The Author as Character: Representing Historical Writers in Western Literature

By Paul Franssen; Ton Hoenselaars | Go to book overview

One Author in Search of a Character: Ezra
Pound's “Homage to Sextus Propertius”

MARTINE L. DE VOS

Many a student of Pound is bound, at one point or other, to wonder if the poet could not write in plain English. The student tends to be flabbergasted by the foreign gibberish and the quotations which, at first glance, hardly seem to serve any purpose. Pound's poetry is difficult to read and raises questions about the status of literature. In addition to the text, multiple guide books are needed to make sense of it. Pound evokes cries of frustration, and these are relevant. Not just undergraduates are bound to articulate them; many a scholar is daunted by the work of this modernist poet, frequently unwilling to perform the excavation necessary to discover the meaning of Pound's poetry. Others find him a jewel thief, an overrated juggler of other people's work, a pretentious man of letters. Several classical scholars, meanwhile, have discovered in Pound's work an “ignorance” of Latin with no due respect for the classics.1

This latter criticism was leveled against Pound especially when his “Homage to Sextus Propertius” was published in 1919. In fact, controversy over this poem raged for a long time, with scholars hurling epithets back and forth. Those who attacked the poem variously called it a bad imitation of a classic, a desecration, an ignorant mistranslation, a distortion, a perversion. The poem's defenders, however, termed it a brilliant reinterpretation of a classic poem, a tribute, a fine piece of criticism, a masterpiece of parodic translatorese, a per-version (the hyphen key), while the speaker was dubbed one of Pound's major personae.2

The characterizations of “Homage to Sextus Propertius” formulated in either camp are important, for they shed light on the multiple meanings of the poem. The classicists, for instance, were correct in pointing out that the poem was no translation but a distortion. For Pound, however, this abuse proved one of his points, namely that contemporary scholarship had blinded itself to

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