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 scrolling down to the bottom of extended post, and reading the first installment in thisd series.
After a brief look at the fugal structure of Canto IV last week, I’m continuing on today by specifically addressing Canto V.
First off: I could find neither a copy of “Canto V” online, nor a recording of Pound readiing it. I suspect it’s one of his less popular cantos, in any case. I’ll assume the interested reader has already gotten a copy of the poems somehow or other — because this is how it’s going to be for a lot of the Cantos — and just proceed with my explication.
Which is easier said than done: this poem was more of a slog than anything before it, and I struggled to finish a serious examination of it in three hours, last week. The piece is a welter of allusions, implications, and hints, and at points I was ready to reach out and slap old Pound — or, rather, young Pound — across the face. At a moment like that, it’s worth asking about the aesthetics of his project: normally, in writing, we urge or expect the writer to be communicative, to state his or her point as plainly as possible. (“…as possible” being an important qualifier here, of course.) Pound seems here to be ultra-secretive, as if there is a cryptographic project involved: in this, he reminds me at least of a gnostic cultist, insisting that the would-be supplicant work to be allowed admission into the cult.
And yet, many people have decided to do that work. Casting about online for a copy of Canto V, I found many blogs doing something similar to what I am doing — though none that seem active at the moment, unfortunately. Clearly, there are soome different rules at work here, both in Pound’s understanding of what the Cantos ought to be and do, and in the attitude that many readers bring to his work. That, in itself, is fascinating.
As for the text itself:
At the beginning, Pound returns us to Ecbatan, the ancient city that in Canto IV seems to represent not only the balanced, harmonious cooexistence of heaven and earth, of the divine world and the human one, but also the shift from earth-goddess worship to sky-god worship — and the beginnings of astronomy, astrology, use of the stars in navigation (“Measureless seas and stars”) — and as such, the deep roots of urban, technological civilization.
Then, as if zooming in on one of those lights in the sky (or, rather, blurring his focus until all the lights in the sky blend into one light), Pound turns our attention to the “light” of Iamblichus, a 4th century Greek Neoplatonist philosopher; there is some mucking about with notions of light, divine possession, the ascension into the transcendent realm, where all intellect is capable of assuming all forms — “Omnis intellectus est onmiformis” — and there hymenal purity (as well as the oblivion, collective memory, and eternity that is supposedly symbolized for Pound by the “three colors of blue”) are managed “on the barb of time.”
We will hear about time again: it is a major preoccupation in The Cantos, as it would have to be in any poem “containing history.” But at this moment, there is a turning to a nuptial theme, with a welter of references from the work of the Roman poet Catullus to the marriage of a Roman girl named Aurunculeia. (Pound had studied the hymn he is quoting here back in his days at U. Penn.) There is what I assume must be a pun — the Romans crying out “nuces” (nuts!) and handing out on her wedding night, but it brings to mind Stravinsky’s Les Noces, which concerns a wedding. Perhaps a pun is hiding in there, but being ignorant of Latin, I can only guess.
Along the way, so far, Pound makes references to two other of his major (up to then) works — Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (his poetical farewell to a London that disgusted him, so much so that he left for France rather than witness “the decay of of the British Empire… at close range” (Wilhelm 254)) and “The Homage to Sextus Propertius.” Mauberley is, in several senses, semi-autobiographical in its depiction of a poet whose life has turned sterile and pointless; and it expresses a rage at the destruction — the loss of life, of creative energy, of artistic geniuses — in World War I. Meanwhile, Propertius, the earlier poem, probably had something to do with that disgust at the literary scene in London — the poem was very badly received, and indeed excoriated as a bad “translation” — something Pound responded that the poem wasn’t intended to be read as, in a letter (unpublished) that began (now notoriously) “Cat piss and porcupines!” Pound’s position as the London editor of Poetry magazine was among the many things he abandoned in London when he and his wife departed for France; after his rejoinder went unpublished, he simply ended all communication with its editor, Harriet Monroe.
(There is a wonderful anecdote in Wilhelm’s book on Pound’s younger days, regarding a piece written by one of Pound’s closest friends in London at the time — one Alfred Orage — who wrote an article about the reasons Pound left, citing both his important influence on several of the arts in England, and his support of many, but also the enemies he made for himself, and his penury there. Orage, soon after the article was published, lost his wife to a friend, and disappointments in promoting the Social Credit movement, sent him in flight to France, where he would end up in the thrall of the occultist PD Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, at least for a time.)
But back to the poem: the invocations of colors explained in Mauberley, and the suggested presence of Propoertius at the wedding of Aurunculeia, seem interesting, in that they are suggestive of a sense that Pound’s work should stitch together or connect somehow.
Which is an interesting SF trivia connection, for this poem: though by this point I don’t think Pound was quite so seriously invested in Social Credit, he was beginning to get into economics, and was also beginning to make connections between his earlier work and The Cantos: though it is a little bit of a stretch, Robert A. Heinlein is another writer who, rather unfortunately, wove Social Credit rantings into his work — or at least, so I’ve read. (And Wikipedia agrees: indeed, the only two authors listed under the literary section of Wikipedia’s Further Reading list in its Social Credit are Pound and Heinlein.) And it’s interesting that both authors also were interested in their work encompassing a kind of totalizing character, with elements of Personae (Pound’s earlier poetry) woven into the Cantos, the way Heinlein would later attempt to jigger all of his stories and novels into a single multiverse in his last works, about which friends have griped and groaned to me in the past. (Or, at least, friends have counseled me to avoid those particular works… the trilogy starting with The Number of the Beast specifically.)
Ooops: I said, back to the poem. And by the way, we’re at the end of the first page of four. This is the sort of poem it is: I have pages of notes, and I despair of a satisfying conclusion. I imagine Pound’s readers despaired of understanding these lines at all.
Still: back to it.
In a sense, the very approach I compare to Heinlein’s World As Myth multiverse concept seems to be anticipated poetically in the next section of the poem — and it’s one we’ve seen before: the literary overlapping of different “worlds”: Pound constructs a narrative wherein the Trojan War recurs, this time in Provençe; there is the tale of the troubadour Puigsebot (Poicebot in Canto V) and his traitorous wife (whom he supposedly meets in a brothel — him there seeking favors, and her seeking to sell her own); this is contrasted by the narrative of Pieire de Maensac, who stole away the wife of someone by the name of De Tierci.
What is shared by Poicebot and Pieire de Maensac (whom you may recall was chased in animal skins in Canto IV) is their wanderlust, their detachment from others andd from things; indeed, the razo of Pieire de Maensac is cropped to drive this detachment home, mentioning his brother who won the family castle in a die throw (one imagined by Pound, apparently).
Pieire de Maensac here is cast as a sort of Paris, and Tyndaria (an invented name for the wife of De Tierci) plays the role of Helen of Troy: therefore, we have, as Pound puts it, “Troy in Auvergnat” — which, funnily enough, sounds like it is a reference to Troyes (the adopted home of poet Chretien de Troyes) but it isn’t, Terrell insists. The idea is that there was, in the troubadour world, an exact echo of events in the ancient Hellenic world — in the poetical history of the ancient Hellenic world. Or, rather, that in the juxtaposition, Pound’s fictionalization of de Maensac’s adventure is somehow a Homeric act in miniscule.
What follows is a lengthy exploration of violence among condottieri families — mainly focusing on the Borgias, but also the Medicis and the Malatestas (as mentioned in Dante’s Inferno). The fratricidal violence discussed is often tragic, brutal, sometimes real and sometimes imagined. There are interjections from Agamemnon and other sources, but they are more of the “candied” effect and less crucial to the thrust of the poem.
In all of this, there is a sense of dissolution, of collapse and disarray: the order and perfection of Ecbatan meets the dissolution of marital bonds, the betrayals of a wife, a brother, a trusted friend. Pound here is obviously gearing up to bring Renaissance Italy into his poem, as he will do in a big way in Canto VIII; but he does so following a theme of nuptial and familial instability, one that ties all the way back to Ecbatan.
Everything eventually decays, falling eventually to the pressures of infidelity, betrayal, or failure. It is an inevitable part of this dance, and a critical portion of the story — for without the collapses, the dark ages, how could one understand the present in which Pound lived and worked, the post-war world in which he composed this work and the others mentioned above? For Pound, one useful understanding of the dark present in which he found himself seems to have been as a “dark age” of sorts, of the sort that necessarily precedes a Renaissance. Now, that’s not to say Pound felt the same prejudice we tend to today about the Middle Ages — which we tend to equate with the “Dark Ages.” We look back on the time as brutal, as barbaric and backwards. But Pound’s acquaintance with the Middle Ages is framed in his readings: it was the time when the troubadours were important figures in European art and literature, when music and poetry were inextricably bound together and when our conceptions of musical structure, of poetry, of romantic love, and of art were beginning to emerge in recognizable form for perhaps the first time in Western cultural history. For Pound, the Middle Ages were a time of light and thought, of beauty and creativity, however punctuated by violence they may occasionally have been. (Such as, for example, during the mini-Trojan war in Auvergnat he discusses.)
There is a tendency towards decay and dissolution, for all positive orders of things; there is an inescapable tendency towards violence and betrayal in human affairs, as well, he seems to suggest, and especially when the world is in disarray: the disarray without reflects disarray within. But it is part of a historical cycle, it seems.
Here, Pound seems to recall Nietzsche — and though Pound dismissed the philosopher as “vulgar,” he does seem to recall him in several ways — especially in the idea Nietzsche suggested of the Eternal Recurrence; not in the sense of reincarnation, so much as in an endlessly repeating cycle of specific energies clashing, outcomes ocurring, stabilities established, and eventual decay, leading to the commencement of another cycle. Pound may not have had much time for Christian mysticism, but in the ancient world, such ideas were not uncommon, and they survived in the Middle Ages and Renaissance among the very sorts of mystics and alchemists in whom Pound seemed to have some interest (his mention of Heydon in an Ur-Canto is one hint), however much he repressed it. The Russian occultist PD Ouspensky, whom Pound certainly should have known about, and James Joyce (whom Pound was close to, in some ways at least), were both interested in this idea, too.
While A. David Moody quite sternly rejects the idea of Pound having any interest in the occult — championing, I assume, the idea that the the historical/thematic “rhymes” Pound traces through history and his readings are literary constructions, reflective perhaps of human nature, but not of anything more mystical — my own sense has always been that, regardless, it is interesting to read The Cantos as an occult text. Given my stated goal for this reading — to see the poem not only as a poem about the occult, but rather as an occult poem — a text with magical power in and of itself — it is difficult to avoid those more tantalizing readings offered by people like Leon Surette and Demetres Tryphonopoulis. (Though I haven’t yet received all those books, I am slowly working my way through Surette’s A Light From Eleusis.
A few thoughts occur to me at this point. For one, another artist connected strongly to pre-Christian, pagan, and somewhat occult folk art — Igor Stravinsky — took his leave of Paris at just around the time Pound arrived. Stravinsky would, eventually, be lured away from the kind of folk-modernism of his earlier works, towards the more angular, mechano-cultural techniques of the second Viennese School — the serialists following Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg.
Might Stravinsky have played some role in Paris, a role solidified after the premiere of The Rite of Spring, that he was rumored to be about to abandon around 1919 or 1920? Might, indeed, it be of Stravinsky that Pound writes, in his discussions of condottieri fratricide? Is this a warning to Stravinsky, not to do what he is thought to be about to try? Or is Pound, more insidiously, attempting to sway Stravinsky from a complete break from their shared allegiance? (Stravinsky never did completely abandon his earlier compositional approach; rather, to my ear, he walked the line between his roots and the new serial techniques; so perhaps Pound’s poem bound a spell strong enough only to ward off a complete betrayal.) This would also help explicate the theme of betrayals, of thefts of wives — perhaps Stravinsky shared some musico-occult secret with the enemy, or let it slip by being insufficiency cagey about it in his own work?
But of the theme of men betraying women, I cannot help but wonder what was going on in Pound’s love life: I know he was rumored to have cheated on his wife Dorothy Shakespear with at least one woman (Iseult Gonne, to whom Yeats had once proposed — after proposing, unsuccessfully, to her mother); elsewhere, I’ve read he was “surrounded by women” and would not be surprised if he had indulged here and there. And yet, the betrayals in these poems are concerned less with a husband betraying his wife, than the painful and horrifying results of a woman betraying her man.
This could, of course, be some sort of reference to another form of “betrayal” altogether: perhaps, it is some kind of incantation to urge the occult forces he was harnessing to serve another man no more; perhaps, indeed, Pound was thaumaturgically attempting to hobble Stravinsky, or some other onetime ally verging on betrayal. That would explain the poem being withheld as long as it was, as well as the shift from the betrayals of women earlier on, to the betrayals of brothers and compatriots that fills the later part of the Canto.
And this brings us to the end of Canto V, to a major life in change in Pound’s story — from here, he has left England for France, and his life undergoes what Shakespeare calls (and Poundd echoes in Canto V) a “sea-change” of sorts.
Nesxt week, Canto VI at least, perhaps VI and VII — but don’t hold your breath!