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On February 27, 1912, The Times of London printed an alarming lead story about a "conspiracy," or "at least a scheme," to place the ownership of British coal mines in union hands. The Times's account of the surfacing of an incendiary pamphlet, "The Miners Next Step," followed several weeks' coverage of an impending industry-wide strike. Excerpts quoted from the pamphlet urged a takeover of the industry through a program "quickened and animated by . . . a militant aggressive policy. "A follow-up story entitled "Syndicalism in South Wales" headlined The Times on the 28th. "The Miners Next Step," it was learned, had been printed in Tonypandy, a site of recent bloodshed between strikers and police. Authorship of the pamphlet was traced to members of the South Wales Miner's Federation, a union with syndicalist ties. The pamphlet's call for direct action and industrial solidarity was linked to syndicalist labor leader Tom Mann, who in 1911 had called Britain's working class to battle on behalf of a miners minimum wage. On March 1, The Times's headline read: COAL INDUSTRY AT A STANDSTILL, 800,000 MINERS IDLE. Buried in the same issue was a review of the March 1 exhibit of futurist paintings at London's Sackville Gallery.
The futurist sweep of London is well documented. 40,000 attended the Sackville show, and Marinetti's pronunciamentos were fast absorbed by a range of young artists. Marjorie Perioff is among the latest of scholars to have considered the London art world's reception of Marinetti's Italian avant-guerre movement; and her book is the first to project futurism's impact, through Ezra Pound, on the growth of American poetry. The Futurist Moment reads futurism as the pre-war art world's embrace of technological advances in communications and the print media especially: Marinetti's revolution was, among other things, an incorporation onto canvas and onto the literary page of the jarring appeal of the advertising poster. The clamor of performance, of mass culture event, had invaded a previously staid arena.
Pound was not politically active before World War I, but his writings from the period around Marinetti and BLAST show that the flooding of his own art with such technological influences was accompanied by a layering of his aesthetics with political terms. The ethics of writing--the crafting of poems for the truing of the world--was an early concern of Pound's. When Pound first came to England, Pre-Raphaelitism provided a model for him of an art that, in its vanguard medievalism, nourished and informed its culture. But by 1913, Rossetti and Swinburne and Morris had lost credibility. The Pre-Raphaelites had drawn from the writings of John Ruskin in centering their aesthetic and societal aims on medieval art and its guild production. Ruskin's applied legacy--the Arts and Crafts movement--appealed to early twentieth-century Fabian socialists, who adapted it to their own program of political reform, making a literally "didactic," rather than an integrally "moral," practice of art. Ethical force was diffused in politics itself, a system of signification that made issues of instances. The soundness of art belonged to another era.
Futurism offered to restore the ethical force of art by providing modern substitutes for the lost vitality of Ruskin's Middle Ages, an epoch of pre-industrial reciprocity between art, artisans, and culture. One new source of futurism's aesthetic "energy" was the anarchist labor movement in England. British syndicalism, like the continental syndicalism of Marinetti's "crowds in the excitement of labour," roused an economically displaced populace by exploiting more the visionary than the ideological character of politics. In rallying workers first under "union" rather than "class" banners, British syndicalists sought enfranchisement not through the vote or the party, but through the workers' own sources of power: industrial sabotage, "ca-canny," the slow-down, the strike. Whether it was syndicalism's social aims that appealed to the young Pound and his radical associates, or whether it was syndicalism's invigorating means, the movement caused a stir among the group that received Marinetti. Militant trade unions provided a modern industrial analog to the medieval artisan guilds idealized by modernists of Pound's milieu. And for truth-telling heretic-artists who complained of being starved, or ignored, rather than persecuted at the stake, the syndicalist call to the apocalyptic general strike was a galvanizing appeal.(1) The urgency of economic struggle and the glamor of class war were lures for artists and intellectuals who lacked the hard lines of opposition that shaped and strengthened such current social movements as labor reform, woman suffrage, and Irish nationalism. Pound, for one, was eager to identify himself as a "syndicalist," and he toyed with adapting the rhetoric of class struggle to the loftier cause of reawakening the arts. Pound's reception of Marinetti coincided with his British-grown syndicalism. The Italian's infusion of art with modernity combined with England's "excitement of labour." It was a shifting of alliances and terms that brought the ethics of Ruskin's medieval guild society to the contemporary world. For Pound in London, futurism's moment had been right.
Perloff treats London's vorticism as a conduit from Marinetti to Pound. Pound's poetic contributions to the vorticist magazine were slight, and soon to be eclipsed by works like Cathay. But BLAST's production seems to have focused for Pound the building confidence shared by his 1910-1914 contemporaries in a coming epochal awakening, a new age marked by a "cataclysmic" transformation in the arts.(2) Pound was pitching the magazine prior to BLAST's publication (the April 1913 Egoist ads linking BLAST to Armageddon are Pound's), and he continued through 1917 to push a movement sapped by World War I. Wyndham Lewis wrote most of the magazines manifestos, but Pound's immersion in the spirit and method of vorticist blastings was thorough. Perloff's metrical, semantic, and tonal analyses of Pound poems from BLAST's "Come My Cantilations" to Canto 26 suggest that the futurist spirit that registered in Lewis reverberated for some years through Pound's writings.(3)
The months between the 1912 futurist exhibit and the June 1914 publication of BLAST were productive ones for Pound. A range of interests and influences--Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Fenollosa, a cultural "Awakening," and syndicalism--register in the essays and poems surrounding his promotion of imagism and vorticism. Manifestos from this period run from the mannered and prescriptive "A few don'ts by an Imagiste" to BLAST's awkwardly bombastic "Vortex. Pound," which rallied artists to a full-scale assault on the "PLACID, NON-ENERGIZED FUTURE." Pound was groping at this time to recast the function as well as the condition of the arts in England, and his writings on the place of the artist in society contain clues as to how he was to receive Marinetti. "The Serious Artist," Pound's 1913 "rewrite" of Sidney's "Defence of Poesy," shows a Ruskinian concern with ethics, crafts, and "the state." In this essay, …