- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2001

OLGA RUDGE AND EZRA POUND: "WHAT THOU LOVEST WELL …"
By Anne Conover
Yale University Press, $35,
351 pages, illus.


One evening late in 1921 the American poet Ezra Pound, then age 36, arrived at the Paris salon of Natalie Barney, the writer, and on his arm was Raymonde Collignon, who was in the words of Anne Conover "a young soprano known for her porcelain figure and sleek head set in a basketwork of braids." The singer sounds ravishing, does she not? But that night Pound met Olga Rudge, a professional violinist from Youngstown, Ohio, 10 years his junior, and there commenced between the two of them slowly at first but destined to last 50 years through thick and thin one of the more remarkable love affairs of the 20th century.
Because adulterous, theirs was a notorious affair, and I remember a dinner party in London in the mid-1960s at which friends of Mrs. Pound (the former Dorothy Shakespear) spoke bitterly of her husband's conduct in going back, after long separation, to Olga for the last portion of his life (he said she kept him alive another 10 years). The two women were at daggers drawn for the whole half-century, each holding Ezra for different periods of time, and each bearing him a child along the way.
My London friends spoke of the Pounds' son, Omar, as being very angry at his father, which would not have been surprising what with one thing and another such as that when Omar was a baby he was sent to Ireland to be raised by his mother's family, and his father did not manage to meet him until he was 12 years old. This was a very different age from ours, and neither woman felt like getting involved in a role (child-raising) for which she had no taste. Mary, Olga's and Ezra's daughter, was put out with a wet nurse with whom she formed a lasting attachment.
But apropos of Omar, in the pages of "Olga Rudge and Ezra Pound" we find Dorothy's son writing from Cambridge to Olga in Venice, where the by that time the elderly couple were living, "I never cease to be amazed (and grateful) for the astonishing way you care for EP. Terribly exhausting, and no time off. Bless you for it!" There is no reason to doubt the truth of this, since Anne Conover says she was the first scholar to have access to the Olga Rudge papers held in Yale's Beinecke Library when the daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, lifted the embargo on them in 1993. This is a love story with two very different sides to it, and what we get from this book is that of Olga Rudge.
Ezra Pound, of course, remains controversial to this day and not just for his view from early on that monogamy was all right only so long as one could leave it and return at will. The principal cause for notoriety was the wartime radio broadcasts from Mussolini's Italy that resulted in his being arrested by partisans and turned over to the advancing American forces in 1945. On that occasion it was Olga who returned to their hillside cottage at Sant'Ambrogio, above Rapallo, to find Ezra gone after having had just enough time to leave the door key with an Italian neighbor. Olga followed the captors' path, and she and Ezra spent a few precious days together before he was moved beyond her reach for a very long time.
In what was a truly awful experience, at a camp for military prisoners outside Pisa the poet was kept for weeks in an outdoor cage specially welded for the purpose from mesh used for airfield runways. The prisoner not a young man, bordering on 60 for a while continued the work (Chinese studies) he had brought with him but began to succumb to dizziness and claustrophobia. An Army psychiatrist, concerned for his mental health, arranged for improved living conditions until the prisoner was shipped back stateside.
Lucky to avoid being put on trial for treason, Pound was locked up for the next 13 years in St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the insane here in Washington. Hardly any of the specialists who examined him found him insane; it was the way government authorities and influential literary friends contrived to deal with an awkward situation. When in 1958, through the efforts of T.S. Eliot, Archibald McLeish and Robert Frost, Pound was sprung, he was released in the custody of his wife. Dorothy had been assiduous all those years in spending time with her wayward spouse at St. Elizabeth's, and they returned to Italy together, accompanied by Marcella Spann, a young woman amanuensis and for Ezra briefly another object of desire.
The years of the poet and wayward husband's incarceration had been the wife's, and the mistress had been kept at bay, at times by Ezra himself ("When a man is down a well-hole, you don't help by jumpin' in on top of him") and the poet's literary friends who did not want an already tricky legal, political and public relations situation further complicated by the presence of the other woman. Ezra eventually found his way back to Olga, though his ambivalence regarding the affair seems to have been chronic during periods when he was living with his wife.
The stress on all three of them had been great from the start, and it was especially so toward the end of World War II when the occupying Germans shunted the Pounds out of the coastal town of Rapallo, and the three of them had to endure wartime privation and living together up at Sant' Ambrogio. That was a very frosty menage a trois. And by 1945 the triangular relationship already was of 20 years duration.
Anne Conover, an independent scholar and biographer, tells the story of Olga's life, including her earlier love affair with Egerton Grey, stylishly and with polish. Brought to Europe by her actress mother as a child, the spirited and beautiful young Olga early enjoyed access to artistic and intellectual life in London and, more important for her, Paris. She became an accomplished violinist and had, as they say, a life. Meeting the charismatic Ezra Pound changed all that, although at the outset Olga had nothing to gain from pursuing the still struggling American poet.
Ezra was slow to warm to the liaison and at times seems to have been ready to withdraw from it. To this extent his American mistress has to be acknowledged as having chased him. When Ezra and Dorothy Pound moved to Italy, that might have been the end of the affair, but Olga had got herself pregnant. "It was I who wanted the child," she later recorded in an archive that preserved everything through all the years, starting with the little blue pneumatique sent across Paris in the mid-'20s that was the pair's first written communication.
Later, Dorothy gave birth to Omar and Ezra had two families for the duration. Olga at times tired of her life as maitresse convenable, and Ezra fell ill from the trouble of it all and needed to be hospitalized. Not a great deal is heard in these pages of Dorothy Pound's feelings. She is the dignified English ice-maiden of the piece, and that's it.
Olga's role as muse gets a lot of play here, and there is plenty of evidence for that conclusion, starting with Pound's magnum opus "The Cantos" (though many a reader today finds his earlier poems more readable and satisfying). Olga's sacrifice of her musical career to supporting Ezra notwithstanding her years as segretarissima of the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Italy, and her important research to revive interest in the music of Antonio Vivaldi was real.
This brings us to the place of Ezra Pound in the pantheon. His treasonable folly (while cut off from his and Dorothy's usual sources of income and needing the lire), his crackpot economics and anti-Semitism, add up to a lot that is unattractive. At the same time, his role in the creation and nurturing of literary modernism, his help to other writers he edited Eliot's "The Waste Land," by near common consent the most important poem of the century add up to more in the end.
The last third of his life was a struggle to bear himself under the realization of what he had done and encroaching self-accusation. Old age brought the usual range of humiliating infirmities, and through all of these things Olga was his succor, "the sea in which he floated." Whatever you want to say about her, she believed in her man's genius from the beginning, gave up much to love him, and stayed the course through many lonely years to the end.


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