Rexroth's 'The Dragon and the Unicorn'

The Dragon and the Unicorn is Kenneth Rexroth’s second long philosophical poem about World War II. As in “The Phoenix and the Tortoise,” he quests for some saving source of hope in a stricken world, this time through firsthand inspection of America and Europe. Rexroth dates the composition “1944–50” to establish its connection with the last years of the war and those immediately afterward — obviously a period of massive emotional upheaval. He had already observed the extreme swing between pervasive disillusionment during the war and the giddy rebounding of optimism afterward, even as people reeled from the nearly unfathomable nightmare — the explosion of the first atom bombs.

Rexroth’s war poems joined a number of other long modernist poems produced in reaction to the war’s horrors: T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943),[1] H.D.’s Trilogy (The Walls Do Not Fall, 1944, Tribute to the Angels, 1945, The Flowering of the Rod, 1946), some of the later poems of Edwin Muir, Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain: The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn” and “Three Poems of the Atomic Age” (1947), Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos (1948), and William Carlos Williams’s “Of Asphodel That Greeny Flower” (1951). With respect to Eliot and Pound, Rexroth was consciously taking a counter-position in The Dragon and the Unicorn to that of the Four Quartets and the “Cantos” (leading up to and including The Pisan Cantos). In “The Dragon,” Rexroth refers to The Pisan Cantos:


                   Here Pound
Stumbled to the pitiful
Conclusion of the longest
And most highly decorated
Hymn of hate in literature.[2

Rexroth intended his poem to stand as a hymn of love to counterbalance the anti-Semitism that sours the Cantos.

Further, Rexroth wanted his personalist poetics to stand against Eliot’s and Pound’s artifice of an impersonal persona and the New Critics’ aestheticism. In “The Dragon,” as in his other writings, he was heralding a directly expressive lyricism and calling on others to join him in revitalizing American poetry by returning social force to it. Now, some could argue that the crisis of imprisonment made Pound unmask himself in The Pisan Cantos. Certainly, he expresses suffering, though with scant trace of remorse: “Here error is all in the not done, / all in the diffidence the faltered.”[3] But his mode of expression is mostly indirect and often veiled in metaphor or in a foreign language. The closest the reader is allowed in perhaps is Pound’s revelation: “the loneliness of death came upon me / (at 3 P.M., for an instant) δακρύων ἐντευ̂θεν.”[4][5]

In the first section of The Dragon and the Unicorn, Rexroth responds to the beginning of “Burnt Norton” where Eliot deduces, as if paced to a metronome:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.[6]

In rejoinder, Rexroth writes:

… In experience each present
Time includes the past and as the
Future appears it is included
In it. … / … no one has ever
Seen either the past or the
Future, we live in the present.[7]

Rexroth’s meditation on serial, quantified time dismisses it as an artificial concept in comparison with the organic patterns of time:

Actually, the concept
Of time arose from the weaving
Together of the great organic
Cycles of the universe,
Sunrise and sunset, the moon
Waxing and waning, the changing
Stars and seasons, the climbing
And declining sun in heaven,
The round of sowing and harvest,
And the life and death of man.

In refutation of Eliot’s and Pound’s evasive poetics of impersonality, Rexroth reveals himself in The Dragon and the Unicorn to be as flawed and wanting as the world around him. Among the personal faults he displays are: reverse snobbery, pride in his sexual potency, idealizing and recommending himself, scurrility, and rage. As Geoffrey Gardner explains in “The Cast Snakeskin and the Uncut Stone,” Rexroth’s self-disclosure has a double purpose:

His faults of character are so patent and transparent that there is little ground here in which any form of psychoanalysis can dig. In fact, part of the argument of the poem is that psychoanalysis, despite all its pretensions to the contrary, can at best go only a very short way towards answering the questions the poem poses. It cannot unravel the mystery of evil, and it guides us very little in our moral choices. By showing his faults and excesses, Rexroth means to present himself as exemplary, in his problems and confusions, of all people at mid-century.[8]

The Dragon and the Unicorn is structured between narrative and philosophical poles, a dynamic interplay ultimately subsumed by a contemplative perspective. The first four parts of the poem, from spring through the autumn of 1949, chart Rexroth’s picaresque journey from California to Europe and back as he unfolds his philosophy. The concluding fifth part briefly sums up his anarchist and mystical philosophy, and then in its main lines moves through a succession of longer lyrics, progressing through the seasons over the course of a full year from winter till the end of another autumn. The first-person, present tense travelogue is straightforward in contrast to the highly complex philosophy. Running at parallels, the narrative and the philosophy alternate, providing exempla, argument and challenge for one another. As Gardner elucidates:

The two strands diverge and come close and diverge again throughout the poem. Out of this constant juxtaposition, there slowly emerges for Rexroth a kind of master perspective encompassing both philosophy and experience. It is this perspective that opens what glimpses of renewal the poem can offer while also disclosing that no philosophy can be adequate to account for the intricacy of experience whose accumulating wastes of sorrow and destruction necessarily spill beyond the confines of any philosophy.[9]

The poem’s movement is the traditional course of mystical work, the climbing of the ladder of thought to its limits and then ascent into an increasingly sustained contemplative mode.

The title itself links the opposing elements of earth and air, thus introducing the structural and thematic explorations of the creative and destructive aspects of existence.[10] As Rexroth proposes:

All things have an apparent
Meaning and an opposite
Hidden brought forth by fire.
The phoenix and the tortoise,
The dragon and the unicorn,
Man, eagle, bull and lion.[11]

The alchemy of fire enables the phoenix to rise again from the ashes, just as it can transform the dragon’s fire to constructive use.

The dragon and the unicorn are opposite emblems of each other — of destruction and creation, wrath and gentleness, fire and earth — and as well, the reverse. The dragon is slain by the heroes of Western myths and fairy tales, and demonized in Christianity as the fire-breathing monster defeated by the archangel Michael. But in Chinese symbolism, the dragon stands for happiness, immortality, procreation, fertility, and activity. The unicorn represents innocence, purity, and beauty, but also lust, ferocity, and viciousness. The unicorn’s horn can be a cruel weapon, though the creature can be tamed by the love of a virgin. The dragon, too, can be subdued by love. The pairing of opposites in the title thus announces the comparative examination of polarities in the poem: community versus collectivity, love versus hate, passion versus lust, sexual communion versus sexual exploitation, and the extreme poles of consciousness (dreaming and waking), and those of reality (being and not being).

The span, range, and registry of The Dragon and the Unicorn are wide, massive, and complex. Rexroth sweeps together abstract statements, tantalizing descriptions of meals, intimate assignations, denunciatory opinions, majestic and miniature descriptions of nature, nearly gratuitous glorification of whores, and harsh satirical exposés of corrupt government and church practices. This mixed registry “establishes a continuum of language and experience within which all the diverse and conflicting material Rexroth introduces are free to contend,” as Gardner notes.[12]

Rexroth considers further and at greater length the question raised in “The Phoenix and the Tortoise” of how it is possible to live, love, and create art in a rent and battered post World War II world. He begins by having a self-interested authority figure, Pontius Pilate, ask “What is love?and wash his hands. To signal the subject of his poem, Rexroth substitutes the word “love” for the “truth” that Pilate requests of the crowd vilifying Christ.[13] “The Dragon” is largely a response to this question. Rexroth examines practical relationships between politics, religion, and sex in the contemporary situation and throughout the history of Western civilization. “It is love and love alone … as it says in the old popular song” that is the wellspring of living community, as he later went on to write in the introduction to The Collected Longer Poems.[14]

Of grave concern to Rexroth is the morbid avoidance of experience by most Americans. He sets his own intense immersion in experience as a counter example and rues the fact that all the rites of passage — birth, “Childhood, puberty, fucking / Parenthood, vocation, growing / Old and dying,” which are “the matter of / The sacraments in more normal / Societies — baptism, / Confirmation, marriage, / Orders, communion, unction —” are treated as “actual serious sickness” instead of “Windows into reality.”[15] He surveys:

… a / Picture of a nation gone
Stark raving mad, in the grip
Of mutually homicidal
Paranoia. So it is
Fitting that its sacrament
Should be the atom bomb
… / The blazing mushroom cloud is
Just such a mystical vision
As one would expect of the
Managers of the Dupont
Industries and their enslaved
Physicists …[16]

The journey begins and ends with Rexroth on his own. Initially, to assuage his loneliness and longing, he partakes in a number of amorous encounters. Their brevity accentuates his yearning for love and introduces the motif that heartbreak and loss define the human condition and that such suffering, experienced or witnessed, can nourish a sense of compassion:

Pain, waste and loss are inherent
In the world of contingency.
Death, sickness, suffering may
Fill us with an agony of

Rexroth is then joined by his American lover at the time, Marthe, whom he represents as his wife in sacred marriage.[18] Even after he is left solitary again as he nears the end of his quest, his reflections are illuminated by the sacrament of love. He ascends from desperate horror at America and the ruined world he sees at large through erotic abandon into sacramental marriage and redemptive enlightenment, as he finds reassuring signs of the persistence of the community of love. Rexroth commences the poem just before Easter, repeating the symbolic temporal setting of “The Phoenix and the Tortoise” and once again aligning himself with Dante’s great spiritual odyssey.

The central tension in “The Dragon” is the deadly struggle between “members of communities” and “members of collectivities” who are ruled by the State and the Capitalist system:

Mankind will sink only deeper
Into mutual murder
As long as collectivity
Robs them of their persons, starves
And dehumanizes them,
Deranges their desires, crazes
Them with insane appetites
Instead of the satisfactions
Of mutual love, provides them
With commodities which turn
To guns in their hands and bullets
In their bowels, and leaves them
Finally perfect, abstract
Integers, anonymous white
X’s in battlefield graveyards.[19]

Rexroth advises: “There are no most men, / As there are no most trees or stars. / Behind the collection stands, / One by one, a person.”[20] With Kant, Rexroth sees that “The moral atom of this world, / The irreducible minimum” is each particular person. Each person is to be regarded and treated as an end, and never used as a means. Mutual love is the principle that enables community, which grows in love, a process that Rexroth terms “extrapersonalization” and suggests is the antidote to the State’s depersonalization. Its immediate ends are freedom and peace. Community begins with lovers:

The person is transcended
By the reflexion of himself
In the other in love, the
Unique is universalized
In the dual, any important
Crux of reality is
On the emergence of
A person into a love
Perspective, experience
Has no other real content.”[21]

As Rexroth would tell Cyrena N. Pondrom in a 1969 interview for Contemporary Literature: “The personalization of reality … is its terms, that is, its poles. Reality flows between the two poles of personalization, and the fulfillment of reality is, so to speak, saturation with this charge.”[22]

Love, then, is the root of all human community. At the deepest level of understanding, reality is not “an Absolute / And its aspects, or a Creator / And his contingent creatures.” Rather, it is a community of lovers in which

Person’s experience grows
From an insignificant
Indivisible atom to
An infinite universe.[23]

Sexual love fuses the fundamental polarity between self and other, and therefore represents the wholeness of vision that comes with contemplation, which “Is the satisfaction of fulfilled / Love relationships, union with / The beloved object.”[24] The contemplative perspective conjoins the dual “rays / Called Artemis and Apollo, Helios, Luna, Sun and Moon.”[25]

The Dragon and the Unicorn concludes with the transcendent perspective arising precisely from contending in the natural and human realms of existence, moving between the negative pole of grasping appetite and the positive pole of unselfish love, agape. The frail, flawed nature of being is the very origin and completion of its sacred dimension, just as “The Phoenix” depicts the way to light originating in the experience of darkness.

The reciprocal dynamic of love and contemplation encapsulates the interdependent reflexive nature of the cosmos:

It is the dark of the moon.
… / …
… Coming up the road
Through the black oak shadows, I
See ahead of me, glinting
Everywhere from the dusty
Gravel, tiny points of cold
Blue light, like the sparkle of
Iron snow. I suspect what it is,
And kneel to see. Under each
Pebble and oak leaf is a
Spider, her eyes shining at
Me with my reflected light
Across immeasurable distance.[26]

With ease, as if by chance, Rexroth comes upon the visionary image of the Jewel Net of Indra and intuits the significance of its infinite web of relationship.

The Dragon and the Unicorn, as James Laughlin summarizes in his introduction to excerpts in New Directions XIII (1951) is Rexroth’s eloquent response to the “world mess … On the surface level it is the travel diary of a European tour; … On the deeper level it is the great journey that the major poets attempt into the wilderness of life’s meaning.”[27] Richard Eberhart likewise observes in his laudatory review that Rexroth takes “a voyage of the spirit.”[28]

The Dragon and the Unicorn also drew rapturous praise from other poets. Charles Olson was so knocked over that he immediately wrote to Rexroth in June 1951 about the nourishing “pleasure” of reading it, extolling his accomplishment: “yr form unrolls like the Eastern scroll that it is … you are … contemplative …. crazy, how you manage it, the metric…. I am full of thanks …. This is the most interesting poem I have put inside me in a very long time.”[29] Olson also commented to Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan: “That long poem of his, The Dragon and the Unicorn, that’s really something! He gets the whole thing down there.”[30

Robert Duncan, whose mysticism and reverence for D. H. Lawrence, matched Rexroth’s, regarded The Dragon and the Unicorn with exalted admiration. Duncan commended its seamless artistry to Denise Levertov: “Changes wedded to the change in address, from the travel diary to the metaphysics that at first I was not aware how subtly it had been wrought — I was taking it for granted.”[31] He also shared with “Denny” his enchantment with Rexroth’s reference to Zoroaster’s remark about poetry making apparent the unapparent, exclaiming: “how thoroughly I adore Kenneth.” He especially approved of Rexroth’s conjuring of mystical enlightenment as “The sleep which fell on Adam / Was the deep lassitude / Of divine contemplation.”[32]

Duncan went on to tell Rexroth directly about his deep appreciation of his poetry. In 1953, he wrote about his having been dazzled by The Signature of All Things, Beyond the Mountains, and The Dragon and the Unicorn:

You take a microscope to any area and find it beautifully measured but the urgency of the statement, or the presence of a world is such that the achievement of the art is only a way. There is no abstracted response to these poems, but unless the feeling of the universe be aroused the achievement of the line, the measure, is wedded to it. [33

He mused further on “The Dragon:”

The integration … thru the poem — of anger, of tendresse, of worldly wisdoms and of personality — … I came to you in the dreams of a kinship with the good, a love as a way, of which so much of the poem rises, that informs visions of the natural world. … This is a letter to you, an old friend because my soul has come to a door which is guarded by your spirit. And to tell you that your spirit was, in the dream, tender and good, that it was you indeed and to tell you that I am engaged with your work.[34]

Such was the intensity of Robert’s regard for Kenneth that sooner or later it was bound to fizzle out. This nearly worshipful attitude, combined with the fact of their similarly passionate demeanor — talkers commanding the spotlight — portended an eventual dramatic break. But for now, their intellectual fraternity was deeply grounded and intact.

Rexroth was to persist in the anti–New Critics stance that the “Dragon” demonstrates vividly and at length. Nearly a decade after its publication in 1952, in “The New American Poetry,” published in the New York Times Book Review (February 12, 1961), he denounces the “powerful Reactionary Generation” and the punitive affect of

a willful provincialism, a deliberate cutting off of American verse from the main stream of world poetry of the twentieth century. Sidney Lanier was far more important to the Southern Agrarians than was Goethe … let alone Baudelaire or Apollinaire.[35]

The main thrust of “The New American Poetry” is to declare that the New Critics’ reign is over and to point out the ascendancy of a tradition derived from Lawrence and William Carlos Williams. Their internationalism and visionary mode were inspiring Creeley, Duncan, Everson, Levertov, Lamantia, Olson, among others. Duncan agreed with Rexroth that Lawrence’s darkly erotic mysticism and Williams’s poetic epiphanies formed a crucial basis for contemporary American poetry. And this “line of affinities … comes together in Yeats,” as Rexroth was to repeat over the years.[36] Rexroth was instrumental in this development, though he gives himself no explicit credit in the essay, likely either out of modesty or to avoid stating the obvious. But how he describes this poetics is clearly reflective of his own:

The young poets who have come into notice since the Second World War have certain common characteristics, and they are certainly wholesome ones. Primary is an emphasis on direct, personal communication. All of them have something to say and are anxious to have other people pay attention. In some this has taken the form of poetry of explicit social protest.[37]

In stressing the poets’ independence, Rexroth was also asserting the importance of the West Coast creative community:

One of the most interesting things about these young postwar poets is their decentralization (it has never been noticed that this is also true of the contemporary novelists). They grew up not only in independence of the capital — the literary marketplace — but far away from it and in deliberate antagonism to it.[38]

Essential is this protective isolation from the commercial publishing houses that had already kidnapped the Beats, using the social phenomenon for profit in tourism and advertising.

Instead of mentioning his own considerable influence, Rexroth hands the mantle of leadership over to Olson and to Duncan. He credits Olson for exerting

great influence on the entire group as a teacher and theorist. Like Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley, in fact like all these people, he owes a great deal to William Carlos Williams. He owes even more to Ezra Pound’s Cantos. For several years he has been writing a long spiritual epic, a tighter, drier, less gaudy descendant of the Cantos — the Maximus Poems. This work is in the same tradition as the “interior epics,” actually philosophical reveries, of the Twenties — Zukofsky’s A or Lowenfels’s Some Deaths. Olson lacks the passion and trouble and concern of his predecessors and he lacks the intensity of Creeley and Levertov. No one could quarrel with his scope. His canvas is as broad as Pound’s, but his material makes more sense in terms of actual life. I suppose the best comparison is William Carlos Williams’s own “epic,” Paterson. Olson’s shorter poems have a ruminative complexity a little like the later long poems of Wallace Stevens.[39]

Rexroth then turns to Duncan, examining his:

special quality of temper which he shares with Edmund Wilson or Pandit Nehru, he is a Good European. Although Duncan has been singularly open to all the influences of all times and places, and has learned from all the Old Masters of Modernism, from Reubén Darío to Yves Bonnefoy, his distinguishing characteristic is not the breadth of his influences, but the depth and humanness of his heart. Now that he is approaching early middle age he has begun to take on something of the forgotten grandeur of the great nineteenth-century “men of the world” of letters — Monckton Milnes or Walter Bagehot. I can think of no other poet of my time of which anything like this could be said — with most, the very idea is ridiculous. As mentor and example, Duncan’s influence on the younger men of the new New Poetry has been incalculable.[40]

At the close of the article, Rexroth all but acknowledges his leadership, as would be apparent to anyone who had a clue about the contemporary literary scene and recent cultural history:

Someone once said of one of the older leaders of this new renaissance that he made poetry a social force in San Francisco. This is about as complimentary a remark as could be made about a poet. Whatever else they have done, our young poets have returned poetry to society. Today in America, more than anywhere else in the world, large numbers of people find poetry interesting. It says something to them, something meaningful in their dilemmas and exultations. This is no small accomplishment.[41]

This was a characteristically generous stroke, for he emphasizes the result, not his part in it.

Many years later, in 1985, Duncan gave an interview for Sagetrieb, a literary magazine dedicated to the poetics of Pound and Williams and their successors. He returns the credit to Rexroth, noting their mutual attraction to the numinous, mystical quality of Williams’s poetry and that they discerned what some readers missed: “the crucial experience in art is coming upon something.”[42] Duncan then outlines Williams’s approach – “everything appears as an epiphany to him” — indicating that this was equally his approach and Rexroth’s.[43] Finally, Duncan goes on to say that “Rexroth would have been a root” for himself and for many third-generation American modernist poets even if “Rexroth gets isolated out as a loner.”[44]

Drawn from excerpts of
A Rage to Order: Kenneth Rexroth, chapter 7, “Through the Crystal Deep”; chapter 8, “‘The Holiness of the Real’: Visionary Poetry”; chapter 9, “Sparks in the Tinder of Knowing”; and chapter 14, “Upbeat But Out of Joint.”



1. Strictly speaking, the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” predates WWII; it was written in 1935. But its mood of foreboding, introduced through the motifs of the fall from the Garden of Eden and that “humankind cannot bear too much reality,” offers a fitting introduction to the three wartime quartets: “East Coker” (1940), “Dry Salvages” (1941), and “Little Gidding” (1942).

2. Kenneth Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 63; CP: 395.

3. Ezra Pound, “Canto LXXXI,” in The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1981), 522.

4. The Greek means “I weep therefore I am.”

5. Pound, “Canto LXXXI,” 527.

6. Eliot, Four Quartets, 1959, reprinted 1970, 13.

7. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 3, 11; CP: 334–35.

8. Geoffrey Gardner, “The Cast Snakeskin and the Uncut Stone” (unpublished essay), 22.

9. Ibid., 3. My discussion of The Dragon and the Unicorn throughout is indebted to this essay.

10. UCLA: KR: 175/2/1 of 2 notes for Orestia and D & U: “notes 1948, mostly for Orestia” but also travel journal, holograph notes for the 1949 trip.

11. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 56; CP: 387.

12. Gardner, “The Cast Snakeskin and the Uncut Stone,” 2.

13. Pilate was the Roman governor who ordered the crucifixion of Christ (John 18:38).

14. Rexroth, introduction to The Collected Longer Poems, ix.

15. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 96; CP: 434–35.

16. Ibid., 97; CP: 435.

17. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 114; CP: 456.

18. In part 2, the narrative suddenly shifts into the plural “we,” with Marthe simply coming into the picture without any fanfare. The first indication she has joined Rexroth is everyone exclaiming at “a peasant auberge” over the “velos” (bicycles) that he and Marthe have ridden from Paris: “De Paris à Italie? / Incroyable! Formidable!” Then, Rexroth refers to “We weep … / … We shake / Hands … / We camp on the Loire” (The Dragon and the Unicorn, 32; CP: 358).

19. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 126–27; CP: 469.

20. Ibid., 140; CP: 488.

21. Ibid., 47.

22. Interview conducted by Cyrena N. Pondrom, Contemporary Literature 10, no. 3 (Summer 1969): 329–30.

23. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 74; CP: 407.

24. Ibid., 165; CP: 515.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., 171; CP: 522.

27. James Laughlin, “Editor’s Notes,” in New Directions XIII, ed. James Laughlin (Parsippany, NJ: New Directions, 1951), 9.

28. Richard Eberhart, “A Voyage of the Spirit,” New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1953, 215.

29. UCLA Rexroth Collection: 175/1/12: Charles Olson: CO to KR, June 4, 1951.

30. Charles Olson cited in Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan, “Kenneth Rexroth 1905–1982,” Third Rail 8, ed. John Solt and Uri Hertz (1987): 10.

31. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, ed. Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004): Letter 15, August 24, 1955, RD to DL, 25.

32. Ibid.

33. UCLA Rexroth Collection: 175/1/3: Robert Duncan: RD to KR, July 22, 1953. 

34. UCLA Rexroth Collection: 175/1/3: Robert Duncan: RD to KR, August 30, 1955.

35. “The New American Poetry,” New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1961.

36. Michael Andre Bernstein and Burton Hatlen, “Interview with Robert Duncan,” Sagetrieb 4, nos. 2–3 (Fall/Winter 1985): 109.

37. “The New American Poetry.”

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. Bernstein and Hatlen, “Interview with Robert Duncan,” 93.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid., 124.