T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound dominated English poetry and criticism in the first half of the twentieth century. At the center of their practice is what Maud Ellmann calls the poetics of impersonality. Her examination yields a set of superb readings of the major poems of the modernist canon. Eliot and Pound mounted attack after attack on nineteenth-century poetry from Wordsworth to Swinburne, poetry they believed nurtured an unhealthy cult of the self. They wanted poetry to be a transparent medium that gives its readers access to reality and meaning. Poetry, they argued, should efface itself, because writing that calls attention to itself calls attention to the distinctive personality of the writer. Ellmann convincingly shows that their arguments are self-contradictory and that their efforts to eliminate personality merely reinstate it in a different guise.
After an initial section on Eliot’s relation to Bergson, Ellmann goes on to analyze Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and the later After Strange Gods, the early poems, The Waste Land, and Four Quartets; she then turns to Pound’s Personae, particularly “Mauberley,” and the Cantos. Ellmann looks for the contradictions inherent in modernist literary ideology and deftly teases out their implications. Her writing is stylish in the best sense and, in terms of its theoretical vocabulary and assumptions, impeccable. This book marks the debut of a major literary critic.