Letters show Pound's alliance with his sweetheart influenced his styleEzra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear: Their Letters, 1909-1914, edited by Omar Pound and A. Walton Litz. New York: New Directions. 399 pp. $37.50.
This delightful collection of letters is one of the surprises of the season. It reveals the literary world in England before the World War I, not from a strictly literary point of view but from that of Dorothy Shake-spear.
Dorothy was the only daughter of Olivia (a dear friend of W. B. Yeats) and Henry Hope Shakespear (who fulfilled the promise of his name by a successful law practice and minor fame as a landscape painter). Dorothy, who at the end of this volume is engaged to be married to Pound, emerges as the kind of young woman Henry James would have built into an endless novel. Dorothy had a mind of her own.
Pound, who in his early, raw 20s was one of the curiosities of the London literary world, had come over from the States to escape prudery and mindlessness , and to discover himself as a man of letters. As a medievalist, his work on troubadours was novel; as a poet, his writing gradually worked itself free of pedantry, obscurity, and archaism. Olivia introduced Pound to French poetry of the day; Pound introduced himself to her daughter, Dorothy, much to the discomfort of Olivia, who, despite being a novelist and a self-styled Buddhist, knew trouble when she saw it.
Dorothy loved Ezra. He freed her, opened the world to her. Ezra grew to appreciate Dorothy. She forced him to make sense, at least when he was writing to her. Aside from the winsome clarity of her epistolary style (she just told him what she was feeling and what she was thinking), Dorothy probably played a key role in the evolution of modern poetry by refusing to be cowed by Pound's dogmatism. Scholars may debate who it was that broke with the diction of the past - the unpolished American or the great Irishman Yeats (whose secretary Pound was for a year or so while Dorothy and Ezra corresponded). But readers of these letters will know it was Dorothy.
In a letter beginning ''There's nothing to say,'' Dorothy goes on to say that she believes her dear Ezra, whose letters to her were often choked with pompous verbiage, has ''a most 'unconquerable aversion to simple statement' - & I don't think letters should contain - what? Anyway, yours was fairly lucid, with Yeats' help'' (Sept. 23, 1911). Lucidity and directness, albeit fitful, would go on to become hallmarks of Pound's style, in verse and prose.
Dorothy's imagination was not bookish. Following her father, she painted; in words, too, she painted what she saw. (Here, again, she led the way; Pound was still writing about satyrs.) But she, no doubt, envied Pound for his capacity for distraction. ''I don't know what you may be feeling -,'' she wrote, ''But with a Lopez (Pound was writing about the Spanish dramatist Lopez de Vega) play on hand - I defy you to feel the boredom I am now enjoying'' (March 21, 1913). She goes on to say that, since she is at the end of her needlework, tomorrow she will go mad.
She does not go mad; instead she picks up one of Ezra's books. Then she writes, ''I have been reading your Mallarme. He (his prose) seems to me worse than dear Henry James.Its (sic) all upside down.'' Even when Pound sends her copies of his own poems, some of which are about her, she feels perfectly free to criticize or to forget them. ''What I feel about the Pomes (sic)? It is hard to say without them at hand, as I keep on forgetting them. They strike me as being slightly protesting - one or two very charming'' (April 5, 1913).
There is a break in their relationship after Dorothy writes, ''I feel you might have got a job if you had really wanted to.'' When Pound's financial situation improves, however, they are married. In the beginning (May of 1911) Dorothy had written in her diary, ''Life is no good for a girl, without love.'' She had just met Pound. They were married on April 18, 1914. The invitation supplies the last page of these letters.
Their life together would be vexed by Pound's intemperance of mind, his awkward insistence during World War II that the Italians, not the Americans, deserved to win.Pound lived in Italy during most of the war. In 1945 he was captured and caged. In that cage, awaiting deportment to the United States to stand trial for treason, Pound wrote some of his most beautiful poetry. The images came from the years before the Great War, the years when Dorothy and others had taken the brilliant, madcap American in hand. Here the juicy annotation, which makes this book indispensable for students of modern letters, serves us well by generous quotations from the later poetry. After Pound's trial , when he was judged not guilty by reason of insanity and after his insti-tu-tion-ali-zation at St. Elizabeths Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, Dorothy followed Pound into exile in Italy.
Before their marriage he had written her, ''The real meditation is . . . the meditation on one's identity. Ah, voila une chose. You try it.'' In fact, Dorothy knew herself quite adequately. Otherwise she could never have stood, or understood, Ezra Pound.
Once, apropos of an Italian edition of ''Hermes Trismagistus,'' Dorothy wrote her fiance: ''It feels like the shell with nothing inside: not even a rattle.'' There would be occasion for this image to come back to her, Dorothy being who she was.