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.
This post (several days late, though that’s becoming a pattern this semester) deals with the first four cantos of The Fifth Decad of Cantos (also sometimes called the “Leopoldine” Cantos), specifically Cantos XLII-XLV… the last of which is an infamous one, the “Usura” Canto.
It is not the substance of Cantos XLII-XLIV that is interesting to me. Essentially, Pound is doing something we’ve seen him do before: a reconstruction of a particular narrative from a history book he’s been studying. This particular narrative is concerning the Sienese Bank, to which he refers under what feels like a dozen different names–Monte dei Paschi, The New Mountain, The Bank of the Pastures. All of these refer to a bank he holds up as essentially a historical exemplar of the kind of economics proposed by C.H. Douglas, known as Social Credit.
Interesting SF Connection #1: Robert A. Heinlein was also a believer in Social Credit, at least during the 1930s, and his 1939 novel For Us, The Living (note: which I have not read) depicts a society with a Social Credit economic system. This is yet another rather unflattering way in which Pound fits in well with SF authors contemporary to him: Pound and Heinlein not only both became increasingly conservative as time went on, but they also, in the 1930s, turned their energies to producing literary representations of Douglas’ system–Heinlein’s a futuristic one, and Pound’s an historical one.
Interesting Current News Connection: The Monte dei Paschi di Siena is, currently, in trouble. And so is Siena. It’s the current financial crisis in Italy that threatens the bank, and one can only imagine what Pound would be writing were he alive to see it today. (Assuming he hadn’t changed radically by now, it would doubtless include angry tirades about the triumph of usura.)
(If you look closely at the image above, you’ll recognize in the oval frame, to the left of the text, the same logo that Pound includes in the last page of Canto XLII.)
One can be easily distracted by the fact that Pound is lovingly, attentively reconstructing the history of the bank in these three Cantos: he begins in Canto XLII with the founding of the Sienese Bank–the letters deliberating how it ought to run, the paperwork outlining its structure and internal systems, and so on. What can I say? Pound’s invention of a form of poetry that essentially does to books of letters what a chef does to a sauce (boiling it down to a concentrated form) is one of his innovations that seems not to have stuck. And for good reason: it’s just not very compelling, especially when he spends time enumerating the bank’s operating expenses.
Pound follows up in Canto XLIII with the reaction to the founding of the Sienese Bank, which can be summed up with a line from a Monty Python film that was very popular at my high school (it comes at 19 seconds into this video):
The rejoicing is spelled out in terms of one of Pound’s favorite things in the world: a parade. This, at least, is a little more interesting, and along the way we learn what the name of the bank means: it is “a base, a fond, a deep, a sure and a certain” — but Monte, which he loves to translate as “Mountain,” essentially means “Bank”; Paschi refers to the “pastures” outside of Siena, the “fruits” of which were taken as the basis upon which the bank could issue its credit. (And Pound constantly puns on the Italian word frutto, which which can mean produce of agricultural production, but can also mean the fruits of an investment; in other words, the interest on an investment).
This, of course, is why Pound is so interested in the Sienese Bank: he sees it as an historical precedent (like the town “Woergl” mentioned in Canto XLI (discussed in my last post), where the issuance of scrip staved off the worst effects of an ongoing economic depression in Europe. Pound hammers at the surety of the bank, its benefits to the people, and then returns to his beloved practice of recounting details–the costs of draining marshlands, and fixing the Roman road in the area, that is, public works that seem to echo for Pound those undertaken by Mussolini’s regime after they took over Italy.
Canto XLIV continues on with the story of the Monte dei Paschi, retelling an account of several Dukes of Tuscany — specifically Pietro Leopoldo and his successor, Ferdinando. There is, of course, another parade… followed by a pogrom against the Jews of Siena by “men of Arezzo.” While I’m not 100% clear on the chronology, the way Pound tells the story suggests a couple of things: first, that some kind of corrupted arms dealing was going on:
Pillage stopped by superior order 3rd July was discovered a treason in the cartridges given the troops that is were full of semolina, not powder and cherry stone where shd/ have been ball and in others too little powder
and, earlier, a sudden rise in prices at the beginning of France’s occupation of Italy under Napoleon.
While of course this progrom brings to mind for us, immediately, the horrors of the Holocaust, we must remember that Pound composed this poem sometime between 1933-1936. That does little to reduce the disgusting nature of the possibility that he is approvingly describing a massacre of Sienese Jews by fire, a moment that is singularly odd since, as Terrell tells us, the men from Arezzo, on their arrival in Siena, immediately let the French escape before setting the ghetto on fire and carrying out their massacre.
The rest of this Canto is preoccupied with Napoleon’s role in the occupation of Italy, the promulgation of the Code Napléon, the recovery of Siena by the Dukes of Tuscany, and the economics involved throughout. It’s worth noting that at this point, Napoleon is King of Italy. He has some policies Pound praises (Pound being one of the first writers or artists I’ve seen to praise Napoleon after his death: plenty of artists alive during the man’s time were excited about him early on, and then soured at some point or other), and some of his letters are excerpted. But the excerpts and the praise are all pretty distant and cold.
Which is to say, it’s not very interesting–something that I suppose I cannot stress enough: these three Cantos are not particularly interesting.
Not, that is, until we realize what it is that makes them unique so far. At every step of the way, Pound has written such historical poems (often in linked series) about historical figures who seem to be intended to play the role of inspiring, heroic figures: Odysseus at the beginning, Robert Browning, then Malatesta, Jefferson, Mussolini… they have all been people, though.
The Monte dei Paschi is not a person, however: it is an institution. It is, in this important way, quite distant from the heroic figures that have preceded it, for it is an abstraction. Whereas in earlier poems, the heroic force was presented as if incarnate, in the bodies of heroic figures, here it is presented as if incarnate in the administrative and economic policies of a bank. There are figures presented in these poems, but they are far from the center of attention; they appear as stewards of the real hero, the Bank of Siena.
This suggests some interesting things about Pound, and where he was poetically at this point in his drafting of The Cantos. Since the end of Canto III, he has seemed to be at a loss for where to focus the poem, whom to select as an exemplar figure. He has retained some of the villains of earlier Cantos — most especially arms dealers — but in these Cantos, he seems to have nobody to cast in the role of hero. The forces that seem to act upon history have been transformed, in his imagination, from profoundly human ones to profoundly mechanistic ones: interest rates and lending policies, rather than poets and adventurers.
And if the Monte dei Paschi incarnates all that is good and heroic in history, then the infamous Canto XLV–the “Usura Canto”–represents the Bank of Siena’s terrifying, evil opposite: usura.
While I am probably correct in assuming that nobody would get to this post in the series without a copy of Pound’s Cantos in hand, it is worth noting that this poem is available all over the place online (here’s one such place). The wide availability of this one poem, as opposed to so many before it, is not just because it is a better poem than those others, though that is a small part of it. It’s also because of the subject matter. This poem has appeared everywhere from discussions of protest poetry to white supremacist magazines. (Yes, I’m sad say, it has.) And indeed, there are elements that seem probably to be pretty timely today not just to right-wing Aryan Nations-type people, but also on the radical left, as in this image I found on a website linked to the Occupy Movement (click the image to visit the source website):
In the video embedded below, you can hear Pound reading “Canto XLV” (also often called “With Usura”):
Reams of scholarly writing have been produced in the discussion of what it was that Pound was actually talking about when he talked about usura, despite the note he provides at the end of this Canto:
N.B. Usury: A charge for the use of purchasing power, levied without regard to production; often without regard to the possibilities of production. (Hence the failure of the Medici bank.)
This is a clearly Douglasite, Social-Credit-based definition of the word, and Pound’s explanation is pretty much the party line for underconsumptionist economic theory… which is the theory that the main problem with modern economics — the cause of the busts that follow the booms — is that the price of what is produced cannot cope with what is consumable given the wages of workers… or at least that’s the roots of Douglas’s ostensible insight. The real issue, of course, is the basis on which credit is issued — which is why the Monte dei Paschi is so attractive to Pound: it issues credit against the produce of the pastures outside Siena. It does not just create money out of thin air, in other words, as Pound would complain a lot of banks were empowered to do.
But there is a lot of baggage to the word Pound chooses to express this idea; hence, the reams of explanation, arguments, and discussion.
Usura is, of course, the medieval Latin word for a practice (now referred to in English as “usury”) that was outlawed in the book of Deuteronomy–in that context, the charging of exorbitant interest on loans, though in the Middle Ages the Church seems to have banned interest of all kinds… at least, for all Christians. Jews, being banned from owning land, were free to lend money on interest. This was, in fact, how all kinds of things got financed, including big “government projects” like the Crusades… but when the Jews in Europe actually built themselves a niche in the shifting economic system of Europe through doing so, this had all kinds of repercussions. It was not only on the grounds of that ancient accusation that the Jews had murdered Christ that Europeans hated and murdered European Jews, after all: it was also linked to the apparent financial success they enjoyed while practicing something outlawed by the Church to its own faithful.
There is also a parallel between the horror Pound felt at the power of the banks, and that Pound felt at the notion of the Judeo-Christian god. Both created things ex nihilo–out of nothing–God, the world, and banks, money–and held essentially all the power, while colluding with heads of state (the Church did so with monarchs, the banks with modern political leadership). Since “bankers” and “Jews” were interchangeable for modern economic conspiracy-theorists as far back as Douglas, and definitely in Pound’s time, this was for Pound almost too easy: usura, a word that described a Biblical monetary crime, also was used to describe a medieval monetary “crime” by the Jews, and whaddaya know, if one wanted to criticize modern monetary “crime” as well, one could simply invoke that word, and damn both bankers and Jews all at once.
This suggests a different origin for Pound’s growing anti-Semitism than simply fascism–and after all, Pound was anti-Semitic before such a position was actually a part of Italian fascism. (That came later, when Mussolini allied his regime with Hitler’s, at least according to one source I’m reading now.) That is to say, Pound seems to have come by his anti-Semitism by other means, specifically by means of his economic studies and his occult conspiracy-theory studies. I’ll have more to say about that when I review Leon Surette’s Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism, but for now, I’ll let that lie, as it’s somewhat tangential to this particular poem.
Tangential, except for one thing: Pound’s concsicous use of language of the sort we find in the King James Bible. Consider the infamous opening lines:
With Usura With usura hath no man a house of good stone each block cut smooth and well fitting that design might cover their face, with usura hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall harpes et luz or where virgin receivethe message and halo projects from incision
Note how, even in the beginning, when Pound discusses the influence of usura on construction, he segues — within a few lines — to the idea of “a house of good stone” being decorated by art: “that design might cover their face”. Frescoes, in other words, or the use of art to enrich the lives of human beings on a daily basis.
The poem is artfully constructed, and if we read it without questioning it too attentively, we are swept away by the rhythms, the powerful phrasing, the insistence of it:
with usura, sin against nature, is thy bread ever more of stale rags is thy bread dry as paper, with usura no mountain wheat, no strong flour with usura the line grows thick with usura is no clear demarcation and no man can find site for his dwelling. Stonecutter is kept from his stone weaver is kept from his loom WITH USURA wool comes not to market sheep bringeth no gain with usura
There is a kind of cumulative force to this denunciation, with all the negatives bearing hard upon the mind of the read: no mountain wheat, no strong flour, no clear demarcation, kept from, kept from, comes not, no gain… If a reader were to fail to stop and consider what Pound is talking about, one could actually be convinced that whatever usura is, it is a powerful, obstructive — and therefore destructive — force in the world.
Notable here is that even in the examples he chooses, Pound seems to be historicizing usura: the protests about bread are caught up in a lot of European history, wherein the refinement of wheat into white flour (as opposed to brown) was a contentious issue (as was the use of wheat in brewing). Taxes on white flour were imposed at times, to prevent its refinement in large amounts, and at times wheat was banned to brewers. Bread, its purity and its adulteration, is something that has a long history in the political/economic concerns of Europe.
Likewise, stonecutters and weavers were among the people who, as we moved from the medieval to the Renaissance and then, eventually, into the modern world, lost the ability to do their traditional craft work. Weavers especially were disenfranchised by not just modern technology (the automated looms that trigged the whole oppositional Luddite movement) but also the logic of the economics underlying the industrial revolution. Weaving no longer had to be an art, it had been reduced to an economic process. Parts of the art of stonecutting and traditional masonry, too, have been lost to us; of all the observations of this, the most amusing is the one in the very first episode of The Sopranos, when Tony Soprano talks to his daughter about the lost art of stone and marble work (ironically, the only version of the clip I found on Youtube is subtitled in Hebrew; the relevant part of the clip is at 5’40”):
I’ve commented before on how I suspect Pound would have been fascinated by the character of Tony Soprano–in so many ways like Sigismundo Malatesta, except without all the patronage and appreciation of art. It may be that the criticisms Pound made of his age and those the writers of The Sopranos seem implicitly to make of ours line up well. As Andy Selsberg writes of the latter (at a website Pound would never have visited, I suspect):
The Sopranos shows how we have embraced the worst parts of what it means to be a man and jettisoned the most useful. Tony has a crew, sure, just like in the old days, but this crew has built nothing. It’s all pretend, a bunch of no-show jobs. This is the jarring realization as the show ends. There is nothing to marvel at. Not only is there nothing left, there was nothing to begin with. There is no real friendship. There is no solid marriage. There is no decent father. There is no esplanade. There is no church.
It may be that part of the reason Pound had such trouble finding a modern figure who could stand beside Odysseus, Malatesta, Sordello, and the others is because the very construction of masculinity in the modern world–the world of the literary moderns, I mean–had already begun to undergo that shift. Pound found he could lay the blame on economics, but perhaps it was that other surety he was mourning: the surety of traditional masculinity that had passed away, or was passing away as he watched. (Pound, don’t forget, though he was a terrible boxer, learned to box from Hemingway. In a sense, he, like Tony Soprano and Hemingway too, put on those airs of traditional, inassailable masculinity in ways that suggest a deep, abiding anxiety about the reconciliation of being a man, and being an artist, in a world where manhood no longer meant what it once had, and where artists had lost their importance dramatically.)
A great deal of this poem, as I have mentioned, dwells on the effects of usura upon art. Pound offers examples of arts that are blocked by usura, but he also offers examples of artists and works that were achieved “not with usura” — in the last third of the poem, enumerating what turns out to be a list of great Italian painters, sculptors, architects, and so on: Pietro Lombardo (whose most famous sculpting work was Dante’s tomb), Duccio, Pier della Francesca, Zuan Bellin’, “La Calunnia” by Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Ambrogio Praedis, and the French churches of St. Trophime and Saint Hilaire, as well as the Flemish painter Memling.
Yet these are not examples of the blockage of usura. Not that most artists and intellectuals in his time (and in ours) would necessarily disagree that the rise of modern economics hasn’t hurt art. Obviously it has, but Pound provides no direct examples of how art has been stifled by usura.
He could have provided some, though. Those artists he knew who died in World War I — which to Pound’s mind was a war for the purposes of usura, specifically usura as practiced by arms dealers and bankers — would have made a partial list. But one suspects the real artist Pound finds stifled worst by usura is himself. In this time, Pound was living in exile in Italy, in a house in which the furniture was constructed by himself out of plywood — more of those anxious, half-inherited, collapsing displays of traditional manliness, like Tony Soprano driving an SUV — and living in what was essential poverty. Pound’s prodigious output of prose was undoubtedly in part due to his desire to explain his views (and impose them on anyone who would listen) but it also had a financial motive, for the man had to put bread upon his family’s table.
Could it be that this is also why he wrote these lines:
Usura slayeth the child in the womb It stayeth the young man's courting It hath brought palsey to bed, lyeth between the young bride and her bridegroom CONTRA NATURAM They have brought whores for Eleusis Corpses are set to banquet at behest of usura.
… he was speaking autobiographically? Not, say, of Dorothy and Omar, but perhaps of the question of having another child with Olga Rudge? Or perhaps, some other romantic interest of his besides those two, which might have been stifled by economic concerns? There is no evidence to support the speculation, as far as I know, but Pound has seeded autobiographical material into The Cantos before in a way which, unless you know what you’re looking for, you could miss it. (A major example is his non-paternity of Dorothy’s son Omar Pound, as represented in the madness of Niccolò d’Este in response to his wife’s infidelity, which I last discussed in my post on Cantos XX-XXII.)
As I say, there is no evidence I’ve run across so far to support this, but it might make an interesting thing to imply at this point, in terms of Pound’s family life… or, rather, family lives, for he was leading two of them at this point, one with Dorothy and one with Olga… sometimes, even, on the same day.
As I say, the poem is artfully constructed, to the point of distracting us from questioning its economic theories. Robert Langbaum is cited (on this page) as observing that Pound obviously got it wrong about money. He writes (in full):
Even the famous Canto 45 on usura is no exception to what I have been saying about the lack of fusion between the poetry and the ideas, especially the ideas about money. We are so overwhelmed by the biblical cadences and rhetoric (the repetitions and parallel constructions) as to forget that the content will not bear investigation:WITH USURA wool comes not to market sheep bringeth no gain with usura.
Yet modern banking coincides with unprecedented European prosperity. We are inclined to agree with Pound that at least in modem times the arts and sexuality have suffered:Usura rusteth the chisel It rusteth the craft and the craftsman . . . . . . . . . . . . Usura slayeth the child in the womb It stayeth the young man's courting It hath brought palsey to bed, lyeth between the young bride and her bridegroom CONTRA NATURAM.
Yet population increased enormously during the nineteenth century, and while the handicrafts declined, literature, music, painting, philosophy and science flourished. Ruskin railed against much the same social symptoms, but attributed them to an unprecedented complex of causes brought on by the Industrial Revolution and not to a single cause recurring throughout the past. Ruskin and Pound, like all romantic thinkers, like Eliot. too, in his social thought, longed nostalgically for the organic society of the past.
That may well be true, but the question is not how the world looks to us today, so much as how it looked from the 1930s. Referring again to Surette, there are signs that while Douglasite economics was not a good answer to the question it sought to put to rest, it was at least an attempted question–one that even Keynes was willing to admit was better than ignoring the problem as so many orthodox economists had done. And as kooky as we recognize Social Credit was now, it didn’t necessarily look so kooky to people at the time; the problems with it were subtle, and even an intelligent mind could grasp them poorly in the right circumstances.
None of this is a defense of Pound’s anti-Semitism, of course, or of his obsession with economics — or general lack of intellectual humility, even. People around him were less and less interested in corresponding with him, and friends advised him to lay off the economics and focus on poetry. Pound, being Ezra Pound, decided to show them all by focusing on poetry about economics. Tellingly, The Fifth Decad of Cantos is markedly shorter than one might expect: only about 40 pages of verse, as opposed to 60 pages for the ten Cantos before it, and 80 for the ten cantos that follow it. What’s more, the first four Cantos in The Fifth Decad make up half of that space: after his discussion of the Monte dei Paschi, Pound seems to have found himself writing shorter poems overall.
What I find interesting about this is that Pound does what feels to me like a classic move in mythic and pulp fiction: he moves away from what looks like a complex, occult conspiracy theory of mystical forces (including the many varied gods of the Freek and other pantheons) shaping history, toward what feels a more American format: a heated battle between good an evil.
Moreover, this battle between good and evil here is not even personified in Great Figures, but instead is depersonalized into what we can only call human institutions. The Evil that oppresses, sterilizes, and desacralizes the world is… modern economics, a banking system. And the Good that opposes it, promotes art, allows man to have a painted paradise on his wall, and loom-woven cloth, and a house of good stone, is… Douglasite economics, the Social Credit system. Hardly epic, heroic poetry.
Pound has pulled so far away from the model he found in Browning, that he is now attempting to write heroic poetry about economic systems. Little wonder the Cantos that follow are all short.
As for my Fictionalized Pound-Character:
- Pound is increasingly isolated from his friends and connections as he continues to draft these poems. He is spending more and more time on his studies of economics, but also on the side-jobs he has to carry out to put food on the table. Not just his own, for his is also helping to support Olga Rudge and their daughter Mary, even as his wife’s illegitimate son (Pound’s by tacit adoption) is living with his wife’s mother.
- He is a devoted follower of Mussolini, and his loyalty at this point is to Italy.
- Pound is increasingly anti-Semitic; when he wants to insult something, he implies a connection to the Jews. Newspapers become “jewspapers” for example, and Roosevelt becomes “jewsefeld.” It’s not pretty, and people are starting to become increasingly alienated and offended… meanwhile, puzzlingly, Pound insists on associating with Louis Zukofsky, a then-aspiring Jewish-American poet–an association that nonetheless does nothing to stem the tide of anti-Jewish bile the man produced. It’s a puzzle, one probably best understood by remembering that Pound’s own understanding of the word as he used it shifted depending on context and convenience; when it suited him, he would explain that Jew meant “banker” or “usurer” and the common Jewish person was a victim of the rich “Jews” of their race; at other times, though, it was clear that he had a growing antipathy towards Jews as a whole: “yit” (what we’d spell “Yid” now) and “kike” were among the insults he used with ever-increasing abandon in these days.
- He is more and more struggling to find a way forward with his poems. His drafting of Canto XLV is likely necessary as a scene in any narrative covering this period of his life.
- Pound is also aging, and probably struggling with the effects of that, especially in a lifestyle where he is increasingly sedentary.
- There are occasional flashes of poetry here, but Pound struggles to keep them alive, in part because he has begun to disconnect his practice of poetry from its previous anchors of deceased figures, spirits, and deities. Since in my own narrative, poetry is metaphorized in some sense by magic, Pound would probably be struggling in an extreme way with his practice of magic. You cannot, after all, connect with an economic theory or a banking system (good or bad) through necromancy, erotic-fertility magic (such as the hieros gamos), or invocations that might be used to summon up deities from the transcendent world. This one poem, to whatever degree it is a success, would probably be one breakthrough, amid what is otherwise a desert, a long plateau of struggle without reward.
What’s clearly apparent here is that I need to go back to reading biographical materials alongside these poems, because what I’m gleaning from close readings of the poems alone is simply not enough for the kind of research I’m trying to do. I’ll go back to that starting next time. As well, I’m going to try get through Cantos XLVI-LI by this time next week (well, by Friday next week) and post about them then. Since it’s only about 20 pages of poetry, and many of those six poems are short, I may well be able to pull it off–especially if they are linked.
In the meantime, I’m digging into that last text by Surette mentioned above. I should be done with it around the same time I finish with The Fifth Decad of Cantos, but it will get its own posting, of course. I suspect my estimates about how long it will take me to read the Chinese and Adams Cantos (Cantos LII-LXXI) are insanely optimistic, given that they make up about 200 pages of dense, highly allusive, and apparently not-very-interesting poetry. Two weeks seems an unlikely timespan for that, but either way I’ll push hard, and see what happens.