Ezra Pound Pound, Ezra (Vol. 112) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ezra Pound 1885–1972

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms B. H. Dias, Abel Saunders, and William Atheling) American poet, critic, translator, prose writer, essayist, and editor.

See also, Ezra Pound Criticism and CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 13, and 18.

An erudite and highly controversial poet and critic, Ezra Pound is considered one of the preeminent literary figures of the twentieth century. Renowned for his Cantos, an ambitious series of historiographic meditations that excavate the cultural legacy of modern civilization, Pound developed experimental verse forms distinguished for their technical virtuosity, linguistic invention, and broad assimilation of European and Asian literature. Widely praised for their prodigious learning and epic scope, The Cantos document Pound's heroic effort to reconstruct two thousand years of Western history in a montage of ancient myth, literary arcana, and historical fragment. An influential theorist, translator, and prominent intellectual mentor during the early decades of the century, Pound also formulated many of the enduring aesthetic principles of High Modernism, particularly as delineated in his Imagist and Vorticist movements and in numerous critical works. Though castigated for endorsing fascist regimes during the Second World War, Pound is regarded as a brilliant radical thinker who revitalized contemporary literature with his challenging poetry and innovative artistic ideals.

Biographical Information

Born Ezra Loomis Pound in Hailey, Idaho, a frontier mining town, Pound was the only child of Isabel Weston Pound, a descendent of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Homer Loomis Pound, a government bureaucrat. His grandfather, Thaddeus Coleman Pound, was a successful entrepreneur and outspoken Republican congressman who impressed the young Pound as a model of the selfless public figure and independent thinker. In 1889, Pound moved with his family to Philadelphia, where his father was employed as an assayer for the United States Mint. He made his first visits to Europe with his family in 1898 and 1902. At age fifteen Pound enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where he befriended poets William Carlos Williams and Hilda Doolittle ("H.D."). Pound transferred to Hamilton College in upstate New York, earning a degree in philosophy in 1905, then re-turned to the University of Pennsylvania to complete a master's degree in Romance languages in 1907. Upon graduation he took a teaching appointment at Wabash College in Indiana. Dismissed after only one term, he sailed for Europe in 1908. After a stop in Venice, where he published his first volume of poetry, A Lume Spento (1908), Pound settled in London and entered the literary circles of William Butler Yeats, Ford Madox Ford, and T. E. Hulme. He soon won acclaim as a poet with Personae (1909) and as a literary critic with The Spirit of Romance (1910). Pound founded the Imagist movement in 1913, which he abandoned the next year for Vorticism, another avant-garde school invented by Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Pound also played an important role as an advocate for emerging writers such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce and as a contributor to numerous literary magazines, notably Poetry, The Egoist, The Little Review, and The New Age. Pound married Dorothy Shakespear in 1914, though maintained a life-long extramarital relationship with Olga Rudge beginning in the early 1920s. He began work on The Cantos in 1915; the first installments appeared in Poetry in 1917, then in The Fourth Canto (1919) and Quia Pauper Amavi (1919), which contains Cantos 1-3. Disillusioned with England and the carnage of the First World War, Pound produced Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and relocated to Paris, where he encountered Dadaist artists and fellow expatriates Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein while working as a foreign correspondent for The Dial. In 1924 Pound moved to Rapallo, Italy, and devoted himself to The Cantos and the study of Chinese culture. Amid the international depression of the 1930s, Pound became increasingly interested in monetary reforms elucidated in ABC of Economics (1933). He also established his allegiance to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whose fascist political and economic programs he defended in Jefferson And/Or Mussolini (1935). During the Second World War, Pound denounced the American government and an alleged Jewish conspiracy in regular Rome Radio broadcasts. Upon the Allied occupation of Italy in 1945, he was arrested for treason and incarcerated at a military prison in Pisa, inspiring The Pisan Cantos (1948), the controversial winner of the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1949. After a nervous breakdown in 1945, Pound was declared mentally unfit for trial and detained in a psychiatric institute near Washington, DC, for the next twelve years. Upon his release in 1958, Pound returned to Italy, where he continued to work on his Cantos in virtual silence until his death at age eighty-six. He was awarded a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets in 1963.

Major Works

A prolific poet, literary critic, and author of diverse treatises, Pound's artistic development reflects his abiding effort to revive modern art and society in a new unity of past and present. Drawing heavily upon forgotten or neglected classics of European, American, and Asian letters, Pound's mature poetry represents a synthesis of archaic forms, sophisticated allusion, and avant-garde tropes informed by his artistic, political, and economic beliefs. His first volume of poetry, A Lume Spento, displays his early lyrical style, affinity for classical and medieval subjects, and the influence of Robert Browning, Charles Algernon Swinburne, and François Villon. The poem "The Tree" from this volume is regarded as one of Pound's best short compositions. Subsequent collections—A Quinzaine for this Yule (1908), Personae, Exultations (1909), Provença (1910), and Ripostes (1912)—reveal Pound's technical mastery and assimilation of Anglo-Saxon, Asian, Pre-Raphaelite, and French and Italian troubadour verse, evident in oft anthologized poems such as "Sestina: Altaforte" and "Ballad of the Goodly Free." As the leader of the Imagist movement, a descendent of French Symbolism, Pound fortified his commitment to the tenets of clarity, concrete language, and le mot juste, or "the right word." His interest in Chinese writing exerted a profound influence on his poetry and precipitated the invention of his ideogrammatic method, an extension of Imagist principles inspired by the condensed precision and immediacy of Chinese characters. This approach justified the incorporation of foreign phrases, Chinese pictographs, and even musical scores in his writing to express a specific mood or concept. Pound's translations in Cathay, a collection of verse by eighth century Chinese poet Rihaku, also known as Li Po, are noted for their elegiac tone and austere beauty. These early translations, along with The Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti (1912), anticipate Pound's adoption of dramatic masks, or speaker personae, through which to interpret past events in terms of modern analogues and subjective states. In "Homage to Sextus Propertius," contained in Qui Pauper Amavi, Pound interpolates the work of Roman poet Sextus Propertius with modern references, Latinate puns, and scatological humor aimed at contemporary figures. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, a long poem permeated by the polemical tone of Vorticism, decries the tragedy of the First World War and the ambivalence of postwar English society. Through his caricature of Mauberley, rendered in conventional verse forms, Pound eschews the purely aesthetic concerns of his earlier writing in favor of greater social consciousness, marking a decisive shift in his self-identity as a poet. Pound invested his lifelong creative aspirations in The Cantos, the collective title given to 117 cantos produced between 1915 and 1968. Cantos 1-3, known as the "Ur-Cantos," offer a prospectus for his project. Drawing parallels to Odysseus's descent into the underworld in Homer's Odyssey and Dante's journey through heaven and hell in The Divine Comedy, Pound introduces his own epic story of cultural loss and reclamation. Though Pound's conception of The Cantos changed over time, the central motif involves the disinterment of the past to facilitate understanding and order in the modern world. Presented in alternately rhetorical, dramatic, and narrative modes, The Cantos are in large part an eclectic, multilingual palimpsest of Greek myth, Confucian philosophy, European history, economic theory, and contemporary affair's. Despite his expatriation and harsh criticism of American culture and capitalism, Pound maintained a distinctly American sensibility, evident in his admiration for Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, who appear as champions of political will in The Cantos. The Pisan Cantos, among the best known, reflect Pound's fragile emotional state during his imprisonment after the Second World War. In this moving sequence, Pound expresses his despair in an introspective, elegiac tone characteristic of his later cantos. In addition to The Cantos, Pound also produced significant works of criticism, including: The Spirit of Romance, a collection of critical essays on medieval literature based on his lectures at Regent Street Polytechnic in 1909; How to Read (1931), in which he delineates the concepts "melopoeia," "phanopoeia," and "logopoeia"—referring, respectively, to the musical, visual, and intellectual quality of poetic language; Guide to Kulchur (1938), Pound's writings on art, literature, politics, and economics; and Patria Mia (1950), in which he discusses artist patronage.

Critical Reception

Though widely recognized as one of the most important poets of the century. Pound is the subject of contentious critical debate. Acclaimed for his originality and intellectual gifts, Pound's complex allusive verse, his association with numerous literary movements, and his idiosyncratic political ideals—particularly his fascist loyalty—complicate interpretation of his work. Many critics hail The Cantos as his magnum opus and a highspot of twentieth century literature, calling attention to the extraordinary range and depth of Pound's expansive, though ultimately unrealized, literary and philosophical vision. Measured against the masterpieces of Homer and Dante, which Pound aspired to equal, most critics view The Cantos as a formidable achievement undermined by its lack of unity and difficult linguistic experiments. Pound's detractors question the efficacy of his ideogram-matic method and its implementation in The Cantos, especially where the use of cryptic language and obscure scholarly references render passages inaccessible. The Pisan Cantos, which polarized the literary community as the winner of the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1949, is now regarded as one of the best sequences of The Cantos. Most of Pound's early poetry, including that of the once celebrated Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, is overshadowed by the accomplishment of The Cantos. Recent critical attention is directed at Pound's preoccupation with the past, his ethical concerns, his relationship with American literary tradition in commonalities with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and textual analysis of The Cantos. A foremost poet, critic, translator, and literary impresario who cultivated many of the century's greatest writers, notably Eliot and Joyce, Pound is regarded as one of the dominant intellectual forces of modern literature.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Lume Spento (poetry) 1908
A Quinzaine for this Yule (poetry) 1908
Personae (poetry) 1909
Exultations (poetry) 1909
The Spirit of Romance (criticism) 1910
Provença (poetry) 1910
Canzoni (poetry) 1911
The Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti [translator] (poetry) 1912
Ripostes (poetry) 1912
Cathay: Translations by Ezra Pound 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
Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir Including the Published Writings of the Sculptor and a Selection from his...

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Philip E. Bishop (essay date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'And Will the World Take Up Its Course Again?': Paranoia and Experience in the Pisan Cantos," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 536-53.

[In the following essay, Bishop discusses Pound's effort to continue his epic historical vision in The Cantos after his traumatic imprisonment in Pisa and the demise of Mussolini. According to Bishop, "the jarring tonalities and circuitous associations" of his verse beginning with "Canto 74" "is the drama of Pound's recovery."]

The relation between Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos and his alleged mental illness has not been satisfactorily explained. Some scholars...

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Vincent Miller (essay date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mauberley and His Critics," in ELH: English Literary History, Vol. 57, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 961-76.

[In the following essay, Miller offers a reexamination of critical dispute surrounding Hugh Selwyn Mauberley from its publication to the present. "Once Pound's greatest success," writes Miller, "it is today perhaps his least respected poem."]


Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is, one must hasten to say, an overconsidered poem. Disagreed about for half a century, interpreted in contradictory fashions, whoever speaks of it has to begin by explaining how he reads it. Once Pound's greatest success, it is today...

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Cary Wolfe (essay date March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ezra Pound and the Politics of Patronage," in American Literature, Vol. 63, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 26-42.

[In the following essay, Wolfe examines contradictory aspects of Pound's democratic and elitist sentiments, particularly concerning the relationship between art and economics. Wolfe contends that "Pound's literary ideology has at least as much in common with Ralph Waldo Emerson's individualism as it does with Benito Mussolini's fascism."]

Few writers, modern or otherwise, have inspired more criticism, and more of it theoretically polarized and mutually hostile, than Ezra Pound. The critic who would engage Pound's work finds himself or herself framed from...

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Laszlo K. Géfin (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "So-Shu and Picasso: Semiotic/Semantic Aspects of the Poundian Ideogram," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 185-205.

[In the following essay, Géfin examines the aesthetic and ethical concerns behind Pound's ideogrammic method, particularly the use of Chinese pictographs and literary allusion in The Cantos.]

Ezra Pound's "ideogrammic method" has had an uneven history during the last fifty years, some critics accepting it as the structural mode of composition of The Cantos, some accepting it but disparaging its use, others arguing against it in favor of other textual procedures, and still others dismissing it...

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Frank Lentricchia (essay date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ezra Pound's American Book of Wonders," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 387-415.

[In the following essay, Lentricchia examines the modernist ideals and Emersonian influence behind Pound's ambitious innovation in The Cantos. According to Lentricchia, "The form he invented is at once the representation of a culture he thought to be in fragments and an offering of hope for a different kind of future, rooted in the narrative of common lineage and destiny."]

As a social and literary critic Ezra Pound is a celebrant of the intensely peculiar: the apparently primordial, autonomous force which he believed stood under and propelled...

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Ming Xie (essay date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Elegy and Personae in Ezra Pound's Cathay," in ELH: English Literary History, Vol. 60, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 261-81.

[In the following essay, Xie discusses Pound's interpretation of Chinese verse in Cathay. According to Xie, Pound differs from "the Victorian masters of the elegiac before him" through "his skillful and extensive reliance upon the speaker-persona as the primary device for rendering subjective emotion and elegiac mood, as amply and successfully demonstrated in Cathay."]

Pound first published his Personae in 1909, including two previous collections of his poems. The title "Personae" was used again for his collected poems of...

(The entire section is 7791 words.)

Salah el Moncef (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gold, Representation, and the Reversible Dynamic of Symptomatic Return in Ezra Pound," in Boundary 2, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring 1995, pp. 117-42.

[In the following essay, Moncef examines Pound's disdain for gold as a symbol of evil. According to Moncef "the malevolent aspect of gold exists in its own right throughout Pound's works; however, within this negative imaginary dimension of gold, there also lies its positive function as a master-signifier of discursive and economic author-ity."]

Gold and silver have been established by a general agreement as the means of purchasing all goods, and as a pledge of their value, because these metals...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Beach, Christopher. "Ezra Pound and Harold Bloom: Influences, Canons, Traditions, and the Making of Modern Poetry." ELH: English Literary History 56, No. 2 (Summer 1989): 463-83.

Compares Pound's modernist theories of literary innovation and influence with those of contemporary literary critic Harold Bloom.

Casilo, Robert. "The Italian Renaissance: Pound's Problematic Debt to Burckhardt." Mosaic 22, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 13-29.

Discusses the influence of historian Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy on Pound's conception of...

(The entire section is 365 words.)