- Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man and His Work. I: The Young Genius 1885–1920
The obligations of a new biographer of Ezra Pound are onerous indeed. All the favorite stories have to be told again, even though as David Moody wryly observes, informants like Ford Madox Hueffer contribute more to “the myth and the legend of Pound” (113) than they do to the historical record (Hueffer’s famous accounts of Pound’s flamboyant dress during his London years, for example, vary erratically in their mix of colors from one anecdote to another).
In this the first of two volumes, Moody is meticulous in recording Pound’s multifarious activities up until 1920, though in covering all the usual bases his prose sometimes shows traces of fatigue. Hueffer’s famous “roll” of derision in face of the painfully stilted language of Pound’s Canzoni, for example, is rather blankly reported as Hueffer “falling over and rolling about on the floor” (112). Vivid this is not, but Moody’s focus is characteristically elsewhere, pressing the stories that make up “the myth and the legend of Pound” to yield more than the cartoon strip they have for some time threatened to become. In this case Moody wonders shrewdly: “if the master [Hueffer] felt the errors so strongly, why had he published four of those ‘canzoni’ in his review?” (112). As so often, of course, the story is Pound’s and is designed to contribute to the narrative of [End Page 571] his systematic self-modernization. Yet the disentangling of a distinctive “modernism” from the toils of nineteenth-century decadence was not at all as straightforward as such “mythic” moments of redirection suggest. Pound’s early career was a mix of self-advertisement and self-coercion, it seems: having worked with dedication on versions of the Japanese Noh plays, for example, he would soon after condemn them as “too damn soft” and “celtic” (278). The self-criticism would not prevent a continuing fascination for the form, but it was one means by which Pound sought publicly to curb his own enthusiasm for things which often looked distinctly un-modern.
The achievement of Moody’s biography is to get behind that public façade, not by some fictional projection of interiority but by looking intently at the poetry itself. The biography is called Ezra Pound: Poet, and the bluntness of the title almost deliberately conceals the real radicalism of the move. For where Humphrey Carpenter, for example, in his biography simply accepts Hueffer’s derisive “roll” as adequate testimony to the hopeless passéisme of Canzoni, Moody takes the trouble to read the poems and in doing so he convincingly reveals Pound’s own investment in the volume as (in the poet’s words) “a sort of Purgatorio with the connecting links left out” (135).
Canzoni, in fact, is only one of Pound’s early volumes in which Moody discerns a comparable structural “arrangement” of the poems, and his readings of them invite us to see that Pound’s later denigration of his “stale cream-puffs” has prevented us from really grasping the seriousness of what he was trying to achieve at this point in his career. Moody is almost alone in taking Pound at his word in his advice to Elkin Mathews about Lustra. Resisting Mathews’s demand for the deletion of certain poems he insisted that the book be taken as a whole: “Even certain smaller poems, unimportant in themselves have a function in the book-as-a-whole. This shaping up a book … is almost as important as the construction of a play or a novel”(286).1 Pound, then, was arguably trying to do more in these volumes than he has generally been given credit for, and Moody is right to observe of some of the poems in Personae that “the care over sound and syntax . . . is indeed exquisite,” (106) for it does seem that if these early works are “experiments...