At Last, The Real Distinguished Thing
The Late Poems of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams
Literary Criticism / American / General; Literary Criticism / Poetry
180 pp. 6x9
$24.95 paper 978-0-8142-5361-8
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In his essay on “Old Age,” Emerson wrote that “there is a proportion between the designs of a man and the length of his life: there is a calendar of his years, so of his performance.” In advancing this optimistic theory, Emerson suggests that there is a deep and fundamental relationship between creation and the span of a person’s life, and that fostering creativity over the arc of a long life is essential to cultural as well as to personal health.
It is Kathleen Woodward’s purpose not so much to test Emerson’s theory as to acknowledgde our present need for a model of wisdom in old age. She studies the late poems of four great twentieth-century American poets, in each case focusing on a major meditative poem within the context of earlier work: T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets of 1943; Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos of 1948; Wallace Stevens’s "To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” from The Rock of 1954; and Book V of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson of 1958. Some of the important questions she addresses include, Do aging and old age bring poetic fulfillment? With what insights into the experience of aging do these writers provide us? What are the satisfactions of old age? How, through the work of these poets, do we come to understand the nature of wisdom?
Eliot provides the historical context in which the work of these late moderns is read. For theirs was the Age of Eliot, whose seminal “Gerontion” of 1919 and “The Waste Land” of 1922, so perfectly expressed the fragmented sterility of the modern world. But if their age began in exhaustion, it ended in affirmation. For Eliot—and with him, Pound, Stevens, and Williams—confronted the collapse of order, and sought, in his late poems, to discover a new order, a new ground of authority.
Each poet moved in hiw own way toward a kind of closure to his life in poetry. Although very different from one another, their poems are united by a central image—“the still point”—and a reliance on tradition and the creative act as stays against chaos. They share a new meditative mode that rejects the Cartesian view of the act of the mind as conscious and dominating, and that stresses instead an easy interpenetration of sensibility and world, an ecology of mind. And they disclose a new hero, the wise old man, to a society that worships youth. Together these remarkable poems reveal an original and a welcome development in lyric poetry that marks the last phase of American Modernism.
Kathleen Woodward is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee.