Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LIII

This entry is part 40 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 this series.

This post continues my work on the “Chinese” Cantos, covering Canto LIII.

Last time, in the course of discussing Canto LII, I touched on a couple of points of interest, which also apply to this poem. Since it’s been a while since I wrote that last post, I’ll quote the relevant passage in full:

The Chinese Cantos are, in a sense, a rehearsal of Chinese history, and Pound is more unfamiliar with it, so it ends up being Poundian transcriptions of primary source texts… that is to say, Poundian distillations. The difference being that when Pound is working with a tradition and literature he knows better, he draws interesting and surprising (at least at first) parallels, he rhymes events one might not think to juxtapose, and he even provides a kind of insight into things. Pound knows Western history imperfectly, of course, but he knows it well enough to play that sort of game with it. (Here “game” is not a pejorative.)

But Chinese history is less familiar to Pound, and so his juxtapositions feel a little more predictable, a little more straightforward, and to some degree Cantos LII and LIII feel like summaries of books he’s read, in fact, almost like the notes of a student working through a textbook.

If we were to return to my metaphor of Pound’s poetical process as being akin to the blackface minstrel shows he surely saw in his youth, which I discussed when I covered the Malatesta Cantos, I’d say Pound doesn’t really know how to go about even starting to do yellowface, nor can he do a convincing “Chinaman” to save his life, and to some degree, I feel like Pound knows this, hence the great distance from China that one senses in the first few China Cantos (I’ve read both LII and LIII so far), which one doesn’t sense earlier on. Perhaps Pound does slip into character in later Cantos, but I haven’t reached those yet, so I don’t know.

But this is not really the stuff of great poetry, though a few things are interesting in all this:

  1. Pound’s focus reveals a lot about his thinking and his psyche. He spends about ten pages just building up a line from the first emperors to Confucius, in Canto LIII; in Canto LII, he spends several pages just rehearsing seasonal rites. These things seem very important to Pound, but it is the way he signals their importance–the bits and pieces of those historical records he chooses to mention–that are interesting. 
  2. Pound’s effort to link East and West seems fundamental and crucial to understanding why he’s doing this. We could, of course, argue [note: as Leon Surette did in A Light From Eleusis, as I recall — I haven’t got the book here in Saigon, so I can’t check] that Pound is just hedging his bets, wanting to hold off on declaring the fascists historical heirs to the classical world, to Eleusis, to Confucius, and perhaps he is doing that; but he also seems profoundly concerned with making connections between Chinese history and the history of the west, especially that secret history with which he is so concerned in all the Cantos up until now–the secret history of the survival of pagan and classical ideas, values, art, and culture into the present… all of which seems crucial to the project of the Cantos as a whole.

I’m sure I’m not saying anything new here. Sadly, I have very few resources on hand, and none dealing with Pound and China. But I will do my best.

Which brings us to Canto LIII, a Canto I’m pretty doubtful is available online because well… there’s a lot of Chinese in it, for one thing. For another, it’s the poetical version of your average B-side on a vinyl single; not really of interest to any but the most hardcore fans.

But it is worth a look, if you are at all interested in the inner workings of Pound’s thought process, and his process in terms of this poem. For, if Pound’s early claim for the Cantos to be an attempt at writing a poem that “contains history” has any bearing on the work this far into it, then it is inevitable to turn to his treatment of China as a way of examining what place China held for him in that history, and to understand the mythic dimensions of the history Pound was seeking to contain.

Surely, Pound seems to want to talk about China because he sees it as “the other Great Civilization” (that is, besides European). He wants to talk about what has survived in China from the earliest times, and he has hinted in earlier poems (like in Canto XIII, the earliest “Chinese” Canto in the cycle) that its role is tied to wisdom, and the preservation and transmission of it especially. He seems also to want to both compare and contrast with European civilization and culture.

Canto LIII seems very important in that context: it recounts the period of Chinese history stretching from the first legendary emperors–akin to Prometheus in many ways, the originators of agriculture and house-building and trade–all the way to the lifetime of Confucius.

The litany of inventions by these Promethean first emperors and civilizing figures is interesting in itself, as it represents a selective reading of Pound’s source text… that is, a kind of implicit negotiation between the developments and events that are held in highest historical esteem by China (as transmitted into Western books) and Pound’s agenda. The cthonic roots of civilization in China are of interest as much for the details in the stories in which they are embedded, as for the parallels with the development of civilization in the West.

Those “developments” seem more important to Pound than the figures to whom they are ascribed, and they include:

  • “breaking branches” (the building of bird’s nest huts, Terrell glosses)
  • the development of bartering systems, and “the knotting of cords” (as a primitive form of accounting) and regular markets
  • agriculture (specifically the growing of barley, millet, rice, wheat, and chick peas, “five grains”) and the invention of the plough
  • herbal medicine
  • silkworm cultivation
  • the development of musical instruments, and of music with lyrics fitted to it

Exalted Cover… and so on. This is Chinese history, in the way White Wolf Games might have written it for some supplement for a mystical, ancient history, anime-inspired RPG fantasy game like Exalted: great heroes, spirits and harmony and steaming-forward development of civilization through a litany of great Chinese Emperors, apparently foremost among them Yu, the founder of the Hsia Dynasty, for on the second page of the Canto, Pound spends half a page and then half of the next on five large characters:






This is, of course, a royal lineage, kinda-sorta: Yao comes before Shun (Chun), who comes before Yü (Yu). Kao-Yao is a great advisor, whose inclusion might seem odd until you remember a couple of salient points about Pound himself, and his project. After all, Pound’s attraction to China seems to be heavily predicated upon the importance of Confucius as a philosopher… and Confucius was never royalty. The closest he came to that was in his career as a royal advisor… and, specifically, as a generally failed one.

Emperor Yao
A representation of Emperor Yao, though of course nobody now knows what the man actually looked like… assuming he was even a real person.

Those who’ve studied Pound will see here, if they did not realize already, why this would attract the man’s attention: after all, Pound shared with H.G. Wells a conviction of his own ability to advise the heads of state, for example in terms of economics. Among the differences between Wells and Pound include the fact that the former actually got taken somewhat seriously, at least seriously enough to get into the door of the White House and to be given an audience with Stalin as well. Pound, on the other hand, got a brief visit with Mussolini, who was surely baffled by the encounter. Pound, like Confucius, set out to advise the great leaders of his time on the most pressing issues of the day — specifically, monetary ones — but the fools, the damned fools (as Wells called them, but as we can easily imagine Pound disappointedly thinking of those who he sought to advise) did not heed his words.


The next chunk of the poem deals with another figure who seems somewhat Odyssean: “Tching Tang” (actually Ch’êng T’ang), a model king who–during a severe drought–developed money in the form of copper coins that he distributed among the people so they could buy food. (That is, he created something like the “scrip” system that interested Pound so much.) However, the drought persisted until Heaven accepted his sacrifice. It is from this Emperor that Pound got one of his favorite phrases, from the reputed inscription in Ch’êng T’ang’s “bath tub”:

… which Pound romanizes as “hsin jih jih hsin,” (NEW DAY DAY NEW) but which he translates as “MAKE IT NEW.” This was long a maxim of Pound’s in terms of art and literature: one must seek out and learn the ancient forms and make them new.

And as usual with Pound’s historiographic interests, this model king is followed by inevitable corruptions and decline, this time in the form of Zhou Xin, a madman who “ate nothing but bears’ paws,” who visited upon the people a campaign of horrors ranging from the rapine to the murderous. Particularly interesting here, and likely the reason that Pound related the story of Zhou Xin, is that his crimes and corruption were widely blamed on his wife, Daji. Here, there are echoes of the Helen-Eleanor of Aquitaine figure, the ’Ελανδρος,  Ελεπτολις–“man-destroying, city-destroying”–figure I mentioned in my discussion of Canto VII. A google search of Zhou Xin’s name in Chinese (“紂王”) seems to show a vast number of even contemporary images depicting him with his obviously wicked wife beside him.

Apparently from a TV drama, Emperor Zhou Xin–last of the Shang Dynasty–is pictured with his wife Daji, whom Pound casts as the Chinese Helen/Eleanor figure of the period.
Zhou Xin comic
This cartoon depiction is particularly apt for Pound’s Chinese Cantos.

Pound follows this emperor to his unpleasant end, then cycles through a few more — lots of rich details, but leaving us wondering what his point is — until he punctuates a moment a couple of pages later with another Chinese character:

While Pound romanizes this as “Chou,” we know it today as Zhou, as in the Zhou Dynasty, the founding of which was attributed to Wen Wang (also mentioned in this Canto, especially as the one who devised the I Ching — a book, note, of divination), and the very same dynasty during the decline of which Confucius lived… though this mention of the Zhou is five hundred years before Confucius’ birth. And while most of us might imagine Pound would simply skip to that point, that is not part of his encyclopedic approach: rather, he continues on summarizing his source text, along the way spicing it up as he sees fit. (The battles of Emperor Siuen, for example, are among the things he writes about in Latin:

                         ... Siuen went out against the west tartars
His praise lasts to this day: Siuen-ouang contra barbaros
legat belli dulcem Chaoumoukong...
Juxta fluvium Hoai aces ordinatur nec mora...

What follows is the rise and fall of dynasties, the waves of conquering and fleeing barbarians, in the vast slow creep of history, which seems ever so much more vast and slowly creeping (to the West) when that history is Chinese history. This is, of course, so much hogwash: half of Chinese history was revolts, and China was home to many stunning technical and scientific achievements during that low, slow “creep” forward through history… but it is precisely what suits our self-congratulating imaginings of China as slow, stable, exotic other.

Pound tumbles forward through time, toward the birth of Confucius, the way (as he surely realized) Biblical historigoraphic tumbled forward to the birth of Christ. Confucius is, in effect. Pound’s Christ of the East, but one that suits Pound’s agenda: Pound likes to represent him as anti-supernaturalist, pro-reason, and working to create a new and radically different social order; in other words, Confucius is a sort of utopian figure, an Odysseus whose adventure is in the realm of “social work” like that carried out by the Founding Fathers within the American political mythology.

A Statue of Confucius
A statue of Confucius from Hunan, where it stands at the shore of Dongting Lake. Click for source.

Confucius wanders through the local kingdoms like some kind of Don Quixote of reason and order, meeting kings both bloodthirsty and corrupt, as well as those just simply too inept to heed him as they should. His tribulations are not inconsiderable: he goes without food for seven days at one point, and is described as being akin to a dog that has lost its owner.

This, surely, suggests a sympathy Pound must have felt in his own economically difficult situation. And for Pound to ally himself with Confucius makes senseon a number of levels: both of them made compilations of Chinese poetry; both had sociopolitical messages that fell on deaf ears; both went through poverty and other tribulations, wandering from land to land; both were profoundly conservative, but in the older sense of seeking to preserve and renew something from the past which was in their time in decline… and, of course, that sense that both of them got born into civilizations that were in decline.

Confucius dies–though his message echoes on–a page before the poem concludes, and, interestingly, Pound ends with a reference to Conficius’ father, “the hillock,” with a curious tale:

Thus of Kung or Confucius, and of ' Hillock ' his father
when he was attacking a city
his men had passed under the drop gate 
And the warders then dropped it, so Hillock caught
the whole weight on his shoulder, and held till his
last man had got out. 
Of such stock was Kungfutseu.

It is fascinating that Pound here chooses to focus on the mythological heredity of Confucius, son of a great warrior. After all, the man was a scholar, and I suppose he was different enough from Pound’s other “great men” to need a little spicing up, at least to Pound’s mind.

But this feels also like a rejection of the matriarchality of the Jesus story, where Joseph is not the father, and there is indeed no human father, but only a saintly mother and a god. Confucius’s story is human, far more appealing to a neo-pagan, fascist (and thus macho) ideology like Pound’s: the tough-guy, Bruce Willis-in-Die Hard aura of Confucius’ lineage suggests he is a profoundly tough, important man… just as Pound’s focus in his own family narrative (at least within the context of the poem) is on his grandfather, Thaddeus Coleman Pound, who “sweat blood to put through that railway” (and, like Confucius and Pound himself, is presented as never really getting much profit for his troubles).

Pound ends the poem by repeating he character name of the Dynasty into which Confucius was born, and with which he saw himself as politically aligned, the “Chou” (Zhou).

Apparently it’s not just Confucius who is pro-Zhou, but also Pound!

And there is the end of Canto LIII.

What I’ve garnered so far is that:

  1. Pound’s written Chinese is improving by this point. Not by a lot, mind: it wasn’t hard to track these characters down online, much less copying them from a Chinese-English dictionary. But he is apparently studying it. 
  2. Pound is taking very seriously his one source on Chinese history, to the point where he’s actually seeming to feel real animosity to those figures demonized within it. This will surely matter later, when Pound gets into his anti-Buddhist/anti-Taoist schtick. 
  3. Pound almost certainly identifies with Confucius: the attraction is based on the biographical parallels between the man and himself, including, in what seems to have become crucial for Pound’s artistic value-system, their shared failure. Failure seems like a big sign of superiority for Pound, as if any worth thinking who isn’t a ruler or king is doomed to be chewed up and spat out by the world, as Confucius had been, and as he himself was in the process of experiencing, at least from his own point of view.
  4. Pound is very actively mapping the historical pattern of development and civilizational climax under a great leader, followed by corruption and decline, onto Chiense history; there is a clear program here wherein he wishes to find and construct into his narrative of China a pattern that is “universal” to all human history. How that plays out in Chinese history, where this pattern seems to come in constant waves, unlike in European history (where it seems more like a slow rise and fall of the tide–though perhaps that’s just my perception) and what he’ll do with that difference, I do not know, but I am curious. 

And as far as my fictionalized, occult-poet Pound:

  1. He would also be interested in, and augmenting his western occult studies with, the occult texts of China, such as the I Ching… which, in a world where the occult and magical texts actually have some degree of magical power, would indeed have some divinatory capacity.  He is probably also studying other such texts, so I’ll need to bring myself up to speed on what was (or could have been) available in translation, whether in English, French, or Italian.
  2. My sense is Pound is probably in correspondence with Chinese scholars by this point; he’s also probably ignoring at least some of the complicating details and data they’re providing him with. But in terms of my fantastical Pound story, this is where a little wuxia begins to become possible. Not that Pound would be a practitioner, but he might meet some such practitioners, even though he himself never gets the chance to travel as far to the East as China… in our world, at least. There’s a chance that someone was sent to Europe to meet him for some reason, just as, on occasion, he met Chinese-speakers and asked them for help in his study of the language, or of specific Chinese poems.
  3. This is all a strong impetus to go back and look at Cathay–that is, Pound’s book of “translations” of Chinese poetry, published in  1915 and surely now in the Public Domain, and available from this page as audiobook or etext–to see what I can use from there in my own story.

In other news: I appreciated this big-picture critical discussion of the Cantos. Lots to think about there.

Next time, I’ll tackle Canto LIV. Here’s hoping it’s sooner. I’m gonna shoot for sometime next week.

Series Navigation<< Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LIIBlogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LIV >>

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