Reviewed by Rob Spence
I’ve been teaching Modernism in higher education for over two decades now, and have therefore spent quite a lot of time reading and discussing the work of Ezra Pound. And yet his place in the canon always seemed to me much less secure than that of, say, T.S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf. Part of that uncertainty must surely be connected to Pound’s enthusiastic and unrepentant embracing of fascism. It sits uneasily with us – Woolf was a snob, Eliot had more than a touch of the anti-Semite, but they were minor peccadilloes compared to Pound’s vociferous and unrelenting support for Mussolini and his chums.
I turned with interest, therefore, to David Moody’s second volume in his monumental three-part biography of Pound. In volume 1, covering the years up to Pound’s departure from London, Moody was able to chronicle the emerging poet, and his dominance of the avant-garde scene, his involvement in Imagism and Vorticism, and the energy that he brought to modern poetry. The sub-title “The Young Genius” was apt.
The current volume is subtitled “The Epic Years” and covers the period 1921 -1939, dealing with Pound’s time in Italy, during which he developed the openly fascist allegiance which was to cause him to be incarcerated after the war. The Epic in question is The Cantos, the work which Pound had begun composing just before the point where this volume begins, and which certainly, if only on account of its length, qualifies as epic. As Moody states, the intention was that these poems would become “the foundation myth of a universal civilization.” That bold aspiration seems increasingly bathetic as the work becomes ever more obscure and Pound develops his own particular strain of megalomania. It is, for the biographer, a challenge. The young genius becomes in these years the somewhat eccentric exile, increasingly obsessed with his own bizarre theory of economics.
Moody makes a key decision when dealing with the troublesome nature of Pound’s life in this period. He confines himself, he states, to the writings of Pound as his major source of information: ‘I have ignored speculation and hearsay’ he says. That’s all very well – commendable, even – but is perhaps disingenuous given the vast amount of such speculation. That’s not to say there’s no smoke without fire, but it seems to me that a biographer is duty bound to at least consider the ‘speculation and hearsay’ that surrounds his subject.
Moody does not shirk from addressing the central issues, however. He presents the somewhat chaotic family life – Pound lived with his lover, Olga Rudge, and their daughter, whilst his wife bore a son, whom Pound acknowledged as his own, to another man. Moody chronicles the move from London to a rather squalid existence in Paris, whence they fled to the more pleasant, but markedly less cosmopolitan environment of Rapallo on the Ligurian coast. These details of Pound’s domestic arrangements are presented in the context of Pound’s remarkable intellectual development following the move to Italy. The poet adds an obsessive interest in music, and an even more obsessive desire to promote his economic theories to his activity, and Moody is excellent at elaborating on these less well-known aspects of Pound’s life.
The book is, it should be emphasised, a critical biography, and Moody is first and foremost a literary critic, so it is no surprise that the central concern here is the examination of Pound’s considerable output during these years. Moody is a very careful guide, especially to the cantos, which he sees as an organic whole, composed in musical form, with an overall design. Similarly, he is a patient escort around the labyrinth of Pound’s economic theories, often characterised as simple anti-Semitism (to Pound, usury is the foundation of all economic ills as well as bad art) whilst not neglecting the lack of discretion in Pound’s admiration for the fascist leaders of Italy and Germany. What emerges is a fascinating tour around the landscapes of Pound’s mind, and it is a refreshing antidote to the simplistic view of Pound that sometimes prevails.
Ultimately, though, the reader cannot but be appalled at some of Pound’s statements and actions. The contrast with the joker in the pack of the “Men of 1914” is striking. In the end, I think I still preferred the early Pound to the friend of Mussolini, but this book is a useful corrective to the simplistic portrayals that have hitherto been current. The final volume will cover the war years, Pound’s incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, and the end of his long and fascinating life. Like this, it will be a must-read for anyone interested in Modernism.
Rob Spence blogs on books, music and anything else that appeals to him at Topsyturvydom
A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet Volume II: The Epic Years (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014). 978-0199215584, 421pp., hardback.