The town of Rappallo is just south of Genoa on the western coast of Italy, on the old Roman road built during the time of Marcus Aurelius. Americans know it as the place where Ezra Pound lived before and after the 13 years he spent in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. He had made propaganda broadcasts for Mussolini’s fascist government during World War II, and he escaped trial for treason in 1945 only by being judged mentally incompetent and put away.
Born in Idaho in 1885, chased out of Indiana, and exiled to London before making his home in Italy, Pound became a driving force, if not the driving force, behind modernism in the English and American poetry of the 20th century.
It was Pound who took T.S. Eliot’s sprawling manuscript and shaped it into The Wasteland. Eliot dedicated this quintessentially modernist poem (“April is the cruelest month”) to Pound, famously calling him il miglior fabbro (the better maker) in gracious acknowledgment. Fittingly, Hugh Kenner titled his canonical 1973 study of literary modernism The Pound Era.
Pound’s academic training led him to become a historian of poetry as well as a poet. When my University of Notre Dame colleague Otto Bird was writing his doctoral dissertation on Guido Cavalcanti, the 13th-century Florentine poet who inspired Dante he corresponded with Pound as an expert on medieval Provencal poetry. There is a didactic, even pedantic, tone to Pound’s poetry, a tone he doubtless established when he pontificated to Eliot, James Joyce, and a whole generation of writers to whom he acted as a mentor. His early poetry is bookish, although he transcended this quality from time to time as his career moved inexorably toward his great project, the Cantos (1925-1960).
Like Dante, Pound set out to write 100 cantos. They would, when done, be like a Bach fugue: no plot, no chronicle, no logic, just two themes. One was the descent into the underworld in Homer’s Odyssey, and the other was metamorphosis, as delineated by Ovid.
Pound actually wrote 117 cantos, and the structure of the completed work seems fugitive—rambling-rather than fugue-like to many readers. Like no other major effort of 20th-century literature, the Cantos raise the question that Cordelia Flyte put to Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited: “Modern art is all bosh, isn’t it?” Ryder’s reply: “Great bosh.”
One of the marks of the movement Pound led was basing one’s literary effort on a classical model. Thus the chapters of Joyce’s Ulysses evoke the books of the Odyssey. Eliot’s Wasteland is a pastiche of evocations and quotations from classical and other literature (hence the accompanying footnotes). To invite comparison of Pound, Eliot, and Joyce with Homer or Dante is hubristic, of course, and it is not surprising that their imitations typically suffer from such a comparison.
Pound began writing the Cantos as early as 1917 and continued writing them throughout most of his long life (he lived to be 87). To say that his Cantos make demands on the reader is an understatement. One is struck by their choppy, fragmented style.
Kenner explained in The Pound Era that Pound picked up his choppiness from certain fragments of the poems of Sappho discovered in 1897: half- destroyed lines. To appreciate them, one had to guess what was missing. (Of course, that was due to the accident of time, not Sappho’s intention.) Pound must have thought: Could not someone of the modern age produce poems that read like fragments shored against our own ruin?
The problem is that modern imitations of the classics lack the worldview that animated the classics. The fragmentary character of much modern art reflects a fractured sense of reality. The Christian faith that gives life to Dante’s Divine Comedy is completely absent from Pound’s Cantos, which seem to have no comparable comprehensive vision to sustain them.
Pound was well into his 70s when he returned to Italy from St. Elizabeth’s in 1958 and then went into long decline until his death in 1972. In the years before his death he fell silent. For days he uttered not a word; one of the most garrulous of poets had elected to say nothing. When he did speak about his work, he strangely half-echoed Charles Ryder: “It’s a botch. I knew too little about so many things.”
Or nothing about the one thing needed.