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Yeats’s Legacies

Warwick Gould

Review essays and reviews

Ezra Pound, Posthumous Cantos, ed. by Massimo Bacigalupo

(Manchester: Fyfield Books, Carcanet Press, 2015), pp. 220. ISBN 97817841012061

Stoddard Martin

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  • 1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If (...)

1At ‘Yeats’s Mother-Tongue’, a reading in 2013 at the Irish Embassy, London, Grey Gowrie broke the flow of recitation from the Irish bard to announce that he had come to the view that The Pisan Cantos was the greatest poem of the twentieth century. An intake of breath was apparent, and the Irish poet and peer hastened to contextualize his faux pas by reading one of these cantos’fractured recollections of Pound’s period as the elder poet’s secretary at Stone Cottage in Sussex. When asked later why he had come to his view about Pound, Gowrie reported that he had once asked Robert Lowell who was the greatest poet of the twentieth century and, expecting the answer to be Eliot, was shocked when Lowell responded without hesitation, ‘There are two: Hardy and Pound’. When asked why, Lowell added, ‘Because of the heartbreak’.

2Identifying what is of value among the scraps and fragments collected in Posthumous Cantos might entail similar explanation. The heart of the collection was drafted in Italy in Italian during World War II and contains parts of the ‘paradiso’ Pound intended to paint before fortune turned on him and he was trotted off by partisans from Olga Rudge’s eyrie in Sant’Ambrogio. Once in the cage at Pisa which would become his residence for six months, he had neither these working drafts nor little else to refer to. Thus came in a flow the cantos Gowrie extols, incorporating along with their reminiscences of Yeats and others phrases and tropes flashing up out of what we can now read here in lucid form, either in Pound’s adopted language or the translations of it which editor Massimo Bacigalupo provides.

3This book offers not so much ‘posthumous’ cantos as sketches mislaid, discarded, forgotten about and/or superseded. The sequence begins with the three so-called Ur-cantos which Pound published more than once in his lifetime. It is pleasant and edifying to read them again, but one may ask why they are here? A hypothesis might be that they help to fill out what is partly intended as a kind of shadow version of The Cantos at large, shorter and easier for non-initiates to digest. There may be need for that, but if so Pound answered it with the Selected Cantos he provided for Eliot at Faber in the early 1950s. Another hypothesis might be that Pound’s heirs and editor thought it a good publishing wheeze to exploit the existence of little known material. There is nothing new or wholly unethical in such a practice: scholars have grown used to it at least since when Valerie Eliot published a facsimile of the Ur-Waste Land, an event which did much to enhance the reputation of Pound as editor, revealing how he had spared Eliot from exposure of some of his more repellent sexual and racial animadversions. Pound as editor of his own work often did himself less justice, especially in respect to the latter. Kind souls have frequently tried to perform editorial favours for him since.

4Prominent among them is his nonagenarian daughter, Mary, whom one suspects to be an instigator of this book. Somewhat less devoted is Professor Bacigalupo, though one of his few remarks on Pound’s anti-Semitism attributes crude caricature of a Jewish accent to ‘stock identification of the usurer and the Jew, by which Pound, obsessed with his war against usury, is increasingly tempted’. So was Pound merely ‘tempted’ into Jew-baiting by a more high-minded motive—combating usury—and not at base prey to the kind of bigoted distaste that patrician Mr Eliot exposes in ‘Burbank with a Baedecker, Bleistein with a Cigar’? Bacigalupo does not go on to state this, but elsewhere he pauses to point out how the young Pound praised the ‘hilaritas’ among Jews in a ‘sinagogue’ at Gibraltar where he landed when he first migrated to Europe in 1908. One detects subtle moves towards mitigation of the great obstacle to sympathetic reception of Pound. The notorious Rome broadcasts are mentioned only en passant, via a chronology of the poet’s career.

5Poverty-stricken, bombed-out Italians of the last days of war wander through drafts of the cantos at the heart of the book. Some are women, some old men, some mere children. Bacigalupo, whose father was a pharmacist in Pound’s adopted Rapallo, explains: ‘In the tragic last years of the war it was common to encounter on the road vagabonds and homeless people in varying states of dejection and confusion’. Pound became one of them after the fall of Rome, but his allusions to his own wanderings are typically sketchy and thus much less vivid than those his daughter recorded in her fine memoir Discretions (1971). Spectres of devastation slip in and out of evocation of what Pound called his ‘Eliseo’, drawn from a variety of his favourite authors, along with periodic laments over the fall of Mussolini and against the Allies for ‘the cost of a war… that could have been avoided’.

6Discarded and ur-fragments from later cantos which Pound composed in ‘the bughouse’ and after—Rock Drill and Thrones—are assisted by Bacigalupo’s notes, though the non-initiate may run into difficulty here, because even a diligent editor’s indications are often insufficient to provide full appreciation of what the aging poet’s increasingly telegraphic approach is meaning to communicate. Now and again Pound seems to recognize the problem and attempts to defend himself with a kind of clear rationale that, alas, rarely made it into his final drafts:

these statements are heteroclite? Life is heteroclite,
crystals of like nature attractive
and a pattern, a situation,
in quella parte, a locus, indefinite middles
not logic, nor indefinite media of exchange

The fact has a locus, it is not invacuo
it exists in fact amid jumble
which is not to say you may always neglect it
bad writers are without curiosity

7Bad readers may have cast this book aside before they reach such an explanation. Curious ones who persist will find nuggets to enrich their experience of the largest and most exasperating of modernist poetic monuments. Those with kind hearts may be rewarded by a last section, ‘Lines for Olga’, covering the decade of aged Pound’s near silence, 1962–1972. One can imagine the poet’s daughter particularly wishing the world to know of these touching tributes to her mother, who nursed her errant father to a peaceful end. They are full of hope, serenity, sensitivity and beauty, nudging us back towards the sensibility of a young aesthete, fired with love for Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist verse, who sojourned in Venice in 1908 and died there 66 years later. So, did Pound truly intend his great work to wind down into such a beatific silenzio? About this, others may vie to have a last say.


Ezra Pound, Posthumous Cantos, ed. by Massimo Bacigalupo (Manchester: Fyfield Books, Carcanet Press, 2015), pp. 220. ISBN 9781784101206


1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If you would like to find out if any further information has been discovered that may help your own research, why not write to the author at Quite apart from anything else, feedback is always welcomed.


Writer, lecturer, and publisher. His books include Wagner to the Waste Land, Orthodox Heresy and The Great Expatriate Writers, published by Macmillan. He edited anthologies of Byron, Nietzsche, and d. h. Lawrence in the Duckworth ‘Sayings of’ series, which he helped to devise, and has contributed chapters to many other anthologies, including on George Moore and Ezra Pound. He has taught at Harvard, Oxford, Łódź and Warsaw universities and was for many years an associate fellow of the Institute of English Studies, University of London. He writes short fiction under the name Chip Martin.


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