Reviewed by Rob Spence
A. David Moody’s monumental biography of Ezra Pound reaches its conclusion with this third and final volume. Having taken the story of Pound’s increasingly erratic life to the brink of the Second World War in the second volume, Moody now addresses the disastrous choices made by Pound in his lengthy flirtation with Fascism, and how the consequences of that shaped the rest of his life. Moody’s subtitle for this volume is ‘The Tragic Years’, and he characterises this final chapter of Pound’s life as a ‘five act tragedy’ in which the flawed hero suffers the loss of his freedom and his civil rights, but also produces the finest poetry of his career.
The five act tragedy, as Moody sees it, comprises the impact of the war, the hubris of Pound’s involvement with Fascism, the perception that he was a traitor (he wasn’t, according to Moody), the twelve-year incarceration with the mentally ill, and the anti-Semitism which blighted his life. The task of presenting these facets of Pound’s complex persona to the reader is undertaken by Moody in the scrupulous and detailed manner that readers of the first two volumes will recognise.
The material here is necessarily coloured by the bizarre nature of Pound’s wartime experience, in which he first implicitly and then explicitly supported the Axis, particularly through his radio broadcasts from Italy, despite the mounting evidence of the genocidal atrocities of the Nazis. Pound’s obsessive focus on usury is shown to be the driving force that blinds him to the realities of war, and leads him deeper into a paranoid hatred of all things Jewish. Moody argues, convincingly, that apart from this aberrant antipathy, Pound was generally sane and that the decision to send him to an institution, on the grounds that he could not understand the charge of treason, was a travesty. In fact, Pound refused to admit treason, and the psychiatrists charged with assessing him interpreted that as failure to understand the nature of the charges. As Moody says, ‘they declared him insane because he would not admit that he was guilty, an opinion worthy of Stalin’s justice.’
Moody’s clear-headed account of Pound’s darkest days is a useful corrective to the abusive treatment that the poet sometimes suffers when this period of his career is examined. Moody is properly critical of the indefensible statements Pound made at this time, but is also careful to show his commitment to developing a theory of economic and social justice, developing alongside his continuing creative vision.
More importantly, in a biography labelled ‘A Portrait of the Man and His Work’, Moody brings his considerable critical acumen to bear on the poetry that Pound produced in the final thirty years of his life. As he points out, these years were tremendously productive for Pound creatively, and it is arguable that some of his finest work – the Pisan Cantos particularly – was done at this time. Moody’s careful close reading of the Pisan Cantos occupies a whole chapter, and it’s a wonderfully well-informed and inventive account of these famously difficult poems. What emerges from Moody’s analysis is a portrait of a lucid mind reflecting on the disastrous war, but one whose vision is informed by a deep classical knowledge and a quirky interest in oriental forms that manifested itself in Pound’s creative use of Chinese ideograms and Confucian philosophy. Moody is an excellent guide through the dense thickets of this challenging poetry, as he is in his treatment of the poems written at St Elizabeth’s, the ‘hospital for the insane’ where he was confined after his trial for treason.
Pound’s life was an extraordinary one, and had he died – or been executed – immediately after the war, that statement would still be true, as Moody’s two previous volumes demonstrate. The final three decades of his life, however, outdo the rest of it in terms of strangeness. This learned and entirely compos mentis writer spent the years of incarceration stripped of all legal rights but working diligently and productively on his epic subject, doing, as Moody says, all he could to ‘envision a possible paradise terrestre.’
Moody’s work is an immense achievement, and must surely stand as the standard biography of Pound for the foreseeable future. His sympathetic and empathetic account of this deeply flawed genius is compelling in its tone, and comprehensive in its examination of the life. It is a monumental feat of scholarship, and one which must surely be seen as an exemplar of modern critical biography.
A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet, Volume III: The Tragic Years (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015). 978-0198704362, 654pp., hardback.
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