Issue 128, Fall 1993
Ezra Pound was obsessed with language. Quotations from seventeen languages, from hieroglyphics to the dialect of the Na-Khi tribe of China are scattered through the Cantos. Two cantos were written completely in Italian: numbers 72 and 73. It is not perfect Italian, though Pound had lived in Italy, off and on, for thirty years when he wrote the poems in Rapallo in 1944 toward the end of the war. There are minute errors of syntax and a few slight slips in verbal tone. But Pound’s ear was so keen, the finest of his generation according to Yeats, it was nearly impossible for him to write a line that was not melodic.
Let me pick out a few of Pound’s Italian lines at random. It matters not if you know what they mean. Read them aloud for the subtlety of his cadences, for the melopoeia.
E poi la voce che prima furiava,
Mi disse feroce, dico feroce, ma non ostile
Anzi era paterna quasi, come chi spiega
In mezzo di battaglia che deve far un giovan’
‘La voglia é antica, ma la mano è nuova.
Bada! bada a me, primo ch’io torni
The poems were written in Italian for a reason that was compelling to Pound. They were, as history made them turn out, his final public endorsement of fascist doctrine, his last offering of fealty to Mussolini whom he had so fervently and rashly admired for two decades. They were intended also for broadcast over Radio Salo, the only remaining voice of the regime as the war ended. 72 and 75 were not broadcast, but they were printed in a Salo journal, Marina Republicana in 1945.
As to book publication, I, quite to my surprise, became involved. At one point after Pound had been committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington as incompetent to stand trial, his daughter Mary entrusted carbon copies of 72 and 73 (in Italian) to me, asking that I hold them in safekeeping in the New Directions safe until such time as public hostility toward her father s allegedly anti-Semitic views might abate to the point where publication would be advisable. All well and good. . . until one morning in 1973 I saw in the New York Times a squib, date lined Rome, which said that an Italian researcher working in the fascist archives had stumbled on the copy of the two cantos which Pound had sent II Duce. He was claiming ownership of his find, proposing to copyright the material in his own name.
An emergency! I bought a six-pack, some sheets of heavy green cover paper, a little bottle of whitener for making corrections, and sat down at my old hit-and-miss Corona. I fitted my typed copy into twelve 5 x 8 pages, stapled them and glued the signatures into the green covers. The job was done by midnight, something that passed for a book. I took the early train down to Washington and filled out registration forms at the Copyright Office in the Library of Congress. I was back in New York in time to sell the statutory first-day copy to Ted Wilentz at the Eighth Street Bookstore and get off an express letter to Jack McClelland, the New Directions distributor in Toronto, to do whatever was necessary for a Canadian copyright.
There had always been a rumor in the Pound family that Ezra had made his own English translations of 72 and 73, but no one could find where he had stashed them. He was secretive about his manuscripts. But now 72 at least had turned up at Yale among the thousands of papers which the Beinecke Library recently purchased from the family of Olga Rudge, Pound’s companion for many years. It is not known who typed the final version of 72 that appears here. The translation of Canto 73 has not yet surfaced but it’s a hope for the future to complete the picture of the Italian cantos.
In Canto 72, for the first time that I recall in the poem. Pound himself stage manages the action directly. He calls up spirits from the dead, figures from ancient and modem history, instructing them how they may help to preserve the tottering fascist regime.