Ezra Pound

Kerry Bolton

Ezra PoundEzra Pound was born in a frontier town in Idaho, 1885, the son of an assistant assayer and the grandson of a Congressman. One could say that both economics and politics were in his blood. He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1901. Pound was an avid reader of Anglo-Saxon, Classical and Medieval literature. In 1906 he gained his MA and had already started work on his most significant creation, The Cantos. He continued post-graduate work on the Provençal Troubadour poet-musicians, reinforcing his desire to go to Europe.

In 1908 Pound set sail for Venice. There he paid $8.00 for the printing of the first volume of his poetry. A Lume Spento (With Tapers Quenched). Pound then traveled to England to meet W.B. Yeats. He quickly became a literary success in London. The following year he met Yeats and became the dominant figure at Yeats' Monday evenings.

Pound also came into contact with The English Review, which was publishing works by new talents such as D.H. Lawrence, and the author, painter and critic Wyndham Lewis. In 1911 Pound launched his campaign for innovative writing in The New Age, edited by the monetary reformer A.R. Orage. To Pound the new poetry of the century would be "austere, direct, free from emotional slither." 

Cover of Blast No 2The following year Pound founded the Imagist movement in literature. He was by this time already helping to launch the careers of William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway and James Joyce. He had also become the mentor of Yeats, 20 years Pound's senior and already world famed.  [Image: Wyndham Lewis' Vorticist "Before Antwerp," cover art for Blast No. 2.]

In 1914 Pound started another more enduring movement that was to have a lasting influence on English culture, the Vorticist movement. The impetus came originally from a young avant-garde sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Together with Wyndham Lewis and others they launched Blast as the journal of the movement. Fatefully, this was also the year of World War I which took its toll on many Vorticists [including Gaudier-Brzeska].

Vorticism was for Pound the first major experience in revolutionary propagandizing and the first cause that placed him beyond the pale of orthodoxy. Pound saw Vorticism as setting "the arts in their rightful place as the acknowledged guide and lamp of civilization." In this way the arts were welded in a mystical union with politics in the manner already envisaged by Yeats.


It was Pound who coined the name Vorticism, which was meant to connote vital, violent, rather mystical action. In artistic terms, the goals of the movement are difficult to define. Its program was largely conceived by [Wyndham] Lewis, who had painted first in the Cubist manner and then became a convert to Futurism. He renounced what he considered the static quality of works by such Cubists as Picasso and rejected the naturalism and sentimentality he found in Futurist art. Painting, he said, should be clean, hard, and plastic; it should express the spirit of the time in an anti-realistic, rigidly geometrical mode.

Most of the paintings produced under the banner of Vorticism were abstract geometric compositions, with accent on dynamic contrasts and tensions. In spite of the official rejection of Futurism, most of the paintings are essentially Futurist in conception, suggestive of a positive statement on machines and the new technological era.

Abridged from the Encyclopedia of Art (New York: Greystone Press, 1971), s.v. "Vorticism."

Pound saw commercialism as the force preventing the realization of his artistic-political ideal. In 1918 he met Maj. C.H. Douglas, the founder of Social Credit, whose theory of monetary reform explained that once money became a commodity instead of a measure of productivity and creativity then a nation and its culture would be sacrificed in the pursuit of commercial interests.


Pound embraced the Social Credit theory with enthusiasm. Here was the means by which the Money Power which corrupted culture could be overthrown. During the 1930's and 1940's Pound wrote a series of booklets on economics and politics, including his first "Social Credit: An Impact"(1935), "A Visiting Card" (1942), and in 1944 "Gold and Work" and "America, Roosevelt, and the Causes of the Present War," the latter three being published by Fascist Italy.

Pound came to his political and economic doctrines by the same esoteric path as Yeats. In 1913 Pound had become Yeats' secretary. Pound had been interested in Eastern religions, yoga, theosophy, and astrology from at least as far back as 1905. When Pound was introduced to Yeats he joined a small group Yeats was involved with, which was of a Gnostic nature. Prior to this Pound had written of his belief in a type of reincarnation of creative souls in terms similar to those expressed in Yeats' poetry.

Pound considered sex to be a sacrament and an esoteric tradition which had been preserved in the West by the Troubadours. He considered the only true religion to be "the revelation made in the arts." Rejecting Christianity, he described it as "a bastard faith designed for the purpose of making good Roman citizens slaves, and which is thoroughly different from that preached in Palestine. In this sense Christ is thoroughly dead." Pound found the Churches objectionable for having gained subsidies which should have gone to artists, philosophers and scientists.

Pound was inspired by the "love cult" of the Troubadours, which had been suppressed by the Church, and the Classical mystery religions. He considered the teachings of Confucius, which taught a civic religion that assigned everyone a social duty, from emperor to peasant, to be a means of achieving a balanced State. He later saw in Fascist Italy the attainment of such a State.

Like Yeats, Pound's concepts of esotericism and culture brought him up against liberal and democratic doctrines. Pound saw in Fascism the fulfillment of Social Credit monetary policy which would break the power of plutocracy. He considered artists to form a social elite "born to rule" but not as a part of a democratic mandate. "Artists are the antennae of the race but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists."

As far back as 1914 Pound had written that the artist "has had sense enough to know that humanity was unbearably stupid. But he has also tried to lead and persuade it, to save it from itself." He wrote in 1922 that the masses are malleable and that it is the arts which set the moulds to cast them.


To Pound Fascism was the culmination of an ancient tradition, continued in the personalities of Mussolini, Hitler, and the British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley.

Pound had already studied the doctrines of the [German] ethnologist [Leo] Frobenius during the 1920's and gave a mystical interpretation of race. Cultures were the product of races, and each had its own soul, or "paideuma," of which the artist was the guardian.

In Mussolini, Pound saw not only a statesman who had overthrown plutocracy, but someone who had made politics an art form. Pound stated, "Mussolini has told his people that poetry is a necessity of State, and in this displayed a higher state of civilization in Rome than in London or Washington."

Writing in his 1935 book Jefferson and/or Mussolini, Pound explained: "I don't believe any estimate of Mussolini will be valid unless it starts from his passion for construction. Treat him as ARTIFEX and all the details fall into place ... The Fascist revolution was FOR the preservation of certain liberties and FOR the maintenance of a certain level of culture, certain standards of living ... "

Pound and his wife Dorothy settled in Italy in 1924. In 1933 he had a meeting with Mussolini, outlining his ideas for monetary reform.

He also became a regular contributor to the periodicals of Mosley's British Union of Fascists, met Mosley in 1936 and continued to correspond until 1959.

From the late 1930s he began to look increasingly toward the economic policies of Hitler and regarded the Rome-Berlin Axis as "the first serious attack on the usurocracy since the time of Lincoln."

In 1940, after having returned to Italy from a tour of the USA during which he attempted to oppose the move to war against the Axis, Pound offered his services as a radio broadcaster. The broadcasts called "The American Hour," began in January 1941. Pound considered himself to be a patriotic American. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he attempted to return to the USA, but the American Embassy refused him entry. With no means of livelihood, Pound resumed his broadcasts, attacking the Roosevelt administration and usury in a folksy, American style, with a mix of cultural criticism.

In 1943 Pound was indicted in the USA for treason. Hemingway, concerned at the fate of his old mentor after the war, suggested the possibility of an "insanity" plea and the idea caught on among some of Pound's and Hemingway's literary friends who had landed jobs in the US Government. Other interests were pressing for the death penalty for America's most eminent cultural figure.

Two days after Mussolini's murder Pound was taken at his home by Italian partisans after he had unsuccessfully attempted to turn himself over to American forces. Putting a book on Confucius in his pocket he went with the partisans expecting to be murdered. Instead he ended up at an American camp at Pisa constructed for the most vicious military prisoners. Pound was confined to a bare, concrete floored iron cage in the burning heat, lit continuously throughout the night. Pound had a physical breakdown and was transferred to a medical compound, where he got to work on the Pisan Cantos.

In November he was flown to Washington and jailed. He was declared insane and sent to a ward for the criminally insane at St. Elizabeth's. Here his literary output continued, and he translated 300 traditional Chinese poems, which were published by Harvard in 1954.

Among his many visitors he became mentor to John Kasper, a fiery young intellectual who toured the South agitating on behalf of racial segregation, causing the calling out of the National Guard in Tennessee.

By 1953 Pound had still not been formally diagnosed. Inquiries from the Justice Dept. solicited an admission that at most Pound had a "personality disorder." By the mid-1950's various influential figures and magazines were campaigning for Pound's release. After 13 years confinement, Pound's treason indictment was dismissed on 18 April 1958.

On 30 June he set sail for Italy, giving the Fascist salute to journalists when he reached Naples, and declaring "all America is an asylum." He continued with his Cantos and stayed in contact with political personalities such as Kasper and Mosley. He remained defiantly opposed to the American system in magazine interviews despite complaints from US diplomats. Because of his politics, Pound did not receive the honours due to him until after his death on 1 November 1972.

The short account of Vorticism has been added. Also see (off-site) Pound's free translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, originally published in The New Age (1911). For a French translation of Kerry Bolton's essay, click here. A succinct discussion of literary imagism is here. FluxEuropa has a good essay on Wyndham Lewis.


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