Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound; drawing by David Levine

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”).

This doctrine works well for short lyrics but not for long poems. Being intuitive, it cannot stand up to the rhetoric of evidence and proof. Neither does it flow naturally into the shape of a narrative. To make an exciting story out of the act of creation is notoriously difficult. Although the theme fascinated writers of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, only those with a genius for characterization and narrative design (especially James and Mann) invented adequate analogues for the aesthetic drama.

But Pound had no truly dramatic powers, and could act no part but his own. Therefore, the masks he wore differed in name and costume but not in voice. It was a voice of protest against the didactic explicitness of popular verse, the voice of a talent neither patient nor methodical enough to work out its own persuasive rhetoric. Instead, Pound tried to embody his ideals not in lucid reasoning but in suggestive images. But in many poems he also set up a vivifying interchange between his archaic or precious language and a flow of plain or coarse speech that invites us to feel at home in the high culture he evokes.

The early poems are overripe with amorous yearning, songlike praise of mysterious beauty, desire for absent paramours. What saves them from flaccidness is either the subtlety of the versification or the force of the images—often both. Most of the verse we know by more conventional poets follows the simple rhythms to be heard in poems like “The Ancient Mariner” or Frost’s “Birches,” with a fairly steady beat every two or three syllables. Victorian poets, from Tennyson to Hardy, complicated the familiar rhythms with wonderful variations and experiments but stayed within a regular frame.

Pound went further. In the pentameter he found new and charming rhythms. In his free verse he joined musicality with expressiveness, keeping the lines songlike but also giving the impression of a real speaker, while rhythm and sound changed according to emotion and sense. With the familiar meters he mixed other measures that might spring up, persist, and die down as the mood or theme altered.

If therefore one reads aloud the best of his poems, one feels elusive regularities starting and fading as one pattern interrupts another, gives way to it, and returns with variations. The several kinds of four-beat lines in “Na Audiart” are an example, as they make a counterpoint with two-beat lines and then let an interplay of five- and three-beat lines take hold until the first pattern finally wins out. The poet alternates the drawn-out quality of lines that “fall” away from the beat (ending with unaccented syllables) and lines that “rise” toward the beat (ending with an accent).

To heighten the subtlety of his musical effects, Pound moved the weight of sound echoes away from the line endings. He tried to make his vowel combinations speak against one another between the ends and the middles of a series of verses. Instead of regular rhyme, he used broken and half-rhymes. He repeated words and refrains unexpectedly and re-echoed the endings of words: “Golden rose the house, in the portal I saw / thee, a marvel, carven in subtle stuff, a / portent” (“Apparuit”). Here are Latin, quantitative rhythms, glutted with languorous effects of sound.

Yet all was not languor. Often he spiced the sweetness with savage or cruel emotions: the violence of the artist or ruler imposing his personality on the world (“Sestina Altaforte”). Pound had always kept his verse sentences to the word order of normal speech. He rejected simple figures like similes as pseudo-poetic, and preserved the clarity of his images by avoiding merely subjective epithets. In the years before the First World War, he set about eliminating the archaisms except for special effects.

Not yet obsessed with doctrine or with epic ambitions, he was uncommitted to the “ideographic” technique that was to corrupt his poetry. When the total style—rhythm, diction, syntax, and effects of sound—was involved with Pound’s peculiarly ironic lyricism, it became his greatest accomplishment.

I suppose the effect of courtship, marriage, and war was to make Pound understand how difficult and fragile his ideal states were, how dependent on circumstance. Besides evoking the rapt experiences of self-transcendence, the poet wrote witty satires on the social order that checked them. In these he centered his imagery on corrupt or inadequate artists and on types of feeble or pathological sexuality, as in the series “Moeurs Contemporaines.” But Pound lacked the moral penetration that gives strength to social satire: the poems sound affected and brittle.

The turning-point in his positive development as a poet came as Pound neared the age of thirty. Then he undertook to infuse the irony of satire into his lyric elevations, like a man smiling at his own ardors; and he marked the shifts in tone with his fresh combinations of rhythms and his balance of precious against coarse language. So it was that Pound created his distinctive glides from tenderness or even ecstasy to amused self-consciousness in the same design. The translations of Heine, a master of these effects, show how skillful Pound could be:

And have you thoroughly kissed my lips? There was no particular haste,
And are you not ready when evening’s come? There’s no particular haste.

You’ve got the whole night before you, Heart’s-all-belovèd-my-own;
In an uninterrupted night one can Get a good deal of kissing done.

The change of pace in the last two lines reveals the hand of the miglior fabbro. In the sustained brilliance of Homage to Sextus Propertius, Pound showed how remarkably inventive he could be with this style. But the synthesis did not endure. He felt he must go beyond the mockery of public affairs and the celebration of private raptures. A world that could tolerate the Marne and Verdun needed a prophet more than a minstrel.

Restless and impatient, unable to manage an argument or to organize a narrative, Pound still hankered to write a verse epic that would accomplish for our time what the Divine Comedy had done for Dante’s. Around 1915 he had begun experimenting with long poems: the theme and variations of “Near Perigord,” the sequences “Moeurs Contemporaines” and “Mauberley.”

They all come unstuck, to a degree that should have warned Pound away from the fifty years’ wilderness of the Cantos. Their best parts, like the best parts of the Cantos, would gain power if they were isolated. Their direction would be clearer. Their impact would not be dissipated. “Medallion,” for instance, has been misinterpreted largely through its place in “Mauberley.”

Even Homage to Sextus Propertius, which rests on the firm underpinnings of a Roman poet’s matter, has little narrative shape. Its swiftly changing dramatic ironies exhilarate us with a centripetal design because Pound employs his brilliant effects of style to explore a fixed situation from a series of surprising viewpoints.

Meanwhile, his old, aesthetic doctrine did not lend itself to unfolding in a long poem. When, therefore, Pound was seduced by Calliope, he tried to elaborate moral and public doctrines that would support an epic structure: theories of society, government, and economics which no way suited his impulsive leaps of imagination.

At the same time, the requirements of the Cantos, as Pound regrettably saw them, dissolved the union of lyric and ironic that he had achieved. He wished his “epic” to act out the process of insight by which (Pound though) men recognize eternal principles or values at work in the flux of existence. The reader was supposed to identify the shapes and meanings, or—in effect—to accomplish the work of synthesis for himself.

So Pound regressed to the simple style of putting slabs of rapt contemplation beside slabs of document, anecdote, or complaint. As guides to interpretation, he used his would-be “ideographic” images (often repeated) and widely spaced echoes of his own, would-be pregnant phrases. The “ideographs” are charged images, gemlike in themselves but also evoking a source that illustrates the poet’s meaning—for example, “the city of Dioce [i.e., Deioces of Media] whose terraces are the colour of the stars.” (Clue: try Herodotus.) It is hard to imagine a random set of associations in one man’s mind that would not fit into the design the poet proposed.

If his social philosophy had been coherent and rational, it might still have made the Cantos viable. But although the poet had visions of love, beauty, and order, although he denounced lust and avarice, yet he established no moral argument that distinguished a megalomaniac from a statesman, or cruelty from justice. The doctrines he bunched together were broad enough to comprehend both Mussolini and John Adams, to feed Pound’s hatred of Jews along with his hatred of war.

The confusion darkening the Cantos may be traced to a confusion between two concepts of culture. One is the old humanistic ideal, sometimes imagined to be aristocratic, but really available to anyone with the mind and the will: this is intellectual and aesthetic culture, comprehending poetry and the other arts, history, and philosophy. A mark of this culture was that (contrary to some snobbish illusions) it could be passed on from Greek to Roman, from slave to noble, from antiquity to Renaissance. It was in fact essentially democratic, being independent of race or class. It united men over the barriers of social institutions.

The new concept of culture is anthropological. In this sense it becomes the system of beliefs, of social and economic institutions, belonging to a particular society. Rooted in place, time, class, and race, it is independent of intellectual powers. It divides people from people.

Not the least misfortune of our time is that the new sense has invaded the old. For many critics now, any aesthetic culture must be rooted in race, nation, and class. For them, the aesthetic culture of the bourgeois must be different from that of the workers; male culture must be different from female, black from white. We are asked to believe that certain kinds of intellectual freedom and humanistic learning are appropriate for some of us but not for others.

Pound immersed himself in this confusion. He decided early that high, aesthetic culture was not for the mass of people, and that the elementary distinction between the few and the many lay in this postulate. Contempt for uneducated men, for conventional family ties, for bourgeois commerce, provided the emotion that made him feel the elite were threatened by the mob:

   I have met with the “Common Man,”
I admit that he usually bores me, He is usually stupid or smug.
[“Redondillas,” 1911]

To this elementary distinction Pound gave faint political overtones when he imagined himself condemned as a traitor (in 1913) for preferring true aesthetic culture to American democracy. Addressing the “flatterers” of this country, he declared, “Say that I am a traitor and a cynic…. You will not lack your reward” (“Reflection and Advice”).

For snobbish Europeans there was nothing odd in the view that democracy was the natural enemy of aesthetic or humanistic culture; and Pound drifted comfortably into the harbor of a pseudo-aristocratic ideology. According to his vague program (as I make it out), the peasants, laborers, and bourgeois could provide a harmonious “culture” (in the anthropological sense) for the nourishment of a high, aesthetic culture, but only so long as they had a strong leader to establish order, enforce justice, stamp out usury, and elevate creative genius. Their lives would then be enriched by the ceremonies of the arts.

This infantile ideology is the reason Pound had to meet Mussolini and persuade himself that the Duce understood and admired the Cantos (in 1933: see Canto 41): he had to believe the ruler possessed wisdom and taste. This too is why he could so indignantly lament the death of Mussolini and his mistress while ignoring the operations of holocaust and terror (“Ben and La Clara…twice crucified”—opening of Pisan Cantos; “poor old Benito”—Canto 80).

It was a short step downward for Pound to make the class and national barrier into a racial barrier, or to confuse an intellectual elite with a racial elite—like those German classicists who lived through the Thirties and Forties believing that the deutsches Volk were by nature best suited to transmit the heritage of humanism to the rest of Europe. There was nothing eccentric about racism, in this country or in Europe, while Pound was young.

Throughout the empire-building processes and nationalist rivalries of the late nineteenth century, racism served as the apology of Europeans seizing the lands of weaker nations. The theoretical polarity between a naturally ruling race and a subject race was taken for granted. In America, meanwhile, the flood of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe frightened many earlier arrivals into declaring that the true American must be derived from “Anglo-Saxon” ancestors.

In this self-serving melange of ignorance and prejudice, the association of Jews with ill-got gains required no apology. One may speculate that a man whose name meant a kind of money, whose grandfather had invested in silver mines, whose father was an assayer of the US Mint, who had grown up during the campaign for “free silver” (“You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”), and who then became an expatriate, might well wish to avoid any brush of Shylock’s garment.

To support his anti-Semitism, Pound could employ both aspects of his ambiguous notion of culture. Categorized as money-grubbers, the Jews were put down as alien to the tradition of art and humanism. So Pound called upon other poets,

   Let us be done with Jews and Jobbery,
Let us spit upon those who fawn on JEWS for their money.
[“Salutation the Third,” 1914]

But if a Jew appeared an integral part of the literary establishment, Pound could accuse him of having no birthright in the culture, and of betraying his own tradition. So in “Mauberley” the poet sneered at Max Beerbohm under the impression that he was a Jew (1919):

The heavy memories of Horeb, Sinai and the forty years,
Showed only when the daylight fell
Level across the face
Of Brennbaum “The Impeccable.”

The final association was with warmongering. Pound convinced himself that Jewish bankers habitually encouraged gentiles to embroil themselves so the Jews might grow rich on the profits of war. Having reached this level singlehandedly, Pound had little to learn from Moscow, Munich, or Rome. But the deterioration that finally showed in his poetry went further.

Take the speeches he made in 1942 and 1943. He could blame the Jews for wishing to destroy Bach’s music, Shakespeare’s poetry, “everything that is conducive to civilization.” He could describe British Jews as indifferent to the bombing of Canterbury: “The destroyed monuments are not monuments to the glory of Judah. They show nothing that the Jew can be proud of…they were built in open defiance of the Jews’ slime.”

He could say that the pogrom was merely “an old style killing of small Jews. That system is no good. Of course, if some man had a stroke of genius, and could start a pogrom up at the top…there might be something to say for it. But on the whole, legal measures are preferable. The sixty Kikes who started the war might be sent to St. Helena as a measure of world prophylaxis, and some hyper-Kikes or non-Jewish Kikes along with them.”

But is the frenzy of those speeches as repellent as the more cryptic utterances floating through the Pisan Cantos?—this, for example, from a passage describing the Jews as planning to dislodge “the blond bastards” by luring them into wars: “the yidd is a stimulant, and the goyim are cattle…and go to saleable slaughter / with the maximum of docility” (Canto 74).

Admirers of Pound have tried to demonstrate the coherence of the Cantos by showing how the motifs of any one section are interwoven with those of other sections. I’m not sure how their case would be affected by the weaving of the anti-Semitic lines into the argument of the whole work. But I would suggest that the mentality behind such passages did not possess high powers of intellectual synthesis.

Donald Davie, in his new book on Pound, takes the Cantos very seriously, and tries to dispose of the ideological difficulties by separating the “opinions” from the “ideas” of the poem. He pleads, I think, that the appalling doctrines on politics and race belong to mere opinion or prejudice, and are not central to the meaning, but that Pound’s ultimate values (justice, beauty, love, order)—not stated but embodied in processes of rapt vision arising from immediate experience—constitute the ideas or real meaning.

I put the analysis in my own words because Davie’s account is troubled and obscure; he may well disagree with the paraphrase. But rather than study his terms and quarrel with his logic, I will make a single, literary comment: that if Pound built his poem as Davie indicates, it is a devastating mark of his failure that the poet’s ear should have been so deaf to the impact his “opinions” would make on an audience.

Davie is excellently equipped to write an authoritative introduction to Pound’s work. He is an accomplished poet and critic, familiar not only with Pound’s writings of every sort but also with the scholarship on them. Though deeply responsive to Pound’s verse, Davie is acutely aware of his limitations as a poet. He holds a sane, balanced view of Pound’s importance in literary history but does not compromise with his evil banalities.

In an earlier book Davie tried to survey the whole of Pound’s output, with very uneven results. The new book is as learned as its precedessor but better defined. Davie fixes on the right topics, concentrating upon the poetry itself and not Pound’s criticism. He carefully roots Pound’s “modernity” in the examples of Victorian forebears and Edwardian contemporaries. He widens an old attack on “Mauberley.” He examines Pound’s diction at length—if not incisively—and provides a subtle analysis of Pound’s metrics. He offers a poet’s generous defense of the Cantos.

Yet with all his talents Davie has not served us well. Though short, the book is neither orderly, lucid, nor concise. Davie writes carelessly and fills out his text with lengths of unnecessary quotation; he digresses into peripheral topics, like the relation between birth control and the arts. His inaccuracies undermine his learning—e.g., he will give innocent readers the impression that Pound himself translated the hundreds of lines of Dante in the Spirit of Romance! Readers who already know a good deal about Pound will find a number of fresh insights in Davie’s book. Others will be disappointed.

This Issue

May 27, 1976