John Gould Fletcher

1886–1950
John Gould Fletcher
John Gould Fletcher is considered by many literary scholars to be among the most innovative twentieth-century poets. He is closely associated with poet Amy Lowell and the Imagist movement she championed. In addition to being an adherent of Imagism, which was dedicated to replacing traditional poetics with a more concise use of language, new rhythms, and a concrete rather than discursive or symbolic treatment of subject, Fletcher also wrote poetry that drew from such varied sources as French Symbolism, Oriental art and philosophy, and music. Later in his career Fletcher concentrated less on technical innovation and began to develop themes he had previously only touched upon in his work, including humanity's relation to nature and the individual's search for God and salvation. During this period, he also became associated with the Fugitives, a group of American poets dedicated to reviving an agrarian way of life and traditional Southern values.

Fletcher was born to an affluent Arkansas family on January 3, 1886. His father, who was also John Gould Fletcher, was a veteran of the Confederate Army, and made his fortune after the war, both in brokering cotton and in banking. Already fifty-five at the time of Fletcher's birth, the elder John Gould would prove a fairly remote figure to his son. Of his two parents, Fletcher clearly took after his mother, who was twenty-four years younger than her husband and a great lover of literature, music, and the arts. When Fletcher was three, the family moved into the Albert Pike mansion in Little Rock, where they remained throughout his formative years. In retrospect, Fletcher often spoke of the gloom and desolation of the place—even at an early age, his life was characterized by a solitude from which he would never completely emerge.

Having little social life, Fletcher became a voracious reader. His preferences ran toward the decadent and pessimistic, especially as he grew older. The writings of Edgar Allan Poe were his constant companions in adolescence, and while attending Harvard he developed a lifelong love of French literature, devouring the works of Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, as well as Dante Rossetti, William Morris, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde. It was at this time that Fletcher began writing poetry of his own, though he seldom showed it to anyone, being an entirely private person.

Fletcher did not prosper at Harvard. He did not fit into Massachusetts society well, neglected the syllabi to pursue his own reading, and skipped classes regularly so as to have more time for the University Library, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the symphony. Determined to pursue a literary career, his lack of application in his studies was the cause of considerable friction between Fletcher and his father, who wanted him to become a banker or lawyer. When his father died in 1906, Fletcher inherited the family fortune and a sizeable annuity. Apparently unable to see the point of further education, and against the wishes of his mother, who, like his father, felt he should leave literature on the side and take on a profession, Fletcher dropped out of Harvard just before the final exams in 1907. The following year he departed the country for Italy. When his mother died in 1910, he did not return home.

Venice and Rome were the next sites of Fletcher's ongoing self-education. He soaked up the atmosphere, flirted with the idea of converting to Roman Catholicism, wrote more poetry, and read voraciously. In 1909 he relocated to London, where he began to meet other poets and artists. His interest in painting was especially strong, and he never missed an important exhibition. This abiding fascination with both the arts and music would deeply influence his later poetry, although at the time his work was fairly conventional. He doggedly assailed publishers with his poems, but to no success. Finally, he approached four different publishers and arranged to finance five volumes of his poetry, himself. All five appeared in May of 1913.

Critical reception to Fletcher's work was lukewarm. Edward Thomas, writing in Poetry and Drama, said that the five volumes "do not present an achieved style or character. . . . He desires, and that violently, to be a great new poet. All his books, save The Dominant City, show him more or less being tortured by this ambition, and by troubles connected with it, rather than striving to gratify it." Ezra Pound, writing in the New Freewoman, gave a typically emphatic, mixed view: "Mr. Fletcher's `music' is more comparable to that made by a truck-load of iron rails crossing a cobbled pavement than to the wailful sound of violins. . . . He has such distinction as belongs to a man who dares to have his own faults, who prefers his own to those of anyone else . . . it is quite impossible to read Mr. Fletcher without being convinced that he cares a great deal for the truth."

Fletcher himself was the severest critic of these books—within roughly one year of their publication, he had the unsold copies pulped, and referred to them as mere juvenalia for the rest of his life. The year that separated the appearance and destruction of these works was a turning point for Fletcher—he had traveled to Paris to see the Impressionist exhibitions there, and discovered the Postimpressionists in the process. The bold experimentation of painters Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso, and of composer Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring, performed for the first time in Paris in 1913 to a near-riot, had a galvanic effect on Fletcher, and made his previous poetic work seem unrealized and old-fashioned. It was also during this momentous seven week period that Fletcher met Ezra Pound, with whom he shared an interest in Symbolist poetry. Pound convinced Fletcher to help underwrite the expenses of his magazine, the Egoist. Fletcher also made the acquaintance of other literary luminaries, including Ford Madox Ford and W. B. Yeats. Even before his first books had appeared in stores, Fletcher was already working on entirely new poetry, writing a poem every day, trying to recapture the wild ecstasies and moment-by-moment intensities of Stravinsky. Highly influenced by the French, these poems would eventually be collected as Irradiations.

Back in London, Pound introduced Fletcher to Amy Lowell, who was one of the leaders of the "Imagist" movement in poetry. Pound was highly critical of Irradiations, although his opinion of them was generally positive, and he was instrumental in getting them published in Poetry. Fletcher apparently felt betrayed by Pound's attentive critique, and when Pound published a piece on French poets in New Age magazine, Fletcher felt Pound was taking credit for his own discoveries. As a result, he turned down an opportunity to publish his own work in Pound's collection Des Imagistes. However alienated Fletcher became from Pound, he developed a stronger friendship with Lowell, who gave him more uncritical support and assisted him in finding publishers.

At this time, Fletcher, who was twenty-seven, became involved with an older, married woman named Florence Emily Arbuthnot. By 1914 they were living together, along with Florence's two children. While Fletcher had patched things up somewhat with Pound, there was a growing rift between Pound and Lowell, whose Imagism Pound had lampooned as "Amy-gism," that would eventually bring Fletcher to a crossroads. While above all he sought to preserve his own independence, he ended up siding with Lowell.

Edmund de Chasca, in his John Gould Fletcher and Imagism, summarizes Fletcher's differences with the Imagist corps: "He did not favor a maximum of visual content but felt that poetic style should be an attempt to develop the musical quality of literature . . . while the early imagists focused on concrete objects and small pieces of reality, Fletcher tried to bring out the underlying essence of the scene. . . . Lastly, Fletcher's manner of composition was different from that of the early imagists. They prided themselves on paring down their utterances to the fewest words possible and strove, through careful pruning, to give their compositions a finished, `made' quality. Fletcher customarily dashed off his poems in improvisational bursts and left them essentially unrevised."

When the war broke out and Fletcher was compelled to return to the United States, he assisted Lowell in editing a series of imagist anthologies, and began writing about his home country in such pieces as "New York" and "Clipper Ships." In the winter of 1914-15 a visit to his old home in Little Rock was the occasion for rueful and gloomy reminiscences about his childhood. While en route back to Boston, he discovered Japanese art at the Art Institute in Chicago, and was moved to attempt poetry in the traditional Japanese haiku and tanka styles. The results, published as Japanese Prints in 1918, were generally unsuccessful. However, Eastern art had a philosophical impact on Fletcher as well. Convinced that Asian art represented a harmony of man and nature, and equally convinced that Western civilization was being destroyed by technology and materialism, he made it his mission to alert America to the need for a new philosophy, a synthesis of East and West.

Living in Boston, Fletcher again found himself caught in between Lowell and another anti-"Amygist," in this case Conrad Aiken, his next-door neighbor and a famous critic. Aiken had picked Fletcher out of the crowd as a talent, albeit a "happy victim: a tree pollenated by a chance air." Lowell's objection to Fletcher's friendship with Aiken, and her increasingly intrusive management of his own career and especially vehement self-promotion, alienated Fletcher. When, in 1916, he discovered that she was responsible for killing his project "Love's Tragedy" at Houghton Mifflin, Fletcher broke off his friendship with her.

Suddenly, Fletcher's life ran aground. His new marriage with Arbuthnot was rapidly showing itself to be a mistake, his poems were no longer being accepted, his literary contacts were drying up. He had moved to Sydenham in England to be with his wife, and for several years he more or less languished there. During this time, the exuberance of his early poetry dimmed, and his work became more stolid, majestic, and plain—and his initial prolixity dwindled, until he was producing almost nothing new. His work in the early twenties is characterized by a concern with the history and future of America, which, he felt, was headed to its own destruction in a nihilistic industrial downward spiral. During this period, he also produced the first biography of Gauguin in English, possibly out of a sense of identification with the long-ignored French painter.

Slowly and gradually, Fletcher began to re-emerge, traveling to Paris again, where he met T. S. Eliot and read Ulysses, which he believed to be a paramount symptom of modern brutishness and barbarism. The industrial developments in Paris alienated and depressed him. As was the case with many people at that time, he was drawn to look for new meaning in Christianity, and most critics agree that this interest marked the second phase of his work. He became involved with the Fugitive, a magazine published by a small group of literati who called themselves the Fugitives, that is, pro-agrarian Jeffersonian fugitives from the industrial world. When, in 1927, Fletcher returned to the South for a lecture tour, he met such Fugitives as Donald Davidson and John Crowe Ransom, and he contributed some of his work to I'll Take My Stand, the Fugitive manifesto, when it appeared in 1930.

In 1932 Fletcher suffered a nervous breakdown that sent him into a hospital for five months. His marriage was clearly at an end, and he had no further desire to live in Europe. In 1933 he moved back to Little Rock, where he was received as the poet laureate and premier intellectual in the state. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Arkansas, founded the Arkansas Folk Lore Society in 1935, and produced "The Story of Arkansas" for the state's centennial in 1936. That was also the year in which his divorce from Arbuthnot was finalized, and he remarried on January 18. His second wife was Charlie May Hogue Simon, a writer of children's books. They lived together until Fletcher's death.

Now Fletcher wrote regional poetry, taking his old home as his solid rock of inspiration and as an anchor for his life. He briefly left to stay at the McDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, during which time he wrote his autobiography, Life Is My Song. Its appearance in 1937 led to a brief renewal of interest in Fletcher, and his Selected Poems, which appeared the following year, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

The years that followed were apparently calmer, Fletcher was settled and older, and he had received a certain amount of recognition. But inwardly he still hated the materialistic, mechanized world he saw being built up all about him. Evidently in despair at this state of affairs, he drowned himself in a pool near his home on May 10, 1950, at the age of sixty-four.

Fletcher's work is most generally recognized for its idiosyncratic innovations, and the connections between his aesthetic choices and those of the prevailing literary trends of the first half of this century. After a clumsy but promising beginning, Fletcher's experiments gave rise to highly unusual and interesting results—poetic symphonies and paintings, and an emphasis on undidactic directness in the evocation of emotion. While he was always prey to criticisms about his coldness and verbosity, he was seen as part of a new wave in poetics, bringing in a fresh vigor and musicality. His later poems, which deal more openly with questions of salvation and social directions, are regarded by most as documents attesting to a particular trend, a reaction against full-scale industrialization. He enjoyed a rare connectedness with the brightest lights in poetry, and brought that cosmopolitan sensibility back to Arkansas.

Bibliography

WRITINGS:

  • The Book of Nature, Constable (London), 1913.
  • The Dominant City (1911-1912), Goschen (London), 1913.
  • Fire and Wine, Richards (London), 1913.
  • Fool's Gold, Goschen (London), 1913.
  • Visions of the Evening, Macdonald (London), 1913.
  • Irradiations—Sand and Spray, Houghton (Boston and New York City), 1915.
  • Goblins and Pagodas, Houghton (Boston and New York City), 1916.
  • Japanese Prints, Four Seas (Boston), 1918.
  • The Tree of Life, Chatto & Windus (London), 1918, Macmillan (New York City), 1919.
  • Some Contemporary American Poets, Chapbook, Volume 11, 1920.
  • Breakers and Granite, Macmillan (New York City), 1921.
  • Paul Gauguin: His Life and Art, Brown (New York City), 1921.
  • Preludes and Symphonies (includes Irradiations— Sand and Spray and Goblins and Pagodas), Houghton (Boston and New York City), 1922.
  • Parables, Kegan Paul, (London), 1925.
  • Branches of Adam, Faber & Gwyer (London), 1926.
  • (Editor) Edgar Allan Poe, Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1926.
  • (Translator) Elie Faure, The Dance Over Fire and Water, Harper (New York City), 1926.
  • (Translator) Jean Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary, Brentano's (New York City), 1927.
  • The Black Rock, Macmillan (New York City), 1928.
  • John Smith—Also Pocahontas, Brentano's (New York City), 1928.
  • The Crisis of the Film, University of Washington Book Store (Seattle), 1929.
  • The Two Frontiers: A Study in Historical Psychology, Coward-McCann (New York City), 1930, published as Europe's Two Frontiers: A Study of the Historical Forces at Work in Russia and America as They Will Increasingly Affect European Civilization, Eyre & Spottiswoode (London), 1930.
  • (Author of introduction) John Smith, The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith, Rimington & Hooper (New York City), 1930.
  • XXIV Elegies, Writers' Editions (Santa Fe), 1935.
  • Life Is My Song, An Autobiography of John Gould Fletcher, Farrar & Rinehart (New York City and Toronto), 1937.
  • Selected Poems, Farrar & Rinehart (New York City and Toronto), 1938.
  • South Star, Macmillan (New York City), 1941.
  • (Translator, with others) Yvan Goll, Jean Sans Terre / Landless John, Grabhorn Press (San Francisco), 1944.
  • The Burning Mountain, Dutton (New York City), 1946.
  • Arkansas, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill), 1947.
  • Selected Poems of John Gould Fletcher, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville), 1988.
  • Selected Essays of John Gould Fletcher, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville), 1989.
  • Selected Letters of John Gould Fletcher, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville), 1996.
Fletcher's poems were anthologized in Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology, edited by Amy Lowell, in editions published in 1915, 1916, and 1917. Fletcher's uncollected works include "The Death of England," Broom, January, 1922, p. 207; "In the Gallery of Skulls," Broom, January, 1922, pp. 207-208; "The Secret of Mars," Broom, January, 1922, pp. 208-209; "The New World," Broom, January, 1922, p. 209; "The Way of Dust," Broom, January, 1922, p. 210; "Last Wishes," Broom, January, 1922, p. 288; "To a Starving Man," Broom, April, 1922, p. 1; "The Ballad of the Last Emperor," transition, May, 1927, pp. 119-124; "Marine Eden," This Quarter, July-August-September, 1930, pp. 178-180; and "Some Thoughts on French Painting," This Quarter, October-November-December, 1930, pp. 356-360. Author of "Education, Past and Present" in I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners, Harper (New York City), 1930.

Further Reading

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Aiken, Conrad, Collected Criticism, Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Aiken, Conrad, Skepticisms, Knopf, 1919.
  • Brooks, Van Wyck, Scenes and Portraits, Dutton (New York City), 1954.
  • Carpenter, Lucas, John Gould Fletcher and Southern Modernism, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville), 1994.
  • Coffman, Stanley K., Jr., Imagism: A Chapter for the History of Modern Poetry, University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.
  • Damon, S. Foster, Amy Lowell: A Chronicle, Houghton (Boston and New York City), 1935.
  • Davidson, Donald, Still Rebels, Still Yankees, and Other Essays, Louisiana State University Press, 1957.
  • Dembo, L. S., Conceptions of Reality in Modern American Poetry, University of California Press, 1966.
  • de Chasca, Edmund S., John Gould Fletcher and Imagism, University of Missouri Press, 1978.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 4: American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939, 1980, Volume 45: American Poets, 1880-1945, 1986.
  • Fairchild, Hoxie Neale, Religious Trends in English Poetry: Gods of a Changing Poetry, 1880-1920, Volume V, Columbia University Press, 1962.
  • Harmer, J. B., Victory in Limbo, Secker & Warburg, 1975.
  • Hughes, Glenn, Imagism and the Imagists, Humanistic Press, 1960.
  • Johnson, Ben F., III, Fierce Solitude: A Life of John Gould Fletcher, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville), 1990.
  • Lowell, Amy, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, Macmillan, 1917.
  • Monroe, Harriet, Poets and Their Art, Macmillan, 1932.
  • Morton, Bruce, John Gould Fletcher, A Bibliography, Kent State University Press (Kent, OH), 1979.
  • Osborne, William Robert, The Poetry of John Gould Fletcher, A Critical Analysis (doctoral dissertation), George Peabody College, 1955.
  • Perkins, David, A History of Modern Poetry, Belknap Press, 1976.
  • Simon, Charlie May, Johnswood, Dutton, 1953.
  • Stephens, Edna B., John Gould Fletcher, Twayne, 1967.
  • Stephens, Edna B., The Oriental Influence in John Gould Fletcher's Poetry (doctoral dissertation), University of Arkansas, 1961.
  • Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 35, Gale, 1986.
  • Untermeyer, Louis, American Poetry since 1900, Holt, 1923.
  • Waggoner, Hyatt H., American Poets from the Puritans to the Present, Dell (New York City), 1970.
  • Zur, Bernard, John Gould Fletcher, Poet: Theory and Practice (doctoral dissertation), Northwestern University, 1958.

PERIODICALS

  • Bookman, September, 1930, pp. 89.
  • Chicago Review, summer, 1946, pp. 172-173.
  • Comparative Literature, winter, 1956, pp. 46-62.
  • Current History, June, 1930, pp. 604-605.
  • Dial, June, 1921, pp. 700-704.
  • Egoist, November, 1916, pp. 173-174; December, 1916, pp. 183-184.
  • Harper's, September, 1915, p. 637.
  • Nation, April 13, 1921, p. 562.
  • New Freewoman, September 15, 1913, pp. 131-132.
  • New Republic, January 8, 1936, pp. 263-264; November, 1937, pp. 53-54.
  • Poetry, December, 1913, pp. 111-113; March, 1919, pp. 340-341; January, 1926, pp. 206-210; March, 1936, pp. 344-347; September, 1941, pp. 334-336; March, 1947, pp. 353-356; December, 1950, pp. 154-161; August, 1954, pp. 284-296.
  • Poetry & Drama, September, 1913, pp. 363-365.
  • Sewanee Review, July-September, 1938, pp. 275-288; winter, 1968, pp. 76-89.
  • Shenandoah, spring, 1951, pp. 3-16.
  • South Atlantic Quarterly, January, 1953, pp. 88-92.
  • Southwest Review, summer, 1953, pp. 238-243; winter, 1966, pp. 37-45.
  • Times Literary Supplement, January 22, 1915, p. 247.
  • University Review, spring, 1938, pp. 165-172.*

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Poet Categorization

SCHOOL / PERIOD 17th Century

LIFE SPAN 1886–1950

John Gould Fletcher

Biography

John Gould Fletcher is considered by many literary scholars to be among the most innovative twentieth-century poets. He is closely associated with poet Amy Lowell and the Imagist movement she championed. In addition to being an adherent of Imagism, which was dedicated to replacing traditional poetics with a more concise use of language, new rhythms, and a concrete rather than discursive or symbolic treatment of subject, Fletcher . . .

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