For those who don’t know, I’m writing a series of posts about Ezra Pound’s massive book-length poem The Cantos as I work my way through the poems. My readings, designed to help me write a novel featuring Pound as an occult adventurer (more on that here), will stray from the merely academic to the unusual and highly fanciful, so take all this with a grain of salt! If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, there will be a menu where you can go back to the beginning of this series.
Today, I’m continuing with the Cantos, and specifically addressing Canto II.
Hang it all, Hugh Kenner,
There can only be one Ezra Pound:
But their Pound, and my Pound?
Lo Pounds si fo di Idaho.
As I commented regarding Canto I, it’s pretty hard to come up with much to say about Canto II: since most people don’t really care to study the whole book, they concentrate on these early cantos, and so there is a great deal said and written about them, to the point where sometimes it feels like everything has been said.
Yet I shall endeavour to say, perhaps, something a little new, and not to recount too much of what has been said before: the minimum necessary, I suppose, to make my own points.
The opening of the poem is taken from an earlier draft of the first three Cantos, which I’ll discuss once I’ve touched on the first three Cantos, as a kind of pause and reflection. It invokes Robert Browning and his famous, maligned long narrative poem — later championed by, among others, Pound — Sordello. Countless commentaries note that Sordello, like Pound’s Cantos, is a poem that contains history — though not all of history, as Pound sometimes seems to be trying to do, but a chunk of it.
The chunk it contains focuses on the life of one historical troubadour, Sordello. Why Sordello is such a focal point of interest for Browning escapes me: I don’t get it, myself, beyond the sense that Browning somehow believed he could use the story of Sordello to paint a vivid picture of a poetical soul. Is Pound’s project like this? It doesn’t seem to be, and yet Pound seems to despair in his invocation of Browning:
Hang it all, Robert Browning,
There can only be one Sordello:
But their Sordello, and my Sordello?
Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana.
The lines have been pondered on by many, perhaps too many for their own good. Pound here is:
- agitating about depiction and verisimilitude, because, as anyone who’s actually studied up can tell you, Browning got a massive number of details wrong, including which political faction — Guelph or Ghibbeline — Sordello was aligned with. The poem is loaded with anachronisms, and it’s not clear to me at least whether Browning used the anachronisms consciously, had limited (or bad) resources for research, or just didn’t care. Whatever the case, there are hints of Pound’s approach to conscious employment of anachronism or thematic rhyme and echo across vast oceans of time. (Into which he himself launches in the lines that follow.)
- playing with the freedom and indeterminacy of this kind of depiction: there are multiple Sordellos, after all: the Sordello of history, that of Browning’s poem, that of Pound’s experience reading Sordello (or, indeed, of his Sordello, who perhaps is Browning or himself or whatnot), and then, the Sordello invoked in the fourth line: “Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana” just means, “Sordello is from Mantua” but it is a quote from Sordello’s vida. Anyone who has studied the vidas — which are biographical sketches of a sort, kind of like the troubadour equivalent of Stratchey’s Eminent Victorians, except that they were written long after the deaths of the troubadours concerned, by monks who had never met them, and often relied on the lyrics of the troubadours’ songs (ie. their poetry) to construct hypothetical life stories for them.1
- agitating about the life of a text: Sordello may have been, in Pound’s opinion, a masterpiece, but it was maligned and Browning’s career suffered from it. Pound is already concerned with the question of failure, or failure-through-success perhaps; he is worried what his project will do to his career, if he cannot even live up to the successful failure of Browning himself.
But of course, there are other, more occult echoes in the opening of the poem. Pound addresses Browning directly, and in Browning’s style — the informal, colloquial tone of “Hang it all, Robert Browning” is Browningesque itself — but he also references a poem of Brownings which commences with yet another nekuia of sorts, for Browning begins Sordello with his own summoning invocation: at least, if I followed the that first Book of Sordello correctly (and it is a painful read!) he calls the spirits of dead poets to come and hear his recounting of the tale of Sordello. There is even a glimpse of Dante in hell:
Dante, pacer of the shore
Where glutted Hell disgorgeth filthiest gloom,
Unbitten by its whirring sulphur-spume—
Or whence the grieved and obscure waters slope
Into a darkness quieted by hope—
Plucker of amaranths grown beneath God’s eye
In gracious twilights where his Chosen lie,
I would do this!
(From Sordello, Book 1; no page numbers, but you a searchable text downloadable here)
This hinting at Browning’s nekuia of course echoes the whole necromatic tone of Canto I, which I discussed here, and reinforces the notion that there is a mystical interaction with the dead going on in the Cantos. While Pound may have considered this merely metaphor, for the purposes of my fiction project, the tantalizing equation that has begun to develop is: Poet = Necromancer.
Of course, this is not the only magical business afoot in Canto II: there is also that second of three themes that Pound mentioned in his letter to his father, and which is tiresomely (if usefully) quoted by everyone and his dog. I have no dog, but I shall quote it too:
A. A. Live man goes down into world of dead.
C. B. ‘The repeat in history.’
B. C. The ‘magic moment’ or moment of metamorphosis, bust through from quotidian into ‘divine or permanent world.’ Gods, etc.
Trouble yourself not with the ACB/ABC structure: those are just two possibel sequences for the appearance of the narratives. But the Cantos is also a “rag-bag” into which bits of history have been “stuffed”, as Pound put it elsewhere, and these different themes tumble and twin together.
There is also a tumbling cascade of “repeat in history” here, and Pound superimposes the world of the troubadours — the world of Sordello and of Eleanor of Acquitaine — upon the world of the ancient Greeks, especially in his conflation (though Greek puns, the bastard: he applies the epithets for Helen of Troy, ελεναυς and ελεπτολις — helenaus and heleptolis, ie. ship-destroying and city-destroying) to Eleanor of Aquitaine, a superimposition of the sort that will abound throughout the Cantos. Both were powerful, beautiful, and world-changing woman of history, brimming with sexual power and each a sort of prototypical femme fatale in her way. (It also doesn’t hurt that both Eleanor’s and Helen’s fathers were significant men, Eleanor’s in terms of the fusion of different cultural poetries, but see Terrell (pg. 6) for more on that.) There is, perhaps, a warning here of the power of the occult, too: great beauty and power, matched with great capacity for treachery — Helen’s destruction of so much, and Eleanor’s betrayal of her husband (arguably, in response to his unfaithfulness to her, and ill treatment).
Here, we find hints at something else, hidden beneath the surface, however, of two factions, two sides of a war: Guelph against Ghibbeline, Achaeans (Greeks) against Trojans; English against French in the wake of the legal complications related to Eleanor’s marriage — note — to a King from each land. To this I will return in a moment, once I have sketched out what happens in the remainder of the poem.
For it is there, in the “magic moment” — not the necromancy of A, or the “repeat in history” that forms the second of Pound’s planned themes, but the third theme, the “bust through from quotidian into ‘divine or permanent world’, that is the main attraction of this Canto (and pardon the missing indentations, but they are hard to maintain on a blog post):
God-sleight then, god-sleight:
Ship stock fast in sea-swirl,
Ivy upon the oars, King Pentheus,
grapes with no seed but sea-foam,
Ivy in scupper-hole.
Aye, I, Acœtes, stood there,
and the god stood by me,
Water cutting under the keel,
Sea-break from stern forrards,
wake running off from the bow,
And where was gunwale, there now was vine-trunk,
And tenthril where cordage had been,
grape-leaves on the rowlocks,
Heavy vine on the oarshafts,
And, out of nothing, a breathing,
hot breath on my ankles,
Beasts like shadows in glass,
a furred tail upon nothingness.
Lynx-purr, and heathery smell of beasts,
where tar smell had been,
Sniff and pad-foot of beasts,
eye-glitter out of black air.
The sky overshot, dry, with no tempest,
Sniff and pad-foot of beasts,
fur brushing my knee-skin,
Rustle of airy sheaths,
dry forms in the æther.
And the ship like a keel in ship-yard,
slung like an ox in smith’s sling,
Ribs stuck fast in the ways,
grape-cluster over pin-rack,
void air taking pelt.
Lifeless air become sinewed,
feline leisure of panthers,
Leopards sniffing the grape shoots by scupper-hole,
Crouched panthers by fore-hatch,
And the sea blue-deep about us,
green-ruddy in shadows,
And Lyæus: “From now, Acœtes, my altars,
Fearing no bondage,
fearing no cat of the wood,
Safe with my lynxes,
feeding grapes to my leopards,
Olibanum is my incense,
the vines grow in my homage.”
The back-swell now smooth in the rudder-chains,
Black snout of a porpoise
where Lycabs had been,
Fish-scales on the oarsmen.
And I worship.
I have seen what I have seen.
When they brought the boy I said:
“He has a god in him,
though I do not know which god.”
And they kicked me into the fore-stays.
I have seen what I have seen:
Medon’s face like the face of a dory,
Arms shrunk into fins. And you, Pentheus,
Had as well listen to Tiresias, and to Cadmus,
or your luck will go out of you.
Fish-scales over groin muscles,
lynx-purr amid sea…
And of a later year,
pale in the wine-red algæ,
If you will lean over the rock,
the coral face under wave-tinge,
Rose-paleness under water-shift,
Ileuthyeria, fair Dafne of sea-bords,
The swimmer’s arms turned to branches,
Who will say in what year,
fleeing what band of tritons,
The smooth brows, seen, and half seen,
now ivory stillness.
The tale here is simple, and taken straight from Ovid — the end of Book III of The Metamorphosis, to be exact: the men of a ship take on board a lad whom they plan to sell into slavery, though they have been told the lad has a god within him — which one, unknown. When it becomes apparent that they are bent on trickery, and foul dealing, the boy suddenly reveals himself to be Bacchus, a newly-powerful god; he halts their ship in the water, and strange phantom forms fill the air, the waters turning to fresh grape-must, the forms of lynxes and panthers apparent on deck, and an explosion of fertile vegetation (recalling vaguely the vegetation rituals of the Eleusinian mysteries, perhaps, though those are devoted to Demeter and Persephone).
All this is easy enough to fish out of the canto itself, but Pound, cunningly, has omitted the framing story that gives the tale its context and force: and that is, Tiresias, whom we met in Canto I, has scolded King Pentheus that he must begin to worship Bacchus, the new god (whom you may known under other names, but most likely in the Roman name, Dionysus), who is at that point overtaking Apollo’s cult. Pentheus is not interested, does not heed the story, and indeed has Acoetes, the narrator, dragged into the dungeons to be tortured to death. (Again, a trip under the Earth, and again the blush with death, though it is said Acoetes escapes unharmed, the doors opening and the chains falling from him on their own accord.) Pentheus wanders onto the mountainside, spies a Bacchic ritual in progress — one involving even his own family members. Indeed, his mother leads the attack on him, and he is dismembered by the mob… and everyone from that day on worshipped Bacchus.
Here, we see yet another antagonistic binary to add to the list above: the Dionysian versus the Apollonian. Dionysus is an interesting figure as he is an outsider, and his outsider nature, or, as in this poem, his appearance as a young upstart to be reckoned with, seems quite applicable to Pound: in a sense, his use of this story feels a little bit like the bravado one picks up in hip-hop music, challenging other poets.
Or, if one considers again my task in these readings — an exploration of how The Cantos could be read as an occult text — perhaps Pound is playing at a deeper game. When I began to consider the notion of Pound as an occult adventurer, it became apparent that there would have to be two factions at war, with Pound as a member of one and caught up in battle against the other — familiar theme in epics but also in novels today. I hadn’t really connected these dots, but seeing them, especially this invocation of binary opposites confronting one another through the ages, again and again (the repeat in history) it would seem my imaginary, magic-working Pound might see himself as on not only the winning team, but the new team, the team that one must watch out for as the world shifts its axis; or perhaps, The Cantos is some sort of binding, designed not only to ensure Pound’s success (as an upstart outsider poet, much like Bacchus coming anew into the land and demanding worship) but also the success of his chosen faction. When one is dealing with ancient magical cults, millennia after their beginnings, either or both side might claim to be the newer, the inheritor and keeper of traditions against the evils of the old regime.
What those regimes might represent, though, is another question. Apollonian and Dionysian qualities — something to chew on. But they would not be so simple and straightforward as that, I think (and old-fashioned, too, even perhaps in Nietzsche’s use of them). After all, there was one thing Pound loved time and again to exhort of others: “Make it new!” Still: the hint of an occult faction war here is tantalizing, and reassures me that I’m on the right track in my earlier considerations with regard to novelizing Pound as, ha, an occult adventurer.
Sadly, for those awaiting it, I don’t seen any specific SFnal links within the poem, but Ovid’s The Metamorphoses is deeply linked to fantasy in general, and is indeed itself a cornerstone text of fantastical literature. Oh, and of course, one more link to Pound’s conception of evolution, which does connect him, somewhat, to H.G. Wells: that is, his sense that, as Guy Davenport recounts here, Pound claimed to believe in 1921 that species did not evolve slowly, but rather through suddenly shifts and leaps, as poetry and as an individuals sensibilities can do. Doubtless there was something in the zeitgeist, but if we can attribute the presence of this romanticized notion of evolution that in the air to anyone, it probably ought to be attributed to H.G. Wells, many of whose early (and not so early) science-fictional novels sometimes posited sudden evolutionary change of one kind or another — see In The Days of the Comet, The Food of the Gods, or Star Begotten for examples.
This reminds me of a clear and known link between Wells and Pound; once, in Montreal, picking my way through The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, I found the name of H.G. Wells in the appendix, specifically tied to two letters. In one, Pound expressed great excitement at a book of Wells’ that he wanted to read — something on economics, mind, not a “scientific romance”; less than a hundred pages later (but more than fifty) Pound mentions Wells in a letter again, in harsh words. (What I remember is, “Wells disgusts me,” but I may be misremembering that.) I have no idea whether they actually met, but I have no doubt that Wells was every bit as much the “village explainer” that Pound was (according to Gertrude Stein), and that this would have served as an impediment in their relationship, especially with their political differences — Pound waxing Fascist then, while Wells remained a frustrated socialist.
This is especially worthy of note since, so far in what I have written for the project, Wells and Pound end up teaming up… of course they do!
1. For example, where Bernart da Ventadour ends one song (“Can vei la lauzeta mover”) by declaring melodramatically that he will never love again and will instead retire to a monastery until his death; this becomes the conclusion to the vida written for his life, perhaps a century later.