Four years after his centenary, half a generation after his death, the emphatic presence of Ezra Pound is being sustained and even enhanced in those academic circles which—with characteristic ambivalence—he had both sought and flouted throughout his long life. His schoolmates had nicknamed him “professor”; the only full-time job he ever held, four months as an instructor at a small midwestern college, had expired in a mild scandal, to be variously recalled. Yet he functioned most successfully as a pedagogue: “first and foremost a teacher and a campaigner,” in the testimonial of his sometime protégé T.S. Eliot. Through a series of one-to-one relations, many of which broadened into literary movements, he earned his own peculiar title, “the Ezuversity.”
William Carlos Williams, his lifelong friend and polar opposite, once called him “a spoiled brat.” True enough, he had been a coddled only child, and remained exceptionally close to his supportive parents throughout their modest lives. A family man with a vengeance, he managed to become the patriarch of two devoted households, which competed with each other to maintain his modus vivendi. Such personal loyalties must have strengthened his confidence in his poetic vocation and in his prophetic mission, along with his continuous antagonism toward philistines who did not see his points. Growing up in the Nineties, he had Whistler and Wilde as models for his emergence as a Bohemian dandy, with a green velvet jacket, one earring, and (for local color) a sombrero.
In recoil against the new American twentieth century, he initially headed for the Old World as a graduate student, undertaking European research toward a doctoral thesis on the gracioso (buffoon) in the plays of Lope de Vega. He would soon be shifting his concern from the Spanish drama to the Provençal troubadours, attracted by their conception of poetry as a way of life. Humphrey Carpenter’s biography is not inappropriately entitled A Serious Character, though that characterization might be somewhat undercut by the buffoonery of Pound’s original spelling: “a seereeyus karekter.” With a reflexive self-consciousness, he liked to step back from the mannered aestheticism of the fin de siècle and to play a little game of “being Uncle Sam”—as noted by his early sweetheart, Hilda Doolittle (“H.D.”).
Over the years it got so that he could hardly say anything in straightforward prose; it had to sound poetic or else facetious, couched in that cracker-barrel idiolect which fell more and more into rasping self-caricature. The farther and the longer away from his native country, the more he out-Heroded Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby. Even the Yankee-Hebrew reverberations of his given name may have intensified his innate avuncularity. But there can be no questioning his high seriousness, though that Arnoldian criterion may have undergone some modulation. One of his most important manifestoes, “The Serious Artist” (1913), is an updated restatement of Sidney’s “Defense of Poesy,” attesting to the importance of good writing and reaffirming the arts against a hostile or indifferent society.
Humphrey Carpenter’s book lives up to his publisher’s adjective “monumental.” He has been comprehensive, conscientious, and vivacious in treating a difficult subject, and has brought both information and common sense to bear upon its bristling complexities. In covering so expansive and varied a record, even at such length, he may still skip over an occasional minor detail; there is no mention of Bride (Adams) Scratton, for example, though Pound seems to have spent a summer with her and was named as correspondent in her divorce. And though the British biographer has taken pains with his American episodes, he fails to recognize a “Mrs. Longworth”—Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, a memorable Washington personality in her own right, whose visits to St. Elizabeths must have meant something to Pound.
Comparison seems in order with the most recent of other biographies, Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano by John Tytell, who seemed to court it with the Jamesian announcement that his book would not be “a nine-hundred-page loose and baggy monster.” On not much more than a third of that scale, Professor Tytell’s biography practices a succinct impressionism that catches the climatic situations with some force and color. But my confidence is shaken when he finds space to misreport a stated opinion of mine (regarding Pound’s psychiatric examinations). It is less than just to sum up Dante and Villon, even in their relationship with Pound, as “two masters of hatred.” Nor was Dante himself described as “il miglior fabbro” (the better craftsman); that was his generous epithet (later applied to Pound by Eliot) for his master, Arnaut Daniel.
Edward Lear, in Auden’s commemoration, “became a land,” Pound, in his posthumous incarnation, has become a field—an ironic return of the wandering scholar to the academy, where his unwritten dissertation has been expiated by an outpouring of theses about him. Given the loose ends he left, the elusive chords he touched, further interpretation is further specialized: witness the accumulating files of the Poundian quarterly, Paideuma. Monographic studies can cut across significant themes; Wendy Stallard Flory has chosen a major aspect, frequently obscured despite the vernacular twang, in The American Ezra Pound. Her introductory chapter convincingly traces the “quintessential Americanness” of Pound’s background; her subsequent chapters emphasize ideological controversies that could be, and have been, discussed in other connections.
Ms. Flory might have made more of a contribution to American studies if she had taken more interest in those presidential papers which Pound had worked through as homework for his Cantos. She contrasts his relatively independent cast of mind with the anti-Semitic routine of Adolf Eichmann, the programmed Nazi functionary. Discussions of Pound’s anti-Semitism, however, must now defer to the extremely thorough study of Robert Casillo, The Genealogy of Demons, which sets forth both the rationale and the mystique of that obsession in the objective light of history, anthropology, and psychology. The book may prove a little too systematic to exorcise the emotional charge of Pound’s demons or his subjective outbursts against them, but it well deserves to be read for its general illumination.
Pound’s campaigns in discovering and promoting other talents have been fully documented through his correspondence. The necessarily limited selection of letters edited by D.D. Paige in 1950 is now being richly supplemented. New Directions continues its sequence of volumes assigned to his chief correspondents, such as Wyndham Lewis and Ford Madox Ford, with Pound/The Little Review: The Letters of Ezra Pound to Margaret Anderson. Here we can watch Pound’s tactics in moving in on a pioneering periodical, browbeating its editor, cajoling its patron John Quinn, getting Ulysses printed until its suppression, recruiting Marianne Moore and Ernest Hemingway to contribute, and meanwhile not disdaining to read proof or solicit subscriptions. The editorial dialogue ranged freely, as he himself had predicted:
Miss A. “Mr. P. you will annihilate ALL our subscribers.”
Mr. P. “Sorry.”
Mr. P. “Your dear Powys is a windbag lacking both balance and ballast:”
Miss A. “DO wind bags have ballast!!!”
A marginal episode is documented in Ezra Pound and Margaret Cravens: the touching story of an American heiress whose musical studies at Paris terminated in suicide. Pound was grateful for her patronage, but did not reciprocate her love.
Leading as he did such an outgoing career, which propelled him so actively in so many different directions, where could he have found the leisure to find himself? Ms. Flory suggests that Pound was “averse to introspection,” as if his extroverted thoughts were acted out. From the line of aliterary forebears, most immediately through Browning, he had inherited the saint’s gift of hearing voices and the ventriloquist’s trick of projecting them. All of his poems could be subsumed under the recurrent title, Personae. Each is typically an evocation, calling up or speaking for another personality, engaging in dramatic monologue, intermingling past with present, saluting both Voltaire and Jesus (“The Goodly Fere”). Where should we be looking for the individual person beyond these protean personae, the temperament behind the succession of masks? The mirror that confronts his ego is confusing:
O strange face there in the glass!
O ribald company, O saintly host,
O sorrow-swept my fool,
What answer? O ye myriad
That strive and play and pass,
Jest, challenge, counterlie!
I? I? I? And ye?
More than anything else, Pound was, he remains, a poet—the poet: but again, whenever we make use of the definite article, we complicate the reduction. That is because the poetic psyche has seldom confined itself to the writing of poetry; it has gone on to involve itself in a sense of the poet’s role. Pound cut a striking figure whose visual impact would be registered by some of the most percipient artists among his generation. Moreover, he was not merely acting picturesque; for him the poet existed by interacting with other poets, defining his own identity through schools and traditions, polemics, and pastiches. Pound felt especially linked to the past through his predecessors, and to foreign cultures through the art of translation. Such had been the humanistic points of conjunction from which Renaissances developed. A Risorgimento might take place in the United States, as he heralded in Patria Mia, but it would have to look backward as well as forward.
The diction of Pound’s earlier verse is archaic as well as eclectic, virtually Pre-Raphaelite at times, sometimes almost Kiplingesque. His Villonesque ballade proposed a Scandinavian toast (“skoal!”). Observing the strict rules of the sestina (“Altaforte”), he opened it with the expletive “Damn it all!” His metaphrase of Propertius shocked the classicists with its cross-reference to a frigidaire. The stylistic chrysalis from which he emerged was old-fashioned; but he soon realized—what Eliot had sooner realized—that modernism echoed historical memories in order to bring out contemporary issues. As he would acknowledge gratefully, it took a violent reproof from Ford to modify his taste and update his style. More positive, as a source of clarification, was his unexpected inheritance from the East.
Perhaps it was because he had been too immersed in spelled-out words, in alphabetical literariness, that he became so strongly drawn to Chinese calligraphy, viewing the written character as an object in itself, if not as a slice of the reality it signalized. His access to the language would seem to have been a gray area, and Eliot was prudently ambiguous in terming him “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.” Yet that imagery set a bright example for his own kind of “luminous detail,” and “the ideogramic method” lent its warrant to his elliptical juxtapositions. A sharpened mode of observation, transposed from a soft to a hard focus, dwelt less upon the fanciful apparitions of yesteryear and more upon the faces in a crowd, waiting for the Metro or streaming down Piccadilly.
Thus Pound’s own efforts qualified him for the leadership of the young, heterogeneous, and cosmopolitan band that strove for poetic renewal under the watchword of Imagism. But nothing can ever stay brand-new; and when that group had made its mark and been taken over by Army Lowell, Pound renounced “Amygism” and moved on. Then he took his temporary stand for Vorticism—the whirling metaphor seemed vaguely dynamic enough to welcome novelties of any description. But that proved essentially to be a one-man movement: Wyndham Lewis polemicizing against everyone else in the world. It was Pound’s natural impulse to keep moving in a perpetual quest for artistic innovation. Expatriation led to deracination; once he had pulled up his own deep roots, he was not inclined to settle down for long anywhere.
When he had arrived in London during his youthful twenties, it was still in its Edwardian doldrums and ripe for literary experimentation. During some twelve years of residence there, he played a catalytic part in launching new writers, steering the course of little magazines, reporting to the more established journals on what was happening in the arts, and striking up congenial friendships with leading spirits—he shared quarters with William Butler Yeats. His greatest find was Eliot, who—as Pound conceded—had already “trained and modernized himself.” But it needed a less diffident modernist to promote his work and to perform the celebrated midwifery on The Waste Land. Ultimately it was Eliot who quietly put down roots and assumed that arbiter’s position in English letters for which his erstwhile mentor had paved the way.
In spite of their convergence at the crucial stage, generating a mutual sympathy that lasted all their lives, their careers could scarcely have been more divergent. Eliot’s was so neatly—all but completely—worked out that recent criticism, when it no longer nods in drowsy acquiescence, challenges his impersonal theories and reshuffles his orderly arrangements. Pound attracts more critical attention today, since—never having paused to sort things out or set matters straight—he entertained so many speculations, made such inviting starts, and bequeathed so much unfinished business. After World War I he had grown disillusioned with “wringing lilies from the acorn” in England, once again recoiling from that “tawdry cheapness” which “the age demanded.” Hugh Selwyn Mauberley was his sardonic gesture of farewell.
Next he made a transient move in an obvious direction: to Paris. Here was the formative breeding ground for those American expatriates who, like Hemingway, would be returning in triumph homeward. More centrally, French literature was then rounding out a great period; yet Pound showed little or no interest in Proust, Gide, or Valéry. The Frenchman whom he most expressly admired seems to have been his fellow impresario Jean Cocteau. The center of operations that Pound eventually set up for himself at Rapallo, where he would spend more years than anywhere else, was truly a retreat in more ways than one. That attractive haven on the Italian Riviera, though it had been selected as a habitat for creative retirement by Gerhart Hauptmann, Max Beerbohm, and others, could not be regarded as a literary community.
Pound had come there to get on with his own work, and more particularly with that “poem of some length” which had been begun in 1915 and would never end. His energies had been distracted from it by the generosity and the discernment that he had extended toward the recruitment of talented newcomers and the furtherance of collective projects. From his cultural outpost he never ceased to be a harbinger and an explainer. But his touch was less secure or knowledgeable: George Antheil did not turn out to be so brilliant a discovery as Gaudier-Brzeska. His successive guides to “kulchur”—unredeemed by the apologetic “k”—were based upon the same old private frame of reference. What had promised to become a canon ended up as an arcanum. Possibly “Eureka!” had been cried too often.
It was certainly not to Pound’s discredit that with the looming Thirties, he had gradually been turning from art for art’s sake toward a larger social awareness. But it was typically brash of him to pick up his views from two doctrinaire pundits, C.H. Douglas (Social Credit) and Silvio Gesell (“stamp-scrip”), and to believe that this belated and wayward course in economics made him too an international authority. The voice of “Uncle Ez,”at its wartime worst, was stridently amplified by those radio broadcasts from Fascist Italy. Tragic pride was followed by painful retribution; and poetry, with all due irony, reemerged at the very lowest political moment. The ignominious failure of his grandiose plans inspired an unplanned sequence, The Pisan Cantos, wherein the captured poet pronounced an elegy over the ruins strewn about him. Vanity has been reduced to humility, yet something survives:
To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity.
The ordeals that came afterward, the highly publicized trial and the lengthy institutional commitment, are no less debatable today than they were at mid-century. Here the recent book by the psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeths (1984), has exerted a problematical influence over these latest biographies. It has pressed, but not solved, two significant questions. The first involves the plea of insanity, which—by a judicial compromise—avoided the charge of treason and a possible death sentence. The psychiatric testimony varies widely—but when does it not? At what point, in any given case history, should persistent quirks or multiplying phobias be officially diagnosed as delusions of grandeur or manifestations of paranoia? The jury’s verdict was “of unsound mind.”
The second, and closely related, question raised by Dr. Torrey concerns the special treatment accorded to Pound as a twelve-year patient in the government’s mental hospital at Washington. It is clear that the superintendent, Dr. Winfred Overholser, kept a protective eye on his unique inmate, who therefore was not treated—should he have been?—as a common lunatic. Thus cushioned, Pound’s inveterate Bohemianism must have helped him adapt to the situation at hand. Poets, he could reflect, have traditionally been associated with madness. Strangely but not too surprisingly, he came to enjoy certain aspects of his Elizabethan confinement. Semirecumbent in his deck chair, he would hold daily court for an oddly assorted coterie of visitors: colleagues and disciples, budding neofascists and cranks of many other persuasions.
His release was finally secured through the continued pressure of literary well-wishers, notably Eliot, Robert Frost, and Archibald MacLeish, on the legalistic grounds that—though uncured of his derangement, and consequently untried for his indictment—he was now harmless. Except for sporadic attempts to resume the Cantos, he became less and less articulate during the anticlimactic years preceding his death at eighty-seven in 1972. The circuit of existence (his “periplum”) had shuttled back from the Tyrolean castle of his daughter’s family to the scene of his first publication, Venice, and the fosterage of his closest companion, Olga Rudge. He guided his conduct by quoting Ecclesiastes from the Vulgate: “Tempus tacendi, tempus loquendi.” The time for speech had passed, for better and for worse.
If it was a time for silence, then he would have time for introspection at last, and for the schizophrenic retrospect that coarsened his image from an artistic benefactor into a public enemy. Problems of fragile health added to his depressive moods and his recurrent self-accusations. Tersely, when still sought out and reluctantly interviewed, he expressed remorse, confessed his blunders, minimized his achievements, lamented the opportunities he had missed, and regretted the books he should have read. His fragmentary drafts for the latest cantos embody some of his most sensitive lines; having commenced with a Dantesque immersion in the underworld, he should be approaching paradise; but the ascent breaks down, and the poem breaks off, with a searching appeal: “Let those I love forgive/what I have made.”
Pound chose the occasion of a meeting with Allen Ginsberg for his most dramatic recantation: “But the worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.” It might be observed that his broadcast attacks, and even the gibes in his Cantos, went some distance beyond the genteel snobberies he had grown up with in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. To be sure, he was giving voice to crotchety propaganda rather than to personal animus; Jews were generalized as financial agents of the materialistic blight. It was easier to be an anti-Semite when most people were unaware of the Holocaust, and Pound’s solution to the Jewish problem had been expulsion, not extermination. That would be over-shadowed by the impending apocalypse, where he foresaw—more portentously than Eliot—not a whimper but a bang.
Again, revising Eliot in the Cantos, he spoke of fragments to be “shelved” instead of “shored.” Hesitantly greeting the poet Donald Hall for an interview, he pointed the keyword at himself: “You—find me—in fragments.” The terminal section of cantos was published as Drafts and Fragments; the first installment, thirty-nine years before, had appeared and reappeared as A Draft. The loose and baggy whole was outstripped by its parts, alternately fascinating and boring. Notebook entries alternate with lyrical passages, elegant aphorisms with dirty jokes, Homeric voyages with Chinese dynasties, Italian city-states with American founding fathers. These are structured, not so much by ideogramic signposts as by free association, within the illusory framework of an echo chamber, a gallery of mirrors. Basil Bunting remonstrated that “the Cantos refer, but do not present.”
Pound was his own harshest critic when he momentarily dismissed his Cantos as “a botch.” This reflects their vocal laments for “a botched civilization,” the wreckage of his transatlantic hopes, his participation in Europe’s tragedy. But, according to those high Confucian principles which he had professed in Canto XIII, “If a man have not order within him / He cannot spread order about him.” Pound’s translation of The Women of Trachis had celebrated the Sophoclean virtue of coherence. A fragment of Canto CXVI, deploring “my errors and wrecks,” utters the heartcry: “I cannot make it cohere.” Pound’s master-work is admittedly and radically flawed; yet it invites us into a master’s workshop and shares his hard-won reminiscences of life and art. As Messrs. Carpenter and Tytell agree, it can best be read as an autobiography.
Reading Pound confronts us with such a crisscross of angles, both affirmative and negative, that we cannot reasonably expect to come out with a final or total judgment, apocalyptic or otherwise. The actionable case of his country against him was never adjudicated. When literary committees judged him worthy of their commendatory laurels (the Bollingen Prize, the Emerson-Thoreau Award), they were publicly denounced and discharged by administrative superiors. It was much too late, the world was much too fragmented, for anything like a Dantesque synthesis. The parable of self-exiled sensibility, the artist’s alienation from modern society, could hardly have been carried any further; and readers may well be put off by the angularities, on the part of one side or the other. But if we examine the relics, we may remember the Horatian apology: the limbs of the mangled poet (“disiecti membra poetae“) can still be the stuff of poetry.
November 9, 1989