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Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XLIX

This entry is part 36 of 57 in the series Blogging Pound's The Cantos

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. The readings are atypical, for reasons made clear in my first post in the series.

After a very long hiatus, this post picks up again toward the end of The Fifth Decad of Cantos (also sometimes called the “Leopoldine” Cantos), specifically dealing with Canto XLIX–also known as the “Seven Lakes” canto. 

First things first: The plugin I’ve been using to organize series of posts seems to have experienced some kind of catastrophic error. As a result, about half this series doesn’t appear in the menu that the plugin auto-generates. I’ll sort it out, but it’ll take a few days (and I have a few very long series that will probably need to be reset this way, annoying as that is likely to be). In the meantime, your best bet for finding all the related posts is to check out everything tagged in the series.

You know what they say: if you fall of the horse, you need to get back on. Well, at page 244 of Pound’s The Cantos, I fell of the horse. It was understandable: I was busy with a million other things, like packing to leave not only the building I’d lived in for seven years, but also the country where I’d lived for eleven. I was getting married. Working on two film projects, writing a feature-length film script for a friend… the reasons go on and on.

And so this series of posts ended up by the wayside, and my huge pile of books related to Ezra Pound sit in a friend’s office in Korea. I have on hand The Cantos, the Terrell Concordance, and one biography. Sadly, I don’t have the book I bought discussing Ezra Pound’s relationship with Chinese scholars, and with Confucius, because it would have been really handy, not just for today, but for the not-too-far-away moment when I get to the “Chinese Cantos” (probably in a week or two).

But screw it: I’m gonna keep on with this.

Today, I’ll be tackling the Seven Lakes Canto that is, Canto XLIX. If you’re still following along, you doubtless will not need a copy of the poem online, but you may be interested in listening to a 1967 recording of Pound reading it over at PennSound; there’s another recording that sounds different, but is definitely Pound, available at the Poetry Archive website.

This is one of those Cantos that is famous, that has attracted oodles of scholarly attention… for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s one of those assemblages Pound loves to construct, made up of an assortment of translations from Japanese–the Japanese (a book in his parent’s library, even in Pound’s youth there remained an echo of the interest that Gilded Age Americans had in Japan, as discussed by Christopher Benfy), of course, being translations from Chinese originals. If I remember correctly, the poems were written to match a famous set of paintings, but the verse survived when the paintings didn’t, or something like that… it’s the kind of story that would attract Pound anyway, especially with his investment in the idea of Imagistic writing. Academics would be attracted by all of that, since people seem to be able to make a lot of hay in the scholarly world talking about translations, mistranslations, and so on. (And mis-translation was something of a sport for Pound.)

There are, of course other reasons for the scholarly interest in these poems: for one thing, they seem to contain clues for understanding Pound’s interest in China, Chinese writing, and Chinese thought. For another, they seem to represent attempts at depicting paradisical scenes, which seems contextually to play off the other Leopoldine Cantos, but also plays off the larger superstructure of the Cantos with both purgatorial and infernal flashes as we’ve seen before.

Then there’s the aspect of collaboration, for academic still has not gotten over the fact that creative writers often work with others, often collaborate, and don’t always credit everyone for every bit of help they get. For the record, what’s posted in the comments section of the pertinent post on Tom Clark’s blog agrees with what I remember reading on the subject:

The canto “… derives a vision of tranquillity from a set of anonymous Chinese poems about lakes, calligraphed in a book the poet’s father acquired in the early years of the American taste for Oriental artifacts…”

(Hugh Kenner)


EP first translated the eight Chinese poems in the manuscript book in 1928, with the aid of a Chinese visitor, Pao-sun Tseng, founder and president of the I Fang Woman’s College.

Nine years later, living in Rapallo, he decided to use the translations in the Cantos, adapting them freely for that purpose, rearranging them and interpolating images from one into another.

“In the new frame of Canto XLIX, the poems become elegiac fragments which ‘speak as if weeping’ not so much from a lost world as of a lyric beauty lost to the poet and his poem by the exigencies of his own century. The canto’s first line — ‘by no man these verses’ — emphasizes the voicelessness of the images, in which bamboos, cinnamon spikes, rooks and bells sound, but the human voice is silent.”

(Christine Froula)

Froula’s is a sensible interpretation of the fragment “by no man these verses”: although human beings and their works appear in the images, the names of the poets are, if not truly lost, then at least omitted from the canto, and effectively lost. The images are timeless, another piece in the puzzle over Pound’s sense of time… I immediately thought of the line, “Time is the evil. Evil,” in Canto XXX, but as Eva Hesse reminds us, that may less of a general comment than its construction suggests.

Indeed, the imagery of the first page of XLIX is not absent of humanity at all, and I’m not talking about the “young boys [who] prod stones for shrimp” (245) or the reference to “a people of leisure”(244): humanity is implied throughout the translated images that make up the bulk of the poem, their presence inferred by the “lanthorns” and a distant sailboat and the monk who must be ringing the monk’s bell behind the hill. I’m talking about the observer in the poem who travels to see these things:

For the seven lakes, and by no man these verses:
Rain; empty river; a voyage,
Fire from frozen cloud, heavy rain in the twilight
Under the cabin roof was one lantern.
The reeds are heavy; bent;
and the bamboos speak as if weeping.

If there is a voyage, there must also necessarily be a voyager, someone journeying through the forlorn world. This introduces a curious and interesting double-standard, or perhaps a duality of attitude, I’m not sure: when it comes to Western art history, Pound is eager to name names, to imply artistic lineage; but when it comes to Chinese artists and poets, he seems more comfortable with anonymity. Also, the choice of “journey” here is interesting. Pound’s reigning metaphor for translation of ancient writing–laid out in Canto I as I discussed early on in this project, the nekuia or channeling of the voices of the dead–cannot apply if the images are voiceless, unclaimed by any poet or figure, but experienced by the voyager…

My dominant suspicion is that Pound, once again playing with Dantean structural logic, sees himself as the voyager, guided into this paradise by a hidden, secret (female? I assume) figure–Pao-sun Tseng, his co-translator for the Seven Lakes poems. Pound travels like Odysseus to China, or like Dante into Paradise. Either way, he is the one to be credited for his explorations in his poem, though even this is very much implied, to the point where Froula sees the images as truly “voiceless.”

Rather, a thread I see running through the poems is balance: balance between humans and nature, balance in the system of living in the “Chinese” paradise-world of Pound’s imagination:

Sun up; work
sundown; to rest
dig well and drink of the water
dig field; eat of the grain
Imperial power is? and to us what is it?

Ironic that he was writing this in Fascist Italy… though to his mind, it would not have been ironic at all, but straightforwardly sensible, for he saw the Fascists as bringing society back to this kind of “sensible” balance.  The natural world, in the Paradiscal sense, is infused here with pagan divine presence, as “the power over wild beasts” in the  final line suggests: that power is specifically Dionysian, and vines and lynxes spring to mind immediately.

Earlier in the poem, Pound suggests that the logic of the Chinese world is precisely counter to that of America:

State by creating riches shd. thereby get into debt?
This is infamy; this is Geryon.
This canal goes still to TenShi
Though the old king built it for pleasure

That is to say, the idea of profit preceding usefulness or function is backward, and that creation (even for a purpose as abstract as “pleasure”) ought to precede profit: America is doing it “wrong,” and ancient China did it “right.”

But frankly, the majority of this Canto is interesting in its poetical beauty: the power of the images, the way Pound chooses to juxtapose them (all out of order from the originals in the book from which he’s cribbing), the way they fit together so that until you read through with a guide and realize where one fragment starts and another stops, you would never quite be able to guess it. I’m not sure I have any insights to add to all of that: it’s best, if you want to appreciate the poem, to go ahead and read it. It even cycles through a couple of seasons, and I personally find the images quite haunting. If you don’t ready any of the Cantos I discuss over the next few weeks, cool, but this one is worth a look, so one more time, here’s the link.

My Occult Pound:

Well, I’m not sure an occult Pound project will happen, but since I like the idea of writing these posts as if it was still a certainty–because it gives me a funny perspective on Pound and his work–I’ll go ahead and continue with these conclusions.

A few things in this poem jump out as possible leads for understanding an occult Pound:

K E I  M E N  R A N  K E I
K I U  M A N  M A N  K E I
T A N  FUKU   T A N  K A I

Obviously, the literal meaning doesn’t suggest much when translated to English: Hugh Kenner found it in Fenollosa’s notebook, and it read, “The auspicious clouds bright and colorful / Twist and spread / The sun and moon shed their rays / Morning after morning.” Not particularly shocking stuff–but they do suggest cloud divination, perhaps, and also emphasize the beautiful, healthy cyclical patterns that rule the natural world–patterns from which humans have managed to become desynchronized.

But it’s possible some other meaning lurks within those lines, something encrypted sneakily.

That about sums it up for now. Next time, I’ll be digging into Canto L. That’ll be the penultimate of the Leopoldine Cantos, and then the great slog through the Chinese and Adams Cantos will follow. It’s loin-girdin’ time, folks…

Series Navigation<< Reading the Cantos: A Study of Meaning in Ezra Pound by Noel StockBlogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto L >>
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