Words like fire: prophecy, apocalypse, and the avant-garde in Apollinaire, Marinetti, and Pound
Leveque, James Patrick
The early twentieth-century avant-garde has cast a long shadow over the popular imagination as producers of manifestos, public scandals, and some of the most enduring art and literature of the last century. In this study, I examine the works of three poets who are not only considered leading avant-gardists, but who are foundational to how both popular consciousness and academic scholarship have understood the avant-garde’s theory and practice: Guillaume Apollinaire, F. T. Marinetti, and Ezra Pound. In particular, this study focuses on the recurring themes of prophecy and apocalypse in their work. These themes occur through reference to prophetic and apocalyptic literary or mythical figures, but also through stylistic innovations such as the use of literary personae or the attempt to synthesise diverse artistic forms. Focusing on these themes allows this study to re-engage the question of how these poets, and the avant-garde more broadly, regarded their practice as a social act. Using a comparative methodology in this thesis, prophecy is viewed not simply as a declamatory literary style that foretells the future, but as a particular kind of social relationship to an audience that is at turns mutually supportive and antagonistic. Similarly, apocalyptic thought is presented not merely as an expectation or belief in the end of the world, but as a specific method of imagining a new world that is, in spite of itself, dependent upon the social world of the present. Apollinaire, Marinetti, and Pound were major figures in the so-called ‘Pre-war Avant-Garde’ having established their reputations in the decade prior to World War I. While they each began formulating and proclaiming their views on aesthetics prior to the war, the experience of war had a profound impact on all three. Accordingly, this thesis examines a number of poems from Apollinaire’s two major collections: Alcools (1913) and Calligrammes (1918), the latter containing significant reflections on avant-gardism and war. Marinetti acted as a journalist in the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1912, which inspired the work central to this study: his Futurist novel-in-verse Le Monoplan du Pape (1912). Pound, unlike Apollinaire and Marinetti, did not participate in World War I, and this study explores his sequence Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), a long rumination on art, war, and his engagement with Imagism and Vorticism, but also analyses poems from his collections Personae (1908), Ripostes (1912), and Lustra (1916). This study examines how the acute crisis of the war pressed each of these poets to reconsider their view of the poet-as-prophet in society. In doing so it explores the ethical or political implications of avant-garde aesthetics influenced by and as a response to war. This study also closely compares these poets’ works to the biblical literature from which they frequently derived prophetic and apocalyptic themes. Apollinaire, Marinetti, and Pound’s relationship to religion, particularly Christianity, spanned from ambivalence to hostility, but they each engage biblical literature in unique and unorthodox ways. While these poets all sought to be identifiably modern, this study demonstrates the ways in which they attempted to recover values from biblical literature that each felt was necessary to establish the independence and autonomy of contemporary art and literature. Therefore, this study’s comparative framework is intended to engage the conversation over the spiritual, religious, or transcendent values to which avant-garde art aspired. And drawing significantly from the social theories of art, religion, and culture developed by Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu, this thesis contributes to the study of avant-gardism as a social, as well as aesthetic, phenomenon.