Ezra Pound (1885-1972) is now recognised as the central figure of Anglo/American modernism, the man who did most to shape the movement which in turn did most to shape the 20th Century cultural landscape in the west. Born in Idaho in the United States, Pound grew up and was educated in Pennsylvania. In 1908 he left America for Europe, eventually settling in London where he established himself at the heart of the capital’s artistic ferment. Through a friendship with his hero, W. B. Yeats, Pound discovered Japanese literature and also studied Chinese poetry via the work of Ernest Fenellosa, an American Professor in Japan. These influences fed into the Imagist movement of which Pound was a leading light. Advocating clarity of image and succinctness of language Imagism was in reaction to what was seen as the decorative style of the Georgian romantics. By 1917 Pound had moved on, in accordance with his own rallying cry to “make it new”, contributing to the avant garde movement known as Vorticism which incorporated new ideas from the world of art. The list of artists Pound collaborated with and championed during this period reads like a roll call of English language modernism: James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, HD, Marianne Moore and above all, T. S. Eliot. Pound’s incisive editing of ‘The Waste Land’ transformed it into the poem that revolutionised poetic sensibility. Pound’s own work in this period shifted rapidly from early formal poems influenced by Provencal lyrics to the purity of his Imagist work, culminating in the beautiful free verse lyrics based on Chinese originals of Cathay (1915). However, this optimism was brought to a premature end by the First World War which shattered Pound’s belief in Western civilisation. His disillusionment is immediately apparent in the satire of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Most significantly though, the fall-out from the War prompted Pound to begin work on The Cantos, the epic sequence that was to occupy him for the rest of his life. In 1920 Pound left London for Paris. By this time Pound was married, to Dorothy Shakespear, but in 1922 he formed a close bond with the violinist Olga Rudge, by whom he had a daughter. The three formed an uneasy manage a trio that lasted until Pound’s death. In 1924, they left Paris for Rapallo, Italy where began the attraction to Fascism that was ultimately to cost Pound his liberty and reputation. Influenced by economic theory, Pound became increasingly convinced that usury, the lending of money at interest, was responsible for the catastrophe of the First World War, and that Jewish financiers were at the heart of an international banking conspiracy. His increasingly virulent anti-Semitism led him to make a series of broadcasts on Rome Radio during the Second World War on behalf of the Axis powers. In 1945 Pound turned himself over to the U.S. forces and was interned in a camp in Pisa for six months. Here he suffered a nervous breakdown, though he also managed to draft what became known as The Pisan Cantos. On his repatriation to the U.S. Pond was found unfit to stand trial for treason due to insanity, and was committed instead to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C.. The literary world remained loyal to Pound: many famous writers visited him in hospital and in 1949 The Pisan Cantos were awarded the first Bollingen Prize by the Library of Congress. It was partly through the intense lobbying of the literary establishment that Pound was eventually released in 1958. Pound returned to Italy, but though he continued to work on The Cantos he saw them as a failure and never completed the project, dying in Venice in 1972.

Despite his brutal politics, Pound’s poetic achievement remains unassailable. The Archive is delighted to present three of the most significant Cantos, Numbers 1, 45 and 49. Also featured is an extract from an earlier sequence seen by many as a turning point in his career, ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’. Pre-dating Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ by two years, ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ is informed by the same disillusion with Western society and anger at the First World War’s betrayal of a young generation for the sake of “an old bitch gone in the teeth,/ For a botched civilization.”

The Cantos serve to demonstrate Pound’s strategy of juxtaposition which he uses throughout the sequence, and which proceeds, not by linear narrative like the epics of the past, but through an intricate collage of reference, quotation, allusion and translation. Canto 1 for instance draws on Homer’s Odyssey in what seems a straightforward manner, but the strange aside beginning “Lie quiet Divus” references Pound’s source for this Canto, a 1538 translation of Homer by one Andreas Divus. Pound’s work is in effect a translation of a translation. This multi-layered approach is also seen in the formal aspect of the poem which recalls the alliterative tradition of Anglo-Saxon poetry, whilst its modernist stamp is evident in the final phrase which brings the rolling cadences to an abrupt halt. By contrast Canto 49 reflects the influence of oriental aesthetic on Pound’s work. Described by the critic Hugh Kenner as “the still point” of the sequence, Pound’s Imagist technique is in evidence in the clarity of this evocation of a timeless landscape. Finally, Canto 45 denounces, by means of a thunderous repetition reminiscent of a hell-fire preacher, the practice of usury which Pound believed responsible for the decline of the modern age. Taken together, these three Cantos demonstrate in miniature the variety of tone and approach in the sequence as whole.

Pound’s inimitable delivery reflects his interest in musical composition. Speaking in what he called a “Northumbrian” accent, influenced by the bardic style of Yeats’s readings, the eccentricity gradually resolves to a grandeur which suits these formidable poems.

Recordings used by permission of the BBC.

Poems by Ezra Pound

Books by Ezra Pound



Bollingen Prize

Prize website