The history of literature is punctuated by differences of opinion sometimes too strong to be regarded as mere literary quarrels. The most important and probably the most painful American example was the row over the award, in February 1949, of the first Bollingen Poetry Prize to Ezra Pound for his book The Pisan Cantos, a work that expressed certain opinions almost universally execrated in the United States and elsewhere. The jury explained that in honoring Pound they had foreseen, but found reasons to discount, objections to their choice, arguing that
to permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which civilized society must rest.
The disputes that followed turned on Pound’s dissent from American politics and culture from his youth to old age.
The story of Pound’s wartime activities, and especially his broadcasts from Italy of anti-American and pro-Fascist propaganda, was already well known to the public. Four years earlier he had been taken from a prison camp near Pisa and sent back to the US, where he was indicted for treason. He was now to be tried on a capital charge, and at virtually the same moment was hailed by a team of eminent writers appointed by the Library of Congress as a major American poet.
When four psychoanalysts, reporting that their patient was “abnormally grandiose, expansive and exuberant in manner,” declared him to be insane and unfit to plead, he was removed from jail and admitted into St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, certified as both mad and great. In 1958 the charges against him were dropped and, released into the custody of his wife, he returned to Italy, where he died in 1972.
The Question of the Pound Award continued to disturb the critics. Some accepted the jurors’ claim that the award represented a just perception of objective value. Others were more troubled, especially by Pound’s obsessive anti-Semitism. Partisan Review ran a piece by one of its editors, William Barrett, who approved of the award, though he did wish the jurors had expressly named their objections to some parts of the winning book. Barrett professed to believe that its poetic merit was such that the reader could be led to overlook the vicious and ugly emotions it expressed. Among the comments his piece evoked, W.H. Auden argued that the book should win the prize but not be published; Robert Gorham Davis could not allow the merit of the verse to be considered as separate from the ideas all objected to; Irving Howe thought Pound the crank was only rarely Pound the poet. George Orwell, who admitted he thought Pound “an entirely spurious writer,” nevertheless said he should have the prize, but complained that the judges should have made it clear they thought Pound’s opinions evil. Allen Tate took the obviously erroneous view that the judges, including himself, were being accused by Barrett of anti-Semitism, and since that charge dishonored him he demanded satisfaction, affirming that courage and honor were not subjects of literary controversy but occasions for action. Barrett understandably found this claim “astonishing” and declined to fight.
Karl Shapiro called the controversy “the pons asinorum of modern criticism,” the pons asinorum being a geometrical proposition of Euclid believed to cause special difficulties to the stupid or the inexperienced. The problem was complicated by the fact that Pound claimed his opinions were wholly patriotic, as echt American as Tate’s honor code. His politics were Jeffersonian, his economics a virtuous assault on usury. He would have thought it an absurdity to try to separate his poetry from his beliefs. Irving Howe remarked that there is nothing very beautiful in “the yidd is a stimulant” (Canto 81), whatever might be said about the famous exhortation “pull down thy vanity” (Canto 74), though both expressions occur in The Pisan Cantos.
Squaring these observations really is to venture onto a bridge of fools. And Pound did not hold opinions quietly. Though many found them disgusting and treasonable he offered them freely as invitations to virtuous conduct. The Saturday Review, having identified a conspiracy against the United States involving not only Pound but also T.S. Eliot and Carl Jung, prophesied that the Bollingen award would set off a revolution and promote a malignant authoritarianism. It is true that Pound had always talked a lot about revolutions, and America’s need of one. It may be an indication of the latent seriousness of the whole quarrel that it came up again twenty-three years later, in 1972, when the American Academy of Arts and Sciences rejected a subcommittee’s recommendation that its Emerson- Thoreau Award should go to Pound. The controversy flared up again; the issue was still very much alive.
In a sense it has remained so. Modernism has always been accused of reflecting authoritarian opinion, and its practitioners have habitually lamented the decay of traditional virtues in the culture at large. Pound’s career, his thirst for revolution and for nationalist epic all sprang from his desire to remake American culture in his own unacceptable image. Pound was a fervent if idiosyncratic American patriot, which made matters worse and kept him at odds with more conventionally patriotic countrymen.
A. David Moody’s book, the first volume of a new two-volume biography, relates Pound’s early discontent with the national culture and the education it provided, which seemed unlikely to produce the “American epic” (“the speech of a nation through the mouth of one man”) or the American risorgimento he so longed to see. In his early twenties, convinced he must work elsewhere, he departed for Europe and England. Moody carefully charts the course of Pound’s early life, applying himself with the same patience to his writings. Among other things, what he tells us makes it possible to see the brilliant, opinionated, rebellious exhibitionist of these early years as a prefiguration of the tough old prisoner in the Pisan camp and the celebrated sage of St. Elizabeth’s.
This is a long, slow book, but as the detail accumulates one’s respect for it deepens. Moody has hitherto been best known for Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet (1979, 1994), which has lasted better than most works on the subject. Obviously the impulse that caused him to take on this huge job has not faded during the writing; he is on occasion amused or moved, is nowhere more censorious or extravagantly laudatory than he needs to be, and is assiduous in his record of his multitudinous sources.
Pound deplored his midwestern origins but they don’t, on this telling, seem particularly oppressive. He had a grandfather who was a congressman, a father who was an official of the Philadelphia Mint, and an aunt who twice took him on a European tour, first when he was not quite thirteen, and again when he was seventeen. Though he tended to get into trouble as an undergraduate, he was exceptionally lucky to meet, during his stay at the University of Pennsylvania, two other poets of rare promise, Hilda Doolittle and William Carlos Williams.
Doolittle was to achieve authentic poetic celebrity as H.D., and was for a time unofficially engaged to Pound. He valued her as a muse and as a poet (his remarkable eye for talent was already working). One way or another they stayed in touch, and H.D. wrote an interesting memoir, End to Torment, not published till 1979, when it appeared together with an unpublished batch of poems by Pound called “Hilda’s Book.” Written when he was twenty or so, they were later justly disowned by their author, but he never disowned H.D. William Carlos Williams was at Penn training as a doctor and writing poems very unlike Pound’s. He was to achieve fame by developing his own version of an American poetic revolution, but he and Pound maintained through life an affectionately exasperated friendship.
Despite his grumbling, Penn had so far served Pound well. He claimed to have learned more or less of nine foreign languages—I suppose he was counting French, Old French, Italian, Spanish, Provençal, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, perhaps, but not including German, which he dismissed as difficult and stupid. Experts in those languages have more than once found Pound’s knowledge of them less than perfect, and Pound might well have agreed with them, though he would not have agreed with scholars who took awkwardness with Greek accents to be proof of ignorance in a poet.
Until Chinese became important to him Pound’s linguistic and poetic interests followed what he regarded as the track of civilization, from Homer via Ovid and Propertius to Dante and the troubadours of Provence, finally reaching some nineteenth-century French writers, especially Théophile Gautier, Gustave Flaubert, and a much-admired contemporary thinker, Remy de Gourmont. We may think of him as a highly original poet, but Pound was happily susceptible to a wide variety of influences—it was part of his originality that they were so diverse and so powerful. His youthful love of Browning he found hard to shake off; and Whitman, with his earlier attempts at American epic, was a precursor, an enemy with whom he eventually agreed to make a pact. Henry James, admired for the exactness of his perceptions, was another American master who left a strong impression on Pound and his work.
Despite his deep interest in languages Pound detested philology, the academic study of language and literature. Philology was all he was offered at college and university, and he saw it as an odious impediment to his serious studies of poetry and the arts. This theme is recurrent in his writing. His instructors at Penn were philologists, some distinguished in their fields. He did not scruple to tell them their work was of no interest to him. It was probably to the benefit of all concerned that he lost his fellowship and parted company with the academic world.
Scholars committed to the Germanic ideal of scholarship, he wrote in 1906,
are no longer able as of old to fill themselves with the beauty of the classics…; nor are they able to make students see clearly whereof classic beauty consists.
His cold war with the scholars would grow very warm years later when he published his long poem Homage to Sextus Propertius, of which more later. Pound knew a lot, and what he knew was important to him. He was well aware that he was not in any academic sense a well-equipped scholar; yet his kind of knowledge was much more valuable to him than any philological discovery made by orthodox scholars of the type ridiculed by his friend Yeats:
Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.