Books April 2008

A Revolutionary Simpleton

A new account of Ezra Pound’s early years reveals his volatile genius—and prefigures the madness that would claim him.
EZRA POUND in his element, with fellow poets (left to right): Victor Plarr, Sturge Moore, William Butler Yeats, Wilfred Scawen Blunt, Pound, Richard Aldington, and Frank Flint, Sussex, England, January 1914

The imposing first volume of A. David Moody’s biography of Ezra Pound, which takes us up to the publication of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and the writing of the early Cantos, deserves to stand in its own right as a study of Pound’s germinal years. But no sooner has one written the word germinal than one begins to experience the desire to peep ahead at the ending or, rather, to look in the beginnings for symptoms of the terminus. I found myself doing this even with the very impressive photographs that Moody has collected. In most of them, Pound looks like a highly well-made young man, with an ironic and quizzical expression. He’s especially dashing in an extraordinary group shot taken in January 1914, where he stands in a cluster of talent (which includes W. B. Yeats and Richard Aldington) around the patriarchal figure of Wilfred Scawen Blunt. There’s no apparent sign of the obsessive crank of the declining years, barking obscenities and gibberish over Mussolini’s radio. Yet on the cover of the book, and reproduced inside, is a 1910 study from Paris, in which Pound confronts the camera with a hunched, autistic, haunted look, with a tinge of van Gogh to it.

Pound’s early life story is in some respects not unlike that of T. S. Eliot, the man who in his dedication to The Waste Land called Pound “il miglior fabbro” (which can mean either “the better writer” or “the better craftsman”). They shared the same desire to escape from provincial gentility in America to Europe and perhaps especially to England, the same struggle to convince parents and family that the effort was one worth endorsing and financing, the same quixotic belief that poetry could be made to yield a living and that poets were a special class, and the same register of annihilating shock when in the summer of 1914 the roof of the over-admired European civilization simply fell in.

It is always impressive to read of the sheer dedication and conviction with which Pound approached poetry, and of the immense hopes he entertained for its regenerative powers. In a single season between 1912 and 1913 in London, we find him taking up the Bengali master Rabindranath Tagore and advising the Irish genius Yeats. Moody writes:

The measures, melodies and modulations of the songs in their original Bengali, which he had Tagore sing and explain to him, interested him as a seeker after ‘fundamental laws in word music’ and seemed to correspond to the sort of metric he was working for in English. He went on to wax enthusiastic about the prospect of Bengali culture providing ‘the balance and corrective’ to a Western humanism which had lost touch with ‘the whole and the flowing’. ‘We have found our new Greece’, he declared. ‘In the midst of our clangor of mechanisms’.

But within a short time he had tired of all this wholeness and flowing, and suspected Tagore of being just another “theosophist,” and was sitting up late with Yeats to help revise “The Two Kings” line by line. Yeats was urged to purge his verses of their “Miltonic generalizations,” and he told Lady Gregory that Pound helped him

to get back to the definite and the concrete away from modern abstractions. To talk over a poem with him is like getting you to put a sentence into dialect. All becomes clear and natural.

It must be reckoned immensely to Pound’s credit that he so early detected the vitality and importance of Eliot and of Yeats, going so far as to write that the latter “is the only living man whose work has more than a most temporary interest. I shall survive as a curiosity.” That second observation has a curious prescience to it; meanwhile, one might note that he wasn’t always such a sufferer from false modesty. It was at the same time that he composed his “Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” telling his father that it was “probably about the strongest thing in English since ‘Reading Gaol.’” In its evocation of the crucifixion (a little bizarre in view of Pound’s general contempt for Christianity) the “Ballad of the Goodly Fere” is a strangely affecting and beautiful piece of work, but it doesn’t place him in the same class as Wilde. It’s incidentally interesting for being written in dialect and for hitting an early and clearer note of Pound’s later dark obsession with usury:

I ha’ seen him drive a hundred men
Wi’ a bundle o’ cords swung free
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.
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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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