Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Ezra, The Lost Prophet: Ezra Pound's Struggle With Romanticism

The paradox of Ezra Pound: as the father of Modernism, he coined its signature mantra: Make it new, make it new! Just as technology and social and political change had wholly transformed the nineteenth century from a medieval worldview to an H.G. Wells science fiction novel, so the art of the new twentieth century must reflect those changes and show Man's transformation under the pressure of blinding change.

On the other hand, as I argue in the literary essay below, Pound as a writer was very rooted in the past, and he had strong Romantic roots. It's an artistic commonplace that before you can be a revolutionary artist and break all the rules, you first have to master them completely. Before Picasso veered off into Cubism, he mastered realistic figure drawing and depiction.
Pound drawn by Wyndham Lewis, another fascist Modernist genius
Pound as Pan by the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska
Then there's the matter of his fascism. There's no question that he was an idiot (and a fanatic) for broadcasting for Mussolini; in a time of war, he was asking for it, and Lord Haw-Haw (the American-born Irishman William Joyce, who broadcast for Hitler) was summarily hanged by the Allies in January 1946 for the same offense. On the other hand, when you hear about how Pound was confined in the dog cage in Rapallo in a deliberate attempt to either kill him or drive one of the great intellects of the twentieth century mad, you wonder about making comparisons to how Stalin committed "enemies of the state" to horrifying Soviet psychiatric institutions.

I originally wrote this essay in October 1994 while an English graduate student in Queens College, as a paper for Prof. John Tytell's class, "Some American Antinomians," the same class for which I wrote my exegesis of the character of Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch (please see my posting below). John Tytell was nice enough to say that he thought that my paper was publishable.
A very young Pound
The only interesting Ezra Pound story I can personally recount was told to me in the mid-Seventies by Prof. Carlos Baker, who was one of my University Scholar advisors while I was an undergraduate at Princeton. In the early Seventies, he interviewed Pound in Italy for his monumental Hemingway biography, and he told me that when he asked Pound if he still held his fascist beliefs, the old man only smiled.

Ezra, The Lost Prophet: Ezra Pound's Struggle With Romanticism

As the father of Modernism, Ezra Pound both adopted and improved upon traditional Romantic poetic techniques. From the beginning of his career, Pound very consciously set out to create a new poetic mode consonant with the new sensibilities of the twentieth century; like Stephen Daedelus in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, he sought to create "the undiscovered consciousness of his race." In his early twenties, Pound asserted that he would learn more about poetry than any man living and that he was destined to be a great poet. (1)
It was, he felt, his duty to formulate an apocalyptic new poetic vision for a civilization that he saw blow it brains out twice in twenty years, once in 1914, then in 1939.

To accomplish that Promethean task, he first had to absorb the lessons of the British and American masters who had dominated poetry in the nineteenth century, and then defeat the fathers in the field by creating something new, something unmistakably his. Making it new.
T.S. Eliot, the young author of The Waste Land
Born in the Gilded Age, Pound was a disaffected post-Civil War, post-industrial American modern, a "seeker" straight out of the pages of Jackson Lear's brilliant study of alienation in America between 1880 and 1920, No Place of Grace (2). In this cultural and historical context, literary critic Jay Martin explains Pound's (and T.S. Eliot's) proclivity for translation: "We can see in the abundance of translation immediately after the First World War a parallel to and confirmation of the claim that in the breakdown of consciousness these sages turned naturally to the inculcation of the past by translation. Moreover these psychic conditions help to explain why Eliot and Pound would make the characteristic poetry of the age out of translation...." (3)
William Wordsworth, the father of Romantic poetry
In his formative years as a poet, Pound derived his guidance from the three main schools of Anglo-American poetry that had established the poetic tradition: 1) British Romantic poetry, exemplified by Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth; 2) American Romantic poetry, embodied by the overwhelming presence of Walt Whitman; and 3) British Victorian poetry, that desiderata of Romanticism, not only represented by Tennyson, Browning, and Yeats, but also (courtesy of Rossetti) by the poets of the Yellow Nineties, including Wilde and Swinburne. Like all writers, Pound saw these earlier poets as role models, studied their careers, adopted the lessons that suited him, and discarded the rest. Each poet's life and work told him what to pursue and what to avoid.

The beloved Shelley

A lifemask of Keats
Pound shared with the Romantics a hatred of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution and its spawn, mass society. It has often been remarked that possibly Pound's hatred of the Jews was more a sublimated hatred of mass society than anything else; he identified Jews as the quintessential symbol of atomized, alienated, urbanized man, the threat of the new and foreign that was menacing the social and economic stability of the members of Pound's class, the haute bourgeoisie.

(It is interesting to note that anti-Semitism was also the downfall in the 1890s of the Populist Party in the Midwest, of whom Pound's grandfather was a member. Pound claimed to owe much to his grandfather for inspiring his Social Credit schemes.) Mass society had (and has) no place for poets. Pound recognized in mass society a direct threat to his existence and that of everything he held sacred.
With Byron, Pound shared the hero-worship of authoritarian political leaders. Byron was notorious for his idolatry of Napoleon, and Napoleon is often referred to as a Byronic figure.
Byron the dashing
A young Corsican adventurer named Napoleon
Pound idolized Mussolini and Hitler. Both poets were hungering for a strong authority figure to fill the power vacuum left by the great social catastrophe of their time—in Byron's case, the French Revolution; in Pound's, the First World War. It should be noted, though, that Byron became disillusioned with Napoleon when his tyranny became apparent; Pound was still making the fascist salute on his return to Italy after this release from St. Elizabeths.

In other ways, however, Pound seemed to be consciously making himself a Byronic figure, a Promethean entity battling the gods, a rebel against authority. Consider this description of the Byronic figure, and see how it exactly it can be applied to Pound's agony in the dog-cage in Rapallo in 1945:
Driven by a demon within, he is fatal to himself and others; for no one can resist his hypnotic suggestion and authority. He has committed a sin that expresses his superiority; lesser men could not even conceive a like transgression. Against his own suffering he brings to bear a superhuman pride and fortitude. (4)

Two Byronic heroes of the postwar era
From Wordsworth, Pound acquired the idea that it was the duty of the modern poet, if he aspired to greatness, to complete a great long poem, a modern Epic that would encompass all of the poet's talents and summarize his virtues for posterity. For Wordsworth, it was the Prelude; for Walt Whitman, America's greatest Romantic poet, it was Song of Myself. For Pound it was the Cantos. This idea that an artist can create one great monumental work, one organic Aristotelian unity, to establish his reputation for all time is of course an impossibly Romantic notion in and of itself.
Walt Whitman
Through his free verse, Whitman opened up to Pound some of the possibilities of poetry and freed him from the formal limitations of British verse. Whitman also taught Pound how important it is for the American poet to exercise showmanship and self-publicity. In a democratic age, Whitman recognized that popular fame is paramount, and so to be an attractive figure for rising generations to emulate, the American artist must make himself a flamboyant, easily-recognizable figure who, above all else, must be well-known. This has been the tradition in American letters since Whitman through Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway to Norman Mailer, not to mention the media images that were cultivated by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. This was also the origin of Pound's persona.
Psychodrama: Norman Mailer (bottom) vs. Rip Torn (top) fighting to the death in real life in 1968 in Mailer's independent 1970 film Maidstone
True, Pound made of himself a "character," an attention-getter, but he never became a "publicity angel," as Gertrude Stein called them, celebrity intellectuals on the order of Hemingway. If Pound had wanted only popularity, he would not have clung so ferociously to his isolationist stance in the Thirties and early Forties; instead, he would have became a liberal middle-of-the-road poet with a public reputation for lovability on the order of Robert Frost or e.e. cummings, enjoying tea with Archibald MacLeish in the White House. Pound didn't want to get famous that badly. He hungered after creating transcendent beauty more.

But in order to attain the insight into that beauty so it could be captured in his poetry, Pound made something of a Faustian pact—another Romantic attribute of the Byronic hero (Manfred, et al.). His single-minded pursuit of creating great art gave him moral tunnel vision. In his Ahabistic pursuit of the avant-garde, he had put himself so far ahead of everyone else that he could no longer communicate with them. He had been right so many times before when others were dead wrong, why wouldn't he be right on everything?

In Pound's egoism lies his tragic paradox; if he'd hadn't been so damned bull-headed, he wouldn't have become a great artist, but by remaining so implacably certain of his own correctness, he lost any perspective on how he might appear to others. Thus he was able to make the broadcasts for Mussolini. He didn't think he was making a political statement; he thought he was making an aesthetic statement on the Italian radio, as if it were a revolutionary new art show being put on by the Futurists, those avant-garde precursors to the Fascists, or a Dadaist Happening.

Of course, in the dog cage in Rapallo, Pound realized quite differently. This was not a test. At best this was Prometheus chained to the rock, getting his liver chewed alive by the eagles. At worst this was his brutal comeuppance for having been so blind, stupid, and arrogant. In Canto Lxxxi, Pound describes his degradation in a passage that is celebrated as one of the most honest and moving examples of self-awareness in twentieth-century literature:
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black, half white,
Nor knowst'ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity
Pull down thy vanity (5)

Strangely enough, in this respect Pound resembles another great martyred Anglo-American poet: Oscar Wilde. Wilde was another Icarus who strayed too close to the sun. Wilde was certainly a Yellow Nineties role model to the young Pound, with his philosophy of art-for-art's sake. Wilde's lynching at the hands of the British middle class could not have but helped to hit home to Pound how precarious the role of the modern artist was and how Philistine the masses were. But where Wilde was in many ways an innocent victim (however unwisely indiscreet he may have been), Pound acquiesced much more in his own destruction. He allied himself with a vicious, anti-democratic political philosophy that was blackening half the world, and by making the radio broadcasts for Mussolini, he must have known he was indulging in some form of hubris: aiding and abetting the enemies of his country.

Pound had little use for Tennyson, the great Victorian sage; he saw his acclaimed style as little more than embroidery. (6) But Browning's interior monologues influenced Pound like no other poetic convention; Pound called them "the most vital form of that period." (7) They gave Pound the artistic freedom to pursue whatever subject he wanted in poetry, and yet be able to render it with great emotional immediacy.
Robert Browning
Certainly Pound must have attracted to Yeats, the other great Victorian master, because of Yeats' proclivity for "masks." There is an unbroken line from Browning's monologues to Yeats' "masks" to Pound's "personae." (8) How ironic if Pound did indeed influence Yeats' style from a more fulsome, Victorian diction to a sparer, more modern style. (9) Yeats' most famous poem, "The Second Coming," most assuredly captures Pound's apocalyptic urgency, but does so with a pure lyricism missing from anything Pound ever wrote.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of the
Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with a lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
William Butler Yeats
"The Second Coming" (1919)

Like all literary rebels, Pound first had to establish his position by slaying the fathers. He had to overthrow the old, established masters by formulating a revolutionary new poetic style—one, oddly enough, fashioned out of a passion for the Greek and Roman classics and the troubadours of the Middle Ages rather than the new language of science that was so exciting the likes of Henry Adams and Matthew Arnold. He became so infatuated with tradition, he was startlingly fresh. But he selected carefully from the vineyards of the Romantics—here borrowing from Browning's interior monologues and Wilde's aestheticism, there choosing from Whitman's freedom and knowing public image and Byron's rebellious stance.

But what makes Pound a great twentieth-century poet (with only Yeats and Eliot as his equals) is the synthesis he achieved. From all of these sources he fashioned a body of work, a viewpoint, wholly original. No poet previous to him could have written those lines in Canto LXXXII. Earlier poets would have been inclined to inject false bathos and self-pity into the lines; Pound's method of relaying his pain is spare and direct, and yet captures the self-consciousness that marks our age. It is a tragedy that Pound had to fall so far, in true Luciferian/Byronic/Romantic style, in order to arrive at this honesty and humility, but perhaps the greater miracle is that he struggled so hard all of his life to arrive at a poetry suitable for the bewildering new conditions of our century, and he succeeded.

1. John Tytell, Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (New York: 1987), pp. 3-4.
2. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Anti-Modernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880-1920 (New York, 1981).
3. Jay Martin, Harvests of Change (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: 1967), p. 12, footnote 49.
4. David Perkins, English Romantic Writers (New York: 1967), p.782.
5. Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: 1971), p. 521.
6. See Hugh Kenner, The Poems of Ezra Pound (Norfolk: n.d.), p. 19.
7. Walter E. Houghton and G. Robert Stange, Victorian Poetry and Poetics (Second Edition), (Boston: 1968) p. xxi.
8. Nagy, N. Christoph De. The Poetry of Ezra Pound: The Pre-Imagist Stage (Berne: 1968), pp. 131-2.
9. Which is so "modern" that Pound derived it from Sappho and Catullus as a much-needed antidote to Marius the Epicurean.

Hesse, Eva. New Approaches to Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.
Heymann, C. David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking Press, 1976.
Houghton, Walter E. and Stange, G. Robert. Victorian Poetry and Poetics (Second Edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
Jackson, Thomas H. The Early Poetry of Ezra Pound. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.
Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. Norwalk, Conn.: New Directions, n.d.
Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1971.
Lears, Jackson. No Place of Grace. New York: Pantheon, 1981.
Martin, Jay. Harvests of Change. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Nagy, N. Christoph De. The Poetry of Ezra Pound: The Pre-Imagist Stage. Bern, Switzerland: Francke Verlag, 1968.
Norman, Charles. Ezra Pound. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969.
Perkins, David. English Romantic Writers. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1967.
Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1971.
Pound, Ezra. Personae. New York: New Directions, 1971.
Tytell, John. Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano. New York: Doubleday, 1987.
Pound at James Joyce's Grave


Carol said...

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