Ezra Weston Loomis Pound was an American expatriate, poet, musician,
critic, and economist who, along with T. S. Eliot, was a major
figure 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."
life and contemporaries
Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho, United States to Homer Loomis
and Isabel Weston Pound. He studied for two years at the University
of Pennsylvania and later received his B.A. from Hamilton College
in 1905. During studies at Penn, he met and befriended William
Carlos Williams and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), to whom he was engaged
for a time. H.D. also became involved with a woman named Frances
Gregg around this time. Shortly afterwards, H.D. and Gregg, along
with Gregg's mother, went to Europe.
Pound taught at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana for
less than a year, and left as the result of a minor scandal. In
1908 he traveled to Europe, settling in London after spending
several months in Venice.
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.
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 Sussex, England, studying Japanese, especially Noh plays. They
paid particular attention to the works of Ernest Fenollosa, an
American professor in Japan, whose work on Chinese characters
Pound developed into what he called the Ideogrammic Method. In
1914, Pound married Dorothy Shakespear, an artist, also the daughter
of Olivia Shakespear, a novelist and sometime lover of W.B. Yeats.
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, Rabindranath Tagore, Robert Frost,
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.
the war shattered Pound's belief in modern western civilization
and he abandoned London soon after, but not before he published
Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919) and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920).
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 was friends with notable figures such
as Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Fernand Leger and others of
the Dada and Surrealist movements. He continued working on The
Cantos, writing the bulk of the "Malatesta Sequence"
which introduced one of the major personas of the poem. As well,
the poem increasingly reflected his preoccupations with politics
this time, he also wrote critical prose, translations and composed
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 Shakespear, they
formed an uneasy ménage à trois which was to last
until the end of the poet's life.
On 10 October 1924, Pound left Paris permanently and move to Rapallo,
Italy. He and Dorothy stayed there briefly, moving on to Sicily,
and then returning to settle in Rapallo in January 1925. In Italy
he continued to be a creative catalyst. The young sculptor Heinz
Henghes came to see Pound, arriving penniless. He was given lodging
and marble to carve, and quickly learned to work in stone. The
poet James Laughlin was also inspired at this time to start the
publishing company New Directions which would become a vehicle
for many new authors.
this time Pound also organized 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.
Italy Pound became an enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini, and
anti-Semitic sentiments begin to appear in his writings. He made
his first trip back home for many years in 1939, on the eve of
the Second World War, and considered moving back permanently,
but in the end he chose to return to Italy.
from his political sympathy with the Mussolini regime, Pound had
personal reasons for staying. His elderly parents had retired
to Italy to be with him, and were in poor health and would have
difficulty making the trip back to America even under peacetime
conditions. He also had an Italian-born daughter by his mistress
Olga Rudge: Mary (or Maria) Rudge was a young woman in her late
teens who had lived in Italy her whole life and who might have
had difficulty relocating to America (even though she had American
as well as Italian citizenship.)
remained in Italy after the outbreak of the Second World War,
which began more than two years before his native United States
formally entered the war in December 1941. He became a leading
Axis propagandist. He also continued to be involved in scholarly
publishing, and he wrote many newspaper pieces. 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.
he touched on political matters, and his opposition to the war
and his anti-Semitism were apparent on occasions. It is not clear
if anyone in the United States ever actually heard his radio broadcasts,
since Italian radio's shortwave transmitters were weak and unreliable.
It is clear, however, that his writings for Italian newspapers
(as well as a number of books and pamphlets) did have some influence
July 1943, the southern half of Italy was overrun by Allied forces.
At the Allies' behest, King Victor Emmanuel III dismissed Mussolini
as premier of the Kingdom of Italy. Mussolini escaped to the north,
where he declared himself the President of the new Salo Republic.
Pound played a significant role in culutural and propaganda activities
in the new republic, which lasted till the spring of 1945.
May 2, 1945, he was arrested by Italian partisans, and taken (according
to Hugh Kenner) "to their HQ in Chiavari, where he was soon
released as possessing no interest." The next day, he turned
himself in to U.S. forces. 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. 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. The charges covered only his activities
during the time when the Kingdom of Italy was officially at war
with the United States, i.e., the time before the Allies captured
Rome and Mussolini fled to the North. Pound was not prosecuted
for his activities on behalf of Mussolini's Saló Republic
(evidently because the Republic's existence was never formally
recognized by the United States.)
was found unfit to face trial because of insanity and sent to
St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he remained
for 12 years from 1946 to 1958. His insanity plea is still a matter
of some controversy, since in retrospect his activities and his
writings during the war years do not appear to be those of a clinically
insane person. The insanity plea was part of a plea bargain designed
to save his life, since treason is potentially a capital offense.
As it turned out, there were a number of other American Axis collaborators
who stood trial after the war without being sentenced to death.
his release, he returned to Italy, where he remained until his
death in 1972. Pound was conceited and flamboyant, to say the
least, which in psychiatric terms became "grandiosity of
ideas and beliefs".
contrast, E. Fuller Torrey believed that Mussolini's propagandist
was coddled by Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths.
Overholser admired Pound's poetry and allowed him to live in a
private room at the hospital, where he wrote three books, received
visits from literary celebrities and enjoyed conjugal relations
with his wife and several mistresses. (Torrey exposed the relationship
between Overholser and Pound in a 1981 Psychology Today and later,
the book The Roots of Treason.) At St. Elizabeths, Pound was surrounded
by poets and other admirers and continued working on The Cantos
as well as translating the Confucian classics.
of the poets and artists who visited Pound would probably have
been horrified to learn that another of his most frequent visitors
was the then-chairman of the States' Rights Democratic Party,
with whom Pound used to discuss strategy and tactics on how best
to rally public support for the preservation of racial segregation
in the American South. Pound was befriended there by Guy Davenport,
who subsequently wrote his Harvard dissertation on Pound's poetry
(published as Cities on Hills in 1983), a work that was highly
influential in causing a re-assessment of Pound's poetry. Pound
was finally released after a concerted campaign by many of his
fellow poets and artists, particularly Robert Frost. He was still
considered incurably insane, but not dangerous to others. Elizabeth
Bishop referred to this period of Pound's life in her poem "Visits
to St. Elizabeth's."
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.
Allen Ginsberg, in an interview with Michael Reck, stated that
Pound seemed to regret many of his past actions, and that he regretted
that his work was tainted with "that stupid, suburban prejudice
of anti-Semitism", although contemporaneous letters published
in recent years indicate that he was still unrepentently anti-semitic.
Pound died in Venice in 1972.
Quality of Pound's Poetry
Pound's The Cantos, one of the 20th century's most important literary
works, is a poem that contains music and bears a title that could
be translated as The Songs --though it never is. Pound's ear was
tuned to the motz el sons of troubadour poetry where, as musicologist
John Stevens has noted, "melody and poem existed in a state
of the closest symbiosis, obeying the same laws and striving in
their different media for the same sound-ideal - armonia."
his essays, Pound wrote of rhythm as "the hardest quality
of a man's style to counterfeit." He challenged young poets
to train their ear with translation work to learn how the choice
of words and the movement of the words combined. But having translated
texts from ten different languages into English, Pound found that
translation did not always serve the poetry: "The grand bogies
for young men who want really to learn strophe writing are Catullus
and Francois Villon. I personally have been reduced to setting
them to music as I cannot translate them." While he habitually
wrote out verse rhythms as musical lines, Pound did not set his
own poetry to music.
1919, when he was 34, Ezra began charting his path as a novice
composer, writing privately that he intended a revolt against
the impressionistic music of Debussy. An autodidact, Pound described
his working method as "improving a system by refraining from
obedience to all its present 'laws'..." With only a few formal
lessons in music composition, Pound produced a small body of work,
including a setting of Dante's sestina, "Al poco giorno,"
most important output is the pair of operas: Le Testament, a setting
of Francois Villon's long poem of that name, written in 1461;
and Cavalcanti, a setting of 11 poems by Guido Cavalcanti (c.
1250-1300). Pound began composing the Villon with the help of
Agnes Bedford, London pianist and vocal coach. Though the work
is notated in Bedford's hand, Pound scholar Robert Hughes has
been able to determine that Pound was artistically responsible
for the work's overall dramatic and acoustic design.
the fecund Paris years of 1921-1924, Pound formed close friendships
with the American pianist and composer George Antheil, and Antheil's
touring partner, the American concert violinist Olga Rudge. Pound
championed Antheil's music and asked his help in devising a system
of micro-rhythms that would more accurately render the vitalistic
speech rhythms of Villon's Old French for Le Testament. The resulting
collaboration of 1923 used irregular meters that were considerably
more elaborate than Stravinsky's benchmarks of the period, Le
Sacre du Printemps (1913) and L'Histoire du Soldat (1918).
example, "Heaulmiere," one of the opera's key arias,
at a tempo of quarter note = M.M. 88, moves from 2/8 to 25/32
to 3/8 to 2/4 meter (bars 25-28), creating for the performers
ferocious difficulties in hearing the current bar of music and
anticipating the upcoming bar. Rudge performed in the 1924 and
1926 Paris preview concerts of Le Testament, but insisted to Pound
that the meter was impractical.
Le Testament there is no predictability of manner; no comfort
zone for singer or listener; no rests or breath marks. Though
Pound stays within the hexatonic scale to evoke the feel of troubadour
melodies, modern invention runs throughout, from the stream of
unrelenting dissonance in the mother's prayer to the grand shape
of the work's aesthetic arc over a period of almost an hour. The
rhythm carries the emotion.
music admits the corporeal rhythms (the score calls for human
bones to be used in the percussion part); scratches, hiccoughs,
and counter-rhythms lurch against each other--an offense to courtly
etiquette. With "melody against ground tone and forced against
another melody," as Pound puts it, the work spawns a polyphony
in polyrhythms that ignores traditional laws of harmony. It was
a test of Pound's ideal of an "absolute" and "uncounterfeitable"
rhythm conducted in the laboratory of someone obsessed with the
relationship between words and music.
hearing a concert performance of Le Testament in 1926, Virgil
Thomson praised Pound's accomplishment. "The music was not
quite a musician's music," he wrote, "though it may
well be the finest poet's music since Thomas Campion. . . . Its
sound has remained in my memory."
Hughes has remarked that where Le Testament explores a Webernesque
pointillistic orchestration and derives its vitality from complex
rhythms, Cavalcanti (1931) thrives on extensions of melody. Based
on the lyric love poetry of Guido Cavalcanti, the opera's numbers
are characterized by a challenging bel canto, into which Pound
incorporates a number of tongue-in-cheek references to Verdi and
a musical motive that gestures to Stravinsky's neo-classicism.
this time the relationship with Antheil had considerably cooled,
and Pound, in his gradual acquisition of technical self-sufficiency,
was free to emulate certain aspects of Stravinsky. Cavalcanti
demands attention to its varying cadences, to a recurring leitmotif,
and to a symbolic use of octaves. The play of octaves creates
a surrealist straining against the limits of established compositional
laws, of history and fate, of physiology, of reason, and especially
against the limits of a love born of desire. The audience is asked
to strain to hear a political cipher hidden within the music.
statement, "Rhythm is a FORM cut into TIME," distinguishes
his 20th century medievalism from Antheil's SPACE/TIME theory
of modern music, which sought pure abstraction. Antheil's system
of time organization is inherently biased for complex, asymmetric,
and fast tempi; it thrives on innovation and surprise. Pound's
more open system allows for any sequence of pitches; it can accommodate
older styles of music with their symmetry, repetition, and more
uniform tempi, as well as newer methods, such as the asymmetrical
micro-metrical divisions of rhythm created for Le Testament.
iconoclastic music can be compared to that of his contemporary,
Charles Ives. Both subjected melody to sophisticated techniques
of juxtaposition and layering, Pound shaping melody with literary
textures and Ives with harmonic and contrapuntal textures. Each
experimented with the combination of different genres placed into
a single complex work. Ives selected from among hymns, folk tunes,
ballads and minstrelsy, as well as instrumental pieces. Pound
selected from a vocal gamut of plainchant, homophony, troubadour
melodies, bel canto and nineteenth century opera cliches, as well
as 20th-century polyrhythms and cabaret style singing.
music theories are reactionary and revolutionary, irascible and
philosophic. His reach passes through the physical science of
sound to offer many epiphanies.
Because of his political views, especially his support of Mussolini
and his anti-Semitism, Pound attracted much criticism throughout
the second half of the twentieth century. As historical revisionist
models of criticism wane, however, it seems as though Pound scholars
are becoming interested in his words and not his views. However,
it is almost impossible to ignore the vital role he played in
the modernist revolution in 20th century literature in English.
perceived importance has varied over the years. The location of
Pound -- as opposed to other writers such as T.S. Eliot -- at
the center of the Anglo-American Modernist tradition was famously
asserted by the critic Hugh Kenner, most fully in his account
of the Modernist movement titled The Pound Era. The critic Marjorie
Perloff has also insisted upon the centrality of Pound to numerous
traditions of "experimental" poetry in the 20th century.
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 has been considered
by some to be in his debt.
critic, editor and promoter, Pound helped the careers of Yeats,
Eliot, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams,
H.D., Marianne 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.
before the first world war Pound became interested in art when
he was associated with the Vorticists (Pound coined the word).
Pound did much to publicize the movement and was instrumental
in bringing it to the attention of the wider public (he was particularly
important in the artistic careers of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and
translator, although his mastery of languages is open to question,
Pound did much to introduce Provençal and Chinese poetry
to English speaking audiences. For example, insofar as major poets
such as Cavalcanti and Du Fu, are known to the English speaking
world, it is mainly because of Pound. He revived interest in the
Confucian classics and introduced the West to classical Japanese
poetry and drama (e.g. the Noh). He also translated and championed
Greek, Latin and Anglo-Saxon classics and helped keep these alive
for poets at a time when classical education and knowledge of
anglo-saxon was in decline.
the early 1920s in Paris, Pound became interested in music, and
was probably the first serious writer in the 20th century to praise
the work of the long-neglected Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi
and to promote early music generally. He also helped the early
career of George Antheil, and collaborated with him on various
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.