Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto IV

This entry is part 7 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). They 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 looking here.

After a brief look at the Ur-Cantos last week, I’m continuing on today by specifically addressing Canto IV. 

First off: here’s the text to Canto IV, and here’s a recording of a reading of it by Pound. You’ll probably want to read along, as he’s in a grandiose, incantatory, and warbling mode for this one.

Considering the fact it was drafted in 1919, and considering that the Cantos drafted before it are the Ur-Cantos, rather than I-III in the form we find them in the final version of The Cantos, this poem is a sudden and intense shift. As Leon Surette notes in A Light From Eleusis, the condensed and thick interlayering of the various references and narratives Pound is working with can be explicated at length — Surette mentions an explication of fifty pages in one study, and then assures us that such a detailed explanation is not necessary. I agree with him that if we can follow the “main thrust” of the poem.

Pun intended, in some sense, because this poem features, in part, stories in which men are drawn from the path of… well, of balance, I suppose, by unhealthy, obsessive, or weak relationships with women, and perhaps more figuratively with nature.

The opening image of the poem is one we ought to understand in reference to the invocations of Helen of Troy in Canto II — the site of a great city, even of a  civilization, so to speak, laid low by male (sexual) greed and obsession:

Palace in smoky light,
Troy but a heap of smouldering boundary stones,
Hear me.   Cadmus of Golden Prows!

Cadmus, of course, is mentioned not in relation to Troy, but to Thebes, the city which he founded, and a city that comes into play in the poem a few lines later, when there is a reference to “Ityn, Ityn!”

The story of Itys is not, in fact, the story of Itys so much as the story of how Itys was used by his mother and aunt as revenge upon his father (Tereus), who betrayed his Itys’ mother (Procne) by raping her sister (Philomela) and then cutting out her tongue so she could not tell what had happened. It’s a story told in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and a reading of the complete book reveals a few interesting things that Terrell doesn’t get into. For one, the whole book seems to be concerned with stuff that happened in the vicinity of Thebes, and there is also another theme in some of the stories related in Book VI — those of Arachne and of Philomela, who both use weaving to tell stories of their own — stories that defy frightening and finally ravaging power. (Arachne angers Athena by outweaving her — and by weaving a tapestry specifically critical of the gods — and gets turned into a spider for her troubles; tongueless Philomela weaves a testament of what Tereus has done, which is how Procne finds out.)

Another twinned motif is unwitting cannibalism, one incident of which is also part of the story of Procne and Philomela’s revenge on Tereus: they slaughter Itys and cook him, later having Tereus eat him, unknowingly.  When he flies into a rage, and attempts to kill them for their actions, the two sisters are turned into birds — Procne becoming a a swallow and Philomela becoming a nightingale. In the second of the paired thematic appearances, the tables are turned somewhat: it is a lady — by the name of Seremonda — who cheats on her husband (Lord Ramon of Rossillon) with a troubadour named Cabestaing (Cabestan); though supposedly Cabestaing was in fact ascetic, and the tale of Ramon and  Seremonda goes back to an ancient Celtic legend, the story runs similarly to that of Tereus and Ityn: Cabestan is slaughtered, his heart cooked up and fed to Lady Seremonda, who immediately kills herself when she is told what she has just eaten by climbing to the top of a tower:
And she went toward the window,
                      the slim white stone bar
Making a double arch;
Firm even fingers held to the firm pale stone;
Swung for a moment,
                        and the wind out of Rhodez
Caught in the full of her sleeve.
               . . .  the swallows crying:
‘Tis.  ‘Tis.  ‘Ytis!

So we have Pound weaving together ancient tales of cities and kingdoms that faced various dooms because of unbalanced male desire and obsession, and two cases where unpardonable lust led to a punishment of cannibalism.

What follows that is what Richard Sieburth describes well in a footnote in A Walking Tour of Southern France: Ezra Pound among the Troubadours as the “Ovidian Languedoc landscape” in which he fuses the tale of Piere Vidal with Actaeon — including a reference to the church of St. Hilaire in Poitiers — or, in the archaic, as Pound has it, Poictiers. Terrell mentions Pound’s visit to the church in 1912, but he actually revisited it in 1919, with his wife Dorothy, and it was then — in the year Canto IV is published — that he discovers the church’s “perfect Pythagorean proportions.”

Here the Sieburth is useful, for in his diary entries while there, Pound notes that Poitiers, once called Limousin, was to the troubadour arts of Occitan a cultural center, and many vidas (life stories of troubadours) include a claim that the subject came from there. Pound makes special mention of the trobar clus, which Sieburth explains is an “‘enclosed’ or hermetic troubadour composition containing hidden or esoteric meanings.” If that’s not a description of this Canto — and, by extension, the tradition in which Pound seems to see himself in — I don’t know what it is.

Piere Vidal, a major troubadour, is rhymed with Actaeon, for their shared experience of being chased by their own hunting dogs: Vidal, because he dressed up in animal skins to sneak over to his lover’s for a little illicit fun, Actaeon because after a day of psychotically intense hunting, he stumbled upon the grove of Diana and glimpsed her and her nymphs nude, which provokes her into turning him into a stag… in which form he is hunted down and slain by his own hunting dogs. There are other echoes thrown in, almost like trills and grace notes, of other violations near bodies of water, and other transformations of humans into birds.

The pairings and parallels multiply, and spread out across world (literary) history: ancient Greek plays and Noh plays from Japan echo one another; the ancient city of Ecbatan is twinned with Poictiers; there is a pairing of the myth of Danaë, emblematic of the union of heaven and Earth in balance (see Terrel for a discussion of a “golden shower” that, yes, is sexual, but not in the sense you might think) and an image that surely is meant to invoke memories of Confucius ascending to the service of his lord; the Garonne (also visited in 1912 and 1919) and a river of Catholic pilgrims snaking along in what seems to Pound a “vermiform” line, a seemingly primitive ceremony he likes to voodoo in a letter to his father. (See Terrell, once again.) There are more grace notes — a painting by someone named Stefano, a mention of Cavalcanti (who, like Pound, made a pilgrimgde in the region), and a final amusing burst of Pound as we have seen him in Canto III, though now he speaks of a “we” who “sit here… / there in the arena…”

Pound’s invocation of “ply upon ply” and of Noh plays — ding, Fenollossa should come immediately to mind — has caused many to suggest that the constructive process or logic of this poem is the Chinese ideogram — a notion Pound himself would likely not have dissuaded. One could propose that Pound is just being willfully obscure, or that he’s showing off, but apparently his contemporaries thought very highly of this poem. Granted, it is a hell of an improvement upon the Ur-Cantos — and it is the only of the Cantos to have seen print in 1919, a tumultuous year in his life, just prior to his departure for France — but one must pause and ask, what exactly is Pound doing here? It seems as if there must be something apparent to those reading it in his time, which is not apparent to so many of us today. That is my suspicion.

Well, for my two cents, I think too many people ignore Pound’s musical training. If you have studied Baroque music, you probably have some idea why I mentioned “grace notes” and “trills” above: I see this poem as much more like a fugue in structure. If you have never listened to a fugue, you’ve missed out, but I envy you, as there are many wonderful pieces of music for you to investigate, and Bach is a good place to start:

(Note, the first half of this is a prelude — good music, but not a fugue. The fugue — this one is very famous — begins at around the 2’00” mark.)

As you can hear, if you listen carefully, a fugue is a musical structure built wholly out of a few small building blocks, which can be manipulated to “echo” themselves in many different ways. One can invert the material (turning it upside down) or reverse it (turning the musical pattern backward); one can slow it down (lengthening the notes) or speed it up (by compressing the pattern into a shorter amount of time). Another very important way to manipulate the theme is to transpose it, shifting the starting note and causing all the other notes to lay out across a new harmonic spectrum, causing minor changes in a nonetheless recognizable melodic line.

I’m sure someone out there has made a connection between Pound’s musical interest and knowledge, and the fugal structure, and this poem before — it would be bizarre if someone had not. But it seems to me the very manipulations that one can apply to one’s subject and countersubject — two usually-related musical structures that serve as the source of all the musical material in the composition.

In Pound’s case, the subject and countersubject seem to be very much related — antithetically so: there are all the imbalanced lusts and greeds of men imposed either on women (or by women upon men), or on the world (the hunter slaughtering beasts till the slopes are stained with blood)… and the ruinous wages of such “sin”; and, counter to that, there is the power and profit (not strictly in economic terms, of course) of a harmonious, balanced relationship between  man and woman, man and earth, as symbolized by the perfectly Pythagorean-proportioned church of St. Hilaire and by the ancient city of Ecbatan.  This poem, in essence, does seem to amount to a fugue of literary references that illustrate the intertwining, transposition, and interposition of these themes.

(And as a bonus, “fugue” also means “flight” — it’s where we get “fugue state” from, all from the Latin root of “fuga”, and Pound’s cantos do at times seem to resemble a kind of fugue state of free association.)

(Edit: It struck me, about ten minutes after posting this, that there is another argument for both the fugal structure and the use of a trobar clus cryptography to Canto IV: all the references to avian transformations and “flights” of escape throughout. Such wordplay was far from rare in Troubadour lyrics, and indeed was sometimes used as a structural device for the avoidance of what was called “mouvance,” the rearrangement of stanzas in improper order due to the fact that troubadours were working in an oral tradition. Not all troubadours did this — some didn’t mind the “remixing” that oral literature normally underwent, or welcomed it — but those who did mind or resist it at times used things like homnophones (deer, dear) to twine together the end of one stanza with the beginning of the one supposed to come next. For more on this, see the wonderful book Memory and Re-Creation in Troubadour Lyric by Amelia E. Van Vleck, which is available in complete form online for free.)

(EDIT (continued):The short version of all that is that: fuga is very likely a pun and indicates Pound could well have consciously used a fugal structure for this poem, and indicated in a way consistent with the notion of trobar clus, at least as far as I understand it at the moment, and more generally consistent with techniques he would have seen, and perhaps might have even recognized, in the troubadour lyrics he studied as a student… though bear in mind Van Vleck’s study is very recent, and I’m not sure what studies of mouvance had been done in Pound’s time. Caveat caveat.)

But there is that line near the end, about the centaur, which Terrell also tells us is a figure Pound once claimed (in his Literary Essays) represented both the pagan andf elemental gods and demigods, and  poetry itself. Notably, the musical dimension of poetry/centaur is not the only one mentioned by Pound in this discussion:

Poetry is a centaur. the thinking word-arranging, clarifying faculty must move and leap with the energizing, sentient, musical faculties. It is precisely the difficulty of this amphibious existence that keeps down the census record of good poets.

It is to poetry more generally, and to the trobar clus that we must now turn, for it is the most promising poetical reference, seeded secretly throughout this poem, which seems most relevant to The Cantos more generally. Trobar clus is, in  fact, in Pound’s mind even in 1912, when he is making a walking tour of Provençal, and he mentions it from early in his notes during the trip.

It should surprise nobody who has worked through Canto IV that trobar clus would be something that Pound would hold up as worthy, important, notable, or crucial to The Cantos. After all, one gets the sense that a “hermetically sealed” poem conveying hidden, secret information is exactly what The Cantos is.

Why should Pound be interested in the trobar clus, however? The sensible answer is the same one for any question of a particular interest of Pound’s: that he gorged himself on it at some point and decided it was Important. That is likely at least partly the right answer, too, but there are likely other answers that are fitting as well.

In my counterfactual narrative, Pound’s lack of a new Canto for a couple of years (1917 to 1919) — and then only one new one in print in 1919 — could well constitute a gaping hole big enough to fit a whole apocrypha of explanations — comparable to the “missing years” of the new Testament, though Pound is an improverished golden shower of a Christ figure. (That is, a piss-poor one.) However, it seems apparent that he would have a reason to stop composing the Cantos in 1912, and to publish nothing new in the series until 1919. I will have to look at his biographies — of which I have received several — to see what I can glean that might be useful or fun to play with, but the most likely candidate at the moment is one I’ve referred to already in this post: Pound’s trips through Provençal, one of which happened in 1912 — prior to Pound writing any of the Cantos as we know them — and 1919, when Canto IV appears in print.

What happened in Poi[c]tiers or Toulouse or anywhere else along his pilgrimages is open to speculation, though I think the poem itself probably would contain hidden references; a break from necromancy, to be sure, the magic here is metamorphic, transmutative, and often involves the shifting of human forms to birds (especially) or beasts.

I think here, the notion of an Ovidian Provençal seems important. Perhaps Pound’s experiences in the construction of this image of the classical and the medieval Occitan are purely literary, but his writings about the Cathar faith in The Spirit of Romance (which I don’t have on hand, but which I read over a decade ago) suggest he believed there was some sort of Eleusinian link, and that the Cathars had somehow kept the crucible of that ancient, Hellenic cult burning into the Middle Ages. It makes no sense from everything we know about the Cathars, and everythinng we know about Eleusis… but perhaps this in itself is some kind of trobar clus.

I’m tempted to think that it is in 1919, when Pound is wandering Provençal for the second time (and once again annoyed by its modernity and mundanity) that he stumbles upon something amid his readings, his writings, between dinner with Dorothy and communing with the spirit of Piere Vidal. Canto IV is special here, because it is, in fact, the earliest poem we have of the whole book, in terms of the order of finalized composition.

But I shall have to do more digging through biographies to see what I can find. There is some comment Pound made (mentioned by HD’s memoir of Pound, End to Torment, where he tells her of her pregnancy, “…my only real criticism is that it is not my child” (pg.33)); this fits interestingly with the sexual themes in the poem, though whether it’s related is beyond me. HD was also very much a candidate for having stumbled onto some kind of poetical occult secrets, and maybe there is more hidden in these lines (à trobar clus) regarding something like that.

The biographical material seems the place to start, for that. But for now, I must get going: I’m at my office, and the building will be locked soon, and I refuse to sleep here when home is so near by.

Series Navigation<< Blogging Pound’s <em>The Cantos</em>: The Ur-CantosBlogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto V >>

2 thoughts on “Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto IV

  1. I’m super impressed. I’m a college student going through the Cantos for an American Literature course and your interpretation is different from the notes that I’ve seen. Thanks for blogging about Ezra Pound of all people.

    1. Thanks Warner, I appreciate the encouragement. I should say, my interpretation is my own (and so are whatever errors anyone might find) but I definitely draw on what previous writers studying the Cantos have said.

      Also, bear in mind that there’s an agenda to this project—I was trying to figure out how to turn Ezra into a fantastical, magus-like character. That’s kind of dropped off since I’m not sure it’s a viable project (I’m thinking of creating a Pound-like character in a fantastical setting instead) but the assumptions behind that project nuance a lot of my earlier posts. And, to be honest, it’s still there in the background, though now I think of Pound becoming a pulp author in some alternate history rife with occult conspiracies he thought were just made up, or something…)

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