THE MODERN PORTRAIT POEM: FROM DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI TO EZRA POUND by Frances Dickey, Reviewed by Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux
 

THE MODERN PORTRAIT POEM: FROM DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI TO EZRA POUND
By Frances Dickey
(Virginia, 2012) viii + 260 pp.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux on 2014-01-25.

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This book is an important contribution to the field of twentieth-century poetry and to the growing body of work on how interactions with the visual arts shaped modernist poetic practice. In a clearly written study rich with historical detail and perceptive, provocative readings of poems, Dickey argues that the "combination of generic connectedness and intermedial flexibility made the portrait an ideal vehicle for early Modernist experimentation" (2). Specifically, the book explores the transformations of the nineteenth-century portrait poem in the work of three major American modernists--Pound, Eliot, and Williams--with reference to others, including such lesser-studied poets as e. e. cummings and E. A. Robinson.

The book enriches and complicates our idea of the Victorian heritage of modernism: as the author notes, scholars of modernism have focused on the dramatic monologue as it descended from Browning to Pound and Eliot, a lineage abetted by the modernists' own championing of Browning as the only Victorian worth much and their "publicity campaign against Rossetti and Aestheticism" (3) as part of their self-described coming to maturity. Thus the book also charts "the late reception of Aestheticism into American culture" (3) even as it links the transformations of the nineteenth-century portrait poem to the radical reshaping of portraiture from Whistler and Manet to cubism, futurism, and vorticism. In Dickey's words, the book "begins at the point where the longstanding tradition of interiority--whether articulated in philosophy, poetry, or art--comes under sustained pressure from modernity" (6-7). In modern poetry as in visual art, appearances and what they do and don't reveal took center stage. Historically, portraiture raises complex questions of identity and representation: the relation between the inner and outer life, the capacity of the artist to capture not just the seen ("likeness") but the unseen (what likeness suggests). In Dickey's view, the pressure of modernity permeates both verbal and visual portraits from the later nineteenth into the twentieth 20th century and manifests itself in key ways: the ability of the exterior to reveal the interior; the withering of the inner life under the demands of modernity, and the attendant possibility that a portrait might be of "nothing," as in Pound's "Portrait d'une femme"; and most provocatively, the possibility of an interiority constructed and represented in the space between people and things, the "interspace," as Swinburne called it.

Concern with these issues in Modernist poetic portraiture, Dickey argues, "follows two divergent but complementary paths that correspond to possibilities explored by Aestheticism": "one group of portraits emphasized the surface and materiality of the person, who is compared to things both natural and manmade"; the other "explores interiority as a quality shared among and between figures, or between figures and objects" (5). In developing these points, Dickey draws her theoretical concepts from the work of art historian Michael Fried (on absorption and theatricality), Alasdair Fowler (on generic transformation) and Charles Taylor (on concepts of identity, particularly "interspatial epiphany").

The book includes an introduction and a coda bookending six chapters grouped evenly into two sections. Of particular interest to readers of Review 19 is the first section ("The Portrait Poem to 1912"), which traces the conventions of the portrait poem from their use in the circle around Rossetti through their transformation as a means of modernist experiment in the early work of Pound and Eliot. The second section, "Modulations 1912 to 1922," tracks the crucial years leading up to the annus mirabilis of Modernism during which, Dickey argues provocatively, the picture poem underwent miniaturization as a means of imagism, expansion under the influence of avant-garde experiments in portraiture, and Americanization through Williams' pastoral nativism. This second section broadly applies Alastair Fowler's term "modulation" to describe the "mixing and altering of traits" of the portrait poem "without creating an entirely new generic code." Here, as throughout, Dickey views modernist experimentation not as genre-shattering but as genre-transmuting. She thus joins a line of scholars such as Harold Bloom, George Bornstein, and Carol Christ who -- in the late 1970s and early 1980s -- first showed how the modernist "break" depended on transforming old forms, even as handed on by rejected Victorians. [Suggestion from AF: Dickey continues along the trajectory first established by such scholars as Harold Bloom, George Bornstein, and Carol Chris in the late 1970's and early 1980's, showing how the modernist "break" depended on transforming old forms, even those handed down by rejected Victorian antecedents.]

Chapter 1 establishes the three major tropes of the picture poem: as window to the soul (e.g., William Cowper's 1798 "On the Receipt of My Mother's Picture"); as the record of sensuous surface appearance and itself a decorative object (Rossetti's sonnet, "The Portrait"); and as a mirror creating a space in which interiority is shared when artist and sitter, past and present intermingle (Rossetti's dramatic monologue, also titled "The Portrait," and Swinburne's "Before the Mirror," a response to Whistler's The Little White Girl / Symphony in White, No. 2]). In this last context, Dickey's fresh new argument for the power of Swinburne's influence on Modernism emerges in a nuanced discussion of the exchanges among Rossetti, Swinburne, and Whistler as they grappled with the problems of individual human consciousness. Carol Christ and Cassandra Laity have previously argued that Swinburne influenced modernism by repressing his powerful females so as to achieve what Yeats called "more of manful energy." But according to Dickey, Swinburne's "Before the Mirror" offers a positive example for modernist experimentation in its "multivocality, nonnarrativity and a system of surface reflections that replaces a traditional conception of interiority" (46).

The next two chapters follow the dual strains of Rossetti's and Swinburne's bequest, the "concrete" and the "apparitional," through the early poetry of Pound and Eliot. In Chapter 2 Dickey shows that Pound's early poetic portraits ("La Donzella Beata," "Fair Helena," the little-known "Portrait: from 'La Mere Inconnue,'" and "Portrait d'une femme") are deeply indebted to both the material, visual mode of many Rossetti poems and the "aesthetic of disembodiment" deriving from Whistler, Swinburne, and early Yeats (another means by which Rossetti came to Pound). "Rather than freeing himself from Aestheticism during these early years, as is usually claimed," Dickey argues, "Pound was sorting through its features and seeing a way to frame his own sense of belated reception as a positive quality " (49). Looking steadily at the challenging complexities of Pound's development, Dickey observes that while the apparitional strain later "underwrites" Hugh Selwyn Mauberley's portraits of failure and uncertain identity as the modern condition (1920), Pound did not leave Rossetti's influence behind with the poet's immature early self. That influence abides, expressing itself in Pound's preoccupation with thingness and the condensed images of Imagism, the transformation of Victorian materialism into Modernist concreteness.

To my mind, Chapter 3, "T.S. Eliot: Getting Out of the Picture," is the best in the book; a version of it won the 2006 Kappel Prize for best essay in Twentieth-Century Literature. Skillfully inter-weaving a broad range of biographical, textual and inter-art connections, Dickey shows how Eliot's portrait poems draw on both the Rossetti and Swinburne models to explore what was to become his great theme, human isolation: the inability of perception to penetrate appearance and the inability of appearance to provide a window on the soul. The pages that consider Rossetti, Eliot's "On a Portrait" (on Manet's Young Lady in 1866), and Pater's The Renaissance show the power of the comparative method Dickey favors. It is difficult to do justice to the deft interleaving of ideas and references in this chapter, but tracing one line of thought might might give a flavor. In defending "Jenny," his poetic portrait of a prostitute, against Robert Buchanan's famous attack on its fleshliness, Rossetti argued that "the motive powers of art ... demand first of all an inner standing point. The heart of such a mystery as this must be plucked from the very world in which it beats or bleeds" (The Stealthy School of Criticism 1871 15-16). Quoting these words, Dickey explains how Eliot’s "On a Portrait" denies the viewer any one standing point:

Responding to Manet, Eliot's ekphrasis explores the inaccessibility of the female figure, trying out various standing points in the painting. Given that we cannot enter the woman's mind, where should we imagine ourselves? The absence of interiority in the painting rebounds on the beholder so that he experiences not feeling, but a sense of flatness, of being a reflective surface. In this picture, Eliot found an occasion for developing a mode of looking that he had already begun to explore in his engagement with Burne-Jones's The Wind of Circe. (81-82)

Dickey also observes that in that earlier poem, "Circe's Palace," Eliot's

inner standing point is not one, but several, consisting of the 'self-questionings and all-questionings' of the ambivalent speaker/beholder, who keeps one foot outside the picture even as he ventures in with the other. . . In his 1908 apprentice poem, then, Eliot followed Rossetti and Burne-Jones in complicating the relationship of the beholder or reader to the artwork, but he took their project a step further by turning off the flow of sympathy and identification. (79-82)

Reading Eliot's poem in light of the Manet painting that inspired it, Dickey plays off Fried against Wollheim. While Wollheim finds Manet's young subject "locked up in ... private thought," in an absorption that keeps out the viewer, Fried contends that Manet denies absorption, adopting a "facingness" that flattens the picture and thus opens the possibility of modernist abstraction (qtd. 87). In choosing to write about a portrait by Manet rather than one by Rossetti, Dickey suggests, Eliot pursues complex questions about perception and isolation, questions he first met in The Renaissance, where Pater declares that consciousness is essentially isolated, that "[e]xperience . . . is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without" (qtd. 88).

The rest of Chapter 3 shows how these preoccupations develop in "Portrait of a Lady," "Mandarins," "La Figlia Che Piange," and "A Game of Chess" in The Waste Land (1922). In Dickey's argument, then, contemporary visual theory illuminates varying views of the origins of modernism, which in turn help explain Eliot's early explorations and their origins in the nineteenth century.

In the opening chapter of the second section, ranging from 1912 to 1922, Dickey argues that "Modernist poets moved from the Aesthetic picture sonnet to the epigrammatic portrait almost without a beat" (114) because both originate in ekphrasis. The resulting "reduced portrait communicated a diminished concept of personhood" (115) that was played out in "a variety of tones ranging from nostalgic to satirical and biting" (134). It is good to see Edwin Arlington Robinson here along with H.D. and Amy Lowell. According to Dickey, Robinson's portraits of emptiness presaged the contraction of the portrait poem under the "do's" of Imagism, while the miniature verbal portraits by H.D. and Lowell convey the "fragility" or "evanescence" of the self diminished by its awareness of mortality.

Pound too played a crucial role here. Drawing on the ancient wit of Catullus and Martial as well as on the portrait poem of the nineteenth century, Pound's Modernist volume Ripostes (1912), Dickey argues, "documents the reduction of the portrait from the sonnet to a shorter, epigrammatic form" (127). As "objecthood" becomes the "central trait of the portrait subject" (128), Pound begins to portray men in epigrammatic poems accompanied by, and perhaps enabling, a modulation from conventional "praise" of the female subject to "criticism," often satirical, of both men and women (129). The social criticism expressed by this kind of epigrammatic portrait , Dickey suggests, can be found in the work of Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology) as well as, fascinatingly, Arthur Davison Ficke and Witter Bynner, who parodied the genre in their famous Spectra hoax, thus showing how much it underlay modernist innovation.

In Chapter 5, which reads Pound and Gertrude Stein in light of avant-garde portraiture, Dickey argues that in "Moeurs Contemporaines" (1918) and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) Pound turned to group portraits and "tested out a variety of avant-garde techniques drawn from the visual and performing arts" to see "how far the core concerns of single-figure portraiture could go" (145). In a set of perceptive, suggestive readings that are as densely textured as those in Chapter 3, Dickey studies Pound's use of three techniques: collage (assembling a portrait out of fragments), narrative (especially the narrative of development drawn from the prose bildungsroman), and the gallery (selection and arrangement of objects). By these means, she argues, Pound explored what Swinburne called "interspace": the notion of identity as formed in the overlapping of, and spaces between, people ("Moeurs Contemporaines"), and the idea of the individual subject as created by or found in the people and places of his time and of the past (Mauberley). The idea of "interspace," I think, could have been pressed harder and teased out more. For example, it is one thing to say that interiority is shared (and I'm not sure I understand how Dickey means that) and another to say that subjectivity is created in the interaction with another: do both of these fall under the concept of interspace and, if so, how? A deeper look at Taylor's use of the term would perhaps have helped here.

Nevertheless, this intriguing line of exploration yields the perception that one "arc" of "Moeurs Contemporaines" "develops the idea of the self as an empty space traversed by figures of other times, as an echo chamber, performance hall or picture gallery" (161). The idea of the self as a picture gallery, in particular, opens up a suggestive new way of thinking about the significant place of the museum in modern poetry, a topic that various scholars (e.g., Catherine Paul and James Heffernan) have explored. Dickey finds overlapping and interpenetrating selves suggested by any number of things: double portraits, self-portraiture, quoted bits of conversation, a look exchanged between mother and child, Pound quoting Henry James on Pound in his own elegy for James, the embeddedness of the past in the present. In the particularly stimulating passage that concludes her discussion of "Moeurs Contemporaines," Dickey asks why Pound shied away from film, which "looms over" the poem "by omission" (170), and yet is an obvious model for this sequence, which "at some level" "aspires to the condition of film" (171). Citing Pound's decision to drop the last poem in the sequence in its final version, she argues that he "drew back from the threat of modern technologies that might supplant" his poems "by achieving his goal of interpenetration more effectively than he could himself" (172).

In Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, which Dickey contrasts with "Moeurs Contemporaines," the multiple portraits of others, arranged as in a gallery, make up the image of the single subject, Mauberley. Here Pound stresses the "discreteness and materiality [of the subjects] rather than their interpenetration" (175). Mauberley, Dickey writes, "comments self-reflexively on the history of the portrait poem and its future potential," which Pound judged lacking. Pulling back from the experiment of "Moeurs" (180), Mauberly presents portraiture as "the reification of living subjects into frozen, pickled, glazed, or sculpted artifacts, which remain mutually impermeable even when gathered together in a group such as the sequence itself" (179). In the end, Dickey suggests, we might see Mauberley as one of the portrait poem's "high points, both as an artistic achievement and as the moment at which the genre founds its limit in scale" (182).

Chapter 6 treats modernist portraiture in a context explicitly American. In aligning portraiture and pastoral, Dickey shows, William Carlos Williams "negotiated his relationship with poetic tradition and his status as an American poet" (185). Williams' efforts to distinguish himself from Pound and Eliot were fed by an American painter and an American writer: by Marsden Hartley's discovery of New Mexico and his call to artists to represent the American "soil" or "ground" in a new idiom, and by Waldo Frank's nativist manifesto Our America (1919). As a result, Williams' portraiture increasingly centered on the body of the subject as landscape. From "Pastorals and Self-Portraits" (1914) to Al Que Quiere!'s series of portraits (1917) and "Portrait of a Lady" (1920), Williams' nativist riposte to Pound's poem, Dickey tracks Williams' efforts to define an American modernism through the oppositions common to pastoral (e.g. city vs. country) mapped onto portraiture. "Portrait of a Lady," she argues, resembles the poems of Eliot and Pound a decade before in that all three "triangulate through the 'lady' to a generic source" (202). But, she says, Williams "triangulates to Eliot, Pound, and [his friend the painter Charles] Demuth, rather than to the Victorians. This is his solution to the dilemma of writing American poetry" (202). The complex interrelations she draws between Williams's "Portrait," Demuth's watercolor A Prince of Court Painters, Watteau, Fragonard, and Pater, and the way she connects the poem with the portraiture and self-portraiture that all of them practice will make this account of Williams' famous poem a must-read for future critics.

In a brief Coda that returns directly to Rossetti, Dickey suggests, through the example of e.e. cummings, how the portrait poem, particularly "Rossettian motifs," continued to be "a resource for poetic invention in another nation and a new century" (217).

It is difficult to describe fully the subtlety and complexity of Dickey's arguments as she weaves together the many pre- and inter-texts in multiple media that she juxtaposes with the works she considers. In the end, the greatest contributions of the book are this interweaving and the recuperation of the portrait poem as an important modernist genre. It is hard to imagine that future scholars can write about the poems Dickey treats here without reference to this work.

Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux is Professor of English and Associate Provost for Undergraduate Affairs at Boston University.


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