When Pound met Griffith
An Irishman’s Diary: Arthur Griffith features in Ezra Pound’s most famous work, The Cantos
‘Ezra Pound would have been au fait with the career of Arthur Griffith and his interest in economic development through his contacts with other Irishmen. He had come to London several years earlier becoming a close colleague of WB Yeats and was “best man” at Yeats’s wedding.’ Above, Pound in the garden of his studio in Paris. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Ezra Pound, the American poet, sought an interview with Arthur Griffith in London, when Griffith was there in October 1921, leading the Irish plenipotentiaries for the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations. Desmond FitzGerald, the London-born poet, Irish nationalist and political colleague of Griffith, was the intermediary. For Pound this meeting proved a fundamental experience of his life. One result is that Griffith features in Pound’s most famous work, The Cantos.
Although Pound is well-known as a poet, he was also keenly interested in economics. He was appalled by the senseless slaughter and waste of the first World War and sought an explanation and a remedy, a way of preventing anything like it from ever happening again. He believed economics were responsible for that war and another war would occur unless radical changes occurred. Pound adopted social credit economics, which was a philosophy of practical Christianity. It was interdisciplinary in nature, encompassing the fields of economics, political science, history, accounting and physics. It offered a sound theoretical basis for decentralised, democratic control over the use of the abundant resources of the “developed” world.
Pound would have been quite au fait with the career of Arthur Griffith and his interest in economic development through his contacts with other Irishmen. He had come to London several years earlier becoming a close colleague of WB Yeats and was “best man” at Yeats’s wedding. He became an unpaid literary agent for James Joyce and succeeded in getting Joyce’s writings published. He was a member of the Imagist group of poets, which included Desmond FitzGerald who met on Thursday nights in the Eiffel restaurant in Soho.
Pound saw an opportunity to seek to outline and hopefully enlist a potential leader of his country, Griffith, as an advocate of social economics. Griffith had written earlier, “There is no greater existent danger to civilisation than the growth of capitalism”.
Pound recalled the meeting in 1937, saying, “One of the most illuminating hours of my life was that spent in conversation with Griffith, the [leader] of Sinn Féin. That would have been in October 1921, the time of the Armistice when the Irish delegates had been invited to London, with a guarantee of immunity for the negotiations over Irish independence. We were in his room to avoid the detectives who infested the hotel”. He paints a vivid picture of the claustrophobic ambience of the meeting in Canto XIX, referring to Griffith as “the stubby little man”:
So we sat there, with the kindly old professor,
And the stubby little man was up-stairs.
And there was the slick guy in the other corner reading The Tatler,
Not upside down but never turning the pages,
And then I went up to the bed-room, and he said,
The stubby fellow: ‘Perfectly true,
But it’s a question of feeling,
Can’t move ’em with a cold thing like economics’.
And so we came down stairs and went out,
And the slick guy looked out of the window,
And in came the street ‘Lemme-at-’em’
Like a bull-dog in a
O my Clio!
Then the telephone didn’t work for a week.
Later, in Canto LXXXVII, Pound adds: “. . . Griffith, said years before that: ‘Can’t move ’em with/A cold thing like economics I am pledged not to/Come here (London) to Parliament’.”
Pound took this advice as a profound piece of political wisdom. TS Eliot wrote of Pound, “Arthur Griffith founder of Sinn Féin warned him that a poet ‘can’t move ’em with a cold thing like economics’. That bit of advice is now preserved in Canto LXXXVII . So, of course, is the product of Pound’s rejection of it. With Griffith’s warning ignored, the poet felt free to use as material the most intractable stuff available to him”.
While Griffith had less than a year to live before his untimely death in 1922, Pound went on to become an active supporter of Mussolini and fascism. As he had predicted, another world war broke out. He made treasonable broadcasts during the second World War, was arrested but found to be mentally unfit to stand trial and confined to a mental hospital in Washington DC. The treason charges were dropped in 1958 and he lived in Italy until his death in 1972.