- “The news in the Odyssey is still news” Ezra Pound, W. H. D. Rouse, and a Modern Odyssey
Critics of modernist classicism have long been preoccupied with the ways the Odyssey helps contain and contextualize the brash formal experimentation of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Homer, the critical record suggests, has little to do with the historical, sociopolitical issues that have been at the center of Joyce and Pound (and indeed, modernist) studies for the past several decades. However, in a series of letters to British classicist W. H. D. Rouse between 1934 and 1940, Pound represents the Odyssey as a guidebook for the modern ruler and Odysseus as a proto-Fascist leader. These letters present a viewpoint that is a far cry from his better-known, earlier understanding of the Odyssey as a storehouse of poetic technique and of Odysseus, in an interpretation shaped by reading Joyce’s Ulysses, as a cosmopolitan wanderer who embodied the ideals Europe needed to hold up in order to heal the wounds opened by the Great War.1 With a few exceptions, critical analyses of Pound’s Homeric project have tended to focus on Pound’s aesthetics in general and the vexing problem of the underlying structure of The Cantos in particular; these studies for the most part have taken a synchronic approach to Pound’s reading of Homer, using, for example, Pound’s writings on Homer from the 1930s to contextualize the 1925 version of Canto 1.2 The published versions of Pound’s letters to Rouse would affirm such approaches, but the unpublished letters call for a response that also accounts for Pound’s politics and for the fact that his reading of Homer changed dramatically over the course of his long career.3 The full archive makes legible the historicity of Pound’s interest in the [End Page 105] classics and invites us to reassess his complex debt to Homer in defining and redefining his influential modernist project in relation to the Western literary tradition and his contemporary society.4 These letters show that, far from serving as a touchstone or a source of stable coherence for his project in The Cantos, the Odyssey was as a dynamic interlocutor that accommodated the full range of his evolving political and aesthetic ambitions.
It would be a mistake to view Pound’s ongoing interest in Homer as motivated by purely aesthetic interests, in part because his way of reading Homer shaped his interpretation of history and politics. The Homeric epics offered Pound a mythic blueprint for human history, repeated endlessly in multiple epochs and cultural contexts. As Pound explained to his father in an April 11, 1927, letter, “Various things keep cropping up in the poem. The original world of the gods; the Trojan War, Helen on the wall of Troy with the old men fed up with the whole show and suggesting she be sent back to Greece.” When he enumerates a list of faithless women in Canto 20, he explains to his father, his readers are meant to see a “subject-rhyme with Helen on Wall.”5 Historical events recurred, as Pound saw them, and they “rhymed” with events in myth and literature. These subject-rhymes, as he called them, inform the structure of The Cantos, which juxtapose far-flung events from history, myth, and literature to emphasize their inner resemblances. Although the subject-rhyme proved to be a useful concept for Pound’s paratactic poem, it was more problematic in the 1930s, when Pound tended to view the world in terms of sameness, echo, and rhyme at the expense of difference. In its most amplified form, this mode of thinking gave way to his paranoid, insidious, anti-Semitic rants that characterized contemporary history as a conspiracy of Jewish bankers.
Pound’s late work suggests that Odysseus became the ideogrammic figure through which he clarified his vision of intelligent, artful authority he ultimately saw realized in Mussolini. Pound’s interest in heroic models pervades his poem, which champions Sigismondo Malatesta and Confucius at first and later, in the 1930s, Mussolini, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The Cantos represent these figures in association...