30 July, 2006

66. Her name was Courage

These walls surround the cemetery island of San Michele, a small island close to Canareggio in the north of Venice. In 1806, during Napoleon's occupation of Venice, it was decreed that Venetians could no longer bury their dead in the city as it was considered unsanitary, and this whole island and the adjoining San Cristoforo island were set aside as a burial ground.

Among the many graves of ordinary citizens are the remains of a number of famous expatriates, among them Igor Stravinsky, and Serge Diaghilev, Ezra Pound, and Olga Rudge.

Olga who, you say?

Olga Rudge, an American-born longtime resident of Venice, was a celebrated concert violinist until the outbreak of World War II, and later almost single-handedly revived the world's interest in the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi, publishing a complete catalog of his work and discovering and publicizing a staggering 309 concertos by Vivaldi which had been lost or forgotten.

Proud of her artistic and financial independence, Olga is nevertheless best known as the lifelong muse and mistress of the poet Ezra Pound, the mother of Pound's only daughter, and a staunch champion of Pound and his work. During times when it was far from fashionable to have an illegitimate child with your married lover, she was loyal to him despite his many peccadilloes, and despite the threat to her own career. She remained loyal not only after he was arrested for treason for broadcasting and writing in support of Italy in the Second World War, but even when he was declared insane after his acquittal and confined to a lunatic asylum for a further 12 years.

Olga met Pound in 1923 when he was already married, and Pound's wife Dorothy was still alive when he died in Olga's arms nearly fifty years later in 1972. The two women hated each other and much of Olga's life together with Pound was an uncomfortable ménage a trios between herself, the compulsively womanizing poet, and either his wife or one of his many other mistresses and casual lovers, but Olga's house in Venice where she had lived since 1928 was always a refuge for him and it was there they spent his final years together.

Olga outlived her lover by 24 years, never wavering in her loyalty to Pound, and was buried beside him in 1996 on the island of San Michele.

Among the final lines of poetry written by Pound are these, and they would have been a fitting epitaph:

Her name was courage
and is written Olga.

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