Happy Birthday, Ezra Pound!
This Saturday is Ezra Pound’s 125th birthday, so we’ve decided to run an excerpt from Professor A. David Moody’s biography of the poet in his honor.
The Cantos, Ezra Pound’s ambitious, though incomplete, long poem, can at first seem unintelligible and chaotic, a sprawling mess of Latin and Greek, Confucius and Kublai Khan and the Russian Revolution. Yet according to Moody, Pound was inspired, also, by the more traditional structure and form of long poems by earlier poets. In the following selection from Ezra Pound: Poet, A Portrait of the Man and His Work (Volume I), Moody discusses the beginnings of Pound’s epic – and how Pound reconciled the influences of Dante and Robert Browning with the frenzied tenor of the modern world. –Hanna Oldsman, Publicity Intern
[Pound] was going back to his old master not so much to learn as to argue with him and assert his independence. He was taking Browning’s Sordello as a point of departure for his cantos, as ‘the thing to go on from’. He had to start there because he thought it ‘the best long poem in English since Chaucer’, and the only one with a ‘live form’. But that form was not right for what he had to do, and he would be finding his own in breaking free from Browning’s.
He first began to mention being at work on his long poem in the summer of 1915. ‘It is a huge, I was going to say, gamble, but shan’t’, he told Alice Corbin Henderson in early August; and in September he told Milton Bronner that it was ‘a cryselephantine poem of immeasurable length which will occupy me for the next four decades unless it becomes a bore.’ His Scriptor Ignotus, back in 1906, had likewise predicted that the great epic would take just so long to write. He told his father in mid-December that his mind was then ‘in the Vth canto’, but the surviving drafts show that he was still casting about for a form at that date, and it was a full year before he had the first three trial cantos in any sort of shape. [….]
His materials could be endless, immeasurable, but he hardly knew how to put them in order. He had any amount of the past and the present to sort through, and, since he chose to examine it without preconception, it presented itself to him as a vast heap of random records and anecdotes. The best he could do at first was set about abbreviating some of those, and he produced a litter of fragmentary drafts, some of them in typescript. In one of these, headed ‘Fragment / Modern World’, the valet of Ser D’Alviano gossips about what his master was saying about writers and their books in 1520. In another, numbered ‘[page] 102’ and headed ‘Foot Note. A toss-up’, Pound’s visit to the great Provençal scholar Emil Levy in Freiburg is woven into the tale of de Maensac. A sequence of six or seven pages tries out ways to envision paradise, as by seeing points of colour, making stars of them and then making each star ‘a nest of noble voices’. Bits of all those drafts, and others, will turn up in ‘Canto V’, though the visit to ‘old Levy’ will go into ‘Canto XX’. [….]
Pound would observe that Dante had had an ‘Aquinas map’ to help him sort out his world into all the ascending degrees of damnation, purgation, and blessedness; and that even Browning, with his modern scepticism about human certainties, still ‘had some basis, some set belief’. But as for himself, he would subscribe to no single belief and value system. Indeed he believed that the only measure of truth is the individual’s own perception of it, and that what is most intensely perceived and realized is most true. Yet at the same time he believed that there is an objective truth to be perceived, that is, what is permanent in the tradition. He allowed that truth so defined may be perceptible only by genius and seem nonsense to common sense. In any case such permanent truth can be communicated in its integrity only through myth and through the patterns and forms of art. It cannot be given as ‘meaning’ in paraphrase; and the felt experience of it can be felt again only in fully formed dance or music or poetry.
When Pound asked himself, as he started on his trial cantos, did his fragmented modern world need ‘such a rag-bag’ as Sordello ‘to stuff all its thought in’, it was a real question but one which surely expected an answer in the negative. He knew perfectly well that while Browning may have patched together his Sordello out of his own thought and emotion and ‘intensest life’, still his motive had been to render ‘the incidents in the development of a soul’. He had ‘Watched “the soul”, Sordello’s soul, / And saw it lap up life, and swell and burst–/ “Into the empyrean?” ’ The scepticism about ‘the empyrean’, Browning’s and his own, didn’t make it any the less the object of the soul’s, and the poem’s, desire. Pound’s early drafts provide clear evidence that he too was after ‘the empyrean’, though he would put it in terms of an earthly paradise of light. He wrote of making a cosmos of his fragmented world, of somehow putting it all together into an ordered whole. The mere ‘rag-bag’ was the last thing he needed.
He had not after all given up his early idealism. He was still the scriptor ignotus determined to write a new epic, one which would be directed towards a beatific vision or paradise of this world. It would begin, as he had first conceived it in college, in its own hell of passionate action — the sort of hell in which de Born the divider would be a hero — and it would proceed through a purgatory of instruction towards its paradise. The poet himself would figure in it, even as he had in those false starts at Wabash, as one bringing the words of his dead masters into the living world, and so as a bringer of light into darkness. And the light would be that of the tradition of the intellectual love of the vital universe which he had worked out in The Spirit of Romance. Dante and Browning would still be his guides, though adapted to the realities of Pound’s modern world.
A. David Moody is a Professor Emeritus of the University of York, and the author of Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet.