Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

5.2. Exile and Literature
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Helmut F. Pfanner (Vanderbilt University in Nashville)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The Importance of Cultural Learning in the Cantos of Ezra Pound

Alan Kelly (English Department, Millersville University)


On May 3, 1945, the American expatriate poet Ezra Pound was arrested in Rapallo, Italy, and soon locked in an outdoor one-prisoner cage near Pisa. He was later flown to Washington, D.C. where he faced nineteen counts of treason for his radio broadcasts during World War II, from 1941 to 1943, in which he supported Mussolini and criticized President Franklin Roosevelt. On December 21, 1945, Pound was placed in St. Elizabeths Hospital where he was judged incompetent to stand trail, and there he spent the next 12 years and six months. On April 18, 1958, the charges against Pound were dropped, and he was allowed to return to Italy (Flory "Pound and Antisemitism" 284; Levy 1). Slow to see the error of his ways, Pound had already written in the Pisan Cantos, "that free speech without free radio speech is as zero" (Levy 15), and, upon his arrival back in Italy he gave the fascist salute (Carpenter 848). Though Pound's treason was so serious he could have been executed, and many Americans were appalled by it, today potential readers of his poetry are pushed away primarily by the anti-Semitism expressed in his broadcasts and widely, but mistakenly perceived to permeate his poetry (Flory, "Pound and Antisemitism," 284; Nadell 20).

In fact, one critic, George Elliot, has gone so far as to compare Pound to Adolph Eichmann because of his anti-Semitism (Elliot 277). Wendy Stallard Flory, who has studied Pound extensively, says that today Pound's anti-Semitism determines not only the way his poetry is read, but if his poetry is read at all (Flory, "Pound and Antisemitism," 285). This fact was recently confirmed for me when a colleague read me passages from a book aiming to help one understand literature better in which the author suggests potential readers walk away from Pound's Cantos because of its anti-Semitism (Foster 234). The Cantos is 803 pages long (the 1979 printing), on the writing of which Pound spent more than fifty years of his life, and it is one of my points here that this very complex poem cannot be boiled down to one negative label that should send readers away.

It is important to acknowledge that Pound was for a time in his life extremely anti-Semitic, and that the radio broadcasts are full of very offensive anti-Semitic remarks. The poet had not always held such opinions. One of his books, for example, Guide to Kulchur, published in1938, is dedicated to his Jewish friend Louis Zukofsky (Surette 243). Leon Surette writes in Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism that Pound was not anti-Semitic until the late 1930s. As late as 1938, Pound, who had by then become obsessed with the idea that greedy rich people had messed up the world, wrote that Christian usurers were worse than Jewish (Surette 248). Gradually Pound became convinced by some of his friends and correspondents and their recommended readings that a Jewish economic conspiracy was the real culprit for the world's ills (Surette 270). Not long after this Pound began to include his anti-Semitic ideas in his radio broadcasts. However, Wendy Flory says very little of this garbage made it into Pound's Cantos. She did find some of it in the Pisan Cantos, described in 1988 in a New York Times article as "riddled" with anti-Semitism (Flory, "Pound and Antisemitism," 291). Of 3,800 lines, however, Flory found just three passages of thirteen lines with anti-Semitic material. This was 13 more lines than she thought should have been there, but she concluded that the Pisan Cantos were far less than riddled with anti-Semitism (Flory, "Pound and Antisemitism," 291). Flory says that earlier cantos "written before 1935 are free from the ranting, paranoid antisemitism of the radio speeches" (Flory, "Pound and Antisemitism," 292). In Cantos XLII-LI (published in 1937), she found two examples of explicit anti-Semitism in 46 pages of text. In Cantos LII-LXXI (published in 1940), there is one such passage in 70 pages. Finally, Flory found in the cantos written after 1945 just one anti-Semitic "outburst" (Flory, "Pound and Antisemitism," 291-294).

Katherine Anne Porter made an interesting point when she wrote in 1950 that Pound's "so-called anti-Semitism was, hardly anyone has noted, only equaled by his anti-Christianism" (Porter, "Hard" 43). In fact, Pound once wrote, "I think the world can well dispense with the Christian religion, and certainly with all paid and banded together ministers of religion" (Pound, "Provincialism" 193). On another occasion he wrote that there is no ethical help to be gotten from "Christian, Jew, Protestant, Catholic, Quaker or any minor sect in the Occident" (Pound, "Degrees" 67). Furthermore Pound, never bashful about expressing his opinions, wrote in the essay "Provincialism the Enemy" that Jesus was "the irresponsible Galilean" compared to Pound's favorite philosopher Confucius (193). William Cookson, English poet and Pound scholar, writes that Pound was unhappy with monotheism overall, and he quotes Pound as saying that "The glory of the polytheistic anschauung is that it never asserted a single and obligatory path for everyone" (Cookson 9). While The Cantos, which is 803 pages long, contains little that is anti-Semitic, there is much that is something else. For most of Pound's life he was a disciple of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, and if any label can be attached to The Cantos it would be Confucianism.

Pound's enthusiasm for the philosophy inspired him to translate four Confucian classics into English (The Great Digest, The Unwobbling Pivot, The Analects, and Shih-ching, a collection of Confucian odes). A Concordance to Ezra Pound's Cantos lists several names for the Chinese philosopher (Confucius, Kung, Kung-fu-tseu, and Chung) and says they appear in The Cantos seventy-six times (Benden 487, 488, 503). Canto XIII is devoted entirely to Confucius and his teaching, and throughout the long poem there are many characters from history and literature who serve to promote the efficacy of the philosophy. In Canto LXXVI, Pound wrote that "better gift can no man make to a nation / than the sense of Kung fu Tseu [Confucius]" (Pound, Cantos 454). Hugh Kenner, another scholar who has studied Pound extensively, goes so far as to say "there would be no difficulty in showing that the ethos of The Cantos is Confucian from the very first. . ." (286).

Pound did lose his ethical balance during World War II, some say because he had hoped Mussolini would be a positive force, a Confucian leader who would help make the world a better place. Many Americans and the American media had viewed Mussolini as a good leader almost up to the outbreak of World War II (Porter, "Letter" 215). According to Wendy Flory, Pound's disappointment when Mussolini failed to live up to his expectations was too much for him to cope with. Pound's creativity then began to work against him in helping him become more and more detached from reality in order to see what he needed to see, until he became insane (Flory, American 161-2). While some believe Pound faked the insanity that helped him avoid execution for treason, it is likely he really had become mentally ill. Some of the ideas in his radio speeches are certainly quite crazy. For example, he argued, seriously, that peace in the Pacific could be achieved by the United States trading Guam for 300 film versions of the best Japanese Noh dramas (Flory American 143). He also said that if he could have just five minutes to chat with Stalin he could straighten him out (Flory, American 144). At St. Elizabeths, after he had been ruled incompetent to stand trial, and any pretending on his part could have been quietly dropped, he paid a fellow inmate to taste his food because he thought the Jewish conspiracy now included a plot to kill him, even though he said he had sent the Jews the plans for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem (Flory, American 144).

Flory writes that Pound suffered from the kind of delusional disorder that affects only part of an individual's personality, while he was still able to focus effectively on his poetry (Flory, American 291). He continued to add to The Cantos, and what he added was still Confucian in nature. I would like to look now at one of the Confucian ingredients in The Cantos that illustrates the poem is not permeated with objectionable material.

There is an emphasis in The Cantos on the importance of learning, often cultural learning. Pound mentions the "four tuan" of Confucianism in Cantos LXXXV and LXXXIX without telling what they are. Even Pound's organization in The Cantos works to promote learning, because he uses fragments of information that aim to arouse readers' interest in historical and literary material and get them to look at the original works. In the case of the "four tuan," some rooting around will reveal that the four foundations of Confucian philosophy are love, duty, propriety, and wisdom (Terrell 469). Both Pound and Confucius believed that the last of these, wisdom, is acquired through study and the expansion of knowledge. Confucius, for example, says in The Analects that he loves study, and that while many men might equal his honesty, few equal his love of learning (Pound, Confucius 213). Pound shows his own reverence for learning in Canto LXXX when he quotes from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: "there is no darkness but ignorance" (Pound, Cantos 501).

In Canto XCIX there is a subject rhyme with the Shakespearean "there is no darkness but ignorance." Here Pound gives the Chinese word for evil or foul and then writes that "from ignorance, foulness" (Pound, Cantos 705; trans. of Chinese: Terrell 641). In Canto CV, Pound alludes to passages in a work by St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury (1034-1109), whom Pound considered a crucial figure in the early development of democratic ideals, in which St. Anselm says that the ignorant individual "looks around him and doesn't see beauty" and "tastes, yet doesn't know savour" (Terrell 683, 685).

Pound also complains in The Cantos, in Canto LXXIV, that classical studies and learning about our cultural roots are being suppressed by the economically powerful. Their aim, according to Pound, is to prevent students from learning about superior alternatives to today's economic system, which Pound saw as responsible for World War I and the deaths of some of his friends and for all wars in general (Pound, Cantos 431-32). Later, in Canto LXXXV, the poet writes that the consequence of the obstruction of knowledge is that college students are left without understanding of vital works of history and literature, without which they remain essentially ignorant (Pound, Cantos 549). In Canto CI, Pound expresses dismay over the quality of education available by quoting an old priest, who tells Yeats in a railway station that ignorance is spreading from the schools everyday (Pound, Cantos 725). This observation is emphasized by its repetition in Canto CXIII (Pound, Cantos 789).

As in the cases of Pound's arguments for other Confucian ideals throughout The Cantos, the poet promotes a Confucian concern for the acquisition of knowledge by means of presenting heroes and villains. The professors, for example, whom Pound accuses of obscuring knowledge in the Hell Cantos, are villains. So are the Regius Professors at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, whom the poet accuses in Canto XLVI of distorting truth in order to please the Whigs in 18th century England who paid for their endowments (Pound, Cantos 233; Terrell 181). Not all of the villains connected to ignorance in The Cantos make knowledge difficult to obtain. Some of these negative models serve to argue for increased knowledge because Pound condemns them for their personal ignorance. A character named Pa Stadtvolk, for example, is a millionaire described as so stingy he goes around salvaging nails from old boards in Canto XXVIII, but he has no books in his home. He's meant to represent how emotionally impoverished life is without interest in learning (Pound, Cantos 138). Another character, referred to as the Second Baronet in the same Canto, cannot imagine what one would do with an antique book, and his lack of interest in the past and learning provides another negative model (Pound, Cantos 139).

Pound includes King James of England among his intellectual villains because he was responsible for the King James Bible. Pound regretted the decline in the study of the classics and in knowledge of our cultural roots and felt that King James was partly responsible. The poet says in Canto CVII that the King James Bible undermined the study of Latin because knowledge of that language was no longer necessary to read the Bible. This, in turn, led to the decline of modern education because of the inaccessibility of classics in that language (Pound, Cantos 760; Terrell 699). In Canto LXXXV Pound writes that college students are churned out of institutions ignorant and without knowledge of the classics (Pound, Cantos 549). His anger over this perceived chain of events is apparent when Pound, not often given to diplomacy, calls the King James Bible "hogwash" (Pound, Cantos 760).

In Canto LXXXV, Pound implies that each generation has an obligation to pass along the wisdom of the past to the next generation. The poet gives the Chinese ideogram for

"teach, instruct," and next to that he gives his own made-up Germanic word, Sagetrieb, for "pass on the tradition" (Pound, Cantos 557; Terrell 478-9). Beneath these two commands, Pound places two Chinese ideograms, which translate as "It depends on us" (Pound, Cantos 557; Terrell 479). Finally, the poet writes: "We flop if we cannot maintain the awareness" (Pound, Cantos 557). All of these fragments combine with others in which Pound says in The Cantos that education is failing in modern times, and they work together to assert that the modern world is not meeting its obligation to pass on valuable knowledge about our cultural roots to our children.

At the same time that Pound paints a bleak picture of widespread ignorance, he also presents individuals he perceived to be intellectual heroes, some of whose actions exemplify or promote intellectual development. For example, Domencio Malatesta, brother of the 15th century ruler of Rimini, Fano, and Cesena (in what is Italy today), transported hundreds of ancient Greek manuscripts to the West during the fifteenth century. The risks involved in this effort are illustrated by Pound's mentioning in Canto XXIII that an entire cargo of books had to be chucked overboard during one trip to save the ship in a storm (Pound, Cantos 107). In spite of such setbacks and risks, Domencio founded a library at Cesena, making him one of the intellectual heroes of The Cantos without whose efforts many valuable classical writings about our cultural roots would not have made it to the West (Terrell 39 [see note 31]).

A contemporary of Domencio Malatesta serves as another worthy intellectual model in Canto VIII, Gemisthus Plethon. He was a Byzantine Neo-Platonist philosopher, who served as a representative of the Eastern Christian Church at the council that convened in Italy to attempt to heal the split between what were then the two major branches of the Christian Faith. The Emperor of the Byzantine Empire initiated this effort at reconciliation because he hoped ultimately to enlist European assistance in fighting the Turks, who were threatening the conquest of Constantinople (Terrell 39). Plethon, in spite of his connection with the Eastern Church, was so learned in the classics that he was passionately devoted to Greek mythology. His influence during his visit to the West resulted in the founding of the Platonic Academy of Florence. This institution became a center of the revival of ancient Greek culture in Europe, and Plethon becomes another one of Pound's heroes of learning (Terrell 39).

President John Quincy Adams is yet another such hero in The Cantos. In Canto XXXIV, Pound alludes to the fact that Adams wanted to endow a national university. However, Adams was not successful. Adams had been elected president by the House of Representatives after failing to win a majority vote of the Electoral College, and this lack of decisive public support prevented his getting Congress to enact his educational scheme (Pound, Cantos 168-9; Terrell 136-7). As I said earlier, Pound composed The Cantos using fragments that make it necessary to find things out for oneself. In a fragment about Adams's desire to endow the university, Adams complains that Congress seems unwilling to do anything for the nation's young men except make them into soldiers to fight the country's wars (Pound, Cantos 168).

Queen Elizabeth I translated Ovid into English, and because of this Pound makes her an intellectual heroine in The Cantos. Pound tells us of her translating activities in Canto LXXXV (Pound, Cantos 543). This fragment alludes also to the fact that the Queen had been well-regarded for her learning. On a visit to Cambridge, for example, she was asked to say a few words in Latin. She was told that just three words would suffice. The Queen proceeded to give a six-hundred-word address in flawless Latin (Terrell 468). Queen Elizabeth's translations are alluded to again in Canto CVII. Here Pound says simply that "Flaccus' translator wore the crown"[Verrius Flaccus was a Roman scholar] (Pound, Cantos 762; Terrell 626, 701). The Public Record Office in London has among its holdings translations by the Queen of Horace, Plutarch, and Boethius (Terrell 701).

Professor Morris Speare is one more intellectual hero in The Cantos. Pound thanks Professor Speare in Canto LXXX for his edition of The Pocket Book of Verse (Pound, Cantos 513). This is the book of poetry that Pound found in the latrine during his incarceration at the detention center at Pisa after he was no longer made to stay in his outdoor cage. We are told that at the gates of death, the poet found Walt Whitman and Richard Lovelace, thanks to the professor (Pound, Cantos 513; Terrell 446). Professor Speare's book was sold in many reprintings, and he seems depicted by Pound in The Cantos as an example of an individual passing on valuable tradition.

Pound's poetry may be controversial and shunned by some readers, but there's no denying that he was an exceptionally important figure in twentieth-century literature written in English. He influenced and helped the careers of a long list of important poets. According to K. L. Goodwin in The Influence of Ezra Pound, these include T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, E. E. Cummings, and Archibald MacLeish (Goodwin 75-185). Another scholar, E. San Juan, Jr., goes so far as to say that "it has become the academic consensus . . . that modern poetry in English is largely Pound's creation" (9). Pound also influenced important fiction writers. Noel Stock reports that Ernest Hemingway once said that Pound had taught him "'more about how to write and how not to write' than . . . anyone else alive" (Stock x). Pound also helped Hemingway publish In Our Time, he helped James Joyce get published and he promoted the work of D. H. Lawrence when he was still an unknown artist (Stock vii, ix-x). What I have tried to suggest here and in papers delivered elsewhere about the importance of the family in The Cantos and about the economic heroes and villains in The Cantos is that Pound was not just an influential figure in twentieth-century literature. He also wrote poetry that rises above his personal mistakes and his emotional and mental problems. Furthermore, the real basis of his masterpiece The Cantos is Confucianism, not repulsive political and racist attitudes. It is poetry that promotes cultural learning about the history of the Western World and about an important philosophy of the Eastern World, and it is worth reading today. Finally, it is poetry that illustrates a significant point about art, namely, that it cannot always be judged accurately by the artist's personal flaws and failings.

© Alan Kelly (English Department, Millersville University)


Benden, A. A Concordance to Ezra Pound's Cantos. New York: Garland Publishing, 1981.

Carpenter, Humphrey. A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Cookson, William. "Introduction." Ezra Pound: Selected Prose 1909-1965. Ed. William Cookson. New York: New Directions, 1975, 7-18.

Elliot, George P. "Poet of Many Voices" (1961). Rpt. Penguin Critical Anthologies: Ezra Pound. Ed. J. P. Sullivan. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1970, 251-77.

Flory, Wendy Stallard. The American Ezra Pound. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

---. "Pound and Antisemitism." The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound. Ed. Ira B.

Nadell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999, 284-300.

Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. New York: Quill, 2003.

Goodwin, K. L. The Influence of Ezra Pound. London: Oxford UP, 1966.

Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1951. Rpt., New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1968.

Levy, Alan. Ezra Pound: The Voice of Silence. Sag Harbor, NY: Permanent Press, 1983.

Nadell, Ira. "Introduction: Understanding Pound." The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound. Ed. Ira B. Nadell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999, 1-21.

Porter, Katherine Anne. "It is Hard to Stand in the Middle," The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Delacorte Press, 1970,


---. "A Letter to the Editor of The Saturday Review of Literature," The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Delacorte Press,

1970, 209-15.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1979.

---, trans. Confucius: The Great Digest, The Unwobbling Pivot, The Analects. New York: New Directions, 1969.

---. "On the Degrees of Honesty in Various Occidental Religions." Ezra Pound: Selected Prose 1909-1965. Ed. William Cookson. New York: New Directions, 1975, 64-69.

---. "Provincialism the Enemy." Ezra Pound: Selected Prose 1909-1965. Ed. William Cookson. New York: New Directions, 1975, 189-203.

San Juan, E., Jr. "Introduction." Critics on Ezra Pound. Ed. E. San Juan. Coral Gables: U of Miami P, 1972, 9-13.

Stock, Noel. "Introduction." Ezra Pound: Perspectives. Ed. Noel Stock. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1965, vii-x.

Surette, Leon. Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1999.

Terrell, Carroll F. A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

5.2. Exile and Literature

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