Pound’s “The Garden”, Eliot’s “Preludes” – elegant superficiality and human depth

I’ve started looking at Pound again after a good many years in which I only read him occasionally and briefly. It all started with rereading Cantos II and IV in connection with some work on translations of Ovid. I found myself as gripped and excited by them as I was in my twenties. For me now, I think, going back to Pound essentially does mean going back the Cantos, and to Cathay.

It wasn’t always so; I didn’t read the Cantos till after I’d graduated and we didn’t “do” Pound at all at university. I came on him as something of a private discovery, when studying Eliot’s Selected Poems for A Level: I picked Pound’s up in a bookshop because Eliot had edited them. At that stage I was particularly haunted by early poems like “Na Audiart” and “Praise of Ysolt”, which I later found barely readable.

My sense now is that however much Pound perfected the means of expression, there’s a kind of imaginative emptiness about much of his work before the Cantos. The poems that have bubbled up most often in my mind over the years, poems I feel are anything but empty, are mostly translations or adaptations from the Chinese, like “Exile’s Letter” and “The River-Merchant’s Wife: a Letter”, “Liu Ch’e” and “Fan-Piece, for her Imperial Lord”. These have a depth of feeling that matches the fineness of their expression. Against them I’d set “The Garden”, which I always found extremely beautiful but which I think I also always found imaginatively hollow.

Here it is. Unfortunately WordPress isn’t letting me indent lines four and twelve as I should:

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.
In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

She would like someone to speak to her
And is almost afraid that I
will commit that indiscretion.


That is a real pleasure to say out loud, to murmur to yourself, or simply to sound in your head, feeling the balance of the lines, their buoyancy and tensile strength, the way they simultaneously seem to take their time and to lean forward in anticipation of what’s to come.  Beautifully phrased, beautifully constructed in its metrical and rhythmical variety, clinched by a witty, skilfully timed punchline, it’s a triumph of verbal artistry, commanding and completely unforgettable once heard or read. For me, though, it has no imaginative substance, nothing under the words and going beyond them. Yes, there’s a kind of energising joy in inhabiting the poem’s voice, so ringing and so confidently paced, but the woman has no more imaginative presence than the skein of loose silk, nor have the “infants of the very poor”, whose unkillable sturdiness removes them from the reality of poverty at the time, and nor, crucially, does the observing man, who has no existence beyond the smug theatrical flourishes with which he presents his show.

How different things are in Eliot’s “Preludes”, which you can find here.

There we have a poem saturated in a sense of the ungovernable presence of other lives, human and animal, inhabiting the same space and time as Eliot does, pressing in on him and threatening to overwhelm him. It’s a bleak, sickly, twilit world, for the most part, but everything in it is alive, from the winter evening settling down like an animal, a dog or a cat, in the first line of section I, to the blackened but  impatient street near the end of section IV.[1] Section I was in a poetry anthology we used with Year 7 boys in my earlier years as a teacher and they had no trouble learning it, partly no doubt because of its rhymes and the rhythmical strength of its short, emphatic lines, but also, I’d guess, because of this pervasive attribution of life.

I talked about ungovernable presence and I think that indicates the crucial difference between this poem and Pound’s “The Garden”. Unlike Pound, Eliot is imaginatively open to lives beyond him. In this poem he responds with intense discomfort (as he does in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and other poems) as well as with compassion. The last seven lines of section IV bring this to a climax:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Such violently contrasting reactions make us feel the poet’s anguish at not being able to grasp, let alone express, the meaning of what he sees or to stabilise his own reactions to it. This has the effect of making that life seem more real to the reader, making it seem like something that extends to infinity beyond the poem. [2]

I think we’re dealing with a fundamental difference of sensibility which you also see very clearly if you set Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” beside Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme”, and again I think Pound shows poorly in the comparison. There’s always going to be something disappointing about writing about people that fails to bring them to life.

[1] We don’t see this dog or cat, we briefly participate in its action through the process of saying the line. As you speak it, each phoneme seems a clear, distinct articulation till you reach the dark |l| of “settles”, at which point your own tongue seems to settle against your palate in a way that mimes the turning round on itself of the settling animal. Similarly, in the penultimate line of section I, the way you articulate “steams and stamps” seems to mimic the stamping action of the horse.


[2] Although it’s hard to give any definite propositional content to “the notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing” the lines have imaginative depth and a really profound emotional resonance because of qualities of articulation that belong to a different poetic order to the elegant superficiality of the Pound. Partly, perhaps, this is a matter of the various faint echoes and associations that curl and cling round Eliot’s words, but I wouldn’t want to be definite about any of them, because part of the point of Eliot’s phrasing is the way it mutes and distances these associations (“some … thing”) at the same time as it summons them up. The really crucial factor is the role played by what Eliot might have called the “auditory imagination”, though nowadays one might call it the phonetic imagination because it’s less to do with what the words sound like than with what it feels like to say them. For example, it’s to do with the yearning suspension acted out by the articulation of “infinitely”, which the metre forces one to dwell on and prolong to fill the space of two iambic feet. Different people may do this in different ways. I do it by extending the transition between the first and second syllables, feeling the friction of the fricative |f| in my mouth. You could of course do it by stressing the third syllable but that would both produce a silly singsong effect and seem out of keeping with the idea of gentleness. I think the richness of the sensation the lines give is also something to do with an elusive chemistry between “infinitely” on the one hand and “gentle” and “suffering”on the other, the first being so emphatic, the second and third so softly yielding.


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