Ezra Pound Biography
Ezra Pound is first remembered as a great modernist poet, but for some historians, he is also remembered as a traitor. Pound was living in Italy at the time of World War II and publicly wrote and spoke in favor of the Axis. He highly disagreed with the involvement of the United States, despite the fact that he was an American. Pound was indicted for treason in 1943, and when the war was over, he was brought back to the United States and found incompetent to stand trial. Instead, he spent twelve years in a mental institution. His writings, however, from that time appear to be from a sane person’s perspective. Even though Pound is a somewhat controversial figure in American history, his writing (particularly the epic Cantos) is considered a major contribution to American literature.
Facts and Trivia
- Pound was a great admirer of William Butler Yeats, believing him to be the greatest living poet at the time. They even lived together for a short time during World War I, and Pound briefly served as Yeats’ secretary.
- Pound was married to Dorothy Shakespear, who was the daughter of Olivia Shakespear, a former lover of W. B. Yeats. A few years after marrying Shakespear, Pound began a romantic relationship with violinist Olga Rudge. The three carried on a romantic relationship until Pound’s death nearly fifty years later.
- Pound was also a noted translator of Asian literature. He revived many Confucian works and brought Japanese poetry and drama into the forefront in America and Europe.
- Music became a large part of Pound’s life in the 1920s. He is mainly responsible for bringing Vivaldi’s music back into popularity.
- Pound was friends with Ernest Hemingway, who tried to teach Pound to box. Hemingway said of the experience, “I was never able to teach him to throw a left hook.”
Ezra Loomis Pound, one of the most influential and controversial figures in modern literature, was born in the mining town of Hailey, Idaho, in 1885. When Pound was only eighteen months old the family moved to Philadelphia, where his father, Homer, became an official with the United States mint—an occupation that perhaps influenced Pound’s later interest in economic and monetary matters. Pound made his first trip to Europe in 1898 with his great aunt; he would later live most of his adult life on the Continent, becoming a virtual exile from his native country. To some he would be more than that: He would be a traitor.
In 1901, Pound began college at the University of Pennsylvania, then completed his undergraduate degree at Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York, in 1905. He received an M.A. in Romance languages from Hamilton the following year, then a fellowship to travel in Spain, Italy, and the Provence region of France, where he gathered material for a book on the troubadours—the poets of courtly love who flourished during the late middle ages.
Returning to the United States, Pound was briefly an instructor in French and Spanish at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He was dismissed after he allowed a stranded young actress to share his room in a boardinghouse.
Having determined, at age fifteen, to become a poet, Pound considered his dismissal a release, and he returned to Europe, writing and traveling, mainly in Italy. In 1908, he published his first books, a slim volume titled A Lume Spento (“with candles extinguished”) and A Quinzaine for This Yule. Both were heavily influenced by the troubadour poets and by the highly elaborate and artificial diction of late nineteenth century verse.
In 1908, Pound moved to London, where he remained until the end of World War I, establishing himself as a flamboyant personality as well as an aspiring poet. He affected earrings, flowing capes, and a dramatic red beard; his antics were wild and outrageous. Partially he sought to mask his own social insecurities, but he also wished to draw attention to his commitment to art. He became known by the major writers of the time, including Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, and William Butler Yeats, and he continued to publish poems, translations, reviews, and essays.
Around 1912, Pound developed a poetic doctrine which he termed Imagism, which put emphasis upon clear, specific language and poems stripped of excess ornament and useless words: The particular image was to be the new focus of verse. Within two years Pound had moved in another direction, that of “vorticism,” which was based on the concept of energy as symbolized by the vortex, a whirlpool or spiral form. Although Pound soon abandoned the formal aspects of these theories, their central tenets would remain part of his poetry for the rest of his life.
A third enduring influence from this time was that of Chinese poetic and philosophical thought. Believing that Chinese poets had used their language to reach the very essence of meanings naturally inherent in words, Pound eagerly translated their writings, adapting them in his volume Cathay (1915). Later he would incorporate Chinese ideograms, without translation, into the Cantos (1917 through 1970).
After World War I, Pound believed that London was exhausted as an intellectual center. He moved to Paris, first publishing Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) as a scornful, satirical farewell. Established in France, he continued to write, but much of his energies were taken up with assisting fellow artists: Pound was unique among moderns in being an untiring champion of others. He secured grants and patrons for James...
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Joyce, assisted T. S. Eliot in being able to leave his work at Lloyd’s Bank (and then helped editThe Waste Land, 1922, into its final shape), and generally used every opportunity to advance the careers of any artist he believed talented and worth notice.
After four years Pound moved from Paris to Rapallo, Italy, which was to be his home for most of his life. In 1914, he had married Dorothy Shakespear, but he had since met the musician Olga Rudge. In Rapallo, Pound established two separate households for himself and the women. On July 9, 1925, Pound and Olga Rudge had a daughter, Mary; on September 10 of that year Pound and Dorothy became the parents of a son, Omar Shakespear Pound. The dual arrangement would continue throughout Pound’s life.
Pound had early conceived the notion of writing an epic poem based on history. The first parts were published in 1917, and in 1925 a substantial portion appeared with the title A Draft of XVI Cantos; it has become known simply as the Cantos. Pound continued to work on it for the rest of his life; it was never completed, only abandoned. The work is one of the most important of twentieth century literature. Ironically, it is more influential than read, more discussed than known.
Disgusted by the senseless slaughter of World War I and insulted by the degradation of culture that followed, Pound was convinced that social and economic matters needed reform. Artists, he believed, had an obligation to lead in this effort.
Unfortunately, his path led to unsound fiscal theories such as “social credit” and to the also dangerous political doctrines of Fascism. Believing that Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini was an authentic heir to Confucian ideals of the enlightened ruler, and infected by the anti-Semitism of the times, Pound began to make broadcasts over Italian radio when World War II began. He continued these even after the United States entered the conflict. His talks were too rambling and bizarre to be effective propaganda, but they did get him indicted for treason, in absentia, in 1943. In 1945, U.S. troops arrested Pound in northern Italy.
Held as a prisoner for six months in the Army disciplinary center at Pisa, Pound was returned to the United States, but he was declared mentally unfit to stand trial in 1946. Committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., he remained there until 1958, receiving visitors, reading, and continuing to write and publish, including new sections of the Cantos. One of these, The Pisan Cantos (1948), won the Bolligen Prize for Poetry in 1949, causing an immense literary and political furor. Ironically, Pound’s imprisonment was a period of great productivity, and he brought out a major work almost every year while in St. Elizabeths.
Through an arrangement devised between such noted literary figures as Ernest Hemingway and Archibald MacLeish on one hand and the United States government on the other, Pound’s indictment for treason was dismissed in 1958, and he was freed to return to Italy. During the last years of his life Pound, once so voluble and self-confident, subsided into silence. His writing became less frequent, and his doubts about himself and his work seemed to increase. He despaired over completing the Cantos, and the great work trailed off into fragments as its author concluded, “I cannot make it cohere.” In 1970, he published The Cantos of Ezra Pound I-CXVII: It is not the “finished” version, because Pound had come to realize there could be no such thing. After so many years, his life’s work still remained a draft.
Refusing to speak and brooding over the past, Pound made his final visit to the United States in 1969. He had already attended the funeral rites of many of his friends and companions from the earlier days; when he died in Venice on November 1, 1972, Ezra Pound was the last of a generation that had changed modern writing.