T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound: Examining the basis of their literary friendship

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

36 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)



1. Introduction

2. Eliot and Pound: Leaving America
2.1. William Carlos Williams: Staying in America

3. Eliot and Pound: Literary Theory
3.1. Ezra Pound: ‘Resuscitate the dead art of poetry’
3.2. Eliot, Pound and their approach to the past
3.3. Eliot, Pound and their literary models
3.4. Excursus: Eliot, Pound and their relation to Walt Whitman

4. Eliot, Pound and their collaboration on The Waste Land

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The literary friendship between Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot is a great example of a fruitful and influential collaboration of two American poets of the twentieth century. The writers met in 1914 as exiles in Europe where they discovered a mutual commitment to the arts, and foremost to the revitalising of poetry. Their letters, conversations, essays, and poems flow together to form a single commentary on the literary tradition as well as the accomplishments of their time. According to many critics, it is Ezra Pound’s editing of the manuscript of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land that contributed to the poem’s becoming a masterpiece of modern poetry. Moreover, this collaboration constituted the climax of their astonishing series of close interactions. Their common endeavours made them the driving force behind modernism in the English and American poetry of the twentieth century.

This analysis critically discusses the various fields where the common ground of their lifelong literary friendship is evident. Further, it will give a coherent account of the reasons as well as the results of their close collaboration. This will be exemplified on the basis of the significant essays, letters and poetic work of both that was produced during the period of Eliot and Pound’s immense interaction between 1914 and the publishing of The Waste Land in 1922.

The essay is structured as follows: It begins with an explanation of Pound and Eliot’s motives for their exile in Europe. The central biographical facts on both poets are included for clarification. In addition, the chapter sets Pound in context to William Carlos Williams, who decided in the frequent stay-or-put controversy at that time in favor of America. The next chapter examines the common features of their literary theory and criticism. It deals with their common approach to the literary tradition, as well as with the literary models by which they were strongly influenced. Therefore, it mainly takes into consideration the central essays by Pound and Eliot. Further, an excursus on their relation to Walt Whitman is included. Finally, the assignment illustrates the nature of their collaboration concerning The Waste Land. Additionally, the chapter takes a close look on the reception as well as the publishing history of Eliot’s long poem. The essay ends with a conclusion that sums up the main points.

2. Eliot and Pound: Leaving America

T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound decided at an early stage of their lives to leave their home country, America, behind in order to live permanently in Europe. Their decision was not unusual at that time as the twentieth century has engendered an enormous number of writers in European exile: Henry James, Stephen Crane, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, and Aldous Huxley are some of the writers who went into permanent exile. Many more, including a great number of Americans, travelled extensively abroad - Edith Wharton, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Aiken, Cummings, and Dos Passos are among these. The numbers of eminent writers who stayed put in their home country may seem small by comparison: Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, among others. The following passage therefore examines the specific reasons Eliot and Pound had for their chosen exile and how they met in Europe. This represents the starting-point of their literary friendship. Further, the passage focuses on the features that distinguish them from William Carlos Williams, who exemplifies the American poet at home. As the artistic work and theory of both do bear the mark of their origins, the passage includes a short illustration of their biographical background.

Ezra Weston Loomis Pound was born to Quaker parents in Hailey, Idaho, on October 30, 1885. He spent his childhood close to Philadelphia. He received an education in Romance philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. During that time, Pound met William Carlos Williams and Hilda Doolittle, with whom he had a lifelong friendship. After a study trip to Europe in 1906, he taught briefly at Wabash College, Indiana, but was dismissed after only four month in January 1908. In February of that year he sailed for Europe and while in Venice somewhat later, published his first volume of poetry, A Lume Spento (1908), at his own expense. In that same year, Pound settled in London where he had close contact William B. Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford and T.E. Hulme in various literary circles. He met T.S. Eliot in 1914. The main project Pound began writing as early as 1917 and continued writing throughout most of his long life was the Cantos, consisting of 117 cantos. A striking characteristic of Pound’s life is that he never settled down in one place for the rest of his life. London was to be his home until 1920, when he moved to Paris for four years and later (1924) to the small Italian town Rapallo for twenty-one years. During the 1930s his economic and political obsessions caused him to support the fascist regime of Mussolini, and in 1941-43 he gave a number of talks on Radio Rome criticizing the U.S. role in World War Two. He was arrested and flown to the United States and charged as a traitor in1945. Declared insane and unfit to stand trial for treason, he had to spend the next thirteen years of his life confined in a lunatic asylum. In 1958 he was released from St. Elizabeths, after a number of prominent writers – among them as the key figure T.S. Eliot – had intervened on his behalf. He returned to Italy, where he died in Venice at eighty-seven in 1972.

Ezra Pound specifically distinguished his generation of writers in exile from the generation of American expatriates of the twenties. “The new lot of American emigrés were anything but the Passionate Pilgrims of James’ day or the enquirers of my own. We came to find something, to learn, possibly to conserve, but this new lot came in disgust.”[1] The circle of emigrants that Pound felt close to had strong motives for leaving their home country. They, in different degrees, settled in and assimilated their adopted European environment. In contrast, the “emigrés” constituted an American artistic colony in Paris, speaking English, and retaining many of the habits and customs of home. Eliot was definitely a member of the first group of exile writers, as he completely repatriated himself. The reasons for this complete immersion lie in his family background.

Only three years younger than Pound, Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis in 1888. Among his ancestors, who came in 1630 with John Winthrop for the founding of Boston to America, were noticeable traders and clergymen in New England and especially in Boston. The remarkable history of his family influenced his strong belief in tradition, which will be discussed later in this essay. Eliot attended Harvard University, where he received his Bachelor’s degree in 1909. After a year at the Sorbonne University in Paris, he returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy. Shortly before the outbreak of World War One, Eliot departed for Europe. His main stations were Paris and Germany, before finally settling down in England in 1914. After working as a teacher and in the foreign department of Lloyd’s Bank, he began a publishing career and, eventually, became one of the directors of the publishing house of Faber & Faber. In contrast to Pound, Eliot remained a resident of England for the rest of his life; and even got the British citizenship in 1927. He began working on The Waste Land in 1921 and finished it in a Swiss sanatorium while recovering from a mental breakdown caused by overwork, marital problems, and general depression. A striking feature of his life is his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in the late thirties, which will be dealt with later. First and foremost, Eliot’s mastery – like Pound’s - was his poetry and literary criticism. He was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature. Eliot died in London in 1965.

The collaboration between the two poets began in 1914. From the very start Eliot recognized one distinguishing feature of their personalities. He had the impression that Pound was “only a temporary squatter;” being rather permanently on the move than settling down. Eliot recalls this in the description of their first meeting in Pound’s flat:

This appearance was due, not only to his restless energy/in which it was difficult to distinguish the energy from the restlessness and the fidgets, so that every room, even a big one, seemed too small for him/but to a kind of resistance to growing into any environment. In America, he would no doubt have always seemed on the point of going abroad; in London, he always seemed on the point of crossing the Channel. I have never known a man, of any nationality, to live so long out of his native country without settling anywhere else.[2]

Although both were cosmopolitan city-dwellers, it is revealing of the character and aims of each how each writer traveled and where they chose to settle. Pound and Eliot’s reasons for leaving America were similar: both were alienated intellectuals repelled by a society in which business was considered the only respectable career for a man. Pound and Eliot early discovered how difficult it would be either to live or to make a living as artists in America. They found America at the turn of the century a cultural desert. As Midwesterners of English and New England ancestry, both poets felt displaced. Pound’s revulsion was, like Eliot’s, against time and place inimical to art, but it was much more violent. The alienation Pound felt was at the same time aesthetic and economic. For example, he wrote to Harriet Monroe in 1912:

There is no other magazine in America which is not an insult to the serious artist and to the dignity of art. […] I may be myopic, but during my last tortured visit to America I found no writer and but one reviewer who had any worthy conception of poetry, The Art.[3]

Europe drew both writers, because it was the treasure house of culture. With its age old cities, its great monuments, museums, and libraries, it offered them the artistic milieu and resource they craved and lacked in their homeland. “There is no town like London to make one feel the vanity of all art except the highest,” Pound wrote to William Carlos Williams in 1909.[4] To be in the company of fellow artists was another strong inducement for going abroad. Both Pound and Eliot were associated with several artistic circles and had close contact with many artists.

In England, the country of his ancestors, Eliot sought and found an organic society which satisfied his hunger for tradition and order. Compared to his home country, in Britain society, politics and religion were more close-knit and institutionalized. In addition, it offered the enormous advantage of allowing Eliot to cleave to the mother tongue and, as a spokesman for British culture, of enabling him to mediate between the New and Old Worlds. Eliot, unlike Pound, led an ordered and rooted life; he physically and mentally settled in Britain, for which becoming a British citizen in 1927 can be seen as the final step. Eliot’s criticism bears an increasingly English stamp. However, one finds little physical evidence of his adopted country in his poetry. Such images as there are of city, village, and church are universalized, and not specifically local. In accordance, Pound’s influence on his environment was vital but he did not stay put. Whatever town he lived in, he spent as much time and energy promoting art as practising it. His poetry shows that he was sensually alive to his surroundings. Examining Pound’s work, one finds vivid images of the many places he lived in or visited – for example Venice, Rapallo, Provence, Pisa, Paris and London. He needed the change of place as a source of inspiration.

Nothing could be more appropriate to the production of such cosmopolitan work than the travel and the exile that gave Pound and Eliot knowledge of many different languages, cultures and societies. Despite the loss of roots, exile offers distinct advantages. It enables one to see and to experience much that is new and different from what one is accustomed to. In assessing the difference between the foreign and the familiar, one acquires a dual viewpoint, which is immensely valuable. Such a dual viewpoint entails and reinforces a simultaneous sense of detachment and involvement. Moreover, the dual viewpoint can lead to a sense of proportion, to a feeling for what is important, enduring, and valuable, and what is not. Thus, Pound and Eliot made it their life’s work to discover what was permanent, what recurrent, and what merely transitory in poetry.

2.1. William Carlos Williams: Staying in America

In the stay-put-or-leave controversy between expatriate American artists and their counterparts who chose to stay home, William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound were opposing spokesmen. Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey in 1883 to an English father and a Spanish and French speaking mother from Puerto Rico. He attended schools in Geneva and Paris. In college where he studied medicine, he met and became friends with Ezra Pound who had a great influence on Williams becoming a poet, besides working his whole life as a doctor. In contrast to the exile writers, Williams never wished to leave America or to live and work abroad; he was the ‘American poet at home’. In one of the various letters, which Pound and Williams exchanged over their lifelong friendship, Pound argued that it was Williams’ foreign blood, which enabled him to stay in America by inoculating him against the native virus that compelled Pound and Eliot to leave.

There is a blood poison in America; you can idealize the place (easier now that Europe is so damd shaky) all you like, but you haven’t a drop of the cursed blood in you, and you don’t need to fight the disease day and night; you never have had to. Eliot has it perhaps worse than I have - poor devil. You have the advantage of arriving in the milieu with a fresh flood of Europe in your veins, Spanish, French, English, Danish. You had not the thin milk of New York and New England from the pap; and you can therefore keep the environment outside you, and decently objective.[5]

There is the paradox based on their own admission that Williams’ mixed blood impelled him to cling to America, while Pound and Eliot’s WASP ancestry compelled them to leave. Williams’ position was that of a second generation American immigrant: he was a foreigner longing to belong. He perceived America as something new and special. One reason Pound and Eliot felt they did not belong was that the flood of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants to the United States was superseding their race and class. Both were especially elitist about their origins. However, they show much difference in their character, as Robert Langbaum noticed: “[…] No two friends can have been more opposite in personality than Pound and Eliot. Pound was the more ‘American’ of the two – the more democratic, individualistic, spontaneous, sincere, a radical at heart. […] Eliot was at heart conservative, armored with Boston and English reserve.”[6] Nevertheless, they shared a desire to go international, unlike Williams, who insisted that the local, what he perceived at home in the present time, was the universal. In the following quote Williams comments on the geographical and, moreover, intellectual split between him and Pound:

I wish only to say that for years we have been of opposite but friendly camps, touching the origin of poetic genius. We parted years ago, he to move his intellectual equals in Europe, I remained at home and struggle to discover here the impetus to my achievements, if I found myself able to write anything at all… He left the states under the assumption that it was mind that fertilizes mind, that the mere environment is just putty and that – assuming one’s self great […] the thing to do in this world is, or was then, to go to Europe, which he did.[7]

Although both writers viewed the world from different angles, they conform on several poetic features. In correspondence to Pound’s claim for a poetry presenting things, Williams wrote in Paterson:“No ideas but in things.” Following his colleague Pound, Williams was one of the principal poets of the Imagist movement. However, his subject matter was centered on the everyday circumstances and lives of common people. That is one reason why Williams preferred to write in the language of the people and not in contrast to Pound and Eliot, extensively using foreign languages. Whereas Williams represents a more down to earth type of poet, Pound and Eliot had an elitist attitude. Space forbids a complete treatise on the relation between the three important figures of the twentieth century poetry. The purpose of this chapter was to point out that there existed a countermovement in America that focused on the presentation of the local, of which Williams was the main representative.

3. Eliot and Pound: Literary Theory

A strong reason for the close literary friendship between Eliot and Pound was their agreement on the redefinition of the poetic possibilities. Further, both poets are well known for being great critics of their time as will be illustrated from several of their critical essays. The following passage examines the basic features of their extensive literary theories and illustrates their common view on the poetic tradition. The chapter also includes an excursus dealing with the relation of both poets with the representative of the American poetry of the nineteenth century - Walt Whitman.

3.1. Ezra Pound: ‘Resuscitate the dead art of poetry’

The twelve years Pound spent in London as a poet and a promoter of the arts were his most productive. He was a key figure in a constellation of artists whose characteristics were intellectual exchange, mutual support and influence. Among them were William B. Yeats, Eliot, T.E. Hulme, Hilda Doolittle, Marianne Moore, James Joyce, e e cummings, and Ford Madox Ford just to name a few. In Eliot, Pound found a colleague and a friend who shared his approach to poetry. The mutual features of their literary theory function as one cornerstone of their literary friendship, as will be examined in the course of this chapter. It is essential for the understanding of their literary theory to begin with a structured overview of Pound’s artistic mission.

Pound, as did many artists at that time, felt that the English poetry was stagnant rather than in constant development. Thus, in 1912 Pound sought a radical redefinition of poetic possibilities with a group of fellow artists. Several reasons drove them to the founding of a rather exclusive literary movement that was named ‘Imagism’ by Pound.


[1] Ezra Pound, Make It New, Essays by Ezra Pound (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935) p. 14.

[2] T.S. Eliot in a letter to Donald Hall. This quote is taken from: Donald Hall, Remembering poets: reminiscences and opinions: Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, T S. Eliot, Ezra Pound (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p.168.

[3] Ezra Pound, Letter no. 5: To Harriet Monroe. In The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, (Ed. D.D. Paige, New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1974) p. 43.

[4] Ezra Pound, Letter no. 4: To William Carlos Williams. In The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, p. 42.

[5] Ezra Pound, Letter no. 170: To William Carlos Williams. In The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, p. 223.

[6] Robert Langbaum, “Pound and Eliot.” In Ezra Pound Among the Poets (Ed. George Bornstein, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985) p. 168-194, p. 168.

[7] William Carlos Williams: “Letter to an Australian Editor,” (1946). Reprinted in William Carlos Williams Review, Volume XVIII, Number 1, Spring 1992.

Excerpt out of 36 pages


T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound: Examining the basis of their literary friendship
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Institute foreign language philology)
Modernism and the Poetry of Ezra Pound
2,0 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Eliot, Ezra, Pound, Examining, Modernism, Poetry, Ezra, Pound
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Eva-Maria Klapheck (Author), 2003, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound: Examining the basis of their literary friendship, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/30219


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