Ezra Pound: University of Delaware Library.

World War II, The Pisan Cantos and St. Elizabeths

Through the late 1920s and 1930s, Pound became more and more interested in politics and economics. Typically, he began writing tracts and treatises about these subjects. Living in Italy, he embraced the fascist government of Benito Mussolini, writing a book titled Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1935), and became more vocal in his support of Italian fascism and anti-Americanism. In January 1941, he made the first of his Italian radio broadcasts, warning against U.S. involvement in the war—he would continue to be broadcast until the fall of the Fascist government in July 1943. Adopting elements of the speeches of American demagogue radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin, Pound’s vituperative broadcasts were characterized by anti-Semitic invective and attacks on Roosevelt and Churchill, along with other topics of interest to Pound, such as Confucius. These radio broadcasts were monitored by the United States Federal Broadcast Intelligence Service. In 1945, following Germany’s defeat in Italy, Pound was arrested by partisans and released. He turned himself in to the American forces and was transferred to a U.S. Army prison camp in Pisa. Pound, then almost sixty, was held in solitary confinement in a reinforced steel cage. After three weeks he suffered a mental breakdown and was transferred to a tent; here he began composing The Pisan Cantos. Pound was flown to Washington, D.C., in November and charged with treason. After a psychiatric examination, he was found mentally unfit for trial and “suffering from a paranoid state,” and was sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington.

Pound would spend the next thirteen years there. As the poet, critic, and Pound acolyte Guy Davenport has written, Pound, once “known in literary circles as… an erudite poet of awesome difficulty, was suddenly famous as a crazy, anti-Semitic Fascist.” The critic F.R. Leavis noted that “the spectacle of Pound’s degeneration is a terrible one and no one ought to pretend that it is anything but what it is.” After The Pisan Cantos were published by New Directions in 1948, the Fellows in American Literature at the Library of Congress chose to award the book the first annual Bollingen Prize. Public outcry followed, including several attacks by Robert Hillyer in the Saturday Review of Literature, but the committee, anticipating controversy, held firm. In the hospital, Pound continued to work on his Confucian translations and Cantos, and was visited by a steady stream of friends and disciples, including such younger poets as Robert Lowell (who had begun correspondence with Pound while still a Harvard student), Robert Duncan, Randall Jarrell, and Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote a poem called “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” published in Questions of Travel. Following years of appeals and petitions, Pound was released from the hospital in 1958, his treason indictment dismissed on the grounds that he would never be fit for trial. Many of his old friends and those he had supported in the early years rallied to his cause, including Eliot, Archibald MacLeish, Hemingway, and crucially Robert Frost, who by that point had some political influence and personally lobbied members of the Eisenhower administration on Pound’s behalf.

Following his release, Pound returned to Italy, where he divided the rest of his time between Rapallo and Venice, working intermittently on the Cantos and retreating into silence and depression. He died in Venice on November 1, 1972, the day after his eighty-seventh birthday.

  • Ezra Pound. ABC of Economics. London: Faber & Faber, 1933.
    Louis Zukofsky’s copy, with his inscription dated 1933.
  • Ezra Pound. Jefferson and/or Mussolini. London: Stanley Nott, 1935.
  • Ezra Pound. If This be Treason. Siena: Printed for Olga Rudge by Tip. Nuova, 1948.
  • Harold H. Watts. Ezra Pound and the Cantos.
    Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952.
    This copy is from the Circulating Library of St. Elizabeths Hospital.
  • Ezra Pound. The Pisan Cantos. New York: New Directions, 1948.
    Louis Zukofsky’s copy, with his inscription dated 1948.
  • Open Letter to the Editors, Saturday Review of Literature, 1949. Broadsheet letter.
  • Charles Norman. The Case of Ezra Pound. New York: The Bodley Press, 1948.
  • Elizabeth Bishop. Questions of Travel. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1965.