"For a Few Thousand Battered Books" - Ezra Pound and the First World War

This post is a revised version of an essay I wrote a few years ago; I’m posting it here in honour of Pound’s upcoming birthday. Please forgive its length - I’ll go back to my normal style shortly after this. For now, think of it as a preview of the literature-focused website I mentioned working on in last week’s post.


Though many poets write about social, political, and economic issues, few have made such matters as integral to their work as Ezra Pound. Literary criticism would always form a large part of his prose work, like ABC of Reading, but he wrote at least as much on economics and politics, like ABC of EconomicsJefferson and/or Mussolini, and segments of Guide to Kulchur. Even in his poetry, references to historical figures like John Adams and Sigismundo Malatesta outnumber artists.

The apparent catalyst for Pound’s concern with socio-economic matters was the First World War. Prior to the war, most of his writing deals directly with encouraging a revival of the arts, and poetry in particular. After the war, beginning with Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, he began to seriously consider the war and its causes, and his conclusions on the nature of and relationship between politics, economics, and the arts would shape his poetic and prose output for the rest of his career, especially in his epic poem The Cantos.

Despite the changes the First World War instigated in Pound’s thinking, he did not personally go to war. However, he personally knew many who did, and their experience makes up the bulk of Canto XVI. Most of them survived, like Ernest Hemingway, Wyndham Lewis, and Richard Aldington, among others, but Pound gives special attention to those who did not:

And Henri Gaudier went to it, and they killed him, And killed a good deal of sculpture, And ole T.E.H. he went to it, With a lot of books from the library, London Library, and a shell buried ’em in a dug-out, And the Library expressed its annoyance.

 Gaudier-Brzeska was a sculptor and colleague whom Pound so respected that he included one of his essays on sculpture in his own Guide to Kulchur, in which only Confucius and Aristotle are quoted at similar length. The loss of the London Library’s books when T.E. Hulme, a philosopher who also wrote a few poems, died in combat serves not only as a touch of dark humour, but also functions as a symbol of the loss of the books Hulme would likely have written had he survived. The destruction of the war did not consist merely of the death of millions of men, as horrific as that is alone. The war also destroyed the cultural accomplishments these men would have gone on to build; many viewed the war as a fight to defend French and English civilisation, but a civilisation’s greatness consists in its cultural accomplishments, not in killing its youth and thus their future contributions to society.

Ezra Pound’s friends, and many of the others, were intelligent people, and with a little thought could have foreseen the likely consequences of a major war between the great European powers; why then did they and millions of others go to war? In many, if not most, cases the state simply drafted them, of course, but Pound proposes several motives in his first post-war poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, such as “for adventure,” “from fear of censure,” and “for love of slaughter.” However, all of these motivations seem surprisingly vain. Most amount to essentially peer pressure, except for the psychopathic “love of slaughter, in imagination” and those “learning love of slaughter” once they arrived in the trenches. The variety of very human motives gives a personality to and greater interest for the reader in an otherwise merely abstract mass of soldiers. Noticeably absent as a cause for serving in the war, though, is anything relating to patriotism, civilisation, democracy, or any other such abstraction. Instead, the recruits depart for trivial reasons like “fear” or the barbaric “love of slaughter,” far removed from any ideal of a civilised, or even patriotic, society.

However, these men are not always so petty or low. Though their reasons for fighting leave much to be desired, they began to show some nobility once on the battlefield; they have “Daring,” “Fair cheeks, and fine bodies,” “fortitude as never before.” This segment of Mauberley resembles what one expects from a romanticised treatment of war. Though these enlisted men left England as ordinary men, war teaches them martial, masculine virtues of courage and perseverance, which will last the rest of their lives.

So a romanticised view of war predicts, at least. In reality, though, those virtues last in the poem for one line; then, they encounter “disillusions as never told in the old days.” Pound emphasises the idea with the only internal rhyme in the poem. The rest of the stanza describes a complete mental breakdown among the soldiers. Fortitude and fine bodies are replaced by “hysterias,” and “trench confessions,” conveying the idea of a need for catharsis or a crushing sense of guilt. The strongest image is “laughter out of dead bellies.” Laughter, an action normally expressing something joyful or comical, originates in corpses; specifying “bellies” calls to mind the bloated stomachs of the dead and filthy trenches where the war was fought. The line earlier in the poem “walked eye-deep in hell,” already apt since the tops of trenches were typically about eye-level when one stood in them, takes on its full significance only with its expansion in these later lines.

The end of the war, Pound said later, prompted him first to leave England, where he had lived for the past several years,  and then to investigate causes of war, in order to oppose it in the future. None of the young men Pound describes in Mauberley took it upon themselves to start a war, but wars do not occur spontaneously. Someone had to be responsible. Mauberley offers only a vague answer, “usury age-old and age-thick / and liars in public places.” At that early date, 1918, Pound had not yet arrived at a full answer to the problem of how Western civilisation could embark on and fight an obviously destructive and meaningless war.

After a few more years, and heavily influenced by economist C.H. Douglas, Pound concluded that war, and in fact many of the modern world’s problems, originated in usury, which Pound understood in the traditional sense of charging any interest on unproductive loans. Concern with economic matters runs throughout The Cantos, as well as much of his other post-War work. One of the best examples of his attempt to connect the gaining of wealth from barren material, money, that is not tied to anything of real value, with a host of problems in Canto XLV. This Canto consists largely of images of sterility and death; “Usura slayeth the child in the womb,” “lyeth / between the young bride and her bridegroom / CONTRA NATURAM,” “Corpses are set to banquet / at behest of usura.” When an unnatural, even evil, practice gains as much power as usury has in the modern world, Pound’s reasoning goes, man-made disasters like war and economic depression should be expected until the practice is abandoned. Unfortunately, he may have become too concerned with such issues in his poetry; as Michael Reck, who knew Pound for about fifteen years, comments, “Pound came to [a] kind of fanaticism in political and economic matters” (Ezra Pound: A Close-up), and economic history turns large segments of The Cantos, especially those written in Italy prior to the Pisan Cantos, dry and impersonal, with Canto XLV being one of the few exceptions.

The Cantos dealing directly with the First World War, numbers XIV-XVI, do not suffer this problem. Cantos XIV and XV place those responsible for the war in hell. Pound describes the inhabitants “Addressing crowds through their arse-holes, / Addressing multitudes in their ooze, / newts, water-slugs, water-maggots.” The imagery is appropriately vivid and repulsive. He weakens the imagery, though, by too frequently relying on a combination of insects and fecal matter to convey the place’s and characters’ moral filth. He defended the imagery on the grounds that, like the farting demons in Dante’s Inferno, his hell intentionally lacks dignity. I believe the scatological was common in medieval depictions of hell, but the relative lack of imagination renders it inferior, even allowing for the much shorter length, to Dante’s more varied epic. Though the devils did indeed lack dignity, at least in Dante’s vision feces only accounted for one circle of the underworld rather than functioning as the dominant image.

Several of the damned are difficult to identify, since Pound censured their names except for the last one or two letters. He explained that “not even the first but only the last letters of their names had resisted corruption.” Only a handful of figures are definitely identifiable, like Woodrow Wilson and Sir Winston Churchill, but their identity does not really matter because their sin is so widespread, if not institutional, that many people could have been included. Regardless of who exactly possesses political or cultural power, the nature of the West’s political structure guarantees that these problems will continue. “THE PERSONNEL CHANGES,” he wrote, but the real changes are only superficial.

Pound offered a handful of loosely connected solutions over his career, ranging from fascism to Douglas’s theories of social credit. The first to show up in The Cantos, though, is Confucianism. He juxtaposes hell (Cantos XIV-XVI) with Canto XIII, which consists of selections from the Analects of Confucius. From the 1920’s onward, Pound would translate several of the Confucian classics, and refer to Confucius frequently throughout his prose and poetry.

A few ideas run throughout the Canto. Regarding wealth, for example, Pound quotes Confucius, “When the prince has gathered about him / All the savants and artists, his riches will be fully employed.” Wealth should not be used merely to gain more of it, e.g. in usury, but instead Pound praises patronage of the arts; elsewhere, he specifically points to the Renaissance for this reason. Contrast with the aforementioned Canto XLV, “Pietro Lombardo / came not by usura / Duccio came note by usura,” “Not by usura Saint Hilaire, / Usura rusteth the chisel / It rusteth the craft and the craftsman.”

As for whether the modern world will ever embrace these ideals, Pound answers by ending Canto XIII, “The blossoms of the apricot / blow from the east to the west, / And I have tried to keep them from falling.” Attempting to keep blossoms from falling is as vain as Ecclesiastes’s “chase after the wind,” and attempting to spread an Eastern humanist philosophy may well be just as futile. The line perfectly leads into the following hell Cantos both because of its apparent lack of faith in whether these ideals can reach fruition, and because the image of falling leaves is followed by descending into hell. Compare with the similar pessimism of the first part of Mauberley, “He strove to resuscitate the dead art / Of poetry […] / Wrong from the start.”

The “dynastic temple,” indicating a line of succession, and the references to the “ritual” suggest a concern for tradition, as does the inclusion of this 2,500 year old text into a modern poem. Mauberley has a similar concern for tradition, but focuses on which traditions the modern world ought to retain, and how a generation (especially that of the 1890’s) deteriorated. The narrator of Mauberley tries to “resuscitate the dead art of poetry,” but fails. Horace’s famous line “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”) survives but Pound condemns the idea by negating the quotation, “non dulce non et decor.”

Confucius, though, offers a more positive and developed idea of tradition, as most of the quotations here offered are optimistic, or at least neutral. The most important thing is to train and discipline oneself in the tradition, for (again from this Canto) “If a man have not order within him / He can not spread order about him.”  Pound, in most of his writing, appears pessimistic about the probability of his ideals ever being adopted, at least in the modern world. The better part of a century after Mauberley, and half a century after his death, his pessimism appears justified. If we are to regain the best parts of our tradition, though, Pound, through Confucius, offers at least the start of a way to go about the project of reviving civilisation.