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 for a fiction project I’d like to write next year. 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.
Yesterday, I launched into Eleven New Cantos XXXI-XLI with a short essay (which it is, more than a close reading of the sort I’ve done for a lot of the earlier Cantos) on Cantos XXXI-XXXIII. Today, I’m continuing on through Cantos XXXIV-XXXVI, the last of which seems like a good stopping point for the day’s posting.
Where Thomas Jefferson was the main presence in Cantos XXXI-XXXIII (with John Adams a lesser but important presence in the last of the three) in Canto XXXIV Pound takes John Quincy Adams as his primary source–once again, unfortunately, with the quotations, though the poem is at least less perfunctory than Canto XXXIII. (And if John Quincy Adams lacks some of the bad-boy charm of Jefferson, his career is at least a little more clearly outlined.)
In this poem, Pound seems most concerned with J.Q. Adams’ overseas service to America, starting as a minister plenipotentiary in Russia during the term of President James Madison, though–in a way that makes sense here–there is a preoccupation with France, England, Russia, and European politics in general. The text works like the last few before it, drawing on diary entries made by J.Q. Adams throughout his career: a chance meeting with Napoleon here (and the Emperor is rather familiar with him), a proposal of a kind of proto-free-trade agreement with Russia (via Count Nicholas Petrovich Romanzoff); here
There are two black men explicitly featured in this Canto: one is an unnamed black manservant (Terrell gives the name “Nelson”) who accompanies J.Q. Adams to Russia when he goes there, in the poem’s second line; the other appears on the second page:
A black, Claud Gabriel, in the emperor's service was very ill used in America.
Terrell fills in the blanks from J.Q. Adam’s diary, noting that this man, having been sent to America in service of the Emperor of Russia, was instructed to dress in his finest clothes, and to carry about a sabre, but that he was so harassed (and on occasion subjected to violence) by strangers that finally he was obliged to put both aside. Why Pound is so interested in these two black men, both servants abroad but apparently of vastly different station, is unclear, though one wishes to find the context in the poem to support the connection.
And yet, Pound does not really offer context, does not offer connections, even: in earlier poems, one imagines Pound might have found a classical analogy, some black African figure in a Roman poem who traveled far and was transformed somehow, or something. Instead, Pound forces us through the potato ricer of his consciousness, drawing attention to J.Q. Adams’ familiarity with both Napoleon and what seems to King Louis XVIII, with opera and theater and questions of American economics. Pound quotes a bit of dialog reported by Adams with a British parliamentarian (asking about whether Franklin really “regretted” the American Revolution) where Adams asserts that Washington and Franklin alike did not want revolution, though his own father (John Adams) as well as Samuel Adams and James Otis surely had wanted it.
The poem recounts J.Q. Adams’ return to America, where he is feted in New York on the way home, and it is after this passage, and a brief attack on DeWitt Clinton, the governor of New York State at the time of J.Q. Adams’ return, that Adams is allowed a moment of interesting self-insight:
"a misanthropist, an unsocial savage" J.Q.A. on himself.
That’s all we get before he launches into banking problems, into a scandalous nepotistic proposal by one Colonel Johnson to provide arms for South American countries experiencing uprisings, in order to provide a job for a journalist named William Duane. There is all kinds of disjointed material here — from a scheme to bring Jews over from Austria to America (for their mad banking skillz, yo… a glimpse of the horror to come in this poem); a statement of what seems to be classic American isolationism regarding European politics and problems; political infighting regarding education spending (when Adams failed to secure a majority in the electoral college and could not get anything made into law); gardening notes; a dwindling interest in fiction and a disdain for Shakespeare and his fancy-dancy vocabulary; some of J.Q. Adams’ personal financial notes; his entry into the House of Representatives, and discussion there about banking; some discussion of a meal he took with one Mr. Webster; thoughts on populist politics and on a group of demonstrators on the lawn of the White House; a conversation with a very young Queen Victoria.
A passage at the end of the second-last page seems to link to those two black men glimpsed earlier:
The world, the flesh, the devils in hell are Against and man who now in the North American Union shall dare to join the standard of Almighty God to Put down the African slave trade... what can I Seventy-four years, verge of my birthday, shaking hand ... for the suppression of the African slave trade.....
One must wonder what Pound is attempting to highlight here. It seems probable that he would have envisioned some kind of parallel between people trapped in an economic system they could not control or change, and in which they had no say, and African slaves abducted to America, but he does not make this explicit. Still, it is a reminder that the “black manservant” and Claud Gabriel, both black men traveling across the world, were part of a larger and more horrifying transnational transport and economic trade system. The slave trade may, indeed, have been one of the original significant forms of transnational “free trade” to operate in the modern world (that is, in a world where trade was not universally “free” because of a lack of institutions, laws, treaties, and so forth).
There is some stuff about Martin Van Buren and the death of President Harrison, but all of it so perfunctory as to lead one to believe Pound included it only because skipping it was incomprehensible. Or something. But there is, finally, a flash of something interesting, toward the end of the poem:
haec sunt infamiae... wrongs of the Cherokee nation.. These are the sins of Georgia These are the lies These are the infamies These are the broken contracts... Buchanan the shade of a shade, Scott a daguerrotype of a likeness Mr Dan Webster spouting, Tyler's nose outreaching the munyment
Gun barrels, black walnut...
The wrongs of the Cherokee nation actually refers to wrongs perpetrated against them by the state of Georgia, and after J.Q.A./Pound rail against those sins, they follow ho with some criticism of the candidates for yet another election: Buchanan, Scott, Webster, and Tyler.
There is a nifty triangle on the page, inscribed with what J.Q.A. read on a pyramid commemorating the founding of a town named Arrarat by one Mordecai Noah, from a trip J.Q.A. made to the Midwest– another discomfiting foretaste of the anti-Semitism that seems to have been only nascent at this point–and Pound closes with jubilation:
Firemen's torchlight procession! Proportioned to free inhabitants (Dec. 21. '43) Electro-magnetic (Morse) Constans proposito Justum et Tenacem
To the left of those last last indented lines, there is also the Chinese character for “integrity”:
although, note, the character is mis-inscribed: it is, in the text, missing the little stroke at the top. This is, it seems to me, the first moment where Pound has included a single Chinese character beside his text, simply as a gloss on the point he is trying to make: John Quincy Adams was a man of integrity, just and virtuous in his tenacity (as the last two lines—from Horace—claim).
(Note: for more on this Chinese character, please see the comments section below.)
This is one of those Poundian poems that does not beguile or intrigue me: it’s simply a decanting of passages, a biographical sketch, Pound attempting, unconvincingly, to hold up an American politician as somehow being an epic figure. Well, and I’m sure John Quincy Adams (and Jefferson, and John Adams) all are in some sense epic figures… but not the kind that fit naturally into the form of an epic poem. Pound seems to have felt that if he just sort of picked the right bits of their biographies, he could make it work, but the scrambling mess of the last four poems suggests that it is, in fact, a doomed enterprise unless you’re really, truly committed to redefining the format thoroughly. It’s a bit like trying to make a mainstream Bollywood movie with a quadriplegic protagonist–to riff off a gag in the movie Om Shanti Om: unless you’re going to give the character song-and-dance sequences only in dreams, you’re going to figure out a radically alternative way of making a mainstream Bollywood movie where the protagonist never sings and dances.
(And yeah, I know, such films exist; I’ve seen a few myself. But you get my point.)
From the preview of what’s to come provided by Terrell, it seems that Pound does come to realize this, as he turns to himself–and to the cast of characters from his life–in the Pisan Cantos… but it takes him more than a decade to get there.
In Canto XXXV, there is a marked improvement in readability, though, again, this is still largely missing the things that I look for in a Poundian Canto. Pound seems primarily to be interested in depicting the decaying aristocratic world of Central Europe (and contrasting it with the dynamism he sees in post-Revolutionary America, perhaps), though it is named throughout by the German term that appears at the beginning of the first line:
So this is (may we take it) Mitteleuropa:
The first few pages of the poem consist of a series of anecdotes regarding the fallen, ignoble, and pathetic nature of the aristocratic classes, who get away with shirking their responsibilities on the battlefield and fail to sponsor good musicians, who no longer play polo but sit about getting drunk, who sit about wishing they could pay for sex with young pretty women glimpsed in restaurants.
There is a weird passage concerning “the warmth of affections, / the intramural, the almost intravaginal warmth of / hebrew affections, in the family, and nearly everything else” that comes up at the bottom of the first page and the top of the second; but it is on the third page of the poem that comes one of those moments we shall have to brace ourselves for, as we read the Cantos, for here, Pound launches into a Yiddish accent. While Pound has launched into other accents before–French, Italian, Russian, and Southern come to mind–he uses the accent to tell an incongruous story of a Jewish painter, whose brother dies for comedic effect–the Jewish painter throws a magnificent funeral, “and tden zent dh pill to dh wife” [and then sent the bill to the wife]; and he makes fun of a fallen Hungarian baron of Jewish descent as well. Of course, Pound is making fun of all of Mitteleuropa, but it remains unnerving given the hatred he will sooner or later begin to express toward the Jews.
Suddenly, there is a detour into Italy, into the selling of cloth and of industry and tax in that country, and some comments about Lucrecia Borgia, though she is named only indirectly — Madame ύλη, which means “Madame Matter, an epithet attached to her. Then, some stuff about commerce, and some fixation on Venice. The poem closes with someone trying to pass to a vizier of some sort his Venetian goods, which he claims (dishonestly) are made by “damned jews in exile, made by damned jews in / Ragusa and sold with Venetian labels.”
Again, we’re at a point where I’m not really sure what the poem is actually driving at. It clearly touches on decay, but why the leap from decaying Mitteleuropa to the Italian cloth trade, and thence to the Venetian docks, or whatever Middle-Eastern docks at which the Venetians have landed? This much is a mystery to me… a mystery that only deepens in the next Canto.
For Canto XXXVI, while it is the most readable of this series, is still more baffling than the ones before. True, Pound had long been engaged in the translation of Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi pregha”, a canzone that takes its “title” from its first line (as do many troubadour songs). That first line, Pound translates directly as “A lady asks me”… about what? It’s not hard to guess, if you’ve read much poetry of the era, but if not:
A lady asks me I speak in season She seeks a reason for an affect, wild often That is so proud he hath Love for a name...
In other words, a lady asked the poet to explain to here the reason for love, why love exists. Cavalcanti’s poem apparently attempts to explain it, though to be frank, I rather feel like siding with Thomas Jefferson a few cantos back, when he objected to the rather common ideas in Shakespeare, which the Bard expressed in rather uncommon words. I’ve read this Canto several times, but it was only by reading up on it elsewhere that I could feel certain I’d understood it: it’s about the theoretics and mechanics of love. Not of physical love, mind–of the experience of love, of the psychological origins of love:
In short, the sensitive, like the rational soul is located in the brain, but does not produce love-feelings unless the eyes meet those of a particular woman who has exclusive affinity to him. This complies with Aristotle’s theory of cause and effect, whereby no effect can proceed from an object if the object has not the potential to accomplish it. When a woman’s look meet the eyes of a man, the potential for love grows into passion, a spirit or fluid that possesses all his faculties. Such a passion needs more and more love to satisfy its ever-growing appetite, until (when desire outstrips human limits) he is led to insanity and death.
After the brief envoi at the end of the poem, Pound moves on, but it is worth noting a few things:
- Cavalcanti was a friend of Dante’s; indeed, the latter even called him “mentor.” Cavalcanti therefore represents, on one level, a link between Dante and his poetical predecessors, including Occitanian troubadours.
- Cavalcanti’s work seems clearly to draw on narratives regarding love that have a French origin, as well as the notion of love-sickness that, as I’ve noted before, has its origins (in the form seen in Medieval Europe) in the Muslim world.
Following the conclusion of Pound’s rendition of “Donna mi pregha”–a rendition I myself find less than successful–he does not end his Canto as well, but instead proceeds to a discussion of John Scotus Eriguina [sic], a medieval scholar and theologian, in a few ways downright heretical and here linked by Pound (or, rather, by Eriguina’s enemies) to the Manicheans.
Pound takes a brief jab at the alternative:
Aquinas head down in a vacuum, Aristotle which way in a vacuum? Sacrum, sacrum, inluminatio coitu. Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana of a castle named Goito
Here, there is a clear linkage to the Cavalcanti poem: it is not just Pound’s argument against Aquinas and Aristotle, though that argument is important, because it fundamentally takes up Pound’s argument that the Catholicism and modern religion generally had deemphasized the locus of true mystery, focusing instead on dogma, rites, and and the external trappings of faith; Aquinas was too dogmatic, Aristotle too detached in his scientific tendencies. What Pound offers as the counter to this soulless religious/philosophical tradition is the holiness of sex: sacrum means holy, while obviously inluminatio coitu means “the illumination in coitus”–for Erigena and Cavalcanti seemed to see sex as an engine of revelation, of spiritual transcendence.
Following this shift to Sordello, we are regaled by a tale of Sordello’s being gifted with five castles, a town with a dye-works industry, though it is noted that in the end, his descendants were not so thankful for their various inheritances:
his heirs of both sexes, ...sold the damn lot six weeks later, Sordellus de Godio Quan ben m'albir e mon ric persamen.
It is not difficult to link Cavalcanti to Sordello, while also bearing in mind Sordello’s links back to Bernart and other troubadours, and Cavalcanti’s links forward to Dante, Rossetti, Pound, and Eliot–but also, of course, Cavalcanti’s rumored atheism, his seeming philosophical linkage between light and love, and love and divine power, and love and transformation. There is evidence in the early Cantos that, at least in the philosophical metaphysics of the poem, love is rooted in the physical experience of vision–like the visions of the divine that riddle earlier Cantos–and that metamorphosis, transcendence, and the human experience of the divine are all (in Cavalcanti/Pound) rooted in love.
Here at last, we have something of a mystical hook upon which to hang our Poundian hat. There is love, and vision, and transcendence, and of course light. Light and love and mystical power are always linked in Pound, after all–or, at least, they have been thus far. Why Pound chooses to include the Cavalcanti in the text is an interesting question; while, doubtless, the real Pound simply felt that as a masterpiece, and one he had spent years translating, it simply belonged there. (He also spoke with approval of the importance of Cavalcanti as a poet, if I remember my ABC of Reading well.)
But a fictional Pound involved in a secret, shadowy occult war, might have other reasons: perhaps he was attempting to fix a link to a prophetic power, one linked to his love life, erotic adventures, or even his visionary experiences. Or perhaps he was binding the spirit of Cavalcanti into the poem, as he had bound Divus, “Homer,” Ovid, and other artists.
There’s also the idea, very relevant here, of an artistic conspiracy for the truth and freedom of humankind–specifically, a war in which poets could participate in a significant way. In a sense, it’s understandable: poetry had once seemed so important to the world, but by the time Pound began writing it, it had already gone into a sharp decline. It is easy to imagine an artist wanting to believe there were some secret association of artists and poets fighting for the spirit of the world, to save love and to bring human minds to a higher, more divine level of insight. Certainly Surette has prepared us for the notion that the occult for Pound is erotic/esoteric (and can be tied to Erigena’s Neoplatonism rather easily, of course), and historical and conspiratorial in nature all at once. Why he is binding them seems still unclear, but making that stuff is the fun part…
Well, that’s it for Cantos XXXIV-XXXVI. I haven’t written much about biographical goings-on for Pound at the time, in the early 1930s, but I hope to remedy that by the end of the summer: I’m planning on bringing one of the Pound biographies along on my trip, and will report back on that when it’s done!