From adolescence to about 1934, Ezra Pound had considerable curiosity about plastic art, parallel to his curiosity about music. His verse, prime reliquary of his genius, is compact with vivid visual imagery:
Autumn moon; hills rise above lakes
Evening is like a curtain of cloud,
a blurr above ripples; and through it
sharp long spikes of the cinnamon
a cold tune amid reeds.
—from Canto XLIX
The aesthetics of lyric Imagism, which he promoted if he did not invent it, laid down rules of precise observations which henceforth were weapons in a long crusade against redundant rhetoric and exhausted models. His writing on painting and sculpture, with side glances at architecture and the camera, has been collected in a valuable volume, companion to one already published of Pound on music. Pound wrote “How to Read”; this present accumulation serves as his “How to Look.” Unfortunately, cost prevents inclusion of illustrations, here sorely missed since much of the criticism applies to objects unfamiliar or forgotten.
He had better formal training in music than in art history. He wrote two operas which have been sung without scorn. He painted few pictures. Ford Madox Ford recalls him fiercely striking “blocks of granite with sledge hammers.” He fenced, played tennis; Hemingway tried to teach him to box. His involvement in such practice gave him confidence in the skills of craft. In visual art his thought was narrow but deep, and while his judgment is scarcely definitive, his appreciation of individual talent, of ancient and current movements, provides a touchstone of taste for many aspects of his epoch.
Facing the problem of an extremely generous, influential poet and promoter who became an unstable and violent eccentric, one is tempted to assign him a peripheral position in which the strident and preposterous disqualify him from serious attention. Pound, from his start, was a powerful taste-maker and instigator, not only in verse. He never exercised Cocteau’s seductive operational charm for Paris, but in London, from about 1910 to 1920, he gave similar service. In lyric sensibility, poetic metric and diction he became master of his own and subsequent generations, more in tune with his times than Robert Bridges, the finest royal laureate with Tennyson and Dryden.
He was always prone to surprising modesty in the midst of his temperamental arrogance. In 1907 he wrote: “Poetry is my ‘métier,’ the only one of the arts in which I progressed beyond the kindergarten stages. Anything I do outside of it is a make-shift….” His scholarship drew from the troubadours through Swinburne, Whitman, and Browning; he extended the lifeline of English verse. Later, his assurance with words in measured sequence betrayed him into imagining he had equal capacity in music, the visual arts, then, alas, with economics and politics. His steady dream was to reduce all art to a single principle, although his actual knowledge was fragmentary in the extreme. In 1953 Ernest Hemingway wrote to Bernard Berenson:
I liked Pound very much. He had this great pretense to universal knowledge and he got to be unbearable. But the things he did know about he knew very well and he had a lovely heart until he turned bitter. Fascism is always made by disappointed people.1
Granting limitations which, often enough, outlaw him from status as an academic art historian, we should take into account his chronological position, the context of his times, how he framed the relation of America to Europe before 1914 and after. His driving energy makes this hard to judge since sharpness and vitality are so persuasive. In painting, his opinions were inevitably directed by Ruskin, Walter Pater, and Salomon Reinach, but it was Whistler, the American gadfly-butterfly who conquered Europe with the aesthetics of his “Ten O’Clock” lecture, the painter who appropriated the Japanese picturesque, whom Pound claimed as immediate predecessor. In 1908 Pound wrote that “he gathered…more courage for living” from Whistler’s work than from digging the Panama Canal. In 1912 he wrote that Whistler “is, with Abraham Lincoln, the beginning of our Great Tradition.” Pound’s early preferences were a logical issue of the Nineties; Elkin Matthews of The Yellow Book was his first English publisher.
Pound grew up in a Philadelphia suburb. Toward the end of his long life he recognized his septic anti-Semitism as “a suburban prejudice.” His career was a perpetual flight from intellectual suburbs, an attempt to sense himself as sovereign of The Great Good Place. A neighbor painted his portrait when he was fifteen, the first in a series by friends who, at first hand, instructed him in digital mastery. Neither early nor later did he notice Thomas Eakins, who had painted Whitman, and was then sequestered in Philadelphia a few miles away. But at the time Eakins was condemned or ignored by the richest art patrons. Pound disdained Sargent mainly for his role as Royal Academician, although he had painted the greatest portrait of Henry James, whom Pound revered. He was contemptuous of a dozen interesting turn-of-the-century American painters, many of whom had been trained in Europe. After 1918 he looked with patronizing favor on some of the younger men around Stieglitz, but it was difficult for him to credit a provincial situation.
As for architecture, Pound much admired the aspiring profile of skyscrapers but never connected one building with the name of its architect. He liked the Bryant Park façade of the New York Public Library, but condemned Carrère and Hastings’s front for its descent from the Beaux-Arts. The magnificent era of McKim, Mead, and White would seem a sterile palimpsest; the Morgan Library cribbed from the Pazzi Chapel. He had no word for Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, or Daniel Burnham. Frank Lloyd Wright, who has been nominated the Ezra Pound of architecture, was unknown. In extenuation we remember that fat, glossy art books had not yet crushed coffee tables; Wright had no American monograph for years to come. He was first published in Holland and Germany. Pound admired the dome of Bentley’s magnificent Westminster Cathedral until it was revetted with its fine Arts-and-Crafts marble and mother-of-pearl. He took no notice of the great generation of architects in the United Kingdom—which included Richard Norman Shaw, Lutyens, Mackmurdo, Voysey, and Mackintosh—while these men were revitalizing and extending their native tradition, as Pound was, by “making it new.”
Pound’s eventual residence in Italy confirmed his love of Quattrocento Tuscan art by which he illustrated the poetry of its epoch. He focused on Alberti’s unfinished and touching Tempio Malatestiano at Rimini which he thought was “the single most concentrated whole achievement of man.” In what manner and to what degree this lovely miniature was more of a complete monument than the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, or Borromini’s S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, deponent saith not. He hardly looked at the “barroque” (sic), but it was not until he had lost interest in looking that there was much attention paid to post-Renaissance building. With the exception of Canaletto’s topographical views of Venice, which he considered rather as admirable postcards, he took no interest in Italian painting from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. He identified Marinetti’s futurism as decadence from French impressionism. In his youth he memorized the placement of pictures in the big hall of the Prado; the impact of their juxta-position remained with him unchanged. Delmore Schwartz wrote in 1938 of the Cantos, Pound’s most ambitious poem, that finally its subject was Pound’s reading. Equally, his conspectus of art was what he happened to come upon and admire.
He drove with attention all over northern Italy and walked over much of southern France, the domain of his troubadours. In 1942, he wrote, “Dante was my Baedeker in Provence.” “Kulchur” for Pound was generally that of the Mediterranean. His knowledge of Japanese and Chinese poetry and drama he derived from the legacy of Ernest Fenollosa’s posthumous papers and the orientalism of the French and Whistler. He thought a stone-carving of the Aztec god Chac-Mool in the Louvre was Egyptian or “perhaps Chinese.”
By 1910 he had absorbed Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse. He strove valiantly for Jacob Epstein, an American exile in London like himself, who cut stone directly, without the intrusion of clay models, and who created scandal with his tomb for Oscar Wilde and the nudes for a medical society’s building on the Strand. Pound was among the first to distinguish Rodin’s heroic early bronzes from his late soapy marbles. As for the School of Paris generally, except for Fernand Léger whom he liked, Francis Picabia whose conversation delighted him, and Brancusi to whom he offered signal service, he left the French to their proper dealers and publishers. In his London residency, Pound condemned all that he found unprogressive with remarkable inconsistency. Blanket disapproval covered the Slade School, which taught about the best draftsmanship in Europe, and its many excellent professional painters. As for the Camden Town group of post-impressionists, Roger Fry and the Omega Workshops—these were “a pincushion and curtain factory.” Starring himself as doctrinaire malcontent he nevertheless admired the expertise and connoisseurship of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, lively survivors from the Nineties. He had a kind word for the charm of John Waterhouse, an RA who painted languorous nudes of naiads. He agreed to write a posthumous recommendation for Modigliani, whose work he had not seen except in photographs.
If there was a single artistic movement which can be identified with Pound’s promulgation it is Vorticism. In consultation with T.E. Hulme, Wyndham Lewis, the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska and others, Pound declared in BLAST (1913), their manifesto, that “the vortex is the point of maximum energy. It represents in mechanics the greatest efficiency…. Machinery is the greatest earth-medium; incidentally it sweeps away the doctrine of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke.” Lewis wrote: “Vorticism was a youth racket. It was Ezra who in the first place organized us willy-nilly into that. For he was never satisfied until everything was organized.”
Vorticism2 eschewed absolute abstraction; it strove for an allusive idiom of elegance and broad reference, divested of narrative figuration. It tended to avoid the decorative comestible patterning of Parisian Cubism and was characterized by puritanical rectilinearity. Its key monument was Epstein’s Rock Drill, now in the Tate. The sculptor had bought a secondhand pneumatic drill; on it was mounted a humanoid praying mantis. Complete it stood ten feet tall. Gaudier-Brzeska, whom Pound was to canonize after his death in battle, aged twenty-four, took the poet to see this prodigy. Pound immediately began to expatiate, having had barely enough time to glance at it. “Shut up,” snapped Gaudier, the wonder-boy: “You understand nothing.”
When all cavalier judgments and frantic bullying are condoned, there is left, apart from many brilliant aperçus, personal revelation, and gemlike phrases, two justificatory considerations. Pound persuaded John Quinn, the New York corporation lawyer, to buy some of the greatest contempory pictures and sculpture, including Seurat’s Le Cirque, Epstein’s best small stone carvings, the Douanier Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy, and the finest Brancusi Birds, as well as manuscripts. These have enriched our museums and libraries. For this courageous activity he received no commission although he was perennially impoverished. And his critical accumulation may be read today, even in its fragmentary form and without elucidating comment or illustration, along with the remarks on annual salons by Denis Diderot, Théophile Gautier, and Charles Baudelaire.
Ezra Pound and His World by Peter Ackroyd is one of the best brief biographies of a contemporary poet. It is excellently illustrated with unfamiliar photographs of persons, places, and works of art associated with Pound. The late portraits are heartbreaking. After all his early heat had improved the lot of Yeats, Frost, Eliot, Joyce, Epstein, Brancusi, and a host of others he turned to his vainglorious mania for Mussolini, time in prison and madhouse; there is a terrible eloquence in the dignity and abnegation of his silence. Shortly after his release from St. Elizabeth’s he said in an interview: “No wonder my head hurts; all Europe fell on it; when I talk it is like an explosion in an art museum.” Ten years later he told Allen Ginsberg: “Instead of being a lunatic I was a moron.” On July 4, 1971, he spoke of his demon: usura. “I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause. The cause is avarice.”
To confess wrong without losing rightness:
Charity I have had sometimes, I cannot make it flow thru.
A little light, like a rushlight to lead back to splendour.
—from Canto CXVI
He paid more than in full for his folly. Tokyo Rose, paired with him as a traitor-voice, served six months and paid a fine. Pound served thirteen long years. In 1910, he had translated Guido Cavalcanti’s sixth sonnet.
And I, as one beyond life’s com- pass thrown,
Seem but a thing that’s fashioned to design,
Melted of bronze or carven in tree or stone.
A wound I bear within this heart of mine
Which by its mastering quality is grown
To be of that heart’s death an open sign.
April 30, 1981
Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters 1917-1961, edited by Carlos Baker, (Scribner’s, 1981). ↩
Vortex: Pound, Eliot, and Lewis, by Professor Timothy Materer (Cornell University Press, 1979), is a brilliantly comprehensive study of all aspects of Vorticism with illustrations of key works. Wyndham Lewis, by Jane Farrington (London and Manchester, 1980), is an excellently illustrated catalogue of a comprehensive show. ↩