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 this series.
After a brief look at Canto V last week, I’m continuing on today by specifically addressing Cantos VI and VII.
Neither this canto nor the next are available online, so I’ll assume those interested have a copy of the book.
Pound referred to his procedure — on display here — of speckling bits of other, similar narratives into a primary one, as the writing of “candied” verse narratives. If we think of it this way, Canto VI is a “candied” biographical sketch of the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a figure who has appeared earlier in Canto II, held up for comparison with Helen of Troy. If Helen was, as in Canto II, a “destroyer of ships, destroyer of cities” and if Eleanor is “like” her in some fundamental way, why is she the focus now?
Canto V dealt with internecine violence and betrayals, and so does this one: Eleanor seems to appear halfway between this: her grandfather, Guillaume de Poitou, is held up as a sort of triumphal Odysseus-figure of the troubadour world, a wanderer to the Middle East during the Crusades (who brought along a large retinue of women, according to Terrell) and who supposedly was happy to squander his riches in doing so. He is also, at least for Pound, the instigator of Provençal poetry and the troubadours. Guillame seems to have been the sort of free-spirit Pound sought to elevate, opposed to the locking-up of women, happy to spend money on voyages and poetry, and Eleanor — the mother of the Kings of France and England, in the end — is his granddaughter.
Eleanor, again, is compared to Helen of Troy, and Pound rehearses a myth (surely untrue, the timelines don’t match) of her cheating on her husband with Saladin during the Crusades, and then being divorced, only to marry the King of England and bear him a son as well. There are bits and pieces of troubadour poetry woven into her story, for she inspired art as well as the passion of kings — and here we find a reference to my personal favorite among the troubadour lyrics:
This is a poem Pound featured in his graduate thesis-turned book, The Spirit of Romance, which deserves some discussion here, amid the welter of references to the Provencal troubadours, for in this book he proposes — quite bafflingly — that the Albigensians (otherwise known as the Cathars) who were numerous during the age of the troubadours may have represented the survival of the Eleusinian Mysteries into medieval Europe. (I don’t have the book with me here in Korea, but I remember very clearly the bizarre footnote in which he refers to something written by GRS Mead, and discusses the notion.)
This is highly dubious, of course: the Cathars, while they were crucial to the Occitan world of this time, seem to have been a kind of gnostic cult, and likely arose the way many heretical cults in the Middle Ages did, prior to the enabling power of the printing press which allowed the Protestant Reformation to unfold as it did. They seemed to believe in a relatively Manichean vision of the world — good deity of the spiritual world, evil demiurge of the physical one — and this was reflected in their vegetarian diet, their particular take on ethics, and also their attitude regarding the laity. Carefully assessed, it seems likelier they either represented some sort of revival of those ideas that had always run through Gnosticism, though if you squint and wonder, you might see hints of Buddhism or Hindu philosophy mixed into their thinking… perhaps transmitted to Southern France via the Muslims in Spain (for, after all, some of these ideas — reincarnation, especially — enjoyed some popularity at different times and places in the Islamic world). Of course, Pound’s interest in linking Eleusis to Occitania is likely programmatic: he figures it makes a good story, rhyming Provençe with Eleusinia — home of the Eleusinian mystery cult and the birthplace of Aeschylus as well.
In any case, Pound’s next move within Canto VI is to leap forward in time, to the late-troubadour world of (Browning’s) Sordello, whose adulterous romance with Cunizza da Romano (she left her murderous husband — one of the most homicidal leaders in medieval Italian history! — for him, freeing her slaves as well) signals in her a freedom from bonds and bondage… but the romance, again, is adulterous, and perhaps more negative than positive; there are questoins and confusions about paternity, as signaled in the closing lines regarding Theseus of Troezene. It feels as if, for Pound, this is another story of the rising up of greatness, followed by a kind of decline: the arc that leads from the energetic, positive birth of the troubadour world, along its development to the apex, and then its descent into rampant lust and violence.
We shall see Eleanor again soon, very soon. Indeed, since I intend to cover two cantos today, you may have read ahead, and noticed her place at the beginning of Canto VII…
Eleanor’s place at the head of this canto feels like an announcement of sorts:
Eleanor (she spoiled in a British climate)
‘Ελανδρος and Ελεπτολις, and
poor old Homer blind,
blind as a bat,
Ear, ear for the sea-surge;
rattle of old men’s voices.
Eleanor, once again, is summoned up out of the darkness, or, perhaps, rather she is summoned up out of the blankness of the page, out of the tumult of history: she is, again, a medieval Occitanian Helen of Troy, for the Homeric epithets for Helen are applied to her: ‘Ελανδρος is “Elandroz” — “man-destroying” — and Ελεπτολις is “Eleptolis” — “city-destroying.” The beauteous woman is the doom of both men and of cities: of individuals, and of civilizations. All of this passage is a ghostly echo of Homer, once again, from the mention of the poet’s reputed blindness to the pseudo-quotation of a line, presumably from the Iliad, regarding the sound of the old men’s voices.
Eleanor didn’t spoil in England, however: it seems here, Pound might be speaking of someone else — as he calls Eliot by the name “Arnaut” somewhere, perhaps Eleanor is someone else too: HD, or Iseult Gonne, or some other woman in his circle? Or perhaps Eleanor here is some kind of muse-like figure, and Pound is complaining of what he felt were the stifling artistic conditions in England? It’s hard to say, but he isn’t simply discussing Eleanor, to be certain.
From here, Pound transports us to “the phantom Rome” of Ovid, specifically of the Ovid of The Art of Love. He quotes a few bits and pieces from the text — suggestions from the poet on how to pick a woman from the crowd, and other “classic” (literally, classical) pick-up artist advice. Pound proceeds quickly to an image of craftsmen — members of the mysteries (medieval guilds with proprietary secrets) which I can’t help but find reminds me of the Eleusinian Mysteries that fascinated Pound.
Pennons and standards y cavals armatz
Not mere succession of strokes, sightless narration,
And Dante’s “ciocco,” brand struck in the game.
Pound seems to be saying more than Terrell suggests — the pennons and standards and horses in armor suggest both a parade and a crusade (like the one Eleanor accompanied one of her husbands on) but he gravitates towards a ceremonial parade in the next line, a parade of skill and mastery of art: the writings are not a mere succession of strokes, or mere sightless narration: we move from the classical epic to the Medieval masterwork: Dante’s Divine Comedy.
If “Dante’s ‘ciocco'” is, as Terrell and others like to claim, a reference to a moment in his grand poem, the image also recalls other images we have seen in other cantos so far: we have seen “‘ciocco’, brand struck in the game” in Canto V, near the beginning, as a log struck in a divinatory ritual or “game”; the sparks rising upward could be souls, as Terrell suggests, but also are light, rising upward — perhaps a reference to Neoplatonitic light philosophy again?
After this, there is a shift into the 19th century, with a chop-sueyed quotation (diced and fried quickly in a jumble) from a novel by Flaubert, and then, quickly, to a stiflingly vivid description of a house supposedly in the style of Henry James, with James being finally ranked (through a quotation from Dante) as a member of the line of literary artists stretching backk to Dante, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and Homer, a line of consciousness that has, throughout history, been “weaving an endless sentence.” He keeps on with his Jamesian references, citing a piece I recall reading long ago (“The Jolly Corner” — the stuff about “the stair / That knew us, found us again on the turn of it,”) with a particularly ghostly sensibility. “The Jolly Corner” specifically sits in my memory as a story about a man who seems to glimpse a ghost of himself.
From the Jamesian ghost, to another ghost: Ione de Forest was the stage name of a dancer Pound apparently mourned, and about whom he wrote a poem now published in Personae, and available online here. Ione was a dancer and a beauty, apparently… and:
FASCINATING OCCULT CONNECTION OF THE WEEK:
Ione de Forest (Jeanne Heyse, aka Joan Hayes) was also a member of the dance ensemble that, in 1910, performed something called “Rites of Eleusis,” which involved the famous English occultist Aleister Crowley and his occult organization A∴A∴. Pound was living in London in those years, but was in fact in America during the performance… still, it is impossible to imagine he did not hear about it, scandalous as it was, and as related to his own interest in Eleusis as it happened to be. Ione killed herself only a couple of years after this performance, and Pound published his own poem about her a “long year” later.
Among the necromantic references is a quotation from Chinese poetry, which posits Ione as a dead lief hanging from the lintel of Liu Che, and soon after, a reference to the Hotel Elysée, named, as it is, after Elysium — the happy afterlife of antiquity. This is juxtaposed with modern images — a beer bottle, and the avant-garde Dutch writer Fritz-René Vanderpyl — that highlight the central tension of this canto:
“Beer-bottle on the statue’s pediment!”
“That, Fritz, is the era, to-day against the past,
“Contemporary.” And the passion endures.
Against their action, aromas. Rooms, against chronicles.
Pound is clearly expressing discontent with the fallen world: where we once wrote epics, we now craft tales full of details; rooms, against chronicles. The modern world is one where a vital, essential trait of humankind is lost.
Or is it? A few lines down, Pound asks,
But is she dead as Tyro? In seven years?
Eλϵ´ναυς, ϵ´λανδρoς, ϵ´λϵ´πτoλις’
The sea runs in the beach-groove, shaking the floated pebbles,
The scarlet curtain throws a less scarlet shadow;
There is a welter of erotic imagery, where Ione de Forest seems to be conflated with all the other feminine erotic figures of the poem so far: Helen, Eleanor, Tyro, and others like a famous statue of Nike. Her feet, her naked skin appear before him — this, of a dead woman, lest we forget the necromantic dimension to all this business, a consciousness that seems to surface as Pound ends the stanza with “A dryness calling for death;”
Pound revisits his disenchantment with the modern world, comparing it to cheaply faked classical architecture and the building of Cairo from the destroyed ruins of the ancient city Memphis: our world, he suggests, is a crapopolis built on much grander ruins than we realize, and we ignorant moderns have no idea what wonders we have torn down to build our cheap era.
But Pound returns then to Ione de Forest, very directly and very sensually: her square shoulders, her satin skin. turned after ten years stiff and putrid. Just as old men blabbered when confronted by the living, vivid beauty of Helen in The Iliad, so do modern (academic) men seek to kill the beauty of the ancient world by museumizing it. Pound seems to rant about this a bit, bouncing between images of modern stagnation, and admiring descriptions of Ione and Ione-like figures, of bemoaning the fate “Of things, of men, of passions” before apparently setting out for the homicidal lunatic Italian tyrant Obizzo d’Este, glimpsed in Dante’s Hell… which sets up the next few Cantos, as I’ll discuss next week.
So what is Pound up to here? What’s his game, his deal?
Well, first off, this Canto was primarily drafted in 1919. this is late in Pound’s stay in England, right on the verge of his departure. In part, he’s definitely flipping the bird at England in spots. He left unhappy and bitter. He’s also unhappy with the status of literature in his society — something that isn’t new. In a sense, he’s doing what Jonathan Franzen did in his famous article, “Perchance to Dream”; as discussed by Austin Allen in this perceptive article, complaining about the literary status quo is one way of inventing a literary persona. Pound was interested in literary personae — part of his investment in the troubadours was in the razos and vidas, the often-fabricated life stories attached to their songs and reputations. Indeed, Personae ended up being the title of his collected early poetry, and Pound was definitely aware of the persona he was building for himself as an author.
But Pound was also writing in a ruined, postwar Europe, and some of the crapsack depictions of the modernity must be understood to connect to that: in the wake of the destructive stupidity of World War I and all the costs that the war had exacted — lives, creative energies, and much more — he found himself wondering what modernity was supposed to be, supposed to look like. It is quite understandable that he would have a dim view of the world in which he lived, after the Great War, which had ended less than a year before he drafted this Canto.
When you have a hammer in hand, every problem looks like a nail, and Pound likely already had his own hammer in hand — in the form of Sigismondo Malatesta, the condottieri figure who will be featured in the next four cantos. So in some sense, Pound is building up parallels between the homicidal idiocy of the present, and the homicidal idiocy of Renaissance Italy, in part to introduce Malatesta as a hammer (and, to whatever degree he had a crank solution — economic or fascistic — in mind by 1919, he was probably promoting that too).
But as for my Pound, the occultist magic-worker Pound of the novel I plan to write, it seems to me that that Pound is performing a number of things through these verses:
- He is definitely harnessing Eros in some capacity; it may be that his Helen/Eleanor/Ione discussions all aim at that, or they may be figurative for the generative and destructive power of art and poetry. One cannot help but wonder whether there was a woman on his radar, perhaps one with more powers than he would have liked. HD (Hilda Doolittle, his former lover and fellow Imagiste poet) is a strong candidate for this role.
- He is also absolutely back into a necromantic mode, now: the stuff about Ione and her simultaneously ambiguous and undeniable deadness screams it, as does the reference to Dante’s “ciocco” in the context of a divinatory ritual and Neoplatonist light philosophy. Deadness may be a property of modern literature as well — certainly, a kind of ghostliness is — but that deadness seems less ambiguous, more a focal point for criticism. Those structures can be torn down, but what of dead Ione/Eros?
- Ione forms a clear and direct (if also circumstantial) link to Aleister Crowley, and links Pound and Crowley loosely through their interest in the rites of Eleusis, though I had no idea of such a connection and certainly planned nothing of the sort. Had Pound and Crowley ever met? I cannot help but imagine Pound would have been unimpressed with Crowley’s theatrics, and yet some of Crowley’s more loony ideas — like the magical power of reciting his own Eleusis Rite texts — makes one wonder if Pound might not have learned a trick or two from him.
- Most interestingly to me, in the larger context of Crowley, is the reference to the mysteries, the guilds and their processions and secrets. It would make sense for Pound to have been inducted as a fully invested member of his occult faction in 1919, just prior to his departure for Paris, France. (Where, with the de-paganized, tamed resurrection of his Le Sacre de Printemps Igor Stravinsky is showing signs of being swayed over to the side of the enemy.) Where would Pound have been invested? To what end? MAy questions, many mysteries.
By the way, this brings us (after six weeks of reading) to Page 27 of an 818-page book of poetry. If you get the feeling this is going to take forever, well: nah.
It might take a while. But I’m shooting for a poem per week, with adjustments either way depending. For example, next week I’ll actually be hitting four Cantos all at once: VIII-XI, the Malatesta cantos, are not so difficult as some preceding them (or many that follow them) so I shall endeavour to handle them all in one fell — if somewhat extended — swoop.
Still, at a minimum of one poem a week this project should be finished by April 2014 or so. Probably sooner, if a couple of poems a week is practicable more often, at least in times less-busy than I am these days. (Like, say, the summer.) And this needn’t delay my writing project: much of the novel I plan to write about Pound centers on his younger life, with scenes from later on occurring, well, later in the book.
Until then, “Make it New!”