Reading the furor Pound’s early translations caused it’s easy to be pulled up short by the brutality of the last paragraph in William Gardner Hale’s review of Homage to Sextus Propertius in Poetry (Chicago):
If Mr. Pound were a professor of Latin , there would be nothing left for him but suicide. I do not counsel this. But I beg him to lay aside the mask of erudition. And If he must deal with Latin, I suggest he paraphrase some accurate translation. And then employ some respectable student of the language to save him from the blunders which might still be possible.
And to feel that Professor Hale, had not only overstepped the mark but had missed the point and was wrong. As Michael Alexander (1979) wrote of Pound’s (in)famous version of the Anglo-Saxon “Seafarer”:
It’s easy to imagine the examiner’s report: ’Grasp of language uncertain; identification of individual words in glossary unreliable; understanding of accidence rudimentary. Grammar poor, syntax worse’. (72)
The critical responses to Homage to Sextus Propertius sound like the examiners had taken over the reviews. But reading it all I’m left wondering which of the two words in “Pound’s translations ‘ is really the target.
Pound was consistently “guilty” of writing in just as vitriolic a manner. He had preached the gospel of the professional poet and the professional critic “down the public’s gullet”:
In a country in love with amateurs, in a country where the incompetent have such beautiful manners and personalities so fragile and charming that one cannot bear to injure their feelings by the introduction of a competent criticism, it is well that one man should have a vision of perfection and that he should be sick to the death and disconsolate because he cannot attain it.”(1914: The Prose Tradition in Verse.)
So he could not have been surprised when the professionals responded to his arrogant dismissal of their understanding of the Latin poets and, by pointing out his errors, showed conclusively that in their eyes, he was the amateur. And a poor one at that. Professor Hale, author of the superbly titled : “The Cum-constructions: their History and Functions” and “The Art of Reading Latin-How to Teach it” took Pound to task:
Mr Pound is incredibly ignorant of Latin. He has of course a perfect right to be, but not if he translates from it. The result of his ignorance is that much of what he makes his author say is unintelligible. I select a few out of about three-score errors…(Hale p52)
What the arguments over his translations remind me is that the history of Poetry is not the record of an inexorable Darwinian progression of poetic forms towards a today which you somehow assume is the best that has been. In Pound’s version of literary history, Poetry, with its capital P, is something that can be objectively discussed and analyzed, just as the flatness of the earth could be. For those who believe this version (like Stead in “The New Poetic” or Kenner in “The Pound Era”) the literary battles of the past were fought by heroic forbears whose victories moved the progression onwards. Just as Galileo fought against ignorance to prove the world turns. Eliot and Pound waged their war against the stultifying conventions of late 19th century verse and bought poetry kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. (The metaphors are usually equally physical, martial and heroic.)
In this version critics like Hale were simply wrong. They stand in for the ultimately ineffectual opponents of a Galileo or a Harvey.
Reading the reviews and articles from the time, however, one is reminded that poems are written by people, and the history of poetry is a history of back stabbing, back scratching, infighting, an entertaining if grubby record of squabbling for prestige and position. Or as K.K Ruthven put it:'The Feuds and the factions, the intrigues and the infighting, the machinations of one upmanship, the economic and erotic foundations of reputation mongering, the conspiratorial exclusions, the cult figures and the camp-followers, the groupings and the groupies.' After detailing the back scratching and log rolling and infighting Ruthven points out that 'The only people short changed by these practices were readers naive enough to believe that criticism is produced by impartial experts".
Hale's review is in Poetry Chicago. The quote from Michael Alexander is from "The Poetic Achievement of Ezra pound" and K.K Ruthven's is from "Ezra Pound as Literary critic"