Austin Briggs, Jr., the Hamilton B. Tompkins Professor of English Literature emeritus and a noted James Joyce scholar, lists Pound among the greatest poets, as well as a respected translator and patron of such notables as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, who once declared that Pound “is more responsible for the 20th-century revolution in poetry than is any other individual.”* A major figure in the early modernist movement, Pound’s technical innovations, many of which departed greatly from conventional aesthetic principles, often baffled even the most astute readers.
Although controversy surrounded him as an artist who pushed longstanding boundaries of his craft, Pound became equally known for his disputatious political views. His outspoken support for the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler left him an infamous legacy. Following his fanatical anti-American World War II broadcasts from Italy, Pound was arrested on charges of treason. Found mentally unfit to stand trial, he was confined to St. Elizabeth psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., for more than a decade. Briggs said that Pound was a “virulent anti-Semite.”
Ezra Pound was born in the Idaho Territory in 1885. While an infant his family returned east when his father, Homer, took a position with the Philadelphia Mint. After both military and public schooling, Ezra enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. He transferred to Hamilton after two years, graduating in 1905 with a degree in philosophy. Already proficient in several languages, his transcript shows several difficult courses, including Old English. Then, he could have read Beowulf in its original. His grades were mostly A’s and B’s with a few C’s. He contributed poems to the Hamilton Literary Magazine, did not join a fraternity and rebelled at having to take required courses. According to classmate Claudius A. Hand, the half-century annalist and fellow resident of “old” South Dormitory, he peppered all with his poetic efforts — “an inveterate versifier” a subsequent New Yorker piece described him.
After leaving Hamilton, Pound returned to Penn for a master’s degree and began Ph.D. studies. That was interrupted when he accepted a teaching position in rural Indiana at Wabash College, a venture that was abruptly cut short following an incident that scandalized the conservative community. A young chorister on tour was discovered to have spent a night in Pound’s boarding house room.
In the spring of 1908, Pound departed for Europe, choosing never again to live in his native land. (His years spent incarcerated following World War II were not by choice.) He resided for a while in England and France but settled permanently in Italy.
The first of his two return visits to Hamilton came in 1939 when he received an honorary Doctor of Literature. Among his fellow honorees was radio commentator H.V. Kaltenborn. Historian C. David Heymann in The Last Rower**, a Pound biography published in 1976, reports of a confrontation between Kaltenborn and Pound. The latter took offense when Kaltenborn seemed to criticize Germany and Italy’s “doubtful alliance.” Pound interrupted and a shouting match ensued, silenced only when President Cowley intervened. (Kaltenborn may be best remembered for proclaiming Dewey’s victory in 1948, a mistake that Truman took delight in repeating, mimicking the announcer’s distinctive voice.)
Also receiving an honorary degree that day was Elihu Root, Jr., Class of 1903, son of the revered former secretary of war, secretary of state, U.S. senator and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. One has to wonder, had he been alive in 1939, how the senior Root would have reacted to his namesake sharing the stage with Pound and his anti-American, pro-Fascist views.
Throughout his life, Pound held conflicting sentiments for his alma mater. While held at
St. Elizabeth in 1956, he wrote to the College suggesting that he might return the parchment because Hamilton failed to “teach the facts of U.S. history past and present.” Such offers were rejected by President McEwen, who expressed hope that they could someday meet to discuss Pound’s concerns.
That opportunity never came; however, Pound did return to campus a few years after McEwen left office. In 1969, Pound visited Hamilton amidst several American nostalgic stops, including a PEN International meeting in New York City. While he didn’t speak publicly at the College and special access was provided to help the infirm poet to the dais, he did don the appropriate robe. No verbal skirmishes occurred this time, and he was graciously hosted by Professor Briggs and his wife. Pound died in Italy three years later.
If it seems an omission to report Pound’s three appearances at the College without mentioning his son, Omar Shakespear Pound ’47, that is the father’s fault. They had little contact during the poet’s lifetime abroad. Omar grew up in England with his maternal grandmother. After graduation he taught, founding the American School in Tangiers, and wrote poetry. Omar missed the funeral but was involved in his father’s estate legacy until his death in 2010.
William S. Easton ’58 is an occasional writer for the Hamilton Alumni Review’s Hill in History section. He is a retired attorney living in Port Huron, Mich., and a contributor to historical magazines.
* Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1954 (Introduction by T.S. Eliot.)
** Heymann, C. David. Ezra Pound, The Last Rower: A Political Profile. New York: Viking, 1976. (The Last Rower takes its title from a Jean Cocteau description of Pound as a rower on the river of the dead.)