Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 849

Pound wrote his The Cantos over a long period of time—the first canto was published in 1917 and the final installment to be published during Pound's lifetime appeared in 1968. Needless to say, these years were turbulent; they constitute the majority of the last century. But Pound's poem is especially steeped in history: his own description of the poem as he formulated it was "a poem containing history." History, therefore, both formed the raw material for the poem and impinged upon its construction and creation.

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When Pound first thought of writing his "tale of the tribe," he was living in London and had gained a great deal of fame as a literary impresario and provocateur. From the time that he arrived in London—1909—he had set himself the task of wresting art and literature from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. To achieve this end, he did everything: he served as a foreign editor for American publications, he "discovered" such writers as T. S. Eliot, he edited anthologies, he promoted operas, he gave money and materials to sculptors, he harangued and wrote and dashed about the city, an unforgettable figure in his pointy beard and cape.

But by 1920, Pound had tired of London. WWI had taken its toll on the writers and artists he sponsored, and London's openness to artistic experimentation was waning. Pound wrote his wellknown "Hugh Selwyn Mulberry" poem cycle in 1920 and moved to Paris. He only stayed there a few years, though, feeling that Italy was a better place for him to be to work on The Cantos, the poem that now consumed his energies. In the 1920s, as Pound finished the first thirty cantos, he grew increasingly interested in European and American history and economics, subjects that supplemented his already extensive knowledge of Chinese and Provencal history and art and of classical civilization. The Cantos began to be Pound's "tale of the tribe," the "tribe" being intelligent, artistic, culturally-minded people. In his historical research, Pound came across a number of men who brought together what he saw as political justice, economic wisdom, and an artistic temperament and The Cantos quickly became a tale of how those men—Jefferson and Adams, Confucius, Malatesta—had to fight against the venality and stupidity of their contemporaries.

Unfortunately for Pound, though, he felt that his time's answer to these "factive personalities" was the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Through the late 1920s and the 1930s, Pound began to write more and more on economics and argued that Mussolini's programs epitomized the kind of humane system that Pound hoped to see succeed in the world. In Cantos 42 through 71, Pound wrote extensively on Chinese and American history, but Mussolini's name and ideas come up more and more often. Even more disturbing is a growing anti-Semitism in the poems. Consumed by a hatred of banks and always possessed of an affection for medieval times, Pound concluded that powerful Jews were behind the world banking system. Exacerbating Pound's fascist and anti-Semitic sympathies were his very real mental problems—by the late 1930s Pound was showing clear signs of paranoia.

Pound returned to the United States briefly in 1939 and gave a few speeches, but managed only to convince his audiences that he was a crank or just mad. When war broke out in Europe, Pound was forced to remain in Italy, and for the duration of the war he lived there. To earn money, he made broadcasts on Italian state radio, broadcasts filled with anti-Semitism and venom directed at President Roosevelt. In 1943, Pound was indicted for treason in the United States, and as the war was ending he was captured by Italian partisans and turned over to the U.S. Army. He was kept in a cage in Pisa for a while before being returned to the U.S. to stand trial.

Upon his...

(The entire section contains 2219 words.)

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