This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, one (or a few) at a time. The readings are atypical, for reasons made clear in my first post in this series. I’m not sure whether the fiction project that inspired this series will ever come to fruition, but I’d like to try finish the Cantos just the same.
In this installment, I try to figure out what we can say about Canto LXIII, the second of the ten Adams Cantos. I’ve been busy enough to neglect this project, but I haven’t shelved it. I’m just doing it in slow motion, as I pour most of the spare time I get at the office into work on my novel project. Still, for the project to stay alive, it must move forward, and so here I am.
I’m not sure that I have much to say about Canto LXIII, or, for that matter, much that is particularly enlightening… but I do have a few observations to offer.
For one thing, we can say that it’s shorter. The relative shortness in fact raises a question too: what is the organizational pinciple that leads one Adams Canto to be eight pages long (Canto LXII) and one to be less than four (Canto LXIII)? I can’t really offer an answer, though I think the length difference does suggest there is an organizational principle at work here. That, incidentally, contradicts what some have argued about the Adams Cantos—that Pound sort of just worked his way through the two volumes of Charles Francis Adams’ The Works of John Adams, which were themselves not arranged in chronological order. Or perhaps it is evidence for the argument: after all, if Charles Francis Adams did not organize The Works by chronology, it seems likely he did so along thematic lines, right?
There is, in any case, a theme detectable in this Canto, or rather a couple. One is conflict between John Adams and some of the other great figures of the Founding Fathers and other politicians of the time (such as Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Timothy Pickering, and others). Another of the themes, though, seems to be a sort of broader grouping of subthemes including law, ethics, and morality. I’m not sure whether we ought to lump those together under the rubric of Law (which gets a lot of attention here) or Ethics (which is where the Canto begins) or what. The closest Pound comes to defining it is in line 9 of the Canto: “true religion, morals.” But terminology aside, the presence and interrelation of these two themes is pretty obvious in this Canto.
Again, we have the antagonism between John Adams and Hamilton: indeed, the Canto begins with Hamilton maneuvering to discredit Adams for his pardoning of an accused traitor and for sending Oliver Ellsworth to join a mission to to France. The irony, according to Charles Francis Adams—which Pound doesn’t neglect to point toward—is that Hamilton hardly held the moral high ground. (This was a man who, when he got seduced into an affair and got blackmailed, made a public disclosure of the affair to cut off the blackmailer. The reaction seems like the most likely route for a 21st century politician, but according to Terrell, as far as C.F. Adams was concerned, it was a shameful embarrassment and Hamilton ought to have shut up.)
As the Canto continues, it seems as structurally it’s about braiding these two issues together: We see John Quincy Adams run against Thomas Pickering (an old political rival of John Adams’) in the 1803 U.S. Senate race (and glimpse John Quincy Adams inaugurated as President a few decades later); we see Benjamin Franklin exhibiting extreme religious tolerance, but also quarreling with John Adams about (what else?) the American currency, and plotting to discredit him in his role in France in 1780 (when Adams was the Commissioner to France). And yet the quarrel did not spawn a permanent antipathy: Adams later seems to have had a complimentary view of Franklin’s support of viniculture in the new world, specifically in his sending of a specific sort of grape varietal to one of Adams’ friends.
There’s a great deal of interest the minutiae of John Adams’ legal career—which lawyers were friends of his (and how many of them were British loyalists); which books those friends recommended (or loaned) to him; how their careers fared. Pound here seems not to be particularly interested in the individuals: their sometimes mangled surnames (like the sometimes mangled dates associated with them) can be resolved into specific individuals and specific death dates, but they seem no more specifically relevant than this or that concubine or eunuch or general in the China Cantos.
What seems to endure as relevant are some facts Pound wants to establish:
- John Adams read a lot: “a book an hour” if Pound’s line is meant to refer to Adams. Legal texts get listed, but literature figures into it—Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, for example, gets a mention, as do the authors [Sir Walter] Scott and Byron (both contemporaries of Adams)—as does philosophy. (Tully, better known to us today as “Cicero,” also gets name-dropped along the way.)
- John Adams had deep relationships: he was friends with many lawyers, but also with Benjamin Franklin; Pound also includes one or two snippets from letters written to Abigail Adams that show a very human aspect of Adams, just as in Canto LXII.
Also, lending a kind of weight to the observations on morality and ethics and law, there is also a flash of impending oblivion: I mean the snippets taken from the inscription on the gravestones of Franklin and of John and Abigail Adams. Respectively, they are:
Eripuit cælo fulmen
… which is Franklin’s, from the line Eripuit coelo fulmen; mox sceptra tyrannis. Terrell tells us how in fact John Adams coined a slightly different version of the epigram (Eripuit coelo fulmen sceptumque tyrannis) in The Boston Patriot in 1811, in recognition of Franklin’s experiments with electricity and his contribution to the fight for freedom from the British monarchy (that is, his contribution to democracy); Turgot modified the bit about the “sceptre” to the plural, suggesting that Franklin seemed on the verge of destroying all monarchies and tyrannies.
(Turgot’s epigram can still be seen at Franklin’s grave, though it is rendered in English now.)
A few lines earlier than the Franklin bitlet is the snippet from the epigram on the tomb of the Adamses (though it seems not to be visible now in any of the photos at the site):
From fancy’s dreams to active Virtue turn
… taken from the full passage or verse that apparently was originally inscribed upon on the tomb:
From lives thus spent thy earthly duties learn;
From fancy’s dreams to active virtue turn:
Let Freedom, Friendship, Faith they soul engage,
And server, like them, thy country and thy age.
Perhaps I am not alone in feeling sad reading such lines: there was a time when Presidents were literate enough to praise or attack one another in Latin, or to have something actually literate inscribed on their tombs. Hell, I’ve seen lines of verse inscribed even on the gravestones of mere sailors in foreigners’ graveyards (like the one I visited in Sapporo). We may have running water and chemotheraphy and 3D movies and the internet, and those are all great things, but our sudden decline in literacy has, I can’t help but think, deprived us of certain dimensions of the life of the mind that will not be regained for a number of lifetimes to come.
It also probably deserves recognizing that Pound came from a time when that hadn’t yet happened, though I think he lived through the bridge-crossing—far from it, perhaps far enough away (and in an isolated enough way) not to see it happen, probably, but he lived a span of time that bridged the before and after of that loss.
Another think I suspect we’ve lost but which wasn’t so rare in Pound’s time—at least for literate, educated people—was the ability to dislike things and even rail against them, but also live in the world alongside them. He writes of being “disgusted” by some book by H.G. Wells, but also sat down and talked with the man nonetheless. He was (more privately than publicly) bigoted towards black Americans, but also corresponded with Langston Hughes. He was a seething anti-Semite, but worked actively to help Louis Zukofsky along.
I know someone out there is thinking, “But that doesn’t excuse…” The thing is, I agree. I think Pound would agree: Pound didn’t do those things to excuse anything, and we shouldn’t pretend they delete the things we don’t like about him. He did those things alongside his ugly words and beliefs and attitudes, and if we bother to grapple with him, we have to grapple with the ugliness alongside the kindnesses. We can choose not to grapple with him—that’s an underdstandable choice too—I think it’s very easy to understand why Karl Shapiro objected to Pound’s fascist, anti-Semitic poem being officially honored. But once we choose to grapple with Pound’s work, or his life, we’re committing to complexity and nuance that will, if we look closely enough, confuse and trouble us.
That’s something weirder than we’re comfortable thinking about today, I think. As a friend pointed out to me recently, disliking things often seems to be understood as leaping straight over to calling for it to be burnt in the streets—or the author figuratively crucified. As Marjorie Perloff notes, Pound’s anti-Semitism coexists with the ugly anti-Semitism that pervaded his time. (And as Rodger Kamenetz says, “it’s really hard to explain what happened to American poetry without talking about Pound’s contribution…” In the context, it seems like it’s neither despite nor because of as much as alongside Pound’s awfulness as a person or the presence of that awfulness in his work.)
I’m not going to trot out the traditional-at-this-point photos of Pound with Ginsberg or the link between Pound and Louis Zukofsky. This is obviously not some stupid attempt to idealize Pound. The significance of all this feels, more than anything, like a footnote to the way Pound shows so much interest in highlighting spats between the “great figures” of these poems, and then also reminding us that those spats subsequently got resolved: how Adams could recognize and praise Franklin after his death despite the fight they’d had decades earlier. Whatever we say about the litany of fights and spats Pound had with people, few offenses seemed to him to justify writing off someone permanently, and he seemed (from what his biographers have described) to have taken personal insult and abuse in writing with surprising patience and magnanimity… but as he would soon discover after the conclusion of World War II, others already felt differently: he was about to become permanently written off in the minds of many.
But that’s still a number of Cantos away, I suppose.
I don’t feel I’ve gleaned anything particularly useful for that occult-powered Pound figure I’ve been thinking about writing… or, rather, I feel like maybe I’ll need a few more Adams Cantos to figure out what I think the Adams Cantos tell us about his character and the procedures of his preternatural powers. There’s certainly something there when it comes to ethics and interpersonal conflict, but I’m not sure what it all adds up to. Maybe Canto LXIX will help clarify that… or maybe it’ll just get me closer to the Pisan Cantos.
Find out next time! And as always, your comments and thoughts are welcome.