Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language
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Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language

Faith with the Word

James Dowthwaite

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Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language

Faith with the Word

James Dowthwaite

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Ezra Pound is one of the most significant poets of the twentieth century, a writer whose poetry is particularly notable for the intensity of its linguistic qualities. Indeed, from the principles of Imagism to the polyphony of his Cantos, Pound is central to our conception of modernism's relationship with language. This volume explores the development of Pound's understanding of language in the context of twentieth-century linguistics and the philosophy of language. It draws on largely unpublished archival material in order to provide a broadly chronological account of the development of Pound's views and their relation to both his own poetry and to modernist writing as a whole. Beginning with Pound's contentious relationship with philology and his antagonism towards academia, the book traces continuities and shifts across Pound's career, culminating in a discussion of the centrality of language to the conception of his Cantos. While it contains discussions around significant figures in twentieth-century linguistic thought, such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the book attempts to recover the work of theorists such as Leonard Bloomfield, Lucien LĂ©vy-Bruhl, and C.K. Ogden, figures who were once central to modernism, but who have largely been pushed to the periphery of modernist studies. The picture of Pound that emerges is a figure whose understanding of language is not only bound up with modernist approaches to anthropology, politics, and philosophy, but which calls for a new understanding of modernism's relationship to each.

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Publisher
Routledge
Year
2019
ISBN
9781000012361

1 ‘End Fact. Try Fiction’

Pound’s first critical publication was an article entitled ‘Raphaelite Latin’ defending aspects of Renaissance Latin poetry against what he felt was an undeserved reputation for ‘literary barrenness’. This article was published in Book News Monthly in September 1906, when he had recently taken up doctoral study in Romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania, having previously completed an MA there, and a BPhil at Hamilton College. Pound’s choice of subject matter, late Latin poetry, should be seen as medium rather than message. Pound used the occasion of his article to launch an attack on the academic methodologies of philology, the mother discipline of his own studies. Ostensibly his attack centres on the ‘neglect’ of the qualities of late Latin poetry:
There are causes for this neglect. The scholars of classic Latin, bound to the Germanic ideal of scholarship, are no longer able to as of old fill themselves with the beauty of the classics, and by the very force of that beauty inspire their students to read Latin widely and for pleasure; nor are they able to make students see clearly whereof classic beauty consists. The scholar is compelled to spend most of his time learning what his author wore and ate, and in endless pondering over some utterly unanswerable question of textual criticism, such as: ‘In a certain epigram,’ not worth reading, and which could not get into print to-day, ‘is a certain word seca or secat? The meaning will be the same, but the syntax is different’.1
Pound’s characterisation of philological scholarship implies a dedicated yet limited focus on particulars and curiosities, without full attention to literature as a whole. During his time at the University of Pennsylvania (1901–1902, 1905–1907) and Hamilton College (1903–1905), Pound had become intimately acquainted with philology as both a discipline and a practice of reading texts. As David Moody has written, ‘philology’ would ‘become the catchword for all that Pound thought wrong with the university teaching of literature as he experienced it’, even if the antagonistic stances he took obscure a deeper, more complex relationship with the discipline.2 Philology is an approach, Pound argues in ‘Raphaelite Latin’, that takes too narrow a focus as the basis of study, basing its methodology on the ‘scientific’ approach developed in Germany in the early nineteenth century. He continues by describing the effect of the perceived narrowness of philological study on the scholar:
The scholar is bowed down to this Germanic ideal of scholarship, the life work of whose servants consists in gathering blocks to build a pyramid that will be of no especial use except as a monument, and whose greatest reward is the possibility that the servant may have his name on the under side of some half-prominent stone, where by chance – a slender one – some future stone-gatherer will find it. This system has three results; it makes the servant piously thank his gods that his period ends in A.D. 400, and that there are some stones he need not carry, some things written thereafter that he need not read. It also prevents his building a comfortable house for his brain to live in, and makes him revile anyone who tries to do so with the abject and utterly scornful ‘dilettante’. No one knows the contempt and hatred that can be gathered into these few syllables until they have been hissed at him by one fully Germanized.3
Pound’s vitriol and hyperbole is symptomatic of much of his criticism and is particularly indicative of the attitude towards philology as a critical practice that he would come to adopt throughout his career. Nevertheless, what Pound’s first article establishes is a dichotomy between a ‘Germanic’ model of linguistic scholarship and a Romance literary aesthetic (here Latin but later primarily Provençal) which, he believed, the former tried to contain.
Philology provided Pound with the material for the early part of his career and, inevitably, provided the framework for his earliest thought on language, and yet the term appears almost entirely in the context of Pound’s attempt to define his project against it. The central contention of this chapter is that Pound’s use of the term ‘philology’ obscures the immense debt that he owed to the discipline in providing him with a solid foundation in the form of an historical understanding of language. It was upon this foundation that Pound built his early career. That language is always historically determined, always textually mediated, and always in a state of dynamic change are lessons we can draw from both philology and Pound’s oeuvre. Pound’s criticism of philology thus speaks to its role in literary analysis, rather than its linguistic dimensions. Although we find numerous instances of Pound’s resentment towards philology as a literary study, we nowhere find instances of criticism of its linguistic assumptions. Indeed, we find the precise opposite. By tracing Pound’s use of the word ‘philology’, and measuring it against his critical and poetic practice, we can see that his attitude towards his former subject was far more complicated than his claims lead us to believe.
It is important, therefore, to draw a distinction between philology as a discipline and philology as a practice. While Pound attacks both at various points, it is far easier to see his continued affinity with the latter. As discipline, philology embodies what Pound calls the ‘Germanized’ model, a kind of sociocultural milieu in and of itself, a professorial approach to literature, and the restrictive atmosphere of university learning (as Pound conceived it). Philology as a practice encompasses an approach to the study of literature which, though Pound was dismissive of its subjugating literature to linguistic analysis, provided him with a set of critical tools which would serve him for the rest of his life. The tools included: an intense focus on the language of texts in relation to linguistic history, the use of etymology as the basis of arguments, an interest in morphology, a manuscript-led approach to literary scholarship (that is to say, a grounding of criticism in textual genesis), an understanding of history as textually mediated, a comparative approach to language and literature, and, above all, an intention to situate languages and texts within broader networks. There are numerous examples of the above in Pound’s oeuvre: think of Pound’s use of bibliographical notes in his Personae, his imitation of the logic of the Anglo-Saxon in the Seafarer, his poetic meditation on the cultural history of Homer’s Odyssey as it passes from Greek to Latin to Pound’s multifaceted English in Canto I (originally Canto III), the visibility and prominence of his research in the Cantos, the way citation is built into his poetics, and his interest in the relationship between prosody and the logic of language. In all of these cases, while there is a rejection of the disciplinary culture of philology, there is a reliance on his background in the practice.

Defining Philology

But what is philology? The best way to think about it is as a method of studying the linguistic dimensions of texts, bridging our modern division of literature and linguistics by bringing both within one historical discipline. In his authoritative recent study of the discipline and its history, James Turner loosely defines it as ‘the multifaceted study of texts, languages, and the phenomenon of language itself’.4 Turner’s central argument is that philology is the common origin of all ‘humanities’ subjects in the contemporary university and, therefore, the spectre of philology haunts the academy even today. In particular, the modernist period emerges from Turner’s study as a time in which philology dissipated, and yet this dissipation was one in which the discipline became part of the very fabric of modern thought. In many ways, this dissipation began in the mid- to late nineteenth century with the development of the Neogrammarian group at the University of Leipzig. The Neogrammarian hypothesis was one of the crowning achievements of nineteenth-century philology: drawing on the previous work of Jacob Grimm, philologists such as Karl Brugmann, Berthold DelbrĂŒck, and Hermann Osthoff proposed the following principle: all sound change is regular and exceptionless, affecting all words in a language’s environment. This change is identical for all members of a speech community. The hypothesis grounded philological study in the observation of diachronic and comparative change in languages. In their ‘Neogrammarian hypothesis’ (1878), Brugmann and Osthoff argued for a focus on the idiolect, the language as located in the individual speaker, moving towards modern linguistics and away from a purely textual focus.5
Pound thus entered the modern language department at a crucial juncture of philological history. In the early twentieth century, philology’s twin aims, the study of language and the study of literature, separated (albeit uncleanly) into linguistics and literary studies, respectively. Within literary studies, there was a further debate between those who held fast to philological methodology and those who professed a more aesthetically driven, critical approach. In his seminal study of the debates surrounding the development of modern language and literature departments, Gerald Graff outlines two rival tendencies: philologists, who were dedicated to the ‘scientific’ study of language, textual history, and comparative grammar, and ‘generalists’, who saw literature as an embodiment of a wider humanist spirit, and whose criticism focussed on questions of literary value. Graff characterises the polarised extremity of the ‘generalist’ and philological positions, respectively, as ‘dilettantes versus investigators: the one all interesting but untrue generalizations, the other all true but sterile particularities, and evidently nothing in between’.6 In ‘Raphelite Latin’, Pound clearly nails his colours to the ‘generalist’ (or ‘dilettante’) mast, but this action should be seen in the context of a rebellion against philology, more than an endorsement of pure generalism.
By virtue of philology’s dominance in the university and its centrality to academic life by the time of the late nineteenth century, it may be that it was simply too ‘multifaceted’ to yield a single definition. Indeed, there seems to be little agreement on what philology’s true object of study was: literature or language. Although most accounts tend to emphasise that it was a unification of the two, Pound, on the one hand, seems to have felt the linguistic aspect of the discipline too dominant; Saussure, on the other hand, complained of the predominance of the literary, writing that ‘[philological criticism] follows the written language too slavishly and neglects the living language’.7 It is in this contrast that we can see two things: first, that the multifaceted nature of philology had become so strained by the early twentieth century that it could be interpreted in completely opposed ways; second, we see a disciplinary chasm between the modernist Pound and the structuralist Saussure.
As Pound suggests, philology was bound to its country of origin. The American history of philology is one of constant exchanges with Germany. American universities looked to their German counterparts. Germany was central, from the first American scholars who travelled to Göttingen to receive instruction in new university methodologies unavailable at home in the early nineteenth century (these included Edward Everett, George Bancroft, and, later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) to Daniel Coit Gilman and Andrew Dickson White, who were instrumental in the importation of the ‘German model’ during their premierships of Johns Hopkins and Cornell, respectively.8 Both Gilman and White had studied at the University of Berlin, one of the world’s leading centres for philological and linguistic research, from 1855 to 1856. As Pound writes in Guide to Kulchur, in a much more conciliatory mood than in 1906, ‘the general belief during my youth in American beaneries was that one shd. go to Germany for systematized information’ (GK, 219). An insight into the ‘Germanic method’ is provided by James Morgen ...

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Citation styles for Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language
APA 6 Citation
Dowthwaite, J. (2019). Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1379329/ezra-pound-and-20thcentury-theories-of-language-faith-with-the-word-pdf (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Dowthwaite, James. (2019) 2019. Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1379329/ezra-pound-and-20thcentury-theories-of-language-faith-with-the-word-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Dowthwaite, J. (2019) Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1379329/ezra-pound-and-20thcentury-theories-of-language-faith-with-the-word-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Dowthwaite, James. Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.