Propounding Modernist Maleness: How Pound Managed a Muse

This essay © by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and the University of Alabama Press appeared in, and  is available from,  Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006: 122-136. All rights reserved.  It was originally published in a slightly different form in Modernism/ Modernity, 9. 3 (September 2002): 389-405.

Critical cliché says that analyses of the ways social debates and meanings are inscribed in poetry cannot be aesthetically nuanced. But this is not so. Culturalist readings need not lose formal specificity nor overlook the saturated, pleasurable textiness of poetic texts. We need reading strategies to help mediate between what is said in poetry and what is said as poetry. Without attention to the interdependent helix of a text’s social and aesthetic aspects, a poetic text has to be viewed reductively as a bizarre choice of message-delivery system for ideas and themes—a choice inexplicably quirky, and rather less effective than writing polemic or “sending an email.”  Yet paraphrasable meaning is hardly all a reader seeks and authorial claims of what is intended cannot illuminate all a text’s territory or its effects.1 A postformalist reading strategy—a “social philology,”  or sociopoesis—must look at the deep formal mechanisms of literary texts with New Critical care yet link formal moves to the issues that purist New Criticism rejected: social substance, biographical traces, constructions of subjectivity, historical debates, and ideological strata (DuPlessis 2001, 9-12).

As part of its “repoliticization of the aesthetic sphere,”  gender studies or feminist criticism needs to commit to the examination of gendered materials in the apparatus of poesis as well as in narrative and performance (Felski 1989, 175). Such criticism may look at institutions around poetry (patronage, publication, reception, canonizing trends, coterie groups, poetic careers) and analyze cultural conventions and institutionalized topoi inside poetry that have a gendered torque. This project enacts, for poetry, what Teresa de Lauretis proposes for other genres: “a feminist theory of textual production which is neither a theory of women’s writing nor just a theory of textuality” (de Lauretis 1987, 92).

One part of the apparatus of poesis is the relation of gendered muse to poet. This is a particularly fraught site because it involves cultural convention, biographical materials, literary representation, and their reinvention in any particular situated case. That is, subject positions such as “muse” or “inspired by a muse”  appear variously in poetic tradition as figures and in real life as biographical choices and activities ideologically and culturally available to people situating themselves inside careers.2 Other gendered materials in the apparatus of poesis are the subject positions of poet, poetess and genius, what is played out in each, and how these interactive postures emerge both inside texts and in personal life at historically determinate times. That such subject positions are culturally institutionalized and personally, if unevenly, internalized is shown in Svetlana Boym’s work on the tropes of femininity in “the death of the poetess,”  which examines her character as a mix of excess and lack, and in Barbara Johnson’s work on “male [poets’] privilege as the right to play femininity” (Boym 1991, 192-200; B. Johnson 1998, 127). These positions can emerge in texts as recurrent, but variable motifs, topoi that are necessarily susceptible to some kind of situational reading because of the mix of social, ideological and even historical materials condensed in them.

A glance at one-frame cartoons, whether in the New Yorker or elsewhere, will convince anyone of the ideological persistence of muse motifs (often figured in relation to visual artists): at its most banal, a beneficent, lovely, noble and saintly female figure inspires a male artist, yet she may capriciously, inexplicably, or pedagogically withhold favors, thereby causing artistic blockage or further growth.  Parodic and satiric uses of muse motifs depend on our sense of the convention. The interplay between passivity and activity, initiator and recipient seems to run counter to gender stereotype, raising the issue that—in a kind of Dinnersteinian historical psychology—the muse has her psychological origin in the imprint of the powerful mother on the needy baby (Dinnerstein 1976). Considering the muse in his 1994 “Gendering the Muse,” Jed Rasula has proposed the figure as embodying the hope of surpassing one’s own limits, thus acknowledging the creative self as hybrid—a gender hybrid. He builds a mythopoetic argument that what we call the muse is the site of a poet’s own embedded otherness. Poetry takes shape in an “underwriting”  or “underwritten” guarantee of “male poetic authority”  by a “differently gendered”  voice “pre-articulated inside” a poet (Rasula 1994, 161). But once the “muse” is thus interpreted as a metaphor for an interior projection of power that allows one to hybridize oneself, there is no particular reason for it to manifest any gender narrative at all. Rasula speculates why it would. For male poets the sense of having another growth inside is a male imitation of the feelings women have if and when they are successfully pregnant, since the fact “that men don’t give birth is one of the more thoroughly repressed of cultural traumas” (Rasula 1994, 160). Rasula presents the primal scene of poesis not as maternal nourishment, sublimated sexual intercourse, or eroticized chastity, but as imitative pregnancy: a couvade of a semiautonomous otherness that speaks from the inside. This formulation does not straightforwardly transfer to women poets, but it certainly foregrounds gender conventions in the apparatus of poesis and might suggest that looking for “repressed gender traumas” of women would be a place in which to speculate (trans-)historically about muse figures for females.

Even granting some of this suggestive synoptic generalization, I propose being a little less archetypal and more situational. Any muse figures used in a particular poem or active in life draw on specific gender relations that are sustained, remixed, and activated in historical time by individuals seeking to establish their creative agency. Thus I want to undergeneralize, even myopically, and offer a close reading of a well-known poem in order to discuss how one female figure is represented by one male writer, reading both his investment in this figure and her own qualities.

A study of Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme” (1912) is undertaken here because this often-anthologized work models gendered ideology concerning creativity, elaborating that part of the apparatus of poesis called “the muse.”  Tracing the actual addressee of this poem and contrasting her achievements with those that Pound has selected to depict reveals how his “propounded”  forms of modern maleness and, more loosely, of poetic genius depend, as subject positions, on proposing and maintaining a dehistoricized, despecified female figure. That the negation of her agency as the “real woman” passes into her figured representation as muse is not simply Pound’s, or any artist’s, choice of what and how to represent. This critique does not debate his right to write the poem he wants or needs to write, but rather it examines the contents of that need and points to the ways this poem reaffirms conservatizing gender narratives.

Attention to the poetic subjects inside and outside this poem provides an understanding of the gendered “micropolitics of literary culture”  (Watten 1998, 107). This “portrait” alludes to visual art even in the French of the title and, of course, both to James’s novel of passion, entrapment, renunciation and collections and to Pound’s admiration of James’s ethical realism as a model for poetry. Pound proceeds by deeply interested interpretations—indeed, repressions—of the historically attested work of a particular creative woman. But Une is unspecific, not La Femme; with no name given, this “femme” is discussed as a limited muse, a semiadequate inspiration for a functioning artist, someone whom the speaker must treat elegiacally, regretfully, from a position of farewell (Pound 1926, 61). He represents his female figure within the text as virtual lack, inadvertent creativity, and compromised ability.

The female in “Portrait d’une Femme” is, in Pound’s depiction, a semibourgeoise protobohemian, having rejected marital loyalty to “one dull man, dulling and uxorious.”  She is an older salonnière who holds court but whose materials are so piled up, impacted, “dimmed” and “tarnished”  that they seem virtually useless. Yet the figure surprises the speaker by what she can give to others and by her “patience”  at collecting or letting material pool around her. The muse motif is strongly, if secularly, articulated.

… now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay.

You are a person of some interest, one comes to you

And takes strange gain away….

(Pound 1926, 61)

Although the metaphors here are Jamesian, the speaker of the poem sits in some judgment of the figure being portrayed; there is no particular hint of bachelor impotence in the speaker’s voice but rather a kind of elegant, summary, appreciative condescension. The Jamesian images of paying and double-edged interest and the sense of possession still conclude in “nothing”: that “in the whole and all, / Nothing that’s quite your own. / Yet this is you.” Having the final line be a two-beat hemistich (after a passage of iambic pentameter) dramatizes this inadequacy. Being an unpossessive conduit is a precise description of the “conditions of employment” for a muse figure.

Pound brings the whole tradition of Shakespearean blank verse—the articulate packing of the line, the mobile caesura, the personable, meditative tone, the Renaissance diction with its “mandrakes” and “ambergris”—to bear witness both to this female figure’s inspiration and to her passivity. The female figure is the site at which such bisexually fertile images as “pregnant with mandrakes” (giving birth to phallic materials) and “ambergris” (an excretion of sperm whales, used for perfume) can emerge, be articulated and taken as the “gain” of the male speaker. The female object can manifest or exude these goods but cannot claim or use them. Thus the poem presents the homosocial bonding of Shakespeare and Pound (in the enunciation) over the body of the female figure in the enounced, one who inspires genius but cannot herself create.3 The diction is highly motivated: the supplement of Shakespearean tonality supports Pound’s own genius subject position. By its diction the poem is taken out of time; it has created a magic world where no modern markers intrude, no technology, no motor horns, no signs of modernity in the language. The only time marker alludes to the figure’s age. The line “London has swept about you this score years” reduces the figure’s agency as it notes her long-lasting presence.

Thoroughly static, and like a stall and trap for ships (the Sargasso Sea), the female figure of the enounced is a spot at which a terrific amount of detritus and rich materials passively collect and jumble. The figure lacks center and teleological energies; she is only a dump or midden, “naturally” accumulating debris: something indicated in the long, syntactically flexible list in the second half of the poem. Yet although she is taxed for unoriginality, she is (appropriately, in 1912) inventing collage: accumulating fragments, juxtaposing these, resisting representational design, foregrounding the detail, combining the old and new (“strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff”). Thus the speaker describes the figure as proposing, semiconsciously, a major strategy of modernist presentation but in a retro “Victorian bric-à-brac”  mode (Feldman 2001, 453). The poem becomes a muted, backhanded tribute. In the strain of the thrice-repeated word strange, the speaker acknowledges this artistic mode while disparaging its source.

“Great minds have sought you–lacking someone else. / You have been second always.”  These ferocious lines in this otherwise temperate statement depict her as an apparent stop-gap in a narrative of inspiration or romance. All these issues can be elaborated when the poem’s historical addressee is identified. Florence Farr is the original of the “portrait d’une femme,” and the poem is a Poundian redaction of this New Woman of striking cultural force from a generation before his (O. Pound & Litz 1984, 130-33; see also J. Johnson 1975).4 A. Walton Litz calls Farr an embodiment of an Ibsen type of “’transitional’ woman” but certainly more than “Shaw’s ‘lover’ and chosen mouthpiece, Yeats’s musical muse, Pound’s passive sitter for his twentieth-century version of a Jamesian portrait” (Litz in DiBattista and McDiarmid 1996, 86). Beyond the interest of this historical woman, I am methodologically interested in the tone, mechanisms, and materiality of the poem as artifact and will not import “facts” about the identification of Farr as if these “facts” could prove or disprove the poem’s force. Indeed, the gap, contradiction and interplay between the depiction of the female figure and Farr’s work give the most information to this reading.

Florence Farr [Emery] (1860-1917) was an actress, a socialist, a theosophist, a feminist, and (in her final years) an educator in Sri Lanka. Farr was friend of and coauthor with Olivia Shakespear (Pound’s future mother-in-law), friend and inspiration of George Bernard Shaw (his Arms and the Man was written for her), singer for and inspiration of W. B. Yeats, an actress, novelist, and polemicist–and taken, in her time, as a quintessential New Woman. Farr played the character Rebecca West in the 1891 London premiere of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm and, in 1907, published a series of six essays treating Ibsen’s heroines as if they were real female types with contemporary problems, doing striking character analyses of their motivations and passions. As she moved from the Shaw orbit into the Yeats orbit—a serious shift–Farr produced one Yeats play in 1894, and acted in others (in1899 and 1905) (Laity1985). She was active with Yeats in Golden Dawn occult and mystical performances and was the recipient of his letters from 1895 through 1906.

While she emphatically “inspired,” she also emphatically possessed and deployed considerable artistic and critical agency. Farr is an emergent New Woman with emancipatory flair, one of those “heroines of modernity” in Rita Felski’s terms, who gives the lie to implicit claims of many theories of modernity “that women were situated outside processes of history and social change.” Hence this poem allows us considerable purchase on the problem of reading “the modern in relation to gender politics” (Felski 1995, 16, 18). As a woman who played the muse but also mused the play, she situated herself on both sides of the muse-agent compact. Perhaps her passionate inspiring of these men was a useful cover for her active agency, or perhaps, more likely, for females entering modernity, artistic agency and erotically charged inspiring with free love bravura are mixed together and give tremendous professional power and satisfaction in ways that the pure stereotyped form of “muse” wisdom-in-passivity-and-sublimation cannot articulate. In the 1890s Farr’s intellectual or cultural allegiances were split between spiritualist, theosophical practices of esoteric “religious” forms and socialist critiques of bourgeois life; that is, she made herself the container of debate between these two rival worldviews. In biographical terms this debate is enacted between Yeats and Shaw, who each regretted the influence of the other on Farr (Jayawardena 1995,138). Yet because the theosophical was also very feminist in implication, with its priestesses and goddesses, offering women adepts paths of spiritual power and cultic status, and because the antibourgeois socialist asked a number of telling questions about women’s status, one might see Farr’s position as synthesizing elements concerning female power and critique from these two rival worldviews.5 When Litz summarizes her New Age articles and publishes her Ibsen character portraits, he argues for her as primal embodiment of Ibsen’s ideas on women’s passionate striving—sexually, intellectually, socially, in the world and in the family.

It is the Yeats aspect of Farr’s life—her sexual, productive, and professional life– that interested Pound; he met Farr in1909 at the Poets’ Club as he was hoping to enter Yeats’s orbit himself (Longenbach 1988, 11-14). Farr, a noted performer, had been known for chanting Yeats’s poems to an instrument “half-lyre, half-psaltery” (made for her by Arnold Dolmetsch), an activity that the two took very seriously from about 1901 to 1905 (O. Pound & Litz, ed., 1984,  128 and 343; Yeats,  ed. Wade 1955, 274, 353-54, 373-74, 384, 394). She wrote music that Yeats was very eager to see included in an edition of his plays; some of which appears in Yeats’ s essay “Speaking to the Psaltery” from 1907, an essay that also contains a section by Farr. (Yeats,  ed. Wade 1955, 491-94). Yeats defended their music-of-poetry practice in letters to both Robert Bridges (1901) and Arthur Symons (1902). Yeats and Farr gave lecture-demonstrations in a number of cities to showcase her “extraordinarily impressive and poetical” method of sprechstimme; in 1907 she toured America giving lectures on music and poetry (Yeats,  ed. Wade 1955,  384; see also Ellmann 1961, 133; Litz in DiBattista and McDiarmid 1996, 87). Mark Morrisson has commented on how Farr’s artistic elocution helped to focus modernist poetics on “the impersonal performance of the pure voice”  (Morrisson 1996, 40-41). Farr’s book The Music of Speech (1909) solidified her position as an expert in both the theory and practice of the relation of poetry and music; notably, this book was dedicated to both Yeats and Arnold Dolmetsch. Pound also researched the relation of music and poetry, possibly impelled by, inspired by, or catching up to this Yeats-Farr-Dolmetsch cluster of activity. Pound’s essays-in-tribute to Dolmetsch date from 1918 (Pound 1954, 431-440). Through the years from about 1909 to 1910, Pound seems to have had a sense of rivalry with Farr, an interest in focusing Yeats’s attention on himself in an area in which Farr had significant professional expertise.

While seeming like a romance/muse plot in the poem, the speaker’s line to “Farr” as “femme,” “Great minds have sought you–lacking someone else,” can be reseen as an articulation of Pound’s rivalry with Farr, a statement signaling Pound’s desire to displace Farr’s analysis of the musical performance of poetry with Pound’s (the “someone else”), in the sight of Yeats, the great mind.6 The speaker of Pound’s poem seems to allude to Pound’s own desire to catch up with these influential music-and-poetry ideas, the poem itself offering the sub rosa claim that the Farr-based figure (and covertly, her work) had, by 1912, become collective property, belonging to us. This is suggested in the pun propelled by an emphatic, odd line break: “I have seen you sit/ Hours”  encrypting “I have seen you sit[,]/ [ours].” This line also alludes to Pound’s construction of a homosocial bond between Yeats and himself via Farr, instead of an oedipal Pound looking at the intense couple Farr and Yeats, a couple professionally and at times sexually active. Indeed, the plethora of art-objects in the poem, the wash of furniture and stuff, might be thought of as being precisely not about music, a deflection from the medium in which Pound’s actual rivalry with Farr was expressed. On displacing Farr, Pound may have been celebrating some real-life satisfaction in this poem: Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory in December 1910 that “this queer creature Ezra Pound, who has become really a great authority on the troubadours, has, I think, got closer to the right sort of music for poetry than Mrs. Emery [Farr].”7 Although Pound “can’t sing” and sounds like a “very bad phonograph,” Yeats nonetheless accepts him as a belated, amusing, but sincere collaborator (Yeats, Wade, ed. 1955, 543).8 No matter the biographical facts of Farr’s agency, originality and influence on music-poetry thinking, no matter her spurring of Pound’s interest, the poem constructs “femme” as having become inadequate, displaceable.

At the beginning of his “Treatise on Metre,” in 1934, several decades after Farr’s death, Pound has another last word. Pound positions himself as having performed a great service—a troubadour-like service—in this music/poetry nexus: “I heard a fair lady sigh, ‘I wish someone would write a good treatise on prosody.’ As she had been a famous actress of Ibsen, this was not simple dilettantism…” (Pound 1960a, 197). This is again a portrait, by Pound, of the unnamed Farr as female figure. In this comment he honors Farr; yet his honoring has two conflicting dimensions. He mentions her fame and her work (which nonetheless exist faraway in the past perfect—“had been”), but focuses on her “fair lady” needs, whose desirous “sighs” (a metaphor from romance) he is about to satisfy with his knowledge of prosody. The phrase “not simple dilettantism” (my emphasis) raises the damaging specter of complex dilettantism, certainly a possible reading of Farr’s life and one reading of all the floating stuff in the poem as the remains of dilettantism. But Pound’s raising the specter of the dilettante at all, rather than the fact of Farr’s professional expertise, is reductive and a striking choice in 1934, when the wench, so to speak, is dead. Farr’s expertise is thus something that Pound had at once imitated in his criticism and carefully, jealously reduced both in the portrait and twenty-two years after, in his remarks prefacing “Treatise on Metre.”9

The particular mechanism in Pound’s poem has to do with the repositioning of female work. The word work appears in the poem as a noun: the female figure is not depicted as working but as someone who sits in the vicinity of “the loom of days”  and whose visitors find around her “tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work,”  an accomplishment without agency, for which she is not visibly responsible. The poem itself  is a mechanism that separates Farr from her work (in acting, in writing, in theorizing song and performance), while it claims as collective property anything found, pooled or caught near this female “Sargasso” figure; the poem is as if under admiralty law, with the speaker claiming the right of salvage to whatever is washed up. Some form of “possession”  of Farr and her work—parallel to her work with Shaw and then Yeats – marked a male artist as possessing status; Pound’s tactic is to take this work and to insist on the passivity of the muse rather than the push-pull activity of male and female cultural workers.

Pound produces his work—this poem–by the thematic occlusion inside it of the work of the woman on whom the poem is based. Farr at fifty-two years in 1912 was still a token of enough importance or suggestiveness  that in the poem one might discuss or produce her marginalization. This is visible in Pound’s allusive word-layering:  the speaker of the poem shows ambivalence toward the female figure’s power in the minor phallicism of the phrase “strange spars of knowledge,” from the “bright ships”—by adducing her lack, in the word sparse, but also acknowledging how the figure “spurs” the speaker on.  Spars may also be a noun meaning the act of sparring, disputing, boxing, or contending with words. This shadow of possible debate or sparring and the eloquence of the figure—or of Farr as model—is also very suggestive, given her own passionate analyses of female passions, sex and gender struggles, and women’s “burning will and striving intellect”—a Keatsian/ Yeatsian phrase she uses to describe the character of Rebecca West, in the “Ibsen’s Women” series (Farr [1907] 1996, 94).

The poem’s mechanisms propose a solution not only to Farr’s talents on the music-poetry scene but also to her “problematic” feminist opinions. Farr’s other 1907-08 articles were full of feminism: the feminism of women active and independent for the (eugenic) good of the race, the pleasures and dangers of sexual expression, and the outrage of the “economic bargain” women must make in marriage (Farr [1907]1996, 88, 89). In her essays on Ibsen, the one word that recurs is passion, and she is exact about what Ibsen came to represent in the way of radical, tragic striving of women whose passions and social spaces did not coincide. Farr speaks of women “bored by marriage,” with “dim yearnings for an intellectual comradeship with men”; whose lives are bounded by “Suburbia”; who struggle against “social convention”; and who have a particular resistance to the insincere “general atmosphere of mutual flattery”   that characterizes the bourgeois “home as an institution” (Farr [1907-08]1996, 92, 98). Farr argues for open relationships, “social units constantly subject to change” wherein men and women can attain “a more vivid existence” through rejecting the “little stagnant pools” of their mandated ties (Farr [1907-08]1996, 98). This rejection of stagnation is precisely opposite to that stasis with which, in the “Sargasso” metaphor, Pound taxes Farr.

The “Sargasso Sea muddle” also appears in Dorothy Shakespear’s remarks on Florence Farr’s 1912 novel, The Solemnization of Jacklin: Some Adventures on the Search for Reality. Dorothy Shakespear’s comments of July 1912 may have given Pound his image or may simply echo the Sargasso Sea image already in the poem.10 Engaged to be married to Pound (they were to marry in April 1914), Dorothy is clearly provoked by Farr’s essayistic fulminations on marriage and the market value of women. In Pound’s poem Farr’s principled suspicion of marriage emerges, weakened, as the figure’s choice to avoid boring middle class “uxoriousness.” The Solemnization of Jacklin is rather more a watered-down Meredithean study of a female’s search for experience than an antimarriage novel. Still Farr’s work does contain studied passages that offer stiff and radical New Woman critiques of marriage for its “commercial aspect,” and of women for their degraded complacency in economic slavery, their offering sexual services for money outside marriage—or even inside it. “Why was it, she asked herself, that it was impossible for women to make money as easily as men did; why was it always slavery or marriage for them?…She suddenly realised that she belonged to a race of creatures maintained for the pleasure they could give their masters—their paymasters”  is one such heartfelt and bitter chunk, linking prostitution and marriage as parts of the same sex-gender system (Farr 1912, 73). Of these revelations and others Farr’s narrator remarks: “Poor Jacklin [the heroine] woke to this situation in the year 1904, long before the women’s movement had any driving power behind it” (Farr 1912, 74). This date is not meant to be comically ironic, although it sounds that way to us; during the years Pound knew her (1909-1912), Farr was rather cheered by feminism’s driving power for social and political change.

Her novel is dedicated “To the Man Who Shall Be,” suggesting that a subject position like New Man should follow on the New Woman. But the novel also sits in judgment of the reckless female main character for her disparate variety of yearnings—Fabian, independent, decadent, woman as “the slave of emotion” (Farr 1912, 241). The novel ends with the remarriage of the original couple after various overheated flings. A child from one of those flings sits with them while “husband and wife looked at each other with eyes full of mutual charity” (Farr 1912, 248).  Thus Farr’s Ibsenish opinions were rather tempered by a narrative compromise around the marriage plot engineered by the author—hardly a totally radical solution.

It is probably irrelevant to discuss Farr’s Modern Woman: Her Intentions (1910) at any length because the sheer fact of a fervent, public feminist book stating “This is to be the Woman’s Century” only two years before Pound wrote his poem may be all we need to appreciate his work of interpretive erasure in the making of the poem (Farr 1910, 7). We can take the poem as indicating, in encoded metaphors, his view of Farr’s declamations on marriage, prostitution, the vote, economic independence, love, divorce and chosen motherood as just passéist trappings, possibly what is referred to as “strange spars of knowledge”… some curious suggestion…  fact that leads nowhere.” At very least her book touches, topically, on many of the political, social, personal and moral issues of this central period of feminist struggle.  Farr’s book is an enthusiastic polemic on many topics, but especially on how the fight against the “prisons” that keep women trapped is larger than the vote, and how such struggles will transform social life within modernity (Farr 1910, 93).

Nonetheless, a glance at her introduction offers some sense of Farr’s particular politics. It is spoken from a patrician, aristocratic, explicitly “white” feminism, and is tied to the medieval courtliness of white men, who have had their historical day in the sun as knights and troubadours. They are imagined by her as fighting inspired by “their ladies’ colours”—as if all of medieval life were a defense of Western women or done in their name—a peculiar position at best (Farr 1910, 12). “White men have fought in the past [against what is not said, although to honor women is strongly implied], and it remains for white women to fight now, and at last rid their sex all over the world of the ignominy of this false doctrine.” This “false doctrine” refers to Semitic patriarchal institutions, since the enemy of women’s freedom is the “Semites” (Jews and “Mohammedans”—i.e. Muslims) whose patriarchal control of women was inexplicably re-expressed in Christianity (Farr 1910, 12). Farr claims that the world-historical problem at the root of women’s oppression is that “the white races adopted the Assyrian Semite’s Scriptures” (Farr 1910, 8). This snarl of scapegoating, Semiticized representations, patrician racism overgeneralized history, and feminism is worth far more than the cursory glance I give it here, but her general position is clear. Feminism offers a powerful “alchemy” to ignite the modern world, transmuting its institutions and revaluing its values, but, alas, the world doesn’t yet credit this “fire that is to burn it” (Farr 1910, 7).  If this book is any indication, at age fifty, Farr’s outspoken, intellectually wayward fire was still ablaze.

Pound’s poem shows a fascinated ambivalence toward the creative power and political bite of Farr, both as a New Woman and as a serious, respected contributor to a Yeats-centered poetry scene, as well as, before that, to a Shaw- and Ibsen-centered theater scene generally encoded as “feminist.” The real figure has been transformed from a critical, powerful, influential, outspoken and original historical woman to a textual “femme”—one form of a muse of modernism—an inadequate, anonymous and displaceable female figure. Hardly static or a dilettante, though a woman of many interests, Florence Farr –artist, actress, thinker and performer—has been rather startlingly recast by Pound. His poem portrays Farr as empty and “second always,” instead of as a formidable cultural activist, her fervent female striving interpreted as a seaweedy trap or “slow float,” and her energetic social criticism a useless backwater.11 All in all, Pound’s poem is a mechanism in the service of one kind of male subjectivity by the active creation of a shallow but provocative female muse for the containment of historical New Woman effervescence and achievement. This is an important transposition in the relationship of modernism to modernity. By representing a female figure in this way, Pound has contained, grounded, or stalled consideration of the impact-laden presence and agency of the “real person” on whom the poem was based, making the figure an Old Woman with useful muse properties, an exemplum of old stuff that still somehow inspires. Poetic representation masters this female figure, using poetic institutions like “muse” in order to deflect attention away from the historical achievements of Farr, the hidden subject.

What else could be at stake here? To answer, I must assume that the “over-elaborate post-Browning ‘Imagiste’ affair” –a poem that Pound sent to Harriet Monroe in August 1912—is “Portrait d’une Femme” (Pound 1950, 10).  This poem thus marks a curious conflictual transition in his poetry—for how could something be at once “over-elaborate” and “’Imagiste’” given those “few rules” of imagism, a movement invented circa December 1912 and elaborated in now well-known dicta early in 1913. “Portrait d’une Femme” is arguably the precise opposite of imagist work: it is an indirect treatment of “the thing,” saturated with adjective and repetition far beyond condensed efficiencies of “the presentation,” and composed not in forward-looking, musical free verse but using a pentameter “metronome”  (Pound 1954, 3).  Given this symptomatic conflict between statement and poem, given Pound’s resistance to his possible appearance in The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, one might imagine how he registered the pressure from futurist polemicist Filippo Marinetti (Pound 1950, 12).12 Marinetti’s work was available in London from 1910, when he presented his ideas at the Lyceum Club (Lyon 1999, 97) and in 1912, when his March lecture on futurism was given the same day that Pound delivered his second lecture on the troubadours, concerning Arnault Daniel (Litz and Rainey 2000, 68). In a “careerist” reading Litz and Lawrence Rainey propose that the enormous 1912 success of Marinetti’s avant-garde proposals and affronts, in contrast to Pound’s work in “literary culture” as “a restricted aristocracy of sensibility,”  directly motivated imagism’s invention (Litz and Rainey 2000, 68).13 To make his cultural mark, they argue, Pound felt he had to construct some distinctive, audacious product, and not one that only embodied and represented the cultural heritage of the past. The poem expresses this debate.

The “femme” is surrounded in her pool of debris with all the cultural materials that kept Pound from being perfectly modern, in the audacious Marinetti sense: a lack of an “aggressive character,” an attachment to beauty, a “pensive immobility,” and stasis (rather than “speed”). A whole past of beautiful but waterlogged cultural goods swirls around this figure—goods by which Pound was insistently and overwhelmingly tempted but which were ultimately cast away in Marinetti’s  millennial futurist provocations: “we will destroy the museums, libraries….will fight moralism, feminism…” (Marinetti 2001, 187). To rid himself of the “museum”-quality goods that make culture soggy, Pound attributes them to the “femme,” finds them damaged although tempting, and then wards them off in the emphatic “No!” and “Nothing.”  To possess these materials is to be swamped by culture as it was, to have nothing that’s “quite your own.” The double move of identification with the materials and rejection of them is contradictory, of course; this contradiction is a coiled spring giving the poem its power. No matter that Farr’s own personal culture (as a real individual) may have been as modern (in her feminism) as it was retro (in her medievalism). This was exactly the kind of synthesis Pound used to desire but now had to reject in order to position himself as adequately, truly modern from not quite modern enough.

Thus the poem is described proleptically as “post-Browning” although it is not at all beyond Browning—it is Browningesque, imitated after Browning, and “post-” only in that sense. The poem is described as ‘Imagiste’ although it is not imagiste at all; it is rather rhetorically “overelaborate.” Hence this lack of fit between his description and his poem is itself precise evidence of the tension between Pound’s “Victorian modernism”  (Feldman’s phrase) and his desires for a diction-cleansing, culture-purging rupture in the modern mode. The inaccurate description of the poem exposes his inadequate modernism; the poem is an act of dislodging to rectify that inadequacy. To acknowledge the old muse, to establish his career power, to scapegoat her materials even as he is tempted, to cast her off in the last lines as unoriginal—these are vital accomplishments.

Furthermore, if it is possible—and it is not unlikely—that in hearing of Marinetti’s  ideas, Pound might have caught wind of the “disprezzo della donna,”  this program might have focused his attitude to his “femme.”  The part of Marinetti’s program called “scorn for woman” is an “ideological double helix,” in Janet Lyon’s words (Lyon 1999, 101). If Marinetti meant “scorn” for the bourgeois, romantic ideology of Womanhood with all the conservative, madonna-esque or feminine manipulations that implies, his phrase could betoken feminist critique of the gender system. If he meant scorn for women as actual people standing in the way of the sleek automotive purgations by violence that his manifesto enacted, or meant scorn for the effeminate in men, then such scorn had ideological implications in the building of muscular modernist claims by strategic attacks on specific women, on women’s activism, and on transgressive gender ideas. This poem, arguably registering Marinetti’s interventions, although hardly as slashing, overstated, or absolute as Marinetti’s claims, could be described as Pound’s  soft-core scorn. In “Portrait d’une Femme” Pound makes the past—his past— passéiste by putting it into a female site of entrapment, by revealing the enormous temptation of this site, and finally by rejecting that past.

Pound’s particular modernism–soon to be under war pressure, as well as being already under New Woman pressure and pressure from alternative, transgressive sexualities–is gradually coming to ffirm noneffeminate maleness. Despite the enormous contemporaneous critical thinking on this issue, one kind of masculine sensibility—“the real sperm of them”—triumphs within his thinking ([1917], Pound 1991, 97). Propounding this particular version of maleness is central to Pound’s notable achievement during this period; it is probably one of his most culturally influential acts within the reception of modernism as well as its production.14 One part of Pound’s constructed maleness is sustained, though not without unevenness, by various short- and long-term strategies working against the acknowledgment of women as coequal and cotemporal producers of artistic and critical works; yet he evinces a good deal of conflict in relation to any specific woman. As we have seen at length, in this poem the trace of the female figure as coequal and co-temporal is reduced, something rather startling when the nature and opinions of the “real woman,” Florence Farr, are considered.

The poem is the mechanism for the imaginative, and possibly real, consolidation of a male poetic subjectivity as modern by the mellow “reluctant”  disparaging of a female cultural producer, whom Pound perceives as a rival and as a backwater—in two different, conflicting narratives involved with fellow male artists: the “Yeats” (and “Shaw”) narrative and the “Marinetti” narrative. Making a coequal historical woman  into a poetic muse thins her, controls her agency and impact, evokes the past of poetry as an institution obscuring her, voids her critical Ibsen-inspired interventions into issues of gender, avoids her accomplishments as a performer and musician, and reduces her own modernity to a retro backwater. Indeed, as a cultural institution of poetry used by a modernist, the muse is a mechanism that takes a modern subject—a New Woman—and changes her into an encumbered, static, nonmodern subject. The poem moves Farr backward, setting her “scores” of years behind her own historical time and achievements, creating female belatedness from a woman pioneer in order to consolidate a male pioneer from a man’s sense of his own belatedness. The resistance to acknowledging females as modern subjects (a denial of historicity noted by Rita Felski) may be said to begin, in Anglo-American modernism, with poems such as this one.

Pound wittily and carefully uses the poetic conventions of the lyric—the muse figure inside the apparatus of poesis—to construct a passive muse, a female figure from an active, provocative influence in historical time. Pound uses poetic convention to protect himself from historical shifts around gender. One can see that his poetic career is forged from intricate cross- and intragendered power interactions that include among them friendship, mentoring, misogyny, sex-radical thinking, male potency, sexual hopes and fantasies, and male panic, all of which play against and are inflected by poetic subject positions such as muse. The ultimate purpose of this feminist and historical examination of a poetic text is to change the terms and understandings of poetry definitively, placing issues of gender, the apparatus of poesis, and power-oriented production and reception centrally in play. Asking gendered questions of the ideologies and social situations of poetry as a mode of practice constitutes an opening into the deepest apparatus of poesis.

Bibliography of works cited in this essay or necessary to it

  • Boym, Svetlana. Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • Burke, Carolyn., Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
  • Bush, Ronald. “Ezra Pound,” in The Gender of Modernism, ed. Bonnie Kime Scott. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990: 353-359.
  • Culler, Johnathan. “The Literary in Theory.”  What’s Left of Theory. Judith Butler, John Guillory, and Kendall Thomas, eds. New York: Routledge, 2000: 273-292.
  • Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler. Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993
  • Curriger, Bice. Meret Oppenheim: Defiance in the Face of Freedom. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.
  • de Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
  • Dinnerstein, Dorothy. The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1976.
  • DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. London: Faber and Faber, 1961,
  • Farr, Florence. Modern Woman: Her Intentions. London: Frank Palmer, 1910.
  • Farr [aka Emery]. The Solemnization of Jacklin: Some Adventures on the Search for Reality. London: A. C. Fifield, 1912.
  • Farr. “Ibsen’s Women [Six Essays]” (1907-08) ed. Litz, “Florence Farr,” in DiBattista and McDiarmid 1996: 91-106.
  • Feldman, Jessica R. “Modernism’s Victorian Bric-à-Brac,” Modernism/Modernity 8, 3 (September 2001): 453-470.
  • Felski, Rita.  Beyond Feminist Aesthetics, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
  • Felski, The Gender of Modernity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Jayawardena, Kumari. The White Woman’s Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia During British Rule, NY: Routledge, 1995.
  • Johnson, Barbara. The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race, and Gender. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Johnson, Josephine. Florence Farr: Bernard Shaw’s “New Woman.” Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975.
  • Laity, Cassandra. “W.B. Yeats  and Florence Farr: The Influence of the ‘New Woman’ Actress on Yeats’s Changing Images of Women,” Modern Drama 28 (December 1985): 620-37.
  • Litz, A. Walton. “Florence Farr: A ‘Transitional Woman,’” in Maria DiBattista and Lucy McDiarmid, High and Low Moderns: Literature and Culture 1889-1939. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996: 85-90.
  • Litz, A. Walton and Lawrence Rainey. “Ezra Pound,”  The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 7. Modernism and the New Criticism. Ed. A. Walton Litz, Louis Menand, and Lawrence Rainey. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Longenbach, James.  Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Lyon, Janet. Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
  • Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.” In Manifesto: A Century of Isms, ed. Mary Ann Caws. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001: 185-189.
  • Morrisson, Mark. “Performing the Pure Voice: Elocution, Verse Recitation, and Modernist Poetry in Prewar London,”Modernism/Modernity 3.3 (September 1996): 25-50.
  • Nicholls, Peter.  Modernisms: A Literary Guide. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
  • Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Pound, Ezra.  ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1960a.
  • Pound. The Letters of Ezra Pound 1907-1941, D. D. Paige, ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1950.
  • Pound. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1954.
  • Pound. Personae. New York: New Directions, 1926.
  • Pound. The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound to John Quinn, 1915-1924. Ed. Timothy Materer. Durham, N.C. Duke University Press, 1991.
  • Pound. Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear: Their Letters, 1909-1914. Omar Pound and A. Walton Litz, eds. New York: New Directions, 1984.
  • Rado, Lisa. The Modern Androgyne Imagination: A Failed Sublime. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.
  • Rasula, Jed. “Gendering the Muse,” Sulfur 35 (1994): 159-175. Now in Rasula, Modernism and Poetic Inspiration: The Shadow Mouth. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
  • Watten, Barrett. “What I See in ‘How I Became Hetty Jones,’” Poetics Journal 10 (June 1998): 98-121.
  • Yeats, W. B.,The Letters of W. B. Yeats. Allen Wade, ed. New York: Macmillan, 1955.
  • Yeats, A Vision (1938). New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961.


  1. This sentence is indebted to Jonathan Culler’s remarks about an argument by Steven Knapp: “a text has literary interest insofar as our interest in it exceeds our interest in figuring out what the author intends” (Culler, in Butler et al., 2000, 280).
  2. “Women are the ‘Muses’ whom genius has kissed, just as man, the genius, has been ‘kissed by the Muse’” notes Meret Oppenheim carefully, trying to analyze the impact of just such a stolid convention on herself as woman artist (Curiger 1989, 130). Lisa Rado observes that “the ways in which writers have portrayed the source of their inspiration can serve in part as a reflection of literary and cultural history”; she links “third-sex” theories in sexology and what she calls the androgyne muse (Rado 2000, 2).
  3. One can hardly avoid seeing this poem as similar to Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady,” which expresses the speaker’s desire to separate from a maternal and genteel figure of entrapment and apparently amateur status. However, it is unlikely that Pound knew of this Eliot poem when he wrote his; in 1912 the Eliot poem existed only in manuscript. The two poets did not meet until 1914. Marianne Moore’s 1917 “Monkeys”–with its puma or lynx speaking bitterly about animal-human power relations (possibly a gender allegory), and its ending about the sea’s shocking deposits of debris –seems to be an oblique commentary upon Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme.”
  4. For Farr, see also (accessed June 7, 2005). Although this is not my subject, there is also a small depiction of Farr in Pound’s Canto XXVIII in which she appears as Loica (really Louka–from a character in Shaw’s  Arms and the Man), a five-line depiction of her trip to Sri Lanka,and  a summary epitaph.
  5. Cullingford  (1993, 40-41) argues that while patriarchal religion had one male deity, a male priesthood, gender inequality, and asexual or relatively powerless female cult objects like the Virgin Mary,  in contrast occult religions offered female deities, female adepts and priestesses of high status, and a sense of gender equality with a potentially sexualized and power-laden aura; thus, “the attraction of occult societies for rebellious women is obvious” (Cullingford 1993, 40).
  6. Or, conversely, Pound, the great mind, sought her lacking someone else (Yeats). In either case she is “second always.” It is also possible to “translate” this line in ways suggested by Richard Ellmann: Yeats had an affair with Farr, because Maud Gonne (the “someone else”) was not available (Ellmann, 1961, 182).
  7. Yeats refers to Farr by her married name although she was divorced from her husband in 1895; as for the word queer: I shall take it to mean amusing, odd, spritely, needy.
  8. Pound also notes that Yeats can’t sing (Pound 1960, 197-198).
  9. Similarly, a provoking split in memories of Farr between her pre-Raphaelite look and her professional activities as capable performer and organizer is articulated in Yeats’ final summary in A Vision (1938): “A certain actress [Farr] is typical [of Phase 19], for she surrounds herself with drawings by Burne-Jones in his latest period, and reveres them as [if] they were holy pictures, while her manners are boisterous, dominating, and egotistical. They are faces of silent women, and she is not silent for a moment…” (Yeats  [1938] 1961, 150). The New Woman subjectivity is disparaged in these remarks, and viewed as a deception. The consensus is, better silent pre-Raphaelite women than demanding modern ones who have opinions and claims. In the case of Yeats this judgment is the more striking given Cassandra Laity’s argument in her unpublished dissertation that Yeats was indebted to the New Woman in general and to Farr in particular in his changed depictions of warrior queens in his drama: decisive, masculine, female figures of agency and force (Laity 1985).
  10. We don’t know who initiated this metaphor. This novel appeared in 1912; in the same year Farr departed for Sri Lanka (in August), and Pound wrote his poem in the spring, apparently. On The Solemnization of Jacklin Dorothy wrote to Ezra: “Just read a new book by ‘Florence Farr’. Such a Sargasso Sea muddle. Every body divorced several times, & in the end going back to their originals: & a young man called ‘Dorus Callando’ who lay among lilies all night & is Oscar [Wilde] without the bitter-sweetness” (Pound and Litz 1984, 132).
  11. A study by Kumari Jayawardena  sketches European, mainly British women who contributed in a variety of ways to South Asian life, whether as reformers, educators, or spiritual seekers. Jayawardena discusses Farr’s end-career commitment to education for Hindu girls in Sri Lanka; Farr served as principal of a Ramanathan College in Jaffna for several years until just before her death in 1917, a role that became increasingly unsatisfying, as her guru turned out to have rather retrograde ideas about the education of girls into wife and motherhood.  Jayawardena depicts Farr as “misrepresented” by the various men in her life and uses the Modern Woman briefly to trace Farr’s feminist politics, although the book’s racial politics are not mentioned (Jayawardena 1995, 146).
  12. On aspects of Marinetti’s program see Perloff 1986, 86-92; for gender interpretations of that program see Burke 1996, 156-57; Lyon 1999, 92-123 and Nicholls 1995, 84-92;
  13. I am extending this argument about Marinetti’s spur to imagism to apply to “Portrait d’une Femme.”
  14. For more gender materials in Pound see Bush 1990.