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Ezra Pound and James Strachey Barnes

By David Bradshaw and James Smith


The extent of Ezra Pound‘s involvement with Italian fascism during the Second World War has been one of the most troubling and contentious issues in modernist literary studies. After broadcasting on the wartime propaganda services of the Italian Fascist state and its successor, the Republic of Salò, Pound was indicted for treason by the United States government and arrested at the end of the war, eventually being found unfit to stand trial and instead committed to a psychiatric hospital. These episodes have obviously led to a number of major questions for scholars. Was Pound really insane? Were his actions really treasonous? Or did these broadcasts reveal the extent of Pound’s true sympathies for fascism and anti-Semitism?

Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound
Our research has tried to shed new light on these questions by exploring Pound’s relationship with James Strachey Barnes (1890-1955), an Italophile Englishman who also broadcast propaganda for Mussolini during the Second World War. Barnes is a figure who occasionally pops up in the footnotes of modernism – he was a cousin to Lytton Strachey, acquainted with Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, and the inspiration for one of the characters in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Barnes was also one of the major intellectual supporters of Italian fascism, writing a number of books in support of the fascist cause, running a pro-fascist think-tank, and meeting Mussolini on several occasions. This culminated in his propaganda work in Italy during the Second World War, where he compiled hundreds of broadcasts with titles such as “Thank God for the Blunders of our Enemies,” with the overall aim (as he stated) of “inciting the English people to revolt against their Government.”

Pound and Barnes are known to have been friends and work-associates during the war, but despite the obvious significance of this relationship Barnes has only been a peripheral figure in Pound scholarship, and indeed little-remembered at all in the history of the inter-war radical right. One of the major problems is that the war (particularly the latter stages) remains one of the least-documented periods in Pound’s life, and almost all of Barnes’s personal papers were destroyed by his family after his death. But importantly, our research for the article found that enough documents still exist to allow us to begin to reconstruct the relationship between Barnes and Pound. The most significant of these was Barnes’s unpublished diary covering the period of 1943-5 (which eventually surfaced in the possession of his daughter-in-law, who was then living in Lund, Sweden), but we also drew upon a sequence of letters between Pound and Barnes held in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, as well as various government files held at the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

From these documents a picture emerges not just of Barnes’s extensive collaborations with the Italian propaganda apparatus, but also of how this was often conducted with Pound’s close advice and support. And vice-versa. We now know that Pound followed Barnes’s broadcasts and offered detailed advice about their tone and content, and that Pound would often stay with Barnes in Rome and engage in long discussions on economics. When the Allies invaded the Italian mainland in September 1943 Barnes and Pound made plans to flee Rome together, with Barnes even managing to get a fake Italian passport issued for Pound to aid his escape (Pound had fled north before Barnes could get it to him). It was Barnes who lured Pound back to broadcast for the newly-formed Salò Republic, where Barnes and Pound would collaborate on programs said to contain “Pound’s most virulent anti-Semitism.” Barnes’s diary even recorded a letter from Pound to Mussolini, in which Pound promised to “fight” the “infamous propaganda” of the Allies, but warned the Duce that “I don’t need a ministry, but without a microphone I can’t send.”

So what does this mean for our understanding of Pound? Perhaps most crucially, it gives us important new material to reassess the extent to which he was a willing part of the official Fascist propaganda apparatus. Interestingly, after Barnes’s death, Pound attempted to distance himself from his previous association with Barnes, drafting a letter for The Times which stressed “the difference of angle” between the two, emphatically stating that “Pound never WAS fascist…Not only was he not fascist, he was ANTI-socialist and against the socialist elements in the fascist program.” But as much as Pound tried to wash his hands, Barnes’s papers provide a rather different picture, suggesting that, throughout the war, Pound had served as the revered and trusted mentor for a man who dubbed himself “the Italian Lord Haw-Haw.”

David Bradshaw is Professor of English Literature at Oxford University and a Fellow of Worcester College. James Smith is a Lecturer in English at Durham University. They are the authors of the paper ‘Ezra Pound, James Strachey Barnes (‘The Italian Lord Haw-Haw’) and Italian Fascism‘, published in the Review of English Studies.

The Review of English Studies was founded in 1925 to publish literary-historical research in all areas of English literature and the English language from the earliest period to the present. From the outset, RES has welcomed scholarship and criticism arising from newly discovered sources or advancing fresh interpretation of known material. Successive editors have built on this tradition while responding to innovations in the discipline and reinforcing the journal’s role as a forum for the best new research.

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Image credit: Ezra Pound US passport photo (undated) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Brett Sidaway

    Fascinating but depressing blog which undermines Pound’s declaration to Ginsberg from St Elizabeths Hospital that he regretted his ‘suburban’ antisemitism. It seems his fascism was more systematic and that it permeates the Cantos – but great art is often created by bad people and his best poetry and influence remain important.

  2. Howard Sugar

    I live in Rome and found a table with excellent quality,leather-bound books English language books at the Porta-Portese market, selling for aproximately 1 to 5 Euros each. They included books of poetry by Milton, books by Goldsmith, on the history of Bulgaria. I bought as many as I could of the best onees. The books turned out to all be part of Barne’s once vast library, all were inscribed by him or to him and one includes a typed review of a Oswald Spengler’s “The Hour of Decision” that he in side of the book. The only thing that I knew about Barne’s was that he had an excellent library, was undoubtedly part of the ancient English aristocracy and had lived at the turn of the Twentieth Century. I decided one day to find out something about the man who the books once belonged to and discovered that he had once been deemed an important figure.

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