Pound: Genius, Confucian, Fascist & Crazy

Bill Brandt Archives
Ezra Pound, Vienna, 1928; photograph by Bill Brandt

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…

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