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.
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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.

Pound’s mood swings, between feelings of unworthiness and grandeur, may nonetheless supply a clue. Just as he would ricochet from new enthusiasm to new influence—at different times Rudyard Kipling, James McNeill Whistler (on whose signature he modeled his own), Ernest Dowson, and Wilfred Owen—so his sail was rigged in such a way as to be swollen by any febrile gust of enthusiasm. Under the influence of T. E. Hulme and Wyndham Lewis, he made what was certainly the most extreme contribution to the inaugural issue of Lewis’s Vorticist magazine, BLAST, published on the unintentionally momentous day of June 20, 1914, one week before the archduke’s murder in Sarajevo. The same issue contained a story by Rebecca West and the first chapter of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, while Pound emitted a statement titled “THE TURBINE”:

The vortex is the point of maximum energy. All experience rushes into this vortex. All the energized past, all the past that is living and worthy to live. All MOMENTUM, which is the past bearing upon us, RACE, RACE-MEMORY, instinct charging the PLACID, NON-ENERGIZED FUTURE. The DESIGN of the future in the grip of the human vortex. All the past that is vital, all the past that is capable of living into the future, is pregnant in the vortex, NOW.

Again, one can surely be forgiven for seeing a harbinger here, and not only of eventual mental unhingement. In fact, though strictly speaking it lies outside the scope of Moody’s book, let me quote from what Wyndham Lewis was later to write about experiencing the energy-loving and race-memory-oriented fascism that he had at first welcomed so warmly:

The senseless bellicosity of the reactionary groups of the Action Française type may certainly result in far more violence, before long, than anyone is able to measure.

On another occasion he wrote, “Fascists have the word ‘action’ on their lips from morning to night.” In the same book—Time and Western Man—he described his former BLAST colleague Ezra Pound as a “revolutionary simpleton.” That could perhaps furnish a title for Moody’s second volume.

Lewis of course turned against fascism, if only because he decided that it was ultimately just as mob-centered as democracy. Pound’s contempt for democracy was of a more determinedly elevated and “artistic” type. It’s rather charming to find him turning up at the United States Embassy in London in 1918, opposing the possible drafting of T. S. Eliot into the Army on the grounds that

if it was a war for civilization (not merely for democracy) it was folly to shoot, or have shot one of the six or seven Americans capable of contributing to civilization or understanding the word.

In a letter home to his father, discussing his own prospects as a conscript, Pound stated more tersely: “It is not however the habit of democracies to use my sort of intelligence.” It’s difficult to gauge how much this rather airy solipsism had to do with a version of survivor guilt, or an awareness that friends like Ford and Lewis either had endured the test of wartime experience or (like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, creator of the brilliant statue of Pound that its subject happily considered “phallic”) had not survived it.

And this must bring us to the writing of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” which was his farewell to England and his envoi, also, to both “democracy” and “civilization.” I have never especially admired the bitch/botch echo in the poem, which speaks of the huge wartime sacrifice in which Pound himself played no part and then describes it as having been made for “an old bitch gone in the teeth / for a botched civilization.” The whole thing reeks of trying too hard, and it anticipates the fanatical drone of “Canto XIV,” in which Londoners are described as living in a place full of “financiers / lashing them with steel wires” and:

The slough of unamiable liars,
bog of stupidities,
malevolent stupidities, and stupidities,
the soil living pus, full of vermin,
dead maggots begetting live maggots,
slum owners,
usurers squeezing crab-lice …

Sometimes credited with presaging or echoing The Waste Land, this stuff actually bodies forth and even exceeds the lowest of Eliot, and there can be small doubt, even on a brisk review of the lines, of the sordid direction in which things are tending.

Toward the close of this dense and clever and generally sympathetic study, Moody does cite an essay by Pound on “The Tribe of Judah” and “the pawn-shop” where, as he deftly points out, there is a telltale confusion between Judaism and “the Jew.” This distinction would eventually become completely lost on Pound, whose eccentric article was written for A. R. Orage’s New Age, in the offices of which (and what a life he lived for the small and obscure magazine) Pound was to meet Major C. H. Douglas, the crackpot Green-Shirt founder of the Social Credit movement. In Douglas’s program, Pound had found his true muse: a blend of folkloric Celtic twilight with a paranoid hatred of the money economy and a dire suspicion about an ancient faith. Moody supplies two very telling examples. In April 1917, Pound had written to his friend John Quinn, urging him to impress on Theodore Roose­velt, of all people, the need for “some system of direct supply … straight from the factory to the particular section of the front where stuff is wanted.” But this amateur-planner megalomania was only a foretaste of the pathos to come. In 1921, just before his departure from England, Pound managed to corner Arthur Griffith, easily the most reactionary and ethereal of the Irish leaders, during the tortured negotiations for his nation’s independence. He ranted at Griffith in an attempt to convince him to adopt Social Credit so as to use the infant Irish republic as its laboratory. According to Pound, Griffith eventually responded: “All you say is true. But I can’t move ’em with a cold thing like economics.”

Moody does not mention it, but this very phrase later recurs as a line in “Canto XIX,” by which time Pound’s poetry had become little more than a doctrinaire and propagandistic screed: a mechanical attempt to make poetry do what economics could not. That such an outcome was a tragedy no reader of this biography can doubt. If one seeks or desires to explain the tragedy, one might say that Shelley wanted poets to be “the unacknowledged legislators” of the world, while Pound sought hectically for acknowledgment, not just for poetry but for himself, and lost the sense of both in the process.

Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist.
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Christopher Hitchens was 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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