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 first post on the Cantos in eight months. I do hope to finish the Adams Cantos in the next few weeks, since there’s only two left. Then I’ll be into the Pisan Cantos—hooray! That said, I’ll probably slow down so I give each on the attention it deserves.
(Not to dismiss the Adams Cantos, but… well, I think there’s a reason there’s so much less interest in them (and the Chinese Cantos) than in what comes before them and after them.)
In any case, here we go!
Canto LXVIII begins and ends with the statement of a theme taken from the writings of John Adams: that, as he observed many others having noted, there is a necessity for the division of power within a government. (Not just a democracy, by the way: Adams cites monarchies failing to establish such a division as troubled as well, especially the Franks of the Dark Ages.)
Pound begins with stating this theme in some excerpts from letters from Adams, a pattern that continues throughout the Canto: essentially everything in this one is taken from a letter to or from Adams. Pound quotes Swift quoting Polybius, which brings to mind the line from back where we began: “Lie quiet, Divus”—a quotation of a quotation of (a translation of) a quotation. Pound shows us Adams affirming Swift’s transmission of Polybius, critiquing Milton’s take on More’s Utopia and Plato’s political philosophy, and taking issue with Pope’s rendering of Homer a little further down the page, as if to assert loudly that the translation and transmission of politics, of philosophy, and of literature are not separate but in fact are all one and the same endeavour, deeply linked and necessarily coextensive. This should not surprise us, for a poet aspiring, still, to write a poem that “contains history.”
But is Pound also anxiously defending the poetical value of his mosaic technique using bits and pieces of letters that are in themselves not particularly poetical at all? Justifying ahead of time a lot of material John Adams’ struggles to get a bank loan? Maybe, though I think there’s more going on than that, given the fact Pound returns to that opening theme regarding the necessity, observed by Lycurgus, of the three branches of government to be separated and balance one another.
(Not for the last time in Canto LXVIII, one is reminded of scandals in the headlines today. Most of the scandals that come to mind are Trump’s, of course, but what I’m thinking about right now is the scandal rocking the present Canadian government regarding illegal interference with the judiciary.)
We might be tempted to ask, Is this really the stuff of a great poem? If we did ask that—and believe me, I have—we would be far from alone. Take these passages from Humphrey Carpenter’s A Serious Man: The Life of Ezra Pound:
At least in the Chinese History Cantos the reader has a vague idea of what is going on. By comparison, the John Adams Cantos which follow (numbered 62 to 71) are three-quarters opaque.
It is striking that the most obvious characteristic of the major historical figures in the Cantos is their comparative obscurity; this seems to have been a large part of their attraction for Ezra, who infinitely preferred cultivating his own ‘discoveries’ to celebrating the achievements of, say, a Cosimo di Medici or a George Washington. John Adams was intended by him, as Sigismundo had been, to exemplify ‘intelligent constructivity’ combined with an adequately interesting ‘private life’. The very neglect from which he supposed Adams to be suffering gave the man a luminous importance. What actually went into the John Adams Cantos was of little significance. (572–573)
Carpenter uses the verb “supposed” because, thought Pound apparently wasn’t fully aware of it, Adams wasn’t quite so obscure as all that, at least not when he was working on these Cantos. Whether he’s right that Pound was out of touch, or whether Pound selected Adams knowing he was less obscure than other historical figures, who can say?
That said, having read most of the John Adams Cantos, I think the paragraph that directly follows the last one above is revealing about why this set is so difficult to make sense of:
Ezra rushed through the ten-volume Charles Francis Adams edition of the John Adams Works (1850–56)—as he had done with de Mailla [in the Chinese History Cantos]—picking out incidents from Adams’ life and activities that caught his eye, and transposing them into the Cantos. However, whereas de Mailla presented his Chinese information chronologically, the Adams Works were organized differently, with the material divided according to sources. Hard as it is to believe, Ezra simply ignored this, and put his chosen quotations into the Cantos in the order in which they happened to appear in print in the Works. In consequence, he made complete nonsense of Adams’ life.
Carpenter characterizes Pound’s approach to the Works as “trawling,” noting that Pound transcribes inaccurately and builds something nobody can parse out without having a copy of the Works on hand. Of course, this raises the question: could some of this be intentional? Sometimes I find myself wondering whether the need of reading the originals being quoted isn’t part of Pound’s agenda. As a writer myself, I often engage in metatextual reference to other works, naming a character after some other character in a book I think is pertinent to the text I’m writing (or naming a character an anagram of the pertinent character’s name), or setting the story in a place with the same name, and so on.
There’s a delicate balance to be struck, of course: I find it obnoxious when minor characters in a narrative are named after authors or major fictional characters. Recently, watching Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, I found myself wincing that the waiter in a witches-only club not only is named after Dorian Gray, but actually is Dorian Gray, and rolled my eyes when a minor witch character was named Shirley Jackson.
Such obviousness is a little to “easy,” when it comes to my taste, but that’s TV: it’s usually designed for people who don’t (or who no longer) read books, so the references need to be hit-you-over-the-head in order to register at all. (And even so, you’ll get “Who is Dorian Gray?” articles online because even then people won’t get the reference.)
I’d say Pound’s metatextuality is diametrically opposite: you basically need to have read the same books as Pound has, and probably while you’re reading the Cantos (and with your copy close at hand), in order to make sense fo what he’s saying… especially in a world where the Terrell Companion and other books offering detailed glosses on the text don’t yet exist.
Humphrey finds in these Cantos “a mind in chaos,” and “a frighteningly candid picture of [Pound’s] own intellect—a mind scarcely willing to fit anything together, to distinguish between the significant and the trivial, or to convey anything of its own interior pattern to the world outside; ‘a broken bundle of mirrors’ indeed.” (573) Not only does he opine that Pound “seems to be touching bottom in the whole enterprise” but he even includes an embarrassingly fawning letter to Mussolini that Pound included when sending the Chinese and Adams Cantos to the fascist leader.
(On page 575, Carpenter quotes this letter, in which Pound claims to hope that he’s done “some useful work, especially in condensing some historical facts,” and brags that the name of Rothschild was struck from the first page by the publisher… just another little reminder of how little separation existed between Pound the poet and Pound the raving fascist…)
Harsh? Well, yes, but many readers felt the same way, and we cannot blame them: as an exercise, I attempted to read Canto LXVIII without any sort of supporting material (like the Terrell) and couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I mean, I could pick out themes: stuff about money, about the Revolutionary War, about relations between the American Revolutionaries and Europe, ships, stuff like that. But the point? That was something I couldn’t really pin down.
Of course, even with the Terrell, I’m sort of stabbing around in the dark in trying to establish it. And with that, comes the question: why should we? My reason is clear: because I’m reading and blogging the Cantos. But for someone who’s not engaged in such a general, all-embracing project, I suspect the answer has long been clear: we should not bother to try too hard. People have dismissed the Adams Cantos from the beginning, and even William Carlos Williams, one of the few readers Carpenter cites as responding positively to these poems, makes clear that he didn’t read them for their content or any sort of literal, programmatic “meaning”: as Williams put it in a letter to James Laughlin about these poems, Pound “thinks he’s being terribly profound, frowningly serious… and all he’s doing is building blocks, and it’s lovely.” Most others responded like Mussolini (with perplexed silence) if not as George Santayana did, begging his own secretary to “stop Ezra Pound from sending me his book.” (Carpenter, 575) Though Pound and Santayana got along well socially the few times they met, reading Pound’s verse was too much for the man.
I’m not sure I can summon more sense out of these lines that Williams or Santayana, but I think maybe there is a way to do so: we need to remember, though, how Pound situates himself in The Cantos. Is it too much to suggest that Sigismundo Malatesta, Confucius, and John Adams might all be… well, if not stand-ins for Pound, then at least presences that cluster around him, and which speak to the modern world through his lips, almost as if by a sort of nekyia-like ritual which the poem itself enacts?
I was tempted to call these historical figures “Mary Sue” characters, but reading an extended definition of the term, it struck me how a lot of the things that make a character a “Mary Sue” are predicated on a specific worldview: for example, a character being a Mary Sue because they get special treatment only makes sense if your worldview is fundamentally egalitarian; a character being a Mary Sue because they have outsized, “unrealistic” outcomes from their actions means the status depends on what you think the limits of realism are. The whole idea of Mary Sue characters as flawed depends on a specific—and especially a non-mythic, non-utopian—narrative mode. However, Pound is explicitly working in a mythic and even a utopian narrative mode.
And, once again, if the poem itself is written in this mode, then we must remember that the writing, too, partakes in this mythic, heroic, and utopian mode: “Lie quiet, Divus,” points to Pound as the necromancer, the magus of history working his will upon reality and rectifying it from a state of brokenness to wholeness. Perhaps at the core of all such magical writing is the cryptic urge: the desire to jumble the contents of one’s work and leave it to the acolyte to struggle through and make sense of the text, just as alchemists did for centuries. Perhaps Pound knew he was making a hopeless jumble of Adams’ life, in other words, and that that was part of the point; perhaps the little errors in transcription are on purpose, even? (Not that I could uncover any rhyme or reason to them…)
Perhaps, then, the problem for Pound is the same as for the alchemists of old, whose books today so few struggle through and decrypt: that we knew the magic didn’t work, it didn’t pay off as promised, and that unlike acolytes in the field of alchemy, we signed up for a literary text. Heroic, mythic, utopian, sure… but encrypted? Jumbled? A puzzle? That’s more work than we usually are asked to put in, and more work than we tend to feel is worth it for a string of poems that do so badly at being poetry—at having literary beauty of any sort we recognize today.
Here is the mast of a ship plundered from the English, though: Pound points to it, saying, “Is this not the stuff of poetry?” It is, but we only see a glimpse of it, a mention of it, of John Paul Jones captaining it. We see the Chinese for the Rectification of Names once more:
… again glossed “Ching / Ming” and invoked where someone is talking about the importance of attention to language.
We see snippets from the letters Adams sent, attempting to get loans from Dutch banks, and some of the minutiae of the process—an ill banker who canceled an appointment, a set of terms set out by the Continential Congress, rumor-mongering in the Netherlands by British agents—and British anti-American propaganda (“fake news,” in today’s parlance), and plottings in France, and mentions of Henry Laurens’ imprisonment in the Tower of London, and glimpses of Adams being dispatched to France, and working there; a dismissive review of Adams’ Discourses on Davila, where Adams is deemed “a forward young man” (when he was, at age 53, in fact an elder statesman and the Vice-President of the then-young United States).
So much of it, in the end, is about money, and I think it cannot be simple chance, or an error, that Pound meditates—in the beginning and in the end of this Canto—on the tripartite division of society: the one, few, and the many. Money, after all, can mean a myriad of things depending on the relations between those three branches of society: the few can use money to manipulate the one; the many can be effectively enslaved by the few, or the few by the one, for want of money; money can liberate the many from the tyranny of the one or of the few.
And yet, for all that Pound celebrates the founding of a democratic America and John Adams’ role in it, one doesn’t feel that he thinks the many should be holding the reins of primary power: he really does seem to believe in the few as a check and balance both against the one and the many, and that money is the thing that empowers them. As a fascist, it’s an odd position, though: he must also have believed in the one, if it was the “right” one, to hold his (always his) own against the many, however much he must rely on upon the few to carry out his orders. I mean, that’s fundamental to his sense of Fascism, and it seems at odds with the values both espoused and fought for by Adams and the other founders of the United States.
Seems. There was, of course, dissent about the degree to which they favored the balance of power, between the few and the many… and they were, after all, a group of “the few”—most of them very clearly the aristocrats of the New World—who took it upon themselves to set up a new political order in America. Is this me missing something about Pound’s specific formulation of the myth of America’s founding, or is this Pound missing something about the disconnect between favoring John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the one hand, and Mussolini on the other?
(Not that he would’ve been alone in that, by a long shot, in the 1930s… but by 1940, when the Adams Cantos were published, a fair number of Americans were starting to revise their view of European fascism. For that matter, Pound cites Adams’ citation of a Spartan philosopher on the optimal government structure—which feels a little funny in the same way it felt funny to hear people talking about the brave, heroic Spartans defending “freedom” as ancient analogues to America… not in appropriately, if you’re critical of America, of course, but most people didn’t realize what a disconnect it was when they were going ga-ga over the film 300, either:
Then again, there was slaves in Athens, too, and Socrates was killed for “corrupting youth”, or, that is, really just for speaking his mind on a bunch of subjects.)
The degree to which Pound hadn’t revised his views on fascism by 1940 probably has to do with a mix of stubbornness and the fact he was living in Italy and far from the United States, and cut off from the tides of popular feeling there… I think. Maybe not, though: he was always eager to be a stubborn iconoclast, after all, and the occult utopian thread of his work shows a deep conviction that good ideas (and their champions) often lose out in history… otherwise, one suspects he thought, we’d already be living in a paradiso terrestre, wouldn’t we? But now I’m skipping ahead.
Setting that question aside for the moment, I’d like to return to Pound’s mention of the dismissive book review, as well as his interest in Adams’ time in Europe. The appearance of these two issues also get me curious about whether we might argue that Pound, on a personal level, identified with Adams and his struggles and sought some way to find them reflected in his own struggles and setbacks. That book review—Pound had plenty of negative reviews to to deal with, too, and from people whom he no doubt considered just as much clueless idiots as the reviewer who called John Adams a “forward young man” in 1790, and he no doubt knew that even more would be coming in response to the Adams Cantos, right?
Meanwhile, in Rapallo as an aging expatriate in a period when belts were tightening as the world prepared for another impending war, Pound was chronically short on money, and was probably (true to his American roots) forced to spend a certain amount of his time hustling to try stay afloat. Some of the capital he sought would’ve been social, doing things like trying to meet up with people like Mussolini and Santayana and get them on board with his writing, since Pound understood the importance of reputation economics in the literary world, but he would also have been constantly on the lookout for cash, for someone who could loan him some or give him a gig by which he could earn some. We sometimes talk about how Pound was, behind the scenes, a major figure in the promotion of other poets, but not celebrated so generally himself in this time, and how that has affected his literary legacy… but it’s also a financial concern. Writing The Cantos was an impoverishing professional project, it put Pound in penury where more accessible work might have earned him a better living, the way it did Eliot. Therefore I can’t help but suspect that, just as in his treatment of the madness of Niccolo d’Este following his wife’s infidelity, there might be a degree of veiled autobiography here.
If that’s the case, it’s quite tantalizing to search for what the correspondences might mean: who are the British plotters against Adams’ work to get a loan? Who are the French allies, and the Dutch bankers who turned down Pound? It’s a funny question, since Pound seems so often to have been forgiving, friendly, and supportive toward people even soon after writing the most awful things about them in letters, reviews, or in his books. It’s perhaps impossible to answer, though, at least right now and for me.
And then there is the question of what the American Revolution corresponds: is Pound here referring obliquely to his support of Italian fascism? Why not write about Italy instead, then? Was Pound hoping America (where fascist sympathies absolutely did exist at the time he was writing these poems) would swing overtly Fascist, following Italy’s lead? Was he arguing that the revolutionary principle of America was a prefiguration for the European shift that then seemed to be ongoing? And did Pound imagine that his own victory, paralleling the victory at Yorktown, Virginia that convinced the Dutch to give him a loan, was just around the corner?
It’s hard to nail it all down, especially since I don’t have a copy of Pound’s Jefferson And/Or Mussolini in a form I can read (even if it is available in PDF at the Internet Archive—but I can’t do PDFs on my Mac’s screen). And… well, even if I could piece it together, would it be worth it?
I agree with Williams that Pound is playing at building blocks… but I’m not sure that what he was building, in this canto, is worth sussing out further than I’ve attempted to do. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, though, if someone has a theory.
On my Occult Pound:
As I’ve noted before, I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to writing the novel for which this research project was started, many years ago. My Occult Pound is likely to manifest in some other, weird project, I think. But obviously, I think this is a model of how he might “touch bottom in the whole enterprise,” tearing through vast amounts of source material as he hunts for bits to weave into his poem, while also struggling (and manifestly failing) to create anything particularly effective, enchantment-wise. The “broken bundle of mirrors” is also a pretty compelling image for the kind of madness that failure might induce in an occult poet, too.
Likewise, the subtleties of thinly-veiled poetical autobiography could make for fascinating material for a novel, whether it’s about Pound or some other poet. I think it could make a pretty compelling novel even without any fantastical material—a poet writing about his or her life, while doing so in a way that most readers could never actually recognize as such. If it was done the right way, it’d be fertile ground for a story… and, perhaps, more fertile than a story that incorporates the weird or supernatural stuff? One thing about genre fiction readers is that they tend not to be so interested in poetry, or in a lot of other things I dig. (I’ve been told that certain stories of mine would be much more saleable if the non-genre elements had broader appeal: stories about retrotemporal artistic revenge are easier to sell if they center on either an archaic or fantastical genre of music, or a genre of music everyone today listens to, as opposed to jazz, for example.)
Still, somehow the idea of an occult poet messing with the structure of history and reality through his verse compels me. So… maybe I’ll get around to it eventually after all? For now, though, I’ll consider it an achievement if I get to the end of The Cantos. I’m about halfway through the book—the seventy-first is the end of the Adams Cantos. But then lie the wilderlands of the Pisan Cantos, rich but challenging and perhaps even dangerous. I see them on the horizon, but I have a little more slogging to do before I get there.
I happened upon this video where someone colorized a photo of Ezra Pound that dates back to around the 1940s, around the time the Adams Cantos were published, so it seems appropriate to share it.
I’ve no idea whether they got his skin-tone or hair and eye color right, because—I’ve just realized—I’ve never seen a color photo of him when he was young enough to have hair that wasn’t white, or close-up enough to see his eye color.
In fact, I hadn’t seen a color photo of him until today, though here’s a (1967?) portrait by Marie Considas, from this site.