Saturday, 4 July 2015

In the Captain’s Tower: Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot

Writing about TS Eliot and his second wife, Valerie, as I did recently, has made me reflect upon the fifty-year friendship between Eliot and Ezra Pound, and especially about that relationship at the end of their lives.  Long-lasting friendships, glimpsed in old age, have a particular poignancy in literature, nowhere seen better than in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, where Falstaff, Justice Shallow and Master Silence sit in a Gloucestershire orchard reminiscing about old conquests, famous revels (‘We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow’) and dead friends. There is something of the same elegiac note in Pound’s recollections of Eliot, memorably caught by the poet Robert Lowell in his sonnet, ‘Ezra Pound’:

Eliot dead, you saying,
‘Who’s left alive to understand my jokes?
My old brother in the arts … besides, he was a smash of a poet.

‘My old brother in the arts ….’ One could equally think of them as brothers in arms. This is how Anthony Rudolf sees them. Writing in Silent Conversations (2013), and echoing Bob Dylan, he comments that

The mutual respect of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot is touching: Eliot’s ‘Il miglior fabbro’ and Pound’s homage; ‘… Later, on his own hearth, a flame tended, a presence felt’.  Up there in the captain’s tower, these two great poets, fighting or not, cast long shadows over contemporary reading (and therefore writing)) even at this late date.

Rudolf is a poet and translator, a publisher, critic and teacher.  Pound in his time was all these too, but a poet above all, as Rudolf is – which is why he is able to reject, with authority, F.R. Leavis’s  claim that Pound’s only great poem is Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, by comparison with which the Cantos entirely fail to measure up:

I cannot agree that Pound’s versification is boring and that he has no creative theme. What about memory and language, loss and disgrace?

What indeed? It would be hard to think of any writer of the 20th century who has contemplated his own isolation and disgrace with a more implacable self-scrutiny than Ezra Pound:

As a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
from the wreckage of Europe, ego scriptor.  (Canto LXXVI)

While Pound was incarcerated for twelve years in Washington’s Government Hospital for the Insane (though never tried for treason, let alone convicted) Eliot led the campaign for his release, along with Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish. His Nobel Prizewinner status helped. When Pound was finally allowed back to Italy, despairing at the failure of his life’s work (‘my errors and wrecks lie about me’, Canto CXVI) it was Eliot who sent letters – ‘Dear Old Ez …’ -  reassuring him his work was not a ‘botch’ (Pound’s word). And after Eliot’s death it was Valerie who publicly thanked Pound for having been ‘a wondrous necessary man’ to her husband.

They never lost faith in each other. As Peter Ackroyd has said:

In many ways they had both been so much alike: the nervous, magpie-like intelligence, the pedagogical aspirations, the Yankee toughness combined with the shuddering sensitivity. They had both lived through the great period of modern literature and had survived its passing: they were in a sense foreigners, out of joint with their time.

 I was introduced to Pound’s poetry by Basil Bunting, who had known Pound well in the 1920s and 1930s at Rapallo (Pound’s Italian base; here in the years before the Second World War he presided over a literary court in exile). Bunting was Poet in Residence at Durham , when I was a student there. I got to know him well, and he talked much about Pound, trying to teach me the lessons Pound had taught him about how to write well. At this time, too, I made other friends who had known Pound and who continued to admire him as a poet, acknowledging the honesty with which he faced up to his disgrace:

Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity …. (Canto LXXXI)

Not everyone, however, in the early 1970s was prepared to forgive Pound. Tucked into my copy of Pound’s Selected Prose 1909-1965 (edited by William Cookson and published in 1973) I found recently a TLS review I’d kept of the book: the writer - still anonymous in those days - launches an atrabilious attack on Pound.  Denouncing him as ‘a notorious traitor’, he asserts that ‘Behind everything that Pound wrote is a set of hideous delusions’, dismisses the Cantos as ‘drivel’, and cites with approval Maurice Bowra’s conclusion that “Pound after all the fuss and trouble, is nothing but a bore, and an American bore.”

This amounts to an attempt to write Pound out of the history of Modernism, indeed out of history altogether – a man beneath contempt and beneath consideration. So it is important to spell out again just one of the reasons Pound still matters: without him there would have been no Waste Land. When I first met Basil Bunting, he was reading The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot, and he began our conversation by asking if I knew this book by Hugh Kenner. ‘No,’ I confessed, ‘but I am reading The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot by CK Stead.’ Would I recommend it, asked Bunting. Yes, I said firmly – and I have been reading and recommending Stead ever since. Here’s a comment from Book Self (2008) where Stead explains the immediate impact of Valerie Eliot’s book:

One thing that became clear was that Eliot had not been exaggerating when he gave generous credit to Pound for rescuing the poem. Pound’s work on it had pulled The Waste Land together and determined its dominant tone and colour.

Giving credit where credit is due. And Pound’s final word on Eliot?

Let him rest in peace. I can only repeat, but with the urgency of 50 years ago: READ HIM.

Adrian Barlow

·                 Robert Lowell’s poem, ‘Ezra Pound’ can be found in Robert Lowell’s Poems (ed. Jonathan Raban; London, Faber & Faber, 1974) p.133.
·      Anthony Rudolf, Silent Conversations (London: Seagull Books, 2013, pp.218, 220. You can read my review of this book, which originally appeared in the English Association Newsletter (Winter 2013, No.204), here.  The ‘Captain’s tower’ echoes Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’: ‘And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot / Fighting in the Captain’s Tower...'  
·      The anonymous TLS review from which I quote was entitled ‘Fragments of cracker’ and was published 16 March 1973, p.292.
·      Peter Ackroyd’s comment on Eliot and Pound comes from his biography T.S. Eliot (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984) p.330.
·      For an account of Pound’s incarceration in St Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington DC, I recommend the opening chapter of  Eustace Mullins, This Difficult Individual: Ezra Pound (1961) which can be accessed online.
·      Quotations, as indicated, from Ezra Pound, The Cantos, (4th collected edition; London: Faber & Faber, 1987)
·      C.K. Stead’s comments on Pound, Eliot and The Waste Land , quoted here, are in Book Self (New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 2008), p.5
·      Valerie Eliot’s borrowed description of Pound as ‘a wondrous necessary man’ (originally Beatrice’s description of de Flores in Middleton’s The Changeling) is included in her Acknowledgements to The Waste Land: a Facsimile and Transcript (London: Faber & Faber, 1971) p.xxxi
·      Pound’s last published word on Eliot  (first published as ‘For T.S.E.’ in The Sewanee Review, Winter 1966) is reprinted as the final item in Ezra Pound Selected Prose 1909-1965 (ed. William Cookson; London: Faber & Faber, 1973, p.434


  1. In THE GEOGRAPHY OF THE IMAGINATION, Guy Davenport says that it was above all Archibald MacLeish who, 'for all practical purposes, alone' got Pound out of the asylum. Eliot lent his name, willingly, to the effort. Frost did so too, more grumpily, when Davenport, acting as MacLeish's messenger, took the piece of paper for him to sign. Davenport's book (do you know it?) contains several good and helpful essays about Pound's poetry and I've also found Kenner's eccentric THE POUND ERA useful in getting to grips with at least parts of THE CANTOS. They're tough, and uneven, and pesky, the Cantos, but as Bunting (how fascinating to know Mr Bunting) says, it's unwise to try and go round them.

    1. Philip, Many thanks for this comment. I have not read Guy Davenport’s book, but I am happy to accept that MacLeish rather than Eliot was the prime mover (by virtue of his senior status within US legal and governmental circles) in securing Pound’s release in 1958; so I should now say that in this, he had Eliot’s strong support. Indeed, back in 1945 it had been Eliot who had initiated the campaign for Pound’s release when he approached MacLeish to ask whether he could use his influence to prevent Pound’s case from coming to trial. Perhaps Hugh Kenner put it best - even if, as you say, somewhat eccentrically - (in The Pound Era, 1971) when he wrote, ‘No one man needs the credit. Moving a government is like moving a brontosaur, whose centres of consciousness are distributed through innumerable ganglia.'

  2. The essayist and now forgotten poet, Richard Church, wrote – and I have to quote from memory – that, “we should not waste our time turning over the junk yard that is Pound’s poetry.”! Such statements of course alert us to the strong possibility that works so denigrated are probably worth seeking out. However, I sometimes wonder if there is not some danger of the critics becoming the equivalent of the Jewish Midrashim: poring over the Tanach (Old Testament) in the belief that every sentence must have a meaning. There are lines in both Eliot and Pound that may forever remain enigmatic (and Cardinal Newman admitted that – in looking over some of his early writings – he had no idea what was in his mind when he wrote certain passages).

    Help comes from an unlikely source: Leszek Kołakowski’s Metaphysical Horror:

    “We must never assume that the great philosophers simply spin their web of abstraction for its own sake; there are always important reasons for even their most abstruse constructions, even if those reasons are not always understood by the philosophers themselves.”

    So with Eliot and Pound: there is a gravitas to their work which is in stark contrast to some contemporary poets who strain for originality but end up in the graveyard of pretentiousness.