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 last week’s discussion of Canto XVI(which brought us to the end of Pound’s first published book of Cantos, A Draft of XVI Cantos) and Pound’s book Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir, I’m turning to Canto XVII, the first of the eleven Cantos Pound produced between 1925 and 1927, and which begin what was first published (in a set) as A Draft of Cantos 17-27.
Cantos XVII is shorter and somewhat more digestible than some of the other Cantos we’ve seen lately, but also describes a world significantly little less clear and straightforward than in some of the earlier Canto, and there are some stylistic changes present in the work. One of the biographies I’ve been relying up until now — Vol. 1 of Moody’s Ezra Pound: Poet — ends when Pound leaves for Paris (and Vol. 2 is still forthcoming). Wilhelm’s account in Ezra Pound in London and Paris: 1908-1925 also leaves off a few years later, just as Pound has received the proofs for A Draft of XVI Cantos. And so it is to other (older) sources I must turn now for biographical information, among them Carpenter’s A Serious Character and Stock’s The Life of Ezra Pound. (I shall have to get my hands on the last of Wilhelm’s biographies, but it is expensive and not available to me at the moment.)
The Cantos from XVII to XXIII were completed by March 1925, which is to say Pound worked on them during the few years he spent in Paris. At this time, we was still friendly with Joyce, and connected to Hemingway and Wyndham Lewis as well. Economics wqas continuing to assume its all-consuming importance to Pound, but it had not yet quite done so, and Pound definitely had not become an out-and-out anti-Semite by this point, though he seems to have shared in the general anti-Semitic bias common to the time, including in his distrust of banks (which were commonly imagined to be run by a Jewish capitalist conspiracy, at least in some circles — including the circles Pound ran with).
Pound’s collaboration with George Antheil had begun by this time, at the time, and his (thereafter lifelong) affair with violinist Olga Rudge was in full swing; she was, it must be admitted, quite fetching, especially, as someone commented, for someone born in Ohio in those days. (Yes, yes, this is actually something someone else, I can’t remember who, commented about her.) Rudge will matter somewhat more directly to the Cantos than will Pound’s wife Dorothy Shakespear, for reasons that will unfold as we progress, but which, in brief, connect to his sense of the erotic, the mystical, and the transcendent. (Dorothy Shakespear matters materially, but Olga Rudge gets a special significance in the text, at least, in the drafts and fragments that come at its end.)
As for the Cantos of this period, they are much less clear, and less clear-minded in their agenda, than what comes before them. Daniel Albright, in The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound, devotes only about two pages to them, in contrast to the four pages spent on Cantos XII-XVI (for example). In his correspondence, Pound seems to hint at a struggle for the way forward, and this seems also apparent in the verse itself.
For those who are reading along — and I realize, having looked at my site’s stats for the first time in ages, that there are some out there doing so — the full text of Canto XVII is available here, along with some observant readings. There is also audio, at PennSound, of Pound reading it himself, in Harvard on May 17, 1939 (coincidentally, I am drafting this on the 17th of May, the anniversary of this very reading!).
Canto XVII begins with a return to the end of what would become Canto I (“So that:”) and the Bacchus-invocation in what would similarly become Canto II:
So that the vines burst from my fingers
And the bees weighted with pollen
Move heavily in the vine-shoots:
chirr — chirr — chir-rikk — a purring sound,
And the birds sleepily in the branches.
ZAGREUS! IO ZAGREUS!
With the first pale-clear of the heaven
And the cities set in their hills,
And the goddess of the fair knees
Moving there, with the oak-woods behind her,
The green slope, with white hounds
leaping about her;
Pound reveals not only a vision of Zagreus, who was sold into slavery in Canto II, but also of Artemis/Diana, the huntress (“the goddess of the fair knees”), wild and free in the wilderness “with white hounds leaping about her”. And yet, in the middle of this vivid, pastoral vision are glimpsed “cities set in their hills” — there is a vegetative power, a magical quality to the wildness, the honey-making bees, the vine-shoots and trees and birds in the branches, the hint of lynxes — of transcendent vision — but there is also a hint of the urban, which will meld with the arboreal vision:
And thence down to the creek’s mouth, until evening,
Flat water before me,
and the trees growing in water,
Marble trunks out of stillness,
On past the palazzi,
in the stillness,
The light now, not of the sun.
And the water green clear, and blue clear;
On, to the great cliffs of amber.
It has been suggested, and it sounds quite reasonable to me, that Pound is drawing upon the idea of Venice as a city sinking into the sea, as a metaphor for the fate of art in a fallen world. There is, of course, also a finer resonance to be found in the fact that Pound would be buried on an isle just off Venice, but that is not something he could have known… well, not the real Pound, though my occult-necromancer Pound could have caught hints of it, and of the eventual failure of the Cantos.
But what is striking to me in this poem is its beauty as a piece of prosody, as a poetical construct. Here, Pound has backed away from the red button of rage-as-verse, and is writing poetry again. The subtlety of the sensual cues — the quietness and insistence on stillness, the colors vivid and somehow meaningful — so meaningful that they warrant repetitions: “green clear, and blue clear”, the white of the hounds and the salt-white of Nerea’s cave, the distant cliffs “green-gray” and the near ones “amber”. There is the repetition of even absences: “nor any noise of wave moving” which brings us to the what lies in the Cave of Nerea (which, in its reference to the Cave of Nerea, “she like a great shell curved,” seems to recall Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, ahem, as Terrell has remarked) —
No gull-cry, no sound of porpoise,
Sand as of malachite, and no cold there,
the light not of the sun.
The light that is not of the sun, derives from the divine, from the transcendent. It calls to mind observations made by both Surette, but also by Kevin Oderman in Ezra Pound and the Erotic Medium (as extracted in Peter Makin’s Ezra Pound’s Cantos: A Casebook), that Pound seemed to be interested in a curious sexual-deprivation technique practiced by some early Christians and, ostensibly, by Simon Magus (with Helen of Tyre) of having a woman accompany one, and sleep with one, but refraining from sex with her, so as to bring about visions.
Pound obviously did not practice this eternally — later in 1925, a few months after Cantos XVII-XXVII were completed, Olga Rudge would give birth their daughter. (The child, Mary Rudge (later Mary de Rachelwitz — author off the 1971 memoir Discretions — was probably Pound’s only biological offspring; his wife Dorothy did give birth to Omar Pound in 1926, but the boy apparently was, as Carpenter notes, conceived in Egypt, in Pound’s absence, a fact that makes certain odd awkwardnesses mentioned in biographical works quite a lot more understandable). He may not have practiced it at all — but there is a sense in which the divine, erotic beauty of Venus in the cave is the source of a divine, transformative power. Light, for Pound, is constantly a mental energy, a divine force, and hell is a place of obscurity, of darkness, of unclearness and illegibility.
More gods follow, in what is clearly visionary imagery — the presence of lynxes singal that — Zagreus, a chorus of nymphs we have seen before, Hermes and Athene (Athena), forest nymphs, and more creatures of the forest:
Zagreus, feeding his panthers,
the turf clear as on hills under light.
And under the almond-trees, gods,
with them, chorus nympharum;
the low wood, moor-scrub,
the doe, the young spotted deer,
leap up through the broom-plants,
as dry leaf amid yellow,
And by one cut of the hills,
the great alley of Memnons.
Beyond, sea, crests seen over dune
Night sea churning shingle,
To the left, the alley of cypress.
This is gorgeous stuff, glimpses of ancient Thebes and of gods and nymphs and beasts in the wild, all flickering past us in silence.
A boat came,
One man holding her sail,
Guiding her with oar caught over gunwale, saying:
” There, in the forest of marble,
” the stone trees – out of water –
” the arbours of stone –
” marble leaf, over leaf,
” silver, steel over steel,
” silver beaks rising and crossing,
” prow set against prow,
” stone, ply over ply,
” the gilt beams flare of an evening”
This, it seems to me, brings us to Venice, but also to this recurrent notion of Pound’s, the “ply over ply” that echoes in different layerings throughout the poem; and in many parts of the Cantos. there are glimpses of things and times lost, with water almost playing the part of time — an ironic part, responsible both for the comprehensibility of history in its unfolding, but also the tragic subsuming of all that is past, and lost, and ruined by time:
Borso, Camagnola, the men of craft, i vitrei,
Thither, at one time, time after time,
And the waters richer than glass,
Bronze gold, the blaze over the silver,
Dye-pots in the torch light,
The flash of wave under prows,
And the silver beaks rising and crossing.
Drift under hulls in the night.
Then comes a recalling of another lost, tragical moment, a failure, that which we read in the last of the Malatesta cantos:
“In the gloom the gold
Gathers the light around it.”…
What follows is gorgeous, glorious and decadent and somehow tragic because we feel as if we glimpse it through the still surface of the waters. More gods and goddesses — especially goddesses — follow: Athena, Zothar, Isis (implied in the sistrum, a rattle Terrell tells us was used in her worship) and Aletha (an invented sea-goddess, again says Terrell); Koré (whom we know better today as Persephone) and Circe, and finally Hermes. Then, it’s back to “the stone place”:
Pale white, over water,
And the white forest of marble, bent bough over bough,
The bleached arbour of stone,
This is beautiful and sorrowful at once, a return to the wreckage of history glimpsed in what most would think a picturesque gondola ride through Venice — or at least, it feels as if it must be Venice to me. If Venice is the metaphor for the earthly paradise, for the achievements of humankind and of art and civilization, then it is also, implicitly, a metaphor for The Cantos itself, which ends in drafts and fragments, and which at this time even was already in a state of provisional drafts and fragments.
There follows a swirl of historical figures, three Italians who seem to matter to Pound: Borso as an art-patron, Carmagnole as a victim of Venetian plotting, and Sigismundo in Dalmatia (which Venice took over in 1420, once as Terrell notes):
Thither Borso, when they shot the barbed arrow at him,
And Carmagnole, between the two columns,
Sigismundo, after that wreck in Dalmatia.
Sunset like the grasshopper flying.
This line of “sunset like the grasshopper flying” ends the canto, and it is a remarkable image — a bright flash of green in the dying light of dusk — one that, as Robert Anton Wilson comments, was once common at the end of the day. This green is unlike the other greens we have seen, the green of water, the green-and-gold in the gloom of the Tempio: it is a vibrant, shocking greenness against the dying light of the day’s end. Might it represent what survives the wreckage wrought by time, the collapse of the enterprise of art and civilization? Since reading this poem again a few weeks ago, the image has returned to me unbidden several times, and it seems a wonderful summation of something about mortality, something about what transcends mortality and failings and all of that.
(And by the way, the commentaries on certain cantos by R.A. Wilson (they are listed at the bottom of this page of links to essays by the man) constitutes a kind of NEATO SF CONNECTION as well, doesn’t it?)
As for how this Canto might play into my own imagined Pound, well, there are a few observations:
- by 1925 he is searching for something beyond the hell/purgatory business that ended the earlier sheaf of Cantos.
- Venice is important, as a bridge between the necromantic (the lost, dead, destroyed) and that which transcends, survives, and continues
- visions of gods, nymphs, and the rest seem are growing in their vividity and their immersiveness; in the narrative, he could be going on jags during which he is living within these visions for hours at a time, communing with the gods; and it seems that it is not drugs, but some kind of light that transports him, in moments of silence, of quiet, of calm movement
- perhaps in one of these visions, he begins to have premonitions of the “failure” of the Cantos, as well as of his own burial in Venice…
In any case, next week I hope to tackle Cantos XVIII and XIX, which at a glimpse seem more deeply linked than do XVII and XVIII, and because I am busy with other things this week. (Like a big stack of grading I have yet to properly dig into.)