In 1908 London was the international arbiter of European culture and the young poet set out to lead and modernize the literary scene. By 1920, however, he had become angrily disillusioned (as had London with him) and moved to a more liberal and permissive Paris. However exhilarating he may have found expatriate circles, he remained separate from, rather than integrated into, that community, and finally withdrew from the polis altogether. In 1924 he took refuge in semi-rural Rapallo with growing interest in the programmatic controversies of early fascism, which at that point manifested itself as syndicalist – a class struggle: anti-state, anti-clerical, anti-militarist. More weight was originally accorded to occupational, rather than political, agendas – economic rather than ideological grounds.


Aspiration to a just society is not, in and of itself, reprehensible, although the manner of achieving it may become so. The initial movement in Italy after the Great War ultimately slithered into something rather ugly. Pound, like Mussolini, was both a reactionary and a revolutionary – each resisting modernization and acting as an agent of it. The poet was particularly preoccupied with inequalities in monetary distribution, as C.H. Douglas had been with purchasing power. Both advocated corrections to capitalism, not its overthrow. The enemy was identified as the arms industry and the prevailing banking system.

By 1945 Pound was forced to face the disaster of a defective, ‘Neo-Roman’ world order. The civilized, Western world which he had long celebrated, lay shattered. The role of outcast – it seemed – was forced upon him, and he was imprisoned by the Government of the United States, first at Pisa – then Washington – where he made gestures which, after the indictment for treason and the débâcle of the first Bollinger Prize, re-enforced the literary public’s image of him as a “mad racist” and “fascist” (lower case). In the later poems he naturally makes much of Fortuna and Quan Yin, Goddess of Mercy.

Once freed (1958), he gradually withdrew into silence, but not before turning against social order in so far as it is represented by patriarchal and authoritarian values which manipulate or oppress individuals – the source (root) of ethical relationships founded in family, military, and civil hierarchies (pen-yeh). The solid, social virtue of Confucius was now over-shadowed by the goddess of untamed nature, Artemis, and the Na-Khi subversion of marital values as well as John Humphrey Noyes’ utopian social experiment; the Oneida commune. Pound had always been uneasy with such man-made conventions which he came to see as being untrue to nature and inimical to live poetry.

His poetics had always embraced radical juxtapositions and ranged widely in subject matter, but in the mid-nineteen thirties there was a progressive turning away from linear, logical discourse and traditional exposition. Reading through his extensive correspondence highlights a noticeable shift in sensibility during those years. Whereas watersheds are geographically fixed, mindscapes alter imperceptibly over time. Increasingly rapid mind skips (abrupt and larger leaps from thought to thought) become more and more noticeable as well as the invention of an inverted persona; populist rather than intellectual, linguistically whimsical rather than traditionally ‘correct’. In the end that shift in mindscape settled into a fixed mindset. The Fifth Decad (1937) is, arguably, the last volume of cantos to share poetic method, linear logicality, and carefully wrought structures with its predecessors.

Pound had begun his epic without knowing where it might take him, but believing in an ideal, civic order that needed only to be discovered and defined for the modern age. He trusted that a functional design would emerge. In the months between Spring 1922 and high-Summer 1923 it did. The ‘Hell cantos’ (XIV-XV)  had been blocked out: then the ‘Malatestas’(VIII-XI) followed by the ‘Honest Sailor’(XII) and ‘Kung Fu Tsu’ (XIII). Obviously, the ‘Hell Cantos’ constituted a natural climax and logically followed the juxtaposition of Renaissance Virtù as contrasted with the decadence of modern capitalism, Confucian harmonies with the contrasting debasement of values ascribed to contemporary London. Awareness of the poem’s present strengths and direction, prompted him to reassess the imprecision of the earlier opening. A radical revision ensued. Pound wrote to his wife [23 July 1923]:

Re/ cantos [Ur I-III] I shan’t, have started if it hadn’t been for the edtn, de Looks [Three Mountains Press, 1925]; probably no harm, I have now a sense of form that I hadn’t in 1914, (very annoying in some ways). […] anyhow, anything I leave out can be restored later from earlier edtns, if needed. With sense of form, very difficult to get it all in, hodge podge, etc. | 8 |

Two days later [25 July 1923] he wrote:

Have started some sort of revision; cuts down the opening to two cantos instead of three, beginning with Odysseus descent into Nekuia [the under world], and doing the Browning item after that, with Bacchus ship as second canto). & then the miscellany. & then 4. 5 etc. Also various repetitions, even in later cantos, can go. Mostly it's too cluttered. | 9 |

8 | Lilly Rare Book and Manuscript Library: Pound, III


9 | Lilly Rare Book and Manuscript Library; Pound, III.

The outcome was stunning and establishes the practice of incorporating poems asserting différence (otherness) as contrasts to their contexts which had begun with placing ‘The Seafarer’ smack in the middle of Cathay (1915). Take, for example, the placement of ‘Kung Fu Tsu’, XIII. Its lyrical and thematic serenity opposes the scatological horrors of London’s ‘Hell’, XIV-XV. Ur VIII is now subsumed into Canto II, which constitutes a ‘Metamorphosis’ whose sensuous “otherness” triumphantly follows that of a Naukuia translated from a Renaissance Latin version into Anglo-Saxon strong–beat/alliterative verse. Both the palimpsest of time and cultures as well as the concept of imaginative shape-changing balance the contemporary ‘Hell’ which completes the suite.

Pound had always taken great care over the sequence of poems for a published volume and at the time of proposed deletions in Lustra had written to Elkin Mathews (30 May 1916): “Even certain smaller poems, unimportant in themselves have a function in the book-as-a-whole. This shaping up a book … is almost as important as the construction of a play or a novel.” | 10 | The epic reach of the poem(s) is thus established even before its actual subject matter is introduced. Such reversals of expectation became a structural feature that he would use over and over again; the poems of “otherness” carefully positioned to achieve various effects.

10 | Pound/Joyce ,The Letters of Ezra Pound to James Joyce, ed. Forrest Read (New York, New Directions, 1969), p. 285

Canto XVI makes the transition from Hell to Purgatory with a ‘running form’ spiraling slowly up a mountain path, howling against the inevitable evil of war. The ironic vignettes which follow cohere and span time from Rennaisance Italy through the Balkans of 1820, then on to the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870 and the so-called ‘Great War’ (191418) as well as the Russian Revolution. More importantly Canto XVII self-consciously echoes Canto II – again a metamorphosis after descent to the underworld. It is interesting to note that Pound included XVII in the Selected Cantos of 1967 and quoted from it in An Angle [1972] which included a sound recording of him reading the texts.

Yet another norm was set in Cantos 17-27 (1928); collecting ten or eleven cantos at a time. Here, however, there is no discernable, internal structure – other than a general winding down from the centrality of London’s ‘Hell’ and continued rehearsal of political and economic themes. For the first collected edition, A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930), three new poems were added in order to achieve a sought-after symmetry. That volume not only defined his palette (subject matter), but also a formal methodology.

The next two publications, Eleven New Cantos (1935) and The Fifth Decad (1937)  are classics. The first, with its concentration on good governance, economics, and the evils of the arms-trade in various places and times, is, however, not shaped quite so carefully as those which followed. Only one canto of the latter devotes itself to personal and literary reflections, XXXIX. The collection’s center of gravity lies in the poetic “otherness” of Cavalcanti’s ‘Donna mi prega’, XXXVI, (a lyrical philosophy of love) which is placed at the center of the sequence as were the ‘Hell’ cantos in Draft of XXX. On 22 January [1935] Pound wrote to J. Laughlin: “Note double spacing between words in 36. a different MIND of Canto from the others/ different tipological disposition.” | 11 | The present format of that canto, unfortunately,  subverts the poet’s intention. Editors and printers imposed procrustian conventions, and a good deal of meaning was lost in obliterating stanza breaks, variations in size of capitals, and spacing between words. In the end, however, we must recognize the fact that whereas Draft of XXX slowly acquired a recognizable form, Eleven New Cantos was conceived as a focused, integral whole.

11 | Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library: Pound I (Laughlin).