Ezra Pound

photograph of Ezra H. Pound
Ezra Pound photographed in 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn

Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (30 October 1885 – 1 November 1972) was an expatriate American poet and critic, a major figure in the early modernist poetry movement, and a fascist sympathizer.[1] His contribution to poetry began with his development of Imagism, a movement derived from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, stressing clarity, precision, concision, and economy of language. His works include Ripostes (1912), Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and the unfinished 120-section epic, The Cantos (1917–1969).

Pound worked in London during the early 20th century as foreign editor of several American literary magazines, and helped discover and shape the work of contemporaries such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway.[a] Angered by the carnage of World War I, Pound lost faith in Great Britain and blamed the war on usury and international capitalism. He moved to Italy in 1924 and throughout the 1930s and 1940s embraced Benito Mussolini's fascism, expressed support for Adolf Hitler, and wrote for publications owned by the British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. During World War II, he was paid by the Italian government to make hundreds of radio broadcasts criticizing the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jews, as a result of which he was arrested in 1945 by American forces in Italy on charges of treason. He spent months in detention in a U.S. military camp in Pisa, including three weeks in a 6-by-6-foot (1.8 by 1.8 m) outdoor steel cage, which he said triggered a mental breakdown: "when the raft broke and the waters went over me". The following year he was deemed unfit to stand trial, and incarcerated in St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., for over 12 years.[3]

Pound began work on sections of The Cantos while in custody in Italy. These parts were published as The Pisan Cantos (1948), for which he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949 by the Library of Congress, leading to enormous controversy. Largely due to a campaign by his fellow writers, he was released from St. Elizabeths in 1958 and returned to live in Italy until his death. His political views ensure that his work remains as controversial now as it was during his lifetime; in 1933, Time magazine called him "a cat that walks by himself, tenaciously unhousebroken and very unsafe for children". Hemingway wrote: "The best of Pound's writing—and it is in the Cantos—will last as long as there is any literature."[4]

Early life (1885–1908)

Background

photograph
Thaddeus Pound, Pound's grandfather, in the late 1880s

Pound was born in a small, two-story house in Hailey, Idaho Territory, the only child of Homer Loomis Pound (1858–1942) and Isabel Weston (1860–1948). His father had worked in Hailey since 1883 as registrar of the General Land Office.[5]

Both parents' ancestors had emigrated from England in the 17th century. On his mother's side, Pound was descended from William Wadsworth (1594–1675), a Puritan who emigrated to Boston on the Lion in 1632.[6] The Wadsworths married into the Westons of New York. Harding Weston and Mary Parker were the parents of Isabel Weston, Ezra's mother.[7] Harding apparently spent most of his life without work, with his brother, Ezra Weston, and his brother's wife, Frances, looking after Mary and Isabel's needs.[8]

On his father's side, the immigrant ancestor was John Pound, a Quaker, who arrived from England around 1650. Ezra's grandfather, Thaddeus Coleman Pound (1832–1914), was a Republican Congressman from northwest Wisconsin who had made and lost a fortune in the lumber business. Thaddeus's son Homer, Pound's father, worked for Thaddeus in the lumber business until Thaddeus secured him the appointment as registrar of the Hailey land office. Homer and Isabel married the following year and Homer built a house in Hailey.[7] Isabel was unhappy in Hailey and took Ezra with her to New York in 1887, when he was 18 months old.[8] Homer followed them, and in 1889 he found a job as an assayer at the Philadelphia Mint. The family moved to Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and in 1893 bought a six-bedroom house in Wyncote.[7]

Education

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Pound, in his Cheltenham Military Academy uniform, with his mother in 1898

Pound's education began in a series of dame schools, some of them run by Quakers: Miss Elliott's school in Jenkintown in 1892, the Heathcock family's Chelten Hills School in Wyncote in 1893, and the Florence Ridpath school from 1894, also in Wyncote.[9] His first publication was on 7 November 1896 in the Jenkintown Times-Chronicle ("by E. L. Pound, Wyncote, aged 11 years"), a limerick about William Jennings Bryan, who had just lost the 1896 presidential election: "There was a young man from the West, / He did what he could for what he thought best; / But election came round, / He found himself drowned, / And the papers will tell you the rest."[10]

Between 1897 and 1900 Pound attended Cheltenham Military Academy, sometimes as a boarder, where he specialized in Latin. The boys wore Civil War-style uniforms and besides Latin were taught English, history, arithmetic, marksmanship, military drilling and the importance of submitting to authority. Pound made his first trip overseas in mid-1898 when he was 13, a three-month tour of Europe with his mother and Frances Weston (Aunt Frank), who took him to England, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.[11] After the academy he may have attended Cheltenham Township High School for one year, and in 1901, aged 15, he was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania's College of Liberal Arts.[12]

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H.D., c. 1921. She followed Pound to London and became involved in developing Imagism.

Pound met Hilda Doolittle (later known as the poet H.D.) at Pennsylvania in 1901, and she became his first serious romance.[13] In 1911 she followed Pound to London and became involved in developing the Imagism movement. Between 1905 and 1907 Pound wrote a number of poems for her, 25 of which he hand-bound and called Hilda's Book,[14] and in 1908 he asked her father, the astronomy professor Charles Doolittle, for permission to marry her, but Doolittle dismissed Pound as a nomad.[15] Pound was seeing two other women at the same time—Viola Baxter and Mary Moore—later dedicating a book of poetry, Personae (1909), to the latter. He asked Moore to marry him too, but she turned him down.[16]

His parents and Frances Weston took Pound on another three-month European tour in 1902, after which he transferred, in 1903, to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, possibly because of poor grades. Signed up for the Latin–Scientific course, he studied the Provençal dialect with William Pierce Shephard and Old English with Joseph D. Ibbotson; with Shephard he read Dante and from this began the idea for a long poem in three parts—of emotion, instruction and contemplation—planting the seeds for The Cantos.[17] He wrote in 1913, in "How I Began":

I resolved that at thirty I would know more about poetry than any man living ... that I would know what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of poetry was 'indestructible', what part could not be lost by translation and—scarcely less important—what effects were obtainable in one language only and were utterly incapable of being translated.

In this search I learned more or less of nine foreign languages, I read Oriental stuff in translations, I fought every University regulation and every professor who tried to make me learn anything except this, or who bothered me with "requirements for degrees".[18]

Pound graduated from Hamilton College with a BPhil in 1905, then studied Romance languages under Hugo A. Rennert at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), where he obtained an MA in early 1906 and registered to write a PhD thesis on the jesters in Lope de Vega's plays. A Harrison fellowship covered his tuition fees and gave him a travel grant of $500, which he used to return to Europe.[19] Pound spent three weeks in Madrid in various libraries, including one in the royal palace. There, on 31 May 1906, he happened to be standing outside when the attempted assassination of King Alfonso took place, and Pound subsequently left the country for fear he would be identified with the anarchists. After Spain he spent two weeks in Paris, attending lectures at the Sorbonne, followed by a week in London.[20]

In July he returned to the United States, where in September his first essay, "Raphaelite Latin", was published in Book News Monthly. He took courses in the English department at Penn in 1907, where he fell out with several lecturers; during lectures on Shakespeare by Felix Schelling, the department head, he would wind an enormous tin watch very slowly while Schelling spoke. His fellowship was not renewed. Schelling told him that he was wasting everyone's time, and Pound left without finishing his doctorate.[21]

Teaching

In Durance

I am homesick after mine own kind,
Oh I know that there are folk about me, friendly faces,
But I am homesick after mine own kind.

Personae (1909), written in Crawfordsville, Indiana, 1907[22]

From late 1907 Pound taught Romance languages at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a conservative town that he called "the sixth circle of hell". The equally conservative college dismissed him after he deliberately provoked the college authorities. Smoking was forbidden, but he would smoke cigarillos in his office down the corridor from the president's. He annoyed his landlords by entertaining friends, including women, and was forced out of one house after "[t]wo stewdents found me sharing my meagre repast with the lady–gent impersonator in my privut apartments", he told a friend.[23]

He was asked to leave the college in 1908 after offering a stranded chorus girl tea and his bed for the night when she was caught in a snowstorm. When she was discovered the next morning by the landladies, Ida and Belle Hall, his insistence that he had slept on the floor was met with disbelief. Glad to be free of the place, he left for Europe soon after, sailing from New York in March 1908.[24]