The Poets Ezra Pound (1885-1972)


About the Poet

A technical genius and pivotal figure in world poetry, Ezra Loomis Pound was the iconoclast of his day. A restless seeker and experimenter, he disdained his American roots, kept a ménage à trois with his wife and a mistress, and cultivated a bohemian image by dressing in scruffy, romantic splendor — cane, billowing cape, and tunic topped by rumpled hair and a saucy Van Dyke beard. On Paris's fabled Left Bank, he kept company with expatriates Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein and counseled emerging writers of such stature and promise as Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, H. D., e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, and Amy Lowell. In addition to producing a formidable canon of verse, essay, criticism, biography, and translation, Pound stirred international controversy and led a re-evaluation of language and meaning in modern verse.

Pound was born in a cabin in the frontier town of Hailey, Idaho, on October 30, 1885. He lived for a year in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and came of age in Wyncote outside Philadelphia, where his father was an assistant assayer for the U.S. Mint. Pound's public schooling ended with enrollment at Cheltenham Military Academy. After entering the University of Pennsylvania at age 15, he knew that his life would consist of mastering all there was to know about poetry. He focused on Latin, Medieval, and Renaissance studies and formed a close friendship with fellow student William Carlos Williams, who lived for a time with the Pound family.

Pound completed a B.A. in philosophy from Hamilton College; he then taught romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned an M.A. in Spanish. After a year on the faculty of Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1905, he was fired for befriending a transsexual. Fleeing provincialism and artistic sterility, he toured southern Europe and researched a doctoral thesis on the plays of Lope de Vega. He earned what he could from reviewing and tutoring and worked as secretary for poet William Butler Yeats while championing "imagism," his term for modern poetry.

In 1908, Pound published his first volumes, A Lume Spento [With Tapers Quenched], A Quinzaine for This Yule, and Personae [Masks]. Content to live outside his native land, in September 1909, he settled in a sparse front room in London's Kensington section; five years later, he married Dorothy Shakespear. Under the influence of James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford, Pound rapidly produced Exultations in 1909 and Provença the following year. He covered new ground as poet-as-translator with The Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti (1912), which he set to music for opera, and the verse of French troubadour François Villon. Pound's translation of Li Po's poems in Cathay (1915) and Certain Noble Plays of Japan (1916) anticipated a demand for Asian literature. A greater predictor of change was "In a Station of the Metro" (1916), Pound's nineteen-syllable haiku that captures with impressionistic clarity the direction in which the poet intended his art to go.

Pound achieved his most influential imagism in Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919) and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: Life and Contacts (1920), a collection of incisive poetic snapshots. During the post-World War I spiritual malaise, he joined Paris café society, a clamorous coterie known as the "lost generation." In search of quiet, in 1922, he dropped his literary friends and migrated to Rapallo, Italy, his home for twenty years. He pored over medieval manuscripts and became Paris correspondent for The Dial, which conferred a $2,000 prize on him in 1928. A mark of his achievement in language was publication of Translations of Ezra Pound (1933) and the political critiques in ABC of Economics (1933) and Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1935).

A racist, anti-Semite, and proponent of Hitler's butchery and Mussolini's Fascism, Pound supported the Italian government in short-wave broadcasts over Rome Radio that were addressed to the English-speaking world. In 1942, he repudiated democracy as "judeocracy" and declared American involvement in the war illegal. After the U.S. military arrested Pound in Genoa in May 1945, he was imprisoned outside Pisa for treason. After being returned to Washington, D.C., for trial, in February 1946, Pound escaped hard prison time by pleading insanity and senility. Critics accused him of perpetuating the pose of raving paranoic to avoid retrial and possible execution. Extolled as a modernist experimenter, he pursued an epic series, The Pisan Cantos (1948) and The Cantos of Ezra Pound (1948). In an atmosphere of jubilance and victory marred by virulent charges of fakery, he accepted the 1949 Bollingen Prize in Poetry, which included a $1,000 purse awarded by the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress.

In 1958, Pound, then aged 72, gained release from an asylum through the intervention of an impressive list of colleagues, including Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, Carl Sandburg, and T. S. Eliot. Freed of all charges, he returned to Italy. He continued writing and, without pausing to refine his work, published Thrones: Cantos 96-109 (1959) and Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII (1968). When he died on November 1, 1972, he was laid among exiles on the island of San Michele beneath a stone that bears only "Ezra Pound."

Chief Works

"A Virginal," composed in 1912, is named for the diminutive keyboard instrument preferred by maidens during the late Renaissance. The poem reflects the early period of Pound's development and his skillful use of the fourteen-line Petrarchan sonnet. He rhymes the first eight lines abbaabba, closing with the rhyme scheme cdeecd. Opening with a burst of emotion, he introduces his rejection with two strong beats, "No, no!" Speaking in the guise of a lover rejecting a lady, he cloaks his commentary on poetry in dashing romanticism, brandishing the female image of the Latin vagina or scabbard, which he will not soil with a dull blade. His rejection of classicism turns on an amusing overstatement of departure from the arms that "have bound me straitly," a pun suggesting a straightjacket.

At the break between opening octave and concluding sestet, Pound returns to the original spondee and chops the line into three segments — another "No, no," a dismissal of his castoff love, and the beginning of his reason for abandoning the allure of traditional verse. Intent on experimentation, he prefers the green shoots that signal a new thrust through earth's crust. He alliterates the past as a "winter wound" and looks beyond to April's white-barked trees, a color symbolic of an emerging purity.

Much of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: Life and Contacts, written eight years after "A Virginal," expresses Pound's exasperation with predictable American artistry and with poets who refuse to let go of the past. In "Ode pour l'Election de Son Sepulchre" ["Ode on the Selection of His Tomb"], Pound draws on a work by Pierre de Ronsard, reclaimed by the initials E. P., to comfort the artist who is "out of key with his time." The second quatrain follows the pattern of iambic tetrameter rhyming abab, but refuses to be tamed into stiff old-style measures. In zesty rhetoric, the poet leaps from one allusion to another, linking Ronsard with Capaneus, a Greek hero in ancient times who was halted in mid-rebellion by a bolt of lightning from the god Zeus. Rapidly covering ground with a line in Greek from Homer's Odyssey, Pound extols another toiler, the sailor Odysseus, who had his men tie him to the mast so that he could experience the sirens' song. The fourth stanza reaches toward Gustave Flaubert, a nineteenth-century novelist who persisted in stylistic growth, even though obstinacy cost him the admiration of his contemporaries.

Gradually relinquishing dependence on a tightly formed quatrain, Parts II and III of the stanza speak clearly about Pound's annoyance with poetry that fails to acknowledge the "accelerated grimace" of the post-World War I era. To the poet, an artistic theft of the "classics in paraphrase" is preferable to a self-indulgent "inward gaze," his term for confessional verse that obsesses over personal feelings and sentimentality. In his estimation, no rigid plaster can suffice in an era that demands agile, up-to-date language. In a rage at commercialism, Part III surges back into the allusive mode with cryptic poetic shards contrasting Edwardian niceties and Sappho's spirited verses. Segueing into religion, Pound makes a similar comparison of the erotic Dionysians and breast-beating Christians.

By Parts IV and V, Pound has shucked off the constraints of pre-modern verse forms to embrace an expression free of rhyme and meter. The tone resorts to a free-ranging bitterness toward the literary status quo. His cunning rhythms, more attuned to pulpit delivery, depict the emotional drive of naive warriors marching to war. With bold pause, in line 71 he halts the parallel flow of complex motives — adventure, fear of weakness, fear of censure, love of slaughter, and outright terror — to note that some died, casualties for patriotism.

To Pound's thinking, the so-called Great War violated Horace's idealization of sweet and fitting martyrdom. Part IV concludes with a ghoulish belly laugh from the hapless dead as the stanza assails post-war distress. Disillusioned by leaders' lies in the 1910s, which pour from the foul jaws of an aged bitch dog, in Part V, the poet lambastes tricksters for luring fine young men to slaughter. For refusing to recognize the threat, a decaying world sent them "under earth's lid," an evocative image of finality — closed eyes and coffins covered with soil.

"A Pact," Pound's forthright confrontation with Walt Whitman, allows the poet to come to terms with a debt to his American forebear, the father of free verse expressionism. Flaunting hatred of a dismally self-limiting poet, Pound depicts himself as the petulant child of an obstinate father, but stops short of a meaningless tantrum. By reining himself in in the fifth line, he gives over peevish vengeance to acknowledge the development of modernism from its foundations. From this "new wood" that Whitman exposed, Pound intends to carve the future of poetry, thus achieving a "commerce" between himself and his predecessor.

Pound's lifetime of carving resulted in a masterwork of 116 stanzas that spanned the four decades of his mature and declining years. In "Canto I," from The Cantos, he imitates the style and diction of Homer, whose Odyssey follows the fate-hounded Greek sailor all over the Mediterranean. Capturing the music of keel over waves and wind on sail, Pound envisions a "swart ship," the boat that the Circe helped Odysseus build to make his final leg of the journey home. It is painted black, Greek fashion; the color prefigures description of that dark nether world that Odysseus must traverse and the murky rites he must perform to acquire the prophet Tiresias' direction. To stress the grimness of the underworld, the poet relies on a heavy sibilance of repeated sounds in "sterile bulls," "best for sacrifice," and the double alliteration of "flowed in the fosse."

In lush phrases, Pound enacts the scene at the trench, where Odysseus must feed the thronging ghosts on fresh-spilled blood to give them voice. After hearing Elpenor's sex-charged explanation of sleeping in "Circe's ingle" and descending the ladder of doom, Odysseus moves on to the next spirit — the sage Tiresias, who warns that return will cost him all his sailors. Following a two-line digression to acknowledge past translations of Homer, Pound venerates Aphrodite, the ancestor of Aeneas, whose subsequent voyage in Virgil's Aeneid parallels the wanderings of Odysseus. Without warning, Pound breaks off the text, as though indicating that the chain of poetic renderings will keep epic alive in version after version.

"Canto XLV," subtitled "With Usura," displays flickering impressionism molded from splendid fragments, a mentally challenging style that Pound contributed to modernism. The haunting, exotic passage builds into fugue with melodic names of Renaissance artists and successors, none of whom paid the penalty of artistic usury. As though composing an oratorio of creative fragments, Pound pictures French churches and tools of the sculptor and weaver. A delicious verbal lyricism in "azure" and "cramoisi" (pronounced krah mwah zee) precedes a revelation: The publisher's financial dealings are the source of declining artistic vigor and the era's compromise of its artists. He suppresses the initial exuberance with a somber reminder that greed kills the artistic "child in the womb." With a pontiff's majesty, he thunders that usury — like whores replacing priestesses and corpses seated at banquets — is unnatural, that is, a violation of world order.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Typify Pound's violation of English grammar and syntax by analyzing the grammar of some of his cantos.

2. Summarize the force of several of the more daring modern poets, including Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Ezra Pound. Determine how subtle poetic controls channel verse energy into emergent image and theme. Consider, for example, Pound's re-creation of Odysseus' voyage or the dramatic monologue "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter."

3. Characterize elements of parody in "Envoi," which Pound wrote as a reply to Edmund Waller's romantic "Go, Lovely Rose," a tribute to beauty.

4. Contrast the emotion in Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen," Robinson Jeffers's "Shine, Perishing Republic," or William Butler Yeats's "The Second Coming" with Pound's first canto of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: Life and Contacts. Express the post war generation's fear of disintegration and decay.

5. Is any of Pound's poetry confessional? If so, discuss those poetic lines that are. What makes them confessional?