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Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (30 October 1885 – 1 November 1972) was an American expatriate Modernist poet and critic. His contribution to literature began with his co-establishment of the Imagism movement, which marked a call for a return to classical values that stressed clarity, precision and economy of language, and was influenced by the Japanese Haiku tradition. He was a tempremental and extremely complicated man whose formidable reputation was ruined by his pro-Fascist radio broadcasts and anti-semitic outbursts in the early 1940s. Pound's political views have ensured that his work remains controversial; yet he retains his position as a major poet. Ernest Hemingway wrote that "the best of Pound's writing – and it is in the Cantos – will last as long as there is any literature." Yet his poetic innovations preceded him, his best-known works include Ripostes (1912), Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and his unfinished 120-section epic, The Cantos (1917–69).
His career began after he moved to London and then to Paris as foreign editor of several American literary magazines. He was instrumental in shaping the poetic outlook of contemporaries such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, H.D., Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. He was responsible for the publication of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and for the serialization from 1918 of Joyce's Ulysses. Outraged by the carnage of the First World War, he lost faith in England, blaming the conflict on usury and international capitalism. He moved to Italy in 1924, where throughout the 1930s and 1940s, to his friends' dismay, he embraced Benito Mussolini's fascism, expressed support for Adolf Hitler and wrote pro-Fascist and antisemitic articles for publications owned by British Fascist organizer Oswald Mosley.
During the Second World War Pound acted as a paid radio propagandist for Italian government and made hundreds of broadcasts criticizing the United States. He was indicted for treason in absentia in 1943, and arrested by American forces in Italy in 1945. He spent months in detention in a US military camp in Pisa, including 25 days in a six-by-six-foot outdoor steel cage which Pound claimed triggered a mental breakdown, "when the raft broke and the waters went over me. While medical records indicate that psychiatrists who examined Pound considered him sane, his lawyer and numerous prominent supporters succeeded in having him declared unfit to stand trial. Instead, he was committed to St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital in Washington, DC. Pound spent the succeeding 12 years at St. Elizabeths, writing and entertaing visitors, until 1958 when supporters succeeded in having his 1945 indictment for treason dismissed and his commitment ended.
While in custody in Italy, he began work on sections of The Cantos that became known as The Pisan Cantos (1948), for which he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949 by the Library of Congress. However the event caused enormous controversy due to his antisemitism, pro-Fascist activism and wartime activities. He was imprisioned, and only released in 1958 after which he returned to Italy to finish out his life with his mistress Olga Rudge. He died in Florence, on November 1st, 1972.
Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho Territory, the only child of Homer Loomis Pound (1858–1942) and Isabel Weston (1860–1948). Both parents' ancestors had emigrated from England in the 17th century. On his father's side, John Pound, a Quaker, sailed from England around 1650. His grandfather, Thaddeus Coleman Pound (1832–1914), was a retired Republican Congressman for north-west Wisconsin who had made and lost a fortune in the lumber business. His son Homer, Pound's father, worked for Thaddeus who later secured his appointment as Register of the Government Land Office in Hailey. On his mother's side, Pound was descended from William Wadsworth, a Puritan who emigrated from England to Boston on the Lyon in 1632. The Wadsworths married into the Westons of New York, and Harding Weston and Mary Parker had Isabel Weston, Pound's mother. Harding apparently spent most of his life without work, so his brother, Ezra Weston and his wife, Frances, looked after Mary and Isabel's needs.
Isabel was unhappy living in Hailey; when her son was 18 months old she brought him back East. Homer followed them, and in 1889 took a job as an assayer at the Philadelphia Mint. The family moved to 417 Walnut Street in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, then in July 1893 bought a six-bedroom house in Wyncote.
Pound's early education took place in a series of so-called dame schools, some of them run by Quakers: Miss Elliott's school in Jenkintown in 1892; the Misses Heacock's Chelten Hills school in Wyncote in 1893; and the Florence Ridpath school from 1894, which became the Wyncote Public School a year later. Between 1898 and 1900 he attended the Cheltenham Military Academy, where the boys were forced to ware Civil War-style uniforms and taught military drilling, how to shoot and the importance of submitting to authority. Pound a was clever, independent-minded, conceited and unpopular attendant. He realised early on that he wanted to be a poet, and his first publication was a limerick satirising the American politician William Jennings Bryan, who had just lost the presidential election: By E.L. Pound, Wyncote, Aged 11 years: "There was a young man from the West, / He did what he could for what he thought best."
Pound's first trip overseas came two years later when he was 13, a three-month tour of Europe with his mother and Aunt Frances, who took him to England, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. He was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania's College School of Arts (now the College of Arts & Science) in 1901 at the age of 15:
I resolved that at 30 I would know more about poetry than any man living, that I would know what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of poetry was "indestructible," what part could not be lost by translation and – scarcely less important – what effects were obtainable in one language only and were utterly incapable of being translated.
In this search I learned more or less of nine foreign languages, I read Oriental stuff in translations, I fought every University regulation and every professor who tried to make me learn anything except this, or who bothered me with "requirements for degrees."
He met Hilda Doolittle at the University of Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of the professor of astronomy, and later became known as the poet H.D. Doolittle wrote that she felt her life was irrevocably intertwined with Pound's; she followed him to Europe in 1908, leaving her family, friends, and country for little benefit to herself, and became involved with Pound in developing the Imagism movement in London. He asked her to marry him in the summer of 1907, though her father refused permission, and wrote several poems for her between 1905 and 1907, twenty five of which he hand-bound and called Hilda's Book. He was seeing two other women at the same time – Viola Baxter and Mary Moore – later dedicating a book of poetry, Personae (1909), to the latter. He asked Mary to marry him that summer too, but she turned him down.
With his parents and Frances Weston, Pound took another three-month European tour in 1902, after which he transferred to Hamilton College – possibly because of poor grades – where he studied the Provençal dialect with William Pierce Shephard, and Old English with Joseph D. Ibbotson. At Hamilton with Shephard he read Dante and from this began the idea for a long poem in three parts – of emotion, instruction and contemplation – planting the seeds for The Cantos.
He graduated with a BPhil in 1905, then studied Romance languages under Hugo A. Rennert at the University of Pennsylvania, obtaining his M.A. in the spring of 1906. He registered as a PhD student to write a thesis on the jesters in Lope de Vega's plays, and was awarded a Harrison fellowship and a travel grant of $500, which he used to return to Europe. He spent three weeks in Madrid in various libraries, including one in the royal palace; he was actually standing outside the palace during the attempted assassination on 31 May 1906 by anarchists of King Alfonso, and left the country for fear he would be identified with them. He moved on to Paris, spending two weeks in lectures at the Sorbonne, followed by a week in London.
He returned to the U.S. in July. His first essay, "Raphaelite Latin", was published in Book News Monthly that September. In 1907, at the university, he greatly annoyed Felix Schelling, the head of English, with sly remarks during lectures – insisting that George Bernard Shaw was better than Shakespeare, and taking out an enormous tin watch and winding it with slow precision – and his fellowship was not renewed at the end of the year. Moreover, Schelling told Pound he was wasting his own time and that of the institution; Pound abandoned his dissertation and left without finishing his doctorate.
In the fall of 1907 he took a job as a teacher of Romance languages in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a conservative town he later described as the sixth circle of hell. The college was equally conservative; he was dismissed for provoking college authorities; smoking was forbidden, and he was wont to enjoy cigarillos in his office down the corridor from the president's. He annoyed his landlords by entertaining friends, including women, and was forced out of one house after "[t]wo stewdents found me sharing my meagre repast with a lady gent impersonator in my privut apartments". He was eventually caught in flagrante, although the details remain unclear and he denied any wrongdoing. The incident involved a stranded chorus girl to whom he offered tea and his bed for the night when she was caught in a snowstorm. She was discovered the next morning by the landladies, Misses Ida and Belle Hall, and his insistence that he had slept on the floor was met with disbelief, whereupon he was asked to leave the college. Glad to be free of the place, he left for Europe soon after.
Pound returned to Europe in the spring, arriving in Gibraltar in April with $80 in his pocket, but during the next few months earned money as a guide to American tourists. He sent poems to Harper's Magazine and began writing fiction that he hoped he could sell, and by the summer was in Venice, living over a bakery near the San Vio bridge. In July he self-published his first book of poetry, the 72-page A Lume Spento (With Tapers Spent), which sold 100 copies at six cents each. The London Evening Standard called it "wild and haunting stuff, absolutely poetic, original, imaginative." The title was from the third canto of Dante's Purgatorio, alluding to both the excommunicate Manfred's death, and to that of his friend, the Philadelphia artist William Brooke Smith, who died of consumption in his 20s.
In August he moved to London, where he ended up staying almost continuously for 12 years. He wanted to meet W.B. Yeats, the greatest living poet in Pound's view, and they became close friends, although Yeats was older by 20 years. He had sent Yeats a copy of A Lume Spento, and Yeats had replied that he found it charming. Pound told William Carlos Williams, a friend from university: "London, deah old Lundon, is the place for poesy." English poets such as Maurice Hewlett, Rudyard Kipling, and Alfred Lord Tennyson had made a particular kind of Victorian verse – stirring, pompous, and propagandistic – popular with the public. James Knapp writes that Pound wanted to focus on the individual experience, the particular, the concrete, and rejected the idea of poetry as versified moral essay. Arriving in the city with ₤3, he first rented a room at 8 Duchess Street in the West End, then later at 48 Langham Street, near Great Titchfield Street, just a penny bus-ride from the British Museum. The house (see right) sat across an alley from the Yorkshire Grey pub, which made an appearance decades later in the Pisan Cantos, "concerning the landlady's doings / with a lodger unnamed / az waz near Gt Titchfield St. next door to the pub".
Pound persuaded the bookseller Elkin Mathews – publisher of Yeats's Wind Among the Reeds and the Book of the Rhymer's Club – to display A Lume Spento, and by October 1908 he had caught the attention of the literati. In December he published a second collection, A Quinzaine for This Yule, and after the death of a lecturer at the Regent Street Polytechnic managed to acquire a lecturing position in the evenings from January to February 1909 on "The Development of Literature in Southern Europe". He would spend his mornings in the British Museum Reading Room, followed by lunch at the Vienna Café on Oxford Street. Ford Madox Ford described him – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – as "approach[ing] with the step of a dancer, making passes with a cane at an imaginary opponent. Pound was a flamboyant dresser at this stage, and had trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie hand-painted by a Japanese friend, and an immense sombrero. All this was accompanied by a flaming beard cut to a point, and a single, large blue earring."
Pound met the novelist Olivia Shakespear – Yeats's former lover – at a literary salon in January 1909. He was invited to attend her Tuesday salons where he was introduced to Dorothy, Olivia's daughter, who became his wife in 1914. Through Shakespear he was introduced to Yeats, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wyndham Lewis and the cream of London's literary circle. Another patron was the American heiress Margaret Lanier Cravens (1881–1912), who after knowing him a short time offered a large annual sum to allow him to focus on his work. Cravens killed herself in 1912, probably because the pianist Walter Rummel, long the object of her affection, married someone else, but possibly also because she learned of Pound's engagement to Dorothy.
In June 1909 his Personae collection was published by Mathews, Pound's first publication to have any commercial success. It was favouably reviewed by The Daily Telegraph and the Times Literary Supplement among others; they said it was full of passion and "magic". Rupert Brooke was unimpressed in his critique in The Cambridge Review. He complaining that Pound had fallen under the influence of Walt Whitman, writing in "unmetrical sprawling lengths". In September a further 27 poems appeared as Exultations, dedicated to Carlos Tracey Chester who had published his essay in Book News Monthly in 1906. Around the same time he moved into new rooms at Church Walk, off Kensington High Street, where he lived most of the time until 1914. His first book of literary criticism, The Spirit of Romance, was published in 1910, based on his lectures at the polytechnic; others included Instigations (1920), Indiscretions (1923), "How to Read" (1931), ABC of Reading (1934), Make It New (1934), Polite Essays (1937), and Guide to Kulchur (1938).
In June 1910 Pound returned to the United States for eight months, in part to persuade the New York Public Library, then being built, to change its design. The New York Times wrote that he almost daily visited the architects' offices to shout at them. His essays on America were written during this period, and were compiled as Patria Mia, published in 1950. He loved New York but no longer felt at home there. He felt the city was threatened by commercialism and vulgarity. He suffered jaundice but nevertheless persuaded his parents to finance his passage back to Europe. It was nearly 30 years before he visited the United States again. On 22 February 1911 he sailed from New York on the R.M.S. Mauretania, arriving in Southampton six days later. After a few days in London, he visited Paris again, where he worked on a new collection of poetry, Canzoni (1911), panned by the Westminster Gazette as a "medley of pretension", and spent time with Margaret Cravens. When he returned to London in August 1911, A.R. Orage, editor of the socialist journal The New Age, hired him to write a weekly column, giving him a steadier income.
Hilda Doolittle visited London in May 1911 and decided to stay. Pound introduced her to his friends, including the poet Richard Aldington, whom she married in 1913. Before then, the three of them lived in Church Walk – Pound at no. 10, Doolittle at no. 6, and Aldington at no. 8 – and worked daily in the British Museum Reading Room.
At the museum he also met regularly with the curator and poet Laurence Binyon, who introduced him to the East Asian artistic and literary concepts that would become so vital to the imagery and technique of his later poetry. The museum's visitors' books show that Pound was often to be found during 1912 and 1913 in the Print Room examining Japanese Nishiki-e inscribed with traditional Japanese waka verse, a 10th-century genre of poetry whose economy and strict conventions undoubtedly contributed to Imagist techniques of composition. Pound was at that time working on the poems that became Ripostes (1912), trying to move away from his earlier work, which he wrote later had reduced Ford Madox Ford in 1911 to rolling on the floor laughing at Pound's stilted language. He realized with his translation work that the problem lay not in his knowledge of the other languages, but in his use of English:
What obfuscated me was not the Italian but the crust of dead English, the sediment present in my own available vocabulary ... You can't go round this sort of thing. It takes six or eight years to get educated in one's art, and another ten to get rid of that education.
Neither can anyone learn English, one can only learn a series of Englishes. Rossetti made his own language. I hadn't in 1910 made a language, I don't mean a language to use, but even a language to think in.
He understood that to change the structure of your language is to change the way you think and see the world. While living at Church Walk in 1912, Pound, Aldington, and Doolittle started working on ideas about language that became the Imagism movement. The aim was clarity: a fight against abstraction, romanticism, rhetoric, inversion of word order, and over-use of adjectives. Pound later said they agreed in the spring or early summer of 1912 on three principles:
1. Direct treatment of the "thing" whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
Superfluous words, particularly adjectives, were to be avoided, as were expressions like "dim lands of peace," which he said dulled the image by mixing the abstract with the concrete. He wrote that the natural object was always the "adequate symbol." Poets should "go in fear of abstractions," and should not re-tell in mediocre verse what has already been told in good prose. A classic example of the style is Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" (1913), inspired by an experience on the Paris Underground. "I got out of a train at, I think, La Concorde, and in the jostle I saw a beautiful face, and then, turning suddenly, another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful face. All that day I tried to find words for what this made me feel." He worked on the poem for a year, reducing it to its essence in the style of a Japanese haiku.
Ripostes, published in October 1912, marks Pound's move toward more minimalist language, though Knapp describes it as an uncertain volume, published when Pound had only begun his move toward Imagism; his first use of the word Imagiste was, however, in his prefatory note to the volume. Michael Alexander writes that the poems show a greater concentration of meaning and economy of rhythm than his earlier work. The collection includes five poems by the British poet T.E. Hulme, killed in Flanders in 1917 during the First World War to Pound's great distress. It also includes his translation of the 8th-century Old English poem The Seafarer, not a literal translation, but a personal interpretation and a poem in its own right. It upset scholars, as did his other translations from Latin, Italian, French, and Chinese, either because of errors or because he lacked familiarity with the cultural context. Alexander writes that in some circles his translations made him more unpopular than the treason charge, and the reaction to The Seafarer was a rehearsal for the response to Homage to Sextus Propertius in 1919. His translation from the Italian of Sonnets and ballate of Guido Cavalcanti was also published in 1912.
Pound became fascinated by the translations of Japanese poetry and Noh plays which he found in the papers of Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908), an American professor who had taught in Japan. Fenollosa had studied Chinese poetry under Japanese scholars, and in 1913 his widow, Mary McNeil Fenollosa, decided to give his unpublished notes to Pound after seeing his work; she said she was looking for someone who cared about the poetry, rather than the philology.
Pound edited and published Fenellosa's The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry in 1918. Pound knew no Chinese himself, and was working from the posthumous notes of an American who had studied Chinese under a Japanese teacher. Nevertheless, Alexander writes that there are competent judges of Chinese and English poetry who see Pound's work as the best translations of Chinese to English poetry ever made, though scholars have complained that it contains many mistakes, even more than The Seafarer. The title page of the collection Cathay (1915), refers to the poet "Rihaku," the pronunciation in Japanese of the Tang dynasty Chinese poet, Li Bai, whose poems were much beloved in China and Japan for their technical mastery and much translated in the west because of their seeming simplicity. The volume is in Alexander's view the most attractive volume of Pound's work. Wai-lim Yip of the Chinese University of Hong Kong writes: "One can easily excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies, but it seems clear that in his dealings with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get into the central concerns of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance."
This volume was the first of many translations Pound would make from the Chinese. Pound used Fenollosa's work as a starting point for what he called the ideogrammic method which proceeded on Fenellosa's entirely mistaken but fruitful idea that each character represented an image rather than a phonetic and meaningless transcription.
In August 1912 Harriet Monroe hired Pound as a regular contributor to Poetry. He submitted his own poems, as well as poems by James Joyce, Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, Yeats, H.D. and Aldington, and collected material for a 64-page anthology, Des Imagistes (1914). The Imagist movement began to attract attention from critics. In November 1913 Yeats took Pound to stay with him in rooms he rented in Stone Cottage in Coleman's Hatch, Sussex, to act as his secretary – Yeats's eyesight was failing – and they stayed there for 10 weeks, reading and writing, walking in the woods, and fencing for exercise. It was the first of three winters they spent there together, including two with Dorothy after she and Pound were married on 20 April 1914.
The marriage went ahead despite opposition from her parents, who worried about Pound's meager income. His only earnings came from contributions to literary magazines and probably amounted to less than £300 a year. Dorothy's income was £50 of her own and £150 from her family. Her parents eventually consented, perhaps out of fear that she was getting older and no other suitor was in sight. Pound's concession to marry in church helped. Afterwards he and Dorothy moved into a large – famously triangular – room with no bathroom at 5 Holland Place Chambers, near Church Walk, with the newly wed Hilda and Richard Aldington living next door.
Pound used several pseudonyms when he contributed to The Egoist. One he created around 1914 was "Ming Mao", with "ming" (明) being the Chinese hanzi for bright and "mao" (毛) for "feather" or "hair". Using that name, under the Egoist, for the 15 December 1914 issue, Pound contributed the article "The Words of Ming Mao ʻLeast among the Disciples of Kung-Fu-Tse", a rebuttal to William Loftus Hare's essay on Yang Zhu that was published in the previous issue of the same magazine.
Pound began writing for Wyndham Lewis's literary magazine BLAST; only two issues ever appeared, the first in June 1914 and the second a year later. An advertisement in The Egoist said it would discuss "Cubism, Futurism, Imagisme and all Vital Forms of Modern Art." Pound took the opportunity to extend the definition of Imagisme to art, naming it Vorticism: "The image is a radiant node or cluster; it is ... a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." When in reaction to the magazine, Lascelles Abercrombie called for the rejection of Imagism and a return to the traditionalism of William Wordsworth, Pound challenged him to a duel on the basis that, "Stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace." Abercrombie suggested as their choice of weapon unsold copies of their own books. The publication of BLAST was celebrated at a dinner attended by New England poet Amy Lowell, who came to London to meet the Imagists, but Hilda and Richard were already moving away from Pound's understanding of the movement, as he moved closer to Wyndham Lewis's ideas. When Lowell agreed to finance an anthology of Imagist poets, Pound's work was not included. He began to call Imagisme "Amygism," and in July 1914 declared it dead, asking only that the term be preserved, although Lowell eventually Anglicized it.
Between 1914 and 1916 he helped to have James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man serialized in The Egoist, then published in book form, and he persuaded Poetry to publish T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in June 1915. Conrad Aiken writes that he had shown "Prufrock" to every conceivable editor in England, but it was dismissed as crazy. He eventually sent it to Pound who, Aiken writes, instantly saw that it was a work of genius and sent it to Poetry. "[Eliot] has actually trained himself AND modernized himself ON HIS OWN," Pound wrote to Monroe in October 1914. "The rest of the promising young have done one or the other but never both. Most of the swine have done neither."
After the publication in 1915 of Cathay, Pound began to speak of working on his long poem. He told a friend in August: "It is a huge, I was going to say, gamble, but shan't," and in September told another that it was a "cryselephantine poem of immeasurable length which will occupy me for the next four decades unless it becomes a bore." About a year later, he had the form of the first three attempts at Canto I, published in Poetry in January 1917. He was now a regular contributor to three literary magazines. From 1917 he wrote music reviews for The New Age under the pen name William Atheling, and weekly pieces for The Little Review and The Egoist. The volume of writing exhausted him, and he began to believe he was wasting his time with prose.
In 1919 he collected and published his essays for The Little Review into a volume called Instigations, and published "Homage to Sextus Propertius" in Poetry. "Homage" is not a strict translation; Moody describes it as "the refraction of an ancient poet through a modern intelligence". Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, published a letter from a professor of Latin, W.G. Hale, saying that Pound was "incredibly ignorant" of the language, and alluded to "about three-score errors" in Homage. Harriet did not publish Pound's response, which began "Cat-piss and porcupines!!" and continued, "The thing is no more a translation than my 'Altaforte' is a translation, or than Fitzgerald's Omar is a translation ..." But she interpreted his silence after that as his resignation as foreign editor.
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley – about a poet whose life, like Pound's, has become sterile and meaningless – was published in June 1920, marking his farewell to London. He was disgusted by the lives lost during the war and could not reconcile himself with it. Stephen Adams writes that, just as T. S. Eliot denied he was Prufrock, so Pound denied he was Mauberley, but the poem, made up of 18 short poems, is nevertheless read as autobiographical. It begins with a satirical analysis of the London literary scene, then turns to social criticism and economics, and an attack on the causes of the war, the word "usury" appearing in his work for the first time. The critic F. R. Leavis saw it as Pound's major achievement.
The war had shattered Pound's belief in modern western civilization. He saw the Vorticist movement as finished and doubted his own future as a poet. He had only the New Age to write for, with other magazines ignoring his submissions or not reviewing his work. Toward the end of 1920 he and Dorothy decided their time in London was over, and resolved to move to Paris. A. R. Orage wrote in the January 1921 issue of The New Age:
Mr. Pound has shaken the dust of London from his feet with not too emphatic a gesture of disgust, but, at least, without gratitude to this country .... Mr. Pound has been an exhilarating influence for culture in England ... however, Mr. Pound ... has made more enemies than friends. Much of the Press has been deliberately closed by cabal to him; his books have for some time been ignored or written down; and he himself has been compelled to live on much less than would support a navvy.
The Pounds settled in Paris in January 1921 in an inexpensive apartment at 70 bis, rue Notre Dame des Champs. He became friendly with Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Fernand Léger and others of the Dada and Surrealist movements, as well as Basil Bunting, Ernest Hemingway, and his wife Hadley. He spent most of his time building furniture for his apartment and bookshelves for the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and in 1921 his Poems 1918–1921 was published. In 1922 Eliot sent him the manuscript of "The Waste Land"; he had arrived in Paris to edit it with Pound who blue-inked the manuscript with comments like "make up yr. mind ..." and "georgian." Eliot wrote: "I should like to think that the manuscript, with the suppressed passages, had disappeared irrecoverably; yet, on the other hand, I should wish the blue pencilling on it to be preserved as irrefutable evidence of Pound's critical genius."
In 1924 Pound secured funding for Ford Madox Ford's transatlantic review from American attorney John Quinn. The review published works by Pound, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, as well as extracts from Joyce's Finnegans Wake, before the money ran out in 1925. The review published a number of Pound music reviews, later collected into Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony.
Hemingway asked Pound, who had gained a reputation as "an unofficial minister of culture who acted as mid-wife for new literary talent", to blue-ink his short stories. Although Hemingway was 14 years younger, the two forged a relationship of mutual respect and friendship, living on the same street for a time, and touring Italy together in 1923; as Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers writes, "They liked each other personally, shared the same aesthetic aims, and admired each other's work", with Hemingway assuming the status of pupil to Pound's teaching. Pound introduced Hemingway to Lewis, Ford, and Joyce, while Hemingway in turn tried to teach Pound to box, but as he told Sherwood Anderson, "[Ezra] habitually leads with his chin and has the general grace of a crayfish or crawfish".
Pound was 36 when he met the American violinist Olga Rudge in Paris in the fall of 1922, beginning a love affair that lasted 50 years. John Tytell writes that Pound had always felt there was a link between his creativity and his ability to seduce women, something Dorothy had turned a blind eye to over the years. He complained shortly after arriving in Paris that he had been there for three months without having managed to find a mistress. He was introduced to Olga, then 26, at a musical salon hosted by American heiress Natalie Barney in her home at 20 rue Jacob, near the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The two moved in different social circles: she was the daughter of a wealthy Youngstown, Ohio steel family, living in her mother's Parisian apartment on the Right Bank, socializing with aristocrats, while his friends were mostly impoverished writers of the Left Bank. The two spent the following summer in the south of France, where he worked with George Antheil to apply the concept of Vorticism to music, and managed to write two operas, including Le Testament de Villon. He also wrote pieces for solo violin, which Olga performed.
The Pounds were unhappy in Paris; Dorothy complained about the winters and Ezra's health was poor. At a dinner a guest randomly tried to stab him, to him it underlined that their time in France was over. Hemingway observed that Pound "indulged in a small nervous breakdown" leading to two days in an American Hospital. They decided to move to a quieter place, and chose Rapallo, Italy, a town with a population of 15,000. "Italy is my place for starting things," he told a friend. During this period they lived on Dorothy's income, supplemented by dividends from stock she had invested in.
Olga Rudge followed them to Paris, carrying Pound's child. She apparently had no interest in raising a child, but may have felt that having one would maintain her connection to him. She gave birth to a daughter, Mary, on 9 July 1925 in Brixen, and the baby was handed over to a German-speaking peasant woman whose own child had died, and who agreed to raise Mary (later de Rachewiltz) for 200 lire a month.
When Pound told Dorothy about the birth she separated from him for much of that year and the next, and in March 1926 – after returning from a three-month visit to Egypt – she announced that she too was pregnant. She and Pound left Rapallo for Paris for the premiere of Le Testament de Villon, without mentioning the pregnancy to Pound's friends or parents, and on 10 September 1926 Hemingway drove Dorothy to the American Hospital of Paris for the birth of a son, Omar. In a letter to his parents in October Pound wrote, "next generation (male) arrived. Both D & it appear to be doing well." Dorothy handed the baby over to her mother, Olivia, who raised him in London until he was old enough to go to boarding school. When Dorothy went to England each summer to see Omar, Pound would spend the time with Olga, whose father had bought her a house in Venice. The arrangement meant his children were raised very differently. Mary had one pair of shoes and books about Jesus and the saints, while Omar was raised as an English gentleman in Kensington by his sophisticated grandmother.
In 1925 the literary magazine This Quarter dedicated its first issue to Pound, including tributes from Hemingway and Joyce. Pound published Cantos 17–19 in the winter editions. In March 1927 he launched his own literary magazine, The Exile, but only four issues were published. It did well in the first year, with contributions from Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, Basil Bunting, Yeats, William Carlos Williams and Robert McAlmon. J. J. Wilhelm argues that some of the worst work came from Pound himself in the form of rambling editorials about Confucianism and praise of Lenin. He continued to work on Fenollosa's manuscripts, and in 1928 won The Dial's poetry award for his translation of the Confucian classic Great Learning (Dà Xué, which Pound transliterated as Ta Hio). That year Homer and Isabel visited him in Rapallo. They had not seen him since 1914, and by then Homer had retired so they decided to move to Rapallo themselves, taking a small house, Villa Raggio, on a hill above the town.
Pound's work on The Cantos began in earnest after his move to Italy. It's narrative explores good and evil, via a descent into hell followed by a progressopn to paradise. Its hundreds of characters fall into three groups: those who enjoy hell and stay there; those who experience a metamorphosis and want to leave; and a few who lead the rest to paradiso terrestre. He began work on it in 1915, but there were several false starts and he abandoned most of his earlier drafts, beginning again in 1922. The first three cantos, now known as the ur-Cantos, appeared in Poetry in June–August 1917. The Malatesta Cantos (Cantos VIII, IX, X, and XI of a Long Poem) appeared in The Criterion in July 1923, and two further cantos were published in the transatlantic review in January 1924. Pound published 90 copies in Paris in 1925 A Draft of XVI. Cantos of Ezra Pound for the Beginning of a Poem of some Length now first made into a Book. It was followed by A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930), Eleven New Cantos XXI–XLI (1934), The Fifth Decade of Cantos (1937), Cantos LII–LXXI (1940), The Pisan Cantos (1948), written while in custody in Pisa, and Seventy Cantos (1950). The first complete edition was published in 1964 as The Cantos (1–109), followed by Drafts and Fragments: Cantos CX-CXVII (1968).
Pound came to believe during the 1920s that the cause of the First World War was finance capitalism, which he called "usury", and that the solution was C.H. Douglas's idea of social credit, with fascism as the vehicle for reform; he had met Douglas in The New Age offices and had been impressed by his ideas. He presented a series of lectures on economics, and made contact with politicians in the United States about education, interstate commerce and international affairs. Although Hemingway advised against it, on 30 January 1933 Pound met Mussolini himself. Olga Rudge had played for Mussolini and had told him about Pound; Pound had already sent him a copy of Cantos XXX. During the meeting he tried to present Mussolini with a digest of his economic ideas, but Tytell writes that Mussolini brushed them aside, though he called the Cantos "divertente" (entertaining). The meeting was recorded in Canto 41: "'Ma questo' / said the boss, 'è divertente.'". Pound told Douglas that he had "never met anyone who seemed to GET my ideas so quickly as the boss."
A number of Pound's books were published in the 1930s, including ABC of Economics (1933), ABC of Reading (1934), Social Credit: An Impact (1935), Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1936), and A Guide to Kulchur (1938). In 1936 James Laughlin – who had visited him in Rapallo in 1933 as a 20-year-old student – set up New Directions Publishing, and acted as Pound's agent, finding publications to accept his work and writing reviews.
When Dorothy's mother died in October 1938 in London, Dorothy asked Pound to organize the funeral, where he met their 12-year-old son Omar for the first time in eight years. He visited T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, who produced a now-famous portrait of Pound reclining. In April 1939 he sailed for New York, believing he could stop America from involvement in the Second World War, happy to answer reporters' questions about Mussolini while he lounged on the deck of the ship in a tweed jacket. He traveled to Washington, D.C. where he met senators and congressmen. Mary said he did it out of a sense of responsibility, rather than megalomania; he was offered no encouragement, and left depressed and frustrated.
In 1939, Pound received an honorary doctorate from Hamilton College, and a week later he returned to Italy from the States and began writing antisemitic material for Italian newspapers, including one entitled "The Jews, Disease Incarnate." He wrote to James Laughlin that Roosevelt represented Jewry, and signed the letter "Heil Hitler." He started writing for Action, a newspaper owned by the British fascist, Sir Oswald Mosley, arguing that the Third Reich was the "natural civilizer of Russia." After war broke out in September that year, he began a furious letter-writing campaign to the politicians he had petitioned six months earlier, arguing that the war was the result of an international banking conspiracy, and that the United States should keep out of it.
You let in the Jew and the Jew rotted your empire, and you yourselves out-jewed the Jew ... And the big Jew has rotted EVERY nation he has wormed into.
—from one of Pound's radio broadcasts, 15 March 1942
According to Tytell, during the 1940s Pound became the most politically active American or English poet since William Blake. He had written over a thousand letters a year during the previous decade, and had presented his ideas in hundreds of articles, extending his thoughts in The Cantos. Tytell believes Pound's greatest fear was an economic structure dependent on the armaments industry, where the profit motive governed war and peace. He read George Santayana and The Law of Civilization and Decay by Brooks Adams, finding confirmation of the danger of the capitalist and usurer becoming dominant. He wrote in The Japan Times that "Democracy is now currently defined in Europe as a 'country run by Jews,'" and told Oswald Mosley's newspaper the English were a slave race governed by the Rothschilds since Waterloo.
Pound broadcast over Rome Radio, though the Italian government was at first reluctant, concerned he might be a double agent. He told a friend: "It took me, I think it was, TWO years, insistence and wrangling etc., to GET HOLD of their microphone." He recorded just over a hundred broadcasts, and traveled to Rome one week a month to pre-record the 10-minute broadcasts, for which he was paid around $17. The broadcasts required the Italian government's approval in advance, though he often changed the text in the studio. The politics apart, he needed the money. Tytell writes that his voice had assumed a "rasping, buzzing quality like the sound of a hornet stuck in a jar." He continued to occasionally broadcast, and writing under pseudonyms until about April 1945, shortly before his arrest.
A few weeks later he returned south via Milan to Olga and Dorothy. They had been living in Isabel's apartment, but it was small so they decided to move in with Olga at Sant' Ambrogio. His daughter Mary, then 19, was sent to Gais in Switzerland, leaving Pound, as she wrote, "pent up with two women who loved him, whom he loved, and who coldly hated each other." He was in Rome when the Allies landed in Sicily in July 1943. Pound borrowed a pair of hiking boots and a knapsack and left the city, having finally decided to tell Mary about his wife and son. He walked 450 miles north, spending a night in an air raid shelter in Bologna, and taking a train part of the way to Verona. She almost failed to recognize him when he arrived, he was so dirty and tired. He told her everything about his other family; she later said she felt more pity than anger.
He returned to Rapallo, where on 2 May 1945, four days after Mussolini was shot, armed partisans arrived at the house while Pound was there alone. He stuffed a copy of Confucius and a Chinese dictionary in his pocket, and was taken to their headquarters in Chiavari, although he was released shortly afterwards. He and Olga then gave themselves up to an American military post in the nearby town of Lavagna.
It was decided that Pound should be transported to U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps headquarters in Genoa, where he was interrogated by Frank L. Amprin, the FBI agent assigned by J. Edgar Hoover to gather evidence following the 1943 indictment. Pound asked permission to send a cable to President Truman to offer to help negotiate peace with Japan. He also asked to deliver a final broadcast from a script called "Ashes of Europe Calling", in which he recommended peace with Japan, American management of Italy, the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, and leniency toward Germany. His requests were denied and the script forwarded to Hoover.
On 8 May, the day Germany surrendered, he told a reporter from the Philadelphia Record who had managed to get into the compound for an interview that Hitler was "a Jeanne d'Arc, a saint", and that Mussolini was an "imperfect character who lost his head". On 24 May he was transferred to the United States Army Disciplinary Training Center north of Pisa, used to house military personnel awaiting court martial. The temporary commander placed him in one of the camp's "death cells", a series of six-by-six-foot outdoor steel cages lit up all night by floodlights. He was left for three weeks in isolation in the heat, denied exercise, eyes inflamed by dust, no bed, no belt, no shoelaces, and no communication with the guards, except for the chaplain. Pound claimed that after two and a half weeks he began to break down under the strain. Richard Sieburth writes that he recorded it in Canto 80, where Odysseus is saved from drowning by Leucothea: "hast'ou swum in a sea of air strip / through an aeon of nothingness, / when the raft broke and the waters went over me." Medical staff moved him out of the cage the following week. On 14 and 15 June he was examined by psychiatrists, one of whom found symptoms of a mental breakdown, and he was transferred to his own officer's tent and allowed reading material. He began to write, and drafted what became known as The Pisan Cantos; the existence of a few sheets of toilet paper showing the beginning of Canto LXXXIV suggests he started it while in the cage.
On 15 November 1945, Pound was transferred to the United States. An escorting officer's impression was that "he is an intellectual 'crackpot' who imagined that he could correct all the economic ills of the world and who resented the fact that ordinary mortals were not sufficiently intelligent to understand his aims and motives." On 25 November he was arraigned in Washington D.C. on charges of treason. The charges included broadcasting for the enemy, attempting to persuade American citizens to undermine government support of the war, and strengthening morale in Italy against the United States.
He was admitted to St. Elizabeths Hospital – where in June 1946 Dorothy was declared his legal guardian – and held for a time in the hospital's prison ward, Howard's Hall, known as the "hell-hole," a building without windows in a room with a thick steel door and nine peepholes, which allowed the psychiatrists to observe him while they tried to agree on a diagnosis. Visitors were allowed only for 15 minutes at a time, while other patients wandered around outside the room screaming and frothing at the mouth, according to T. S. Eliot. A panel of psychiatrists eventually settled on a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Pound's lawyer, Julien Cornell, whose efforts to have him declared insane are credited with having saved him from life imprisonment, requested his release at a bail hearing in January 1947. The hospital's superintendent, Winfred Overholser, agreed instead to move him to the more pleasant surroundings of Chestnut Ward, close to Overholser's private quarters, which is where he spent the next 12 years. The historian Stanley Kutler was given access in the 1980s to military intelligence and other government documents about Pound, including his hospital records, and wrote that the psychiatrists believed Pound had a narcissistic personality, but they considered him sane. Kutler said that Overholser protected Pound from the criminal justice system because he was fascinated by him.
Tytell argues that Pound was in his element in Chestnut Ward. He was at last provided for, and was allowed to read, write, and receive visitors, including Dorothy for several hours a day. He took over a small alcove with wicker chairs just outside his room, and turned it into his private living room, where he entertained his friends and important literary figures. He began work on his translation of Sophocles's Women of Trachis and Electra, and continued work on The Cantos. It reached the point where he refused to discuss any attempt to have him released. Olga Rudge visited him twice, once in 1952 and again in 1955, and was unable to convince him to be more assertive about his release. She wrote to a friend: "E.P. has ... bats in the belfry but it strikes me that he has fewer not more than before his incarceration."
James Laughlin had Cantos 74–84 ready for publication in 1946 under the title The Pisan Cantos, and even gave Pound an advance copy, but he had held it back, waiting for an appropriate time to publish. Tytell writes that in June 1948 a group of Pound's friends – Eliot, Cummings, W. H. Auden, Allen Tate, and Julien Cornell – met Laughlin to discuss how to get him released. According to the poet Archibald MacLeish, the men conceived a plan to have Pound awarded the first Bollingen Prize, a new national poetry award just announced by the Library of Congress, with $1,000 prize money donated by the Mellon family. The awards committee consisted of 15 fellows of the Library of Congress, including several of Pound's supporters, such as Eliot, Tate, Conrad Aiken, Amy Lowell, Katherine Anne Porter, and Theodore Spencer. The idea was that the Justice Department would be placed in an untenable position if Pound won a major award and was not released.
Laughlin published The Pisan Cantos on 30 July 1948, and the following year the prize went to Pound. There were two dissenting voices, Katherine Garrison Chapin, the wife of Francis Biddle, the Attorney General who had indicted Pound for treason, and Karl Shapiro, who said that he could not vote for an antisemite because he was Jewish himself. Pound's response to the news of the award was, "No comment from the bughouse."
There was uproar. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted critics who said "poetry [cannot] convert words into maggots that eat at human dignity and still be good poetry." Robert Hillyer, a Pulitzer Prize winner and president of the Poetry Society of America, attacked the committee in The Saturday Review of Literature, telling journalists that he "never saw anything to admire in Pound, not one line." Congressman Jacob K. Javits demanded an investigation into the awards committee, and as a result it was the last time the prize was administered by the Library of Congress.
Although Pound repudiated his antisemitism in public, Tytell writes that in private it continued. He often refused to talk to psychiatrists with Jewish-sounding names, and would refer to people he disliked dismissivly as "Jews", urging visitors to read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), a forgery claiming to represent a Jewish plan for world domination. He struck up a friendship during the 1950s with the writer Eustace Mullins, believed to be associated with the Aryan League of America, who wrote a biography of Pound, This Difficult Individual, Ezra Pound (1961).
Even more damaging was his friendship with a far-right activist and member of the Ku Klux Klan, John Kasper. Kasper had come to admire Pound during some literature classes at university, and after he wrote to Pound in 1950 the two became friends. Kasper opened a bookstore in Greenwich Village in 1953 called "Make it New," reflecting his commitment to Pound's ideas; it specialized in far-right material, including Nazi literature, and Pound's poetry and translations were displayed in the window. Kasper and another follower of Pound's, David Horton, set up a publishing imprint, Square Dollar Series, which Pound used as a vehicle for his tracts about economic reform. Wilhelm writes that there were a lot of perfectly respectable people visiting Pound too, such as the classicist J.P. Sullivan and the writer Guy Davenport, but it was the association with Mullins and Kasper that stood out. The relationships delayed his release from St Elizabeths. In an interview for the Paris Review in 1954, when asked by interviewer George Plimpton about Pound's relationship with Kasper, Hemingway replied that Pound should be released and Kasper jailed. Kasper was eventually jailed for the 1957 bombing of the Hattie Cotton School in Nashville, targeted because a black girl had registered as a student.
Pound's friends continued to try to get him out. Shortly after Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, he told Time magazine that "this would be a good year to release poets." MacLeish asked him in June 1957 to write a letter on Pound's behalf; Hemingway believed Pound was unable to abstain from awkward political statements or from friendships with people like Kasper, but he signed a letter of support anyway, and pledged $1,500 to be given to Pound when he was released. In 1957 several publications began campaigning for his release. Le Figaro published an appeal entitled "The Lunatic at St Elizabeths". The New Republic, Esquire and The Nation followed suit; The Nation argued that Pound was a sick and vicious old man, but that he had rights also. In 1958 MacLeish hired Thurman Arnold, a prestigious lawyer who ended up charging no fee, to file a motion to dismiss the 1945 indictment. Overholser, the hospital's superintendent, supported the application with an affidavit saying Pound was permanently and incurably insane, and that confinement served no therapeutic purpose. The motion was heard on 18 April that year by the same judge who had committed him to St Elizabeths. The Department of Justice did not oppose the motion, and Pound was free.
Pound arrived in Naples in July, where he was photographed giving a fascist salute by the waiting press. When asked by the press when he had been released from the mental hospital, he replied: "I never was. When I left the hospital I was still in America, and all America is an insane asylum."
He and Dorothy went to live with Mary at Castle Brunnenburg near Merano in the Province of South Tyrol – where he met his grandson, Walter, and his granddaughter, Patrizia, for the first time – then returned to Rapallo, where Olga Rudge was waiting to join them. They were accompanied by a teacher Pound had met in hospital, Marcella Spann, 40 years his junior, who was ostensibly acting as his secretary, collecting poems for an anthology. The four women soon fell out, vying for control over him; Canto 113 alluded to it: "Pride, jealousy and possessiveness / 3 pains of hell." Pound was in love with Marcella, seeing in her his last chance for love and youth. He wrote about her in Canto CXIII: "The long flank, the firm breast / and to know beauty and death and despair / And to think that what has been shall be, / flowing, ever unstill." Dorothy had usually ignored his affairs, but she used her legal power over his royalties to make sure Marcella was seen off, sent back to America. Pound wrote to Hemingway: "Old man him tired."
By December 1959 he had fallen into a depression, insisting his work was worthless and The Cantos were botched. In a 1960 interview given in Rome to Donald Hall for Paris Review, he said: "You—find me—in fragments." Hall wrote that he seemed in an "abject despair, accidie, meaninglessness, abulia, waste." He paced up and down during the three days it took to complete the interview, never finishing a sentence, bursting with energy one minute, then suddenly sagging, and at one point seemed about to collapse. Hall said it was clear that he "doubted the value of everything he had done in his life." Those close to him thought he was suffering from dementia, and in the summer of 1960 Mary placed him in a clinic near Merano when his weight dropped. He picked up again, but by the spring of 1961 he had a urinary infection. Dorothy felt unable to look after him, so he went that summer to live with Olga in Rapallo, then Venice; Dorothy mostly stayed in London after that with Omar. Pound attended a neo-Fascist May Day parade in 1962, but his health continued to decline. The next year he told an interviewer, Grazia Levi, "I spoil everything I touch. I have always blundered .... All my life I believed I knew nothing, yes, knew nothing. And so words became devoid of meaning."
William Carlos Williams died in 1963, followed two years later by T. S. Eliot. Pound attended Eliot's funeral in London and traveled to Dublin to visit Yeats's widow.
Two years later Pound went to New York for the opening of an exhibition that featured his blue-inked version of Eliot's The Waste Land, and received a standing ovation at Hamilton College when he accompanied Laughlin who was receiving an honorary doctorate. Shortly before his death in 1972 it was proposed he be awarded the Emerson-Thoreau Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, but after a storm of protest the academy's council opposed it by 13 to 9. The sociologist Daniel Bell, who was on the committee, argued that it was important to distinguish between those who explore hate and those who approve it. Two weeks before his 87th birthday, Pound read for a gathering of friends at a café: "re USURY / I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause. / The cause is AVARICE."
On his birthday he was too weak to leave his bedroom at his home on the Piazza San Marco, and the following night he was admitted to the Civil Hospital of Venice, where he died in his sleep of an intestinal blockage on 1 November, aged 87, with Olga at his side. Dorothy was unable to travel to the funeral. Four gondoliers dressed in black rowed the body to the island cemetery, Isola di San Michele, where he was buried near Diaghilev and Stravinsky. Dorothy died in England the following year. Olga died in 1996 and was buried next to Pound.
Do not move
Opinion varies about the nature of Pound's writing style. Critics generally agree that he was a strong lyricist, particularly in his early work. Scholars such as Ira Nadel see evidence of modernism in his poetry before he began the Cantos, and Witmeyer argues that as early as Ripostes a modern style is evident. His style drew on literature from a variety of disciplines. Nadel writes that he wanted his poetry to represent an "objective presentation of material which he believed could stand on its own," without use of symbolism or romanticism.
Pound's relationship to music is integral to his poetry. His study of troubadour poetry – written to be sung with a "motz et son" – led him to think modern poetry should be written similarly. He wrote that rhythm is "the hardest quality of a man's style to counterfeit". Ingham compares the form of The Cantos to a fugue; without adhering to the traditions of the form, yet, in them Pound simultaneously explores multiple themes. He goes on to write that Pound's use of counterpoint is integral to the structure and cohesion of The Cantos, which show multi-voiced counterpoint and, with the juxtaposition of images, non-linear themes. The pieces are presented in fragments "which taken together, can be seen to unfold in time as music does".
Nadel argues that imagism was to change Pound's poetry. He explains, "Imagism evolved as a reaction against abstraction ... replacing Victorian generalities with the clarity in Japanese haiku and ancient Greek lyrics." Daniel Albright writes that Pound tried to condense and eliminate "all but the hardest kernel" from a poem such as the two-line poem "In a Station of the Metro". This, however, was a technique that did not lend itself well to the writing of an epic such as the Cantos, and so Pound turned to the more dynamic structure of what he considered Vorticism for the Cantos.
Michael Alexander writes that, as a translator, Pound was a pioneer with a great gift of language and an incisive intelligence. He helped popularize major poets such as Guido Cavalcanti and Du Fu and brought Provençal and Chinese poetry to English-speaking audiences. He revived interest in the Confucian classics and introduced the west to classical Japanese poetry and drama. He translated and championed Greek, Latin and Anglo-Saxon classics, and helped keep them alive at a time when classical education was in decline, and poets no longer considered translations central to their craft.
In Pound's Fenollosa translations, unlike previous American translators of Chinese poetry, who tended to work with strict metrical and stanzaic patterns, Pound created free verse translations. Whether the poems are valuable as translations continues to be a source of controversy. Pound scholar Ming Xie explains that the use of language in Pound's translation of the Old English poem "The Seafarer" is deliberate, avoiding merely "trying to assimilate the original into contemporary language".
Neither Pound nor Fenollosa spoke or read Chinese proficiently, and Pound has been criticized for omitting or adding sections to his poems which have no basis in the original texts, though critics argue that the fidelity of Cathay to the original Chinese is beside the point. Hugh Kenner, in a chapter "The Invention of China" from The Pound Era, contends that Cathay should be read primarily as a work about World War I, not as an attempt at accurately translating ancient Eastern poems. The real achievement of the book, Kenner argues, is in how it combines meditations on violence and friendship with an effort to "rethink the nature of an English poem". These ostensible translations of ancient Eastern texts, Kenner argues, are actually experiments in English poetics and compelling elegies for a warring West. Robert Graves recalled "I once asked Arthur Waley how much Chinese Pound knew; Waley shook his head despondently." An honest sinologist said of Pound's later translation, "Undoubtedly this is fine poetry. Undoubtedly it is bad translation. Pound has the practice, but not the learning. He is to be saluted as a poet, but not as a translator.
The Cantos are difficult to define and to decipher. They are filled with "cryptic and gnomic utterances, dirty jokes, obscenities of various sorts". Nadel argues they should be read as an epic, that is "a poem including history", and that the "historical figures lend referentiality to the text". They function as contemporary memoir, in which "personal history [and] lyrical retrospection mingle", an idea most clearly represented in the Pisan Cantos. Michael Ingham sees an American tradition of experimental literature, and writes: "These works include everything but the kitchen sink, and then add the kitchen sink". In The Cantos, Pound mixes satire, diaries, hymns, elegies, essays, memoirs and more, disregarding the boundaries of literary genres. The Cantos rely on the use of ideogrammic translation, and the incorporation of up to 15 different languages. Ideas, cultures, and historical periods are layered with the juxtaposition of modern vernacular, Classical languages, and underlying truths often represented with Chinese ideograms. Albright believes the use of the term 'canto' is an "allegation of a comprehensiveness of design that was never likely to be evident"; hell was permanent for Dante whereas in Pound hell is "a state that is always collapsing".
The subject matter ranges from Odysseus, Troy, Dionysus, Malatesta, Confucius, and Napoleon, to Jefferson and Mussolini, Chinese history, Pisa, and usury, relying on memories, diaries, jokes, hymns, anecdotes, and ideogrammic translation in up to 15 different languages. Allen Tate, who supported Pound for the Bollingen Prize for the sections of The Cantos known as the Pisan Cantos, writes that the poem is not about anything, and has no beginning, middle, or end. He argues that Pound was incapable of sustained thought and was "at the mercy of random flights of 'angelic insight,' Icarian self-indulgences of prejudices." A common criticism of The Cantos is their lack of coherence and form. Pound himself felt a lack of form to be his great failure, and said of the work "I cannot make it cohere".
His own work apart, Pound was responsible for advancing the careers of some of the best-known modernist writers of the early 20th century. In addition to Eliot, Joyce, Lewis, Frost, Williams, Hemingway, and Conrad Aiken, he befriended and helped Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky, Jacob Epstein, Basil Bunting, E.E. Cummings, Margaret Anderson, George Oppen, and Charles Olson. Hugh Witemeyer argues that the Imagist movement was the most important in 20th-century English language poetry because hardly any prominent poet of Pound's generation and the two generations after him was untouched by it. As early as 1917 Carl Sandburg wrote in Poetry: "All talk on modern poetry, by people who know, ends with dragging in Ezra Pound somewhere. He may be named only to be cursed as wanton and mocker, poseur, trifler and vagrant. Or he may be classed as filling a niche today like that of Keats in a preceding epoch. The point is, he will be mentioned."
The outrage after Pound's wartime collaboration with Mussolini's regime was so deep that the imagined method of his execution dominated the discussion. Arthur Miller considered him worse than Hitler: "In his wildest moments of human vilification Hitler never approached our Ezra ... he knew all America's weaknesses and he played them as expertly as Goebbels ever did." The response went so far as to denounce all modernists as fascists, and it was only in the 1980s that critics began a re-evaluation. The critic Macha Rosenthal wrote that it was "as if all the beautiful vitality and all the brilliant rottenness of our heritage in its luxuriant variety were both at once made manifest" in Ezra Pound.
In 1922, the literary critic Edmund Wilson reviewed Pound's latest published volume of poetry, Poems 1918–21, and took the opportunity to provide an overview of his estimation of Pound as poet. In his essay on Pound, titled "Ezra Pound’s Patchwork", Wilson wrote:
Ezra Pound is really at heart a very boyish fellow and an incurable provincial. It is true that he was driven to Europe by a thirst for romance and color that he could scarcely have satisfied in America, but he took to Europe the simple faith and pure enthusiasm of his native Idaho. ... His sophistication is still juvenile, his ironies are still clumsy and obvious, he ridicules Americans in Europe not very much simpler than himself ...
According to Wilson, the lines in Pound's poems stood isolated, with fragmentary wording contributing to poems that "do not hang together". Specifically citing Pound's first seven cantos, Wilson dubbed his writing "unsatisfactory". Wilson found the Cantos to be a disjointed compilation, its contents reflecting a too-obvious reliance on the literary works of other authors whom Pound had read and an awkward use of Latin and Chinese translations as a device inserted among reminiscences of Pound's own life.
Hugh Kenner wrote in 1951 that there was no great contemporary writer less read than Pound, though he added that there was also no one who could appeal more through "sheer beauty of language" to people who would rather talk about poets than read them. The British poet Philip Larkin criticized him "for being literary, which to me is the foundation of his feebleness, thinking that poetry is made out of poetry and not out of being alive".
His antisemitism became central to an evaluation of his poetry, including whether it was read at all. Wendy Stallard Flory argues that the best approach to The Cantos – separating the poetry from the antisemitism – is perceived as apologetic. Her view is that the establishment of Pound as "National Monster" and "designated fascist intellectual" made him a stand-in for the silent majority in Germany, occupied France and Belgium, as well as Britain and the United States, who, she argues, made the Holocaust possible by aiding or standing by.
Pound in later life was able to incisively analyze what he judged to be his own failings as a writer attributable to his obstinate adherence to ideological fallacies. Meeting with poet Allen Ginsberg in Venice in 1967, Pound provided a self-professed coda to his body of work:
My own work does not make sense. A mess ... my writing, stupidity and ignorance all the way through ... the intention was bad, anything I’ve done has been an accident, in spite of my spoiled intentions the preoccupation with stupid and irrelevant matters ... but my worst mistake was the stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice, all along that spoiled everything .... I found after 70 years that I was not a lunatic but a moron. I should have been able to do better .... It’s all doubletalk ... it’s all tags and patches ... a mess.
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