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77 CHAPTER 7 The Poet and His Politics To speak dispassionately about so delicate a subject as the “political identities ” of Pound and Eliot is, even thirty years after World War II, almost impossible. In 1972 Pound was denied the Emerson-Thoreau Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters on the grounds that, despite the genius of his poetry, his political and social views made it impossible to honor him with a humanistic award. Such a judgment may strike us as unnecessarily harsh, perhaps even quaintly absurd. But then we remember that on the other side of the fence we have voices like Sister Bernetta Quinn’s, an established Pound scholar who declared in her recent book, with reference to the poet’s notorious Rome broadcasts of 1941–1943, “Pound attacked the Roosevelt administration, somewhat in the manner that more recent critics have assailed the policies of Johnson and Nixon”—an extraordinary statement that must send shivers down the spine of those of us who are alive today because Roosevelt fortunately did not listen to the likes of Ezra Pound. Eliot’s political pronouncements have given rise to similar—if less violent— controversy. In an especially interesting chapter of The Real Foundations: Literature and Social Change, David Craig argues that the so-called trenchant satire of The Waste Land is frequently no more than nasty sarcasm, directed against lower-­ class persons who happen to need false teeth, eat food from tin cans, or, like “the young man carbuncular” who is only “A small house agent’s clerk,” suffer from acne. Far from being the “centrally wise diagnosis of ‘mass civilization’ and its ills” it is generally claimed to be, The Waste Land, Craig suggests , is “primitivist” in its rejection of modern industrial society, a “defeatist” Review of The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, by William M. Chace; and The Real Foundations: Literature and Social Change, by David Craig. The New Republic March 16, 1974, 2–23. 78 Chapter 7 poem that “projects an almost despairing personal depression in the guise of an impersonal picture society.” Yet others—notably Russell Kirk and the makers of a recent BBC television special on Eliot, continue to view the poet as a gentle, kind, humane Christian, just short of being a saint, a voice in the wilderness preaching to the Philistines. In such an emotionally charged atmosphere, the temptation is to do what the Bollingen Prize Committee did when it made its now notorious award to Pound for the Pisan Cantos in 1949—namely to insist that a man’s poetry is not to be judged by his politics. Thus, in his well-known study of the Cantos, Clark Emery says, “Seen in their proper perspective in strict terms of literary criticism [Pound’s Fascist sympathies] are of minor importance. The critical evaluation of The Faerie Queene or of Paradise Lost does not hinge upon the anti-Catholicism or anti-monarchism of their authors.” It is the great merit of William M. Chace’s book that he refuses to take this way out. Convinced that whatever one’s own political persuasions, one cannot understand the poetry of Pound and Eliot—both intensely political writers —without coming to terms with their political ideas, Chace proceeds to give us the most balanced, fair-minded, lucid exposition we have to date of these ideas, neatly avoiding the Scylla of polemic attack and the Charybdis of partisan whitewash. Political Identities is, moreover, a model of conciseness: each poet gets roughly one hundred pages, and within that short span Chace shows clearly what forces attracted both poets toward varieties of fascism, and what inconsistencies and sometimes sheer ignorance of fact colored their political thinking. Thus Chace places the whole matter in a new perspective. His central argument is that Pound and Eliot were neither “uniquely political” nor “uniquely unwise in their views,” which were simply an extreme version of the views held by a large number of their contemporaries. Their rejection of democracy begins in their family situation, which Chace defines, especially in Pound’s case, as “nouveau-poor: refined, with pretensions of gentility, with a memory of rather better times, with little room for social mobility” and a consequent distrust of the “strangers”—particularly the Jews—who were displacing people like themselves “who could trace their American lineage back to the early years of the Republic.” If family background is one major factor, a second is the literary milieu of high decadence...


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