The title of J. J. Wilhelm's implies as proven what is at best a debatable point. From Pound's notorious radio broadcasts during the war, in which he criticised America for fighting against Italy, onwards, what happened to Pound, or what Pound did or did not do, might well qualify as a tragic period in his life, with its tragic consequences (internment in a cage during "the hell of Pisa" - a treatment that did no honour to his country, said Eugenio Montale, the Italian poet), and his internment for 13 years in St Elizabeths. But to call the period from 1925 until the beginning of the war tragic ill accords with the incontrovertible fact that during this period Pound produced come of the best Cantos, wrote some of his most influential literary criticism, and achieved his prose masterpiece Guide to Kulchur.
Apart from this, Wilhelm deals in a scholarly way with the various stages through which Pound's career - the most chequered, eventful and danger-ridden since Milton's - evolved, and to which his activities as a writer, an economist, a musician, a critic and a political utopist contributed so exuberantly. However, in dealing with these, Wilhelm studiously treads the beaten track, saying practically nothing original. In fact he covers, for the most part, familiar ground, already covered by such biographers as Noel Stock, Charles Norman, Mary De Rachewiltz, Hugh Kenner and Humphrey Carpenter. Wilhelm's commentary, on the whole, is explicatory rather than critical, informative rather than illuminating. That is why, in referring to the most delicate and sensitive biographical issues, Wilhelm tends to simplify what is complex, factualise what is beyond facts, and codify what is by its nature intrinsically elusive. For instance, while referring to Pound's relationship with his wife and with Olga Rudge, he tells us that: "Pound had the best of two worlds: a faithful wife who apparently did not mind sharing him with another woman and a beautiful, talented lover; a wife who was a painter and a lover who was a musician. Pound was vitally interested in both women and in both arts." Surely there was something much more complex to each of the issues involved - Pound's relationship with his wife and with Olga, and Pound's reasons for being interested in them, as well as in painting and music.
Sometimes Wilhelm spends too much space dealing with minor figures connected with Pound's career, but on the whole he brings them all into a well-documented pattern of Pound's life. Some of the so-called biographical details are nothing but trivia, the knowledge of which does not necessarily help a reader, even though they help swell the progress of the narrative which, rather than a critical biography, is what Wilhelm has proposed himself to write.
But when he does discuss the Cantos, his comments generally lack a critical edge, being for the most part explanatory at a not very intellectual level. For instance, of Canto 5 he tells us that we have "the perfect city laid out for us, with the ideal woman awaiting her marriage with God". Canto 14, too, we are told, "opens with a brilliant nature passage that recalls not only Ovid's Cave of Mirea, but also the city of Venice, where stone columns rise like natural trees out of the azure canals". Wilhelm's descriptive details are lucidly presented, but are no substitute for critical insight into what he is describing. On the Pisan Cantos, for instance, Wilhelm does not so much commit himself as to where their importance lies, as quote other critics for whom they are "among Pound's best works - if they are not the best; and there are some who would say that they rank with the greatest poetry of this century, if not of all time". What Wilhelm himself thinks is seldom made clear except in terms of such eulogistic phrases as "the most memorable part of the Pisan Cantos" or "the most endearing actors in the Pisan drama" such as the birds.
There are, however, some perceptive comments on Cantos 110- 117, cantos where Pound's well-known silence erupts creatively and achieves some characteristically Poundian flashes of insight and inspiration. But, on the whole, it is not for such comments or any critical insight into Pound's poetry that one goes to this book, but for a lucid account of his poetic career given in a simple but well-informed manner.
G. Singh is emeritus professor of Italian, Queen's University of Belfast.
Ezra Pound: The Tragic Years 1925-1972
Author - J. J. Wilhelm
ISBN - 0 1 01082 7
Publisher - Pennsylvania State University Press
Price - $49.50
Pages - 390