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 picking up after too long an absence. All I can say is that it’s been a crazy month, so I’m just continuing where I left off: that is, starting with Cantos XXXI-XXXIII today. I’ll make an effort to blog a few more cantos later this week if I can, and if not, I’ll continue as best I can during my upcoming travels.
The first few cantos of XI New Cantos, the next collection Pound published after A Draft of XXX Cantos, deal with Thomas Jefferson. Now, I know that at one point earlier in this series, I wished that Pound could have chosen Jefferson as his central American political figure instead of John Adams… but actually, now, I find myself thinking it doesn’t make much difference either way.
If Cantos XXXI-XXXIII are a foretaste of the China and Adams Cantos, then I am in for one hell of a slog this fall, which is when I’ll be tackling them! Even a pretty interesting guy like Jefferson is reduced to a collection of quotes taken from his letters, often provided without much context, occasionally in foreign languages, and always on subjects that seem to Pound quite important. Pound’s idiosyncratic values are one thing, but personally, I find myself wishing that he’d done the work to make explicit the links between the things he’s going on about, instead of reveling in making his references increasingly obscure.
(There’s a degree to which it’s fun to work hard at trying to understand what the hell Pound was up to in the earlier Cantos; but as time passes, it begins to feel more like he’s just hiding the interesting tidbits like a dog hides bones, or a squirrel hides nuts–or, worse, to show off his own cleverness and make his readers feel even more inadequate to the task of reading his “masterpiece.”)
In any case, my experience with these Jefferson Cantos was one of frustration: basically, Pound sets out to demonstrate that Jefferson was a great man, ahead of his time, and of course naturally interested in a great many of the same things that interested Pound, and holding opinions that Pound finds fit with his own (economic, political, and artistic) agenda.
And that’s about all these three poems are: a pastiche of excerpts taken from letters that went between Jefferson and a number of his contemporaries (often in discussion of others of their contemporaries) all so famous and critical to early US history (and to the political philosophy of the democratic state) as to constitute a who’s who: on the first page of the canto alone, we find letters to George Washington and to Thomas Paine, and some of the other figures who crop up include James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Aaron Burr, and more.
The topics of discussion range, in such fashion as Pound has already set us up to expect, from the first mention of Jefferson in Canto XXI. There, he inquired in a letter whether someone on the Continent might be able to recommend some workers for Monticello who could both perform household duties, and play music—a sign, we are meant to take, of a thoughtful and practical renaissance man, concerned not only with art but the economics and practicalities of its place in the New World.
And the Jefferson who emerges in these cantos is, in fact, savvy, well-enough acquainted with the Old World as to sneer at its popes and monarchs–as Pound did–and to think in what seems, for his time, positively progressively in terms of how Native Americans ought to be treated (as evidenced by part of the long passage on the second page of Canto XXXII).
But Jefferson is no liberal, not in the sense we think of liberality and not really in the sense Pound would have seen it (for, likewise, Pound as no liberal by the terms of his day): he is more idiosyncratic than that, but also more proto-Libertarian in a sense. Again, not in the post-Heinlein/Ayn Rand sense of Libertarian: for one thing, Jefferson obviously recognized that even small governments need funds, which in several of the excerpted letters he seeks to borrow from Continental lenders. Much is made of the French support of the revolutionaries in America, and yet Jefferson/Pound also spends some time slamming the political and historical ignorance of French intellectuals of the time. With Franklin, he seems amused by the idea that man is rational–and here, we see, the beginnings of Pound’s own attraction to fascism: the artist, after all, is a person who holds absolute power over his or her work. Democracy is impossible in art, after all, and plenty of modernist artists were on some level quite sympathetic to fascism.
Jefferson/Pound is also downright dismissive and derisive of the monarchs of Europe, in a way that amuses me but which also seems very much a hidden affirmation of Pound’s own derision at the artistic monarchy he encountered in Europe. Would Pound have been happier returning to America, and fighting cheek and jowl for a place for his art in a less hidebound and traditionalist culture? The problem for Pound was that he exulted in so much of what he also derided: he may not have approved of the kings and popes of the European and English art worlds, but he also was fascinated by kings and popes, and no doubt saw himself as some sort of intermediary figure at that sort of level for the artistic world of his time.
The third of the Cantos, Canto XXXIII, is the least interesting of all–it seems to go straight into quotations from letters about topics as diverse as legislation regarding child laborers, the quality of 18th century philosophy, what an asshole Napoleon was, a Russian banking scandals, and the historical memory of despotic regimes, and the qualities inborn in members of the hereditary “gentle” classes.
There are occasional literary references, such as to Cadmus of Thebes and his army of men sprung up from a dragon’s teeth in Canto XXXIII, and a riff on something put into Sordello’s mouth by Dante in the Divine Comedy at the end of Canto XXXII. But all in all, these poems seem to work on what is almost a consciously anti-literary level… or perhaps, instead, on an anti-epic level.
After all, consider Pound’s difficult, if self-assigned, task: he is to write an epic containing history, sure, but he has also set before himself the task of writing and epic of history that centers on great figures, especially heroic men, on repeating historical patterns. Jefferson may have been a Renaissance man of sorts, but not in the way Malatesta was, with all his self-contradictions, his underhanded acts at times, and so on. Malatesta fought, and stole, but he also built–literally, he had the Tempio built. The post-bag constitutes a couple of cantos, but it also fills out the spaces of a fairly exciting life story full of dangerous political maneuvers, deadly battles, terrifying betrayals, and outright warfare.
Jefferson’s life may have been interesting, but he was no Malatesta. One imagines perhaps that George Washington’s life would have included the requisite heroics, but then, was Washington as interesting in his letters? Jefferson was the man Pound chose, after stepping away from A Draft of XXX Cantos, just as Adams would be the man he would choose later: and herein lies part of the difficult of writing epic verse, with a strong investment in ancient heroic epics, for a modern audience and with modern figures. Malatesta could, if you squinted hard enough and looked only at what Pound showed you, pass as a kind of pseudo-Odyssean figure. But Jefferson cannot: there is no sailing adventure, no battle to keep what was his, no deceitful cleverness used to wreck his enemies… just letters, letters, letters.
Or at least that’s how Pound makes it look, in these poems. I don’t know much about Jefferson’s personal life, and maybe there was room to fantasize some adventure into it, or heighten the conflicts between him and others–Pound does not seem to hesitate about these things when it comes to others, after all–but his treatment of Jefferson is surprisingly flat, and thoroughly epistolary in its excerpts from his life.
And this, perhaps, is the big problem with the Cantos: when your model is that of a rag-bag of interesting bits and pieces that interested the author, and the author’s interests become increasingly focused on a narrow region of politics and economy–as Pound’s did with his increasing obsession with the Social Credit movement–then it becomes harder and harder to tell a compelling story. As problematic as Sordello is in getting the facts wrong, as dubious as Dante’s history is, and as questionable as the Homeric epics are, they are compelling stories about characters who both excite and attract readers. In Pound’s epic, though, that central figure is not a figure, but rather a shattered mosaic glued together by the obsessions of the poet. Not quite the stuff of traditional epics, in other words.
So we can imagine Pound here struggling, in part because he cannot find a figure that works as wonderfully as Sigismundo Malatesta did, and because he senses that the heroic-figure-model cannot work for his modernist epic, but also because he doesn’t have a better option, and because his own obsessive interest cannot (as he must have realized on some level) interest the general literary audience.
Is this why these poems are so unliterary in their execution, so bereft of the dense barrage of allusions and of polyglot passages? It’s not clear, but it’s something I can’t help but suspect. Where I originally wished Pound had chosen Jefferson instead of Adams for a major figure in the Cantos, now I cannot help but wonder whether he wouldn’t have been wiser choosing a very different figure… except that, I suppose, he indeed did do so: he chose Mussolini (who will appear toward the end of this set of eleven new cantos), who in the end is not really a better choice… but who is–and this is the signal problem, I think–perhaps a choice more in harmony with not only Pound’s unnerving beliefs and tendencies, but also the whole inherent ethic and aesthetic of classical epic poetry he was working to adapt to the modern world.
Is it too much to say that? That the value system and worldview embodied in the classical epic poetical tradition is most clearly expressed in modern (1930) terms in the fascist worldview and value system? Certainly the fascists themselves saw their political system as return to ancient ways, a return to the ruling of the many by a powerful, and always a male, leader-figure. Such figures are not necessarily praised by Homer for their personal decency and their ethical comportment, as much as for their capacity to kick their enemies’ asses, the divine favor they win through their own excellence, and their clever outwitting and outmaneuvering of their enemies. Pound wanted to write for a pagan audience, but he was stuck with a (roughly) Judeo- Christian one, and a Judeo-Christian upbringing against which he had to transgress in order to embrace the pagan ideas and values he came to espouse.
It is also easy to imagine Pound struggling because of his isolation: he was, more and more, prone to going on ceaselessly about Social Credit theory; he had alienated many of his literary friends and compatriots; he had moved to Italy where few of them lived. He was struggling in a number of ways, all at once. And he hadn’t even yet realized what was on the horizon: another war, this one more devastating than the last, and the public repudiation of the political system that fit best with his own philosophical, artistic, and personal vision of the world.
Pound the fascist is emerging, something that, in a fictionalized rendition of Pound, would require some very delicate handling, so that his belief system would make sense, and even attract the reader a little, despite its general repulsiveness to us today. A delicate balance, this necessitates.
As for occult significance, I find little here. I don’t know for sure about the relationship between the occult and the economic material in the Cantos, but I do find that Pound seems to wax more poetical when he deals with occult subjects, a pattern that makes sense if you think about it, what with poetry’s ability to gesture at the ineffable; the problem is that when he is effing (ahem) economics and politics, Pound seems to dispense with a lot of the work of crafting beautiful lines, and the price he pays is that those poems get read quickly, and without much satisfaction, by those who read him less as an economics instructor and more as a poet.
This concludes my short discussion of Cantos XXXI-XXXIII; I’ll return as soon as possible with a discussion of some of the Cantos that follow, though we’ll see just how many I can get through before I give a specific number.