A fresh, engaging study of one of modernism's most pivotal movements.
Series: Literary Modernism Series, Thomas F. Staley, series editor
Addressing both the literature and the visual arts of Anglo-American modernism, The Geometry of Modernism recovers a crucial development of modernism's early years that until now has received little sustained critical attention: the distinctive idiom composed of geometric forms and metaphors generated within the early modernist movement of Vorticism, formed in London in 1914. Focusing on the work of Wyndham Lewis, leader of the Vorticist movement, as well as Ezra Pound, H.D., and William Butler Yeats, Hickman examines the complex of motives out of which Lewis initially forged the geometric lexicon of Vorticism—and then how Pound, H.D., and Yeats later responded to it and the values that it encoded, enlisting both the geometric vocabulary and its attendant assumptions and ideals, in transmuted form, in their later modernist work.
Placing the genesis and appropriation of the geometric idiom in historical context, Hickman explores how despite its brevity as a movement, Vorticism in fact exerted considerable impact on modernist work of the years between the wars, in that its geometric idiom enabled modernist writers to articulate their responses to both personal and political crises of the 1930s and 1940s. Informed by extensive archival research as well as treatment of several of the least-known texts of the modernist milieu, The Geometry of Modernism clarifies and enriches the legacy of this vital period.
- List of Illustrations
- List of Abbreviations
- Permissions and Sources
- 1. Wyndham Lewis, Vorticism, and the Campaign against Wildean Effeminacy
- 2. A Vorticist Renaissance? Ezra Pound, the Geometric "Clean Line," and Fascist Italy
- 3. "Embodied... in Square and Cube and Rectangle": H.D. and the Vorticist Body
- 4. "Mystic Geometry": The Visionary Texts of Yeats and H.D.
A famous injunction, engraved on the front of the Pythagorean Academy and reiterated by Plato, dissuaded any from entering the academy who were "ignorant of Geometry." Although knowledge of geometry was not quite a prerequisite for entrance into the groves of modernist art, the language of geometric figures was so widely discussed in avant-garde circles of the early twentieth century that few of the moderns could long have remained ignorant of it. The present study explores the role of geometric forms—and more precisely, a generative preoccupation with using an idiom composed of geometric forms as a means for imagining and articulating desired attitudes and conditions of existence—in the work and thought of four major Anglo-American modernist writers: Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, H.D., and W. B. Yeats.
"What the analytical geometer does for space and form," Pound noted in 1912, "the poet does for the states of consciousness" (SP 362). Two years later, in his essay "Vorticism," he would echo the analogy, enlarging his scope to include art more generally: "The difference between art and analytical geometry is the difference of subject-matter only" (G-B 91). By invoking geometry to define the task of the artist, Pound was in fact participating in a practice that would become widespread among Anglo-American modernist writers. Though little discussed in modernist criticism, geometric language pervades the writing and thought of Pound, H.D., Lewis, and Yeats. Elsewhere, Pound used not only such comparisons, but even actual geometric formulae to depict the work of the artist; Lewis punctuated his artistic manifestoes with geometric vortices; H.D. employed verbal descriptions of geometric figures—"square and cube and rectangle"—to imagine ideal bodily states conducive to artistic vision and transcendent awareness; and Yeats diagrammed the cycles of Western civilization with geometric gyres.
Invoked and handled in a variety of ways, geometric terms provided a crucial conceptual and lexical resource for the moderns as they conceived and articulated their convictions—convictions registered in manifestoes, critical essays, and reflective moments in their poetry or fiction. As Gail McDonald notes, alluding to Hugh Kenner's phrase, the moderns often stood "at the blackboard," forming schools and launching movements; developing aesthetic, philosophical, and cultural theories; and making pronouncements (Learning to Be Modern vii)—and geometric vocabulary played a significant role in the development and enunciation of this pedagogical-polemical dimension of their work. Their shared investment in geometric figures, as defined in this study, appears chiefly not in the formal structures of their writing, nor in their descriptions of relationships among elements of systems they address, but rather in how they imagine and figure ideals—with regard to social conditions, philosophical attitudes, artistic stances, and epistemological methods. As I will argue, a geometric idiom became especially vital to the instructive and reformative mode of their work of the 1930s and early 1940s—as they faced, and strove to respond adequately to, the public and personal crises of the years leading up to the Second World War.
By 1924, when Le Corbusier announced in Urbanisme that "modern art and thought" were tending in the "direction of geometry" and that "the age is which we live" is "essentially a geometrical one" (City of Tomorrow xxi-xxii), he was advancing claims that had become so uncontroversial as to be commonplace: in the first two and a half decades of the twentieth century, the geometric shape was increasingly used as a vehicle for the nonrepresentational impulse in the visual arts and was pervading visual culture more generally. Britain, continental Europe, Russia, and slightly later, North America had been swept by the abstract geometric art of the Cubists, Expressionists, Futurists, Suprematists, and Constructivists, as well as by the geometric architecture and design of Walter Gropius's Bauhaus and of Le Corbusier himself, whose white Purist villas were earning him a reputation as a visionary. By 1924, Roger Fry's landmark Post-Impressionist exhibits of 1910 and 1912 in London and their New York counterpart, the Armory Show of 1913, were a decade past. Audiences acquainted with the avant-garde were accustomed to a proliferation of geometric work by such artists as Delaunay, Picabia, Duchamp, and Kandinsky; declarations such as Le Corbusier's; and even internal divisions among the artists associated with a geometric idiom. By 1927, when Virginia Woolf had a puzzled Mr. Bankes in her novel To the Lighthouse tap painter Lily Briscoe's canvas with his penknife and ask her to explain the "triangular purple shape—just there," she was clearly using this inquisitive gesture to evoke a moment twenty years before.
But while the shock of the new produced by geometric abstraction may have abated by the mid-1920s, there was still widespread debate about the artistic and philosophical goals associated with such abstraction, its significance, and the extent to which it should be cultivated for the most successful art. Of course, the polyvalence of the geometric signifier remains today, along with the multiplicity of ends toward which it can be enlisted. Accordingly, I begin this study by narrowing in more specifically on how the modernist writers addressed here interpreted and appropriated the language of geometry in their historical context.
In 1929, Le Corbusier's Urbanisme appeared for the first time in an English edition—under the title The City of To-morrow and Its Planning. The translator was painter Frederick Etchells, who had also translated Le Corbusier's widely influential Vers une Architecture (1923) as Towards a New Architecture (1927). It is fitting that Etchells should bring to an anglophone readership an ardent paean to the expressive and generative power of geometry: fifteen years before, Etchells had cut a profile in London with one of the avant-garde movements in London recognized for its geometric forms, though less well known than those catalogued above: Vorticism. Inaugurated by painter and writer Wyndham Lewis in 1913-1914, Vorticism was launched with the express intention of linking several of the arts while respecting the distinctness of each. During its brief life span (most commentaries read it as closing entirely by 1919), its adherents included painters such as Etchells, Edward Wadsworth, Cuthbert Hamilton, Helen Saunders, Jessica Dismorr, David Bomberg, and William Roberts, sculptors such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein, photographers such as Alvin Coburn and Malcolm Arbuthnot, and poets such as Ezra Pound. The cluster of different arts associated with it notwithstanding, its principal achievements were in painting and sculpture. Its major theoretical statements appeared through the periodical-cum-manifesto, Blast, which debuted in 1914; the second, and final, issue of Blast appeared in 1915—as a "War Number" issued from the midst of the First World War.
Despite the aggressive, often bombastic, artistic pronouncements for which the Vorticists came to be known, the aesthetic program with which they began was neither coherent nor precisely articulated—but from the outset, they were consistently recognized, and often caricatured, for their signature geometric idiom. In a 1914 catalogue introduction designed to advance the ideas that would presently be regarded as those distinctive to Vorticism, Wyndham Lewis noted that the work of his cohort "underline[d]" the "geometric bases and structure of life" ("Cubist Room" 9). Writing about the work of this group in the New Age, critic and philosopher T. E. Hulme maintained that he was describing a "new constructive geometric art," whose "geometrical" character he repeatedly underscored ("Modern Art—I" 341). In a contemporary review of March 1914, Lewis, exhibiting with the painters who would soon be recognized as Vorticists, was rebuked by critic Paul Konody for "geometrical obfuscation."
The nucleus of the Vorticists—consisting of Lewis, Etchells, Wadsworth, and Hamilton—initially issued out of a schism with the Omega Workshops in London, an atelier led by Bloomsbury critic and painter Roger Fry, for which they worked for a time. When with the Workshops, they shared with the Bloomsbury artists an interest in "pure form"—theorized by critic Clive Bell in Art (1914) as "significant form" and often played out formally in geometric terms. With the concept of "significant form," Bell provided one of the most durable early twentieth-century crystallizations of the assumption, animating the work of many contemporary artists, that "lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions," independent of any relationship they might have to referents in the external world (8). While not precluding geometric forms from serving in some representational capacity, this would nonetheless mean that the shapes and lines and colors themselves, apart from things in the world to which they pointed, would bear significance in their own right. In an essay of the same year, Pound reflected the currency and influence of this idea, invoking (and misquoting) Whistler to underwrite a similar claim: "Whistler said somewhere in The Gentle Art, 'The picture is interesting not because it is Trotty Veg [Veck], but because it is an arrangement in colour'" (G-B 85). He paraphrases in the same spirit in Blast 1, crediting Whistler with the sentiment: "You are interested in a certain painting because it is an arrangement of lines and colours" (B1 154). Or as Lewis notes in Blast 2,
A Vorticist, lately, painted a picture in which a crowd of squarish shapes, at once suggesting windows, occurred. A sympathiser with the movement asked him, horror-struck, "are not those windows?" "Why not?" the Vorticist replied. "A window for you is actually a window: for me it is a space, bounded by a square or oblong frame, by four bands or lines, merely." (44)
According to Lewis's account, then, the Vorticist is most interested in the shape created, and what it suggests in itself, "the value of color and form as such independently of what recognisable form it covers or encloses" ("Cubist Room" 9), though it may retain representational meaning for other viewers. In their work for the Omega Workshops, Lewis, Hamilton, Wadsworth, and Etchells emphasized nonrepresentational geometrics more intensely than did their compatriots; once divided from the Omega group, they heightened their geometric abstraction still further. Walter Michel notes that Vorticist art typically featured "jagged" forms and "compositional elements" that were "sharply bounded by straight-lines or geometric arcs" ("Vorticism and the Early Wyndham Lewis," 6). And they began to endow their geometrics with qualities and significances other than those they bore within the Omega context.
Specifically, the geometric forms that came to be characteristic of Vorticism were, on the one hand, sharply delineated, and on the other, constructed and arranged so as to suggest driving, rushing, forceful motion. In his survey of the development of the Vorticist aesthetic, Reed Way Dasenbrock explains this aspect of Vorticist geometrics by addressing Vorticism's much-rehearsed debt to both Cubism and Italian Futurism (albeit one often strategically erased by Lewis so as to heighten the impression of Vorticism's independence and originality), as well as its important differences from both. Dasenbrock rightly refutes the charge of derivativeness often levelled against Vorticism by highlighting the Vorticists' fusion—what Lewis called their "new synthesis" (B2 42)—of what they regarded as the best elements of both Cubism and Futurism: in fact, their deliberate appropriation of Futurist maneuvers to "correct" (B2 41) what they presented as the shortcomings of Cubism and vice versa. And although Cubism and Futurism indeed dominate Vorticist rhetoric as the coordinates by which Vorticism plots its location, in "A Review of Contemporary Art" in Blast 2, Lewis adds Wassily Kandinsky's Expressionism as a third "point of the compass" (39)—as another idiom to criticize and oppose in the service of self-definition. From Cubism, the Vorticists drew a commitment to a vocabulary of exactly delineated, geometric forms, as well as a concomitant refusal of the "fluid and imprecise" (Dasenbrock, Literary Vorticism, 32) approach they saw as characteristic of much Futurist work; from Futurism, a dedication to suggesting dynamic motion—which, according to Vorticist rhetoric, Cubist work lacked (B2 38). Steering its course so as to avoid the errors of its contemporaries, Vorticism shunned what it read as the "deadness" (38) of Cubism, the unbridled "vivacity" (41) of the Futurists, and Kandinsky's Expressionism, which, Lewis noted, exhibited much the same passivity as Cubism and much the same indefiniteness as Futurism (40). Dasenbrock coins the term "dynamic formism" to encapsulate the aesthetic with which the Vorticists emerged (Literary Vorticism, 41). Lewis, meanwhile, deems this desired Vorticist condition a "mastered, vivid vitality" (B2 38)—"mastered" in that, unlike Futurist work, it is controlled and exact, "vivid" and "vital" in that, unlike Cubist work, it is also intensely and aggressively energetic.
Scholars of Vorticism agree that this combination of precise form and dynamism characterizes Vorticist art. Cork notes that Vorticist art stands "poised half-way between the kinetic dynamics of Futurism and the static monumentality of Cubism"—such that "a typical Vorticist design shoots outward in iconoclastic shafts, zig-zags, or diagonally oriented fragments, and at the same time asserts the need for a solidly impacted, almost sculptural order" (Vorticism and Its Allies 22). William Wees's description of the experience of Vorticist work at London's Tate Gallery in the late 1960s likewise captures the union of dynamic motion and stark, crisply delineated geometric forms that fosters the effect of the characteristic Vorticist canvas:
White and blue angular forms seem almost suspended over a large red rectangle. Three triangular areas of mustard brown lie outside the rectangle, and a brown and black shaft cuts across it from top to bottom. The painting is David Bomberg's Mud Bath (1914) ...and it shares the wall with two other Bomberg paintings .... In both, Bomberg experimented with an unusual grid pattern made from vertical and horizontal lines regularly spaced and intersected by diagonal lines. Both pictures begin with figures in action ...and then transform them into nearly unrecognizable fragments within the overall pattern of triangles-within-squares.
(Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde 3-4)
It is the signature geometric idiom of Vorticism—that both presents exact "pattern[s]" and nonetheless suggests "figures in action"—that the present study takes as its point of departure, as it was Vorticism that imbued the geometric idiom with the cluster of significances with which many modernist writers would associate it—and upon which they would draw in later years.
The late Hugh Kenner's landmark study of modernism, The Pound Era (1971), famously assigns Vorticism a central position in the development of modernism: his book remains, in fact, the best-known critical tribute to Vorticism. Much criticism since the 1970s has regretted Kenner's androcentric view, and in today's climate, his deliberately heroic narrative of the men of 1914 is increasingly invoked as emblematic of an era in modernist studies now past. Nonetheless, the wealth of scholarly attention that Vorticism has drawn since the 1970s—from such critics as Cork, Wees, Materer, Dasenbrock, and more recently Peppis, Graver, and Reynolds (see Preface)—suggests that, even if The Pound Era has been superseded, the Vorticist movement it salutes remains a topic to be reckoned with. Given the clear signs of ongoing interest in Vorticism, we need to continue to reassess our understanding of the movement and its place within the development of what we have come to think of Anglo-American literary modernism—which of course is currently undergoing its own extensive reassessment.
I am certainly not prepared to argue that, contrary to popular belief, Vorticism was a weighty, thoughtful, groundbreaking movement of great import. Evidence indeed suggests that it ascended and declined rapidly, generally met with unfavorable reviews, and contributed only one among many equally important isms to its feverishly active London avant-garde milieu. It was mischievous, prankish, lobbed to the public with a broad sense of absurdity, formed in defiant and defensive reaction to its contemporaries, filled with the kinds of exaggerated pronouncements that aimed to make noise and gain an audience rather than with legible, durable philosophical and aesthetic commitments. Contemporaries such as A. R. Orage were announcing its death just a few months after the first appearance of Blast; and even its founder, Lewis, reminisced about it later in his career as a brief movement, "snuffed out by the Great War," that he outgrew.
Nonetheless, Vorticism has subsequently come to play a crucial role in the development of historical narratives about the birth of Anglo-American literary modernism, one whose consequences we would do well to interrogate. Moreover, and for this study more importantly, its use of a geometric mode influenced considerably the course of much later work by Anglo-American modernist writers. Although I certainly would not suggest, as Shari Benstock characterizes the view she attributes to Hugh Kenner, that "the literary practice of Modernism is that defined by Pound as Vorticism" (Women of the Left Bank, 24), with Kenner and Dasenbrock, I do regard Vorticism as a "key locus of innovation" (Dasenbrock, Literary Vorticism 150) that keenly affected later modernist work as well as, I would add, stories of modernism's origins.
Accordingly, as Paul Peppis suggests, the received ideas with which Vorticism has become associated stand in need of further scrutiny and revision. As I will argue in Chapter 1, at this moment in modernist studies, a time ripe for the reevaluation of modernism, we would benefit from revisiting Vorticism: as Leon Surette notes, having left the twentieth century during which modernism came of age, we can now begin to do justice to its history (Birth of Modernism 1). We especially need to reconsider how Vorticism has been deployed in our narratives about modernism, in which, in an apparent contradiction, it has often been figured as both a crucial site of origin and a negligible flash in the pan. A movement, of course, can both be short-lived, extinguished before it has chance to fulfill its promise, and at the same time a cultural matrix from which unfold many other developments. But as I will suggest, modernist historiography has yet to confront responsibly the incongruity between the way Vorticism is dismissed as lightweight and yet frequently invoked as vital to our understanding of modernism's formation.
Furthermore, we need to query even the received ideas about Vorticism as merely ephemeral, its "blast" drowned out by the roar of the First World War, its consequences limited. Significances taken on by geometric forms in the context of the Vorticist movement remained attached to them in the minds of many modernist writers—and while, in later years, Vorticist geometric forms were no longer used as part of Vorticist projects, the meanings they had acquired out of those projects remained, to be directed in the service of other ends.
Vorticist geometry exerted an influence on the imaginations of not only the writers associated with the Vorticist circle of 1914, but also Yeats and H.D., who certainly had personal links with members of the Vorticist movement but never participated in it directly. Yeats and H.D. encountered the movement by virtue of their proximity to Pound and their involvement in the London scene of the avant-guerre. In 1913, H.D. had just arrived back in London and was living across the street from Pound as various soon-to-be Vorticists entered and left his apartment. Shortly before this, she had witnessed proto-Vorticist work at Frida Strindberg's club, the Cave of the Golden Calf (Guest, Herself Defined 60). She had attended "evenings" at which Wyndham Lewis was present (57). Guest suggests that, at this point, H.D. may even have felt displaced from Pound's attention by his devotion to the new movement (60-65). A few years later, in a review of Yeats's Responsibilities, H.D. would register her response to Vorticism by positioning it as exemplary of the philosophical currents, albeit destructive ones, of her generation.
Yeats, meanwhile, was collaborating closely with Pound just before Vorticism coalesced: in the winter of 1913, the year before the appearance of Blast, the two poets were working together closely at Stone Cottage in Sussex. James Longenbach notes Yeats's influence, as a result, on Pound's contributions to Vorticist projects, suggesting that the "lessons" about elite standards Pound gleaned from Yeats at Stone Cottage "stand behind his Vorticist pronouncements" (Stone Cottage 73) and that Pound's contact with Yeats's esoteric reading in 1914 also guided his conceptualization of the Vorticist aesthetic. Yeats, in turn, was aware of Vorticist doings: attending exhibits of Vorticist work—as Pound notes in "Canto 80," Yeats was accosted at a "vorticist picture-show" (C 518)—remaining closely involved with Pound as Pound became central to the development of Vorticism, and reading Blast.
Years later, in his famous 1928 introduction to A Vision (1937), Yeats would identify Wyndham Lewis with geometric "cubes" and "stylistic arrangements of experience," and as it was only Lewis's early Vorticist work that was connected with either, Yeats had clearly retained the geometrics of Vorticism as part of his lexicon for understanding and describing philosophic and artistic endeavor. Both H.D. and Yeats, then, though not members of the Vorticist movement, certainly encountered it, responded to it, and maintained its signature geometric language as part of their aesthetic and philosophical vocabulary, such that the values associated with that language conditioned their later textual invocations of geometry.
Inspired by geometric forms and their Vorticist significances, these modernist writers later came to enlist a geometric idiom in the interpretation of their environments, the construction of their desires and convictions, and the articulation of their ideals for social and philosophical transformation. In part, they did so influenced by Vorticism; contributing to their effort also was their search for new forms of expression, now considered characteristically modernist, that would allow them to supersede what many moderns famously regarded as the limitations of conventional verbal language. As Pound put it, "Any mind that is worth calling a mind must have needs beyond the existing categories of language" (G-B 88); later, in a memoir, he would reminisce about his early effort to "make" a language not only to "use" but also to "think in" (LE 194). And as H.D. wrote, "I must find new words ...to explain certain as yet unrecorded states of mind or being" (TF 145). Together, such comments delineate the contour of a communal attempt to redress what these writers perceived as the impoverishment of existing vocabularies—an impulse that played out, in part, in their attraction to the geometric idiom, which, insofar as it was pictorial, provided a welcome alternative to what they regarded as an untrustworthy and insufficient verbal medium.
Their most pronounced use of the Vorticist geometric idiom dates from the 1930s and early 1940s. This late turn of modernist writers to a Vorticist geometric language, then, is associated with a specific historical moment of markedly intense political and cultural pressure: confronted by the crises riving Europe during the years between the economic depression and the Second World War, feeling impelled to respond to them with commentary and counsel, Pound, H.D., and Yeats reached to a geometric lexicon to explain themselves—which, for them, remained linked to values developed within the context of Vorticism.
Again, within Vorticism, geometric forms had come to accrue connotations of, on the one hand, precision, rigor, and analytical detachment (expressing Vorticism's accord with the Cubist insistence on clearly delineated "form" and valorization of the frame of mind capable of producing such exact form); and on the other, force, aggression, and action (here expressing Vorticism's emulation of the Futurist commitment to dynamism). Arguably, although the Vorticists would not have acknowledged this publicly, the example of Futurism alone suggested the combination of precision and force. Largely in the name of identity construction, the Vorticists constantly faulted the Futurists for their lack of precision and bounding lines; but in his manifestoes, Futurist leader F. T. Marinetti in fact demanded both "de la violence et de la précision." The phrase is particularly apt for describing Vorticist tenets: as coded within a Vorticist context, geometric précision in fact comes to connote violent motion, the dynamic force of violence—and in the Vorticist view, aggression will not transmit sufficient force unless it involves precision.
Framed by the rhetoric of Vorticism and employed in Vorticist paintings, Vorticist geometry thus came to suggest a disciplined condition of both maximum intensity and dynamic force. As a result, Vorticist geometry often implied a certain posture toward the world: one that combined active engagement—entailing the desire to act upon, interpret, respond vigilantly to, and even transform, the elements of one's environment—with an attitude of detachment that allowed for control. As the discussion of Chapter 1 will clarify, these two stances, analytical detachment and active, forceful responsiveness, although apparently at odds, in fact cooperate within the Vorticist project through their common cause of combating the perceived dangers of effeminacy. As indicated by its geometrics, Vorticism celebrates "a mode of approach" to the world (to use H.D.'s phrase from Notes on Thought and Vision)—as well as qualities that imply that mode, which may be found in an observed object. For Pound, for instance, the laudable "form-sense" (GK 134) that he associated with Vorticist geometrics could be expressed both in an artist's ability to address the surrounding world with an attitude uniting detachment, vigilant attention, and active responsiveness—and in the art produced by the artist who had achieved this attitude. Reminiscing about Vorticism in 1939, Lewis would note that it had involved
the sternness and severity of mind that is appropriate to the man who does the stuff ...especially when that stuff is a harsh, reverberative, and indeed rather terrible material .... It was ...professional. (Lewis's italics)
This is colloquially put, but illuminating nonetheless: the attitude described is the controlled "sternness" and "severity of mind" that accompanies, and enables, action ("appropriate to the man who does the stuff" [my italics])—action that is in turn both forceful (it can work with "harsh" material [my italics]) and efficient and unsentimental ("professional"). This, then, is the condition of mind and the attendant capacity for action that Pound, H.D., and Yeats all later come to associate with geometrics. As Chapters 1 and 2 explain at greater length, given Vorticism's double desire for precision and vigorous force, the image of precise lines, in a Vorticist context, in fact comes to "imply force and action" (B2 44). In 1910, Pound forecasts what will become the Vorticist linkage between clean lines and forceful action when he notes that a line "marks the passage of a force." "All our ideas of beauty of line," he observes, "are in some way connected with our ideas of swiftness or easy power of motion" (Translations 23). Within Vorticism, geometric lines, conspicuously exact, come to be intimately connected both with "motion" and "force."
This study thus addresses a group of late modernist texts, appearing approximately twenty years after Vorticism's first efflorescence, in which resurface Vorticism's linked commitments to both action and "sternness and severity of mind," as well as the geometric forms attendant upon these commitments. Reckoning with a range of crises, personal and political, arising from the 1930s and early 1940s, the writers considered here returned to Vorticist ideals of rigor, precision, intensity, and dynamism—and expressed their adherence to these ideals through a geometric idiom. At this point, Lewis, the self-styled Vorticist leader, was himself revisiting Vorticism, publishing retrospective articles about the movement and issuing new, revised editions of both Tarr, his Vorticist novel written about 1915, and Enemy of the Stars, the 1914 play in Blast 1 that he had intended as an exemplar of literary Vorticism. But it is not Lewis's kind of commemorative project, devoted to returning to and revising existing Vorticist texts, that I document here. Rather, this book concentrates on how Pound, H.D., and Yeats revived Vorticist geometrics between the wars—and redirected the geometric idiom in the service of new projects responsive to the era's political and philosophical crises.
Pound, engaged in the typical 1930s effort to reply to what Auden famously called "the failure of liberal capitalist democracy," immersed in the study of economics and infatuated with Mussolini, strove to awaken Vorticist precision and dynamism in Italy in a way that would both accord with and contribute to what he believed to be the salvific projects of the Fascist regime. During a period of especially intense introspection in the 1930s, heightened by her psychoanalytic work with Freud and fears about the escalating political tensions in Europe, H.D. developed a fantasy of a geometric body, streamlined and charged with electric force, that reflects Vorticist values and indicates a wish for invulnerability in a climate of risk. And prompted especially by the political turbulence of the 1930s, H.D. and Yeats both produced visionary writing, chronicling their contact with occult wisdom, whose pages are dominated by geometric images—and whose development, I argue, was shaped by a Vorticist distrust of the passivity of mystical epistemology (what Lewis called, invoking the leader of the occultist Theosophical movement, "the Blavatskyish" attitude [B2 43]).
Taken together, these examples illuminate what I call a late modernist tendency toward geometric "arrangements" (Yeats called his geometric figures "stylistic arrangements") within modernism: one might regard them as the "arrangements" of James McNeill Whistler transmuted in the crucible of Vorticism, then again transformed in the climate of the crises, both public and private, experienced by these writers between the wars. These geometric arrangements became crucial to these writers' late modernist efforts to develop and enunciate ideals—aesthetic, social, and philosophical—to respond to the various forms of turmoil, public and personal, that they confronted in the 1930s and early 1940s. In some cases, Pound, H.D., and Yeats use geometric language to figure the ideal stance that they both themselves seek to adopt toward their fraught environment and recommend to others; and in other cases, to figure the ideal conditions toward which they wish their current environments to transform.
The texts addressed in this book clearly belong among the most provocative of modernist work. Modernist work in general, of course, is fabled for its knottiness, as Leonard Diepeveen's incisive recent study, The Difficulties of Modernism, rightly notes. But the texts featured here, which enlist the geometric idiom, belong among those that continue to elicit the most critical uneasiness. Pound's Jefferson and/or Mussolini provokes discomfort and incredulity with its driving conviction that despite their differences—which Pound dismisses as merely superficial "top dressing" (J/M 11)—Thomas Jefferson and il Duce were essentially kindred. H.D.'s novella Nights continues to disturb with its apparently sympathetic portrait of sadomasochistic fantasy and suicide. H.D.'s Tribute to Freud, the memoir of H.D.'s work with Freud, can still thwart readerly expectations with the reverence it directs, albeit amid a mixture of homage and critique, toward Sigmund Freud himself, whom H.D. at times referred to as "The Master." And Yeats's Vision continues to baffle and madden many critics of Yeats, leaving them unready to admit this knotty occult text into either his canon or those of modernism. Addressing the role of geometry within modernist literature can thus shed valuable light on late modernist texts that seem to remain among the most resistant to our accounts, many of them wishful, about modernism's achievements.
While in part, then, I address these texts because they most usefully illuminate the geometric work I seek to limn here, I also feature such texts as Jefferson and/or Mussolini, A Vision, and Tribute to Freud to direct attention to texts by authors regarded as major modernists that merit richer study, whose thorns have prevented their receiving the attention they deserve. I do so also to continue the effort to regard these texts as more than merely nonfictional "prose backing" of modernist poetry and fiction (LWBY 625). Though they unquestionably provide material useful for understanding the poetry or fiction of H.D., Pound, and Yeats, these texts also deserve consideration independent of this role: in fact, they belong to a distinct genre within Anglo-American literary modernism, separate from its poetry and prose fiction—one devoted to cultural and philosophical commentary and the articulation of cultural and philosophical ideals.
Before proceeding further, I'd like to sound a note of caution about the temptation to rush to judgment about the significance of the geometry used by these artists and writers. Within Western culture, geometric forms have accumulated such a wealth of associations that it is all too easy to draw rapid conclusions about their meanings that may not pertain to the situation at hand. Historian Zygmunt Bauman, for instance, provides a pithy formulation of one common understanding of geometry's significance when he describes it as "the archetype of modern mind" that epitomizes the modern devotion to "taxonomy, classification, inventory" and "catalogue" (Modernity and Ambivalence 15)—the modern "quest for order" (1). Certainly his claims resonate with those of Le Corbusier, who celebrated geometry precisely because it could both suggest and promote order. "Modern mastery," Bauman remarks,
is the power to divide, classify and allocate .... Paradoxically, it is for this reason that ambivalence is the main affliction of modernity .... Geometry shows what the world would be like were it geometrical. But the world is not geometrical. It cannot be squeezed into geometrically inspired grids. (15)
Invoking "classification," "inventory," and "catalogue," Bauman rightly indicates a series of concepts with which we conventionally link geometry when we remove it from the province of mathematics—as did the Vorticists—and enlist it to suggest other concepts and processes. Its name deriving from Greek etyma having to do with measurement and the earth, geometry is an ancient science of measurement, practiced by the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks, appropriated and transformed over the centuries in myriad ways. As the "science which investigates the properties and relations of magnitudes in space, as lines, surface, solids," geometry suggests to us structure, clean lines, the representation of spatial relationships among objects. Further, given Plato's well-known invocations of geometry—as in the Republic, where he presents the study of geometry as having the capacity, when used well to transcend earthly matters, to facilitate understanding of the "idea of good," "essence," and "knowledge of the eternally existent"—geometry has also long suggested the notion of the pure form, the archetypal pattern susceptible of repetition and instantiation in various local particulars. Thus when Bauman employs geometry to figure the activities of taxonomy, inventory, and catalogue, his usage unquestionably resonates with longstanding assumptions about the valences that the geometric figure suggests.
But the persuasiveness of Bauman's description notwithstanding, it does not adequately capture the significance of geometry for these four modernist artists working in a specific early twentieth-century context in Britain. Some artists in their climate were indeed understanding geometry according to Platonic notions. As Rajeev Patke notes, when Cézanne remarked to Émile Bernard in April 1904: "traitez la nature par le cylindre, la sphère, le cône" (Cézanne 300), he was advocating that the artist use geometric forms to plumb to the essence of perceived objects in nature, and "reach[ing] as far back in the history of Western aesthetics as the Socrates of Plato's Philebus, for whom shapes, lines, and curves possessed an intrinsic beauty." At times, even the Vorticists themselves suggested that they were surfacing such Platonic forms—as Dasenbrock suggests (Literary Vorticism 71)—diagramming through geometry the "essence" of the objects they depicted (B2 45). But as I will explain in Chapter 1, predominant in the Vorticist lexicon was another set of meanings for geometry, meanings that arose from the effort to stave off the threat of effeminacy associated with fin-de-siècle Aestheticism.
For initial indications about the specific significances with which geometry came to be freighted in the arts at this time, we need to turn, first, to the work of British philosopher and critic T. E. Hulme—one of the Vorticists' major exponents. In January 1914, as the Vorticists were still six months from officially launching themselves, Hulme delivered his now well-known address to London's Quest Society, "Modern Art and Its Philosophy," in which he singled out for special praise the work of artists soon to be associated with Vorticism. Both Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, also giving lectures that day, sat among his audience. The premise of Hulme's lecture was that much early twentieth-century art was clearly evincing a "geometrical character" that allied it with ancient art of Egypt and Byzantium and set it apart as "absolutely distinct in kind" from Renaissance humanist representational art (77). Establishing a binary opposition between the "geometrical" and the "vital," Hulme placed the "new geometrical art" as abstract and therefore at odds with "vital," realistic, representational art. Hulme further recognized this contemporary geometric art, with its "tendency to abstraction," as the most advanced and promising work of the day. Indicating at the close of the lecture his "enthusiasm" for the new art (109), he also signaled his own allegiance to the "clean" lines and "geometrical" curves of the new art by way of phrases he used to describe the maneuvers of his lecture: he wanted, he said, to follow "the contours" of modern art (76) and to give his argument "more shape" (77). In the New Age that spring, Hulme would continue to spin out his ideas about the "new constructive geometric art" in a series of articles on "Modern Art."
Hulme's lecture both reflects and forms part of a general colloquy about geometry underway in European intellectual discourse at this moment: geometric abstraction in art was also being theorized by German aesthetician Wilhelm Worringer, whose 1908 dissertation Abstraction and Empathy (Abstraktion und Einfühlung) had addressed the psychological drives behind an abstract geometric style; as well as by philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who had studied in Berlin as Worringer's thought dominated the aesthetic scene. In his lecture, Hulme made particularly explicit his debt to Worringer, whose disciple he styled himself, and whereas commentators such as Wees and Dasenbrock have emphasized the degree to which Hulme transformed Worringer's views in his account (at times at the expense of their subtleties), Hulme certainly positioned himself in the role of transmitting Worringer's ideas to an Anglophone audience. The notion of a "geometrical style" was Worringer's, as was the dichotomy that formed the basis for Hulme's arguments: the distinction between a "vital" art, grounded in an empathic attitude toward the world, and a "geometrical" abstract art, emerging from an attitude of estrangement from the world.
Clearly, however, whatever derivativeness or reductiveness we might ascribe to Hulme's work, he was more than merely conveying Worringer's ideas: he was acting as their emissary in the realm of modern art, which Worringer's treatise does not broach, ushering them into a new avant-garde context in which they were highly apropos. Positioned amid the avant-guerre London ferment in the arts, Hulme had been surrounded by examples of geometric abstraction. By the time of his lecture to the Quest Society, he had been for several years closely engaged with such artists as Lewis, Pound, and Jacob Epstein—and it is generally agreed that the work of these proto-Vorticists acted as the most immediate inspiration for his comments, as well as his source of aesthetic values.
But he had also encountered much other geometrically accented art emerging from London avant-garde circles of this time. Bloomsbury's Post-Impressionists were experimenting with "significant form." The Post-Impressionist exhibits organized by Bloomsbury critic Roger Fry—the landmark show of 1910 and its sequel in 1912—had brought before Londoners a wealth of work exhibiting geometric abstraction by Matisse, Derain, Gaugin, and Cézanne. And as Blast attests, London artists at the time were responding especially to the examples of the Cubists, the Italian Futurists, and Kandinsky, whose treatise Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1912) meditated on the spiritual significance and "inner content" of abstract form. In 1914, Kandinsky's text was first translated into English in the pages of Blast; in his 1914 essay "Vorticism," Pound recognized its ideas as akin to those of the Vorticists (G-B 86-87). As quoted and translated in Blast, Kandinsky's claims read: "Form alone, even if it is quite abstract and geometrical ...is a spiritual entity with qualities that are identical with this form: a triangle (whether it be acute-angled, obtuse-angled or equilateral) is an entity of this sort with a spiritual perfume proper to itself alone" (B1 121). Despite what Kandinsky's phrasing suggests, "abstract and geometrical" form was not, in this milieu, the exception, but rather the major symbol for pure form whose significance and worth derived solely from itself. At this moment, such pure form, expressed in geometric terms, constituted the distinctive mark of avant-garde visual art.
While Worringer's thought guided Hulme's arguments, then, what occasioned and directed his commentary was the profusion in his climate of both geometric work and discourse about the geometric. Hulme's work registers the considerable investment by many artists in geometric abstraction in the years just before the Great War—as well the abundance of speculation about what the new prominence of the geometric might betoken. His lecture in fact explicitly distinguishes the "new complex geometrical art" he wants to isolate from work by the Futurists, by Post-Impressionists such as Cézanne, Gaugin, Maillol, and Brancusi, and by Cubists such as Metzinger: emphasizing the particular kind of geometric art he addresses, differentiating it from others, he thereby acknowledges the wealth and diversity of abstract art in his environment (Speculations 94).
At this moment, then, the concept of "the geometrical" was assuming a wide variety of slightly different significances in avant-garde circles. This study, however, focuses on the valences that geometric forms came to accrue within the force field of the Vorticist movement in particular—which most directly catalyzed Hulme's remarks and inspired his appreciation. In his lecture, Hulme makes clear the distinctiveness of the work that will become associated with the Vorticists: separating out the "complex geometrical art" he favors, he reserves approval for Wyndham Lewis and Jacob Epstein—whose full-fledged geometric work, which he codes as progressive and "constructive," surpasses the comparatively "embryonic" work of painters such as Metzinger. In his articles of that spring, likewise, he positions Post-Impressionist and Cubist art as "transitional" work paving the way for the geometric art he prefers (associated with not only Lewis and Epstein, but also Wadsworth, Hamilton, Nevinson, Roberts, Gaudier-Brzeska, Bomberg, and Etchells), which is the only kind "containing possibilities of development" ("Modern Art—I" 341). Even this work, however, still lacks "cohesion and unity": it only interests him insofar as it is "on the way to something else" ("Modern Art—III" 661). Hulme reads the work of the proto-Vorticists with cautious "enthusiasm," as harbinger of a "much wider"—and for him, welcome—"change in philosophy and general outlook on the world" (Speculations 109), one that involves an "intensity" he admires ("Modern Art—II" 467).
Cued by Worringer's work, Hulme also interprets the "re-emergence of geometrical art" (Speculations 78) as driven by impulses that have animated kindred geometric art throughout the centuries, revealing what he quotes Worringer as calling a transhistorical "tendency to abstraction" (85; Hulme's italics). In the past, he maintains, people whose art was geometric felt estranged from their environment, believing themselves incompatible with and inadequate to it. Often, communities given to abstract art feared their environment and felt impelled to take "refuge" from it: they sought sanctuary particularly from the "flux and impermanence of outside nature" (86). For these people, Hulme notes,
[P]ure geometrical regularity gives a certain pleasure to men troubled by the obscurity of outside appearance. The geometrical line is something absolutely distinct from the messiness, the confusion, and the accidental details of existing things. (87)
Hulme concedes that the contemporary surge in geometric art does not necessarily signify a return of this attitude of "spiritual 'space-shyness'" (86). It does, however, most likely signal something about the "disharmony or separation between man and nature" (87), which artists might register without being fully conscious thereof. And while Hulme acknowledges that machines in the contemporary twentieth-century environment will influence the way artists handle geometric forms—such that the impact of machinery will differentiate the nature of this geometric art from that of centuries past—he denies that the contemporary "environment of machinery" actually produces the new geometrical art (108): rejecting such directly "materialist" explanations of the trends in the visual arts, he prefers to maintain instead that modern art emerges from a "condition of mind" (85) expressed in geometric form, which may be inflected, in unpredictable ways, by the example of machine forms. In his vigorously antimaterialist method of interpretation of the evolution of art, Hulme is clearly influenced by Alois Riegl, whom Worringer credits with the concept of "artistic volition": the notion that works of art bring to objective existence a will to form, and that their style is to be accounted for not by the available materials, techniques, or needs of the artist's immediate environment, but rather by an artistic "volition"—a psychological urge—as conditioned by environmental factors.
Ultimately, Hulme stops short of a full interpretation of the significance of the "new complex geometrical art," neither willing to draw definitive conclusions nor offer unqualified endorsement. Relevant here for the Vorticists, however, are his founding assumptions: they follow his lead in using style (in this case, geometric style) as both correlative and index to a "condition of mind" (85) and its attendant "general world outlook" (88), approach to external conditions, and values. Here, like Hulme and Riegl, they assume that the style of a work of art manifests a certain "volition" (Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy 9). And they also concur, of course, with his assumption that the new geometric art, as distinct from Futurism, Post-Impressionism, and Cubism, points in the most live and promising new direction.
Within the context of Vorticism's projects and principles—as Vorticist William Roberts once put it, "the Art atmosphere of the period, which we all breathed" (Wees, Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde 152)—the geometric signifier assumed the distinctive significances it bears in the work of the four writers featured here. Specifically, it came to indicate a generative anxiety—one forcefully, though neither originally nor exclusively, displayed through Vorticist work—about a threat of "effeminacy," which I will detail in Chapter 1. For the Vorticists, the category of "effeminacy" included qualities of languor and laxity; that which was "wandering," "slovenly" (B2 43), "passive," and "slack" (40). Accordingly, Vorticist work pitches against the "effeminacy" it takes as its enemy an effort toward conditions of mind and being capable of countering such effeminacy, conditions which their geometric figures come to encode. Such geometric figures signal desires for that which is instead "tense and angular" (B2 43), severe, "austere, mechanical, clear cut, and bare" (Hulme, Speculations 96), active, and even "violent" (B1 144). Within Vorticism, the geometric idiom comes to express a value system that privileges tension, intensity, precision, activity, and force—all in the name of combating that which, in the Vorticist view, falls within the domain of effeminacy.
As I will address in Chapter 1, the battle against the "wandering and slack" out of which Vorticism was initially forged emerged from a phobic reaction to effeminacy of a kind linked in the public mind at this juncture with the Aestheticism of the fin de siècle just past. Accordingly, from the perspective of the Vorticists, the qualities against which they militated were located in the figure of the male Aesthete as epitomized by Oscar Wilde. For them, Wilde exemplified the languor, passivity, weakness, and effeteness they resisted. For my understanding of effeminacy here, I am indebted to Alan Sinfield's Wilde Century, which traces the uses of the category of effeminacy over the centuries, addressing how, in the late nineteenth century, effeminacy came to be assumed to correlate with male homosexuality and, more specifically, with the figure of the male Aesthete. As the trials of Oscar Wilde brought both his perceived effeminacy and homosexuality before the public eye, marking them as scandalous, effeminacy came to be increasingly vilified, and the male Aesthete, a chief target for that vilification.
Accordingly, in the aftermath of the Wilde trials, and swayed by their example, the Vorticists identified the qualities they condemned chiefly within the figure of the male Aesthete. The constellation of qualities the Vorticists celebrated, such as severity of attitude, spareness of outline, and vigorous force, are not altogether strange bedfellows—they all belong to a common realm of "austerity" or "intensity"—but neither are they entirely continuous with one another. It was Vorticism's anxious, reactive effort to battle the qualities associated with the category of effeminacy that brought together this coalition of desiderata: what Vorticism prized, then, was the obverse of the effeminate abject—or, to put it another way, the inverse of what was at the time regarded as the province of the male invert. Because the laxity of effeminacy was denigrated, Vorticism celebrated continence, precision, and discipline; because passivity and weakness were disparaged, Vorticism valorized activity and strength. Vorticism constructed its program, and enlisted its geometry, to exorcise the spectral effeminate Wildean Aesthete.
Of course, the qualities heralded by Vorticism are those conventionally linked to forms of masculinity, which traditionally have been predicated upon an abjection of effeminacy. I will take up Vorticism's fraught relationship with masculinity in Chapter 1. For now, I would offer that, especially as the qualities Vorticism endorses, traditionally associated with the masculine, begin to travel into later modernist work, their connection with the domain of masculinity weakens. Although activity and strength, severity and intensity have certainly often been connected with masculinity, they need not be: in later modernist projects associated with these Vorticist values, the importance of their link to masculinity recedes. In the late modernist years, as the values of Vorticism are transposed into the distinctive keys of different writers and other historical circumstances, Vorticism's primary struggle against effeminacy is displaced into various other projects, transformed under the pressure of new needs, redirected toward different adversaries.
Originally, then, the campaign at the root of Vorticism was fundamentally a campaign against effeminacy and the male Aesthete qua homosexual thought to be its locus classicus; later, the qualities celebrated by writers enlisting Vorticist values came to be detached from both the male Aesthete and effeminacy. In later work by Pound, H.D., and Yeats, the Vorticist attack on qualities such as languor, imprecision, laxity, passivity, weakness—continues, but the projects served by these critiques change considerably, as do the examples that give body to the qualities considered objectionable. In Pound's work of the 1930s, the qualities under critique are epitomized by "thick" lines in the material forms of a culture, such as the "bulbous" forms of furniture and ornamentation at the Schönbrunn palace in Vienna. For H.D., the undesirable qualities are often exemplified by a heavy body, especially a childbearing female body; and for both H.D. and Yeats, these characteristics are exhibited in the condition of the "passive" and "medium-like" visionary figure.