Frank Kermode, ‘Ezra Conquers London’, review-article on Ezra Pound: A Portrait of the Man and His Work, Vol. 1, by A. David Moody, in The New York Review of Books (1 May 2008), pp.21-24 [extract].


Pound’s London career was brilliant. He was twenty-three, unknown, and with one material possession, his first book, A Lume Spento, which he had had printed in Venice. He had almost no money and lived, at first, on £1 a week, using the comfortable Reading Room of the British Museum as his study. London was not quite as he had expected - the religion of beauty was slipping out of fashion - but he was quick to learn. He used his book as a way of reaching important literary figures of the day - Sir Henry Newbolt, journalist and patriotic poet; Edward Dowden, author of a famous book on Shakespeare; the minor poet and artist Sturge Moore, friend of Yeats. He challenged another minor poet, Lascelles Abercrombie, to a duel, his reason being that “stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace.” Abercrombie, claiming the right to choice of weapons, proposed that they “pelt each other with unsold copies of their books.”

He sent copies of A Lume Spento to such people, and obtained favorable reviews of the book by writing them himself. One of his stated ambitions was to meet W. B. Yeats, whom he regarded as the greatest poet of the day. This he achieved with remarkable speed, and his long friendship with the Irish poet was fruitful on both professional and personal levels. The time he spent later with Yeats in the country at Stone Cottage, a winter retreat in Sussex where each worked on his own and on the other’s poetry, offers an unusual instance of a little-known young poet decisively affecting the style of an illustrious senior; for Pound was determined to bring Yeats down to a style of common speech, while prosecuting his own campaign against the English iambic pentameter. Yeats is teased in the Cantos, but both poets benefited from Pound’s determination to teach and learn.

Pound had somehow got to know Mrs. Olivia Shakespear and her daughter Dorothy, “quite the nicest people in London.” Yeats had, long before, been Mrs. Shakespear’s lover, and they were still good friends, she being, according to Yeats himself, “the centre of his life in London.” She was first cousin to Lionel Johnson, an important 1890s poet and a member, along with Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde, of Yeats’s “Tragic Generation.” When Yeats was turned down by Iseult Gonne, daughter of his great love Maud, he proposed to Olivia’s stepniece George Hyde-Lees, a close friend of Dorothy’s. They were married in 1917. Pound was by now married to Dorothy Shakespear after a cool courtship and a long struggle with her family, who rightly believed the charming Ezra unable to support her. He probably had an affair with Iseult, and he served as best man at Yeats’s wedding.

It had not taken Pound long to get close to the heart of London’s literary society. He might not have expected to discover that nearly all these people were, like Yeats, involved in various sorts of occultism, which didn’t directly interest him. Poetry was what interested him. He pushed Yeats in the direction he had already wanted to follow. “I have spent the whole of my life trying to get rid of rhetoric,” said Yeats - and Pound could assist in this effort. His revisions of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which consisted largely in crossing out lines he disliked and which left us the poem now regarded as a central document of modernism, were more drastic and more famous, but his services to Yeats were almost as remarkable.

Pound, who liked sages, had no prejudice against the old. He continued to admire both Yeats and Ford Madox Ford, another senior, another guru who insisted that poetry must be at least as well written as prose, must use only direct, exact language, must abolish rhetoric, as the French poet Paul Verlaine had advised.

However, he also needed the comapny of younger artists, who could share his ideas about art and and poetry more fully than Yeats, and share his taste for manifesto. By luck and skill it, and established himself in the center of a remarkable group. The names for its members are remembered their own sakes: T. E. Hulme, Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and her husband Richard Richard Aldington were also “Imagists.” Pound was the chief Imagist and the manifesto writer of the novement.


[Quotes Canto 51 of the Pisan Cantos:]

With usury has no man a good house
made of stone, no paradise on his
  church wall
With usury the stone cutter is kept
  from his stone
the weaver is kept from his loom
  by usura
Wool does not come into market
the peasant does not eat his own
the girl's needle goes blunt in her
The looms are hushed one after
  another ...

There is, he came to believe, a direct link between social and artistic disorder and the practice of usury. Art fails, language forfeits clarity, the individual is deprived of liberty. As the world grew worse, Pound's denunciations of usury as enemy of peace and civility grew more strident. He agreed with the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius that “an expert, looking at a painting ... should be able to demonstrate the degree of the tolerance of usury in the society in which it was painted,” and thought he could do so himself. It is in the context of usury that the early indications of his anti-Semitism have been detected. Certainly the complex of ideas correlating slack poetic technique and impurity of language with political and economic disorder - derived in part from his hatred of “philology” - looked forward to the extreme totalitarianism that was later to bring about his final confrontation with America and the conflict of patriotisms described at the beginning of this review.

[...] (p.24.)

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