William Butler Yeats, George Antheil, Ezra Pound Friends and Music

Ann Saddlemyer, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto

t is March 1929 and an eccentric group has gathered for dinner at a small restaurant in Rapallo, along the Italian coast. Around the table are the American poet Ezra Pound and his artist wife Dorothy, who live permanently next door; the Irish poet and playwright William B. Yeats and his artist wife and medium George, who have their own large flat up the road; the German dramatist and novelist Gerhart Hauptmann and his violinist wife Margarete; the British music critic and poet Basil Bunting, considered by Yeats «one of Ezra’s more savage disciples».

All have escaped to Rapallo for the winter, its balmy climate boasting nine times more sunshine than England’s; the Yeatses in fact, like the Pounds, have long-term apartment rentals, and Bunting has come to work as Pound’s secretary. All are artistic revolutionaries — Hauptmann’s play Vor Sonnenaufgang (Before Daybreak, 1889) caused an uproar when produced at the Freie Bühne in Berlin; Bunting was imprisoned in England as a conscientious objector; Pound was already known in England and France as critical gadfly and iconoclastic early modernist poet, ambassador for Imagism and Vorticism; Yeats was constantly searching for new themes and rhythms in both poetry and drama and, although now retired from the Senate after incendiary but unsuccessful speeches for divorce and against censorship, still meddling in Irish politics and running the Abbey Theatre from afar.

Notwithstanding Pound’s constant overriding interruptions and Yeats’s inability to understand his fellow Nobel Laureate (Hauptmann spoke no English and talked incessantly, but in appearance reminded Yeats of William Morris), this was a harmonious friendly group, constantly liberated by Hauptmann’s insistence on the finest champagne and by George Yeats, the most accomplished linguist in the group, who served as interpreter. Later she would confess that «talking German through champagne is like playing chess to prevent sea-sickness».

Joining this distinguished literary group is a young man, described by George Yeats as «adorable, quite crazy, and probably a genius, so one forgives him being exceedingly tiresome and hysterical». She was also prepared to forgive his appearance — «If he weren’t short, stout, flabby, broken nosed, dubiously shaved, & black of finger nail, he’d have half Europe at his feet» – such a contrast to Hauptmann who, she reports, always «dresses for dinner in frock coat & a kind of high waistcoat, stock tie, & white kid gloves» and even to Ezra Pound, whose sartorial appearance (a green coat with blue square buttons) was intended to make a statement. The newcomer is George Antheil, avant-garde American pianist and composer, who has recently re-turned from Berlin with his young wife Böske (art critic and niece of Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler).

But on this particular evening the subject is notmusic, poetry or drama, despite the group’s illustrious reputations and connections. All are busy collaborating on a detective novel, the plot provided by young George Antheil based on his theories of endocrinology and his belief that hormonal types de-termine both action and physical appearance. This ‘glandular detective story’,about the murder of a concert agent, and partly drawing upon the spectacular failure of Antheil’s concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall the previous year, was an attempt to satisfy his companions’ thirst for new crime novels, since they had all by now exhausted the local English library.

Yeats was perhaps the most voracious reader in the group, who cheerfully admitted that he «read[s] nothing as a rule but poetry & philosophy (& of course detective stories)», and dismissed all crime stories not modelled on the French, which he claimed at least had «intellect in them», unlike the English versions.Although written by committee — or perhaps because of this particular committee — the novel Death in the Dark (1930) was published a year later by the prestigious London firm Faber and Faber, after further editing by T.S. Eliot.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.13128/SIJIS-2239-3978-12413

Read Full Text: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/bsfm-sijis/article/view/7152

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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy