by Donald Davie
Viking (Modern Masters Series), 111 pp., $2.50 (paper)
It is still hard for us to judge Ezra Pound’s achievement as a poet. His example has influenced so many successors, he has written so much about the arts and society, that we have trouble fixing our attention on the poems alone. Donald Davie, in a new book on Pound, tries to make the poetry his paramount business. I suppose that is why he hews to the common line of respecting his subject’s privacy, and puts careful limits on the use of biographical data.
Those who admire Pound most fiercely write as if his personal history would contribute little to any judgment of his work. But I am not sure a critic’s job calls for such discretion. Certainly Pound’s choice of themes is illuminated by some features of his private life, especially his waywardness as a husband.
For example, one might ask why Pound, in his late sixties, decided to translate the Trachiniae of Sophocles. This is an ill-designed, unpleasant tragedy, much disliked by critics. But it became Pound’s favorite among ancient Greek plays.
In the story, Hercules, who has been away for fifteen months, sends home a girl he has seduced, and expects his wife to let her share their bed. The wife, Deianira, feels bitterly shaken but bows to the hero’s fiat and says (only in Pound’s translation), “Let’s figure out how we are to manage this cohabitation.” She then tries to regain the love of Hercules by sending him a robe anointed with a philter.
But Deianira had been misinformed. The philter turns out to be a fiery poison; and when Hercules wears the robe, it clings to him, burning him with insufferable pains until he arranges to be destroyed on a flaming pyre. Meanwhile, Deianira, discovering what she has blindly done, kills herself.
I suspect that Pound favored the play because it reminded him of the occasion when he asked his own wife to share a home with his mistress. During the Second World War, Dorothy Pound and the poet were living in an apartment on the seafront in Rapallo. The Germans took over the building, and the Pounds moved inland to Sant’ Ambrogio and the small house where Olga Rudge, the mistress, was established.
One reason I make the connection is a passage in Pound’s Pisan Cantos, halfway through Canto 81. The poet here breaks forth into the cry of “AOI.” His daughter has said that the cry is an outburst more personal than any other in the Cantos, expressing the strain of “almost two years when he was pent up with two women who loved him, whom he loved, and who coldly hated each other.”
That period ended when Pound was arrested by partisans and eventually flown to Washington, to be tried for treason. After half a year, Dorothy Pound managed to join him there. She visited her husband almost daily for twelve years, while he was kept in St. Elizabeths, a federal hospital for …
Aoi! September 30, 1976