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Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto L

This entry is part 37 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.

This post picks up again (after another hiatus–I was busy for the last few weeks) one step closer to the end of The Fifth Decad of Cantos (also sometimes called the “Leopoldine” Cantos). Today I’ll be specifically dealing with Canto L, the penultimate Leopoldine Canto. 

Before I dive into the poem, by the way: frighteningly, I notice that I’m at page 192 of the Terrell (A Companion to the Cantos) as I read Canto L; in other words, if you thought the first half of the Cantos was densely referential, you ain’t seen nothing yet (there are 728 pages of notes on the Cantos, not counting the Index and other end matter; two-sevenths of the book deals with Cantos I-XLIX, and the other five-sevenths deal with Cantos L-CXVI.

Of course, anyone who can count in Roman numerals realizes I’m not halfway, but I’m close enough to halfway in terms of the number of individual Cantos that I can’t help but feel like I’m halfway through. At the rate I’ve been going, I’ll be lucky to finish the book by the end of 2013. But I am hoping to pick up the pace again now that I’m adjusted to life in Saigon. (The daily saxophone practice is mainly where the Cantos-reading time has ended up going, but I think I can spare a half hour a day for ol’ Ez, and that should be just enough to do one or two Cantos a week, if I am diligent… besides, my sense from Leon Surette’s discussion in A Light From Eleusis is that the Adams and Chinese Cantos are likely not only to be a slog, but to be poems I have less to say about. We’ll see.)

Now, for Canto L:

The poem is one of those sweeping tumbles through history that Pound rather loves to construct; particularly, it is about the fate of Tuscany from the time of the great figure of the Leopoldine Cantos, Pietro Leopoldo (a member of the Austrian house of Habusburg-Lorraine, who became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1765, and Holy Roman Emperor in 1790), until about 1850…

But the poem is also an act of ventriloquism, through and through, and the voice being thrown is that of one Antonio Zobi, author of a book titled Storia civile della Toscana dal 1737 al 1848. (Zobi actually uses Roman numerals, as does Terrell, for this multi-volume work… and, for those curious, the number of volumes is listed as five in the Terrell, but six on the Italian encyclopedia Here, perhaps, we have a rehearsal of what is to come in Cantos LII through LXXI: Pound taking a long series of books and compressing them to a density that makes one think he perhaps had read about how diamonds form from hyper-compressed coal, and thought he might be able to make poems of similar hardness and beauty by compressing texts the same way, and to the same densities.

(But we should also remember to think of Zobi as we do Divus, and Pound’s other necro-ventriloquistic performances, all the way back to Canto I.)

And then, of course, there is the unmistakeable Pound in all this–the particular convictions, the specific sympathies and antipathies that are this–which he presents here, sometimes overtly, sometimes by cherry-picking from Zobi’s texts.

However, Pound starts not with Zobi, or Leopold, but instead with John Adams–another hint of what is to come, it seems, as well of course as a link back to his earlier quotations of Jefferson’ letters, some of them in fact addressed to Adams. (Ah, so long ago, it seems now, I read those. It was on a trip to Jeonju, in the heat of the fall, or was it late summer? Ah, yes, it was last August.)

In any case, the quotation of Adams is on the nature of revolution, that is, the nature of social and economic change:

Ah, yes, it is ‘something’

Revolution ’ said Mr Adams ‘ took place in the
     minds of the people
     in the fifteen years before Lexington ’,

This is something like the beginning of a Bach fugue, a clear statement of theme. If you don’t know music well enough to know what that means, you’re in luck: you should be able to recognize visually the patterns that repeat, or at least, the first couple of patterns, in this wonderful “graphical score”:

Now, fugal structure is one of not just motive, but also countermotive: that is to say,  fugues usually are composed by superimposing variations (or manipulations) of not just one chunk of musical material, but two of them. The two themes, while often sharing a kin-like semblance, are usually sufficiently different or “opposite” as to complement one another, so that the superimpositions are interesting and musically fruitful.

(And yes, Pound knew the fugue form, he mentioned it in a letter to his father as a model for some of the early Cantos.)

If Pound here is constructing a fugue, then he is working with contrasts: motive and countermotive. It’s an interesting thing to consider, and it seems apparent to me that, by this point, anytime Pound wants contrasts, motive and countermotive, he seems to return to the simplistic formula of good-guys and bad-guys so familiar from his beloved cowboy movies. For Pound in this period, the “good guys” are always those whose economics (and aesthetics) line up with his own, and the “bad guys” are inevitably… well, he makes it clear in the poem who they are, and nobody needs a sneak preview to guess that there’s some anti-Semitic content on these pages.

But before we rush to discussing that, we should pause and meditate on what it is Pound is saying when he lays out his theme: it is, after all, rather separated in space from what follows: the opening lines are in a letter penned by John Adams, in America; the remainder of the Canto is set beneath a Tuscan sun. What does it mean, in that context, that “revolution” should take place “in the minds of the people”?

It seems likely that on some level he is pointing at Fascism in Italy, noting that revolutions are cognitive, are conceptual, and are necessarily popular–they arise from among the people, and, ostensibly, this is how and why they are legitimate. But it seems also that Pound here is fishing about among his utopian hopes that the masses will come around to the purported wisdom of Douglasite economics: he is hoping that that revolution will take place in the minds of the people, not just in Italy, but in America, in England, and everywhere. In Pound’s mind, that is the necessary condition for a victory against the “bad guys” whom he has, to this point, set up in that shorthand unfortunately so common in the time, where “usurer” and “warmonger” all seem to be conflated into one figure–the racist caricature Pound calls “jew.”

And it is, of course, racist, even if Pound claims (and Terrell reports him claiming, in the notes for this Canto) that he differentiates between “Jews” and “jews”–the former, a race, and the latter the “usurer” Rothschilds. This doesn’t let Pound off the hook, nor should we be eager to do so: to skip over this formulation would be to embrace a misunderstanding of the poem, because in Pound’s mind, it is clear, history is the story of a titanic battle between “good guys” and “bad guys”; history is, throughout, a kind of Homeric epic, except that the battlefield stretches into the cities, into the pages of books, into the pages of bank records.

In that battle, the good guys are the ones whose economics encourage free growth, the fecund expansion of wealth and plenty (and the flowering of the arts, of culture, of knowledge); the bad guys are those whose economics are based on repression of that flowering in all forms–economic, artistic, cultural, and so forth. Theirs is an economics of repressive control and of limitation, for they exploit scarcity for their own benefit, and care little of the wider social implications.

This is the part of Pound that remains most relevant today: his racism, his fascism, these are not reasons to read Pound. His diagnosis is as flawed and offensive in its details as his prescription is hopeless and foolish; but whether or not the titanic struggle he describes is a real one–certainly, a lot of the Occupy Wall Street movement believed it so, and so do many suffering from the effects of the ongoing economic crisis today–it is a surprisingly compelling narrative.

So there is a degree to which Pound must be assessed as a writer of the utopian; Napoleon is reported to have bemoaned going against the Zeitgeist, in a way that Pound seems to have done and not done. Pound did go against the Zeitgeist in many ways–“serious” people into other forms of economic whackaloonery than Pound was, and other forms of superstition–but he also went with it in his embrace of this sort of narrative… his only mistake was not becoming an SF writer, or a writer of pulp mysteries, or something along those lines.

It is very tempting to imagine an alternate-Pound in an alternate-history along the lines of Norman Spinrad’s alternate-history from which his novel The Iron Dream purports to be taken–where Hitler, instead of taking the route he did in our world, moves to America and joins SF fandom; after working as an SF illustrator, he becomes a full-fledged SF author. (The Iron Dream being one of the novels penned by Adolf Hitler, SF author.) Well, sort of: he is a full-fledged horrible author, horrible in ways that Spinrad implies were common in Golden-Age SF, for Spinrad is satirizing the sci-fi of his forebears as much as he his mocking Hitler’s idiotic, peurile race-fantasies and psychotic lust for violence.

(My review of the controversial satirical novel is here, by the way…)

So, what sort of SF author would Pound have become? He certainly would have been an odd one: likely he would still have been making plenty of references to the classical world, and to the work of other SF authors of his time. For some reason, my mind keeps returning to Asimov’s Foundation series (discussed here), which Asimov was writing just a short time after Pound composed Canto L (the first stories of what would become Foundation were published in 1942), because its premise of a secret conspiracy for the good (for civilization, for science, for memory of the future foreseen) seems so in synch with Pound’s sense of the conspiratorial war between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” in which an eternal, repeating struggle is played out over the resources and art and mind and spirit of humanity. Perhaps Pound would have launched the SF of economics, perhaps a few decades early. (Besides the Asimov series, most of the books on the lists by Noah Smith and Paul Krugman dated back to the 1970s at the earliest.)

Or perhaps Pound might have gone into writing hard-boiled pulp novels, wherein murders turn out to be the tip of the iceberg of bizarre economic conspiracies, in which, finally, everyone is complicit on some level. (Shades of Philip K. Dick, perhaps, but I’m thinking more of a cross between Raymond Chandler and a Douglasite Robert Anton Wilson, or something.) The sexy lady showing up at the PI’s office, that’s something I can see Pound writing, though of course she is secretly an agent of the Rothschilds, or a descendant of Sigismundo Malatesta (named Helen, of course) who is beset by agents of the Rothschilds, and of course the real murder victim in every Poundian thriller would, ultimately, be the world economy.

Such fancies, fascinating as they are, do little to illuminate the strange shadowy corners of Canto L.

I suppose I should get back on track.

So, from the America of John Adams, Pound quickly shifts across the ocean, to the time of Pietro Leopoldo, after whom these cantos are named. They seem to be named after him because they celebrate the economic reforms that are credited to him in Tuscany, and Pound, at this time, is thoroughly fascinated with Italy, and its history; he seems indeed to be looking into its history as if Italy itself were a book, a book containing history, but also containing the present, the truth of the ongoing struggle he sees himself as a part of (and, bafflingly, in which he sees Mussolini as being a pivotal figure).

And when he turns to Italy, he turns to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and this guy, Peter Leopold Joseph Anton Joachim Pius Gotthard:

Of course, at the point when we meet him, this fella is known as Pietro Leopoldo–because when we meet him, he is just ascending to the position of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1765.

In a nutshell, the poem describes Leopold taking over the Duchy of Tuscany when the region has been left in terrible debt by the Medici family. This is a time when Florentine merchants had outsourced production of wool to Flanders and England, thus ruining the Italian economy–look familiar, anyone? “Outsourcing” is such a buzzword now that we seem to have completely forgotten its role in economic problems in the past… something Pound apparently cannot abide, and which he would surely be ranting at us about now were he still alive.

The ruined Italian economy is represented with a typically Poundian metric,

the arts gone to hell by 1750

because, after all, the arts are for Pound a reliable measure of the health of a society.

So what does Leopold do?

 ... Leopold cut down the taxes
 and found there was ' Un ' abbondanza che affamava'
 says Zobi
          Leopold cut down the debt interest
 and put the Jesuits out
                        and put end to the Inquisition
     and they brought in Mr Locke's
 essay on interest

The mention of Mr. Locke’s essay on interest is a reference to the work of Angelo Tavanti, an Italian economist to whom the direction of finance was entrusted by Leopoldo–thus reports Terrell.   So far so good, it seems: Leopoldo is bringing in foreign knowledge, cutting debt interest, and kicking the Jesuits out of power… all things we know Pound will root for.

But there is something about the Italian character that fails, here, according not just to Pound, but to Zobi: a treaty is kept, and losses are suffered by Italy. Zobi complains of how much better Americans are at this game, praising Washington and the American people as “admirabili” (admirable).

Further down the page, Zobi is quoted as arguing that Italy’s problem is both religion and a lack of experience in economic affairs; Pound quotes him chastising Pius VI for what, from Terrell’s description, are pretty ridiculous flubs. Meanwhile, Leopold is busy in Vienna (now head of the Holy Roman Empire), which Pound spares no amount of bile in describing :

           and then they sent him off to be Emperor
in hell's bog, in the slough of Vienna, in 
     the midden of Europe in the black hole of all
mental vileness, in the privvy that stank Franz Josef
in Metternich's merdery in the absolute rottenness, 
among embastardized cross-breeds.

Cross-breeds, because Pound reviles the proud multiethnicity of the Austrian Empire, as much as he reviles Franz Josef; he hates Vienna, and one is tempted to wonder if this is because of the many Jews involved in the arts and in culture there–Freud and Schoenberg prominent among them–but the message is clear: Vienna is a horrible, horrible place, and Leopold was there.

And in his absence? Napoleon invades Italy, wins at Marengo, and takes over.

(Incidentally, Napoleon named his favorite steed after it carried him safely through that battle–yes, named the horse Marengo, and the horse in the picture supposedly is that one. Poor thing, quite a story it would tell, if its bare bones could speak to the gawking tourists.)

Pound seems here to be a pretty big fan of Napoleon, though in a way he seems more stand-offish than with other “heroes” of history that he praises. I think his feelings towards Buonaparte are positive, shaded by a sense of tragedy at the man’s failing to conquer Europe, because he seems to have a sense that Europe needed to be saved from itself–and that this causes him, in a way, to hold back on the praise. Why that might be (when he lavished praise onto Malatesta without the same anxiety) may have more to do with his anxieties about the war everyone knew was coming, and his uncertainties as to how Italy and Mussolini might come through it.

But he is clearly positive about Napoleon, something that is obvious because of how Pound builds up to the Napoleon material, and what follows it: the ridiculous foolishness and errors of Pope Pius VI are alluded to (as mentioned in Zobi), and then Napoleon marches in, ostensibly having conquered because the leadership there in the absence of Leopoldo (the pope, among others) was so useless.

But the telling bit is when Pound writes of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo:

18 Brumale, 10th of November
14th June, 1800 MARENGO
That day right was with the victor
    mass weight against wrong
a.d. 1800

This seems to suggest Pound feels Napoleon was on the side of right, at the Battle of Marengo.

But the influence of the French on Italy isn’t necessarily all positive: Pound makes an allusion to “the triumvirs” who “wanted to go Leopoldine as was” but who were prevented by the French, namely “A thousand of the old guard at Portoferraio.” He spends some time here on the economic problems of French-occupied Tuscany, and on Napoleon’s exile.

It seems it’s about this time that things begin to go truly wrong in Europe: the Habsburgs gained back an Italy that, if it was free of debt, was also flat broke; worse

England and Austria were for despots with commerce
     put back the Pope but
reset no republics: Venice, Genoa, Lucca
and split up Poland in their soul was usura
and in their hand bloody oppression

There is despotism in Tuscany under “that son of a dog, Rospigliosi”–the Prince who ran Tuscany in the interim, until Ferdinando III could take over–and Pound didn’t think much more highly of the rulers of other states:

S..t on the throne of England, s..t on the Austrian sofa
In their soul was usura and in their minds darkness
and blankness, greased fat were the four Georges, 
Pus was in Spain, Wellington was a jew's pimp
and lacked mind to know what he effected.
'Leave the Duke, Go for gold!'
In their souls was usura and in their hearts cowardice
In their minds was stink and corruption
Two sores ran together, 
and hell pissed up Metternich
Filth stank as in our day

The stuff about ‘Leave the Duke, Go for gold!” concerns the Tories being blocked by the Whigs at the time, in English Parliament after the resignation of Earl Grey from the position of Prime Minister in 1832. If Gold was cornered, at the time, it would create a run on banks; thus the Whigs regained power, which Pound obviously dislikes as much as he dislikes the English king Georges. (Here, a link to the English Jacobites of the gin craze era, and to the “Jacobite conspiracies” discussed by Leon Surette as well. Like English Jacobites during the Gin Craze, Pound was one whose political identity was almost as much defined by opposition to the status quo as it was defined by his ill-considered proposals for an alternative, which is interesting.)

Napoleon does his best, of course: Pound characterizes his attempted comeback thus:

for a hundred days against hell belch
Hope spat from March into June

But (skipping the details of a few battles Pound mentions in passing) Napoleon fails in the end, and why? Pound offers Napoleon’s own assessment:

' Not '
said Napoleon ' because of that league of lice
but for opposing the Zeitgeist! That was my ruin
That I ran against my own time, turning backward. '

According to Terrell, this is, what Earl Grey (yes, the person after whom the tea was named) reported Napoleon as having said, in different words of course. Pound esteems Napoleon so much that he goes so far as to mention his age (though he gets the detail wrong) and the fact that the death came five hundred years after Dante, which is (supposedly) actually correct… so, there again, one of those little historical connections Pound loves to make.

What follows the passing of Napoleon? Pound sums up things with one dark passage, followed by an impressionistic one.

The dark passage concerns Lord Minto visiting Italy, met by a cheering crowd. To hear Pound tell it, Minto presented himself as being in favor of Italian liberation, but in fact was “for slowness and sureness.”

Then comes the impressionistic moment:

Lalage's shadow moves in the fresco's knees
She is blotted with Dirce's shadow
dawn stands there fixed and unmoving
               only we two have moved.

Terrell scratches at the surface of the moment, noting that both are classical women’s names: Lalage a common name for a courtesan, and Dirce the name of the wife of the Theban king Lycus, though Pound is likelier to have been thinking of the Dirce from a poem beloved to him, which Terrell reports as being titled, “Stand close around, ye Stygian set” by a poet named Walter Savage Landor. (A wondrously self-contradictory name if I’ve ever heard one–Walter Savage indeed. His dates run from 1775–1864, by the way.) And here he is, for the curious:

Oh, lucky we who live in the Internet age, for the poem is easily found, and very short–and at least in the 1919 edition of the The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900, was titled Dirce. And, lo, it is in the public domain, so I give it to you here, in full:


STAND close around, ye Stygian set, 
 With Dirce in one boat convey'd! 
Or Charon, seeing, may forget 
 That he is old and she a shade.

The image is strangely erotic, but set in a moment of gloom, of death: Dirce stands in the boat of Charon, riding across the Styx, and Charon stands the risk of being turned on because she is that gorgeous. It’s a really arresting moment, if you know it and catch the reference, which one must be certain most people haven’t.

More useful commentary here suggests we need to keep an eye out for references to Dirce in Canto LXXXII (in the Pisan Cantos, still some distance in the future for us), but also reminds us that Pound, at times, veils references to real people with the names of classical women and goddesses. Which is to say, there may be a bit of coy life-writing. Certainly there were two women looming large in Pound’s life then–Olga Rudge, and his wife Dorothy Shakespear–but it is dangerous to focus on who is whom, and what the passage might imply… or at least, I lack the reference material and insight to say more about it.

But Landor, Landor is interesting for a few reasons. For one, he was an English-language writer who relocated to Italy, like so many poets (Shelly, Keats, Byron…); it makes sense Landor would come to Pound’s mind when he himself was in Italy, writing. But there’s also a fascinating thread that ties to one of the great strands in the Cantos as a methodology–that is, as a necromantic text: that is, Landor’s Imaginary Conversations, of which Wikipedia tells us enough to see immediately where the appeal might lie for Pound:

Imaginary Conversations is five volumes of imaginary conversations between personalities of classical Greece and Rome: poets and authors; statesmen and women; and fortunate and unfortunate individuals, written by the English poet and author Walter Savage Landor.

This brings us right back to Canto I, to the necromantic nekuia ritual from the Odyssey and its use by Pound as a kind of poetical methodology (poetry-as-necromancy) for the Cantos. (And if you check out the full list ofconversations, you see figures from China and other “exotic” places, as well… which makes one wonder whether Landor might not have helped whet, or increase, Pound’s appetite for Chinese. Certainly, the reference seems, very obliquely, to foreshadow Pound’s oncoming leap into paraphrasing Chinese history, which begins two Cantos later.

But at the same time, one gets a sense that the ultimate line of this Canto could be taken from a conversation strangely like one out of Landor: but between whom? Is Dirce speaking to Charon? Is Lalange talking to Dirce? It seems as likely, from what we know of Pound, that it is Pound dressed as Charon, speaking to the reader dressed as Dirce… or the reverse, or something of that nature.

But then there’s also the question of whether Pound is struggling, here, to bridge his artistic-erotic theories with the necro-artistic methodologies? It’s clear from the Surette book that occult theories of sexuality and occult theories of art link up for Pound… but when necromancy is implicitly part of the occult methodology, even in a merely metaphorical sense–much less in the literal sense of my own fictionalized Pound–one is left with the question of how to work set those two stones in one golden band. The verse by Landor seems to be a powerful example of how–unsettlingly erotic, verging on vaguely necrophiliac. The allusion, therefore, seems profoundly important for considering what Pound is up to here, though it’s not clear to me exactly how it links to Leopold, Napoleon, and the decay that followed… except, perhaps, in that the decay that followed leads straight into the decay Pound seems himself living in, fighting against, and mired in. Just as Mars is present in the poem (mentioned in passing in relation to Napoleon), so is Charon, or at least, his shadow. Perhaps it is as simple as Lalange being alive, and the shadow of ghostly Dirce passing over her. (The dead, beautiful past casting a shadow on the somewhat more low-born present?)

Or maybe it’s just a very elusively guarded moment from his life. One never knows.

In any case, I won’t sum up in my usual way, exploring how the above might apply to a supernaturalized Pound like the one I’d like to write about, since I’ve pretty much covered that in depth above. However, the significance of Landor’s Imaginary Conversations seems inescapable to me. Another book to read, or at least to check out, then… with Pound, the list never stops getting longer.

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