Poet Ezra Pound Is Charged with Treason and Institutionalized

While living as a U.S. citizen in Italy during World War II, the influential modernist poet Ezra Pound recorded profascist radio speeches. Arrested for treason in 1945 and imprisoned in Italy and in Washington, D.C., he was found mentally unfit for trial and was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Pound provoked further scandal when he won the Bollingen Prize for The Pisan Cantos (1948), completed while he was institutionalized.

Summary of Event

Born in Idaho, Ezra Pound grew up in the northeast and received his formal education there. In 1908, he left the United States and eventually arrived in London, England, where he married Dorothy Shakespear in 1914 and made a name for himself as a modernist poet and critic who influenced other writers. After having moved in 1921 to France, the Pounds settled on the Mediterranean coast at Rapallo, Italy, in 1925. [kw]Pound Is Charged with Treason and Institutionalized, Poet Ezra (Dec. 14, 1945)
[kw]Treason and Institutionalized, Poet Ezra Pound Is Charged with (Dec. 14, 1945)
Pound, Ezra
Treason;Ezra Pound[Pound]
World War II[World War 02];and Ezra Pound[Pound]
Poetry;Ezra Pound[Pound]
Pound, Ezra
Treason;Ezra Pound[Pound]
World War II[World War 02];and Ezra Pound[Pound]
Poetry;Ezra Pound[Pound]
[g]Europe;Dec. 14, 1945: Poet Ezra Pound Is Charged with Treason and Institutionalized[00780]
[g]Italy;Dec. 14, 1945: Poet Ezra Pound Is Charged with Treason and Institutionalized[00780]
[g]United States;Dec. 14, 1945: Poet Ezra Pound Is Charged with Treason and Institutionalized[00780]
[c]Law and the courts;Dec. 14, 1945: Poet Ezra Pound Is Charged with Treason and Institutionalized[00780]
[c]Politics;Dec. 14, 1945: Poet Ezra Pound Is Charged with Treason and Institutionalized[00780]
[c]Radio and television;Dec. 14, 1945: Poet Ezra Pound Is Charged with Treason and Institutionalized[00780]
[c]Psychology and psychiatry;Dec. 14, 1945: Poet Ezra Pound Is Charged with Treason and Institutionalized[00780]
[c]Literature;Dec. 14, 1945: Poet Ezra Pound Is Charged with Treason and Institutionalized[00780]
Pound, Dorothy Shakespear
Rudge, Olga
Cornell, Julien
Overholser, Winfred
Laws, Bolitha J.
MacLeish, Archibald

Ezra Pound the day he entered St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Under the influence of populism and socialism, Pound developed a hatred of usury, which he considered the source of economic injustice and defined as a “charge for the use of purchasing power, levied without regard to production.” He came to view U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and Ezra Pound[Pound] Roosevelt as a collaborator with rich Jewish financiers who wanted to control the world by controlling its money. In contrast, Pound admired the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Benito
[p]Mussolini, Benito;and Ezra Pound[Pound] Mussolini. During 1939, when war loomed in Europe, Pound traveled to the United States to persuade Roosevelt to keep the nation at peace and to reform American economics, but the president never met with him.

After World War II began in Europe but before Pearl Harbor, Pound, still a U.S. citizen, was eager to broadcast his ideas from Italy to his country of birth. Despite Italian skepticism about his qualifications, on January 21, 1941, he began personally recording talks for the Italian Broadcasting System. In total, up to the summer of 1943, he recorded more than one hundred twenty talks for shortwave broadcast to the United States and other English-speaking countries.

Pound’s practice was to write a script in Rapallo, read it to his mistress, Olga Rudge, in nearby Sant’ Ambrogio, and then, when he had written a set of scripts, travel by train to Rome to record them. Often using a bizarre American drawl, he would urge the United States not to take part in the war, contend that the war had resulted from usury inflicted by Jews and their colleagues, and include commentary on culture. One of his many individual targets was Archibald MacLeish, the pro-Roosevelt poet serving as the librarian of Congress in the United States. Unknown to Pound was that U.S. officials were monitoring his broadcasts.

On July 25, 1943, as the Allies advanced, Mussolini fell from power, and the new Italian government sued for peace. The next day, in Washington, D.C., a federal grand jury indicted Pound for treason. Learning of his indictment, Pound sent a letter to the U.S. attorney general to protest the claim that he violated his duty as an American and that the right to free speech included the right to speak freely through radio. Pound received no reply.

When, in northern Italy later in 1943, Mussolini used Germany’s help to establish a puppet state, Pound volunteered to write for that state. He continued to live with his wife in Rapallo until, under allied attack, German soldiers in May, 1944, ordered Ezra and Dorothy Pound to leave their apartment near the seashore. They moved to Rudge’s home in Sant’ Ambrogio, which created a tense household. On May 3, 1945, claiming he had information for the U.S. Department of State, Pound tried unsuccessfully to turn himself in to the U.S. troops who had recently arrived in Rapallo. The next day, in Sant’ Ambrogio, two antifascist Italians arrested him as he was translating a Confucian classic.

Pound wanted to go to the United States to explain his actions. With Rudge, Pound was eventually driven to Genoa, where, after a long delay, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation;and Ezra Pound[Pound] Federal Bureau of Investigation arrived to interrogate him. Pound cooperated because he believed he was innocent. On May 24, however, he was handcuffed and driven away in a jeep; he thought he was headed to an airport and then to the United States. Instead, he was taken to the U.S. Army’s Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) just outside Pisa and placed in a maximum-security cage, where he had inadequate protection from sun and rain and was forced to sleep on a concrete floor.

Eventually, Pound received a pup tent to pitch in his cage. In June, the Army moved him to the DTC’s medical compound to prevent his mental collapse. The stress Pound suffered, however, may have led to renewed poetic creativity. Returning to a long series of his poems called The Cantos (the songs), which had been published piecemeal since 1915, he composed eleven more, Cantos 74 to 84. Written in Pound’s allusive, multilingual, multivoiced style, the new poems became The Pisan Cantos.

Because of bureaucratic delay, it was not until late in 1945 that Pound was taken to the United States, arriving in Washington, D.C., on November 18. The next day, Judge Bolitha J. Laws persuaded him not to serve as his own counsel but to accept a court-appointed attorney, Julien Cornell. On November 26, a federal grand jury formed a new indictment, longer and more detailed than the previous one. At his arraignment, Pound remained silent, leading Judge Laws to enter a plea of not guilty on his behalf. Denying a motion for bail, Laws sent Pound back to prison but, with Cornell’s approval, ordered a medical evaluation. On December 14, the four physicians who examined him wrote that Pound was “insane and mentally unfit for trial” and should be sent to a psychiatric hospital for care. In an inquisition on February 13, 1946, all twelve grand jurors reached the same conclusion.

Since December 21, Pound had been confined to a gloomy cell at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a federal psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., and supervised by Winfred Overholser, one of the physicians who had examined him. After the jury’s decision, Pound remained in a jail-like building until February 4, 1947, when he received better quarters. At Pisa he could receive no visits from family or friends, but at St. Elizabeths he received many visits, notably from his wife but also from numerous others, including famous poets. In general, people who had long known him found him not insane but merely as eccentric as always.

In theory, Pound was to stand trial when he recovered his sanity; but, according to Overholser, he remained insane. Meanwhile, The Pisan Cantos was published in July, 1948. In February, 1949, the fellows in American Literature of the Library of Congress, by majority vote, chose Pound’s new book as the winner of the first Bollingen Prize, a prize given for the best work of American poetry. Expecting the furor that arose after they (the fellows were, in effect, federal government representatives) awarded money to a person under indictment for treason, the fellows argued that to take into account matters other than aesthetics would make the prize meaningless. The award stood, but Congress forced the library to stop giving prizes, and control over the Bollingen Prize went to Yale University’s Beinecke Library.

As years passed and Pound still was deemed unfit for trial, he seemed destined to die in confinement without having been convicted. On April 18, 1958, however, after a campaign led by MacLeish, Judge Laws—with Overholser’s consent—dismissed the indictment against Pound, and he was released into his wife’s custody. Pound soon left St. Elizabeths and returned to Italy, where he died in 1972 with Rudge at his bedside.


Pound’s wartime broadcasts from an enemy nation tested the constitutional definition of “treason” and the limits of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The case of the broadcasts opened the door to the legal question, How far can a U.S. citizen go in opposing U.S. military action? Furthermore, Pound’s long confinement in a mental hospital while he was merely under indictment presented a new issue for the justice system, just as his receipt of an award for his poetry presented the problem of how to distinguish the lives and beliefs of artists from their artistic accomplishments. Pound, Ezra
Treason;Ezra Pound[Pound]
World War II[World War 02];and Ezra Pound[Pound]
Poetry;Ezra Pound[Pound]

Further Reading

  • Carpenter, Humphrey. A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound. New York: Dell, 1988. Devotes nearly three hundred pages to the period from Pound’s trip to the United States in 1939, his release from confinement in 1958, and his return to Italy.
  • Nadel, Ira B. The Cambridge Introduction to Ezra Pound. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Discusses briefly Pound’s life, the literary context of his work, and the details of his poetry and prose, including critics’ responses.
  • Norman, Charles. The Case of Ezra Pound. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968. Quotes many documents, including the two indictments of Pound, crucial letters, court transcripts, and the order dismissing the second indictment.
  • Pound, Ezra. “Ezra Pound Speaking”: Radio Speeches of World War II. Edited by Leonard W. Doob. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Gives the text of more than one hundred of Pound’s wartime radio broadcasts and ten other scripts, followed by analytic commentary.
  • _______. The Pisan Cantos. Edited by Richard Sieburth. New York: New Directions, 2003. Presents the full text of these poems and includes editorial notes, which some readers will find indispensable.
  • Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P., and Stephen J. Adams, eds. The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Contains 265 entries by ninety-nine scholars on persons, writings, and ideas. Includes discussion of Pound’s Pisan Cantos as well as economics, politics, and anti-Semitism.

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