Article Index

 

 A Portrait of the Man and His Work

TIM REDMAN
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U. of TEXAS

 

rsz moody 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I ended my review of this book for the December 28, 2014 edition of The Dallas Morning News as follows: “Some readers might prefer a couple of ounces rather than the full pound, and for them there is a recent short biography by Alec Marsh. For those who insist on a full and accurate account, Moody’s biography is a monument to scholarship and energy” (5E). My occasional reviews for the DMN run around six to seven hundred words and are aimed at a general educated readership of several hundred thousand people. I direct this longer review at specialists. Thus, though I continue to have a high regard for this book, as I did for the first volume that I also reviewed for the DMN, this review will be more critical. I hope to provoke discussion among the members of the worldwide community of Poundians.

While continuing his emphasis on Pound’s poetry, Moody needs to account for Pound’s post-World-War-I shift to economic and political subjects, his developing support for Mussolini and Italian fascism, and his increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. He manages to navigate these shoals in a skilful manner, no mean feat. Moody makes his own views clear at the outset, in his Preface : Pound “found it infamous that the governments of those democracies [America and Britain] should put saving the banks, and saving the financial system responsible for the crisis and the depression, before the welfare of their people. . . . the time may have come for a better appreciation of Pound’s vision of the fundamental principles of a just society now that we are undergoing our own financial crisis and consequent economic and social ‘austerity’” (xi-xii). Though some may accuse Moody of a presentist bias here, I think he is correct to highlight this point.

The Pounds’ move to Paris brought a new surge of energy and intellectual stimulation, and a renewed focus on The Cantos. Moody first considers what initially appeared as the “Eighth Canto” in The Dial of May 1922, later revised to take its place as Canto II. He devotes five pages of explication to the attempted kidnapping of a boy and the manifestation of the god Dionysus. For my reading, this section was about four pages too long, and I think that many Poundians will find some of these lengthy explanatory readings throughout the book excessive. The question, of course, is which ones? Some I found quite brilliant. I’ll return to this stricture, the only fault of this volume, later. Personally, I would have liked more attention to that canto’s first four lines

Hang it all, Robert Browning,

there can be but the one ‘Sordello.’ 

But Sordello, and my Sordello?

Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana

in which Pound lays out the crux of the historical problem he faces, and the brilliant lines

And an ex-convict out of Italy 

knocked me into the forestays,

(He was wanted for manslaughter in Tuscany)

in which he shows one way in which he will solve it.

But Moody recovers nicely by stating that the juxtapositions of the various passages in the canto, far from being random, are a part of its organization as a “musical composition” (17). He will develop this argument more fully later, and he succeeds in making his case. The theme of musical composition will come back several times and his musical analysis of many of the cantos is a major strength.

Moody turns to the composition of Pound’s Le Testament de Villon, begun in collaboration with Agnes Bedford (later with George Antheil). Of course, Moody’s analysis depends on the ground-breaking work of Robert Hughes and Margaret Fisher, but there is a great deal of value added in his discussion of Pound’s most important opera, and of Pound’s new theory of harmony (17-28).  I’ve known David for a couple of decades, but I never realized he had such a strong grasp of music. It serves him well; these pages on music are very accomplished indeed. To integrate his discussion of the music with the volume’s larger theme, he aptly quotes Pound: “Villon [was] the first voice of a man broken by bad economics” (23). Moody continues his bravura discussion of Pound’s music by covering The Treatise on Harmony (1924). As one would expect from a critic with a substantial reputation as an Eliot scholar, the account of Pound’s uncanny editorial hand in The Waste Land and his more ham-handed though well-intentioned fund-raising efforts to free his compatriot from his servitude in the City are efficiently covered.

Pound preferred a warmer climate than that of Paris. Besides, Joyce and Eliot had both produced masterpieces in 1922, and although the Malatesta Cantos represented a significant breakthrough for Pound, as Lawrence Rainey has argued, I believe that the Parisian scene was too stimulating. Pound was also by nature a generous individual, particularly to artists. As one of the few members of the American expatriate community with fluent French, he spent a fair amount of time helping others, including visitors from America. So he and his wife Dorothy began traveling in Italy, as far south as Sicily, to find a climate more suitable and more conducive to his getting on with his work. They settled on Rapallo, where they would live from 1924 until Pound was taken into custody in 1945. His personal life also became complicated. Olga Rudge bore him a daughter, Mary, on July 9, 1925, and Dorothy returned from an extended trip to Egypt pregnant with Omar, born September 10, 1926. Both children would be largely raised by others though Mary often stayed with her parents as she grew older. A pattern emerged: Pound divided his time between Dorothy and Olga. Inevitably, in a work of this scope and ambition, minor errors occur, e.g., (speaking of Pound and Olga) “their intimate relationship endured for nearly sixty years” (p. 54n).

Another milestone was reached with the publication of A Draft of XXX Cantos in 1930. Moody handles them well initially, though what starts as a capable summary tends to become too discursive and at times bogs down. Pound scholars and critics will find things to disagree with in his reading of these Cantos. The title marks the principal emphasis of Ezra Pound: Poet as a critical biography, and readings of Pound’s poetry and prose are to be expected and welcomed, but occasionally they overwhelm the narrative flow. Moody's discussion of Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi prega” is very capable. It is hard to follow, but then, so is Cavalcanti’s poem.

The second part of this second volume tells of the years 1933-1939, years of Pound’s growing support for Italian fascism and of his slow decline into anti-Semitism. Moody demonstrates a nuanced and balanced understanding of Mussolini, and of il Duce’s many achievements. The simplistic dichotomy of fascism and communism into “right-wing” (bad) and “left-wing” (good) still maintained by some American academics is useless in understanding Pound’s fascism or Mussolini’s for that matter. Mussolini was the most widely admired statesman in Europe until the Abyssinian War, which as a result of League of Nations’ sanctions drove him into an alliance with Nazi Germany. He put into place an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, and close to full employment, due to the massive investments in public works and infrastructure. As a result, though taxes were high and political freedom curtailed, the Italians did not suffer as did the English, the Americans, and the Germans during this period entre deux guerres. For me, the best account of Italian fascism is given by A. James Gregor in his many books. Gregor, correctly in my view, sees Italian fascism as a Marxist heresy and Mussolini as an example of a developmental dictator. Moody handles these matters nicely.

I do not agree, however, with his assessment of Pound’s economic theories. He mistakenly denies that Pound made any original contributions to economic thought. To give one important counter-instance, Pound’s use of historical examples underpin his economic views and provide the foundation for much of his writing, both poetry and prose, and in that he is startlingly original. Moody states that Pound was influenced by C.H. Douglas and Silvio Gesell, which is true, but Pound also synthesized their thinking in a new manner and used it as a basis for his campaign for currency reform. The views of these men were not “widely known” (p. 152), and when known they were largely dismissed by mainstream economists. Pound was part of a group of radical economists whose views only slowly gained acceptance. Remember that John Maynard Keynes was not a “Keynesian” until 1936 and his views had only gained nearly universal acceptance when Richard Nixon announced “We’re all Keynesians now.” Moody does acknowledge that Pound was not a “crank economist” (p. 156) though his expression of his ideas was often markedly eccentric and sometimes self-defeating. Even when Pound’s tirades led him into (at this time occasional) anti-Semitic expressions, they were not directed at Jews but at Pound’s principal target, banks.

Moody’s discussion of Cantos XXXI-XLI, “Making Music of History,” is similarly uneven, slowing down the narrative but providing a detailed reading of Canto XXXIV (John Quincy Adams) and an excellent analysis of the war between Andrew Jackson and the (private) Bank of the United States in Canto XXXVII (drawn from Martin Van Buren). Moody’s use of footnotes throughout the book to give historical and biographical background to the reader helps a lot. And he successfully makes his major point about the musical structure of these Cantos.

In his fourth chapter, “Things Fall Apart, 1933-1937,” Moody introduces another helpful device, the use of long paragraphs in italics that provide important and quite relevant material about the rapidly deteriorating situation in Europe during these years. Although these passages will serve only as a reminder to some, most will find them an innovative and effective means of intrducing the necessary contexts for Pound’s life and work in those troubled times. They also convey some sense of the urgency that he must have felt in presenting his diagnoses and his cures for the West. “The Fifth Decad of Cantos XLII-LI” continues Pound’s treatment of economic and political themes, leading with three cantos on the Monte dei Paschi, an example of a bank being run for the benefit of the community, followed by the great canto on Usura.

Moody’s account of Pound’s life and work come into harmonious balance in this chapter, even as the war in Ethiopia exposed irreconcilable contradictions in Pound’s thinking, as his fundamental opposition to war had to somehow accommodate Mussolini’s misguided African opportunism. The book gives an excellent reading of those Cantos and an astute and balanced account of Pound’s growing and abhorrent anti-Semitism. Moody is equally successful in his treatment of the latter in the fifth chapter, “Ideas of Order, 1937-1939.”

Moody correctly takes Pound to task for refusing to acknowledge the significance of Hitler’s aggression against Czechoslovakia, his conquest of its Sudentenland, his belligerence, his onslaught against human freedom, and his greed for territory into a fight for economic justice. “’War against Germany would have meant war against a clean concept of money,’” Pound wrote, indirectly supporting Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler caused by the illusion of achieving “peace in our time” (265). Wendy Flory has observed that Pound’s thinking during this period exhibits sign of, at best, great cognitive dissonance, perhaps bordering on irrationality. I suppose it is understandable that Pound would react in this manner, seeing that his self-appointed mission to prevent another war was failing. And things would grow worse once the war began.

During this time, Pound was hastening to complete his Chinese Cantos and his Adams Cantos, derived from two sources. Moody ably summarizes the Chinese Cantos (LII-LXI), a redaction of a redaction as it were, though his account may be a bit tedious for some. I think that Pound succeeds well in these cantos in providing the gist of a Confucian history of China.  His turn to China, starting with his editing the Fenollosa papers and continuing until his final silence, as well as his work with Frobenius, does much to establish The Cantos as a world epic. His Adams Cantos (LXII-LXXI) I think much less successful, showing signs of great haste in their composition. Since David Moody is the only major critic to have defended those cantos (I have purchased but not yet read a recent book on them), I was of course very interested in what he had to say here.

Moody starts by acknowledging that “Pound’s method of composition . . . is at its most disconcerting in these cantos” (286). The biographer starts by showing the five-part structure of the work, based on its source. He states, with some justice, that Adams “was to America what Confucius was to China,” an exemplary lawmaker (284).  Moody argues that the Adams Cantos are to be read as “Pound’s instructions for the government of America” (295). Certainly, by choosing John Adams as the central figure in his poem, Pound can lay claim that it is an American epic. But while Moody’s elucidation is crystalline, Pound's, in these cantos, is not.

Pound decided that direct instruction to America was needed, and he travelled to the United States to try to educate lawmakers, literati, and the American public. His trip did not succeed with any of its audiences. Opinion had hardened against Hitler and Mussolini; Pound’s views were neither heeded nor needed in his homeland. Moody’s account of the trip in chapter 6, “Alien in America,” reveals a record of disappointment mixed with increasing concerns about the poet’s erratic (ezratic?) behavior. The chapter succeeds in its depiction of ultimately a sad and futile attempt at influencing policy, albeit one founded on good intentions.

My principal stricture about this fine book derives perhaps from the inherent tension between New Criticism, with its close reading of texts, and biography. The New Criticism, coming in large part from Croce, and Eliot, arose largely in reaction against biographical explanations for works of literature. Moody is clear that his is a critical biography, but for me, his explications of some of the poetry tended to slow the book down at times and provide grounds for disagreement, at least among Poundians. The general reader will, I suspect, find them welcome. All said, A. David Moody’s biography of Pound, when it is completed in three volumes, will form, along with Terrell and Gallup, an indispensable part of any person’s Pound library.