This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, one by one (so far — I may deal with a few at a time on occasion).
These are not exactly typical readings of the poems, so much as readings I’m doing with a specific research project in mind — how to write Ezra Pound as a figure in a novel in which modernist artists, poets, and musicians secretly waged an occult war in the earlier half of the 20th century. If you’d like to know more about the project, I recommend scrolling down to the bottom of extended post, and reading the first installment in this series.
After a brief look at Cantos VI and VII last week, I’m going to try keep up the pace, and tackle half of the for Malatesta Cantos (XIII and IX) this week. Creative types beware: there comes a time in your life where you will be attracted to nutball crap.
Trust me: I’ve been through it, so I know personally. I’ve long suspected that there’s a scene in the Odyssey that embodies this. It’s the one wherein Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast of the ship, with wax in their ears, so that he can hear the siren’s song without falling to the usual fate of those who do so. The problem is that most of us are not captains of ships with crews to tie us to the mast. Rather, many of us — the poets, the novelists, the composers, the painters — work alone, and alone is the most vulnerable of states of human beings.
As Humphery Carpenter relates in his biography of Pound (A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound), after finishing Canto VII, the poet set aside The Cantos for two years. Through this time, he did other things — like moving to France, for one, and assisting T.S. Eliot with The Waste Land for another, and like writing an opera.
Yeah, an opera, and you’d think that for Pound — who basically considered himself tone-deaf — this would be nutball crap enough for a lifetime… and yet, it turned out to be more a minor, odd episode. It’s a treatment of poems by Francois Villon, a mid-fiftteenth century Frenchman Wikipedia describes as a “poet, thief, and vagabond.” The bits of the opera, Le Testament de François Vilhon, that I’ve heard were not impressive if taken as attempted operatic music; but they are impressive if taken as the record of a poet’s attempt to come to an understanding of rhythm, breath, melody, and harmony. (And Richard Taruskin has suggested there is actually musical value to the thing, if only just barely.) You can hear bits of it here.
But in 1922, Pound did return to the Cantos, and the first he completed is one which, in its final form, we have already read (weeks ago: the original Canto 8, which he wrote at this point, became Canto II in the final text). It is worth noting, he drafted that Canto, now Canto II, while reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time in book form. Thereafter, he began casting about for a new grand subject to treat, one up to the grade set by earlier figures in the poem — Odysseus, Sordello, several troubadours, and various gods.
The new subject he finally settled upon was suggested to him by “a visit Italy in the spring and summer of 1922” (Carpenter, 418). During his trip, Pound went to Siena, Venice, Sirmione, Rimini, Ravenna, and Verona, and it was in Rimini that he visited the Tempio Malatestiano. (And apparently at some point after his trip, Pound read a biography of Malatesta, by one C.E. Yiriate, who presented him as, in Pound’s words, “a failure worthy of all the successes of his age.”
The relationship between the Tempio Malatestiano and The Cantos is one worth remarking on. Tempio, of course, is temple; Malatestiano designates it is the temple of the Malatestas. It was the brainchild of one Sigismondo Malatesta, an Italian condottiero; the condottieri (that’s the plural) were what we would now call warlords… sort of. For Pound, at least, condottieri like Malatesta seem to have embodied a particular set of paradoxes necessary for the achievement of great things. It’s easy enough to try map these sorts of men onto Don Corleones or Tony Soprano, except that the vicious, rapacius warlord side of them was only part of the picture. As Cantos VIII-XI unfold, we realize that Malatesta was not only responsible for a mercenary army, but also for the funding of various things that fit very well into the what we now call “the Renaissance.”
The Malatestas may have been the type to kidnap and rape the neighbor’s daughter on a whim, but they were also the type to fund the translation of Greek verse into Latin; they were patrons (and fans) of music and of romantic seduction; and Malatesta in particular was a sort of twisted mind of exactly the type to appeal to Pound, the proof of which is no less than the Tempio Malatestiano.
To build a Tempio:
Take a medieval Franciscan church — one partly in ruins — in Rimini, and reconstruct it by adding an outer, more modern layer around what’s left of the original structure, gutting the inside, and remodeling.
When you reconstruct it, don’t make it look at all Christian. In fact, just for good measure, omit Christian symbols completely. Make sure it is full of depictions of pagan figures, for one thing, and that it celebrates science. Generally include stuff that normally would not be included in a Renaissance-era church, like tributes to oneself and one’s wife (for whom the structure is intended as a kind of sepulchre) in ways that ambiguously suggest you might be described as deities on the level of the pagan gods, but also include chapels to the planets (with zodiacal figures), the liberal arts, childhood games, astronomy, and so on.
Make enemies with the pope, and get excommunicated, and have your Tempio criticized by the Vatican as being “full of pagan gods and idols.”
Fail to finish construction, because being excommunicated is bad for Renaissance-era business in Italy, but leave the glorious tangled mess for the tourists to marvel at. Or, at any rate, for a proto-fascist poet to marvel at in 1922.
I remember, in a lecture, a professor discussing the treatment of the remains interred in the sepulchres beneath the church: that Malatesta simply has the bones all torn out of their resting places and thrown into a single jumbled pile in a room that was finally sealed up. This, I have always thought, was one of the most powerful metaphors I’ve ever encountered for the structural logic of the Cantos, and now that I am considering its necromantic contents more carefully, it seems even more so. The paganism and its role as part of a clean sweep that removes the taint of corrupted European Christianity; the translative nature of the project — a kind of neo-pagan, modernized reconstruction of an ancient structure (as Pound obviously sought to do with The Cantos); the gutsy tough-guy brutality to which Pound was so clearly attracted.
Just as Pound earlier seemed to be interested in a Troy in Auvergnat — a recurrence of the Trojan War narrative in Medieval Occitania — he seems to have been eager to place an Odysseus figure in Renaissance Italy: Malatesta, in a sense, had simply lain in wait for five hundred years, waiting to be rehabilitated thus — his bones ripped out and tossed into a single room, his form given strange, new, transfigured life.
There is more, of course, to say in the abstract, before diving into the poems: for one thing, here Pound seems to return to the Browningesque project, in the mode of Sordello: he chooses an Italian condottiero though — a warlord patron of the Renaissance — rather than a poet. Perhaps, we could say, this is where the trouble begins in earnest.
This is also where Pound likely began to do what I did in my last post, discussing the tenuous link between Aliester Crowley and Pound through Ione de Forest: after all, The Tempio holds the remains of the Neoplatonist light philosopher Gemisthus Pletho, another reference to that philosophical system which seems so crucial to The Cantos.
Here, Pound begins looking to Italy for a macho man who can save the world from its fallen state — the brutal barbarism and unbalance that has recurred, repeatedly, in the poems leading up to this one (V-VII especially). Those of us who know how this will play out for the man, in the end, can’t help but wince a bit. Malatesta, Mussolini: if you squint a little, you, too, could get sucked into a nightmare, as Pound was.
But at this point, I should turn my attention to the poems. I’m not particularly interested in a strict, poem-by-poem reading for these four, mainly because they are among the easiest to read and unpack in the whole book. Indeed, Hugh Kenner kind of sums it up when he writes, on page 417 of The Pound Era:
VIII He concentrates on the life of a time. Wars, artists.
IX The Tempio. The post-bag. (Two emblems of The Cantos.)
X His enemies gather forces. The burning in effigy.
XI His decline (Cf. Le [sic] Cid, Canto III). “In the gloom, the gold.”
In the Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound, Daniel Albright terms these four poems “The Sigismundiad,” which is a pretty apt designation as the cantos comprise a kind of micro-epic within the larger text; Albright also discusses the relevance of Pound’s recently-completed opera (Le Testament, which I mentioned above) to this particular group of poems, which he likes to a kind of operatic libretto — and this is also an apt description, of course.
(That’s the thing about the Cantos: once you start reading them, you find yourself casting about for some other model to hang onto than just “epic poem” and a good number of possible models seem to make sense for the poem, too — much more sense than the ones Pound himself sometimes offers in those oft-quoted letters of his.)
But the operatic analogy makes sense: there is, for example, music implied throughout, moving from the quotidian “recitative” of bills needing paying, to the macho bragging of various acts of violence and warfare, to the heartbreaking arias that tell of the fate of Sigismundo and his allies, the “poor devils” discussed at the opening of Canto X. I can truly imagine the narrative of these cantos, of the life of Sigismundo Malatesta, told in the form of an Italian opera.
Pound is a sucker for a great man’s rise and, always, his tumultuous fall, a fall that must be blamed on the rotted-ruinedness of the world. Why Pound is so fascinated with (to steal a book title from Leonard Cohen), “beautiful losers,” I cannot quite say — maybe more reading will make it clear, or maybe it is because Pound foresees his own work’s fate as such; probably, because he chooses to blame their failings on the fallenness of the world, wherein all greatness is bound to end in a kind of failure, if an exuberant and crucial one — but he does choose Sigismundo as his next hero figure, to some degree upholding a claim Sigismundo himself made though all the world around him denied it: after all, the man planned for his bones to be placed in the Tempio, among the Greek gods, among the glories of science and (for his time) modern art.
Canto VIII begins interestingly, in some of the section’s most opaque lines:
These fragments you have shelved (shored).
“Slut!” “Bitch!” Truth and Calliope.
Slanging each other sous les lauriers:
That Alessandro was negroid. And Malatesta
Et compater carissime: tergo
Giohanni of the Medicis
The beginning is a reference to Eliot (and specifically his The Waste Land, which Pound had helped him create from a bunch of poetical fragments the year before); the reference was overt enough that Eliot objected to the opening line of the poem, worried about the perception among some that Pound was writing Eliot’s poems, and perhaps vice-versa.
The second line suggests there is a tension, a struggle, between Truth and Calliope, who is a Muse of epic poetry. Anyone who has done any writing meant to represent the truth (or factual history), but also attempted to set it forth as an engaging, epic narrative, will know the difficulty to which Pound refers, but he must also be referring to the trouble with a subject like Malatesta, so roundly maligned, and yet (to him) so very exciting.
I don’t know why there is suddenly a reference to Alessandro de Medici, but it is interesting that he is half-Moorish and the son of a pope. My mind strays towards Nick Tosches Where Dead Voices Gather (which I reviewed here); it is too tantalizing a reference to the mixing of race — and so suddenly, after a discussion of the conflict between Truth and Calliope, for me not to think that Pound was perhaps suggesting a “mongrel” form as the natural one for his poem — the same admixture that many years later, writers like Tosches would argue was essential to American culture in general, after all, can also be observed in the Cantos.
In fact, Alec Marsh hits the nail on the head when he describes the Cantos as “a miscegenation of genres: ‘original’ Greek tragedy coupled with the patent artificiality of the minstrel show, high culture coupled with low.” (That’s from an essay titled “African Americanism in Pound’s Cantos” in a collection of essays titled Ezra Pound and African American Modernism (Ed. Michael Coyle), and I was shocked to run across it, since I’d been thinking about the possibility of seeing it as a mix of Greek tragedy + half-masqued minstrel show parallel on my own. But hey, great minds, right?)
The comparison to the blackface minstrel show is extremely apt, though, and I think it goes deeper than Marsh actually suggests (he proceeds to discuss instead the link between Agamemnon and African-Americans in other parts of The Cantos). Consider how the minstrel show, in a way, also very much fits with Pound’s general use of voices, as well as his “performance” of historical and mythological personae. Right from the first poem, Pound is “wearing” other faces and voices: that of Odysseus, that of Divus, that of the frustrated young poet addressing Browning, that of Pound himself as Pound-within-the-poem, the voices and faces of long-gone troubadours… Like with the minstrel show performer, the persona is slathered on, but only thinly; the real face of the performer is quite apparent behind the face-paint (be it burnt cork or a Renaissance ghost’s visage) , and impossible not to see even as he takes the voice of the other and sings through it. That is to say, both forms of performance involve the performer donning what Daniel Albright astutely describes as (on page 72 of The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound) “half-masks.”
That Pound would, at the beginning of the Malatesta Cantos, invoke a half-“negroid” figure of Italian history may have other significance: perhaps Alessandro de Medici was linked to Malatesta in some way or other. But it seems curious to me that a man of ambiguous race, of then-called “miscegenate” origins would spring upon the stage of Pound’s mind just as Pound himself dons the persona of the star of the current poem, and from time to time also puts on other voices, both those that speak in foreign tongues, and those that speak in what are, in their inscription, deformed dialects of English (or, more interesting still, deformed dialect forms of translations of phrases in foreign languages: Pound especially seems to like doing this to Italian names in the Malatesta Cantos).
The poem itself, by the way, proceeds on with a laundry-list of events in Malatesta’s life, with no event more (or less) compelling, and not much drawing attention except the variety of foci: the cultureness of Malatesta in hiring a painter to work, and in construction (is it the Tempio already?); his manly ability to fight, and to play the political power games of the day, to command people and to administrate. Malatesta here is a busy, active person who nonetheless seems to have to fight to stay above water at times, while at other times seems to have fortune on his side. The relentlessness of his life’s unfolding, with the rhythmic “And… And… And…” that repeats through out but finally begins nearly every line of the last section of Canto VIII.
NEAT SF CONNECTION: The reference to House of Atreides eleven lines from the end of Canto VIII: Pound is comparing the internecine violence within the family of Sigismundo Malatesta to that of the ancient House of Atreus, as discussed in the Oresteia of Aeschylus. But of course, SF fans will know another 20th century American author who referred to this family (the Atreides) in his own epic: that is, Frank Herbert, in his novel Dune.
In Canto IX, Pound launches into a kind of sprechstimme recitative of the fortunes and struggles of Malatesta — the 1440 flood of Rimini, the brutal winter of 1444; Malatesta’s enmity with Astorre Manfredi — it is in the swamps of his land that Malatesta is trapped and hides (“And he stood in the water up to his neck / to keep the hounds off him,”); Malatesta routs enemies, and loses battles, and is knighted by the Holy Roman Emperor, and feasts, and patronizes Basinio de Basini — a classicist poet and scholar who argues, successfully, that Greek must be studied in order to truly appreciate Latin literature, and who represents Malatesta’s role in the recovery of Hellenic literature as part of the Reniassance– and then Malatesta is betrayed by Sforza, who was an ally (and relation by marriage) in Canto VIII but betrays him, “bestialmente”, and joins an anti-Sforza alliance. Continuing on through Canto VIII, we reach another reference to construction, and Pound makes sure we can’t miss it, writing:
And he began building the TEMPIO
… just in case we don’t get that it’s important to Pound. It’s a wise choice, because immediately he’s back into rivalries and fighting and betrayals, the Venetians as his employer to the annoyance of Sforza (who was by then the Duke of Milan); but the Tempio comes back, and soon: Malatesta strips the Basilica of S. Apollinaire in Classe, Ravenna of its marble decorations and gets away with just just paying a fine for the action, and for the damage done to farmers’ fields (“corn-salve”). There’s a scandal where Sigismundo is accused of raping a “German-Burgundian female” — in various accounts, either a rape-and-murder or murder-and-necrophilic-rape attack, and sometimes not on a foreign woman but rather on an Italian one, and without proof either way. Sigismundo likens himself to the conquering Macedonian king Demetrius (on a medallion he has made by Pisanello, the word “Poliorcetes” is used, which means “taker of cities”) but Pound writes that “he was being a bit too POLUMETIS” — another all-caps reference, this time to the “many-minded” Odysseus.
Betrayals, alliances, battles, and the Odyssean hero: this is the world Pound wants to show us, his condottieri narrative, but he threads into much more. If Odysseus is the center of one of the two great poem of the Hellenic world, Sigismundo is a patron of the resuscitation of that poetry into the Renaissance world, for he patronizes poets, translators, scholars, and artists. So that while Pound dwells a little more on the violence, the betrayals, the battles and deal-cutting, he cannot resist dipping into the written word, with one more major analogy for The Cantos:
And this is what they found in the post-bag:
What follows this line are excerpts from eight of the fifty letters in the post-bag that the Sienese captured when they Sorano, after Sigismundo escaped their capture — they felt he had betrayed them at the conclusion of the Sienese siege of the commune.
The letters, Terrell tells us, reveal the preoccupations that dominated the mind of Sigismundo, though I’d argue that they just as likely reveal the preoccupations on Pound’s mind. Thematically, they deal with:
The construction and decoration of the Tempio
Malatesta’s (bastard) children and lovers, including the woman who would become his wife, Isotta degli Atti
Political dealings with his allies and plots against enemies
Of these, the first seems foremost, but Pound returns to the second before the end, especially to the theme of Malatesta’s love for Isotta — which, after all, is also inscribed all over the inside of the Tempio as well. Doubtless in some sense, there is an echo here for Pound not only with Odysseus (in his struggle to return home to Ithaca, and to his faithful queen Penelope, love is understood to play some role), but also with the troubadour deification of love, especially as Pound seems to have understood it.
“Past ruin’d Latinum,” Pound writes, supposedly aligning Isotta with Helen, but Isotta does not yet seem a character on the Helen/Eleanor plane; she is merely a wife, a faithful lover to the Odysseus-figure of Malatesta, and this, it seems to me, is a moment of candied verse in the midst of our final parting shot, a view of the Tempio through the mind of Pound himself, as perhaps halfway attempting to glimpse it through the eyes of Malatesta.
I’m going to stop there, which brings us to the end of Canto IX, and halfway through the Malatesta cantos. It’s a lot too chew on, and I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time on this over the past week. In any case, if I can keep up the pace of a couple of poems a week (perhaps throwing in a few extras during holidays), I should finish this project by the end of the year (or, at least, my contracted year, which runs until Feb. 28, 2013).
For those reading along at home, check out the length covered this week: Cantos XIII and IX cover pages 28-41. That’s a lot for poems as dense as this — and would be impossible if these Cantos were as densely referential as, say, Canto V — but the good news is that there are some shorter poems coming up at the end of the Malatesta Cantos… for a while.
Next week, we’ll finish the Malatesta Cantos (X and XI), and we will be approaching the point of having completed 10% of the Cantos, on a poem-count basis that is. (There are 109 Cantos, plus some drafts and fragments we can probably dispatch in a single final post.) I think, though, at the 10% point, I will take a week off the poems themselves and review a different Pound resource, from among the many I have now assembled and which sit upon my desk. It’ll be nice to dive into a book about Pound, and I should have time then, as it will be midterm exam week. (I may travel, but can carry a single Pound book about as my travel reading.)