Okay, time to get my shoulder back to the wheel, I think. I’m making another try at returning to the Cantos. It’s been a busy time, but not so busy I can’t do this a few days a week in the morning, as a warm-up to my own writing. At least, I hope I can do it.
This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, one (or a few) at a time. The readings are atypical, for reasons made clear in my first post in this series. I’m not sure whether the fiction project that inspired this series will ever come to fruition, but I’d like to try finish the Cantos just the same.
In this installment, I try to figure out what I’m supposed to think about Canto LXIV, the third of the ten Adams Cantos… and what I do think about it.
For American colonials in the time of John Adams, the Stamp Tax—a tax England tried to levy on America, taxing all printed goods, including “[s]hip’s papers, legal documents, licenses, newspapers, other publications, and even playing cards”—was troubling mostly because of the dark future of willy-nilly taxation it boded. The problem wasn’t that printed things were being taxed (as the tax was relatively small) so much as because England attempted to impose it without the agreement of the colonial legislatures.
Of course, knowing Ezra Pound as we do, it’s hardly surprising that the Stamp Tax would offend the poet on a deeper level: if the Cantos have argued one thing consistently, it’s that reading and books are crucial to the life of the mind, to liberty, to prosperity, and to the success of all human endeavour. So it’s hardly surprisingly how much attention he gives it, in the beginning of this Canto.
Not that the Stamp Tax resistance wasn’t important to the story of the revolution; just that it’s not at all surprising Pound would amplify that importance in his version of the American Revolution, which it’s becoming increasingly clear is what his poems about John Adams are really about: which revolution? Which America? Which history does Pound want to claim as the gossamer thread that runs through all history, and runs through the present, and sings through the future of the world?
The singing is polyphonic, of course: we have Adams’ diary—with a great deal of attention to foods eaten along the way: if the American Revolution of The Cantos is an adventure, so far it’s an oddly Tolkienesque one, with bookish and lawyerly hobbits as its primary heroes.
Indeed, I have to say I found it surprising that the birth of John Quincy Adams warrants a single line in this Canto, while the various foods his father ate over a series of years warrants six or seven lines. Of course, not having read Adams’ diaries, perhaps this focus is Adams’, too: it’s easy to imagine him noting down in his diary what he ate for dinner on a given night, or an occasion when he was served green tea, or his policy for the trimming of trees on his land, but not writing the day his son first walked. Maybe Pound’s just being faithful to Adams’ diaries and the other sources… and it wouldn’t be too out of line given the “Great Men of History” way in which a lot of books about Adams would’ve been written, both before Pound’s time, and contemporaneously to his writing of the Cantos. Still, it’s hard not to see a glimmer of Pound’s own attention here: he surely still saw himself as a Founding Father of a revolutionary poetics, and that work was what he believed he’d be remembered for, to the point where his own (often-absentee) fatherhood probably just mattered less to him.
Though we revisit elements of what we’ve seen in the previous two Cantos, such as Adams’ role in the court case that followed the Boston Massacre (and his refutation of rumors that he got rich defending the soldiers tried at it), but we also are treated to a few more years of Adams’ life. We see Adams meeting and hobnobbing with lots of important people in the colonies during the run-up to the Revolution. The poem focuses mostly on Adams, quoting bitlets of his own ruminations:
If what I wrote last night recall what Lord Bacon wrote about laws...invisible and correspondences... that parliament hath no authority to impose internal taxes upon us.
… as in, it’s not just tax evasion, but a spiritual and philosophical insistence based on natural, transcendent laws of reality. Or how he quotes the Roman playwright Terence (specifically the play Heauton Timorumenos) in reference to his willingness to defend in court an accused rapist, whom he himself thought a worthless fellow, but
nihil humanum alienum
The line is actually this:
"Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,"
Which we usually render as: “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.”
This literary and learned quality of Adams that Pound wants to demonstrate for us is, of course interspersed with two other sets of details. The first set consists of colorful, funny anecdotes, like one regarding how Adams saw an “Indian preacher” in court who declared:
Adam! Adam, when you knew it wd/ make good cider!
The actual anecdote being that Adams saw a Native American preacher in court who cried out this (as Adams’ diary has it, courtesy of Terrell):
Good God! that ever Adam and Eve should eat that apple, when they knew in their own souls it would make good cider!
Remember, apples in the colonies at this time were pretty much useful only for making cider: you wouldn’t eat the nasty, sour little things that grew in most orchards, that’s for sure.
Then there’s the odd story of how Adams and a few of his friends walked a quarter of a mile to visit an old woman named Poke, who was said to be a century and a decade old, or more, and how, when they looked into the window and saw her, she was “an object of horror.” This Pound renders with a quotation from Petronius’ Satyricon.
But alongside that, Pound is engaged in some more serious “worldbuilding,” to steal a term from the genre fiction world: he’s trying to paint a picture of an America tumbling toward revolution, and alongside the fancy dinners and tea parties and odd outbursts in court, Adams is also watching America drawn inexorably into the tumult to come. Near the end of the Canto, a packet of letters comes to him via Ben Franklin—who is suspected of getting them from Sir John Temple—and the letters bespeak a split that is forming within the American colonies: those who remain loyal to the British crown, and those who want America to become independent, and go its own way. (It’s fairly clear which side Pound is cheering for, though he doesn’t demonize those who’re loyalists quite so much as I expected.)
You’ll notice I don’t really say much about Canto LXIV as a poem: because, as a poem, it’s… not that interesting to me. I think some of Pound’s jumbled approach to rendering the speech and writing of Adams and his contemporaries is interesting, of course:
Gentle rain last night and this morning Hutchinson sucking up to George IIIrd. falsehood in Rome's letters quite flagrant
Or at least, I assume Pound is colloquializing Adam’s judgement of Hutchison’s behaviour, just as I’m assuming Adams didn’t actually quote Petronius in his account of visiting the old woman’s home. I don’t really have access to the books Pound did, so I can’t follow up too closely on this, but I have to admit that even if I could, I’m not sure I would. I am interested in understanding why Pound found Adams so compelling, but I have to admit I don’t myself share that interest, not enough to read piles of books about Adams.
This, I think, is one of the flaws singular to the Adams Cantos: while the China Cantos are also a departure from the tight, energetic, and often beautiful writing in the earlier Cantos, it does at least plow through a long history of epic proportions, featuring a cast of hundreds if not (on the page) thousands. The Adams Cantos, while they show a lot of Adams’ contemporaries, are curiously focused on John Adams specifically: his experiences, his judgments, his opinions and acquaintances. If, in the China Cantos, you’re not particularly interested in a specific Dynasty, you can persist and reach a new one in a few pages. If you’re not interested in John Adams, though… well, then you have to persist through a lot more before you reach something that does interest you more, and Pound is, I think even those who like the Adams Cantos would agree, putting a lot less effort into shaping beautiful verse here than he was in the first forty or so Cantos.
That said, one thing that tantalizes me is the question of to what degree Pound sees or treats Adams as a kind of surrogate of himself. He, after all, understood himself as part of a revolutionary movement in 20th century poetry. He read prodigiously (although more patchily than he lets on), and socializing with other members of the movement was something very important to him: the dinners, the walking trips, the green tea here and the half-forgotten argument there: I feel like Pound is trying to argue the quotidian material of life is as crucial to the revolution—be it artistic, or being it political—as the overtly revolutionary actions, the pamphlets and court cases and public arguments for or against a policy.
But I also find myself wishing that, instead of writing a biography-in-surrogate, Pound had told his own life’s version of the Adams Cantos: the strange encounters that made him recall bits of Roman dramas, the meals he shared with great figures of the 20th century literary revolution (yeah, that peacock he ate with Yeats, but also whatever tea he had with Wyndham Lewis, or whatever pub meal he had with Eliot, or what he had for dinner in Rapallo on a random day), as well as the moments when he, like Adams, felt like he was alone in the world in remembering someone’s wrongdoing when others had moved on and returned to being okay with someone. (Though you could argue that’s what all of his crazed economics writing and nonfiction was about.)
Still, it would have been fascinating to see some of that worked into the Cantos, in the same style as the Cantos… where, I must admit, John Adams’ life-snippets just don’t interested me so terribly much. (Maybe if I was American, I might feel different. I don’t know…) Maybe, as one earlier commenter on this series said, perhaps I need to just push on through till I reach the glories of the Pisan Cantos. Which remain, what, seven Cantos away? (But, at the same time, that’s also 58 pages away!)
Anyway, I’ll see if I can knock another one of these out soon, but unlike today’s Canto, it’ll probably take a few mornings to get done: Canto LXV is seventeen pages long, with another fifteen pages of annotations in the Terrell! (I may try get LXVI done while I’m at it, since that second one seems quite a bit shorter, and it’d mean I’m halfway toward the Pisan Cantos.)