Pound in June 1918.
Unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, T. S. Eliot was a prophet, once in a way:
The twenty-first century critic will probably be one who knows and admires some of the poems, but who either says: “Pound is primarily a scholar, a translator,” or “Pound’s early verse was beautiful; his later work shows nothing better than the itch for advertisement, a mischievous desire to be annoying, or a childish desire to be original.” There is a third type of reader, rare enough, who has perceived Mr. Pound for some years, who has followed his career intelligently, and who recognizes its consistency.
Eliot wrote this in Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry, published in 1917, just before the end of the period covered in the first volume of A. David Moody’s biography (reviewed in The New Criterion of January 2008). He was quite right that Pound’s long-term poetic reputation would come to be based, for most readers, more on his early work than the Cantos, which occupied him from 1915 to the end of his life. He could not then know—nobody could—the degree to which Pound would later exhibit much more worrying traits of character than “a mischievous desire to be annoying.” What is certain is that Eliot’s description of the rare “third type of reader” fits David Moody himself with unerring accuracy. We may be thankful for that, because in this second volume he has to confront some exceptionally difficult material. He does so in no exculpatory spirit, and is forthright in condemnation when necessary, but he never slackens his determination to see Pound steadily and see him whole.1
The eighteen years covered in the book take Pound from Paris to Rapallo, with forays elsewhere in Europe, to London and, on the eve of the Second World War, back to America, where he received an honorary doctorate from Hamilton College, his alma mater. “The larger public,” the dean remarked in presenting Pound for the degree, “has been at times amazed at your political and economic as well as your artistic credo, and you have retaliated by making yourself—not unintentionally perhaps—the gadfly.” He was proved right almost immediately, when Pound heckled another speaker who condemned the Italian–German alliance. Pound’s attempts, during this trip, to interest a number of senators in his economic ideas—at one time he proposed himself as Secretary of the Treasury under the presidency of Huey Long—proved as disappointing as his farcical meeting, in 1933, with Mussolini, who, having been shown some Cantos, asked him what was his aim in writing them. Pound explained that it was “to put my ideas in order.” “What do you want to do that for?” Il Duce replied. By grim coincidence, Hitler had been appointed Chancellor a few hours earlier that same day.
Pound’s domestic life during these years was turbulent. His marriage to Dorothy, already under strain, nearly cracked when he fathered a daughter, Mary, with the violinist Olga Rudge, whom he had met in 1923. Apparently in retaliation—since Pound had refused to have children with her—Dorothy had an affair with an unknown man and gave birth to a son, Omar, in 1926. Pound was thus in the position, as Moody puts it, of being “bound by law to recognize as his own the child that was not his; while in law he could not be recognized as the father of his own child.” Quoting Pound’s “I do not care a damn about private affairs, private life, personal interests,” Moody categorizes his predicament as due to a “tragic flaw.” I would prefer to call it moral irresponsibility, especially since both children were fostered by surrogate parents and saw their actual parents at cruelly long intervals—Moody tells us that Omar met his father “only once, or possibly twice, until after 1945,” by which time he was nineteen. Despite the fact that both Omar and Mary turned out well, one reflects that it is not Pound who ought to be seen as a tragic figure in this situation.
The liaison with Olga Rudge also bore fruit in a less problematic sense. She and Pound were important figures in the rediscovery of Vivaldi, hundreds of whose works remained unpublished and unperformed, lying in major European libraries. Rudge examined many of these, wrote a book on Vivaldi, and revised his entry for Grove’s Dictionary, while Pound arranged concerts of his works in Rapallo. He had also struck up a friendship with the American composer George Antheil. In 1924 he published The Treatise on Harmony, expounding his view that the time-interval is the great overlooked factor in composition theory; pitch need not be constant. The assumption that harmony is a matter of the vertical melodic relationship of simultaneous chords leaves no room for horizontal progression. Pound was willing to put these principles into practice; he composed two operas, one setting portions of Villon’s Le Testament, the second on the life of the troubadour Cavalcanti. Sketches for Le Testament de Villon were begun in 1919 and brought to completion, with Antheil’s assistance, in 1923, to be revised subsequently. It was broadcast by the BBC in 1931 and the modern version, in a performance edition by Robert Hughes, was premiered in 1971 (with a definitive two-volume edition in 2008 and 2011). I have managed to hear a recording. Once your ear has become accustomed to it, it contains passages of great force and, in a weird way, beauty. Pound insisted that he was not “setting words to music,” but “setting music to words,” which contained their own kind of harmony already. Cavalcanti was finished in 1932, and Pound’s edition of Cavalcanti’s poems appeared that same year. It was meant for radio broadcast, but that failed to happen. Not until 1983 was the manuscript edited for concert performance, again by Robert Hughes. Pound’s musical interests of course fed into the Cantos and must have influenced the way he chanted his own verse aloud, in that voice which is unlike his normal speaking voice and is so uncannily reminiscent of W. C. Fields.
One of the signal achievements of Moody’s book is to clarify the matter of Pound’s fascism, which has caused so much bilious commentary. I will quote his admirably lucid summary:
Once the political situation is understood in terms of laissez-faire economics on the one side, and state-controlled economics on the other, it becomes clear that in the one freedom to vote went with having a very limited claim upon the state in respect of one’s basic human needs, whereas in the other the state, while denying the individual a voice, did provide for the basic needs of all who served it. The individual was likely to be better off materially, therefore, under the Italian or the German dictatorships which suppressed his individuality, than under the democracies which left individuals free to provide for themselves or go under.
The crucial, and limiting, phrase is “better off materially.” Yet anyone who reads Pound extensively cannot conclude that he thought material wealth sufficient in itself. It was, rather, a necessary condition for the well-being of the state in other crucial respects, cultural above all.
Moody persuades us that we ought not to let our inevitable disgust at Pound’s “street-corner rant” obscure the fact that his economic arguments deserved a hearing. He reminds us that Mussolini was initially welcomed by Churchill, who called him “the greatest law-giver among living men,” and President Roosevelt, who stated that he regarded Italy under Mussolini as “the only real friend of America in Europe.” Fascism was seen to have been instrumental in restoring Italy to economic health, and in acting as a resistance to Communism. Pound saw the vaunted “democracy” of America as actually anti-democratic, betraying the principles of the Founding Fathers—above all John Adams—but he never said that America ought to adopt fascism, only that it ought to do what the Constitution said it should do, which he felt was being done in Italy rather than in his own country. Ironically, far from welcoming Pound’s support, the Italian government did its best to keep him at bay, regarding him as a bore and a nuisance. He approved of what he saw as fascism’s democratic apportionment of wealth, which ensured social justice and equality in ways impossible under capitalism. A country in which profit was made from credit, with ruinous interest charged on loans, must impoverish rather than enrich its citizens. Pound, as Moody puts it, “meant to save America from its anti-American Americans.”
At this point there was no anti-Semitic element in fascism; that only appeared after the alliance with Germany in 1938, and even then in a quite distinct form; hostility towards Italian Jews was not on account of their being Jews, but for being thereby divided in their loyalties and insufficiently committed to fascism. One of the most contentious statements in Moody’s book is his claim that Pound “did not hate Jews, he hated what they could be made to stand for. . . . His real enemy was always the banking system which he held responsible for a great deal of human misery.” I doubt whether Pound made that distinction, although Moody can call on the testimony of Louis Zukofsky at the time of Pound’s treason trial: “I never felt the least trace of anti-Semitism in his presence.” Pound could not make personal friends into abstractions, but he was too ready to generalize for polemical ends. Moody admits Pound never realized that anti-Semitism was “an offence against fundamental human rights and values” and describes one of his pronouncements as “an endorsement of racist thuggery.” This is a grave charge, but Pound cannot be exonerated. He was attracted by the British Union of Fascists when they seemed sympathetic to Social Credit, and ignored their racism, and although he denounced Nazism in 1933 as “a sickly and unpleasant parody of Fascism,” by 1938 had convinced himself that Germany was implementing the economic policies he approved of. Moody calls attention to the contrast between the intemperate tone of Pound’s prose attacks on usury and the measured voice of Canto 45 (“With Usura”) where “the fury of denunciation is accompanied by a strong opposite sense of the good things usury destroys.”
There is a tension between our admiration for the clarity and detail of Moody’s exposition of the Cantos, which takes up much of the book, and our inability to endorse some of his assumptions about the literary value of the work. I am astounded by his claim that the Chinese cantos (53 to 61) possess a dramatic structure “much like that of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies.” Nothing could be less dramatic, or less Shakespearean, and I would have to side with Randall Jarrell’s view that these cantos are “almost unreadable.” Moody’s comment on that is blunt: “ ‘Unreadable’ is of course a common way of saying ‘I can’t read them.’ ” He criticizes Jarrell, along with Donald Davie, a loyal Poundian who nonetheless rejected this section of the poem as “sterile,” for being unable to grasp “Pound’s method of making music of history.” Moody is fond of this musical analogy, as T. S. Eliot was, but he does not always seem to heed his own caution, which was Eliot’s too, that “a music made of words will have quite different possibilities and conditions as compared to a music of sound only.” He speaks of “a music of the whole mind at work,” of “movements” in Canto 34, of Canto 41 as a “fugue” with “counterpoint,” “an accelerated stretto passage,” and a “final cadence,” and provides an elaborate analysis of its subjects and counter-subjects.
What worries me about these procedures, and about their source, Pound’s theory of melopoeia in How to Read (1929), “wherein the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning,” is that they ignore the element of metaphor involved in describing poetry as music. For words, however attractive they sound, however artfully their vowels and consonants are patterned, have connotations—they point to things beyond themselves—and musical notes do not. I think a strikingly sane point was made by Basil Bunting, explaining why it is a mistake to call the Cantos polyphonic: “it could never be a true polyphony because poetry has only one line at a time.” Even if you break the lines up on the page and interlard sentences with other sentences, or parts of them, still you have to take each line in succession, and it is reasonable to demand of words that they (eventually) make sense. “Whoever would read The Cantos,” Moody warns, “must risk a new way of ordering things in the mind, one which might lead to an unconventional understanding of the world.” I am happy, even eager, to take this risk, but have to report that, in Moody’s sense of “unreadable,” there is a great deal of the Cantos which, though I have read them, I can’t read.
How to Read was discussed by the “fiercely serious” F. R. Leavis—as Moody calls him, apparently disapprovingly—in How to Teach Reading: A Primer for Ezra Pound (1932), reprinted in revised form in Education and the University (1943). Leavis objects that “the effect of the words as sound is quite inseparable from their meaning and from the imagery they convey; these determine the ‘musical property’ as much as this ‘directs the bearing or trend’ of the meaning. The ‘musical property’ by itself is an abstraction so remote from the concrete experience of poetry as to be useless.” Furthermore, Leavis was surely right to condemn Pound’s airy assumptions about the ease with which poetry in foreign languages could be understood with minimal effort. “One does not need to learn a whole language in order to understand some one or some dozen poems. It is often enough to understand thoroughly the poem, and every one of the few dozen or few hundred words that compose it.” That, from How to Read, must be one of the silliest things Pound ever said. A poem can’t be “thoroughly” understood in isolation from the connotative range of the language—not merely the words—in which it is written.
The epic status of the Cantos has been much discussed, usually taking off from Pound’s description (“definition” would be the wrong word) of an epic as “a poem including history.” “Including,” of course, is an inclusive word. Moody describes the Cantos as “the epic of the capitalist era,” but cautions against assuming that figures such as Adams, Jefferson, or Mussolini are straightforwardly historical. On the contrary, they are “transfigured out of history into the poem Pound is making up,” and the contradictions between his presentation of them and the one a historian would put forward constitute “a problem that anyone who wants to read the work must just learn to live with.” The nearest pre-twentieth-century epic to the Cantos is perhaps Wordsworth’s Prelude, a title he never used, always referring to it as “the Poem on the growth of my own mind,” an explanation Pound might have appropriated. But Wordsworth, and all epic poets before Pound (I am not considering The Waste Land as an epic), however they might compose in separate episodes, had at the backs of their minds an overarching structure of the kind which Pound never discovered for his poem. The selection of details so often looks arbitrary, the links between them adventitious. Moody comes near to admitting this in his discussion of the Adams cantos (62 to 71). These at least prompted me to read David McCullough’s biography of Adams, for which I am much the wiser, but Moody accurately describes Pound’s procedure as “skim-reading the ten volumes of the Works of John Adams, jotting down phrases and fragments, a half-line from there and a line or two from further on, and then typing up these bits and pieces into cantos, taking the fragments just as they came with little or no rearrangements and with no respect for their original contexts.” Yet he can still say that the result has “musical form,” and refer to “the details, the sequence of notes as it were”—“as it were” is a ruinous concession, surely! The determination to see everything from Adams’s perspective, as Moody also admits, robs the struggle in which he was engaged of most of its drama. Yet in Pound’s mind Adams, pater patriae as he hailed him, was the man who laid down the principles of constitutional democracy, the answerability of the legislature and executive to the people in whose name and for whose benefit they governed. The America of the 1930s, which Pound felt had deserted those principles, is called to account in this section of the poem. Repeatedly Moody feels, and makes us feel, the grandeur of the conception—until we return to the words on the page, and bafflement obscures our minds once more.
To be fair, we should add that the book breaks off before the Pisan Cantos, which are felt by many readers to be the peak of Pound’s achievement in his late work. Despite the points on which, with genuine regret, I have felt I had to disagree with David Moody, I believe that nobody has a hope of understanding Ezra Pound unless they have read this book and its predecessor. The third volume will bring to a conclusion a project as extraordinary in its way as the life it chronicles.
1Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man and His Work, Volume II: The Epic Years, 1921–1939, by A. David Moody; Oxford University Press, 421 pages, $35.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 7, on page 18
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