Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XX – XXII

This entry is part 20 of 49 in the series Blogging Pound's The Cantos

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) a few at a time.

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 XVIII and XIX, which Pound first published in A Draft of Cantos 17-27, I’m tackling Cantos XX-XXII.

This Cantos-studying is dangerous business, for it eats up one’s time if one allows it to. At the moment, I’m in a bit of a dilemma about whether I’d rather dive into the book hardcore and finish it in July (though probably still scheduling my posts to appear once a week for months and months on end) or giving myself more writing time during the summer and continuing on as I have been writing these posts weekly (with occasional breaks, at the ends of poem-series, for reading other texts related to Pound). I haven’t made up my mind, but I’m tempted to do a mix of the two approaches — maybe studying the Cantos every second day through the summer — aside from a trip Miss Jiwaku and I plan to take in August — and writing the rest of the time. This would allow me to probably get through almost everything by the end of summer, if I was diligent. (Probably all the way up to the hundredth poem, Canto C, or thereabouts — at least, if I take Leon Surette’s word for it regarding what a slog through arbitrarily-chosen material the China and Adams cantos are: I figure on those taking a couple of days each, rather than just three cantos a day, mostly because I’ll have less to say about them.) I could continue on with the remaining Cantos (about three full days’ work would be remaining) in September, and then launch myself into either finishing the novel I’d be drafting in my off-days all summer, or starting the Pound novel project (or maybe some other project, if I’m still not feeling ready for it) if I have finished the earlier one.

Of course, I would still be studying some other texts through the fall — biographies, other random texts written by Pound, and so on — but I would have burned through the Cantos in a more forceful, rapid fashion, while still allowing myself time to  steep in it a bit. I must admit that posting weekly is a bit tiring at times: I find myself wishing I’d committed to a single Canto a week, even as I recoil in horror at the thought of it taking me more than two whole years to finish the text.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that, either way that I do the composition of the posts, and whether I stretch it out over the year, or finish most of it in a burst this summer, I will keep publishing the posts as I have been doing, and this series on The Cantos will, in all likelihood, be finished by late January, which is very apt timing for me.

Okay, so last time the discussion of Cantos XVIII and XIX touched on a lot of criticism of capitalists and especially munitions magnates, as well as some discussion of the shattering of a somewhat Europe, the Russian and Mexican revolutions, Communism and war. The language was very much prosaic, very much the language of a modern political diatribe, and as I said, there was not much “poetical” about it at all. The post itself is so full of images that it gives one the notion of the scrapbook as a poetical form, in fact.

But the beginning of Canto XX announces that we’ve moved to that other territory again, where words convey not just prosaic meanings, but also transcendant, indeed magical ones. As The Coffee Philosopher observes, it is “a beautiful piece of work” and it can be read in many ways.

Hugh Kenner’s reading, of course, is an influential one. Presented on pages 112-118 of The Pound Era, it is a wonder of close reading and biographical explication, and anyone interested in understanding Canto XX should read it. I have neither the time nor the energy to rehearse all of Kenner’s reading, but I wilol say the general shape of it makes sense: a very close and mindful attention to the sonorities at the beginning of the Canto is necessary to catch what Pound is up to:

Sound slender, quasi tinnula,
Ligur’ aoide: Si no’us vei, Domna don plus mi cal,
Negus vezer mon bel pensar no val.”
Between the two almond trees flowering,
The viel held close to his side;
And another: s’adora”.
“Possum ego naturae
non meminisse tuae!”   Qui son Properzio ed Ovidio.

Kenner is thoughtful and perceptive on some of the musicality, but I think this passage is even more extreme in its musical structure than Kenner suggests. I hear all kinds of repeating consonants and vowels, tiny fragments of  sound shifting this way and that, from the beginning of one word to the end of another, and vice versa:

Sound slender, quasi tinnula,
Ligur’ aoide: Si no’us vei, Domna don plus mi cal,
Negus vezer mon bel pensar no val.”
Between the two almond trees flowering,
The viel held close to his side;
And another: s‘adora“.
“Possum ego naturae
non meminisse tuae!”   Qui son Properzio ed Ovidio.

“Here are Propertius and Ovid.” And yet they are not, not exactly, Propertius and Ovid: they are instead here in some other sense, for Pound, as he lays the Latin and old Provençal and Italian and Greek and English all upon one another, ply upon ply.

(I also can’t help but wonder if the working of the last couplet, including the Latin “Possum” (Eng: to be able, can) isn’t also a punny shout-out to Eliot, whose nickname in much of Pound’s correspondence with him was Possum. Perhaps the reference is a trapdoor, I’m not sure: Pound does, somewhere else, substitute the name of Arnaut for Eliot’s, and Arnaut comes up below as well…)

Reading the poem aloud — and especially because so much of it is in foreign languages (Latin, Italian, Ancient Greek, Medieval Occitan French) it seems almost like looking at shifting light through an intricately cut stone: the “Sound slender, quasi” gives way to “tinnula /Ligur’ aoide” — sou, sle, si; sle, la, li… the whole passage is full  of delicate shifts of this kind, echoes of past ones, slippery new ones sliding into place. Aurally, it is a magnificent little piece of work, beyond the hints of this craftsmanship overtly mentioned by Kenner, and it gives us a sense of at least one reason why Pound took to all those foreign languages, at least for these particular languages: held at bay by the relative opacity of foreign tongues (an opacity that still exists when one learns, if one allows one’s ear to hear without the mind processing: the expatriate’s gift of being able to “turn off” comprehension of a foreign language up to a certain point), one is drawn into the sounds themselves, shifting and glittering as part of an intricate whole.

There is a stanza break, after which Pound returns to English, but a more elevated kind than the previous few cantos. He has slipped into a kind of literarily-candied reminiscence of his own European travels, a tale Kenner recounts as being his trip up from someplace in Italy to Freiburg, where he copies out two sides of a 14th century manuscript for two Provençal songs set down in a notation system neither he nor most people at the time could read. (Now, even fewer can.) The number of the box in which the manuscript was held is in the poem, songs of Arnaut Daniel’s — that is, the belated inscriptions of songs a few centuries old when they were being written down.

Pound discusses inquiring with “old Lévy” — Emil Lévy, a German philologist he met in Freiburg, about a puzzling word in one manuscript, “noigandres.” Lévy’s response is that, after six months of puzzling it over —

— and that is where Lévy is allowed to fade, and an Italian scene — or so it seems to me, and populated with Italians to prove it, one who worked on the Tempio di Malatesta and two who are painters respected by Pound — flourishes before us:

Wind over the olive trees, ranunculæ ordered,
By the clear edge of the rocks
The water runs, and the wind scented with pine
And with hay-fields under sun-swath.
Agostino, Jacopo, and Boccata.
You would be happy for the smell of that place
And would never tired of being there, either alone
Or accompanied.
Sound: as of the nightingale too far off to be heard.
Sandro, and Boccata, and Jacopo Sellaio;
The ranunculæ, and almond,
Boughs set in espalier,
Duccio, Agostino; e l’olors
The smell of that pace — d’enoi ganres.

Here is Lévy”s answer: de noigandres is none of the random peermutations set down in all the manuscripts for this song, but instead d’enoi ganres: to banish ennui. It was stated earlier, as well:

You would be happy for the smell of that place
And would never tired of being there, either alone
Or accompanied.

The stanza follows through a lovely layering of details of natural beauty, not of colors as in some passages earlier in the Cantos, but rather focused on sounds, and aromas, and sensations of feeling: cedar boughs rustling in the wind, the scent of new-cut hay, babbling water, the call of a nightingale — and of course, the final erotic moment:

And the light falls, remir,
from her breast to thighs.

remir: I gaze.

And then, suddenly, we have slipped to Niccolò d’Este, about to go crazy. Why? One must know at least a snippet of Niccolò d’Este’s story, if one is to understand what follows, and the story is one of uxoricide and filicide, but of a special kind: d’Este discovered that his much younger wife had betrayed him, becoming the lover of his natural son Ugo Aldobrandino. In his rage he had them both beheaded, according to Terrell, and the rest of this Canto seems constructed as  a terrifying trip through the chains of literary, narrative, and historical associations in his head — or, at least, a head that is supposed to be his, though it seems more like Pound’s head — as he processes his horror at the whole sordid mess.

If you recall my posting on Canto XVII, you can guess what Pound himself seems to be dealing with here, in the autobiographical sense: after his biological daughter (Mary) was delivered by his lover Olga Rudge, Pound’s wife Dorothy seems to have responded with a pregnancy of her own… in Egypt… without Pound. While Pound apparently was always decent to the son that was born, named Omar Pound, he seems to have felt more of an emotional bond towards his biological daughter Mary, and seems also to have been quite torn up about the fact his wife had gone and not only cuckolded him, but also brought home another man’s child in the process.

This lends some context — for us, if not for Pound’s original readers — as to what is going on in Pound’s mind, why d’Este is suddenly brought to the forefront of the narrative, and so on. Of this Canto (save the first few pages), Pound described in a letter to to his father:

The whole reminiscence jumbled or ‘candied’ in Nicolo’s delirium. Take that as a sort of bounding surface from which one gives the main subject of the Canto, the lotophagoi; lotus eaters, or respectable dope smokers; and general paradiso. (Leon Surette, A Light From Eleusis, 342).

If it is a paradiso, it is a bizarre one to be sure: the Canto from this point on spins and turns, at moments paranoid or flooded with stories that connect to the situation (the wrecking of Troy echoed against a play by Lope de Vega titled Las Almenas de Toro and King Ferdinand’s incestuous lust for his sister, seen from afar; the constant concern of Niccolò d’Este that his son keep the peace in the region around Ferrara, since all the martial cities nearby had more resources for fighting than the Ferrarans and their rulers, Niccolò d’Este’s clan), at other moments almost tranquil — but with a kind of animistic horror towards (and wonder at) the universe:


Glaze green and red feathers, jungle,
Basis of renewal, renewals;
Rising over the soul, green virid, of the jungle,
Lozenge of the pavement, clear shapes,
Broken, disrupted, body eternal,
Wilderness of renewals, confusion
Basis of renewals, subsistence,
Glazed green of the jungle;
Zoe, Marozia, Zothar
loud over the banners,
Glazed grape, and the crimson,
cosi Elena vedi,
In the sunlight, gate cut by the shadow;
And then the faceted air;
Floating. Below, sea churning shingle.
Floating, each on invisible raft,
On the high current, invisible fluid,
Borne over the plain, recumbent,
The right arm cast back,
The right wrist for a pillow.
The left hand like a calyx,
Thumb held against finger, the third,
The first fingers petal’d up, the hand as a lamp,
A calyx.

What all of this is meant to depict, I’m not sure, but it feels as if it’s a reference to an image I don’t  know. It also feels like the vision of a particularly paranoid, addled opium-eater, a little bit, a sense I find reinforced by all the incense-smoke references and haze references that follow in the next lines.

Colors, aromas, scents whirl about — “Yellow, bright saffron, croceo” and “the olibanum bursts into flame” (olibanum being a kind of frankincense-like stuff); flames, as Pound recalls the lines from the cantico of St. Francis: Nel fuoco / D’amore mi mise, nel fuoco d’amore mi mise… / […] “Mi mise, il mio sposo novello” (In the fire, My new spouse places me in the fire, she puts me, my new spouse).

Then comes water, and a shimmering, intense light in the sky; then comes noise, the noise of sea over shingle rendered by Pound using curious onomatopoeia:

hah hah ahah thmm, thunb, ah
woh woh arha thumm, bhaaa.

… as his narrator reaches the “Shelf of the lotophagoi, / Aerial, cut in the aether.” Next comes the laments of the drowned crewmen from Odysseus’ ship, wailing in chorus about how poorly paid they were for their faithfulness to Odysseus: their watery  graves unmarked and unmarkable, their labours all in vain, while Odysseus got to sleep with goddesses and other beauties, and saw the sights; they had their ears stuffed with wax, and did the hard work, and did it pay off for them? Oh nooooooooooo. There’s a funny bit where Pound has them bitching of being given “Canned beef of Apollo, ten cans for a boat load” befoore he silences them with the phrase “Ligur’ aoide.” Clear sweet song, this means.

And then we are back to the strange, hallucinogenic journey of d’Este, witnessing a scene of Sigimundo’s sun in a leopard-drawn cart, with Sigismundo’s love Isotta (rendered her Ixotta) shot through with the mystical, with mention of the Roman god of sleep, Somnus, and a vibrant wash of those colors that always seem more vivid, more transcendent in The Cantos when they are part of some kind of vision or transcendent experience:

Over suave turf, the form wrapped,
Rose, crimson, deep crimson,
And, in the blue dusk, a colour as of rust in the sunlight,
Out of a white cloud, moving over the plain,
Head in arm’s curve, reclining;

 There are ladies and nights, and silently hurrying carts, and Pound’s/d’Este’s eye lingers on the clothing of “le donne e i cavalieri” (the ladies and the knights), especially a lady wearing a conical headdress called a hennin:

smooth face under hennin,
The sleeves embroidered with flowers,
Great thistle of gold, or an amaranth,
Acorns of gold, or of scarlet,
Cramoisi and disapre   [crimson (Fr.) and jasper (It.)]
slashed white into velvet;
Crystals columns, acanthus, sirens in the pillar heads;
And at last, between gilded barocco,
Two columns coiled and fluted,
Vanoka, leaning half naked,
waste hall there behind her.
Borso…, Borso!”

Niccolò d’Este’s lingering attention to the living women and their finery, and the to the fine ornamentation of a palace — and then to Vanoka, a half-naked figure that may have been a woman (maybe Vanozza Catanei, another sexual traitor who became the lover of Pope Alexander VI, suggests Terrell) but who may also, it seems to me, be a nude statue of some kind.

The vision is shattered at the sight of the waste hall behind her, whatever that is — I suspect it would make this part clearer, and that Pound means something by it, but I’m not sure what — and d’Este/Pound returns to his idée fixe: the necessity of keeping the peace in the region of Ferrara, so that the d’Este family could stand among their more martial, powerful, and aggressive neighbours, many of whom were plotting against them.

Canto XXI begins with the same cry by Niccolò d’Este to his son Borso, signaling that we are picking up where Canto XX left off:

Keep the peace, Borso!” Where are we?

The confusion — is it d’Este’s? Pound’s? Certainly, ours too. And then, the constant refrain of d’Este gives way to another Italian’s motto, of roughly the same time period: that of Giovanni de’Medici, who said,

“Keep on with the business,
That’s made me,
“And the res publica didn’t.

Robert Anton Wilson erroneously glosses this as Cosimo de Medici speaking, but it’s actually Cosimo’s father Giovanni “de Bicchi” de’Medici. He has discovered the great secret back behind all things that concern Pound: the force that money has over the public, over politics, over all other systems. Money is the way to rule all other fields of human endeavour, Giovanni learned, and passed that lesson to his son. (Unlike d’Este, who slew his son and paid the price by giving up part of his sanity.)

“When I was broke, and a poor kid,
“They all knew me, all of these cittadini,
“And they all of them cut me dead, della gloria.”
Intestate, 1429, leaving 178,221 florins di sugello,
As is said in Cosimo’s red leather note book. Di sugello.
And “with his credit emptied Venice of money ” –
That was Cosimo –
“And Naples, and made them accept his peace.”

Cosimo inherited one of the greatest fortunes in Europe, despite — as Terrell would put it, though others might argue because of — his father’s generosity and willingness to spend his wealth. You gotta spend  a buck to make a buck, or however the saying goes.

Cosimo is a great man, a bit like Malatesta here, and certainly connected through a shared respect for and patronage of the arts and learning: to this the Canto attests by mentioning Cosimo’s funding of the education of Marsilio Ficino in Greek as a young boy; Ficino eventually took Gemistus Plethon’s place when the elder left for Greece, heading the academy the elder had previously run, and held Cosimo in high esteem as embodying Plato’s guiding principles and values. Cosimo seems to have believed that the clothes made the populi, arguing that more red cloth would make for better citizens, if I am guessing (with Wilson’s help) correctly at the reason Pound included the anecdote.

The canto proceeds  through several generations of the Medici family: Cosimo is succeded by Pietro, who escapes a plot against his life with the help of his son “Lauro” (Lorenzo), who succeeds him (and inherits one of the greatest fortunes in all of Europe) — also a “statesman, ruler, and patron of arts and letters” according to Terrell (86). At this point, Pound cycles back through Cosimo and Lorenzo both, flashing light every so briefly upon two separate conspiracies, one against each of them, and the crucial role Niccolò da Uzzano played in preventing one (the other came after his death).

In all this telling the word And begins a number of individual lines, and indeed the poem seems to develop a kind of breathlessness about it, as in the telling of a story from memory, from the oral tradition. There are quotations, but not, so far, so many that they overwhelm the text; nothing, for example, like the post-bag effect in the Malatesta Cantos (to say nothing of the hundred-page-long glosses on single books about Chinese history and John Adams that await out in the middle of this book).

There is finally a passage in Italian, that reads thus:

E difficile,
A Firenze difficile viver ricco
Senza aver lo stato.
“E non avendo stato Piccinino
“Doveva temerlo qualunque era in stato;”

Which translates roughly as:

It is difficult
to live in Firenze (Florence) like a rich man
without any [official] status,
And having no status, Piccinino
Had to fear anyone in a high position.

Then, in a single sudden crash Westward, Pound teleports us to 19th century America, to his grandfather (whom as Wilson amusingly puts it was a ” railroader, bigamist and Populist Congresscritter”:

And “that man sweated blood to put through that railway”;

… and then, just as suddenly, drops us into the middle of a letter from Thomas Jefferson, in 1778, asking someone — I don’t recall who, but the point is that Jefferson is a man who appreciates the arts:

“Could you “, wrote Mr. Jefferson,
“Find me a gardener
Who can play the french horn?

The excerpt of Jefferson’s letter is much longer, mind, but the point comes across here, and in a few other lines: Jefferson is a man both wise enough to understand the limits of American fortune, yet passionate and great enough to help bring the best of European culture, and human greatness, over to America. (Whether or not he did so seems unclear here: I imagine Pound would say he could have, and maybe did, but it was lost sometime afterward, hopelessly save by a new Renaissance and new importation of human greatness (by Pound, naturally).)

Jefferson, of course, is a character of fascination to Pound, and though Canto XXI dates back to 1925, Pound will pen a book titled Jefferson and/or Mussolini in in the mid-30s. (Full text apparently available in two parts here.) Given my own curiosity about Jefferson, who sounds so much more interesting than John Adams, I can’t help but wish Pound had chosen to spend ten or eleven cantos on Jefferson instead of on Adams, but he must have his reasons, and I suppose I shall figure them out. Still, more on Jefferson is coming — after we’ve drawn A Draft of XXX Cantos to a close, which is to say, later this summer.

We return, at the end of the Jefferson sidebar, to Renaissance Italy, specifically to Lorenzo de’Medici, who ends up being the godfather to the son of Galeazzo Sforza in Milan — his gifts so lavish that Sforza asks him — seriously? jokingly? — to stand as sponsor to all his kids.

A war passes by in a flash, an assassin captured and send as a gift by on Sultan Mohammed of Constantinople, a lion sent by the Soldan of Egypt; Lorenzo fathers children (four girls and two boys, one of whom grows up to become Leo X) and to fund the University of Pisa; war, peacemaking…

Suddenly we are at a ruined temple, the temple of Empress Placidia, and there is grass there — an echo of the Tempio-invoking like “Gold fades in the gloom” which by now seems always to signal the failing of things, their impermanence, the futility of trusting to tomorrow. Gorgeousness, after that:

And there was grass on the floor of the temple,
Or where the floor of it might have been;
Gold fades in the gloom,
Under the blue-black roof, Placidia’s,
Of the exarchate; and we sit here
By the arena, les gradins…
And the palazzo, baseless, hangs there in the dawn
With low mist over the tide-mark;
And floats there nel tramonto
With gold mist over the tide-mark.
The tesserae of the floor, and the patterns.
Fools making new shambles;
night over green ocean,
And the dry black of the night.
Night of the golden tiger,
And the dry flame in the air,
Voices of the procession,
Faint now, from below us,
And the sea with tin flash in the sun-dazzle,
Like dark wine in the shadows
“Wind between the sea and the mountains ”
The tree-spheres half dark against sea
half clear against sunset,
The sun’s keel freighted with cloud,
And after that hour, dry darkness
Floating flame in the air, gonads in organdy,
Dry flamelet, a petal borne in the wind.
Gignetei kalon.

I do feel sad quoting these lines without thee indentation — my particular blog setup seems unable to handle the indentations as it is, and I will probably not go back to fix it all, but it is better in the book; I can only assume people reading this are also reading along in The Cantos as well.

The petal near the end, borne in the wind — is it one of the petals from the Kung Canto, Canto XIII? As you read these poems, there is an aggregative effect, or perhaps cumulative is the right word, and you begin to hear echoes between them.

“Gignetei kalon” is significant: it means, in ancient Greek, “A beautiful thing is born.” The whole seems, as Terrell notes, to suggest a convergence of the mystical and magical, with all the tell-tale signs from Pound: the “tin flash in the sun-dazzle,” the melding of shadows and light, flames floating in the air, wind, and a kind of hushed silence throughout.

We witness a vision, then, paradisical, with hounds on the green slope by the hill, and the Pines of Ise, and the swelling and falling of the Nile, with Pallas Athena and a stag and leopard running in the night, nymphs, and even goes:

Moon on the palm-leaf,
Confusion, source of renewals;
Yellow wing, pale in the moon shaft,
Green wing, pale in the moon shaft,
White horn, pale in the moon shaft, and Titania
by the drinking hole,
steps, cut in the basalt.
Danced there Athame, danced, and there Phaethusa
With colour in the vein,
Strong as with blood-drink, once,
With colour in the vein,
Red in the smoke-faint throat. Dis caught her up.

There is certainly something incantatory about the passage above: the “pale in the moon shaft” repeated again and again and again as it is. It is unclear what the yellow wing and green wing mean, but the white horn and the pomegranate may have been implements used in the enactment of the Mysteries at Eleusis… which, of course, is what Pound is on about here. (Pomegranates especially suggest this, as they were associated with Persephone’s entrapment in the Underworld.) And that this concerns Eleusis is quite certain once Dis is mentioned: Dis, Hades, or to the Romans Pluto,  was a significant figure in the hieros gamos ritual enacted as part of the Mysteries of Eleusis; again, we have bumped softly against the occult conspiracy threaded through Pound’s poem, arriving for a moment at ground zero as it were: we actually witness a brief instant of the rape of Persephone, the cause of the seasons, the secret of agricultural knowledge, of growth and fertility and, indeed, of life itself.

What is going on here suddenly makes sense, once you read it again:

With colour in the vein,
Strong as with blood-drink, once,
With colour in the vein,
Red in the smoke-faint throat. Dis caught her up.

The red — is it of blood, or the juice of pomegranates? Blood, as we saw in the final version of Canto I, was the way to summon the dead out of Hades — a tool of necromancers. Pomegranate juice — a blood like substance — seems to hold the power to keep the living (and even the divine) in Hades. Blood and pomegranate juice seem to be somehow related, similar: both sweet, both red, both precious. One wonders if there is some significance to the cycle of fertility in human women — who, because of their menstrual cycle (more blood) are effectively infertile for a quarter of their lives, approximately enough. There is a weird kind of multidimensionality to Eleusis, to the Persephone myth, and of course set against it is the force of defertilization — what Pound ends up calling Usura.

Anyway, there is only a couplet left in the poem, and a strange one:

And the old man went on there
beating his mule with an asphodel.

Asphodel, of course, is the plant said to grow in the Elysian fields, in Paradise; but asphodel was also a real form of vegetation in the real world, planted on graves and eaten by poor Greeks; the old man who passes by the scene, beating his mule with an asphodel, may represent many things: the failure of the “normal” man to recognize the sacred in the quotidian; the contrast between the present (seen as mundane) and the transcendent past; the thickheadedness of people in Pound’s contemporary world… there are many interpretations, but all of them depend on the ironic juxtaposition of the vividity of the vision described by the poet, and the insignificant use to which the old man puts the asphodel.

In other words, Pound seems to suggest here something weirdly similar to a famous comment by William Gibson: that is, for Pound, that “The transcendent and ancient are still here, but the knowledge necessary to recognize them is unevenly distributed…”

Canto XXII (published, perhaps in a different form, in The Dial in February 1928, but composed by March 1925) is a weird departure from the previous two, and I only decided to discuss it here because it is even more unlike what follows it (in Cantos XXIII-XXVII).

Pound returns — for a good half-page this time — to his grandfather’s story — the bigamist, populist Congresscritter. Pound was fascinated with his paternal grandfather, Thaddeus Coleman Pound, and seems to have felt him a kindred spirit. Clearly, the railroad was something Pound saw as a similar act of immense creativity to the writing of the Cantos, a latter-day Odyssean heroism in a world that did its damnedest to drag heroes down to ignominy. Pound apparently lamented to his father the fact that T.C. Pound had ordered his papers destroyed upon his death, as the younger Pound wished he could have known more about the man. This fits, of course, with the sort of sense of Great Man heredity that Pound occasionally seemed to enjoy, and probably also concerns Pound at this point because his only biological offspring is female, and the child his wife is carrying is not his own… enough to get any man in those sexist days thinking carefully about the continuity of not just the family name, but also the family bloodline.

Pound’s grandfather apparently had the insight that it would be not only more humane, but also perhaps more profitable, to work with Native Americans in the building up of modern American than to slaughter them. Of course, in our day we see this latter strategy — assimilation policy — as problematic as well, but for T.C. Pound’s era, Pound seems to suggest, this was a brilliant insight. (One wonders just how singular and brilliant it actually was; residential schools were legislatively provided for in Canada, at least, by the miuddle of the 19th century. But I don’t know enough about the US system to compare.

Warenhauser is mentioned, which of course to me is an obvious reference (even without Terrell) to Weyerhauser. Pound is talking about Frederick Weyerhauser, a timber robber baron whose relationship with Pound’s grandfather is described this: “And there was that other type, Warenhauser, / That beat him, and broke up his business” when the “American Curia” (shades of Dantean medieval politics) gave him the right to build the Northwestern railway. Weyerhauser cut timber for the track lines from the same forest through which the railway was to run — a perfect intersection of Weyerhauser’s interests, of course, and “an’ perfectly legal. / Who wuz agoin’ to stop him!”

The rail line ended up being subsumed into Weyerhauser’s railway system, just as the mill run by T.C. Pound had co-owned became Weyerhauser’s. This was the rail line that Pound’s grandfather had struggled to put in; the reason for this struggle — and more about Thaddeus Coleman Pound’s triple-sided career as lumberman, railroader, and politician — is explained in a thoughtful and balanced way, along with tons of details, in the first chapter of J.J. Wilhelm’s The American Roots of Ezra Pound:

Although his political career continued to flourish, Thaddeus’ lumber concern did not. All during the 1870s, the water was very low in the Chippewa River, making log-driving and sawmilling difficult. It was particularly for this reason that Thaddeus and others turned toward railroads as the solution to the problem of transporting their products. Then, too, there was the bank panic of 1873, followed by a general depression, which spelled trouble for a business that had taken in considerable new investments, was costly to operate, and had not established itself against older competitors. (pg. 16)

Wilhelm also suggests that the amount of time T.C. Pound spent in Washington, and his importance to the operations of the company, probably also played a part in the problems. In any case, Pound proceeded to use his role in Washington to promote the building of railways, battling facing struggles to get both steel rails and right of way for the track — struggles to be discussed in a few weeks, when we reach Canto XXVIII. But in any case, his business acumen and political connections could not protect him from the monopolist Frederick Weyerhauser, whose victory over T.C. Pound is mentioned at the beginning of Canto XXII.

(For me, this story has another, weirdly personal dimension — likely useless as far as others’ interpretations of Pound go, but significant to my own: Weyerhauser owned the pulp and paper mill that operated in the town where I spent a lot of my childhood, a town in Northern Saskatchewan namely Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.  The air in Prince Albert was horrendous most days of the year, with a stench of rotten eggs, and everyone knew not to fish from the river, or at least not to eat what one fished from the river. Fanciful — or maybe not-so-fanciful — stories of digustingly-mutated river fish circulated in my school, and we constantly cursed the Weyerhauser mill, even moreso after we were taken for a school tour of the facilities — which surprisingly did not stink the way the rest of our city did, at least on days when the wind blew in from the direction of the mill.

(I cannot with any certainty blame my own respiratory condition — not just asthma, but the extreme problems with breathing that I had while living there — on the pollution by the mill, but I do know that my parents did so, and a doctor or two suggested it might be connected… But when I asked how the company could be allowed to do this, my father simply told me it was a big company, it employed most of the town (second only perhaps to the local penitentiary), and nobody powerful enough to challenge the company was interested in doing so — or willing to have the town suffer any possible backlash. Whether that was paranoia, or sensible, I don’t know, but it certainly drove home to me the power of companies who hold effective monopolies of any kind — including being the main employer in a community — and the powerlessness of people who live in their shadows.)

We shall run across T.C. Pound more times later, so I’ll save the other parts of his story for then… except to add what Wilhelm notes about (and Robert Anton Wilson mentions, as noted about) regarding the elder Pound’s amatory life: like Ezra Pound, T.C. Pound did not constrain his sex life to the bounds of his marriage, and indeed when he moved to Washington, he brought his mistress with him. This proved to be more problematic for him, career-wise, than Ezra Pound’s affair with Olga Rudge ended up being; then-President Garfield wanted to help Pound in the Congress, but T.C. Pound’s adultery stood in his way until Garfield’s assassination — for Garfield’s successor wasn’t particularly bothered by the issue.

This is a great deal of verbiage for only a few lines of poetry, after which Pound turns from the subject of his grandfather to that of C.H. Douglas — or, at least, though Terrell fails to identify the “Joe” in whose workshop the anecdote about the necessity of waste for productivity (in producing turbines for military airplanes during World War I), it seems to me likely that this relates to C.H. Douglas, who worked as an engineer at that time. The anecdote seems to suggest that the “Price of life in the occident” was assumed to include a certain amount of waste — that modern industrial production (then, to Pound’s mind at least, limited to the Occidental world) had a certain degree of waste built into it, and doing things “right” (ie. consistently, without error, to a high degree of quality) was, by the perverted value system that ruled there, wrong.

Pound relates the confrontation between C.H. Douglas, the originator of his beloved Social Credit theory, and the economist Keynes, whom he renames “the renowned Mr. Bukos”; Bukos proves an apparent idiot, citing as the cause of the “H.C.L.” (high cost of living) as “Lack of labour” despite there being “two millions of men out of work.” C.H. Douglas decides to “save his breath to cool his own porridge” but Pound brags of confronting Keynes himself, and getting the response, “‘I am an orthodox / Economist.'”

Pound’s outraged response is, of course, in Italian:

Jesu Christo!
Standu nel paradiso terrestre
Pensado come si fesse compagna d’Adamo!!

… which translates as:

Jesus Christ!
Standing in the Earthly paradise
Thinking of how to make a companion for Adam.

It is difficult to put one’s finger on what this response exactly means. Certainly, there is exasperation, but one wonders just what it means for Jesus to make himself into a companion of Adam. Is it the exasperation of Jesus, living among men, struggling with the orthodoxies and stupidities of human foibles: the struggles of Jesus against Pharisees and their kind? Certainly, this is the vague sense that seems to be there to me: as Jesus struggled against the orthodoxies and dogmas of his day, so too does the Social Creditor (like Douglas or Pound) struggle against the (to Pound, equally idiotic) conservatives of economic theory. The fact that basically nobody in the world of economics theory took Douglas seriously seems to have galvanized Pound’s faith in Social Credit, of course — in a way that weirdly echoes the belief system of many occultists, bolstered by the very fact that most people can’t take their beliefs seriously. (A point made many posts ago, during my discussion of Surette’s book on Pound and the Occult.)

Pound rails against the rejection of Douglasian theory by other economists, and suggests that a similar orthodoxy protected “lay readers” from new and exciting poetry, criticizing Mac Narpen and Company (a thin disguise for Macmillan Company — the publishers) whose fortunes are founded on “Palgrave’s Golden treasury.

In the earthly paradise, Pound writes,

… all the material was used up, Jesu Christo,
And everything in its place, and nothing left over
to make una compagna d’Adamo. Come si fesse?
E poi ha vishtu una volpe
And the tail of the volpe, the vixen,
Fine, spreading and handsome, e pensava:
That will do for this business;
And la volpe saw in his eye what was coming,
Corre, volpe corre, Christu corre, volpecorre,
Christucorre, e dav’ un saltu, ed ha preso la coda
Della volpe, and the volpe wrenched loose
And left the tail in his hand, e di questo
Fu fatta,
e per questo
E la donna unda furia,
Una fuRRia-e-una rabbia.

The tale, much of it rendered in some dialect of Italian, concerns Jesus thinking of what to use in order to make woman, the companion of man: that is, the making of Eve as the wife for Adam. He notices the tail of a female fox (a vixen), figures it might do well, as it’s fine, spreading and handsome, and chases after her. The chase scene is odd and funnily musical:

Corre, volpe corre, Christu corre, volpecorre,
Christucorre, e dav’ un saltu, ed ha preso la coda
Della volpe, and the volpe wrenched loose
And left the tail in his hand,

… translates as:

Ran, fox ran, Christ ran, foxran,
Christran, and took a leap, and caught the tail
Of the fox, and the fox wrenched loose
And left the tail in his hand.

One imagines, once again, there is some fuming at Dorothy Shakespear that has been sublimated here, for Pound’s wife, then pregnant with what was apparently another man’s child, was furiously angry at Pound for Olga Rudge’s pregnancy and birth of Pound’s daughter Mary. “Rabbia” is Italian for fury — the same word from which the name for the spicy Italian sauce “arabbiata” is taken.

But the Italian rabbia apparently also reminds Pound of the word “rabbi” and he launches into a long anecdote about a trip he made to Gibraltar, including a funny little sign, made out to look like an actual sign hanging from a nail in a wall, that reads as follows:


During his travels, Pound encounters various Arab merchants; a fat, ignorant American tourist (yes, the stereotype apparently existed even back in 1925); and, most unsettling, a Jewish fellow tourist named Yusuf who takes him to a synagogue.

As the Coffee Philosopher notes, it’s difficult to read these lines without thinking of Pound’s later extremes of antisemitism; but of course, it’s important to pause and remember that at this time, he had just barely started down that path, and probably wasn’t much (if at all) more Anti-Semitic than the average Anglo-Saxon living in the US, London, or Paris — the worlds that had made up his world up until around that time. Not to mention, reading Pound after World War II — after the event of the Holocaust — is difficult because for us, anti-Semitism is bound up with that massive crime, whereas for Pound it was not. (It should have been bound up with other horrors of history, but instead it was bound up with his conspiratorial economic theories; this is unfortunate and sad, off-putting, and a problem when it comes to reading the Cantos, obviously… but I’m not sure to what degree it comes into active play in this particular Canto.)

Pound’s encounter with Arab merchants seems somewhat admiring — unless I’ve completed misread the anecdote, though it seems to me I haven’t: he seems more disgusted by the fat American tourist (from Rhode Island) he meets than anyone; this is the tourist who complains of being “stuck” in Gibraltar, a place he claims is “plumb full of scoundrels”. Yusuf, a Jewish tourist Pound has met in his travels, comments:

… Yais? an’ the reech man
In youah countree, haowa they get their money;
They noo go rob some poor pairsons?
And the fat fella shut up, and went off.

Yusuf, the Jew whom Pound has met (and whom in a letter Pound claimed has “saved” his life) makes the point that tourists get screwed over no mattter where they go, and notes that when he travels abroad, he expects to get “stuck” the way he “sticks” tourists when they come to his country. Pound seems to be amused and to agree, as far as can tell. Then Yusuf takes him to a synagogue, where a strange scene occurs.

The synagogue is “All full of silver lamps” and some kids come into the serene space, and then the rabbi — “the levite” as Pound calls him, with six little choir kids — “began yowling the ritual / As if it was crammed full of jokes / And they went through a whole book of it” but when the elders and scribes enter, a snuff-box is passed around — not just among the Jews in attendance, but even to Pound, who takes a pinch of snuff as well, with a grin. There is an uneasy calmness here — the grins of the rabbi and of Pound, as it is decided whether snuff should be shared with him; the incantatory quiet of the verse, wherein a few dozen lines begin with the word “And”, the neatness of the passage depicting  the religious ceremony from beginning to end. The snuff-box sharing feels a little like the sharing of bread in a Christian service, though more exotic and odd.

Pound segues directly to a court case he attended in Gibraltar, concerning charges of of rape and blackmail, “Down at the court-house, behind the big patio / full of wistaria” — a moment that seems to summon up memories for Pound, though he doesn’t shift to them immediately. First, there is a moment where he comments to “the nigger in the red fez, Mustafa, on the boat later” about how Yusuf is a damn good fellow. Mustafa comments,

“Yais, he ees a goot fello,
“But after all a chew,
ees a chew.”

There is a weirdness to all this: is Pound showing hints of a growing anti-Semitism? Commenting on the anti-Semitism of Mustafa? Pound calls the man “nigger” — a word he has used before, and will use again I’m sure — and his, too, is discomfiting even though he is clearly putting on airs of that 19th century literary mode where such talk suggests a plain-spoken, commonsense type. Not that we need accept that, or be comfortable with the word: it discomfits me even as I read it, but I wonder if that’s not a little bit of the point: that Mustafa is leery of Jews, Pound is less than respectful of blacks, and Pound and Mustafa are probably also leery of one another. What sort of social contract can exist in a world like that?

None, as Yusuf suggests: when we travel to one anothers’ countries, we rip one another off, and that is the expected norm. Trust is foolish, apparently, and respect is at best for show, and the idea of social contract is impossibly difficult when the meanings of words, and the identities of things, are not nailed down. It is an unsettling sense of the world, but one supported by what follows:

And the judge says: That veil is too long.
And the girl takes off the veil
That she has stuck onto her hat with a pin,
“Not a veil,” she says, “‘at’s a scarf.”
And the judge says:
Don’t you know, you aren’t allowed all those buttons?
And she says: Those aren’t buttons, them’s bobbles.
Can’t you see there ain’t any button-holes?
And the Judge says: Well, anyway, you’re not allowed ermine.
“Ermine?” the girl says, “Not ermine, that ain’t,
“‘At’s lattittzo.”
And the judge says: And just what is lattittzo?
And the girl says:
“It’z an animal.”

Signori, you go and enforce it.

This, of course, is a summary, in the classic Poundian mode, of a passage in what Terrell tells us is in the 14th century Florentine writer Franco Sachetti’s Le Novello — though it is recounted in Isidoro del Lungo’s book, translated into English by Mary C. Steegman and published in 1907 as Women of Florence.  It concerns the difficulty faced by the judge Messer Amerigo degli Amerighi of Pesaro, who “tried to enforce the laws prohibiting Florentine ladies from wearing ornaments and furs at the start of the 13th century” (Terrell 91). This calls to mind the quite opposite freedom Malatesta gave women in Rimini regarding dress and ornament — encouraging them to put on finery, for the glory of the region — and suggests also that the enforcement of a certain kind of social order is simply hopeless. These aren’t buttons, they’re bobbles; this isn’t ermine, it’s lattittzo — a kind of unweaned, suckling emine-like animal. So, basically, something that wasn’t technically an “ermine” but was close enough for fashion.

Where is the idiocy located? Is it the lawbreaker, flouting the rules in a fully crass manner? (She does speak in what I imagine is the closest thing in The Cantos to a Valley Girl accent; but she is only trying to ornament herself, and we have seen Pound mention with approval Sigismundo Malatesta’s policy of allowing women to purdy themselves up as they like.) Or is it on the part of he who attempts to enforce the law — with whom, in the final line, he seems to sympathize, saying,

Signori, you go and enforce it.

Perhaps the stupidity is ubiquitous, though we supposedly don’t really see Pound questioning his own wisdom or  intelligence until the Pisan Cantos, much later in the book. It’s unlikely he’s really  backing away from his approval of Malatesta’s position here; but it is unclear exactly what he is on about. (Especially when we contrast the two cases: the modern on in Gibraltar, which cooncerns a case of rape and blackmail; and the one in Renaissance Florence, concerning a woman legalistically slipping her way around the dress code laws of the day.)

Somehow, it seems to me, the dysfunction seems to reside in the law itself, in its susceptibility to manipulation, in its weakness due to specific phrasing, in its role as an intermediary between state power and the individual, and as an intermediary between individuals. Just like evaluating everything along the lines of debased, monodimensional economic “value” (where money is mistaken for a good in itself, rather than as a symbol of power and plenty), hoping that a legal code alone will result in an ordered, sane, and good society (in the philosophical sense of “good”) is a foolish proposition.

As for my fictional Pound, here’s what I take from these poems:

  • His grandfather, Thaddeus Coleman Pound, will probably be one of the figures that will come up in any necromantic experimentation in which he engages. T.C. Pound should be rather like him — to the point of perhaps appearing a bit like a projection from Pound’s own subconscious, built primarily out of his own self-image but with all weaknesses and flaws purged. He should also be arrogant, somewhat bitter at all his failings (in the way of the drowned from Odysseus’ crew.)
  • The recurrence of both Odyssean and Eleusinian imagery all over the place is important: my occult Pound  should be haunted by visions and impulses toward both: the theurgy of death (necromancy) and the theurgy of life — biomancy, or Korétic magic (for Koré, the Eleusinian name for Persephone); later, we will also see a tendency towards erotic magic, though hints have apopoeared already with the appearance of the trio of Artemis, Persephone, and Aphrodite. (As Leon Surette notes, these ancient divine figures seem to represent a kind of personified hierarchy of human intersexual relations: both rape and the purely reproductive act  (Persephone, raped by Hades but also the goddess of spring and fertility), murderous chastity (Artemis is shown, early on, slaying Actaeon through magical means for merely glimpsing her while bathing; she was famous not only for killing men, but also any women in her retinue who lost their virginity — even by rape: see this page for plenty of examples), and love (as embodied by Aphrodite). Pound should be glimpsing these figures in every woman around him, and probably glimpsing hints of the Greek male gods in the men around him too. But more important, the tension between Odyssean, Eleusinian, and Dionysian/Aphoriditic occult energies must pull at him constantly: will the magic he weaves into the poem put death on top? Life? Love and ecstasy that transcends both?
  • Dorothy Shakespear Pound’s pregnancy with Omar is an opportunity for great drama, and not just the external kind; like Niccolò d’Este, Pound struggles hard, and with a very angry impulse; just as it is sublimated into his poem, it is also sublimated into his visions, to be sure. He may even go mad for a little while, until someone or something snaps him out of it.
  • The constancy of historical echoes for Pound seems such that everything in his experience seems to echo back to something in a book he has read. It will be difficult to figure out how to write this kind of thinking in a character, without slipping into a kind of narrative stasis; I suspect perhaps it will be important to demonstrate it occasionally, but to avoid doing it too much, for the sake of making the story actually have any action at all outside of the man’s head.

And with that, this is over 8800 words; I suppose I should stop now. Next week, I’ll try get to three Cantos, that is, Cantos XXIIII-XXV. We’ll see if I manage it, with everything else I have going on. It may have to be Cantos XXIII-XXIV, but I’d prefer to get through three. And, I hope, to do so in less than 6,000 words, if possible.

Series Navigation<< Poundmania: On Process and PlansBlogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XXIII – XXIV >>

8 thoughts on “Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XX – XXII

    1. Thanks! It’s always nice to hear from someone who enjoyed one of the Cantos posts. I keep meaning to get back into it… once I have some time. (A newborn baby wreaks havoc on projects like this—and, incidentally, on the speediness of my replies to appreciated comments—but eventually I’ll press on through.)

      As for “Athame,” Terrell didn’t mention that meaning in connection to the name (though I’ve seen it elsewhere, it didn’t come to mind). I am not all that surprised, though: a lot of the neopagan terminology seems to have been either retooled or invented (as far as JIm Baker and Ronald Hutton suggest) as recently as the 1950s, and this Canto predates that. (It would be a resurrection of the word in this case, since that term has an older history.

      Which leaves me wondering where Pound encountered the word. Maybe through old Yeats and his interest in magical and spiritualism? Despite my usual reservations about trusting Wikipedia, this is tantalizing:

      The term athame derives, via a series of corruptions, from the late Latin artavus (“quill knife”), which is well attested in the oldest mansucripts (sic) of the Key of Solomon. It means “a small knife used for sharpening the pens of scribes” (“Cultellus acuendis calamis scriptorii”). Artavus is well-attested in medieval Latin, although it is not a common word. This explains why it was left untranslated in some French and Italian manuscripts, and ultimately became garbled in various manuscripts as artavo, artavus, arthana, artanus, arthany or arthame.

      … and fits the kind of metapoetical/metahistorical games Pound often plays in juxtaposing ancient, Medieval, and personal narratives.

      Anyway, thanks for the note and the encouragement. I’ll try finish the Chinese Cantos and plow partway into the Adams at least this winter, once my work teaching a winter intensive course is finished (in a few weeks).

      1. Yes, I remember what having young kids around the place is like. I’m rereading the Cantos for the first time in a few years in prep for reading the Posthumous Cantos, a seasonal gift to myself, and finding your blogs gave me a slightly different way of looking at them. I plan on reviewing the ‘new’ book at some point.

        1. Oh, wow, I hadn’t heard about Bacigalupo’s book! I’ll have to add it high up on my list of Pound books to acquire! Well, as for my Pound posts, I’m glad they’re of use to you. I’ll be trying to get back to that project in January, I think. Would be nice to get to the Pisan Cantos by the time Spring Semester starts, even if it means giving up my free time one day a week to get weekly posts up, a Canto or two at a time.

          1. Checked it out and left a comment. Great review, thanks for sharing it! Now I do feel inspired to get back to reading ol’ Uncle Ez. Soon… it’s just the newborn slowing my return, but sometime this year I should be back into it.

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