Ezra Pound and the Cantos

Introduction: Poet and Reformer

Almost everything about Ezra Loomis Pound (1885-1972) is controversial — his poetry, economic theories and political views. A genius in the first category and a crackpot in the others is the general opinion, but I shall try to show that the picture is much more complicated, with successes and failings in all areas of life, and indeed a strange consistency throughout. Ezra Pound was a complex, opinionated and self-driven man, but above all committed to the view that writing to the highest standard made for a civilisation worth belonging to. His views on poetry and literary criticism have carried later opinion with him, but not those on economics, Fascism and anti-Semitism. In these Pound was repeatedly on the wrong side of history, and even Modernist poetry, which he did so much to further, came with its inbuilt costs. {1}


Biography is woven into Pound's writing. Though born in Halley, Ohio, he was not the Western grifter his enemies sometimes pretended. His mother came from New York. His father worked at the Philadelphia Mint. Pound was always restless, however, moving on to new pastures in London, Paris and Rapallo. After the disastrous war-time broadcasts and his incarceration in Washington, Pound returned to Italy, but the Cantos, with which he continued to occupy himself, were less confident and successful. {2}

Between 1908 and 1920, Pound was arguably the greatest influence on Modernism in the English world, as poet, critic and the befriender of genius, but his work was not widely known until Eliot edited his Selected Poems in 1928, or really understood until Hugh Kenner's study The Poetry of Ezra Pound in 1950. {3} Before concentrating on the Cantos, Pound contributed to journals, founded societies and produced 21 books, which received mixed though not wholly unfavourable reviews. Obscurity and excess of allusion were the chief complaints, to which were added 'envy' of the literary establishment in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and 'errors' in translation in his Cathay (1915) and Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919). Though his flamboyant egotism alienated many, Pound was also tireless in proselytizing for new writers and new ideas. W.B. Yeats turned over his work for the young man's suggestions in 1912, {4} and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land of 1922 owes its success to Pound's ruthless pruning.


Imagism {5-9} is the term given to Pound's work in this period, important for the personalities involved — including James Joyce and William Carlos Williams {10-11} — and the manifestos of the movement, which became the cornerstones of Modernism, responsible for a much taught in universities until recently, and possibly for the difficulties poets find themselves in now. The Imagists stressed clarity, exactness and concreteness of detail. Their aims, briefly set out, were that:

1. Content should be presented directly, through specific images where possible.
2. Every word should be functional, with nothing included that was not essential to the effect intended.
3. Rhythm should be composed by the musical phrase rather than the metronome.
Also understood — if not spelled out, or perhaps fully recognized at the time — was the hope that poems could intensify a sense of objective reality through the immediacy of images.

Imagism itself gave rise to fairly negligible lines like:

You crash over the trees,
You crack the live branch . . . (Storm by H.D.)

Nonetheless, the reliance on images provided poets with these types of freedom:

1. Poems could dispense with classical rhetoric, emotion being generated much more directly through what Eliot called an objective correlate: 'The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.' {12}

2. By being shorn of context or supporting argument, images could appear with fresh interest and power.

3. Thoughts could be treated as images, i.e. as non-discursive elements that added emotional colouring without issues of truth or relevance intruding too much.


It is doubtful, first of all, whether specific emotion can be generated in the way Eliot envisaged. Emotive expression is a complex matter, as every novelist or playwright soon discovers.

There is also the difficulty of isolated images. Human beings look for sense wherever possible, and will generally supply any connecting links that the poet has removed, correctly or incorrectly. Poems are not self-sufficient artifacts, moreover, but belong to a community of codes, assumptions and expectations, which we must learn when reading any literature. Context is important.

Finally, there is happy assumption that poetry is largely an expression of emotion, and that the intellectual content is immaterial. The briefest course in aesthetics will show the difficulties. Is emotion conveyed or evoked? Is emotion a purely individual matter, or can we talk of emotion appropriate to the situation, when social codes are involved? And what do we make of the general experience of artists who find that emotion emerges as the work develops?

Undeterred, however, the three streams continued as follows.

1. Snippets of mimicry, wide-ranging allusion and striking images gave beauty and power to lyrical passages in the Cantos and Briggflatts.

2. Disconnected images passed through stridency into gaudy irrationalism as Imagism developed into Dadaism and Surrealism.

3. Abstruse conjecture and name dropping became a necessary ingredient of contemporary poetry — which might have exposed the shaky scholarship of both poet and reviewer had the content been taken seriously. In general, it wasn't, however, and poetry in its more avant-garde aspects developed into a rarefied and exclusive game.

Academics knew this well enough. {12}

'The imagination offered a type of knowledge superior to that of rational analysis, superior to the empirical discoveries of science. The image in a poem gave the reader a moment of illumination beyond normal apprehension, and so introduced him to a kind of sensibility not to be found in everyday living. Frank Kermode has described these influences in great detail in The Romantic Image (1957), and shown that this emphasis on the image has had a very considerable effect on techniques of literary analysis. The student has been taught to look mainly at the various effects of individual images, and then to consider the interrelationship of images throughout the poem. Many analyses of poems have paid no attention to rhyme, conventions of genre, or syntax, but have concentrated upon the complex pattern of imagery. The implication has been that a poem has an organisation of its own, based upon the image, and that ordinary grammatical structure is of comparatively small importance. Eliot's The Waste Land, of course, demonstrates this conception of linked images. Such analyses of imagery have been applied successfully to the poetry of the metaphysicals, or to Hopkins, for example, but they have had little to say about the typical Elizabethan sonnet or song, or about the structure of the long poems of Milton, Dryden or Pope.'

wrote C. B. Cox and A. E. Dyson, {13}

pointing out that Donald Davie had argued that 'language achieves its effects by a variety of means, and one of the most important is by the use of orthodox syntax. . . Language is thought of as an instrument of articulation, a way of establishing relationships like the harmonies of music or the equations of algebra. . . [In] the second attitude, popular among the poets of the 1920's, language is trustworthy only when it is broken down into units of isolated words, when it abandons any attempt at large-scale, rational articulation. . . "systems of syntax are part of the heritable property of past civilisation, and to hold firm to them is to be traditional in the best and most important sense . . . the abandonment of syntax testifies to a failure of the poet's nerve, a loss of confidence in the intelligible structure of the conscious mind, and the validity of its activity". . . Davie requires poets to mean what they say, and to relate their poems to common experience. . . His influence prevents a student from an endless search for new subtleties of interpretation, and sends him to study the nature of genres in particular periods. His emphasis on syntax, and the various types of syntax used by poets, offers new, exciting possibilities for analysis. He asserts the value of mind and rational order, and so offers tools with which a reader can assess the organisation of a long narrative poem. He tries to bring poetry back to traditional modes of communication, to make the poet, once again, a man speaking to men.' {13-14}

Development: Pound's Cathay (1915)

Ignoring sinologists, who detest the liberties that Ezra Pound took in translating Chinese poetry, {15} critics have generally praised Cathay, {16} often in extravagant terms. {17} And even if the translations were somewhat free — indeed showing little understanding of China and Chinese literature — the work was beautiful, they thought, some the best verse of its period. That, I suggest, cannot be really sustained. The test of greatness in poetry, or even in verse, is that its achievements cannot be easily matched or surpassed. If we look at the most famous of his Cathay poems, Song of the River-Merchant's Wife: {18}

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.  I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
   As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

We can surely find much to admire, but also note the fragmented nature of the free verse, the uncertain rhythms, and an awkwardness of phrasing. These problems largely disappear if traditional verse is used: {19}

How simple it was, and my hair too,
picking at flowers as the spring comes;
and you riding about on a bamboo
horse; playing together, eating plums.

Two small people: nothing to contend
with, in quiet Chang Gan to day's end.

All this at fourteen made one with you.
Married to my lord: it was not the same.
Who was your concubine answering to
the thousand times you called her name?

I turned to the wall, and a whole year passed
before my being would be wholly yours —
dust of your dust while all things last,
hope of your happiness, with never cause

To seek for another. Then one short year:
at sixteen I sat in the marriage bed
alone as the water. I could hear
the sorrowing of gibbons overhead.

How long your prints on the path stayed bare!
I looked out forever from the lookout tower,
but could not imagine the distances there
held you still travelling, hour by hour.

Now thick are the mosses; the gate stays shut.
I sit in the sunshine as the wind grieves.
In their dallying couples the butterflies cut
the deeper in me than yellowing leaves.

Send word of your coming and I will meet
you at Chang-feng Sha by the mountain walls.
Endless the water and your looks entreat
and hurt me still as each evening falls.

Far more serious than the verse problems was Pound's approach, which was based on a profound  misconception, namely that Chinese is a pictogram method of writing where the meaning is directly and vividly evoked by images in the script. Put the characters of sun and moon together and you get the character for bright. Yes, but, unfortunately, very few Chinese words are of this type, and even in these the average Chinese no more reads the pictures than we respond to the etymology of our words. The Chinese script is essentially logographic, where signs represent morphemes, the minimal element of a word that carries meaning. Such elements also represented unmediated sound in the early history of the language, and elements called 'radicals' had therefore to be added to clarify the meaning. {20-22} But Pound, working from notes supplied by Ernest Fenellosa, was too excited by the notion to take advice, and he combined this supposed directness with a free verse style to create translations that were sometimes excellent, even if establishing an unfortunate orthodoxy of free verse for Chinese translation.

In fact, Chinese poetry is anything but direct, but this misunderstanding allowed the Modernists to strike out in new directions. Where poetry before had been a high art form, with a long tradition and much to learn, the essence of poetry could now be honesty, freedom from encumbering technique, and a stress on surprise (foregrounding) and novelty (make it new). William Carlos Williams was among the first to throw off the constraints of tradition, but the trait appears in many American Modernists, particularly those who dislike western civilization, or what it has become — Bly, Snyder, Kinnell, Wright, Merwyn, {23-26} and others. {27}

Larger Issues

Behind these approaches to a sensory directness, and drawing support from them, are some questionable beliefs:

1. Occam's razor applied to literatures, when the simpler was better, closer to the truth. But poetry is not science, but expression that provides an intense and thickened experience of life. Even in philosophy, where clarity is important, attempts to find a simple and logically transparent language have all failed.

2. Complex matters can be expressed in simple structures. This is a assertion of structuralism, unsupported by the evidence, and leads to the simplistic 'isms' of feminism, political correctness and post-colonial studies. It is not how brain physiology suggests we function.

3. Poets have an individual view of the world, which relieves them of wider responsibilities. Again, this is contrary to what we know of older poets, most of whom were involved in the events and issues of their times. The view contributes to the unpopularity of contemporary poetry: the public expects more than unsupported opinion and knowing cleverness: they want something answering to their own experience, or to an experience they could work towards.

Homage to Sextus Propertius

Where Pound did create beautiful verse was in his idiosyncratic Homage to Sextus Propertius, to which I devote a separate article. {28}

Early Cantos: Analysis

Canto VII is dense with quotation and allusion, but this section (lines 19 to 47) is fairly straightforward: {29}

The old men's voices, beneath the columns of false marble,
The modish and darkish walls,
Discreeter gilding and the panelled wood
Suggested, for the leasehold is
Touched with an imprecision. . . about three squares;
The house too thick, the paintings
a shade too oiled.
And the great domed head, con gli occhi onesti e tardi
Moves before me, phantom with weighted motion,
Grave incessu, drinking the tone of things,
And the old voice lifts itself
              weaving an endless sentence.

We also made ghostly visits, and the stair
That knew us, found us again on the turn of it,
Knocking at empty rooms, seeking for buried beauty;
But the sun-tanned, gracious and well-formed fingers
Lift no latch of bent bronze, no Empire handle
Twists for the knocker's fall; no voice to answer.

Canto VII is one of the more difficult of the early Cantos, where Pound weaves in echoes of the classical and Renaissance world, contrasting in this section their forceful vigour with the fin de siècle languor, from which he took refuge in eclectic reading and (less happily) residence in Mussolini's Italy. Pound wanders round empty rooms thinking of Henry James, who acts as a Virgilian guide. We have a description of the man (great domed head, and quotations from Dante {30-31}) and a reference to his manner of talking — weaving an endless sentence, which Pound is also doing.

Many of James's characters were attracted to the sunlit vitality of Italy, and here Pound is noting how overdone is the decor of the world left behind, with its heavy panelling, dark oil paintings and false columns. The section has some excellent touches (old men's voices, a shade too oiled, drinking the tone of things, found us again), and some that are less so (Touched with an imprecision, buried beauty). Overall, a falling tone, with repetitions and a tired emptiness in surroundings and what lay beyond.

Rhythmic Analysis

How is this achieved rhythmically? We first note the stress/syllable counts for the line segments, and show the pauses simplistically as | (short) and || (longer): {32}

1. The old men's voices | beneath the columns | of false marble || 3/5 2/5 2/4
2. The modish and darkish walls | 3/7
3. Discreeter gilding | and the panelled wood 2/5 2/5
4. Suggested | for the leasehold is | 1/3 1/5
5. Touched with an imprecision || about three squares || 3/7 3/4
6. The house too thick | the paintings || 2/4 1/3
7. a shade too oiled || 2/4
8. And the great domed head | con gli occhi onesti e tardi 3/5 4/10
9. Moves before me | phantom with weighted motion | 2/4 3/6
10. Grave incessu | drinking the tone of things | 2/5 3/6
11. And the old voice lifts itself || 4/7
12. weaving an endless sentence || 3/7
13. We also made ghostly visits || and the stair 4/8
14. That knew us | found us again | on the turn of it | 1/3 2/4 2/5
15. Knocking at empty rooms | seeking for buried beauty | 3/7 3/6
16. But the suntanned, gracious | and well-formed fingers | 3/6 3/5
17. Lift no latch of bent bronze | no Empire handle 4/6 2/4
18. Twists for the knocker's fall | no voice to answer 3/6 2/5

The rhythms are similar to those Pound developed for Homage to Sextus Propertius, though quieter and more fragmentary. As in that poem:

Beneath most lines is conventional metre, predominantly iambic in lines 4, 6, 7, 9, 13, 14, and 16, and trochaic in lines 2, 3, 10, 12, 15 and 18. Other lines are more mixed or indeterminate. If we attend to the underlying metre, then the structure approximates to:

1. hexameter: molossus of old men's voices
2. tercet
3. pentameter
4. tetrameter
5. pentameter: molossus of about three squares
6. tercet
7. duplet
8. hexameter: molossus of great domed head
9. pentameter
10. pentameter
11. tercet: molossus of old voice lifts
12. tercet
13. pentameter
14. hexameter
15. hexameter
16. pentameter: molossus of well-formed fingers
17. pentameter
18. pentameter

And becomes even more regular by regarding lines 3 and 4 as a segmented pentameter, and lines 11 and 12 as a hexameter.

Many of the irregular lines are not irregular at all, but have their own patterns.

The old men's voices | beneath the columns | of false marble ||
And the old voice lifts itself || weaving an endless sentence ||
That knew us | found us again | on the turn of it |
Knocking at empty rooms | seeking for buried beauty |

Imagist Techniques

The passage would benefit from extended rhythmic analysis, but our main concern here is the Imagist technique of having image serve as content.

We can distinguish four interwoven themes: a disembodied reference to OLD MEN'S VOICES, which leads to memories of Henry James, passages of description associated with old men's voices, and a description of Pound's visit.

1. THE OLD MEN'S VOICES beneath the columns of false marble,
2. The modish and darkish walls,
3. Discreeter gilding and the panelled wood
4. Suggested, for the leasehold is
5. Touched with an imprecision. . . about three squares;
6. The house too thick, the paintings
7. a shade too oiled.

8. And the great domed head, 'con gli occhi onesti e tardi'
9. Moves before me, phantom with weighted motion,
10. Grave incessu, drinking the tone of things,


13. We also made ghostly visits, and the stair
14. That knew us, found us again on the turn of it,
15. Knocking at empty rooms, seeking for buried beauty;

16. But the suntanned, gracious and well-formed fingers
17. Lift no latch of bent bronze
, no Empire handle
18. Twists for the knocker's fall; no voice to answer.

By combining these simple themes, Pound makes his reflections part of the larger fabric of American expatriate life. We are given old men's voices that drift from the heavy setting (France or England, possibly Flaubert's Paris), which reminds us/Pound of William James (who loved Italy, spending extended periods in Venice). Aspects of James give way to his/an old voice weaving an endless sentence. We/Pound have also made our ghostly visits to empty rooms, and these remind us of James and what he appreciated of Italy. Not a difficult set of associations, and successfully handled. In what sense is it Imagist? Pound has the scene 'speak' by presenting specific images, and intensifying a sense of objective reality through the immediacy of those images. Rhythm is 'composed by the musical phrase rather than the metronome' — naturally so, as Pound wants those rhythms to be part of the characterization. Compare the quiet first section with the energy ushered in with We also made ghostly visits.

The technique is a novelist's, but the sequences marking the turn in and out of flashback have been removed, conflating past and present, and making historical personages a mouthpiece for Pound's views. The dangers are acute — unsupported opinion on one side, and obscurity on the other — but in this passage Pound is successful.

And very probably neither the classicism of Tennyson nor the pastorals of Arnold would have served Pound's aims. Browning would have created characters speaking pages at a time, but there was little demand for verse novels by the 1920s. Even less did the public wish to be preached at with Augustan didactic verse. Pound was not being willfully difficult, but simply developing the opportunities suggested by Homage to Sextus Propertius.

Pros and Cons

To sum up, the advantages of the Imagist approach were:

1. Freedom to experiment, evading the traditional restrictions of verse. 2. Avoiding the 'unproductive': anything not contributing to the overall effect could be omitted. 3. Images could be precise or otherwise: zoomed into for telling detail, or blurred for mood and vague association. 4. Quotations could be extended, one calling on another, far more than Eliot achieved in The Waste Land. 5. Passages rhythmically beautiful could stay independent of an overall metre or line structure.

The drawbacks were:

1. Randomness: anything could be included, however pretentious, irrelevant or obscure. 2. Accountability: much has to be taken on trust, dangerous in a poet of Pound's egotism, where all historical characters can become spokesmen for his views. 3. Open-ended nature: constraints of plot and character ensure that novelists check their work for honesty and consistency, but material in the Imagist approach does not have to cohere into a final statement: meaning gradually emerges out of the play of images. The poem is not a map of the world, or any world, therefore, but more the experience of travel, albeit sailing first class.

The Pisan Cantos

Cantos 74 to 84, known as The Pisan Cantos because written when Pound was held at the American Disciplinary Training Center north of Pisa, {33} — probably the best known of the Cantos — had a difficult genesis, proofing {34-35} and publishing history. Deprived of his library, Pound had to call on his memories for material, and these not always exciting fragments were woven together in a polyphonic, fugue-like manner. All the Pisan Cantos have received extensive critical commentary and explication, and I simply concentrate here on the famous Canto 81.

The opening 'Zeus lies in Ceres' bosom' merges three notions: the conception of Demeter, passages in the previous cantos on ritual copulation needed to ensure fertility, and the experience of the sun (Zeus) hidden at dawn by two hills resembling breasts in the Pisan landscape. Then follows another mountain reminding Pound of Taishan accompanied by mists and the planet Venus: 'Taishan is attended of loves / under Cythera, before sunrise'. Then come memories of Spain, a story told by Basil Bunting, and anecdotes of people familiar to him. At the centre is the line 'to break the pentameter, that was the first heave', which is Pound's comment on the Modernist revolution earlier in the century. The goddess of love then returns after a lyric passage evoking the English lyric, 'What thou lovest well remains, / the rest is dross', and a statement emphasising the need for humility, possibly Pound's humility at his circumstance, but more probably requiring that his captors show appropriate humility to Pound and his achievements.

Louis Menand {36} called The Pisan Cantos 'the finest thing that Pound ever wrote. It's the one place in his work where his learning is fused with genuine personal feeling.' Readers must consult their own responses, but I find the personal reminiscences rather dull, close to name-dropping when they introduce no enjoyable anecdotes. Interspersed with these stretches of reminiscence are Pound's ideogramic images: unexplained, sometimes beautiful, but not contributing much to understanding, even when explained.

Much has been made of the libretto beginning:

Ere the season died a-cold
Borne upon a zephyr's shoulder
I rose through the aureate sky
        Lawes and Jenkyns guard thy rest
        Dolmetsch ever be thy guest,
Has he tempered the viol's wood
To enforce both the grave and the acute?
Has he curved us the bowl of the lute?
        Lawes and Jenkyns guard thy rest
        Dolmetsch ever be thy guest
Hast 'ou fashioned so airy a mood
        To draw up leaf from the root?
Hast 'ou found a cloud so light
        As seemed neither mist nor shade?
Your eyen two wol sleye me sodenly
I may the beauté of hem nat susteyne
And for 180 years almost nothing.
        Then resolve me, tell me aright
        If Waller sang or Dowland played

But its assertion is a nonsense. {37} A host of fine musicians and poets occupy the 180 years between 1678 and 1858. Why make such controversial statements (or that John Singer Sargent did only 'thumb sketches' before painting 'Dolores')? Even the verse is not without its shortcomings. Is 'enforce' the right word, and does the cloud passage make sense? 'Sunlight' might have made a better metaphor:

Hast thou drawn out from the lute
Such as fashions leaf from root?
Hast thou made what's light and rare,
As sunlight is on rich brocade,
A brilliance woven in the air
When Waller sang or Dowland played?

Or something else, depending on what we think Pound was trying to say. I'm not 'correcting' Pound, only suggesting that Pound's lyrical gifts have been talked up too much. What was so striking in Propertius, is now in decline, perhaps explaining why no improved 'Selections from the Cantos' was ever produced. Of the famous section in Canto 81, beginning:

What thou lovest well remains,
    the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
    or is it of none?

Anthony Woodward wrote: {38} 'To call this parody or pastiche on account of its archaic mode is far too crude. It is wonderfully moving in its own right.' Perhaps so, but it's also an odd composition for a poet who wrote: {39}

'No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, convention and cliché . . .'

Everyone thinks from books and convention, of course, especially if they follow Pound's list of recommended reading, but, leaving that aside, the many purposes the lyric serves have been pointed out by critics, generally sensibly, but also missing the point. If the most successful part of the most successful section of the Cantos is written in antique verse, them Pound's programme has failed. The best sections should be those where Pound's ideogramic method is most fully employed, and clearly they are not.

If these comments seem savage, we should remind ourselves of the enormous influence of the Cantos on American poetry, and ask if partisan views are not subverting honest reading. I have no quarrel with older styles but this verse is positively antique — far more than the Edwardian high-minded effusions Pound was rebelling against — unless, of course, the lines are to be taken as parody, which would seem unlikely in the circumstances. Like Yeats, Pound never took himself less than seriously.
The Pisan Cantos were proofed while Pound was an inmate of St. Elizabeth's in Washington, and here two later sets of Cantos were written: Rock-Drill and Thrones, plus the translations The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius (1955) and Women of Trachis (1956). Rock-Drill continues Pound's complaint against mediocrity, corruption and usury, introducing a long list of forgotten heroes. Again there are attractive passages:

Grove hath its altar
under elms, in that temple, in silence
a lone nymph by the pool. (Canto 90)

And 'dreams of fair women' continue in following stanzas, with an extended allusion to the Odyssey in the stanza concluding Rock-Drill. Monetary concerns appear in Thrones, but the mood is quieter, and exemplars of good governance are found in Europe and China. The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius had professional help in the translation from the Chinese, and is a mixture of lyrical beauty

'Even in water-meadow, dry'
Flow her tears abundantly,
        Solitude's no remedy.

And some strange coinings:

WEN! Avatar, how!

The Sophocles translation is less successful: the brutality is brought across but nothing of the poetry.

Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII (1970), written in Italy, have some serenity but are also incomplete and seem sometimes to express self doubt.

But here the great project ended. When asked about the completion of the poem in 1962, Pound remarked, 'I have lots of fragments. I can't make sense of them, and I don't suppose anyone else will.' {40} That is probably the experience of most readers, who find the Cantos intriguing and even enchanting in small sections, but oppressive, overwhelming and unreadable en masse. It is a poem of continual becoming, of multiple becomings, where one impression will give way to another, sometimes by natural association, but often needing some knowledge of Pound's life and views for understanding, plus a wide working knowledge of cultural artefacts. The Terrell Companion {41} contains 10,421 separate glosses that include renderings from eight languages, which seems a heavy imposition on the reader. Understanding doesn't bring appreciation. 'So what? How does that help?' must be the constant response to having allusions ferreted out. The images and thoughts do not deepen emotions, or even cohere, except in the person of Ezra Pound, who is always on hand to explain what perhaps should have been self-explanatory in the first place. Many thoughtful readers have despaired. 'The Cantos can best be understood as the epic of pure aesthetic consciousness (prosperity's most real orchid) attempting to mirror the totality of European culture broadening out into world culture as it decomposes.' {42}

Some were less impressed. '"The Pisan Cantos" is a Fascist poem without apologies.' {43} To Hugh Kenner the facts composing the ideogram were resistant to propositional formulation and were derived from observed particulars that had no sylogistic connection with each other. George Santayana complained that Pound jumped too much between particulars for connections to be assessed, or even followed, and that the ideograms were simply 'grab-bags' of matters existing only in Pound's own mind. Even Caroll F. Terrell's Companion remarked on 'how little good, finally, such exegesis does, how small a stage it advances us towards an understanding of the Cantos'. As many have pointed out, the poem is polyphonic but lacks overall direction and integration. There are echoes of the Odyssey and the Divine Comedy, but not consistently so. The voyage or voyages of intellectual discovery are repeatedly lost in thickets of mimicry, satire, documentary, elegies, hymns, vituperation, reminiscences, reportage and whatever came next to Pound's mind. Concepts of order, selection and proportion are relegated to 'an open form', i.e. to a freedom from any overall aesthetic shaping, a notion that would exert a powerful influence on later poetics.

A large critical industry has grown up around The Cantos, but the simple truth seems to be that, like Yeats, Pound was not overly concerned by the various experiences readers could have of the poems — experiences that would not necessarily be those of the author, or even remain consistent from reading to reading. Philology he had no time for, and it didn't matter if his allusions proved to be unsound, or his readings of Chinese logograms wildly unlikely. Pound was a reluctant proof-reader at best, fighting any challenges to his authority. {44} But if Pound's Cantos are admirably and necessarily difficult, as contemporary scholarship contends, {45} they moved contemporary poetry away from the common reader and hastened its decline into an adjunct of literary theory.

Economic Theories

W.W.I destroyed the settled beliefs and customs of the old world order. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman Empires disappeared, and a flood of refugees overwhelmed a Europe broken into new and unstable entities. Inflation impoverished the moneyed classes, and was followed by the austerity measures of deflation. Unemployment mounted in the Great Depression, eroding belief in moderate government, and a plethora of new economic theories, once remote from everyday thought, became the pressing hopes of the day, just as they were after the 2008 financial crash. {46} Ezra Pound was not in the least unusual in becoming preoccupied with banking and economic matters, and the movement he espoused, Social Credit, was perfectly sensible, if a little utopian. {47} It still has supporters today, and underlies proposals for a Uniform Basic Income. {48}

Nor was Pound the economic illiterate commonly supposed. The basic problem facing economies of Pound's time faces economies today: how to get banks and financial institutions to serve society in ways beneficial to everyone, {49} to put people before profits. {50} Pound did not master macro-economics, but did sense that something was inherently wrong in Fed policies. Missing then was what is missing now: a fairer and more efficient system that offered proper incentives, rewarding effort, know-how, co-operation and practical ideas. {51} The Soviet model claimed to empower the people, but in fact ruled by brute coercion, necessarily as revolution had swept away the institutions that governed by assent. {52} Pound put his faith in 'strong men', those like Mussolini who brought vision and wisdom to an Italy in turmoil, still steeped in feudal poverty and backward attitudes.{53}

Pound's confidence was misplaced, and W.W.II shattered his dream of enlightened government. But his basic intuitions were sound. Critics of Neoliberalism point out that the present system is run on debt, and the institutions providing that debt are banks. {54} Because the interest owed has to paid back by borrowers earning a wage in competition with other workers, the system is competitive, inflationary and remorseless in its hunger for labour and raw materials. Mines have to be high-graded, for example, and hard-wood forests are not replanted. {55} Wars are fought for national interests, sometimes dressed up as ethical imperatives, but the root cause is always the financial system that sets men at each other's throats. {56} Matters are discussed in more detached terms today, of course, by professional economists who look impartially at quantifiable matters, {57} and the media who put the ethical case of governments to their citizens. {58} But neither is quite as it seems. Economics has become special pleading to maintain the status quo: much of its science is bogus. {59} The mainstream media, now largely controlled by corporations, offers shallow propaganda supporting mainstream parties but avoiding the core issues. {60}

Far from being a political crackpot, therefore, Ezra Pound was unusually prescient, though he certainly chose the wrong champions, allowing a crude, tub-thumping rhetoric to blunt his case. No doubt greed underlies usury, but Imperial China cannot be understood in such simple terms. {61} Nor is capitalism a perpetual battle between exploiters and the exploited. {62} Rather than enter into and understand the marvellous complexity of human societies, and base his poetry on that understanding, Pound became the politician himself, over-simplifying matters and appealing to raw emotions — all that poetry is expected not to do. But Pound was at heart the crusader, and crusaders, overwhelmed by the rightness of their cause, are apt to lay down as immutable laws what are only approaches to the changing needs of the times.

Fascism and Anti-Semitism

Extreme views were an unfortunate feature of interwar politics. Many progressives aligned themselves with the Soviet Union, but Pound, through his residence in Italy, warmed to the Fascist cause. In Germany the National Socialists had achieved an economic miracle, turning the bankrupt and fragmenting Weimar Republic into the Europe's strongest economy in four short years, {63} and it was not unreasonable to expect something similar in Pound's country of adoption. Wise and beneficent tyrants made for strong government, {64} and strong government was certainly needed when Mussolini came to power in 1922, after two years of strikes, mass unemployment and food shortages. Mussolini's policies, including the 'battles' of the grain and marshes, aimed to make Italy self-sufficient, and indeed enjoyed some early successes. Food supplementary assistance, infant care, maternity assistance, general healthcare, wage supplements, paid vacations, unemployment benefits, illness insurance, occupational disease insurance, general family assistance, public housing, and old age and disability insurance were introduced from 1925. Over the longer term, however, in ways obscured by state censorship from Pound, the policies worked against the common good. Large proportions of industry were taken into state hands. The Pontine marshes were drained, but the reclaimed land proved too poor for agriculture. Smaller farmers lacked the means and technology to grow grain in the manner envisaged. The inequalities between the north and south widened, and the main beneficiaries of Fascist policies became the industrialists. {65} W.W.I had impoverished the country, and Italy's involvement in W.W.II was equally disastrous. With defeat came revulsion at the horrific bloodshed and destruction, and across Europe a savage justice was handed out by survivors and victors to the supposed culprits. {66} Pound wasn't treated well, but others fared worse.

Though Pound's anti-Semitism increased with his economic views, it was present from his first years in London, stridently more than in other writers of the period. The holocaust only became known in the later stages of the war, but both Hitler's and Mussolin's treatment of the Jews were obvious enough, and Pound came eventually to accept the unnecessary and criminal stupidity of his views. But anti-Semitism was not Pound's private lapse into madness. Anti-semitism was deeply rooted in Europe, woven into centuries of its social and cultural fabric. {67}

Anti-Semitism may also have meant to Pound a world where mastery and rightful authority (especially his own) would be properly recognized, and his former comrades returned from other allegiances (Eliot) or the grave (Gaudier and Hulme). {68} Certainly he never relinquished his Fascist ideology. He identified with Mussolini in The Pisan Cantos and gave the Fascist salute when returning to Italy from Washington internment in 1958. Pound had a non-democratic view of art, and was also an obstinate man, not given to making corrections when errors in his work were pointed out, but his reactionary view of history as the doings of 'great men' was integral to his thought, isolating him in a post-war Italy turning to different and more democratic views of government.

In Conclusion

Far from being the visionary in poetry and unbalanced in life, Ezra Pound suffered personality disorders in everything, becoming markedly so during and after W.W. II. So bizarre were Pound's wartime broadcasts that the Italian authorities supposed he was transmitting in code, and the psychologists who examined him afterwards were not showing kindness in judging him unfit to plead: Pound really was mad. He had no idea of the enormity of his folly, or conception of why the academic world was exasperated by his views. The complaints of scholars about his translations was not that they contained 'errors' — Pound was happily aware of that — but that Pound was largely ignorant of the cultures he was transposing to English. Worse were the Cantos where quotes had been selected out of context and bent into views that he, Ezra Pound, was determined to present as the one true path to enlightenment. Not only was that dishonest, but pointless. We do not read history to be confirmed in our own small prejudices, but to be liberated from them, to view the different ways that past civilisations have understood themselves and conducted their affairs. Scholars keep careful notes on their reading, and have to if they are not later run the danger of misrepresenting matters, but there are no reasons to think Pound ever did, though it made revision of his Cantos next to impossible.

Yet clearly those Cantos needed revision: long sections should have been removed and others shaped to make them more telling and engaging. Nor should it have taken too long. Their style is a fairly easy one to write — no metre, rhymes or constant line length — and in some ways too easy to write: the medium does not offer sufficient resistance to ensure the poet properly fights for each phrase. Even Cathay and Propertius would have benefitted from revision, with some move to fuller and more literal translation, but either Pound's inflexible sense of purpose stood in the way of any such concession, or his powers were not up to the task. He was spry and forward-looking on his return to Italy, but the years had doubtless taken their toll. To revise properly meant going back on forty years of work, assessing all that he previously read, understood and interpreted, but this immense undertaking had to be left to scholarship, or to the reader who wishes to fully appreciate the Cantos.

If Yeats was an occultist first and poet second, and Eliot the critic who also wrote poetry, Ezra Pound was primarily the cultural crusader who wrote exceptionally fine and innovative verse in his formative years but became increasingly the prisoner of his simplistic attitudes. By an irony of fate he would not have enjoyed, Pound's views on poetry, which are overstated and often wrong-headed, have passed into Modernist theory, while his social and economic theories, to which he devoted so much of his life, have been quietly forgotten.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's modern poets.