University of Cambridge
by Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Decidedly timely, but refreshingly free from presentism, Lauren Arrington’s The Poets of Rapallo offers a thoughtful, thorough, and highly readable account of late Modernism’s engagement with right-wing politics and culture as they took shape in a north-western corner of Mussolini’s Italy. It takes as its focus the small town of Rapallo, where, between 1924 and the beginning of the Second World War, a heterogeneous coterie of writers, artists, and thinkers from the United States, Ireland, and Britain clustered to collaborate, experiment, and debate the forms poetry should take and the civic functions it should serve at what was felt to be a refreshing remove from the more conventional literary scenes of Paris, London, and New York. The centre of gravity for this circle was, of course, Ezra Pound – “the one poet who went to Italy for the politics” (vii), as Arrington pithily puts it – who sought in Rapallo “to ‘make it new’ again” (ibid). This effort to reboot Modernism prompted Pound to surround himself with a cluster of figures whom he hoped would join him in his characteristically grandiose ambition of “restarting civilization” and devising “a new modus for making art and lit[erature] possible” in a post-war world. These included the newly minted Nobel laureate, W.B. Yeats, whom a young Pound had served as a secretary (and querulous interlocutor) in the previous decade, who set up house in Rapallo for several years following a bout of illness in 1927, and who would compose and revise some of his most significant late verse and accompanying paratexts there; two veterans of the Great War: Richard Aldington, whose caustic first novel Death of a Hero (1929) was completed amid sojourns in Rapallo in 1928 and 1929, and Thomas MacGreevy, who also sought (ultimately unsuccessfully) to compose a war novel during his time in Italy, and (with greater felicity) cultivated his nascent poetic craft in conversation with those who gathered there; and a pair of young left-wingers: the self-proclaimed Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting, and the New Yorker Louis Zukofsky, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who were to prove an incongruous recurring presence in Rapallo throughout the 1930s. Pound set out to rescue these figures from what he saw as the compromised and compromising conditions of their native milieux and install them in what he considered to be “the best governed state in Europe where the goddam shits least bother one,” so that they might profit by what he felt to be the energy and dynamism of Mussolini’s emergent fascist regime, and, in the process, provide Il Duce with a “corte liteteraria” in-waiting.
As Arrington’s study valuably emphasizes, these men were joined in, and, in some cases, led to Rapallo by a group of women whose contributions to this Poundian coterie (and to late Modernism at large) have been consistently overlooked by literary historians. In the vanguard of this somewhat diffuse sorority was the draughtswoman and painter Dorothy Pound (née Shakespear), Ezra’s wife and the daughter of W.B. Yeats’s former paramour, Olivia Shakespear, who, as Arrington demonstrates, encountered Italian Futurism independently (and in advance of) her future husband and his circle. Confronted with the ancient architectural sites being excavated and restored by the fascist regime, Arrington shows, Dorothy abandoned Vorticist abstraction in favour of a pittur metafisica (metaphysical painting) approach, cultivating an aesthetic approach that would palpably shape her husband’s writing and thought. At Dorothy’s side – when not caring for her ailing husband or offering MacGreevy feedback and encouragement – was George Yeats (née Bertha Hyde-Lees), whose automatic writing, as Arrington persuasively illustrates, not only facilitated the composition of A Vision (1925, rev. 1937), but decisively influenced its engagement with right-wing philosophy and poetics. Supplementing this core duo were the author and memoirist Brigit Patmore (née Ethel Elizabeth Morrison-Scott) – Aldington’s lover and the wife of Coventry Patmore’s philandering grandson, who, though unmoved by the archaeological excavations that so enthused the Pounds, and palpably disquieted by the authoritarian regime which undertook them, struck up an intellectually bracing friendship with W.B. Yeats – and Marion Bunting (née Culver), whose experiences of Rapallo appear to have proven more difficult to recover than her peers’. With the acknowledged exception of Bunting, these women – particularly Dorothy Pound and George Yeats – are admirably given their due in The Poets of Rapallo, which pays close and rewarding attention to their intellectual achievements and administrative and organizational abilities, both in relation to, and independently from, their more widely canvassed spouses. Arrington’s approach to this feminist historiographical work is commendable in both its dedication and its intellectual honesty, demonstrating the significance and influence of each woman’s critical and creative endeavours, while, at the same time, refusing to sanitize or exalt the figures involved: as Arrington makes clear, the women of Rapallo could be just as enamoured of fascism’s most malign features as the men in their lives, and The Poets of Rapallo is stronger for acknowledging this so forthrightly.
Arrington tells the story of Pound’s Rapallo circle in six thematically clustered, broadly chronological chapters: “The Roads to Rapallo,” which catalogues the various factors, personal, political, and aesthetic, that drew the text’s dramatis personae to the small Italian town and into Pound’s orbit; “Shell-Shocked Walt Whitmans,” which explores the titular poets’ varied responses to the Great War and the debates over poetic form to which it gave rise; “Primavera 1928,” which analyzes the format, contents, and intellectual legacy of Pound’s short-lived little magazine, The Exile, and charts his increasingly “totalitarian” critical and editorial approach; “Singing School,” which examines the Rapallo poets’ efforts to cultivate a “demotic” (but, in several cases, far from democratic) voice in their verse, and documents their experiments with the ballad form; “Making Living History,” which situates the work of the Rapallo circle in relation to Italian fascist aesthetic and political philosophy, with a particular emphasis on the hitherto under-examined impact of Dorothy Pound’s engagement with fascist architecture and painting on her art and her husband’s writing; and “Accounting for Rapallo,” which takes stock of the significance of Rapallo as an incubator of late modernism and interrogates the often highly selective ways in which those who joined Pound there retrospectively discussed its impact on their life and work.
In the process, Arrington unravels the (often rather thin) self-exculpatory obfuscations through which left-leaning figures such as Aldington, Bunting, and Zukofsky retrospectively sought to distance themselves, politically, aesthetically, and, at times, geographically, from Pound and Rapallo, and charts the conversations, collaborations, and disagreements that continued to shape their politics and poetics long after the Second World War. As Arrington acknowledges, the historiographical “impulse to sequester Pound” – the critical correlative to his post-war psychiatric confinement – that has structured much that has been written by and about those who lived, conversed, and collaborated with him in the 1920s and beyond, is undoubtedly born of the desire to “protect some of the most masterful poetry in English from the twentieth century’s most toxic politics” (viii). But, as Arrington rightly emphasizes, and The Poets of Rapallo bears out, this “cloistered” approach to literary history “obscures difficult questions’ about ‘poets’ civic responsibility,” about the “relationship of literature to the contexts that produce it,” and about “ways of mapping the complexities of literary exchange” (ibid). In her efforts to answer these questions and map these complexities, Arrington surveys a rich archive of literary, historical, and biographical material, patiently teasing out lines of influence and inspiration, and situating them within both the macrocosm of Anglo-American and European political culture and the microcosm of the Rapallo circle and their social and professional networks. Arrington’s approach, which attends to politics and poetics in equal measure, allows her to trace the origins and circulation of certain images and phrases between and among the Rapallo poets, such as the veritable smorgasbord of “eaten hearts” surveyed in Chapter Two, or the references to “plasticity” (a somewhat nebulous buzz-word favoured by Mussolini and his acolytes, denoting a paradoxically robust mode of aesthetic flexibility rooted in a fluid fusion of past and present) which recur throughout Yeats’s and Pound’s critical writing and personal correspondence in the 1920s and ’30s, explored in Chapter Five. While, as Arrington acknowledges, the literary genealogy of these images and allusions has often been traced before, her synthetic and contextualizing approach compellingly roots them in the intellectual terrain and built environment of Mussolini’s Italy, in revealing and often disquieting ways. In one particularly rewarding instance, Arrington uses a selection of postcards the Pounds collected, annotated, and sent to friends and family during a tour of South Tuscany and Umbria to link Pound’s celebration of the fascist regime’s architectural “reconquest of ancient skill” in Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1935) to his wife’s woodcuts for A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930), and the work of the fascist Novecento Group with which her 1930s output strongly resonates. This assiduous archival work yields not only new and nuanced readings of well-surveyed texts, such as Yeats’s “Parnell’s Funeral,” the “Crazy Jane” poems, and Fighting the Waves (1929), the latter of which Arrington compellingly reassesses in light of the decidedly authoritarian (and seldom discussed) “Introduction” its author provided for it in a 1932 issue of the Dublin Magazine, but unearths entirely new texts, such as the six hitherto unidentified poems by MacGreevy Arrington uncovered amid Yeats’s papers at the National Library of Ireland. As these examples suggest, Arrington’s scholarship is sure to be generative and influential in both domains.
If Arrington’s brisk and accessible study has a shortcoming, it is its tendency to presuppose that the reader will have a relatively well-developed pre-existing sense of what fascism was, what it stood for, and how it functioned in Mussolini’s Italy. While this lends a commendable economy to Arrington’s account – the focus is seldom far from the study’s key players and the texts they produced – it occasionally risks muddying or blunting some of her broader claims regarding the hitherto under-acknowledged ways in which right-wing political and aesthetic philosophy shaped what Arrington, drawing on (and valuably extending) the work of Thomas S. Davis, characterizes as late Modernism’s “outward turn.” This is an issue not least because fascism was, as one of its Italian architects, Giovanni Gentile, asserted (in a remark cited by Arrington), decidedly unwilling to “waste time constructing abstract theories about itself.” The question of whether fascism constituted (and constitutes) a coherent set of ideological positions, a governmental structure, a mode of political practice, or a set of aesthetic tropes, remains open and hotly debated, and, in its reflections on what distinguished Pound’s more party-political fascism from Yeats’s fluctuating investment in what Mary Ann Frese Witt has termed “aesthetic fascism,” The Poets of Rapallo undoubtedly represents a valuable contribution to that conversation. However, it might have gone further in using the work of these figures and their peers to illuminate some of the underlying structures (and internal contradictions) of fascist ideology, aesthetic theory, and political praxis in this period. While I am certainly not suggesting that Arrington should have periodically interrupted her fluent and engagingly paced narrative to assess whether, at a given moment, the work of Pound, Yeats, et al. crossed the threshold of some sort of literary “fascist minimum,” I do think that it might have been advantageous to take a moment early in the study to offer a slightly more explicitly theorized and schematized sense of how The Poets of Rapallo was going to understand and use the term “fascist”, and to sign-post most clearly which specific elements of fascism (“syncretism,” “irrationalism,” “action for action’s sake,” “fear of difference,” for example) were operative in a particular Rapallo poet’s work and its relevant contexts. As it stands, my advice to first-time readers keen to engage with this aspect of Arrington’s study would be to turn, upon completing the book’s first chapter, to the chapters on “Making Living History” and “Accounting for Rapallo” (which do a commendable job of situating the work of Pound and Yeats in relation to key proto-fascist thinkers such as Gentile and D’Annunzio and major fascist cultural events such as the 1934 Volta Conference on theatre), before returning to a sequential reading.
Such considerations notwithstanding, like the best work of Roy Foster and A. David Moody, whose scholarship it valuably complements, The Poets of Rapallo is a triumph of diligent, nuanced, and entertaining literary historiography, deftly weaving cultural history, biographical criticism, and formalist close reading to offer a serious-minded account of the right-wing influences that informed late modernism’s “outward turn” in the 1920s and ’30s. At once rigorous and accessible, it will be a valuable resource for researchers in Modernist Studies and Fascist Studies, especially those working on Pound and Yeats, for whom it is essential reading, those working on Bunting and Zukofsky, for whom it will be uncomfortable reading, and for those seeking to introduce undergraduate and postgraduate students to the tense and complex relationship between poetry and politics in the 1920s and ’30s. In an Irish Studies context, it will be of particular interest to those working on Irish modernism, who will find in it a significant contribution to the emerging body of scholarship concerned with late Modernism in Ireland (and what may have distinguished it from its more widely canvassed British and American counterparts), and those interested in exploring the history of fascist and right-wing culture in the young nation. In all cases, it is a work to be both commended and recommended.
 Ezra Pound to Richard Aldington (May ?16, , Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, quoted (21).
 Ezra Pound to William Bird (Apr. 1, 1924), in D.D. Paige, ed. The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907–1941 (London: Faber, 1950), 258 (quoted, 20); Anthony David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet, Vol. II: The Epic Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 55 (quoted, 12).
 For a free-to-access sample of Arrington’s work on these women, see Lauren Arrington, “Ezra Pound’s Unrepentant Ties with Fascist Italy,” Lit Hub (27 September 2021), https://lithub.com/ezra-pounds-unrepentant-ties-with-fascist-italy/.
 Ezra Pound, Jefferson and/or Mussolini: L’idea Statale: Fascism As I Have Seen It (London: Stanley Nott, 1935), 85.
 For more on these poems and the circumstances of their composition, see Lauren Arrington, “Finding his voice: Newly discovered poems by Thomas MacGreevy,” Times Literary Supplement, 6199 (21 January 2022), https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/newly-discovered-poems-by-thomas-macgreevy-essay-lauren-arrington/.
 Davis identifies this “outward turn” as the “form of attention [late modernism] gives to the temporalities, spaces, surface appearances, textures, and rhythms of everyday life” in Britain in the 1930s and 40s. Where his study focusses on left-leaning British authors and projects, such as Christopher Isherwood and Mass Observation, and their relationship to the “British world-system”, Arrington turns her attention to how this “outward turn” manifested itself among right-leaning figures, through their engagement with an emerging European fascist milieu. Thomas S. Davis, The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 2.
 Giovanni Gentile, “The Philosophic Basis of Fascism,” Foreign Affairs, 6.2 (January 1928): 290–304, 300, quoted (112).
 Scholarship on this topic is legion, with major contributions from figures ranging from Hannah Arendt to Stanley G. Payne. For a useful overview of this material, see the “Bibliographical Essay” which concludes Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (London: Penguin, 2005), 221–49. For “aesthetic fascism” see, Mary Ann Frese Witt, The Search for Modern Tragedy: Aesthetic Fascism in Italy and France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), which is discussed by Arrington in Chapter Five of her study.
 I derive the concept of the “fascist minimum” from Roger Eatwell’s hugely influential essay on the topic. Umberto Eco famously identified “syncretism”, “irrationalism”, “action for action’s sake”, “fear of difference”, an “appeal to a frustrated middle class”, an “obsession with a plot”, a continually shifting “rhetorical focus” on enemies who are “at the same time too strong and too weak”, an investment in “life” as “permanent warfare”, “popular elitism”, a culture in which “everybody is educated to be a hero”, “machismo”, “selective populism”, a professed positioning “against ‘rotten’ parliamentary governments”, and an embrace of “Newspeak” as the most significant constituent elements of fascism. Roger Eatwell, “On Defining the ‘Fascist Minimum’: The Centrality of Ideology,” Journal of Political Ideologies 1, no. 3 (October 1996): 303–19; Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism,” The New York Review of Books, 42 (1995), https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/06/22/ur-fascism/.
Arrington, Lauren (2021). “Ezra Pound’s Unrepentant Ties with Fascist Italy.” Lit Hub (27
Davis, Thomas S. (2015). The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press.
Eatwell, Roger (1996). “On Defining the ‘Fascist Minimum’: The Centrality of Ideology.”
Journal of Political Ideologies 1.3 (October): 303–19
Eco, Umberto (1995). “Ur-Fascism,” The New York Review of Books, 42.
Gentile, Giovanni (1928). “The Philosophic Basis of Fascism.” Foreign Affairs, 6.2 (January):
David Moody, Anthony (2007). Ezra Pound: Poet, Vol. II: The Epic Years. Oxford: Oxford
Paige, D.D., ed. (1950). The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907–1941. London: Faber.
Paxton, Robert O. (2005). The Anatomy of Fascism. London: Penguin.
Pound, Ezra (1935). Jefferson and/or Mussolini: L’idea Statale: Fascism As I Have Seen It.
London: Stanley Nott.
Witt, Mary Ann Frese (2001). The Search for Modern Tragedy: Aesthetic Fascism in Italy
and France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.