Pound’s Life And Career–by Clive Wilmer Essay, Research Paper

Clive Wilmer


has been described as Pound’s farewell to London. In 1920 he left, spending four years in

Paris then moving on to Italy, where he settled in Rapallo in 1924. He was now

concentrating on The Cantos, his ‘poem including history’, and the first section

was published in 1925.

As The Cantos shows, he was now preoccupied with economics. The war, as he saw

it, had been caused by the rivalries of international capitalists. He thought he had found

a solution to the evils of unchecked capitalism, one especially favourable to the arts, in

the Social Credit theory of Major C. H. Douglas, who argued that a system of state credit

could increase purchasing power in the population at large, thus promoting creativity and

removing power from bankers and financiers. Attracted to Mussolini by his energy and his

promises of monetary reform, Pound na?vely assumed that the Italian leader could be

persuaded to put Douglas’s theory into practice. At first, the main target of Pound’s

attacks is ‘usury’, which he depicts (e.g. in Canto 45) as an unnatural force that

pollutes the creative instinct in humanity. By about 1930 the usurers he condemns are

usually Jews, and his language is vitiated by virulent anti-Semitism.

A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930) presents the poet as wandering Odysseus, travelling

among the dead. Through juxtaposition, he uncovers repeated patterns in history and

experiences moments when the world of time is transfigured by the eternal world of the

gods. The mainly Mediterranean emphasis of the first thirty Cantos then gives way (in

Cantos 31-70, published 1934-40) to the economic policies of early US presidents and the

governance of ancient China. Despite an increase in prosy didacticism and much consequent

turgidity, these sections contain some of Pound’s finest poetry (e.g. Cantos 36,45, 47,

and 49).

In the later 1930s Pound devoted much of his energy to defending fascism and trying to

avert war. When war broke out, he embarked on a series of fanatical addresses to American

troops, which were broadcast on Rome Radio. As a result, he was arrested by partisans in

1945 and handed over to the US forces, who held him for six months at a Disciplinary

Training Centre near Pisa, pending trial on a treason charge. It seems likely that the

inhuman conditions he endured there for the first three weeks accelerated the breakdown in

rationality already to be glimpsed in his writings. Repatriated to the United States to

stand trial, he was found unfit to plead on grounds of insanity and incarcerated in St

Elizabeths Hospital, Washington DC, from 1946 to 1958.

His imprisonment brought about an artistic recovery. The Pisan Cantos (1948),

drafted in the DTC, are the most directly personal poems he wrote. In adversity, and

conscious of the tragedy of Europe, he contemplates his own past in that context,

especially the water-shed years of the modern movement. Suffering and retrospection induce

a new humility, exemplified in his care for the life around him–the insects, the animals,

the camp guards. In St. Elizabeths he completed two rather more cryptic sections of the

poem–Section: Rock-Drill (1955) and Thrones (1959)–as well as a programme

of translations from the Confucian classics.

On his release he returned to Italy, dying in Venice in 1972. Despite moments of

defiance, his last years were overshadowed by self-doubt and consciousness of his ‘errors

and wrecks’. In rare public utterances he condemned The Cantos as a failure, a view

he seems not consistently to have held; but the poem was never completed. In 1969 he

concluded its publication with Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII: thirty-two

pages of verse, mostly serene but poignant in its fragmentation.

Pound was the central figure in the modern movement, personally responsible for the

renewal of English poetry in the 1910s. Yet he remains a controversial figure. His brutal

politics have been damaging to his lofty view of the artist and civilization; he is also

condemned as an ?litist, an obscurantist, and a charlatan—a man deficient in

self-knowledge, with no real understanding of the modern world despite his avant-gardiste

posturing. None of these charges quite shakes the substance of his achievement, which is

fundamentally a matter of technical accomplishment to a point where refinement of skill

becomes a moral quality. Such is the sensitivity of his verse movement that it seems to

release independent life and otherness in his subjects, as if it had discovered them by

chance. This is so whether he seeks to evoke the movement of olive leaves in the wind or

the character of a Renaissance condottiere. The same quality lies behind his genius

for translation, an art he has been said to have invented for our time: uncannily, he

creates a language for each author which registers the remoteness of the author from our

world while at the same time making his work available to us. If Pound is obscure, it is

largely because of his wide frame of reference; he was also an educator, who used poetry

to introduce his readers to works and ideas he had discovered for himself. It is hardly

his fault that his syllabus has never been adopted.

Pound’s poetry is collected in two volumes: Collected Shorter Poems (London,

1984)–the American edition is entitled Personae: Collected Poems (New York,

1971)–and The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York, 1972; London, 1981). The

Translations of Ezra Pound, ed. Hugh Kenner (New York and London, 1953), is a large

selection with major omissions. The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot

(London and New York, 1954), suggests the scope of his criticism, while Selected Prose,

1909-1965, ed. William Cookson (London and New York, 1973), includes much of his

polemical writing as well. The fullest biography is Humphrey Carpenter, A Serious

Character (London, 1988), though it has been severely criticized.

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Copyright ?

1994 by Oxford University Press.

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