He was the man

Robert Crawford

  • Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and his Work: Vol. III: The Tragic Years, 1939-72 by A. David Moody
    Oxford, 654 pp, £30.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 870436 2

Can anyone read a biography of Ezra Pound without feeling unsettled? The persistent anti-Semitism; the eager support for Mussolini; the pain and waste of the incarceration, first in a US military detention centre resembling Guantánamo, then in a Washington facility for the insane; the lasting damage done to people in his family circle; the powerful egocentrism at the heart of all this: the most dire aspects of Pound’s history trouble the reader. Yet Pound’s life is also one of the greatest stories of 20th-century poetry. His generosity to other writers, his zealous energy, his gadfly intellectual brilliance and, most important, his remarkable poetic ear make him unignorable.

His biographers know the looming problems, and have found different ways to prepare for them. Noel Stock, whose 600-page Life of Ezra Pound (1970) was the first full-scale account, mentions in his opening chapter that Pound’s father, Homer, worked as an assistant assayer in the United States Mint in Philadelphia. Stock points out that in the 1890s the young Ezra ‘mixed with the assayers and drank in stories about “gold bricks”, which he still remembered in 1944 when he wrote his pamphlet on the “Economic Nature of the United States”’. Pound was still alive when Stock was writing, and assisted him; Stock doesn’t mention at this point that in 1944 Pound was broadcasting from Rome for Mussolini’s radio service and had come to be seen as a traitor by the US government. In 1988, 16 years after Pound’s death, Humphrey Carpenter called Chapter 3 of his thousand-page Life of Pound ‘Suburban Prejudice’, a phrase used by the elderly poet to describe anti-Semitism in a conversation with Allen Ginsberg. Carpenter quotes from an 1892 newspaper report published when Pound was six and living in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, which mentions a local inn announcing that ‘hereafter no Jews will be taken to board there’; he also cites a Jenkintown contemporary of Pound’s who maintained that such prejudice was ‘always round-about’. Early in the first part of his three-volume, 1500-page Portrait of the Man and His Work, A. David Moody, in a section of a chapter also entitled ‘Suburban Prejudice’, cites the same story, but points out that in the summers of 1902 and 1903 Homer Pound and his wife let their house to ‘Mr W.B. Hackenburg, president of the Jewish Hospital Association’. Clearly Pound’s parents ‘would take Jews as tenants’.

All three of Pound’s major biographers begin with an evident and inevitable awareness that Pound’s is a stingingly complicated life. Moody’s is the fullest account likely to be written; his third volume, ominously subtitled The Tragic Years: 1939-72, goes beyond any predecessor in its detailed attention to Pound’s downfall. The completion of this large-scale survey gives readers a chance to stand back and appraise again one of the 20th century’s most influential poets.

Overall, the proportioning of Moody’s biography is misguided. In this new third volume he devotes more space to Pound’s last decade, during which he wrote and said little, than he gives in Vol. I to Pound’s first twenty years. It’s worth bearing in mind, for example, that he was born at the end of a century when hundreds of American institutions had enjoyed the right to issue their own banknotes, when many foreign currencies had been regarded as legal tender in the United States, and when the struggle to regularise the money supply was not yet concluded. The Philadelphia Mint, where Homer Pound worked for forty years measuring silver and gold, was at the centre of a currency system still in flux. Moody has almost nothing to say about this, though he does give us lengthy accounts of Ezra Pound’s later preoccupations with paper money, gold and competing economic systems. Homer Pound was also a religious teacher. He helped found two churches in Pennsylvania and became president of the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavour, ‘a nationwide group that was zealously promoting a socially enlightened form of Christian action’, according to J.J. Wilhelm’s The American Roots of Ezra Pound (1985). Moody quotes Wilhelm, but doesn’t tell us anything more about the society, though its late 19th-century influence seems to have been global, and it was around this period that the young Presbyterian Ezra first ‘made his profession of faith’. Moody passes over all this too quickly in a section entitled ‘Homer’ that occupies less than a page of his first volume. In the biography of a messianic poet anxious to convert the world to his doctrines, and intensely committed to the search for spiritual truth, this religious background deserves more attention. Pound may have turned against Christianity, but for much of his life he was looking for – and even sought to be – a saviour.

Moody learned to write biography as he went along. His third volume is better presented than its predecessors, which have too many short, subtitled sections within the chapters, giving the appearance of a classroom textbook. Moody has a background in academic literary criticism – his earlier books include an admirable study of Eliot (1979) – and each volume of his ‘portrait’ intersperses long critical discussions of the work with biographical summary. Certainly there are other biographies that operate like this, but the consequence is almost always a loss of narrative drive. Especially in his first volume, Moody struggled with how and when to introduce people. His solution was to mention them briefly in the main text and provide lengthy footnotes (in addition to his endnotes) that gave more detailed potted biographies: functional, but hardly elegant.

In Vol. III, however, there are fewer subsections and clunky introductions: artistically, Moody has hit his stride. Yet his overall stance towards his subject remains problematic. ‘He was in his own way a hero of his culture,’ Moody wrote of Pound in Vol. I, ‘a genuine representative of both its more enlightened impulses and its self-destructive contradictions.’ Leaving aside the question of what Moody may mean here by ‘his culture’, to grant Pound heroic status from the outset is unwise. Moody nowhere says that Pound read Thomas Carlyle, but Carlyle’s notion of a church of literature taking the place of the Christian Church, and his emphasis on the importance of ‘The Hero as Poet’ (with Dante as the foundational example) and ‘The Hero as Man of Letters’ (culminating in the bardic example of Robert Burns), surely underpinned Pound’s deep and lasting sense of his vocation as a preacher, teacher and poet. Despite his modernism, Pound was a product of 19th-century assumptions and cadences; Moody’s acceptance of him as a Carlylean ‘hero of his culture’ takes for granted assumptions better investigated with some scepticism. Though Moody does provide examples of Pound’s decidedly unheroic side – his anti-Semitic pronouncements, his dismissive attitude towards his legal son, his callous treatment of women – he sometimes seems to be doing his best to get the poet-hero off the hook.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in