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.
This is my third Cantos-posting in the space of a few weeks, after a long time away from it, so it looks like maybe I’m back onto this project for the moment. That’s good. Unlike Canto LXV, this one is actually short, if not exactly sweet—as are the remainder of the Adams Cantos, I noticed the other day. This bodes well for the project. So, now, let’s see whether I can find any buried treasure in these lines.
Canto LXVI has a single hard verse break, in the middle of the second page of the poem, after about fifty-some lines, and just before the line that begins, in italics,
July 18th, yesterday, moved all the grass in Stony Hill field this day my new barn was raised
The significance of the line is, I think, twofold. One, it is the actual cut between Adams-in-Europe and Adams-back-home: everything before it dates back to Adams on the Eastern side of the Atlantic, while what comes after it has Adams back in the United States, and primarily in Boston.
But I think it may also signal more than that. Bear with me.
Unlike the last three pages of the Canto, the first two cover a range of topics: trade agreements, dinners with significant people (like the Shipleys, whose “daughter married less prudently/ and they were thinking of sending her to America”), Adams’ travels and touristic sightseeing—visiting the home of Pope and the “seat” of Thompson. These lines, by the way, swirl kaleidoscopically, leaping from one subject to another, one moment to another, in a way very reminiscent of much earlier Cantos. If you blink, you might miss the fact that Adams was referring to British poets only a couple of generations earlier than himself (depending on how you mark generations).
But among those first lines, I feel like there’s a certain attentiveness to nature:
Generally rode twice a day till made master of this curious forest (Bois de Boulogne) view of Issy and the castle of Meudon game is not very plentiful. ... three houses, in fact, round a square blowing roses, ripe strawberries plums cherries etc deer sheep wood-doves guinea-hens peacocks etc Dr Grey speaks very lightly of Buffon Mr H. prefers the architecture of this house because it reminds him of Palladio windows with mahogany columns there are two stoves but at neither of them could a student be comfortable in cold weather
… and then, after the verse break:
July 18th, yesterday, moved all the grass in Stony Hill field this day my new barn was raised their songs never more various than this morning Corn by two sorts of worm Hessian fly menaces wheat Where T. has been trimming red cedars with team of 5 cattle brought back 22 cedars Otis full of election: Henry, Jefferson, Burr T. cutting trees and leaves of white oaks To barley and black grass and at the beach said one thing wd/ make Rhode Island unanimous —meaning funding— they wanted Hamilton for vie president I said nothing. WHERETOWARD THE ARGUMENTS HAD BEEN as renouncing the transactions of Runing Mede?
That last bit, of course, has nothing to animal husbandry or the management of plants… but it does have to do with the husbandry of a nation, or more specifically, the husbandry of a people’s legal rights and entitlements, if that makes any sense. (Especially when we consider the way vegetation and magic seemed linked in earlier Cantos, which I’ve discussed at some length much earlier in this series of posts, specifically here, as well as—more briefly—here and here.)
There do seem to be a couple of interesting connections there: there’s the implication that Adams absorbed a lot in Europe, including lessons that he applied on his return. Sure, I’m probably getting part of that from how Adams is mentioned traveling with Jefferson, whom Pound has already (in Canto XXI) mentioned as someone who worked to bring over a certain amount of the grandness of European civilization over his own estate at Monticello, including his seeking out of a “gardener” who could also play the “French horn.”
But it’s also the highlight of the way the management of threats is important both in politics and in agriculture: the Hessian fly menaced the wheat, but there were threats to the newly-independent America, too: the British opposition to American independence, the machinations of the French (discussed in already in Canto LXV), and domestic plotting such as the attempt to make Hamilton Vice President, something Adams opposed. (Why? There’s a number of possible answers, including the fact Hamilton attempted (pointlessly) to sabotage Adams’ shot at being the first President of the United States… but also, because Adams was a prudish Bostonian, so it’s said, and disapproved of Hamilton’s infidelity to his wife. There’s a lot more to it—here are some history nerds wonking on the subject—but that should suffice.)
That said, it’s almost surprising Pound wasn’t attracted to Hamilton, who, like Pound, was willing to argue that money, not idealistic fancies, were the proper subject of discussion for those who would form a revolutionary force. Pound, like Hamilton, was very eager to talk about theories of money and the importance of trade and the basis of the currency, and like Pound he subject to gossip about sexual improprieties; and like Pound, he was a foreigner and something of an outsider within a revolutionary movement that he importantly affected, but could not truly, publicly “rule” himself:
All that said, Hamilton never really competed with Adams for Pound’s attention: it was Jefferson, really, who occupied that niche, and in fact it was Adams who competed with Jefferson, who fascinated Pound earlier on (he did, after all, write a book called Jefferson and/or Mussolini back in the 1930s). There’s great paper from 1988 on that exact subject by Reed Way Dasenbrock that’s worth checking out: the paper is titled “Jefferson and/or Adams: A Shifting Mirror for Mussolini in the Middle Cantos.”
Anyway, taking into account the fact that Adams was a proud nativist, as a pair of lines earlier in this Canto remind us:
So there is no drop not American in me Aye we have noticed that said the Ambassador
…one can’t help but wonder to what degree Pound is using the (surely prosaic) mention of the Hessian fly’s threat to the wheat in Adams’ diary as a kind of symbol of other threats to America, including Hamilton, a kind of foreign “pest” (in Adams’ eyes) who (also in Adams’ eyes) posed a threat to America. Of course, Hessians were Germans, and were the Kings George, including King George III, who ruled England during the Revolution and whom Adams met at his court.
It is interesting, though, that most of the references to land and livestock management drop away after the first couple of pages of this Canto: thereafter, we are treated to a series of quotations from Adams’ writings on (almost exclusively) legal issues regarding the rights of the Americans in their newfound Republic, especially in the light of what Adams wrote in his book Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, published in 1765. There are still references back to the Stamp Tax—and to the notion that given time, it would strip America of all its precious metals, which strikes me as vaguely insane, but seems to have been a common objection to the Stamp Tax—and other protestations about the rights of the Americans. Pound’s gloss on this material is in Chinese:
Pound then provides a romanized gloss of these characters, “ching ming”; in modern pinyin, it’s written zhèngmíng, though the concept is familiar to any English speaker who knows about Confucian thought as “The Rectification of Names.” This is the idea that the name of a thing ought to reflect its true nature (and, conversely, that the behavior of a person ought to reflect his or her station). It’s a concept that people in Korean society, at least, still very much believe in, often commenting that high school kids should wear school uniforms because, among other things, a high school kid should look like a high school kid. (Likewise, a professor should look like a professor, a cop should look and act like a cop, a mom should look and act like a mom, and so on.)
In its way, in Confucius’ time, it was a revolutionary idea about duty, action, and station aligning naturally and necessarily—and it is probably why Confucius was so often despised by the princes to whom he attempted to evangelize. If read the text of the Declaration of Independence, you see a certain harmony in the rhetorical mode: appeals to the necessity of “right” government and justifications on the basis of inherent and natural law. Confucius and the Framers of the Constitution were talking about different things, in very different traditions, but there’s a sort of echo in the grounding of their arguments, or so it seems to me… and, I think, to Pound, not in the least in the idea that the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence represented a reinstatement of inherent rights, a “rectification” of a wrong, rather than the simple formulation of a “new” country.
There’s some material from a letter between Governors Winchester and Bradford (about the manipulative psychology of monarchic tyranny as a means of separating people from their rights), but Pound quickly follows up with an excerpt from Adams’ “Boston Instructions” (a document concerning how Boston ought to protest the British seizure of the Liberty, a ship apparently owned by John Hancock) as well as a 1773 essay by Adams in the Boston Gazette. Mostly, this stuff is about the rights of man as outlined by the Magna Charta, and about the necessity of judiciary independence from the monarch—and how a failure in either runs to tyranny.
This structure I’ve just sketched is a bit odd: a rollicking mix of tourism, high society, management of forests and farmland, a little architecture… and then a little over four page of legalistic language excerpted from letters, essays, and academic texts by Adams. One could go to the “Post-Bag” Cantos from the Malatesta cycle, but those were quite different, much more polyphonic and much more of a roundup of different concerns, interests, and pursuits by Malatesta and those in his world. This, by contrast, feels almost monomaniacal by page three.
Maybe it’s just that its hard to turn someone whose expertise is judicial law into an epic hero. Or maybe it’s that Pound wanted to drive home that, beautiful fruit and abundant game in a forest and well-managed gardens depend upon the same sort of thinking as a well-tended nation and a well-tended array of legal provisions for the citizenry—that there’s a kind of “agricultural” genius of a sort to both pursuits, or something like that.
Mind you, I feel that that’s simultaneously kind of a stretch, and exactly what Pound was trying, in a lopsided kind of way, to say. How much to credit that sense of things, I’m not sure. But it does, at least give me a way into a poem that otherwise I’m not so sure what to do with.
Although I have not yet had the chance to watch the HBO miniseries based on John Adams’ life, I find it interesting how the story as told by Pound contrast with the story the series seems to depict, mostly because Pound seems less interested in a semblance of balance or in showing Adams’ flaws, at least so far. (One always begins to wonder to what degree a given figure in the Cantos is a Mary Sue—that is, an idealized, seemingly infallible stand-in for Pound himself—when a character starts getting lots of stage time and starts being exceedingly wise, strong, and manly. I wondered it about Malatesta, and I’m wondering it about Adams, too.)
In any case, I originally thought that Pound would have loved to see the miniseries, but now I’m not so sure. It specifically contradicts things Pound seems to have wanted to suggest about Adams—for example, the sprinkling of French in his journal citations, compared the Adams’ complete inability to speak French in one of the three scenes in the clip below, and the fact he actually had a lot to learn in France, and that Franklin wasn’t just a haphazard fool there:
Than again, the timing of the material in the Cantos is difficult to pinpoint, since it jumps around a lot and Adams did substantially improve his French later on. Still, one suspects Pound might have reacted to this depiction of Adams in the same way a lot of his contemporaries reacted to sports matches on the radio: by shouting disagreement, and perhaps even throwing a little popcorn in a snit of resentment.
As for the uses of this Canto to that fictional project of mine…
I’m led to wonder—when it comes to the magico-historical energies marshalled by the poet in my own story—what happens when he gets history wrong? Does it short-circuit things when he goes beyond the realm of wiggle room? One imagines a poet whose poem, when it essentially is close enough to reality to pass for representation, could discover magical power in the verse… and then could subsequently discover that something’s out of whack and the magic is no longer working. Some would concentrate on smaller, short spells where there’s less of a balancing act, but others would yearn for the deeper, wilder power that comes with a poem of the length and depths of the Cantos. Some, probably, would spend a lifetime looking for which word or line or passage broke the thing, and what change could put it back into working alignment.
How about when he doesn’t go past the bounds of wiggle-room: when, say, he does stuff like suggest in subtle verse that animal husbandry and responsible grounds management are a sure sign of political acumen and skill? What about when he suggests that the enemies of a given state are like a certain kind of insect pest? If the poet is “containing history” in the way a mage “contains” a spirit or demon in a magical circle inscribed into the floor, what happens when he also attempts to force it into a certain shape?
Oh, and a note: I’m experimenting with Chinese fonts for the Chinese characters in these posts. If I find one I like, I’ll go back and update the characters in all the previous posts (eventually). In today’s post, I’m currently using one of the fonts included in the cwtex-q-fonts release by chenpanliao; this collection is available on github. It’s a little more modern and cleaner than what I take to be hand-painted Chinese characters in my New Directions edition of The Cantos, but on the bright side, they are clearly recognizable and can be rescaled easily.
In any case, that’s it for today. I hope to return later this week, or perhaps next, with a post on Canto LXVII. I am, post by post, creeping closer and closer to the promise of the “Pisan” Cantos. But I have about thirty pages more of Adams Cantos, and two Italian Cantos, to get through first. I’m hoping I can embark on the Pisan Cantos beginning this fall, though as always, we’ll have to see. I will, at that point, have reached the midpoint of the Cantos overall, and may set the poem aside briefly to read a Pound biography or something like that. (I managed to find a copy of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era in the campus library—I think it’s the third time I’ve signed it out, having forgotten about it immediately after returning it the previous two times.)