Cairns Craig
Yeats, Eliot, Pound and the Politics of Poetry, Richest to the richest
Croom Helm, London, 1982
[Broadcast in 1982 on ABC Radio’s Book sand Writing.]

The title is an unhappy choice, misleading even, because it ignores the central theme. More apposite would have been Memory, Politics and Poetry.  The key to Craig’s book is his discussion of memory. By leaving that term out of his title, he has made it harder for us understand his subtle, “Richest to the richest”. Should you recognise that those words are a quotation then you are one of the rich. Richness here relates to culture, not commodities. In turn, “Culture” is used in Ezra Pound’s sense of being what remains after we’ve forgotten what we have learned.

Craig begins by stating that to understand both the form and the content of poems we have first to identify the ways of knowing to which the poet subscribed. So, his second chapter is an essay on epistemology. In particular, Craig explores associationism which Romanticism had attacked but did not kill off. For the Romantics, imagination linked the world with the poet and with the poem. Yeats, Eliot and Pound looked elsewhere for a bridge, each finding his own. Or rather each of them found different bridges at various periods of their careers. Sometimes they found that the chosen bridge was down, washed away, or in barbarian hands.

But in their bridges spanned the same torrent, the deluge that had swept away the civilized cultural values. On the other side of their bridges, the poets hoped to find a green and pleasant land, one where it would once again be possible to hear Edmund Spenser say: “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song.”

Of course, associationism had not remained unaffected across nearly200 years. To be of use to Eliot and Yeats, it had had to acquire fresh associations through a particular approach to the past. Before following up Craig’s investigation on this matter of memory. a digression is required.

According to Craig, associationism contributed more to the Anglo-Saxon symbolists than did their French namesakes. Students of Australian poetry might care to examine how much Christopher Brennan and John Shaw Neilson owed to the associationist tradition and how little to Mallarme? Furthermore, how much does their symbolism depend on interpretations of their work established by A. R. Chisholm, the reactionary professor of French at the University of Melbourne?

To return to Cairns’s account which reminds us that for a period, both Yeats and Eliot had looked to the common people as a source for renewal. Irish peasants and the English music hall seemed to carry forward some sense of a ceaseless past. But the people failed the poets by being corrupted with creature comforts. And though they died in their millions during the Great War they were not heroic, and heroic enough for those stay at homes, Yeats and Eliot. Thus the poets sought support elsewhere. They found it among aristocracies of sorts. Tiny social elites sustained the memory of culture and through it they upheld the culture of memory.

Other social groups kept order so that the cultural aristocrats could go about their business of remembering.

The poets did not always like the keepers of law and order, would not have dined with them – but the artists needed the social control which those rough beasts maintained. So fascism became a necessary condition for their creative isolation. In Australia, Norman Lindsay came to the same conclusion in his Creative Effort (192 ). With the power of memory can the memory of power. That was once spandrel for the builders of fascism.

The second arch was constructed from the defence of memory. Memory required poets who were themselves fully versed in world literature and history. Their poetry would father up all the allusions, all the instances, all the quotations, and all the languages – in brief, all the associations of culture. Readers would constantly fail to follow. Hence, The Waste Land remains “richest to the richest”.

The result was poetry from an elite for a less informed elite. Nonetheless, it was a poetry which wanted to preserve the collective efforts of all human endeavour through memory, sometimes by accounts of the past, or in Yeats’s case, aided by the occult.

Let’s pursue this question of memory down another regress. It is said that modernist imagery is often spatial. For that term to have any meaning in literacy criticism we have to consider it in relation to the temporal. Now that counterpoint is associated with Nietzsche’s pitting of mythology against history; of tragedy against science. The poets and other Modernists brought these elements together to create new shapes for the world.

Ponder the case of Bloomsday. Was 16 June 1904 spatial or temporal? One way to approach that question is to rephrase it: Is 16 June 1904 spatial or temporal? Joyce accumulated details of life around Dublin. The day runs its course. The past intervenes in fair chronological order, always shadowed by its Homeric model. So, it seems we have a temporal order. Yet this very accretion of detail is a clue to laying out an unreal city. Bloom’s voyage proceeds in ways that are far from chronological.

Even if we were to admit that Ulysses is spatial, what would we say of Finnegan’s Wake with its dream work of myths and memories, fractured so that it can be read only syllable by syllable? Craig implies that such questions are inappropriate, evidence of a chronic misconception of contemporary consciousness. The complexity of Finnegan’s Wake is a memory in extremis. The density of its associations is one more sign that memory can no longer link the world with the poet or either with the poem. Joyce offers the richest rewards to himself.

In his concluding chapter, Cairns Craig deals with the political positions of Yeats, Eliot and Pound. He assembles their actions and opinions to relate each of the poets to fascism. In some ways, this chapter was unnecessary. The case had already been proven in the previous eight chapters which had confined themselves to analyzing poetry and to presenting aesthetic theories.

Craig’s own anti-fascist stance is clear and uncompromising as he challenges the Right-wing revivals. Yet he admires the poetry of Yeats, Eliot and Pound. I am less enthusiastic about the latter pair but share Craig’s acceptance that the issue that brought these writers towards fascism remains one with which anti-fascists must engage.

How can radicals integrate past, future and present? Marx talked about the weight of past generations weighing like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Yet his own radicalism was fed with a profuse knowledge of the literature and history of societies going back over thousands of years. Marx was not living hand to mouth as far as ideas were concerned, but was one of those authors whose writing are richest to the richest”, which is another reason why he is constantly misunderstood.

On the contrary, we should replenish the store of knowledge gained from experience. To do this in 1982 is to fight on two fronts: one, against the professional historians who reduce facts to mere details; and two, against the inventors of news items who deny all connections. It is measured against these destroyers of memory that we can appreciate the popular appeal made by Manning Clark’s History of Australia.

The current awareness of the need to rebuild memory comes from any number of sources. In Rodney Hall’s novel, Just Relations, the people of Whitey’s Fall, make a religious out of remembering. It ends with the locals about to rebuild again. Their past is renewed in the present as a collective activity.

Less appealingly is Roland Barthes’s retreat from the game playing of his early work. In the posthumously published study of photography, Camera lucida, Barthes reaches out for the past but clutches at sentimentality.

The slaughterhouses of the Left have no fewer mansions than those of the Right.

Marshall Berman’s All that is solid offers another temptation by proposing a tradition of radicalism that is more than the tradition of the new.

Cairns Craig reminds us of the need to look into the enemy ’s camp as well. For it is in the works of Eliot, Yeats and Pound that socialists will encounter some of the intractability of the universe. Here too are set down the limitations that remind us that humans can never be saints. If radicals in power do not accept the human, all too human face of humanity, revolutions will continue to turn failed saints into corpses.