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Reviews 2023-1

Alec Marsh, Ezra Pound’s Washington Cantos and the Struggle for Light

Bloomsbury, 2021. Pp. 304. ISBN: 9781350096554
Nicholas Odom
Bibliographical reference

Bloomsbury, 2021. Pp. 304. ISBN: 9781350096554

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1From the outset, Marsh is explicit that his book is decidedly not a work of literary interpretation, but rather “a political reading” of Pound’s sources for the Washington Cantos (Marsh 1). It is now widely accepted that Pound’s political program is objectionable in nearly all its particulars, yet Marsh carefully asserts that his principles may still be redeemable. Pound, at his best, was an individualist, a campaigner against oppressive and unrepresentative government, an opponent to capitalist usurpation of cultural production, and a defender of an aesthetic view of life taken to be a necessary end of politics. In addition to these salveagable elements of Pound’s views, Marsh endorses Pound’s belief that “[p]oetry is vivid observation, concentrated thought, and ethical action” (5). Nevertheless, Marsh also emphasizes that Pound’s “metapolitical vision [is] based on bogus racial science and archeological science fiction,” such that “his paradisal ‘temple’ is sited on zoological rubbish” (4). Refusing to flatten or omit facts no matter how damning for the poet, Marsh does justice to Pound’s complexity.

2 The vein of Pound studies Marsh works in attempts to provide as much relevant historical detail as possible for the reader of the Cantos, with Bacigalupo, Casillo, and other historicizing scholars being precedents for this project. Unlike these earlier excavators of Pound’s politics, Marsh’s special focus is the politicized history that inspires Pound’s Washington Cantos, some of his most frustratingly opaque work. The painstaking labor of gathering, digesting, and interpreting source after source for Pound’s idiosyncratic politics livens some of the more dry and obscure verses in these later Cantos. To truly appreciate Marsh’s work the reader must, following Kenner, understand that “a work of art is someone’s act of attention, evoking ours” (Kenner 53). Understanding Pound requires many attentions: attention to his text, attention to his time, and attention to his sources. Marsh provides abundant material to make sense of Pound’s historical, political, and ideological sources for Rock-Drill and Thrones.

3 Simply because Marsh’s work is about Pound and his politics, the content is dense, far-reaching, and very often abhorrent. All manner of far-right neuroses are treated in this volume: Jim Crow segregation and fears of miscegenation, racialist history (with much on figures like Louis Agassiz, A. L. Waddell, and William Murray), strident anti-Semitism, and Communist paranoia. These themes overlap in Pound’s worldview, and much of the racialist content in particular would readily produce disbelief in those unfamiliar with the scientific racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Marsh thoughtfully unravels these strands of Pound’s politics and organizes them into various thematic chapters, each treating more or less one subject before moving on to the next. Several sections of the book read like a series of historical moments that interrelate in complicated ways, with events and figures anterior to Pound standing for transhistorical narratives that form the primary subjects of the Washington Cantos (e.g. Virginia planter John Roanoke representing Jeffersonian resistance to finance capital). Throughout, Marsh explicates the unclear relationship between the two paradisi of the Cantos, the paradiso terrestre he tried to shape in his poetry, and the diaphanous Neoplatonic paradise he aspired to.

4 Marsh’s style is lucid, and his writing is never excessive in length or structure. His prose is a great deal more direct than the elliptical and aphoristic manner of Kenner, perhaps the most Poundian writer of all Pound scholars, although it lacks some of the latter’s modernist austerity. He leaves subtle allusions and references for the attentive reader to discover, such as when he remarks on “the luminous details found in Joseph Rock” (Marsh 11, emphasis mine), referring to Pound’s early theory of education called the “Method of Luminous Detail.” The “struggle for light” to which Marsh alludes in the title is also directly inspired by Pound’s Aryanist view of history, as Aryans embodied the “brightness” that can construct civilization and lead to the higher paradise (78-79). For all the ethereal beauty Pound wished to attain by transcending the earthly, the underlying foundation for this higher realm is entirely rotten, a fact Marsh never forgets.

5 Some details are unfortunately erroneous, and the reception and evaluation of some of the texts Marsh mentions are questionable. Marsh contrasts metapolitics with political theory as if they were different components of politics itself: “[i]f political theory is a theory of the state, of the polis and the relation of state to individual and vice versa, then metapolitics addresses a metaphysical dimension behind politics” (20). This view is certainly held by the European New Right, that is, by those who endorse metapolitics, but Marsh reads as if he supports this narrative himself. Metapolitics is a far-right political ontology, so it should naturally be subsumed under political theory. Less important but still noteworthy is that the translation included for Pound’s “nec restituit rem” from Canto 103 reads “nor restored anything” (65, emphasis mine), although the Latin idiom in use here is restituere rem (publicam), “to restore the state.” Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Marsh references Martin Bernal’s Black Athena in the chapter “Raising Cain” but seems to uncritically accept many of Bernal’s widely contested claims about the origins of Greek civilization. While remarking that the work inspired “a disciplinary crisis” for classicists, historians, and archeologists (106), he does not note that this was due to the lack of any plausible material evidence for Bernal’s most contentious views. This critical lapse is a blemish on an otherwise careful and thorough analysis of fanciful historical narratives.

6 Marsh’s work resists losing more of the Cantos to history by collecting and presenting a stimulating account of the radical conservatism that inspired the content of Pound’s later poetry. Ezra Pound’s Washington Cantos and the Search for Light goes far in making sense of the initially incomprehensible, drawing the shadowed parts of these later Cantos into the light.

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Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. University of California Press, 1971.

Marsh, Alec. Ezra Pound’s Washington Cantos and the Search for Light. Bloomsbury, 2021.

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Electronic reference

Nicholas Odom, Alec Marsh, Ezra Pound’s Washington Cantos and the Struggle for LightEuropean journal of American studies [Online], Book reviews, Online since 27 February 2023, connection on 17 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Nicholas Odom

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