It was a sad day for poetry when Ezra Pound discovered Confucius. Like some latter-day Don Quixote addled by tales of chivalry, Pound became enthralled by Confucian precepts, and though they never had any appreciable influence on his own thoughts or actions—he was the least Confucian of men—those precepts, or his version of them, scrambled his brains for the next sixty years. As A. David Moody tells it in the opening volume of his magisterial biography, the third and final volume of which has now appeared, the encounter came about in October 1913 when Pound first read the Analects in French translation.1 He then moved on to Allen Upward’s The Sayings of Confucius of 1904 and the die was cast. In China Pound believed he had found his “new Greece.” Of course, Pound’s discovery of China led to two of his finest—and most idiosyncratic—achievements as a translator: Cathay of 1915 and The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius of 1954, the 305 odes he translated during his confinements at St. Elizabeth’s hopsital. These utterly original re-creations of ancient Chinese lyrics, in a manner and idiom all his own, are probably what he will best be remembered for in future years, and rightly so. As the late Simon Leys remarked,
Pound had a mistaken idea of the Chinese language, but his mistake was remarkably stimulating and fecund as it was based on one important and accurate intuition. Pound correctly observed that a Chinese poem is not articulated upon a continuous, discursive thread, but that it flashes discontinuous series of images (not unlike the successive frames of a film).
He will probably not be long remembered for The Cantos, his baggy, rambling and tedious “epic,” the tutelary spirit of which is the hapless Confucius. Discontinuous flashes may work in a brief lyric but they tend to sputter out in a long poem, and The Cantos runs to over 800 pages. Or, if remembered as other than a miscalculation of colossal proportions, it will probably be as a monument to ungovernable eccentricity, a sort of Watts Tower of modern verse.
Though Moody has written a masterful biography, as meticulous as it is broad-ranging, he never solves an abiding puzzle, despite valiant efforts: what exactly was the source of Pound’s fixation on Confucius, of all available sages? Not one of the virtues delineated in the Analects applies to Pound, and least of all the Confucian virtue usually rendered as “humaneness.”
“The noble person does not abandon humaneness for so much as the space of a meal” is one such precept, and yet, in page after page of Moody’s biography, we find Pound not only abandoning humaneness but seemingly quite unaware of it. Again, the Analects tell us that “Being able to recognize oneself in others, one is on the way to being human” but Pound seems to have been temperamentally incapable of recognizing others or himself, let alone “oneself in others.” Perhaps it was a simple case of the attraction of opposites, however strenuously Pound would have denied this. A nacreous self-immurement, oysterhood rather than humaneness, characterized virtually all his actions, especially during the war years and afterwards. And if the decades which this third volume covers were “the tragic years,” as Moody’s subtitle has it, well, they were certainly tragic for those millions of people all around him to whose fate Pound remained blithely oblivious. But perhaps the tragedy for Pound (though he remained blind to this as well) was that during these years he set about almost systematically, almost wilfully, gutting his own great talent in the service of highly dubious objectives, both moral and aesthetic. Some of these would be comical if they were not so repellent: for example, Pound’s imbecilic desire to “introduce the doctrine of Confucianism into Fascism” or his call for “the immediate need of Confucius” in Mussolini’s Italy. His adherence to such ideas, with the concomitant corruption of language itself they entailed, ended up vitiating The Cantos. One could be forgiven for thinking of this tedious and vituperative work as more Ranto than Canto.
Though Moody is scrupulous in detailing Pound’s words and deeds and does not shy away from the ugliest of them, he is also prone to mollifying if not excusing them. In his preface to Volume I, he describes his biography as
the five-act tragedy of a flawed idealist and a great poet who, in a time of war, carried to excess his exercise of the rights and freedoms of a United States citizen, and who, in consequence, suffered the loss of both his freedom and his civil rights.
As if to reinforce this rosy depiction he sets as an epigraph to Part One of his third volume a citation from the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” The implication is that Pound was a martyr to the exercise of free speech (perhaps echoing Pound’s line in Canto 74, the first of The Pisan Cantos, “that free speech without free radio speech is as zero”). I find this disingenuous. No one disputed Pound’s right to free speech; it was where and when he chose to exercise that right—by radio from fascist Italy, in 1941, during the war—that led to his indictment for treason in 1943. This emollient note crops up more than once in the third volume. Though Moody can criticize Pound’s “twisty language” and deplore the “awful waste of Pound’s gifts,” he persists in invoking “his profound idealism, his utopian intentions.” Pound’s virulent anti-Semitism is presented as merely his “worst error,” a pretty mild characterization of the poet’s utter moral squalor in this regard. This “error” is on full display throughout Volume III, as when Pound rants against “the Italian-Jewified plutocratic press” or declares that “the British Empire was already rotted from inside by the Jews in London.” Perhaps the most notorious instance occurs in the opening lines of Canto 52, written in 1939, with their evocation of “Stinkschuld/ paying for a few big jews’ vendetta on goyim” and “better keep out the jews/ or yr grand children will curse you/ jews, real jews, chazims, and neschek . . . ” As Moody explains, the name “Stinkschuld” was Pound’s substitution for Rothschild after T. S. Eliot (not known for his philo-Semitism) pressured Pound to make the change; as Eliot put it, “if you remain keen on jew-baiting, that is your affair, but the name of Rothschild should be omitted.” Faber and Faber went on to publish Cantos LII–LXXI in which these lines appeared but were blacked out (they have been restored in the current Faber edition).
This was bad enough but worse was to come. Pound’s praise of Hitler and of Mein Kampf, all gruesomely noted by Moody, makes for sickening reading. He went so far as, grotesquely, to compare Hitler with Joan of Arc (this, in an interview, mostly about Confucius, with a reporter from the Philadelphia Record in 1945), saying that “Adolf Hitler was a Jeanne d’Arc, a saint. He was a martyr. Like many martyrs he held extreme views.” (For once Uncle Ez did not exaggerate.) Though Moody claims that Pound could not have known about the Holocaust or the concentration camps in the early 1940s (Why not? Others did.), he certainly knew about them after 1945. He also read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion with great enthusiasm, claiming that it was “an absolute condensation of history of the U.S.A. for the past fifty years.” To the charge that they were forgeries, as they were, he remarked, “Certainly they are a forgery and that is the one proof we have of their authenticity. . . . The Jews have worked with forged documents for the past twenty-four hundred years.” We are up against here what the Catholic Church (which Pound hated almost as much as the Jews) used to call “invincible ignorance,” a phrase that perfectly epitomizes Ezra Pound during this period.
Sometimes Moody’s indulgence of Pound goes too far. After the fall of Mussolini, whom Pound had long admired (and met with once), Moody remarks that Pound was “well aware of the stresses and dangers of the time” but that “his response to them was to hold on to and to assert all the more vehemently his visionary idea of a better world. He went on believing in the impossible.” (You can almost hear the violins of “The Impossible Dream” tuning up in the background.) And what was this “better world”? Moody, rhetorically but also somewhat plaintively, asks, “But how could he have hoped to inculcate, all by himself, a Confucian ethic within, and via the media of, a Fascist-Socialist regime subject to Hitler’s Nazism?” How indeed? It was an Orwellian nightmare if ever there was one. Moody is also inconsistent at times. He tells us that Pound was not a Fascist (“Confucian would be nearer the truth”), but then he quotes Pound himself stating “But I believe in Fascism and want to defend it.” Such inconsistencies were rampant in Pound’s own disordered mind and so it’s no wonder if his biographer sometimes runs afoul of them.
Moody does his best to disentangle Pound’s bizarre amalgam of Confucianism, Fascism, and the U.S. Constitution, but his attempts never really convince (how could they in any case?). He is at his best, however, in describing Pound’s postwar experiences, from his imprisonment at Pisa to the legal quagmire that ensued when he was returned for trial to the United States, and his thirteen-year confinement in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington. At Pisa Pound was kept in what he called his “gorilla cage,” an open-air cell with concrete floors, some six-by-six-and-a-half-feet in dimensions, with a tar paper roof over a timber frame. This has been seen as “inhumane” treatment; certainly it was no picnic, though Pound did have shelter and three-squares a day, unlike the millions of refugees and displaced persons swarming all over Europe. And he did have a typewriter which he used for composing his Pisan Cantos. As for the legal wrangles that followed his return to the United States, Moody is quite critical of Pound’s lawyer, one Julien Cornell, and of Pound’s old friend James Laughlin. He believes that Cornell, along with Laughlin, inveigled Pound into accepting a plea of insanity and that had Pound come to trial for treason, he would have been acquitted (since there had to be treasonable intent under the law). It seems clear, even from his account, however, that both men were trying to save Pound from the death penalty. The trouble with the insanity plea was that the confinement that resulted was indefinite and if Pound were found to be sane after all, he could again be brought to trial.
Again, there has been much hand-wringing about Pound’s commitment to St. Elizabeth’s. To judge from Moody’s lengthy description, Pound suffered from loneliness and boredom but not much else in the asylum. He was swarmed with visitors, from old friends like T. S. Eliot and Marianne Moore to younger admirers such as Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Olson, and Mary Barnard, a fine if forgotten poet and classicist whom Pound encouraged. Here Pound fed his former obsessions; he was neither remorseful nor chastened. His anti-Semitic tirades against “the bacillus of kikism” prompted Marianne Moore, the wittiest of his visitors, to remark, “Profanity and the Jews are other quaky quicksands against which may I warn you? You have seen turtles or armadillos, possibly, when annoyed and I sometimes have to be one of them.” Of course, not even an enraged armadillo could quell Pound’s bigotry which now expanded to take in other targets. His most disturbing visitor was John Kasper, a violent white supremacist, who carried out private book-burnings of hated Jewish authors (Freud, Marx, Reich, and Einstein) and who engaged in “violent white racist resistance” after the Supreme Court struck down segregation, including suspected bombings—all with Pound’s approval and encouragement. For Pound the Civil Rights Movement was “a Jewish-Communist conspiracy.”
Moody also gives a good detailed account of the sordid brouhaha over the award of the Bollingen Prize to Pound in 1949, an account everyone who wants to plumb the sleazy depths of literary politics should read. No one came out with reputation unscathed from this imbroglio. The award was for The Pisan Cantos, extravagantly admired but—in my minority opinion at least—for all the wrong reasons: despite occasional beauties these cantos are as flawed and uneven as the rest.
This prompts me to ask: what went wrong with The Cantos? Pound spent some fifty years on the work and he certainly considered it his masterpiece. Moody devotes many pages in his biography to close and loving analysis of canto after canto. Taking his cue from Pound’s remark that “It’s music. Musical themes that find each other out,” he makes a great effort to tease out the musical structure of individual cantos. Of Canto 31, for example, he remarks that it rhymes “not to the ear but to the understanding,” this with reference to the opening phrase “Tempus loquendi,/ Tempus tacendi . . . ” which he says “rhymes” with the word “time” in the following line. This notion of what might be called “conceptual rhyme” is certainly interesting, but it isn’t really persuasive; I don’t think any reader, however sophisticated, would hear a rhyme between “tempus” in the Latin translation of Ecclesiastes and the English word “time.” Pound was an excellent musician as well as a composer; he even wrote a highly original treatise on harmony. But there are harmonies and harmonies. A suite performed on a washboard and a kazoo may have harmony, and even counterpoint, but in the end the effect is one of cacophony.
Pound’s greatest gift, it seems to me, lay in a kind of inspired ventriloquism. When he wrote in the voice of others, when he assumed what he called his personae, his masks, he could be both inimitable and magnificent. Whether adopting the voice of Propertius or the Seafarer or an anonymous Chinese woman, he wrote masterpieces that will be remembered and loved as long as English is spoken and read. But he seems to have required the scaffolding of another self, an alien and imagined self, to achieve this. In The Cantos, by contrast, he gives us the voice of Uncle Ez himself; even the many quotations he strews liberally throughout the text somehow take on his droning accents. It is a voice by turns pedantic, preachy, faux-folksy, and yet strangely anodyne.
In a famous quip Gertrude Stein called Pound a “village explainer,” adding “excellent if you were a village but if you were not, not.” The village explainer is much in evidence, especially in his crackpot theories of economics. Amid the potted histories of Renaissance Italy and imperial China, amid the ranting and the slurs (“the total dirt that was Roosevelt”) and the sheer windbaggery, there will, however, suddenly arise, as if miraculously, passages of stunning beauty. Marvellous as these are, they too often have the effect of accentuating the surrounding drabness of language and diction. Take this, for one example, from Canto 49:
Autumn moon; hills rise about lakes
Evening is like a curtain of cloud,
a blurr above ripples; and through it
sharp long spikes of the cinnamon,
a cold tune among reeds.
Behind hill the monk’s bell
borne on the wind.
Sail passed here in April; may return in October
Boat fades in silver; slowly;
Sun blaze alone on the river.
Even though this is pure chinoiserie, like all Pound’s lyrical passages in The Cantos, that is, not really a landscape observed in itself but a stylized artefact of a landscape, it is exquisite. There are several such passages in the work, and all are quite lovely, but they do not really lighten or redeem its ponderous and deadening mass. The first dozen or so cantos are certainly magnificent too; they seem to announce a new kind of poetry, a new way of structuring verse. But as Pound’s manias intensified, from the 1930s on, this bold prospect faded. Pound was an editor of genius (as The Waste Land attests). Why didn’t he edit his own work with the brilliance he brought to Eliot’s? The answer is all too painfully simple: Pound would have had to edit himself, and drastically, before moving on to the more technical labor of textual editing.
If no sympathetic impression of Pound the man emerges from Moody’s pages—his inner life well concealed under torrents of rant—that is probably not Moody’s fault. In fact, to judge from the biography, Pound seems not to have had much of an inner life; he seems to have been impervious to introspection. He seems never to have questioned or doubted and certainly never to have lacerated himself over his failings or his “errors.” The only perceptible alteration lay in further distillations of the venom that consumed him. When he fell stubbornly silent from 1962 until his death in 1972, some took this as a form of remorse or even penance for his lifelong intemperance, his betrayal of the precision of language he had enjoined on his disciples. The evidence, based only on statements by Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, interested parties both, is meager. But who knows? Maybe in his final silence he was pondering the adage of his master Confucius: “The humane person is cautious in his speech.”
1 Ezra Pound: Poet: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939–1972, by A. David Moody; Oxford University Press, 640 pages, $35.