A Man in Full
Ezra Pound: Poet, Volume 1:
The Young Genius 1885-1920 Oxford University Press, October 2007 507 pages £25.00 ISBN 978-0199215577
Take a deep breath before you open the first volume of this new biography of Ezra Pound. This cannot have been an easy book to write. Most biographers have to deal with some kind of reputation but, in the field of poetry, they do not come much more complicated than Ezra Pound. In his preface, David Moody level-headedly contends that the gentleman in question ‘was in his own way a hero of his culture, a genuine representative of its more enlightened impulses and its self-destructive contradictions.’ That cautious, qualifying ‘in his own way’ signals the wayward route that anybody trying to follow Pound’s true significance will have to take. Unlike his friends and fellow modernists, T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, Pound has very little presence among today’s general audience for poetry; his verse has few hooks on which to snare the casual reader and the egregious political interventions he made on behalf of Mussolini’s brand of fascism have cost him the respect of posterity. But he has not exactly been helped by those who would try to explain his importance. Too often, those attempting to make a case for Pound have assumed that if their subject is to be perpetually besieged, then hagiography is the best form of defence.
The extent to which any account of Pound’s life can restore his standing is necessarily limited, but an understanding of Pound’s contribution can only benefit from a thorough and honest arrangement of the facts. Happily, A. David Moody comes to the job unburdened by any grand claims or overbearing theories other than the relatively modest belief that Pound was an important poet and still deserves to be read. The scholarly discretion with which he sets about his task prevents him from turning out the sort of overheated polemic that Hugh Kenner, in his day, would have delivered. What we get instead is a refreshingly straightforward account of Pound’s life, written in elegant but unaffected prose and supplemented by several carefully-argued passages of literary criticism that add up to a more substantial assessment than Humphrey Carpenter’s enormously personable A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound (1988). But if this is a re-assessment concealed within a biography, Moody wears his disguise very well. Although he might reasonably be accused of concentrating on the art at the expense of the character, it is in his dogged fidelity to poetry that the youthful Pound’s personality is most fully revealed. This was, to a degree, a life lived through the imagination.
Pound was born in 1885 to Homer Loomis Pound and Isabel Weston and was gripped by a powerful sense of his vocation from an early age. At the University of Pennsylvania, which he attended from the precocious age of 16, Pound set about alienating his tutors with his disdain for the philological conventions of the time. Pound moved on through two more higher education establishments, Hamilton College and Wabash College, Indiana, where he cultivated his affection for the medieval verse of Dante Alighieri and Arnaut Daniel alongside a pungent dislike of American parochialism. Tolerant to the point of indulgent, the Pounds allowed their delicate firebrand to move on to Europe: first, to Venice and then to London where he settled for more than a decade, determined to “revive the dead art of poetry.” Not surprisingly, the Georgian literary establishment was unimpressed by this latter-day troubadour who must have seemed no less preposterous to them than a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; shortly after his arrival, Punch lampooned the pretensions of a certain Mr. Ezekiel Ton, while Rupert Brooke inched his head over the critical parapet to snipe at verse which, he held, bore “the dangerous influence of Whitman.” In his first few collections, stuffed with overripe translations from Provencal and Italian, Pound staggered towards his ideals like a drunk who spies the moon in a pond. Edmund Wilson had a point when he observed that ‘Pound has been sunk by the cargo of his own erudition’ and this is especially true of the overly precious early verse. But this was a necessary creative adolescence. While Moody’s attentive scrutiny of A Lume Spento (1908) and Personae (1909) may not persuade anyone that these poems are much more than acts of heartfelt ventriloquism, he does at least prove that Pound’s future radicalism and sometimes errant departures from convention proceeded from a commitment to a sense of aesthetic tradition as well as his contrarian temperament. The principle drama of the poet’s formative years as presented by Moody was his striving towards a level of formal discipline that would not just support but concentrate his ferociously cherished ideals.
Inevitably, the ample rewards of this patient approach become most evident in the chapters devoted to Pound’s mature achievements like Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919) and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920). Of Mauberley, he observes that ‘this is writing in which anything that is said may be unsaid in the saying; in which statements may be turned against themselves; in which nearly everything becomes equivocal and meanings are hard to pin down.’ Sounds like a very eloquent chaos but Moody argues that in these lyrical suites, Pound was better placed to address the fervid tumult of his own times because he had accepted that the spirit of romance could never be completely restored or revisited. A similar understanding had pervaded ‘Near Perigord’ and the imitations of Li Po collected in Cathay (1915), but Pound had since considerably broadened the scope of his poems by arranging his fragmentary references across a loose yet deliberate narrative structure; now the dramatis personae were much more nuanced and the arcane allusions soured either with irony or pathos. Moody is especially good at untying the knotty obscurities of this method which was, in the early instalments of The Cantos (1919), intended to stimulate ‘an energizing of the mind’ that would help his readers ‘to see things in relation to each other and so to develop an original way of conceiving the ready-made world.’ Yet he cannot quite dispel the sense that the development of Pound’s art depended upon a refinement of his barely governable ambitions, rather than the steady and scrupulous acquisition of technique.
That these ambitions were unwieldy from the start is fairly obvious. Whether Pound went into the literary racket with the right motives is an uncomfortable question and one that is probably beyond the duties of a biographer, but Moody allows us to decide the point for ourselves by liberally quoting from the poet’s correspondence. In 1910, he told his mother that:
The American who has any suspicion that he may write poetry, will walk very much alone, with his eyes on the beauty of the past of the old world, or on the glory of a spiritual kingdom, or on some earthly new Jerusalem – which might as well be upon Mr Shackletons (sic) Antarctic ice fields as in Omaha for all the West has to do with it. – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, set your hypothetical scene where you like.
The young Pound felt keenly that he had vast reserves of potential to draw upon and, even at this early stage, the phantom accomplishment of an epic poem obsessed him. By then, of course, this particular American had more of a conviction than a suspicion that he would devote his life to poetry. Here, in his emphasis on religious yearning, political utopianism and the nostalgia for ‘old’ European civilization, we might discern an early blueprint for the near-tyrannical design of The Cantos, the historical epic through which Pound sought to extend his dominion over time as well as territory. Reading this book, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Pound was a little too preoccupied with the corrosive promise of his own greatness. No other modern poet, with the possible exception of Walt Whitman, has so willed himself to such an elevated level of universal significance.
To make such a figure appear at all credible is clearly a tall order but Moody succeeds by fully portraying the fractious literary climate of the 1910s and giving us Pound as others saw him. For a man so apparently busied by the task of self-aggrandisement, Pound was unusually keen to support the efforts of his contemporaries. There’s a familiar story of how he became a sort of modernist impresario—editor, critic, poet and publicist all rolled into one—and we duly see him promoting the works of James Joyce and T.S. Eliot or championing such splinter cells of aesthetic resistance as Imagism and Vorticism. However, Moody also understands that this was not, as some have grandly claimed, ‘the Age of Pound’ and takes care to show that the responsibilities he assumed were indelibly shaped by some remarkable cultural entrepreneurs, like Harriet Monroe and Dora Marsden, who had their own ideas for the future of literature. Marsden, in particular, emerges as a figure of singular vision and ability and although her amateur philosophical systems must have seemed pretty flimsy at the time, the passion and conviction with which she managed her publications, The New Freewoman and The Egoist, were unshakable. Indeed, for Moody, it is a matter of some regret that she and Pound ultimately failed to appreciate the common ground between them.
This generous attention to the intellectual context of modernism produces a fuller sense of Pound’s impressive achievements but it also allows us to better understand his more troubling legacy. Pound may have been the most intellectually comprehensive of modernist poets, but he was also the most susceptible to gaseous charlatanry and having radically extended the notion of what could be achieved in poetry, he drastically misunderstood what poetry could achieve. Moody particularly seems to rue the day that he ever came across Major C.H. Douglas, the eccentric author of the theory of Social Credit that kicked off Pound’s interminable rant against usury. It didn’t matter that he had no formal training in economic theory; after all, neither had Douglas, who was an aeronautical engineer. But, recently emboldened by his new practice of synthesising a diverse range of literary, historical and philosophical references, he now thought himself suitably equipped to furnish modern civilization with poetic solutions for its practical ills. Yet, as Moody makes clear, this monumental confidence was never balanced by any real experience of public affairs—unless you count sitting next to Lord Balfour at the opera—and prejudice started to creep into his pronouncements.
The topic of Pound’s anti-Semitism will always be warm because we have to understand how and why such undiluted bigotry made sense to a man who was apparently concerned with preserving the civilised virtues. Moody recognises that ‘the troubling questions won’t go away,’ but largely postpones the issue until Volume Two where he resignedly admits he will have to deal with it at greater length. However, the one article of evidence he tenders suggests the sort of role that this noisome prejudice would come to play in Pound’s thinking:
We note…that since the lions of the Tribe of Judah gave up the sword, ‘beat it’ metaphorically into the pawn-shop, their power has steadily increased; no such suave and uninterrupted extension of power is to be attributed to any ‘world-conquering’ bellicose nation.
Those of us who live in immaterial things, in art, in literature, ‘owe more’ to Greece and Rome; the rest of the world ‘owes’, or is alleged to owe, to the Jew.
We might detect shades of Matthew Arnold in this categorisation of Western culture—indeed, Pound would later attack Milton for his ‘beastly Hebraism’—but far more disturbing is the stock cliché of an international conspiracy of Jewish money-men. However, Moody neglects to explore the instructive irony of this appalling outburst. The World War I had stirred Pound to advocate pacifism, cosmopolitanism and democracy in a series of articles for The New Age, which provokes the question of how these remarks could ever infiltrate an apparently humanist scale of values. That his prejudice could somehow survive his repugnance for state-sponsored violence is an unsavoury possibility for anyone who likes their poets sweet and harmless to countenance; and yet, any reader of Pound must appreciate that anti-Semitism was fundamental to his way of understanding the vast cultural output of humankind.
Will we ever stop feeling uneasy about Ezra Pound? Probably not; as an undergraduate, I was told by a senior member of my faculty that although she recognised his enormous contribution to modernist literature, she would still refuse to teach him if asked. But the truth is that Pound can no more be excluded from the canon of twentieth-century poetry than he can be welcomed without reservation. We need to recover our poise, to understand the achievements of this singular individual in relation to his repugnant flaws. Professor Moody’s admirable biography is a fine place to start.