Ezra Pound: Poet: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 - A. David Moody (2015)



Uncivil to judge a part in ignorance of the totality

nemo omnia novit

This volume presents the five act tragedy of a flawed idealist and a great poet who, in a time of war, carried to excess his exercise of the rights and freedoms of a United States citizen, and who, in consequence, suffered the loss of both his freedom and his civil rights. Yet out of that personaltragedy in a tragic time there came his finest poetry, a poetry that deliberately rose above tragedy and cultivated instead a mind intent on what humanity had achieved, and might yet hope to achieve, in the way of a well-ordered society at home in its universe.

It was a three-ring, even a four-ring tragedy. There was the war, the destructive element in which his whole world was immersed, and he with it. There was the hubris of his personal involvement in that war on the side of Fascism. That led inevitably to his being perceived as a traitor and a Fascist, when in truth he was neither. Beyond that, as the deeper injustice, there was the accident that it was those whom he trusted to support and aid him who were responsible for his being incarcerated for twelve years and more among the insane, and also for his being made a non-person in law, and kept in that condition for the rest of his life. Behind all, and not subject to the law, even allowed by the law, was his moral offence, the anti-Semitism of which he was guilty, and for which he was made to pay, unlawfully yet in rough natural justice, by the loss of his freedom and his legal rights.

The law, if it had taken its course, should have found him not guilty as charged; and the law should have been allowed to take its course because he was not in fact insane—the judicial finding that he was not competent to stand trial being a travesty of psychiatry and of justice. There would have remained the extra-judicial guilt of his anti-Semitism, and for this he has been justly condemned, and unjustly made a scapegoat for the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, and for the anti-Semitism endemic in his society. That is the crime at the root of his tragedy, the crime that roused the Furies his friends thought to fend off by having him declared insane. The Furies were not appeased then, and hound him still, seeking not justice but endless prosecution.

Justice requires that the whole truth be told, ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’. The ‘whole truth’ is of course an unattainable ideal—‘nemo omnia novit’, as the jurist Coke acknowledged, no one knows it all. But at least we can know more than is told by the prosecuting labels automatically stuck onto Pound, reiterating that he was ‘mad’, ‘a traitor’, ‘a fascist’, ‘a money crank’, ‘an anti-Semite’. The evidence, when one examines it, indicates that he was neither mad nor a traitor. His involvement with Fascism, especially through the course of the 1939–45 war, is a more complicated matter, too complicated for any simple judgment, having been more an endorsement of its economic and social arrangements than of its politics, and having included, along with a degree of blindness to its operations, an endeavour to reform it with an injection of Confucianism. Indeed, if one must use labels, ‘Confucian’ would be nearer the truth than ‘Fascist’. (As for ‘fascist’, that is no longer fit for any responsible use.) But before and above all Pound’s primal commitment was always to the principles of the American Constitution. He never once suggested that his country should adopt Fascism, and consistently urged it to be true to its own democratic principles. One of those principles was that the people’s government should control the money supply in the interests of the whole people, with the corollary that the government should not allow the common wealth to be controlled by private banks in their own interest. Only those ignorant of what he actually wrote and stood for, and with a mind closed to the current financial crisis, would regard that as ‘cranky’. In the end just one accusation sticks, indelibly, the charge of anti-Semitism, though that, it has to be borne in mind, is not at all the whole truth.

Can we go wrong without losing rightness? Can a man capable at times of speaking evil of the Jews yet be capable of speaking truth about human affairs, and be capable of composing good poetry? Some say not, implacably, blotting out Pound’s motivating commitment to economic and social justice, and blotting out the enlightened vision and the mastery of his poetry, thus righteously extinguishing a light in our darkness. But it is possible for a mind subject to a paranoid complex, such as Pound’s anti-Semitism became, to be otherwise sane and creative. In Louis Zukofsky’s judgment in 1946, ‘His profound and intimate knowledge and practice [of literature and music] still leave that part of his mind entire.’ The human truth and the creative vision remain for those who, in the words of Robert Creeley, ‘go to that work to get what seems to me of use, and the rest I toss out, condemning it just by that act’.

It is Pound’s poetry that is of enduring utility. He is of concern to us still just because of it, and we cannot do full justice to him without engaging with the poetry and doing justice to it. In one aspect his Cantos are inseparable from his crusade for social justice and good government; and in another they are distinct from that crusade, being committed not to immediate reform but to contemplating the causes and consequences of political and economic behaviour, and to defining the governing principles of a good society. They are political, as Pound said, but political in the way that Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s history plays are political. In a time when monetary and market values are dominant in our politics we need, in Robert Duncan’s phrase, an ‘answering intensity of the imagination to hold its own values’.

While held as a prisoner by the American army in the summer of 1945 Pound composed his Pisan Cantos. Incarcerated for a dozen years in a Washington institution for the insane, he translated the Confucian Book of Odes and two Greek tragedies, then composed a sequence of twenty-five new cantos, Rock-Drill and Thrones. Although confined, and under conditions most would find soul-destroying, he kept working at his epic subject, the struggle for individual rights and responsibilities and for civic justice. He was still, even in his personal hell and purgatory, doing what he could to envision a possible paradiso terrestre.

He was freed from St Elizabeths when the charges against him were dropped, but he was never freed from the custody of his devoted and unrelenting wife. Through the remaining fourteen years of his life he was denied even the simple rights of the free citizen, the right to his own money, to control of his own property, the right to make a will. And this injustice, like that of his confinement in St Elizabeths, he accepted as his fate, with dignity and without protest. It was a tragic fate, but he would not be crushed by it. Marianne Moore was struck by his resilience in his St Elizabeths years. And for Robert Lowell a visit to Pound in his last years ‘was awesome and rather shattering, like meeting Oedipus’. There was ‘a nobility I’ve never seen before’, he wrote afterwards, ‘the nobility of someone, not a sinner, but who has gone far astray and learned at last too much.…No self-pity, but more knowledge of his fate than any man should have.’ Words of Geoffrey Hill might be adapted to fit both his life and his work—

Partial, impartial, unassailable

though many times assailed, like poetry—

The Pisan Cantos, The Confucian Odes