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 III.
To start us off, here is the text of Canto III and here’s a recording of Ezra Pound reading it aloud. There’s a nice discussion of it here, which includes the recording I just linked along with the discussion.
I’m not sure I can call any of the Cantos “sweet” but Canto III is certainly short. It can be divided into three main sections, the first of which is taken from an earlier version of the first three Cantos (the “ur-Cantos” which I will discuss next time) and the latter half being Pound’s riff on the “El Cantar de Mio Cid” (The Lay of the Cid), a medieval Spanish poem/song, and finally a kind of concluding coda.
Each section is interesting for certain reasons, and the two together are even more interesting because of the potential juxtapositions intended, but I’ll deal with the two sections separately before trying to get into them together.
The first half has been widely, widely discussed: it recounts a memory of Pound’s from 1908, during his trip to Venice, in relative poverty and alone:
I sat on the Dogana’s steps
For the gondolas cost too much, that year,
And there were not “those girls”, there was one face,
And the Buccentoro twenty yards off, howling, “Stretti”,
And the lit cross-beams, that year, in the Morosini,
And peacocks in Koré’s house, or there may have been.
Gods float in the azure air,
Bright gods and Tuscan, back before dew was shed.
Light: and the first light, before ever dew was fallen.
Panisks, and from the oak, dryas,
And from the apple, mælid,
Through all the wood, and the leaves are full of voices,
A-whisper, and the clouds bowe over the lake,
And there are gods upon them,
And in the water, the almond-white swimmers,
The silvery water glazes the upturned nipple,
As Poggio has remarked.
Green veins in the turquoise,
Or, the gray steps lead up under the cedars.
It is crucial since, of course, this is the first moment when we encounter “I” in the poems, with the intention that it is understood to be Pound himself — until here, he has been a somewhat ghostly (ie. authorial) presence in the poems, but now he is part of the history which is poem is supposed to contain. Again, it is a moment of apparent failure; Pound, lost and forlorn in modern Venice, cannot afford to ride the gondolas… but his poverty he turns to his advantage, squinting and looking sideways to finds the ancient, the magical, revealed… all those things that contemporary Venetians themselves would not be seeing at all, things lost like himself, but also eternal… like himself-as-poet? Or, in an occult sense, perhaps in some other sense?
I’m not sure what face it is that haunts him here; “that face” seems to repudiate “those girls” of Browning’s Sordello, but for my purposes at least it suggests a love interest, perhaps even a memory of his onetime lover (and fellow imagiste) HD… after all, Pound had recently been engaged to her, and it was broken off in that year. The uses of HD for a narrative of Pound seem as good as they did when I first drafted a short story in which he appears.
The creatures that appear to Pound a numerous: little satyrs (panisks), dryads (dryas), apple-tree nymphs (maelid), the hint of nereids in the pools (in the bit about the silvery upturned nipple and the perhaps misremembered remark by Poggio), and of course the gods in the azure air — azure for Pound being the hue of the eternal, according to Terrell.
And then, in pure Poundian fashion, there’s a sudden shift eastward, invoking the ascension of Confucius up the stairs to the ancestral temple of the Duke of Chou, when he entered into his service.
Before moving on to the “El Cid” content, I feel it might be useful to stop and ask, what is going on here? There are a few things, of course. For one, Pound is juxtaposing the past with the present, though in this case, he seems to be valorizing the past in contrast with the present; the ancient world had nereids and dryads and panisks all about, while the modern world just has expensive gondolas and little to offer a poet, poets being after all poor in this age.
Or perhaps he is simply opening up the past, overlaying it upon the present as a kind of consolatory fantasy, though knowing Pound, I cannot buy the notion that consolatory fantasy is all this invocation represents. There is, after all, a face haunting him, not those girls, but one face. Whoever it is that he is thinking about — though I think I will assume, for the remainder of this post, that it is HD — may figure some way into this fantastical view of the past, though how seems unclear. Perhaps her poetry contained for him some secret. It is important to note that this is the first view of the magical past that doesn’t seem to be fueled by some sort of nekuia; that is, necromancy is absent wholly here, until the end (or perhaps just before the end).
Confucius ascent into the ancestral temple, in service of his Lord, seems to suggest a key to this: Pound has entered into the service of someone or something as well. Whom, or what? A normal reading might suggest — Poetry? Art? Humanity and History? Civilization? — but for the purposes of a novel with Pound as a mage protagonist, it could be that he has chosen a side in the Great War that rages in his world — between those two factions that battle constantly, to which he alluded in Canto II. This could also be linked to why the face of HD haunts him: perhaps she has chosen a different side in the battle, or perhaps she is ambivalent about throwing down and getting involved, or maybe he worries as she has joined and is now in more danger than he wishes she would allow herself to be in. The possibilities vary widely.
Proceeding on, we can see Pound introduces the appearance of what he calls “my Cid” — a pun on “Mio Cid” but also an kind of appropriation that recalls “But Sordello, and my Sordello?” in Canto II — and begins overlaying snippets from “El Cantar de Mio Cid,” with the clear implication that he is El Cid, the outcast, downtrodden hero, the great warrior of Spain. El Cid, indeed, has a life story one might imagine Pound at his most hopeful (or most arrogant) would have held onto for dear life: after all, Ruy Diaz (Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar) seems to be living well, his own daughters married to the sons of his king (Alfonso VI), when suddenly he ends up being screwed over by his enemies to the point of being exiled by his king, in the section (“The Exile”) from which Pound is quoting here… but after heroically leading battles against the Moors who were conquering Spain in this time, he is welcomed back to his rightful place by King Alfonso. There are little bitlets that are supposed to echo moments from Pound’s life, like the “little girl of nine years”; there are what might be little digs, as well — “voce tinnula” may translate as “voice ringing” but “tinnula” also brings to mind “tinny” or “tinnitus.”
There is also a hint, already here, of Pound’s anti-Semitism, for this stuff:
And left his trunk with Raquel and Vidas,
That big box of sand, with the pawn-brokers,
To get pay for his menie;
Breaking his way to Valencia.
… relates to El Cid’s trickery of two Jewish moneylenders: he convinces them to trade two boxes of “gold” (which they must keep shut for security’s sake, and which contain nothing but sand) for the money necessary to pay for his private army, which he then uses to fight his way to Valencia and conquer, thereby regaining his honor and being welcomed back to the court of the King. The Jewish moneylenders cannot fail, for one familiar with Pound, to bring to mind his rantings and railings against usury, which shall begin to show up in the poem directly quite soon.
There is a great deal here that could be related to my above imaginings regarding Pound’s role in an occult secret society, especially one pitched in a factional war: perhaps Pound was betrayed within the faction, and has similarly been exiled — or perhaps he has somehow become convinced that this has happened; perhaps HD is somehow involved. Perhaps there is, as well, a Jewish figure involved, someone who might have been perceived to have acted against Pound in such a way as to plant the seed of a resentment so irrational, so finally hateful, that Pound could not let it go. Or perhaps, the ranting about usury has to do with the economics of how the faction operates. If the world of poetry is a guild of magic-workers, then we must admit in the modern world, it is a bit like the “reapers” in Dead Like Me: one may work magic, but one must have a day job to keep food on the table and clothes on one’s back, regardless.
There is a little coda in which the murder of Inés (Ignez) de Castro is mentioned (and will be mentioned again in Canto XXX, as every commentator notes); a scene of merciless betrayal and murder by a different King Alphonso (a Portuguese one), recalling the somewhat necromatic display of her body and the kissing of her dead hand by dignitaries in a painting in Madrid, discussed by Pound in The Spirit of Romance (as Terrell has remarked…). For Terrell, the tension in this image is in the contrast between the rotting corpse of Inés, and the beautiful image (in the painting, in the display after her death) of her regal body — perhaps hers is the “one face” that haunts him — but one can just as easily imagine other explanations for this sudden shift in focus, besides the presence of a King Alphonso/Alfonso in each narrative.
After all, the HD figure in the earlier narrative seems to echo into the “little girl of nine years” — innocent, unwitting of the shifting of the world around her and the presence of a Great Man (El Cid, Ezra Pound) — and the murdered Ignez de Castro. Again, there are shades of a hint that the face that haunts him is in danger; HD’s father having been against the engagement, perhaps he is somehow in Pound’s mind connected to usura — the economics system that for Pound is the source of horror and evil in the world (and in the historical reality of The Cantos).
Pound’s railing against usury may inform the fall from Renaissance grace that seems to come out as the sighed “Drear waste” — the waste of a civilization, the waste of great minds scrabbling to feed themselves because there is not money in great things, in poetry and art and, perhaps, in magic. The world appreciates art no more: “pigment flakes from the wall, / Or plaster flakes.” It is Mantegna, one of the painters who Pound seems to consider important (among other things, from having worked where Sordello came from, and having painted the Ducal palaces in Mantua), whose painting is here seen to crumble, and then a line from the ducal palace in Mantua ends the poem, “Nec Spec Nec Metu” — “Neither by hope nor by fear,” which Terrell dutifully tells us is a suggestion that only by action are things achieved.
But what sort of action? By sitting upon steps and imagining the gods in the azure air, the ancient mystic spirits of nature that are forgotten, dead to modern memory? By sitting upon the steps and, rather than imagining it, actually seeing that other, permanent, mystical world? Does this represent Pound yearning for some other way of connecting to the past besides necromancy? There does seem to be a kind of biblionecromantic theme — translation as nekuia, intertext as necromantic invocation — from which, for the most part, Pound has departed in this Canto, but one could interpret this either as a successful departure (until the end) from necromantic verse, or one could argue that it only describes a desperate desire to transcend it. After all, the gods in the azure air, the dryads and satyrs and maelids and nereids, they are all in a sense “dead” in the modern world, dead to memory — just as dead, in a sense, as Robert Browning and his Sordello was to many of the time, just as dead as so much of history that was, for Pound, vibrant and alive and brimming with resonances fitting other times and the present age alike.
In the end, “Nec Spec Nec Metu” seems to be a call to the very thing one wants in a protagonist… and yet, there is a puzzle piece that is missing for the man, which, as my friend Nick insists always when reading friends’ stories, is the question of motivation. What does Ezra Pound want here? What is the man after? “That face” comes to mind, but it is not the only thing, I think; there is much more, bubbling within the pages left to be read in The Cantos.
One thing I can say is that, as this wonderful essay online points out, I am doing to The Cantos (and Pound’s life) what Pound did to literature and to the lives of so many others in history: I am reading it with a scholarship not exact, not fully supportable, but somewhat imaginative. Pound’s scholarship is constantly suspect, constantly subject to the whims of his interests and curiosities, and he does meander among ideas he would like history to fit, as much as he dwells on what we actually know to be true of history, of texts, and so on. (And while I may be a bit didactic in some of my writing, I will endeavour to avoid that in my writing about Pound…)
For the essayist I linked above, as for me, it is the way Pound tackles with time and eternity that interests me most — both the folding and reshaping of time and of eternity, but also his striving to see beyond the present, or the past, into an eternity that confounds the familiar (and I’ll say it, cheap) view of the world that we live surrounded by. We are not just what we think we are; that, I think, is almost an SFnal resonance, and it makes me think the online personality who goes by the name Lee Lady is right in suggesting Pound might, had he been born later, ended up writing SF [or fantasy] instead of poetry. (And there is an SFnal link: Lady, like myself, is an alumnus of a Clarion workshop!) There are other reasons I’ll get into later why I think this, but for now, I’ll leave it at that.