Ezra Pound’s only meeting with his great hero Benito Mussolini took place at 5:30 on the evening of Monday, January 30, 1933. Mussolini’s imposing “office” was the vast Sala del Mappamondo (sixty feet long, forty feet wide, forty feet high) on the first floor of the Palazzo di Venezia in Rome. Il Duce, or Capo del Governo as Pound liked to call him, worked in rigorously enforced silence at a desk, on which he kept a grenade, at the far end of this otherwise empty room. Il Poeta brought with him two items in which he hoped to interest Italy’s supreme leader: one was the deluxe Hours Press edition of A Draft of XXX Cantos (published in 1930 by the enterprising and wealthy Nancy Cunard in an edition of 212 copies); the other was a handwritten list of eighteen policy ideas that he wanted Mussolini to adopt.
We have only Pound’s account in various letters, conversations, and Canto XLI of what took place at this meeting. Pound later told his daughter Mary de Rachewiltz that Mussolini “went poking around” in the book until he came across a characteristic specimen of Pound’s mimicry in Canto XVI: “Looka vat youah Trotzsk is done, e iss madeh deh zhamefull beace!!” “But this is not English,” exclaimed Il Duce, who was learning the language at the time. “No,” explained Pound, “it’s my idea of how a Continental Jew would speak English.” Mussolini seems to have found the idea of a poem including this sort of irreverent knockabout most “divertente”—entertaining.
He appears, however, to have been less amused by Pound’s eighteen-point economic plan, a key element of which was the abolition of taxes: “Ugh, these aren’t things to answer straight off the bat. No, this one about taxes…Ungh!…Have to think about THAT.” Still, however dubious, he told Pound to get his economic suggestions typed up, and asked him to stay on in Rome in case he deemed a further exchange of views useful. Pound, never a shrinking violet, clearly badgered the Capo’s private secretary about this second appointment, but no summons came. The C.G. had more pressing issues than the cranky economic ideas of an American poet to attend to: some five hours before this one and only meeting between Il Poeta and Il Duce, Adolf Hitler had been appointed chancellor of Germany.
Mussolini had come to power some eleven years earlier, after marching his forces on Rome, and there declaring, with the blessing of the king, the birth of the Fascist new order. Nineteen-twenty-two was a big year for Pound’s literary revolutionaries too: Joyce’s Ulysses was finally published in Paris on February 2, and almost exactly a month earlier T.S. Eliot had stopped off at Pound’s Paris apartment on his way back from Lausanne to London, leaving his friend with the manuscript of a long, sprawling poem out of which il miglior fabbro, as the poem’s dedication styles him, quarried The Waste Land, which was published in The Criterion and The Dial later that year.
Ulysses was issued in a limited and expensive edition by Sylvia Beach, founder of Shakespeare & Co., and would soon run into all manner of censorship issues; nevertheless Pound saw Joyce’s completion of his “roman réaliste par excellence” as initiating a new era, and took to dating letters according to a calendar starting on midnight October 29–30, 1921, the moment Joyce wrote Molly Bloom’s final “Yes.” Year 1 p.s.U. = the year post scriptum Ulysses. In due course, however, Mussolini’s feats would eclipse in Pound’s eyes those of the Irish writer, and Pound would adopt the Italian Fascist calendar rather than his own literary modernist one.
The Epic Years is the subtitle A. David Moody applies to the middle period of Pound’s career: Pound famously defined an epic poem as a poem including history, and his switch to a calendar commemorating the seizure of power by Mussolini from one commemorating the completion of Ulysses can be read as a small instance of his increasing engagement with the historical events of his time during this period, and of his developing sense of himself as an epic hero who could save Western civilization, if only those currently in charge of it could be made to listen. “Ungh!”—Mussolini’s noncommittal grunt when confronted with Pound’s economic blueprint for a happy Fascist future—was also roughly the response of the various American senators and congressmen whom Pound bombarded with letters and instructions, and even, in a quixotic bid to shape his native country’s foreign and domestic policies along Poundian lines, berated in person on a visit to Capitol Hill in 1939.
Writing The Cantos, which include lots and lots of history, mainly that of various Chinese dynasties and of the early American Republic, formed only one element in Pound’s overall mission; he deemed it also imperative to make Mussolini and America’s benighted lawgivers pay heed to his views, and change tack accordingly. Sometimes “epic” does seem the right word for the obsessional and eventually disastrous behavior of Pound in these years, and it certainly does justice to his own unquestioning belief in his world-saving acumen and powers; but at other times mock-epic, or even farcical, seems nearer the mark.
Volume I of Moody’s projected trilogy recounted Pound’s years as an enfant terrible in London. While Eliot, in his possum-like way (this telling sobriquet came from Pound), set about ingratiating himself with the literary and social aristocracy in whose ranks he sought, and fairly quickly achieved, both eminence and power, Pound played the part of the Bohemian wild poet. His disgust with the pusillanimous hidebound literary scene he had hoped to mobilize and infuse with Poundian energy and principles is the dominant tone of his “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” of 1920, a poem he described as his “farewell” to the city he was casting off, a city that actually hadn’t treated him at all badly.
He and his English wife Dorothy (whose mother was Olivia Shakespear, once a lover of Yeats’s) settled in Paris on rue des Saints-Pères in April 1921. This volume opens with modernism’s sage-homme (male midwife—he uses the term of himself in a letter to Eliot of January 1922) presiding over the births of Ulysses and The Waste Land, but wondering about his own contributions to the movement. “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” though much praised by the normally rather stern F.R. Leavis, is in fact a bit of a mess, and drafts of early cantos begun in London as far back as 1915 were still in a state of flux and uncertainty.
The poem that became the wonderful Canto II was the first fruit of his two-year residence in Paris. While a collage from various sources, its center is a version of Acoetes’s account in Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses of Dionysos or Bacchus in action. The boy-god, having been captured on the isle of Chios by sailors who intend to sell him into slavery, halts their boat mid-sea: their oars and sails become overgrown with ivy (“grape-leaves on the rowlocks”) and the sailors transformed into dolphins (“Fish scales over groin muscles”). A mirage of prowling lynxes, panthers, and leopards crowd around Dionysos, as Acoetes records:
out of nothing, a breathing
hot breath on my
Beasts like shadows in glass…
fur brushing my knee-skin,
Rustle of airy sheaths,
dry forms in the
The god’s effortless victory over his enemies serves almost as an allegory of the triumphant artistic revolution that was Pound’s ideal; as Dionysos and his followers defeated all who defied them, so Pound and his intrepid band of modernistas would overcome their opponents, the blinkered guardians of the status quo. Pound liked to think of himself as a Dionysian figure, a liberator—“IO ZAGREUS!” he exclaims in Canto XVII, Zagreus being a Greek God often identified with Dionysos. And like Zagreus or Dionysos, Pound certainly felt himself able to transform whatever he touched: poetry, music, economics, history, the work and minds of his fellow artists, the policies of Mussolini, or of Franklin D. Roosevelt, if only the recalcitrant president would come to his senses and agree to see him.
If one strips away from this can-do philosophy the mythical terms and parallels, Pound can often seem like a classic, if extreme, example of the Emersonian ideal of self-reliance. Why be deterred by lack of musical training from writing an opera or two, or indeed from developing a wholly “new theory of harmony”? Though not a carpenter by trade, why not make your own furniture, as Pound did for their apartment on rue des Saints-Pères? (In the oft-reproduced photograph of Joyce, Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and the lawyer and patron of the arts John Quinn taken there in 1923, Ford perches gingerly, but Quinn rather regally, on Pound’s creations, while Joyce, who possibly had first pick of the seating, slouches in an easy chair.)
The history of China is a dauntingly complex topic, particularly for someone with only a limited knowledge of the language; but with the purchase of a thirteen-volume French Histoire de Chine published toward the end of the eighteenth century, Pound felt fully equipped to convert centuries of Chinese history into an accurate and illuminating poetic narrative (Cantos LII–LXI) that illustrates modes of good and bad government.
The thing to discover was the paideuma, a term he borrowed from the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius, which Pound understood to mean “the active element in the era, the complex of ideas which is in a given time germinal…conditioning actively all the thought and action.” This paideuma will be most fully active and observable in the works and deeds of the era’s geniuses, and hence, in Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1935), Pound set about exploring how these two, on the face of it, somewhat antithetical figures could be seen as similar embodiments of will or volition, and as heroic opponents of the great canker of usury that, in Pound’s view, threatened every aspect of meaningful life:
Usura slayeth the child in the
It stayeth the young man’s courting
It hath brought palsey to bed,
between the young bride and her
The self-reliant genius will both know exactly what nature is and the sorts of social and political and economic arrangements that are not CONTRA NATURAM. Pound often suggests, too, that the best means of understanding the paideuma of a culture is through choice sampling—or skim-reading, as his doubters might put it—rather than thorough immersion. “Really,” he observed in a letter of 1916 to Iris Barry, “one DON’T need to know a language. One NEEDS, damn well needs, to know the few hundred words in the few really good poems that any language has in it.”
Of course the doctrine of self-reliance maps onto democracy rather than authoritarianism, and indeed might be said to underpin laissez-faire capitalism, which Pound detested, even to act as ideological whitewash to its robber- baron predations. Certainly there was nothing laissez-faire about Pound; Moody is at pains to show the earnest ingenuity he brought to the task of squaring his vision of an ideal America, predicated largely on his interpretations of the lives and writings of Jefferson and John Adams, with his admiration for Mussolini’s post- democratic imposition of order on a chaotic Italy—the draining of malarial swamps and getting the trains to run on time.
Pound’s pro-Mussolini views in the late 1920s and 1930s are shown by Moody to be not particularly out of kilter with a spectrum of opinion widely voiced in both America and the rest of Europe, although a number of fellow poets, such as Louis Zukofsky and Basil Bunting and William Carlos Williams, would have no truck with the direction taken by Pound’s politics. “It makes me sick to see you covering yourself with that kind of filth,” wrote Bunting in December 1938, having read a letter of Pound’s to Zukofsky (who was Jewish) in defense of Hitler: “Why curse Adolphe/,” Pound had aggressively demanded, “why not git down to bedrock/NESCHEK [Hebrew for usury] and the buggering vendetta of the shitten Rothschild which has run for 150 years/and is now flopping back on Jewry at large.” Such crass and poisonous prejudice, Bunting declared, made Pound into “an enemy of mankind at large.”
Moody is an astute and superbly thorough guide to Pound’s views, behavior, and writings. Unlike Humphrey Carpenter, whose highly readable A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound was published in 1988, Moody includes long and searching discussions of particular cantos. Pound’s life, from his birth in Hailey, Idaho, in 1885 to his death in Venice in 1972, makes for such hair-raising and entertaining copy at almost every stage that there is a strong temptation to skimp on analysis of the often rebarbative poetry that he wrote, in favor of a narrative that captures the controversy and craziness, the sheer drama of his story, his “incredible journey”—to borrow a phrase popular with reality TV show contestants. If Moody is, on the whole, somewhat less racy and enthralling than Carpenter, that is because he seeks to do scholarly justice to the work as well as giving us a richly detailed portrait of the man.
While firm in his condemnation of Pound’s anti-Semitism, which would erupt most spectacularly in the war-time broadcasts that he made in Rome (and so will be covered in the next volume), Moody views Pound with a sympathy only occasionally tinged with exasperation. The poet’s vitriolic attacks on the banking system, he notes in his preface, have a particular resonance for twenty-first-century readers; and however unworkable the solutions Pound offered, his volcanic anger at the pain caused to ordinary men and women during the Depression by the greed and malfeasance of financial institutions allows us, Moody contends, to see the raging poet as a “flawed idealist” whose quest to bring about more equitable systems of government was, at bottom, principled and decent, however tarnished by anti-Semitism.
Increasingly in the years covered by this book Pound turned to Confucius as a source for models of good governance, attracted especially by the emphasis in Ta Hio on the crucial part played by “precise verbal definition” in the processes of self-discipline that formed the basis of Confucian ideas of order. “Having attained this precise verbal definition,” to quote from Pound’s own translation, Confucian adepts “stabilized their hearts”:
Having attained self-discipline, they set their own houses in order; having order in their own homes, they brought good government to their own states; and when their states were well governed, the empire was brought into equilibrium.
At the root of this holistic vision lay exactly the ideal of linguistic precision Pound had formulated back in the days of Imagism—“direct treatment of the thing”; further, it offered a means of unifying the concept of individual responsibility with the imperatives of imposing good government upon the state, allowing a fusion of the Jeffersonian with the strong-arm tactics of Mussolini. When Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935, Pound saw it as a benign expansion of the Capo’s self-governance: “The boss knows his business,” he insisted to his worried father, while reassuring US Senator William A. Borah that “you can have perfectly clear conscience that 7 million of subjected population in Abyssinia will be benefitted by conquest.”
In the light of the importance placed by Confucius on the happily ordered family unit in the sequence of virtuous circles arising from a stable heart and linguistically precise self-discipline, Moody can’t help wondering if Pound ever brooded on his own highly un-Confucian domestic arrangements. Pound embarked on what would become a forty-nine-year relationship with the Ohio-born violinist Olga Rudge in Paris in the summer of 1923, while Dorothy was in London caring for her recently widowed mother.
The steely Olga determined fairly rapidly that Pound would be the father of her child, rejoicing in her diary at having “piantato un figlio” in November 1924. The figlio turned out to be a daughter, Mary, who was born in the Tyrol in July 1925. On her own admission, however, Olga was by no means a maternal type, “having no talent that way,” refusing to breast-feed, and urging Pound to hurry if he wanted to see the “leoncina” alive since “it will probably not live—there is very little left of it.” Olga’s next missive, of July 22, recorded a lucky break for the little lioness: “There is a contadina [farm woman] here whose child has died—who can nurse it a few weeks at least…I think it will go if it only gets a start—it looks very grim and determined.” By the time Pound eventually arrived, Mary’s determination had pulled her through, and she was quickly consigned on a permanent basis to the care of the contadina and her husband, Herr and Frau Marcher, freeing her progenitors to pursue their artistic careers, and their affair, untrammeled by parental responsibility.
How much did Dorothy know? How much did she mind? Moody suggests quite a lot, and that it was desire for revenge that drove her to sail from Genoa to Cairo some five months after the birth of Mary. Although she had made it clear that she never wanted a child, she returned from this trip pregnant; the father, identified by Moody in the text only as R, was Egyptian, as was surely signaled by the first name bestowed on the infant, Omar, on his birth in Paris on September 10, 1926. A footnote alerts us to a letter received by Dorothy in January 1939 from an Egyptian army officer called Captain E. Hassan Riffai containing some stamps for Omar’s stamp collection, making him the most likely candidate.
It was Hemingway rather than her husband who took Dorothy to the hospital when her time came, but Pound who declared himself the boy’s father on the birth certificate. In a terse note to his own father, Pound broke the happy news that Homer and Isabel were now grandparents (they didn’t know about Mary at this point): “Dear Dad | next generation (male) arrived. | Both D & it appear to be doing well. | Ford going to U.S. to lecture in October. | Have told him you wd. probably be glad to put him up. | more anon, | yrs | E.” They would not discover that Pound was not in fact Omar’s biological father until 1939.
Dorothy quickly showed herself to be no more ready than Olga to assume the role of a hands-on mother. Omar was deposited first with a nurse in Paris, and then at the age of nine months placed in the Norland Institute and Nurseries in Kensington. How much vindictive triumph, one wonders, is there in Dorothy’s remark in a letter to Pound from London written shortly after her son had been disposed of in this way: “Omar’s eyes give the show away badly, heaven help us.”
Moody is rather censorious of Dorothy’s behavior in this imbroglio, depicting her as “the Fury [who] wore the mask of the perfect lady,” cuckolding her husband “with premeditation and cool determination, and in a manner which rather violently contravened the principles and the prejudices of her class.” Pound, on the other hand, is figured as the love triangle’s hapless victim, as the erring but stoical hero who “would accept his fate without protest or self-pity, as if in a state of godlike detachment.” This detachment he rigorously preserved: Omar met his legal father only once, or possibly twice, during his childhood and adolescence, spent mainly with a retired Norland nanny in Felpham, Sussex. Moody is surely justified in pointing out the disparity between Confucian precepts such as “To govern a state one must first bring order into one’s family” and Pound’s blithe indifference to his biological daughter and his legal son.
In 1925 Pound and Dorothy moved to Rapallo, a coastal town in northern Italy. It was from there he conducted his furious epistolary campaigns, and struggled to placate the two women warring, with comparable amounts of bitterness and anger, for his affections. Olga bought a small house in Venice in 1928, to which she lured Pound as often as she could; not content, however, with these sporadic visits, two years later she arranged to rent an apartment just above Rapallo itself, forcing Pound’s juggling act to become ever more complex—especially since the year before his retired parents had moved to Rapallo too. The ever-supportive Homer was let in on the secret of Mary’s existence, and even visited her in Gais in 1930, while the more conventional Isabel preferred to avert her eyes from the shame of an illegitimate granddaughter.
Meanwhile, as well as thousands of letters per year, and numerous forcefully, if idiosyncratically, argued prose texts such as How to Read (1931), ABC of Economics (1933), ABC of Reading (1934), Social Credit: An Impact (1935), Polite Essays (1937), and Guide to Kulchur (1938), there streamed from Pound’s typewriter fresh installments of the long poem that Basil Bunting, another Rapallo resident, was to compare to the Alps in his brilliant little homage of 1949, “On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos”:
There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l’on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et leger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?
Even hard-core Poundians, such as Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie, have felt that not quite enough smoothing had been attempted in the “China Cantos”; Davie dismissed them as “pathological and sterile,” an opinion that earns from Moody a sharp rebuke here. Moody’s overall defense of the more boulder-strewn stretches of Pound’s magnum opus is that he is “making music of history,” and that even cantos that strike the reader initially as mere cut-and-paste jobs often, on deeper acquaintance, reveal a fugue-like structuring of their borrowed elements.
That may well be so, and of course there is always what Bunting called le refrain joyeux et leger, the moment of lyricism and transparency, to look out for, however fugitive, or drowned out by the scraping of ice on rock. Moody himself characterizes the staccato mode in which Pound delivers the series of facts that he unearthed about the fifteenth-century mercenary Sigismondo Malatesta in the Malatesta cantos (VII–XI) as “one damned thing after another”; line after line begins “And”—“And the Angevins were gunning after Naples/And we dragged in the Angevins/And we dragged in Louis Eleventh,” etc.
The refrain joyeux that suddenly reminds us that we are not reading notes for a history essay but a poem emerges quite unexpectedly toward the end of the sequence—“In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it.” Geoffrey Hill, like Pound a great champion of embattled contrarians, used this line as an epigraph for his Collected Poems of 1985. For those not professionally employed in decoding The Cantos, but reading them for pleasure, such moments come to seem like a heaven-sent reward for the persistence needed to scale these Alps.
Nevertheless Pound was surely right to think that he had more chance of shaping the historical events of his day by personally approaching those in power than through the examples of good and bad governance that he gathered and collated in his mid-thirties cantos; his poetic celebrations of Confucian wisdom were not, it had to be acknowledged, likely to have a decisive part in keeping America out of the war that now looked inevitable in Europe.
Hence the visit to his home country in April 1939, with which this volume closes. To all and sundry, and despite Hitler’s recent invasion of Czechoslovakia, Pound depicted the looming hostilities as engineered for profit by “gun-touts and loan-sharks.” He freely distributed his pamphlet What Is Money For?, published that month by the British Union of Fascists. While the ostensible reason for his visit was to receive an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Hamilton College, his first stop was Washington, where an old friend found him “wandering blindly around the administration buildings.”
There he pursued politicians and influential “econ profs” as avidly as he’d tracked down London literati, reporting to Dorothy on a day’s “catch” that included two senators and the secretary of agriculture, Henry Wallace. Although clearly as persistent as a modern-day lobbyist, Pound found little interest in the stamp scrip scheme that he was offering as a panacea for the country’s ills. He garnered rather more attention at the honorary degree ceremony in Hamilton when he angrily interrupted a fellow speaker who happened to declare that “dictatorships shall die, but democracies shall live”: “About bust the commencement by heckling a s.o.b. that was spouting twaddle,” he reported proudly to Olga. His next visit to America would be in 1945, under arrest for treason, for having himself spouted twaddle, and much, much worse, in the notorious radio broadcasts that he would start delivering in Rome about a year after his return to an Italy already mobilizing for war with America’s allies.