Most literary lives are uneventful: a writer is a man or a woman who sits at a desk. The life of Ezra Pound (1885-1973), crammed with incident and acrimony, is a gift to the biographer.
Pound travelled widely, associated with some of the most prominent writers and artists of his day (including W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Hilda Doolittle and Amy Lowell), wrote music and the epic Cantos , translated Japanese Noh plays, supported Mussolini during the Second World War, stood trial for treason and was incarcerated for 15 years in a mental hospital.
David Moody's critical biography follows his excellent study of Eliot, and he brings to Pound's poetry the same degree of sceptical intelligence he displayed in his earlier book. This is neither a hatchet job nor a hagiography. Working from letters, interviews, memoirs and the texts of the poems, Moody builds a substantial and properly informed picture of Pound and his intellectual world. His intention is to represent Pound as "a hero of his culture, a genuine representative of both its more enlightened impulses and its self-destructive contradictions".
It would have been profitless to conceal the extent of Pound's egotism and prejudices (as some previous commentators have attempted to do), and Moody's engagement with these monstrous qualities is admirably clear- headed.
There are some revelations. Pound's hometown of Wyncote, near Philadelphia, was notoriously anti-Italian and anti-Semitic, but Moody demonstrates that his parents were unusually well-disposed towards their Italian and Jewish neighbours.
Pound's career as a student, largely a series of disagreements with old- school philologists, led him to declare that "the university is not here for the exceptional man". Moody charts the development of Pound's "alienated superiority" from these early years, when he abandoned his doctoral studies. His "scorn" for professional academics was "born of disappointment".
Poetry is at the heart of the story, but politics is never far away. Having moved to London in 1908, Pound immersed himself in the revolutionary milieu of the Vorticist movement and contributed to Wyndham Lewis's avant-garde journal BLAST , in whose pages he declared war on "malevolent mediocrity and petrifying conventionality". He showed his talent for propaganda in 1915: "This war is not our war (...) A vicious mediaevalism,/A belly-fat commerce,/Neither is on our side:/Whores, apes, rhetoricians."
Yeats said that "Ezra Pound has a desire personally to insult the world", and Eliot confided to a friend that he found Pound's poetry "well-meaning but touchingly incompetent". Yet both Yeats and Eliot benefited from Pound's undoubted skill as an editor.
He was not abstract enough to be a true Vorticist, and his ambition to write at epic length drove him away from the Imagists. Moody argues convincingly that Pound's loose translation of the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer , written when he was struggling to get his poems into print, is an oblique self-portrait of a writer who believes the literary world to be against him. Homage to Sextus Propertius is a "refraction of the ancient poet through a modern intelligence, or the superimposition of the one upon the other". Such interpretations are genuinely useful to an understanding of Pound's literary and political evolution.
"Pound's lack of tact has done him great harm," wrote Wyndham Lewis. Herbert Read concurred: "He was not made for compromise or co-operation."
Yet the best of Pound appears in the pre-1939 Cantos , where he attempts a head-spinning fusion of the classical, the Confucian and the modern. He envied Dante, who had been guided by the "Aquinas map", and endeavoured, through wide reading in at least eight languages, to construct a provisional modern map of his own. Late in life, he said that the overall idea of the Cantos was "that European culture ought to survive, that the best qualities of it ought to survive along with whatever other cultures, in whatever universality".
His writing is still considered dangerous, driven as it is by a conviction that truth "may be perceptible only by genius and seem nonsense to common sense". His notion of himself as the cultural saviour of civilisation led him to reject democracy, with disastrous consequences for his literary reputation.
Moody is rightly alert to what he calls the "scandal" of Pound, and this exemplary biography illuminates and exposes him with his warts and contradictions intact. I am already looking forward to the second volume.
Andrew Biswell is principal lecturer in English and creative writing, Manchester Metropolitan University, and the author of The Real Life of Anthony Burgess (Picador).
Ezra Pound: Poet - A Portrait of the Man and His Work Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920
Author - A. David Moody
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 544
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9780199215577