This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, 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.
Or maybe about artists, musicians, and poets waging a secret, occult war in some other world vaguely like ours, in a time period somewhat like the late 19th century and early twentieth.
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 XX-XXII, which Pound first published in A Draft of Cantos 17-27, I’m tackling Cantos XXIII-XXIV.
(Note: Mostly, I’m doing these three this week because next week exams begin, and I’ll be even more busy than usual, and won’t have time to read more than a couple of Cantos. So next week will be Cantos XXV-XXVII; then I’ll follow up with a review of Leon Surette’s A Light From Eleusis, which I finished reading last week, and then we should be back into the Cantos again, plowing through the three Cantos added to the others, Cantos XXVIII-XXX, in order to make the publication of A Draft of XXX Cantos possible.)
Cantos XXIII-XXIV were written in 1925/26, in fact, so far as I can tell, probably in 1926 — Pound’s wife was only pregnant in ’26, in fact, which casts for me some interesting questions on the issue of Pound’s writing of Niccolò d’Este’s struggles earlier, in 1925. I am inclined to think the dates may simply be wrong in the sources I’ve happened to look at (all the way back to Canto XX or so), as the biographical projection apparent in Pound’s use of d’Este is too strong for mere coincidence. Or, perhaps, there is something else going on, I’m not sure.
In any case, these poems do seem to resonate with Pound’s life in 1926: his wife, carrying and giving birth to another man’s child, and his own struggle to deal with the fact. They are, on one level, much more lucid and simple, not to mention shorter, than some of those preceding them… or maybe I’m just getting used to the Cantos again, I’m not sure. Pound returns to the subject of Niccolò d’Este prompts some consideration of the genre of The Cantos, or at least leads me to think we can add “Life Writing” to the list of genres that are often appended to the book.
As well, I get the strangest sense that if Pound were alive today, he would be a big fan of AMC’s and HBO’s programs: not just The Borgias and Rome, but also The Sopranos and A Game of Thrones (fantastical though it is) and probably many more shows as well. (He was, apparently, a big fan of Westerns, so we can easily imagine him enjoying Deadwood as well.)
Also, there is once again a sense of the text being a record not only of things Pound has read, but also of places he’s been. This becomes especially prominent in Canto XXIV, where Venice is the scene of the action (such as it is).
Canto XXIII begins with a line we’ve seen before, the quotation from the Byzantine philosopher Michael Constantine Psellos that runs “Omnis Intellectus est Ominiformis” — the contention by Psellos, much loved by Pound, that all intellects are omniform, or are capable of assuming all forms. Why this is so particularly important to Pound, I’m not sure — I imagine it ties in with his occult understanding of history, his pseudoscientific theory of mind, and so on, but I haven’t got it nailed down yet (and haven’t yet seen it quite nailed down by anyone else either). It does seem to have something to do with the subject rhymes that Pound outlines echoing and repeating throughout history, however.
Immediately, in the second line, comes a reference to Gemisto Plethon, who opines that
“Never with this religion
“Will you make men of the greeks.
“But build wall across Peloponesus
“And organize, and…
damn these Eyetalian barbarians.”
Pound’s attraction to Gemisto is simple: like Pound, the Renaissance Greek Platonist Gemisto was none too fond of Christianity (which is the religion referred to here): he felt it feminized men, and further felt Rome was polluting Europe with a new, emergent Christo-barbarism. He argued that the Peloponesus ought to be protected from both Turkish “barbarism” and the corrupting influence of the Eastern Church by the construction of a wall “with numerous towers on the Isthmus of Corinth” (Terell 93). Gemisto felt that Greek society would need a new, hierarchic system of social organization, as well as a new religion bringing together Platonic thought and ancient Greek pagan polytheism.
In other words, Gemisto was not only precisely Pound’s kind of crackpot, he was also the kind of crackpot of which there are plenty in the States today — enough that a giant wall along the Rio Grande did get built (despite the various immense costs, and despite the environmental impact).
After a quick reference to the loss of texts of Novello Malatesta’s (Siggy’s little brother) that got lost in shipment to Italy, Pound shifts gears to modern science, which, since this is Ezra Pound writing, is the least lucid and explicable part of the poem. He has some stuff about dissolving a French petroleum product called Iroline in sugar, something about hydroelectric power (“white coal” is an alternate translation offered by Google) and a caterpillar-tread vehicle, then a reference to something that can “destroy all bacteria in the kidney” and what seems like an invocation of Occam’s Razor. Pound quotes Pierre Curie on a self-inflicted radiation burn that took six months to heal (assumably as reported by Marie Curie in her autobiography of her husband). “Tropismes!” (sic) declares Pound — misspelling the French “tropisms” which apparentrly means “stimulus-responses” (if Terrell is to be trusted) and then there is a cryptic quotation: “We believe the attraction is chemical.”
What Pound is up to here is not quite clear. One can imagine his being interested in invisible forces — like the sociohistorical and econopolitical ones he is costantly exploring, and the occult ones that thoroughly pepper his poem; there is also his enduring interest in the ero-esoteric, and he seems quite comfortable connecting the concept of “spiritual energies” with that of the radioactive energies of radium, as he does in his introduction to his translations of Cavalcanti (as noted by Daniel Tiffany in on page 224 of Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Cryptaesthetic of Ezra Pound).
So it is not surprising that Pound would return, immediately, to light, the sun, and mythology next, as he does next, recounting (with Greek script, of course) the crossing of Helios in his chariot across the sky and the voyage of Heracles performing his tenth labour: journeying West to find the cattle of Geryon. Pound fiddles a bit with the Greek and Latin, suggesting an alternate etymology for the word μάταιος than that offered by the scholars Liddell and Scott in their dictionary of classical Greek; he is arguing about Greek philology and its significance to how we see Odysseus — fruitless, or idiot? Pound would have us see the latter, though it is of course an act put on by Odysseus avoid the war.
There follows, apparently, a passage from Stesichorus on the setting sun, and an Italian invocation of dark forest (which brings to mind — at least to my mind — the opening of Dante’s Commedia, which also features a selv’ oscura. Then a Phyrgian head-sack, an invocation of the ancient Titan Hyperion (which is what is meant by Pound’s mistransliteratian of “Yperionides” — Huperionides would be closer, and this is an invocation, Terrell claims, of the Hyperion whose portfolio would later be assumed by Helios, his son. Hyperion, in other words, is a more ancient sun god than Helios.
Which brings us to what seems to be more recent stuff: a discussion of a rose growing with a narrator has slept, strings shaken with music and a glimpse of Pan or other satyrs; there is a picturesque scene of a hill with what I assume are olive trees, a boat in the inlet below and a garden and a sound coming up from the cross-street… cross street? This is a weirdly urban moment for a very pastoral passage, and then there is a window, with “Fa Han and I at the window” — nobody seems to know who Fan Han is, or represents, though her head is bound with gold cords, and they look out on “Cloud over mountain; hill-gap, in mist, like a sea-coast.”
Who Fa Han is, seems difficult or impossible to nail down; my best guess is that Pound is making an obscure reference to an imagined scene in China, or he is referring to Olga, who serves for him as a sort of refuge in the troubles he faces with Dorothy Shakespear and her unexpected pregnancy.
We glimpse a little more of the pastoral scene, with a few lines an images (especially the last two) repeated from above:
Leaf over leaf, dawn-branch in the sky
And the sea dark, under wind,
The boat’s sails hung loose at the mooring,
Cloud like a sail inverted,
And the men dumping sand by the sea-wall
Olive trees there on the hill
where a man might carry his oar up.
And then we’re back in the “Troy in Auvergnat” business, first discussed in Canto V, and Pound is once again reminding us of Piere de Mænsac’s (imaginary, invented by Pound) coin toss that resulted in Piere becoming a troubadour (indeed, a jongleur) and later abducting and taking as his lover the new young bride of Bernart de Tierci. Here, the poem slips back completely into oral mode — signifying, doubtless, the oral tradition that kept these stories alive until they could later be set down (along with the songs of the troubadours themselves).
There are interesting little touches, like how “Tierci came with a posse to Auvergnat”–a “posse,” note, as if these fellows are gunning one another down in the streets of the Old West or something; Pound was, after all, a fan of “bad films” and Westerns were enormously popular in the silent film era; here, the use of the word posse does seem to kind of map the whole Medieval-European world onto the Wild West and thus Americanizes it subtly, somehow. But now, Pound maps the Troy in Auvergnat to the later persecution of the Cathars/Albigensians, while dismissing the specifics of the Church’s condemnation of them:
And he came to Auvergne with the army
But never got Pierre nor the woman.
And he went down past Chaise Dieu,
And went after it all to Mount Segur,
after the end of all things,
And they hadn’t left even the stair,
And Simone was dead by that time,
And they called us the Manicheans
Wotever the hellsarse that is.
There are a few notable things here: first off, Pound is discussing locales he has himself visited: anyone who has read his diary of the trip in A Walking Tour of Southern France: Ezra Pound Among the Troubadours (ed. Richard Sieburth) knows how little he liked his time in Auvergne (including Chaise Dieu) and recalls his very short passage on Montségur, compared to the castle at Rochefixade, which seemed to impress him more.
But while one is sometimes tempted to imagine the Cantos as a kind of weirdly occulted (in the sense of hidden, rather than in the sense of supernatural) but at this moment (when he is writing in 1925), he is back in Southern France on other business besides rummaging through his memories, and that business is the Albigensian crusade. Without Leon Surette’s investigations, the passage seems cryptic: the troubadours were around at the same time as the Albigensians, and so it seems unsurprising that Pound might imagine them connected, even though, if one studies up on the Albigensians (or the “Cathars”) a little, the connection seems a little more tenuous.
The Cathars, also known as the Albigensians, were after all an heretical group, or perhaps a group of hereitcal groups; while Pound was right in asserting they were not really Manicheans, neither were they connected in any way to Eleusis or the Eleusinian Mysteries, though Pound makes the suggestion in a famous footnote in The Spirit of Romance. Rather, the Cathars were simply a dualistic, gnostic group who flourished in Languedoc around the same time the troubadours did, and who were wiped out in a brutal, and arguably even a genocidal crusade at the direction of the Pope and carried out by Northern French nobles (particularly Simon de Montfort, whom Pound calls “Simone” in this passage.
Pound seems to want to connect the Rites at Eleusis in the ancient world to the religious heresies of Languedoc in the middle ages so that he can construct a connection between the literary traditions of ancient Greece and Medieval Languedoc, which is much easier to do if he presents the troubadours as being linked to the Cathars (or even as the prime purveyors of the religious or occult “secrets” of their faith), and the Eleusinians with the Homeric tradition and other great Greek literary figures.
That is, the idea of a Troy at Auvergnat is the geographical rendering of what for Pound is a literary-occult tradition that links ancient Greece to medieval Southern Europe, as well as presumably Renaissance Italy and… well, and his own literary megaproject, The Cantos.
Never mind that the Cathar faith, being dualistic, viewed the physical world as evil, and urged its members to avoid procreation, taking therefore a dim view of sex and erotic love. For this reason, among others, it seems unlikely that the troubadours and the Cathars overlapped much in their thinking, beliefs, or understanding of the world. Languedoc is significant primarily because it was markedly different from other parts of Europe (and especially Northern Europe) in its social organization, traditions, its cosmopolitanism, and its tolerance of diversity in religion; that is, in its ability to support both the troubadours and like-minded artists and nobles, and the Albigensians. For Pound, the occult linkage is expedient for the kind of “history” that he wishes the Cantos to “include” or “contain”…
And after all, consider the fact that Pound uses in this passage a pronoun he very rarely uses: “we” is the word used by a Cathar who complains of being called a Manichean; “we” for an unspecified character, who of course could be merely an unnamed Cathar, or could instead be Pound speaking, or could be the collective of the Cathars, the Eleusinian mystics, and the modern occultists all gathered together into a single artistic-occult tradition. This makes a special kind of sense given what we deduced last week — the fact that Pound’s inclusion of Niccolò d’Este is really the hidden inscription of his own struggle to deal with his wife’s sexual infidelity (as a response to his own, remember). Pound, after all, is relating one of the vidas or razos of Piere de Maensac, rather than his songs themselves, here. The vidas were in many cases written long after the deaths of the troubadours, and were often based on the contents of the poems themselves — biographical texts reconstructed out of the material of the troubadours’s songs, which brings “life-writing” to a new level, really. The Cantos, if it partakes of this tradition, also must partake of this practice of melding life-writing into the artistic project, and while this is something I suppose is evident in places, I wonder how deeply the insight has sunk.
(More about Pound’s interest in the Albigensians and Provence generally here.)
Little surprise given Pound’s investment in the Eleusinian/Albigensian link, that immediately after describing the Albigensian Crusade, Pound turns to the fall of “Ilion” (that is, of Troy) and sailors after the fall of the city hearing the cries of “Tethnéké” — the feast of Adonis, who died a virgin despite the warning of Venus, at least as Ovid tells it at the end of Book X of Metamorphoses. (From the groin wound Adonis suffers from a boar’s tusk, she creates the anemone flower.) We are afforded the briefest of glimpses of Aphrodite — the same goddess as Venus, it is merely her Greek name — appearing to Anchises with the goal of having sex with him, and telling him the lie that she is the daughter of King Otreus of Phrygia — once again, a mention of Phrygia, though it does not make the earlier reference any clearer to me — as she solidifies before him from ocean water:
“King Otreus, of Phrygia,
“That king is my father.”
and saw then, as of waves taking form,
As the sea, hard, a glitter of crystal,
And the waves rising but formed, holding their form.
No light reaching through them.
And the Canto is done, though we know what comes next: a sexual coupling of Aphrodite and Anchises, who saw the destruction of Troy. Pound is echoing things, again, one suspects, the erotic magic of th ancient Greek Divinity, the eros of the troubadours’ poetical songs, the hieros gamos of the Eleusinian cult (which, though it seems likely to have centered on the story of Persephone, may also have involved Aprodite to some degree). Pound is also a witness of sorts, and one cannot help but wonder whether he saw his own affair with Olga (or with other women) by the light of this sort of narrative.
Here, Pound begins again with his pseudo-fragmentary approach, as if presenting a chunk of a text from which the actual beginning is missing, a technique he has used constantly so far:
Thus the book of mandates:
We desire that you our factors give to Zohanne of Rimini
our servant, six lire marchesini,
for the three prizes he has won racing our barbarisci,
at the rate we have agreed on. The races he has won
are the Modena, the San Petronio at Bologna
and the last race at San Zaro.
(Signed) Parisina Marchesa
And we are back with Niccolò d’Este, he who beheaded both his wife and his bastard son for their mutual sexual betrayal of him. (Parisina Marchesa is the wife he’d had put to death.)
The Canto traces a few moments from the life of d’Este, including some documents sent by his wife Parisina before her execution (dealing with money for a horse-race winner, and for procuring goods for the family); the arrangement of a dowry by N. d’Este’s son Leonello d’Este for his sister Margaret (who was married off to Roberto Malatesta of Rimini — the son of none other than Sigismundo Malatesta); and an account of Niccolò d’Este’s pillgrimage to the Holy Land, based on the account written by a scribe of the journey. According to Terrell, Pound condenses 45 pages of original text into a few lines:
And he in his young youth, in the wake of Odysseus
To Cithera (a. d. 1413) ” dove fu Elena rapta da Paris “
Dinners in orange groves, prows attended of dolphins,
Vestige of Rome at Pola, fair wind as far as Naxos
Ora vela, ora a remi, sino ad ora di vespero
Or with the sail right hauled, by the crook’d land’s arm
And at Corfu, greek singers; by Rhodos
Of the windmills, and to Paphos,
Donkey boys, dust, deserts, Jerusalem, baksheesh,
And an endless fuss over passports[…]
The trip to the holy land is recounted in a welter of detail that is more effective and descriptive than the epistolary stuff with which the canto begins, and one gets a funny sort of sense from Pound’s telling for the annoyances of the travel, and the specific amusements, and of course of the sights and sounds that an Italian pilgrim might have encountered.
And then, soon, we come again to the center of d’Este’s horrors, his grief, his obsession: the beheading of his wife and son for their adulterous affair. Pound broaches it by mentioning first a third party, their mutual friend Aldovrandino, who was also beheaded for aiding them in their crime; but soon the focus is on Niccolò d’Este and his horror at the beheading of his son and his wife. While d’Este is praised for having thrice “authored” an Italian peace, he also decrees that other known adulterous wives should be put to death, so that his Parisina isn’t the only to suffer for her crime: Pound lists a few prominent women who were put to death this way, ending the long stanza at the mention of d’Este’s remarriage in 1431.
There is a puzzling bit in French about King Charles VIII granting a coat of arms to someone — presumably the d’Este family, but it is never made clear beyond that it is in the year of d’Este’s remarriage. In 1432, the poem continues, Niccolò’s new father-in-law came to visit his grandson Ercole; in 1441, N. d’Este goes to Milan to serve as governor, and dies soon after (possibly by poisoning). He is returned to Ferrara and
E sepulto nudo, Niccolo,
Without decoration, as ordered in testament,
Ter pacis Italiae.
Pound briefly recounts a tale — tall or otherwise — regarding the fate of the statues of Niccolò and his son Borso, which apparently he discovers by reading the wrappings around an order of nails brought by a boy to a priest, while Pound was taking a rifle course in Bondeno. (Of course a rifle course; Pound here is playing at being Hemingway a little, I think.) On the wrapping it is explained that
… in Napoleon’s time,
Came down a load of brass fittings from Modena
Via del Po, all went by the river,
To Piacenza for cannon, bells, door-knobs
And the statues of the Marchese Niccolo and of Borso
That were in the Piazza on columns.
Pound complains of having told “the Commendatore” (whoever that is) of the discovery, giving him the name of the priest in possession of the wrapping (and the rest of the text, which was obtained from the hardware shop), and published a monograph on the subject without crediting Pound.
The Canto closes with a sort of indictment of those who would follow d’Este:
After him and his day
Where the cake-eaters, the consumers of icing,
That read all day per diletto [for pleasure]
And left the night work to the servants;
Ferrara, paradiso dei sarti, “feste stomagose.” [Ferrara, paradise for clothiers, “disgusting festivals.”]
“Is it likely Divine Apollo,
That I should have stolen your cattle?
A child of my age, a mere infant,
And besides, I have been here all night in my crib.”
“Albert made me, Tura painted my wall,
And Julia the Countess sold to a tannery…”
The indictment of those who followed d’Este is puzzling: what precisely was wrong with them, Pound does not disclose, but instead he ends with a flash of the mythological — Hermes, newborn, immediately sets out to steal the cattle of Apollo, but claims to have been born the day before and to have done no such thing.
Then, Niccolò d’Este gets the last few lines to himself. His comment is cryptic even when the names are glossed: “Albert” is his father Alberto; Tura is Cosimo or Cosmé Tura (a Ferrarese painter who served in his court); and Julia the Countess seems to be a woman from the Tassoni family, who owned a factory (not a tannery) in Ferrara. But who these people are, and why Niccolò would mention them is unclear. Obviously Niccolò d’Este is being compared to Hermes, or perhaps it is the betrayal of his son (still an infant in his heart) that haunts him. It remains unclear to me, and puzzling, and the opening of Canto XXV doesn’t seem to help much.
But, I’ve decided, Canto XXV can and should wait till next week, as Cantos XXV and XXVI seem to be linked in their style and possibly their discussion of Venice; such is my vague impression at giving XXVI a glance while thinking about whether to continue on here.
As for my occult Pound:
- I underestimated the importance of his trip through Southern France, in terms of how it informed the Cantos. I’d previously assumed that his interest had come from books, but his having walked through the region twice seems to me something like a modern-day pilgrimage, one he actually repeated with Dorothy Shakespear. I imagine the first trip was probably different from the second, and imagine that telling a bit of the story would be fascinating. What things did he see that the average traveler would not have seen?
- The Trojan-Laguedoc linkage is interesting, and one is tempted to throw some sort of forgotten, occult text Pound’s way to help reinforce the conspiratorial linkage for the reader. An imaginary book, of course… and perhaps one that purports to tell the secret truth of the Cathars.
- The Niccolò d’Este stuff is so thick in these Cantos that one imagines him perhaps having summoned the spirit of the man, to hold court with him; one imagines the intercourse between the men to have been baffling; but perhaps, also, Pound could at this time be experimenting with mystical potions that could bring about altered states of consciousness… add to that the suggestion made by Kevin Odermann (and I think Surette as well) that Pound may have practiced occult-purposed abstinence while “sleeping” (in the literal sense) with a woman, following the example of stories about Simon Magus, and the likelihood that Pound occasionally slipped into that strange, transcendent state that people imagine poets to do (and which meditating folk, religious and otherwise, report doing).
- If we reconsider the idea of the Cantos, at least in part, as life-writing, then what does this do for our understanding, in the fictional sense, of the poem as an occult object? It seems likely the poem would be invested with some kind of power linked to the life of Pound himself, and would in fact require his life energies to be bound into it as well. This somehow explains a few oddities — such as his reluctance to have A Draft of XXX Cantos see a large print run — but leaves one with a lot of room for puzzling out exactly what bio-/necro-thaumaturgical properties the book might possess. Indeed, the concept of the original manuscript being capable of being used to open a “vortex” that allows Pound to reboot his life to certain important moments in the past seems a sensible one. It would likely have other powers, as well… something like an “artifact” in the old original AD&D sense of the word. Which is interesting and fun stuff to play around with!