Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LI

This entry is part 38 of 49 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 ends off my discussion of The Fifth Decad of Cantos (also sometimes called the “Leopoldine” Cantos) by specifically dealing with Canto LI, the final Leopoldine Canto. 

First things first: if you wish to hear Canto LI read by Pound, you can find a link to the poem on this page at PennSound: it’s #11 under the heading “The Caedmon Recordings, recorded in Washington, D.C., June 12, 13, 26, 1958”. If you would like to review the poem, the full text is up on a Russian website (at least at the time of this posting), though the indentations are lacking.

Canto LI is once again a trip into the Neoplatonist mythopoetics that seems, repeatedly, so crucial to Pound–one last immersion in it before we are cast into Chinese history, it seems, though I imagine Pound injects more Neoplatonism into China’s past as well, before the end of his wanderings there–and there is also a recap of some of the “usura” business from Canto XLV, right down to the works of art and figures invoked along the way.

But there is more to the poem than that, if one manages to be attentive, and it gives an interesting context to Pound’s rantings about “usura.” (Also, in one part, rather discomfiting, but I’ll get to that.)

The first lines of the poem are, as everyone seems to note, a reference to a poem by Guido Guinicelli (circa 1230-1276), a Neoplatonist poet who was one of Dante’s artistic forebears and models:

in the mind of heaven God
who made it
more than the sun
in our eye.
Fifth element; mud; said Napoleon

Mud, here, maintains the reference to Guinicelli’s work: the quotation provided by Terrell is in fact quite interesting, in that it implies that nationalism is like basing your identity on mud, whereas one ought rather to base one’s identity on the sun–on spiritual things, presumably.

Mud is, for Napoleon, the fifth element because it is that which mired him down, that which interfered with his progress. Which is to say, the world of things, of the senses, is a dangerous thing, one in which people have a tendency to get mired, most especially those possessed of (seemingly in Pound’s opinion) “great minds” like Napoleon’s. Pound must surely count himself in that circle, though he does not come out and say so here.

But while mud is the stuff of the earth, there is light, and light is crucial for Pound. We’ve seen him allude to Neoplatonist ideas and philosophers before, and even to this sense of light as being symbolic of the divine intelligence, of mind nestled behind a veil of physicality–a veil of mud, as it were. We’ve also seen him associate hell with darkness and ignorance. And yet mud is the vessel through which light takes form, and enacts its intelligence: it is the stuff of the world, the very substance from which our sustenance and even, in some myths (as well as, quite literally, in scientific terms), our bodies themselves spring.

The rest of this Canto seems to suggest how and why our relationship with mud can lead to hell, or can lead to paradise. The former is what he tackles first, and because this is Ezra Pound and The Cantos, we know his answer before he has even stated it: the road to hell is Via Usura.

Thus follows the rant about usura familiar from Canto XLV, with only  few details changed–one of them being an allusion to the ruining of the Italian textile industry in Mussolini’s day, an echo from Canto L, where Pound mentions Tuscan merchants ruining the Italian economy by outsourcing wool production to Flanders and England… with the difference that in the time Canto LI is discussing, the outsourcing has been to Japan, a nation aggressively building its foreign trade. But Pound, having discussed the debasement of politics so recently in Canto L, turns to other symptoms to reinforce his diagnosis of usura:

With usury has no man a good house
made of stone, no paradise on his church wall
With usury the stone cutter is kept from his stone
the weaver is kept from his loom by usura
Wool does not come into market
the peasant does not eat his own grain
the girl's needle goes blunt in her hand
The looms are hushed one after another
ten thousand after ten thousand
Duccio was not by usura
Nor was 'La Calunnia' painted.
Neither Ambrogio Praedis nor Angelico
had their skill by usura
Nor St Trophime its cloisters;
Nor St Hilaire its proportion.
Usury rusts the man and his chisel
It destroys the craftsman, destroying craft;
Azure is caught with cancer. Emerald comes to no Memling
Usury kills the child in the womb
And breaks short the young man's courting
Usury brings age into youth; it lies between the bride
and the bridegroom
Usury is against Nature's increase.
Whores for Eleusis;
Under usury no stone is cut smooth
Peasant has no gain from his sheep herd

The anti-usura rhapsody is familiar stuff, but following on the mud reference, it’s worth looking carefully to figure out what Pound is really grouping together. The two main sets of things he’s lumped into one group–the two main sets of bones cast into one pile, like Malatesta did his ancestors’ bones in the Tempio–seem to be related to the arts (examples repeated from Canto XLV, in fact) and what one could think of as the pre-industrial evolution village economy: not merely agriculture (though Pound mentions grain-farming and shepherding) but also the cottage craft industries of sewing, wool-spinning, stone-cutting, market-selling. Usura “destroys the craftsman, destroying crafts.”

(This once again calls to mind that conversation of Tony Soprano’s with his daughter that I embedded in my discussion of Canto XLV, though the video has been taken down since that time.  This gist was that Soprano was educating his daughter about Italian pride by showing her a church that her grandfather helped building, using techniques that have since been lost in a world that stopped valuing such ancient methods of construction; a world where, Pound would say, usura has become unremittingly ascendant.)

In any case, what is interesting here is that Pound sees to link the arts–a field where people often worked for the edification of, and at the behest of–the wealthiest of the urban folk–to the rural, the agrarian, to the cottage industry. One might argue that Pound is finding a parallel in both since the builder, the sculptor, and the farmer perform an alchemical function, transforming mud into things useful to the world and to people: buildings, art, and food and clothing. This is how mud ties together the craftsman, the the artist, and the farmer. But at the same time, it may be that Pound, who like many full-time artists of his time, was living in relative poverty, in a relatively poor rural locale, and had really not much hope of returning to the city or a more expensive lifestyle. In other words, it wouldn’t be surprising to imagine Pound having an unconscious incentive to tie together these things as he seems eager to do.

Following all that that is, in the words of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “something completely different!”–something startlingly different, in fact.


For here, Pound starts citing a textbook on angling/fly fishing by an author named Charles Bowlker, with the unwieldy title Bowlker’s Art of Angling, Greatly Enlarged and Improved; Containing Directions for Fly-Fishing, Trolling, Bottom-Fishing, Making Artificial Flies, &c.  (a book freely available at GoogleBooks, as it is in the public domain now.) This may seem odd at first, but Pound’s choice of details speaks volumes:

         Blue dun; number 2 in most rivers
for dark days, when it is cold
A starling’s wing will give you the colour
or duck widgeon, if you take feather from under the wing
Let the body be of blue fox fur, or a water rat’s
or grey squirrel’s. Take this with a portion of mohair
and a cock’s hackle for legs.
12th of March to 2nd of April
Hen pheasant’s feather does for a fly,
green tail, the wings flat on the body
Dark fur from a hare’s ear for a body
a green shaded partridge feather
grizzled yellow cock’s hackle
green wax; harl from a peacock’s tail
bright lower body; about the size of pin
the head should be. can be fished from seven a.m.
till eleven; at which time the brown marsh fly comes on.
As long as the brown continues, no fish will take Granham . . .

For a compelling discussion of the source material (including where Pound got his “water rat”) as it appears in various successive editions of the Bowlker (the original from 1826, as well as the 1854 revised edition), see this wonderful post by John Latta.

This is one of those moments where one must pause in awe of what Pound is doing: in seeking to talk about the divine, creative intelligence in the universe–that Neoplatonic light he opens the poem with, in the very first word, “Shines”–he turns to evidences of that same intricate, constantly vigilant intelligence in nature, such as those observed by a fly fisher. The contrast with those Pound calls usurers is obvious: the fly fisher must know the season and the time of day, and must work at crafting a fly that is suited to each season and each segment of the day, because nature is delicately arranged, ornate in its specificities, and brute force does not get one very far with it, while said brute force seems to be the province of usura.

The fly is an interesting sort of metaphorical object, then: it is the artistic, crafted emulation of the the real world–and not just any aspect of the real world, but specific elements of it, including insects laying eggs in the water (themselves symbolizing fecundity and the “increase” that usura supposedly inhibits and opposes)–for the rightful, healthy exploitation of the world. The maker of a fly for fishing obviously must understand the fish; he (Bowlker assumes a male audience) must be so in touch with nature as to know also the insects that the fish eat, and know their life cycle, so that he can emulate it with flies; and he must have an artistic sensibility so that he chooses well among the bits of fur and feather mentioned by Bowlker in his effort to emulate the food of the fish sought in fishing. This is the opposite of the kind of eel-fishing that relies on none of this, characterized by the method mentioned in the penultimate line of the poem–

Thousands were dead in his folds;
in the eel-fishers basket

–where attention to time of day, to the food of the fish, to the season and the microfauna and to nature itself, are discarded for a more brute-force method: one runs baskets through the water to catch eels, a method that (presumably, at least in Pound’s mind) varies not at all by time of day or season.

And as with the line of a fisherman who has snagged a fish, there is an interesting tension here, for the fly is a fake, after all; an artistic fake, but a fake. Is Pound saying that art is like this–the beautiful emulation of reality, capturing it in an object that is at once crafted delicately to imitate something in the world (or, in the most epic of works, to emulate the world itself), but also is purposive in nature? As one looks carefully at this metaphor, one begins to wonder: what is the fish, lured by the fly, and what is the fly? Clearly, Pound sees himself as the fisherman, and the fly seems to hold a lot in common with poetry–beautiful constructions that emulate the delicate facts of reality–but then who or what is the fish? Is it artistic achievement? Is it readers? Is it the sustenance an artist gets for his work?

Looking closer, there is the fact that the fly is a lure–literally, a lure–and a kind of trick. It looks like food, like sustenance, but in fact it is death. Not only that: the Granham or “green tail” fly is emulated in its mating mode (specifically in the act of laying eggs in the water), as discussed in Bowlker, so there is the emulation of a necro-erotic moment here, something we have witnessed a number of times before in the Cantos, most powerfully (for my money) in the invocation of Dirce in Canto L.

All of that seems unclear, and maybe to ask the question is to soar past what Pound was driving at… yet it is the difficulty of pulling apart this metaphor that makes it so difficult to let it go. Indeed, one wonders to what degree Pound had the meaning clear in his head, or, rather, how separable these senses were for him–or how separable he might have wanted them to be.

The lines that follow, in the next (and last) section of the canto, suggest something vaguer, and more primordial than any of these rationalized approaches:

That hath the light of the doer, as it were
a form cleaving to it.
Deo similis quodam modo
hic intellectus adeptus

The light of the doer, that is the intelligence of the doer–he who makes the flies is, in a Neoplatonic sense, approaching divinity, as is attested by the Latin: “Godlike the intelligence that has grasped”… presumably, that has grasped the inner workings of nature. The light, the intelligence, seems to be the native, hidden intelligence of the natural world which Pound, like so many intelligent design fanatics, takes to be the signifier of divine awareness… though one would delight in having Pound discuss it with Bible thumpers, for, contrarian that he was, he would not have hesitated to mention Pan, and Eleusis, and Gemisto Plethon, and all the rest of his beloved pagan values.

There is a disconcerting reference to the Nazis in the context of a kind of celebration of natural increase:

 Grass; nowhere out of place. Thus speaking in Königsberg
 Zwischen die Volkern erzielt wird
 a modus vivendi.

Grass is nowhere out of place because it is natural everywhere, and its multiplicity expresses the voluminous plenty of the natural world. What his has to do with the Nazis ought to give us pause, but (as Terrell tells us) the speech in Königsberg to which Pound refers was delivered by Rudolf Hess, and the content was  concerning the takeover of Prussia by the Nazis, which came into effect in 1934. The lines specifically are taken from Hess’ speech, and translate as, “Between the [two] peoples, a modus vivendi [way of life] is achieved.”

A particularly disturbing image of Rudolf Hess.
A particularly disturbing image of Rudolf Hess.

I’m not sure whether the passage is taken from this speech or not, but you can see Hess speaking in Koenigsberg in a video on this webpage, and Hess’ rhetoric seems to line up well with Pound’s values, in his repeated declaration that nobody wants war, that the government of Germany doesn’t want war, and so on. In fact, it seems like perhaps Pound, in his discussion of postwar nastiness on the part of England towards Tuscany following the defeat of Napoleon Canto L, might also have been alluding to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. I’m not sure about all of that, but it’s a hunch.

Given Pound’s apparently enduring sympathy with Hitler even after the War and the revelation of the Holocaust (I recall him characterizing the man as misguided, unlike most people of the time), the turn is curious, for what follows next is a descent into a kind of hellscape:

 circling in eddying air; in a hurry;
 the 12: close eyed in the oily wind
 these were the regents;

There’s Dantean stuff here, in the cicling in the eddying air that represents a flight by Dante and Virgil flying on the back of Geryon into fraud (with “in a hurry” being a specific reference to usura, versus art, in which slowness is splendor). “The 12” Terrell claims to be unidentified, though anyone who knows the Bible will link it to “the regents” mentioned in the next line–the regents are Poundian caricatures of “jews” in the (no less offensive) sense Pound uses when he is speaking of bankers, so it seems “the 12” could be a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel… something one can also easily see Dante using as a reference.

(Here’s a great discussion of the Geryon Canto in Dante’s Inferno, though I don’t find that much of use in pulling apart this Canto.)

Above, Virgil and Dante’s flight on the back of Geryon as illustrated by Gustave Doré.

As they fly down into fraud, Dante and Virgil on the back of Geryon, the old monster sings:

            [...] and a sour song from the folds
 of his belly
 sang Geryone; I am the help of the aged;
 I pay men to talk peace;
 Mistress of many tongues; merchant of chalcedony
 I am Geryon twin with usura,
 You who have lived in a stage set.

This is Geryon speaking in the voice of Basil Zaharoff,  and the other merchants of death that Pound decried in earlier cantos, especially the Hell-Cantos. But here comes the tie-in with Bowlker and fly-fishing I mentioned above:

A thousand were dead in his folds;
in the eel-fishers basket

The eel-fishers are the brute-force type of fishing, the usura-style fishers, compared to those who practice “the art of angling” as Bowlker’s title literally puts it. Geryon, usura, eel-fishing with baskets… these things are against plenty; though a basket of eels looks like plenitude, its poverty–poverty of ignorance (for the eel-fisher knows not the intricacies of nature), poverty of craft (a basket is nowhere near as artistically crafted as a well-made fishing fly), and poverty of mindless exploitation, for basketsful of eel means more to the greedy fisher than it does to one who worries about the stock left in the wild, for tomorrow’s fishing.

One line that is particularly interesting is “You who have lived in a stage set,” though I don’t know quite what to make of it, beyond the idea that the world as we know it, or think we know it, is a sham, a “stage set” where players have set up a story to be enacted, which is not the true or real story… which could apply equally well to Pound’s notions regarding usurers and the deceptions they construct to gain control of the world, as to my own idea of Pound as magically changing the world, attempting to instate the “real” or “proper” world–namely, the one he wants to be the real one.

The poem ends with a bit of a mystifying line, followed by a Chinese ideogram, which seem in fact to suggest a counterpoint:

Time was of the League of Cambrai

The League of Cambrai was, Terrell reports (from Pearlman’s The Barb of Time: On the Unity of Ezra Pound’s Cantos),

A brief (1508-1510) alliance of states, led by Maximilian and Louis XII, which tried to crush Venice. The league succeeded, briefly, but Venice recovered.

This suggests Pound rhyming off the other anti-Italian scheming mentioned in Canto L, but also of course looking forward to the conflict that likely seemed inevitable in Europe even then, in 1937–for I presume that is when this was written. (Certainly the Fifth Decad of Cantos hit the bookstores in 1937, according to the Carpenter biography.)

As for the Chinese characters, Terrell’s explanation of the two characters (“right” and “name”) immediately brought to mind a suspicion that I found confirmed by Google Translate: “right-name” is “The Rectification of Names” (you can see the same characters at the beginning of Wikipedia’s article on the subject) that Confucian ideal which Pound clearly wants to associate with the Neoplatonic, fly-fisher way of being in the world–and in a way that ultimately makes the work of the poet crucial as the arbiter of language, since by the notion of the Rectification of Names, the bonds between people that stabilize society are linguistic bonds.

An image of Confucius.
An image of Confucius.

Essentially, the Rectification of Names is the idea that names ought to mean something: that a scholar should be scholarly, a student should behave like a student, that a king should me kingly, and so on. It is the idea that social bonds are formed and stabilized harmoniously when each individual in the system knows his (or her) position, and plays the part diligently.

This, it would seem, suggests that the usurers who are Pound’s villains, upset the balance of power, of harmony, of meanings, and of language itself; their greed acts upon the social fabric of the world, as disruptively as the evil coalitions mentioned throughout the Leopoldine Cantos, and the answer is a kind of balance that Pound seems to want to find in Chinese history (however exoticized and idealized), and in Confucius.

Which doesn’t get my hopes up, since I think very poorly of Confucius and his teachings, from long experience living in Korea. But Pound’s excitement is palpable: he’s about to dive into some kind of ten-canto-long exegesis of Chinese history, and one gets the sense he can hardly wait to wade into it.

As for my occultified fictional Pound character:

  • Neoplatonism is an important part of the “occultism” he is steeped in. It can’t all be necro-erotic supernaturalism. I have to work in some Neoplatonist light stuff, and the imagery is pretty powerful as well.
  • I can well imagine him looking on anglers and fly-fishing as some kind of backward country habit when he was young, and then stumbling onto Bowlker’s book later, and being bowled over by the intricate details of the man’s knowledge–the knowledge necessary for any successful angler.
  • the Dante thing: I feel like I’m going to have to go back and read the whole of Dante’s Comedy to be able to write this Pound fiction creditably. I also kind of feel like I’d like to be seeding in cryptographic stuff in the Inferno, or maybe supernatural type things that are not so much forecasting things as they are binding Dante to Homer and other texts that Pound idolizes. 

I seem to have grown terse, here: perhaps, in apprehension of what’s to come, as next time I begin working on the China Cantos. Anyone in his or her right mind feels apprehension faced with a task like that, but there’s only one thing for it… to dive in, head-first.

Here endeth the exegesis of A Fifth Decad of Cantos.

Series Navigation<< Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LBlogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LII >>

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