Modernism is a disputed word. Critics nowadays remind us that there are many modernisms, and rightly, since there are many of any -Ism.
But Eliot and Pound felt that they were modern, and others agreed, and I think there is more to be said, or a new way of saying, what it they were doing,
My point of orientation will be not literature, and not even the visual arts, but instead the decorative arts, and the modernist re-invention of the decorative arts, as re-told by James Trilling in the last chapter of his superb Ornament, now out of print, but essential nonetheless.
The basic narrative is simple: modernism, in the voice of Adolf Loos especially, purported to reject ornament in the works of architecture and design. But as Trilling discerns, that stated rejection disguised a re-invention, and modernism in the visual field represented instead a shift in its attitude towards ornament.
My point here is that something similar happened in poetry, with the Pound and Eliot’s rejection of “rhetoric.” “Rhetoric” is not a perfect equivalent of ornament, but it holds some resemblance, in so far as the latter is a patterning imposed upon a material to hold and direct the attention, and rhetoric is similarly thought of as achieving an effect of patterning in language, but also upon the essential substance of a text. Of course, where rhetoric ends and begins is not easily discerned, but nor is it easy in, say, Rococo art, to distinguish the form that is decoration and the form that is not. Taken to an extreme, the patterning of rhetoric and ornamentation are formally integral. They were also felt, by the early twentieth century, to have been exhausted in the 19th century; poetry does not suffer from the mechanical reproduction of patterns in the same way as the visual and plastic arts, but perhaps the mass circulation and diffusion of poetry albums and clubs, with the attendant public clamoring for pretty pleasing moments, inspired a similar response.
As is evident, pattern is central to my discussion. Poetry cannot but bear some relation to pattern, since it is itself a patterning of language. In ornament, the role of pattern is more obvious, and a nutshell summary of Trilling’s account of the late 19th century would be to say that by the problem in the mass produced artifacts of Victorian design, up through and including the organic forms of art nouveau, was that patterns were taken for granted, fused, and applied without enough force and assertion to allow for a bold deviation that would have made the patterns interesting. From another perspective, and this the Ruskin critique of mass production, and the root of his love of Gothic, there was insufficient space for artists and artisans to boldly deviate from the patterns, in order to affirm their underlying presence. Patterns of value cannot be mere uniformity; they need to generate puzzles and to provoke reconciliation into new patterns not immediately observed.
Adolf Loos represented the way out for modernist art, in his buildings that refused patterns but that nonetheless asserted the concept of pattern in a new way. He built from natural materials and exposed what were the suggestions of patterns contained within their substances. Here is Trilling:
Loos’ ornament sprang directly from the material…not only without predetermined form and pattern but without artifice…The ‘patterns’ in stone and wood are spontaneous in both senses. They happen by themselves: cutting and polishing only reveal what is there. And they look spontaneous as if by spontaneous we mean a lovely unpredictability resulting from lack of planning.
I find the quotation marks around the word “pattern” revealing: they speak, in fact, to the central and deepest point of Trilling’s argument, that pattern itself, like the rest of art, becomes indeterminate in the 20th century:
The common use of abstract to mean either non-representational or indeterminate glosses over this uncertainty and its implications. The difference between twentieth-century art and what came before has nothing to do with abstraction in the strict sense. The difference is not even between representational and nonrepresentational, but between determinate and indeterminate.
What does indeterminate pattern mean? It means that the pattern is not established within a work, but instead looks to, and suggests that it is a part of, a pattern beyond it; not only that, but that it cannot be felt as patterned except for what lies beyond it. The edges of the work are semi-permeable.
We could draw a helpful distinction between Modernist fragmentation and the Romantic fragment or ruin. The “ruins” beloved of Romantic poets (and visual artists) are fragments of a larger work that haunts the part with an implied, and imaginable, whole. The fragments of modernism are fragments sundered from something that is not a contained work at all. In the case of Loos’ architecture, this might be a geological formation; in the case of Eliot’s The Waste Land it is a body of texts (a tradition, or set of traditions), as well as a geography. Not only is pattern dislocated, but the knowledge required to reconstruct the complete pattern cannot be focused solely on the work; the eventual consequence of this for modernism was the institutionalization of literary studies. But contra those who would claim that the thrust of Eliot’s or Pound’s poetry was elitist, depending on a ready store of cultural and intellectual capital available only to a few, the point is instead that the poems depend on the incompletion of patterns in one direction with the incomplete formation of new patterns within the work. Pound’s Cantos require an especially radical acceptance of this sort of reading; we are constantly asking how a phrase fits into Confucius, or the Milanese history books, or Provencal poetry, but also how they fit into one another, and into Pound’s reminiscences of figures in the London literary scene. The Waste Land is, for me and many other readers, more satisfying than Pound’s Cantos because the balance of the tension (the pattern of incomplete patterns within the text; the incomplete patterns themselves feeling like they contain within themselves, as quotes, patterns that bear tracing).
But it is also because The Waste Land bears the traces of its genesis; as impersonal as it is, it is intensely personal, without being located within a particular biographical moment or situation, like Pound’s Pisan Cantos. James Trilling alerts us to the absence of repeatable pattern, and the absence of pattern itself, in Tiffany’s Favrile glass and in Dresser’s Japanese-inspired pottery. But here again a dislocation is at work. Pattern is not so much absent as displaced. Of Favrile glass, Trilling writes, “no two works could be the same and even within a work no precise repetition was possible.” But that is only because the process of creation, which was itself patterned—a matter of skill (one form that patterns take). Critics are drawn to the notion of a “great arranger” behind The Waste Land even seeking to read the poem biographically and that because the poem suggests a skilled arrangement that emerged from a process of reading and selecting allusions and texts, and it is a skilled arrangement that had Pound’s editorial intelligence as a crucial element of the process; the process of arrangement was one that could bear, and reward, collaboration, since the poem stood above.
In suggesting that rhetoric be considered similar to ornament, I’m suggesting that Eliot’s own attitude towards rhetoric was not so different from Loos’ towards ornament. Here is Trilling on Loos:
There were two possible solutions. One was to keep pace with perceived advances in painting: in other words, to make it indeterminate. The other was to do away with ornament altogether. The modernist answer was to do both at once and it was Loos’ genius that made this possible. Loos never called his wood or marble facings ornament…let the marble speak for itself and remind us that nothing else is needed.
The ornament for Loos was innate in the patterns of the materials. This is perhaps, in so far as it depends on the natural world, closer to Pound, whose poetry really does attempt, as a sculpture, to cut away and see more clearly fragments of nature (light, stone, water), even as it is of course imposing in language its own patterns to replicate them; the patterns of language are presented as doing the work of a chisel. But I think this also holds true for Eliot, and that it can be more directly related to his work, since not the natural world, and verbal tracings of the natural world, but language itself is reckoned as his subject: language not as naively encountered or self-imagined, but as it has accrued in the forms of rhetoric that have become ossified in other texts, in the traditions of English, in habitual ways of speaking, in the voices of the pub. He will not apply rhetoric any more than Loos will apply ornament, but he will reveal the rhetoric of language that is already in place. In the case of Loos, the indeterminacy plays out in the question, “is it an ornamental pattern or isn’t it?”; in the case of Eliot, the indeterminacy plays out in the question, “is it a rhetorical pattern or isn’t it?” And the answer is both: it fits into the work (and so forms a pattern with it, without being rhetorical), and it also, as a rhetorical pattern, can only be appreciated if it is extended beyond the work; it insists on placement in other patterns, that are extra-literary, or extra-Waste Land.
There were of course other ways of dissolving rhetoric into indeterminacy, in prose and poetry. And there were those—Stevens is most intriguing—who do not dissolve it at all. James Trilling’s account of Cézanne is especially perceptive:
What his predecessors had done for the transient qualities of light, Cézanne did for the solidity of form. Light and form are translated equally into the arbitrary units of paint, and neither light, nor form, nor brushwork is sacrificed. Cézanne’s brushwork cannot disappear into the illusion: it is too bold. The result is a dynamic abstract surface that co-exists with the illusion on equal terms….this effect gives Cézanne’s images a permanence that enhances the solidity of his subjects, and a dynamism that transcends their stillness. If there is a way to carry this development further in the same direction, no one has found it. Any change must upset the balance.
This is perhaps relevant for Stevens.
Eliot of course would come to make rhetoric indeterminate in other ways than he did in The Waste Land. The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday, even, move in new directions, though the indeterminacy is arguably less sustained, is felt more at some moments than at others in those poems. “Marina” is probably the most perfect post-Waste Land poem, its indeterminacy owing to the poem being poised perfectly at a crossroads of the recognition of recovery (Pericles) and the recognition of loss (Hercules Furens), with the implication being that recovery and loss, joy and pain, are somehow indeterminate, incapable at least of determination by human eyes, in human experience, forming a part of a divine pattern we cannot fully know or reconcile with human action or history (c.f. Four Quartets)—though also, as Empson saw, compatible, in “Marina,” with an atheistic outlook. And for Geoffrey Hill, Coriolan is the great lost opportunity, for yet another step towards indeterminacy (though he does not use that word) in a new direction.