One of modern poetry’s great symbolic and prophetic moments came in 1912, when Ezra Pound challenged Lascelles Abercrombie to a duel. Upset at the literary shenanigans of younger writers (as well as some old enough to have known better), Abercrombie had called for a return to Wordsworth; incensed, Pound issued his challenge, announcing to his intended victim that ‘Stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace.’ Offered a choice of weapons (and knowing that Pound was a practised, if eccentric, fencer), Abercrombie suggested that the two poets should bombard each other with unsold copies of their own books. As an image for what was to come – the struggle between tradition and innovation in the context of an enduring lack of public interest in poetry of either shade – the comic resolution of this quarrel could hardly be bettered.
Pound was, of course, as self-consciously outrageous a figure as Abercrombie and his like were self-consciously of the literary establishment: everyone was committed to playing their particular part. But Pound’s role was more original and more startling than most. Crashing into literary London in 1908, Pound was a one-man Renaissance,