This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, a few at a time.
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.
Or maybe about artists, musicians, and poets waging a secret, occult war in some other world vaguely like ours, in a time period somewhat like the late 19th century and early twentieth.
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 Canto XXIII-XXIV, which Pound first published in A Draft of Cantos 17-27, I’m tackling Cantos XXV-XXVI, a day late and a Canto short according to my original plans: I’d originally expected to also cover Canto XXVII but that is going to have to wait till next week — it’s final exam week, and I’m grading like a madman, though I have hope of getting it all done by early next week!
(I’m currently finished grading final work for three classes, with only two left two go, but also some leftover assignments from one of those two classes awaiting my attentions as well. So, it’s a bit busy here, but not insanely so…)
Cantos XXV-XXVVII were written in 1926-28, a period when Pound was increasingly busy with things like the Social Credit movement (or, at least, evangelizing a version of Social Credit as he saw it. Others noted that it wasn’t properly Douglasite Social Credit, but that was not going to stop Pound!).
In any case, the dominant theme for Cantos XXV and XXVI is absolutely Venice: its history, its place in Italian politics, its signficance to Pound. This last is somewhat difficult to pinpoint on a certain level. Frankly, like others — notably Daniel Albright in The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound, but also The Coffee Philosopher in his posts (1, 2) on these two cantos — I am less than impressed with the epistolary stuff: Pound write gorgeous verse, and powerful verse, and shocking verse; and yet, so much of these pages are taken up by uninteresting recountings of texts he’s plumbed for goodies, especially the book the title of which he trumpets in the opening line of Canto XXV: “THE BOOK OF THE COUNCIL MAJOR” [of Venice].
The poems are seemingly made up of three components:
- personal recollections of Pound’s from trips to Venice
- historical materials from records, especially from the book mentioned
- “other stuff” — his mystical and occult notions, strangeness, and other oddities
Of the three types, the second seems to take up a lot more room than it deserves, or than anyone in his right mind would have it do: like a burger at the famous “Jacoby’s Burgers” in Seoul’s Haebangchon district, this sandwich is 95% insides, which is just unbalanced.
And yet, when Pound gets into the swing of things, the first and the third can be eye-catching, pyrotechnical, even beautiful. One’s mind insists that something must be going on here: Pound is juxtaposing, of course he is, but what and why?
Canto XXV begins, as I mentioned, with “THE BOOK OF THE COUNCIL MAJOR” and a buch of quotations from it. They concern decrees issued from the Palace of the Doges:
First comes a discussion of the banning of gambling dice games in the area of the palace, as well as the Rialto, under pain of monetary fines or public shaming for those who cannot pay.
Next, a long passage about lions in Venice. The (symbolically regal, supposedly) lions were sent to the doges of Venice by King Frederick of Sicily, and held at the Bailiff’s residence: the passages cited discuss the space where the lions were held in captivity, their mating activities (characterized as an “assault”) and the birth of their offspring (characterized as a “nativity”), their action about their mother (described as “gyring” which reminds of us of Yeats and perhaps of Pound’s idealized concept of the “vortex,” which supposedly corresponds to it). All this is followed by a quip about a note from Pontius Pilate dated “year 33” (which, of course, it wouldn’t be were it truly from Pilate; the man didn’t reckon time by the birth of Christ, after all).
Then comes the stuff we expect from Pound’s epistolary explorations: letters about gilding and constrcution and ornamentation of buildings — though there is the mention of images of lions over doors, at least — and some stuff about giving permission to Donna Sorantia Soranzo being given permission to visit her father during a serious convalescence; more accounting of moneys spent on making a lion of stone; then the ordering of new construction to get rid of the stink of the dungeons, along with some expenditures for palace beautification.
What we have seen, in other words, is two things: a concern for money and the proper disposal of it (construction and art, not gambling), and the sublimation of the real and living into art, decoration, and construction — that is, the transformation of things “per naturam .. . vivos et pilosos” (by their nature… alive and hairy) into decorations bespeaking regality — images over palace doors, stone statues to be carved, and so on. It is about the metamorphosis of living, physical things into the ornamentation of not just power, but of civilization and culture: art, as the repository of the real, in other words, but a special kind of repository, with special needs and limitations: for one thing, all along the way, money is needed… and this leaves us reflecting on Pound’s situation at the time, living in small apartments and seated upon furniture knocked together himself from spare boards of wood.
There is also the oddness of the lions themselves being invested in a mythic narrative: the mama lion whelping cubs in a “nativity” recalling Christian mythology (with the reference to Pilate snapping the reference into place); the “assault” of the female lion by the male recalling all those sexual assaults perpetuated by gods upon mortal women throughout Greek mythology.
Is there a chain of generation being suggested here? Culture (or myth, or imagination, or narrative, or even perhaps “religion” of a sort — a sort in which narrative is central) imbues the world with meaning,; the world then becomes fodder for culture (or myth, or imagination, or narrative, or “religion”), generating the symbols and iconography of the system of reference connected to the culture’s most central concerns? In this sense, the idea of Christ as a King works for the Venetians of the day mainly because they are most concerned with regal power; for them, the lion may meld with Christ, but also melds much more with kingship and earthly, political power. It’s a fascinating thought, though I’m not totally sure I’m seeing it there because Pound meant for me to.
(There is also, as always, the question of paternity at hand. One might ask how much of Dorothy there is in that lioness for Pound, and how much of Olga there is; but this is as open a question as the paired enigma of whom it is the male lion would represent in this reading of the image — Pound, fathering his beloved daughter Mary, or some other man, fathering Dorothy’s son Omar… Yet I feel it is important to point out that to think it must be one or the other might be to simplify what is probably meant more as a mere glimmer of the preoccupation with paternity felt by Pound at the time.)
After all of this, and on the third page of the poem, we get a glimpse of Pound, or at least we seem to see the world through his eyes; it is a scene we have glimpsed before, in Cantos XVII and XXI:
... they built out over the arches and the palace hangs there in the dawn, the mist, in that dimness, or as one rows in from past the murazzi the barge slow after moon-rise and the voice sounding under the sail. Mist gone.
It is immediately after this — indeed, in an indented line that suggests it is midway through the previous line — that Pound slips us through into the transcendent, that divine busting through into the quotidian that he wrote about to his father:
And Sulpicia green shoot now, and the wood white under new cortex "as the sculptor sees the form in the air before he sets hand to mallet, "and as he sees the in, and the through, the four sides "not the one face to the painter As ivory uncorrupted: "Pone metum Cerinthe" Lay there, the long soft grass, and the flute lay there by her thigh, Sulpicia, the fauns, twig strong, gathered about her; The fluid, over the grass Zephyrus, passing through her, "deus nec laedit amantes." Hic mihi dies sanctus; And from the stone pits, the heavy vocies, Heavy sound: "Sero, Sero...
This is a bizarre and hallucinogenic shift, a swerve from the palace of the doges and their official documentation to a trip through some poems written about the ancient Roman pet Sulpicia, who was in passionate love with someone named Cerinthus, overlaid over a kind of hellscape. Here, there seem to be voices crying out as the “lesser” voices of the Odyssey did in Canto XX, in the middle of the hallucinations of Niccolò d’Este. It serves as a warning for those who do nothing worthwhile with their time:
"Sero, sero... "Nothing we made, we set nothing in order, "Neither house nor the carving, "And what we thought had been thought for too long; "Our opinion not opinion in evil "But opinion borne for too long. "We have gathered a sieve full of water."
Sounds a bit to me like I feel after stepping away from the computer after a few hours of surfing the net and nothing accomplished but the uncovering of curiosities, but I get the sense here that Pound is interrogating the permanence and value of artistic labour for those whose work falls by the wayside, the flautists whose names are forgotten — despite the reassurances of the fauns that God does not harm those who… (the sentence goes unfinished, but is a quotation from a line of poetry that ends with “those who love,” Terrell tells us).
But especially horrifying is the fate of artists in a society that has lost its artistic compass, the lines below these cited above describe a “bolge” straight out of Dante, filled with the weeping dead, crying out “Civis Romanus” (“Roman Citizen!”) in “[t]he clear air, dark, dark,” under thrall of
the dead concepts, never the solid, the blood rite The vanity of Ferrara;
As the wellspring for the mythic and artistic culture of the West, religion has gone very wrong in adhering only to the Platonic, the idealized and abstracted; they system by which the permeation of the real with the divine, and the mulching of the real into the mythic, and the connection of the living to the mythic and the dead, seems to have gone all wrong because of the “dead” concepts — the dogma and abstractions of the religion that finally ruled European politics, European imaginations, and European art for centuries — and which severed what Pound sees as the vital, powerful, and one could even say magical power of the Eleusinian, the classical pagan rites and experiences offered by the beliefs of the ancients.
Some more very beautiful poetry follows, wherein Pound begins to refer back to moments in Cantos from just before — invocation of Phaethusa from Canto XXI, and of Aphrodite’s untrue claim to be the daughter of Otreus at the end of Canto XXIII, as she takes the mortal Anchises as her lover: both images being of the sexual union of the human male and the ageless, beautiful, divine, and eternal feminine. In these lines, a shift also suggests some of the poetry of the ancient world —
Clearer than shades, in the hill road Springing in the cleft of the rock: Phaethusa There as she came among them, Wine in the smoke-faint throat, Fire gleam under smoke of the mountain even there by meadows of Phlegethon And against this the flute: pone metum. Fading, that they carried their guts before them, And thought then, the deathless, form, forms and renewal, gods held in the air, Forms seen, and then clearness, Bright void, without image, Napishtim, Casting his gods back into the νους.
And then, after a few lines re-invoking the meeting of Anchises and Aphrodite, we find ourselves back in the quotidian world,
... side toward the piazza, the worst side of the room that no one has been willing to tackle, and do it as cheap or much cheaper... (signed) Tician, 31 May 1513
The first line sounds as if it were straight out of a tourist’s complaining letter — having had to bed down on the side toward the piazza, the “worst side of the room” but it turns out to be something written by one of the great quattrocento Venetian painters, Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, 1477-1576).
The end of the poem essentially is another entry from the Book of the Great Council (ie. the Council Major) with which we began, allocating a studio for Titian — with a vote recorded by the Senate regarding demanding of funds back from Titian for payments received while not actively working on a painting he’d been hired to paint.
An odd place to end: is it pointing to the end of the Venetians as a world power? What we might call “slob shaming” for the Venetians of Titian’s time not celebrating one of the great artists of human history? Or is Pound remarking on the necessity of artists to work? This, I must confess, seems unclear to me, though it does also seem to point to some of the problems Pound himself faced: how to put food on the table while trying to work on a great artwork. His progress on the Cantos had been slow over the years, his production of other texts (for pay) prolific, and yet he still had little to show for it, and only twenty-five cantos drafted. It is difficult to say what he’s up to here, in the end.
The disappointment I feel with Canto XXVI is heightened by the fact that it begins so nicely, as Coffee Philosopher too found:
And I came here in my young youth and lay there under the crocodile By the column, looking East on the Friday, And I said: Tomorrow I will lie on the South side And the day after, south west. And at night they sang in the gondolas And in the barche with lanthorns; The prows rose silver on silver taking light into the darkness...
Yes, a promising beginning, and then, quite rapidly, Pound dives into the Renaissance texts again. Pound’s attraction to the texts quotes does not mystify — it ties together Niccolò d’Este (and his peace-charged son, Borso) with Sigismundo Malatesta, the Venetian battle against Henry VI of England, Domenigho Silvio (doge of Venice) and his luxury-vice-bringing wife who ate with golden forks.
The lavish celebration of another doge’s ascension to the throne–or whatever it is doges sat upon–is described in great detail, featuring a parade of guildmembers:
And to greet the doge Lorenzo Tiepolo, Barbers, heads covered with beads, Furriers, masters in rough, Master pelters for fine work, And the masters for lambskin With silver cups and their wine flasks And blacksmiths with the gonfaron et leurs fioles chargies de vin, The masters of wool cloth Glass makers in scarlet Carrying fabrefactions of glass;
Pound is said to have loved parades, and in another sense, he also seemed to enjoy a kind of intellectual version of the gladiatorial combat — well, the Renaissance equivalent of it — that comes next in the poem, with the joustings. The winner of the combat described here is a “nigger from Mantua / That came with Messire Gonzaga” — leaving another trace of the American voice, another trace of the old-fashioned American racism that, in another form, will define the poem when Pound decides he is well and truly an anti-Semite.
(I should note that, at the same time, Pound was a correspondent — if, at times, it seemed to me, a patronizing one — of folks like Langston Hughes. I’ll maybe have more to say when I get back to that book about Pound and African-American modernist poetics, as I’m curious what other scholars have to say about the links between, or lines between, Pound’s various attitudes towards different races, and especially the blackface minstrel-like operative model of the Cantos, a model I still find quite applicable to the poem as a whole.)
There is some stuff about the conferences held by the Western and Eastern Churches, the claimed decline of the guild spirit in Venice at the time, a wink at Pandolfo Malatesta, and the prostitutes in the Piazza San Samuele, who wander about Rialto in yellow kerchiefs; the wanderings of Cosimo de Medici, and of Sigismundo Malatesta, and the sack of the Medici bank by the Albizi, the decline of Florence and the ascent of Venice in trading treaties, military power, and more.
Then Pound quotes a few (mostly very long and) unquotable (here, for the sake of my readers) letters — one that Coffee Philosopher described perfectly as “epistolary Renaissance era logistics”: one is about money and horses; another about a silver-coated relic said to be the skull of St. George the Martyr; the third, tracking the whereabouts of Lorenzo de Medici after his murder of his brother Alessandro; and the fourth, a letter from one Vittorio Carpaccio regarding one Lorenzo — a different Lorenzo, this one a painter in the employ of the Medicis — who basically stole a painting that Carpaccio had made of Jerusalem.
The Canto ends with a letter from Wolgang Amadeus — yes, Mozart — tearing the archbishop of Salzburg a new asshole over his treatment of the Mozart family, worth quoting in full:
To the supreme pig, the archbishop of Salzburg: Lasting filth and perdition. Since your exalted pustulence is too stingy To give me a decent income And has already assured me that here I have nothing to hope And had better seek fortune elsewhere; And since thereafter you have Three times impeded my father and self intending departure I ask you for the fourth time To behave with more decency, and this time Permit my departure. Wolfgang Amadeus, august 1777 (inter lineas)
"As is the sonata, so is little Miss Cannabich."
The Sonata to which Mozart/Pound refers is K. 309. Wikipedia fills us in on the connection to “Miss Cannabich”:
The work was composed during a journey to Mannheim and Paris in 1777-78. The sonata was complete in a few days in early November 1777. The andante movement is a “portrait” of Rose Cannabich (his pupil), the 15-year-old daughter of the Mannheim Kapellmeister Christian Cannabich… Upon reviewing a copy of the manuscript, Mozart’s father Leopold wrote that it was “a strange composition. It has something in it of the ‘rather artificial’ Mannheim style, but so very little that your own good style is not spoilt”.
The Andante movement is the second, which begins a little after 5:30 into the full performance here:
I can say this: all this epistolary quotation has me leery: I know there will be much more, and that indeed there are twenty cantos ahead that will indulge in this kind of textual-recounting for pages and pages at a time — and it discourages me. Not that I will abandon my reading of the Cantos. I have noticed a lot of people seem to drop off after forty or sixty Cantos, sadly not reaching what are supposed to be the best and most beautiful poems in this book, the Pisan Cantos. I have committed to read the book to the end this year (well, within a year of beginning, so, by next March), and I will do so.
But I am bracing myself for some serious slogging, from Cantos LII-LXXI (the China and Adams Cantos).
As For My Fictionalized Pound:
Now, as for what I glean from these two Cantos, in terms of the character I want to write:
- Pound is beginning to be lost in what to do in his great poem, and taking his refuge in the copious rehearsal of what other people have written in their own letters. This is a foreshadowing of what will happen in the Adams and China Cantos, written during World War II; but perhaps the way to represent it is Pound actually getting lost, his persona subsuming into the texts at hand.
- He definitely is searching the historical record for other artists who have been stuck, in one way or another, and one can imagine him communing with what he believes are their spirits. One wonders just how well Mozart would actually get along with old Ezra — I imagine, not very… not very well at all!But perhaps Pound is not only searching for other artists in similar predicaments. Maybe he his searching for something more profound: either the hidden forces in history that control the rise and/or fall of artists? He has watched those around him — artists whose careers he aided, people whose work he shepherded into success (Eliot being a major beneficiary, Joyce one less beholden to him) and he has seen them rise to heights he has not reached in the public consciousness, doubtless to his own great puzzlement and frustration.Perhaps he has begun to rummage about in his historical researches for some more occult force that holds back the greatest artists; he would find a similarity between his own unsatisfied wanderings and the blockage of Mozart’s emigration; perhaps, likewise, the money problems of greedy politicos holding Titian back from the freedom he needed to do significant artistic work?Or perhaps these poems suggest he found it, and the force was not so much occult as economic? Or maybe — and this could be the linchpin of this interrogation of Pound I’m trying to get done — the economics and the occult actually line up in some weird way inside Pound’s head. Not just generally or vaguely or metaphorically, but in some pseudo-concrete way that, at least to Pound himself, made direct sense.
Of course, one expects he would have come out with it if it did. One thing I’m finding depressingly common now is how muddled the mind of an artist can be while he or she produces good, or even significant, work.
In any case, that concludes my reading of Cantos XXV and XXVI; next week, I’ll be back with a reading of Canto XXVII (at the very least — I may try hit Canto XXVIII as well… or, if I get all my grading done sooner than expected, maybe even more — I could finish out A Draft of XXX Cantos, as the remaining four as shorter than those before them (adding up to only twenty pages in total)… but don’t hold your breath!). If I do only post Canto XVII, I’ll include a review of Leon Surette’s A Light From Eleusis, and knock off XVIII-XXX the following week.