless sea; a verandahed gable a couple of miles away bringing to mind some Chinese painting. Rapallo’s thin line of broken mother-of-pearl along the water’s edge. The little town described in the Ode on a Grecian Urn. (Vision 3)

17While this motionless, almost verbless passage describes a landscape, it is one open to the vertical proportions and austerity of Chinese painting – or Japanese art, as Yeats wrote to Japanese scholar Shotaro Oshima (24 March 1929) that his Italian view was “looking out over the sea and over mountains often wreathed in mist which continually remind me of the landscape painting of your country, even mist” (Letters 5228). Such orientalist vagueness which slips mistily from the vocabulary of painting to words recalling jewellery or porcelain makes sense, in context. Being open to the Mediterranean seems to mean being open to all kinds of cross-cultural artistic commerce: with Greece, for instance. Keats’s poem of course describes no real town but an ancient painted vase of “leaf-fringed legend,” of “marble men and maidens,” with a “mysterious priest” and “pipes and timbrels.” So although this passage seems most concerned with the visual and plastic arts, it should be remembered Keats pitches an aesthetic which pictures a “happy melodist, unwearièd, / Forever piping songs for ever new” (203). By these lights Keats’s ekphrastic poem depicts a place sacred to poetry aligned with music. A concern with music and China runs as counterpoint therefore to the other main context of this place, Rapallo: the art of Ezra Pound.

18The next section begins:

I shall not lack conversation. Ezra Pound, whose art is the opposite of mine, whose criticism commends what I most condemn, a man with whom I should quarrel more than with anyone else if we were not united by affection, has for years lived in rooms opening on to a flat roof by the sea. (Vision 3)

19A Packet for Ezra Pound makes public these private quarrels. Pound had discovered Japan together with Yeats, through the papers of the sinologist Ernest Fenellosa (Longenbach). It is in deference to Pound’s grasp of what he considered the ur-source of eastern culture that Yeats’s text brings in China. Since their intimate experience at Stone Cottage in the years 1913-15 (Longenbach), talking, writing, and even fencing (Pound remembered “mostly reading aloud […] And wrangling” [Paris Review 8]), the amicable disagreements of the two poets had continued unabated, manifested in conversation and open quarrels, but also in the prose of packets and letters with which this text takes on a close relationship. Pound was “a violent talker” (Vision Papers 4:17); his habitual letter-writing method was hammered out on the typewriter in rapid-fire bullet-prose. Yeats’s methods were less noisy; but however they were conducted, the continuing arguments of this mobile pair of modernists inevitably took epistolary form.

5. A Packet of Letters

20If the foregoing has described something of the text’s method, it might also elucidate why it seems natural to consider A Packet for Ezra Pound alongside Yeats’s letters of the period. Not only do these texts often partake of and rework the same material, they exhibit strong formal connections; not least when pre-empting replies, answering back, or recording conversations.

21When he wasn’t writing letters, Yeats was barely living. The only significant silences throughout Yeats’s prodigious letter-writing career occur in periods of severe illness. Some few of these periods occurred while in Rapallo; illness the main reason, in fact, the Yeats family headed for southern coasts. So Yeats writes to the poet and designer Thomas Sturge Moore, “This is a plague of a letter, but it is the first long letter I have written since my illness, & I am very puffed up about it” (Letters 5080). In fact, it wasn’t: typically, long letters to Olivia Shakespear and that already quoted to Augusta Gregory were already in train. More than ever during illness and exile Yeats’s letter-writing represented signs of life. It seems almost in compensation for unaccustomed silence that after such falterings Yeats took up letter-writing with such gusto. As a frequent correspondent Maud Gonne shrewdly noted “writing [letters] is often tiring, though I know that sometimes, with you[,] letters are a game like playing at ball” (442). Letters mattered to Yeats’s composition: early on he had conceived his poetry on similar lines: “We should write out our own thoughts in as nearly as possible the language we thought them in, as though in a letter to an intimate friend.” (Autobiographies 105). Yeats seemed to require such utterances as perpetual continuing dialogues. Exuberant attempts at protean selves, as a result they represent vital testing-grounds for modernism: given their vocal quality, perhaps better to say sounding-boards. They were expressions of life, because expressions of voice.

22Sometimes the vocal quality attaching to Yeats’s letters is literal. While still gravely ill he writes to Gregory (18 Jan 1928) “I am dictating this letter to George for it deals with practical matters and affairs of the family” (Letters 5068). His most intimate letters were handwritten, although with a struggle of eyes and materials often self-consciously recorded: “All well here – Ezra explains his Cantos and reads me Cavalcanti & we argue about it quite amicably. […] This is so short because yesterday I lost my fountain pen” (Letters 5085). Many years before he had adopted a practice for business letters of dictation to a secretary, startling his publisher A.H. Bullen with his frankness. Considering the punctuation of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy Woolf’s contemporaneous essay suggests it “brings the sounds, the associations of the speaking voice with it” (Essays 4, 56). Without in the least sacrificing anything of its bookish quality, A Packet makes this vocal quality of Yeats’s letters explicit.

23So A Packet for Ezra Pound inserts itself neatly into a continuing conversation. It is one that concerns modern poetry: “For the last hour we have sat upon the roof which is also a garden, discussing that immense poem of which but seven and twenty Cantos are already published” (Vision, 3-4). Expressing puzzlement about the structure of this new draft epic (“there will be no plot, no chronicle of events, no logic of discourse”), Yeats notes Pound’s recourse to a most intimate kind of correspondence, in all senses: he explains further by “scribbling on an envelope certain sets of letters that represent emotions or archetypal events […] ABCD and then JKLM, and then each set of letters repeated, and then ABCD inverted and this repeated, […] and all set whirling together.” The precise correspondences of these letters on an envelope might be obscure, but their time-bound connections are manifest. “It will,” Yeats is informed, “when the hundredth Canto is finished, display a structure like that of a Bach fugue” (Vision 4). For a poet with a strained relation to music, the analogy to musical form might seem a surprising one (Paterson “Words”). Yeats had written uncertainly to his wife George (25 February 1928): “Ezra has spend several hours explaining the structure of his Cantos, & all I know is that there is a structure & that it is founded on that of a Fugue – that word looks wrong” (Letters 5083). Pound later darkly commented that “blighter never knew WHAT a fugue was anyhow” (WBY-GY Letters 190). Unquestionably though Yeats was in the right place to learn; Pound’s partner, the concert violinist Olga Rudge, was soon to begin her pioneering transcription, editing, and performing of the instrumental music of Antonio Vivaldi, and Rapallo would become the centre for their joint concert experiments (Moody 186-195). It might be noted that Yeats describes musical inversion correctly enough, and even the grudging Pound had to admit Yeats’s sensitivity to patterned sound noting that “before writing a lyric he is apt to ‘get a chune in his head’” (ABC of Reading 197-8).

24Moreover, as the rest of Yeats’s letter makes plain, he was already pitched into collaboration with the avant-garde American composer George Antheil, fresh from succès de scandale in Paris and Vienna and the subject of Pound’s musical manifesto Antheil; and the Treatise on Harmony (1927), which described a new “musical world […] of steel bars” (43). Staged at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1929, Fighting The Waves was a pugnacious adaptation of Yeats’s dance play The Only Jealousy of Emer as a ballet, with choreography by the young Ninette de Valois, and Antheil’s score, “the only dramatic music I ever heard, a powerful beat, strangeness, something hard and heroic” (Letters 5240). For Yeats, this approach was “like a welcome to continental art” (Letters 5083). As the same letter records, Pound was writing to Jean Cocteau for his version of Antigone (produced in Paris with Tiresias played by Anton Artaud, set design and masks by Picasso, and music by Arthur Honegger) which Yeats hoped to get for the Abbey as sequel to his recent translations of Sophocles. Despite Yeats’s tactic of expressing puzzlement about new trends, he was embracing the pan-artistic, pan-European atmosphere of Rapallo. It was not just Pound who could make it new. In Rapallo, as in his book, Yeats was placing himself in the company of European modernists, having inserted himself into a radical avant-garde network, while retaining a just-plausible deniability about their politics.

25Yeats’s strategy thus combined careful opposition and collaboration. Like Pound’s method of argument, he would later claim Pound’s “noble style” was “constantly interrupted, broken, twisted into nothing by its direct opposite” (Oxford Verse xxvi). A Packet is more circumspect and more engaging: his attitude emerges in other contemporary letters, as to Augusta Gregory (April 1 1928):

Have you read Wyndham Lewis? He attacked Ezra Pound and Joyce in Time and Western Man, and is on my side of things philosophically. My essay takes up the controversy and explains Ezra Pound sufficiently to keep him as a friendly neighbour. (Letters 5097)

26Much as Yeats evidently enjoyed these controversies, his treachery did not extend to a permanent switching of camps. Safely back in Rapallo after a summer absence, he wrote to Lewis (5 November 1928):

I'm dictating this to my wife as my eyes are for the moment out of sorts. I wish very much I could have gone to tea with you and seen your work but my last days in London […] were as full as I dared make them considering my still rather damaged state. (Letters 5186)

27However true this was, a wary Yeats remained at a distance from Lewis “I see a good deal of Ezra,” he notes, and when he cites his work alongside sculptured ovoids by Brancusi as characteristic of modern art and comparable to his own “stylistic arrangements of experience,” it is by no means obvious that the reference is entirely approving (Vision 19). In a section removed from A Vision, he attempts to come to terms with the modern age:

It is almost impossible to understand the art of a generation younger than one’s own. I was wrong about Ulysses when I had read but some first fragments, and I do not want to be wrong again. Perhaps when the sudden Italian spring has come I may have discovered what will seem all the more, because the opposite of all I have attempted, unique and unforgettable. (Vision 310)

28The admission is striking, and plays its part in a strategy of criticism and approbation suggested but withheld. Its acknowledged vacillation is reminiscent, in fact, of his characterization of the suitable state of mind for creative work “we sing amid our uncertainty” (Mythologies 331).

29To explain the tenor and technique of modern art Yeats returned to familiar ground. In a literal sense this was true. Despite its Italian setting much of A Packet was actually composed in Ireland, at the County Galway house of the ailing Lady Augusta Gregory, who with Yeats’s poem “Coole Park, 1929” as preface, was producing a final series of essays called Coole about the house and garden for Cuala Press. If Yeats’s newly-discovered nostalgia for his Italian residence was real enough, it was all the more acute when he went to Dublin, full of Free State and Abbey Theatre politicking. To Pound’s mother-in-law, his old flame Olivia Shakespear, he wrote (12 August 1928) “I am tired, I want nothing but the sea-shore & the palms & Ezra to quarrel with, & the Rapallo cats to feed after night fall” (Letters 5124). To Maud Gonne (6 Sept 1928) “When I get to Rapallo I am a honey bee – here I am a wasp” (5158). Though he associated Gonne with Pound’s revolutionary temperament, plainly he associated their open artistic quarrels with a setting of productivity and paradoxical tranquillity.

30Pound’s feeding of Rapallo’s “oppressed” cat population Yeats chose to see in terms of Pound’s defences of impoverished writers: “I see his criticism in a new light” (Vision 5). However this was not so much about Pound’s aesthetics, to which Yeats was happy to attach himself, rather his politics. Indeed his non-confrontational strategy can be considered a subtle but real dissension from Pound’s alarming embrace of revolutionary politics: “Ezra & Violence” were already associated in the system (Vision Papers 3, 249), and Wyndham Lewis was privately employed to explain Yeats’s frustration with Pound’s politics, naming a type “the revolutionary simpleton,” to which Pound (and Maud Gonne) apparently belong. Yeats’s relationship to Italian fascism was not all that has been claimed; his dissent might be read in the wrily amused tone through which the quarrelling cats of Rapallo get a roll-on part in A Packet.

31Yeats return home also meant that the form of A Packet accurately reflects the round of letters and parcels which produced it. The accidents of packages arriving and being scattered become part of the book’s making. From Coole he wrote to his wife:

Many thanks for the Balzac, it comes in the nick of time for I have begun my essay on Ezra. To day I find however that the envelope with Cavalcanti written on it contains only the Italian. (Letters 5144)

32The Italian flavour of Cavalcanti was finally sidelined; when it arrived Pound’s translation proved “enfuriating” [sic], “I have told him I shall use my essay with other things of my own, or, if he will let me, with a little selection from his poetry.” (Letters 5148). Balzac, however, represented familiar territory. Yeats read and reread the Comedie Humaine, and reaching for an analogy with Pound’s near-impossible conceptions lighted upon Balzac’s Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece), in which a master-painter produces a huge, incomprehensible work, perhaps of genius, from which only a few “luminous details”, a foot, a shoulder, stand out here and there. Of course, as Yeats was aware, if anything the analogy actually aligned his own project even closer with Pound’s.

33So even as it holds Pound and his associates at a distance A Packet multiplies its associations with him. As before the tactic often employed is intertextuality. Nietzsche represented another familiar figure tacitly present in Yeats’s text. A Packet plainly enjoyed the example of Nietzsche’s most antithetical books like The Twilight of the Idols, which memorably claims to philosophize with a hammer, and Nietzsche Contra Wagner, denouncing the composer, a former mentor, for German beeriness instead of Mediterranean sunlight. In Rapallo, however, in prose that comes close to poetry, Nietzsche had composed a visionary text, Thus Spake Zarathustra, propounding a new philosophy in almost religious language. This ecstatic element of Nietzsche’s thought is also present in the text, and via Yeats, Nietzsche at times comes to seem strangely in tune with Pound (both are placed in phase 12 of A Vision’s psychological system). Thus Spake Zarathustra’s “Dance Song” and Nieztsche’s passionate assertions about joining the arts mirror Yeats’s own contentions and artistic practice in composing a ballet, as well as Pound’s “conviction on this day of New Year is that music begins to atrophy when it gets too far from dance; that poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music” (ABC Reading 14). Likewise, Pound’s whirling fugal cycles come to seem not so far from the circular, even musical structure of A Vision. Nietzsche had composed his text walking the mountain paths of Rapallo; Pound visited the musician Olga Rudge on the same paths. Yeats joyfully adopts even the landscape of these creative acts, so that “the mountain road from Rapallo to Zoagli seems like something in my own mind, something that I have discovered” (Vision 6). This silent tribute is also an act of repression, showing his emulation and adopting of new forms and casts of thought, but also a determination to make them his own.

6. A Packet Part 2 etc.: “Introduction to the Great Wheel” and Extras

34Here in the revised version the text breaks off. Later named “An Introduction to A Vision,” in a masterful misdirection the “Great Wheel” of A Packet’s next part is disorientingly never explained, and cannot be considered here without deeper archaeology of the main text and manuscripts. But one thing might be noted: all was manifested in dialogue. Yeats was describing for the first time (to his wife’s displeasure) the secret collaboration with spirits and speakers which produced A Vision’s obscure philosophical insights. With George Yeats in half-trance, the unknown instructors required prompting: “I had always to question, and every question to arrive out of a previous answer and to deal with their chosen topic” (Vision 9). This active “dialogic method” with polylogic communicators was often frustrated even beyond the intervention of alleged “frustrators” that dogged progress (Harper 135). Indeed the very difficulty of this communication remained a theme. Significantly A Packet devotes most attention to “sleeps” in which George Yeats replied to questions vocally. Yeats rather played up incongruities of their practice with the modern world, as the smell of violets or cat’s excrement, bursts of music, or unexpected voices arrive suddenly in rooms or train carriages. But A Packet’s obsession with sound communication and portable voices shows the modern viability of mediumship. Here a vocabulary of technology, particularly of nascent radio technology was important (Paterson “Radio”), but notably the modernist conception of media and medium drew more on a legacy of late-nineteenth-century mediumship, magic, and spiritualism than has been generally acknowledged. Despite the likelihood of readers’ scepticism, A Packet for Ezra Pound represents an important record of this experience, even as it questions the basis for belief.

35Sound was after all the technology of poetry. While the text is divided principally into three, originally an extra part was included. A two-part poem called “Meditations on Death” (later divided into “At Algeciras” and “Mohini Chatterjee”), forms a diviso counterpoint, the poems run together so one answers another. Inevitably these are question and answer poems: the former more existentially troubling as “imagination run[s]” on “the Great Questioner,” and what the poet could possibly reply. In the latter a Brahmin sage answers the poet’s question “I asked if I should pray” with partial reassurance about past and future lives. Precise dates written beneath attach the poems to the texture of the rest; their probing questions and answers ensure poems are part of the continuing dialogue.

36A return to voiced poetry as the root of things is manifest in prose omitted from the final edition: “Four weeks ago I read poetry again after four years philosophical study; at first it was faint like an old letter, and then an excitement that I had not felt for years.” A poem is a letter from the past, which if done right communicates with almost vocal presence. The narrator turns afresh to Ezra Pound’s many-voiced Personae, provoking perceptive criticism: “his translations are as much part of his original work.” Form is not necessarily ground for difference: if “old forms are dead,” Pound was attempting rather “a new style, a new man.” Yeats concludes: “Synge once said to me ‘All our modern poetry is the poetry of the lyrical boy,’ but here, in spite of all faults and flaws […] is the grown man” (Vision 276). In Pound’s work Yeats finds virtues he admires, “passion and self-possession,” “masterful curiosity,” in particular, “self-abandonment that recovers itself in mockery,” which he hopes to embody himself. In his opposite Yeats recognises his own image, and his partial portrait of Pound becomes an unexpected self-portrait. He ends by quoting Pound’s poem “Ite”: “Go my songs, seek your praise from the young and the intolerant”, “stand in hard Sophoclean light,” sending out his own book likewise to stand in the glare of both younger contemporaries and older wisdoms (276).

37Yeats’s obsession with voices in poetry and prose shows him in step with a younger generation. Nonetheless his attempts to unify these voices into a protean discourse belonging to one man, something T.S. Eliot’s fragmentary borrowings in The Waste Land (following Charles Dickens’ “He do the police in different voices”) rarely attempt, finally shows a divergent impetus. Arguably he was closer to Pound’s quixotic search for unity, but Pound’s Cantos had the advantage of poetry; the grand schemes and dense prose of Yeats’s A Vision might not even be read by his admirers. Important then to pluck creative work from what appeared a necessary antagonism. Not necessarily just for Yeats, but for Pound too, as a letter written as the book was finished demonstrates (21 January 1929):

Now that the philosophy is finished I am writing prose drafts for poems […] the start after a long interval – is always difficult. […] I see Ezra daily. We disagree about everything but if we have not met for 24 hours he calls full of gloomy and almost dumb aggression. (Letters 5213)

38Only live vocal disagreement truly draws Pound’s sting: this is argument as therapy. Finally Yeats’s dissent from Pound does establish a kind of dissonant harmony: as he said, all creation really was the result of conflict. A Packet, though, proceeds more by strategic uncertainty than direct contradiction. It thus opened space for new work. Yeats’s drafts for new poems (in prose), represented a record of a continuing creative discussion.

39It has been my argument that the form of A Packet for Ezra Pound tells a story as much as its content. At times it can seem an elaborate game, like Yeats’s letter-writing, “a game like playing at ball,” or like his brother’s “snow storm inside a glass ball.” Under observation this ball does not stay put, or stay in shape. Likewise the book will not be boxed into one genre, will not properly introduce a book which is not there, will not be tied to univocal conclusions. Its appearance in 1929 represents a prod, a provocation, a revaluation. When finally published as part of A Vision (1937), its status as paratextual paraphernalia magnifies its occult strangeness if not its dialogic texture, while muting to most readers its aesthetic purpose. Even then its meaning cannot be circumscribed. No final answer is provided. In this it represents a quintessential modernist text, even as it claims to stand outside modernism’s conventions, and tacitly dissent from its politics.

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1 Jack B. Yeats’s model boats and ships-in-a-bottle were sold for a packet on the open market in the Yeats Family Sale at Sotheby’s, London, November 2017.

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Adrian PATERSON, « Men of Letters: W.B. Yeats’s A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929) », E-rea [En ligne], 15.2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 29 mai 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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National University of Ireland, Galway
Dr Adrian Paterson is Lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and a former student of Professor David Bradshaw at Worcester College, Oxford. With specialisms in modernism and in Irish literature, he has published widely on their intersections with the arts and curated the multimedia exhibition Yeats & the West for The Model Gallery, Sligo. Words for Music: W.B.Yeats and Musical Sense is forthcoming.

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