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Ezra Pound: Poet.

A Portrait of the Man and his Work.

II: The Epic Years 1921-1939.

Oxford University Press, 2014


This second volume of A. David Moody's full-scale portrait, covering Ezra Pound's middle years, weaves together into a single highly readable and challenging narrative, in a way that has not been done before, the illuminating story of his life, his achievement as a poet and a composer, and his one-man crusade for economic justice.

There is new insight into his complicated personal relationships. There are detailed accounts of the composition of his two operas and of his original contribution to the theory of harmony. A canto by canto and decad by decad elucidation of the form and meaning of the first seventy-one cantos of his epic reveals their hitherto unperceived musical structures and their overall design. The thinking behind his support for Mussolini's economic programme during the Great Depression of the 1930s is brought to light, and shown to be not "fascist" but essentially true to the principles of the American Revolution, and, behind that, to Confucian ideas of responsible government. At the same time it is made clear that he saw only what he wanted to see in Mussolini's Fascism, and later in Hitler's Nazism, and was blind to their darker policies. And it is clear that he went most seriously wrong in deploying, as a weapon in his war on the injustice of the capitalist financial system, the anti-Semitism endemic in Europe and America and at that time turning murderous in Nazi Germany.

Pound is revealed as a great poet and a flawed idealist caught up in the turmoil of his darkening time and struggling, sometimes blindly and in error and self-contradiction, to be a force for enlightenment.




List of illustrations



Part One: 1921-1932

1: A Year in Paris, 1921-24

2: From Rapallo, 1924-1932


Part Two: 1933-1939

3: A Democrat in Italy, 1933

4: Things Fall Apart, 1933-37

5: Ideas of Order, 1937-39

6: Alien in America



A: Outline of Pound's Le Testament or Villon

B: A brief history of Le Testament or Villon

C: Outline of Cavalcanti. A sung dramedy in 3 acts

D: 'Huey, God bless him', an unpublished article (1935)

E: The founding of the Bank of England, & the U. S. National Banks Act




 A Portrait of the Man and His Work




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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.



 II. The Epic Years 1921-1939.



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After the success of his 2007 effort Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man and his Work. Volume I: The Young Genius, 1885-1920, which Rebecca Beasley called "the most detailed portrayal of Pound's life to date" (2008), A. David Moody returns with his highly anticipated follow-up, covering Pound's time in Paris and Rapallo leading up to the outbreak of World War Two. Moody's first volume was met with significant praise;[1] however, as anyone vaguely familiar with Pound's wildly interesting and infamous biography will understand, the period in Pound's life that Moody considers in this volume is fraught with difficulty: the charges of anti-Semitism, fascism, and economic cantankerousness must be negotiated alongside his significant poetic and polemic output. Not only does Moody wrestle with these multivalent and politically charged issues, he does it well, as his two-pronged approach of exhaustive archival research and close reading of Pound's poetry combine to give a sense of Ezra Pound as a flawed yet sincerely caring individual.

The biography is broken into six parts covering Pound's three-year sojourn in Paris from 1921-24; his time in Rapallo from 1924-32; 1933, the year Pound met Mussolini for the first and only time; Pound's growing obsession with economics from 1933-37; the turning point in world politics from 1937-39; and Pound's brief return to America in 1939. These temporal limits serve to demarcate not just political realities; with the exception of the final section, they also delineate Pound's significant artistic projects in those periods. The term "artistic projects" might seem curious to those unfamiliar with Pound's varying output; however, alongside major poetic projects such as the various phases of the cantos including A Draft of XXX Cantos, Eleven New Cantos (Cantos XXXI-XLI), The Fifth Decad of Cantos (Cantos XLII-LI), and Cantos LII-LXXI, Pound also wrote two operas: La Testament de Villon and Cavalcanti, several musical pieces for violin, an original treatise on musical harmony, and [RP1] organized the revival of Vivaldi's music with his long time lover, violinist Olga Rudge (Vivaldi having been almost entirely lost to all but a few eclectic musicologists at this point). With the exception of a few of the violin pieces, which are situated in temporal context, Moody closely explores each of these projects in a sophisticated manner informed by Pound's ideologies. One criticism to raise here is that in the longer sections treating poetry such as the China Cantos (LII-LXI) or the John Adams Cantos (LXII-LXXI), Moody's readings understandably take in the works with a much wider lens, which leaves the reader wanting more, especially in the way his closer readings of some of the earlier individual Cantos did; however, his readings of these poems, inflected by Pound's personal and political ideologies, inform the biography superbly and act as a primer for individuals not interested in an extended treatment of poetry in the midst of biography.

An example of the relation between biography and poetry that is important to Moody's biography is the account of the Adams Cantos, which offer Moody an opportunity to discuss Pound's flawed "Fascist" ideology that has been so tendentious to date. A central paradox in Pound's attraction to Italian Fascism is the opposition between Pound's absolute desire for individual rights – especially artistic – and the totalizing nature of the fascist project, which subsumes the individual into the collective. More important for Pound, and a possible reason for his overlooking some of the more problematic aspects of Italian Fascism, was the complete failure of capitalism to provide for the basic needs of the citizenry as the world was plunged into the economic depression of the 1930's. How had capitalism so failed? Pound's answer was usury: the unethical practice of money lending. Pound believed that usury was a sin against nature because credit was a by-product of the abundance of nature and thus only the nation could establish credit for the benefit of the collective. Moody highlights how these arguments saturate Pound's selective approach to John Adams, whom he viewed as the true father of the American paideuma as expressed in revolution. This he considered betrayed by Hamilton who modelled the American banking system on the Bank of England, allowing private bankers to profit from the citizens. Moody uses this example in the poetry to highlight an under-argued aspect of Pound's appreciation of Italian Fascism: Pound did not advocate its adoption by the United States. Instead, he vehemently argued to his friends' dismay that the United States merely reclaim the original intent and spirit of the constitution from the grips of usurious bankers and finance capitalists whose interests were driving the world to the brink of war.

The subject of usury also brings to the fore Pound's notorious anti-Semitism, which is in itself another fraught topic — yet Moody is able to explicate the subtleties of the issue by tracing the almost schizophrenic nature of Pound's increasing obsession with Semitic usury over the course of several years. What is most interesting about Pound's anti-Semitism is how utilitarian it was, at least at first. In a subsection titled "The Form and Pressure of the Time," Moody tracks Pound's increasing dependence on the figure of the economic Jew as a rhetorical tool for advocating against economic usury, while simultaneously claiming that usurers have no race. An interesting example Moody raises is Pound's use of the figure of Shylock in a 1935 article where he claimd Shylock did his race a disservice when he hid behind it, claiming in his defense "I am a Jew" (III.i.49), thus making Jews in Pound's eyes culpable for the crimes of usury as a whole. Moody claims Pound used anti-Semitism to further his own economic ideals and to inspire Jews to take up the cause of his economic reforms, not to incite hatred or violence. In a period of intense racial violence, and while not entirely redeeming of his character, the distinction is important; however, this distinction is simultaneously little consolation for the fact that Pound's ideologies participated in a wider trend of anti-Semitism that reached a climax in Nazi Germany. Moody's nuanced treatment of Pound's more questionable ideologies thus stands as a welcome rebuttal to many of the openly hostile, facile, and disparaging treatments of Pound's character we have had to date.

Works Cited

Beasley, Rebecca. Rev. of Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man and his Work. Volume I: The Young Genius, 1885-1920 by A. David Moody. The Review of English Studies 59 (240) June 2008: 480-1. Web. 1 Dec 2014

Bolin, Josh. Rev. of Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man and his Work. Volume I: The Young Genius, 1885-1920 by A. David Moody. Notes and Queries 55.4 Dec 2008: 537-8. Web. 1 Dec 2014

Moody, A. David. A Portrait of the Man and his Work. Volume II: The Epic Years, 1921-1939. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.

Nicholls, Peter. Rev. of Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man and his Work. Volume I: The Young Genius, 1885-1920 by A. David Moody. Modernism/Modernity 15.3 Dec 2008: 571-3. Web. 1 Dec 2014

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 1111-1175. Print.

[1] See Beasley (2008), Bolin (2008), and Nicholls (2008), who all praise Moody's first instalment.