Matthew Melema: A different Jesus in Ezra Pound’s “Ballad of the Goodly Fere”
Ezra Pound was a horrible person.
He was a preening narcissist and base hedonist, spiteful and manipulative and stubborn. And of course, he was also a fascist. Not the naive or impulsive type we might try to explain away. Years after the world knew everything, Pound’s fascism remained: deliberate, knowing, unrepentant.
But he wrote beautiful poetry.
Most poetry lovers are used to praising the lines of awful people–the list of misanthropic poets with shocking views is long and distinguished. But Pound did something that sets him apart. He wrote a great poem about Jesus.
The poem is “Ballad of the Goodly Fere.” Its speaker is Simon the Zealot, “some time after the crucifixion.” Simon has the cockney lilt of a working man, opening with:
“Ha’ we lost the goodliest fere o’ all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O’ ships and the open sea.”
Pound wrote the poem because the culture’s “gentle Jesus” stereotypes didn’t match his reading of the Gospels. It shows. Simon describes Jesus as the ultimate man’s man:
“I ha’ sen him drive a hundred men
Wi’ a bundle o’ cords swung free,
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.
They’ll no’ get him a’ in a book I think
Though they write it cunningly;
No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Fere
But aye loved the open sea.”
This Jesus relishes a drink and laugh with the guys: “Oh we drunk his ‘Hale’ in the good red wine / When we last made company.” He is also loyal, defending his friends with a swaggering fierceness:
“When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see,
‘First let these go!’ quo’ our Goodly Fere,
‘Or I’ll see ye damned,’ says he.”
When his hour of crucifixion comes, Jesus meets it with steely stoicism.
“‘Ye ha’ seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead,’ says he,
‘Ye shall see one thing to master all:
‘Tis how a brave man dies on the tree . . .
. . .
He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free,
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue
But never a cry cried he.”
These lines, admittedly, risk making Jesus into more of an action hero than a human. Yet the poem has a tender side as well, with Simon noting:
“A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree . . .
. . .
A master of men was the Goodly Fere,
A mate of the wind and sea,
If they think they ha’ slain our Goodly Fere
They are fools eternally
I ha’ seen him eat o’ the honey-comb
Sin’ they nailed him to the tree.”
Considering Pound’s goal of combatting the “gentle Jesus” stereotype, it would have been easy for his Jesus to be no different than William Wallace or Leonidas. But he mostly avoids this. True, this Jesus is slanted to the hearty and masculine. But he is still compelling. Compelling enough to make me wonder: how could a sinner like Pound have insight on Jesus?
It’s easy to dismiss the poem along with the person. But God often shares his truth through unlikely sources. Nebuchadnezzar was cursed to live like a beast because of his hubris. But he later wrote one of the humblest tributes to God’s grandeur in the Old Testament. Paul was the “chief of sinners” before becoming Christ’s chosen vessel. Balaam’s donkey was, well, a donkey before God used it to berate an oblivious prophet.
That’s how I view Pound in the “Ballad of the Goodly Fere”: a donkey. Sure he’s hard-headed, brutish, and even bestial. But when his culture had grown dull, thinking of Jesus as a mere teacher of platitudes, Pound was there. He reminds us of the vitality, the loyalty, the gospel-strangeness of the Son of God.
If a donkey can speak truth when needed, maybe Pound can too.
Image: Christ Expulses Money Changers. Cecco del Caravaggio. Wikimedia Commons.