This book "places (Ezra) Pound's poetry in the context of 19th-century poetics and historiography". Mary Ellis Gibson shows how Browning's poetic historicism allowed Pound to overcome his early aestheticist sympathies for Pater and the pre-Raphaelites. As she observes, Pound's "impulse to write is deeply connected to the imaginative encounter with the past", and in Browning he found a kindred spirit. To Gibson, Browning was "the single most significant predecessor for Pound". Although the importance of Browning to Pound cannot be discounted, Gibson neglects the even greater importance of Dante. Pound first read Dante in 1904 when he was 19, and his correspondence with his mother reveals the enormous impact Dante had on Pound's epic project. Near the end of his life, Pound said: "I learned from Browning and I'm still learning from Dante."
Gibson then attempts to connect this 19th-century context to modern politics. She wishes to look at specific examples of modernist aestheticisation of politics and how "the construction of literary tradition and experiments with poetic form themselves entail a politics"; the contemporary critic's version of the search for the Northwest Passage.
Although admitting that "The Cantos can be explicated largely in terms of (Pound's) intellectual and personal biography", Gibson believes that the closer we come to Pound's politics, the less likely we are "to see him plain". Any reader of Pound, she states, must confront his politics. But for such a confrontation to "go beyond a ritual condemnation or defense", we must "take seriously the ways politics are implicated both in the very forms of poetry and in the languages of criticism". Thus dismissing the bothersome claim that The Cantos might actually be about something, Gibson can move into the sanitised realm of "tropological analysis". Because she writes clearly and well, the shortcomings of this approach to Pound's politics and his poetry become apparent.
Gibson's book is a major contribution to our understanding of the 19th-century influences on Pound's early poetry and the project of The Cantos, and it will be of considerable value both to serious readers of Pound and those with an interest in Victorian poetry and historiography. Her archival research has uncovered an important early work in poetry and prose by Pound, "In praise of the masters", which is reproduced in the appendix. In establishing the importance of Browning, she downplays the equal importance of Dante, noting, however, that Pound addressed Browning "as the Virgil to his own Dante".
Although the second half of the book is less successful, it contains suggestive readings of The Fifth Decad of Cantos and The Pisan Cantos, and it ends with an illuminating comparison of Pound and Carlyle. Among its many virtues, Gibson's book serves to remind us of the vast scope and ambition of the task that Pound was undertaking in his attempt at a 20th-century epic.
Tim Redman is associate professor, school of arts and humanities, University of Texas at Dallas.
Epic Reinvented: Ezra Pound and the Victorians
Author - Mary Ellis Gibson
ISBN - 0 8014 3133 6
Publisher - Cornell University Press
Price - £29.50
Pages - 240