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 Among the comments his piece evoked, W.H. Auden argued that the book should win the prize but not be published; Robert Gorham Davis could not allow the merit of the verse to be considered as separate from the ideas all objected to; Irving Howe thought Pound the crank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.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?
Knowledge of Pound’s sort was not passive, as he took that of the scholars to be. It called for energy and nerve and the extravagance he admired in the troubadours and their cult of love. He did not leave the Italian poetry of Cavalcanti—which he loved for its philosophical and sensual play on light and love—to professional Italianists but made his own edition, which won a respectful notice from the great French medievalist Étienne Gilson. He absorbed Ernest Fenollosa’s treatise The Chinese Written Character, translated Confucius, undertook, as a novice art historian, an important study of the work of his dead friend the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; and in many other ways he acted in a manner well suited to the role of an adequately learned poet and a generous one, who understood art and the fellowship of artists who understood beauty.
Pound grew impatient with his country and anxious to transport himself to a new scene, in which his peculiar complex of interests might find an intelligent response. As a young man he had taken beauty to be his religion, but he believed it could not be practiced in the America of the day. For the “religion of beauty” he would have to go to London, where it had recently been much talked of. He did so, reaching London, via Italy, in 1908.
Pound’s London career was brilliant. He was twenty-three, unknown, and with one material possession, his first book, A Lume Spento, which he had had printed in Venice. He had almost no money and lived, at first, on £1 a week, using the comfortable Reading Room of the British Museum as his study. London was not quite as he had expected—the religion of beauty was slipping out of fashion—but he was quick to learn. He used his book as a way of reaching important literary figures of the day—Sir Henry Newbolt, journalist and patriotic poet; Edward Dowden, author of a famous book on Shakespeare; the minor poet and artist Sturge Moore, friend of Yeats. He challenged another minor poet, Lascelles Abercrombie, to a duel, his reason being that “stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace.” Abercrombie, claiming the right to choice of weapons, proposed that they “pelt each other with unsold copies of their books.”
He sent copies of A Lume Spento to such people, and obtained favorable reviews of the book by writing them himself. One of his stated ambitions was to meet W.B. Yeats, whom he regarded as the greatest poet of the day. This he achieved with remarkable speed, and his long friendship with the Irish poet was fruitful on both professional and personal levels. The time he spent later with Yeats in the country at Stone Cottage, a winter retreat in Sussex where each worked on his own and on the other’s poetry, offers an unusual instance of a little-known young poet decisively affecting the style of an illustrious senior; for Pound was determined to bring Yeats down to a style of common speech, while prosecuting his own campaign against the English iambic pentameter. Yeats is teased in the Cantos, but both poets benefited from Pound’s determination to teach and learn.
Pound had somehow got to know Mrs. Olivia Shakespear and her daughter Dorothy, “quite the nicest people in London.” Yeats had, long before, been Mrs. Shakespear’s lover, and they were still good friends, she being, according to Yeats himself, “the centre of his life in London.” She was first cousin to Lionel Johnson, an important 1890s poet and a member, along with Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde, of Yeats’s “Tragic Generation.” When Yeats was turned down by Iseult Gonne, daughter of his great love Maud, he proposed to Olivia’s stepniece George Hyde-Lees, a close friend of Dorothy’s. They were married in 1917. Pound was by now married to Dorothy Shakespear after a cool courtship and a long struggle with her family, who rightly believed the charming Ezra unable to support her. He probably had an affair with Iseult, and he served as best man at Yeats’s wedding.
It had not taken Pound long to get close to the heart of London’s literary society. He might not have expected to discover that nearly all these people were, like Yeats, involved in various sorts of occultism, which didn’t directly interest him. Poetry was what interested him. He pushed Yeats in the direction he had already wanted to follow. “I have spent the whole of my life trying to get rid of rhetoric,” said Yeats—and Pound could assist in this effort. His revisions of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which consisted largely in crossing out lines he disliked and which left us the poem now regarded as a central document of modernism, were more drastic and more famous, but his services to Yeats were almost as remarkable.
Pound, who liked sages, had no prejudice against the old. He continued to admire both Yeats and Ford Madox Ford, another senior, another guru who insisted that poetry must be at least as well written as prose, must use only direct, exact language, must abolish rhetoric, as the French poet Paul Verlaine had advised.
However, he also needed the company of younger artists, who could share his ideas about art and poetry more fully than Yeats, and share his taste for manifestos. By luck and skill he found it, and established himself in the center of a remarkable group. The names of its members are remembered for their own sakes: T.E. Hulme, Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. H.D. and her husband Richard Aldington were also “Imagists.” Pound was the chief Imagist and the manifesto writer of the movement. He demanded economy of language and directness of presentation. He defined the image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” so providing “that sudden sense of liberation…which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.”
He now had easy access to various magazines and edited an anthology of Imagist poems. The Imagist poem now best remembered is Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
But Imagism soon mutated from this haiku-like pregnant simplicity into a more ambitious movement, Vorticism. The image was now described by Pound as “a radiant node or cluster; it is…a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.” He was here probably thinking ahead to the manifold complexities of his epic, the great encyclopedic Cantos, but he already enjoyed the idea of building up a dynamic image from disparate parts—a reason why he was so fascinated by Chinese ideograms. Also he liked poems that were spare and secret. Meanings can be hidden, a few lines can contain richness of reference, as, for example, in “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance,” a poem from his Cathay (1915). It is a translation of a poem by “Rihaku” (the Japanese name for the Chinese poet Li Po):
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.
It might be thought a charming trifle, with its background of courtly allusiveness and prized reticence, and it is admittedly only a small puzzle, well short of being a vortex, yet with that hint of the gratuitous and the complex that became more and more essential to Pound’s way of working, the generation of meaning “through the interactive relations of quite separate elements,” Moody’s phrase for the way Chinese characters work.
In these London years Pound found ways of relating his demand for clarity, precision, and energy in verse with a new interest in politics, and here an important influence was Alfred Orage, editor of The New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature, and Art. The two men were far from agreeing about everything, but, “more or less under Orage’s tutelage,” Pound began to care about “the economic causes of industrial strife and of war.” He developed an interest in the economic theory of Major C.H. Douglas, an interest which is reflected in the Cantos. Douglas had views not compatible with American capitalism. More important, he probably enabled Pound to see a connection between his insistence on precision and clarity in language and the health of the body politic. When World War I began Pound attributed German militarism and authoritarianism to German state education and the blight of philology, which in its own way violated both natural rhythm and individual freedom. Later he would pursue his private war against usury, personifying it as an evil force, an enemy of beauty and social order:
With usury has no man a good house
made of stone, no paradise on his church wall
With usury the stone cutter is kept from his stone
the weaver is kept from his loom by usura
Wool does not come into market
the peasant does not eat his own grain
the girl’s needle goes blunt in her hand
The looms are hushed one after another…
There is, he came to believe, a direct link between social and artistic disorder and the practice of usury. Art fails, language forfeits clarity, the individual is deprived of liberty. As the world grew worse, Pound’s denunciations of usury as enemy of peace and civility grew more strident. He agreed with the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius that “an expert, looking at a painting…should be able to demonstrate the degree of the tolerance of usury in the society in which it was painted,” and thought he could do so himself. It is in the context of usury that the early indications of his anti-Semitism have been detected. Certainly the complex of ideas correlating slack poetic technique and impurity of language with political and economic disorder—derived in part from his hatred of “philology”—looked forward to the extreme totalitarianism that was later to bring about his final confrontation with America and the conflict of patriotisms described at the beginning of this review.
By the time he produced his Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919) Pound had written poetry of extraordinary variety, wearing several different masks, personae, as he himself put it. Some poems, like “Sestina: Altaforte,” were already anthology pieces. Others remembered the poetry of Provence and of Cavalcanti and Dante. Chinese lyric and Japanese Noh plays inspired others. Many were love poems of exotic origin. There is a fierce and famous translation of the Anglo-Saxon “Seafarer,” and many delicate epigrams satirizing modern manners. We are past five hundred pages of the Library of America edition before we arrive at Homage to Sextus Propertius and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), the threshold of his major poetry.
That World War I left its deep mark on Pound is evident from the anti-war sections of Mauberley. Gaudier-Brzeska and Hulme were killed in action. Wyndham Lewis published the first issue of his Vorticist journal BLAST just before the war began; if it was ever to lead an aesthetic revolution the onset of the war put a stop to that, and the second issue, in 1915, was the last. Pound continued his quite remarkable efforts to promote the work of his friends and associates, among them Lewis, Eliot, and Joyce. But his discontent with London increased, and he at least sensed that his Propertius and, even more, his Hugh Selwyn Mauberley were ways of saying farewell to England.
Already in these early works, Pound was much given to quoting in his poetry scattered bits of learned language—for example, fragments of Greek and Latin—that we perhaps might have understood if only we had a healthy culture achieved by adherence to his recommendations. Failing that, he had to become the perhaps unwilling beneficiary of an academic philology he claimed to despise. Long before the end of the Cantos was in sight they were being explained and analyzed by scholars as acute as Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie. A poem that makes cryptic allusions to Jefferson’s interest in Gassendi’s Syntagma of Epicurus, or to Martin Van Buren’s opposition to private banking—none of them of obvious relevance—is a poem crying out for learned commentary.
Homage to Sextus Propertius also cries out for commentary. Based on a selection of poems and fragments by the Roman writer (born around 50 BC), it is less a translation than, as Moody describes it,
a thoroughly modern, Vorticist “portrait”; a refraction of the ancient poet through a modern intelligence, or the superimposition of the one upon the other.
The difficulties of translation, language, and allusion that it presents were the subject of J.P. Sullivan’s Ezra Pound and Sextus Propertius, subtitled “A Study in Creative Translation” (1964), which not only explains but also, without undue deference, defends Pound’s practices, though it is censorious when required. The disputes about Pound’s sometimes wanton mistranslations of the Latin may not yet be over, but Poundians have been taught not to bother about these mistakes and teases, “mere word play and phrase-mongering,” as Sullivan calls it.
In his Roman poet Pound discovers parallels between what he now saw as “the infinite and ineffable imbecility of the British Empire” in 1917, that being much the same as Propertius’ relation to the “infinite and ineffable imbecility of the Roman Empire” of his day. Hugh Selwyn Mauberly is equally, in its very different way, a lament, sometimes angry, sometimes sneering. A sequence of short, sculpted poems, it is technically quite unlike the virtuoso style of Propertius, but it demands no less from the reader. The connections between the individual poems, and sometimes the poems considered individually, do not hand over their meanings easily. At the heart of the sequence are two elegies for the dead of 1914–1918, clear and plain verse not explicitly related to other elements in the suite—reminiscences of the 1890s poets (Lionel Johnson among them), and satirical comments on later literary figures such as Arnold Bennett and Max Beerbohm. The sequence splits in two for reasons calling for conjecture, and there is dispute as to when and where it becomes a shadowy autobiography, where “E.P.” stands in relation to “Mauberley.”
These obscurities, no longer as distracting as they once were, cannot now bring the stature of the poem into question. Here is another great modernist work (compare The Waste Land and Ulysses) that needs commentary to survive. Within a very few years it was accepted as a masterpiece, endorsed by critics as different as Eliot and F.R. Leavis, and supported by scholarship like that of John Espey, whose commentary, published in 1955, is still a necessary adjunct.
Moody places himself firmly in the tradition of informed commentary, though even in a book of this length he has to compress it a little. Pound was not of the party that demands a strict separation of poem and poet; he was aware that he was an interesting and important artist, and would not have objected to Moody’s writing what is in effect simultaneously a commentary on the life and the work. Eliot, who took some time to understand Pound, came to see him not only as il miglior fabbro, the greater artist, but also as his indispensable teacher:
a man who directed my interests, at a particular moment, in such a way that marks of that direction are still evident.
To have done that for Eliot, and something similar for Yeats, provides more than adequate justification for Eliot’s dedication and David Moody’s labors.