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By Sam Magavern


The Montréal Review, December 2021


Ezra Pound (1885-1972) in Venice, 1963. Photo by Walter Mori (Mondadori Publishers). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



What Thou Lovest Well Remains

            From Canto 81


What thou lovest well remains,
                                                the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                        or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
    Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee

The ant's a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
    Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity ,
                    Paquin pull down!
The green casque has outdone your elegance.
'Master thyself, then others shall thee beare'
Pull down thy vanity

"Master thyself, then others shall thee beare"

     Pull down thy vanity

Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,

A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,

Half black half white

Nor knowst'ou wing from tail

Pull down thy vanity

               How mean thy hates

Fostered in falsity,

               Pull down thy vanity,

Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,

Pull down thy vanity,

               I say pull down.


But to have done instead of not doing

               This is not vanity

To have, with decency, knocked

That a Blunt should open

          To have gathered from the air a live tradition

or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame

this is not vanity.

     Here error is all in the not done,

all in the diffidence that faltered . . .


When Ezra Pound moved to London in 1908, the person he most wanted to meet was W.B. Yeats, and he quickly befriended the great poet.  During the daytime he taught Yeats how to fence; in the evenings, he read aloud to him.  Yeats trusted Pound’s taste enough to accept some of his editing suggestions; he said that although Pound was full of the Middle Ages, he helped him to modernize his verse.  “To talk over a poem with him,” wrote Yeats, “is like getting you to put a sentence into dialect.  All becomes clear and natural.”  About Pound’s own poetry, however, Yeats had serious reservations, noting that it was always interesting but often very bad.

Oddly enough, Pound reminded Yeats of his great love, Maud Gonne.  Decades later, Yeats wrote that Pound shared most of Gonne’s opinions; they were both “revolutionary simpletons.”  They even shared a passion for cats, both considering them to be an oppressed race (each night Pound went to a street corner in Rapallo with his pockets full of chicken bones to feed the strays). But while Gonne grew bitter as she aged, Pound grew mad.  In 1933, Yeats went to visit him in Rapallo to seek poetical advice, but Pound wanted to talk only about his bizarre economic theories and how all the politicians in the world were scoundrels – except Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Over the years, Pound had become increasingly vitriolic about Jews and increasingly enthusiastic about Fascists.  In 1933 Pound interviewed Mussolini and gave him a copy of his magnum-opus-in-progress, the CantosPound told the tyrant that he was trying to put his ideas in order, and Mussolini asked, “Why do you wish to put your ideas in order?”  Pound took that question to be a brilliant endorsement of his chaotic poetics.  Meanwhile, he was writing less poetry and more political drivel – dozens of letters each week to various presidents, senators, and others to explain his evil and convoluted theories.

During World War II, Pound produced broadcasts for Italian radio propounding his ideas in disordered streams of consciousness.  He grunted, spoke in a variety of accents, and jumped from point to point, obsessing over intellectual “health” and “disease.” On the day of Pearl Harbor, he rambled for twelve minutes about Confucius, monetary reform, the state of England, and the Jews.  Some of his speeches were so bizarre that the Italians thought he might be a double agent communicating in secret code.

On May 3, 1945, a few days after Mussolini and his mistress were killed, Pound was captured by partisans at the Rapallo cottage he was sharing with his wife and his mistress.  He slipped a copy of the Confucian classics and a Chinese dictionary into his pockets as he was led away. The Americans put him in a Pisa military prison filled with American soldiers who had committed crimes such as desertion, theft, and murder.  The ordinary criminals were housed in pup tents, but the military apparently feared that the Fascists would attempt to rescue Pound, so they put him in a six-by-six foot steel cage with no shelter from the elements.  They let him keep his Confucius and provided him with a Bible, pen, and paper.  In his tiny cell, Pound played imaginary tennis with himself, shadowboxed, and practiced fencing moves to stay fit. 

After about three weeks in these conditions, Pound became hysterical, and the authorities removed him from the cage and sent doctors to see him.  Once living in a tent, Pound gradually recovered from his terror.   Now he had access to the army newspaper, Time magazine, and a copy of the Pocket Book of Verse.  In the evenings, Pound could use a typewriter, and he would type up his drafts and send them to his wife and daughter for re-typing; they would then return the manuscripts to him for further revisions.  In this fashion, Pound wrote the Pisan Cantos: eleven new cantos, totaling 120 pages.

Pound’s megalomania continued.  His first request of his captors was to send a cable from him to President Truman offering to negotiate personally a just peace with Japan.  Permission was denied.  He felt it urgent that T.S. Eliot, now an editor at Faber and Faber, publish Pound’s new versions of Confucius as “the only basis on which a world order can work.”  He lectured the camp commander on the true nature of money and ranted to him about the “dunghill usurers.”  Remarkably, however, the army psychiatrists who examined Pound found no evidence of psychosis or even neurosis.  It must have been hard to diagnose paranoia and megalomania in a world where millions of apparently sane people worshipped Hitler and Mussolini. 

Pound had not renounced his Fascism but, for the most part, he kept explicit reference to it out of the Pisan Cantos, perhaps for fear of the Army censor.  An important exception was the opening to Canto 74, which he wrote on a stray piece of toilet paper and initially kept separate; it mourns the death of Mussolini and compares him to Dionysius.  The obsession with monetary policy and usury also surfaces quite a few times, and Canto 74 notes that "the yidd is a stimulant, and the goyim are cattle / in gt/ proportion and go to saleable slaughter / with a maximum of docility."

“What Thou Lovest Well Remains” is a part of Canto 81.  For many people, it is the only part of the Cantos worth reading.  Ezra Pound was a brilliant man with remarkably astute taste in poetry, but he did not write many great poems.  He wasted most of his life on the Cantos: a seemingly endless series of incoherent fragments mixing anachronistic voices with hateful political and economic theorizing.  Pound himself called the Cantos a “botch,” saying “I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag.  But that’s not the way to make a work of art.”

Oddly enough, for a father of Modernism, Pound had trouble finding a modern voice.  He was most successful when he imitated or translated medieval and ancient poets.  His best complete poems are “In the Station of the Metro,” a two-line imitation of haiku, and “The River Merchant Wife’s Letter,” a free translation from Li Po.  “What Thou Lovest Well Remains” is, like much of Pound’s work, deeply anachronistic, but, for once, in this fragment, the archaic style succeeds.   In the abstract, it seems like a terrible idea to use outdated words like “thou” and “lov’st” in a twentieth century poem; but Pound’s antiquated diction works because it fits so well with his theme ­– the preservation of beloved heritage – and because he weaves his odd phrases into such beautiful, rhythmic music. 

Except for two references to ancient Greece, Pound’s archaic language comes from the world of medieval Christianity.  Pound was not a Christian; he had a Nietzsche-like disdain for all Western religion.  But something in the medieval tradition appealed deeply to him.  “Reft,” for example, is a medieval word meaning “seized” or “plundered.”  A “casque” is a medieval helmet, and “scaled” may refer to knightly armor.  Pound paraphrases a medieval author, Chaucer, who in his “Ballad of good Counsel” writes, “Subdue thyself, and others thee shall hear.” He sounds particularly feudal when he writes, “How mean thy hates / Fostered in falsity, / Pull down thy vanity, / Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity.”  Here he contrasts hateful, false, and vain behavior with an archaic ideal of nobility.  “Mean” can mean “selfish,” or “cruel,” but also inferior; low in social status; of humble origins.  “Charity” is not just help for the poor, but also forbearance in judging others and, in Christianity, love for God and one’s neighbors.

Pound wants to be pure and knightly, not petty and base.  How one feels about these motifs depends in part on whom Pound is addressing – in other words, who is the “thou?”  It is conceivable that Pound is talking to his American captors and other enemies, such as the Jews.  If so, this section is quite disturbing, with the medieval, Christian overtones meshing all too well with hatred of Jews as miserly usurers.  Given the rest of Pound’s life and work, we cannot exclude this reading.  But it seems more likely that “thou” is Pound himself, and that he is confessing to sins he had formerly ascribed to others.  He compares himself to a megalomaniac ant (who thinks he’s a centaur), a vain dress designer, a beaten dog, and a swollen magpie who does not know his wing from his tail.  “Magpie” is one of the words that particularly suggest that Pound is talking about himself.  The magpie is – like Pound – remarkable for its intelligence, but a “magpie” is also someone who chatters noisily or collects indiscriminately – like Pound, the blowhard assembler of random fragments.  And in Christian folklore the magpie is the only bird that refuses to enter Noah’s Ark, preferring to remain outside – like Pound, a self-exiled being. 

If Pound is talking to himself, then it is revelatory for him to confess that his hatred was mean, niggardly, and fostered in falsity.  Although Pound would not abandon anti-Semitism for several more decades (if ever), this is an early lightning strike, suddenly – if briefly – illuminating reality.  It is a moment of sanity linked, ironically, to his most severe mental breakdown.  Pound had been through a shattering experience.  Later, he was to report that he had “burst a mainspring” in the cage at Pisa, suffering from terror and a complete loss of memory.  But Pound’s humiliation may have also humanized him.  At the time of Pisa he had not written any significant poetry for over five years, and the three weeks of enforced silence in the cage were the first time in years that he was forced to be quiet and listen to the world around him.

In Canto 80, Pound alludes to the scene in the Odyssey when Odysseus, shipwrecked by Poseidon, comes close to death and despair.  As he is being pummeled in the rocky surf, Odysseus loses heart.  But then he takes counsel with himself and the gods.  He speaks to his own brave soul until Athena helps him cling to a rock; and then, with a humble prayer to the river god, he makes it to safety. In the most charitable reading of “What Thou Lovest Well,” Pound is like Odysseus taking counsel and seeking wisdom – in his case not from the gods but from poetic tradition.  Imprisoned in his pup tent, he reassures himself that what he loves well – like the Confucian classics he carried into prison – will not be taken from him.  At the same time, he instructs himself in humility.  He is not claiming immortality for his own works; it is not what thou “writest” well that remains but what thou “lovest” well.  Pound hated many people, but he loved great poetry and poets, and that love finally produced something – if only a fragment – beautiful and true. 

Pound also seeks wisdom from nature.   The lines about Elysium are obscure, but perhaps he means that the blessed afterlife – the heritage, the things that survive – has its origin in the things that we observe on earth.  This order of value is not the creation of man. It is not man who made courage, order, or grace; rather, man needs to learn from the “green world” his place in scaled invention or true artistry.  If you want to be a hero, a knight of culture, you must first learn that your inventions pale next to nature’s, and, far from being an impressive set of armor, are as negligible as the fashions of a Parisian dress designer.  The words “scaled” and “casque” refer not just to armor, but also to animals.  Fish, snakes, and lizards have scales, and a casque can mean a helmet-like formation on an animal’s head.  Scales denote measurement, balance and justice (as in the goddess of justice holding her scales), as well as music.  “Scaled” invention is natural, musical, and fitting – unlike the work of the ant, who mistakes his scale and thinks he is a centaur in his dragon world.

Pound tells himself to “pull down” his vanity, suggesting that it is a fortification, suit of armor, or vain dress to be stripped so that the self can become naked and vulnerable.  He is bereft because, for all his effort, he has produced so much dross and so little treasure.  His changing of Chaucer’s word from “hear” to “beare” adds richness to his depiction.  To bear can mean to endure, suffer, or tolerate, but also to support, transmit, bring forth fruit, and give birth to.  Pound is advising his suffering self not just to tolerate others, but also to help them become fruitful.  “Rathe” is another rich, archaic word.  Pound intends its Old English meaning of “quick,” but also plays on its meaning of  “appearing or ripening early in the year, as flowers or fruit.”  He has been rathe to destroy, when he should have been rathe to help ripen.

Similarly, Pound uses the word “fostered” because it echoes the meanings of “beare.”  To foster is to bring up or nurture, as well as to “promote the growth and development of, cultivate, as in, to detect and foster artistic talent.”  Like Yeats with his conception of poetic “labor,” Pound is linking cultural work to the labor of bearing, nursing, and raising children. Once, he had been the “foster father” of many friends’ work, as he promoted and aided Yeats, Eliot, Frost, Lawrence, Williams, Moore, Joyce, Hemingway, and others.  Now he condemns himself for fostering hate and falsity instead of art.

In the final stanza, Pound elaborates an alternative way of acting in the world and allows himself some redemption.  Not everything he did was vanity; and one should never retreat to “not doing.” It is a good thing “to have, with decency, knocked / That a Blunt should open.”  Wilfred Blunt was an English poet and political writer. While the world has forgotten Blunt, it is true that Pound did more for literature by “knocking” for other writers – like Eliot and Frost – than by writing his own verse.  Ironically, it is by admitting this failure that he achieves his greatest success, the one poem worthy to stand with those of the great writers that he aided.

It is also good to have “gathered from the air a live tradition.”  “Gathering” suggests flowers, fruits, or berries – things that the soil bears.  But Pound gravitates toward the air because an “air” is a song, a tune, or an aria.  Furthermore, one archaic meaning of “air” is breath.  In contrast to soil (which tends to be associated with one’s native land, nationalism, and “blood and soil” Fascism), air is global, universal, freely accessible to all.  To gather from the air a live tradition sounds quite difficult, maybe even miraculous.  One uses one’s intuition and knowledge to sense, to infer, to “gather,” that there is something “in the air,” something in general circulation but not yet grasped, and then one gathers it up.

For Pound, the road to redemption is love.  But everything we love does not survive – only that which we love “well.”  Pound invokes many of the meanings of the word “well.”  We must love justly, kindly, expertly, elegantly, fittingly, pleasingly, thoroughly, familiarly, and, perhaps above all, with careful and close attention.   Like Yeats, Pound has a fascination with aristocracy and heritage.  And yet the vision in this fragment is open to all: anyone can love well and inherit great culture.  The world does not belong to the aristocrats, to Pound, or to anyone in particular, but to all those who love well.

Sadly, this fusion of love, humility, sanity, and poetic excellence was not something that Pound would ever repeat; and from hell he went not to paradise but to limbo.  After six months in the Pisa prison, he was sent to Washington to stand trial for nineteen acts of treasonous broadcasting.  His lawyer entered a plea of not guilty and asked to have Pound examined by psychiatrists.  The medical panel concluded that he was suffering from paranoia and was unfit for trial.  He was placed in solitary confinement in the penal ward of St. Elizabeth’s Federal Hospital for the Insane, and it was there that he made the final revisions to the Pisan Cantos.

Pound was stuck in a legal netherworld.  He could not be released on the grounds of his current insanity, because it did not prove that he had been insane at the time he committed treason.  Moreover, he refused to admit being or having been mad.   If he were tried, he would testify that America’s involvement in the war was a conspiracy between Roosevelt and the Jews and that his broadcasts were an attempt to save the U.S. Constitution – hardly a winning defense.  He could not be pardoned, because he had not been convicted.  The Justice Department was reluctant to dismiss the charges, lest it be accused of making an exception for a traitor because he happened to be a great poet.

New Directions published The Pisan Cantos in 1948.  A new poetry prize had been established that year, funded by the Bollingen Foundation.  The Pisan Cantos won the prize, and a vigorous controversy ensued.  Pound prepared his own statement, “No comment from the bughouse,” but decided not to issue it. Irving Howe offered perhaps the most cogent and humane opinion.  He noted that while “the yidd is a stimulant” is evil and ugly, “pull down thy vanity” is beautiful.  He argued that if the Foundation thought Pound’s poetry was the best of the year, they should say so publicly but not give him the award, since to give an honor is to “extend a hand of public fraternity.”  Howe wrote that sometimes human values will clash with aesthetic standards and that, “On such painful occasions one can only say: not that I love literature less, but that I love life more.”

Pound stayed on at St. Elizabeth’s, receiving visits from admirers from around the world and extending a particularly warm welcome to those who hated Jews. After twelve years in the hospital, Pound was 72, and some feared that he would die at St. Elizabeth’s and that the U.S. would be embarrassed for having confined a mentally ill poet until his death.  Robert Frost stepped in.  He was famous, popular, and conservative, and he had powerful friends in the federal government.  In 1958, Frost and others found a prestigious volunteer lawyer, who prepared a motion for dismissal which, although it had no real legal basis, would, if the Justice Department did not object to it, provide a means to free Pound.  Frost and other literary figures submitted statements, and Pound was freed and allowed to return to Rapallo.  Interestingly, the first excursion he wanted to make was to the site of his Pisa prison, now occupied by a rose nursery.

In 1967 Allen Ginsberg went to visit Pound at Rapallo.  Previously, Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge, had shooed the Beats away, because she and Pound despised them, but this time Ginsberg was allowed to sit under a tree, play his harmonium, and sing them Indian mantras.  Shortly afterward, Ginsberg attended Pound’s eighty-second birthday party in Venice.  In 1969, Ginsberg was doing an interview when the interviewer told him that Pound had just died.  Ginsberg reminisced about smoking pot with Pound at the birthday party in Venice, singing Hare Krishna to him, and playing him Bob Dylan, the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper and Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.”  He compared Pound to Prospero, the old wizard in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Rest in peace, Ezra.  Beautiful man . . .  He was like Prospero – wise, and a great teacher – and a great guru, and a great silent man at the end.” 

. . . I think he was, as he pleaded, mentally ill for awhile – if you listen to . . .  the phonograph records made in St. Elizabeth’s, there’s a splenetic, irritable voice.  Whereas if you listen to the records made by 1958 . . . you hear the voice of Prospero himself, whose every third thought is his grave . . . So he’d come to a resolution of his woes, a rue; like Prospero, he drowned his books and plunged “deeper than did ever plummet sound” his magic wand of Pride, and took unto his counsel silence, broken only by good-humored advisements on rare sensible occasion as when he told me [referring to the Cantos], “Stupidity and ignorance all the way through.”

As time goes on, it seems likely that almost all of Pound’s poetry will be considered dross – the bad runes of Caliban rather than the wise spells of Prospero – but that people will continue to read and be moved by his great fragment, as they are moved by the gentle, dreamy speech of Caliban that opens, “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” Pound, like Caliban, was a monster with a keen appreciation for sweet airs, and, at least once in a strange life of waste and welter, the ability to compose one.


Sam Magavern is a writer and public interest lawyer, currently teaching at the University at Buffalo Law School.  He is the author of Primo Levi's Universe. He has written in a wide variety of genres – poetry, fiction, film, scholarly essays, and comic books – and published in many of the leading literary magazines, including Poetry, The Antioch Review, and The Paris Review.


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