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 the very lengthy Canto LXV, the fourth of the ten Adams Cantos… and what I do think about it.
Given how much Pound militated against war (though more specifically war profiteering), I was curious to see how he treated the Revolutionary War. It turns out, though, that his choice of John Adams was a fortuitous one, for it allows him to focus away from battles that would have been going on in the background in parts of this Canto: Adams was, after all, in Europe, negotiating treaties for America with France and eventually the Netherlands.
Trade agreements and political alliances are the battlegrounds upon which Pound draws our hero—or, well, his hero. Money, political allegiance, political support, and… tourism?
Yes, tourism: the Canto is as much a (heavily abbreviated) travelogue of Adams’ journeys through Spain, France, and the Netherlands as anything: specific meals he mentions in his diary—from “oating” at the Red Lion—a tavern between Philadelphia and Bristol Pennsylvania—to dining on fish and bean salad, claret, and champagne before a trip to the opera with an American in Bordeaux, and even finer meals with members of the French élite who were, though nobody knew it then, soon to be parted with their heads. Adams apparently took meticulous records of the meals, chats, and entertainments enjoyed along the way, and at the bottom of page 371, a little arc of text memorializes a banner hung at a garden party in Bordeaux in honor of Adams’ visit.
These details, I suppose, are left out of more dour and serious histories, and it feels as if Pound is including them for that reason—that Adams’ attentiveness to such details tells us something we cannot learn from a more conventional retelling of events.
This, of course, doesn’t stop Pound from working to infuse a heroic spirit into the poem: the canto also strays into the realm of nautical adventure, recounting how Adams, though ordered belowdecks, refused to obey the captain who was tasked with bringing him safely to Europe:
So that the ball passed directly over my head. Tucker in old age said that J.A. was out with a musket like any damn common marine ' Ordered him; but there he wuz out agin I sez: Me orders, sir, are to git yew to EUrope ' Was a letter of marque, shot through our mizzen yard we upon this turned our broadside which the instant she saw, she struck.
Here we see a brief flash of an earlier stylistic pattern: Pound’s switching between voices: he momentarily adopts the voice—and the sailorly drawl—of Captain Tucker, recounting how he spoke to Adams but also, somehow, in the moment of that frustrated order. This is Pound slipping back into a familiar mode of story-telling, but one that does not last: he is quick to return to the voice of John Adams-as-diarist.
Adams-as-diarist is the source of a number of (for Pound) lengthy bits of pure travelogue, like this one:
Numbers of small birds from the short instant they light on a ship drop asleep from exhaustion Oleron, famous for sea laws at least I take it this is the place along side with hakes, skates, and gurnards river very beautiful on both sides horses, oxen, great flocks, husbandmen ploughing women a half dozen in droves with their hoes churches, convents, gentlemen's seats very magnificent. From perils of the sea, intrigues, business wangles rural improvements are brought down to the water's edge muddy water, grand seats, beautiful groves a number of vessels in the river land, cattle, horses after so long a journey at Bordeaux, at Blaye de lonh First dish was a fine french soup then boiled meat lights of calf one way and liver another bread very fine and fine salad the raisins are most delicious none of us understand french none of them english on quarter deck I was struck with the hens capons cocks in their coops
This is most certainly not the stuff of conventional histories of the American Revolution, and it made me think of that section in, of all books, Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal where suddenly the man who’s supposed to be driving to Paris to shoot de Gaulle passes through the Southern French countryside and there’s fifty or a hundred pages on the beauteous glories of the French countryside and the incredible food to be had there. It feels out of place, but perhaps more than it should: one thing that’s consistent about warriors and heroes of earlier eras was the expectation that they would appreciate (and be trained to appreciate) art, beauty, music, and the finest delicacies. Certainly Adams is that sort of hero, in Pound’s poem: he knows good wine, and quality raisins, and can tell good bread from bad.
It’s important to Pound that someone cultured in this way was among the founders of America, of course, so that he can argue that the modern age is one that is characterized by a coarsening of of minds and tastes, a falling-apart of a once-exalted people and a once-glorious project, albeit one wrestled from the mire and muck by men who could do it specifically because of their refined minds, tastes, and sensitivities: their poetical natures, in other words, however prosaically expressed. Is this why the Adams Cantos (like the Chinese ones before them) are so much less poetical, so different from the highly distilled, subtle-yet-forceful sensibility of the Cantos that preceded them? I’m not sure.
There is certainly something very prosaic about it all, though: dinner conversation is recounted where not only books are discussed, but also oddities of nature like the electric eel. Long passages describe the (somewhat pastoral-fashioned) French countryside, and Pound has Adams recount the paleness of one studious host, and the coiffure of a lady met along the way:
Mlle de Bourbon her hair uncombed came out by the round house with it it hanging over her shoulders, in white
In some sense, it feels as if Adams is being refashioned into a kind of poet of particularized details himself: Pound is singing his voice in a way that turns what was perhaps simply meticulous note-taking into an almost poetical recounting of a voyage. Which is also to say that Pound seems to have found something compelling about Adams-as-expatriate since, like Adams, Pound himself was a perpetual expatriate, dining on foreign food and living in unfamilar surroundings. (As a long-term expatriate myself, I can attest to the fact that even when one’s surrounds become well known, something in them remains forever unfamiliar.) It’s also notable that while Pound mostly mentions important French and Dutch individuals described in Adams’ diary, he also mentions fellow expatriate travelers, such as an Irishman named O’Brien whom Adams ran across at a shrine to St. James, and with whom he seems to have shared two bottles of Frontenac wine.
Considering passages like these, what comes to mind for me is the observation—I think it was early in Erich Auerbach, somewhere early in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, I think, though I haven’t access to the book at the moment to confirm this—that while the Biblical mode was of decontextualized figures in a kind of empty nonspace (Moses alone with god in the form of a voice issuing forth from a burning bush, say), the Classical Greek (and especially the Homeric) mode hinged on a certain amount of inclusion (and illumination) of setting and quotidian details: lines about the food eaten by someone, or the color of the sky at dawn, or the sound of the sea. I’d thought, until now, that the latter was the preferred mode of Pound, but in some ways, I now feel like perhaps that’s me reading Pound along ideological lines he’d have preferred: isn’t Pound’s deal kind of a fusion of the two? A combination of highly selective inclusion of telling details, against a blurred backdrop that ignores certain differences in historical period and culture? The rhyme of figures, incidents, and actions across centuries must, on some level, rely on the blurring and exclusion of a certain amount of setting in exchange for highly precise, closely magnified glimpse of the rhyming details. I’m not completely sure I mean that, but it’s a thought I’m kicking around at the moment.
I also cannot help but imagine Pound enjoying the challenges Adams faced, as he had to contend with ineptitude and disorganization among his compatriots (he complains about Benjamin Franklin neglecting to pass on important information to him during negotiations—Franklin does come across as something of a nuisance in this Canto—and of disarray and profiteering in some of the other men sent to represent the American colony in France), must deal with French representatives that fight to keep America dependent on France, and must hammer out details about fishing rights and trade agreements, with Adams complaining of the illogical nature of a lot of the latter, including the example that closes out the canto:
Sardinian ambassador said it was curious to remark on the progress of commerce furs from Hudson Bay Company sent to London were sent to Siberia
Perhaps it is a speculation too far to imagine Pound, had he lived in our time, might have become very much an enthusiast of games like Sid Meier’s Civilization: he seems to delight in the political wranglings and the logistics of organizing political and trade alliances, but more importantly, to perceive a successful drawing-up of a treaty or trade deal as a heroic victory. This, it’s funny to remark, is neither oddly contemporary, nor oddly historic: it has, rather, been a continuous counter-narrative to the glories of war and military prowess… or perhaps not counter to it, but rather an adjunct to it, for the Adams who made these deals also was out on the deck of Tucker’s ship, fearless and with musket in hand. That said, the fact Pound focuses on Adams is interesting: somewhere across the ocean, battles were being fought over the fate of the American colonies, but our focus is in France, at operas and dinners and negotiations. Battles get alluded to—such as one described in a Spanish-language newspaper shown to Adams, describing the Battle of Rhode Island—but they are not the focus. This, I think, very likely was Pound’s attempt at counter-narrative to the history he must have been taught in school, which would have focused on those battles, on the martial heroism, and skipped over the stuff about fishing rights.
Before I wrap up, two other things leapt out at me in the poem as interesting.
The first is a passage mentioning a tapestry Adams glimpsed in Brussels, depicting a scene of host-desecration by Pound’s favorite villains of European history:
... saw elsewhere church music Italian style a tapestry: number of jews stabbing the wafer blood gushing from it
Pound here, not surprisingly, omits the fact that Adams was actually disgusted by what he called this “pious piece of villany”—the ugliness of the image, I take that to mean, rather than Adams thinking the Jews depicted were being piously villainous—and the sight of many worshippers praying before it. Still, I was surprised he included the mention of it at all, since despite Adams having had somewhat mixed feelings about Jewish people:
John Adams, who said some highly complimentary things about the Jews, also noted that “it is very hard work to love most of them” [the Jews]. And he looked forward to the day when “the asperities and peculiarities of their character” would be worn away and they would become “liberal Unitarian Christians.”
… Adams was generally understood to be pretty respectful and accepting of Jewish people, including by his Jewish contemporaries, and he was also the first world leader to express supporting of the idea of a Jewish homeland . Frankly, general was much less hateful of Jews in specific and in the abstract than Pound was. and Pound’s own anti-Semitism doesn’t really seem to be particularly compatible with Adams’ thinking. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that Pound doesn’t clarify about how Adams found the tapestry distasteful.
The other thing that jumped out at me was a brief passage that was a bit, “Lie quiet, Divus”: Pound seems to jump into the present and then back out in a single line:
The Duke de la Rochefoucauld made me a visit (Lady Lucan's verses on Ireland) made me a visit and desired me to explain to him some passages in the Connecticut constitution (at which point Mr Eliot left us) Mr Vaughan said etc/ that he saw ' But ' sez he ' you can not blame us endeavouring to carry this point to market and get something by it ' (which seems fairly English)
Eliot, here, is not a figure in Adams’ journal: it seems to be T.S. Eliot who dropped by for a visit while Pound perhaps was discussing those verses of Lady Lucan’s; Terrell (in The Companion to the Cantos) seems confused as to whether the second parenthetical applies to Eliot’s wordless departure (which Pound may have seen as a “fairly English” response to criticisms of England by an Irishwoman criticizing English colonialism of Ireland), or whether it’s Vaughn’s desire to carry the point to market and profit from it that Pound is commenting as a “fairly English” trait. I prefer to think maybe it applies to both, and that the ambiguity is there on purpose.
In any case, that’s Canto LXV: not much here for the supernatural, mysterious proto-Pound of my (now perhaps not abandoned, but certainly not-active) novel project, but at least there are poetical glimmerings which remind one that Pound hasn’t fully jettisoned those skills and intuitions that made the first forty or so Cantos so very well worth reading… skills to the employment of which he is, as I gather from many comments, soon to return in the Pisan Cantos.
But those are still six more “Adams” Cantos distant… though the next of these, I see, is not so very long at all. LXV was twenty-five pages long, but LXVI is only a little over six. I should, I hope, be able to get to it sometime early next week. We’ll see.