‘There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?/ They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb, /Jumbled boulder and weed’, was Basil Bunting’s 1949 opinion of Pound’s Cantos; but as the sometime friend of Pound continued: ‘There they are, you will have to go a long way round / If you want to avoid them.’
This judgment has proved wise. Here we are in 2014, not avoiding one of the most contentious figures in 20th-century literature: poet, midwife of Eliot’s The Waste Land, economist, translator, committed Fascist, anti-Semite, avid supporter of James Joyce and Mussolini, later alleged traitor to the United States of America and — meaning he never had to stand trial for treason — patient of St Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital, Washington DC.
In the second of a projected three-volume life of Pound, A. David Moody is a credible guide to this territory, taking us from 1921 through to 1939. Yet these are difficult years to read about. Finding himself in Europe, somewhat incongruously on the fringes of the Dada movement, Pound becomes increasingly interested in social evils. From the quiet Italian seaside town of Rapallo, he settles on ‘usury’ as the cause of all injustice — committed by the self-enriching, liberty-robbing methods of international finance — and fixes on Mussolini as the only person capable of remedying the situation. So begins his change from poet to economist.
These years of openly anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist views present Pound’s readers with a challenge — and his biographers with an even greater one if they are to avoid shielding or absolving him. Moody’s approach — ‘I have ignored speculation and hearsay’ — is to concentrate on Pound’s own writings, both published and unpublished. He divides his subject in two: the poet, capable of great sensitivity and of avoiding the retreat into the abstract that racism requires, and the propagandist, who was capable of neither. This is only seldom disingenuous, but when 1933 rolls up, the biography becomes noticeably constricted by its subject’s slide from poetry into an obsessive condemnation of usury and vicious denigration of anyone indifferent to the subject.
After Pound meets Il Duce on 30 January of that year his life becomes less varied, and Moody’s book with it. Long stretches are taken up by correspondence about monetary justice and economics inflected anti-Semitism. As fascism grows more violent, Pound becomes increasingly alienated, communicating only with his admirers, or those who at least respect him enough to take time to argue with him. Isolated, immersed in fascist-leaning daily newspapers, he talks himself into madness.
Moody’s deliberate disregard of what people in these years were writing about Pound, rather than to him, obscures another way of thinking about him: not that he was good or bad, but that he was simply ridiculous. Moody mentions — but dodges quoting — the Italian critic Mario Praz’s description of Pound’s character in 1932 as
blissful ingenuousness, typical of the autodidact and of the American who discovers the world all by himself — and in this world succeeds in preserving a very flattering opinion of himself.
By the late 1930s, arrogant and dilettantish, Pound is ‘bohemian, capricious’, with ‘flashing eyes, and a Robespierre shirt’, failing to interest any economics professors in his ideas. He remains an outsider, a Byronic ‘Englishman-in-Italy’ figure, happy to repeat unorthodox ideas about economics while declaring Italian literature dead since Dante.
But this was not just the Italy of Mussolini; it was also that of Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo, Carlo Bo, and even the fascist-leaning Giuseppe Ungaretti. A decade or two earlier, Pound would have been trumpeting such new poetry everywhere. The absence of such names serves to confirm Pound’s fatal narrowing.
In volume three Pound will think of this period as one ‘of men seeking good,/ doing evil’ — a partial contrition that couldn’t have come soon enough.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033