Of Ezra Pound’s poem “The Return,” Donald Davie remarks how “surprising” it is that “a poet who had scored his most brilliant successes with Browningesque poems, dense with the tangible presences of men recorded in history and occupying a very particular time and space, should have wanted to write a poem like this–let alone, that he should have brought it off.”
Occurring in “a dimension beyond time and space,” Davie explains that the meter of the poem, a “Sapphic stanza,” “has a sort of phantasmal presence in or behind the first four lines, but only as sort of musical theme which is at once thereafter developed and elaborated not quite beyond recognition but certainly beyond analysis”:
See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”
Gods of the wingèd shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air!
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.
Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!
Davie’s critical response: The decay of classical studies? The etiolation of Hellenism as an intellectual and artistic stimulus? The virtual extinction of any sense of retributive justice in the frame of things, such as the ancients figured by the avenging furies? Even the etiolation of the Sapphic stanza, considered as the classic vehicle for expression of sexual passion? These ideas or some of them (and certainly others) are part of the “complicated sort of significance” Pound was to claim for the poem; one might think that the poem has the sort of meaning that music normally has, but Pound found analogies for it in another art, in sculpture.
But the poem’s subject does not need to be evaded quite so adroitly: the return of the gods, of the divine as it was once experienced or known; the tension in the poem is severalfold: that the gods are both divine and vulnerable, as capricious and helpless (and fleeting) as falling snow, awakened half with fear, and yet as inevitable in their movement as falling snow, as relentless as it, and as indifferent (that image of the snow clinches the poem, like a belt); what’s more, though they are spectral, they are nonetheless identifiable as what they were, and still led onwards by silver hounds; that the poet is distant from their response, his language that of report rather than summons; he is a witness, but it is of course his witness that revives them in the poem, with a language that is incantation (“these were”….”these were”); that the poet is all at once exhilarated, anxious, and proud (all three are in the sigh “ah” early in the poem); that the poem is, describing their feet, of course describing also its own feet, so that the poem is the return without itself being the god that returns: as often with Pound, the poem does not bring something into focus, but instead opens up a horizon or clears a path in anticipation of an encounter, sometimes announcing, sometimes hinting at it.
Where I disagree with Davie is in his readiness to follow Pound to the analogy with sculpture, without at any rate qualifying just what Pound means by sculpture, or whose sculpture he means. I do not see what the upshot of the analogy is, in this poem. There is, however, a sense that the words and—more than the words, the lines—are stacked and then re-oriented, with repeated and varied syntax, with indentation, with symmetries.
The obvious precursor in verse is the Victorian poet most drawn to architectural analogies in his verse, and if we read “The Return” as a poem in conversation with Thomas Hardy, we come to see it slightly differently: now, as a poem that recalls lost souls returning. For Hardy, these would be the old friends on the Wessex Heights or in the Mellstock churchyard. But Hardy catches the same note of spectral foreboding—the promise of specters that return not to haunt, not to re-live, but inevitably and pathetically reduced, and nonetheless persuasively brilliant in their other-worldliness. Or rather, persuasively brilliant but nonetheless less than what they were:
This after-sunset is a sight for seeing,
Cliff-heads of craggy cloud surrounding it.
—And dwell you in that glory-show?
You may; for there are strange strange things in being,
Stranger than I know.
Yet if that chasm of splendour claim your presence
Which glows between the ash cloud and the dun,
How changed must be your mortal mould!
Changed to a firmament-riding earthless essence
From what you were of old:
All too unlike the fond and fragile creature
Then known to me . . . Well, shall I say it plain?
I would not have you thus and there,
But still would grieve on, missing you, still feature
You as the one you were.
Hardy’s poem, “He Prefers Her Earthly,” was published first in 1917, in Moments of Vision, five years after Pound’s (published in 1912, in Ripostes). But it is by way of the principles that Hardy had established long before that Pound’s poem operates: principles of sudden reorientations and realignments in rhythm and syntax, reorientations prompted by disorientations of losses and returns not fully registered, not fully absorbed. These poems are structures designed not in anticipation of presences, but in order to enshrine the anticipation itself, to make the promise of the presence of the past come into focus.