Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972) was an American poet, who spent much of his life working in London and Paris. He was an extraordinary conundrum of a man, not one to whom one warms on reading about his life. But you will see why he is on the site in due course.
Pound was the only child of a father whose ancestors were puritanical Quakers and a mother who was descended from Puritans. Pound was educated by Quakers and there is the hint that he unconsciously absorbed at least some of the Quaker principles, but openly rebelled against other principles, even seeking to shock and dismay.
On the one hand, for example, his generosity and support of his friends and fellow writers and poets became almost legendary. Pound helped to discover and shape the work of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway wrote of him in 1925:
He defends [his friends] when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail. ... He writes articles about them. He introduces them to wealthy women. He gets publishers to take their books. He sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying ... he advances them hospital expenses and dissuades them from suicide.
On the other hand, he embraced fascism and was eventually imprisoned as a traitor. He moved to Italy in 1924, where throughout the 1930s and 1940s, to his friends' dismay, he embraced Mussolini's fascism, expressed support for Adolf Hitler and wrote for publications owned by Oswald Mosley. The Italian government paid him during the Second World War to make hundreds of radio broadcasts criticizing the United States, as a result of which he was arrested for treason by American forces in Italy in 1945.
He was cruel in his treatment of women. Hilda Doolittle followed him to Europe in 1908, leaving her family, friends, and country for little benefit to herself, meanwhile he was seeing two other women – Viola Baxter and Mary Moore. Pound married Dorothy Shakespear in 1914. But his patron during this time was the American heiress Margaret Cravens who offered him a large annual sum to allow him to focus on his work. Cravens killed herself in 1912, after she learned of Pound's engagement to Dorothy.
Pound was 36 and married to Dorothy when he met the American violinist Olga Rudge. He began an 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” - not love women note, but seduce them. Poor Dorothy turned a blind eye to his constant philandering. He complained shortly after arriving in Paris, for example, that he had been there for three months without having managed to find a mistress. When Pound moved to Italy, they lived on Dorothy's income. Olga Rudge followed them there, carrying Pound's child. When Pound told Dorothy about the birth she separated from him for much of that year.
Women also formed the foundation for other forms of rebellion against his Puritanical roots. He was asked to leave his job and his lodgings, for example, when he was
...caught in flagrante...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, his insistence that he had slept on the floor was met with disbelief.
He said his intention was to be a poet, but the reality was that Ezra Pound, described by one contemporary as “clever, independent-minded, conceited, and unpopular”, set out to be the thorn in the side of any country, establishment, person or institution that smacked of conventional and conservative behaviour.
He took a job as a teacher at a College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a conservative town that he called the sixth circle of hell. He then set about deliberately provoking the college authorities by smoking when smoking was forbidden and criticising the authorities there.
His fascism wasn't fascism, it was an attack on England for having gone to War and, as he saw it, cause the deaths of many of his friends. So his mechanisms of attack were naive and childish and helped no one – least of all himself. When he left England, A. R. Orage wrote in the January 1921 issue of The New Age:
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.
Pound was as unpopular in Paris as he was in the UK. At a dinner someone even tried to stab him.
The quality of his poetry varies enormously. It goes from pretentious to 'nice' but not very memorable, to interesting. Canzoni (1911) was panned as a "medley of pretension". His best-known works include Ripostes (1912), and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920). This poem, made up of 18 short poems, is regarded 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 – criticism yet again.
Many of Pound's ideas on poetry were regarded as pretentious claptrap. When Lascelles Abercrombie called for the rejection of his approach and a return to the romantic tradition of William Wordsworth, Pound challenged him to a duel saying, "Stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace." Abercrombie suggested as their choice of weapon unsold copies of their own books.
Pound also succeeded in deliberately annoying a great many poetry lovers by translating works whilst adding his own interpretation. In 1919, for example he published "Homage to Sextus Propertius". It was not a strict translation; a professor of Latin, W.G. Hale, commenting said that Pound appeared to be "incredibly ignorant" of Latin and alluded to "about three-score errors" in the translation.
So why on earth have I included this apparently self-centred, egotistical, spoilt brat of a man? Because he got his come-uppance, and from the humiliation, fear, agony and emotional trauma that it caused, came a work which was indeed inspired.
And the work which resulted is the unfinished 120-section epic, The Cantos (1917–1969) .
When Pound was arrested for treason, 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. 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. He began to write, and drafted what became known as The Pisan Cantos.
In the USA, whilst awaiting trial for treason he was admitted to St. Elizabeth's Hospital 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. Work on the Cantos continued.
He spent the next 12 years of his life in a mental hospital, although in much improved conditions. Work on the Cantos tailed off. He was released from St. Elizabeth's in 1958 and returned to live in Italy until his death. By this time his work on the Cantos had ceased.
On his release he reverted and became as objectionable and unpleasant as he had been before. The wake-up call had no long term positive effects, he carried on the criticism and even started to express anti-semitic views.
The evidence that he had schizophrenia is actually quite slim. The evidence that he had an emotional breakdown is not slim, but a reality. What was broken was his ego. He said
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”.
But the Cantos are not.
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