Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LIX

This entry is part 44 of 49 in the series Blogging Pound's The Cantos

Pound CantosThis 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. The readings are atypical, for reasons made clear in my first post in this series.

Also, since the table of contents that my post series plugin creates has gotten far too unwieldy to include at the top of each post, I’ve gone ahead and made an index of the Cantos I’ve discussed, with links to each post. I’ll try remember to update it as I continue with this project. That index is here. The index is new, so I encourage you to check it out!


Lately, I’ve made a big deal out of my sense that the sensibilities we see in Pound’s work can easily be compared to those in pulp fiction of roughly the same period: the swords & sorcery, western, and adventure tale genres where people like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were publishing in the pulps at the same approximate time (give or take a decade) that Pound was writing the China Cantos, which were published in 1940.

Yes, partly I’ve focused on the pulp angle because I don’t find the China Cantos are not particularly interesting in and of themselves. (Perhaps that’s what I keep mistyping “China Canots” while drafting posts on the subject, but since I’ve almost “bust through to the other side” of them, I’ll try not to complain.) In fact, a lot of the critical works I’ve seen actually skip over them and the Adams Cantos, rushing forth toward the Pisan Cantos, I think for the same reason. But these poems take up a large chunk of Pound’s epic, and they seem to be there for a reason. Pound even foreshadowed their presence in earlier sections of the text, as far back as late in A Draft of XXX Cantos, especially Canto XIII, the “Kung” (Confucius) Canto, which ends with these lines:

And Kung said, “Without character you will
be unable to play on that instrument
Or to execute the music fit for the Odes.
The blossoms of the apricot
blow from the east to the west,
And I have tried to keep them from falling.”

(I discussed Canto XIII here.)

My exploration of the pulp sensibility is, in some sense, born of a desire to figure out what in the hell Pound is actually trying to do in these poems… and in trying to figure out what the Chinese Cantos tell us about the rest of the text.

After all, it stands to reason that whatever he’s doing here ought to be, procedurally, familiar and visible in other parts of the poem. Hearing a jazz musician play an unsatisfying solo isn’t particularly rewarding in itself… but studying an unsatisfying solo can still give you clues as to the musician’s general musical tendencies and habits, and show you how and why those tendencies and habits led to that particular, unsatisfying result. Even more, studying the unsatisfying examples can help you when you see a polished, successful solo by the same improviser: you’ll see how those tendencies and habits are still there, just used more deftly and put to better use, or how the musician rooted them out and replaced them with better habits and tendencies.

(What I am studiously avoiding doing is what Pound quipped about teachers in Guide to Kulchur: I’m trying not to just fill silence for a set amount of time per post. Generating verbiage about these poems, sans insight, would be worse than a waste of time.)

I think, though, that in Cantos LIX And LX, there are a couple of things that pay off and help to indicate for us what Pound’s up to after all. I think, in fact, they contain what he’s been building up to throughout the Chinese Cantos, in fact. Now, I’m not completely sure, and I don’t have access to those books that most closely examine these particular cantos either, but I think he lays out enough cards to figure out interesting parts of his strategy and agenda in this section of the Cantos as a whole.

So for today, no pulp stuff: I’m going to approach these two poems in detail, and see if—despite what seems to me to be a general lack of prosodical attentiveness or beauty—something valuable can be gleaned from these pages.

Canto LIX

Here, we essentially arrive at the fall of the Ming Dynasty, an interesting (and decisive) moment in Chinese history. Well, “moment”: though it happened quicker than the fall of the Roman empire, neither regime collapsed overnight, and both clung on even after their day in the sun had finished.

It’s no surprise that Pound uses the spreading of light as a metaphor for translation: all the way back to Canto I, he’s addressed the work of translation with a reverence bordering on the religious, after all. And so Canto LIX begins with a discussion of a translation project:

De libro CHI-KING sic censeo
         wrote the young MANCHU, CHUN TCHI
less a work of the ming than of affects
brought forth from the inner nature
here sung in these odes. 
Urbanity in externals, virtu in internals
        some in a high style for the rites
some in humble;
for Emperors; for the people
all things are here brought to precisions
that we shd/ learn out integrity
that we shd/ attain our integrity

Here Pound could almost be talking about the Cantos (“in these odes”), or at least his conception of what the cantos were supposed to do: they contain both high culture and low, the brash and the highly delicate, and there’s a yearning in this writing for ” all things” to be “brought to precisions” in the verse.

But the interesting this is that really, this is about the translation of Confucian classics into Manchurian. Pound, of course, had great reverence for Confucius. (Back in my discussion of the Kung Canto, I mentioned some of the commonalities between Pound’s and Confucius’ biographies and careers, but I’m thinking now of philosophical sympathies. In A Preface to Ezra Pound, Peter Wilson uses the term “authoritarian humanism” to describe how Pound presents Confucianism (see here), and that pretty much hits the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned. It’s very, very easy to see Pound being eager to embrace that, since he dug both humanism (of a sort) and authoritarianism. That the two could be reconciled so well in his own mind, and seem so absolutely opposite to most of us here in 2017, probably is a testament to the lessons learned (or, at least, still slowly being learned) in hindsight from the events of the 20th century.

Whatever the case, Pound makes clear that Confucius, for him, is as much as source of light as Eleusis:

Ut animam nostrum purget, Confucius ait, dirigatque
ad lumen rationis
              perpetuale effecto

(To purge our minds, Confucius says, and guide
Them to the light of reason, 
              perpetual effect)

The last bit is a key phrase from  from Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi priegha”: “perpetuale effecto”—a line that’s supposed to be about love, but the couplet it’s glued to is about Confucian wisdom. Pound’s interest in Neoplatonic ideas about Light equalling Reason and all that needs no comment: if you’re reading this, you know about that stuff. What’s interesting, to me, is Pound’s willingness to put Confucius on the same level as Classical European philosophy.

I suppose this speaks to Pound’s (and the modernist) eagerness to find universals that could be traced through all societies and cultures, though I think there’s an element of occult faith here, too: for Pound, those universals are almost beautifully eerie, inevitable, and universal. He barely even draws attention to them now, where, in A Draft of XXX Cantos, he’d spent a certain amount of pages just banging us over the head with his subject rhymes and weird coincidental repeats in history. Now, it’s just taken for granted that there’s an ancient light that shines wisdom forth, and that in China the light is Confucius—but that Confucius is also an analogue for that in the Western tradition which Pound holds in highest esteem.

But most of this canto is concerned with a different kind of “light” that’s also begun to be shed upon China, this one from a different source: the European Enlightenment. It’s in this canto that we start to see Europeans appearing in China:

and when the young MANCHU was 14 they gave him to 
                                          wife a mogul
and took in Galileo's astronomy
         chucked the mohametan
And there canme a hong-mao or red-headed Dutchman
And the portagoose to Macao
         and they say that the Emperor CHUN TCHI 
died of sorrow, for the death of one of his queens
          an officer's wife who had risen.
And the four regents put eunuchs out of high office
a thousand purged out of palace
and a half-ton block of iron inscribed
          Let there be no Eunuch in office hereafter.
And in '64 they putt out the Xtians
Portageese were confined to Macao
               Thus KANG HI
who played the spinet on Johnnie Bach's birthday
do not exaggerate/ he at least played on some such instrument
and learned to pick out several tunes (european)
and were demarked the borders of Russia
with a portagoose and a frog priest to interpret
to whom each a robe brocaded with dragons
but not embroidered
         and short coats of martin, satin lining, gold buttons
         Pereira and Gerbillon
         made mandarins second order

Before I address the text, the conjunctions: Pound’s still playing his games with them:

and learned to pick out several tunes (european)
and were demarked the borders of Russia

The first and is a link between two phrases describing the emperor’s musical studies, where the second is more of an oral-tradition and as in, “and then, this totally unrelated thing also happened.” So it’s not like Pound’s not playing langauges games here, at least a little: it’s just that they’re less interesting, I suppose, and somewhat thinner on the ground. Also notable: there’s no Chinese characters in Canto LIX. (There’s only one in the LX, but I’ll talk about that below.)

As for the actual content of the material above: this is new, within the China Cantos, and quite a long passage. It’s all about the growing presence of Europe—European ideas, European culture, and European people—in the Qing court. Of course, some of what Pound talks about here traces back to the Jesuit presence in Ming China—it was Matteo Ricci, who arrived in Beijing in 1601 (after almost two decades in Macao), who first transmitted Western astronomy and the Western calendar to the Chinese court. That’s a full fifty years before the timeline Pound suggests. I’m not sure if that’s due to a similar emphasis in de Mailla (to which I have no access) but I’d be willing to believe that Pound has a reason to jigger the timeline a bit anyway: it’s a far more compelling narrative, for those who don’t know better, todovetail the two stories, and imagine the Ming’s decline being related to some imagined isolationism and resistance to the light of wisdom or reason or whatever, which is overturned when the Manchus set up the Qing Dynasty and open up to Western science, philosophy, and knowledge. I’m not endorsing that historiography, of course, but I can see Pound doing it.

Of course, the means of transmission here is a little odd, for an anticlerical sort like Pound: primarily, it’s through the Jesuit missionary presence in China that transmits European thought and philosophy in the region. Pound, though, probably saw it as an achievement (among many) that the Chinese were willing and able to accept European scientific and technical knowledge, but (ultimately) officially rejected the religious dogmas the Jesuits also sought to promulgate alongside them.

Pound is so interested that he names two Jesuits, Pereira and Gerbillon. This, in the China Cantos, is a big deal: actually, in the historical cantos generally, it’s poets and troubadours, kings and queens, villains, and gods and goddesses and heroes who get named. Obviously we’re a long way from Odysseus, if two priests who helped negoitate the Sino-Russian border are getting this kind of treatment. Their involvement in this successful and peaceful negotiation, in fact, takes up almost half of the canto! Why would the Sino-Russian border matter that much?

Remember, for Pound World War I was an enduring horror. It was a testament to the failure of power to check greed, and the failure of nation states to conduct business in peace. That some Jesuits managed to help China negotiate its northern border with Russia is impressive, when you think about how avoidable World War I looked to people living in Pound’s time. Pound’s no fan of the church—and he’s careful to note that

... the chinks swore by the god of Xtians
thinking nothing else wd/ have more force with the muscovites

… as in, not because they actually took the idea of God seriously—something we can be sure Pound appreciated about the Qing. And yes, he uses the word “chinks” (and elsewhere in these cantos, “Japs”). These moments are discomfiting, if less overtly hateful than the various epithets he repeatedly hurls at Jews in the poems. One wonders whether Pound thought of whether Jews, Chinese, and Japanese people would be reading the Cantos someday, and whether they’d find such terms discomfiting, but when we remember Pound was born in the 19th century, and spent most of his life among other white Westerners, it seems likely it just never really crossed his mind, even if he did occasionally correspond with nonwhite (and even Chinese and Japanese)  writers and scholars. That I would pause over his use of such langauge probably says as much about how much has changed—and indeed how much changed during his lifetime—as it does about Pound’s decision to use such words in his cantos.

But I was discussing heroism, and I’m not done with that topic yet. What is the heroism  of the Jesuits, here? That Gerbillon “kept their tempers till they came to conclusion,” doesn’t feel like a particularly heroic achievement by any pulp/adventure definition of the word. It’s more the kind of heroism one sees in a philosophical hero, I suppose. One thing’s for sure: Pound’s infinitely more interested in the Jesuits as Western expatriates living in China than he is the Qing Dynasty’s leading figures… at least within the confines of this canto.

As I say, it feels like Pound has been working up to this all along: the influx of the West, the Enlightenment, into China. Why, though, seems to be something left to answer in the next Canto and beyond.

As for my occultist/magical Pound character—though I’m not sure that project will ever happen, at this point—I’m not sure what can be gleaned here to thicken him as a character, though one thing comes to mind: Pound seems to have been able to embrace directly contradictory ideas quite happily. We’re all inconsistent and self-contradictory creatures, popular psychology tells us. But Pound and his discussion of the Jesuits here seems astonishingly open-minded and, well, fair to their achievements in China. I find this astonishing because elsewhere Pound harps on the Christians the same way he harps on about the buzders and taozers in these earlier China Cantos: with a virulent disdain bordering on hatred. But Pound is able to acknowledge that, for a long time, the Jesuits in China did serve as reasonable purveyors of Western knowledge (and Enlightenment values) to the Middle Kingdom.

That’s going to have to wait till later, though. I’m at almost 2,500 words, and have other things needing doing today. Hopefully I’ll get to Canto LX next week sometime, though it’ll likely have to be after Monday: the winter intensive semester is drawing to a close and Monday’s the deadline for submitting grades, so I have a busy week (and weekend) ahead of me.

Until then, keep on Pounding!

Series Navigation<< Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LVI & LVIIBlogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LX >>

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