‘Fear God and the Stupidity of the Populace’: Pound, Eliot, and High Modernism between Populism and Esotericism

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Part 1: Populism, Elitism, and Esotericism

In this article, I wish to demonstrate some issues with discussing the populism of literary works. I argue that an assessment of the place of populism in the literary cannot rely on the usual opposition of the concept to elitism, primarily because both sides of this dichotomy work by obscuring the formal, aesthetic nature of literary works. Instead, I propose a dichotomy of populism and esotericism. I see these as stylistic and rhetorical stances taken within an aesthetic vision. Using the example of Ezra Pound, a writer who has been claimed for both populist movements and elitist coteries, I demonstrate the ways in which his politics is in fact enveloped within an aesthetic commitment; both rhetorical strategies are, in fact, part of a broader literary project, one which has esoteric concerns at its heart. Moving on to T.S. Eliot, I will then show how the esoteric has an important role in the delineation of modernist writing. Ultimately, shifting the opposition of populism from elitism to esotericism encourages us to think in terms of style, audience, and form: in other words, literary concerns.

It is important to relate the concept of populism to notions of the popular. There is, of course, that which is popular without being populist. One way to think about this is through the binary opposition with which it is most commonly paired: elitism. What is the correlative object to elitism? In terms of modernist cultures, one may think of the obscure, the codified, those ideas which are a shibboleth to readers instructed in particular forms of culture.1 This may all well be true, but these matters largely reduce to discussions of content. It may be expected of certain forms of poetry, written by people of a certain background, that they make use of Greek mythology, but the legend of Icarus is not the sole preserve of the elite. Neither is it, in and of itself, obscure. Similarly, the gramophone played a key role in the development of popular music, but used to play Brahms, does it not still speak to the same elite group? If not, is the matter less an issue of Brahms’s aesthetic and more a question of accessibility and address? The point is this: literary populism is not necessarily a matter of content (though it may also be a matter of content). It is a matter of address. The popular, such as a radio program or music hall or a television gameshow, is enclosed within an artistic form, within an artistic address. It is then a question of whom this work addresses: populism and elitism are, first and foremost, matters of audience. And given that this audience is included within the text itself, the addressee to whom a lyrical I, a narrator, or an author him/herself speaks, then it becomes a matter of style. Populism is thus not simply a matter of what is said, but how it is said and to whom. Literary populism must become primarily a stylistic concept, rather than simply an ideological one.

Let us take two of most prominent examples used to illustrate an apparent “high modernist” elitism: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Both texts are saturated in references to works requiring an extensive knowledge of certain complex cultural structures, such as details of literary history (Pound’s use of medieval French and Italian poetry, for example), classical references (Eliot’s Tiresias in The Waste Land requires a profound knowledge of the character’s myth to function), philosophical theories (Eliot’s use of ancient Indian philosophy, Pound’s use of Neoplatonism), and some of the more obscure details from European history. It is easy to see why works composed of such references would be accused of elitism: they seem to summon only those who have received the requisite education to be able to read the language, so to speak. But this is something of a critical fallacy. Were Eliot’s and Pound’s work to function by a kind of game of identifying references, this criticism may stand, but the kind of reading the works demand is often the assimilation of the references, the use of them, the transformation of them, or their use of illustration for a different point. This process on the part of the reader is revealed in their interaction with the work and not in their academic knowledge of a particular reference system. Understanding is less dependent on the education of the reader than on their attention span and sympathy. In other words, membership of a social elite – one, for example, in which all of these references have been clear since the age of 15 – is not sufficient to comprehend the poem itself. The dividing line is not class, but coterie; not content, but style. It is not a cultural and social elite for whom communication of this kind is the preserve, but rather a like-minded readership, those who share the poet’s convictions, be that aesthetic (fellow poets, for example), cultural (the pessimists of the post-war), political (critics of social democracy), or philosophical. The issue is one of whom the poet must address, of who constitutes the poet’s public. The question of populism thus becomes one of imagined mass audience, at the preclusion of poetry written for a specific group.

If we are to speak of a relationship between poetry and populism, and of poetry and elitism, then we must first establish what is uniquely literary about the populism. What, in other words, is populism’s literary form? What is elitism’s? Furthermore, what is the proper opposition to populism in literary terms? Given the longstanding debates around modernism’s alleged obscurity, its propensity to insularity, its coteries, its assumption of certain forms of education, and its reactionary politics, then the logical conclusion seems to be a literary elitism. As I will demonstrate below, however, this opposition draws too strict contextual limits around the reading of the works themselves.

“High modernism” of the kind usually associated with Eliot, Joyce, Pound et al is, of course, a critical term, not an artistic one. The very name “high modernism” is intended to summon up images of elitism. Andreas Huyssen has argued that the high-low distinction of culture is crucially built not only into the cultural space of modernism itself but also into the way in which modernism has been treated in the academy (Huyssen 197).2 This ‘high’ culture, calling to mind as it does the aesthetic reworking of tradition, with its practice of canon-formation and aesthetic dogma, has long been associated with an ‘elite’ and opposed to the ‘popular’ (or, indeed, populist) (see Huyssen 202-204). In his Modernism (2005), Tim Armstrong frames high modernism as modernist classicism, noting that the mythologizing of 1922 as the annus mirabilis of modernism was bound up with a shift towards tradition, reaction, and canon-formation in the literary criticism of writers such as Eliot, Leavis, and the New Critics (Armstrong 33-34). Indeed, the New Critical insistence on the priority of form, on aesthetic value-judgements, its avowed anti-Romanticism, and its search after objective order and structure, can easily be assimilated into a political elitism by virtue of its tendency towards hierarchical thinking. The creation of this canon draws up lines around what constitutes the elite of modernism. One might even ask if this is a populist gesture of a kind.

Eliot, as the author of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, as arbiter for what was published in the modern canon in his role as editor at Faber and Faber, has bourne the most charges of institutional elitism. This image is one that Eliot himself seems to have somewhat cultivated, as seen in his famous admission in For Launcelot Andrewes (1928) that he was ‘an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics’ (Eliot, For Launcelot Andrewes ix).3 Most defences of Eliot from the charge of elitism take the approach of demonstrating the use that Eliot made of popular culture. David Chinitz, for example, challenges the view of Eliot as elitist by arguing in his important 1995 essay ‘T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide’ that Eliot was in fact a transformative figure in bringing “high” and “low” culture together. Chinitz writes that ‘despite his ambivalence, [he] developed a quite progressive theoretical position on the relation between high culture and popular culture and attempted repeatedly to convert this theory into art’ (Chinitz 237). Juan A. Suarez also demonstrates this point nicely in a 2001 article on that most prominent cipher of high modernism, The Waste Land. Suarez shows that Eliot’s cultural activity in the poem was attuned to popular culture, and that this is best demonstrated by the use of an object, the gramophone, which literally records and broadcasts the popular into the rooms of high society (Suarez 761). In the details of modernist texts, the accusation of elitism, even the descriptor ‘high modernism’, is challenged. Genevieve Abravanel, for example, has shown by looking at Joyce’s use of American culture and language in that other doyen of high modernist categorization, Ulysses, Joyce relied far more deeply on popular references than is often assumed.4 Finally, in a strong challenge to the charge of obscurity as a shibboleth of entry to high modernist experimental coteries, Matthew Levay has shown how Gertrude Stein used the form of popular genres such as detective fiction to broaden the limits of the so-called ‘avant-garde’. He situates this in relation to Douglas Mao’s and Rebecca L. Walkowitz’s argument for a “vertical”, or expanded, understanding of modernism as blurring the boundaries between high-, middle-, and low-brow culture (Levay 4). In a nice summary, Karen Leick argues that the high-low distinction is more a matter of academic institutionalization of modernism than it is for the texts under consideration, claiming that ‘modernist writers and texts were better known and, indeed, more popular than has been acknowledged. This dialectic was erased from academic memory in the postwar period as an elitist and historically inaccurate conception of modernism was institutionalized’.5

But being attuned to popular culture and a commitment to democratic or, further, populist politics are by no means the same thing. The appearances of radio or popular music in The Waste Land are not enough to rescue Eliot from what is a political accusation. The reason for this is that Eliot’s use of popular culture is not a gesture towards his audience nor an appeal to certain ways of life or thinking, but is instead part of the fabric of the poetic vision: in a sense, references to popular culture are ciphers within the poem’s symbolic structure; they are called into and absorbed within the poetic-philosophical discourse of The Waste Land, rather than constituting an expression of sympathy. Let us consider the example of the second part of the poem, ‘A Game of Chess’, specifically the passage in which Eliot transitions from the upper class couple to the lower class ladies in the pub. The famous opening lines, a reference to Anthony and Cleopatra, establish a sense of decay and disappointment. We fall from ‘the chair she sat in like a burnished throne’ to noticing that it is surrounded by vials of ‘synthetic perfume’ (Eliot, The Waste Land 137). The passage dramatizes the disconnection between a husband and wife. They are interrupted (be it gramophone, be it a thought) by the (altered) recitation of three lines from Gene Buck’s and Herman Ruby’s 1912 popular song, ‘The Shakespeherian rag’:

O O O O that Shakespeherian rag
it’s so elegant
so intelligent (Eliot, The Waste Land (138)

While these lines can be read as an attempt to integrate “low” culture into the “high” cultural space of the poem (and its high cultural intertextual structure), it is more pertinent to consider how they are integrated. Given that the quotation is an implied answer to the question ‘is there nothing in your head?’, there is an element of frivolity to them. Eliot’s use of the lines is as much ironic as it is symbolic. And the irony here is not just that of the man’s dislocation from his domestic scene but also that of the section as a whole. That ‘Shakespeherian rag’ connects in its ironic use of the bard with the concluding lines of ‘A Game of Chess’:

Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
……………….Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night,
……………….good night. (139)

Here the phonetic ‘goonight’, an eye-dialect representation of East London (and its attendant indexicality of class), transforms into ‘good night’, a standardizing correction, closer to the elocution of Eliot’s own class, and that of the Dial’s readership. More importantly, the pub scene fades into Shakespeare again, with the line ‘good night, sweet ladies’ being a clear reference to Hamlet, as well as an echo of the detached, ironic voice of Eliot’s own Prufrock. While we might question whether the representation of East London life is accurate, this is not expressly Eliot’s purpose here: the portrayal is part of the fabric of the poem, and must be seen within the Shakespearean irony of ‘A Game of Chess’. The combination of “high” and “low” types, the harmony of different poetic registers, the folly of the aristocracy, the tragedy of fools – these are all features of Shakespearean comedy. Shakespeare opens and closes the section and the events within it can be seen within the form of a Shakespearean farce (in this sense, the ‘rag’ nicely captures Eliot’s own pastiche).

None of this is to diminish the political aspects of the passage. Indeed, the very fact that the popular is appropriated within a classical reference may be a political stance in and of itself. Conversely, one may argue that Eliot’s awareness of popular culture might be enough to stave off accusations of elitist commitments. Either way, the point here is that the political, and in particular the political representation of the people, is integrated into the texture of the poem. The primary mode here is the aesthetic. The working class characters are neither representative nor rhetorical but stylistic – they are performing a stylistic function, first and foremost. There is no appeal to the working class in their inclusion; and the same might be said for the portrayal of the upper class husband and wife: they are all enclosed together within the atmosphere of discontent. There are political gestures here, and class gestures, too, but they are not primary. Whether Eliot sympathizes with one group or another, whether he enjoys popular music or not, is not the primary symbolic reference here: these symbols are working towards a poetic and philosophical vision which is revealed across the poem as a whole and culminates in images of decay, ruin, and renewal. This vision encompasses the political stances of the author, no doubt, but it does not make the poem a vehicle for them.

The problem with remaining on the populist-elitist axis when assessing literary works is that one maintains attachment to what is already a populist accusation. To claim an artwork as ‘elitist’ or ‘populist’ is already to have accepted a populist argument. The purpose of this paper is to move beyond the political opposition of populism to elitism in order to posit a more literary and philosophical opposition that does have currency in their poetry: populism and esotericism. The reason this distinction matters is that one can appeal to a small audience, even a coterie, without being elitist. One can, whether on philosophical, religious, or aesthetic grounds cultivate a small audience without without intending to establish a center of political power.

If we are to treat populism in its artistic dimension – in its literary dimension – then we need to provide an account of it in accord with our subject; that is, if we as literary scholars are to contribute to the debate, we need to consider its literary dimension first and foremost. This can be helped by a conceptual shift from the political opposition of populism to elitism to an opposition of populism to esotericism, or the writing of secrecy; in other words, we might consider populism as a rhetorical style, an appeal to an imagined mass audience – on the basis that they are a mass audience – and esotericism a rhetorical style of speech or writing for concrete, small audiences.  These small audiences, I would add, often form themselves in reaction against what is perceived to be a popular threat to shared Truth, whether they be initiates of a religious cult, a secret society, or an academic symposium. One reason for this shift is that I wish to challenge the interpretation of ‘high art’ as an elitist practice, an interpretation which, I contend, is in and of itself already populist. How is The Waste Land, for example, truly ‘elitist’ in and of itself? This is a claim made really on the grounds of its recalcitrance, its difficulty, its obscurity. These things are not the preserve of an ‘elite’. ‘Elitist’ art seems to me to be art made by and for a preserved community of governing figures: Pound and Eliot, for all their difficulty and elusiveness, are not members of the governing class. A case may, of course, be made that Eliot’s privileged position as the editor of Faber & Faber, and thus the arbiter of what became established as modern canon, and Pound’s position as a key node in the modernist nexus, constitutes an elite of sorts, but this is an elite of a different order to those governing states – Pound’s own troubling political history demonstrates a crucial antagonism, in fact, to the political establishment.

Populism as style is, to repeat, a public appeal to a mass audience on the basis that it is a mass audience – its power is drawn from number; esotericism is a concealed or private appeal to a concrete group on the basis of a shared belief. On a political level, there are in fact certain correspondences between the two. If populism creates otherness on the basis of not belonging to the majority (or the majority of a particular community), esotericism creates otherness on the basis of not belonging to a community of initiates. The difference lies, however, in the nature of the appeals made. As I am interested in an understanding of populism that takes account of its aesthetic, I would suggest we think of populism as an appeal to an audience on the basis that it is the majority view: in this sense, utilitarianism and consequentialism in ethics, democracy in politics, and artistic notions of popular culture are all susceptible to populist appeals; esotericism cannot, however, appeal to the audience alone: it has to appeal to the basis of the group’s existence, the ground of the community: often a shared belief.6 What I am driving at here is the idea that in populist works, an appeal is made to the audience as the basis of meaning, or of power, or of correctness. In esoteric works, an appeal is made to an internal truth, a belief, a foundation of which the community is merely a part; merely a constitutive part. This group is similar in structure to an elite, but it need not be one. In populism, the political is king, in esotericism, it is a notion of a higher Truth.7

As a figure also accused of elitism, and whose reactionary politics come close to those of Eliot and Pound Leo Strauss’s writing on the esoteric is instructive here. In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss argues that since the trial of Socrates, philosophy and philosophical truth have [has ] [have] been recognized as dangerous for the public space, and so the philosopher has been forced intellectually underground for fear of political reprisals such as Socrates faced. Philosophical writing has thus been forced into a kind of covert language; it comprises an exoteric part, a public aspect, which is intended towards the public, and which pays lip service to the mass and to power, and a second part, an esoteric part, a secretive language, a coded way of determining truth, and this is intended towards its true, concrete philosophical readership (Strauss 16-18). Poetry, by virtue of its focus on the speech act itself, is a more public practice than philosophy, and so we cannot go as far as Strauss here – what we may claim is that insofar as poetry might also have commitments to philosophical truths, we may remember that the esoteric is less formed on the basis of excluding the masses than it is in preserving truth from the violence of certain establishment groups, including the state. For all the problems with Strauss’s application of this philosophy, he does offer here a useful framework of the esoteric. Most significantly, as opposed to ideological and categorical distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’, or political distinctions between ‘elitist’ and ‘populist’, the distinction between ‘esoteric’ and ‘populist’ is a question of style. Discarding the ways in which the popular appears leads to critical error. Where critics have noted the appearance of the popular, in Eliot’s poem for example, or similarities with populist ideology, such as in Pound’s work, they have not considered the stylistic role this is performing: in both cases, there is an esoteric structure which undermines the claims to populism.

Part 2: Ezra Pound: Populism, Fascism, and Artistic Order

Although his work is, like Eliot’s, often submitted as evidence of modernist elitism, many scholars have suggested it makes sense to think of Pound as a populist. There is certainly a critical tradition which supports this, and there is much in Pound’s biography, his letters, and his later published work which corroborates this understanding. Assessing the populist roots of Pound’s work, Cary Wolfe argues that Pound’s political stance is essentially a ‘revolution backward toward a precapitalist, and distinctly populist, past where the organic whole of nature, economics, politics, and art needs – and tolerates – no mediation’ (Wolfe 14). These features are certainly prominent in Pound’s poetry, particularly in his later works, but it is difficult to see what is distinctly populist about these elements. Many of them are, indeed, reminiscent of Romanticism, a period from which Pound was particularly keen to distance himself. Features of this ‘populist’ ideology are, Wolfe clarifies, ‘‘a nostalgic agrarian utopianism; a fiercely ethical concept of a human nature rooted in the larger natural order; and a desire to sustain, rather than question, the institution of private property, which was seen as a central component of the self’s efficacy’ (171). Pound was, however, as much a poet of bohemian city life as he was of the natural world: his life in London and Paris, his admiration for city builders, his Neoplatonic leanings, and his identification of divine order with a Venetian aesthetic all suggest a cosmopolitan outlook.

In defence of the understanding of Pound as populist, we can speak of two significant populist movements in Pound’s lifetime, and point out that he was connected to both of them. The first was the campaign of William Jennings Bryan, the 1896 Democratic Presidential candidate, and a famous orator whose calls for financial reforms drew from the burgeoning growth of the Populist Party, whose support had bolstered his candidacy. Bryan campaigned on a platform of financial reform and anti-corruption, two issues which would be central to Pound’s conception of his own politics. He was a renowned orator and the force of his rhetoric (if not its Christian imagery), as well as its content, are reminiscent of Pound’s most impassioned denunciations. See, for example, the end of the following speech attacking American reliance on the gold standard, delivered on 9 July 1896:

If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold (Bryan 249).

The somewhat Romantic phraseology is, of course, a long way from Pound, but there is evidence to suggest that Bryan made a lasting impact on him. Betsy Erkkila points out that a limerick entitled “By E. L. Pound, Wyncote, aged 11 years” appeared in the Jenkintown Times-Chronicle in 1896, and was dedicated to Bryan (Erkkila, xlvi). This does not seem to have been mere juvenile admiration. According to J.J. Wilhelm, when they met at the University of Pennsylvania, debates about Bryan’s rhetoric and populist reforms formed a central part of Pound’s and William Carlos Williams’s early discussions (Wilhelm 120). Wendy Flory notes, interestingly, that Pound’s grandfather, Republican Senator Thaddeus Coleman Pound, one of the Cantos’ heroic figures, was clearly not a supporter of Bryan’s, and that a close look at his proposed economic reforms reveals a model a far cry from the social credit theories Pound would later advocate. Flory argues, however, that the very spectacle of Bryan shifting monetary reform into the center of a populist message must have appealed to Pound (Flory 39-41).

That Bryan was a feature of Pound’s early political landscape is beyond doubt; the debate centers around the extent. Pound’s later fascination with economics, particularly with state monetary policy, was, Flory argues, a direct outgrowth of his early encounter with Bryan’s rhetoric. One problem is, of course, that Pound’s own references to Bryan are few and far between. His relative absence from Pound’s economic writing is all the more remarkable given Pound’s attempts to portray himself as part of a longstanding American tradition, and his attempts to find thinkers and politicians who corroborated his own economic perspectives. Given that Bryan was a part of this tradition, it seems fair to suggest that although the ‘spectacle’ (to borrow Flory’s apt phrase) of his movement had an early impact on Pound, he was not, in fact, a figure central to Pound’s consciousness. If populism relies on a concrete link between speaker and audience, then Pound seems to have allowed the connection between him and Bryan to lapse.

The next populist wave, so to speak, of Pound’s career is in the 1930s, when his work takes a dramatic turn towards the economic and the political. Pound’s preferred economic model was the Social Credit theory of C.H. Douglas, a radical programme of redistribution based on work done, and his political tendencies were increasingly supportive towards the Fascist government in Italy, where he lived, and – much later – to the axis powers as a whole. In terms of his poetry, his long poem The Cantos underwent something of an economic transformation, with the poem being invested with an argument that a conspiracy of international financiers (many of whom were Jewish) exploited international wars for profit. The poem’s context, contrary to the expectations that Williams and Moore might lead us to develop, was not just that of European politics but also of American political and cultural clashes. It was at this time that time Pound approached American political figures, hoping to agitate for support for Social Credit. He found a sympathetic ear in Senator Bronson Cutting, a Republican senator pressing for cross-party economic reform. Pound’s Cantos, from the publication of Eleven New Cantos in 1934, meanwhile, began to contain long passages on American history, particularly on the early years of American democracy, and what Pound saw as an effort to preserve the Constitution against the interests of corrupt financiers; a struggle, Pound believed, was lost. This particular focus culminated in Pound’s ‘Adam’s Cantos’ (LXII-LXXI), published in Cantos LXII-LXXI in 1940.8 The political atmosphere of the early American 1930s is characterized by the populist agitations of Huey Long, who planned to run for President in 1936 on a populist platform of radical economic reform and nationalist identity before his assassination, as well as the radio broadcasts of Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose rhetoric drew populist outlines and anti-Semitic conspiracy around parts of the ideologies of European Fascism. This atmosphere formed the context in which Pound approached American politics.  If we are to see Pound as espousing populist ideology, it is notable that these figures were only of marginal interest to him. As Flory points out, Pound initially thought of Long and Coughlin as talented orators, but as being some distance from the social credit solutions he saw in Cutting. Over time, his views changed, and he came to align himself with Long, even writing to him to lend him support and to audition for a role in the treasury in his potential cabinet (Flory 105-106). After Long’s assassination, Pound turned to Coughlin, lending him his support. What is significant, however, is the reason for Pound’s enthusiastic support of these populist figures: social credit, C.H. Douglas’s financial reform programme linked to the far-right in Britain. Social credit was the measure of Pound’s support for Long and the collapse in his interest in Roosevelt: as Flory writes, ‘as was the case in Pound’s evaluation of all politicians, his judgment of Roosevelt was almost exclusively determined by his assessment of how compatible his policies were with Social Credit’ (Flory 109). In Flory’s account, Pound seemed to view populism as primarily a vehicle for another project, namely Social Credit, and it was on the terms of the latter that his support was drawn. Populism is not, thus, the central feature of Pound’s politics, nor what his various figures have in common: this is much rather the posturing of economics on an ethical plane, and the establishment of Social Credit as the paradigm of economic reform. These may be features of populism, but they are by no means exclusive to it.

Populism is, however, useful in tracing a link from Pound’s democratic origins to his later fascist commitments. Victor C. Ferkiss’s ‘Ezra Pound and American Fascism’ (1955) was the first extended treatment of this issue. It was written while Pound was still incarcerated in St Elizabeth’s Hospital. Ferkiss sees Pound as a key figure in what he calls ‘American Fascism’, and this, he argues, emerged out of American Populism:

The attacks on finance capitalism, the hatred of social democracy and socialism, the belief that representative democracy is a mask for rule by a predatory economic plutocracy, and that a strong executive is essential for the creation and preservation of a middle-class society composed of small independent landowners, suspicion of freedom of the press and civil liberties generally as shields and instrumentalities of the plutocracy, ultra-nationalism, anti-Semitism (both latent and active), and, finally, a peculiar interpretation of history which sees in events a working-out of a dialectic which opposes the financier and the producer – these populist beliefs and attitudes form the core of Pound’s philosophy, just as they provide the basis of American fascism generally. In developing these beliefs Pound followed a path from populist nostalgia to support world fascism parallel to that followed by a number of other American fascist ideologues (Ferkiss 174).9

Ferkiss’s account here chimes with much of what we find in Pound’s political writing and much of what we find in the Cantos of his middle period. It also seems to lend weight to Robert Jordan’s claim in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1938) that there are many fascists in America who do not know themselves as such. Ferkiss admits that Pound’s political thought is unstructured and unsystematic, though he does not consider that aspects of it may, also, be undogmatic. Ferkiss’s article speaks to a fear abroad that populism is a ‘path’ from nostalgia to world fascism. In terms of more recent studies, Alec Marsh, in his John Kasper and Ezra Pound (2015), traces a link from Jeffersonianism, through late nineteenth century populism, to Pound’s interest in monetary reform, agrarianism, and race (Marsh 9-10). It is this pathway that Pound’s populist origins really help us to understand.

There is a sense, however, in recent criticism which sees populism less as the cornerstone of Pound’s politics than its historical background: as the provision of much of the political material of Pound’s work, rather than as the substance and content in and of itself. In his commentary on Pound’s politics and economics, Tim Redman explores Victor Ferkiss’s thesis that Long, Coughlin, and Pound (amongst others) shared a cohesive set of political values, ‘characterized as American fascism’ with roots in the populist politics of Pound’s youth. Redmon concludes that ‘to a surprising degree those early heated discussions over the Pound family table formed the unconscious background and emotional motivation for much of his subsequent writing on social issues’. ‘American populism’, he further explains, ‘forms a necessary though not a sufficient background for Pound’s political and economic views’ (Redman 261, 262).10 Indeed, what if it is the case that Pound’s background in populism is just that, a background? Much of the ‘populist’ Pound (in the sense relating to the Populist Party) is based on the fact of his family origins in the movement, rather than any concrete claims on the part of the poet himself.

What seems to be missing from the account of Pound’s populism is an appeal to democracy and democratic traditions: if we are to see in Pound a poet with sympathy for the demagogue, we should be able to find traces of demagoguery. Pound’s writing, by contrast, is marked either by an appeal to natural law or to human rectitude. Pound seems uninterested in Jefferson’s democratic commitments, and is more interested in his notions of paternalistic government. While this may well be the end of populist authoritarianism, and certainly is a feature of fascism, it is not, in and of itself, a concrete pathway between the two. In another sense, however, the question of whether Pound had populist commitments in his movement to fascism is less relevant than the question of how these commitments were assimilated into his poetic project. An insight into this can be gained by looking at how Pound assimilated fascism into his overall project.

In 1933, Pound published a polemical defence of Italian Fascism, Jefferson and/or Mussolini, a strange text in which he argues for the relative values of American popular sovereignty and Italian fascism as the two systems which best fit the needs and ideologies of the respective countries. Which features of a populist rhetoric can we identify in Jefferson and/or Mussolini? Throughout the text, we find appeals to the ‘will’ of the people, treated less as an abstract entity and more as the collective manifestation of a national character. We find a critique of the bloated bureaucratic system imposed on ‘the people’, of the nation as an abstract entity too far removed from its populace. See, for example, the following defence of Pound’s titular comparison:

If you don’t believe that Mussolini is driven by a vast and deep “concern” or will for the welfare of Italy, not Italy as a bureaucracy, or Italy as a state machinery stuck up on top of the people, but for Italy organic, composed of the last ploughman and the last girl in the olive-yards, then you will have a great deal of trouble about the un-Jeffersonian details of his surfaces (J/M, 34)

Is this truly populist? Here we have Pound the apologist for fascism, harnessing the organic vision of society for epic poetry. ‘The last ploughman’ and ‘the last girl in the olive yards’ have a dual feature here. They are, first, citizens of the fascist state on whose behalf Mussolini claims to govern; second, they are rhetorical features of the pastoral elements of Pound’s work, less actual citizens than idealized forms, embodiments of the organic ‘will’ that Pound associates with the divine across his oeuvre. Note Pound’s use of ‘composed’ – they are formed; they are form – like notes in a musical sequence or shifts in poetic cadence. In a sense, the ploughman and the girl in the olive yards are carefully selected images, designed to bring to mind a vision of the pastoral. This notion of the ‘organic’ Italy lends weight to Wolfe’s claim that Pound’s politics are essentially a ‘nostalgia agrarian utopianism’, but this must be tempered with the sense in which Pound uses the adjective ‘last’ here; this is a hierarchically structured society. He is, in other words, talking about the ploughman and the girl in the olive yards, not to them.

While we find much in common between American populism and the kinds of politics Pound advocates in the text, the word populism does not appear anywhere. If Pound were to have felt any depth of political allegiance to populism as ideology, why does he not mention it here? The reason may be that those populist elements are actually incidental to his point. Equally, although he is keen to point out fascism’s political achievement, he conceives of the ideology far more in terms of an artistic movement than in those of political or social theory. Indeed, much of Pound’s writing on fascist ideology is really reduced to the artistic capabilities of the Duce:

I don’t believe any estimate for Mussolini will be valid unless it starts from his passion for construction. Treat him as artifex and all the details fall into place. Take him as anything save the artist and you will get muddled with contradictions. Or you will waste a lot of time finding that he don’t fit your particular preconceptions or your particular theories. (Pound, Jefferson and/or Mussolini, 33-34)

Throughout the text we find various comparisons between Mussolini and figures from the visual arts: ‘The more one examines the Milan Speech’, Pound claims, perhaps more idiosyncratically than he realizes, ‘the more one is reminded of Brancusi, the stone blocks from which no error emerges, from whatever angle one look at them’ (J/M, viii).11 Pound’s reference here is to the works of modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi, whose place in the high modernist canon is also attested by his links to James Joyce.12 Accordingly, both Brancusi and Mussolini demonstrate ‘the opportunism of the artist, who has a definite aim, and creates out of materials present’. This, Pound further explains, is predicated on a condition in which ‘the greater the artist the more permanent his creation. And this is a matter of WILL’ (15-16). This ‘will’ is not a manifestation of popular will nor a Nietzschean ‘will to power’ but rather a case in which ‘the great man is filled with a different passion, the will toward order’ (99). This may well be the will of the people, but only insofar as they manifest a higher will to order. This ‘will to order’ is the condition of greatness in the artist and, by extension, the greatness of politicians: the latter is predicated primarily on the basis of its similarity to the former. Pound turns Mussolini’s restorative political project into a restorative aesthetics, and it is on these grounds that we can understand the ways in which he draws him into a long poem concerning the recovery and renewal of human traditions. It is as Artifex – as maker – that Mussolini sits alongside the great figures of the Cantos: Homer, Dante, Botticelli, Confucius, Sigismundo Malatesta, the Medici, the founding fathers. The order here is important: the politician is honoured to the extent to which they resemble the vision of the artist. Compare, for example, his famous linguistic tenets of ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’ (his famous early manifesto for modernist writing) to the terms in which he praises Mussolini:

Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.
………….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. Don’t retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths (Pound, ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’ 201-202.13

And in Jefferson and/or Mussolini we find the following justification of the correspondence between the two figures:

That gives us three common denominators or possibly four: agriculture, sense of the “root and branch,” readiness to scrap the lesser thing for the thing of major importance, indifference to mechanism as weighed against the main purpose, fitting of the means to that purpose without regard to abstract ideas, even if the idea was proclaimed the week before last (Pound J/M, 64)

‘I believe’, Pound writes, ‘that any precise use of words is bound in the long run to be useful to the state and the world at large’ (74). This follows a list a of Mussolini’s achievements, ‘grano, bonifica, restauri, grain, swamp-drainage, restorations, new buildings, and, I am ready to add off my own bat, AN AWAKENED INTELLIGENCE in the nation and a new LANGUAGE in the debates in the chamber’ (73). Mussolini emerges less as a correlative to Pound’s conception of economics nor of his conception, in fact, of Jefferson, but as a political proxy for his literary battles. What Pound does in Jefferson and/or Mussolini is to extend his literary advocacy to the political sphere. He does not aestheticize politics as such, partly because the text lacks in political detail, but rather submits politics to a set of pre-existing aesthetic principles. His attraction to Mussolini is not based on his attraction to Jefferson – this is something of a solipsistic argument on his part – but rather his attraction to both lies in the ways in which he believes they fit into his aesthetic of an economy of language, and clear, public language at that, of minimalist expression, of preservation of the tradition, and of frugality. What we find is less a defence of the similarities between Jefferson and Mussolini than a defence of the similarities between Mussolini and Pound. This should lead us to reevaluate Pound’s admiration for Bryan and the populist movement. Perhaps Pound’s attraction was a matter of style: Bryan as Artifex, exposing the corruption of American life and expressing restoration. It is the expression that seems to attract Pound.

Pound’s political ideology is not fascism per se, but rather the ways in which fascism manifests his more fundamental principles, particularly those of the Confucianism that we see him adopt from the early 1920s onwards.14 The structure of the Confucian ideology, beginning with a rectitude of the self, of language, of the household, and then of the state, Pound believed, were the fundamental principles of all good governance, and this precisely because good governance is an extension of good order and the good life.15 Pound assimilates the ideological within a broader vision, then. Fascism, like American populism, thus emerges as a manifestation of aspects of this ideal but are not the fundamental essence. Indeed, Pound’s support for fascism exposes something of its cultist element: his argument depends – perhaps more prophetically than he realizes – entirely on Mussolini. What emerges is a defence of authoritarianism: ‘One might speculate as to how far any great constructive activity CAN occur save under a de facto one-party system’ (Pound ,J/M 125), he writes, but we do not see a defence of populism. Pound’s entire arguments rests on a conception of Mussolini as artist, on the ordering and creative capabilities of the fascist leader, and not on his connection to agrarian life, for example. We see here far more a cult of the genius than the agrarian world Wolfe believes is at the heart of Pound’s political vision. When genius is extended into the political realm, he argues, ‘when a single mind is sufficiently ahead of the mass a one-party system is bound to occur as naturally whatever the details of form in administration’ (125). Here Pound gives himself away: it is not the one party state, but the one personality state; his argument is not called ‘Jeffersoniasm and/or Fascism’ but is rather named after the two ‘geniuses’ of the ideology. And these geniuses are not to be admired in and of themselves, but rather because they have both grasped, according to Pound, the permanent principles of good government underlying the relative differences of their systems. The same may be said of his early interest in Bryan. This is not the aestheticization of politics, but rather the appropriation of certain politicians in the name of an aesthetic conception of genius; more speculative psychology than political ideology. Pound is first and foremost a man of letters, and only secondarily an economist or propagandist, and it is, therefore, with the literary that we should first understand him. This is not to draw a separation between these categories, but it is to establish a hierarchy.

Were Pound a populist, and were his poetic project populist, this key political text would contain an appeal to a mass audience on the basis that it is a mass audience; and were it elitist, Pound would appeal to machinations of power. Yet what Pound really offers here is an appeal to his artistic community. Mussolini’s ideas are not justified on the basis that they represent the will of the people, nor that that they manifest established power; rather, both Mussolini’s ideas and the will of the people are justified on the basis that they transmit artistic principles which, themselves, speak to divine, natural orders. Pound appeals, even here, to a transcendent, higher truth. These truths are not communicable politically – indeed, Pound’s meaning, as it were, remains as intractable in his political writing as it does in his poetic writing – but they are poetically expressible. The political here serves to preserve, not to define, the higher truths to which Pound appeals. These are enclosed within his poetic project. And what that project is, what the grammar and vocabulary of its revealed, esoteric truth might be, I want to briefly point out before concluding with a shift to Eliot.

Part 3: The Cantos, its Readers and Initiates

Pound was not writing for a mass audience. His readership was specialized. Throughout the nineteen thirties, he gathered various acolytes to Rapallo, including Basil Bunting and Louis Zukofsky. Their attraction was primarily poetic. There is, therefore, a question as to who constituted Pound’s audience. At the heart of the Cantos is an attempt to delineate a vision of human history and culture. The audience of the poem is thus those who are receptive to the vision. Many of Pound’s rhetorical stances can in part be explained by the sense of shared vision that the poem expresses. The overall structure of the poem is not discursive, nor is its central contention political (though the political plays a central and disturbing role, of course). Pound’s design, his intention – if we are permitted the phrase – is revelatory in the sense that it reveals a vision, rather than outlines one. The pastoral modes of the poem are ritualized but while the rituals are, by nature, not private, they are not for a mass public either. It is useful here to have a grasp of the overall conception of the Cantos, insofar as this is possible. Pound himself wrote the following in a letter to his father in 1927:

A. A. Live man goes down into world of dead.

C. B. ‘The repeat in history.’

B. C. The ‘magic moment’ or moment of metamorphosis, bust through from quotidian into ‘divine or permanent world.’ Gods, etc (Pound, Letters 285).

Whether his structure here is the plan to which Pound held is questionable, but what it does is demonstrate the centrality of the mythic and the religious to his long term project. The truth to which Pound is directed is primarily divine, not political. We might turn to some examples of the divine and aesthetic vision, the esoteric aspect of his writing in order to see how the attempted portrayal of an ostensibly divine vision is suffused throughout the poem. Esoteric, one should add, by virtue of the structure of revelation – the poetry of initiates. Consider here Pound’s vision of Venice in the early morning:

…..Gods float in the azure air,
Bright gods and Tuscan, back before dew was shed.
Light: and the first light, before ever dew was fallen.
……………………………………………………………….(Pound Cantos III.11)16

Given that the setting of this vision is the ‘Dogana’s steps’, or the steps of the old Venetian Customs House on the Grand Canal, this is private experience set in a public space. The gods that Pound sees are clearly, then, not seen by all, even if they are seen opposite one of the most famous squares in the world. The light of the scene is both the light of day and reminiscent of original form of light itself, the holiest property in the Platonic system. This is a pagan and philosophical vision, one dedicated to communication with the universe and not with the city around it. Pound’s Venice is always a metamorphic dream-vision of the city, and not the Venice of the early twentieth century (insofar as Pound would admit of a separation). We might similarly consider his image of a Greek religious landscape:

In the crisp air,
………………..the discontinuous gods;
Pallas, young owl in the cup of her hand,
And, by night, the stag runs, and the leopard,
Owl eye amid pine boughs. (XXI.99)

This image then focusses into one of the central religious fascinations of the Cantos: the Eleusinian mysteries, the ancient secretive rite and ceremony celebrating Persephone, fertility, the renewal of the earth with the return of spring:

Moon on the palm leaf,
Confusion, source of renewals;
Yellow wing, pale in the moon shaft,
Green wing, pale in the moon shaft,
Pomegranate, pale in the moon shaft,
White horn, pale in the moon shaft, and Titania
By the drinking hole,
steps, cut in the basalt.
Danced there Athame, danced, and there Phaethusa
With colour in the vein,
Strong as with blood-drink, once,
With colour in the vein,
Red in the smoke-faint throat. Dis caught her up. (XXI.100)

Here Pound describes in intensely lyrical language the mystical experience of the mysteries: the landscape is idealized, Romanticized, even, in its moonlight and its ancient springs and its dancing nymphs. It is not necessarily the case that this is all symbolic writing: there is a realism to Pound’s description, but its primary concern is the communication of a vision, and not the delineation of an identity. As a clear-cut separation between political and religious moods is not licensed by the Cantos themselves, it is worth also observing the ways in which Pound descends from the heavens to the state in an earlier canto, though the operative point remains that this is a hierarchical descent – the political is valued in that it preserves the higher, divine truth:

Then light, air, under saplings,
the blue banded lake under æther,
……………an oasis, the stones, the calm field,
the grass quiet,
……………and passing the tree of the bough
The grey stone posts,
……………and the stair of grey stone,
the passage clean-squared in granite:
and I through this, and into the earth,
……………patet terra,
entered the quiet air
……………the new sky,
the light as after a sun-set,
……………and by their fountains, the heroes,
Sigismundo, and Malatesta Novello,
……………and founders, gazing at the mounts of their cities.

In this passage, Pound begins with his pagan vision of the afterlife, reminiscent of his conception of Eleusis. The vision is almost pastoral, and once again offsets its Romantic scenery solely by the fine-grained characteristic of the language. In a logical sense, this vision culminates in praise for the Malatesta family, those figures of the philosopher-kings ruling the ideal city-state, but in actuality they are both part of the delineation of divine force. Sigismundo and Novello belong to Pound’s aesthetic vision of paradise; they are subsumed within the light and the trees and mark, like the ‘grey stone posts’, the boundary stones of the paradisiacal. There is a hierarchy of interest here, and it is the religious and aesthetic presentation of paradise to which the Malatesta family belongs, not the other way round. In other words, politics is subordinate to the poetic vision (this is not, of course, to diminish the importance nor deny the deeply troubling nature of Pound’s politics – it is simply to contextualize them).

Pound has two models for the divine. The first is the poetic journey undertaken by Dante, in particular the way Dante aestheticizes Neoplatonic light philosophy (the light as divine revelation, light as Truth), and second is the Eleusinian mysteries. Consider these lines from a late Canto which attempt to represent what Pound calls the mood of the divine. They are an imaginary performance of Eleusinian ritual:

For the procession of Corpus
…………………………come now banners
comes flute tone.
to new forest,
……………thick smoke, purple, rising
bright flame now on the altar
…………………..the crystal funnel of air
out of Erebus, the delivered,
………………..Tyro, Alcmene, free now, ascending

The mysteries are, of course, esoteric. Even if Pound’s poem is written neither from the perspective of one inside the cult nor to those with intimate knowledge of its workings, the aesthetics of the mystery are preserved. They are communicative of a secretive community, preserved solely for believers. The intended audience for Eleusinian writing is the initiate. Pound’s poetry, which attempts to transcend the quotidian, fragmentary, mud-filled world of modern politics whilst at the same time capturing it does so by means of an aesthetic derived from a secretive cult.
So how does all this fit together? Let us look at two more examples from the poem. The first is from the Pisan Cantos, written when Pound was kept in an open-air cage in Pisa, awaiting trial and possible execution for his advocacy of the axis cause:

The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent shoulders
Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed.
Thus Ben and la Clara a Milano
………………by the heels at Milano
That maggots shd/ eat the dead bullock
DIGENES, Δίγονος, but the twice crucified
………………where in history will you find it?
yet say this to the Possum: a bang, not a whimper,
……..with a bang, not with a whimper,
To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars.

Here we see both the basis of the claims made for populism and for “elitism”, the former by virtue of the supposed sympathy for the peasantry; the latter for sheer level of education needed to grasp all these references. With regard to the former, I would say this is not populist precisely because Pound does not appeal to the peasant, he/she forms as much of the landscape and ecology of the poem as the hills, wasps, plantlife, clouds, and sea air that make up much of the poem’s lyrical moods; second, I do not think education is the basis of the reading here. Even understanding each reference is no guarantee of understanding how these references fit together: only the poem’s believing initiates (both aesthetic and religious) can truly grasp that. And finally, here the political is enclosed within the overall, divine vision – those who question how we can still read Pound, given that Fascism is an intrinsic part of the poem, may find some answer here: it is possible, in part, because even totalitarianism is enclosed within the aesthetic. It is all—and this is no less disturbing or serious—for the poem.

The question is ultimately one of the relation between the peasant and Pound’s audience. Much like the working class ladies in Eliot’s pub in The Waste Land, the peasant has a symbolic function in relation to the imagery of the poem; they are a cipher of the lament. At no point, however, is the peasant the locus of power, not even in terms of a rhetorical gesture. There is no appeal made to the peasant nor on behalf of the peasant, but instead he/she becomes symbolic of the failure of Mussolini’s creative vision. This passage is undoubtedly politically motivated but it takes the form of a lament, not a political program. And the passage ends not with an affirmation of a restitutive agrarian politics, but with an artistic vision:

Fear god and the stupidity of the populace,
but a precise definition
……transmitted thus Sigismundo
……thus Duccio, thus Zuan Bellin, or trastavere with La Sposa
Sponsa Cristi in mosaic till our time / deification of emperors

Sigismundo stands here for political order, but only by virtue of the fact that he, like the great artists of the Renaissance, transmits ‘a precise definition’. To transmit a precise definition of what? And to whom? These are the key questions, and what Pound means seems to be a precise definition of an image, a vision, a structure or order of the divine. This transmission takes place not within the space of the populace but only within the subsection of the populace which forms the speech community of the Cantos. The appeal is to Pound’s readers, and the peasant is appropriated within this appeal. How else, can we read the following lines which conclude the first Pisan canto other than as an appeal to a particular, initiated audience?

So light is the urging, so ordered the dark petals of iron,
we who have passed over Lethe.

The imagery of the Eleusinian mysteries, a truth bound in initiated rites, is what the Cantos tries to preserve. Those who have passed over Lethe, or who stand on its banks, that is Pound’s audience. They may be those readers who have remained with him, the imagined audience which kept him company in his solitary confinement. This is not so much a coterie (particularly as many of Pound’s former allies had long since abandoned him), but it is a community of believers, centered around new departures in poetic achievement, as well as those who shared his enthusiasm for fascist Italy. We see here also that the tensions in the Cantos are not necessarily, or at least not exclusively, a political conflict between populist and elitist power structures, but rather between populist rhetoric and esoteric truth: it is to the latter that Pound seems to turn at key moments, and to which his poetry seems to be most committed.

Pound does not draw a separation between the aesthetic and the political in his writing, but he does seem to draw a distinction and a set of hierarchies. The two major contemporaneous political influences on his long poem, C.H. Douglas and Benito Mussolini, both share much with populism, particularly in its authoritarian guises, and Pound, with his own background in populist sympathy, certainly aligned himself with these tendencies. But, and this is significant, the rhetoric and imagery is ultimately made to serve his poetry, and not the other way round. Pound’s poetry, whether by design or not (though certainly related to the design), had a small audience, and even today is not work that has a popular appeal. Without this popular appeal, the populist rhetoric of the poetry and prose have to be critically assessed in relation to the kinds of appeals the work does make: these appeals, particularly in the crucial, Elusinian moods, are esoteric.

An objection may of course be made that Pound offers a populism that fails, but the response to this is that the populism fails because of a lack of commitment. The rhetorical invocations of ‘the people’ in Jefferson and/or Mussolini collapse when in The Pisan Cantos Pound can write of the ‘stupidity of the populace’, a line which exposes those invocations as largely rhetorical per se. Pound’s poetry is not populist because in the moments of sincerity that ‘nostalgic agrarian utopianism’ of which Wolfe writes is itself taken up and sublimated by visions of Lethe and Eleusis. Is there, then, an internal conflict between the fascist-populist rhetoric of the Cantos’ politics and the paradisiacal visions centered around an exclusive cult? The answer lies in the sense of order: Wolfe is perhaps right that there is an ‘agrarian utopianism’ at the heart of Pound’s vision, but it is not a democratic one. At the heart of the Cantos’ vision is a paradigm of the artist transmitting a vision to an audience with eyes to see it: the reader of the poem is not called to democratic participation but to initiation. Pound’s artistic vision thus precludes the popular appeal necessary for a populist poetics.

Part 4: High Modernism’s Esoteric Vision

By way of conclusion, and to help us understand the nature of the conflict we are dealing with here, I want to return very briefly to Pound’s great collaborator and friend, T.S. Eliot. We are struggling here with an opposition not between populist and elitist modes of writing, but between the populist and the esoteric. High modernism seems to decide for the latter, and the exclusivity of the esoteric has often been identified with the exclusivity of a political elite. Pound and Eliot, because their work revolves around the unification of the artistic and the religious, are the most open to this charge. This recalls the following judgement from Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral:

Some malady is coming upon us. We wait, we wait,
And the saints and martyrs wait, for those who shall be martyrs and saints.
Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen:
I have seen these things in a shaft of sunlight.
Destiny waits in the hand of God, not in the hands of statesmen
Who do, some well, some ill, planning and guessing,
Having their aims which turn in their hands in the pattern of time (Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral 13).17

These lines are spoken by the poor women of Canterbury: these lines are given to the peasantry (an idealized peasantry in the form of the chorus, of course). Here politics is rendered dull, fleeting, temporal, ineffective when contrasted with the divine vision. God is seen in a ‘shaft of sunlight’, a more hopeful corollary, I think, to The Waste Land’s famous ‘handful of dust’. It would be absurd to suggest that the openly ‘elitist’ Eliot, the openly aristocratic, democracy-sceptical, monarchistEliot, is advocating for the rising up of the peasantry, nor for the equality of the peasantry. In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture (1948), indeed, Eliot explicitly argues for the class-based stratification of society. Eliot’s peasantry, like Pound’s, remains peasantry. However, Eliot’s view is slightly more nuanced, and is based at least in part on the historically-developed position of the British aristocracy. In a 1923 essay on Marianne Moore, Eliot writes ‘nothing belongs more properly to the people than ritual – or indeed than aristocracy itself, a popular invention to serve popular needs’ (Eliot, Complete Prose 498).  This is a class distinction that perhaps serves as the sounding note to Eliot’s 1927 conversion to Anglicanism and his acceptance of British citizenship. The conception of the monarchy as the exalted servant, the human sacrifice to the nation, fits not just a defence of elitist culture and politics, but fits well to certain popular beliefs. Eliot can hold the contradictory position that the aristocracy is a ‘popular invention’, partly because he believes that both the aristocracy and the peasantry are enfolded within a common idea, a common vision: be that nation, be that culture, be that religion. Both the peasant and the aristocrat can see destiny in a shaft of sunlight, and though it will not alter their social statuses, it may alter their souls. Of course, Eliot’s reactionary politics is revealed in that lack of social movement, but the focus of his poetry, the commitment of his religious writing, is not to society as such, but to the divine vision.
The place in the social hierarchy assigned to both the aristocrat and the peasant by a culture, Eliot argues in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, must be preserved because they represent a solid cultural, political and personal basis to inhabit divine and natural order. This is, of course, riddled with conflict, and this divine vision – the role of the individual in relation to social and religious order and ritual – is interrupted by the fragmentary, destructive mass culture of modernity. In the last, this is, fundamentally an argument about the preservation of religious and cultural rites and truths (and the communication of truths), not politics as such. As he writes,

The refinement or crudity of theological and philosophical thinking is itself, of course, one of the measures of the state of our culture; and the tendency in some quarters to reduce theology to such principles as a child can understand or a Socinian accept, is itself indicative of cultural debility. But there is a further danger, from our point of view, in schemes of reunion which attempt to remove the difficulties, and protect the self-assertiveness, of everybody. In an age like our own, when it has become a point of politeness to dissimulate social distinctions, and to pretend that the highest degree of ‘culture’ ought to be made accessible to everybody – in an age of cultural levelling, it will be denied that the several Christian fragments to be re-united represent any cultural differences (Eliot, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture 73-74).

Out of this age of cultural levelling, of a culture at once directed towards the imagined mass and yet disintegrated into the (illusion) of individualism, Eliot, like Pound, tries to wrest some vision of paradise and divine order. On this front, he is undoubtedly the more successful. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943), completed just a few years earlier than Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, offer an attempt to wrestle with the issue of whether one can bound the esoteric through in popular language. In the final sequence, ‘Little Gidding’, Eliot, perhaps unlike Pound, reaches a concrete answer in the form of a prayer:

If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. (Eliot, Collected Poems 201)

This message cannot be delivered to a mass public. It is addressed solely to the individual: to any man, not everyman. We see this in some of the poem’s most famous lines:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. (201)

Little Gidding was a small religious community, a commitment to high Anglicanism at a time when the Low Church dominated. It was where King Charles I, a rallying symbol for many high Anglicans of Eliot’s generation, fled after his defeat. It was a small group, dedicated to the observance of religious life, religious symbolism, and religious truth. It was, like the Eleusinian mysteries, a group dedicated to the truth-value of its initiates. Here the conflation of the esoteric with the elite comes in: Charles is the very embodiment of aristocratic privilege, the very symbol of the elite, and yet in ‘Little Gidding’, it is the ‘broken King’, the sense of that elite kneeling, and praying before a higher truth, that attracts the poet. The exclusivity and obscurity of this passage are necessary correlates of revealed truth, of prayer, something which is incommunicable to a mass population as mass population, and not correlates of the social status of the praying figure.


What we see in the examples of Pound and Eliot, two of the supposed high priests of high modernism, is that the opposition of populism to elitism does not hold up on the aesthetic plane. This is not to suggest that such an opposition is not valid for the understanding of Eliot’s and Pound’s politics, but simply to point out that in terms of literary activity, it falls short of representing the true dimensions of their works. By considering populism in opposition to esotericism, particularly on the grounds of audience and communicative practice, a slightly different picture emerges: the debate shifts from the political plane to the philosophical and religious. The debate becomes less about power and more about Truth. The accusation of elitism can clearly be levelled at coteries such as develop around esoteric truths, but this seems a secondary issue. First and foremost, esotericism is about the preservation of truth and certain truth-telling practices, a certain ritual and praxis of truth, as it were. The conservation of religious truth in the Cantos, for example, revolves around the development of an aesthetic of Eleusinian mystery bound, nonetheless, up with the arcane and the obscure; in Eliot’s Four Quartets, the mysteries of prayer are not so much delineated as revealed – the tone of the poet’s voice is not instructive so much as knowing – the poet speaks less with authority than with community, and a small community at that.

A final question is, of course, what does this add to our understanding of populism? It suggests, perhaps, that we cannot rely on too easy an opposition between populism on the one hand and elitism on the other, as this conceptualization of the phenomenon as a vying for political power elides potentially more profound debates around the nature of truth. Accusations of elitism can, like accusations of populism, be an attempt to shift the debate onto a political plane and to reduce the formal complexity of artworks. By accusing high modernist art of being, precisely, “high” modernist, the philosophical and theological dimensions of texts are reduced to their political positions and the stance-taking of the author. Given the disturbing political dimensions of Pound’s and Eliot’s work, this may seem a legitimate political act, but it comes at the expense of a rounded critique of the work. If, however, we consider the Cantos and the Four Quartets as examples of esoteric writing, the deeper profounder truths which they attempt to capture (and to preserve and perhaps obscure) can take on their true role. The identification of obscurism with elitism, or difficulty with detached elite practice may well function to an extent, but it fails to represent the true dimensions of modernist works. Indeed, it is already to accept a populist framework.

It is my argument that the tension between elitism and populism is not a useful axis by which to measure the relationship between the aesthetic and the political in modernist writing. Indeed, one may extend this further and say that the opposition between elitism and populism runs into trouble whenever it approaches the aesthetic. By shifting the framework to an opposition between esotericism and populism, the order of debate becomes less about power in and of itself, and more about codes of truth-telling. The truth disclosed in parliaments, in the senate, on the street, is not the same as the truth revealed in the moonlight by Castalia nor in the shaft of sunlight in a cathedral. That poetry be concerned with the latter as much as if not more so than the former is a consideration worth defending. This is demonstrated well in Eliot’s and Pound’s work: even when they are at their most overtly political, the work strives to envelop the political within its own context, to subsume the popular and the elite within its own symbolic structure. A populist poetry which opposes this, thus, is not drawing its weapons against a literary elite, but against literary esotericism.



1 One finds this formula applied to notoriously ‘difficult’ works of postmodern writing, with accusations of self-indulgence, and contemporary works, too. Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and Judith Butler have all faced accusations of elitism for the complexities or non-conformism of their styles. Retrospectively, as difficulty and perceived obscurity becomes the marker of the elitist nature of the work, Melville, Milton, Shakespeare, and Chaucer have also come under this attack.
2 Huyssen’s account is, of course, more nuanced than this. He argues, for example, that ‘high-low should here be seen as a shorthand for a much more complex set of relations involving palimpsest of times and spaces that are anything but binary’ (197).
3  It should be pointed out, of course, that Eliot’s claim to be ‘classicist’ refers less to an opposition to popular culture than it does to the legacy of Romanticism; a legacy which Eliot, along with others such as Pound and T.E. Hulme, sort to expunge from contemporary writing.
4 See Genevieve Abravanel, ‘American Encounters in Dubliners and Ulysses’, Journal of Modern Literature, 33:4 (2010), 153-166.
5 Karen Leick, ‘Popular Modernism: Little Magazines and the American Daily Press’, PMLA, 123:1 (2008), 125-139.
6 This is not to suggest that populism is not also invested with ideas. Michael Kazin has argued that the “populist persuasion” is centerd on the nobility of the common man, for example. This notion of commonness, however, grounds the idea in the everydayness of the community; esotericism, by contrast, grounds community in the idea or the ritual or the secret.
7 This is, of course, a matter of intention more than result. It is naïve to believe in such a clear separation of the political and the philosophical, but Strauss at the very least proposes a model for a defence of esoteric truth which is useful in understanding how certain writers may conceive of their own stances.
8 David Ten Eyke’s Ezra Pound’s Adams Cantos (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) offers an excellent account of this subset of the Cantos, exploring the ways in which Pound brings his political and aesthetic ideologies together.
10 Redman does, however, go further in his analysis of the influence on American Populism on Pound’s work in a later article, ‘Ezra Pound and American Populism – The Enduring Influence of Hailey, Idaho’, Paideuma (2005), 13-36.
11 A similar comparison is made on page 94.
12 Brancusi’s ‘Portrait of James Joyce’ was included in the 1929 publication of Joyce’s Three Fragments from Work in Progress (Paris: Black Sun Press, 1929).
13 Ezra Pound, ‘A Few Don’t’s by an Imagiste’, Poetry, 1 (1913), 201-202
14 This should not be understood as an attempt to defend Pound from charges of fascism. The authoritarian and racialist casts of fascist thought were certainly amongst those elements which attracted him.
15 Indeed, in his assessment of Confucius’s long-lasting influence on Pound’s politics, Feng Lan remarks ‘Pound was able to readjust his political orientation by integrating different aspects of this Confucian doctrine with his radical individualism and cultural elitism’. While the notion of Pound as an individualist is questionable, and the term ‘elitism’ loaded with vagueness, what Lan demonstrates is that Confucianism was not assimilated within the populist elements of Pound’s convictions. (Lan 12)
16  In the following, I will follow the usual convention when citing Pound’s Cantos: the Canto number followed by the New Directions page number.
17 T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936), 13.

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