Introduction to Ezra Pound


By Stephen Colbourn


Ezra Pound (1885-1972) is generally spoken of as an American writer, although he lived over half his life in Europe and declared a preference for older cultures that foster and appreciate the arts. Indeed, he found a congenial culture in Mussolini's Italy where his association with the fascist regime led to eventual incarceration in a mental asylum. His circle of literary acquaintances included W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway - three of whom received the Nobel Prize for Literature - and he was undoubtedly generous in helping fellow writers to improve their works and publish; but Pound's outspoken opinions led to arguments and the loss of friends. A much quoted line, written before moving to France in 1920, described Britain as 'an old bitch gone in the teeth.' Such remarks were remembered to his discredit.
Pound has been described as one of the most opinionated men ever to have lived. He believed that artists were outside the bounds of national affiliations or crude political divisions and, thus, not liable to the same accountability as ordinary citizens. In making dozens of anti-American talks for Radio Rome during the Second World War he claimed to be exercising his constitutional right to free speech; however, the victorious Allies regarded his broadcasts as treasonable.

Pound was born in Idaho shortly before his family moved to Philadelphia where his father was employed in the Government Mint. His great-aunt took him on a three-month tour of Europe at the age of 13. He studied Romance Languages and Old English at the University of Pennsylvania then took a teaching post at a Presbyterian school in Indiana. After a year he was asked to leave because he had entertained a woman in his room. He set off for Europe and paid for the publication of his first book of poems, A Lume Spento (1908) in Venice, then moved to London where he was noted for his wit and learning and almost dandyish good looks.

In London Pound became acquainted with Ford Madox Ford, W. B. Yeats, T. E. Hulme and Hilda Doolittle - joining the Poets' Club in which Hulme was prominent. Although Hulme published little before his death in the First World War he influenced the movement known as Imagism which was a successor to the French Symbolists. Pound had a heated argument with the Imagist poet Amy Lowell and moved from Imagism to Vorticism in the company of Wyndham Lewis. During his London years he worked on several literary periodicals - New Age, Poetry, The Egoist, and Blast - which brought him a small income in addition to publishers' fees for his volumes of verse. He stayed with W. B. Yeats for several months at Stone Cottage in Sussex in 1913 and noted the older poet's intense interest in theosophy and psychical research. Pound's own interest at the time was in the Japanese no drama and his Oriental studies continued with translations from the Chinese.

In 1914 Pound married Dorothy Shakespear who was the daughter of Yeats' friend Olivia Shakespear. Also, shortly before the outbreak of war, he met the newly-arrived Thomas Stearns Eliot and was impressed with his poem 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' which appeared in the magazine 'Poetry' in 1915. It was in 'Poetry' that Pound declared he had discovered the most significant writer of modern times - James Joyce - and arranged for publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1916.

Pound was working on two well-known poems at the end of the war - 'Homage to Sextus Propertius', which first appeared in Quia Pauper Amavi (1919), and 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley' (1920). He then moved to Paris where he befriended the young Ernest Hemingway and helped him finish a collection of short stories concerning his war experience as an ambulance driver in Italy (Hemingway had been declared unfit for military service). T. S. Eliot completed his poem 'The Waste Land' and dedicated it to Pound, asking for his comments and criticism. Pound cut the poem almost in half. The Eliot/Pound Waste Land appeared in 1922, the same year as Joyce's Ulysses. While in Paris, Pound also developed his interest in music and wrote an opera libretto.

Pound's long poem 'The Cantos' was begun in 1915 and the writing of it stretched out over many years, appearing sporadically during the First World War and his first twenty years in Italy and continued almost to the end of the poet's life. It was never completed, though the final drafts and fragments were published in 1971. In 1924 Pound moved to Rapallo in Italy and came to admire Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator, whom he met in 1933. The Great Depression of 1929 had turned his mind to economics and he became a proponent of Social Credit - an economic theory of Clifford Douglas that had first been propounded in 'New Age', with which Pound was associated, in 1919. Its measures were adopted for an experimental period in Canada.

During his first years in Italy Pound worked with his mistress Olga Rudge, an American violinist, on the revival of Antonio Vivaldi's music. Vivaldi (1678-1741) had left a large body of music, bound in 27 volumes and subsequently forgotten, that was rediscovered in the library of Count Giacomo Durazzo.

In 1939 Pound went to the USA for a short time in order to speak against American involvement in the coming war. On return to Italy he began the series of radio broadcasts which were to result in his arrest and imprisonment. Pound urged Americans to read their own Constitution and not be bamboozled by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and London capitalists and Levantine usurers who promote wars in order to sell munitions. His message often appeared to be the Biblical one that the love of money is the root of all evil.

Was his message treasonable in content? From the British point of view it gave aid and succour to the enemy, which was treason. A fellow broadcaster on Radio Rome was the younger son of Leopold Amery, the man who had shouted Cromwell's words to the Long Parliament at Neville Chamberlain - "In the name of God, go!" Leopold Amery was a personal friend of Winston Churchill and Secretary of State for India and Burma. He insisted that his son be tried for treason and, if found guilty, executed. The young Amery was hanged, as was the Irish-American William Joyce - known as Lord Haw Haw - who had broadcast for German radio. The novelist P. G. Wodehouse, who made five humorous broadcasts to the USA after his capture by the Germans in 1940, could not return home after the war, such was his disgrace, and had to seek US citizenship. The British view was that Pound should hang.

The political compromise was for Pound to be declared unfit to plead. He was sentenced to indefinite detention in an asylum for the criminally insane and spent 12 years in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington, D.C. There were protests in 1949 when he received a literary award for his Pisan Cantos (1948) - cantos written while held in an Italian prison camp near Pisa in 1945.

In 1958 charges against him were dropped; he was released from the asylum and left for Italy. In appearance the aging Pound resembled a gaunt Old Testament prophet with a white beard, but his days of thunderous pronouncements were over. He lived quietly, spending time in Rapallo and Venice where he died at the age of 87.

© Stephen Colbourn, September 2006

Stephen Colbourn is a contributor to The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914. Hodder Arnold. 2005

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