Ezra Pound Controversy - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ezra Pound Controversy

Debate stemming from Ezra Pound's Fascist tendencies and anti-Semitic writings.

Ezra Pound came to epitomize the heart of the art-for-art's-sake argument when he was arrested and charged with treason in April 1945. While widely hailed as an influential poet, writer, critic, and translator and one of the fundamental masters of the Modernist style, Pound was simultaneously reviled by the post-World War II world at-large as an anti-Semite and traitor for his provocative writing and treasonous radio broadcasts in Italy that espoused his Fascist leanings. As a writer, Pound was responsible for The Cantos (1915-1968), a verse narrative that is regarded as one of the most remarkable pieces of American literature. An epic poem of memorable beauty that combines European and Asian aesthetics with American sensibilities, The Cantos also incorporates Pound's vision of a new world order and regrettably, his vitriolic beliefs about Jews and period politics. It is this dichotomy between the stunning sensual clarity of his poetry and the acrimonious nature of his beliefs that has led to questions about whether a work of art can be viewed separately from the nature and intents of its creator.

Born in 1885 in Hailey, Idaho, to Isabel Weston Pound and Homer Loomis Pound, Ezra Pound was the scion of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on his mother's side and Republican congressman Thaddeus Coleman Pound on his father's. While in his teens, he moved along with the demands of his father's work for the U. S. Mint to New York and eventually Philadelphia in 1898. In 1901 he attended the University of Pennsylvania where he began lifelong friendships with Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) and William Carlos Williams, the first of an amazingly varied list of strong personal and artistic connections he would make that would ultimately grow to include such luminaries as William Butler Yeats, Henry James, Robert Frost, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and most especially, close friend and political ally, T. S. Eliot. After an innocent scandal led to his dismissal from the teaching staff at Wabash College in Indiana, Pound ventured to England, where he would begin a decades-long period of residency throughout Europe. During this time Pound studied and absorbed the classical literature of the region with zealousness—influences that would be later reflected in his own writing. After releasing a series of critically lauded work that included a volume of poetry, Personae (1909) and a critical study, The Spirit of Romance (1910), Pound founded a new writing movement called Imagism, a literary style he championed with H. D. that attempted to use clarity and exactness rather than symbolism as its primary means of description. Within a year, he had moved to a new abstract organizational style he called “Vorticism” which used cubism and futurism as its basis, which was followed by a study of Chinese poetry and Japanese Noh plays. These influences provided the last building block towards what would be his penultimate and most debated work, The Cantos.

Composed of 117 cantos and written at various intervals over a 53-year period, The Cantos was actually released as a series of shorter volumes, each with its own title but a continuation of the same epic piece of literature. The work is at times a treatise for Pound's theories on economics, his hopes for a different world (closely resembling some of Fascism's stated goals), a modern update of Greek myth, a history lesson, and an attack on political nemeses such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. A synthesis of wildly varying languages, styles, and subject matter, The Cantos nonetheless achieved tremendous fame and critical ovations for Pound, earning him an enviable level of critical respect from his peers. Given that The Cantos was written over such an extended period of time, it is a reflection of its author's growing shift of mood and temperament away from the mainstream. Living in Europe during the volatile period before World War II, Pound saw in Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini contemporary figures with the will and desires to create a utopian state where the class hostilities he felt inherent to the capitalist and communist ideologies could be eliminated. Favoring a government that would give more emphasis to culture and art and less power to the banking industry, whom he felt was directly accountable for the First World War, Pound became particularly drawn to the culture and growing power of the Fascist movement in Italy. As a result, Pound became an eager advocate for “Il Duce,” even going so far as to praise him in a book, Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1935) that, in addition to defending Pound's economic and political theories, hailed the Italian dictator as a sort of second coming of Thomas Jefferson, a man Pound greatly admired. A strong opponent to the coming war, Pound stridently worked to prevent its seeming inevitability through his writings and even a last ditch visit to the United States in 1939. When war finally did flare, Pound became a voice for Mussolini, airing a series of weekly radio broadcasts where he railed against the U.S. involvement in the war and spewed a series of racially tinged invectives against the Jewish people, including apparent support for Hitler's “Final Solution.” Indicted for treason by the United States in 1942, he continued his attacks against U.S. policy until he was eventually handed over to U.S. forces by partisans following a coup against Mussolini in 1945.

For the next six months, he was held at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks near Pisa, Italy, under harsh circumstances. Confined amongst U.S. military prisoners, some of whom were executed at Pisa by the military for such violent crimes as rape and murder, Pound suffered terribly under the stress and conditions of his imprisonment at Pisa. Out of his pain and suffering, and still mourning the death of his Fascist dream, Pound penned The Pisan Cantos (1948), numbers 74-84 in The Cantos, which were immediately hailed as a masterwork of English literature by many leading members of the literati of the time. The most directly personal segment of The Cantos, the elegiac tones are often moving in their expression of the despair he felt during this period of fragile emotional adversity. Unfortunately, The Pisan Cantos also reflected his growing antagonism and the exacerbated mental difficulties that were becoming increasingly apparent, problems that manifested themselves as expanding conspiratorial rants against Jews as well as several lines written in honor of his beloved fallen Mussolini. Upon his return to the United States, Pound had cause to fear for his life as he was charged with treason, which came with a possible death penalty. On the advice of his lawyers and many influential literary friends, Pound agreed to settle for acquittal on the grounds that he was mentally unfit to stand trial, a result that led to his committal at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. The hope among his advisers was to avoid the trial at a time when emotions about the war were running at a fever pitch, and thus evade any chance he would be handed a death sentence. But the gambit backfired when St. Elizabeth's psychiatrists diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder and he was forced to spend the next thirteen years at the hospital against his will.

For their part, the literary community were already split regarding Pound's questionable actions during the war, though most believed that in no way were those actions deserving of execution. The atmosphere became further charged when months after its release, The Pisan Cantos was awarded the prestigious first-ever Bollingen-Library of Congress Award in 1949, given to the finest collection of poetry from the preceding year. The jury committee, which included among its membership famed poets Allen Tate, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Conrad Aiken, Louise Bogan, Leonie Adams, Robert Penn Warren, and Robert Lowell, was composed of mostly anti-war Modernists like Pound himself. The possible motivations for Pound's selection may have been an attempt by the Bollingen membership to bring attention to Pound's plight, in addition to their desire to honor a work many of them believed to be perhaps the finest poetry of their generation. Instead, a war of words ensued between those who saw The Pisan Cantos as a grossly anti-Semitic and anti-democratic work and the Bollingen group—many of whom were followers of the New Criticism movement which sought to form a new system of literary criticism centering on the rigorous study of text by itself. The Bollingen jury believed that art should be studied on its own merits without any outside factors influencing one's determination of the quality or value of the work. Leading the voices speaking out against Pound was poet Robert Hillyer, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner, who savagely berated the Bollingen jury in a series of articles in the Saturday Review of Literature that singled out T. S. Eliot (himself rumored to be Fascist-leaning and anti-Semitic) for special condemnation. He believed the Bollingen group and its allies to be an elitist assembly cut off from real-world concerns and Pound to be a terrible choice for such an honor. Among Hillyer's supporters was famed anthologist and critic Louis Untermeyer, who summed up the feelings of much of mid-America when he described Pound as “the most belligerent expatriate of his generation.”

The attention negatively affected Pound, and he came to despise his time at St. Elizabeth's. During his incarceration, his travails inspired him to write two more volumes in his Cantos series, Section: Rock-Drill (1955) and Thrones (1959) as well as a prose essay on artist patronage, Patria Mia (1950). During his time at the institution, he became a sort of tragic, mythic figure to many in the literary world, leading Allen Ginsberg among others to visit him. These visits came to be known as part of the “Ezuversity” and enabled Pound to extend his influence onto a new generation of artists. Upon his release from St. Elizabeth's, Pound returned to his cherished Italy to live with his daughter, and where he mellowed a bit in his beliefs in later years, until his passing at the age of eighty-six in 1972.

Pound believed himself to be an optimist, who in a fashion, outlined his hopes for a dream society where art and culture were king. His legacy to literature is such that no matter what his controversial views, he remains one of the most studied artists of the twentieth century; his Cantos is a masterwork, his criticism continues to be a major influence on literature and he helped expose the works of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot to a wider audience. But regardless of those achievements his critical reputation is still haunted by his words and actions during the World War II period, and as a result a healthy debate continues to rage over his place in history. Critically, the heart of the debate seems to center on two issues: 1) what might have been the truth regarding Pound's intentions during the war versus his own accounting of his goals and 2) can a work—even one as technically proficient and groundbreaking as The Cantos—be considered great art as a whole when pieces of it contain such harsh sentiments?

Representative Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ezra Pound
A Lume Spento (poetry) 1908
Exultations (poetry) 1909
Personae (poetry) 1909
The Spirit of Romance (criticism) 1910
Cathay: Translations for the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihaku, From the Notes of the Late Ernest Fenollosa, and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga [translator] (poetry) 1915
Lustra (poetry) 1916
Noh; or, Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan [with Ernest Fenollosa] (criticism) 1916
The Fourth Canto (poetry) 1919
Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (poetry) 1920
Instigations of Ezra Pound, Together with an Essay on the Chinese Written Characters by Ernest Fenollosa...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

John Berryman (essay date April 1949)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berryman, John. “The Poetry of Ezra Pound.” In Ezra Pound: The Critical Heritage, edited by Eric Homberger, pp. 388-404. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

[In the following essay, originally published in the Partisan Review in April 1949, Berryman attempts to mark the influences underlying the various phases of Pound's work from his early roots in Imagism to his later Fascist views.]

Since Pound has been for several generations now one of the most famous of living poets, it may occasion surprise that an introduction to his poetry, such as I was lately invited to make for New Directions, should be thought necessary at all. It may, but I...

(The entire section is 6971 words.)

Noel Stock (essay date 1964)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stock, Noel. “Some Dangers of Literary Biography.” In Poet in Exile, pp. 121-29. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1964.

[In the following essay, Stock warns that the literary biographer's standard approach to analysis—to explore an author's letters, essays, and other related materials to gain insight into his writing—may not provide accurate critical insight into Pound's poetry.]

There was an immense amount of purely prosodic training and general preparation that went into the production of Ezra Pound's verse. His maturity as a poet occurred, it will be noted, about 1920, when he was thirty-five years old; and up to this time his work holds together as...

(The entire section is 3431 words.)

Stephen Sicari (essay date fall-winter 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sicari, Stephen. “Reading Pound's Politics: Ulysses as Fascist Hero.” Paideuma 17, no. 2-3 (fall-winter 1988): 145-68.

[In the following essay, Sicari argues that Pound's explanation of heroic action in his pre-war Cantos helped formulate his later professed admiration for Fascism.]

To understand Ezra Pound's admiration for Italian Fascism in general and Mussolini in particular, we can examine the poet's conception of heroic action in those of The Cantos written before the fall of the Fascist State.1 In 1938 Pound described “the Malatesta cantos” as “openly volitionist, establishing, I think clearly, the effect of the factive...

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Alfred Kazin (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “Homer to Mussolini: The Fascination and Terror of Ezra Pound.” In Ezra Pound: The Legacy of Kulchur, edited by Marcel Smith and William A. Ulmer, pp. 25-50. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Kazin studies Pound's politics and reflects upon how it affected his writing style, particularly his Cantos as a whole.]

In the museum of modern literature no figure commands more space than Ezra Pound. Born in 1885 and dying at the ripe age of eighty-seven in 1972, he published his first book of poems in Venice, A lume spento, in 1908. My packed shelves hold almost thirty volumes of his...

(The entire section is 8001 words.)

Keith Tuma (essay date spring-fall 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tuma, Keith. “Ezra Pound, Progressive.” Paideuma 19, no. 1-2 (spring-fall 1990): 77-92.

[In the following essay, Tuma attempts to trace the roots of Pound's later political course by analyzing Pound's 1912 essay Patria Mia, a cultural critique of Pound's belief that a forthcoming American renaissance was approaching.]

There has been rather a lot written lately on Ezra Pound's politics, a good part of it concerned with Pound's fascism.1 Somehow Pound's work still can summon a rhetoric of urgency and embattled desperation. His canonical status provides ample ammunition for those political critics who wish to fire away at the skeletons of the...

(The entire section is 6562 words.)

William M. Chace (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chace, William M. “A Guide to Culture: Anti-Semitism.” In The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, pp. 71-85. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Chace analyzes Pound's 1938 prose treatise A Guide to Kulchur, particularly its anti-Semitism.]

And if you will say that this tale teaches …
a lesson, or that the Reverend Eliot
has found a more natural language … you who think you will
get through hell in a hurry …

These words open Canto 46. Written in late 1935 or early 1936, the canto is at once a short review of Ezra Pound's beliefs up to that time and an announcement that the...

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Barry Goldensohn (essay date June 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldensohn, Barry. “Pound and Antisemitism.” Yale Review 75, no. 3 (June 1986): 399-421.

[In the following essay, Goldensohn disagrees with the various rationales often given for Pound's anti-Semitism and that despite the historical tendencies to forgive and forget such indiscretions, Pound's anti-Semitism continues to matter.]

It is a puzzling and painful conflict for one who loves Pound's poetry and poetics and admires his role as a generous mentor of poets to attempt to come to terms with his antisemitism, his Fascism, and his glorification of Mussolini (the “Boss”) and Hitler (“a Jeanne d'Arc”).1 We do not have here a romantic figure...

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Robert Hillyer (essay date 11 June 1949)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hillyer, Robert. “Treason's Strange Fruit: The Case of Ezra Pound and the Bollingen Award.” Saturday Review of Literature 32, no. 24 (11 June 1949): 9-11, 28.

[In the following essay, Hillyer, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former president of the Poetry Society of America, heatedly explains why Pound is undeserving of the 1949 Bollingen Award for poetry.]

Last February 20 the press announced that Ezra Pound, who was then under suspended indictment for high treason, had been awarded a new prize, the Bollingen-Library of Congress Award of $1,000. The award was made by “a jury of Fellows of the Library of Congress in American Letters,” which had adjudged...

(The entire section is 3288 words.)

Peter Viereck (essay date April 1951)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Viereck, Peter. “Pure Poetry, Impure Politics, and Ezra Pound: The Bollingen Prize Controversy Revisited.” In A Casebook on Ezra Pound, edited by William Van O'Connor and Edward Stone, pp. 92-103. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1959.

[In the following essay, originally published inCommentary's April 1951 issue, Viereck debates whether “form and technique can be considered apart from context and meaning” by examining Pound's awarding of the 1949 Bollingen Prize for poetry.]

Not even Ezra Pound's most intolerant belittlers have ever been able to deny his trail-blazing function, whether or not one likes his trails. Therefore one wonders what...

(The entire section is 4410 words.)

Allen Tate (essay date 1959)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tate, Allen. “Ezra Pound and the Bollingen Prize.” In Ezra Pound Perspectives: Essays in Honor of his Eightieth Birthday, edited with an introduction by Noel Stock, pp. 86-9. Chicago, Ill.: Henry Regnery Company, 1965.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1959, Tate—the famed poet and head of the Bollingen Prize jury—defends his selection of Pound as the winner of their 1949 award as being due to Pound's efforts in regenerating language, though oddly he has strong criticism of the Pisan Cantos.]

What I shall say here is not in further commentary on Mr. William Barrett's article in the April, 1949, issue of Partisan Review; nor is it...

(The entire section is 1498 words.)

Lem Coley (essay date autumn 2002)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Coley, Lem. “‘A Conspiracy of Friendliness’: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Allen Tate, and the Bollingen Controversy.” The Southern Review 38, no. 4 (autumn 2002): 809-26.

[In the following essay, Coley summarizes the events surrounding Pound's selection for the Bollingen Award and gives the opinions of many of the leading literary figures of the period and on which side of the debate they fell on.]

In 1948 the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress announced the creation of a new prize for poetry: one thousand dollars for the best book published by an American citizen during the previous year. The prize would be called the Bollingen Award...

(The entire section is 7713 words.)

Ronald Bottrall (essay date May 1952)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bottrall, Ronald. “The Achievement of Ezra Pound.” In Ezra Pound: The Critical Heritage, edited by Eric Homberger, pp. 415-21. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1952, Bottrall, a well-known English poet, positively reflects upon Pound's body of work, believing “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” to be his artistic peak, and that his later work, while still excellent, did not live up to his earlier potential.]

During the last twelve months or so in addition to a collection of essays on Ezra Pound, there have appeared the collected edition of the first 70 Cantos; a volume of Pound's letters, edited by D. D....

(The entire section is 2734 words.)

G. S. Fraser (essay date 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fraser, G. S. “Pound and His Critics.” In Ezra Pound, pp. 86-114. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960.

[In the following essay, Fraser charts the critical perception of Pound, particularly that of Wyndham Lewis, and in what way his politics may have colored his legacy.]

Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot have had more written about them, in their own lifetimes, than any previous poets in the English language one can think of. Of writers more or less contemporary with them, also writing in English, the three who compete with them in this respect are James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and W. B. Yeats and a good deal of the writing about these three is biographical; a good...

(The entire section is 8892 words.)

Noel Stock (essay date 1964)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stock, Noel. “Pound's Style and Method.” In Critics on Ezra Pound: Readings in Literary Criticism, edited by E. San Juan Jr., pp. 89-94. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1964, Stock reviews how writer Ernest Fenollosa and Chinese poetic methods influenced Pound's poetic style and philosophy of writing.]

The best and bulk of Pound's literary prose was written before 1920. Whatever shortcomings it may have, it was written by one who was interested not only in what he was writing about, but the literary world in which he was working as well. The later prose, even the best of it, even essays...

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Leslie Fiedler (essay date 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fiedler, Leslie. “Traitor or Laureate: The Two Trials of the Poet.” In New Approaches to Ezra Pound: A Co-ordinated Investigation of Pound's Poetry and Ideas, edited with an introduction by Eva Hesse, pp. 365-77. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, Fiedler states that of the poets of their generation, history will likely give Robert Frost the popular acclaim and Pound the critical praise.]

In the United States, poetry has been for so long not so much bought and read as honoured and studied that the poet has grown accustomed to his marginal status. Unlike the novelist, he takes his exclusion from the market place as...

(The entire section is 4472 words.)

Kevin Young (essay date 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, Kevin. “Visiting St. Elizabeths: Ezra Pound, Impersonation, and the Mask of the Modern Poet.” In Ezra Pound and African American Modernism, edited by Michael Coyle, pp. 185-204. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 2001.

[In the following essay, Young relates Pound's transitional sense of both Modernism and the artistic ‘mask’ to that of the African American writing experience.]

Ezra Pound's poetic career—an oxymoron of a term which, before him, was somewhat unimaginable—can be characterized by the very titles of the various literary magazines he edited, hustled for and hawked. From simple Poetry to The Egoist to The...

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Harold H. Watts (essay date 1953)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Watts, Harold H. “Reckoning.” In Ezra Pound: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Walter Sutton, pp. 98-114. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1953, Watts attempts to define Pound's The Cantos in light of the author's method, tone, goals, and ultimately whether it effectively disseminated its stated aims.]


The Cantos is a poem that interests in many connections. It is the capital piece of “evidence” in any dispute between Ezra Pound and the United States government. Literarily, it cannot be regarded as a “sport,” a willful driving of the...

(The entire section is 8515 words.)

Delmore Schwartz (review date 8 February 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schwartz, Delmore. “Ezra Pound and History.” New Republic 142, no. 6, (8 February 1960): 17-9.

[In the following review of Thrones de los Cantares, Schwartz concludes that although the poem has many self-indulgent aspects to it, there is still inherent beauty within its verses.]

As one reads these thirteen new cantos of Ezra Pound's long poem and then rereads the ninety-five which have preceded it, one's first strong impression is that little change or genuine development of these and attitude have occurred throughout the entire work. Through the years Pound has remembered a great deal, but he has learned nothing—nothing that could be called a new...

(The entire section is 2375 words.)

Michael North (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: North, Michael. “Where Memory Faileth: Forgetfulness and a Poem Including History.” In Ezra Pound: The Legacy of Kulchur, edited by Marcel Smith and William A. Ulmer, pp. 145-65. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, North notes the many instances where Pound's historical and factual memory seems to fail him, but believes that for him it was a tool he used in his attempts to define culture.]

When Ezra Pound was returned to the United States in 1945, he declared, “I'd die for an idea all right, but to die for an idea I've forgotten is too much. Does anyone have the faintest idea what I said?” The statement is...

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J. J. Wilhelm (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilhelm, J. J. “From Rock Drill (Cantos 85-95) to Deliverance (1955-1958).” In Ezra Pound: The Tragic Years (1925-1972), pp. 294-311. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Wilhelm analyzes some of Pound's later poetic outputs from the 1950s and the efforts to free him from St. Elizabeths Hospital.]

This would be a good year to release poets

Ernest Hemingway in 1954 shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature

By 1955, everyone interested in serious literature was curious about the nature of the ensuing...

(The entire section is 7617 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bell, Ian F. A., and Patricia A. Agar. “Romantic Modernisms: Early Pound and Late Keats.” Paideuma 19, no. 1-2 (spring-fall 1990): 93-105.

Discusses how the later works of John Keats influenced Pound's poetry.

Bush, Ronald. “Modernism, Fascism, and the Composition of Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos.Modernism/Modernity 2, no. 3 (1995): 69-87.

Detailed look at the Fascist and Modernist elements of Pound's Pisan Cantos.

Chace, William M. “Ezra Pound: ‘Insanity,’ ‘Treason,’ and ‘Care.’” Critical Inquiry 14, no. 1 (autumn 1987): 134-41.


(The entire section is 451 words.)