Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XIV-XV (“The Hell-Cantos”)

This entry is part 15 of 56 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).

These 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.

I’ve taken a week of Canto-readings (to discuss Leon Surette’s The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound:, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and The Occult) but before that, we examined Cantos XII (the tale of Baldy Bacon and also the Tale of the Honest Sailor) and XIII (a “Kung” [Confucius] Canto).  This week, it’s time to dive into the “Hell Cantos.”

“Hell” is a loaded word. It’s loaded in religion, where the concept is used to promote the idea of damnation and a fear of divinities; but it’s also loaded in the literary world, where hells abound. Of all the literary hells that might have interested Pound, the one that is most apparent here is the late medieval poet Dante Alighieri’s, from The Divine Comedy: after all, Pound begins his hell-cantos with a line straight from Dante’s Inferno:

Io venni in luogo d’ogni luce muto…

The line, taken from Book V of Dante’s Inferno, translates as, “I came to a place mute of all light,” according to Terrell, and as Robert Anton Wilson reminds us, light — for Pound — is the divine, the Paradiscal. (And darkness is ignorance, hellish in its awful power.) Of course, if you know Dante’s work, then you know who Dante put in hell: not just Biblical or classical figures, but also contemporaries of his, especially those from among his political opponents in Florence. Dante was a Guelph — paerticularly, a “White Guelph,” which meant that his faction favored the Pope over the Holy Roman Emperor, but that they also wanted more freedom from Rome.

This is significant in a few ways. First, Pound readily admitted (for example, in letters to Wyndham Lewis and John Drummond) that the hell in these Cantos is an English, Londonian hell. (See Terrell, page 65, for details.) Pound does consign the off American figure to this hell, mid you — Woodrow Wilson, near the beginning, is one example — but it is, overall, an English inferno. His bitterness and dismay may have actually turned his decision to leave, after burning too many bridges, into what felt for him like an exile comparable to Dante’s.

Second, Pound’s hell cantos are quite directly political, though in the economic sense. He was already under the sway of Douglas and Social Credit to some degree by Canto XII, but here, he behaves like Dante, consigning particular figures of the time. Prime Minister Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson, he blames for the war that still stands clearly in his mind as a modern horror, an evil committed against men for — as he understands it — economic reasons; he consigns these leaders to a layer of hell where, amid the “stench of wet coal” they stand with

their wrists bound to
their ankles
Standing bare bum,
Faces smeared on their rumps,
wide eye on flat buttock,
Bush hanging for beard,
Addressing crowds through their arse-holes,
Addressing the multitudes in the ooze,
newts, water-slugs, maggots…

Pound goes farther than any English poet up to his day that I can think of in his scatology, in the display of sexual organs, and he even ventures into the realm of sodomitic imagery. But say what you will about arse-holes, there is not much pubic hair in English literature, and none too many penises. (At least not till it became the trend to put sex organs in poems, and a badge of biopollitics or whatever; prior to that explosion in the poetry world, Geoffrey Chaucer stands out in my mind as a big exception, with the mention of a woman’s pubic hair in The Canterbury Tales, in the line, “A beard!”)

An illustration of Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales. One of the few major works of English literature to include not only farts and anuses, but also pubic hair — especially female pubic hair.

Pound goes on, excoriating others — one with a “scrupulously clean table-napkin / tucked under his penis” and another “[w]ho disliked colloquial language” standing together oin the same position, collars circumscribing their legs.

Pound’s political and ideological enemies are, in effect, reduced literally to assholes farting into the wind. And gathered there are profiteers and financiers, “drinking blood sweetened with sh-t” and “lashing them with steel wires.”

Also in hell are “the betrayers of language” — liars, impersonators, sloppy or careless users of words, and those who betray words and ideas knowingly and maliciously. This is a place in hell that is ironic for Pound to discuss, given his own later abuse of language and words. Among the sins of those in this place are putting “money lust” above “the pleasure of the senses”, whom Pound decries as perverts. I would tend to agree with Terrell in reading the lines about those who plunge jewels into mud and howl to find them unstained being about those whose relationship with art — be it poetry, sculpture, music, or paintings — is inherently perverse.

Pound also consigns agents provocateurs to his hell — their hands where feet should go, and feet where hands should, their asses high in the air as the others above — and names a few Irish nationalists who were murdered by them — Patrick Henry Pease and Thomas M. McDonagh — and in the same passage (and position in his hell) Pound also attacks Gaius Verres — an administrator was was corrupt even by Roman standards — and two religious figures whom he hated — John Calvin and St. Clement of Alexandria. (He essentially hated the two for their opposition to the mystery tradition within Christianity, which Pound found to be one of the few redeeming features in Christianity — and, building on Surette’s arguments, which he probably linked to the secret history of occult knowledge going back to the ancient Greeks. (Likely Pound imagined this strand of mystic knowledge to have survived in some form within the Church, until it was bludgeoned to death by its clerical, moralist, Pauline opponents.) Of them, he writes:

black beetles, burrowing into the sh-t,
The soil a decriptude, the ooze full of morsels,
lost contours, erosions.

This is as castigatory as we have seen Pound, and he’s only just gotten started. The next images echo the kind of Medieval horror-imagery of hell probably most familiar to us in the work of the fifteenth-century painter Hieronymous Bosch, just as much as the body-deconstruction above does:

Above the hell-rot
the great arse-hole,
broken with piles,
hanging stalactites,
greasy as sky over Westminster,
the invisible, many English,
the place lacking in interest,
last squalor, utter decrepitude,
the vice-crusaders, fahrting through silk,
waving the Christian symbols,
. . . . . . . . frigging a tin penny whistle,
Flies carrying news, harpies dripping with sh-t through the air,

May William Gibson forgive me, but: “The sky was the color of an asshole, struck by a hemorrhoid sickness.” But what this hemorrhoid-stricken asshole represents, of course, is a little less straightforward; well, this is Ezra Pound, after all.

The slough of unamiable liars,
bog of stupidities,
malevolent stupidities, and stupidities,
the soil living pus, full of vermin,
dead maggots begetting live maggots,
slum owners,
usurers squeezing crab-lice, pandars to authority,
pets-de-loup, sitting on piles of stone books,
obscuring the texts with philology,
hiding them under their persons,
the air without refuge of silence,
the drift of lice, teething,
and above it the mouthing of orators,
the arse-belching of preachers.
And Invidia,
the corruptio, foetor, fungus,
liquid animals, melted ossifications,
slow rot, foetic combustion,
chewed cigar-butts, without dignity, without tragedy,
. . . . .m Episcopus, waving a condom full of black-beetles,
monopolists, obstructors of knowledge,
obstructors of distribution.

There are a great many sins listed here — attributed to everyone from slum owners and preachers to pets-de-loup (“wolf farts,” apparently a French idiom for scholars) and “pandars to authority”. The images, too, are among the most powerful in the poem: “the drift of lice, teething…” and then we glimpse Envy (Invidia) in the middle of a physical horror smorgasbord:

And Invidia,
the corruptio, foetor, fungus,
liquid animals, melted ossifications,
slow rot, foetic combustion,
chewed cigar-butts, without dignity, without tragedy,
. . . . .m Episcopus, waving a condom full of black-beetles,

With “obstructors of knowledge, / obstructors of distribution” it is suddenly clear that here in hell, it all comes down to usura, for Pound; but of course, one should never assume that because Pound has pulled up a Medieval Latin word, that he means what the word originally meant. J.J. Wilhelm puts it fairly succinctly in Ezra Pound in London and Paris (pg 219):

Pound employed the medieval word usura to describe the excessive profits taken from wrongful moneylending (but never condemning lending at a just rate of interest, which is necessary for capitalistic development).

As Daniel Albright puts it in his section of The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound, “Hell is, to some degree, a bad bank” (pg. 78). Well, I’ve read enough about Pound’s economic ideas to date that I feel comfortable taking a stab at explaining them, but would like to attempt it in a post of its own. Therefore, for the moment, I think I’ll simply note that for Pound, governments and banks colluded in the way money was created, and Pond felt this system was dangerous for everyone else in the world… which seems quite apparent today, in the ongoing economic crisis, though Pound’s proposed solution seems — as Leon Surette points out — to have had in common with the occult that interested Pound so deeply, a thread of oversimplification and impatience with empirical testing and confirmation.

Still, the primal, visceral horror of this hell is surprising, and powerful; Pound’s revulsion makes it clear that his economic concerns were not merely vague theoretical interests, but were (for him) deeply connected to the world, and to whatever “ethics” he held as crucial for the continuance of life in the world. And yet, this primal, swirling chaos also reminds one a little of the primal, swirling chaos in certain creation myths, for example in the first section of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: and this makes sense too, if one will see one’s way to fiding a little optimism in Pound. He may have felt the world had already come apart at the seams — but that kind of collapse and destitution was also a part of the recurrent cycle described in earlier Cantos. For that reason, it should not surprise us that Pound took to the present-day now, only after some sixty pages of pseudo-historical content: he was illustrating a thesis of a historical pattern, and for what other reasons would he start out doing that, than to talk about the present, and the immediate future that he wanted to build? This is the question foremost in our minds, as we reach the end of Canto XIV.

Ah, but Pound is not finished with his exploration of Hell. Canto XV continues through the infernal landscape:

The saccharescent, lying in glucose,
the pompous in cotton wool
with a stench like the fats at Grasse,

The French city of Grasse was, as those who have read Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer will remember, a major site of European perfume production in the old days: but, ironically, it stank to high heaven, a horror in itself. There is something horrifying about the sweetness, the glucose and cotton wool in the opening lines, combined with that horrendous stench at the site where gorgeous perfumes were made. Like sausage and law, for Pound seeing money being made was sickening.

the great scabrous arse-hole, sh-tting flies,
rumbling with imperialism,
ultimate urinal, middan, pisswallow without a cloaca,
. . . . . . r less rowdy, . . . . . . episcopus
. . . . . . . . sis,
head down, screwed into the swill,
his legs waving and pustular,
a clerical jock strap hanging back over the navel
his condom full of black beetles,
tattoo marks round the anus,
and a circle of lady golfers about him.
the courageous violent
slashing themselves with knives,
the cowardly inciters to violence
. . . . . n and. . . . . . . .h eaten by weevils,
. . . . . . ll like a swollen foetus,

There is a lot going on here: hateful insectile imagery, and scatology mobilized in the service of moral commentary. Pound’s image of a  “the great scabrous arse-hole, sh-tting flies, / rumbling with imperialism, / ultimate urinal, middan, pisswallow without a cloaca” seems to be a characterization of London itself, and his horror at its corruption. Daniel Albright, again: “The excrementiousness of money, a thesis dear to Freud, has rarely been presented so vividly as in Pound’s Cantos” (again, page 78, and not for the last time in this post).

Here, finally, we meet USURA, “the beast with a hundred legs” — amid those “respecters, / bowing to the lords of the place” and “the laudatores temporis acti / claiming that the sh-t used to be blacker and richer”; to Pound’s cast of villains are added the depraved Fabians — aha, another NEATO SF CONNECTION, as H.G. Wells was a prominent Fabian. The Fabians were a progressive movement, tied up with socialist economics (though of a gradualist sort, rather than a revolutionary Marxism) and free love and other things. But there are also “conservatives” in this region of hell, “chatting, / distinguished by gaiters of slum-flesh,” and then:

and the back-scratchers in a great circle,
complaining of insufficient attention,
the search without end, counterclaim for the missing scratch
the litigious,
a green bile-sweat, the news owners, . . . . s
the anonymous
. . . . . . . . ffe, broken
his head shot like a cannon-ball toward the glass gate,
peering through it an instant,
falling back to the trunk, epileptic
et nulla fidentia inter eos,

— “and no trust among them.” — the teeming rabble of England, the meddlers and the profiteers of misery and the rest —

all with their twitching backs,
with daggers, and bottle ends, waiting an
unguarded moment;

Urban man is a backstabber, after all — but for Pound, this is enshrined in economics, it is part of the system. For, after all, the hell here is a systemic hell, and once again as Daniel Albright observes, for Pound hell is as much an enormous printing press as it is anything else, and just as Martin Luther once did, Pound conflates feces with ink —  both doing their part to foul and corrupt the world, “boredom out of boredom,” in the form of “British weeklies.” Pound is, perhaps, thinking of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses wiping his ass with a British newspaper — he certainly seems to hold them in the same esteem as Bloom (and, apparently, Joyce). Pound was not alone in this disgust with newspapers — see Matthew Kibble’s article “‘The Betrayers of Language’: Modernism and the Daily Mail for a discussion that goes beyond Pound.


Pound turns to his guide, the figure analogous to Virgil in Dante’s Commedia; according to Terrell, this figure is Plotinus, the “Neoplatonist light philosopher” (who is actually mentioned later on in the Canto). The guide tells him of the breeding of the tumorous, stinking periodicals of Britain, in metaphors of tumours, “pus flakes, scabs of a lasting pox.”

The horror of the scene returns to the transfigured sky:

skin-flakes, repetitions, erosions,
endless rain from the arse-hairs,
as the earth moves, the centre
passes over all parts in succession,
a continual bum-belch
distributing its productions.

As R.A. Wilson suggests (in his commentary on Canto XV), if we compare this to the “radiant beauty” of several earlier Cantos, the contrast is stark, powerful, and affecting… even if you do pause and say, “But it’s all scatology!” This is the moment when the horror proves too much, and Pound’s narrator voice cries out, “Andiamo!” in a line all it’s own: the Korean “가자!” or the late-20th and early- 21st century American, “Let’s get the fuck outta here!”

There is a struggle, the mud gripping at feet, the run stifled by the hell itself, but Plotinus provides the key: light is the key, reflected from Perseus’ shield, and the Pound figure angles it such as to petrify the mud, the buried usurers, the landscape of this hell just enough to provide a solid road — a road like that built by the Romans —  that leads out. Here, the poem’s shape on the page shifts: shorter lines, and split almost as if into pairs, as Pound and Plotinus flee the horrors, amid serpents’ tongues and growing evils.

The follows oblivion, and then some sort of waking, into a dream where Plotinus is gone and talk of Naishapur — the birthplace of Omar Khayyam — or Babylon is mentioned, and Pound comes to at the gates of hell… the shield of Minerva, borne by Perseus, tied to his back, he stumbles toward the gate, towards the sun — the Greek here means “the sun” in Homeric Greek — and then,

Swollen-eyed, rested,
lids sinking, darkness unconscious.

Pound has reached the hellmouth — stop it, you Buffy fans, this is a Dantean hellmouth, but okay, yes, another SF CONNECTION I suppose (see below) — and is ready to leave, leaving, on his way out, the cleverness of Plotinus and the luck of Minerva’s shield — of knowledge, of understanding, but a knowledge and understanding that goes back before Christianity, to the Hellenic myths and legends, as well as to Neoplatonist philosophy of Plotinus that postdates Christianity, but reaches back before it; and of course, it is the occult veneration of light (which, in the end, can be imagined to be as ancient as human worship itself) that saves him in the end.

And here it is: the gnostic theme we have been awaiting, the shield of Minerva, borne by Perseus against the Medusa. It’s interesting, though, in that the power of something destructive — Medusa’s horrific visage — is used to wipe out the oppressive horror of the Dantean hell. That which destroys can, with cleverness, be used instead to save; Pound could be metaphorizing the kind of economics he hopes will be adopted by the world… but amid all the sodomitical references, it’s difficult to isolate the economic from the sexual… and the sexual, for Pound, is always esoteric or occult! Therefore, it’s important to think about how the esoteric or occult sexuality of this poem connects to the concept of usura, as Pound understood it.  For Pound (as for the medieval world) usura and sodomy were similar in “unnaturalness” — in being supposedly contra natura, because they did not give rise to “natural increase.” (Hence also the condoms being waved about in both Cantos — filled with black beetles, the foul result of a repression of nature being verminous and horrifying.)

Light here is somehow a power different from the necromantic magical power represented in the earliest Cantos, though like necromantic power it can be destructive or empowering. It is different because it  mediates our relationship with the world differently; it mediates between us and what is, rather than what us and what was, or what was said to be. In the image of Pound holding Minerva’s shield just so, angled toward the ground in order to escape from hell, we see a strange admixture of this light/truth metaphor and the necromantic, however, for after all, for Pound the necromantic is also on some level the necroverbal — the resurrection of the dead happens when ink intermediates. When ink is corrupted, so is everything that proceeds from the verbal — including the fine details of the necromantic. Yet it is only through the necromatic that we can find a route through the present, fallen state of the world, the hell that the world becomes in a corrupted system — poetical, economical, social: the three are impossible to disentangle anyway.

And, back to that SF CONNECTION above: as for the idea of hells, hellmouths, and the monstrosities sewed from them, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: my Korean tutor of a few years ago was a diehard Buffy fan. When I asked her what attracted her to Buffy, she told me it was because the series encapsulated for her everything that was hellish about high school. She was a Korean woman, from Seoul, but had spent her high school years  in Busan, and had undergone various kinds of maltreatment and ostracization due to her origins as a Seoulite. (Her accent was mocked, she was excluded, and people commented about her being a “big city” girl.) For her, Buffy’s hellmouth-haunted school embodied the hellishness of regionalist bigotry among her fellow teens years before. For me, Buffy’s hellmouth-haunted high school represents other hellish aspects from my youth — the violence that exploded into my life when we moved from Nova Scotia to northern Saskatchewan, among other things.

Welcome to the Hellmouth… not the first reference you expected today, was it?

Which is to say, “hell” is a versatile concept: it can metaphorize just about anything one likes, as long as one is sufficiently anti-conformist and sufficiently unhappy with the system in which one lives. And that, it seems to me, is the interesting thing about these Cantos: they’re not simply a pair of “hell-Cantos.” Instead, they depict a system, one in which occult truth is concealed in a way like many other truths; in which the lies of bankers and the lies of clergymen intersect, forming a mutual continuity, and forming a system hostile to  meaning, purpose, and artistry in the world, but also economic freedom and health, the stability of civilization, and the decency of humanity. All of the scatology may simply demonstrate Pound’s rage, but it also bespeaks a kind of ruination that is either ongoing, or seems to Pound at the time to loom in the immediate future.

Pound may well smell another war, another great conflict, or maybe he is only looking back to The Great War, and its horrors — which he will discuss further in Canto XVI. Nearly nobody today is willing to hear out, much less seriously consider, the solution Pound suggested for the problems of the European world in his time (ie. Social Credit theory). But the thing to note here is a strange, shining sense of optimism running through the poems. Optimism, even in the jaws of hell… well, for a certain value of hell, and a certain value of optimism as well. But the definition of hell as Pound sees it is impossible to pinpoint without definitions of purgatory and paradise. But those who have glimpsed at the Drafts and Fragments in the back of The Cantos know the lines that cannot but come to mind, when asking what Pound thought paradise was:

I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise.

Let the Gods forgive what I
have made
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.

The project is doomed, we know —  or should know. But we will bear witness to this failure, over the coming year: we will see how things fall apart, how paradise refuses to be written.

Purgatory, that’s another matter, and for that, we can turn to Canto XVI, as we shall next week.

Now, as for how to works out in terms of what is useful for the fiction I want to write about Pound — well:

  1. By 1924 or 1925, Pound is quite convinced that Douglas’ Social Credit theories hold water, and are useful and important.
  2. He is given to a very definite and specifically angry understanding of the mainstream economic systems in which he is living — and maybe those concerns also spill over into his dreams and the “visions” he implies having had. Indeed, if he has gone a-dream-voyaging, it is possible he has actually experienced Hieronymous Bosch-like scenes of hell explicitly, though with different figures in their place. Either way, his economic concerns are definitely moralistic in nature, and not purely theoretical.
  3. Pound is also positioning himself in relation to other visionary philosopher-poets, with Dante being the specific (and loudly-asserted) example here. It reminds one of the question: what is the organization that Pound has absolutely by this point joined, what is its mythology about itself, and which artistic figures in history does it claim as historical members? Doubtless the group, like Pound, traces itself back to antiquity: is Pound’s Eleusinian origins-story the default, or a departure from the group’s main narrative? How do Dante and the Guelph-Ghibbeline political split fit into it? How about other political movements, occult and pseudo-occult (like the Jacobins, the Albigensians, and others) fit into this story, if at all?
  4. The demonic and the hellish are, for Pound, insectile and scatological; when Pound does experience hell, evil, or dark magics, along with darkness (as absence-of-light) there should be scatological and insectile images or  nuances to it.

Next time, we’ll read Canto XVI, which rounded out the first major publication of the Cantos in 1924, as A Draft of XVI Cantos; I will, if I can, also dig into another text to make up the difference. (Probably Pound’s memoir of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, an artist who died in The Great War.) But  if I cannot get the time to read another text, I’ll at least draw some conclusions about the Pound of my story — a Pound who will, for significant portions of the text, be up to and around this time, the 1925 or so, at least during the first part of the book.

(I do wish to bring it back to his youth, and to ride the Poundian train all the way into his incarceration in (and final release from) St. Elizabeth’s in Washington. Of course, at the same time, another part of me has been wondering whether I wouldn’t rather write of a poet in some other world, rather like Pound; I’m not sure, but I suspect it will be less difficult to drum up readership for a book about someone imaginary than ol’ Ez. I guess we’ll see how I feel when the summer rolls in.)


Series Navigation<< Pound and the Occult: Leon Surette’s <em>The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and the Occult</em>Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XVI — Ending “A Draft of XVI Cantos” >>

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