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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Ezra Pound

No one better symbolizes the course of modern literature—its triumphs and defeats—than Ezra Pound. From the lyric poems of his Edwardian period to the complex allusive style of his epic Cantos, Pound marked the path that modern poetry followed. His work in criticism and translation, from his “Imagist Manifesto” and Guide to Kulchur to his translations from Provençal and Chinese, signaled new directions in modern literature and criticism. But it is not only as a major influence on literary modernism that Pound is important.

Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho, and raised in Pennsylvania, where his father worked in the Mint in Philadelphia. His pugnacious spirit is evident in an essay titled “How I Began,” in which Pound says that at age fifteen he decided to become a poet and to know by age thirty more about poetry than any living man. Pound was a student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902, where he met William Carlos Williams, and Hilda Doolittle, who was a student at Bryn Mawr. He received his B.A. from Hamilton College in 1905 and an M.A. in Romance Languages from the University of Pennsylvania in 1906. After being fired as a teacher at Wabash College for harboring a “lady-gent impersonator” in his room, Pound departed for Europe, where he would remain for most of his life.

In 1908, Pound arrived in Venice, where he arranged to have his first volume of poems, A Lume Spento, published at his own expense. Within the next few years, he became a central figure in London literary life. Through his own work and by fostering the work of others, including W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, H.D., Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot, Pound sought to bring about a renaissance of the arts in England and America. In “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” which appeared in Poetry in 1913, he announced the modernist poetics of precision, concision, and metrical freedom which he had formulated in conversation with H.D. and Richard Aldington.

The poems of Lustra (1916) reflect the range of Pound’s intellectual interests, the variety of his technical experiments, and the extent of his artistic achievement in his London years. For Pound as for other modernists, the First World War marked a turn away from the aestheticism of his early years toward what he would call “the poem including history.” Having entombed the aesthete figure of his early period in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” which was published in 1920, Pound departed for Europe and turned his main energies to writing his epic Cantos. Under the influence of C. H. Douglas’s ideas on Social Credit and, after 1924, the politics of Mussolini in Italy, Pound came to attribute the waste of the war and the malaise of the modern world to the dominance of bankers and munitions manufacturers, usury, and Jews. Insisting on the relationship between good government, good art, and the good life, Pound incorporated his social and economic views into the works he published during the thirties, including ABC of Economics (1933), Eleven New Cantos (1934), Social Credit: An Impact (1935), and Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1935).

In 1939 he made a trip to Washington, D.C., where he spoke with members of Congress about his economic policies and about his fear that Roosevelt, the bankers, and the armaments industry were leading America into another war. Unsuccessful with American politicians, he returned to Italy, where in 1941 he began regularly broadcasting his ideas over Rome Radio, in a program aimed at the English-speaking world. Mixing reflections on literature with tirades against Roosevelt, usury, and international finance, Pound continued these broadcasts until July 1943, when he was indicted for treason. After being arrested in May 1945, he was incarcerated for six months in a wire cage in Pisa before he was sent back to America to stand trial. Declared mentally unfit to stand trial by a team of psychologists, Pound was committed in 1946 to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. where he remained until his release in 1958.

When in February 1949 the Library of Congress awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry to the Pisan Cantos (1948), Pound became the center of a controversy over the relation of poetry and politics, and modernism and fascism, that raged for several months in the American press. While T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren argued for the separation of poetry and politics in the evaluation of Pound’s work, others, including Karl Shapiro and Robert Hillyer, argued that Pound’s politics ultimately vitiated the artistic value of his poetry.

In his later writings, Pound lost no opportunity to criticize the “mere aesthete,” who did not understand the social and regenerative function of his epic “tale of the tribe.” In the wake of the Bollingen controversy, however, it was the image of Pound the formalist and aesthete that rose to prominence in the Anglo-American tradition. This emphasis was supported by the increasing obscurity and complexity of Pound’s later volumes of Cantos. Since Pound’s death, studies of his work have remained split between those who would praise the poet and forget the politician and those who would attack the fascist and forget the poet. But in the final analysis, it may be Pound’s Americanism as much as his fascism that pervades his work.

Betsy Erkkila
University of Pennsylvania

In the Heath Anthology
A Virginal (1912)
A Pact (1916)
In a Station of the Metro (1916)
L'art, 1910 (1916)
A Retrospect (1918)
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Life and Contacts) (1920)
from The Cantos
      I [And then went down to the ship] (1917)
      XIII [Kung walked] (1925)
      XLV [With usura hath no man a house of good stone] (1936)
      LXXXI [Yet/Ere the season died a-cold] (1948)
      CXX [I have tried to write Paradise] (1969)

Other Works
A Lume Spento (1908)
Personae (1909 - 1926)
The Spirit of Romance (1910)
Cathay (1915)
Cantos (1916 - 1968)
Gaudier-Brzeska (1916)
Lustra (1916)
Make It New (1934)

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The strange and inscrutable case of Ezra Pound
An abstract of this Smithsonian Magazine article, December 1995.

Alumverse site on Imagism
Description of imagism from poetry project.

Electronic Poetry Center
An online discussion between those who knew and studied Pound.

Modern American Poetry
Extensive selection of criticism, bibliography, biography, and links.

Poet Page: Ezra Pound
Biography and bibliography; links to texts, journals, and lists.

Secondary Sources

Christopher Beach, ABC of Influence: Ezra Pound and the Remaking of American Poetic Tradition, 1992

Peter Brooker, A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, 1979

Daniel M. Hooley, The Classics in Paraphrase: Ezra Pound and Modern Translators of Latin Poetry, 2000

Terri B. Joseph, Ezra Pound's Epic Variations: The Cantos and Major Long Poems, 1995

George Kearn, Guide to Ezra Pounds Selected Cantos, 1980

Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, 1971

Ira B. Nadel, The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound, 1999

Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound, 1970