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Early Writings (Pound, Ezra): Poems and Prose

Early Writings (Pound, Ezra): Poems and Prose

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by Ezra Pound, Ira Nadel (Introduction)

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Ezra Pound makes his Penguin Classics debut with this unique selection of his early poems and prose, edited with an introductory essay and notes by Pound expert Ira Nadel. The poetry includes such early masterpieces as “The Seafarer,” “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” and the first eight of Pound’s


Ezra Pound makes his Penguin Classics debut with this unique selection of his early poems and prose, edited with an introductory essay and notes by Pound expert Ira Nadel. The poetry includes such early masterpieces as “The Seafarer,” “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” and the first eight of Pound’s incomparable “Cantos.” The prose includes a series of articles and critical pieces, with essays on Imagism, Vorticism, Joyce, and the well-known “Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.”

  • First time in Penguin Classics

  • Includes generous selections of Pound's poetry, as well as an assortment of prose

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The best of Pound’s writing... will last as long as there is any literature." —Ernest Hemingway

"…We all owe a great deal to him. But I most of all surely." —James Joyce

Library Journal
If you didn't pop for the Library of America's recent $40 hardcover of Pound's prose and poetry, this $15 paperback will give you a good selection. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Title Page

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THE CANTOS - (1917-1922)



Explanatory Notes

Index of Titles and First Lines







EZRA POUND, poet, essayist, editor, translator, anthologist and literary provocateur, was one of the major modernists of the twentieth century. Born in Hailey, Idaho, on October 30, 1885, he attended the University of Pennsylvania and Hamilton College, then briefly taught at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, before heading to Europe in 1908 and settling for a time in Venice, where he published his first book, A Lume Spento. He then moved to London, where he continued to write and met such authors as Yeats, Henry James, Wyndham Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, and T. S. Eliot. In late 1920 he and his wife, Dorothy—they had married in 1914—moved to Paris, but not before he guided movements like Imagism and Vorticism to prominence and aided writers like H.D. and Joyce in getting their early works published.

In Paris, Pound met the American violinist Olga Rudge, who would become his companion for almost fifty years, and continued to work on his long poem, The Cantos, which he had begun in 1917. He also edited Eliot’s The Waste Land and became friendly with Picabia, Brancusi, Duchamp, Cocteau, and Ernest Hemingway, while working on an opera, Le Testament, based on the work of François Villon. In 1923 he visited Rimini and became absorbed by the life of Sigismundo Malatesta and his Tempio, which would prompt the Malatesta Cantos, numbers VIII-XI of his long work. He continued to publish criticism and visit Italy, where he and Dorothy, and then Olga, moved in 1924, settling in Rapallo and Venice. At the same time, prose works like the ABC of Economics (1933) and Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1935), became increasingly economic and social in outlook.

Pound remained in Italy the rest of his life, except for two trips to the United States: the first, in 1939, was an aborted attempt to visit President Roosevelt and several congressmen to prevent U.S. involvement in World War II; the second, in 1945, occurred after his arrest for treason at the end of the war following his anti-American broadcasts on Italian radio. Declared to be mentally unfit to stand trial, Pound was committed to St. Elizabeths mental hospital in Washington, D.C., where he remained from 1946 to 1958, during which time he continued to write. In 1949, he won the prestigious Bollingen Prize for The Pisan Cantos, which he began while at a U.S. Army detention camp in Pisa, Italy. Following his release from St. Elizabeths, Pound returned to Italy, where he wrote sporadically. He died in Venice on November I, 1972.


IRA B. NADEL, educated at Rutgers and Cornell universities, is professor of English and Distinguished University Scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His books include Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form; Joyce and the Jews; Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen; Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard; and Ezra Pound: A Literary Life. He has also edited The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson and the Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound.



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First published in Penguin Books 2005


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Introduction and notes copyright © Ira B. Nadel, 2005 All rights reserved




Pound, Ezra, 1885-1972.
[Selections. 2005]

Early writings / edited with an introduction and notes by Ira B. Nadel. p. cm. Includes index,

eISBN : 978-1-101-00734-1

I. Nadel, Ira Bruce II. Title.
PS3531.082A6 2005
818’.5208—dc22 2004058722





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T. S. Eliot called Ezra Pound “il miglior fabbro,” “the better craftsman.” James Joyce declared he was “a miracle of ebulliency, gusto and help.” W. B. Yeats recalled that to “talk over a poem with him” was “like getting you to put a sentence into dialect. All becomes clear and natural.” Wyndham Lewis summed him up as the “demon pantechnicon driver, busy with removal of the old world into new quarters.” The supercharged Ezra Pound seemed to be everywhere at once in the literary world of the early twentieth century, cajoling, hectoring, provoking, and refashioning literature whether in London, Paris, New York, or Rapallo. He met Henry James and corresponded with Hardy. He redirected the poetry of Yeats, discovered Robert Frost, and promoted H.D. His admirers were right: Pound was the quintessential modernist, the figure who overturned poetic meter, literary style, and the state of the long poem. Only his experimentation with new forms and determination to “make it new” exceeded his boldness in editing The Waste Land, overseeing publication of Ulysses, and creating new movements like Imagism. As he wrote in a note to his early poem “Histrion,” “I do not teach—I awake.”

Pound’s multiple importance might be condensed to a single conviction: poetry shapes the world. Like Shelley, who believed that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Pound knew that poetry informed the moral and aesthetic values of a culture: “Poetry is a sort of inspired mathematics which gives us equations ... for the human soul,” he proclaimed. Literature, he announced in the ABC of Reading, is “news that stays news” because it galvanizes readers—especially if it follows his precept to “use no superfluous word.” “Cut direct,” he ordered when discussing style. Pound, in other words, was a literary activist who insisted that ideas be put into action.

Some of Pound’s best and most challenging work is his earliest. Rewriting the dramatic monologue, the Provençal lyric, or the pentameter line meant the discovery of personae, Imagism, and a new form of dramatic expression that his earliest poetry embodied. “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave,” Pound wrote in The Pisan Cantos (Canto LXXXI), recalling his first encounter with late-nineteenth-century poetry but, more important, suggesting the aggressive and challenging approach he took to the task of poetic composition. Self-possessed and assured in his early work, he could fashion a narrative out of “a shifting change,/A broken bundle of mirrors,” as he writes in his remarkable reworking of Provençal traditions, “Near Perigord,” a poem that combines Dante, Provençal, and modernist form.

Pound contested traditional if not accepted conventions of poetic writing, replacing Swinburne with Arnaut Daniel, late Victorian elaboration with Imagism. The elegance and precision of the Chinese written character, where the ideogram replaced expansive metaphors, became his new focus. From 1908, when his first book, A Lume Spento, appeared, through 1923, when he was well under way with his lifetime’s preoccupation, The Cantos (by 1923 there were 8; the final number, some only fragments, would be 117), Pound tested, revised, rejected, and recovered forms of poetic expression that became a new direction for poetry for a host of contemporaries, including H.D., T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and Basil Bunting.

Pound began to remake his language on or about 1910: “I was obfuscated by the Victorian language ... I hadn’t in 1910 made a language ... to think in” (LE, 193—94). His poetic as well as cultural education had been alternately stultifying and liberating. “It takes six or eight years to get educated in one’s art, and another ten to get rid of that education,” he declared (LE, 194). In criticizing his own Rossetti-influenced efforts to translate Guido Cavalcanti, for example, Pound explained that his mistake was “in taking an English sonnet as the equivalent for a sonnet in Italian” (LE, 194). They are not the same, and when he realized this it freed him to explore, expand, discover, and construct his version of these works.

The anti-Romantic essays of T. E. Hulme, the English philosopher, provided Pound with an early direction: “beauty may be in small dry things ... the great aim is accurate, precise and definite description,” wrote Hulme.a By 1912, Pound would express similar ideas in a set of rules:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.

2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome (LE, 3).


His own poetry quickly demonstrated this approach, Pound’s energetic and aggressive attitude, evident from his earliest work. In his account of the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, Pound wrote, “the image is the poet’s pigment” (GB, 86).

Pound’s prose is often a key to his poetry. The Spirit of Romance (1910), originally written as a set of lectures on Romance literature given in London in the fall of 1909/1910 and then printed by J. M. Dent, records his absorption with Italian poets and Provençal troubadours. It also contains one of his most important early statements about poetry, defining it as “a sort of inspired mathematics, which gives us equations, not for abstract figures ... but equations for the human emotions” (SR, 14). The work also reflects Pound’s focus on the particular and the need for the definite, whether in terminology or imagery. His early aesthetic also favors restraint, “which drives the master toward intensity” (SR, 18). Arnaut Daniel, Dante, and Cino emerge as heroes. And he cites Dante’s praise of Daniel in Canto 26 of Purgatorio, adopting the phrase il miglior fabbro as a chapter title in The Spirit of Romance. Eliot would use the phrase as part of the dedication to The Waste Land, which reads, “For Ezra Pound / il miglior fabbro” (SR, 33).

The poetry of Provence becomes Pound’s ideal, what he calls the “poetry of democratic aristocracy,” drawing its audience through lyricism and drama (SR, 39). Its basis in song, expressed through the troubadour’s voice, was another foundational idea for Pound, who used the concept of melopoeia or song as a key to his own sense of sound, meter, and rhythm: “troubadour poetry was ... made to sing; the words are but half the art,” he believed (SR, 53). This ideal sustained Pound’s image of the poet and his relation to this culture throughout his writing. To be both poet and warrior, which the Provençal writer Bertran de Born embodied, became a further ideal for Pound.

The Spirit of Romance is the sourcebook for understanding Pound’s early poetry through its references, history, and detail—as well as its aesthetic. Throughout the account of El Cid, Dante, and the troubadours, Pound makes his conception of the artist clear, explaining that “an art is vital only so long as it is interpretative, so long ... as it manifest something which the artist perceives at greater intensity and more intimately, than his public” (SR, 87). Science, particularly physics, comes to Pound’s aid in explaining the evolution of literary culture and how the conditions of Provence provided the necessary restraint and tension to produce great writing: “electric current gives light where it meets resistance” (SR, 93-94, 97). And as Pound moves slowly from Provence to Italy, he sharpens his distinctions. The poetry of Provence had been “a cult of the emotions,” but the poetry of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy is the “cult of harmonies of the mind,” an “objective imagination” that appeals by its “refined exactness” (SR, 116; Pound would call the Renaissance “the cult of culture” [SR, 223]).

Pound believed that the Italian dolce stil novo poetry of the late thirteenth century—the period of Dante, Cavalcanti, Cino da Pistoia—was the direct descendant of Provençal verse (Makin, 79). Shakespeare’s language is “beautifully suggestive,” but Dante’s is “more beautifully definite”; Shakespeare is a forest, Dante a cathedral (SR, 158, 159). Geographically, Pound moves from Provence to Tuscany and then England. Paris and the work of Villon (François Montcorbier) is, however, another stop. Villon’s persistent gaze at what is before him, even when it is himself, expressed through a voice of mockery, suffering, and fact, appealed to Pound, who refers to Villon as “the only poet without illusions” and who never lies to himself (SR, 169). Dante, writes Pound, is many men; Villon is always himself (SR, 177). Arnaut Daniel, Bertran de Born, Dante, Villon—these are the poets who shaped Pound’s early ideas and technique.

Rossetti, Browning, and even Swinburne, as well as the Anglo-Saxon poets, were the first in the English tradition to challenge Pound, who alternately found their work admirable and execrable. But he vigorously reacted against “the crust of dead English, the sediment present in my own available vocabulary” (LE, 193), determined to renew the language of poetry. Whitman, Noh drama, and Chinese poetry, which he encountered through the work of Ernest Fenollosa, helped him to further his new direction, which in 1912. he labeled “Imagism.” Pound defined this as the drive toward precision in contrast to abstraction, replacing Victorian generalities with the clarity found in Japanese haiku, Noh theater, and ancient Greek lyrics. In “A Few Don’ts by an Imagist” (1913), he presented the new aesthetic, defining an image as the presentation of “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” treated according to certain rules, starting with “direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective.” Use “no word that does not contribute to the presentation,” he admonished writers (LE, 3-4). His anthology, Des Imagistes (1914), with work by H.D., Aldington, Williams, Joyce, and himself, exhibited these principles at work.

Succeeding Imagism was Vorticism, a system of energies responding to modern dynamism and technology, which Wyndham Lewis’s journal BLAST (1914-15) represented. The image is now understood not as an idea but as “a radiant node or cluster ... a VORTEX from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing” (GB, 92). But this, too, was soon revised: Noh theater’s “Unity of Image” replaced energy as the intensification of a single image became Pound’s concern. But soon even this approach would be too limited, because as Pound embarked on The Cantos, he needed a way for the image to arrest the tension of competing materials, while at the same time functioning as an element of reference and allusion. By 1918, between the composition of Homage to Sextus Propertius and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound confidently predicted that the poetry of the next decade will “move against poppy-cock, it will be harder and saner ... we will have fewer painted adjectives impeding the shock and stroke of it” (LE, 12). Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte,” “The Coming of War: Action,” and “Near Perigord” had already validated these ideas.

Homage to Sextus Propertius is the first of Pound’s major sequence poems, anticipating Mauberley and then The Cantos. Based on a series of poems from the four extant books of the Roman elegist Sextus Aurelius Propertius, the work, finished in 1917 but not published until 1919, created controversy because it was a liberal if not free-form “translation,” a work that adapted the original to contemporary language rather than imitate the original through a literal translation. This upset classicists, but not readers. Pound defended his work, claiming his goal was “to bring a dead man to life, to present a living figure” (SL, 149). T. S. Eliot in his introduction to Selected Poems (1928) explained that “it is not a translation, it is a paraphrase, or still more truly ... a persona” (SPo, 19).

What made Propertius central to Pound’s reading and study of poetry was the Roman poet’s irony. In Propertius, Pound identified logopoeia, what he defined as “the dance of the intellect among words” (LE, 25). This attitude, he explained, “does not translate; though the attitude of mind it expresses may pass through a paraphrase. Or one might say, you can not translate it ’locally’” (LE, 25). For Pound and his later translations, tone and color and the state of mind of the poet, not exact expression, are central (SL, 231). Pound also argues in his poem that Propertius had been misread by the Victorians, who emphasized the sentimentality of the Roman poet. Pound’s Propertius criticizes these misreadings as he underscores the ironic play of the Roman’s poetry. Jules Laforgue rather than Pater is the proper model, Pound argues, and in response to a remark by Thomas Hardy that the poem should be retitled “Propertius Soliloquizes,” Pound explains that “what I do is borrow a term—aesthetic—a term of aesthetic attitude from a French musician, Debussy,” and develop it rather than concentrate on the subject matter of Propertius (Davie, 49).

Propertius becomes a mask for Pound, a hallmark of his early poetry and the last of the major single personae in Pound’s work. In selecting and arranging the elegies of Propertius, Pound builds up a complex if unorthodox portrait of the Roman that both interprets the historical original and reflects the occupations of the modern translator. The recurrent themes of love, war, death, and poetry are of the present as well as the past. The poem might furthermore be thought of as Pound’s elegy to the Edwardian-Georgian reading public, which he could take for granted in the pre—World War I environment but not after. That readership became a casualty of the conflict suggested in Propertius but detailed in Mauberley.

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is Pound’s most important early poem, refining his sense of sequence and structure. Anticipating the form of The Cantos and yet summarizing the issues and outline of works like Sextus Propertius, especially in its social criticism, direct voice, and fragmented narrative, Mauberley presents, in tone and direction, the format and style of Pound’s later development. Essentially the retelling of the poet Mauberley’s disaffection with London and its culture, in response to the calamity caused by World War I, the poem also alludes to such influences as Henry James and Théophile Gautier. In James, Pound admired the depiction of atmosphere and impressions; in Gautier, a certain “hardness,” which he prophesized in 1917, celebrating verse that was “austere, direct, free from emotional slither” (LE, 12). The final poem in the Mauberley sequence, “Medallion,” thought to be by Mauberley himself, exhibits the hardness Pound admired in Gautier’s Émaux et Camées (1852).

Mauberley is a suite of eighteen poems in two parts, the first running from “Ode” to “Envoi (1919).” The second begins with the title “Mauberley (1920),” from section I to “Medallion.” On the title page of the poem in Personae (1926), Pound included a footnote, since deleted: “The sequence is so distinctly a farewell to London that the reader who chooses to regard this as an exclusively American edition may as well omit it and turn at once to [Homage to Sextus Propertius].” The epigraph from the Roman poet Nemesianus, “the heat calls us into the shade,” and the subtitle “Life and Contacts” were omitted in Selected Poems (1949) but reintroduced in a revised version appearing in Diptych Rome-London (1958), although the subtitle is reversed to read “Contacts and Life,” which Pound told his publisher, James Laughlin, was “the actual order of the subject matter” (Ruthven, 127).

Early readers of the poem had difficulty distinguishing between Pound and the persona of Mauberley. Were they the same or not? Pound argued they were different, but readers persisted in linking the two. Another issue was the construction of the work: were the sections linked or simply arbitrarily joined together? Answers can be found through identifying Pound’s sources, largely French. Indeed, Pound models his work on the rhythms of Gautier and Bion, poets he had recently reread for his long article “A Study in French Poets,” published in the Little Review (February 1918). Pound essentially creates in the person of Mauberley, who appears only in the latter half of the poem and in contrast to Pound, “a mask of the contemporary aesthete to show what the minor artist could expect from the England of the day” (Espey, 14). The poet’s place in society is the focus.

Beginning with an ironic “Ode” on Pound himself, the poet then shifts to his own age, exposing what in society prevents the artist from fully realizing his own potential because of commercialization and money, which has substituted for aesthetics. Democracy has also turned toward self-corruption (II, III). Sections IV and V are the climax of Pound’s denunciation, underscored by World War I and the sacrifice of the young dying for a diseased tradition. He then examines the sources of this degeneration, locating it in the overpowering of Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics by the official morality of Gladstone and Ruskin (see the “Yeux Glauques” and “Siena Mi Fe’” sections). A list of Pound’s, and possibly Mauberley’s, contacts follows (“Brennbaum,” “Mr. Nixon”), including an educated woman who inherits sterile traditions she does not understand (XI). Pound then examines himself in relation to the fashionable circles of literary London and realizes he is unacceptable (XII) and bows out with a love lyric, “Envoi (1919),” which contradicts the surface judgments of the critics in the opening “Ode.”

Mauberley emerges as an individual in the second half of the poem, entitled “Mauberley (1920),” where each of the sections opens with an apparent parallel drawn from the first section, although it develops its thematic opposite. Mauberley, however, is inadequate, displaying his limits as an artist (I), realizing that although life may offer him something through active passion, he hesitates and is unable to conform to the age (II, and “The Age Demanded” section). These acknowledgments lead to subjective reveries that engulf him as he drifts to his death (IV), leaving his only work—“Medallion”—behind, an ironic reworking of the “Envoi” that concluded part one of the poem and marked the disappearance of Pound to Paris. But the restatements of phrases in the “Mauberley” section of the poem from part one are thematic variants rather than direct extensions, balancing and ordering what had formerly been seen as disconnected fragments. Even typography contrasts the two parts of the larger work: Pound uses Greek in the first part for his Greek quotations and tags; in the second (“Mauberley (1920)”), he transliterates the Greek into Roman letters.

Complex but revealing, emphasizing the disparity between surface and foundation, between idea and action, Mauberley contains various links with The Cantos, including the theme of the poet as Odysseus (Mauberley and The Cantos each opens with this), which functions in both works as a unifying narrative thread (see Cantos I, XX, and XLVII). The abrupt breaking off of the twelfth poem in Mauberley, and the coda following the asterisks, anticipate the technical surface of The Cantos, where such typographical disruptions culminate in the introduction of Chinese ideographs (Cantos LII-LXXI et al.) and even a musical score (Canto LXXV). Mauberley also introduces a series of figures who will reappear in The Cantos, from Homer, Dante, and Browning to Pindar, Catullus, and Sappho, as well as Henry James, Pisanello and Edward FitzGerald, translator of The Rubaiyat. War, inimical to both poems, expands to a shared indictment of England.

Pound did not forget Mauberley: imprisoned by the U.S. Army at the Disciplinary Training Center in Pisa in 1945, he recalled in detail the period the poem evoked when he composed The Pisan Cantos, directly quoting from the earlier work. Mauberley encompasses many of Pound’s early enthusiasms—Browning, Swinburne, the Pre-Raphaelites, The Rubaiyat—as well as his classical interests, but it also looks forward to the range and breadth of The Cantos. With Propertius, Mauberley justifies the artist in times unsympathetic to his art, while The Cantos, even the early ones, demonstrate his necessary place in the modern age.

“You will have to go a long way round if you want to avoid them,” Basil Bunting wrote in his poem “On the Fly-leaf of Pound’s Cantos,” addressing them like the Alps. But for many readers, The Cantos still remain a mountainous poem, filled with crevices, steep ascents, and glorious views, despite Pound’s admonition that “there is no mystery about the Cantos, they are the tale of the tribe—give Rudyard [Kipling] credit for his use of the phrase” (GK, 194). Pound first thought of his epic, “a poem including history,” as early as 1904 or 1905, but did not begin drafting cantos until 1915 (ABC, 46). “Three Cantos of a Poem of Some Length,” the early cantos, first appeared in Poetry magazine in 1917, but almost immediately after their publication, Pound began to revise them, asking Eliot for editorial advice. Eliot told him to eliminate redundancies and explanatory passages and remove personal pronouns to “impersonalize” the text, making its transitions more elliptical. Pound followed this form of revision throughout the composition of the entire poem, preferring to call several of the later volumes “drafts,” as in A Draft of XVI Cantos for the Beginning of A Poem of Some Length (1925) or A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930).

No section of the work experienced as much revision, however, as “Three Cantos.” In fact, a portion of Canto III would form the opening of Canto I, while the later Canto VIII would become a large portion of Canto II. Pound was finding his way. More specifically, in 1923, Pound took part of Canto III, his translation of the nekuia passage from The Odyssey (Book IX, “The Book of the Dead”), and made it the opening of a revised Canto I and redistributed other passages to provide a more dramatic, in medias res beginning. But “Three Cantos,” and Cantos IV through VIII, record the poet’s original conception and impetus for the poem, which he acknowledged to be digressive and abbreviated:

the first 11 Cantos are preparation of the palette. I have to get down all the colours or elements I want for the poem. Some perhaps too enigmatically and abbreviatedly. I hope to bring them into some sort of design and architecture later (SL, 180).

Beginning with Browning’s Sordello, “Three Cantos”—the so-called Ur-cantos—develop a centralizing consciousness (later to be replaced with a fragmented perception expressed through juxtaposition) by using the poem to establish a dialogue with Browning in Pound’s search for form, complaining that Browning had

Worked out new form, the meditative,
Semi-dramatic, semi-epic story,
And we will say: What’s left for me to do?
Whom shall I conjure up; who’s my Sordello [?]

(“Three Cantos,” I)

The answer, of course, is plenty, and Pound proceeds in the “Three Cantos” to build a poetic world around the myth of Odysseus, because no historical literary figure or model could satisfy his demands. He would label this process of image making the Greek phantastikon, which he describes at the close of Canto I:

And I shall claim;

Confuse my own phantastikon,
Or say the filmy shell that circumscribes me
Contains the actual sun;

confuse the thing I see

With the actual gods behind me?

Are they gods behind me?

But historical figures remain subject to the imaginative metamorphoses of the poet’s phantastikon, merging and emerging with the archetype of a mythical hero free from historical reconstruction : for Pound, this is Odysseus. In the first of “Three Cantos,” he also establishes his style: “set out your matter/As I do, in straight simple phrases.” How to make the long poem both an epic and modern is the challenge Pound sets for himself. “Three Cantos” is his first answer. Experiment characterizes all of these early efforts plus his realization that the heroes of the past will not do—or must be reappraised and re-presented to suit the modern situation.

More specifically, the later half of “Three Cantos, I” introduces motifs developed not only by the “Three Cantos” as a whole but later Cantos as well (Bush, 117, 135-41). “Three Cantos, II” begins with a half-regretful soliloquy, “Leave Casella,” abandoning lyric poetry for the epic. The narrative technique shifts as the persona of the narrator recedes from the center into a less prominent speaking voice. No monologue but a series of unrelated vignettes emerges; the narrator discourses with images of various joyless ghosts, each presenting a form of spiritual blindness. The theme is “drear waste” and shows Pound’s technique of layering the vital past and the empty present into an extended sequence. At play are the techniques of Imagism.

A progression of historical images illustrating the fading power of the gods ends the Canto; worship disappears as Western culture ages and becomes more commercial. “Three Cantos, III” moves more securely to Homer and Odysseus, recalling Pound’s copy of Andreas Divus’s Latin translation of Homer, which would become the opening of the revised Canto I, Pound offering his own “rough meaning” in English of Divus’s Latin.

Cantos IV through VIII push the poem further, moving into the world of ragged textual surfaces and disjointed history but taking Pound closer to an emerging conception of the entire work. Canto IV, published in October 1919, was the first he regarded as capable of standing in the finished sequence, although he revised it slightly. “Three Cantos” orients the reader in psychological space; Canto IV in a flatter, historical space. Events, literary allusions, and the poet coexist now on the same plane. Pieces of text abut one another without an established context set by a single narrator or consciousness. Now the Orient, not Browning, organizes the poem. Japanese Noh drama provides the schema, a kind of theater without drama, using only a change of mask to mark a shift in dialogue. Scenery is minimal; the action is verbal; the language incisive. The drama Takasago, read by Pound while composing Canto IV, is central in conception and form for the new confidence and direction represented by this Canto (Albright, 65-67).

Cantos IV and V still celebrate the glamour of troubadour adultery, with short segments spliced together to reveal common themes. Peire de Maensac, a troubadour described in Canto V, may be a dreitz hom (good man), but he is still devious as he makes off with Tierci’s wife. But Canto V is also a departure, as Pound introduces a secondary intelligence, in this case Benedetto Varchi, a historian who considers whether the murder of Alessandro de’ Medici in 1557 by his cousin was petty revenge or a noble act to save Florence from tyranny. Pound enters history in this Canto, although it is uncertain, insecure, and baffling. Contrasting with the identifiable myths of Canto IV are the “facts” of Canto V, which are unreliable. Canto V also elaborates voices other than those of the poets. History itself begins to speak in the poem. Canto VI, for example, is the voice of the troubadour Bernart de Ventadour telling how his music seduced the wife of his patron, Eblis III. The voices of old men who mutter rather than speak fill Canto VII: “Dry casques of departed locusts/speaking a shell of speech” (VII).

Between 1920 and 1921, Pound wrote no Cantos, concentrating instead on Mauberley. He also wrote an opera, Le Testament, devising his own music for texts by François Villon; he also edited The Waste Land. These experiences changed the shape of The Cantos. The “impersonations”—the voices Pound employs in Cantos V through VIII—marking his search through history and myth to locate an authentic voice diminish, although in Canto VIII, published in The Dial in May 1922, he still maintains strong narrative control. Retelling moments from mythical history, he dramatizes as he juxtaposes, drawing on Anglo-Saxon constructions as much as Dante. But classical writers set the diction, the source texts and incidents in the Canto. Homer and Dante, in fact, become the two hovering figures not only in Canto VIII, (which would be radically revised in 1923—1925 to become Canto II), but also throughout the remainder of the entire poem. Suggesting the competition between two worlds, that of poet and audience and the classical and the modern, is the line “Ear, ear for the sea-surge, murmur of old men’s voices,” describing Homer’s skill and yet neglect. In Acoetus’s narration of the adventures of Dionysus, Pound brings a liveliness and drama to the poem not present in the earlier quest to create a new Sordello. The dialogue of Canto VIII is never between two poets (Pound and Browning) but between the dramatized lives of figures like Acoetus and Dionysus. Pound recognized this new energy and placed the Canto second in his revised structure, beginning the new version with an admission and a challenge—“Hang it all, Robert Browning,/there can be but the one ‘Sordello’ ”—and then leaping to the So-shu, seal, and Picasso passage of the original Canto VIII, reworking material from approximately line 15 onward. As the poetic source of the new Canto II, Canto VIII has a crucial place in the evolution of the completed poem.


Pound’s early prose similarly redefined his relation with tradition at the same time he formulated a new aesthetic. “What I Feel About Walt Whitman” (1909) is an early attempt to clarify his connection to an American literary past, extended by “The Wisdom of Poetry” (1912), a statement of the value of poetry as an act of liberation achieved through language. He amplifies this through a series of essays on select influences on his work, notably “Psychology and Troubadours” (1912) and “Troubadours—Their Sorts and Conditions” (1913). His essays “Imagisme” (1912) and “The Serious Artist” (1913) clarify his poetics at the same time he glances back in “How I Began” (1913). But Pound always manages to look forward when he looks back, as in “The Tradition” (1914), which focuses on Greece and Provence, and “A Retrospect” (1918), a collection of earlier pieces on Imagism and artistic commitment. “The Prose Tradition in Verse” (1914) strikes a new note as he begins with Yeats and then moves to the value of Hueffer’s (later Ford Madox Ford) poetry, not because he has a lyrical gift but because “of his insistence upon clarity and precision, upon the prose tradition; in brief, upon efficient writing—even in verse.”

“Vorticism” (1914) and “Chinese Poetry” (1918) are further important topics in Pound’s essays; so is the startling work of James Joyce. Two essays on Joyce, in fact, appear here, one dealing with the publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1917), the other with Ulysses (1922). Both were texts that Pound felt radically revised the novel as it was then understood.

Perhaps the most significant prose work Pound published up to 1923 was “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” In early October 1913, Ernest Fenollosa’s widow met the energetic young Pound, who was striding through literary London with his bold ideas and new forms. Mary Fenollosa hoped to appoint Pound her late husband’s literary executor. Pound, not an Orientalist but a poet, impressed Mrs. Fenollosa, whose husband went to Japan in 1878 after graduating from Harvard, continuing his studies at Cambridge University, and spending a year at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He first taught at the Imperial University in Tokyo, where he began an intensive study of Japanese art. After eight years, Fenollosa helped found the Tokyo Fine Arts Academy and the Imperial Museum, acting as its director in 1888. He also prepared the first inventory of Japan’s national treasures. He returned to Boston in 1890 to become curator of Oriental art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but scandal over his divorce and immediate remarriage to the writer Mary McNeill Scott in 1895 forced his resignation. Two years later, he returned to Japan but in 1900 made his way back to America and then on to London, where he died in 1908. Mrs. Fenollosa liked Pound; she appointed him Fenollosa’s literary executor, and passed on to him sixteen or so notebooks from her husband that concentrated on three subjects : Japanese drama, Chinese verse, and the Chinese writing system.

While in Japan, Fenollosa undertook the intensive study of Chinese poetry, especially the work of Li Po (Rihaku, in Japanese). The last topic Fenollosa studied before leaving Japan was the Chinese writing system, preparing an essay on the written character of Chinese literature. The work, which Pound edited and would publish in 1919, strongly influenced Pound’s ideas of poetry and the Orient. Fenollosa believed that Chinese characters are actually representations of ideas (ideograms), which present concepts in visual forms. This paralleled Pound’s work at the time on Imagism, in which he was seeking a visually focused poetry. In a later work, ABC of Reading (1934), Pound elaborates these concepts, claiming that Fenollosa’s essay is “the first definite assertion of the applicability of scientific method to literary criticism” (ABC, 18).

Pound declares that Fenollosa “was perhaps too far ahead of his time to be easily comprehended” (ABC, 19). In contrast to European thought, which defines by abstraction, Chinese thought, as stated by Fenollosa, defines in terms of science, of exactitude through a language based on sight, not sound (ABC, 20). The ideogram is not a “written sign recalling a sound” but “the picture of the thing, ... it means the thing or the actions or situation, or quality germane to the several things that it pictures” (ABC, 21). To define “red,” for example, the Chinese writer puts together the abbreviated pictures of a rose, iron rust, cherry, and flamingo. Essentially, Fenollosa for Pound “was telling how and why a language written in this way simply HAD TO STAY POETIC” (ABC, 22).

In Fenollosa, Pound found confirmation of his commitment to “the efficiency of verbal manifestation”: “a general statement,” he announces, is “valuable only in REFERENCE to the known objects or facts” that the ideogram represents (ABC, 27, 26). Practically, this meant the use of transitive verbs and avoidance of “is.” English, Fenollosa writes, has a “lazy satisfaction with nouns and adjectives.” Pound, however, did not know the sound of Chinese and faced the dilemma of translating Chinese concept figurations with Japanese sound values (Fenollosa’s preferred medium). Only when he received R. H. Mathews’s Chinese-English dictionary years later, which organized characters by their sounds rather than by their radicals, would Pound begin to understand the phonetic structure of the language. However, the aesthetic value of the ideogram as understood in Fenollosa’s essay was incalculable for Pound’s developing aesthetic.

Pound’s early writings in poetry and prose reveal the direction of his later work. His ideas about language, history, reading, and influence are apparent, whether in the experimental Homage to Sextus Propertius, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, or “Three Cantos,” or in essays like “Imagism” or “The Serious Artist.” Pound’s work up to 1923, when he confidently asserts in “Criticism in General” three broad divisions for poetry: melopoeia—when words are charged with musical properties; phanopoeia—“a casting of images upon the visual imagination”; and logopoeia—“the dance of the intellect upon words,” charts his later work. Earlier, in 1915, Pound told Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine, that in good writing “there must be no clichés, set phrases, stereotyped journalese. The only escape from such is by precision, a result of concentrated attention to what is writing ... objectivity and again objectivity” (SL, 49). As his writing up to 1923 evolves, he achieves this goal.

Pound and his wife, Dorothy, spent from January through April 1923 in Italy, anticipating their future residence there (1924-1945; 1958-1972). The period also initiated new work on The Cantos as Pound explored the life of Sigismundo Malatesta, the fifteenth-century condottiere and art patron of Rimini. In 1923, he also continued to develop his opera on Villon, now with the assistance of the composer George Antheil; reworked the opening of The Cantos (making part of Canto III the new beginning of Canto I); published an autobiographical volume, Indiscretions; and saw three of the Malatesta Cantos in print in Eliot’s Criterion. But none of these developments could have occurred without the writing and ideas formulated between 1908 and 1923.

In the material that follows, footnotes are by Pound, endnotes are by the editor. Because the texts for Pound’s essays follow those of their first publication, the punctuation reflects differing British and American practices.


ABC—ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1960.

Albright—Daniel Albright, “Early Cantos I-XLI,” The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound. Ed. Ira B. Nadel. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1999.

CantosThe Cantos of Ezra Pound. 13th printing. New York: New Directions, 1995.

CEPCollected Early Poems. Ed. Michael John King. New York: New Directions, 1976.

CSPCollected Shorter Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.

Davie—Donald Davie. Pound. London: Fontana, 1975. GBGaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. New York: New Directions, 1970.

GKGuide to Kulchur. New York: New Directions, 1970.

LELiterary Essays. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968.

Makin—Peter Makin, Provence and Pound. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

PERPersonae: The Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound. Revised edition. Ed. Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz. New York: New Directions, 1990.

SLSelected Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941. Ed. D. D. Paige. New York: New Directions, 1971.

SPSelected Prose, 1909-1965. Ed. William Cookson. London: Faber and Faber, 1973.

SPoSelected Poems of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. London: Faber and Faber, 1928.

SRThe Spirit of Romance. New York: New Directions, 1968.

Suggestions for Further Reading


Brooker, Peter. Bohemia in London: The Social Scene of Early Modernism. London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2004. Pound, Lewis, Eliot, and Ford engage in poetry, ideas, and gossip.

Carpenter, Humphrey. A Serious Character : The Life of Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1988. A massive account of his life.

Hutchins, Patricia. Ezra Pound’s Kensington: An Exploration, 1885-1913. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1965. A glimpse at Pound’s Kensington period.

Nadel, Ira B. Ezra Pound: A Literary Life. London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2004. A concise life emphasizing his literary development and current scholarship.

Pound, Ezra. Indiscretions. Paris: Three Mountains Press, 1923. Reprinted in Pound, Pavannes and Divigations. New York: New Directions, 1958. Pound’s autobiographical essay.

Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941. Ed. D. D. Paige. New York: New Directions, 1971. Crucial reading recording Pound’s emerging aesthetic, politics, and opinions.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"The best of Pound’s writing... will last as long as there is any literature." —Ernest Hemingway

"…We all owe a great deal to him. But I most of all surely." —James Joyce

Meet the Author

Ezra Pound (1885–1972) is generally considered the poet most responsible for defining and promoting a modernist aesthetic in poetry.

Ira Nadel, professor of English at the University of British Columbia, is the author of Ezra Pound, A Literary Life and the general editor of The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound.

Ira Nadel, professor of English at the University of British Columbia, is the author of Ezra Pound, A Literary Life and the general editor of The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound.

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