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.
After last week’s discussion of the Hell-Cantos (XIV and XV), I’m turning to Canto XVI alone to finish off what was originally published as A Draft of XVI Cantos, in 1924/25. Along the way, I’m also going to dig into Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir, the book Pound wrote about the sculptor who died in 1915, and who is mentioned halfway through this poem.
Wonder of wonders: Canto XVI is online, here.
Pound’s revulsion at The Great War would be difficult to overemphasize: it was the war that sent him looking for a better understanding of economics, that send him into radical politics, that made his poetry take on an overtly, and directly, political bent.
Last week, we left off with Pound emerging from the hellmouth, with Plotinus serving as his guide (the way the pagan poet Virgil guided Dante through Inferno and Purgatorio. We have seen Inferno — the hell of the financiers and politicians and of the befouled, word-fouling presses. But after his flight from hell, and out the hellmouth, where does Pound emerge?
He emerges in Purgatory, of course–that non-paradisical place, still absent of the godhead, which resembles nothing so much as it resembles life in the world: neither heaven nor hell, but an in-between place. Yet in Purgatory, the infernal forces are at work, along with the divine ones.
If you think of Homer, of Virgil, of other epic poems, you will recall that they tend to be about wars, as Daniel Albright notes in The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound, and The Cantos is not an exception: in some ways, the long-poem is a response to (and the child of) The Great War, which by the time the last poems were being written, was no longer called that, because World War II had eclipsed it in horrors. And here is the signal difference: Pound is no glorifier of war, at least not in Canto XVI. War represents, for him here, nothing so much as the stupid, wasteful, and destructive power of a system run by people with no ethics, no common sense, no respect for anything of importance.
That is to say, Pound’s attraction to the occultism of Kensignton (as I discussed a couple of weeks ago) and his attraction to Social Credit theory, his rage against the corruption of the presses and the ignorance-multiplying uselessness of mainstream education — as is evident in his Guide to Kulchur, at the very least — all flow from the same source. The world is out of balance, with madmen and rotters holding the reins.
This is one reason that Pound and other modernist authors break away from what we were, in ages past, often told literature is supposed to be about — “eternal human verities.” People don’t argue that anymore about literature — not worthwhile critics, anyway — but it was the sort of idea with which Pound’s generation had an uneasy relationship: there was, after all, that dream of a master key to the “grand narrative” of history. The Cantos, by its very poetical logic and structure, seems to argue that there are universals in history, patterns that inexorably emerge from the chaotic soup of human life: the repetitions may play out slightly differently, but they play out nonetheless, over and over and over. And yet Pound’s generation struggled to find comfort in such a world: the repetitions could be brave, or brilliant, or wonderful — but they were so very often stupid, destructive, and the source of horror and brutal impoverishment.
Imagine a civilization experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) all at once: its memory (as embodied in art, in culture, in politics) riddled with flashbacks of blood and horror, its ability to focus rattled, its temper permanently unmanageable. This is the world in which Pound found himself — and it is to some degree a part of him, a part of everyone in the time. Virginia Woolf cries out in excitement, asking a taxicab driver to follow some zeppelins flying over London, dropping bombs from the skies. Hemingway curses and drinks himself senseless — the priceless line put into his mouth by Woody Allen in the film Midnight in Paris capturing him wonderfully: turned down by a woman, he turns to the crowd and says, “Who wants to fight?” Wyndham Lewis goes to the war, and survives, bringing back horror stories — stories more horrifying than those in the films we watch and the books we read now: trench foot, and immense rats, and trenches filled with dead bodies.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska dies in the war, and Pound will forever point to him as an example of the cost of wars not even considered — the unfinished work that goes undone, the genius squandered in the mud and shit, in the making of blood and of money and of borders on maps.
Pound started out cavalier about the war: J.J. Wilhelm describes how he quipped to his parents that he thought perhaps a German victory might not be such a bad thing, and quoted a friend on the observation that it was a pity that everyone couldn’t be beaten; he even apparently, wrote a war-poem at the time, that went unpublished until much later. But he changed his tune when Gaudier-Brzeska died, and when things turned bad in London: influenza, zeppelin raids, and constant bad news from the front, especially in Flanders. Not only that, but death surrounded him in civilian life, as well: Hilda Doolittle’s pregnancy at the time resulted in a stillbirth, and others died too — Rémy de Gourmont, and Rupert Brooke in Greece. Pound did not fight in the war, did not even come close — unless you count attempting to enlist in the British Army and being turned down as close. Gripped by grief over Gaudier-Brzeska and horror at the proceedings, he wrote, and wrote, and wrote; and he watched, from London, as things on the Continent went from bad to worse. (For all of this, see Wilhelm’s Ezra Pound in Paris and London, pages 174-176).
Canto XVI is a long Canto, much longer than the last few we’ve read, and it is a war-Canto. Which is to say that the purgatory into which Pound-as-Dantean-narrator emerges from the “hell mouth” is the purgatory of war. The first few pages riff on Dante’s treatment of Dante and Virgil’s ascent up Mt. Purgatory, with Pound invoking Sordello (as Dante does, but differently), and Augustine, and Piere Cardinal (an anti-Papal satirist, perhaps an Albigensian) and William Blake — a Christian, but also a mystic and someone as iconoclastically rebellious as Pound likely thought himself to be.
Horror continues a little, along the way up Mt. Purgatory, with Pound having to bathe himself in acid to remove the “hell ticks. / Scales, fallen louse eggs”; he passes a lake full of dead bodies, next:
the lake of bodies, aqua morta,
of limbs fluid, and mingled, like fish heaped in a bin,
and here an arm upward, clutching a fragment of marble,
And the embryos, in flux,
new inflow, submerging,
Here an arm upward, trout, submerged by the eels;
and from the bank, the stiff herbage
the dry nobbled path, saw many known, and unknown,
for an instant;
The face gone, generation.
Here is a glimpse, I think, not just of Gaudier, but of all the great minds, the artists and poets and inventors and thinkers lost to war. This is an interesting attitude towards war, and one that speaks directly to why Pound appeals to so many intellectuals, but also discussing him awkward: he does not weep for the common soldier. His horror at war is not fundamental, not the horror of a Siegfried Sassoon, but instead is the horror of a cost-benefit analysis of sorts. He believes in an elite, and is concerned with the fate of that elite. The masses, perhaps, not so much. He is disgusted by the death count — five million dead is mentioned near the end of the poem, as a figure for the Franco-Prussian War, and one wonders why he did not mention numbers for the even more destructive Great War — but it is not the scope of the horror that troubles him most deeply: Pound himself primarily mourns the loss of his friend Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
And yet, the warlords of his idealized Italian past, Sigismundo Malatesta and his younger brother Novvy, stand by their fountains – stand-ins for Dante’s contemporary “heroes” by their fountains in Purgatorio. What is the difference? Presumably, the understanding by the Malatestas that war is fought, and won or lost, for a stake both valuable and real. The Malatestas fought to secure their place, their elite rulership of Rimini, so that they could continue to patronize things Pound later valued: thus, they are heroes. The Great War did nothing for the arts, for the sponsorship of the intellectual and artistic elite of Europe. All it did was leave them dead, in fetid pools, clutching fragments of marble they would never carve into beauteous shapes.
Pound runs through the story of Galliffet — the story of the Franco-Prussian War, which Terrell compares to Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (though that poem discusses a similarly hopeless episode in the Crimean War). Supposedly Victor Gustave Plarr himself told of his experiences in the Franco-Prussian War to Pound, which are related as the French material that makes up over a page and a half of the poem, toward the end.
But before he gets into Galliffet, he touches on other wars and warriors: Lord Algernon Percy, and the 15th century Silk War between Venice and Ragusa. He touches on Byron — a revolutionary poet, who fought on the side of the Greeks in the Greek War of Independence (against the Ottoman Empire). The fight to help free Greece from the Ottomans was not joined by Byron alone: plenty of Western Europeans, aristocrats and rich folk, joined the war on the side of the Greeks, which must have impressed Pound. (Who, recall, was barred from taking up arms himself.) Byron was often said to have “the face of an angel,” which is why Pound describes him thus — but he elides an interesting connection to the occult history that fascinated him so: Byron’s onetime associate, John Polidori, was the brother of Frances Polidori, who married Gabriele Rossetti and bore him Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti; but her husband was also an important occult historian for the Kensington crowd, as mentioned a few weeks ago in my exploration of Leon Surette’s The Birth of Modernism.
Perhaps this is reaching: the mention of Byron alone, in the context of war, brings to mind much more immediately his participation in the Greek Revolution. But those of us who remember the occult-tinted stories of the Lake Geneva circle that included Byron cannot help but start at the mention of the hellmouth and Byron, who was for so very long associated with vampires. It is tempting to imagined what a pulpier Ezra Pound might have written regarding his pet conspiracy theories and occult histories, if only he had, like Byron, embraced a more romantic and theurgical-occult sensibility: the vampire, after all, seems a particularly good metaphor for the relationship between the voracious and rapacious bankers and financiers, and the rest of humanity, including the elite that Pound was most concerned about. (And there are, in fact, references to them in the Hell-Cantos, discussed last week, “drinking blood sweetened with sh-t”… so who knows, maybe the resonances really were in the back of his mind. Which I suppose kinda works as a NEATO SF CONNECTION, sorta.
The warmongers (Franz Josef of Austria, Napoleon), Pound excoriates. But he dwells mostly on those he knew personally, who went to The Great War and died (Gaudier especially, but also Thomas Hulme — the T.E.H.), or went and survived into the postwar hell. These latter, Pound used pseudonyms for: Wyndham Lewis, Donald Windeler, Richard Aldington, Bimmy (a friend of a friend named Bimbo Tennet), and Guy Baker, and of course Ernest Hemingway. These, too, become the heroes of Pound’s war-poem.
There is a long French passage, recounting Plarr’s experiences in the Franco-Prussian war, in which soldiers are driven mad, to the point of killing in order to be able to eat, and the ditch-diggers (almost Shakespearean, they speak in doggerel and quip at different positions in the war) turn up at the end; this is followed by memories recounted by Lincoln Steffens of the outbreak of the Russian Revolution:
That’s the trick with a crowd,
Get ‘em into the street and get ‘em moving.
And all the time, there were people going
Down there, over the river.
Lenin speaking to a crowd, and the Cossacks politely trying to break up the crowds that listen, until an office commences hostilities against the masses, and a cossack kills the officer with his sword — bam, the beginning of the revolution.
So we used to hear it at the opera
That they wouldn’t be under Haig;
and that the advance was beginning;
That it was going to begin in a week.
[Douglas] Haig is, according to Terrell, the field marshal of the British expeditionary forces in France and Flanders in 1919 — but other sources (yes, Wikipedia) place him elsewhere, and somewhere more relevant for Pound, I think:
For much of 1919 Haig served as Commander-in-Chief Home Forces in Great Britain, a key position as a General Strike seemed likely. Haig kept a low profile in this job and insisted the Army be kept in reserve, not used for normal policing.
This, of course, is after the war, whereas Pound is talking about during the war — “the advance” being that of the British Army, when it was stalled; perhaps, specifically, when it was stalled in late summer 1918 as the British planned on stockpiling munitions in preparation for an offensive in summer 1919. Their imagined prolongation of the war that much more seems insane to us now, at a great remove, but probably seemed even more insane in 1925, if this was indeed public knowledge. (I don’t know if it was yet.) Haig was popular at the time, grew upopular by the 1960s — by which point he had become a symbol for the pre-World War I arrogance of the upper classes and the destructiveness of that mindset when that same elite was given charge of the military. (By the 80s, a rehabilitation of Haig’s name was underway.)
The question of occult resonances usable in my story seems quite important to address: they are the Dantean. Here, we accompany Pound busting through the quotidian world to the eternal: wars always represent a waste, that slough of dead bodies, arms reaching upward clinging to marble fragments they will never carve. Pound here is responding to the particular tragedy of Gaudier, but also the the more general tragedy and horror of war itself.
But… on that other level, it’s important to remember that I envision my arcana-empowered Pound as mired in battle as well — an occult war raging between two factions of artists, with the fate of Europe (and in some sense the whole world) hanging in the balance. My imaginary, magical Pound may decry the violence and death and destruction, but he also must probably have had to carry out acts that horrified him; to attack other artists, poets and sculptors and painters, including those to whose art he may have been hostile. It’s easy to speak harshly about another creative person’s work; it’s another thing to bury him in rubble, or to put her in the madhouse, or to obliterate your enemies from the face of the Earth entirely… or to reboot history — as Pound uses The Cantos and (with the help of a war-dead Wyndham Lewis in a parallel universe) “the Vortex” to do in one short story I’ve drafted, but not yet published. Such use of magic would be very powerful: one’s enemies or antagonists could be eliminated — or recruited — before becoming too much of a problem. But to wander between alternate histories, reliving them, making decisions differently, undoing them and reweaving them: it’s enough to drive anyone mad… especially the ones who remember it, as one seems certain Pound would insist on doing, were he to reboot history at a certain point at all.
Pound’s extreme grief at the death of Gaudier-Brzeska sent me to his memoir of the man, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir.
This is — and perhaps it is redundant of me to say so, after noting that Pound is its author — a bizarre book. Others write of Pound’s profound grief at the death of Gaudier-Brzeska, but the pages of this book seem to reflect something less like grief than like pedantic rage. Pound is eager to decry the Germans for killing Gaudier, but also the art world for not recognizing him — or, just as often, for not taking Vorticism seriously.
The first part of the book does discuss Gaudier-Brzeska quite directly, but roughly a third of the way, Pound expands his focus rather significantly: he explains Vorticism, explains what is wrong with the art world, explains the connection between Vorticism and imagism, explains and explains and explains.
I shall, I hope, content myself and the reader alike with some choice quotes — either thoughtful, amusing, or downright strange:
Any mind that is worth calling a mind must have needs beyond the existing categories of language, just as a painter must have pigments or shades more numerous than the existing names of the colours. (pg. 88)
This, I swear, put me in mind of my students (who sometimes claimed some old Korean chestnut that there are only ten words for colours in English).
It turns out Leon Surette was not exaggerating when he termed Pound scientifically illiterate, insofar as science depends on mathematics: There are four different intensities of mathematical expression known to the ordinarily intelligent undergraduate, namely: the arithmetical, the algebraic, the geometrical, and that of analytical geometry. For instance, you can write 3×3+4×4=5×5
or differently, 32+42=52. That is merely conversation or “ordinary common sense.” It is a simple statement of one fact… (pg. 90) Of course, 3×3=9, 4×4=12, and 9+12=21, which does not equal 5×5. Ah, Ezra…
(UPDATE (26 Sept.2014): Er… late night? I can’t believe my brain was so mushy as to somehow think it had falsified Pythagorean theorem. Thanks to @alexandertlane for the correction of the above, in the comments below.)
Writing of Wyndham Lewis, he opines:
“Lewis is Bach.” No, it is incorrect to say that “Lewis is Bach,” but our feeling is that certain works of Picasso and certain works of Lewis have in them something which is to painting wht certain qualities of Bach are to music. Music was vorticist in the Bach-Mozart period, before it went off into romance and sentiment and description. A new vorticist music would come from a new computation of the mathematics of harmony, not from a mimetic representation of dead cats in a fog-horn, alias noise-tuners. (pg. 93)
I’m not quite sure what he means by “noise-tuners” but he would likely be pleased by the trend that was observed, in the late 20th century, of composers (especially French ones) who composed works for orchestra that did actually seek to mimetically replicate sounds like church bells ringing and so on. I can see what he means about Bach’s music being akin to vorticism, though to me it sounds like claiming the good stuff for one’s own movement. But Mozart? Eh?
On the difficulties of getting the masses into art:
Of course, you will never awaken a general or popular art sense so long as you rely solely on the poretty, that is, the “caressable.” We all of us like the caressable, but we most of us in the long run prefer the woman to the statue. That is the romance of Galatea. We prefer–if it is a contest in the caressabilities–we prefer the figure in silk on the stairs to the “Victory” aloft on her pedestal-prow. We know that the “Victory” will be there whenever we want her, and that the young lady in silk will pass on to the Salon Carré, and thence onward to the unknown and unfindable. That is the trouble with the caressable in art. The caressable is always a substitute.
Ideals of the caressable vary. In Persia, the Persia of its romances, the crown of beauty, male or female, goes to him or her whose buttocks have the largest dimensions. And we all remember the Hindoo who justified his desire for fatness with the phrase “same money, more wife.”
Ideals change, even the ideals of the caressable are known to have altered. Note, for example, the change in the ballet and in “indecent” illustrations. Twenty years ago, the ideal was one with large hips and bosom. To-day the ideal is more “svelte.” the heavier types appear only in very “low” papers. In fact, the modern ideal approaches more nearly to the “Greek type,” which is, as Pater says, disappointing “to all save the highest culture.” The development of Greek sculpture is simple; it moves steadily towards the caressable. One may even say that people very often set up Greek art as an ideal because they are incapable of understanding any other.
The weakness of the caressable work of art, of the work of art which depends upon the caressability of the subject, is, incidentally, that its stimulativeness diminishes as it becomes more familiar… (pg. 97)
Incidentally, huh? I don’t know the story of that Hindoo, and I wonder how many of Pound’s readers at the time did.
On art and fame:
The sequence is easy: you make for the market, you become rich; being rich, you are irresistible, honours are showered upon you. (pg.109)
There are always two parties in “civilization.” There is the party which believes that the stability of property is the end and the all. There are those who believe that the aim of civilization is to keep alive the creative, the intellectually-inventive-creative spirit and ability in man–and that a reasonable stability of property may be perhaps one of the mny means to this end, or that it may not be detrimental, or even that it doesn’t much matter. Because of this indifference to the stability of life and property on the part of one segment, this entire party is branded anarchic, or incendiary. “New art” is thought dangerous, and the dangerous is branded as “ugly.” Those who fear the new art also hate it. (pg. 109)
I kind of wish I could buy this, but I find usually it is difficult, challenging art that is labeled as ugly (or perverse, or whatever.)
Pound addresses those who claim the avant-garde to be impossible to enjoy:
You, gracious reader, may be a charming woman who only like [sic] pretty men, a statue of a primitive man holding a rabbit may not be a matter of interest to youm but that is no reason for abusing the artist. Or, on the other hand, ferocious and intolerant reader, you may be a vigorous male, who likes nothing save pretty women, and who despises feminine opinions about the arts. In either case you are quite right in saying that you dislike the new sculpture, you are being no more than honest. But there is no cause for calling it unenjoyable or even ugly, if you do you are but stupid, you hate the labour of beginning to understand a new form. (pg. 109-110)
I must admit, I admire the gutsiness of calling people on laziness and stupidity, though calling your readers on it may not get you too far in the world.
In discussing the Renaissance, Pound alludes to the translations of Ficino, which are “anything but classic”, and were, indeed,
ultimately, a “Platonic” academy messing up Christian and Pagan mysticism, allegory, occultism, demonology, Trismegistus, Psellus, Porphyry, into a most eloquent and exciting and exhilarating hotch-potch, which “did for” the medieval fear of the dies irae and for human abasement generallt. Ficino himself writes of Hermes Trismegistus in a New Testament Latin, and arranges his chronology by co-dating Hermes’ great-grandfather with Moses. (pg.112)
Pound seems to be quite approving of the vibrant “hotch-potch,” or that’s what I think he’s being. Likewise, he mentions Divus, whom we remember from Canto I, as a transformer of Latin:
… the Greek langauge was made an excuse for more adjectives. I know no place where this can be more readily seen than in the Hymns to the Gods appended to Divus’ translation of the Odyssey into Latin. The attempt to reproduce Greek by Latin produced a new dialect that was never spoken and had never before been read… (pg. 114)
His bitterness at England is evident even in the original version of this book, which i think slightly predates his departure from the country — a bitterness to rival the most disgusted of expat bloggers writing about Korea:
England has always loved the man incapable of thought, the praise of Shakespeare which they most love is some absolutely inaccurate rubbish about “wood notes wild” uttered by one of the most unpleasant of theorists. They will pardon reams of insipidity rather than one clear thought. I don’t know that it matters, but one may as well register the fact for the comfort of future sufferers. (pg. 119)
Writing of the popular arts of his time, Pound wrote:
We are, I think, getting sick of the glorification of energetic stupidity. (pg. 124)
Would that this were true, then or now. Pound makes the comment along the way to praising Joyce, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and Gaudier-Brzeska as part of an “awakening” of “art for the intelligent”. One wonders what Pound would have said of Jerry Springer. He writes of how vorticism has him quicker discerment of Asian art, and a better appearance of the play of light upon scenes before him, “new chords, new keys of design… new life… a new aroma, a new keenness for keeping awake” (pg. 126). Pound asks,
If vorticism has does this for me, I think it can do it for others. Others?
Of course the rest of the world may not want a new sense of forms, or a new sense of anything.
I think it is De Quincey who writes of “the miracle that can be wrought if only one man feels a thing more keenly, knows it more intimately than any one has known or felt it before.” Such a miracle has been performed [by Gaudier-Brzeska and other Vorticists] in our vicinity.
I dare say various miracles have been so wrought for the few. I am constantly surprised at the faintness of men’s talent for lving, at the number of things they so willingly do without. (pg. 127)
I must admit, my immediate thought was of my own students, here: when I ask a class how many of them have gone to a cinema in the past month, or a live music performance in the past year, or any sort of artistic or cultural event, very few put up their hands. Many starve, and do not realize it. Again, one cannot help but imagine Pound as some itinerant teacher in Korea — the only place the man would likely make a living today — raging at his students’ failure to be interested in anything.
Ah, Allen Ginsberg comes to mind now: but it is not America I realize is myself, it is Pound. Shudder at the thought.
There is an interesting reference to John Heydon’s “The Holy Guide” wherein Pound notes there are “numerous remarks on pure form and the delights thereof,” worth noting mainly as Heydon was a major occultist. (He also mentions LaurenceBinyon’s Flight of the Dragon, a book about Asian art.)
Pound is almost universal in the blame he spreads around for the loss of Gaudier and the work that, “uncreated went with him” — and his bombastic rage verges on the (rhetorically, at least) homicidal:
There is no reason to pardon this either to the central powers or to the allies or to ourselves… With a hundred fat rich men working overtime to start another war or another six wars for the sake of their personal profit, it is very hard for me to write of Gaudier with the lavender tones of dispassionate reminiscence. The real trouble with war (modern war) is that it gives no one a chance to kill the right people. (pg. 140)
But who can disagree?
But then Pound comes out with this:
There is still enough energy even in what I was able to get into my memoir of [Gaudier-Brzeska’s] (i.e. all his own writing and 40 half-tone reproductions) to modernize Russia, to bring communism to date, I mean into harmony with the best thought of the occident, and to make America fit to live in. By modernizing Russia I mean that the trouble with Russia is the trouble with a smoky locomotive. When they get to dividing the cultural heritage, and to seeing that this heritage is the actual source of value they will have arrived at a state of understanding which will make them good neighbours even though Russian. And if we could do likewise we would also be good neighbours for them.
This is a curious sort of occupatio — Pound claiming to be writing about Gaudier, while actually raging about the usual things Pound raged about. And yet, the most curious thing of all is his insistence that all he wishes to see happen could happen from the energy pent up in the little work Gaudier-Brzeska got done… I’m not sure whether to read it as a strange case of projection, or some sort of over-the-top praise, or just an excuse to talk about what Russia and America must do. (This, written in 1938, by the way.)
Pound’s memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska is well in line with other nonfiction of Pound’s: bombastic, largely off-topic, littered with both interesting and bizarre nuggets buried in the thick of a generally somewhat pedantic and boring diatribe. (Though I found Guide to Kulchur much less boring.)