Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (October 30, 1885 – November 1, 1972) was an American expatriate, poet, musician and critic who was a major figure of the modernist movement in early twentieth-century poetry. Combining an extensive knowledge of literary history with an eye toward modern experimentalism and acting as an instigator, patron, and formidable author in his own right, Pound laid the foundation for almost all the new directions poetics would take on in the twentieth century. He is a lasting role model for the integration of new and old ways of thought, including traditions from China and Japan. In his mature work, The Cantos, Pound eschewed antiquated "poetic" language in hopes of inventing a new poetic, one that could pierce the mind with what Pound called “clear song”—a sort of instantaneous understanding of the world and all its connectedness. In search of this, Pound revolutionized poetry by using free verse, collage-like structure, and a Duchamp-esque attitude towards quotation and the integration of other art forms into poetry.
Ironically, while a modernist in style and technique, Pound rejected much of the modern world, especially capitalism and the modern banking system that allowed for the creation of wealth through what he disparagingly referred to as usury. In Europe where he lived as an expatriate, banking was dominated by Jews, and Pound's criticisms of usury were sometimes virulently anti-Semitic. Together with his embrace of Mussolini, Pound often found himself on the "wrong side of history," and after the war he paid for it, suffering incarceration in a mental hospital. But his aberrant politics have only slightly diminished his reputation as one of America's greatest poets.
Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho, United States. 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. He taught at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana for less than a year, and left as the result of a minor scandal. In 1908 Pound 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 nineteenth-century poets, as well as medieval Romances. He was also deeply influenced by neo-Romanticism and occult/mystical philosophy. When he moved to London, Pound began to cast off archaic, overtly poetic language and forms in an attempt to remake himself as a poet under the influence of Ford Madox Ford and T. E. Hulme. Believing William Butler Yeats to be the greatest living poet of his time, Pound sought him out in England, and was eventually employed as his secretary for two years. In 1914 Pound married the artist Dorothy Shakespear.
During this time, Yeats and Pound were instrumental in helping each other modernize English poesy. The two writers lived together at Stone Cottage in Sussex, England, studying Japanese literature, especially Noh plays. They paid particular attention to the translations of [[Sinology|Sinologist] Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor in Japan, whose work on Chinese characters was developed by Pound into what he called the Ideogrammic Method, a visual-poetic technique that would be fundamental for his subsequent poems and thought. In translating or interpreting Chinese poetry, into English, Pound dropped the use of formal structures of meter and rhyme, and introduced free verse.
The concept of Pound's Ideogrammic Method was that it allowed poetry to address abstract content through concrete images. The idea was based on Pound's reading of Fenollosa, and in particular his notes on the Chinese ideogram:
Pound gives a brief account of the idea in his instructional booklet The ABC of Reading. He explains his admiration for the way abstract Chinese characters were formed by drawing pictures of concrete things. He uses the example of the character for 'dawn' (a word which in a non-ideogrammatic language like English is almost always as much a cliché as it is a noun.) In Chinese, 'dawn' is represented by the superposition of the characters for 'tree' and 'sun'; that is, a picture of the sun tangled in a tree's branches. Pound found this compression of a complex concept like "dawn" through images to be an incredibly useful tool for poets. He suggested how, with such a system, the concept of 'red' might be presented by putting together the pictures of:
This was a key idea in the development of Imagism, because, according to Pound, it allowed for poets to communicate about abstractions and generalities (even something as general as the color red) without losing touch with the real world and the things in it.
In the years before the First World War, Pound was largely responsible for the appearance of Imagism and Vorticism, philosophies and art and poetics deeply rooted in the ideogrammatic method he had developed through his study of Chinese and Japanese forms. These two movements, published in his Vorticist magazine BLAST and his editorial work with literary magazines Egoist and Poetry, helped bring to notice the work of new poets and artists like James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Richard Aldington, Marianne Moore, 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 T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, the poem that was to force the new poetic sensibility into broader public attention.
The war, however, shattered Pound's belief in modern western civilization and he abandoned London soon after for Europe, 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. The years from 1920 to 1924 Pound spent in Paris, mixing and mingling with other writers and artists.
In Italy, Pound lived with his wife Dorothy and continued to act as a patron and catalyst to numerous artists. 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, who lodged with Pound, was also inspired at this time to start the publishing company New Directions that would become a vehicle for many new authors. 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. Throughout all of this, Pound continued to work incessantly on The Cantos, an epic poem which would eventually become far and away the poet's most important work, and one of the longest and most influential poems in the English language.
The Cantos consist of a long, incomplete poem in 120 sections. Each of these sections is referred to as a canto, Italian for song. Most of the cantos were written between 1915 and 1962, although much of the early work was abandoned and the early cantos, as finally published, date from 1922 onwards. It is a book-length work, and is widely considered to be one of the most formidable poems in the English language and among the most significant works of poetry in the twentieth century. The poem is dense and abstract, with no single narrative or narrator, resembling more a collage of disparate but thematically related fragments. In particular, the themes of economics, governance, and culture and their relation to the creative activity of the poet are all constants throughout the piece.
The difficulty of the poem is apparent even to a casual browser; a cursory reader will notice that the poem includes Chinese characters as well as lengthy quotations in various European languages besides English. Recourse to scholarly commentaries is almost inevitable for any reader. The range of allusion to historical events is very broad in both time and place. Pound added to his earlier interests in the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and East Asia by selecting topics ranging from medieval and early modern Italy and Provence to the beginnings of the United States, the state of England in the seventeenth century, and details from African cultures he had obtained from Leo Frobenius. References left without explanation abound.
As it lacks any plot or definite ending, The Cantos can appear on first reading to be chaotic or structureless. The issue of incoherence of the work is reflected in the equivocal note sounded in the final two more-or-less completed cantos, which lament Pound's inability to make his materials cohere, while insisting that the world itself still does.
Nevertheless, there are indications in Pound's other writings that there may have been some formal plan underlying the work. In his 1918 essay A Retrospect, Pound wrote:
I think there is a 'fluid' as well as a 'solid' content, that some poems may have form as a tree has form, some as water poured into a vase. That most symmetrical forms have certain uses. That a vast number of subjects cannot be precisely, and therefore not properly rendered in symmetrical forms.
Critics like Hugh Kenner who take a more positive view of The Cantos have tended to follow this hint, seeing the poem as a poetic record of Pound's life that sends out new branches as new needs arise, like a tree, displaying a kind of unpredictable inevitability.
Another approach to the structure of the work is based on a letter Pound wrote to his father in the 1920s, in which he stated that his plan was:
A. A. Live man goes down into world of dead. C. B. 'The repeat in history.' B. C. The 'magic moment' or moment of metamorphosis, bust through from quotidian into 'divine or permanent world.' Gods, etc.
The poem's symbolic structure also makes use of an opposition between darkness and light. Images of light are used variously, and may represent neoplatonic ideas of divinity, the artistic impulse, love (both sacred and physical) and good governance, amongst other things. The moon is frequently associated in the poem with creativity, while the sun is more often found in relation to the sphere of political and social activity, although there is frequent overlap between the two. From the Rock Drill sequence on, the poem's effort is to merge these two aspects of light—social commerce and poetic genius—into a unified whole.
The Cantos was initially published in the form of separate sections, each containing several cantos that were numbered sequentially using Roman numerals. The original publication dates for the groups of cantos are as given below. The complete collection of cantos was published together in 1987 (including a final short coda or fragment, dated 24 August, 1966).
The first canto begins with Pound's translation of a Latin version of Homer's Odyssey by the Renaissance scholar Andreas Divus. Using the meter and syntax of his 1911 version of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, Pound made an English version of Divus' rendering of the Nekuia episode in which Odysseus and his companions sail to Hades in order to find out what their future holds. In using this passage to open the poem, Pound introduces a major theme: the excavating of the 'dead' past to illuminate both present and future. He also echoes Dante's opening to The Divine Comedy in which the poet also descends into hell to interrogate the dead. The canto concludes with some fragments from the Second Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, in a Latin version by Georgius Dartona which Pound found in the Divus volume, followed by "So that:"—an invitation to read on.
Cantos VIII - XI draw on the story of Sigismondo Malatesta, quattrocento poet, soldier, lord of Rimini and patron of the arts. Pound especially focuses on the building of the church of San Francesco. Designed by Leon Battista Alberti and decorated by artists including Piero della Francesca and Agostino di Duccio, this was a landmark Renaissance building—the first church to use the Roman triumphal arch as part of its structure. For Pound, the role of the patron was a crucial cultural question, and Malatesta is the first in a line of ruler-patrons to appear in The Cantos.
The remainder of this section of The Cantos concludes with a vision of capitalism and Hell. Canto XIV and Canto XV use the convention of the Divine Comedy to present Pound/Dante moving through a hell populated by bankers, newspaper editors, hack writers and other 'perverters of language' and the social order. In Canto XV, Plotinus takes the role of guide played by Virgil in Dante's poem. These visions are followed by a transcript of Lincoln Steffens' account of the Russian Revolution. These two events, the war and revolution, mark a decisive break with the historic past, including the early modernist period when these writers and artists formed a more-or-less coherent movement.
Originally, Pound conceived of Cantos XVII - XXVII as a group that would follow the first volume by starting with the Renaissance and ending with the Russian Revolution. He then added a further three cantos and the whole eventually appeared as A Draft of XXX Cantos in an edition of 200 copies. The major locus of these cantos is the city of Venice. They are primarily concerned with the formation of banking and the rise of social decay, a concomitant trend that Pound calls 'usury', in medieval Europe.
The first four cantos of this volume (Cantos XXXI - XXXVI) use extensive quotations from the letters and other writings of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and others to deal with the emergence of the fledgling United States and, particularly, the American banking system. All eleven of these Cantos continue on with Pound's ruminations on 'usury' in the context of the new American republic.
Cantos XLII, XLIII and XLIV move to the Sienese bank of the Monte dei Paschi. Under the rule of the Arch Duke Pietro Leopoldo it represents for Pound a non-capitalist ideal. Canto XLV is a litany against Usura or usury, which Pound defines as a charge on credit regardless of potential or actual production and the creation of wealth ex nihilo by a bank to the benefit of its shareholders. Canto XLVI contrasts what has gone before with the practices of institutions such as the Bank of England that are designed to exploit the issuing of credit to make profits.
The poem returns to the island of Circe and Odysseus about to "sail after knowledge" in Canto XLVII. There follows a long lyrical passage in which a ritual of floating votive candles on the bay at Rapallo near Pound's home merges with the cognate myths of Tammuz and Adonis, depicting agricultural activity set in a calendar based on natural cycles, and fertility rituals.
Canto XLVIII presents more instances of what Pound considers to be usury. The canto then moves via Montsegur to the village of St-Bertrand-de-Comminges. Canto XIL is a poem of tranquil nature derived from a Chinese picturebook. Canto L, which contains virulent anti-Semitic statements, moves from John Adams to the failure of the Medici bank. The final canto in this sequence returns to the usura litany of Canto XLV, followed by detailed instructions on making flies for fishing, and ends with the first Chinese written characters to appear in the poem, representing the Rectification of Names from the Analects of Confucius.
These eleven cantos are based on the Histoire generale de la Chine by Joseph-Anna-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla, an eleven volume history plus index. De Mailla was a French Jesuit who spent 37 years in Peking and wrote his history there. The work was completed in 1730 but not published until 1777-1783. De Mailla was very much an Enlightenment figure and his view of Chinese history reflects his views. He found Confucian political philosophy, with its emphasis on rational order, very much to his liking. He also disliked what he saw as the superstitious pseudo-mysticism promulgated by both Buddhists and Taoists, to the detriment of rational politics. Pound, in turn, fitted de Mailla's take on China into his own views on Christianity, the need for strong leadership to address 20th-century fiscal and cultural problems and his support of Mussolini.
This section of the cantos is, for the most part, made up of fragmentary citations from the writings of John Adams. Pound's intentions appear to be to show Adams as an example of the rational Enlightenment leader, continuing the primary theme of the preceding China Cantos sequence. Adams is depicted as a rounded figure; he is a strong leader with interests in political, legal and cultural matters in much the same way that Malatesta and Mussolini are portrayed elsewhere in the poem.
These two cantos, written in Italian, were not published until their posthumous inclusion in the 1987 revision of the complete text of the poem. They cover much familiar ground; Sigismondo, Dante and Cavalcanti appear, as does Pound's linking of usury and Jews in another anti-Semitic rant aimed at Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. In contrast with some of his earlier critical writings, Pound praises the Futurist writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
Pound was arrested by Italian partisans in April 1945 and was eventually transferred to the American Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) on May 22. Here he was held in a specially reinforced cage, initially sleeping on the ground in the open air. After some time he was given a cot and pup tent. After three months, he had a breakdown that resulted in his being moved to the medical compound. Here, he gained access to a typewriter. For reading matter, he had a regulation-issue Bible along with three books he was allowed to bring in as his own "religious" texts: a Chinese text of Confucius, James Legge's translation of the same, and a Chinese dictionary. The only other thing he brought with him was a eucalyptus pipe. Throughout the Pisan sequence, Pound repeatedly likens the camp to Francesco del Cossa's March fresco depicting men working at a grape arbor.
Pound was flown from Pisa to Washington, DC to face trial on a charge of treason in 1946. Found unfit to stand trial because of the state of his mental health, he was incarcerated in Saint Elizabeth's Hospital, where he was to remain until 1958. Here he began to entertain writers and academics with an interest in his work. He also began working on translations of the Confucian Book of Odes and of Sophocles' play the Women of Trachis as well as two new sections of The Cantos; the first of these was Rock Drill.
The two main written sources for the Rock Drill cantos are the Confucian Classic of History, in an edition by the French Jesuit Séraphin Couvreur, which contained the Chinese text and translations into Latin and French under the title Chou King (which Pound uses in the poem), and Senator Thomas Hart Benton's Thirty Years View: Or A History of the American Government for Thirty Years From 1820-1850, which covers the period of the bank wars. In as interview given in 1962, and reprinted by J.P. Sullivan (see References), Pound said that the title Rock Drill "was intended to imply the necessary resistance in getting a main thesis across—hammering."
Thrones was the second volume of cantos written while Pound was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth's. In the same 1962 interview, Pound said of this section of the poem: "The thrones in Dante's Paradiso are for the spirits of the people who have been responsible for good government. The thrones in The Cantos are an attempt to move out from egoism and to establish some definition of an order possible or at any rate conceivable on earth… Thrones concerns the states of mind of people responsible for something more than their personal conduct."
In 1958, Pound was declared incurably insane and permanently incapable of standing trial. Consequent to this, he was released from Saint Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC, on condition that he return to Europe, which he promptly did. At first, he lived with his daughter Mary in Tyrol, but soon returned to Rapallo, Italy, where he would remain until his death. Depression over his long imprisonment and advancing age meant that the proposed paradise cantos with which Pound had planned to end the poem were slow in coming and turned out to be radically different from anything the poet had envisaged.
Pound was reluctant to publish these late cantos, but the appearance in 1967 of a pirated edition of Cantos 110-116 forced his hand. Laughlin pushed Pound to publish an authorized edition, and the poet responded by supplying the more-or-less abandoned drafts and fragments, plus two fragments dating from 1941. The resulting book can hardly be described as representing Pound's definitively planned ending to the poem. This situation has been further complicated by the addition of more fragments in editions of the complete poem published after the poet's death. One of these was titled Canto CXX at one point, on no particular authority. This title was later removed.
Although some of Pound's intention to "write a paradise" survives in the text as we have it, especially in images of light and of the natural world, other themes also intrude. These include the poet's coming to terms with a sense of artistic failure, and jealousies and hatreds that must be faced and expiated.
The last canto completed by Pound opens with a passage in which we see the homecoming of the Odysseus/Pound figure. However, the "home" is not the place intended when the poem was begun, but the terzo cielo ("third heaven") of human love. The canto contains the following well-known lines:
This passage has often been taken as an admission of failure on Pound's part, but the reality may be more complex. The crystal image relates back to the Sacred Edict on self-knowledge and the "demigod/cohere" lines relate directly to Pound's translation of the Women of Trachis. In this, the demigod Herakles cries out as he is dying, "WHAT SPLENDOUR / IT ALL COHERES." These lines read in conjunction with some later ones in reference to his own verse, "i.e. it coheres all right/even if my notes do not cohere," suggest that towards the end of his effort, Pound was coming to accept not only his own "errors" and "madness" but the conclusion that to do justice to the coherence of the universe was beyond him, and possibly beyond poetry. Images of light saturate this canto, culminating in the closing lines: "A little light, like a rushlight / to lead back to splendour." These lines again echo the Noh of Kakitsubata, the "light that does not lead on to darkness," in Pound's version.
In 1946 Pound was arrested, and tried for treason, and spent 12 years in Saint Elizabeth's hospital for the criminally insane. Despite all the controversy surrounding both poem and poet, The Cantos has been influential in the development of long poems in the English language since the appearance of the early sections during the 1920s. Amongst poets of Pound's own generation, both H.D. and William Carlos Williams wrote long poems that show this influence.
Almost all of H.D.'s poetry from 1940 onwards takes the form of long sequences, and her Helen in Egypt, written during the 1950s, covers much of the same Homeric ground as The Cantos, but from a feminist perspective. In the case of Williams, his Paterson (1963) follows Pound in using incidents and documents from the early history of the United States as part of its material. As with Pound, Williams includes Alexander Hamilton as the villain of the piece.
Pound was a major influence on the Objectivist poets, and the impact of The Cantos on Zukofsky's "A" is clearly noticeable. The other major long work by an Objectivist, Charles Reznikoff's Testimony, (1934–1978) follows Pound in the direct use of primary source documents as its raw material. In the next generation of American poets, Charles Olson also drew on Pound's example in writing his own unfinished Modernist epic The Maximus Poems.
Pound was also an important figure for the poets of the Beat generation, especially Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. Snyder's interest in things Chinese and Japanese stemmed from his early reading of Pound's writings and his long poem Mountains and Rivers Without End (1965 – 1996) reflects his reading of The Cantos in many of the formal devices used. In Ginsberg's development, reading Pound was influential in his move away from the long, Whitmanesque lines of his early poetry, and towards the more varied lines found in his book-length sequences Planet News (1968) and The Fall of America: Poems of These States (1973).
More generally, The Cantos, with its wide range of references and inclusion of primary sources including prose texts can be seen as prefiguring found poetry. Pound's tacit insistence that this material becomes poetry because of his action in including it in a text he chose to call a poem also prefigures the attitudes and practices that underlie twentieth century Conceptual art.
Because of his political views, especially his support of Mussolini and his anti-Semitism, Pound continues to attract much criticism. While it is almost impossible to ignore the vital role he played in the modernist revolution of twentieth century literature, Pound's perceived importance has varied over the years. At times he has been considered the genius of his age; at others, he has been discarded as little more than an egocentric madman.
Despite the vicissitudes of public opinion, as a poet, Pound endures. He was one of the first to successfully employ free verse in extended compositions. Almost every 'experimental' poet in English since the early twentieth century has been considered to be in his debt.
As a critic, editor and promoter, Pound helped the careers of Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost, 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 earlier, neglected writers such as Walter Savage Landor and Gavin Douglas.
As a translator—although his mastery of languages is open to question—Pound did much to introduce Provençal and Chinese poetry, the Noh, Anglo-Saxon poetry and the Confucian classics to a Western audience. He also translated and championed Greek and Latin classics and helped keep these alive for poets at a time when classical education was in decline.
In all, Pound's wake ranges wide. His influence as an artist and intellectual is inseparable from modernism and the early twentieth century itself. His genius is undeniable, and although at times the ferocity of his inquisitiveness led him into "wrecks and errors," Pound remains one of the most important figures in American literature.
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