Few literary periods have been as heavily structured around “events” and “moments” of intellectual and artistic revolution – however stylised, orchestrated or overblown – as Modernism. In most critical and historical studies, its literati are portrayed as being unusually preoccupied by the increasing marketisation of art, and pronouncements on the works’ aesthetic value and the authors’ genius were brokered by key male figures who were usually writers themselves. The poet Ezra Pound was arguably the most important of the latter group, and his central position within transatlantic Modernism not only as a critic but also as an editor/advocate for others – notably T. S. Eliot and James Joyce – lay at the nexus between the demands of the literary market and the radical forces of aesthetic progress.
Lucy McDiarmid’s study is a distillation of one such “important event” in which Pound would figure. As she begins, rather tantalisingly: “On 18 January 1914, seven poets gathered to eat a peacock.” Over the course of her elaborate account of an unconventional dinner held in a Sussex manor house in honour of its owner, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, “landowner, horse-breeder, and poet married to Byron’s only granddaughter”, we witness her careful untangling of the literary and personal lives of W. B. Yeats, Pound, Blunt and Lady Augusta Gregory, a woman whose incarnations as writer, collaborator, sympathiser, lover and, inevitably, muse, are perhaps the most intriguing of all.
Blunt’s complete lack of poetic genius, his Victorian sentimentalism and his tragically inept mimicry of Romantic heroes (Byron looms large, of course) is truly comic. He is emotionally thrown by unforeseen political events while travelling in Egypt, as Lady Gregory drily observes: “Wilfrid sat looking unutterably dejected & I gave him the Arabian Nights & some bonbons to console him.” And, as McDiarmid hints, he is plainly unsuitable for such an honour as the company of Yeats and Pound, let alone the great ceremony of their visit – which involved a hired car from Harrods, a Gaudier-Brzeska carved stone reliquary containing a gift of all seven guests’ poetry (plus that of two others not in attendance), speeches, a commemorative photograph of the assembled party, a published account in The Times and – yes – the roasted peacock.
McDiarmid wisely does little to rehabilitate her anti-hero. Instead, she focuses on the increased professionalisation of the arts during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the personal and intimate transmission of a “live tradition” between male writers and their forebears. The irony of Pound’s youthful pursuit of Yeats as literary father and adviser is compounded by the sight of him in 1914 standing next to “the grandest of old men, the last of the great Victorians” whose last aesthetic impulses would be to “make it new” or to “go in fear of abstractions”, Pound’s well-known poetic edicts.
Our glimpses of Lady Gregory, who as friend to Yeats and former lover of Blunt was the dinner’s absent arch orchestrator, come mostly through letters and diaries. They testify to the unacknowledged power of women within these rarely challenged masculine networks of affiliation, influence and rivalry. As McDiarmid repeatedly points out, the conspicuous absence of female Modernist poets shadows the fanfare, especially as it becomes clear that without Lady Gregory the dinner would not have been possible.
In laying bare the pretensions of the “apostolic succession” of male Modernist poets, McDiarmid exposes the Peacock Dinner for what it was: an exclusive and artificial ritualised act of publicity meant to decentralise power from the literary establishment and monumentalise a new aesthetic order. The hidden history of such a moment, as well as the eventual obscurity of the guest of honour and its attendees (with the exception of Pound and Yeats) testifies to the Peacock Dinner’s failure to galvanise the literary imagination of a generation. It is, however, emblematic of the intimate and intricate transmission of aesthetic and intellectual values between individuals and coteries so vital to Modernism’s revolutionary stance.
Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The Literary History of a Meal
By Lucy McDiarmid
Oxford University Press, 240pp, £20.00
Published 20 November 2014