Ezra Pound in 1913.
Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (October 30 1885 - November 1 1972) was a poet, musician and critic who, along with T. S. Eliot, was one of the major figures of the modernist movement in early 20th century poetry. He was the driving force behind several modernist movements, notably Imagism and Vorticism. The critic Hugh Kenner said on meeting Pound: "I suddenly knew that I was in the presence of the center of modernism."
His early life and contemporaries
Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and at Hamilton College. During this period, he met and befriended William Carlos Williams and H.D., to whom he was engaged for a time. He taught at Wabash College for less than a year, and left as the result of a minor scandal. In 1908, he settled in London, after spending several months in Venice.
The London Revolution
Pound's early poetry was inspired by his reading of the pre-Raphaelites and other 19th century poets and medieval Romance literature, as well as much neo-Romantic and occult/mystical philosophy. When he moved to London, under the influence of Ford Madox Ford and T. E. Hulme , he began to cast off overtly archaic poetic language and forms in an attempt to remake himself as a poet. He believed W. B. Yeats was the greatest living poet, and befriended him in England, eventually being employed as the Irish poet's secretary. He was also interested in Yeats's occult beliefs. Yeats and Pound were instrumental in helping each other modernise their poetry. During the war, Pound and Yeats lived together at Stone Cottage in Ireland, studying Japanese, especially Noh plays. In 1914, he married Dorothy Shakespeare, an artist.
In the years before the First World War, Pound was largely responsible for the appearance of Imagism and Vorticism. These two movements, which helped bring to notice the work of poets and artists like James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Richard Aldington, Marianne Moore, Rebecca West and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska can be seen as perhaps the central events in the birth of English-language modernism.
Pound also edited his friend Eliot's The Waste Land, the poem that was to force the new poetic sensibility into public attention. Pound wrote a bawdy poem in a letter to Eliot to celebrate the "birth" of the poem:
- E. P. hopeless and unhelped
- Enthroned in the marmorean skies
- His verse omits realities,
- Angelic hands with mother of pearl
- Retouch the strapping servant girl, ...
- Balls and balls and balls again
- Can not touch his fellow men.
- His foaming and abundant cream
- Has coated his world. The coat of a dream;
- Or say that the upjut of sperm
- Has rendered his sense pachyderm.
However, the war shattered Pound's belief in modern western civilisation and he abandoned London soon after, but not before he published Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919) and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1921). If these poems together form a farewell to Pound's London career, The Cantos, which he began in 1915, pointed his way forward.
In 1920, Pound moved to Paris where he moved among a circle of artists, musicians and writers who were revolutionising the whole world of modern art. He continued working on The Cantos, which increasingly reflected his preoccupations with politics and economics, as well as writing critical prose, translations and composing two complete operas (with help from George Antheil) and several pieces for solo violin. In 1922 he met and became involved with Olga Rudge, a violinist. Together with Dorothy, they formed an uneasy menage a trois which was to last until the end of the poet's life. At this time Pound also organised an annual series of concerts in Rapallo where a wide range of classical and contemporary music was performed. In particular this musical activity contributed to the 20th century revival of interest in Vivaldi, who had been neglected since his death.
In the early 1930s Pound moved to Rapallo, Italy. Here he became an enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini, and anti-Semitic sentiments begin to appear in his writings. Pound remained in Italy after the outbreak of the Second World War. He disapproved of American involvement in the war and tried to use his political contacts in Washington D.C. to prevent it. He spoke on Italian radio and gave a series of talks on cultural matters. Inevitably, he touched on political matters, and his opposition to the war and his anti-Semitism were apparent on occasions.
Towards the end of the war, he was incarcerated in a United States Army detention camp outside Pisa, spending twenty-five days in an open cage before being given a tent. Here he appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown. He also drafted the Pisan Cantos in the camp. This section of the work in progress marks a shift in Pound's work, being a meditation on his own and Europe's ruin and on his place in the natural world in what has been considered as some of the first ecological poetry in English. The Pisan Cantos won the first Bollingen Prize from the Library of Congress in 1948.
After the war, Pound was brought back to the United States to face charges of treason. He was found unfit to face trial because of insanity and sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he remained for 12 years. Pound was conceited and flamboyant to say the least which in psychiatric terms became "grandiosity of ideas and beliefs". The insanity case against Pound is widely believed to be an example of state abuse effectively imprisoning Pound without a trial. At St Elizabeths he was surrounded by poets and other admirers and continued working on The Cantos as well as translating the Confucian classics. He was finally released after a concerted campaign by many of his fellow poets and artists, paticularly Robert Frost. He was still considered incurably insane but not dangerous to others.
On his release, Pound returned to Italy where he continued writing, but his old certainties had deserted him. Although he continued working on The Cantos, he seemed to view them as an artistic failure. He also seemed to regret many of his past actions, and in a 1967 interview with Allen Ginsberg he apologised for "that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism". He died in Venice in 1972.
Because of his political views, especially his support of Mussolini and his anti-Semitism, Pound continues to attract much criticism. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the vital role he played in the modernist revolution in 20th century literature in English. This importance may be considered under four headings: poet, critic, promoter, and translator.
As a poet, Pound was one of the first to successfully employ free verse in extended compositions. His Imagist poems influenced, among others, the Objectivists and The Cantos were a touchstone for Ginsberg and other Beat poets. Almost every 'experimental' poet in English since the early 20th century is in his debt.
As critic, editor and promoter, Pound helped the careers of Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Williams, H.D., Moore, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, George Oppen, Charles Olson and other modernist writers too numerous to mention as well as neglected earlier writers like Walter Savage Landor and Gavin Douglas.
As translator, although his mastery of languages is open to question, Pound did much to introduce Provençal and Chinese poetry, the Noh, and the Confucian classics to a modern western audience. He also translated and championed Greek and Latin classics and helped keep these alive for poets at a time when classical education was in decline.
The secret to Pound's seemingly bizarre theories and political commitments perhaps lie in his occult and mystical interests, which biographers have only recently begun to document. 'The Birth of Modernism' by Leon Surette is perhaps the best introduction to this aspect of Pound's thought.
- Carpenter, Humphrey (1988). A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Kenner, Hugh (1973). The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Longenbach, James (1991). Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Oderman, Kevin (1986). Ezra Pound and the Erotic Medium. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
- Redman, Tim (1991). Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Surette, Leon (1994). The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and the Occult. McGill-Queen's University Press.
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