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.
This week, I’m ending off A Draft of Cantos 17-27 with a reading of Canto XVII, which I supplemented earlier with a very brief review of Leon Surette’s very useful A Light From Eleusis. I’m two days late, but I also got my grading finished in time, which, you know, is kind of an achievement, so… no apologies!
In 1927, a year in which he was the winner of the Dial Award (for best contribution, I’m guessing) Ezra Pound wrote Canto XXVII — the last two digits of the year and the number of the canto being a perfect match, I suppose he felt it was time to get into some mischief.
Canto XXVII is much less dense and referential than the Cantos immediately preceding it, and it is also shorter by a few pages. But while reading it is less demanding, that doesn’t make it easy to read in the sense of constructing a reading of the poem.
One gets the sense here that Pound had suddenly been vaulted into the twentieth-century, perhaps by some mysterious process of rebirth:
Formando di disio nuova persona One man is dead, and another has rotted his end off Et quant au troisième Il est tombé dans le De sa femme, on ne le reverra Pas, oth fugol othbaer:
This is a thick welter of stuff: four languages (Modern English, Modern French, Old English, and what Chris Jones identifies here as Medieval Italian). Jones translates the passage thus:
Fashioning a new person from desire One man is dead, another has rotted his end off And as to the third, he fell into the ... of his wife, you won’t see him again, One a bird bore off
The “One” in the last line is, he points out, disputable, and asks whether perhaps Pound misremembered the Old English, which is a line from The Wanderer. (You can read the poem itself here, in either Old English or modern.) But looking at the original text, “oth fugol othbaer” I wonder: either Pound altered it consciously for that repetitive oth, or he unconsciously did so… and does it matter which? The rest seems more conscious, at any rate: the opening line from Cavalcanti, the modern French and the English from who knows where, perhaps completely original words by Pound.
But there is something very odd going on here: there is a litany of men, one dead, one having “rotted his end off” and the third having fallen into the _______ of his wife. What lies in the blank, or rather, what is the blank in which lies the man? I must confess, for me the bawdy reading suggested itself immediately. The Cavalcanti line, though, is supposedly taken from a poem that bespeaks death, and fits well with the second line, which suggests a darker second significance to the blank in which the third man falls. The bird, flying off, brings to mind those traditions in which crows, magpies, or other birds serve as messengers to, or transporters of, the souls of the dead.
But this dark moment lingers only for a moment, before our brutal guide hurls us forward from Renaissance Venice and the desk of Mozart in Salzburg to the opening act of World War I, when the British are readying their naval vessels and attempting to woo the Portuguese as allies against Germany. Pound seems to quote from training manuals for soldiers, and links this to the medical research of Dr. Henry Spahlinger (inventor of a TB vaccine) and Dr. Pierre Curie’s self-inflicted burns in the course of his investigations into radiation (mentioned earlier in Canto XXIII).
Then Pound describes Europe in ruins:
England off there in black darkness, Russia off there in black darkness, The last crumbs of civilization... And they elected a Prince des Penseurs Because there were so damn many princes, And they elected a Monsieur Brisset Who held that man is descended from frogs;
This, I cite not only because Pound seems to describe Europe having descended into utter folly, but also because it brings up an interesting connection to SF and to the steampunk genre specifically.
That is — the reference to Jean-Pierre Brisset, who apparently was active early in the twentieth-century as an author of crackpot books, including one where he argued humankind had descended not from apelike ancestors, but from frogs. While Terrell seems unaware of the fact, Brisset in fact was elected Prince of the Thinkers, as Wikipedia tells us:
In 1912, novelist Jules Romains, who had got his hands on a copy of God’s Mystery and The Human Origins, set up, with the help of a few fellow hoaxers, a rigged election for a “Prince of Thinkers”. unsurprisingly, Brisset got elected. The Election Committee then called him to Paris in 1913, where he was received and acclaimed with great pomp. He partook in several ceremonies and a banquet, uttering emotional words of thanks for this unexpected late recognition of his work. Newspapers exposed the hoax on the next day.
(One wonders whether H.P. Lovecraft ever got his hands on anything by Brisset… it fuses nicely with his concept of the Deep Ones…)
Whether or not there is a fairytale link — for isn’t the fairytale the natural demesne of the frog prince? — the passage works on a number of levels: a Frenchman arguing mankind has descended from frogs is worth a grin at least, for it suggests a kind of self-inflated folly (Frenchmen being “frogs” after all) of an extremely ironic sort.
Then there’s the mockery of Europe having fallen into folly collectively, its placement after a description of the end of European civilization and the fall of darkness upon both England and Russia — the Western and Eastern boundaries of Europe.
But, note, Brisset is not an imaginary author, but rather a real historical Frenchman. Maybe I’m wrong and steampunk literature is brimming with such madmen, but I’ve only seen one text that invokes anything like it — the newt
bioengineering breeding story in Paul di Filippo’s The Steampunk Trilogy; and yet, real history has enough crackpots in the late 19th and early 20th century for Pound to have been versed in the work of a few. Something worth thinking about.
In any case, Pound seems to have wanted to set up many resonances in this particular poem linking back to the earlier Cantos: there are multiple invocations of the Bucentoro singing “stretti” (which we heard in Cantos III and VI), and a trip back to Chateau Ventadour, which brings us back to Southern France once more… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
To be frank, there are some invocations that mystify me: I didn’t know the significance of Clara d’Ellébeuse, with whose air two Croat merchants sit in the salotto of a drummer’s hotel somewhere — though tracking down a translation by C. John Holcombe, which you can read here, helps a little. The last stanza reads:
Viens, viens, ma chère Clara d’Ellébeuse:
aimons-nous encore si tu existes.
Le vieux jardin a des vieilles tulipes.
Viens toute nue, ô Clara d’Ellébeuse.
(Come, my precious Clara d’Ellébeuse,
together let us love if you exist.
Old gardens have old tulips in their midst.
O come quite naked, Clara d’Ellébeuse.)
So there’s something about wistful longing for a girl from the past, a girl who attended an old-fashioned boarding school, and whom a man wishes to come to him, both in a cheesy romantic way, but also in a candidly sexual way; the physical, amorous longing for the lost past, and not just the quaint, lacy image of the past made public. But… what of that?
I am even more baffled with the stuff about music publisher who’d tried to get some business in South America, which follows later on down the second page of the poem — I have no idea what that stuff is there for, except that perhaps these are satirical figures in that darkness, playing at culture, at art, longing viscerally for a past that may be dead or at least is now inapplicable, impossible to apply to the present, impossible to properly desire, since the whole of Europe is fallen into shadows. (A bit like how one’s long-ago longings to own every LP in a record store would look as quaint now as the businessman’s failed plans, or how lusting after a young Audrey Hepburn might be for those who remember her first-hand from movies made in her youth.) I’m not sure.
There is some stuff about the building of a church:
Sed et universus quoque ecclesie populus, All rushed out and built the duomo, Went as one man without leaders And the perfect measure took form; "Glielmo ciptadin" says the stone, "the author, "And Nicolao was the carver" Whatever the meaning may be. And they wrote for year after year. Refining the criterion, Or they rose as the tops subsided;
Of course, there is the biographical, the life-writing element here: Pound saw an inscription in a cathedral in Ferrara, above the altar, that read as follows:
Fo Nicolao scolptore
E Gliemo fo lo auctore
In other words:
Nicolao was the sculptor,
And Gugliemo was the author
Suddenly, Pound’s line becomes interesting in the context of the stanza: if, as the Latin line at the beginning claims, “the whole population of the church, also” came out to build the duomo–the cathedral–and worked “as one man without leaders” then what does the inscription mean?
Once again, and for neither the first nor the last time in this study of Pound, I’m sure, I refer my reader to the wonderful text Memory and Re-Creation in Troubadour Lyric, where author Amelia E. Van Vleck writes of how medieval — and particularly troubadour — poems used architectural metaphors for their song-building, just as Pound seems to do when he focuses on architecture one and over, most powerfully but certainly not exclusively in his descriptions of Malatesta’s Tempio. But Medieval folk conceived of construction in ways that we no longer do:
The lasting monuments of the Middle Ages—cathedrals, castles, and towers—were the work of many, sometimes of generations, and there would be no Frank Lloyd Wright to credit with designing the whole and seeing it completed according to his original plans. The metaphor of the poet as builder, too, must be in harmony with medieval ideas on building. (pg. 176)
Here, we see once again, like the Tempio, a metaphor of construction rather fitting for the Cantos, in fact much more fitting–whether or not Pound quotes the lines for this purpose is unclear, but the shoe certainly fits. After all, the Cantos is a poem that bears one name on the frontispiece, but is build of stones carried by thousands and thousands. While names may be carved into stone, it is only the masses, generation upon generation of them, who can build up a cathedral… at least, in the Middle Ages.
This, of course, raises the question of history: Pound himself soon enough falls prone to the worship of a supposedly “Great Man”–Mussolini, as we’ll begin to see soon in the Cantos. Is Pound’s stance on the cathedral negative, or positive? The question of who “authors” a cathedral is similar to the question of who authors The Cantos–of which we may presume Pound saw himself as the author–or a revolution?
But which revolution is it we’re talking about? It seems for a brief moment that it is the French Revolution…
… until the reader reaches the end of the next line:
Brumaire, Fructidor, Petrograd.
Brumaire and Fructidor are unfamiliar words to us, because–unlike the meter and the gram–they were coinages of the French Revolution that did not catch on. (Brumaire ran from 22 Oct. to 20 Nov.; Fructidor, from 18 Aug. to 16 Sept.) But when we reach the end of the line, Petrograd, we realize Pound has catapulted us from the French Revolution to the Russian one.
The idealized narrative of the Russian Revolution was that the comrades carried it out–the Tovarisch who is mentioned over and over again, a kind of weird Anteus-like figure who sees a materialization of three forms, of figures in the air that hover around him. He says of them:
This machinery is very ancient, surely we have heard this before. And the waves like a forest Where the wind is weightless in the leaves But moving, so that the sound runs upon sound. Xarites, born of Venus and wine.
Carved stone upon stone But in sleep, in the waking dream, Petal'd the air; twig where but wind-streak had been; Moving bough without root, by Helios.
In a repeating, song-like passage, Tovarisch is said to have “labored,” to have “wrecked the house of the tyrants,” and then “rose, and talked folly on folly, / And walked forth…” and:
... lay in the earth And the Xarites bent over tovarisch.
It is signal here that tovarisch “cursed and blessed without aim”–not only because this seems to point to a denigration of the Russian masses, who “talked folly” that was put forth to them by propagandizing theorists, after all. Pound seems to be cognizant of what Orlando Figes calls the Russian Revolution: “A People’s Tragedy.”
Here, Pound introduces the tale of Cadmus, yes, Cadmus of the golden prows (though Pound renders those prows “gilded” instead); particularly, the bit of the story when Cadmus plants a dragon’s teeth in the soil, and from the ground spring the Sparti, the fierce warriors back to whom Thebans traced their ancestry… at least, to the five who survived the bloody mess that followed their birth, for the first thing they did was begin to fight one another. Clearly, Pound is describing the horrors that constituted and followed the Russian Revolution, at least insofar as he knew about them. (I don’t know how much was in the newspapers he was reading at the time.)
Interlaced into the tale of Cadmus, and a brief glimpse of Chateau Ventadour, now in ruins–where my personal favorite among the troubadours, Bernart da Ventadour wrote songs for the lady of the castle, the wife of Eblis II, Vicomte of Ventadour–is a lament for having neither sailed with Cadmus, not built anything from stone.
On a personal note: I first learned of Cadmus from Dragon Magazine: there was an article on “dragon’s teeth warriors or some such, and how this magic could be included in one’s AD&D game. I tracked down the article, which it turns out was “The magic of dragon teeth” by Gregg Chamberlain, published in Dragon Magazine #98. Click on the image below (which was the accompanying illustration for the article, and drawn by Jeff Easley) to see the article in PDF form.
Then there’s a goofy, weird little mocking passage at the end, which I’ll quote in its entirety:
"Baked and eaten tovarisch! "Baked and eaten tovarisch, my boy, "That is your story. And up again, "Up and at 'em. Laid never stone upon stone."
"The air burst into leaf." "Hung there flowered acanthus, "Can you tell the down from the up?"
The acanthus is a Mediterranean flower that Terrell tells us was used in ornamenting Corinthian columns, but also is supposed to recall Persephone’s “two-way vegetation,” whatever that means.
What is going on here? I mean, beyond the stuff that’s explicit, which is pretty much your standard postwar modernist vision of Europe in ruins, civilization as having collapsed… Pound’s version of this song by The Doors?
(Yes, that’s right, I’m saying that Jim Morrison here was simply traversing a landscape that the modernists mapped before him. If you doubt me, check out my review of Surette’s book on the birth of Modernism. Even the whole “The West is the Best” line, which sounds more like a throwaway rhyme, echoes it… and is incongruous when you remember that, best or not, it’s the end, my friend. Listening now, one cannot escape the feeling Morrison was connecting, in some rudimentary way, to the same tradition as Pound: the murder ballads that spring from the vidas of the troubadours, the weird mysticism of the occult, the violence against one’s [literary] forebears, and so on…)
Well, for one thing, I can’t help but think that by 1927, Pound must have been starting to worry about the posterity of his own work. More than anyone else, he was cleaving to the Great Literary Tradition–or, at least, that must have been what he felt, with that tradition naturally expressed in the singular–and yet he had received far less fame, respect, or security than others. Less than Eliot. Less than Joyce. Less than Cummings and W.C. Williams. Okay, not less than H.D., but she was a woman and “woman poets” were rarely were more worshipped than male ones at the time. Pound is engaged in a project that ties him to artists of the past, to the builders of the literary canon, but will his name end up carved in the stone? Or will he be another Divus, bid “lie still” by some later comer to the arts? The anxiety is palpable here, and perhaps has been there all along; perhaps Pound is dropping the names of all his predecessors not so much to show off his reading, as to invite others to add his name to the list, to include him on their roll calls of poetical masters…
… a gambit that seems, in fact, to have succeeded, though of course Pound is remembered for more reasons than that.
As for my occult Pound, well, I’m not so sure there’s much here to do with his occult interests, though there are plenty of biographical things. Pound’s relationship with the past seems to come to life here mainly in his concerns for his own literary posterity. But beyond that, I’m not sure; while I find the poem quite a bit more interesting than what I discussed last week, I’m not sure it’s so applicable, except in his flirtation with — and rejection of — Marxist Revolution in Russia, his anger at the masses, his view of Europe as a postwar wreck even as late as 1927; quite a different specter haunting Europe than the one described by Marx, for it was the specter of the ruination of civilization itself.
Beyond that, well, one could always work in some Russian hedge witches, and the dragon’s teeth thing, with Cadmus, is suggestive. One wonders whether Pound wasn’t starting to see himself as a bit like Cadmus, too: among the Sparti he himself has planted — or so he would have liked to think — and watching them tear one another apart, and then build up a great city. But whose name would be carved into the front gate?
Next time, I’ll get through as much of Cantos XXVIII-XXX as I can. XXVIII is quite long, but I figure I can probably get ’em done by Tuesday.