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 the mentally ill. She took care of his financial affairs, looked after his various wants, and listened to him. When he was released in 1958, the couple returned to Italy. But about three years later, Pound settled down with Olga Rudge. I leave it to specialists to decide how his relations with the two devoted women influenced his treatment of Penelope and Circe in the Cantos.
The emotional distance the poet had traveled by the time of the cohabitation may be measured from the moods of some early, verse tributes to the woman he was to marry. She was then Dorothy Shakespear, a designer in watercolors. Almost Pound’s age, she was the daughter of a London solicitor and his novelist wife. The poet had known her about three years, and had dedicated a book to Dorothy and Mrs. Shakespear.
One of the poems is entitled (in Greek letters) “Doria,” and associates the girl with the stern integrity of Doric art expressed as landscape:
Be in me as the eternal moods of the bleak wind, and not As transient things are—gaiety of flowers.
“Doria” is the first of half a dozen poems that Pound finally grouped together, all dealing with the excitement of love, and relating the beloved to the changing aspects of landscape, light, wind, and sea; we hear the carpe diem theme, and the poet’s wish to carry the girl out of their present surroundings. The varieties of style, mood, and point of view suggest the energy derived from passion.
When I suggest, in this way, that Pound’s published writings bear witness to his most private feelings, I risk the complaints of several devoted critics. When they clarify Pound’s numberless obscurities, they rely on his allusions to books, places, and history, to works of art and eminent men; they bring in Pound’s own anecdotes about his own career; yet they avoid referring to his intimate emotions. How many critics have discussed the gorgeous eroticism of the color modulations in “Phanopoeia”?
In fact, a good deal of what looks like appreciative criticism of Pound could better be described as exhaustive source hunting. Hugh Kenner’s long essay on a four-word poem by Pound is a miracle of resurrection in which the value of the trifle under scrutiny is never questioned. We are presumed to agree with such an apologist that the poem directs us to the abundant materials he lays out, and is therefore genuinely enriched by them. A friendly critic of Pound naturally makes the assumption because he knows that most of the poet’s work is admirably derivative and, in the best sense, imitative. Pound cannibalized other authors as if he were under a divine command to speak only in echoes.
Yet the finished poems often do not call our attention to their sources at all. And if they do, the allusions are often too cryptic to be identified without external aid. Even when they can be so identified, they often take us not to an accessible passage of an accessible work but to a particular text or document that has caught Pound’s attention. The text itself is often no help unless one has learned the particular interpretation of it that Pound favors.
Therefore, the docile reader who would like to steer away from Pound’s personality finds himself turned back, against his will, in that very direction. If the poet selects a passage from a letter that his schoolgirl daughter once wrote to him, if he then works it into a Canto, and if he frames it in such a way that the implications can hardly be grasped unless one realizes the nature of the source, he does not make it easy for the reader to ignore Pound’s domestic life. “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is focused so exclusively on the special situation of Pound himself after the First World War that it becomes at points versified autobiography; yet most of it does not repay careful study.
So it seems fair enough for one to ponder the fact that a vast number of Pound’s excellent lyrics deal with the experience of sexual passion, which the poet opposes to conventional morality. We know Pound was drawn to women who were artists or musicians; we know he came to believe that sexual potency was a mark of the creative or ordering imagination. In a number of poems he offered what sounds like the usual sneer of literary Bohemianism against normal domestic relations: “Oh how hideous it is / To see three generations of one house gathered together! / It is like an old tree with shoots, / And with some branches rotted and falling.”
Surely it is worth observing that although such derision is in a sense commonplace, Pound did live by his principles. When Olga Rudge (a violinist) bore him a daughter, he placed the child with a peasant couple who brought the girl up. A year later, when Dorothy Pound gave birth to a son, the child remained with the parents for a short time but was then deposited with the grandmother, who reared him in England. I think that Pound’s whole theory of culture, which sets artists and statesmen apart from the mass of people, is in part a defense of his habit of life.
What makes the amorous themes attractive in the poems themselves is not of course that they give one entree into Pound’s private history. Rather it is that he endowed them with suggestive power—as he did above all in the years between 1912 and 1919. This was the time when he courted and married Dorothy Shakespear (whom he had met in 1909). It was when he lived through the First World War and faced its disillusioning aftermath.
Before this era, the poet was mainly preoccupied with states of attentive rapture or yearning, evoked by sexual passion, the contemplation of landscape, or the enjoyment of works of art. He tried to convey and sustain the states by the use of languorous rhythms, exotic settings, precious language, and solemn tones.
Because a spiritual condition was what the poet longed for, he could regard the various means of reaching it as equivalent to one another. So he could describe poetry as sculpture, women as landscapes, and cities as women: “And svelte Verona first I met at eve / And in the dark we kissed” (“Guillaume de Lorris”).
This sort of correspondence, so pervasive in the Symbolist tradition, is the reason the process of metamorphosis became an important theme in Pound’s poems. The act of amorous or imaginative vision, as he conceived it, transformed the poet into something more or less than human. Sexual passion (as in “Piere Vidal Old”) could make a wolf out of a man; it changed Daphne into a tree (“A Girl”).
Pound generalized the notion and connected all suffering of intense, ideal emotion with transformation. He implied that a good social order would nurture such experiences of love, nature, and art; it would reward creative geniuses for evoking them (“And Thus in Nineveh”). With these values in mind, a poet could raise love songs into celebrations of aesthetic qualities. A woman might become the visible focus of a whole civilization—a divinity integrating a social order; or she might be a bundle of miscellaneities, like a society in decline (“Portrait d’une Femme“).
Nearly all of Pound’s poetry derives from that of other writers, whether through translation, imitation, allusion, or pastiche. The result, as with Dryden, is paradoxically fresh and original. But in much of his early work Pound affected archaism, as if to signalize his derivative methods and warn us that they were intentional. Implicitly, he lent authority to his aesthetic principles by locating them in the work of poets he admired. So he regularly masked himself and spoke in their person, through monologues supposed to re-create their personalities.
The doctrine that justifies such poetry is one which Pound shared (among others) with Wallace Stevens. It tells us that the definitive property of human nature is not rational morality (as Locke had taught) or emotional morality (as Rousseau had taught), but the creative imagination; and that this in turn is deeply related to the passion of love and to empathy with things loved. Art records and re-creates the process by which the artist blends with what he loves: “And yet my soul sings ‘Up!’ and we are one” (“In Durance”).