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Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos LXXII and LXXIII (“The Fascist Cantos”)

This entry is part 57 of 57 in the series Blogging Pound's The Cantos

…. and, we’re back. 

Years ago, I started a series of posts covering each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, one (or a few) at a time. I’m picking up that series now, since I have a little time again. (Who knew having a kid would make someone so busy?)

The readings are probably still going to remain atypical, not so much for the reasons made clear in my first post in this series as because atypical is my general approach to the Cantos. II seem to have abandoned the fiction project that inspired this series, but I’d like to try finish the Cantos just the same, especially since I got so far into the book. 

There’s also an (updated) index of all the Cantos (and related sources) I’ve discussed so far.

I’ve arrived, after great and long detours, at that strange interstice between the Adams Cantos and the Pisan Cantos: the two “Italian Cantos” which have also been called Pound’s “Fascist Cantos.” For reasons I’ll get into below, I’m going to cover them both in a single blog post, while trying to do them whatever justice they do or don’t ultimately deserve, before setting out into the verdant, overgrown wilderness that is the Pisan Cantos.   

On Cantos LXXII and LXXIII (and More)

Although I am back on this project after a long hiatus that was, at least in part, born of trying to bite off more than I could handle chewing at one time, I am nonetheless going to attempt to cover both Cantos LXXII and LXXIII in this single post. It may take me a little longer to get the post out into the world, but it seems justified.

(Note: I started this post in Spring 2021: what can I say? Life with a small kid during a pandemic has been… busy.)

I decided to hit the two cantos together since, after all, the two poems do seem to be inextricably connected: both were published in Italian (and as for English translations, only Pound’s watered-down translation of the first one appears in my edition of The Cantos); both with quietly omitted from Terrell’s Companion; both seem even more overtly fascistic than the rest of Pound’s work (and, really, that’s saying something). 

If you cannot read Italian—like me, though I advise that like me you attempt to at least sound out the Italian versions before moving on—you will be happy to know—as I was—that Massimo Bacigalupo’s annotated translation of the Cantos is easily accessible online: a copy was posted at and can be downloaded here. 1 I know that I am indebted to Bacigalupo’s scholarship and generosity when it comes to making any headway with these two poems. I find it hilarious that when these translations were published, it was a scandal and the Pound Society acted like it was some horrible act of war against Pound. I mean, it’s a translation of the man’s work, of work that he willingly published.   

I also can’t help but say that the project of reading Pound feels different now than it did when I began my relationship with The Cantos almost three decades ago. (Yes, three decades. I first read a few Cantos in 1997, in a poetry workshop course. I read A Draft of XXX Cantos in Montreal, during the summer of 2000. I never went beyond that at the time, but I returned to the Cantos a few times, especially in 2004-2005, when a group of us at my workplace began reading the poems and discussing them. But it wasn’t until this project that I began reading beyond those first thirty Cantos… and those who’re following this project will agree, it’s taken me a long time to get back to this project with Cantos LXXII and LXXIII. )

In the interim, things have shifted from a point where it seemed like one could imagine fascism was a practically-dead historical footnote—except in the minds of a few lunatics—to a very different point, where it now seems to be a frighteningly reemergent force in our world. (It’s essentially back in Italy, which seems noteworthy given the theme of these Cantos. 2) There have been other attempts to resuscitate it, to recommence the hero-worship of Mussolini, but now they’re picking up steam. Not just in Italy, either: the resurgence of far-right ideology is global—that’s one of the more worrying things about it. 

Neo-fascists in the West also seem to be vaguely conscious of Pound’s role as a pro-fascist literary figure: the Italian ones began efforts to reclaim him a while ago, to the frustration of Pound’s descendants. They claimed to have “rehabilitated” fascism, to have freed of its homophobia and anti-semitism, which… well, it’s a bit like saying you’ve liberated slavery from its racism, or serfdom from religion: uh, nice try, but slavery and serfdom are still terrible even without those aspects… and that’s assuming they’ve actually even bothered to try to achieve that. (Not to mention that these are dubious claims if we look at what talking points are de rigueur on the mere “far right.”) That said, I think most fascists these days have no interest in Pound, much less his work.

I sympathize with Pound’s sense that electoral democracy was toxic for all kinds of good things: it obviously is vulnerable to catastrophic failures, at least in terms of the democratic institutions we’ve established so far. It’s failing to do anything meaningfully positive about climate change, and did you know that there’s more people living as slaves today than at any moment in history? Democracy has failed to address that, mostly likely because capital seems to have an inevitably erosive and corrupting force on democracies. Sometimes I feel like we’re in the waning days of a bright spot in history, a moment when everything—temporarily—worked differently from how it always had, at least for some of the world. If anything keeps me up at night, it’s the sense we might now sliding back down the slope into the awfulness. I even understand the way fascism could have, in the 1930s, looked like a solution to this problem for someone like Pound, though of course we know now that it’s not—and plenty of people knew that in Pound’s time, though not as many as we like to imagine. 

What I don’t understand is Pound’s eagerness to invest his beliefs in a strongman, in absolutist fantasy, and in everything else that comes with fascism. I can’t help but wonder what might have become of his economic inclination, his desire to think about government, if only he’d been reading Wells and Verne and remained in America and read SF instead of verse. Heinlein, like Pound, was a proponent of Social Credit, Campbell was an autocrat, Lovecraft a bigot: diving into the pulps wouldn’t have made him wiser in the those respects. But maybe Pound might have ended up being something other than a devoted fascist and fanboy of Mussolini? 

It’s impossible to say, of course, and the Pound we have is the one who left for Europe, who wrote poetry, who (embarrassingly) fawned over Mussolini and was occasionally even an apologist for Hitler, as vile as that is. The Pound we have wove ugly antisemitism into his poetry—something I have not defended and never would—and spent the last decade of his life essentially in self-imposed silence, presumably in some kind of penance. His Cantos were never actually finished: the work ended up incomplete, and in some sense there’s a nobility to that failure to complete the project: it strikes me as less crass and more dignified to fail a little wiser than one started, than to succeed by riding the hobgoblin of a small mind—a foolish consistency—across the finish line. But it also seems to me the hobgoblin of Pound’s mind may not have departed after all, and that he let it hold him back from running a more worthwhile footrace altogether.  

There’s been a growing interest in artists and work that “failed” in some way lately. I noticed the trend around the time I saw Searching for Sugar Man:

I think it’s fascinating, this interest in people who “failed” in this or that way—in commercial terms, or in terms of their own goals, or in terms of the completion of a project—but in whom we can find some other definition of success. I think it’s interesting because we don’t have a lot of language, or a lot of cultural scaffolding, for talking about “failure” and the survival of it. Most people who attempt things fail, but in English-speaking societies, we tend to only talk about failure as the necessary precursor to success: this or that magnate or business person or writer who tried, failed, tried again, failed again, but eventually “succeeded” on this or that set of terms. 

The thing is that success and failure are not always so neatly separable: in fact, they’re often intertwined. Success and failure often both characterize a given work at the same time, and those competing aspects will stick out more, or less, for different readers. This is valid. Books can be celebrated for their strengths by people who care more about those strengths than their failings; the same books can be read in frustration by others for whom the failings matter more than the successes. Likewise, the failings of authors-as-people can sometimes be profound enough that they matter more to a reader than whatever successes their books may contain. (To pick a rather uncontroversial example, I’m pretty sure I’ll never read a book by Marion Zimmer Bradley; not because I fear moral contagion from exposure to her work, but because there’s a world of books out there to explore and one could read for the rest of one’s life without reading the work of another known pedophile and never run out of great stuff to read. Not to mention, the one story of hers I have read so clearly telegraphed all kinds of unsettling stuff directly related to those crimes of hers that the unpleasantness alone convinced me not to read her again.) 

All of this is to say: 

On the other hand: 


On the other other hand, though, if you’re discussing Pound’s work (as opposed to his life and legacy) without having read it… well, that’s not right either. It’s fine to discuss his rotten qualities as a person—the fact that he was a fascist and an antisemite and a kook; it’s fine to say, “Reading Pound is a bridge too far for me to cross.” Fine… but it doesn’t entitle you to an opinion of work you haven’t read. 

However, there are all sorts of reasons why those poems are worth looking at. Pound, failure or no, was incredibly influential: it’s not an understatement to say that he helped change the course of poetry in the 20th century. Pound’s Cantos are the shadow that hangs over modernist poetry and everything that came after it in English, for better and for worse. While Pound certainly was eccentric in the pantheon of writers and figures he chose to recognize—and with whose ghosts he communed, in the very lines of the Cantos—those of us living after him often feel like it’s difficult to avoid grappling with him, for better and/or worse.

And so for me the time has come to grapple with him some more. 

Canto LXXII 

Fascist or not, this poem—or, rather, the translation of it—felt like surfacing after a long time stuck beneath the surface of a brackish mangrove. Oxygen! Light! Air!

Not that this canto isn’t overtly fascistic, because boy howdy is it! But at least it’s not overtly boring like the Chinese and Adams Cantos are. There’s a sparkle to it, a vibrancy and a sense of Pound’s presence as narrator, whether direct or displaced in his presence, and it feels like a return of the Pound of old. There’s hell-stuff, and there’s foul-mouthed outrage against World War I, and there’s of course the inevitable snarling reference to usury (sigh), but there’s also some really striking imagery and a powerful return to the motif of the nekyia—though it was only when I was rereading Bacigalupo’s translation that this really jumped out at me as a return to the approach of the earlier Cantos.

The poem starts with reflections:

If one begins to remember the dung war
certain facts will well up again. 
                                 In the beginning God
the great aesthete having created heaven and earth
& after the volcanic sunset, had painted
the rocks with lichen in Japanese manner
Exuded the great usurer Geryon, protoype
of Churchill's backers.

Pound, here, begins by pondering the idiotic quagmire that led to World War II—guerra di merda is probably better translated as “shitty war” incidentally. Soon, he shifts into one of his favorite and most unfortunate roles: that guy at the bar who just won’t shut up about the Jews. (Who, of course, we’re all supposed to understand is what he means when he refers to Churchill’s backers and the great usurer Geryon.)

One rolls one’s eyes, but thankfully the tendentious rant doesn’t last too long, before it gives way to another voice that “came singing”. As I read the lines that followed, I muttered to myself, “Ah, finally a good old fashioned Poundian séance!” But with whose ghosts does Pound commune here? 


A few, but among the most prominent is the Futurist (and, yes, fascist!) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Given that Pound’s writing in Italian, about the fascist movement in Italy, this is hardly a surprise. What is a surprise is their divergence in opinions: Marinetti was an ideologue, but when it comes to war and violence, his rhetoric recalls nothing so much as that of Achilles. Here’s a relevant point from the Futurist Manifesto, for example:

9. We want to glorify war—the only cure for the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
10. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.

If you have your doubts reading that—and well you should—well, so did Pound. Marinetti seems to chide Pound for those differences:

All right, I am dead, but do not want to go to heaven,
                  I want to go on fighting
& I want your body to go on with the struggle. 
And I answered: "my body is already old, 
I need it, where wd. I go?
But I will give you a place in a Canto
giving your voice. But if you want to go on fighting
go take some young chap, flaccid & a half-wit
to give him a bit of courage and some brains
to give Italy another hero among so many
Thus to be reborn & thus become a panther
& so know the second birth, & die a second time
Not old in bed, 
               but die to sound of trumpets
& come to Paradise. You have already done Purgatory
In the time of collapse
                       Go make yourself a hero again. 
& leave the talking to me. 
And let me explain, 
                   sing of the eternal war
                               between light and mud. 
Goodbye Marinetti
                 Come back and talk when you want to."
                 "PRESENTE!" and after that shout, he
                 added sadly
"I followed vain emptiness in many ways, 
                        show more than wisdom, 
and knew not the ancient sages
                 nor read Confucius & Mencius
I sang of war, and you wanted peace.
Both of us blind, me to the inner things
                                        you the things of today

It’s clear that Marinetti chides Pound for wanting peace—and himself, for wanting war and for not knowing the ancient sages—but I also get the feeling there’s some slippage, earlier on, between Pound’s and Marinetti’s voices, perhaps kicking in at the “Thus” in the passage above. Either way, Pound is explicit in his imagery, describing how Marinetti’s “shade grew grayer / Until another note of the scale / came from the hollow emptiness.” (433)


Next comes the shade of [Manlio] Torquato Dazzi. Of Dazzi, Pound states, “You making a pair with Marinetti / You wanting the past too much, he the future”.  Dazzi was, apparently, a librarian, poet, and translator. (Pound references “the Ecernide” in this section, clearly calling out one of Dazzi’s translations, “to wake Mussato”—Albertino Mussato, the author of the Latin work Ecerines). Thus Dazzi’s shade provides a direct link—via the magic of the nekyia/translation—to  Ezzelino. How Mussato “makes a pair” with Marinetti is a little elusive to me, but it seems that they diverge in that Mussato warned against cruel tyranny of the sort that Marinetti seems to advocate—Ecernide is a polemical play depicting Ezzelino da Romano as basically Damien from The Omen, a devil-worshipping tyrant monster sired by the devil, though Ezzelino also shows up in Dante’s Inferno. Dazzi, I suppose, makes a pair for the reason Pound suggests directly after: “You wanting the past too much, he [Marinetti] the future”. The two spirits seem to be in opposition here, one speaking up as soon as the other goes quiet, in sequence. 

Another spirit kicks in, in a rather evocative moment:

Because all the air trembled and the shadows trembled as with 
  a collapse 
           As thunder shaking the rain,
blazing phrases without sense shot thru the rain,
A grating noise inside the submarine when the beam strikes it. 
I heard the spirit as if in torture.

The identity of this next spirit is unclear for some time, as the voice curses traitors to city and province, “Who sold Italy and the Empire.” Narrator Pound asks whether this is the spirit of Sigismundo who has come to him, but the voice rants on without answering, finally naming off some heroes and then calling out some “bankers” and “usurers”. It turns out that Dazzi—the translator of Mussato—appeared as setup for this next spirit, which is Ezzelino himself. Not the Ezzelino of Mussato’s play, but Ezzelino the resentful figure who protests being slandered by Dante, who “didn’t believe / the world was made by a jew” (sigh) and who then rants of being betrayed by Mussato. The shade cries out, 

One single falsehood does more in a murderous world
Than all my outbreaks.
    Spider . . . spider!
  Get that beast out of its hole. 
If it isn'nt this: 
      The human beast loves its fetters?
If ever the Emperor made that gift
Byzantium mothered the commotion, 
He did it without form, illegally, 
Severing from himself & justice; 
Caesar didn't split himself to fragments
Peter was no rock before Augustus 
had all the powers and functions. 
The possessor only can be legal giver.

There follows a fascinating moment soon after that:

Confusion of voices as from several transmitters, broken phrases, 
And many birds singing in counterpoint / In the summer 

Here the “several transmitters” seems to liken poetical nekyia to political radio broadcasts, like the ones Pound delivered on Italian radio throughout the war. Whether he is consciously trying to liken the two, or just leaning on a potent metaphor, is interesting, but what’s noteworthy is that Pound’s voice is subordinate through most of this canto, overpowered by a range of other voices. 


Finally, one more voice speaks, identifying itself as “Placidia.” That is, Roman “Empress” Galla Placidia; from a little reading, it seems she was effectively the empress, but not ever called that. She’s the sort of powerful female historical figure that seemed to turn Pound’s crank in the Cantos, and here as in the work of other modernist poets (like Zukofsky), the image of her sleeping beneath gold is the first we see in connection to her. 

What follows that is interesting: 

"Woman's melancholy and gentleness,"
I began to say, then
My skin tensed between my shoulder blades and my wrist
seized in such an iron grip
That I could move neither wrist nor shoulder
And I saw a fist grasping me wrist but saw no forearm. 
Holding me fast as a nail in the wall. 
This sounds foolish to anyone who has not been thru it.

Is this hand metaphorical, or is Pound recounting some kind of visionary experience? There are passages earlier in the cantos where he seems to be reporting visions or hallucinations, and the final line of the passage quoted just above certainly has the same sort of wording as you’d expect from someone insisting on the reality of a supposedly paranormal experience. But on the other hand, this is in the context of a poem that’s consciously presented as a nekyia, so I’m not quite sure what to make of it. One thing I will say is that the image stands in stark contrast to the airiness and fogginess of the rest of this canto: it’s a muscularly physical image, filled with insistently physical sensations.  

Also, is this Placidia’s hand? Or is it the hand of the “raging” voice that returns at the end of the poem, and says, “The will is old but the hand is new / Listen to me before I turn back into the night”? The poem closes with that “raging” voice invoking motif that recurs from a couple of pages earlier: a skull singing—specifically singing the ominous line,

The regiments and the banners will return.

And we are left, as always, with more questions than solid answers from Pound about what to make of all this. 

What I do think is interesting is that there’s a temptation to read this poem as registering ambivalence on Pound’s part. Was his commitment wavering? Perhaps not, but his conviction seems to, at least in some places. Marinetti’s ghost chides him for desiring peace too much, just as Pound seems to criticize Marinetti for caring too much about the future (and Dazzi for caring too much about the past). Ezzelino—an “Ez” figure, note—is wrapped up in his politics and his own ego, and cares most about the “betrayal” of Mussato; and then there is that hand that grasps and immobilizes Pound’s wrist, which appears just after the voice of Placidia penetrates Pound’s mind. The wrist is, of course, the most important joint in the arm for a writer, so Pound’s writing hand is immobilized and held firm. There’s a lot of ambivalence, a lot of silencing and contradiction here to contend with. 

What that says about Pound’s mental state, I’m not sure, but it feels suggestive. Or maybe it’s my imagination, I’m not sure. 


I was tempted to leave this off to a second post, but there’s really not that much to say about the poem, especially since I cannot speak or read Italian. Massimo Bacigalupo is on record as noting that the Italian here is, er, “idiosyncratic” and difficult to take too seriously because of its poor quality. The invocations of Cavalcanti are pretty obvious—the same pun as a French speaker might make about someone named Chevalier being on horseback—and the story is basically a sort of attempt to compose a modern-day pastoral-turned-war-poem. Apparently it riffs on a pastoral poem of Cavalcanti’s about a country shepherdess. Instead, though, Pound tells the story of an Italian girl—the victim of sexual violence by Canadian soldiers—who leads another group of Canadian soldiers into a minefield, leading to everyone’s death. Pound repeatedly describes the girl as a little chubby, but not too much, and at length he celebrates her death as heroic. There’s a lot of gestures to Romagna—birthplace of Sigismundo and Mussolini alike—and the poem ends with a direct exhortation for the boys and girls of the region to “wear black!”, a reference to the blackshirts of Italian fascism. There are, along the way, smatterings of references to Dante—both Inferno and Paradiso alike, and especially to the Cyprian heaven… that is, the heaven of Venus. (It took me a little while to figure out that the various Cyprians of history had nothing to do with the “Cyprian” reference, and that it was a reference instead to Cyprus, which was the island associated by ancients with Aphrodite and Venus.)  

Canto LXXIII is a fairly discomfiting poem that celebrates a “heroic” suicidal act by an Italian child who gets  Allied (Canadian) soldiers killed while feeing some of their Nazi prisoners. I suppose one needn’t wonder too hard why Pound scholars weren’t eager to see a translation circulated, though again, I think it’s a bit silly hoping such things won’t come out. Some feared that his evident politics would discourage further study of his work (as if all the antisemitism throughout the Cantos wasn’t an even worse turnoff); others likely feared that the poem would be taken as a sign of incipient dementia. But the Italian text was available: it was only a matter of time before someone translated and commented upon it. And after all, it’s one of the Cantos. If you want to judge the work, you have to admit its flaws and blemishes, too, not just the bits you like. It seems oddly conniving to me if there was conscious effort to suppress dissemination of its translation, is all I’m saying—as if covering it up would be better than saying, “Yeah, this looks very bad, and it’s in poor taste, and it’s also a part of this guy’s magnum opus. But we already knew the man’s politics sucked.”

And that’s really all I have to say about it. I might have more to say if I knew Italian, but I’m not sure it would be complimentary. Pound’s Italian was passable but not really up to the task of writing at the level he does throughout the rest of the Cantos, if various comments I’ve seen are to be believed. (And I believe them.)

Addendum: Other Material to Check Out, Plus Draft Cantos LXXIV and LXXV

If you only read a few things about the Fascist Cantos other than this post, here’s what I recommend:

Whew! That’s it for now. I do hope to continue with my Canto-posts in the near future, though I think that things will be slower than they were in the past. The Pisan Cantos are dense and demanding, at least most of them are. But having reached Canto 74, it would be a shame not to continue to the end of this project. 

Series Navigation<< Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXXI

  1. At least, while is still around. They’ve pivoted to trying to get academics to pay to see who cites them, which is ridiculous if you ask me.

  2. No, I’m not going to quibble about the difference between “far-right” and “fascist” right now. These people use fascist iconography and talk with fascist talking points: that’s justification enough for me to call them fascists, if only because I suspect the global far right is, in most essentials, just a form of fascism that is rebranding itself while it stages its resurgence.

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