Attainted: The Life and Afterlife of Ezra Pound in Italy
The USDTC stockade, which stateside newspapers had dubbed the repository of “the dirty sediments of our troops in the Mediterranean theater” was used to incarcerate U.S. military personnel who had committed serious criminal offenses and were awaiting either court martial, transfer to a penal institution in the United States, or execution. Most prisoners were housed in tents, but those suspected of suicidal tendencies, considered a danger to others, likely to make escape attempts, or condemned to death, were housed in so-called “observation cells,” commonly known to inmates as “death cells.” The 7103rd Disciplinary Training Company, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John L. Steele, a graduate of Harvard University, manned the camp.
Pound was the only civilian in the stockade. Instructions from higher-ups stated that Pound was to be put under “special and permanent surveillance to prevent escape or suicide. No contacts with the press. No privileged treatment.”
Pursuant to those orders, Pound was placed in one of the camp’s “death cells.” These were outdoor steel-mesh cages, about 6 ft. by 6 ft., which were open to view on all four sides and covered on top with a metal plate. Spotlights lighted the cages all night, and the occupants were kept in isolation, with guards forbidden to speak to them. Pound’s cage had been reinforced with the type of steel mesh used to lay down aircraft runways in temporary war zone airfields. The reason was later given that this had been done to thwart Fascists from attempting to free him.
To prevent suicide attempts, the prisoners had no belts or shoelaces, and no bed, sleeping, as they could, on the concrete slab floor with only blankets. They were fed once a day and they used a can in a corner of the enclosures to relieve themselves. Once every three days, Pound was let out of the cage for a while to go and take a shower and exercise by walking to the shower’s enclosure. No books or other reading material was allowed, except for the Bible. One of Pound’s cell neighbors was a soldier who apparently had been tried and condemned to death and who in his despair kept cursing aloud. Of course, Pound did not know why his neighbor was so agitated.
The guards, not knowing the details of why Pound, then close to sixty, was held like a hardened criminal, were puzzled, particularly since Pound’s behavior, although erratic and sometimes bizarre, was peaceful, courteous, and non-threatening.
After about two weeks in such environment, on or about June 7, Pound apparently suffered some kind of nervous breakdown. The heat during the day, about 75-90F in Tuscany in June, the comparatively cold nights, the dust, the lack of privacy, and the social isolation had gotten to him. Some years later, Pound made light of his Pisa detention:
Yes, they believed I was a dangerous person, unpredictable, and I observed that I really scared them. Sometimes I noted that the guards looked at me as judges. Their look translated to me as ‘gorilla, stay in your cage!’ When soldiers were off-duty, they came to gawk at me with a sense of wonder. Sometime they would throw me a piece of meat or something sweet, just like to an animal. The old EZ: an exciting and fascinating sight.
In fact, he was more a sad figure than a dangerous one. From the bars of his cage, he could see in the distance through the shimmering hot air the low-slung hills near Pisa with their coverings of umbrella pine trees. Pound had seen these same hills in 1898, when, at the age of thirteen, he had accompanied his aunt on a tour of Italy; later, in 1923, he had been in the area again with Ernest Hemingway and his wife, the three on a long trek through the Italian peninsula.
His isolation now made him more observant of his immediate environment and he lost some of his energetic swagger and optimistic self-confidence. As he wrote in one of the Cantos,
When the mind swings by a grass-blade
An ant’s forefoot shall save you
The clover leaf smells and tastes as its flower.
Yet, while living in such harsh conditions, the poet continued to write, scribbling some of the poems known collectively as The Pisan Cantos on a few sheets of toilet paper.
He was kept in this steel-mesh cage for about three weeks until his deteriorating condition became unavoidably evident. He had became apathetic, ate but little, and seldom rose from his blanket.
On June 14 and 15, the camp’s psychiatrists examined him, finding signs of memory loss, depression, and general imbalance. Pound had in past shown little regard for psychiatry, and he had called its major theorist “Sigmund the quack,” adding at another time that, “Thanks to Freud and Dostoevsky we have now an army of nervous nellies who are worried sick about their insignificant emotional life…” But it was thanks to the psychiatrists that he was transferred to a pyramidal tent (the type in which officers charged with crimes were housed), allowed reading material, visits from his wife, and even occasional use of the infirmary typewriter. In the tent, he continued to write The Pisan Cantos and to translate from Chinese the works of Confucius.
In a way, Pound also became the camp’s resident character. He devised his own physical exercises, mock fencing and playing tennis using an old broom handle, and was courteous and friendly with the guards, who reciprocated his approachability by being kind to him. He told medical personnel that the government would never try him for treason, because he “had too much on several people in Washington,” and as he left the camp for Rome and transfer to Washington, he put his hand on his neck, making a pantomime of someone being hanged.
He stayed in detention in the camp until on November 15, when he was flown to Washington via Rome to face treason charges.
Who was this unrecognizable Ezra Pound, so far from the reputable poetry anthologies where we find him today? Why was he being kept in a cage in Tuscany, charged with the capital crime of treason by the United States?
In 1924, the Pounds, unhappy in Paris, decided to move to Italy. In late 1924-early 1925 they were in Sicily, travelling with Irish poet W. B. Yeats and his wife Georgie Hyde-Lees but on Hemingway’s recommendation they headed north and chose to live in Rapallo, a town on the Ligurian Riviera to the east of Genoa. Rapallo, because of its mild climate and friendly atmosphere had long been a favorite place for writers and artists. Among those who at one time or another lived there in the 20th century, we count Hemingway, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Gerhardt Hauptmann, Max Beerbohm, and James Laughlin.
Pound, who had lived in Italy previously, told a friend, “Italy is my place for starting things.” Soon the Pounds rented an apartment in the attic of Palazzo Baratti, an imposing building along the seaside (the entrance to the apartment was from a back street, Via Marsala) and lived there until 1944. Yeats, who had moved to Rapallo in 1928, remembered:
Ezra Pound . . . a man with whom I should quarrel more than with anyone else if we were not united by affection, has for years lived in rooms opening on to a flat roof by the sea. For the last hour we have sat upon the roof which is also a garden, discussing that immense poem of which but seven and twenty Cantos are already published.
Olga Rudge followed Pound to Rapallo and their affair continued, Pound visiting her frequently while living with his wife Dorothy. Olga was soon pregnant and on July 9, 1925, she gave birth to a baby girl, Mary Pound (later Mary de Rachewiltz). To give birth discreetly, she travelled to Bressanone in the South Tyrol and left the baby in the village of Gais with a German-speaking woman whose own child had died. The woman agreed to care for baby Mary for 200 lire a month, and Mary remained with her until she was about ten.
Finally piqued by her husband’s behavior, Dorothy left Pound for an extended spell, spending time with her mother in Siena and moving on to Egypt from December 1925 to March 1926. In Egypt, She must have had an affair with an unknown Egyptian, because she became pregnant. She rejoined Pound in Paris in June 1926 for the performance of an opera he had written, Le Testament de Villon, but stayed behind when Pound left France to return to Italy. When Dorothy was in labor, it was Hemingway who took her to the American Hospital in Paris, where her child, Omar Shakespear Pound, was born in September. Apparently Dorothy Pound, just as Olga Rudge, also lacked the motherly patience and stamina to care for the baby, who was put in the care of her mother Olivia, in England, until he was old enough to be packed off to boarding school.
Olga Rudge, while sentimentally involved with Pound, lived in Venice in a small house given to her by her father in 1928. Pound visited her there when he could get away from Rapallo, a trip of about 168 miles, one way, and he nicknamed the Venice house the “Hidden Nest.”
In 1930 Rudge also rented an apartment in the hilly neighborhood of Sant’Ambrogio above Rapallo, the so-called Casa 60, by the civic street number it had then. On and off Rudge lived there from 1930 to 1985, and was joined in it by Ezra and Dorothy during the period 1944-45. Her apartment was on the third floor, the first floor used for an olive oil press. While the house, now privately owned, is currently reachable even by public bus, then one could only get to it by walking uphill on a narrow path, a tiring half hour trek from seaside Rapallo. The house had no modern conveniences, not even electricity. Olga also continued her musical career.
In February 1927, Rudge met with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who was also a fair violinist, and the two discussed the differences of music for violin and music for piano. Starting in 1931, she and Pound organized and played often in the Concerti Tigulliani, in Rapallo. The concerts allowed Rudge and Pound to promote the music of the then-almost-forgotten Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi, introduce Bela Bartok’s String Quartets to Italian audiences, and to play publicly music written by Pound.
Since during the tough economic times of the 1930s, music performers also suffered, in 1933 Olga took a job in Siena as secretary in the Academia Musicale Chigiana, a center of advanced musical studies founded in 1931 by Count Guido Chigi Saracini. Rudge, with the occasional assistance of Pound, started and transcribed original manuscripts of Vivaldi’s music, identifying over 300 new pieces, and in 1938 founded the Centro Studi Vivaldiani within the Academia Chigiana.
Ezra Pound, then, was not only a superb poet and a superior literary critic, but a music scholar and composer – and he believed himself to be a political economist and monetarist, beliefs that led him to see conspiracies to control economic output and finances in the capitalist countries … and, fatefully, to side with Fascism as a political system that, theoretically, could put the brakes on the free market excesses.
He became obsessed about control of the money supply and interest rates and railed against the Wall Street elite who, in his judgment, had caused the Depression and were hindering economic recovery in the U.S. As many of the principal figures in the financial markets were of Jewish descent, Pound moved easily to anti-Semitism. After the end of World War II, Pound claimed that his intention had been to educate Mussolini in economic matters, and he later told poet Allen Ginsburg “My worst mistake, was that stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism – spoiled everything.” Giuseppe Prezzolini, an Italian writer who had lived in both in Fascist Italy and in the USA, believed that “uncle Ez” knew less about Fascism than the Fascists knew about the poet.
Pound’s economic views derived from the writings of German economist Silvio Gesell, who for a very brief period had been Finance Minister in the leftist Republic of Bavaria and from Major Clifford H. Douglas, an Englishman who popularized the ideas of an economic philosophy he called Social Credit. One of the major tenets of these beliefs was that money should be regularly taxed, so that incentives to hoard it would diminish. The only large-scale partial implementation of Social Credit monetary policies took place in the Province of Alberta, Canada, in 1932-35.
In his economic writings, ABC of Economics (1933) and Social Credit, What is Money for? (1935), Pound referred to bank executives as sharks, and accused them of causing the decline of American democracy; President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was depicted as a Wall Street stooge and the nearest thing to a dictator the U.S. had ever had. As Pound explained:
History, as seen by a Monetary Economist, is a continuous struggle between producers and non-producers, and those who try to make a living by inserting a false system of book-keeping between the producers and their just recompense … The usurers act through fraud, falsification, superstitions, habits and, when these methods do not function, they let loose a war. Everything hinges on monopoly, and the particular monopolies hinge around the great illusionistic monetary monopoly.
Thus, Pound’s analysis decried the cooperation between government and financiers, which allowed them, he believed, to defraud the public – the “monetary monopoly.” Monopolies cannot exist without government approval, and financial monopolies are parasites, since they did not produce tangible goods.
In the Europe of the 1930s, with dictators installed in Germany and Italy, Pound noticed that with state guidance and often-outright control of banking and business activities, unemployment and inflation had declined and public spending in education, health, and other social services increased.
Although not a card-carrying Fascist, Pound sympathized with its theories and most of its practices. Having studied in the 1920s the cultural theories of German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, who believed that culture is the product of particular races, Pound concluded that Mussolini was the genuine embodiment of Italian culture: he had overthrown rapacious plutocrats, made politics into an art form, and supported a revival of culture. He stated: “Mussolini has told his people that poetry is a necessity of State, and in this displayed a higher state of civilization in Rome than in London or Washington.”
Pound had had his eye on Mussolini for a long time, hoping to use him as a conduit to make his economic ideas more well known and perhaps adopted. One month after Mussolini had assumed power, on April 23, 1923, Pound asked for an audience with the Duce, but his request was ignored.
Later, in February 1927, Olga Rudge played a concert at Mussolini’s residence. The Duce, as noted, was a competent violinist, and he enjoyed music. One contemporary report from Youngstown, Ohio, where Rudge was born, states, “Mussolini complemented [sic] Miss Rudge on her technique and musical feeling, saying that it was rare to see such depth and precision of tone, ‘especially in a woman.’” It was then that Pound got the grand idea that perhaps Mussolini could also be swayed to become a promoter of avant-garde writers and artists.
In December 1932, he tried for an audience again, submitting with his request a copy of a movie script on the birth of Fascism; this approach was also ignored, but a few days later Pound asked for an audience, intending to show Mussolini an article he had written in reply to American newspaper criticism of Mussolini ideas, expounded in Emil Ludwig’s Conversations with Mussolini. This time Pound was successful, and on February 16, 1933, he had his audience with the dictator.
Pound showed Mussolini some of his Cantos and was delighted when Mussolini found the poems “amusing”; in fact he immortalized the off-hand comment in Canto 41, writing,
said the Boss, “é divertente.”
catching the point before the aesthetes had got
Pound also spoke of his Chinese studies and about the Confucian concept that in order to arrive at correct definitions and clarify one’s ideas, it is necessary to “put order into words.” Mussolini did not really understand what Pound was saying and asked him: “Why do you wish to put order in your ideas?” a reply that Pound found acute and genial.
Pound had been conquered by the Duce and from time to time sent him copies of his writings, accompanied by proposals for political or economic changes. In a 1935 book, Jefferson and/or Mussolini, Pound compared the Duce to Thomas Jefferson and asserted:
I don’t believe any estimate of Mussolini will be valid unless it starts from his passion for construction. Treat him as ARTIFEX and all the details fall into place … The Fascist revolution was FOR the preservation of certain liberties and culture…
In July 1935, Pound sent him a copy of Jefferson and/or Mussolini, together with a proposal on the foundation of a new League of Nations. Mussolini’s Secretariat filed the proposal with the comment, “This is an eccentric proposal thought by a foggy mind lacking any inkling of reality. Keeping in mind the affection Pound has for Italy and the enthusiasm that motivates him, it is sufficient to let him know that his interesting proposal is being studied…”
One Pound letter, which the Duce read, was dated May 10, 1943 and talked about the monetary reforms advocated by Gesell and Douglas. The Duce asked his staff for a briefing on what Pound was talking about, but in the chaotic conditions of the war period the issue was not pursued. Clearly, the Fascists never thought of Pound as a font of policy ideas, but more as a useful propaganda tool against their enemies.
Although he was always eccentric and unconventional, old friends who visited him in Rapallo noted that by the mid-1930s, Pound’s personality had taken a sharp turn for the worse. He had become intolerant of those who disagreed with him and quite an egoist, thinking not only his poetry but also that his economic and political ideas deserved attention. James Joyce, among others, thought that Pound might be insane; British poet Robert Fitzgerald, who was very familiar with Pound’s writings during the period, stated that Pound “had the tone of a man no longer in touch…. What had seemed high-hearted and rather Olympian fun began to seem childish and beside the point. Only a man working in isolation, without criticism or ignoring it, could have failed to see the fretfulness and poverty of argument.”
In April 1939, Pound, who had gone to England for the funeral of his mother-in-law, sailed to New York, hoping to go to Washington and speak with the President to convince him to stay aloof from involvement in the coming war in Europe. In Washington, he did not see the President, but met only with some congressmen and senators who were rather cold to his ideas. In June 1939, he then returned to Italy and continued his campaign to do what he could to prevent the U.S. entry into the looming European conflict, arguing that financiers were responsible for the coming war and that the conflict benefited only international bankers.
A few months after Italy’s entry into the World War II (June 1940), Pound, of his own volition, started writing scripts for Italian radio broadcast to the United States. Employees of the Italian Ministry of Popular Culture read his scripts in English. Starting in January 1941, despite the opposition of the SIM (Italian Military Intelligence Service), who thought that Pound may be an American spy, he was allowed to record his own speeches, which were broadcast about twice a week from January 21, 1941 to July 25, 1943, the day Mussolini was fired by the king and imprisoned.
In all, Pound delivered more than 125 radio talks of 10 to 15 minutes duration and, depending on the rate of exchange at the time, was paid the equivalent of $12 to $20 per broadcast. This was the sole source of income for him during the period in question, since author’s royalties from the United States or England could not be sent to him in wartime.
Pound would compose and type his speeches in advance and practice them in Rapallo before Olga at Casa 60. He would then travel to Rome about once a month for a week and record them on discs at the studios of the Ministry of Popular Culture (a misnomer; the ministry was in charge of propaganda and press censorship) on Via Veneto 56, just steps from where the U.S. Embassy is now located. His scripts covered a variety of topics: political, economic, cultural, historical, and were interspersed with personal reminiscences and poetical references. His folksy and avuncular delivery, using pauses and speech mimic, was effective as a performance, even though the flow of subjects covered were likely to create confusion in the listener.
One of his biographers, Charles Norman, writes:
With his gift for mimicry, and reveling in his role of air-borne explainer and cracker-barrel philosopher, Pound gave many of his talks in stage-American sectional accents—if Yankee, more nasal than anything ever heard north of Boston, if western, more ‘folksy’ and drawling than anything ever heard west of the Mississippi, which may be saying a great deal. But in flat Pennsylvania accents he was vituperative, with a degree of abusiveness that seemed incredible in a man of his background and education.
In his radio talks, Pound generally praised Mussolini, advocated the Social Credit monetary system, and excoriated FDR, Churchill, the Bank of England, and even composers he disliked, such as Puccini and Beethoven.
The Pound broadcasts, which he introduced saying, “Europe calling! Ezra Pound speaking!” were part of a program called The American Hour directed by Rome-born American citizen Giorgio Nelson Page, the scion of a prominent Virginia family which numbered among its members an admiral of the Confederate Navy, general Robert E. Lee, and author and Ambassador to Italy, Thomas Nelson Page. Giorgio Page’s father was a bank executive in Rome and his mother was Italian. Page himself renounced US citizenship in 1933 and became more Fascist than Fascists, rising to be the official in charge of foreign press journalists in Italy.
The Ministry of Popular Culture loved Pound’s cocksure, glib, folksy, positive assurance that could state that America had enough internal problems of her own and should stay out of Europe’s quarrels. But many of his friends in the United States found his radio remarks confusing, bombastic, sometimes very crude, and occasionally nasty. Pound’s broadcasts were almost always followed by classical music. Ironically, one of his most venomous speeches, on May 18,1942, praising Hitler’s racial theories, was followed by music from Arrigo Boito’s Mephistopheles.
After Pearl Harbor and Italy’s declaration of war on the United States (December 11, 1941), Pound’s legal position changed drastically: he was no longer a private citizen exercising the right of free speech but an American living in enemy territory, who may be giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Unlike other enemy aliens in Italy, he was not expelled or interned, but continued to lead a life of routine, spending every month three weeks in Rapallo and one week in Rome, recording his broadcasts and hobnobbing with friends like composer Giancarlo Menotti, philosopher George Santayana, Olivia Rossetti Agresti, the daughter of English Journalist William Rossetti and niece of poet Dante Gabriele Rossetti, and flamboyant American journalist Reynolds Packard.
One change made in the broadcasts after Pearl Harbor was an introduction read by a radio announcer:
The Italian radio, acting in accordance with the fascist policy of intellectual freedom and free expression of opinion by those who are qualified to hold it, following in the tradition of Italian hospitality, has offered Dr. Ezra Pound the use of the microphone twice a week. It is understood that he will not be asked to say anything whatsoever that goes against his conscience, or anything incompatible with his duties as a citizen of the United States of America.
Pound thought that this would immunize him against criminal indictment at home, but it did not. He also claimed that he made several attempts to leave Italy and return to the United States but that these were thwarted by either the U.S. Embassy or others; whether such efforts were genuine it is difficult to conclude, but Pound may have been influenced to stay put by the fact that his elderly parents, living in Rapallo, were in no condition to undertake a difficult journey; if he left, they had to stay behind. His father, who was 83, had a broken hip and had not left his house in two years, and his mother was 82.
While very few Americans may have taken any interest in Pound’s bi-weekly ramblings, the U.S. Foreign Broadcasting Monitoring Service was listening, recording, and translating his speeches, not always accurately. On July 25, 1943 a Federal Grand Jury in Washington, D.C. indicted Ezra Pound on the charge of treason. The indictment stated that Pound “knowingly, intentionally, willfully, unlawfully, feloniously, traitorously and treasonably did [he] adhere to the enemies of the United States, to wit, the Kingdom of Italy.”
Pound learned of his indictment within days and on August 4, 1943 wrote a letter, proclaiming innocence of the charges, to U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle:
I have not spoken with regard to the war… but in protest against a system which creates one war after another… [I] had not spoken to troops and not suggested that the troops should mutiny or rebel; the idea of free speech became a mockery if it not include the right to broadcast over the radio…
The letter did not elicit a response from the Attorney General.
Meantime, on July 25,1943, Mussolini had fallen from power and been arrested, and on September 8 Italy switched sides in the war. Mussolini, who had been freed by Hitler’s commandos, set up a Social Republic in north Italy, the so-called Repubblica di Salo, from the little town on the shores of Lake Garda where the former Duce had his office.
Pound, who had been in Rome on July 25, left the city in a hurry and made his way to the Tirol, where his young daughter Mary was living. After a short stay, he travelled with her back to Rapallo and he and Dorothy abandoned their city apartment and moved in with his lover Olga at Casa 60. Of course, the two women, his wife and his lover, did not get along, but the strictures of the war were such that they had no choice but carry on. Pound, who considered the behavior of those who had overthrown Mussolini traitorous, soon adhered to the cause of the new Mussolini government, and he continued to broadcast occasionally. More importantly, he wrote scripts for others, newspaper articles, and propaganda pamphlets, getting paid about 8,000 lire a month. One of these pamphlets, published in Italian on March 24, 1944 was titled The United States, Roosevelt, and the Causes of the Present War. He was in frequent correspondence with the Minister of Popular Culture Fernando Mezzasomma, whom he not only helped with advice on propaganda, but also pestered to reprint books he loved, including his own translations of Chinese philosophical texts.
Back in the United States, on January 24, 1945, Biddle wrote to the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson that the United States was still interested in apprehending Pound and interrogating him in view of the Grand Jury indictment. On February 9, Stimson forwarded a copy of the letter to General Jacob L. Devers, then Commanding General in the North African Theater of Operations. Devers circulated the information to his subordinate commands and informed Washington that he had done so, but at this point, while the Allies were haltingly advancing in Central-North Italy fighting the slowly retreating Germans every step of the way, apprehending Pound was not a very high priority for the U.S. Army.
In April, American troops landed on the Italian Riviera, and by the end of the month they were in control of Rapallo. On April 28, Mussolini, his lover Clara Petacci, and some of his faithful, including Pound’s friend Minister Mezzasomma were shot by partisans, and on May 2 the German command in Italy agreed to surrender. Pound was to rue the grisly end of Mussolini later in Canto 74:
The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent shoulders…
Thus Ben and la Clara a Milano
by the heels at Milano
Pound knew that he must also surrender, and on the morning of May 2 he made the trek from Casa 60 to the U.S. Army detachment in Rapallo, attempting to turn himself in. At the command post, no one knew or cared who he was; he then turned around and left, returning up the hill to Casa 60.
The following morning, while Olga was out scrounging for food and Dorothy was visiting her mother-in-law, partisans, who believed that there was a reward for capturing Pound, broke into Casa 60 and took the poet with them to Zoagli, a nearby town where there was a partisan command post. When one of their officers informed the capturers that there was no reward for Pound, he was released but brought with Olga, who had joined him, to the American command in the nearby town of Lavagna. There Pound was recognized when he said, “Hello, I’m Ezra Pound, I believe you are looking for me,” and this time he was held and transported to the office of the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps in Genoa. There, FBI agent Frank L. Amprin, who had been detailed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to gather evidence for Pound’s eventual treason trial, interrogated him. Olga, against whom there were no charges, was released and was accompanied back to Casa 60 in Rapallo. On May 5, Pound asked permission to send a cable to President Harry S. Truman to offer his advice and help in negotiating peace with Japan. Of course, his request was denied.
On May 8, he told a reporter from the Philadelphia Record who had managed to reach him in the military compound that Hitler had been “a Jeanne d’Arc, a saint,” and that Mussolini had been an “imperfect character who lost his head.” He also gave Amprin a six pages signed statement about his broadcast activities during the war.
On May 24, Pound was transferred by jeep from Genoa to the Disciplinary Training Facility at Metato, handcuffed during the whole trip to a murderer. On November 16, 1945, he was moved to Rome and put on a plane back to the United States to stand trial.
On July 26, 1943, Pound was indicted on charges of treason together with seven other U.S. citizens, who had broadcast from Germany during the war. Incidentally, of the other seven, only three were tried, convicted, and served time in prison. Since Pound’s activities from July 1943 to May 1945 were also deemed to have been treasonous, and the old charges did not quite fit his Italian activities, on November 26, 1945, the Department of Justice brought 19 new charges of treason and associated crimes. The DOJ thought that the new, detailed charges, would make the prosecution more likely to succeed.
On November 27, Pound was arraigned, but the proceedings were adjourned while four psychiatrists examined the defendant and advised Judge Bolitha James Laws about Pound’s medical fitness for trial. The report from four psychiatrists found that Pound was not fit for trial, and the judge postponed the proceedings, remanding Pound to St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Insane.
Convicting a person of treason under U.S. law is an extremely difficult undertaking. Treason is the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution. Article III, Section 3 states:
Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two witnesses to the same overt Act, or on confession in open Court … The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted
The Founding Fathers purposely made it very hard to convict anyone of treason in order to insure that the government did not run amok and trample citizens’ liberties and, through the fear of indictment and prosecution, restrict freedom of speech. These strictures gave attorney Julien Cornell, who defended Pound, several choices on which to base his defense. He could claim that as a poetical genius, Pound may not have been bound by ordinary laws, a claim virtually no one would accept; he could claim that the ideas Pound espoused in his radio speeches had been the right ones and that the real traitors were the highest US officials, who had kow-towed to the bankers and prosecuted the war – also an argument likely to fail. He stood a better chance if he stuck to the argument Pound had made to the Attorney General in 1943: that by speaking publicly, he had only exercised his constitutional First Amendment rights. This might have been technically correct, but both his lawyer and his friends did not want to take a chance that a patriotic jury, in the mood of the times, would still find him guilty and sentence him to a long jail terms or to death. Thus, the decision was made that clinical insanity and inability to understand the trial proceedings would be Pound’s best defense.
Ernest Hemingway opined, perhaps to make the case for insanity more believable, that Pound “ought to go to the loony bin, which he rates and you can pick out the parts in his cantos at which he starts to rate it… He deserves punishment and disgrace, but what he really deserves is ridicule.”
Poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, not one of Pound’s best friends, added, “It is pretty clear that poor old Ezra is quite, quite balmy …treason is a little too serious and dignified a crime for a man who has made such an incredible ass of himself, and accomplished so little in the process.”
Defense counsel Cornell, who had first met Pound on November 20, had an easy time with his insanity defense. The four psychiatrists had come back to the judge with a unanimous report calling Pound delusional. The prosecutor, Isaiah Matlack, next moved for a public “insanity hearing” before a jury. The hearing was held on February 13, 1946, and the jury heard from Dr. Winfred Overholser, a psychiatric authority, who summed up:
[Pound] shows a remarkable grandiosity … believes he has been designated to save the Constitution of the United States for the people of the United States … has a feeling that he has the key to the peace of the world through the writings of Confucius … believes that with himself as a leader a group of intellectuals could work for world order …mentally unfit to advise properly with counsel or to participate reasonably and intelligently in his own defense. He is, in other words, insane.
After hearing this and similar assessments from other psychiatrists, the jury took all of three minutes to reach the conclusion that Pound was indeed of “unsound mind.”
The trial was then adjourned and the judge ordered Pound confined to St. Elizabeth’s Federal Hospital for the Insane in Washington. Pound had escaped an immediate judgment and a potentially harsh penalty. The issue of his guilt or innocence, however, had not been solved, and he could be tried again if the competent medical authorities concluded that he had regained his full faculties.
There has of course been speculation ever since that Pound was shamming – that although he may have been eccentric, bizarre, disagreeable, and self-important, he was not psychotic. The government also had problems in proving that Pound’s conduct passed the constitutional muster of treason, since he was far from being a Benedict Arnold. The prosecution did not have the two witnesses required to convict on treason charges, even though Pound had admitted that he had made the broadcasts, and the documents seized at Pound’s home in Rapallo had been taken without any search warrant, a fact that a prickly judge could find rendered them inadmissible in court.
Ezra Pound remained at St. Elisabeth’s from the beginning of 1946 until his release on April 18, 1958.
At first he was housed in an old, run down building, Howard Hall, which he called alternatively “bughouse” or “hellhole.” Howard Hall had no windows, a thick steel door, and peep holes through which the psychiatrists observed the inmates. Even in this environment, Pound got along well both with fellow patients and with the staff. He famously quipped: “I can get along with crazy people; it’s only the fools I can’t stand.” In June 1946, Dorothy, as his wife, was appointed his legal guardian. Visitors were allowed but only for 15 minutes at a time.
In January 1947, and at other times subsequently, defense attorney Julian Cornell filed a petition of Habeas Corpus and requested bail, but they were all denied. Dr. Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of the hospital, then moved Pound to Chestnut Hall. Pound stayed here for the following 12 years.
Now Pound had his own room, no pressing money worries, and unlimited time to write and exercise. At St. Elizabeth’s, he translated three hundred Chinese poems and works of Confucius, two plays of Sophocles, contributed articles to more than 20 different publications, and wrote twenty-five additional cantos for his magnum opus. He also carried a very active correspondence with a wide circle of persons, and received a constant stream of visitors, sometimes young people in groups of fifteen. Some were distinguished figures in their own right, such as Robert Lowell, art historian Kenneth Clark, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Charles Olson, and William Carlos Williams.
High-profile correspondents notwithstanding, the general public had started to forget about him. But Pound had a knack for being in the center of controversy. In late 1945-early 1946 Random House, which was planning an anthology of American poetry, decided to exclude any pieces written by Ezra Pound on the basis that he was a Fascist – and, jarringly, that his work wasn’t good enough. Random House ‘s Bennett Cerf believed strongly that, in Pound’s case, patriotism trumped poetry. The issue enraged partisans on both sides of the debate and raised questions about the meaning of Americanism, patriotism, censorship, and democracy. Eventually, Random House decided to include a few of Pound’s poems.
In 1948-49, Pound, through no fault of his own, was involved in an even more serious controversy. The poems he had written while in custody in Pisa, Cantos 74-84, were being published, and in June of that year some of his friends, including T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Conrad Aiken, Katherine Anne Porter, and Theodore Spencer proposed that Pound be awarded a new national poetry award, the Bollingen Prize, which carried $1,000 prize money and was to be awarded by the Library of Congress. A jury of fifteen Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress, most of whom were Pound’s friends, would choose the winner. Of the fifteen votes, Pound got ten; his friend William Carlos Williams got two, and one member voted for a third poet, recently deceased.
Only one voted against giving Pound the prize: poet Katherine Garrison Chapin, who was the also the wife of the Attorney General who had charged Pound with treason in 1943; poet Karl Shapiro, who would not vote for Pound because of the latter anti-Semitism, abstained.
When Pound learned that he had been chosen for the 1949 award, his reaction was: “No comment from the bughouse.”
The award of a major prize to an accused traitor, who was alleged to be mentally unbalanced, created a literary and political sensation. Poet and Harvard professor Robert Hillyer, then president of the Poetry Society of America, attacked the selection committee and Pound in articles in The Saturday Review of Literature, saying that, “he never saw anything to admire in Pound, not one line,” and charging that the award to Pound was part of a plot designed to undermine traditional American literature. Of course, the affair also presented a ready made opportunity for Hillyer to attack the poetry of modernists, such as T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, who were his rivals. Hillyer’s articles resounded and in many a places cries went up in support of the “English classics” and to “Save our college girls from reading T.S. Eliot!”
There is no denying, however, that some of Pound’s poetry in The Pisan Cantos is masterly and superb, such as this excerpt from Cantos 81, the elegant power of which is undimmed by controversy:
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…
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…
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…
Does this sound a note of regret and repentance on Pound’s part? Some have interpreted it this way, but others believe that the poet was not speaking about himself but was addressing his lines to his captor, the U.S. Government and its army, raging against the wrongfulness of his inhumane treatment.
The furor over the prize spread into the political world and Senator Jacob Javits of New York called for an investigation of how Pound had been selected for the award. The Joint Congressional Committee on the Library of Congress then considered the issue, and upon its recommendation Congress passed a resolution that the Library of Congress should stop giving prizes or awards. The Yale University Library took over the task from the Library of Congress and has awarded the Bollingen Prize since 1950.
Pound was again in the news after 1954 and the Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, which struck down the “separate but equal” state laws in education. This ruling and congressional attempts to pass civil rights legislation created a wave of white opposition in the South, a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, riots, and acts of violence, including murder, against blacks and black institutions. One of those murdered was 14 years old Emmett Till, killed for daring to speak to a white woman. Incidentally, Emmett Till was the son of Louis Till who, like Pound, was imprisoned in one of the “cages” at Pisa and was executed by hanging by the U.S. Army after being convicted of rape and murder. Pound mentions him in Canto 74 of the Pisan Cantos:
…Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings…
Reporters uncovered information that some of the more outspoken white racists involved in resistance to the law of the land in Tennessee were followers of Pound, having visited him at St. Elizabeth’s, corresponded with him and were encouraged by his advice. One of the major figures in this resistance to school integration, and a Pound disciple, was Frederick John Kasper, a handsome firebrand speaker, whose drawl and dress mode belied the fact that he was from New Jersey. Kasper, like Pound, was an anti-Semite. Although he had earlier been friendly to blacks, he became a rabid racist, swearing, “to protect and defend the purity of the white race.” Eventually, Kasper ended up in federal prison, marching to jail with a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf under his arm.
Pound’s unsavory association with extremists did not help those who wished to secure his release. Not that the poet was very eager to leave the cocoon of St. Elisabeth’s. Pound and his wife Dorothy discouraged Julien Cornell from appealing his detention, and when those who wanted to help him mentioned a potential release, Pound changed the subject. T.S. Eliot, one of those wishing to help free him told Mary Pound “Your father does not want to accept freedom on any terms that are possible.”
Another problem in obtaining Pound’s release was the fact that Dr. Overholser was required to inform the Department of Justice in a yearly report of Pound’s mental condition. It was a Catch-22 situation: if the doctor concluded that Pound had recovered his sanity, he would be tried for treason; if he certified that Pound was still mentally ill, he could not be released from the institution. The situation bordered on the ridiculous, since many of those who had been charged with treason and tried, and many Nazi criminals, were already free.
In 1957, when Pound was relatively out of the limelight, Archibald MacLeish and Robert Frost quietly convinced officials in the Eisenhower administration that the issue should be resolved, particularly since Pound was 72 years old and was being considered for a Nobel Prize.
Dr. Overholser found a solution agreeable to all. He said in a sworn affidavit that Pound was incurably insane, but he was not dangerous, and that he could not foresee when he would be well enough and could be brought to trial. Keeping him in detention therefore served no purpose, while costing the taxpayers a lot of money. The government did not raise any objections to Judge Bolitha J. Law’s proposal to drop the treason charges and on April 18, 1958, the Court so ordered.
Pound was now a free man, but legally incompetent to run his own affairs since he had been declared incurably mentally ill. He did not leave St. Elizabeth’s right away, since he had already been scheduled for some free dental treatment and wanted to get it. Thus, he was not discharged until May 7, 1958, and his file was closed with the notation: “Condition upon discharge: unimproved.”
Pound and his wife did not leave the United States at once, as it was understood they would. They lingered, visiting mutual friends and spending some time in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, the small town where Pound had lived as a child. It was only on June 30, 1958, Dorothy, Ezra, and a young woman named Marcella Spann embarked in New York on the Italian Line ship Cristoforo Colombo, bound for Naples.
When the ship docked in Naples, photographer and journalists were waiting for him. He regaled them with a snappy Fascist salute and told an inquiring journalist who wanted to know when he had left the hospital: “I never was. When I left the hospital I was still in America, and all America is an insane asylum.”
Marcella Joyce Spann hailed from Texas and went to school there. Introduced by one of her university professors to Pound’s poetry, she wrote to Pound at St. Elizabeth’s and requested a meeting with the poet. Pound agreed, and she visited him, continuing the relationship by correspondence. In 1957, Spann moved to Washington and worked as an English instructor at Marjorie Webster Junior College (closed in 1974). The proximity allowed her to visit Pound regularly, and the poet was free with advice on teaching and course selection. When Pound was released in May 1958, she quit her job and accompanied him back to Italy as his secretary. Pound may have been in love with her, and it has been alleged that he proposed marriage, even though Dorothy was still his wife and by his side.
Pound now had three women: Olga Rudge, his wife Dorothy, and Marcella Spann. While he had been in the United States, he had discouraged Olga from visiting him, and in fact she had only been to see him at St. Elizabeth’s twice, in 1952 and in 1955. From 1955 to 1959, their relationship had deteriorated to such a point that they corresponded only infrequently. Olga still lived at Casa 60 in Rapallo and at the “Hidden Nest” in Venice.
Once Pound and the two women, Dorothy and Marcella, were in Naples they travelled north and settled at Castle Brunnenburg, near Merano and the Italian-Austrian border, as guests of Pound’s daughter from Olga Rudge. In 1946 Pound’s daughter, Mary, had married Boris de Rachewicz, a Russian-Italian Egyptologist. In 1955 they had bought the run-down 13th century castle, remodeled it, and turned it into their residence.
Pound the womanizer was now at the mercy of four women: his daughter Mary, his granddaughter Patrizia, his wife Dorothy, and his girlfriend Marcella. The four did not get along, and Dorothy, who had financial control of Pound affairs, generally had the upper hand. Pound commented on the unsatisfactory situation in Canto 113:
Pride, jealousy and possessiveness
3 pains of hell.
By December 1959, Dorothy had made sure that Marcella returned to the United States and Pound, who had fallen into an emotional funk, started to lose interest in poetry and thought that the work of his life had been for naught. When he began losing weight abnormally, it was thought that he had dementia – in the summer of 1960 he was hospitalized in a clinic near Bolzano. He improved some, but his health was slipping, and in the spring of 1961 he became sick with a urinary infection. In 1962, Dorothy, perhaps feeling that she was unable to care for him – or perhaps simply tired of him – decided to leave him. When Pound left Merano to rejoin Olga Rudge in Rapallo, she also left Brunnenburg and went to live with her son Omar in London.
From 1962 to his death in 1972, Pound stayed with Olga often spending the winters in Rapallo and the summers in Venice. His mood remained pessimistic, and he started to believe that his life had been a series of blunders. He told an Italian journalist, Grazia Levi, “I spoil everything I touch. I have always blundered. … All my life I believed I knew nothing, yes, knew nothing. And so words became devoid of meaning.” In October 1967 he told Allen Ginsberg in Rapallo that his poetry was, “A mess … my writing, stupidity and ignorance all the way through,” and told him later in Venice, “… I found after seventy years that I was not a lunatic but a moron … I should have been able to do better…”
His depressed mood was in evidence even in the notes for the last canto he was writing:
That I lost my center
fighting the world.
The dreams clash
and are shattered—
that I tried to make a paradiso
In Venice, Pound and Olga had to contend with myriads of visitors, all of whom wanted to see and talk to the old, eccentric poet. During the last few years of his life, he had stopped speaking, except to intimates when strictly necessary, and his occasional sallies with spoken words had assumed an oracular undertone. When in a rare interview he was asked why he spoke so little, he answered: “I did not enter into silence, silence captured me.”
Olga Rudge guarded Pound’s privacy fiercely and dispatched unwanted visitors by asking them to recite a line of Pound’s poetry… and those that could not were told to leave. One visitor, who was expecting a similar treatment, was surprised when Ezra himself opened the door, wearing a bathrobe and slippers. When he blurted out, “How are you, Mr. Pound?” Pound looked at him intently, replied, “Senile!” and left.
Occasionally Pound travelled. In 1962, he went to Rome to attend a parade of neo-Fascists, wearing their black uniforms and marching in the Fascist goose-step the pseudo Passo Romano, the Roman step. Another time, in Paris he attended a performance of Samuel Beckett’s End Game. Commenting on the play’s old man who lives in an ashcan from which his head emerges from time to time to peck at a little food and to cry, he said: “That’s me.”
In 1965, despite his poor health, he travelled to London for Eliot’s funeral and to New York in 1967 to attend the opening of an exhibition showing the original copy of The Waste Land, which he had corrected for Eliot. He also visited his alma mater, where he got a tumultuous reception. Late in 1972, he was nominated by Hamilton College to receive the Emerson-Thoreau Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, but the old controversies about his views on Fascism and anti-Semitism were resurrected, and the proposal was defeated 13 to 9 votes.
On his 87th birthday, September 30, 1972, Pound was sick and very weak, but when the gondola-ambulance arrived to carry him to the Venice hospital he walked down the stairs to meet it. He died in his sleep the following day, Olga holding his hand.
His funeral was a sedate affair, with only close relatives in attendance, except for his wife Dorothy, who was unable to travel from London to Venice. Four gondoliers dressed in black rowed the casket to the island Cemetery of San Michele, where he was buried in the Protestant Section, near where 1987 Nobel laureate poet Joseph Brodsky is buried and not far from the Greek-Orthodox section where composer Igor Stravinsky and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev also rest.
Dorothy Shakespear Pound died in London in 1973, but Olga Rudge lived on in her house in Venice for the next 24 years after Pound’s death, passing away in 1996 at the age of 101. She inherited most of Pound’s papers, correspondence, and books, and became an active defender of his literary and personal reputation, participating in the social and cultural life of the lagune city. She indicated several times that it was her intention to establish a foundation to house Pound’s artifacts and papers, but she never got around to it. In 1986, when she was 91 and apparently getting forgetful, some of her alleged friends appear to have taken advantage of her by setting up a Pound Foundation in which Olga had little say and transferring to the foundation both the house in Venice and all Pound papers for $7,000.
The harpies of this mythology, in some observers’ views, were Jane Turner Rylands and her husband Philip Rylands, the Director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
Jane had befriended Olga Rudge, gained her trust, and helped her in innumerable ways in her daily life. Olga’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, who lived more than three hours away by car in the Tyrol, was relieved that the Rylands assiduously looked after her mother.
Jane Rylands claimed that in the mid-eighties Rudge asked her for help in establishing the Ezra Pound Foundation as a tax-exempt institution to promote scholarship and study of Pound’s work. Jane, helpfully, enlisted an attorney from Cleveland, Ohio, and the foundation was legally established in 1986. It had three trustees/officers: Rudge as president, Jane Rylands as vice-president, and the attorney as secretary. Allegedly, the votes of two officers could prevail over the third. Rudge then sold the foundation both Pound’s archives and the Venice house for about $7,000.
When Mary found out what her mother had done, and Olga realized the full import of her actions, she tried to dissolve the Foundation and take back both the house and papers. She was then informed that under the laws of Ohio, it required a majority vote of two trustees to dissolve the foundation and that by accomplishing this she would not regain control of the house or papers, which could only be passed on to another tax-exempt institution.
Both sides then hired lawyers and prepared to fight it out in the courts. Meantime, the Guggenheim Foundation New York trustees stepped delicately into the matter. As Philip Rylands was their employee, they were concerned that about adverse publicity and thought inappropriate that, in view of Pound’s anti-Semitism, Jane Ryland was involved with the Pound Foundation. Philip Rylands was given a choice: either continue his relationship with the Guggenheim Collection or allow Jane’s relationship with the Pound Foundation and lose his director position.
A solution to the controversy was found when Yale University decided to buy the archives from the Pound Foundation and pay off both claimants. The amounts both claimants received were kept confidential and documents concerning the Ezra Pound Foundation and the sale transaction were sealed until 2016. The Foundation was dissolved soon after the sale was finalized.
Probably, this was the best solution under the circumstances. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University had already received in 1966 fifteen boxes of the Pound’s papers from Mary de Rachewiltz and could call on a competent Pound expert, Donald Gallup, for advice in assembling and analyzing Pound documents. Gallup, then retired, had spent more than 30 years as a curator in the Yale Collection of American Literature and according to his successor was “the premier bibliographer for both Eliot and Ezra Pound, specializing in finding the first appearances of their work and documenting their creativity…”
If the lawsuits had been allowed to proceed, their outcome would have been unpredictable. In fact, Pound had made a will in 1940, leaving everything to his daughter Mary, but the will had not been registered with the courts in Italy and thus was technically invalid. Later, when he was in St. Elizabeth’s, he was not legally competent and could not make a will since his wife Dorothy, his legal guardian, would not countersign it. Dorothy and her son Omar Pound had also hired lawyers, contested the 1940 will, and had settled by dividing the Pound estate over which Mary had control. Thus, further litigation with Jane Rylands would have been lengthy and complicated.
One thing Rudge was able to retrieve out of the mess was the “Hidden Nest,” and she continued to live there until infirmity forced her to join her daughter at Castle Brunnenburg, where she died on March 15,1996. She was buried in St. Michele next to her beloved Ezra. On her simple tombstone were carved verses from the poem “Night Litany,” written by Pound at the turn of the century:
O God, what great kindness have we done in times past and forgotten it,
That thou givest this wonder unto us, O God of waters?”
Pound in 1966 had also written a poem, intended to be the closing lines of the final Canto, praising Olga’s courage, loyalty, and caring:
That her acts
Her name was courage
and is written Olga.
Mary de Rachewiltz is still living in her castle in the Tyrol, running the Ezra Pound Center for Literature. Her son, Dr. Sigifredo Walter de Rachewiltz assists her. Both, and Mary’s daughter Patrizia de Rachewiltz de Vroom, are poets in their own right. Omar Shakespear Pound, Dorothy’s son, who was a teacher and writer, died in New Jersey in March 2010.
Pound’s fears that his life had been a long series of blunders followed him to his grave, and if his executors have any doubts on the subject, they cover them in discreet silence. The verses themselves have won their way clear to immortality.
Luciano Mangiafico is a retired United States diplomat working on a book about illustrious visitors to Italy.