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Let's face it, few of us are likely to hack our way through the thickets (some of them rendered in Chinese) of Ezra Pound's Cantos.  Even in college, in a course on modern literature, we didn't actually read the Cantos, instead we read Hugh Kenner's book, The Pound Era.  Still, one would like to understand what made Pound such an important figure in the history of literature and Peter Ackroyd's slender and copiously illustrated biography accomplishes the task quite painlessly.

Besides helping us to understand what Pound was trying to achieve in his own poetry--which seems to have been an attempt to capture all of reality within the confines of the poetic form--Mr. Ackroyd shows how profoundly Pound influenced other Modernists, in particular T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.  I'd not previously been aware of the degree to which Pound helped sculpt The Waste Land, to the point that Mr. Ackroyd gives him credit as its virtual co-author :

    The transformation of The Waste Land effected by Pound is, although not total, nevertheless remarkable.  What had been a longer,
    more sustained and more elaborately lyrical work was changed into something less personal, tighter and more abrupt.  It was precisely
    these qualities which were to lend the poem its air of modernity--since, in large part, our notion of what is "modern" is derived from
    Pound's work and criticism.

Where Joyce was concerned, Pound appears to have been one of his earliest proselytizers, publishing Portrait of the Artist in serial form in his magazine, The Egoist, and Ulysses in the magazine, The Little Review.  He also reviewed Joyce's work in every publication he could, extolling his virtues to anyone who would listen.  Yet, Pound also had the brutal honesty to assess Finnegan's Wake with the dismissal that it so richly deserved :

    Nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization.

Unfortunately for Pound, the harshness of that critique reveals a willingness to speak his mind and a forcefulness of opinion which were to get him in considerable trouble when they combined with other personality traits to turn him into a Fascist propagandist.

Mr. Ackroyd convincingly locates the appeal of fascism to Pound in the poet's passion for organization and order, his belief in a cultural elite, and his adherence to the odd economic theory of Social Credit, expounded by a Major C. H. Douglas :

    Its doctrine states, quite simply, that once money has lost its natural basis in people's needs and aspirations--when, in other words,
    it has been turned into a commodity merely to be bought and sold--then the nation and its culture sour.  Money is a complex
    measure of man's time and the worth of his labour; when it becomes an anonymous entity to be hoarded and manipulated, all other
    human and social values shift downward.  But there was also a blindingly simple economic point to be made in this connection:
    the bankers control money at the expense of everyone else in the community.

His belief in a social hierarchy is a classic enough conservative position, likewise his fear of cultural decline.  And the rest of Pound's ideas were probably harmless in themselves, even if some were bizarre; but it is this last notion, that the problems one perceives in the world are necessarily a product of some kind of conspiracy, that represents the dangerous spark that all too often ignites hatreds like anti-Semitism.  True conservatism requires the recognition that disorder and decline are natural phenomena, resulting from the debased desires of the masses.  Those who are unable to accept this reality and instead try to blame shadowy conspirators are dangerously deluded.

Sadly, Pound fell prey to just such delusions and ended up making radio broadcasts for Mussolini during WWII.  The result of these pro-fascist, anti-American, anti-Semitic soliloquies was a 1943 indictment for treason and eventual arrest and, following a finding of insanity, confinement to St. Elizabeth's mental hospital in Washington, DC.  He was kept there until the charge of treason was dismissed on April 18, 1958.  Upon his release, Pound moved back to Italy where he lapsed into a depressive silence and spent his final years in and out of clinics, futilely trying to find some way to recapture his creative powers.

If in the end it is not possible for us to feel too much sympathy for a man who betrayed his wife--with a mistress named Olga Rudge by whom he had a daughter and who eventually became his constant companion--and his country, and who spewed venomous hatred of Jews, perhaps it is still possible to acknowledge his achievements, or at least his aspirations, as an artist.  Here's how Mr. Ackroyd summarizes Pound's own literary legacy :

    Pound attempted to recreate the whole world in the image of himself and his poetry--despite the divisive tendencies of the age,
    and the obsessive weaknesses of his own character.

Maybe in this sense we can see writ small in him the larger tragedy of the 20th Century, of men trying to prove themselves equal to the Creator, but failing horribly, and finding it necessary to lash out against others to explain the failure.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Peter Ackroyd Links:

    -INTERVIEW: Stealing is the Secret of Success: His huge biographies of Dickens, Blake and the city of London have been bestsellers, but Peter Ackroyd is more coy when it comes to the details of his own life. Undeterred, Peter Ross talks to him about tap-dancing, transvestism and communing with the dead (Peter Ross, 8/08/04, Sunday Herald)
    -REVIEW: of The Clerkenwell Tales by Peter Ackroyd (Sebastian Smee, The Spectator)

Book-related and General Links:
    -PETER ACKROYD (1949-) (Guardian Unlimited)
    -BIBLIOGRAPHY : Peter Ackroyd (october 5, 1949 - ) (Bradley Shoop)
    -EXCERPT : from London: the biography by Peter Ackroyd : The sea!
    -ESSAY : Arts are in fine form : 'In the past two decades English culture has undergone a renaissance, in a spirit not unlike that of the late 14th and 16th centuries' (PETER ACKROYD, 1/02/02, Times of London)
    -REVIEW : of Marcel Proust By Edmund White (Peter Ackroyd, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : The Perreaus and Mrs Rudd : Forgery and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century London By Donna T Andrews & Randall McGowen (Peter Ackroyd, Times of London)
    -PROFILE : Following the Ghost of Dickens (LAURA LEIVICK, December 22, 1991, NY times)
    -PROFILE : Writing bestsellers while on a bender : On books and booze (John Sutherland, October 9, 2000, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : Lincoln Kirstein, The Eyes of Ez (NY Review of Books)
        Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts edited with an introduction by Harriet Zinnes
        Ezra Pound and His World by Peter Ackroyd
    -REVIEW : of T. S. Eliot by Peter Ackroyd (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of T S Eliot by Peter Ackroyd (Frank Kermode, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of  BLAKE By Peter Ackroyd (Penelope Fitzgerald, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Chatterton, by Peter Ackroyd (Emma Tennant, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Milton in America (Tony Tanner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Milton in America (Canadian Federation of University Women)
    -REVIEW : of The Life of Thomas More By Peter Ackroyd (Andrew Sullivan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Life of Thomas More (Francis Gilbert, Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of THE PLATO PAPERS A Prophecy. By Peter Ackroyd (John Sutherland, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : 'Therefore I Print' (John Updike, NY Review of Books)
    William Blake an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 29-June 24, 2001
    William Blake Catalog of the exhibition by Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips, with introductory essay by Peter Ackroyd
    -REVIEW : of London : An Autobiography by Peter Ackroyd (Patrick McGrath, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW : of London : An Autobiography by Peter Ackroyd (Iain Sinclair, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of London (Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of London (Stephen Moss, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of London (Peter Preston, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of London: The Biography By Peter Ackroyd (RICHARD C. WALLS, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of 'London: The Biography' by Peter Ackroyd (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Collection By Peter Ackroyd (Jeanette Winterson, Times of London)
    -REVIEW : of THE COLLECTION Journalism, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures By Peter Ackroyd (John Button, Sydney Morning Herald)

Recommended books by Ezra Pound :
    -ABC of Reading (1960) (Ezra Pound  1885-1972)

EZRA POUND (1885-1972) :
    -Ezra Loomis Pound (1885-1972) (kirjasto)
    -ETEXTS : Poems by Ezra Pound  (1885 - 1972)
    -ANNOTATED ETEXT : KYBERNEKYIA :  A Hypervortext of Ezra Pound's Canto LXXXI (concept & editing NED BATES | project director GAIL MCDONALD, UNC Charlotte)
    -ETEXT : Ezra Pound. Sestina: Altaforte
    -ETEXT : The River-Merchant's Wife  (Pound translated Japanese versions of the poems of the Chinese poet Li Po)
    -ETEXTS : Ezra Pound (
    -ETEXTS : SELECTED POETRY OF EZRA LOOMIS POUND (1885-1972) (Representative Poetry On-line, Department of English at the University of Toronto)
    -AUDIO EXCERPT : Ezra Pound  "The Cantos" (Salon)
    -National Poetry Foundation : EZRA POUND SCHOLARSHIP SERIES
    -Ezra Pound Center for Literature (University of New Orleans)
    -Ezra Pound in the University of Idaho Library
    -National Poetry Foundation : Ezra Pound Discussion Group
    -Ezra Pound (American Academy of Poets)
    -Ezra Pound (
    -Ezra Pound (1885-1972) (Modern American Poetry)
    -Ezra Pound (1885-1972) (Professor Eiichi Hishikawa, Faculty of Letters, Kobe University)
    -BBC Education : Biography : Ezra Pound
    -EPC Ezra Pound Authors Homepage (Loren Goodman)
    -PETALS ON A WET BLACK BOUGH:  American Modernist Writers and the Orient (A Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library Exhibition, Yale University)
    -Chapter 7: Early Twentieth Century - Ezra Pound (1885-1972) (PAL: Perspectives in American Literature:  A Research and Reference Guide)
    -Ezra Pound (Wickling)
    -Ezra Pound and the Occult (Case Western Reserve)
    -World War I ....according to Ezra Pound
    -PROFILE : The strange and inscrutable case of Ezra Pound : The expatriate American poet returned home in ignominy, and the postwar world watched as a literary giant was charged with treason (Smithsonian)
    -ETEXT : Ezra Pound in History (Hideo Nogami, From Modern to Postmodern English)
    -ESSAY: Ezra Pound, Musical Crackpot: Ezra Pound, despite a confessed inability to carry a tune, composed strangely compelling, if eccentric, music. (RICHARD TARUSKIN, 7/27/03, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : A major minor: Ezra Pound's poetry (Donald Lyons, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY : WHAT DID EZRA POUND REALLY SAY? (Michael Collins Piper, Barnes Review)
    -REVIEW : of Personae: The Collected Poems of Ezra Pound (Herbert S. Gorman, January 23, 1927, NY Times)

    -REVIEW : of  THE FIRST MODERNS : Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought. By William R. Everdell (Hugh Kenner , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  American Poetry The Twentieth Century. Edited by Robert Hass, John Hollander, Carolyn Kizer, Nathaniel Mackey and Marjorie Perlof (William H. Pritchard, NY Times Book Review)