Ezra Pound. One of the most controversial poets of the twentieth century. He left us a beautiful legacy. A legacy that so much conflicts with his views on the world. A follower of fascism and racism, who tried to change things, but was convicted for his undermining of the US government. His poem A girl is in no way close to the broadcasts he made in Italy under the regime of Benito Mussolini.
About the poet
Ezra Weston Loomis Pound was born on October 30 1885 in Hailey, Idaho (US). His ancestors moved to the United States in the seventeenth century. Loomis was a descendant of William Wadsworth (his mother’s side). Ezra’s grandfather was the Republican Congressman Thaddeus Coleman Pound.
As son of Homer Loomis Pound (a registrar of the General Land Office) and Isabel Weston, Loomis grew up in Idaho. His mother wasn’t very happy there and she moved to New York when Pound was 18 months old. Soon after his father would follow and started working as an assayer in the Philadelphia Mint. Therefore, they had to move to Jenkintown in Pennsylvania. A few years later his parents bought a house in Wyncote (Pennsylvania).
The basis for Loomis’ education were the Quaker schools he visited in Jenkintown and Wyncote. He attended the Cheltenham Military Academy. During this time, he made his overseas trip in 1898. He visited England, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. This would leave a permanent impression.
In 1901 Pound followed his education at the Cheltenham Township High School. At the age of only fifteen he was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Liberal Arts. During that time, he first met Hilda Doolittle, who is often referred with the letters H.D – that she used to sign her poems. The two of them got romantically involved. When he decided to go to London in 1911, she followed him. He did not finish his study, because of bad grades. He transferred to the Hamilton College in 1913.
He would write several poems for no one else but Doolittle. He wanted to marry her and even asked her father for permission, but he turned Pound down. He was also seeing other women besides Doolittle; Viola Baxter and Mary Moore. The last woman turned him down as well, when he wanted to marry her.
In 1905 Pound graduated from Hamilton College. He studied Romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania after this. He would then receive a fellowship with a travel grant of 500 dollars, that he used to return to Europe. He visited Spain, France and England. When he returned to the US, he wrote his first essay: “Raphaelite Latin.” This essay was published in the Book News Monthly. Because of his behaviour when Felix Schelling was giving a lecture on Shakespeare, his fellowship was not renewed.
His first serious job began in 1907, when he started teaching Romance languages at the Wabash College in Crawfordsville (Indiana). Here he provoked the local authorities of this conservative town. Even though smoking wasn’t allowed on the premises, he would light cigarillos from time to time. When he was finished working, he would have parties at his home. Because of the conservatism, Pound called this place the sixth circle of hell (as a reference to Dante Alighieri’s work). He eventually was forced to leave his rented home. Not much later he was forced to resign. He was caught having a student in his sleeping room. He told his landladies that he given her a place to stay because of the snow storm. He never shared the bed with her. Instead he slept on the floor. If this is really true, is still debated.
After resigning he took off to Europe again, where he arrived on March 23 1908. For the first week, he made some money as a tour guide for American tourists in Gibraltar. Next stop was Venice, where he self-published the book A Lume Spento (With Tapers Spent). This book was well received by critics.
For the next twelve years, Pound would live in London. He wanted to write concrete poetry instead of abstract poetry. There was only one problem. He arrived in London without money. He convinced Elkin Matthews – a book seller- to start selling his self-published book. This lead to the publication of a second book, A Quinzaine for This Yule. From now on, his days were as follows: morning in the reading room of the British Museum, lunch in Oxford Street – Vienna Café- and the rest of the day was open to almost anything he would prefer.
In 1914 Pound married Dorothy Shakespear. He worked on the serialisation of James Joyce’s A portrait of the artists as a young man. By that time, World War I had started (1914) and this made a great impression on Pound. Especially when he heard the news that Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a sculpture who made an image of Pound, was killed in 1915. By 1917 Pound was in a depression and one year later he got ill due to the Spanish influenza. It wasn’t until 1919 before he published again.
Paris and Italy
In 1921 Pound moved to Paris, where he lived for several months in an apartment at the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. He made new friends, including Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara. When Pound was 36 years old, he fell in love with Olga Rudge, an American violinist of 26 years old. They began a love affair, that would last fifty years.
Pound suffered health issues and decided that the time in France would be over. When visiting a dinner party one of the guest had tried to stab him, which lead to a nervous breakdown, according to Hemingway. Pound and his wife moved to Rapallo in Italy. They were followed by Rudge, who at that time was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter in 1925. Rudge was in no way interested in raising her daughter Mary, so she placed her in the care of someone else. A peasant woman whose own child died. The birth of Mary made Pound realise that he had to come clean to his wife. This lead to the separation of the two for over two years. When his wife travelled to Egypt and returned in March 1925, Pound found out she was pregnant. Without telling their friends, the two of them stayed in Paris for a while. The only one who knew about this was Hemingway, who eventually drove Dorothy to the American Hospital of Paris, where their son Omar Pound was born. Omar was placed in the care of Dorothy’s mother until he was old enough to go to boarding school. While Dorothy would visit Omar during the summer, Pound spend his time in Venice with Olga.
In 1927 Pound’s parents moved to Italy. He was working on the translations of the works of Confucius at that time. A few years later, Pound changed his view on the world. The previous war, World War I, was caused by the capitalism. He began to believe that the way to change this world was through fascism. He seen the changes that were made in Italy and became a believer in the ideas of Benito Mussolini. On January 1933, the two of them met. Pound ignored the advice given by his friend Hemingway. Instead of coming to reason, he tried to convince the United States government not to get involved with the problems in Europe. In 1939, he went to his home country where he met with several US senators in Washington DC. His beliefs about the world were no obstruction to grant Pound with the honorary doctorate from Hamilton College.
Pound took it a step further, beyond the boundary of antisemitism. He wrote for Italian newspapers about antisemitism. The most saddening thing he wrote during that period was a letter to the publisher and poet James Laughlin, which he signed with the words Heil Hitler. But there was more to write about. He accused the Russians of claiming a part of Germany and wrote several letters to American politicians to state that the war was a conspiracy lead by the international financial institutions. During that period, he was allowed to broadcast his views on Italian national radio. Some argue that he did this for the money, since the pension of his father stopped after he died. It is more likely that Pound believed what he said and was a true believer of fascism and even racism.
The broadcasts were closely followed by the Foreign Broadcasting Service of the US government. In July 1943, Pound was indicted for treason. He wasn’t there to defend himself. He wrote a letter to attorney general Francis Biddle. In this letter, he used the term freedom of speech, to state that he should be allowed to say what he wanted to. He still continued with his radio broadcasts, but this time he would be more careful and use pseudonyms if possible. He also did this when it comes to his publications.
The domestic situation had taken a very dramatic turn. As from 1943, Olga was forced to leave her house in Venice. She and Mary lived in a small house in Rapallo. Pound and Dorothy had to be evacuated out of their apartment the same year and they moved to the apartment where Olga and Mary stayed. Mary was send away to school in Gais (Switzerland). The two women who stayed with Pound hated each other.
Pound was arrested in September 1945, when Italy surrendered. He left the city and wanted to travel to Gais. Here he would tell Mary about his son, her half-brother. Upon arrival, after traveling from Bologna to Switzerland, his daughter almost did not recognize him. After meeting her, he returned to Rapallo. Pound was found alone at his house by armed forces of the partisans and was taken away. He was held for a short time, but decided to turn himself in to the American troops in Lavagna together with Olga. From there on, he was send to the United Stated Counter Intelligence Corpse in Genoa. He had some strange demands. He wanted to speak with the president, to help him with the peace negotiations with Japan and wanted to again broadcast on the radio. He even wrote Ashes of Europe Calling for the occasion. In the script, he wrote he insisted on coming to peace with Japan, the forming of a Jewish state and to be merciful on Germany. This contradicts very much with the way he thought about Adolf Hitler. Even on the day that Germany surrendered, he told a news reporter that Hitler could be compared to someone like Jeanne d’Arc. Mussolini was the one who lost his head, according to Pound.
For the next three weeks Pound remained in total isolation in Pisa. He was caged, because he was part of those who caused and lost the war, so was the belief. There was a chance they would free themselves if they were in normal prison cells. Nowadays one can ask the question if this form of punishment is inhumane or not. At that time, those who were responsible for detaining war criminals thought this was the right way. What made it even harder for Pound was his own stubbornness to make use of the recreation time he had (exercise). He even waved away his rights to communicate with his – let’s call it- family. He was slightly about to lose his control and suffered a mental breakdown. This lead to the examination by psychiatrists who found him to be unfit to be caged. He was allowed his own tent and reading material. He started writing The Pisan Cantos. He probably had started writing when he was kept in the cage and wrote his raw material on toilet paper. By that time many considered him to be mentally ill and did not take him seriously. Therefore, he was allowed to travel to the United States, but he still had to face a trial about his treason. He was convicted for broadcasting for the enemy and the attempts to undermine the government and was placed in St. Elizabeths Hospital’s prison ward. Dorothy became his legal guardian and could only see him for fifteen minutes.
This place, we see in movies. Screaming patients. No windows. Thick steel doors. This must have been the place that would make the life of Pound a living hell. Some say he deserved even a more severe punishment for the things he did. There were others who believed that Pound should not be detained in that place. Like Julian Cornell, his lawyer. He tried numerous times to get him out. This resulted in a hearing to get him released in January 1947. He was transferred to Chestnut Ward, where he was held for the next twelve years. He was diagnosed as narcissistic, but was considered mentally sane. He was allowed more visitors and was able to read and write more. Dorothy would visit him frequently, but Olga only visited him twice (1952 and 1955). Olga saw a man who could do more to get himself released, but refused. It was thanks to the friends of Pound, the he was finally released in 1958. After his release, he moved back to Italy. Again, he would pick up where he left of: fascism. He was photographed while giving the fascist salute to the press who was awaiting his arrival. About the United States he would declare that this was the insane asylum. He visited South Tyrol, where he met his grandson Walter and granddaughter Patrizia for the first time, before settling again in Rapallo. Olga joined Dorothy and him. Things did not go well. In December 1959, he was diagnosed as depressed and during the Sixties he was admitted to a clinic. Doctors believed that he suffered from dementia. After his release, Dorothy found herself unfit to take care of him. He then lived in Rapallo with Olga. Later they moved to Venice.
In 1962 Pound would attend the neo-fascist May Day parade. His health prevented him from being there. Still, Pound was greatly admired, despite of his beliefs. In 1972, it became clear that Pound was about to receive the Emerson-Thoreau Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This lead to a strong protest. The council decided not to award him with this prestigious prize. His health began to backfire on him. On his 87th birthday he was no longer able to leave his bedroom. Another admission to a hospital followed a day later, on November 1st 1972. He died in the Civil Hospital of Venice the same day. He was later buried at the Isola di San Michele cemetery in Venice. Dorothy was unable to attend his funeral, she died the year after. Olga died in 1996 and was buried on the same island as Pound was.
The death of Pound marked the ending of an era of controversy. Yes, he left the world with an important legacy. Poetry, translations and more. This so much conflicts with his political beliefs about the world he lived in. A changing world, where fascism and racism would rise and then fall. Pound chose the wrong side, for unclear reasons. He wasn’t a victim of the first World War, as much as he tried to convince the world. He was able to make a sane choice, that later would turn to insanity.
By Ezra Pound
The tree has entered my hands,
The sap has ascended my arms,
The tree has grown in my breast –
The branches grow out of me, like arms.
Tree you are,
Moss you are,
You are violets with wind above them.
A child – so high – you are,
And all this is folly to the world.