Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XL-XLI

This entry is part 31 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, 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 for a fiction project I’d like to write next year. 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.

This post (several days late, as I was drafting a screenplay earlier this week) brings us to the end of Eleven New Cantos XXXI-XLI. As usual, it will be followed by a discussion of a secondary source text on Pound’s life or work, most likely Leon Surette’s book on the path of Pound’s descent into  obsession with economics, anti-Semitism, and fascism–the last remaining book by Surette on Pound to which I have access but have not yet read.

I’ll follow up the week after by launching into the Leopoldine Cantos (and girding my loins brains for what follows them — the hard slog Chinese and Adams Cantos. If things go according to plan, I’ll take out the Chinese and Adams Cantos in the space of two weeks, and the Leopoldine will take three weeks at my current pace. That means I should be ready to start in on the Pisan Cantos after midterms… so perhaps I really will finish this set of readings by the end of February.

We’ll see, though. For now, I’m getting ahead of myself.   


Canto XL has a curious two-part structure: it starts out as what seems like a familiar rant on economic issues–arms dealers, banking conspiracies, and the naming of names that Pound sees as deserving naming: Adam Smith commenting on monopoly, one Peabody in economic conspiracy in England, William D’Arcy in the oil business, JP Morgan in opportunistic currency-speculation and war-profiteering… the list goes on to mention one more name familiar to us even now: the Rothschilds. The gist of all this is a picture of corruption, of manipulation, of economic evil.

The hinge of the poem is a description of what robber barons blew their ill-gotten earnings on most frequently: gaudy mansions built as bad Palladio knock-offs, as well as a list of goods that they stuffed into these homes:

(ÀGALMA, haberdashery, clocks, ormoulu, brocatelli, 
tapestries, unreadable volumes bound in tree-calf,
half-morocco, morocco, tooled edges, green ribbons, 
flaps, farthingales, fichus, cuties, shorties, pinkies
et cetera
          Out of which things seeking an exit

If the list bewilders you, well, I’m not surprised. Terrell explains some of it:

  • ÀGALMA is a reference to statues or ornamentation;
  • ormoulu is brass made to imitate gold;
  • brocatelli is a type of brocade;

… but even he doesn’t explain all the references, perhaps because we don’t need them all explained.  even without understanding every reference, we know: this is some fancy, gaudy crap we’re talking about. The Robber Baron equivalent of velvet Elvises and dashboard bobble-headed Jesuses made of gold (or, at least, plated in something that looks like gold).

Out of which, Pound also seeks an exit, and the exit is (as one so often finds with Pound) through an ancient text you’ve probably never heard of. In this case, it’s The Periplus of Hanno. (The title given to the book Pound used was The Voyage of Hanno, King of the Carthaginians as translated by someone named Schoff.) The following image traces the route Hanno took, a pretty long trip by ancient standards!


The Voyage of Hanno (a map from Wikipedia)

Why Hanno’s voyage? One is tempted to shrug and say, “He was ancient, he sailed, he founded cities… what more do you want?” (In other words, he was like Odysseus, but he did some stuff that was even cooler!) That’s basically the parts of the story Pound extracts from the much larger original, after all. There’s the lists Pound so much loves to throw in, such as listing the cities founded by Hanno along the way of his voyage from Carthage out to (and along) the Atlantic coast of what is now Morocco. There are

(...) aethiopians living with untamed beasts
shut in by :ixtus mountain
whereon are misshapen men swifter than horses.

This is the kind of stuff that reminds one that Pound and Robert Howard grew up only a (long) generation (or maybe you could call it two) apart, and dew inspiration from the same kinds of ancient texts–Howard turning those mythic Hyperboreans into Conan the Barbarian, while Pound took a different route.

There is, at the beginning of the Hanno section, some stuff that is definitely supposed to remind of of The Odyssey, too:

that he [Hanno] ply beyond pillars of Herakles
60 ships of armada to lay out Phoenecian cities
to each ship 50 oars, in all
30 thousand aboard them with water, wheat in provision.
Two days beyond Gibel Tara layed in the wide plain
Thumiatehyon, went westward to Solois
an headland covered with trees...

Though I have seen moments in Biblical scripture that contain lists and numbers like this, perhaps in part because of the voyaging by sea, it strikes me as much more Homeric, and reminds me of Eric Auerbach’s comment on the detailedness of the world in Homeric narrative (as opposed to how much it is like characters and their god effectively decontextualized against a mostly-blank background in many Biblical narratives).

It also must be pointed out that this list follows close on the heels of the list I cited above–the robber barons’ shopping list, that is–as in, it comesonly a few lines later.  Pound seems to be contrasting the two uses of wealth: in the case of the Robber Barons, money is frittered away on feathering one’s nest with trinkets and crap, while Hanno was doing it right: great voyages, the founding of cities, the expansion of civilization, the building of what effectively could be thought of as a “new world.”

When you think about Pound’s political values, and the political spectrum we see in Pound’s homeland today, there’s a wonderfully interesting cognitive dissonance one cannot escape: Pound is the one with old-fashioned values, and the Romneyite tax-is-robbery position is a modern perversion of the ideals of civilization. Not  that Pound would approve of the Democrats any more than he would the Republicans of today–and this should not surprise us, he was unhappy with the whole political spectrum in America for the same reason.

One of the things that I hadn’t thought about until it was pointed out by Leon Surette (in The Birth of Modernism) was how Pound’s mystical historiography is specifically European. It is also Eurocentric, and from what we know about Pound, that spells potentially serious trouble for his more, er, broad-minded readers, especially when he turns to discussing or representing cultures outside Europe.

Of course, Pound here is representing the representations of those cultures by members of the Carthaginean culture, itself not exactly European… but also not exactly not-European. (Carthage was for a period definitely a Roman city–and thus in an important sense arguably European–and it was part of the Roman world, even as an enemy… but at the time when Hanno was around, it was more exotic and alien than that, understood by the Romans as some kind of Phoenecian outpost.

With all that in mind, Pound lays down some thick exoticism, and not having read The Periplus of Hanno it’s hard to know exactly how much of it is Pound, and how much is the ancient text on which he’s riffing. Some of it is actually pretty evocative, like this passage describing the area near what is now called the Bay of Bissau:

And day by day we saw only forest, 
           by night their fires
With sound of pipe against pipe
The sound ply over ply; cymbal beat against cymbal, 
The drum, wood, leather, beat, beat noise to make terror.

But what is evoked? Surely I cannot be the only one to whom Joseph Conrad appeared when reading this passage, holding out a tattered paperback copy of his Heart of Darkness. Indeed, it’s noteworthy that the Voyage of Hanno, at its ending, involves an attack on

the island of folk hairy and savage
whom our Lixitae said were Gorillas.
We cd. not take any man, but three of their women. 
Their men clomb the crags, 
Rained stone, but we took three women
who bit, scratched, wd. not follow their takers.
Killed, flayed, brought back their pelts into Carthage.  
Went no further that voyage, 
        as were out of provisions.

For which, one imagines the rest of Africa would likely have been grateful had they known. To unpack that: these Carthagineans went around founding cities in what is now Morocco, then explored further south. They got to the Bay of Bissau, found an island with “hairy” and “savage” people that were called Gorillae. Were these Gorillas? Or were they human beings? Pound doesn’t seem too interested in resolving the ambiguity, so much as in allowing the original text’s phrasing show through: human or gorilla, the author of The Voyage of Hanno describes them in human terms, as “men” and “women.”

There are readings out there that suggest Pound understood The Voyage of Hanno as a kind of metaphor for the universal human journey into the self, the NOUS which he mentions in the lines that follow this passage. If that is the case, the encounter with the Gorillae would seem too fit nicely into a kind of neo-Freudian or neo-Jungian reading of the human mind, with the savage, wild animal instincts buried in the depths, and so wild that it’s not clear whether they are indeed human or beasts.

Nonetheless it is difficult not to recall that in such a schema, Africans playing the part of the id, of savage  animal instincts, is depressingly familiar in European (and Eurocentric) narratives and art. The noise of vaguely African percussion music inspires not joy, or artistic enlightenment, or even wonder, but instead “terror.”

And while Pound may be reporting what is contained in The Voyage of Hanno, we cannot say he is simply reporting it. There is a decision involved, a choice to use this text as his great metaphor. Once again he makes “traditional values” as we understand the term today look downright contemporary and amnesiac. (“No animals or African women [or animalistic African women] were harmed in the making of this city’s temple”? Seriously? Ugh!)

That is, if I understand the last six lines correctly:

Out of which things seeking an exit
To the high air, to the stratosphere, to the imperial
calm, to the emyprean, to the baily of the four towers
the NOUS, the ineffable crystal:
Karxèdoniõn Basileos
         hung this with his map in their temple.

Perhaps it’s not the skins of the Gorillae “women” that were hung in the temple, but a crystal representing the NOUS of mind. Either way, though, Pound seems to be comparing the decoration of the temple of Carthage to the gaudiness of the homes (and decor) favored by the robber barons he criticized earlier on. If you’re going to pillage and rule tyrannically, at least have  proper values: value art, value intellect, value civilization; don’t waste your earnings of velvet Elvises, or whatever their equivalent is in your day and age.

One cannot help but think of John McLaughlin, or George Harrison — the two British musicians most representative of the interest in Hinduism that swept Britain and the West generally in the 1960s and 1970s — and their albums My Goal’s Beyond and All Things Must Pass, respectively. Pound here seems to enunciate something similar to what they also later would: we should be striving for the skies, for the stratosphere, to bust through the quotidian into the sacral world.

“But, but, you can’t lump in Harrison and McLaughlin with Pound!” some might protest, to which I agree. But the link is not direct: it is through that large, amorphous mass of occult/new age/freaky ideology that Pound and many others encountered in Kensington just after the turn of the century (as discussed by Surette in The Birth of Modernism) and which remains alive and well, though in altered form, today.

But there is another issue that is of importance here: Hanno’s voyage has a purpose not mentioned in the text of the Periplus itself… to consolidate the route to Western markets and, indeed, to gold. I found this comment by a scholar named Brian Warmington on Wikipedia:

This report was the object of criticism by some ancient writers, including the Pliny the Elder, and in modern times a whole literature of scholarship has grown up around it. The account is incoherent and at times certainly incorrect, and attempts to identify the various places mentioned on the basis of the sailing directions and distances almost all fail. Some scholars resort to textual emendations, justified in some cases; but it is probable that what we have before us is a report deliberately edited so that the places could not be identified by the competitors of Carthage. From everything we know about Carthaginian practice, the resolute determination to keep all knowledge of and access to the western markets from the Greeks, it is incredible that they would have allowed the publication of an accurate description of the voyage for all to read. What we have is an official version of the real report made by Hanno which conceals or falsifies vital information while at the same time gratifying the pride of the Carthaginians in their achievements. The very purpose of the voyage, the consolidation of the route to the gold market, is not even mentioned. (Bibliographic reference.)

Is it possible Pound knew of this dispute over the veracity of the account, and of the real motive for the voyage? If not, it is a stunning piece of irony, but one cannot help but wonder: after all, he seems to reserve all of his usual derision for those who would seek monopoly, let alone those perpetrating the publication of falsifications (especially for economic purposes). Or perhaps Pound is presenting it as negative, and we’re supposed to just get that the Carthagineans are bad, and the Greeks are good; sometimes, Pound was just that opaque about things, but it seems to me odd that he doesn’t even drop a hint of negative judgment of Hanno and his people… normally, Pound is all for that kind of thing.

The Canto is, then, structurally, a compare and/or contrast, and the ancient Carthagineans come out way ahead of the nouveaux riches of the America that Pound grew up in: it’s just not clear (to me, anyway) whether he’s slamming the Carthagineans or not. I suspect he isn’t, and this is one of those ironic jokes that the world plays on us sometimes when we’re too confident in our own ability to know the truth of things.

Canto XLI closes this set of Cantos with a bookend to match its opening: Pound started with Thomas  Jefferson, and he ends it with Mussolini. (This is, like so much in Pound, far from an accident: it was at this time that Pound produced a book titled Jefferson and/or Mussolini.)

It begins with the famously recounted conversation between Pound and Mussolini, in which “the Boss” says, “Ma questo, è divertente.” This, most scholars agree, reflects one of those character flaws in Pound which he did not realize about himself: Mussolini likely would have said the same of just about any book handed to him by the author, and it is a throwaway compliment that would be used especially if one had nothing much to say about a text. Yet Pound held it up as evidence of the culturedness and wisdom of Mussolini, for he needed the man to be a kind of latter-day hero, someone able to hold his ground and shine with his own light when placed in the shadow of Malatesta.

To support this claim, Pound holds up a number of supporting arguments, from the draining of the marshes–which Pound comments took 2000 years in the case of the marshes near Circeo, and benefitted the local people immensely. This, in “XI of our era” — the eleventh year of the Fascist calendar, that is, year eleven of Mussolini’s rule.

The very next argument is one that horrifies us in a way Pound could never have guessed in 1933, when he wrote this poem. It concerns a story told by a “mezzo-yit” which is a terrible pun in Italian: it can mean “half-Jew” or, just as likely when it’s Pound writing, “rotten Jew.” “Yit,” in Pound’s writing, eventually means a “usurer” though in the telling of this story, the “mezzo-yit” seems to agree with Pound on one thing: consortia established for the purposes of profit alone are not a good thing, a belief   that Mussolini is reported also to espouse when he comments that all the people in the consortia will not need the millions they extract from the masses, since they are all for the “confine” — which Terrell tells us is a typo present in most editions of The Cantos, and which, he tells us should actually be “confino.”

Which, he further tells us, means “prison or concentration camp.” It’s important, of course, to remember that it Fascist Italy in 1933, the notion of the concentration camp does not connect directly with anti-Semitism as it has done since the end of World War II when the Holocaust became public knowledge (or, rather, when it became impossible for the world to pretend it had absolutely no idea what was going on in under the Nazis at the time). In 1933, even in Germay, concentration camps were prisons for dissidents and rebels, a model of incarceration apparently receiving much organizational development by the British during the Boer War, though it was not pioneered there. (Tsarist Russia had its own version of the concentration camp, or what was later called the gulag, and for the deportation of Poles, and similar such camps existed in the US, Cuba, and even in the Philippines during America’s war there.)

This does not necessarily make it less perturbing to see Pound speaking positively about the confino: after all, folk who spoke well of such things really did play a part in the horrors to come; their support of arbitrary internment of political dissidents, enemies of the state, and so on was an important part of how and why the Holocaust and other horrors of the fascist regimes of the Axis were possible. But it’s still important to try to remember that Pound’s reference to a mezzo-yit and to concentration camps  here does not quite directly tie to the Holocaust. (Pound will put his foot in his mouth–or his head further up his ass, if you prefer–on that subject, if we’re patient enough to wait for it, but he isn’t quite doing it here.)

There are a few more lines in support of Mussolini, including a local merchant claiming people would let themselves be butchered for The Boss, and a kid Pound knew describing the people as ignorant. But then Pound leaps back in time to Niccolò da Uzzano, a Florentine statesman whom Pound believed was, as Terrell puts it, “a truly disinterested statesman,” this being a good thing. Uzzano’s comments are about currency and the problems of banks issuing it–another case of Pound finding in the mouths of the long dead support for C.H. Douglas’ ideas, or at least for his own version of Douglasite Social Credit theories.

There’s some stuff about the regulation of working hours and workweeks in Italy–before Fascist Italy the working day was eleven hours long, we’re told by Terrell–and some stuff in German about the “revival of religious life” during “the German wars of liberation” as discussed in a book titled Deutschen Befreiungskriegen by one Wilhelm Baur, a book presented to Augusta Victoria (sic., the wife of the last German emperor, Wilhelm II). Pound seems interested in German wars, and in the German writer Fritz von Unruh, who was an officer in World War I.

There is a line that treminds of Lu Xun’s bit about revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and counter-counterrevolutionaries here:

ordine, controdine, e disordine

which of course is “order, counterorder, and disorder.”  There’s a whirlwind tour of moments in World War I that seem important to Pound–and one wonders if he, like a few others, already felt a second World War was coming down the turnpike. He refers, rather vaguely, to munitions conspiracies, the British navy, an uncultured German officer, a French novel, a British magazine that is trash, Mussolini’s disparagement of the ‘free’ press; and finally, Pound arrives at what he will soon hold up as historically very important: the Monte dei Paschi, the Sienese bank established in 1624, for which credit was based on Sienese public lands, the pastures of Maremma, and which Pound eagerly wants to connect to Social Credit, citing an example of an Austrian town called Woergl (Wörgl) that thrived and boomed during global economic depression of the 1930s, supposedly because it issued a form of stamp scrip at the time.

Pound bounces back to France in the mid-1780s, to discuss import/export and tariffs on same… which brings us back to? Jefferson, who discussed the issue in the cantos that started this set. Pound continues on with Jefferson further through a welter of references that clearly seem to be an effort to read history in a way that, in Biblical scholarship, is called “typological”: that is, to see history as a set of recurrences of the same types recurring, whether those types are forces, figures, or whatever. (Though, of course, in the Biblical sense, the types are all prefigurations or postfigurations of the Christ narrative; in Pound, it seems, we have more of an eternally recurring pattern, of which the present is one of many examples, if perhaps the most pressing–because we’re in the middle of it.) There is stuff about public debt, , imports and tarriffs, and in the end? Wars, wars, wars–and weapons the product of a capitalist system which benefits from the horrors of mass murder, and which is subject to the worst manipulations by those inhuman monsters who value profit above all other things. (The final warmonger reference in this canto is Sir Robert Hatfield, who patented a new kind of shell in multiple countries so that he could profit from war, though he does also mention Schneider in passing, once more.)

You may have noticed I quote almost nothing from this Canto directly: the reason is that the content is less particularly interesting that the set of rhetorical moves it seems to enact — the linking of Mussolini and Jefferson; the linking of the Sienese Bank with Douglasite Social Credit; the connections between robber barons criticized in the preceding canto  and the warmongering profiteers on whom Pound l;ay much of the blame for World War I.

This Canto, and this volume of Cantos, ends with the phrase,

ad interim 1933

— which you can probably guess translates to mean, in the meantime, 1933.

The poems demonstrate what the biographies tell, in broad strokes: Pound was struggling for a way forward with his poem here; he was falling more and more in love with his own (very flawed) conception of Social Credit (a flawed system in itself); he was growing more worshipful of Mussolini; and he was increasingly lost as far as how this poem was suppose to move forward.

As for my fictional occult Pound–actually, I see Pound’s occult life as tied closely to his poetical one. Thus I imagine him struggling here; as if he is trying to build up better magic (poetry), and a better economic system at once. He seems to believe both can be built up together, in the same structure — if Malatesta could do it with the Tempio, why couldn’t he? — but the harder he tries, the more it gets away from him.

So he hunts, deliriously, for a “saint” to call upon — not a saint in the Christian theological sense, but in an invented economic-political-pagan sense that only Pound has imagined. Jefferson is long dead, is too tricky, a bit of a Tiresias figure, for all that Pound presents him as a kind of proto-Poundian hero; but if Mussolini can fit into that box, it’s a certainty that Jefferson can be made to as well.

In the midst of all of that, as last week’s Cantos suggest, it is in Olga Rudge (and in their child Maria) that Pound seems at this point to find his solace.

I’ll have more to say next week, when I review whichever of the secondary sources I read. (I want to tear through a biography that deals with the man’s life in this time, if I can, but also would like to read the Surette. It’s the beginning of a new semester now, and I doubt I can read both, but I will try get through one and post about it, at least… though that may take some time, as this post took.)

And now, it’s almost 9:00 on Friday night, and high time I finished this post, so off it goes, into the void.

Series Navigation<< Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XXXVII-XXXIXBlogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XLII-XLV >>

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