Ezra Pound and the Worthlessness of War
(This post is part of an ongoing series about Western culture and politics, and how the potential brokenness of one affects the other.)
Since we’re talking World War I in poetry this Veteran’s/Armistice Day, I want to push the discussion in a slightly different direction from Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. They and others (Yeats, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” etc.) connected a change in the valor/meaning of war with a change in the nature of war. But everyone’s favorite madman-genius, Ezra Pound, saw it differently. Yes, there was very little honor (perhaps a better word than valor for this—though perhaps that’s just the Classicist in me speaking) in that war, but this had nothing to do with the technology of war.
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley specifically calls out the idea of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, but the manner of death is not the problem so much as the question of whether the patria—or, elsewhere, the domo, home—deserves it. In poem V, the youth have died “For an old bitch gone in the teeth, / For a botched civilization, / … / For two gross of broken statues, / For a few thousand battered books.” The West—or at least England did not deserve, as a culture or a society, for so many to die on their behalf. It’s not just the war that makes the narrator see society in this light: poem III notes “a tawdry cheapness / [that] Shall outlast our days,” and “to kalon [the beautiful/noble things] / Decreed in the market place” of a nation where “We choose a knave or a eunuch / To rule over us.” “Sappho’s barbitos” has been usurped by the pianola: that is, the elegance of the ancient tradition and aesthetic has been cheapened and commodified. From Mauberley’s perspective, this, not a unnobling of war, has made the loss of life worthless. A society that does not respect art does not deserve to be defended by arms.
But is this the reaction elsewhere? His Cathay poems—translations (“translations,” if you prefer) of Chinese poetry published in 1915—deal explicitly with war but witness no talk about art, a toothless Helen, or usury. Their sadness is the sadness of a soldier’s life and loneliness. Yet there is a connection. “Lament of the Frontier Guard” sees a soldier stare at the desolated territory and villages he is defending, noting that the land has become “barbarous.” He asks, “Who has brought this to pass? / . . . / Barbarous kings.” In Mauberley III, we note among the early critiques of society that “Caliban casts out Ariel”: a return to barbarism. The worthlessness of war is again attributed to the decline of culture—in “Frontier Guard,” an explicit descent into barbarism.
Rome has fallen, then, and there is no place left for art; where there can be neither art nor beauty, there can be no valor or honor in war—there is nothing worth defending. What is worth noting here is that, from Pound’s perspective, World War I did not break the West—it may have been the shattering coup de grace, but culture and society were already broken. Set this next to the other Modernist greats and the difference becomes clear. Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, and others may have thought that Western culture was straining to the breaking point against the onset of modernity, but they did not view it as inherently broken.* They found something left to preserve: fragments, as Eliot had it, to shore against ruins. Pound fled to the Mediterranean, went mad, and continued writing poetry: sometimes inspired genius, sometimes utter gibberish. By the end of his life, he had essentially ceased speaking.
Pound was wrong, in my opinion. Though the West and its culture may strain against modernity, it is not culturally dead; the flaws are not inherent or irreparable. I think, further, that much of the “art” that has been produced in the last 90 years under the twin assumptions that Western culture is a corpse and that there can be no meaning would have horrified him, at least aesthetically. The Cantos, his attempt, in some strange, sad, way, to resuscitate the West, may, as I’ve said, verge on genius in places, but are nevertheless an artistic dead-end.
Are we, perhaps, at the end of a cultural era, as I brought up in my previous post on this topic? Well, maybe—the honest answer is to say, “Who am I to say?” But my aim in this series is not to simply give my opinions—those really aren’t so interesting—as to look at the thoughts and works of other, significant cultural figures. I’ll get around to Barzun eventually—but it’s much faster to review Mauberley than all 1000 pages of From Dawn to Decadence.
*I want to set Faulkner apart from his European brethren: World War I affects even Yoknapatawpha, but modernity is not the root of man’s problem in Faulkner’s world. It merely heightens the tension and forces him to take note of the contradictions, frequently destructive, inherent in mankind.