THE REIGN OF Queen Victoria had just ended when Pound and Williams enrolled at the College and the Medical School in 1901 and 1902, respectively. Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. Sugar magnate Charles Custis Harrison, C1862, was the provost, and was pouring a good deal of his own money into new buildings, including the Medical Laboratories Building (now the John Morgan Building), whose opening in 1904 would signal an increasingly scientific approach to medicine. (Until then, the Medical Department was at the center of campus in Medical Hall, which would be renamed Logan Hall in 1905.) West Philadelphia, which only extended to about 48th Street, was a handsome residential neighborhood, connected with the rest of the city by trolleys. Horse-drawn cabs brought spectators to Franklin Field, where the leather-helmeted football team ran roughshod over its opponents. Houston Hall, the nation's first student union, was essentially a gentlemen's club, with a swimming pool in the basement.
Compared with many of its peer universities, Penn was "extremely elegant and in a sense luxurious," says Emily Wallace. "At Harvard, they were still using a pump in the yard, and they had only one john per floor. It was a very austere and puritanical existence. But the University of Pennsylvania had these gorgeous new dormitories designed by Cope & Stewardson. Houston Hall was in mint condition. The Furness library was in mint condition. It must have been an exceptionally handsome campus."
When Pound moved into the ground floor of the Memorial Tower Arch (what is now the Quad's reception area and mailroom), the building was so new it didn't even have a name. Williams lived at 303 Brooks, on the south side of what was known as the Triangle, overlooking Hamilton Walk; in the room next door a student named Morrison Van Cleve had a grand piano. Williams himself played the violin, but when he told Van Cleve that he was more interested in poetry, Van Cleve replied that he knew a "crazy guy" who also liked to write, and he thought the two of them "would get along marvelously." He returned with Pound in tow, and according to Williams, "It took just one look, and I knew he was it!"
Freshmen in the College were required to take English composition, public speaking, algebra, German grammar, American Colonial history, principles of government in the United States, and Latin. That curriculum is in itself "a scenario for long stretches of the Cantos," points out Kenner, referring to Pound's often-arcane, epic-length poem. In fact, he says, "we may remark on its likeness to an extended elective curriculum and reflect that there is more to college than the freshman year."
Medical students in those days
studied physics, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, pathology, embryology, histology, and neurology, and their effect on young Bill Williams was profound. "It may have been my studies in medicine; it may have been my intense feeling of Americanism; anyhow I knew that I wanted reality in my poetry and I began to try to let it speak," he wrote in I Wanted to Write a Poem. Hugh Crawford, author of Modernism, Medicine, and William Carlos Williams, says: "Without doubt, Williams was initiated into a particular thought style while at the University of Pennsylvania and while practicing" medicine in New Jersey.
Blackboards, with their cryptic, half-erased fragments of esoterica, were just beginning to function as a sort of modern palimpsest, argues Kenner in an essay on Pound and Williams titled "Poets at the Blackboard." They were thus an inspiration for the modernist technique of fusing seemingly disparate subjects. The reason there are ideograms and hieroglyphics in the Cantos, and "a reproduction of a neon sign with the word SODA and some asterisks around it on a page of an early poem by Williams, the reason letters are, as it were, pinned to the pages of Paterson can be traced to that sort of connoisseurship -- the connoisseurship of the enigmatic, emblematic sign, the sort of thing that is left on a blackboard by somebody else."
Dr. Felix Schelling, a brilliant Elizabethan scholar with a distinctly Victorian sensibility, was chairman of the English department when Pound arrived. By then, the graduate section of the department had only been in existence for a decade. "It was quite revolutionary to grant Ph.D.'s in vernacular literature," says Dr. Daniel Hoffman, the poet and emeritus professor of English who edited a collection of essays titled Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams: The University of Pennsylvania Conference Papers. "But in order to gain acceptance of that project, Schelling, like other scholars at Harvard and Yale and Columbia, had to present literary study as being verifiable as work in science. Hence the exclusive emphasis in those days on linguistics and historical studies.
"Pound -- and Williams, too -- found these approaches intolerant of the creative imagination, a situation which may in fact have persisted into later decades," he adds. "And so one must conclude that it was fortunate for modern American poetry that they both enrolled at Penn. Because they were both contrarian from the word go."
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 4/14/98