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.
[Malatesta Group]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.”
These fragments you have shelved (shored).“Slut!” “Bitch!” Truth and Calliope.Slanging each other sous les lauriers:That Alessandro was negroid. And MalatestaSigismund:Frater tamquamEt compater carissime: tergo…hanni de…dicis…entiaEquivalent to:Giohanni of the MedicisFlorence.
And he began building the TEMPIO
And this is what they found in the post-bag:
- 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.)