Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1705
Ezra Pound 1885–1972
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms B. H. Dias, Abel Saunders, and William Atheling) American poet, critic, translator, prose writer, essayist, and editor.
See also, Ezra Pound Criticism and CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 13, and 18.
An erudite and highly controversial poet and critic, Ezra Pound is considered one of the preeminent literary figures of the twentieth century. Renowned for his Cantos, an ambitious series of historiographic meditations that excavate the cultural legacy of modern civilization, Pound developed experimental verse forms distinguished for their technical virtuosity, linguistic invention, and broad assimilation of European and Asian literature. Widely praised for their prodigious learning and epic scope, The Cantos document Pound's heroic effort to reconstruct two thousand years of Western history in a montage of ancient myth, literary arcana, and historical fragment. An influential theorist, translator, and prominent intellectual mentor during the early decades of the century, Pound also formulated many of the enduring aesthetic principles of High Modernism, particularly as delineated in his Imagist and Vorticist movements and in numerous critical works. Though castigated for endorsing fascist regimes during the Second World War, Pound is regarded as a brilliant radical thinker who revitalized contemporary literature with his challenging poetry and innovative artistic ideals.
Born Ezra Loomis Pound in Hailey, Idaho, a frontier mining town, Pound was the only child of Isabel Weston Pound, a descendent of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Homer Loomis Pound, a government bureaucrat. His grandfather, Thaddeus Coleman Pound, was a successful entrepreneur and outspoken Republican congressman who impressed the young Pound as a model of the selfless public figure and independent thinker. In 1889, Pound moved with his family to Philadelphia, where his father was employed as an assayer for the United States Mint. He made his first visits to Europe with his family in 1898 and 1902. At age fifteen Pound enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where he befriended poets William Carlos Williams and Hilda Doolittle ("H.D."). Pound transferred to Hamilton College in upstate New York, earning a degree in philosophy in 1905, then re-turned to the University of Pennsylvania to complete a master's degree in Romance languages in 1907. Upon graduation he took a teaching appointment at Wabash College in Indiana. Dismissed after only one term, he sailed for Europe in 1908. After a stop in Venice, where he published his first volume of poetry, A Lume Spento (1908), Pound settled in London and entered the literary circles of William Butler Yeats, Ford Madox Ford, and T. E. Hulme. He soon won acclaim as a poet with Personae (1909) and as a literary critic with The Spirit of Romance (1910). Pound founded the Imagist movement in 1913, which he abandoned the next year for Vorticism, another avant-garde school invented by Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Pound also played an important role as an advocate for emerging writers such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce and as a contributor to numerous literary magazines, notably Poetry, The Egoist, The Little Review, and The New Age. Pound married Dorothy Shakespear in 1914, though maintained a life-long extramarital relationship with Olga Rudge beginning in the early 1920s. He began work on The Cantos in 1915; the first installments appeared in Poetry in 1917, then in The Fourth Canto (1919) and Quia Pauper Amavi (1919), which contains Cantos 1-3. Disillusioned with England and the carnage of the First World War, Pound produced Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and relocated to Paris, where he encountered Dadaist artists and fellow expatriates Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein while working as a foreign correspondent for The Dial. In 1924 Pound moved to Rapallo, Italy, and devoted himself to The Cantos and the study of Chinese culture. Amid the international depression of the 1930s, Pound became increasingly interested in monetary reforms elucidated in ABC of Economics (1933). He also established his allegiance to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whose fascist political and economic programs he defended in Jefferson And/Or Mussolini (1935). During the Second World War, Pound denounced the American government and an alleged Jewish conspiracy in regular Rome Radio broadcasts. Upon the Allied occupation of Italy in 1945, he was arrested for treason and incarcerated at a military prison in Pisa, inspiring The Pisan Cantos (1948), the controversial winner of the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1949. After a nervous breakdown in 1945, Pound was declared mentally unfit for trial and detained in a psychiatric institute near Washington, DC, for the next twelve years. Upon his release in 1958, Pound returned to Italy, where he continued to work on his Cantos in virtual silence until his death at age eighty-six. He was awarded a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets in 1963.
A prolific poet, literary critic, and author of diverse treatises, Pound's artistic development reflects his abiding effort to revive modern art and society in a new unity of past and present. Drawing heavily upon forgotten or neglected classics of European, American, and Asian letters, Pound's mature poetry represents a synthesis of archaic forms, sophisticated allusion, and avant-garde tropes informed by his artistic, political, and economic beliefs. His first volume of poetry, A Lume Spento, displays his early lyrical style, affinity for classical and medieval subjects, and the influence of Robert Browning, Charles Algernon Swinburne, and François Villon. The poem "The Tree" from this volume is regarded as one of Pound's best short compositions. Subsequent collections—A Quinzaine for this Yule (1908), Personae, Exultations (1909), Provença (1910), and Ripostes (1912)—reveal Pound's technical mastery and assimilation of Anglo-Saxon, Asian, Pre-Raphaelite, and French and Italian troubadour verse, evident in oft anthologized poems such as "Sestina: Altaforte" and "Ballad of the Goodly Free." As the leader of the Imagist movement, a descendent of French Symbolism, Pound fortified his commitment to the tenets of clarity, concrete language, and le mot juste, or "the right word." His interest in Chinese writing exerted a profound influence on his poetry and precipitated the invention of his ideogrammatic method, an extension of Imagist principles inspired by the condensed precision and immediacy of Chinese characters. This approach justified the incorporation of foreign phrases, Chinese pictographs, and even musical scores in his writing to express a specific mood or concept. Pound's translations in Cathay, a collection of verse by eighth century Chinese poet Rihaku, also known as Li Po, are noted for their elegiac tone and austere beauty. These early translations, along with The Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti (1912), anticipate Pound's adoption of dramatic masks, or speaker personae, through which to interpret past events in terms of modern analogues and subjective states. In "Homage to Sextus Propertius," contained in Qui Pauper Amavi, Pound interpolates the work of Roman poet Sextus Propertius with modern references, Latinate puns, and scatological humor aimed at contemporary figures. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, a long poem permeated by the polemical tone of Vorticism, decries the tragedy of the First World War and the ambivalence of postwar English society. Through his caricature of Mauberley, rendered in conventional verse forms, Pound eschews the purely aesthetic concerns of his earlier writing in favor of greater social consciousness, marking a decisive shift in his self-identity as a poet. Pound invested his lifelong creative aspirations in The Cantos, the collective title given to 117 cantos produced between 1915 and 1968. Cantos 1-3, known as the "Ur-Cantos," offer a prospectus for his project. Drawing parallels to Odysseus's descent into the underworld in Homer's Odyssey and Dante's journey through heaven and hell in The Divine Comedy, Pound introduces his own epic story of cultural loss and reclamation. Though Pound's conception of The Cantos changed over time, the central motif involves the disinterment of the past to facilitate understanding and order in the modern world. Presented in alternately rhetorical, dramatic, and narrative modes, The Cantos are in large part an eclectic, multilingual palimpsest of Greek myth, Confucian philosophy, European history, economic theory, and contemporary affair's. Despite his expatriation and harsh criticism of American culture and capitalism, Pound maintained a distinctly American sensibility, evident in his admiration for Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, who appear as champions of political will in The Cantos. The Pisan Cantos, among the best known, reflect Pound's fragile emotional state during his imprisonment after the Second World War. In this moving sequence, Pound expresses his despair in an introspective, elegiac tone characteristic of his later cantos. In addition to The Cantos, Pound also produced significant works of criticism, including: The Spirit of Romance, a collection of critical essays on medieval literature based on his lectures at Regent Street Polytechnic in 1909; How to Read (1931), in which he delineates the concepts "melopoeia," "phanopoeia," and "logopoeia"—referring, respectively, to the musical, visual, and intellectual quality of poetic language; Guide to Kulchur (1938), Pound's writings on art, literature, politics, and economics; and Patria Mia (1950), in which he discusses artist patronage.
Though widely recognized as one of the most important poets of the century. Pound is the subject of contentious critical debate. Acclaimed for his originality and intellectual gifts, Pound's complex allusive verse, his association with numerous literary movements, and his idiosyncratic political ideals—particularly his fascist loyalty—complicate interpretation of his work. Many critics hail The Cantos as his magnum opus and a highspot of twentieth century literature, calling attention to the extraordinary range and depth of Pound's expansive, though ultimately unrealized, literary and philosophical vision. Measured against the masterpieces of Homer and Dante, which Pound aspired to equal, most critics view The Cantos as a formidable achievement undermined by its lack of unity and difficult linguistic experiments. Pound's detractors question the efficacy of his ideogram-matic method and its implementation in The Cantos, especially where the use of cryptic language and obscure scholarly references render passages inaccessible. The Pisan Cantos, which polarized the literary community as the winner of the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1949, is now regarded as one of the best sequences of The Cantos. Most of Pound's early poetry, including that of the once celebrated Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, is overshadowed by the accomplishment of The Cantos. Recent critical attention is directed at Pound's preoccupation with the past, his ethical concerns, his relationship with American literary tradition in commonalities with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and textual analysis of The Cantos. A foremost poet, critic, translator, and literary impresario who cultivated many of the century's greatest writers, notably Eliot and Joyce, Pound is regarded as one of the dominant intellectual forces of modern literature.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455
A Lume Spento (poetry) 1908
A Quinzaine for this Yule (poetry) 1908
Personae (poetry) 1909
Exultations (poetry) 1909
The Spirit of Romance (criticism) 1910
Provença (poetry) 1910
Canzoni (poetry) 1911
The Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti [translator] (poetry) 1912
Ripostes (poetry) 1912
Cathay: Translations by Ezra Pound for the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihaku, From the Notes of the Late Ernest Fenollosa, and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga [translator] (poetry) 1915
Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir Including the Published Writings of the Sculptor and a Selection from his Letters (prose) 1916
Lustra (poetry) 1916
Noh; or, Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan [with Ernest Fenollosa] (criticism) 1916
Pavannes and Divisions (criticism) 1918
The Fourth Canto (poetry) 1919
Quia Pauper Amavi (poetry) 1919
Instigations of Ezra Pound, Together with an Essay on the Chinese Written Character by Ernest Fenollosa (criticism) 1920
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (poetry) 1920
Umbra (poetry) 1920
Poems 1918–21 (poetry) 1921
The Natural Philosophy of Love [translator; original by Rémy de Gourmont] (essays) 1922
Indiscretions (autobiography) 1923
Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony [under pseudonym William Atheling] (criticism) 1924
A Draft of XVI Cantos (poetry) 1925
Personae: The Collected Poems (poetry) 1926
A Draft of the Cantos 17-27 (poetry) 1928
Selected Poems (poetry) 1928
A Draft of XXX Cantos (poetry) 1930
Imaginary Letters (prose) 1930
How to Read (criticism) 1931
ABC of Economics (criticism) 1933
ABC of Reading (criticism) 1934
Make It New (criticism) 1934
Eleven New Cantos: XXXI-XLI (poetry) 1934
Homage to Sextus Propertius (poetry) 1934
Alfred Venison's Poems: Social Credit Themes [under pseudonym The Poet of Titchfield Street] (criticism) 1935
Social Credit: An Impact (prose) 1935
Jefferson And/Or Mussolini (prose) 1935
Polite Essays (criticism) 1937
The Fifth Decad of Cantos (poetry) 1937
Confucius: Digest of the Analects [translator] (prose) 1937
Guide to Kulchur (prose) 1938
What Is Money For (prose) 1939
Cantos LII-LXXI (poetry) 1940
A Selection of Poems (poetry) 1940
Carta da Visita [A Visiting Card] (prose) 1942
L'America, Roosevelt e le Cause della Guerra Presente [America, Roosevelt and the Causes of the Present War] (prose) 1944
Oro e Lavoro [Gold and Work] (prose) 1944
Introduzione alla Natura Economica degli S.U.A. [An Introduction to the Economic Nature of the United States] (prose) 1944
Orientamenti (essays) 1944
Confucius: The Unwobbling Pivot and the Great Digest [translator] (prose) 1947
If This Be Treason … (broadcasts) 1948
The Pisan Cantos (poetry) 1948
The Cantos (poetry) 1948
Selected Poems (poetry) 1949
Patria Mia (prose) 1950
Lavoro ed Usura (prose) 1954
Literary Essays (criticism) 1954
Section: Rock-Drill 85-95 de los cantares (poetry) 1955
Women of Trachis [translator; original by Sophocles] (drama) 1956
Thrones 96-109 de los cantares (poetry) 1959
Impact Essays on Ignorance and the Decline of American Civilization (prose) 1960
Poems of Ancient Egypt [translator] (poetry) 1962
The Cantos 1-109 (poetry) 1964
The Cantos 1-95 (poetry) 1965
Canto CX (poetry) 1965
Selected Cantos (poetry) 1967
Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX to CXVII (poetry) 1968
Selected Prose 1909–1965 (prose) 1973
Selected Poems 1908–1959 (poetry) 1975
Collected Early Poems (poetry) 1976
Ezra Pound and Music: The Complete Criticism (criticism) 1977
Ezra Pound Speaking: Radio Speeches of World War II (broadcasts) 1978
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SOURCE: "'And Will the World Take Up Its Course Again?': Paranoia and Experience in the Pisan Cantos," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 536-53.
[In the following essay, Bishop discusses Pound's effort to continue his epic historical vision in The Cantos after his traumatic imprisonment in Pisa and the demise of Mussolini. According to Bishop, "the jarring tonalities and circuitous associations" of his verse beginning with "Canto 74" "is the drama of Pound's recovery."]
The relation between Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos and his alleged mental illness has not been satisfactorily explained. Some scholars ignore this complication entirely and explicate the Pisan Cantos without reference to Pound's certified mental incompetence. Others question the psychiatric verdict reached at Pound's trial, a verdict that might taint the literary value of those much-admired later cantos. This skepticism has been buttressed by claims that trial psychiatrists exaggerated Pound's symptoms to protect him from prosecution. But if Pound was not a psychotic (E. Fuller Torrey calls him a sociopath), then he deserved to stand trial for treason and might well have been executed. This can hardly be a great solace to Pound's critical defenders. Among the major Pound critics, only Eva Hesse asserts that Pound's paranoid condition may have affected the style and structure of the poems written at Pisa. But her reading of Pound's paranoid style remains highly theoretical, and the antipsychiatric twist to her argument may be, quite simply, mistaken. Indeed, if Torrey is correct, Pound's psychiatrists may have saved his life.
Or, it may be that the Pisan Cantos saved his life. Certainly, Pound's mental illness and these cantos shared the same traumatic setting: the wire cage at Pisa. They both arose from the shambles of ideological belief and poetic aspiration left when Pound was arrested for treason. From the cage at Pisa, Pound could see that his political hero was dead; his political enemies, triumphant; and his epic poem, discredited. The poetic project that Pound had pursued with such irascible energy had momentarily reached an end—a dead end. From this end, however, came a different beginning. Both Pound's symptoms and his Pisan Cantos were the means of recovering from this trauma, of going on with the Cantos and with his life. But both the poem and the life were inalterably changed. A reading of "Canto 74" reveals, I believe, that Pound's recovery was based upon false hopes and guilt-ridden despair. With "Canto 74," the course of his epic poem was diverted from history and toward delusion.
As is typical of Pound's life, his captivity in Pisa is a matter of dispute. The poet was arrested in May 1945 by Italian partisans and was eventually taken by jeep, handcuffed to an accused murderer and rapist, to the U.S. Army Detention Training Center at Pisa. This was a sprawling complex where soldiers convicted of violent crimes could work their way back into the regular army. Pound was placed in a cage normally reserved for prisoners under the death sentence. The cage had been reinforced with air-stripping, and the camp had been instructed to take special measures to prevent escape or suicide. In an affidavit Pound's lawyer, Julian Cornell, described the poet's predicament:
Pound was placed in solitary confinement in a steel cage specially built for him in the prison yard. He knew not whether he would rot away in this cage or be taken out and hanged as a traitor…. Not far away were the pens in which long term offenders were confined, but all other prisoners were forbidden to speak to Pound, and could not come near him.
… After enduring the tropical sun all day, neither sleep nor rest came with the night—electric lights glared into the poet's cage and burned into his bloodshot eyes. The cage was devoid of all furniture. Pound lay upon the cement floor in his blankets, broiled by the sun and wet by the rain.
After about three weeks of struggle to maintain his sanity, the wretched man fell ill. The heat and the glare, added to the hopelessness of being held incommunicado and the torture of solitary confinement, were more than his aging mind could bear. Pound was stricken with violent and hysterical terror. He lost his memory. He became desperately thin and weak until finally the prison doctor feared for him.
… The period of violent insanity apparently began about mid-June, to endure for three months or more.
After twenty-five days in the cage, Pound was moved to more comfortable quarters on the recommendation of camp psychiatrists. The psychiatrists found no evidence of delusion or psychosis. They described the poet's condition as a "transitory anxiety state" characterized by confusion, claustrophobia, and fatigability. Despite this reassuring diagnosis, Pound's mental condition remained at issue during his time at the camp. Fearing a mental breakdown, the doctors ordered Pound removed from solitary confinement and eventually granted some special privileges. A month later, the DTC commander reported that his most important prisoner had adjusted to prison life and was "mentally competent." By officially certifying Pound's mental health, the army was trying to avoid later trouble in trying Pound for treason. Despite their efforts four psychiatrists testified at Pound's trial that the poet suffered from delusion and grandiosity focused on his economic and political ideas. Pound was pronounced incompetent to stand trial and admitted to the government psychiatric hospital at St. Elizabeths.
Pound's mental suffering, whatever its proper psychiatric name, is but one aspect of the calamity at Pisa. Pound's twenty-five-year poetic project, the Cantos, was devastated by the events of 1945. Just a few days before Pound's arrest, Mussolini had been executed. Newspapers ran photographs of the Duce and his mistress, hung by their heels "like a bullock," as Pound later wrote in "Canto 74." In the 1930s and 1940s, Pound had repeatedly expressed his hope that fascism would rescue Western civilization from decay. Mussolini's death and Germany's impending defeat were the final disappointment of this political hope.
With fascism's demise, there came a crisis of purpose in Pound's masterwork. The Cantos' purpose had always been tentative and often obscure. From the beginning the poem's complex fabric of allusion, imagery, and opinion had been stretched upon a fragile narrative frame. This framework consisted of two overlapping stories. One story told the history of Western civilization's struggle against evil; the heroes of this story were Malatesta, Jefferson, Mussolini, and other leaders temporarily able to order and direct their subjects' lives. The second story was the autobiography of Pound's efforts to foster sound design and wise authority—Pound's efforts, in other words, to be a minor hero in history. His retelling of Western history in the poem is guided by Pound's eccentric beliefs about money, language, and politics. For example, much of "Cantos 42-44" is devoted to the founding of the Sienese Monte dei Paschi Bank, a momentous historical event in light of Pound's Social Credit opinions. (The founding of a public bank promised credit to farmers and freedom from usurious bank rates.) At the same time, the Cantos are sprinkled with references to current events that vindicated Pound's telling of history. There is constant interaction between Pound's polyglot beliefs and the emerging plot of his epic poem. Pound looked for (and found) confirmation of his beliefs in historical events, both past and present. As Michael Bernstein aptly describes it, Pound's heterodox beliefs unite in the Cantos "as narrative, where 'plot' become the realization of theory, and theory the privileged begetter of plot."
In 1945, however, history had refuted much of Pound's theory. The "plot" of Pound's poem was predicated on a series of moments when wise government and sound money had triumphed in history. Following his anthropologist friend Leo Frobenius, Pound called these "paideuma." Pound's examples of enlightened government included Malatesta's regime at Rimini, Jeffersonian America, and Mussolini's fascist Italy. Mussolini was positioned at the end of this history, where he was supposed to realize the best ideas of Pound's historiography and economics. The Cantos were telling and were to tell this story of triumph. With the fall of the Duce, however, the narrative progress of the Cantos was disrupted. Not only had they lost their historical plot, but, as Bernstein adds, they also had lost their primary audience, needing "to reach—and guide—a Jefferson (or, in Pound's case, a Mussolini), capable of ordering the nation by the authority of his judgments." In other words, Mussolini was both the Cantos' ideal audience and the historical agent who would put their ideas into action. Prior to Pisa the Cantos had established themselves as a peculiarly open-ended historical narration. Their completion—indeed, their validity as historical truth—was contingent upon a fascist victory in World War II.
So, in fact, the crisis at Pisa was threefold. Personally, Pound suffered the distress of imprisonment and apprehension about his impending trial. Pound, the ideologue, saw his opinions refuted by fascism's military defeat. Pound, the epic poet, saw the forward progress of his "poem including history" halted. The Cantos were blocked by the collapse of that historical "paideuma"—Mussolini's Italy—which might have vindicated Pound's masterpiece. It is this last crisis that interests me most, but the revival of the Cantos at Pisa was closely linked to the personal and ideological aspects of this trauma. This threefold crisis was united in the poet's own experience as an intensely personal cataclysm. Pound was to say later of his days at Pisa that the "world fell on me." Hugh Kenner has written that, just as Pound seemed ready to begin his Dantean Paradiso, "everything collapsed." Kenner continues:
For he seems to have assumed that his Paradiso when he came to write it would correspond to and be validated by a demonstrable public order, most probably in Italy. The Douglas insights seemed so accessible to comprehension, so simple of application, that theory ought to issue in practice as inevitably, and as rapidly, as electromagnet theory had issued in the telegraph. All it required was a statesman (Mussolini, perhaps) with the requisite will. So events and the poem ought to have run in counterpart, toward a paradise terrestre.
Before 1945 the Cantos' historical and autobiographical narratives had pointed toward a Utopian end. In Pisa, Pound could no longer intend to write an epic that would end in reconciliation and the revelation of truth. He could not write a Commedia: history had prevented it. Pound's imprisonment and the Allied victory had profoundly disturbed his poem's relation to historical time. The Cantos stood at a chasm in time that had to be bridged if the saga was to continue.
"Canto 74," the first of the Pisan Cantos, had to cross this gap between Pound's shattered vision and his uncertain future. It had somehow to recover from the trauma of the cage. The poetic tactics of this recovery are revealed in the canto's style. The poem's hallucinatory and dream-like qualities were intensified, as if to compensate for the Cantos' suddenly impoverished relation to history. Lacking a political or ideological explanation for his predicament, Pound grasped at the meager "contents" left him: cherished memories of old friends, piecemeal quotations from earlier cantos, disjointed perceptions of the hostile world that surrounded him at Pisa. And instead of historical narration, the poem reverts to a mythic or archaic time as the means for ordering its fragmentary contents. These poetic tactics try to make sense of Pound's traumatic experience at Pisa, to discover some point from which the Cantos may begin again. These tactics constitute the paranoid style of the Pisan Cantos.
The use of the term "paranoia" in this context does not imply a clinical judgment about Pound's condition in 1945. In psychiatry, paranoia is a mental condition involving deluded ideas of grandiosity and persecution, ideas that cannot be refuted by logic. In pathological cases, paranoia is a symptom of schizophrenia, the profound disordering of thought. But paranoia is also an act of imagination. Deluded ideas explain the paranoid's experience in terms of his own distorted perception and idiosyncratic logic. The paranoid's delusions are a genuine creation, a making or poiesis. Existential analyst Ernest Becker calls paranoia "truly a kind of poetics, a weaving of images around the limitations of the human situation, the plight of a peculiarly limited organism." The poetics of paranoia responds to a world that is indifferent to the paranoid's existence. It creates the (deluded) perception of a world that cares about the paranoid, even if only by hating him. This poiesis of paranoia helps to explain Pound's writings at Pisa; it was the bridge to Pound's future.
In this light, paranoid thinking has a distinctively constructive or affirmative character. Phenomenological and existential analysts in particular have stressed the affirmative cast of the paranoid delusion. They see the delusion as an original and elaborate explanation of the sufferer's role in the world; although impossible for others to understand, the delusion makes "sense" to the paranoid. Becker describes it as a way of dramatizing or "staging" value: "When the world reflects a lesser image than the patient has worked for, then there is a need for esthetic reordering. Paranoid fantasy is a principal device for righting the imbalance, for warding off the invasion of meaninglessness into a life that feels it has achieved so much that ought to be meaningful." Cut off from ordinary experience by their own distorted thinking, paranoids concoct idiosyncratic ideas about the world's rules of operation. These rules typically exaggerate the sufferer's importance in the world (i.e., they are grandiose), and they often blame the sufferer's predicament on agents of persecution (i.e., they are "paranoid").
A peculiar form of paranoid delusion has special relevance to Pound's case and the Pisan Cantos. It is called the "deranged experience of the world's end" (Weltuntergangserlebnis). The sufferer believes that he or she is the sole survivor of a world catastrophe, often a catastrophe for which the patient is responsible. The most famous paranoid of Freud's era, jurist Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber, believed that, as lone survivor of an apocalypse, he would soon become mother to a new human race fathered by God. Freud recounted the delusion in his theoretical analysis of Schreber's case: "Voices told him that the work of the past 14,000 years had now come to nothing, and that the earth's allotted span was only 212 years more; and during the last part of his stay in Prof. Flechsig's sanatorium he believed that that period had already elapsed." Moreover, Freud noted, Schreber came to believe that the global catastrophe was the "inevitable result" of his own illness, the consequence of Schreber's privileged bond with God and of his conflict with analyst Flechsig. Such an apocalyptic delusion offers the paranoid a means of restoring temporality and value to his experience. It allows one to say, "Time begins again, now, and I am at the center of it." In this kind of delusion, an imaginary and idiosyncratic time scheme replaces the historical experience of one's existence. The author of the delusion is often (as with Schreber) responsible for the world's end, or is charged (again as with Schreber) with a divine mission to rescue humanity. In short, the Weltuntergangserlebnis provides its author's life with a rationale and power that were missing in real time.
The Rome radio speeches offer ample evidence of Pound's intensifying paranoia and grandiose ideas during the war years. The poet had journeyed to the United States in 1939, expecting to avert world war by speaking personally with President Roosevelt and congressional leaders. This inflated sense of self-importance was matched with a virulently anti-Semitic paranoia. The Rome broadcasts were rife with Pound's own version of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Western civilization:
SOMETIME the Anglo Saxon may AWAKE to the fact that the Jewish kahal and secret forces concentrated or brought to focus in the unappetizin' carcass of Franklin D. Roosevelt do NOT shove Aryan or non-yittisch nations in WARS in order that those said nations may WIN wars. The non-Jew nations are shoved into wars in order to destroy themselves, to break up their structure, to destroy their social order, to destroy their populations.
In Pound's peculiar version of this vulgar notion, the poet's own literary research and translation were the key to salvation. One trial psychiatrist testified that Pound's "remarkable grandiosity" focused on his mission to save the U.S. Constitution and on his belief that "he has the key to the peace of the world through the translations of Confucius." Pound told his examiners that he had given himself up in Italy to offer his services to the U.S. government as a diplomat or emissary. Pound viewed his imprisonment as a "double-cross," possibly engineered by agents of the British Secret Service.
These deluded ideas play an important role in "Canto 74," where they enabled Pound to reconstruct his relation to history. "Canto 74" dramatizes Pound's tentative efforts to regain contact with a world that now was the scene of his devastated hope. Despite the trauma of the cage, Pound was not silent for long. Even before his move to more hospitable quarters, Pound had evidently started to work on new cantos: parts of "Canto 74" were drafted on toilet paper. The camp's commander permitted him to use a few books and the company typewriter, hoping that writing might improve Pound's mental state.
These new poems had to bridge the gap between the first seventy-one cantos and a perilous future. "Canto 76" was to ask, "And will the world take up its course again?" "Canto 74" contains two answers to that question. One is based on a deluded hope, the other on a deluded fear. The hope was that Pound could mold the shattered pieces of his new world into a mythic substitute for history. The substitute's ingredients consisted of all that Pound could see, hear, and remember in the camp at Pisa. There are recollected moments of happiness; brief glimpses of natural order and beauty; and the residual desire for a redemption that history had now denied Pound. But Pound's hope coexisted with a fear: that he, Ezra Pound, and his epic poem had betrayed the fascist cause and helped to destroy the fascist paideuma. For years Pound had believed that language and writing were decisive tools in sound government. Pound expected that his writing—the Cantos above all—would undergird a fascist regime in Italy and the rest of Europe. The events of 1945 forced Pound to consider his own complicity in fascism's catastrophic failure. "Canto 74" contains the poignant, furtive admission that the Cantos had failed, too, and that their author deserved his punishment.
Pound's hope and fear are visible at different moments in the opening canto of the Pisan sequence. They represent the centrifugal and centripetal forces in the Pisan Cantos. Under their alternating influence, the poem's perceptions—grasshoppers "in coito," the crate made into a writing desk, remembered snatches of earlier cantos—either meld into brief, glistening lyrical fragments, or degenerate into babbling and verbal clutter. One moment the reader is in paradise, the next in hell.
The paradise of the Pisan Cantos has been altered from the earlier sequences, though. Paradise is not to be found in or at the end of history. Rather, paradise is located in an archaic time, which moves according to the changeless rhythms of Pound's own private myth. The chief token of this archaic time is the story of Wagadu, cited several times in "Canto 74." Wagadu is an African goddess who returns four times to rebuild her nation after catastrophes induced by human error.
4 times was the city rebuilded HOOo Fasa
Gassir, Hooo Fasa dell'Italia tradita
now in the mind indestructible, Gassir, Hoooo Fasa,
With the four giants at the four corners
and four gates mid-wall Hooo Fasa
and a terrace the colour of stars
Pound most likely heard this myth from Leo Frobenius and his researchers during their visit to Rapallo in 1939. Frobenius reports the myth as follows:
Every time the guilt of man caused Wagadu to disappear she won a new beauty which made the splendor of her next appearance still more glorious. Vanity brought the song of the bard which all peoples imitate and value today. Falsehood brought a rain of gold and pearls. Greed brought writing as the Burdama still practice it today which in Wagadu was the business of the women. Dissension will enable the fifth Wagadu to be as enduring as the rain of the south and as the rocks of the Sahara, for every man will have Wagadu in his heart and every woman a Wagadu in her womb. Hoooh ! Dierra, Agade, Silla ! Hooh ! Fasa !
One can imagine the myth's impact on Pound when he first heard it. It echoes themes long prominent in his own writing: the association of writing with gold and avarice; a series of great civilizations destroyed by human error; and a heroic savior who promises to build a final and lasting paradise.
"Canto 74" suggests that Pound superimposed the reappearances of Wagadu upon his history of paideuma; the fourth city of Wagadu is identified with "Italia tradita," or Italy betrayed. In 1945 this Italy was gone, erased by the Allied victory, by the "error" of Roosevelt, Churchill, and the international conspiracy against fascism. The fifth city of Wagadu is associated with the ancient Median capital, Ecbatan, which was built during the reign of Deioces ("Dioce"). Earlier in the Cantos, Ecbatan would have been cited as a historical example of paideuma. In "Canto 74," however, the city of Dioce represents an event beyond history:
yet say this to the Possum: a bang, not a whimper,
with a bang not with a whimper,
To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars
In this context the city of Dioce is an alternate figure for the last Wagadu, preserved in the heart of the true believer. The sole remaining believer, though, was Pound. Because no Deioces or Mussolini existed to build the city in fact, Pound had to build it in his mind, or rather, in his poem. The Pisan Cantos are Pound's attempt to construct this inward paradise, his persistent affirmation that Wagadu is not lost:
I believe in the resurrection of Italy
quia impossibile est
4 times to the song of Gassir
now in the mind indestructible
I surrender neither the empire nor the temples plural
nor the constitution nor yet the city of Dioce
each one in his god's name
The final Wagadu, the last paradise of order and beauty, now could exist only "in the mind indestructible," as a phantasmal paideuma preserved against all hope of realization.
Deprived of its narrative design by this new inwardness. Pound's epic devolves into a composite of lyrical fragments and allusions. These are the building blocks of the phantasmal city of Dioce. The roll call of Pound's literary friends in "Canto 74" is a good example:
Lordly men are to earth o'ergiven
these the companions:
Fordie that wrote of giants
and William who dreamed of nobility
and Jim the comedian singing:
"Blarrney castle me darlin'
you're nothing now but a StOWne"
and Plarr talking of mathematics
or Jepson lover of jade
Maurie who wrote historical novels
and Newbolt who looked twice bathed
are to earth o'ergiven.
This passage is, first of all, a poignant counterpoint to Pound's desolation at Pisa. It recalls Pound's life as literary entrepreneur and go-between in London; in its first line, the passage echoes "The Seafarer," one of Pound's earliest and most controversial translations. As a figment of Pound's earlier literary life, these lines preserve the memory of companionship against the ignominious isolation at Pisa. Similar fragments, to be internalized and protected, are provided by natural beauty:
Hooo Fasa, and in a dance the renewal
with two larks in contrappunto
nor is it for nothing that the chrysalids mate in the
air color di
green splendour and as the sun thru pale fingers
But these brief glimpses of natural order and remembered happiness are always broken off, alternating with Pound's rage at his persecutors and his anxious uncertainty. Deprived of any hope for historical redemption and denied the "plot" of history, the Pisan Cantos merely suspend these bits of paradise in a web of poetic suggestion. Paradise, says "Canto 74," "n'est pas artificiel / but spezzato [shattered] apparently."
Massimo Bacigalupo sees these fragments as evidence of a newfound "neo-platonism" in Pound's philosophy. He calls these disconnected images formae, that is, ideal aesthetic shapes that resemble the ephemeral "rose in the steel dust," the image that closes "Canto 74." Such a reading aptly underscores the idealism of this style: beauty is, indeed, an ephemera endangered by contact with the world of historical experience. Like the "diamond in the avalanche," these fragments of a hard and enduring beauty have been uprooted by history, scattered and buried in the calamity of 1945.
But Pound's was a curiously solipsistic platonism. The formae in the Pisan Cantos were the constituents of his poetics of delusion. The remains of paradise were themselves disparate: the orderly processes of nature, history's brief moments of sane government, the accomplishments and convictions of Pound's earlier career. Someone had to collect these shards of paradise and protect them from the dispersion of historical time. Of course, the only person qualified for such a project and aware of its necessity was Pound himself. Paradise would be "indestructible" only if Pound could preserve its remnants in new cantos. Thus, the Cantos acquired their new mission at Pisa: not to end history but to recover from it.
Out of this impulse emerged a new and precarious mission for the Cantos as a whole. Before the war Pound had hoped that Mussolini's Italy would be the earthly paradise. His epic poem was to be a useful prod and commentary for this new age, but not the agent of historical change itself. With Mussolini's demise, however, the very existence of paradise—even as phantasm—depended upon Pound's ability to imagine and record it. Thus, the cantos composed at Pisa were the fragile vehicle of paradise, threatened by history and by Pound's own confusion and dementia.
The grandiosity of this new mission for the Cantos is evident: the salvation of Western civilization rested upon Pound's poetic prowess. Paradise would be lost if that prowess weakened, if the Cantos "failed to cohere" as Pound had feared they might. For years Pound had insisted that muddled writing could undermine the state. Now, in the detention camp at Pisa, these convictions pricked the author with a bitter and self-accusing question: Had the obscurity of the earlier Cantos contributed to fascism's defeat? Would a failure in these new cantos—the degeneration of style into babble, the disintegration of form into rubble—mean the end of paradise?
These questions cast a shadow of guilt and complicity upon the Pisan Cantos' phantasmal paradise. The Wagadu myth, whose fifth city is the refuge of paideuma, also hints at the poet's responsibility for disaster. In the myth's framing story, the prince Gassire pursues a holy song of the poet's immortality. This song, to be played on a magic lute, would endure long after the battles had been fought and the poet was dead. But Gassire's quest for the immortal song causes incessant war among his people; the magic "lute of Gassir," it turns out, must be hallowed by his own sons' blood. In seeking beauty and immortality through the lute, Gassire finds that he has been banished and Wagadu has been lost. "Canto 74" refers repeatedly to the lute of Gassire and his cry, "Hooo Fasa." These references indicate that, in the midst of Pound's own banishment, Frobenius's story reinforced the poet's sense of guilt and betrayal. The story explained how, while reaching for paradise, Pound had reached hell and was caught there in a cage.
There is other such evidence in "Canto 74." For example, the canto twice refers to Ugolino, a character in Dante's Inferno. Ugolino betrayed his native city Pisa for private gain. As punishment, he was shut up in the Torre della fame with his sons and left to starve. Ugolino was consigned to the depths of hell by Dante, himself the victim of betrayal. By raising his eyes from the ground to the horizon, Pound could see Ugolino's tower to the left of Pisa's more famous landmark:
dry friable earth going from dust to more dust
grass worn from its root-hold
is it blacker? was it blacker? Nux animae?
is there a blacker or was it merely San Juan with a belly ache
writing ad posteros
in short shall we look for a deeper or is this the bottom?
Ugolino, the tower there on the tree line
Berlin dysentery phosphorus
la vieille de Candide
(Hullo Corporal Casey) double X or burocracy?
Le Paradis n'est pas artificiel
but spezzato apparently
it exists only in fragments
This passage is typical of the Pisan Cantos' laconic and disjointed style, a style that sets off intricate correspondences and identifications. The "friable earth" here is most likely the dirt path worn by Pound's vigorous exercise rounds. In it the poet apparently sees the dispersion, darkness, and threat of death that haunt him. His question to St. John of the Cross, whether this is the darkest "night of the soul," is answered by the allusion to Ugolino, walled up in a Pisan prison and cannibalizing the bodies of his dead sons. Ugolino's awful recourse from starvation suggests Gassire, who sacrificed his sons to hallow the magic lute. Completing the circuit of identification, Ugolino recounts his guilty crime "to posterity," through the voice of the immortal poet Dante, just as Pound speaks to posterity in his own epic. From Ugolino the passage moves on to Berlin, a fascist capital betrayed; to dysentery, Pound's own "belly ache" in captivity; and the phosphorus, a false and deceiving light that contrasts with the "color of light" cited so frequently in this canto as a figure of paradise. The highly condensed and allusive identification with Ugolino suggests that Pound may be perpetrator as well as victim of betrayal. The question about betrayal is addressed to Pound's jailer, Corporal Casey: Is the cause of Pound's suffering a "double-cross," a betrayal of truth for private gain (as with Ugolino)? Or is it "burocracy," the dispersion of administrative power from a single leader? The passage rises from this dark self-examination to affirm that paradise is not artificial, as Baudelaire proclaimed, but it is "spezzato," in pieces. Paradise is friable, worn from its root-hold in history.
This brief passage illustrates how easy it is to explicate the Pisan Cantos without explaining them. The poems' labyrinthine associations stimulate multiple and sometimes mutually contradictory readings. No one reading is more authoritative as long as it is referenced just to the poem itself. To explain the Pisan poems, one must connect them to the circumstances of their composition, to a poet suspended between vain hopes for redemption and the self-accusing realization of failure.
Another moment of implicit self-accusation in "Canto 74" appears in the "wanjina" passage. Again, Pound recalls a myth told to him by Frobenius. The Australian wondjina were icons whose mouths had been removed; "Canto 74" equates them to Ouan Jin, a transliteration of the Confucian term for "literary gent" (wen jen).
but Wanjina is, shall we say, Ouan Jin
or the man with an education
and whose mouth was removed by his father
because he made too many things
whereby cluttered the bushman's baggage
vide the expedition of Frobenius' pupils about
1938 to Auss'tralia
Ouan Jin spoke and thereby created the named thereby making
the bane of men moving
and so his mouth was removed
as you will find it removed in his pictures in
paraclete or the verbum perfectum:sinceritas
In one of its aspects, this passage accords with the paradisal impulse of "Canto 74." Beauty and truth may be contained in the "verbum perfectum," here a synonym for Confucian "sinceritas." Guy Davenport has rightly termed this passage a parable of the poetic act. The writer's sincerity invites God to dwell with humans. But for the blessed paraclete to descend, the "man with an education" must be silent. Davenport writes, "The ellipsis takes its energy from the iconographic paralleling of word, mouth, and logos, the absence of the latter, in accordance with John 16:7, being prerequisite for the appearance among men of the Paraclete, thus equating, seemingly, the mouthless Wanjina with the fertile presence of God in man."
The "wanjina" parable has a darker aspect that Davenport overlooks. He quite admittedly disregards the Australians' belief that if the wondjina had mouths, all humanity would perish in a catastrophic deluge. It is the end of the world again, this time brought on by the "man with an education" who speaks (or writes) excessively and thereby creates clutter. With the "wanjina," once again, the writer is complicit in catastrophe. He has violated Confucius's dictum of "sinceritas": "To communicate, and then stop, that is the / law of discourse … simplex munditiis." It was precisely this prescription that the Cantos at Pisa could not obey. To be silent would be to admit that paradise was, after all," "artificiel." To go on speaking, on the other hand, was to create the poetic clutter of the Pisan Cantos. Thus, the mouthless "wanjina" may be equated to Ezra Pound himself: the man with an education, or, shall we say, the erudite poet indicated for treason, the "bane of men moving."
The implicit self-indictments of "Canto 74" are the underside of Pound's grandiose conception of the writer in history. Writers who made "clutter" aided the downfall of wise leaders and the decline of civilization. For the first time in the Pisan Cantos, Pound turned this accusation against himself, if only briefly and by implication. It was a bitter truth that Pound could only take in small doses and that did not cure his hope for paradise. But by the last cantos, the self-accusation had prevailed:
But the beauty is not the madness
Tho' my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.
That I lost my center
fighting the world.
The dreams clash
and are shattered and—
that I tried to make a paradiso
I have tried to write Paradise …
Let the Gods forgive what I
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.
Traces of this insight appear in the dark moments of "Canto 74." In Gassire, Ugolino, and the "wanjina," the canto offers figures of the poet who had betrayed his people and his paradise. These are the sobering antidotes to the delusion that paradise could be preserved "in the mind entire." Eventually, in Pound's old age, a bitter and disillusioned sanity prevailed, and work on the Cantos stopped. "I ruin everything I touch. I have been mistaken, always," he told a reporter in 1963. Of the Cantos he said, "They are a botch."
There was, as yet, no such recantation at Pisa. The ideological rag-bag of Pound's fanaticism was still intact in the Pisan Cantos. Pound's ideas about fascism, Jews, and money had not changed; indeed, he continued to advocate those ideas while at St. Elizabeths. What had changed was those ideas' relation to history and to Pound's epic ambition. "Canto 74" had to blaze a new path to paradise, a path that did not lead through history. The Cantos' new mission, as I have called it, was to preserve paradise as a purely interior phantasm. This phantasm was encapsuled in the broken fragments, the formae, of Pound's Pisan style. The preservation of these fragments gave Pound reason to continue writing at and after Pisa. But the recovery at Pisa was bought at an awful cost to Pound's ambition: the admission, in "Canto 74," that paradise exists only as a figment and can never be redeemed by historical time. The paranoid moment of the Pisan Cantos was to continue—as delusion—an epic poem which could no longer be history.
Thus, the unique enterprise of Pound's Cantos recovered from its trauma and continued beyond 1945, even though it was to end in acknowledged failure. Pound's was the only epic in the Western tradition to so orient itself toward the future horizon of history. Certainly Dante had taken no such risk; the Commedia was ostensibly a recollection of Dante's journey into the afterlife. But by claiming the terrain of historical narration, the Cantos were vulnerable to the intrusion of historical events. The eventuality of history had not vindicated Ezra Pound, but rather victimized him. Pound's own history, the catalog of paideuma, had come to a cataclysmic end. "Canto 74," with its jarring tonalities and circuitous associations, is the drama of Pound's recovery from this catastrophe. By turning inward, this and the succeeding cantos sought to rescue Pound's convictions and aspirations from the ash heap of history. As ideas, their failure was deserved. As poetry, their success continues to animate and to intrigue the readers of this complex work.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5775
SOURCE: "Mauberley and His Critics," in ELH: English Literary History, Vol. 57, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 961-76.
[In the following essay, Miller offers a reexamination of critical dispute surrounding Hugh Selwyn Mauberley from its publication to the present. "Once Pound's greatest success," writes Miller, "it is today perhaps his least respected poem."]
Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is, one must hasten to say, an overconsidered poem. Disagreed about for half a century, interpreted in contradictory fashions, whoever speaks of it has to begin by explaining how he reads it. Once Pound's greatest success, it is today perhaps his least respected poem. [T. S.] Eliot, one recalls, thought whatever else he was sure of, he was sure of Mauberley; Donald Davie, himself very intelligent, tells us that it only appeals to "thin and constricted and rancorously distrustful sensibilities." There's a difference of opinion to think about.
Such disagreements do have a way of working themselves out. Twenty-five years ago, in Essays in Criticism, A. L. French published a perceptive and now famous essay, damning Mauberley and all the upstart modernist literature it seemed to him to represent. It is obvious enough today that French's intelligence and his dislike of what seemed to him chaos come again were getting in each other's way. That gives one hope. For Mauberley criticism had its origin among critics caught up, as French was, in a battle of pro-modernists versus anti-modernists, pro-Poundians versus anti-Poundians, which skewed perceptions and created mindsets still with us. It is time to write the story up, see it clearly, and escape its limitations. For Mauberley is not only one of Pound's major poems, essential to his development and to that of modernist literature, it is still, as Hugh Kenner pointed out forty years ago, "at its deepest levels … unread."
A few basic things everyone is agreed about, and one of them must be mentioned at the outset, however familiar: that Mauberley is one of two kinds of artist Pound had spent several years differentiating—a kind characterized by what he called "Epicurean receptivity, a certain aloofness, an observation of contacts and auditions." Poets of this type are, Pound held, aesthetes withdrawn from action and given to the passive "perception of beauty," which makes them easily distinguished, at least in theory, from those who have what Pound called "the Propertian attitude": poets inspired by passionate love and able to create new worlds out of their "kinship to the vital universe." Pound's critics agree that Mauberley is a beauty-loving aesthete and that he fails as a result to change what he finds a crass and vulgar world.
And that is about all they agree upon. Serious differences surface as soon as any attempt is made to determine what Mauberley's aestheticism and failure, described in the poem's second section, have to do with the scathing attack upon his civilization that makes up the first, or with that section's beautiful concluding love lyric, "Envoi." The story begins with F. R. Leavis, who in 1931 responded to the poem's many aestheticisms by concluding that it should be read as Mauberley's poem, Mauberley being a mask through which Pound was not only brilliantly condemning modern commercial vulgarity and writing a lovely lyric, but also confessing his own ineffectual aestheticism. Widely accepted, the view set up a "Pound is (or isn't) Mauberley" argument that has dogged the poem ever since. It remained dominant—with individual critics disagreeing how completely Pound should be identified with Mauberley—until Kenner, in his ground-breaking study of Pound's works in 1950, claimed that Pound was not in Mauberley confessing his own weaknesses through a persona, creating a poem readers liked because it sounded like a familiar Eliotic "introspection," but instead writing with Flaubertian objectivity about England and the poetic voice represented by Mauberley. In 1955 in his detailed and still invaluable study of the poem, John Espey agreed, making Pound a virile, passionate, Propertian poet condemning an ineffectual, unvirile aesthete and his crassly commercial world. The stage was now set for all that was to follow, for subsequent critics found attempts to read the entire poem as the creation of a Propertian Pound difficult if not unworkable.
A few examples will suffice. In 1956 Thomas Connolly argued that all of the poem's first section had to be read as Mauberley's. In 1961 Davie agreed that would be best, though he felt individual poems in the first section could just as easily be read as Pound's because Pound and Mauberley had not been "sufficiently differentiated." In 1963 George Dekker agreed they were not, and suggested that this was because Pound was criticizing Mauberley while at the same time trying to purge himself of his own Mauberley-like tendencies. In 1965 William Spanos found Mauberley's voice so nearly omnipresent that he argued that Mauberley must be thought of as speaking all of the poem except "Envoi." Recently Ronald Bush has made another suggestion: that Mauberley speaks the poem's first section in tonalities which Pound deliberately echoes in speaking the second. And to cite but two more conclusions, both recent, Massimo Bacigalupo has now returned to Leavis's original view that the poem is autobiographical throughout, while Jo Brantley Berryman has argued that Pound himself disagreed with almost everything said in its first section and was therefore clearly not writing autobiographically.
This is a brief sample—though only a sample—of the tangle of different readings that have resulted from imposing on the poem the question of Pound's relation to Mauberley. Looking back, one wonders how that particular question ever got as entrenched as it now is, and must conclude that it became the standard way of considering the poem not just because of critics convinced and sometimes anxious to prove that Pound was as much, or nearly as much, an aesthete as Mauberley, but also because of those convinced and anxious to prove that he wasn't. For their main defense was to put Pound into the poem and argue that he was criticizing in his own Propertian voice both modern culture and one of its typical aesthetes. This made it absolutely necessary to distinguish Pound's way of writing from Mauberley's within the poem. And when that, as we have seen, proved impossible to do in any way that could be agreed upon, it left Mauberley criticism in its present state, distorting in the process both what Pound thought of Propertius's kind of writing and what he thought of the aesthetic. Pound had run into similar attempts to save him by making him into a virile and passionate Propertian as early as 1913.
Oh my fellow sufferers, songs of my youth,
A lot of asses praise you because you are 'virile',
We, you, I! We are 'Red Bloods'!
Imagine it, my fellow sufferers—
Our maleness lifts us out of the ruck
Who'd have foreseen it?
Pound had—as any careful re-reading of his prose shows—much more respect for the aesthetic kind of writing than his critics have had; and we are, as a result, much better off assuming that he at least initially began Mauberley, just as he suggested he had to John Drummond, intending to use the aesthetic voice of a very British Hugh Selwyn Mauberley to communicate his scorn of recent British culture to a "blockheadcd epoch," an epoch he had found incapable of understanding the Homage to Sextus Propertius's emphasis on sex and its seemingly flippant, sex-oriented condemnation of bourgeois crassness, imperialism, and war.
He had, as we know, been using a similar voice—"effete and overcivilized," he called it—for somewhat similar purposes, writing a series of "Imaginary Letters" for the Little Review under the name of Walter Villerant, knowing it a voice to which English audiences were trained to respond. (Mauberley was Pound's first and only marked English success.) It was not a mode he despised in any of its manifestations, of which Mauberley is but one. Instead it was one of two kinds of writing—the first receptive, diagnostic, sensitive, and beauty-loving; the second passion-born and creative—which, starting in 1912 in his "Psychology and Troubadours," he had by the time he began Mauberley spent almost a decade differentiating. Both of these at their best he admired, and both can be found in his work from beginning to end.
While he was writing Mauberley, he was, in fact, learning at least as much from Henry James, whom he thought an aesthete, as from Remy de Gourmont, whom he found Propertian. For he was finding in James not only hints for the overcivilized Mauberley—as Espey thoroughly proved—but, as Bush has made clear, techniques essential to the advances he was at the time beginning to make in "Cantos 4-7." What Bush finds so important here is that it was in these cantos that Pound found the narrative voice that would enable him to write his epic, a voice that, he wrote John Quinn, came from the middle of himself and not from some mask. If the Jamesian aesthetic mode played an integral part in that achievement, it cannot be seen as something he was in 1919 doing anything but learning how to use.
All of which suggests that Pound set out in Mauberley neither to condemn aestheticism in general, nor to confess his own aesthetic failures, nor to differentiate himself from an aesthete named Mauberley; rather, he set out to make use of the nineties' version of the aesthetic mode to communicate what he had failed to communicate in the Homage—seeing, at the same time, how far he could within its limits develop its possibilities. No reading of Mauberley which tries to see in it a Propertian Pound differentiating himself from a minor aesthete (or trying to), or that has less respect for the aesthetic mode than Leavis, who found the poem a significant achievement, can evaluate that attempt—or even see its existence.
The place to begin any serious reconsideration of Mauberley criticism is with its concluding poem, "Envoi"—for even those who think Mauberley's first section is Mauberley's poem see "Envoi" as something beyond his reach. "Envoi" is, they point out, written in the great English lyric tradition that stretches back to Shakespeare and beyond. It cannot, they are sure, be confused with anything an aesthete might write. Famous as the poem is, let me start by quoting it. It is the pivot point about which Mauberley turns and merits being looked at still another time.
Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were the cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy on me lie,
And build her glories their longevity.
Tell her that sheds
Such treasure in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour
Tell her that goes
With song upon her lips
But sings not out the song, nor knows
The maker of it, some other mouth,
May be as fair as hers,
Might, in new ages, gain her worshippers,
When our two dusts with Waller's shall be laid,
Siftings on siftings in oblivion,
Till change hath broken down
All things save Beauty alone.
Rereading this lovely lyric, with its echoes of Edmund Waller's "Go, Lovely Rose," of Shakespeare, and of a hundred Elizabethan songs and sonnets, one can understand why so many critics have felt that Pound was in it writing of passion as the kind of "intellectual instigation" he claimed it to be in Propertius and the troubadours. But he wasn't. It is true that "Go, Lovely Rose," which "Envoi" so brilliantly echoes, is a carpe diem poem that urges its hearer to consider youth's brevity and accept physical passion. Thus the song which the girl in "Envoi" sings to the poet—and sings specifically to him, so he tells us, "recking naught else but that her graces give / Life to the moment"—does have a Propertian import. But the most significant thing about the poet's reply is not that it echoes Waller's song but that it echoes it only to move in exactly the opposite direction from that song's meaning. For what it seeks is not a passionate acceptance of life and love, but an escape from human mutability into the frozen permanence of an art world where the girl's beauty can be preserved like "roses in magic amber laid, / Red overwrought with orange and all made / One substance and one colour / Braving time." This is a beautifully refurbished Elizabethan poetic cliché, but it is not about love in any Propertian sense. It is about Beauty, its loss in this world, and its preservation in art.
Its relation to the rest of Mauberley is, as a result, dramatically different from the relation of Propertius's passion for Cynthia to the poems of Pound's Homage. Propertius's passion is central to all he speaks of, present in every poem, conditioning all he thinks and feels. The "Envoi" poet's concern for the singing girl is, in contrast, neither passionate nor related to Mauberley's other concerns. It is, of course, only in part two of Mauberley that we are told of Mauberley's response to a girl's beauty that "he made no immediate application / Of this to relation of the state." But it is that very lack of relationship that accounts for the placement of "Envoi" as an envoi—an afterword, a postscript—to the social criticism of Mauberley's first section. And what is differentiated thereby is the order of passionate love basic to the entire Homage from the love of beauty that animates all of Mauberley, "Envoi" included.
It is at this point that Pound's opinion of Waller's poetry takes on significance. Pound thought Waller "a tiresome fellow" whose talent was "fathoms below Rochester's," a poet whose merit was the result of his being fortunate enough to write in the "'style of a period'" whose "musical criteria … were of prime order." This is significant because Pound believed, as he put it in his essay on Cavalcanti, that the Elizabethan modes of song and sonnet writing which had established those criteria had done so at a price—that of losing the very qualities he pictures his aesthete Mauberley as also lacking: "masculinity," "fervor," "intensity." This conclusion he reached in deciding that the poetic techniques of the best Elizabethan lyricists would not allow him to translate into contemporary English these three essential qualities of Cavalcanti's sonnets.
"But by taking these Italian sonnets," he finally concluded, "by sacrificing, or losing, or simply not feeling and understanding their cogency, their sobriety, and by seeking simply that far from quickly or so-easily-as-it-looks attainable thing, the perfect melody … you find yourself in the English seicento song-books." And there you find, "quite often," he said, "a Mozartian perfection of melody" accompanied by a "wisdom, almost perhaps an ultimate wisdom, deplorably lacking in guts." And this because in them, escaping life's sobering realities, "death has become melodious; sorrow is as serious as the nightingale's, tombstones are shelves for the reception of rose leaves." One has at this point only to recall the "Envoi" poet's "when our two dusts with Waller's shall be laid, / Siftings on siftings in oblivion," or his lines about roses "in magic amber laid," to see that Pound was not uncritical of the poetic tradition "Envoi"'s verbal beauty renews.
Given these facts, we are pushed toward two conclusions. First, Pound intended "Envoi" to be read as Mauberley's work; and second, he intended it to be an example of the kind of poem the beauty-loving aesthete, continuing a long tradition, wanted to write—or was able to write—in 1919, the date of "Envoi." For Mauberley does change. The dates here are important. Pound stressed them by dating neither the rest of the poem's first section, nor the poem as a whole—only "Envoi" and the immediately following second section, dated 1920. In 1919 the "Envoi" poet responds to a beautiful girl's song about love by telling her that what that song arouses in him is not a Propertian desire for her love, but a desire to write a death-defying song preserving for future generations the memory of her evanescent loveliness. In 1920 Mauberley comes to realize-—"a year late" we are reminded—that his devotion to beauty rather than to passionate living has had a price:
Mouths biting the empty air
The still stone dogs,
Caught in metamorphosis, were
Left him as epilogues.
In 1957 Pound changed the title of his poem from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Life and Contacts) to Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Contacts and Life) and wanted the fact noticed: "Note inversion in sub-title of Mauberley, NOT Life and Contacts, but the actual order of the subject matter." This seems to suggest that the actual order of his poem about Mauberley makes its first section an account of Mauberley's contacts—and not, as many critics were concluding, Pound's own—just as it makes the second section what almost everyone was granting and still grants, an account of Mauberley's life.
But what makes this so important? The contacts are obviously Pound's. He did, however, at the time he began Mauberley, have a problem. As Bush has made us aware, he had come to believe—influenced by what he saw as Laforgue's advance over Flaubert—that "ideas," in Pound's words, have "little value apart from the modality of the mind which receives them." That is, all a writer actually manages to convey is his "façon de voir," his "modality of apperception." Pound's problem in 1919 was that he had not as yet been able to create a language in which he could express all that made up his own "modality of apperception." And until he solved that problem—which he began to do that year with "Canto 4"—he was consciously confined to exploring those partial aspects of his own vision for which, up to that time, he had found the language. Since 1916 he had explored one such aspect in what he called the "archaic language" of his Provençal poems; still another in the contrastingly "realistic" moeurs contemporaines poems; and still another in the Propertian and Laforgian Homage to Sextus Propertius. These poems he published together in 1921, along with the aesthete-oriented Mauberley, and "Cantos 4-7." And it was of this volume that he wrote Quinn, telling him that in contrast to the other poems the four new cantos "come out of the middle of me and are not a mask, are what I have to say…." This makes Mauberley, all of it, including the first section and its "Envoi," spoken through a mask.
But can't the mask be that of a Pound who, still developing, is not yet fully able to express himself, an "E.P."—as he is referred to in the poem—who embodies an aspect of Pound but not all of him? This would get us out of some of our problems; and it echoes a suggestion K. K. Ruthven made in 1969. But since it gives us Pound using the mask of a partial self to write about what we have to conclude is another Pound mask, the argument becomes more involuted than we would like, and ends up entangled in the same old side-issue, as it tries to differentiate the Pound-Propertian mask from the Mauberley-aesthetic one.
The battle between Poundians and anti-Poundians, modernists and anti-modernists may not be entirely over—may only have assumed another form—but it seems time to conclude that Pound wrote the first section of Mauberley in Mauberley's voice, using him, warts and all, as a "surface" that allowed him to "condense the James novel." Nothing in Mauberley's first section, "Envoi" included, grows from passion in any Propertian sense. The section echoes Gautier in almost every one of its individual poems, as Espey has shown us, and of Gautier's aestheticism there can be no question. And it has what Pound thought a Jamesian subject, moeurs contemporaines, treated from an English aesthete's disdainful, culture-soaked, beauty-loving point of view. To conclude that Pound had deserted his practice of speaking through masks and was writing in his own voice—when it seems clear he had not yet found that voice—and that he was doing so by imitating an aesthete's poems and metrics, is but one more of those strangely involuted conclusions which critics of the poem's first section, seeking to put Pound into the poem, have offered us.
If Mauberley's second section must, like the first and for the same reasons, be read as an expression of Mauberley's "façon de voir," it must be read as Leavis read it, as a turn inward toward self-analysis. It is important, then, to place its composition in Mauberley's life.
In the poem's second section, we are told that during a three-year period Mauberley "drank ambrosia" and had some relationship with a girl "among whose phantasmagoria" he "moved." In 1919, toward the end of that relationship, he wrote "Envoi." Shortly after writing it but before 1920, the date of the poem's second section, the relationship collapsed: "came end to that Arcadia." Bewildered, adrift, Mauberley found himself "unable in the supervening blankness / To sift TO AGATHON from the chaff" until he found a new way of registering realities: "until he found his sieve … / Ultimately his seismograph."
Having found that seismograph, Mauberley charts his own failure in relation to his world's. And given the precise and beautiful finality of the analysis, it is not enough to say of the section as Bush very perceptively has—leading us in exactly the right direction, toward a single evolving consciousness—that it is written in a less "youthfully vigorous version of the restless, abstracted voice" of the first. What Bush's view does not give enough weight is a perception of aestheticism's viable future, one which, born in the first section under the influence of Gautier, has in both sections, as a result of what Pound found or thought he found in Laforgue, been deepened and put to new uses.
That Pound sought in Mauberley to bring into English poetry what Gautier had achieved in French is another thing all the poem's critics agree upon. Evaluating the work of what he called "the men of 'the nineties,'" Pound had decided by the time he wrote Mauberley that the nineties poets had accomplished in English what Gautier had accomplished in France by 1830, but had failed to go on to emulate the "hardness" and "clearness" of his later Émaux et Camées. What he found in Laforgue that makes Laforgue important to Mauberley was another advance to catch up with; "the next phase after Gautier in French poetry."
Laforgue was, as Leo Weinstein has pointed out, a poet different from the aesthetes before him because he didn't react as they did with dissoluteness, rebellion, and hashish. As Weinstein goes on to say, he "understood and admired his predecessors" but—like Mauberley—"was also aware of how puerile certain aspects of … [their] revolts were and to what extent they were a pose." Out of that awareness, a part of the tradition he criticized, he developed, Weinstein says, a "less spectacular" attitude which "turning inward … produced works of … urbane irony (often self-irony, the anti-dote for self-pity) and wit."
What we can find in Mauberley, in both its sections, are exactly the ironic Laforgian characteristics of language and attitude that Weinstein defines. And Pound himself singled them out. What Pound saw in Laforgue was, he said, an artist "nine-tenths … critic" who took "literary poses and clichés … as his subject matter" and wrote about them, "not [in] the popular language of any country but [in] an international tongue common to the excessively cultivated". This is, of course, just what Mauberley does, with exactly the attitude Weinstein defines and in exactly the language Pound describes. He writes of the literary poses and clichés of the English aesthetes of the nineties and their late-Victorian world as well as those that typify his own England, and, finally, "turning inward" with "self-irony" and "wit," his own "Olympian apathein" and its inevitable consequences.
And when we come to Mauberley's deepest feelings about himself and his world, another aspect of Laforgue's poetry takes on significance. For Pound thought it was perhaps Laforgue's greatest merit that he was able to present his criticisms in such a way as to use them as "a vehicle for the expression of his own personal emotions." Mauberley's "personal emotions" become more than an aesthete's stereotypical dandyism as soon as we realize that Pound's study of Laforgue paid dividends here also. To that we can now turn.
Perceiving that aestheticism and science come to share, at a certain point in their development, a similar stance and a similar strategy, Laforgue had, as Pound pointed out, "dipped his wings in the dye of scientific terminology." Hence, in Laforgue's case, such phrases as the one Pound quotes, which describes the beardless Pierrot as having "un air d'hydrocephale asperge" [an air of a hydrocephalic asparagus stalk]. And hence also one aspect of Mauberley's second section, imbued as it is with a carefully poised analytic objectivity not at all unlike that with which an internist, in the highly technical language of his art, charts the course of some terminal disease; let us, to keep the parallel, even assume it his own. The similarity here is obvious. A language that informs us that "for three years, diabolus in the scale, he drank ambrosia … came end to that Arcadia" shares characteristics with the one a doctor would use if he wrote of his own state that his melanoma was resected but had in fact already metastasized. Both the doctor and the aesthete have, that is to say, substituted for what Yeats in "Byzantium" called "the mire of human veins," a world of carefully distanced intellectual precisions that screen and structure and give new emotional weight to a messy reality from which they must remain, as a condition of their art, detached.
What Laforgue was mocking and exploiting with his "scientific terminology" was, then, a methodology and an attitude coming into prominence all about him. At their worst they created the slant of mind for which Flaubert's Homais, without intelligence or character, won his Legion of Honor. At their best they animate the objectively distanced concern and skill Flaubert finds in the heroic Dr. Larivière, and perfects in himself so he can write Madame Bovary, ("Emma Bovary, c'est moi!") To any understanding of that attitude and its enabling techniques Homais is a key. For what Homais has appropriated, and so delightfully caricatures, is just what he thought it: a most promising method of dealing in Olympian detachment with the petty, the vulgar, and the painful. He dines with Dr. Larivière hoping to enjoy a learned discussion of Emma's death agony. ("'Saccharum, doctor?' said he, offering the sugar") What is involved in Mauberley's poetic experiments is, then, much more than an aesthete's lack of Propertian drive. It is the evolving nature of dominant western attitudes.
Much of what is accomplished in Mauberley's first section has been clear for decades—however miscredited to Propertian virility. Something of what is accomplished in its second becomes obvious as soon as one stops trying to impose a Pound versus Mauberley question on the poem and compares the two sections' final lyrics, noting how different they are in their similarity.
Luini in porcelain!
The grand piano
Utters a profane
Protest with her clear soprano.
The sleek head emerges
From the gold-yellow frock
As Anodyomene in the opening
Pages of Reinach.
Honey-red, closing the face-oval,
A basket-work of braids which seem as if they were
Spun in King Minos' hall
From metal, or intractable amber;
The face-oval beneath the glaze,
Bright in its suave bounding-line, as,
Beneath half-watt rays,
The eyes turn topaz.
The author of this poem, writing a new tribute to the singing girl, does seek, like the author of "Envoi," the comfort of life's aesthetic surfaces to escape its painful depths. He too loves the permanence of amber and the lasting beauty of art. But his love of art and artifice is not, like that in "Envoi," an Elizabethan echo.
And that it is not, and that it arouses as a consequence no favorable reflexes, tells us something important about the conditioning influence Elizabethan lyric poetry has had upon English poetic expectations down even into the twentieth century. For it is not too much to say that Elizabethan lyricists were, like the author of "Envoi" more than three hundred years later, obsessed with mutability, that they too yearned for worlds of artificial permanence that would outlast their animal flesh: marble, or the gilded monuments of princes, or this powerful rhyme. What is important here is that the Elizabethan songs and sonnets which satisfied that yearning contained, Pound felt, a wisdom, almost perhaps an ultimate wisdom, lacking, he concluded, in guts.
It is a conclusion that seems at first surprising but isn't. For it is one that had sooner or later to surface in a post-Elizabethan world which had come to think of art as a total and honest expression of—rather than, as the Elizabethan lyricists did, a carefully and beautifully wrought complement to—life's realities. And when the change was finally complete, what was needed was not of necessity what we find in Yeats's Byzantium poems: some passionately intense expression within the poem itself of the agonizing difference between art and life. A different solution—Mauberley's kind of solution, Laforgue's kind—would merely include within the poem quietly and with deflating irony the knowledge Elizabethan poets felt needed no acknowledgment at all: that any work of art is a created counterpoint to, not a substitute for, the breathing human life whose existence it replaces only at a cost.
In some ways the two approaches—Mauberley's and Yeats's—have like results. In their love of beauty and artifice and their awareness that art is not a living thing, both poets create worlds that are critical of and ambivalent about their own points of view. Bodies of hammered gold are as insistently artificial and life-denying as braids spun from metal or intractable amber; and the young in one another's arms are as vivid a definition of a breathing world lost as Mauberley's still stone dogs biting the empty air. But, from the point of view that creates Mauberley's final lyric, to pretend with great intensity that the artificial is better than the living, as Yeats can seem to do, while at the same time complaining passionately that it isn't, as Yeats can also seem to do, is to lack—what Yeats would scorn to have—"sobriety." There is, however, something to be said for sobriety. One can, in some moods, find seas that are mackerel-crowded, dolphin-torn, and gong-tormented a little much. Despite his genius, Yeats remained, as Eliot remarked, "perhaps a little too much the weather-worn Triton among the streams." One cannot conceive of the poet who wrote "Medallion" yearning to be an artificial bird.
Putting "Medallion" by Yeats's Byzantium poems and at the same lime by any of the sonnets Shakespeare mocked in "My mistress' eyes"—sonnets praising, not hair like braids spun from metal or amber, but lips of coral, breasts like snow or ivory—does therefore reveal something about it. We need only assume that the voice of "Medallion" is as aware of the nature of the tradition he is working in as Shakespeare was, and as Pound certainly was—and as critic after critic reading "Medallion" has suddenly become without fully realizing it. When we do, "Medallion" becomes at once a more significant attempt to explore the continuing possibilities of an English poetic tradition than "Envoi," and as significant an attempt as "Sailing to Byzantium." And what is most important, of course, is that it becomes so at exactly the points most often criticized as effete failures, those points that unfold a world of carefully defined aesthetic surfaces insistently what they are and nothing more: a world where "beneath half-watt rays, / The eyes turn topaz," or a girl's head "emerges" from a "gold-yellow frock / As Anadyomene in the opening / Pages of Reinach." In its insistence upon what art worlds are and aren't, this world differs markedly from the verbally intoxicating, reality-defying one of roses "in magic amber laid" of "Envoi," whose merit, after all, is that it is not a modern poem at all but a beautifully crafted poetic echo.
The resulting emotions, being new and significant, are, as Kenner noted almost forty years ago, complexly fused and not readily definable. ("Beauty? Irony? Geometrical and optical fact?" Kenner asked of "Medallion" in 1950.) One might add that they are also, as in event proved, not readily apprehensible—either in "Medallion" or in the second section as a whole, where they occur in a variety of ways. But it is their presence that makes Mauberley's entire second half an even more interesting accomplishment than its first, whose achievements are more readily responded to—though they are finally of the same order.
All of which makes the entire poem just what Pound suggested that it was—its author's "farewell" to London and to an indigenous and beloved English poetic tradition that had come down to him through the nineties. This tradition, he believed, had from the start sought to escape from life's mutabilities, and had now before it in a new age—so far as he could see—only the delicately poised, brilliantly diagnostic, and finally ineffectual dead ends his poem defined.
One may note, however, in a final concession to those who condemn Mauberley for lacking what they see as sexual drive and all that Pound thought could grow from passion, that they are in their way right. There are indeed definite limitations to the approach taken in Mauberley: those Pound felt limited Laforgue's acceptance. "The red-blood," Pound noted, "has turned away [from Laforgue]…. Delicate irony, the citadel of the intelligent, has," he pointed out, "a curious effect on these people." "They wish always to be exhorted, at all times … to do those things which almost anyone will and does do whenever suitable opportunity is presented." Despite which, the brilliance of at least some of the poems in Mauberley's first section, the precision and the carefully distanced pathos of its second, and even—as Berryman has pointed out—the severe, clear, metallic beauty of "Medallion," have impressed critic after critic who has read the poem, yearning all the time, as the new century was, as in fact Ezra Pound himself was, for something more red-blooded, something less delicately ironic.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5910
SOURCE: "Ezra Pound and the Politics of Patronage," in American Literature, Vol. 63, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 26-42.
[In the following essay, Wolfe examines contradictory aspects of Pound's democratic and elitist sentiments, particularly concerning the relationship between art and economics. Wolfe contends that "Pound's literary ideology has at least as much in common with Ralph Waldo Emerson's individualism as it does with Benito Mussolini's fascism."]
Few writers, modern or otherwise, have inspired more criticism, and more of it theoretically polarized and mutually hostile, than Ezra Pound. The critic who would engage Pound's work finds himself or herself framed from the outset by a kind of critical Cold War, one which forces him into something resembling the role of Marc Antony at the funeral in Julius Caesar. Pound critics come time and again either to bury or to praise this strange and disturbing individual, who is seen by turns either as a fascist and anti-Semite in his very composition and genesis or as a literary genius whose "true" self (the self that produced the stalwart poetry of high modernism) can somehow be separated from the pathological embarrassment who penned and delivered the maniacal Rome Radio speeches.
If I've just glanced synoptically at the theoretical oversimplification of this well-nigh proverbial condition of Pound studies, then let me be a bit clearer about its critically disabling consequences. A politically engaged criticism of Pound would by definition need to move beyond this kind of displacement of broad economic, social, and ideological problems onto Pound the unique (so it goes) and therefore romanticized subject of admiration or revulsion. It is here, at this juncture and against this pressing critical necessity, that the either-orist imperative of Pound studies exerts its institutionally powerful and politically disabling force. If we want to come to terms with the ideological character of Pound's cultural project, we need to explore what is precisely ideological about it: namely, its internally contradictory, fractured, and self-conflicted nature, its capacity to attract subjects even as it repels others. But it is exactly this sort of contradiction—itself the very mark of ideological formations—that the current climate of Pound studies forestalls in advance.
In practical terms, the contradiction that the political critic of Pound needs to engage is that Pound's palpable attractions—his early defense of individual difference in the face of economic Taylorization and imperialism, his recognition that the aesthetic is at once fully social and even economic—are inextricably wedded to his reprehensible obsessions. And we need to be able to do all of this, moreover, without making the one a mere epiphenomenon of the other. Only by doing so can we provide an adequate picture of Pound's literary ideology in its power and complexity, instead of a facile caricature of it. And only by doing so can we dispel the politically naive impression that once we have unmasked Pound's ideological failures, we have once again made the world safe for literary democracy.
For my purposes, we need to recognize that Pound's literary ideology has at least as much in common with Ralph Waldo Emerson's individualism as it does with Benito Mussolini's fascism, and at the same time we need to realize that this isn't necessarily good news. Pound's liberationist Emersonian side cannot be separated from his authoritarian fascist side: that, it seems to me, is the powerful and disturbing political point that the polarization of Pound studies mitigates against.
In an exacting discussion of Pound's early aesthetic, Michael Levenson has recently argued that something like an abrupt change took place in Pound's position between the autumn of 1913 and the early months of 1914. During this period, Pound discovered Allan Upward's philosophy of radical egoism, and that discovery, Levenson argues, transformed what had been Pound's liberal humanism into a virulently antidemocratic and elitist egoism. The artist, Pound now declares in his essay "The New Sculpture" of February 1914, "has dabbled in democracy and he is now done with that folly."
Levenson's argument is perfectly correct in pointing up this dimension of Pound's individualism, but it does not go far enough. In Pound's letters of the period, for instance, we find not a break but rather a vacillation between the two positions, and throughout his career he would alternate between pronouncements which were both radically elitist and radically democratic. "Patria Mia," for instance (written in 1910–1911), staged its social critique on behalf of the individual "of whatever age or sex or condition," and in "Murder By Capital"—written in the same year as Jefferson and/or Mussolini—Pound declared, as if in reaction to his Blastian pronouncements: "If there was a time (and I admit that there was) when I thought this problem [of art's commodification] could be solved without regard to the common man, humanity in general, the man in the street, the average citizen, etc., I retract, I sing palinode, I apologise."
Pound's individualism, like Emerson's, never really abandoned either of its extremes, and as with Emerson's we can trace in it nothing like a clean linear development from one pole to the other. We find not a break, then (as even this brief survey suggests), but rather the uneasy and sometimes violent coexistence of two latent possibilities, two different—and finally irreconcilable—political vectors which the ideology of individualism might follow. In the career of Pound, nowhere are these conflicting and inseparable tendencies clearer than in his early writings on patronage. In these proposals—for they were proposals, motivated not a little by impinging economic desperation—we are able to glimpse the antinomies of Pound's literary ideology, contradictions which would in time enable, if not exactly produce, the disastrous political consequences of Pound's later and infamous career.
In a letter written to Margaret Anderson in 1917, Pound made clear his idea of a proper relation between the artist and his economic context: "My whole position," he wrote, "and the whole backing up of my statement that the artist is 'almost' independent goes with doing the thing as nearly as possible without 'money.'" Throughout the period 1910–1917 Pound had mounted in his critical prose a wide-ranging critique of what intellectual and literary work had become under capitalist modernization. In "Provincialism: The Enemy" (1917), for instance, he complained, as Emerson had in many places, that the university was chiefly in the business of "habituating men to consider themselves as bits of mechanism for one use or another." This supposed last bastion of the life of the mind had become, in Pound's estimation, "one with the idea that the man is the slave of the State, the 'unit', the piece of the machine." And things were no better for the writer who sought to make it outside the walls of academe. In "Patria Mia," Pound shrewdly observed that the extreme division of labor of the assembly line had found its way into the large-circulation magazines upon which aspiring writers in America were largely dependent for their sustenance. What Pound identified at the very outset of his career was nothing less than the Taylorization of literary production: "As the factory owner wants one man to make screws and one man to make wheels and each man in his employ to do some one mechanical thing that he can do almost without the expenditure of thought, so the magazine producer wants one man to provide one element, let us say one sort of story and another articles on Italian cities and above all, nothing personal."
So it is not so surprising, given his diagnosis of the conditions of literary production which dominated both sides of the Atlantic, that the ideal relation Pound envisions in his letter to Anderson is in essence no relation. A supportive economy for the artist was not in the cards, he thought, because his experience told him that the story of this unhappy marriage was mainly one of slavish repetition of formulae being rewarded by a commodity system which found experiment and invention too risky for investment. Doing the thing as nearly as possible without "money" meant taking oneself foremost as an artist, not as a producer of commodities. You cannot, Pound says here in so many words, be a good artist and a good capitalist subject at the same time. The artist can only be half a self so long as "The lute sounds like a cash register, and a cadence is weighed down with a 'job.'" But Pound well knew that if the artist was "almost" independent, a whole nightmare of poverty, repetition, and economic coercion (necessity) was contained in that "almost."
But this didn't mean, at this early juncture in his career, changing the basic structure of the economic system so that this sort of schizophrenia might no longer plague those who want to be artists. Instead, it seemed to indicate that the economic realm itself was unredeemable, a burden, at best, to be tolerated: not a job but a "job," and not money but "money." Not work, in other words, but the abstract labor it had become in a system ruled by the commodity.
Artists have to eat, however, and the truth Pound knew about capitalist economy was not, for all its truth, edible. In 1918, Pound would discover Social Credit economics, which would "include creative art and writing in an economic scheme" by issuing a national dividend to all citizens except the wealthy—and to those cultural producers, of course, whose work was not "as vendible as bath-tubs." But well before the turn to Social Credit, Pound had his own ideas about how artists and writers were going to survive in an economy that held out little promise for experiment and invention. At the very outset of his career, Pound provided a glimpse not only of the modernist mover and shaker he would become but also of the limitations of his ideological inheritance when pushed to address problems which were economic in origin.
In surprising detail and with the kind of passion that creeping poverty inspires, Pound in "Patria Mia" proposed a system of patronage as the only means by which the artist might be free enough from the law of the commodity long enough to achieve something which might outlast its economic context. Looking back over history and its periods of artistic energy and decline, he concluded that the lesson of that history was quite clear: "Art was lifted into Alexandria by subsidy," he declared, "and by no other means will it be established in the United States." The "free" market of literary enterprise had been given a fair shake, and it had summarily put the genteels and the Atlantic in the executive suite of American culture. (It had also returned Pound's work, from Harper's and other like-minded magazines, stamped "rejected.") So what now?
"Patria Mia" and "The Renaissance" (1914) both attempted to answer that question. Aware of the difficulty of his position—"I write barefacedly," he admitted, "call me an opportunist"—Pound nevertheless felt that somebody had to address the would be patron, and in "Patria Mia" he put his considerable rhetorical skills to the task. He reasoned that the current millionaire in early twentieth-century America was not that different, in economic power, from the feudal lord—and "no more a permanent evil" either. Both are on the earth for a short period, amass great wealth and power, and then shuffle off this mortal coil more or less in infamy. "Nevertheless," Pound reckoned, "there seems to be no reason why he should not confer upon society, during his reign, such benefits as he is able." "The centralisation of power in his hands," he continued, "makes it very easy for him to display a virtue if he have one." And just how might that virtue be displayed? How might that extraordinary concentration of economic potency be distributed so as to leave a mark which might testify to the virtue of the millionaire long after he is gone?
Pound shrewdly reasoned—foreshadowing here his later talents of negotiation and general avant-garde salesmanship—that the gifts of the patron might be thought of as really a sort of investment, but in a different kind of economy. The patron might be a big stick on Wall Street in 1910, but what about his place on the great balance sheet of the ages? The Medici, Pound reminds us, "retain honour among us not for their very able corruption of the city of Florence, but because they housed Ficino and various artists and in doing so even reaped certain credit due their forerunners, the Orsini." Our advance man of modernism says to the twentieth-century millionaire, in so many words, that you'll never make your mark until you can walk with the Medici, and the only way to do that is to find a way to make your capital continue to earn interest across the centuries, where real success is measured. And just for good measure he underscores the point with his punning play on the "credit" which has accrued to the name Medici—a kind of friendly takeover of the house of Orsini's posterity made possible by the Medici's zeal in artistic investment.
Having begun, first, by flattering the modern millionaire (by calling him a lord), and having then moved subtly to force him to question his own economic potency in the world-class league of the Medici, Pound then follows up with the rhetorical roundhouse of the carpe diem theme: "It is his function as it is the function of any aristocrat to die and to leave gifts. Die he must, and he may as well leave gifts, lest people spit upon his tomb and remember him solely for his iniquities." And then the final parry from this sometime fencer. There is still hope, Pound tells him, you may yet endure by doing the right thing—the only thing—which can save your otherwise cursed name: "Also his order must pass as all things pass from this earth, save masterwork in thought and in art. It is well, therefore"—the tone pontifical now—"that he leave behind him some record for consideration."
At this point, the would-be patron—if he has a virtuous bone in his body or the least self-doubt about his posterity—is ready for the details. Sold, he now has to face the bill of goods. First, the patron must not think that all he need do now is buy some famous art and wait for the accolades. "An old thing has a fixed sort of value," Pound admonishes; "One acquires property in acquiring it." It is not retention you must be concerned with, Pound tells our millionaire, but invention. If you support the established artist whose work is behind him, you may "bolster up your own self-respect," but "you do nothing to assist awakenings or liberations." What is wanted is not hero-worship or a fetish for masterpieces but an age, a "Risorgimento," which will, as the young Pound put it, "make the Italian Renaissance look like a tempest in a teapot."
Doubling back now to reassure the patron, who's beginning to wonder what he's gotten himself into, Pound brings his business sense to bear: "It is most economical to do this when they are in the energetic state, to wit, at the beginning of their course, in the years when they will work for least money. Any artist who is worth powder to blow him to Sheol wants, at the start, liberty to do his work and little beyond this." The patron, in other words, can get the most bang for his buck by giving a little money to a lot of struggling young artists—by enabling, as it were, the most invention per pound.
As "Patria Mia" unfolds, Pound will articulate his plans in greater detail, suggesting, for instance, that we should have a decent college of the arts in New York or San Francisco where the young artist might be housed and fed during "the impossible years." And this is reasonable enough; we can subsidize so-called "research," he reminds us, so why not what the researchers study? But these details can be taken up later—and indeed they are, here, in letters, and in "The Renaissance." For now, Pound's bottom line—and almost the last line of this long essay—is that "there should be a class of artist-workers free from necessity." Pound had done his rhetorical job. Would the millionaire now do his?
In 1915 Pound wrote to John Quinn, a New York lawyer whose support (mostly for other artists) he cultivated:
My whole drive is that if a patron buys from an artist who needs money (needs money to buy tools, time and food), the patron then makes himself equal to the artist: he is building art into the world; he creates.
If he buys even of living artists who are already famous or already making £12,000 per year, he ceases to create. He sinks back to the rank of a consumer.
A great age of painting, a renaissance in the arts, comes when there are a few patrons who back their own flair and who buy from unrecognized men. In every artist's life there is, if he be poor, and they mostly are, a period when £10 is a fortune and when £100 or £200 a year without worry (without spending their lime running to dealers, or editors) means a peace of mind that will let them work and not undermine them physically.
Among the many significant issues raised in this passage, one of the most striking has to be Pound's equation of the patron and the artist. Pound could have perhaps put this line to good use in his sales pitch in "Patria Mia," where he had admonished the patron not to think of his involvement as a matter of acquiring property for the sake of personal enrichment, but rather to look at it from the vantage of production and circulation. If money is purely instrumental (as it is here for Pound), then the real trick for the patron is to make money productive, to transform it from a thing frozen in the "fixed value" of the masterpiece hanging on the wall into a constructive agency at work in the world. By helping the struggling artist buy time, food, and tools, the patron creates not art, but what makes art possible. He creates, in other words, the conditions of invention which capitalist economy could not provide.
In fact, this hope was nothing new in American literary ideology. As Emerson put it, in almost identical terms, the men of capital "must drive their craft poetically." Their economy must be "inventive, alive" to be distinguished from "parsimony, which is a poor, dead, base thing." For Emerson, making capital poetic meant making it fluid, a circulating power channelled by the active soul toward the cultivation of men, not of more capital. Pound's distinction in the letter to Quinn between the productive and acquisitive patron might well be drawn in Emerson's terms, which are the same terms of "Patria Mia," where Pound had set the pioneering entrepreneur—"a man of dreams, in a time when dreams paid"—against the modern businessman whose fetish is "the nickel-plated cash register": "The first man," Pound wrote in an Emersonian moment, "deals with men, the latter deals with paper."
And just what might this "dealing" look like? Pound provides a clue in "Canto 8," where his model patron, Sigismundo Malatesta, writes of the Maestro di pentore:
And in order that he may enter my service
And also because you write me that he needs cash,
I want to arrange with him to give him so much per year
And to assure that he will get the sum agreed on.
You may say that I will deposit security
For him wherever he likes.
And let me have a clear answer
For I mean to give him good treatment
So that he may come to live the rest
Of his life in my lands—
Unless you put him off it—
And for this I mean to make due provision,
So that he can work as he likes,
Or waste his time as he likes….
The master painter, it seems, will have it considerably better than Pound's modern artist under patronage. But Malatesta is really a model, not an out-of-reach anachronism. Pound made this much clear in a less public moment, when he wrote to Harriet Monroe, "A decent system would give [the writer] time to loaf in a library. Which while perhaps less important than loafing in pubs, is still a part of the complete man's loafing." When we cast about for the sort of world implied in these whimsical lines, it is perhaps not so surprising that the Utopian world of art which Pound sketched in his early essay "The Serious Artist" seems to fit the bill perfectly. In that world, which art both envisions and promotes, "you can admire, you can sit in the shade … you can do as you jolly well please."
The pall of Pound's later politics makes it easy to miss the echo here of the almost identical world-after-capital which Marx and Engels imagined in The German Ideology, that new world which "makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic." Of course, Pound was no Marxist, but in his early career he wasn't sure what he was—he had been radicalized, we might say, but not yet, in any coherent sense, politicized. But through the window of the early, "romantic" Marx, we can sharpen our sense of Pound's challenge to the deadening effects of modern capitalist production. Pound too had seen too many "crippled" and "one-sided" people (as Marx called them) in a society which treated them as economic agents only. Like Marx's world after capital, Pound's world of art would promote instead what Marx called "the total life of the individual," and Pound's proposals for patronage register the force of Marx's diagnosis of the fundamental structure of the commodity: that where abstract exchange value is the rule, repetition is its cultural application.
Emerson, Marx's contemporary, had had a similar idea—with similar critical point—when he observed in his punning way, "'Tis very costly, this thinking for the market in books or lectures"—costly, that is, within exactly the same economy Pound had imagined in his letter to Margaret Anderson. Musing in his journals on the ideal conditions of literary production, Emerson envisioned, with a little guilt and in terms even more radical than Pound's just the right situation in which the unanalyzable, undisciplined self—what "Self-Reliance" called "Whim"—might be nurtured to creation: "If I judge from my own experience I should unsay all my fine things, I fear, concerning the manual labor of literary men. They ought to be released from every species of public or private responsibility. To them the grasshopper is a burden. I guard my moods as anxiously as a miser his money. For company, business, my own household-chores untune and disqualify me for writing." In his more poetic moods, Emerson had to admit that the relation between the writer and economies of all kinds save the whimsical was mostly antagonistic, that the whole man who tills at day and writes at night might not be, after all, the poetic man. And finally—to join the metaphors in these two passages from his journals—he had to admit that it is "costly" to fritter away the capital of "moods" on those quotidian things not worthy of its expenditure. (Apparently, a little parsimony is fine if one is close in the right kind of economy.) This poetic capital of the innermost self Emerson, like a miser, loves not for what it might buy or acquire but rather for its own sake. It is a kind of latent power kept shiny by his refusal to circulate it in any economy other than a lyric one.
Elsewhere in his journals, Emerson provides a passage which may therefore be seen to be pregnant with anticipation of Pound's modernist distinction between what he called, in an early review, the unique "lump gold" of individual expression and the repetitive, featureless "coin" or "paper money" of common knowledge and accepted convention. As Emerson put it: "We all lean on England, scarce a verse, a page, a newspaper but is writ in imitation of English forms … & sometimes the life seems dying out of all literature & this enormous paper currency of Words is accepted instead." Instead of dealing in the "paper currency of words," Emerson, like Pound, would have the American literary self pay in that nugget or lump gold which defines itself against all earthly economies. Only then could the work of art realize itself fully, not as a bearer of economic value but as what Emerson's metaphor tells us it is and what Pound thought it should be: a kind of "permanent property … given to the race at large."
The radical individualism of Pound and his ideological father Emerson may have led them both to reach many of the same conclusions about those institutions and practices which seemed an all-out assault on the first principle of their American politics, but what, exactly, did both envision as a more beneficent social and economic structure which might take that individual into just account? In his writings on patronage, Pound suggests something of what that world might look like, the kind of social and economic organization which might allow the self to get on with the business of being lyric.
For Pound's own part, nowhere is that picture clearer than in the essay "The State," written in 1927, which shows the aesthetic economy of the early essays very much alive and well in his later career. This essay makes the same sort of distinction between "transient" and "permanent" goods which Pound, in so many words, had been making all along. In the first category, "The State" places, more than a little eclectically, "fresh vegetables," "fake art," and "pseudobooks." Though he doesn't really say so, what holds this rather fanciful sampling together is not only the fact that these things for immediate consumption do not survive the momentary needs they fulfill, but mainly that they are produced for the purpose of being consumed.
"Permanent goods," however, are not economically determined by-products of the rule of the commodity. "Scientific discoveries," "works of art," and "classics" are produced with an eye toward not transient economic value but permanent aesthetic value and intellectual law. What makes Pound's economy in "The State" of signal interest, however, is his criterion for inclusion in this latter category. These sorts of things are, as he puts it, "never consumed; or they are, in jargon, 'consumed' but not destroyed by consumption." What this means, of course, is that the permanent goods of art are not really consumed at all; their value is not dissipated by use. Like gold, they still remain gold no matter what material form they take or the uses to which they are put.
But "The State" provides the opportunity to explore as well the sort of social configuration which this overarching economy might determine. In a passage rich in implication, Pound writes: "The capitalist imperialist state must be judged not only in comparison with unrealised utopias, but with past forms of the state; if it will not bear comparison with the feudal order; with the small city states both republican and despotic; either as to its 'social justice' or its permanent products, art, science, literature, the onus of proof goes against it."
It is clear, not only in this passage but in the essay as a whole, that the efficacy of the state is now to be judged largely by the extent to which it makes possible and encourages the permanent products of Pound's economic hierarchy. The state is now seen, in Pound's words, as a "convenience," itself a kind of transient commodity, and when it can no longer provide the conditions of invention for the enduring goods of culture, then it too is used up and can be discarded.
And when we ask, "Who shall judge the convenience of the State?," Pound responds: "The party that follows [the artist] wins; and the speed with which they set about it, is the measure of their practical capacity and intelligence." The aesthetic economy which derives from Pound's earliest work now determines the efficacy of political structures, and the artist—and only the artist—can measure them against the gold standard of art and "permanent property" to determine their value. "The State," then, fleshes out the disturbing contradictions embedded in Pound's early ideas about patronage and the sort of social organization they imply. In the passage which we just examined, Pound's examples (the feudal order, the pre-capitalist city-state) seem offhand, but in fact they are quite symptomatic of his fatal tendency, early and late, to dissociate ethical, economic, and political concerns, the better to assimilate all of these to an essentially ethical—and often strictly aesthetic—framework.
Of course, Pound didn't propose in his writings on patronage a return to a feudal economic order, but that's precisely the point. The dissociation of the ethical, political, and economic dimensions that allowed Pound early in his career to hold up the energetic entrepreneur as a model of democratic self-reliance—while at the same time attacking the conditions and effects of capitalism—is the same kind that could lead him to propose a system of patronage while at the same time arguing, as he did in "Patria Mia," that "There need be little actual change in the existing machinery," that what was needed was "simply a more conscious and more far-calculating application of forces already present." For Pound, it is not a question of the structure of economic relations which entrepreneurship, for example, reproduces and perpetuates. Rather, it is a matter of making an essentially ethical distinction between "good" entrepreneurs and bad, "good" uses of the existing economic structure and those which are more short-sighted.
This same kind of dissociation is at work in Pound's early proposal for patronage, and now, reading by the light of "The State," we are in a better position to judge the politics of that proposal. It is not only that Pound's patronage model depends upon the perpetuation of an aristocracy of the capitalist rich who are as remote from the exploited mass as the feudal lord. Pound's plan is also hopelessly naive; for all its seeming economic detail, it is finally a purely ethical matter. It is all noblesse oblige, it stands or falls by the good graces of the patron, and it has very little to do with basic structural changes in an economic mode of production whose effects Pound quite sincerely abhorred—effects not only on artists but also, as he wrote in the Cantos, on "folk of / ANY CONDITION." Pound's early social vision may be strong, as negative critique, for individual difference. But what Pound's writings on patronage reveal is that his early politics, when pushed to pragmatic, positive application, are dangerously regressive and undisturbed about the binding logic of political structures and the way in which cultural practices reproduce those structures.
If, as Jean-Paul Sartre (a very different modernist) put it in Search for a Method, praxis must always be viewed in terms of the future social organization it implies and suggests, then Pound's patronage model appears to he a kind of cultural practice in reverse. But of course this sort of practice, at least in Sartre's terms, is no practice at all; it is a repetition of the past, not a transformation of it. How true this is of Pound's later career, of his growing attraction to ancient China and to an essentially Populist vision of a pre-capitalist past free of plutocratic machination and Taylorized production. And Pound's model of patronage is an early sign as well of his increasing tendency (again like the Populists) to address economic problems in terms of not production but distribution. For the artist, patronage may indeed be a kind of "solution," through distribution, to problems created by the mode of production which Pound never tired of attacking. But it is a solution, of course, only for those artists who receive the patron's good will and therefore his cash.
Finally, the ultimate irony and central contradiction of Pound's patronage model is that it makes the artist dependent on that very economic structure Pound deplored, only now it is not the artist but those democratic others who must pay the price commanded by the permanent property of art. For the economic fact is that the capital of the patron depends upon that very economic system, and upon the exploitation of those who create its wealth—and so, therefore, does the artist and the art which was supposed to be that system's antithesis. If no abstract labor, then no exchange value; if no exchange value, then no surplus value; if no surplus value, then no capital; if no capital, then no patron; and if no patron, then no "free" artist, no "permanent" aesthetic property. Under patronage, the artist isn't really independent; rather, it is simply another kind of dependence—dependence, in this case, upon the continued existence of an aristocracy of capital.
If Pound had read much Emerson he would have found that his ideological ancestor himself had struggled to find the same kind of balance of economy and culture. What does England do with its surplus value, Emerson asked in English Traits, what is the "compensation" for the fragmenting and exploitive effects of this mode of production? "A part of the money earned returns to the brain to buy schools, libraries, bishops, astronomers, chemists and artists with," he wrote. "But the antidotes are frightfully inadequate and the evil requires a deeper cure, which time and a simpler social organization must supply." Unlike the later Emerson, whose early agrarian critique had long since lost (even for him) its critical force, Pound would spend a good part of his later career looking back to the times of Confucius and Jefferson for that simpler social organization which might dictate the culturally beneficial commerce of the good state. And he would find its modern avatar in Benito Mussolini who, like "T.J." (or so Pound thought), was set against "machinery or at any rate the idea of cooping up men and making 'em all into UNITS, unit production, denting in the individual man, reducing him to a mere amalgam."
But Emerson, at age fifty, recognized the difficulty of being both democratic and aesthetic, and he saw that the permanent property of art had a price that not the artist but democracy would have to pay if it indulged patronage. As he put it in a letter to Thomas Carlyle: "America is incomplete. Room for us all, since it has not ended, nor given sign of ending, in bard or hero. 'Tis a wild democracy, the riot of mediocrities, & none of your selfish Italies and Englands, where an age sublimates into a genius, and the whole population is made into paddies to feed his porcelain veins, by transfusion from their brick arteries."
Porcelain veins and brick arteries, the body aesthetic and the body economic, Emerson's two types of clay to Pound's two kinds of gold. Emerson never really found a way to put them together in the body politic. And neither, despite the fearful political price, did Pound.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7434
SOURCE: "So-Shu and Picasso: Semiotic/Semantic Aspects of the Poundian Ideogram," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 185-205.
[In the following essay, Géfin examines the aesthetic and ethical concerns behind Pound's ideogrammic method, particularly the use of Chinese pictographs and literary allusion in The Cantos.]
Ezra Pound's "ideogrammic method" has had an uneven history during the last fifty years, some critics accepting it as the structural mode of composition of The Cantos, some accepting it but disparaging its use, others arguing against it in favor of other textual procedures, and still others dismissing it altogether. In the most general terms, the method denotes Pound's nontransitional, or paratactical, juxtaposition of textual fragments of varying length and complexity, such as bits of what appear to be poetry, historical data, quotations from or allusions to other texts, or autobiographical detail—in his own words, "first heaping together the necessary components of thought." Although Pound claimed to have discovered the method after editing in 1913–14 Ernest Fenollosa's essay, "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry," he began to call his poetic method "ideogrammic" only in the 1930s, offering his most complete definition in Guide to Kulchur:
At last a reviewer in a popular paper … has had the decency to admit that I occasionally cause the reader "suddenly to sec" or that I snap out a remark … "that reveals the whole subject from a new angle".
That being the point of the writing. That being the reason for presenting first one facet and then another—I mean to say the purpose of the writing is to reveal the subject. The ideogrammic method consists of presenting one facet and then another until at some point one gets off the dead and desensitized surface of the reader's mind, onto a part that will register.
The "new" angle being new to the reader who cannot always be the same reader. The newness of the angle being relative and the writer's aim, at least this writer's aim being revelation, a just revelation irrespective of newness or oldness.
The passage may appear straightforward, but it invites closer scrutiny and clarification. For one, Pound admits to having a "subject" with "facets," but more importantly, that this subject precedes or preexists its presentation. Then the presentation is said to consist of Pound's serially adducing various "facets" of the subject in no apparent order but from different angles, directed toward "the reader." The latter is not some implied or ideal reader, but represents a variety of "real" readers ("who cannot always be the same reader") conceived as having minds with "surfaces" that have "dead" or "desensitized areas"—presumably areas of ignorance, repressed or forgotten knowledge, "false" notions about a "subject." At the moment when correct facet coincides with non-desensitized area, a "just revelation" supposedly occurs. Like the subject, the "writer's aim" to bring about such a revelation also appears to exist before the process of presentation.
It is this textual practice that Pound came to call ideogrammic. It complicates matters, however, that Pound recommended and used the "ideogrammic method" not only as a mode of composition applicable to poetry alone, but as a critical and pedagogic device. He even went as far as to say that the method is the "method science," and that he had "approached" the method as early as 1913 in "The Serious Artist." In that essay he juxtaposed some lines by Cavalcanti, Dante, Villon, Yeats, and from the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Wanderer," in order to demonstrate by example "that passionate simplicity which is beyond the precisions of the intellect." In another essay, entitled "The Teacher's Mission," Pound proposes the method be used in education; in answer to the question, What ought to be done [to improve the quality of teaching], he offers: "Dispassionate examination of the ideogrammic method (the examination and juxtaposition of particular specimens—e.g. particular works, passages of literature) as an implement for acquisition and transmission of knowledge." These "critical ideograms"—or his "musical ideograms" in the concerts he organized at Rappalo (putting together works by Janequin, Corelli, Vivaldi, Debussy, Bartók, and others)—differ from the poetic use of the method because they quite obviously were not created to form lasting or determinate wholes, "thoughts," of which they are the "necessary components." They can be assembled and disassembled at will; the components remain fluid, and not solidified into poetry, which is Pound's main intent in The Cantos: "that certain images be formed in the mind / to remain there" ("Canto 74").
My main interest in this paper is twofold. First, I wish to examine Pound's claim for what I call his "narrative of understanding:" that the gradual adducement of textual particles in a finite series or group can lead to a clear and exact apprehension of the right relationship between them, and then proceed to the formulation of a correct idea, concept, or general statement regarding a specific subject, or "thought," of which they were the "necessary components." Second, I would like to establish whether the ideogrammic method, applied expressly to literary composition, can qualify as poetry. I will proceed by looking at a group of text fragments from The Cantos comprising an "ideogram" in the light of certain seminal theories of language and signs, particularly those of Benveniste, Peirce, and Jakobson; Compagnon's investigation of citations; and recent text theory. While Pound had no formal interest in linguistics and semiotics, he was intensely involved with the practical aspects of language use, especially in literature. "Language was obviously created, and is, obviously, USED for communication," he wrote; it would appear that the ideogrammic method of writing is "obviously" intended for the communication of images and ideas to different readers, and privileged by Pound because he believed it to be a mode of communication superior to Western narrative discourse.
The semiotic aspect of Pound's ideogrammic project is quite sensible: provide a poetic sign system that communicates better than others. On one semiotic level at least, Pound's method is similar to the Chinese written sign, in that the latter combines heterogeneous signs to form a new sign. A small number of Chinese ideograms are actually hieroglyphic—stylized images of objects and events—so that in Peircean terms they may be called iconic. Pound's preference for the Chinese sign over Western modes of representation derives from Fenollosa who disparaged the phonetic word because it "does not bear its metaphor on its face" in favor of the Chinese sign whose "etymology is constantly visible." True, Chinese readers would no more be aware of this "visible etymology" than would Western readers of the metaphoric roots of a great many words and phrases; but the point here is that Pound (along with Fenollosa) privileges iconic referentiality over abstract (in Peirce's word, symbolic) relations.
Pound makes it clear in his "narrative of understanding," however, that even if the subject precedes the act of presentation, his aim is not representation, i.e., some form of mimesis, but "revelation," the full and just revelation of the (supposedly concealed) subject. While the revelation takes place through the medium of language (it is Pound's "snap[ping] out a remark" that causes the reader "suddenly to see"), at the moment the "subject" is revealed, the medium presumably self-destructs, leaving nothing behind. It is not surprising, therefore, that Pound's narrative of understanding is couched in sculptural terms (facets, angles, surfaces) rather than those of language. Like the Chinese ideogram, a poetic practice of "presenting one facet and then another" of a subject would reconstruct (by reverse repetition) the process whereby concepts and ideas are created from particulars—particulars that are not arbitrary signs but still-fresh traces of their natural antecedents. The symbolic sign, though it is composed in the units of the non-referential western alphabet, would first transpose itself to the level of iconicity, and at the last stage of revelation merge with subject and mind, or more precisely, disappear at the moment when mind and subject are fused.
Pound's "narrative of understanding," then, appears to minimize and even negate the immanence of language affecting all aspects of poetic (and other) communication. The consequences of this (Platonic, hermetic, gnostic) naivete (if it can be characterized as such) would be far-reaching. The anti-language stance of the narrative may, however, lose its impact if Pound's actual practice of ideogrammic writing in The Cantos runs counter to the claims he makes. At any rate, it will be important to examine the particular textual components of a poetic ideogram not only semiotically (as signs in a system), but more decisively in terms of semantics (as words in actual use, in sentences as part of discourse). This is Benveniste's distinction of the "double signification" inherent in language: "La langue combine deux modes distincts de signifiance, que nous appelons le mode SEMIOTIQUE d'une part, le mode SEMANTIQUE de l'autre" 'language combines two distinct modes of signification, which we call the semiotic mode on the one hand, and the semantic mode on the other.' The processing of a sign/word according to these two modes moves on equally distinct levels; as Benveniste writes, "Le sémiotique (le signe) doit être RECONNU; le sémantique (le discours) doit être COMPRIS" 'The semiotic (the sign) is to be recognized; the semantic (discourse) is to be understood.'
Benveniste refers only in passing to the poetic use of language, which he sees as restricting language's "double signification" to the semantic level, excluding the semiotic or lexical. But his general distinction of semiotic and semantic helps to see how ideogrammic poetic composition passes back and forth between signification of the semiotic level to meaning in discourse. Pound's theoretical suppositions about the language of literature appear to correspond roughly to Benveniste's. "Literature is language charged with meaning," Pound writes; on the other hand, when he attempts to give a definition of poetry, he borrows from Dante—"'A canzone is a composition of words set to music'"—adding, "I don't know any better point to start from" because Dante's statement [he notes]
starts the reader or hearer from what he actually sees or hears, instead of distracting his mind from that actuality to something which can only be approximately deduced or conjectured FROM the actuality, and for which the evidence can be nothing save the particular and limited extent of that actuality. (Pound's emphases)
Pound appears to distinguish between a general (semiotic-lexical) significance and particular (semantic) meaning in the definition of literature/poetry, and to favor the semiotic formulation—foreshadowing Benveniste's added recognition and understanding as they apply to semiotics and discourse, respectively. This distinction is particularly important for interpreting poetic ideograms.
Furthermore, consistent with his (elevated) view of the writer's role, Pound insists that the "justness" of ideogrammic presentation implies an ethical imperative, which subsumes the aesthetic. "Your language is in the care of your writers," he wrote, and "writers as such have a definite social function exactly proportioned to their ability AS WRITERS. This is their main use." Ethics and aesthetics are inseparable: the beautiful is functional, the functional is accurate, and accuracy is the sign of good writing. "Bad art," he wrote as early as 1913, "is inaccurate art. It is art that makes false reports," or as he later put it, "Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear." Pound's insistence on the ideogrammic method, then, is commensurate with his "totalitarian" demand: writers are "good" because they can reveal subjects to readers in their totality, while the natural/textual traces that led to the revelation are capable of repeating the process for any number of new readers. In this movement from particulars to universals, from signification to meaning (and back again), poets, aware a priori of the subject as a whole before releasing a few select "facets" in writing, turn signs into words in order to reveal the specific thought in its totality and truth. Pound's ethics of writing is thus characteristically ambitious in that it promises to deliver interpretation from the bane of indeterminacy, since ideogrammic writing, in being faithful to nature's processes, cannot but be precise. What he maintained in general, that "a certain limpidity and precision are the ultimate qualities of style," ought all the more to be applicable to his own practice in particular. The entire narrative of understanding, after all, indicates Pound's frustration with contemporary reception of modern poetry, especially his Cantos, which he characterized as "an endeavour to communicate with a blockheaded epoch."
The Cantos provides nearly limitless examples to test Pound's practice against the theory. One passage, from the early part of "Canto 2," includes a variety of components. It is preceded by the beginning lines of the canto, which is a disputation between Pound's persona and Robert Browning: "Hang it all, Robert Browning, / there can be but the one 'Sordello.' / But Sordello, and my Sordello?" It is a brief scene of what appears to be an "anxiety of influence" about how Pound is to launch his own epic project without trudging over the same ground already mapped out by his precursor. Pound, however, without any real anxiety cuts off the dispute by the introduction of a line from a medieval biography of Sordello in the original Provencal, "Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana" 'Sordello was from Mantua,' as if to suggest that his own mode of dealing with the past will be more faithfully historical rather than fictive. The citation would thus prefigure the direction of Pound's own epic venture, at once "diagnostic" in its scrupulous historicity and "curative" in its evocation of enduring mysteries—proceeding along lines Browning had presumably failed or neglected to touch.
While a specific citation may thus be called "just," allusions are more diffuse, and resist immediate, uniform understanding. Allusions by their nature call into question the notion of accuracy, authority, and justness, as evident from the passage in "Canto 2" that follows the Sordello section:
So-shu churned in the sea.
Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash,
Sleek head, daughter of Lir,
eyes of Picasso
Under black fur-hood, lithe daughter of Ocean;
These five lines I would consider a discursive unit, or ideogram. Following the semicolon after "Ocean," the next line, "And the wave runs in the beach-groove," is a deflection from the composite image of seal and "lithe daughter." Furthermore, this line also provides a transition to a passage concerned with Helen of Troy, and although the seascape is reintroduced in more detail a little later, that scene may itself be seen as an introduction to Pound's transliteration of Ovid's tale of Pentheus and Acoethes, which takes up the bulk of the canto.
How does the reader ("who cannot always be the same reader") attempt to make sense of the passage? This group of lines is indeed a "heaping together," as Pound had said, but in what manner are these lines "components of thought"? What thought? And who can this So-shu be? Looking up various guides and annotated indexes to The Cantos makes it clear that So-shu as verbal sign is neither clearly iconic nor indexical, for every entry offers a different interpretation. According to Terrell, So-shu is the name of the Han dynasty poet Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju, "a representative of the rhyme-prose school criticized by Li Po in an allegory from which the line quoted is derived via a translation by Fenollosa in the Fenollosa Notebooks (inedit)," Ssu-ma being criticized for "creating foam instead of waves." So-shu is also the Japanese equivalent of the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, but Pound may also be confusing him with Li Po. In Cookson's Guide Pound "told his daughter" that So-shu is a figure from Chinese mythology; but Cookson adds, somewhat incongruously, that "this is possibly a Chinese myth of Pound's invention." Christine Froula quite categorically states that the name is of Pound's making. Like the author of the Companion, she, too, derives her gloss from unpublished material in the Pound archives: "The name [So-shu] Pound used in this image, which is his own invention, is 'Ka-hu' (Yale MSS). He probably preferred 'So-shu' because of its onomatopoeic sound rather than for the sake of any allusion."
Froula's conclusion, with her "probably" conveying doubt, seems to me to be evasive and inadequate. Since it is not necessary to pretend that I am reading "Canto 2" for the first time, it may be revealed at this point that the name So-shu comes up again some one hundred lines later ("And So-shu churned in the sea, So-shu also, / using the long moon for a churn-stick"). In Froula's view, "The So-shu image, an invented Orientalism, personifies the moon and the shaft of light it casts down to the ocean." This is hasty and unconvincing, not the least because in the cluster of lines under discussion "churned" in no way implies the presence of the moon as churn-stick. Nonetheless, what may be clear at this stage is that "So-shu" does resist semantic integration, i.e., understanding; it can only work as a verbal sign and must be recognized as such. Even with the above scholia, it may be unsafe to go beyond the statement "So-shu: unidentified Chinese-sounding name." But it is doubtful that we are dealing with an instance of chinoiserie here, some vaguely suggestive (of what?) onomatopoeia. If this were the case, one would have to infer that Pound never wanted the verbal sign "So-shu" to be anything but a lexeme, arresting its potential to be turned from sign into word in discourse and activated as meaningful—an unlikely proposition. In contrast to Froula, I would suggest that Pound would not want to stop here, nor want readers to dismiss the line as nothing more than a (tantalizing) sign without referent. Taking Pound's narrative of understanding seriously, we may conclude that the first "facet" he has presented of his "subject" has met with "desensitized areas" in the minds of most readers, including those of learned exegetes. The inconclusive recognition of So-shu, when seen as churning in the sea (especially since it is not certain at this point whether the verb "churned" is to be read as transitive or intransitive), may produce such reactions as absurd, nonsensical, or at best, "provocative." The reader perceives the line, not as a "thought," but only as its component, and goes on reading, exactly as Pound would wish.
The next line, a "natural image" of a seal moving vigorously in the sea, lets us re-read the line on So-shu in terms of the seal in the water, more than likely compelled by the parallel construction of "So-shu churned" and "Seal sports"; and we may attempt to make them cohere, this time semantically, taking the verb as intransitive and figurative ("So-shu churned," i.e., moved in the sea with great agitation), even noticing the difference in tense, that So-shu churned, while the seal "sports." We may conflate the two actions, in which the sporting of the seal resembles the churning movements of So-shu. So-shu, however, does not stand for "seal" in Chinese…. At any rate, this So-shu performed something in the sea in the past that the seal is performing at the present time, a churning motion. Human and animal activities may thus seem to partake of a common ground, a relationship similarly integrated with larger and wider natural processes. Moreover, the past tense of "So-shu churned" when contrasted with the present tense of "Seal sports" may suggest the unique historically of human action, while seals sport outside time, or in all times: So-shu's time (in an unknown past time, or, if we provisionally accept the Companion as a guide, in the 2nd century B.C.), Pound's time (in 1922 when he was writing the canto), and our own.
However, if "churned" is a transitive verb, denoting that something solid is being produced from a liquid, the apparent resemblance turns into difference. And the difference is ironic: the verb "sports" suggests a pleasurable action, frolicking and playing in the water, something that is natural to the animal, in the light of which So-shu's churning may be seen as mad or futile, or, at least, "unnatural." Furthermore, juxtaposed to the sporting seal, the image of a certain So-shu actually involved in churning the water may give way to a purely figurative rendering, in which case churning in the sea ("futility") is just another (more exotic?) way of saying "beating a dead horse." More importantly, depending on whether "churned" is read as transitive or intransitive verb, two diametrically opposed meanings may be generated of the sentence "So-shu churned in the sea"; and the image of the sporting seal may be coerced to sustain either interpretation with equal force. (And even if the more complete reference to So-shu and the moon as churn-stick are brought forward to dispel the indeterminacy and intransitive reading, it may not succeed completely, for as soon as we "stop thinking" of So-shu with a churn-stick, the verb "churned" reverts back to being undecidable.) The line "Seal sports" may be a new "facet" of the subject, but instead of clarifying what had been stated in the previous line, it has made So-shu and his(?) action indeterminate. It would seem "the reader's mind," though not as "desensitized" as before, is still far from being able to grasp the meaning as distinct from significance.
Is the obstacle of indeterminacy (transitive/intransitive, literal/figurative) insurmountable? Are we faced with a "rhetorical" situation in discourse when, according to de Man, "it is impossible to decide by grammatical or other linguistic devices which of the two meanings (that can be entirely incompatible) prevails"? In de Man's view, the figural, or what to him denotes the same entity, the rhetorical potentiality of language may be equated with literature itself. De Man points to Monroe Beardsley's assertion that "literary language is characterized by being 'distinctly above the norm in ratio of implicit [or, de Man would say, rhetorical] to explicit meaning.'" While the nature of poetic discourse will be discussed below, it may be said at this point that figurality is a potential of language that already exists explicitly on the grammatical level; its presence neither proves nor disproves whether the text in question is literature. While aware of the differences inherent in semiotics and semantics, de Man fails to consider the Benvenistian distinction of "double significance," or what Sándor came to call "diaphoricity," the unstable ("purely differential") nature of the verbal sign when considered semantically. However, Sándor (rightly) goes one crucial step further. In his view, "meaning at the lexical level is diaphoric"; and "[a]t the sentence level … literal or figurative or both according to intention, and if the intention is unclear (on either side), meaning will be diaphoric even at the sentence level. The possibility that language can be given without clarity about how it is being used, and how it is to be used, renders it fundamentally diaphoric in nature." Indeterminacy, then, is specific to language, not to literary discourse alone. In other words, it is not only the reader's mind that contains "desensitized" areas; language, seen from the level of discourse, is similarly "desensitized," i.e., resistant to meaning production. The reader's mind remains "desensitized" because a sign is always differential. Although "activation" (transposition of sign to word) may appear to delimit radical polysemy, as Sándor suggests, "it is impossible to know what is being activated without knowing the context in which it is meant to be done." Even syntagmatic contextuality is not sufficient to do away with diaphoricity. Assume the case of a reader who reads "Canto 2" for the first time, without fast-forwarding to the second reference to So-shu. The fact that So-shu's churning took place in the sea, coupled with the seal in the next line seen in a similar activity, may tip the balance, however slightly, toward taking "churned" as an intransitive verb, thereby assuming a resemblance between the two acts. But the sea as mutual environment ("context") may not be enough to generate a single meaning: there is no reason why the same verb ("churned") in the sentence "So-shu churned in the yard" may not be read intransitively, especially if reinforced by "Dog sports in clouds of dust" or some clause like it. Similarly, intention, whether clear or not, as deducible from language does not by itself guarantee unambiguous interpretation. On the one hand, Pound may himself assume that the particular "facet" he releases is precise in its referentiality because it corresponds exactly to his "intention," as the latter appears to him; in this case he would be blissfully unaware that words can (and will) disrupt intention. On the other hand, his insistence on the ideogrammic method, especially in his narrative of understanding, attests to his latent suspicion that le mot juste is a mirage, and the production of meaning a precarious process.
Both Benveniste and Sándor assert that when verbal signs are turned into words, the syntagmatically generated meaning of a word "depends on the other words in the sentence, and, ultimately, on the total idea of the sentence." So-shu churning and seal sporting may thus depend on additional units of the "total idea" of the ideogram in order to attain meaningfulness in themselves. Readerly interest is sustained, not because a safe and comfortable meaning derives from the juxtaposition of the two lines. Rather, readers experience the excitement/irritation of simultaneous resemblance and difference uniting them, the sole source of comfort being an awareness of the obtuse and desensitized nature of both language and human consciousness, the latter also in part constituted by language. In this awareness we may in fact have made the first tentative move toward a "sensitization" of both.
In the next line, "Sleek head, daughter of Lir," quickly reread together with the first two, the proliferation of sibilants ("So-shu churned," "Seal sports," "Sleek head") reinforces a sense of unity between the lines. "Sleek head" may thus at once be connected to "seal," although "daughter of Lir" is uncomfortably close to permit such convenient allocation. Does "sleek head" belong to the seal, to "daughter of Lir," or to both? Who is "daughter of Lir?" Who is "Lir"? The Companion entry asserts an "Old Celtic sea-god. Pound regards seals as being Lir's daughters [cf. chapter 'Branwen the Daughter of Llyr' in Mabinogion, where Branwen means 'White Cow']." The entry is of little help, for glossary becomes interpretation (an endemic weakness, incidentally, of the Companion as a whole) and substitutes a presumption to know for facts. Even if Pound did "regard" seals as daughters of Lir, could he, with all his insistence on precision and clarity, deliberately conflate and confuse a white cow with a black seal? It seems more "natural" to regard, simply, "daughter of Lir" as sea-nymph, and "sleek head" as something belonging both to the seal and to the nymph. This would, after all, be an instance of how Pound conceived of the poetic image, as a "superposition," i.e., "one image set on top of another"—a definition, incidentally, coming right after his acquisition of the Fenollosa manuscripts.
Thus, So-shu and his/her churning, even with the moon as chum-stick, appears to be neither a meaningless Orientalism nor a deprecatory allusion. Sporting seal and sea goddess are united both for having sleek heads and for being creations of a sea-god, "churning" the sea (like So-shu?) and producing solid beings. Whether So-shu is a Chinese myth of Pound's invention or not, the verbal sign is filled with at least some meaning because of the proximity of Lir, his daughter/seal, and the sea. Pound presents both oriental and western "facets" of mythology, as if to alert the reader by this juxtaposition/conflation that mythic consciousness is our universal heritage, even as he treats the seal itself as real, actual, and un/demythologized. The identity of So-shu as a nature deity or a metonym for the transforming energy of nature is augmented by the context of the name in its second occurrence. To the story of the kidnapped Bacchus's exacting his revenge by metamorphosing the pirates into fishes and other sea creatures (though not expressly into seals), Pound tags another myth of his own, of a sea nymph turned to coral as she was fleeing "a band of tritons." After the sea-nymph's "smooth brows" lie in "ivory stillness" under the water's surface, come the lines:
And So-shu churned in the sea, So-shu also,
using the long moon for a chum-stick …
Lithe turning of water,
sinews of Poseidon,
followed by a return of the seascape. It seems likely that just as So-shu received a semblance of identity by the proximity of Lir's daughter in the first ideogram, in the same way the presence of Poseidon's name performs something similar. Both the descriptive phrase "Lithe turning of water" and the kenning "sinews of Poseidon" signify "waves"; and even if the "…" after "churnstick" are inserted to suggest a cut to another scene, the waves may still be seen as the result of So-shu's churning, "also" involved in transformation alongside other, western deities. Yet diaphoricity is not annulled, as some readers remember So-shu's attempt to ape divine potency as ludicrously pretentious.
Nonetheless, the "superposition" of seal and sea-nymph is an important new "fact." The Ovidian fusion-in-distinction would be neatly completed by "Under black fur-hood, lithe daughter of Ocean" ("Ocean" in Liddell and Scott is Okeanos, god of small waters, i.e., another Lir), were it not for the insertion of "Eyes of Picasso." Why Picasso? How "just" is the sudden intrusion of this proper name, and his "eyes"? The Companion relates that "the reference to Picasso's seal's eyes evokes the artist's faculty for changing the shape of the things he sees," and adds a non sequitur: "In ancient mythology the seal is the animal most closely linked with Proteus, who among other things used to assume the shape of a seal." Among other things, indeed. As for the other guides, Cookson does not even bother with an entry for "Picasso," and in Brooker we learn merely that Picasso was "the painter and famous instigator of Cubism. Pound at one time contemplated a book on Wyndham Lewis, Brancusi, Picasso and Picabia." Thus "illuminated," and as desensitized as ever, we turn to Froula, who writes: "Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), whose eyes Pound thought resembled a seal's." Again, the troubling inference about "Pound thought." No wonder that Froula, too, follows up with a non sequitur: "Pound saw a good deal of his [Picasso's] work while living in Paris, and admired it." But is this sufficient reason to include reference to his eyes, we may ask, even if Pound did think that Picasso had eyes that looked like a seal's? What if "Eyes of Picasso" does not mean "Picasso's eyes," but refers to certain eyes the painter painted (and Pound "admired")? Is it enough to say, as does Peter Makin, that "Eyes of Picasso" and "black furhood" are "specificities of texture"? Or, as Hugh Kenner "explains," the reference is legitimate, for Picasso was a "metamorphoser of vision"? But was not every great modernist painter, or every great painter for that matter, just such a "metamorphoser"? All entries beg the question: if "Eyes of Picasso" is meant to communicate as a signifier, what is its signified? And if activated as a verbal sign, what is its meaning in its semantic context? Is the context provided by Pound a "sufficient phalanx of particulars," as he insists in "Canto 74," that would prevent its dispersal as a "facet," never finding a "sensitized" area in a reader's mind where it could register with a certain "justness"?
Before attempting semantic activation, it might be useful to establish the status of "Eyes of Picasso" as a verbal sign. In his discussion of Peirce's semiotics, Roman Jakobson has suggested that the division of signs into iconic, indexical, and symbolic is based on the dichotomy of contiguity and similarity. An icon is a sign of factual similarity, an index a sign of factual contiguity and symbol of imputed [i.e., artificially designated] contiguity. But, through the interpretant, symbolic signs may acquire a certain measure of iconicity and indexicality; there may arise certain semiotic hierarchies within symbolic signs as well. Thus, the symbolic sign "seal" may be said to be iconic for readers who "know" seals, the sign on the page evoking a "factual similarity" between itself, the interpretant in their mind, and the actual seal somewhere in the sea or zoo. If seal is made to "stand for" "daughter of Lir," it becomes an index and the relationship is that of "factual contiguity." So-shu, on the other hand, is indeterminate by itself; only by relating it to its contextual neighbors "daughter of Lir" and "sinews of Poseidon" is it possible to confer a meaning, however ephemeral, upon it. The sign thus hovers between "factual" and "imputed"; it takes some form of conscious decision on the reader's part whether So-shu, like Lir, will be taken for a sea-god.
"Eyes of Picasso," however, seems to fit none of these categories. Jakobson has said that the intersection of the two dichotomies of factual/imputed and similarity/contiguity "admits a fourth variety" of relations between signifier and signified: imputed similarity. Jakobson assigns this fourth relation to music, glossolalic poetry, and abstract art, indicating a "message which signifies itself." Taking this cue from Jakobson, Antoine Compagnon postulates that the Chinese characters (pictographs and ideograms) inserted by Pound in the text of The Cantos constitute just such a sign: "un graphisme asignifiant ou un signifiant sans signifié" 'a nonsignifying graphic mark or a signifier without signified.' Inexplicably, Compagnon disregards readers who recognize such signs (because they read Chinese), and would make an effort to activate the sign in an attempt at meaning formation. Compagnon names Jakobson's unnamed fourth term symptom, and comes to invest it with much more than an absence of referentiality:
ce qui manque au symptôme et ce qui fait le propre du signe, c'est la signification, la pensée de la separation ineluctable du langage et de l'être, du mot et de la chose. Ignorant la signification, le symptôme présume de la coincidence rigoureuse de la parole et de ce que'elle designe. [Le symptôme corresponde] à la collusion du langage et de l'être: il est lui-même objet réel, c'est à dire être.
[what is missing in the symptom, and what is essential to the sign, is signification, the idea of the ineluctable separation of language and being, of words and things. Ignoring signification, the symptom presupposes the rigorous coincidence of language and what it denotes. The symptom corresponds to the collusion of language and being: it is itself a real object, that is to say, it exists in its own right.]
This conjunction of sign and referent, signifier and signified is close to Pound's own aesthetic and ethical intentions. His adoption of the ideogrammic method for poetic composition indicates a desire to find a mode of poetic expression where sign and referent will eventually coincide. His definition of the poetic image—"that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time," giving a "sense of sudden liberation … from time limits and space limits"—is nearly identical to the revelatory qualities he claimed for both Chinese and poetic ideograms. Kenner may be correct in averring that for Pound "Chinese written characters are neither archaic nor modern. Like cave paintings they exist now, with the strange extra-temporal persistence of objects in space."
The problem is, of course, that as soon as such pictograms are copied from a dictionary and are inserted in an alphabetically organized sign system or text, they lose a measure of their extra-temporal persistence and willy-nilly become part of that text. Pound did not intend it otherwise: as one may glean even from a cursory look at a page with Chinese characters in The Cantos, pictograms invariably repeat, and thus emphasize, the sense provided by the English text. Correctly or even approximately identified, their semiotic status quickly loses that of a "nonsignifying graphic mark;" they become instead thematic reinforcers to western modes of signification whose effectiveness Pound, following Fenollosa, considered inferior to that of Chinese writing.
If, as Compagnon asserts, Chinese signs in an English text are "symptoms," they are still "symptomatic" of something else. For Fenollosa (and Pound) they signify a more "natural" (in Peircian terms, iconic/indexical rather than symbolic) mode of communication. Even though they are not "real objects," "existing in their own right," (neither Fenollosa nor Pound would make such a claim), they are closer to objects than alphabetic signs. As Fenollosa wrote,
Chinese notation is something much more than arbitrary symbols. It is based upon a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature. In the algebraic figure and in the spoken word there is no natural connection between thing and sign: all depends upon sheer convention. But the Chinese method follows natural suggestion.
The juxtaposition of unrelated pictograms results in the formation of ideograms. "In this method of compounding," writes Fenollosa, "two things added together do not produce a third thing but suggest some fundamental relation between them." This is the process of metaphor, "the use of material images to suggest immaterial relation"; and metaphor, "the revealer of nature, is the very substance of poetry." Here lies the root of Pound's ideogrammic method, which he thought proceeds according to the Chinese method of juxtaposition. Its main virtue is that of a "just revelation," analogous to the power of ancient metaphors in Chinese picture writing, because these "primitive metaphors," Fenollosa declared, "do not spring from arbitrary subjective processes. They are possible only because they follow objective lines of relations in nature herself."
Pound, following Fenollosa, refuses to acknowledge that in spite of what he sees as "natural suggestion" in certain pictograms, the compounds (ideograms) are without exception conventional. And just as the Chinese ideograms in The Cantos are neither self-signifying "graphic marks" à la Compagnon nor icons/indices as Fenollosa had thought, so Pound's poetic ideograms fall short of revealing nature and her processes without residue. In the ideogram of So-shu, seal, and Lir's daughter, the line "Eyes of Picasso" as a verbal sign is diaphoric rather than metaphoric—even if one were to accept Froula's suggestion that Pound "thought" Picasso's eyes resembled those of a seal. In fact, diaphoricity may have come about precisely because the mode of association has been so subjective and private (perhaps a kind of in-joke). Thus, even if "Eyes of Picasso" is "recognized" on the semiotic level, on the level of discourse it eludes understanding. One can of course speculate and offer various hypotheses. The phrase may be taken to mean the presence of a kind of Emersonian-Fenollosian "transparent eyeball" fusing the vision of oriental and Western gods and goddesses with the world of humans and animals into a complex. Or the phrase may mean the disruptive human presence in the world of creators and creatures. Or it may have a host of other meanings. One thing, however, seems to be certain: instead of mitigating the endemic disseminate effect of diaphoricity, by inserting "Eyes of Picasso" in a barely intelligible semantic context Pound in fact amplifies it. Now, as Sándor argues, "the indeterminacy of diaphors may also result, of course, from intention and decision…. It is possible to produce sentences by which nothing is actually said." Clearly, such a notion runs counter to the very nature of Pound's poetic project and his "narrative of understanding" outlining the values of the ideogrammic method. "Eyes of Picasso" fails the litmus test of his own cherished ideals of precision and accuracy in meaning formation, making in the end of the entire ideogram, in Sándor's words, "just a heap or sequence of unconnected (and unconnectable) verbal signs." Such sequences may still be endowed with meaning by readers; Sándor allows for the activation even of a shopping list as a poem. Such sequences, however, cannot properly be called poetic; according to Sándor, "poeticity" consists in certain texts' being "processable at large, not as an idiosyncratic chiffre that has a certain effect in a single mind due to unique associations." It is the "nature" of allusions to operate in the manner described by Sándor, even if they alluringly conjure up a network of interconnected (and interconnectable) loci of meaning. "Eyes of Picasso," in being just such an allusive chiffre, prevents the ideogram in which it is placed to function meaningfully.
Although Compagnon's notion of the symptom does not bear close scrutiny, it is significant that his idea of the ideogram as "itself a real object" that "exists in its own right" is close to Pound's own aesthetic ideology. Yet Pound's beliefs in the dissolution of the materiality of "facets" and "aspects" in the moment of revelation, and so in the concomitant disappearance of the abyss between res and verba, are belied both by his practice and by some of his rhetorical devices. Latent doubts about the ideogrammic method persist. In Guide to Kulchur, for example, he cites at length Gaudier-Brzeska's "Vortex," follows with a discussion of his own theory of Great Bass, and then adds sections on Leibniz and Erigena. At this point he interrupts the presentation and writes, "These disjunct paragraphs belong together. Gaudier, Great Bass, Leibniz, Erigena, are parts of one ideogram, they are not merely separate subjects." Or, after a similar presentation of unconnected "facts" in the same book, he again explains: "Let the reader be patient. I am not being merely incoherent. I haven't 'lost my thread' in the sense that I haven't just dropped one thread to pick up another of a different shade. I need more than one string for a fabric." Here, as in his "narrative of understanding," Pound again allegorizes his practice. Deliberately or not, but in any case revealingly, he obscures the linguistic nature of his enterprise: he is involved neither in presenting sculptural "facets" nor textural "threads," but in a project of discourse, composed of signs and words, that never coincide with the subject they intend al best to evoke or allude to. The very nature of the image as symptom/ideogram is a desire to erase the difference between "facet" and "subject"; in that, Pound's modernist image is not far removed from the Romantic image where, as Kermode put it, "there is no disunity of being," ultimately betraying, in de Man's words, a "nostalgia for the object," which has become "a nostalgia for an entity that could never, by its very nature, become a particularized presence."
Pound's nostalgia for an ideal poetic writing has from the beginning had ethical implications. Hence his insistence on precision, control, and accuracy as indispensable attributes of a mode of discourse the aim of which is a "just revelation." "Good writing," he stated in 1913, "is writing that is perfectly controlled, the writer says just what he means. He says it with complete clarity and simplicity." And there arc "various kinds of clarity":
There is the clarity of the request: Send me four pounds of ten-penny nails. And there is the syntactical simplicity of the request: Buy me the kind of Rembrandt I like. This last is an utter cryptogram. It presupposes a more complex and intimate understanding of the speaker than most of us ever acquire from anyone. It has as many meanings, almost, as there are persons who might speak it. To a stranger it conveys nothing at all.
"Eyes of Picasso," in contradistinction to "So-shu churned in the sea," is too private an allusion ever to make the journey from "the Rembrandt I like" to "ten-penny nail." And since The Cantos are studded with a vast number of private and cryptic allusions similar to "Eyes of Picasso," the text as a whole, apart from its historiographic dimension, resists the transposition of its verbal signs to the level of words, which is the level of discourse. An excessive reliance on allusions in poetry as is evident in Pound's (and the early Eliot's) writing may stem from their ostensible exactness and specificity when compared to concepts and abstract statements; it is in fact easy to perceive them as iconic/indexical signs or, as tropes, metaphors rather than diaphors. But allusions do not arrest diaphoricity; on the contrary, allusion is the diaphoric trope par excellence, a device of simultaneous nostalgic substitution and dislocation.
The ideogrammic method of juxtaposing disjunct textual fragments may continue to offer possibilities for poetic composition; it will, however, have to do without the ideal of a "natural" precision Pound had envisaged for it, as a way to "write Paradise" in a language that would ultimately transcend its materiality and fuse with its subject in a moment of "just revelation."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10888
SOURCE: "Ezra Pound's American Book of Wonders," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 387-415.
[In the following essay, Lentricchia examines the modernist ideals and Emersonian influence behind Pound's ambitious innovation in The Cantos. According to Lentricchia, "The form he invented is at once the representation of a culture he thought to be in fragments and an offering of hope for a different kind of future, rooted in the narrative of common lineage and destiny."]
As a social and literary critic Ezra Pound is a celebrant of the intensely peculiar: the apparently primordial, autonomous force which he believed stood under and propelled all expression: what rescues Homer or Dante, Chaucer or Shakespeare—his chief examples—from what would otherwise have been their certain aesthetic and political fate as rank imitators, the lackeys of someone else's mind. Pound's word for this substance of substances was virtu. In his populist American logic: individuality, therefore virtue, and therefore (the aesthetic turn on his politics) virtuosity, and he saw it threatened at its virile heart by the culture of capitalism and its commodity-based economy. The virtuous artist was Pound's persistent emblem of the free individual, and his representation of a generous ideal of culture that he would see translated into the social sphere at large: "Having discovered his own virtue," Pound wrote, "the artist will be more likely to discern and allow for a peculiar virtu in others." This, Pound's live and let live company of literary worthies, is his measure of actual social decency at any given time and the basis of his political criticism of what he thought American capitalism had done to our fundamental political ideals.
When Pound told his story of virtu, a story he obsessively told, he talked the ahistorical psychology of genius; when he talked the dilemma of the artist in modern America he told another story: that of the vulnerability of genius to social pressures, the curious inability of the primordial and the autonomous to stay primordial and autonomous. This second story is the backbone of Pound's career, the backbone, in other words, of high modernism. The necessity of reimagining the social sphere is initially a literary necessity; social change pursued in order to ensure the life of the artist. Later, and more grandly, in Pound's theorizing of the 1930s, in an odd Utopian echo of a famous passage in Marx, social change is pursued in order to ensure that every man may fish in the morning for his sustenance and pursue criticism and poetry in the afternoons; social change on behalf of the artist in us all; society totally reimagined from the aesthetic point of view.
But if it is precisely as a celebrant of a linked literary and political virtu that Pound achieved his own virtu as a critical voice—he became the polemical engine of high modernism—then the oddity of Pound the poet is that he was haunted for his entire career by the suspicion that he was not original, that he was a poet of no virtu whatsoever. Out of this haunting by the spirits of literary history's virtuous powers he fashioned a practice from A Lume Spento through The Cantos more continuous than the usual views of his poetic evolution (including his own) have generally allowed.
If no virtu, then no self; if no self, then nothing to express: Pound's life as a poet is in constant, if implicit, dialogue with the archetypal and revolutionary American desire, announced in Emerson's "Nature" essay of 1836, for radical origination in a new land ("new lands, new men, new thoughts"), a desire for self-creation that Emerson thought would be realized only if we could forget history, rid ourselves of the old man of old thoughts from the old land. Emerson says, free yourself from tradition and you'll cease building "the sepulchers of the fathers." In order to kill himself off as an expression of history and simultaneously re-birth himself as the first man living utterly in the present—like a rose, as Emerson put it in "Self-Reliance," with no concern for past or future roses—a man must "go into solitude," not only from society but also from his "chamber"—the place where "I read and write," where though no one is bodily present, "I" am "not solitary," because "I" have the unwanted company of all those represented selves who populate my books. The "I" must therefore be emptied of everything, including its literary company. And the virgin American woods, Emerson thought, is the context which might induce the necessary ascetic action, the place where "I" may escape all mediation and confront nature "face to face"—the place where "I" can say, at last, "I am nothing." With the historically layered self presumably so negated, the "I"—this urgent and almost passive emptiness which is not quite nothing—becomes a capacity for reception ("a transparent eyeball"), a hollowed out space anxious to be filled: desire in its purest form—in Emerson, a no-self gratified, become filled up, and so rescued at the last moment from nothingness by the inflowing currents of the Transcendental Self.
Pound's effort to rethink lyric practice is inseparable from Emerson's dynamic of American desire, which in its turn is an expression of the quintessence of the immigrant imagination on its never-ending crossing of a real or metaphoric Atlantic, the immigrant who would leave "I" behind in the suffocating ghetto of a real or a metaphoric Europe (say, some small town in the Middle West), leave behind the "I" that is for a magically fulfilling self that we are not but would become—Vito Andolini become Vito Corleone, James Gatz become Jay Gatsby. In Pound the Atlantic crossing is reversed and (in the trajectory of his biography) taken all the way back, from Idaho to Philadelphia to Italy. An American expatriate who left his country because he believed its cultural and economic system denied him literary selfhood, Pound took his American desire to make it new, the "nothing" that "I am," back to European ground, and in a cluster of his earliest poems figured himself precisely as a determinate emptiness of literary longing seeking writerly identity in re-contact with international literary tradition, which is what he had in glamorous substitution for Emerson's Transcendental Self. What Pound learned very early was that the Emersonian promise of selfhood couldn't be delivered; Emerson's American woods, after all, was only natural, there was no literature there, no selva oscura, no Yeatsean mythological mystery. Our so-called virgin land was a nightmare to Pound precisely for its solitude and its purity.
So as a reverse immigrant he fled the literary death whose name was natural immediacy, fled an America where he enjoyed the sorts of freedoms and comforts that classic immigrants coming to America had sought, and went to Italy—his twenty-third birthday still several months off—seeking cultural life in the very period when millions of Italians from the south of Italy fled their homes (such as they were) for America in hopes of improving an economic base that Pound's family had already secured and upon which (thanks to his father's generous understanding) he could—and did—modestly draw in his expatriation. In effect, Pound replayed Henry James's criticism of America as a place whose cultural newness made a certain kind of literature improbable. James's key judgment of American society—he thought it "denuded"—signifies what for him and for Pound had been lost in the new world. James's solution was to drop the innocent American rose down into the context of European experience: "[O]ne might enumerate the items of high civilization," James wrote, "as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life until it should become a wonder to know what was left." The effect of such absence on an English or French imagination "would probably," he surmised, "be appalling." On himself and on Pound the impact of such absence provided the energy and often the structure of the writing they would do.
In a brief poem from A Lume Spento, his first volume of poetry, Pound stages the predicament of his empty American "I" gazing into the mirror of desire; he sees "I" represented as a series of incompatible images; the denuded "I" who is comes before the mirror and presumably "before" what is represented in the mirror as the foundation of representation. But this "I" is represented as somebody else, as the "he," the consciousness Pound would take on: "O strange face there in the glass! / O ribald company, O saintly host!" "On His Own Face in a Glass" stages the moment of self-awareness as a moment of some shock and anxiety ("I? I? I?"), a moment of self-awareness in which he comes to know that there is no self anterior to representation to be aware of and that all the self that can ever be exists in the magical medium of representation, in literature now envisioned, as the pilgrims and other immigrants imagined America itself, as a mirror of transforming desire. Pound's primary poetic tone for such knowledge was mainly confident, even grateful, as if in one stroke—the shape his entire career would take bears heavily upon the point—he had discovered a role to play which coordinated all of his impulses as poet, literary historian, critic, anthologist, and translator, with this last activity (the man was a graduate student in philology and what we call comparative literature) providing the cohesion which made the role unified, lent it identity, so that he did become a self of sorts.
In the concluding poem of A Lume Spento Pound represents his soul as a "hole full of God" through which the "song of all time blows…. As winds thru a knot-holed board." And in his first English volume, A Quinzaine for this Yule (1908), he represents the "I" similarly as a "clear space"—
'Tis as in midmost us there glows a sphere
Translucent, molten gold, that is the "I"
And into this some form projects itself:
Christus, or John, or eke the Florentine;
And as the clear space is not if a form's
So cease we from all being for the time
And there, the Masters of the Soul live on.
These early poems about poetry—so stilted, so unmodern in diction—escape mere conventionality by the extremity of their representation of the self seeking inspiration and poetic selfhood. As Pound figures it, his pre-poetic self is much less than that favorite romantic figure of self at home in the world, unanxiously dependent; self as aeolian harp awaiting the winds of nature that will stir it into music. Pound's pre-poetic self is in possession of no resources of its own. In what sense it is a self is hard to say: "Thus am I Dante for a space and am / One François Villon." But when not Dante or Villon, what then? Just who is this "I" who ceases to be when the virtuous and manly masters of his soul fill the hole of self? The self as translator, the self of no virtue, becomes a medium of the virtu of others, and Pound's poems, The Cantos most especially, become a kind of international gallery, a hall of exhibits of the originality that he lacked and which without his heroic retrieval would be locked away in a cultural dead space, of antiquarian interest only. Pound's famous avant-garde directive, "make it new," really means "make contemporary what is old." Pound is a man without a center in whom the old masters can "live on"; his poetry is the lifeline and medium of their persistent historicity. His poetry's "modernity" would lie in its creation of a usable literary and political past, exemplary in force: a model to live by and a cultural community to live in.
If the absence of virtu is no condition to be overcome in a search for an original self of his own but the durable basis of everything Pound did as a poet—an absence of identity that he came comfortably to accept as his identity, a trigger of poetic production, early and late—then in one important sense Pound never really "evolved" as a poet. The numerous and dramatic shifts in style we can note from A Lume Spento to The Cantos—and not only from volume to volume but often within a given volume—are not evidence of the dissatisfied, self-critical young writer groping toward his one and only true voice, but the very sign of his voice and all the maturity he would ever achieve. The word Pound frequently used to describe this persistent mark of change in his poetic writing was metamorphosis, from "the tradition of metamorphoses," as he explained in 1918, "that teaches us that things do not always remain the same. They become other things by swift and unanalysable process." Pound's theory of myth is based on an attempt to explain the moment when a man, after walking "sheer into nonsense," tried to tell someone else about it "who called him a liar." The man was forced to make a myth, "an impersonal or objective story woven out of his own emotion, as the nearest equation that he was capable of putting into words."
Among the manifestations of Pound's obsession with protean energy there is his radically avant-garde idea of literature as "something living, something capable of constant transformation and rebirth"; his doctrine of the image, which asserts that in the presence of the genuine work of art we experience "the sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time and space limits; that sense of sudden growth"; and his statement in The Spirit of Romance that myth takes its origin subjectively, in a moment when we pass through "delightful psychic experience." In the period spanning the many stylistic changes from his earliest poems to his early Cantos, Pound changed not at all on the value of metamorphosis for the sort of writer (himself) who explained the process of writing to himself in his earliest poems as an experience of walking sheer into nonsense—becoming Christ, Villon, or Dante, God or a tree—a writer who would project the psychic value of his own aesthetic experience as the real value of reading his poems. Pound's reader would also be freed from the self of the moment, liberated into some strange and bracing identity, joining the writer in mythic experience in order to take on with Pound what he, like Pound, does not possess.
The unsaid assumption of Pound's poetics is that his typical reader is not everyman but an American like himself, in need of what he needs—a reader, in other words, not only with no virtu of his own but a reader who does not want to be fixed and crystallized with a "self," a reader for whom avant-gardism, though not known as such, is the ruling philosophy of everyday life in the land of opportunity and infinite self-development. From the delightful, because liberating, psychic experience of the poet and the parallel experience of his American reader, this projection: the reformation of literary history in his own (and America's) image via the bold antidefinition of literature as writing without historically prior and persistent identity, writing without a prior "self" to rely on—a nonidentity of sheerest possibility, an absence of essence: "constant transformation," constant rebirth into a newness of (these are equivalents) an American and a modern literary selfhood. Never mind that "constant transformation" also describes the dream of consumer capitalism, avant-garde of capitalist economics.
Metamorphosis is the unprecedented master category in Pound's literary theory. In spite of the explicit Ovidian allusion, the theory is not Ovidian. Nor does Pound draw upon a notion of biological metamorphosis: the man who comes "before" the glass cannot be traced, not even obscurely, as a surviving form in the new self (hence Pound's shocked "I?"). But if there is to be metamorphosis in any recognizable sense of the word, there must be a prior something which undergoes transformation. If the prior "something" is, as in Pound, a determinate nothing, a hole needing filling and fulfilling, valuable ("golden") precisely because of its amorphic condition, then Pound, like Emerson, has pressed metamorphosis to the edge of its limiting boundary: the classic American dream, self-origination ex nihilo. Pound theorizes metamorphosis, a process of self-emergence, as Emerson had theorized it: on a condition of potential-for-self only, not on the transformation of one self into another; a condition without a memory out of which a self might emerge which is nothing but memory, and so—the irony and paradox of Pound's career—no self at all.
Even as he turned out small poem after small poem and a shocking number of pages of prose, Pound was all along—perhaps as early as 1904, while a student at Hamilton College—working himself up to write a long poem of epic size, "long after" (Pound speaking) "mankind has been commanded never again to attempt a poem of any length." He apparently began work in earnest on this poem sometime in 1915, published his first three "cantos," as he called them, in Poetry in 1917, only soon thereafter to suppress them and begin anew. After an initial volume appeared in 1925 as A Draft of XVI Cantos, gatherings of cantos were published with regularity, to the end of Pound's life, including the infamous Pisan Cantos in 1948 and two volumes, in 1955 and 1959, written in the insane asylum. The least taught of the famous modernist texts, the collected volume, The Cantos of Ezra Pound—one hundred and seventeen cantos' worth—appeared in 1970, reprinted ten times as of this writing, this latter fact strong testimony on behalf of our continuing fascination with the high modernists, including this one whose major work is widely assumed to be unreasonably difficult, often pure gibberish, and, in its occasional lucid moments, offensive to most standards of decency.
Just what kind of literary thing he was writing Pound had trouble deciding. He was keenly conscious of his epic predecessors and often glossed their intentions as his own: to give voice to the "general heart," to write "the speech of a nation" through the medium of one person's sensibility. Yet for all his classic desire and expressed contempt for romantic poetry, Pound was also marked by its contrary aesthetic: "[T]he man who tries to explain his age instead of expressing himself," he writes, "is doomed to destruction." In Pound the poetics of The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy are complicated by the poetics of The Prelude and Song of Myself: refocused by Pound in the lens of Wordsworth, Whitman, and Poe, The Divine Comedy becomes Dante's "tremendous lyric."
Classic ambition and romantic impulse would surface constantly through the long publishing history of The Cantos. An "epic is a poem including history," Pound wrote in 1935, in the midst of a decade during which he was writing cantos that "included" history and chunks of the historical record with stupefying literality: redactions of Chinese history in "Cantos 52-61," extract after extract from the writings of John Adams in "Cantos 62-71." In 1937, in Guide to Kulchur, he declared (with a nod to Kipling) that his long poem would tell "the tale of the tribe," but in the same book he also described The Cantos with analogy to Bartok's Fifth Quartet as the "record of a personal struggle." Then, in the middle of the journey, in 1939, he struck a new note, this one neither epic nor romantic: "As to the form of The Cantos: All I can say or pray is wait till it's there. I mean wait till I get 'em written and then if it don't show, I will start exegesis. I haven't an Aquinas-map; Aquinas not valid now." And with that nostalgic glance back at the cultural context of his beloved Dante, Pound approached the clarity he achieved in 1962 in his Paris Review dialogue with Donald Hall.
With over a hundred cantos done, he gave Hall a definition—antidefinition, really—of the poem's form that marked it "modernist" in strictest terms. Not Homer or Dante, but Joyce and Eliot stand behind Pound's search for a form "that wouldn't exclude something merely because it didn't fit." With this insouciant gesture Pound declares the classic concern of aesthetics for the decorous relationship of genre to subject matter beside the modernist point. He tells us that the literary form that can include what doesn't fit is the authentic signature of modern writing, the sign that the literature of our time has adequately taken the measure of its exploded culture.
Like Wordsworth, Pound felt himself an outsider in his society, a literary radical who knew that his poetry was unrecognizable as such by mainstream culture. As a consequence, he set himself the task (in Wordsworth's phrasing) "of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed." His project was to provide epic substance for a culture grounded in none of the assumptions that typically had nourished the epic poet: a culture no longer capable of issuing a valid rhetorical contract between writer and reader. In a culture that cannot read him—here is the motivating contradiction of The Cantos and much high modernism—Pound would write a poem that his culture needs to read in order to make itself truly a culture. "The modern mind contains heteroclite elements. The past epos has succeeded when all or a great many of the answers were assumed, at least between author and audience. The attempt in an experimental age"—he means socially as well as aesthetically experimental—"is therefore rash."
Rash or no, Pound persisted in epic intention because, as he told Hall, "there are epic subjects. The struggle for individual rights is an epic subject, consecutive from jury trial in Athens to Anselm versus William Rufus, to the murder of Becket and to Coke and through John Adams." So the poem that Pound had mainly written by 1962 found its home not in a specific Western culture and place, as classical epics had done, but in Western culture as a whole, as the grand story of struggle, not yet won, for individual rights; and it found its strange literary form in an age of experiment that demanded he invent his own. The form he invented is at once the representation of a culture he thought to be in fragments and an offering of hope for a different kind of future, rooted in the narrative of common lineage and destiny.
Pound knew that in order to tell the tale of the tribe he needed a tribe to tell it to, knew he didn't have one, and in The Cantos—a poem without unifying epic hero, or stability of cultural scene—he gave us the unlikely record of one poet's effort to create through means unclassical a new classical situation for writing. What he ended up achieving was a poem whose experimental character overwhelms all cultural and social goals, except those that bear on the welfare of writers. The Cantos would resuscitate a community of letters for modern writers, in order that they might join a tradition of radical experimenters and their noble patrons, all those who waged their struggle for individual (largely aesthetic) rights against the grain; a tradition brought to life for an age (our own) cut off from nourishment and patronage, a home for our contemplative (but only our contemplative) life.
In this light, Pound's title, The Cantos, is tellingly odd. It is the nontitle of a writer who apparently never saw the need to make up his mind—who, if he could have lived forever, would probably not have pinned a crystallizing title (like The Waste Land or The Bridge) onto his experiment. Calling a poem The Cantos (and shall we say The Cantos "is" or The Cantos "are"?, to decide that question is to decide much) is like calling a novel Work in Progress while you're writing it and then to publish it under that title, or maybe the title The Chapters; like a Renaissance sonneteer deciding to call his sequence The Sonnets. To publish sections of this poem, forever in progress, with the words "a draft of" included in the title only underscores the tentativeness of the writer's intention. Unlike all the epics we know, The Cantos names as its substance aesthetic form itself, without ever claiming, as Wordsworth and Whitman had in their romantic versions, the substantial coherence of a binding subjectivity.
Not that there isn't a discernible subjectivity afloat in the poem: there is, but it doesn't congeal as a "self" whose autonomous presence is projected in the autobiographical narrative of a poet's mind. For much of the way, "Ezra Pound" appears to us in the shape of a desire: as a generous capacity for reception, a subjectivity virtually transparent, a facilitating vehicle, a literary producer (in the theatrical sense of that word, a gatherer of artistic forces), a man, by his own account, of no virtu, an absence of selfhood, a hole, a mirror for others. This tissue of masks, this incessant scholarly quoter—translator, alluder, medium of pastiche, tradition's own ventriloquist; this poet as anthologist, poet of the specimen, patron and exhibitor of styles, heroes, and cultural contexts which are given space in the literary gallery and curriculum called The Cantos, is an active and empathetic memory trapped in the dead present of his culture, casting a long lifeline into the past (tradition's own lifeguard) in order to rescue by transmitting tradition, and in so transmitting bring his own culture back to life again.
The Cantos approached as if they were written by a poet-without-a-self unveil themselves as a vast texture (text, textile, interweaving) of discourses lyric, satiric, narrative, dramatic, and nonliterary (historical, epistolary, technical); Pound's influential idea of the heterogeneous image (an "intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time") writ very large; an immense vortex; or, in the perfect metaphor from the discarded first canto (drafted in 1912), a "rag-bag," best form of all for a poet who didn't want to exclude something merely because it didn't fit; the form of a poetry by and for the culturally homeless.
And so the centrality for The Cantos of those storied modernist metaphors drawn from the visual and spatial arts: like montage, a stark juxtaposition which yields its significance in some third, unnamed thing to be construed (imagined, created), by an active reader in the process of interpretation, whose own imaginative life will be the force which brings Pound's cultural hope to realization, and who is charged with voicing the poem's otherwise unvoiced vision, with making the diagnosis, distributing Pound's medicine; who appreciates Pound properly and therefore earns his own entry into the community of letters by transforming himself from passive consumer in the culture of capital into resourceful, self-reliant free agent; Pound's critic become the reader as modernist, co-maker of The Cantos, and coworker in the enterprise of culture-making. And of course the metaphor of collage, surrealist version of the rag-bag, a composition whose diverse and incongruously placed fragments—drawn from all manner of media—ask us (as does montage, but now on the scale of the entire work) to take the thing as a whole, not as a narrative but as a form hung in space, in order to "view" it in its entirety: under the pressure of these metaphors, The Cantos become a difficult structure of fragments signifying not the imitation of fragmentation by the means of fragmentation but some missing total vision (or the desire thereof) whose presence in any given canto must be supplied by an engaged reader. So read, The Cantos become a vision of social and cultural health sporadically in evidence and constantly threatened by the historical process; a vision of the free individual gathering himself against history's gloom of diseased economics; a vision contemplated and disseminated by those who must read Pound in a thickening contemporary cultural darkness almost complete. The Cantos may be the clearest example we have of the doubled character of modernist literary desire: to pursue aesthetic innovation for the purpose of instigating social change; a poem whose unparalleled formal sumptuousness—a cornucopia of literary texture—calls forth those mediators who would join Pound's lifelong experiment in cultural hope to a world of possible readers.
"And then went down to the ship / Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea…." That is how The Cantos begin, in a strange world modified by gods, with Pound translating from the eleventh book of The Odyssey, the descent into the underworld. Assuming the mask of an epic hero already written, Pound voyages, "Heavy with weeping" (the tone is elegiac, the subject is cultural loss), to a place of darkness, dimly lit with torches, for a colloquy with the dead, the prophetic Tiresias in particular. Ezra Pound, Odyssean poet, makes his descent to the West's literary underworld in order to conjure the ghosts of writers past in a poetry of reading. Homer's hero summons the dead with the ritual blood of sacrifice; Pound, with the blood of scholarly poetic labor, would summon Homer via a Latin translation made by Andreas Divas in the Renaissance, period of classical recovery; presses his Latin Homer through the alliterative strong rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poetry and then into modern English—thereby producing the effect of a triple translation for the benefit of the modern English reader, an illusion of three literary traditions simultaneously present in culturally mixed traces of diction and proper names, a palimpsest, writing over writing for a period, his own, which Pound hoped would also be a time of cultural recovery.
The first of The Cantos begins the project of a new risorgimento as if it were already in progress—the first word of the first canto is "and." We are offered a stylistic exhibit of heroic endeavor, by a poet-patron, toward the end of which the stylistic exhibitor himself comes forward, breaking out of the mask of Odysseus. In an abrupt comic descent from the heroic decorum of his tone and diction Ezra Pound speaks—"Lie quiet Divas"—so revealing himself in that moment as a haunter of libraries and old bookstores—in the dramatic fiction of "Canto I," a man pouring over a rare book—searching for the traces of a usable tradition, and finding them in the text of Divas's translation.
The eleventh book of Homer's epic: Odysseus's youngest companion, Elpenor, asks Odysseus to provide proper burial, lest he restlessly and forever wander the earth's surface; and he requests a memorial so that he may enjoy afterlife in his culture's collective memory: just so does Pound grant Divas, another unhappy ghost, similar (if imagined) requests in order that Divas may "lie quiet." And Pound's autobiographically aggressive translation of Homer's epitaph for Elpenor ("A man of no fortune, and a name to come") links him to Elpenor and Divas both, and to a literary history merging ancient, Renaissance, and modern cultures in an overarching triplet rhyme of tradition-making, the point of literary history being its own transmission; the immortality of writers depending on other writers who remember long.
Pound, a bibliophile and cultural genealogist, gives the citation as a kind of epitaph: "I mean, that is Andreas Divas, / In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer." Divas and Wecheli (the bookmaker), those, too, are names of heroes in the commemorative world of The Cantos, heroes as significant as Odysseus. For one more line and a half Pound returns now in his own voice—the spell of recovery is broken—to the Homeric narrative, then (as it were) flips the pages to the back of the book that Wecheli made, this time quoting the Latin of Georgius Dartona of Cyprus, whose translation of the Homeric hymns was bound in with Divas's work: some enamored phrases about Aphrodite ("thou with dark eyelids"), who was assigned the defenses of Crete, phrases whose Latin will be strange to the modern reader, but much less strange than the idea they contain, absurd to the modern mind (Pound knows this), of art active in the world, beauty in defense of the city. At the end of "Canto I" Pound comes forward as a voice among old books, trying to breathe life into voices he feared silenced by his culture. In that act, he creates a voice of his own.
Two mice and a moth my guides—
To have heard the farfalla gasping
as toward a bridge over worlds.
That the kings meet in their island,
Where no food is after flight from the pole.
Milkweed the sustenance
as to enter arcanum.
To be men not destroyers.
That is how The Cantos end, with Pound writing lyric notes: on the forms of his confusion ("M'amour, m'amour / what do I love and / where are you?"); on his regrets ("Let the Gods forgive what I / have made / Let those I love try to forgive / what I have made"); on his econo-aesthetic obsessions ("La faillite de François Bernouard, Paris"—Bernouard, unsung, unknown in poetry until this moment in The Cantos, a contemporary version of Wecheli, a hero in the cultural struggle for risorgimento, a French bookmaker who went bankrupt printing the classics and who functions here as an incarnation of history's truth, Pound-style: the destruction of the honorable by a dishonourable economic system that will not permit the valuing of beauty and beauty's patrons). Notes on his unceasing hatred for the human costs of war and the cold-blooded calculation of the secure-from-battle ("the young for the old / that is tragedy"); notes on his sustaining confidence in the liberating power of the image as the bedrock of personal redemption, aestheticist life preserver of Pound's youth coming in handy at the end of a life of failed larger design ("For the blue flash and the moments / benedetta"); notes on his grandiose ambition ("I have tried to write Paradise"), his anchoring modesty, his disavowal of ambition ("Do not move / Let the wind speak / that is paradise"); notes on his cultural deprivation, having to go it, as Dante did not, without a Virgil-like teacher for his guide ("Two mice and a moth my guides—"): all his notes the verbal condensation of desire, and desire, the gathering ambience of The Cantos, become palpable, the real subject of this last collection, Drafts and Fragments (1969).
In this final fragment of the final canto ("117"), a collage representative of virtually everything Pound thought about in The Cantos as a whole, the striking note sounded is not in some final revelation for poet and reader but in the variegated sounds of the poet's voice—in Pound's tonal agility, his compression of a range of vocal attitudes: the desperate old man, speaking painfully in the dark, sometimes in the curious mixed tones of prayer and imperative; sometimes in gentle self-directive; sometimes in fragments of amazement ("That I lost my center / fighting the world"; "That the kings meet in their island / where no food is after flight from the pole"); sometimes in desire's timeless infinitive ("To have heard the farfalla gasping / as toward a bridge over worlds"). Fragment following fragment, in a poem heavy with sharply etched perceptions and feelings freed (largely) from reason's habitat of correct English syntax: a poem of reason undone, and in its unravelment of reason displaying the constituents of a mind trying to strip itself of the authoritative power of utterance it used to command (half-wanting to fail, still desiring authority); wanting to enter the realm of the unspeakable with the monarch butterflies in need of no food—those king figures of the soul entering the last mystery. The final line is the one Pound (according to his lover, Olga Rudge) wanted to finish The Cantos with; a line impossibly poised in tone and form, hung between yearning and self-confident imperative; "To be men not destroyers."
Between the first and the last of The Cantos in a cluster which occupies the virtual center of the entire work—approximately fifty lie either side of it—fall the Chinese and American history cantos ("52-72"), a section nearly one quarter the length of the complete cantos, and presenting the one continuous stretch of writing to be found in The Cantos of Ezra Pound; a chronological span recounting some five thousand years of Chinese history, from 3000 B.C. through the eighteenth century A.D., mediated for America by the French Enlightenment (when Chinese texts began to be translated), an era in European thought which eventually passed formatively into the social theories of John Adams and the founding fathers.
There's a point to Pound's history, but the point is not easy to grasp because his history is told in a rush of names, dates, references, and events presented largely without explanation or narrative connection. The effect is one of relentless obscurity, which is maybe Pound's intention: to rub our noses in the fact that we've been cut off from the sources of what he imagines as social vitality, that we have no tradition, that we need to make another Odyssean journey back, to another cultural underworld, this one not Western, and that we can do it but it will take scholarly work. Such work would itself, presumably, be salutary, a sign that we are recovering (in both senses of the word), for in doing the work that Pound asks, we begin the process of self-healing. And if enough of us who do this work of recovery will only disseminate its findings, we will be on our way to cultural and not just personal healing as the active readers that Pound needs in the corporate effort to make the bridge between the isolated island of the modern world and the mainland of cultural history. The payoff will be a renovated economics, with justice for all, and a renovated language in which the word will bear the right name. Like an honest currency (in Pound that means an imagist economics), the word will not go the way of abstraction because it will be ligatured to real goods extant. And economics and poetics alike will be underwritten by a benevolent totalitarian (Confucius a more perfect totalitarian than Aristotle, Mussolini the hopeful modern instance), who protects money and words, properly ligatured, from manipulation by usurers, gun manufacturers, the fantastic international Jewish conspiracy, and other corrupters, financial and aesthetic, real and imaginary.
So do the Chinese and Adams cantos work in theory; in practice, and by the measure of Pound's aesthetic, they are a literary disaster. The aesthetic and the great majority of the cantos insist on heterogeneity in texture, voice, and form; the Chinese and Adams cantos present a homogeneous voice of didactic intent. The aesthetic and the great majority of the cantos insists on fragments and the surprising and delightful juxtapositions of montage which invite creative reading; the Chinese and Adams cantos progress by a principle of deadly smooth continuity which puts the reader into the passive position of a student listening to a lecturer with no dramatic talent. The literary project of The Cantos is modernist, but "Cantos 52-71" fulfill no one's idea of modernist writing, or even, perhaps, of interesting writing.
The Chinese/Adams cantos fail because they lack the anchor of cultural poverty that motivates Pound's project for redemption. The Chinese/Adams cantos give us a portrait of the poet comfortable in his views, speaking without duress from nowhere. But at their most riveting The Cantos evoke as their true speaking subject, however minimally, the presence of a writer—The Cantos are "about" a writer as much as they are "about" anything—a writer in struggle, working against the grain, under the inspiration of the muses of memory, those muses his only hope in a culture without memory. As in "Canto 1," for example, where, at the end, we finally see Pound, book in hand, meditating on ancient ideals of heroism and beauty from a place where those ideals are not honored. Or in "Canto 2" where Pound fictionalizes himself, Whitman-like, a brooder at the seashore, a man for whom all mythologies of the sea are simultaneously present, from Homer to Ovid to Picasso, but with no mythology of his own to be at home in. "And"—the linguistic sign of pound's consciousness, eager to bind together—here in "Canto 2" becomes the sign of a mind which says "and" because it cannot say "because"—because it cannot trace a logical path to its leap into Ovid's Metamorphoses, the presiding cultural exhibit of "Canto 2."
"And by Scios": Pound becomes a first-person participant in the story of the kidnapping of the young Dionysius by sailors who would sell him into slavery (not knowing who he was). The episode retold from Ovid is a story whose chief characters, in many variants, dominate The Cantos, a story of money lust and mythic power; poetry turned against and vanquishing greed (usually the story ends badly in The Cantos, but not here); Dionysius unleashed, and Pound in attendance, awestruck, retelling the consequences for the ears of worldly power ("Fish scales on the oarsmen," "Arms shrunk into fins"): "And you Pentheus, had as well listen … or your luck will go out of you." "Canto 2" concludes with a return to the brooding poet in his place on the shore. With his vision lapsed into the desolation of the present, and the Ovidian memory fading fast, now only an afterimage mediating his experience of the sea, Pound presses Homer's epithet of the wine-dark sea through Ovid's Bacchus ("wave, color of grape's pulp"); Pound, a writer whose detailed and life-endowing memory of literary tradition unsettles him for life in his own world.
Can these, or any of Pound's literary exhibits, make our dry cultural bones dance again? Can his specimens of cultures past make any difference? Do Pound's heroes from ancient and Renaissance worlds (forerunners all of Il Duce?) translate as our heroes, or do they best remain where they are, exemplars for his imaginative life, beacons in his struggle through cultural darkness? In his last canto Pound says, "I have tried to write Paradise": a line whose force lies not in the vision glimpsed, nor even in the vision glimpsed-and-then-lost, but in the effort of writing a Paradise that can be lived only in the act of writing, sustained in and by a writing that cannot sustain it for very long. The quintessential fact about Pound's paradise is that it cannot be culturally transported outside The Cantos. The most moving (if implicit) image of The Cantos is of a writer working mightily at the retrieval of the West's great cultural highs, who believes that if he can only talk eloquently enough, incessantly enough, about what he loves, the subjects of his love will spring to life before him, talked back to life, if only he would not lose heart (as so frequently he does), lose vocal energy and intensity (this, too, part of the image), and in so doing remind himself and us where we all are.
One of the strong, comically pathetic moments to The Cantos occurs in the Pisan group when Pound admits defeat and in the same breath tries to build out of defeat's humble gifts a new paradise. If Il Duce is the summation of the heroic tradition, then what can Pound save of tradition with "Ben and la Clara a Milano / by the heels at Milano"? And he answers in "Canto 74:"
Le Paradis n'est pas artificiel
but spezzato apparently
it exists only in fragments unexpected excellent sausage,
The smell of mint, for example,
Ladro the night cat
And the reader's equivalent, the unexpected excellent literary sausage of a broken paradise, lies in scattered but numerous moments of individual elegance, sudden interventions of Pound's virtuosity in the midst of his historical labor of recuperation. As in "Canto 13," where he presents in doctrinally constrained dialogue the Confucian ethic and social ideal, a canto intended to make a point about order, personal and public, and who underwrites it:
If a man have not order within him
He can not spread order about him;
And if a man have not order within him
His family will not act with due order;
And if the prince have not order within him
He can not put order in his dominions.
Pound assigns those lines to Kung himself, the man whose authority stems from the wisdom that cannot be questioned, an oriental voice drawn through Western timbres of biblical propheticism: the constant Poundian conjunctive ("and") now marking unshakable certitude ("And if a man," "And if the prince," and you better believe it). And we will hear that supremely self-possessed voice again, whenever Pound feels his doctrinal oats. But in the midst of this canto about the origin and dissemination of right political authority, we watch the poet in pursuit of something else, like a bloodhound after the irrelevant detail—in a long aside going off the doctrinal tract, seduced by the unfolding, self-pleasuring movement of his own conceit; the familiar Poundian conjunctive now marking lyric momentum:
And Tian said, with his hands on the strings of his lute
The low sounds continuing
after his hands left the strings,
And the sound went up like smoke, under the leaves,
And he looked after the sound….
Within the doctrinal program of "Canto 13" these lines move with the grace that passes the reach of doctrine; the unexpected and unexpectable gift of cantabile, for no ends beyond the singing itself.
Elsewhere—strikingly so in the Malatesta group ("Cantos 8-11")—Pound's minor beauties engage major preoccupations, not as food for isolated aesthetic indulgence but as medium of historical work. "Cantos 8-11" concern the exploits of an obscure fifteenth-century Italian professional soldier of fortune, Sigismundo Malatesta, complete political cynic with a singular passion for art and artists: just the sort of passion for which Pound will forgive anything (and with Malatesta there is apparently much to forgive), a type of the Poundian hero who achieved what he achieved "against the current of power" and found his truest expression of selfhood as patron par excellence, in unswerving devotion to the building of the Tempio Malatestiana in Rimini: Malatesta, in other words, as figure of the poet Pound would be in The Cantos, building in the Tempio, as Pound would build, a "little civilization," part pagan, part Christian.
Pound's method in the Malatesta group is cagily documentary: he quotes heavily from chronicles, letters, legal documents, papal denunciations; inserts his own retelling, sometimes as on-site narrator, in recreation of scenes for which no documentation exists. These cantos take the shape of a boiling polylogue, some voices friendly, most not, to Sigismundo's person and desire; they give off an ambience of thickest treachery—of men (including Sigismundo) willing to do anything, he for the love of art, they for the love of power. The arrangement of the documents is dramatic: Pound's purpose is to conjure his obscure hero ("Canto 8" opens with incantatory rhetoric), show him in the act of emerging from corruption, his voice freeing itself, sailing above, somehow uncontaminated; a voice elegant, dignified, gracious, lyrical, and promising violence, a man whose passion rescues him even from the evil that he does. The strength of Pound's showing lies not in the narrative of Sigismundo—its confusions overwhelm even Pound—but in the rhetorical effects he manages in honor of his hero. Pound loves the man, and his love creates a verbal habitation that insulates him from the garbage of his circumstances. We know not Malatesta but Pound "writing Malatesta"—not "of" or "about" Malatesta, but writing Malatesta as in "writing poetry"; or "writing Paradise"; or in this translation of one of Malatesta's letters concerning what he would do for Piero della Francesca:
So that he can work as he likes
Or waste time as he likes
(affatigandose per suo piacere or no non gli manchera la provixione mai)
Never lacking provision.
The prose meaning of Pound's English captures the prose of Malatesta's Italian, but with its arrangement into a versified parallel, like two lines of poetry with a full caesura at the end of each line, the translation adds an eloquence beyond the touch of its prose sense. Pound's translation becomes a stylistic index, the verbal maneuver that directs us by dint of its phrasing alone to the generous soul of Malatesta. And the sandwiched Italian original proves Pound's translating fidelity, his capacity for living transmission:
With the church against him,
With the Medici bank for itself,
With wattle Sforza against him
Sforza Francesco, wattle-nose,
Who married him (Sigismundo) his (Francesco's)
Daughter in September,
Who stole Pesaro in October (as Broglio said "bestialmente"),
Who stood with the Venetians in November,
With the Milanese in December,
Sold Milan in November, stole Milan in December
Or something of that sort,
Commanded the Milanese in the spring,
The Venetians at midsummer,
The Milanese in the autumn
And was Naples' ally in October,…
From this swamp of political confusion, this comic litany of the months and seasons of Byzantine betrayal, spoken, no doubt, in some smoke-filled backroom, comes a line from another level, elevated in syntax and tone, with a Latin phrase at the end (like an anchor of final authority) telling us what Malatesta did—the Latin working for Pound (as languages other than English often did) as some talismanic discourse, the facilitator of magical transcendence from politics to the plane of art: "He, Sigismundo, templum aedificavit." "He Sigismundo"—a phrasing repeated often in the Malatesta group—not only clarifies just who it is among these obscure political actors that Pound is talking about, but adds the sound of awe, like an epitaph which registers the shock of the memorialist, that in the midst of all this, he, Sigismundo, did what he did: "In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it."
In his introduction to the Active Anthology Pound says that experiment "aims at writing that will have a relation to the present analogous to the relation which past masterwork had to the life of its time." He insists: "[W]ithout constant experiment literature dates." He means that literary experimentation is the response to the challenge posed by social change that writers come to terms with a new world. The implication is that the true history of literature is the discontinuous non-history of experiment, a series of modernist revolutions (what Pound means by "master work") in evidence across the ages, whose relations to one another lie not in content, form, or value, but in the incomparable fact of radical originality. Radical as in "root"; originality as in deriving from an "origin": a literature rooted in an origin, the origin here being the writer's salient historical situation. The severe discipline of a modernist aesthetic relegates "literature" as such, or "literariness" as such, to the status of empty concepts, because no writer who would be modern (original) in any age (rather than the voice of some other time) has anything to lean on. Original writing (the essence of which is that it has no essence) proceeds, as always, in the dark, driven by difficult questions, the answers to which are never known in advance: What is it like to be alive now? What strange, new forms has human being assumed here, in this place? Would we, if we could, do some social experimentation? New World writing—the project of an "American" literature—is the exemplary moment of modernist literature.
Pound thought Eliot insufficiently moved by the experimental spirit. Of Eliot's modernist benchmark, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," he wrote: "This kind of essay assumes the existence of a culture that no longer subsists and does nothing to prepare a better culture that must or ought to come into being." If Western culture, as Pound told Donald Hall, is the struggle for individual rights, beginning with jury trial in Athens, then ever since the late eighteenth century we have been living in an age of revolution for individual rights in relation to which Eliot's "existing monuments" of literary tradition can have no organic significance. Pound thought "existing monuments" a contradiction, thought we needed "something living" and might have sought (he would have been stunned by this suggestion) support from Emerson for his political reading of the course of the West; the necessity, as Pound put it, to respect the "peripheries" of the individual.
The chief sign of the times, Emerson wrote in "The American Scholar," is the "new importance given to the single person. Everything that tends to insulate the individual—to surround him with barriers of natural respect, so that each man shall feel the world is his, and man shall treat with man as a sovereign state with a sovereign state—tends to true union": he meant, tends to just community. Emerson thought the revolutions of democratic change he was witnessing had implication for revolutions of cultural freedom, the individual and national rights of intellect and imagination. "Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close…. We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe." Or, in the equally clarion call from the opening paragraph of "Nature": "Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition …?"
Emerson, in the optative mood, spoke on behalf of the American cultural achievement he hoped would come to pass, an aesthetic birth which would, in Pound's words, bear relation to its present that past art bore to the life of its time. Pound's criticism of Eliot sounds suspiciously like the criticism of a nativist leveled at an expatriate who in fleeing his country has also fled Emerson's challenge to American writers (whether here or abroad) to resist the seductions of Old World culture, to make the cultural journey over the Atlantic to America, to come home, not in order to embrace the American imagination but in order to create it.
But Pound, like Eliot, was a reverse American immigrant, an unlikely ally of Emerson, who seemed all along to have intended to seek out those courtly muses who inspired no revolutions on behalf of any individual. Emerson probably had Longfellow in mind when he wrote the following, but the stricture implied seems to fit Pound even better: "I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia, what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low." Pound's theory of experimentation is in the American grain, but his practice in The Cantos, his pamphleteering of the 1930s, his Rome Radio broadcasts during World War II—are they not betrayals? Had not Pound written, in the outrageously entitled Jefferson And/Or Mussolini: "The heritage of Jefferson … is HERE, NOW in the Italian peninsula at the beginning of fascist second decennio, not in Massachusetts or Delaware"?
Perhaps, though, the failure was less Pound's than Emerson's, whose visionary essays of the 1830s and 1840s on the future of the American writer, who would be nourished in experimental freedom by an original culture, do not come close to comprehending what would become the crisis of the modern writer, whose classic situation in the age of revolution is one in which he feels himself irremediably outside, in uncertain relation to the culture of his time. Pound in New York, in 1910, on the eve of decisive expatriation, gathers his data for his first and most sustained critical meditation on American culture ("Patria Mia"). He reflects upon life in a democratic culture and concludes (in effect) that there has been no improvement upon the situation of cultural deprivation Emerson had observed in the 1830s. He leaves America, confirmed in his judgment that we are a people committed to the exigencies of the practical life and the cash nexus; with a sense that the cost of a new land was severance from the cultural past of Europe, a loss enhanced by the dry imitations of English verse he read in the organs of the literary marketplace; and with a belief that the marketplace is the instrument of amnesia, the great barrier to the past which would seem to ensure, for those who did not take Pound's expatriate option, the permanent triviality of American writing, and for those like Pound, who would not or could not write to its demands—for all writers in America's post-aristocratic culture, of modest middle-class means (or less)—permanent anxiety about economic survival; the choice of the literary vocation a choice of poverty and the contempt of mainstream society.
The exciting new culture Emerson had prophesied turned out to be mass culture, engineered by a culture industry feeding its commodities to democratic man, not a culture, as Emerson had hoped, organic with the life of the ordinary man. Pound, not alone among American writers, believed that the American common man (in Emerson's exultant phrasing: "new lands, new men, new thoughts") was of no literary interest except as he might serve as the object of the ridiculing satiric gaze.
Far from being the expression of an American who had forsaken his culture, The Cantos are the work of an American experimenter standing at cultural ground zero. This experimenter is a man not unlike Henry James's archetype of the American, who works himself curiously up to cultural snuff—the archetypal modern as major autodidact, of no cultural patrimony, who by sheer effort of discipline acquires all there is to know and whose typical vocal posture before the great European cultural treasures is one of stunned awe; who will address Homer, Ovid, and Dante, talk to them in worshipful apostrophe, speak their names as only an adoring American could speak them, as the names of gods; an American who will find certain moments in these writers so excellent that he will repeat them over and over in The Cantos, as if he were recording them in a notebook of the most important quotations of the great writers I have read. For all its complexity, The Cantos is often the book of wonders of a precocious American student.
By the measure of the ambitious desire of culture-making that moved their writing, The Cantos are a failure. They do not engender (or recover) a unified vision or a single narrative; rest upon no stable foundation of concepts; offer no odyssey of character; and for these failures we probably should be grateful. The Cantos "are," not "is." The Cantos narrate, quote, translate, dramatize, sing, and rant—as literary montage and collage they invite readers to supply the missing totality which would make sense of all the fragments, but what is missing, or only subtly present, is not some deep-seated story that binds all the pieces together into a social whole, but the writer in the act of trying to make sense of his circumstances. In Wallace Stevens's words: "[T]he poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice." It may be that there is a sense in which every age is an age of experiment, and that all writing proceeds in the dark in an effort to find the socially companionable form, but the modernist believes (in this believing is being) that he proceeds in darkness apparently total. Dante and Milton had the cultural gift of the Christian map: Joyce, Eliot, Stevens, and Pound believed their cultures had little to give; believed that they were living in a time when all the stage sets (again Stevens's figure) were being struck (being struck: they were witnesses to various dissolutions). They found that the privilege of living in an age of revolution was more than matched by the burdens of modernist culture; they found that they could take nothing for granted; that every thing would need to be re-imagined.
The world of The Cantos is close to the world of the later Yeats, who saw the destruction of the great country house as the socially symbolic moment of modernism's inauguration: the end of the politically and socially privileged class and all the artistic life (in all senses) that it ensured and supported (in all senses); the end of the writer's security, the underwriting of his vision blotted out in social upheaval. Adrift in a new world, Yeats is left with his memories and Pound, passionate American reader of the classics, is left with the desire for memory within a new social system—secular, democratic, capitalist—which has no use for the past, and offers no structural support for its artists, whom it does not believe can defend its cities. And it is much worse for Pound, because unlike Yeats he never saw the gracious old American estate which is also cultural matrix—there is no American experience of this; we have no exemplary Coole Park for memory to cherish in the lineage of our American cultural blood, no Coole Park which in unforgiving recollection can be the measure of modernist loss. Unlike Yeats, Pound nurses no delicious and bitter nostalgia (no return-pain), unless we choose to credit his longing (as I do) as a paradox of nostalgia—a New World desire to return to the cultural home he never had.
In the notorious Pisan Cantos ("74-84") the poet as modernist steps forward, holding back nothing. Written in a military detention camp in Pisa at the end of the war, and awarded the first Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1949, to the shock and anger of at least half of the English-speaking literary world, these poems as well as any in the modernist tradition figure forth the modernist writer as the quintessential outsider, in prison now, which is just about where the modernist has always thought he was; literally old, which is what modernist poets often feel even when they're young (as if they had never experienced vaulting zest for life: culturally desiccated from the start, Prufrocks all—a figure Eliot invented as an undergraduate); an old man without a country whose open subject now is himself incessantly in conversation with himself, in elegiac remembrance of writers ancient, Renaissance, and contemporary, friends all, the literal ones also now all dead: Ford, Joyce, Yeats "to earth o'ergiven"; talking his favorite opinions: how economic justice can be ensured through just distribution and reform of the money system; how to collar the "buggering banks"; the role of the "yidds" in the world's exploitation; the cattle-like nature of the "goyim"; the death of Mussolini and the failure of fascism; the desire to build the ideal city; Pound, an old man quoting his favorite phrases poetic and political, and then quoting them again and again; remembering his earlier cantos, alluding to the heroic figures therein; quoting his own lines, especially the one in the first canto about losing all companions: all this talk as if (Robert Frost's phrase) "the talk were all," and it is.
The Pisan Cantos are jail-talk from solitary confinement (who at Pisa could Pound talk to?), jail-talk gone about as far as the modernist can take it. In the saying of his memories, in their linguistic retrieval and preservation of cultures past (especially the cultures made by writers, recalling what they wrote and sometimes what they did) Pound projects an image of the modernist writer working from the shards of tradition and frustrated political obsession but not working them up into a new culture—placing them, instead, side by side, as he counts the losses. Pound-the-modernist is a writer in extremis because extremity is his norm; a writer who creates in his experiment a poem precisely adequate to the cultural circumstances of a man, unlike Homer, without a story to tell.
No one will take Pound, after what he has revealed, as hero, or moral guide. The Pound in the Pisan Cantos is the best answer to the Pound who venerated heroes and thought Mussolini would underwrite economic justice and the independence of the individual. The Cantos are a poetry full of heterogeneity to the point of chaos, an indescribable mixture whose ingredients of anti-Semitism and fascism are not of the essence because, in this experiment, nothing is of the essence. The most typical moments of The Cantos are those which defy the expectations of typicality: like the moment when out of nowhere we hear a black man speak (blacks in The Cantos appear as "coons," "niggers," and "negroes") and we learn that Pound has been done (by this black man) a risky act of charity—against regulations he has been spoken to, and, more, has been built a box upon which to set his typewriter: "[D]oan you tell no one / I made you that table," words that will be repeated through the Pisan Cantos, in the same way that phrases from the literary giants are repeated, until Mr. Edwards-who-made-the-box assumes the status of Sigismundo-who-made-the-Tempio. Mr. Edwards takes his commemorative place with Malatesta because, like Malatesta, he achieved what he achieved against the current of power. (What Mr. Edwards calls a "table," Pound calls a "box"; Mr. Edwards is an imaginative writer of another order.) He, Mr. Edwards, boxum aedificavit. And the significance of this act of patronage and charity for the whole of The Cantos? Only that a poetry which was written with no encouragement from its culture, and with no possibility of gaining cultural centrality, was helped a little along its way by a patron of the arts who couldn't read it, and who could have no intention, surely, of helping this particular poem come to life and to print.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7791
SOURCE: "Elegy and Personae in Ezra Pound's Cathay," in ELH: English Literary History, Vol. 60, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 261-81.
[In the following essay, Xie discusses Pound's interpretation of Chinese verse in Cathay. According to Xie, Pound differs from "the Victorian masters of the elegiac before him" through "his skillful and extensive reliance upon the speaker-persona as the primary device for rendering subjective emotion and elegiac mood, as amply and successfully demonstrated in Cathay."]
Pound first published his Personae in 1909, including two previous collections of his poems. The title "Personae" was used again for his collected poems of 1926, and for the selection from these of 1928. That Pound attached great importance to the idea of personae is best summed up in his "Vorticism" of September 1914, in which he called his translations as well as his poems but a series of "elaborate masks." By the time he wrote this, Pound had already possessed the literary manuscripts left by Ernest Fenollosa for about a year and had begun working on them, including the poems that were to make up his Cathay. Pound no doubt also had his Chinese poems in mind when he spoke of "casting off" complete masks of the self in his translations. In 1920, he again referred to "The Seafarer," Cathay, and "Homage to Sextus Propertius" as his "major personae." Yet these Chinese poems were significantly different from his previous experiments with personae. His previous personae were, as Hugh Kenner puts it, "deliberate dramatizations which extend the modes of thinking and feeling accessible to the quotidian inhabitant of a given London decade." And the connection with Browningesque dramatic monologue was often superficial, in that Pound was more interested in the idea of the intense lyrical moment. But what sharply distinguishes Pound from the Victorian masters of the elegiac before him, with the partial exception of [Robert] Browning, is his skillful and extensive reliance upon the speaker-persona as the primary device for rendering subjective emotion and elegiac mood, as amply and successfully demonstrated in Cathay.
Pound was consciously using his Cathay translations as a counterbalance against what he saw to be the droning of a corrupt elegiac lyricism, as is in his view characteristic of much mid- and late-Victorian poetry. The speakers in [Alfre, Lord] Tennyson's dramatic monologues often seem to drown in a certain dramatically deliberate exaggeration of their melancholy mood. Yet this kind of masterly control and modulation of elegiac cadence and dramatic contrast, not at all rare in Tennyson at his best, was also frequently susceptible to the risk of overly dramatized pathetic excessiveness, particularly in the later imitation or parody of this cadence by lesser Tennysonian epigones. Consider the following version of Kêng Wei's "Lonely" as translated by Herbert Giles:
The evening sun slants o'er the village street;
My griefs alas! in solitude are borne;
Along the road no wayfarers I meet,—
Naught but the autumn breeze across the corn.
The diction of this version has the effect of setting poems in an unspecified period of a romanticized past, and also of naturalizing whatever is poetically different and individualized in an alien poem. Giles's debased and streamlined Victorian elegiac cadence and movement weigh so heavily that the original Chinese poem all but disappears.
To put the late Victorian elegiac tradition in perspective, we might go to [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge who provides a succinct formulation in 1833:
Elegy is the form of poetry natural to the reflective mind. It may treat of any subject, but it must treat of no subject for itself: but always and exclusively with reference to the poet himself. As he will feel regret for the past or desire for the future, so sorrow and love become the principal themes of elegy. Elegy presents every thing as lost and gone, or absent and future. The elegy is the exact opposite of the Homeric, in which all is purely external and objective, and the poet is a mere voice.
[Matthew] Arnold is of course often ambivalent about the elegiac aspects of his poetry, and criticizes this aspect of his work in his "Preface" to the "Poems of 1853," where he contends strongly against poetry as an allegory of the poet's state of mind and strongly for poetry as representation of an action: "What is not interesting, is that which does not add to our knowledge of any kind; that which is vaguely conceived and loosely drawn; a representation which is general, indeterminate, and faint, instead of being particular, precise, and firm…. What are the eternal objects of poetry, among all nations and at all times? They are actions; human actions…." But in practice Arnold is often drawn to elegy and the elegiac even though in his best poems he attempts to exorcise this characteristic collusion.
Arnold's "A Summer Night" provides a prominent example of the nineteenth-century displaced elegy, that is, a poem devising the location and occasion for the feeling expressed by elevated fancy rather than speaking from a context that is literally the predicament of such feeling:
In the deserted, moon-blanched street,
How lonely rings the echo of my feet!
Those windows, which I gaze at, frown,
Silent and white, unopening down,
Repellent as the world; but see,
A break between the housetops shows
The moon! and, lost behind her, fading dim
Into the dewy dark obscurity
Down at the far horizon's rim,
Doth a whole tract of heaven disclose!
This kind of poem for the most part depends for its effect upon associative meanings generated from within the frame set up by the poet, so that the whole subject matter of the poem is thoroughly subordinated to the dominant emotional or psychological mood imposed by the poet himself. Thus the poet's attention is almost solely devoted to his own elegiac states of mind, without any effort to ground such feelings in the immediate, circumscribed actualities that surround the poet or the poetic persona in the first place. Even when actualities are presented, as often they are with great brilliance and precision by the early Tennyson, they are tacit but unmistakable "objective correlative" devices for expression of prevailing mood; as Eliot succinctly puts it in his essay on "In Memoriam," Tennyson characteristically uses dramatic situation as the occasion for "stating an elegiac mood."
Pound's use of the elegiac is quite different. Consider his version of T'ao Ch'ien's "To-Em-Mei's 'The Unmoving Cloud,'" for example:
The clouds have gathered, and gathered,
and the rain falls and falls,
The eight ply of the heavens
are all folded into one darkness,
And the wide, flat road stretches out.
I stop in my room toward the East, quiet, quiet,
I pat my new cask of wine.
My friends are estranged, or far distant,
I bow my head and stand still.
Here the sensibility and susceptibility of the poet functions as an impersonal agency for the mood of the persona, giving a complete primacy to the narrative situation from which that mood arises and not appropriating or contaminating it with any oblique opportunism on the part of the poet. The poet establishes the persona as the source and primary sanction for feeling and then tunes his own mood into a matching sympathetic resonance. Pound's version has objectified successfully a mood of the persona, and it invites the reader to experience the distinctness of that mood. This mood is not the same as the Tennysonian elegiac mood which depends for its effect on the reader's more or less subjective identification and often exhibits a progressive, tacit conflation between lyrical mood, the ostensibly dramatized occasion for speech, and the reader's emotional response—a notable aspect of Tennyson's "power of embodying himself in ideal characters," in the words of his friend Arthur Hallam, "or rather moods of characters, with such extreme accuracy of adjustment, that the circumstances of the narration seem to have a natural correspondence with the predominant feeling, and, as it were, to be evolved from it by assimilative force." Hugh Kenner has commented at length on Pound's version:
The objects, the images, clouds, rain, darkness, the wide fiat road, exist not as stage-dressing, as atmospheric props for a display of the writer's chagrin, but as a constellation intrinsically and inevitably related to the inherent mood. (This is a manner of speaking; whether these relationships "existed" before the poet made his stanza is irrelevant to our technical inquiry). They are allotropic components into which the mood, the initial poetic "idea," has been fragmented. Nor is the mood threadbare and familiar, existing for the reader as an evoked memory. It is particular and new.
However, the rhythm and implied outlook of the description in T'ao Ch'ien's original poem firmly imply a central and sponsoring consciousness, a center of dramatized personal awareness, which at once functions as the focus and reference for a coherence of implicit feeling as it gradually declares itself by what is observed and what is thought. The explicit tense-logic of the grammar in Pound's version positions a meditative self in a present moment, made desolate by nostalgic contrast with past memories, whereas in more condensed imagistic presentations, this implied consciousness would be denied controlling coherence of a unified mood and may be either reduced or excluded altogether, replaced instead by various other techniques such as those of brevity, juxtaposition, and so on.
Michael Alexander suggests that "Cathay is in many ways a deeply Tennysonian volume in its matter, its colour, its emotion. But its versification, melody, use of image and directness of language are indeed very different. This difference presents itself primarily as a difference in the 'nature', in the actual landscape…." Certainly the use of landscape or natural imagery in classical Chinese poetry most frequently suggests and embodies an inexorable sense of melancholy and elegiac mood. But the crucial point here is that, though there is a thematic and modal correlation of melancholy thoughts and feelings with expanses of rain-washed landscapes, for the Edwardian or Georgian English reader the codes for these Chinese landscapes, linking them to understood conventions of feeling, were so different that the mood seemed to arise directly from the disjunct economies of description. Vast and empty expanse of water or mountain; imminent snow or darkening twilight; falling rain over a lake or river; solitary human figures in mist: these are a few of the most common images used by various Chinese poets and painters, mostly of the T'ang and Sung period, to suggest a kind of metaphysical loneliness and their elegiac consolation through submerging their subjectivity in the natural landscape itself. Quite often in Chinese poetry no immediate occasion is invoked at all and the feeling of solitude and consolation seems universalized, by means of diminished foreground, although the individual viewer is positioned along various points of the landscape.
This phenomenon in Chinese poetry has much in common with the diffuse and dynamic perspective in many Chinese landscape paintings. Parts of the represented field of view are separated from other parts, and are treated as if remote or floating with reference to the human figures "tethering" the mood to its focus; yet the formal articulation and composition of these levels and zones of separation allow the viewer to read the picture-surface, its recessions and elevations, as coherently viewed: this is a kind of ordering and ordered perspective usually called a "parallel perspective" or a "multiple station-point." Earlier Chinese landscape views of more panoramic or extended vertical dimension (lofty mountains and great waterfalls, for example) assumed several separate viewpoints, so that the viewer was "imagined as standing point blank in front of that part of the surface on which the object is presented." The effacement of subjective feeling, the presence of cosmic melancholy, the enormous scale of natural landscape, the absence of personal pronouns: all these help to make up a distinctive class of poems of pictorial solitude and plaintive consolation. These qualities have been well captured by Pound, in the opening lines of his "canto 49", which is based on a series of Chinese landscape poems inscribed on paintings:
Rain; empty river; a voyage,
Fire from frozen cloud, heavy rain in the twilight
Under the cabin roof was one lantern.
The reeds are heavy; bent;
and the bamboos speak as if weeping.
"And the bamboos speak as if weeping": had this piece been an attempt at imagist writing, the younger Pound would surely have struck out this weakly explicit comparative. Yet here it is just, and it works, because the "surface" description of natural objects, while displacing any explicit expression of hidden emotion, also dramatizes the displaced and thus invisible depth of that emotion. Generically, the notable thing about these poems in "canto 49" is their extreme brevity, since in nineteenth-century (and also earlier) English poetry the elegy invariably implies and occasions a more developed amplitude of expression. Yet the fragmented appearance of Pound's images is deceptive, for paradoxically there is a strongly implied presence of narrative continuity: the semicolons here function similarly as the colon in that they are quasi-narrative markers which point both forward and backward and thus link the seemingly isolated images into an implied sequence of expressive narration.
Cathay was published in April 1915, with Pound's Anglo-Saxon adaptation "The Seafarer" included between "The Exile's Letter" and the "Four Poems of Departure." The whole collection could be construed as having a topical meaning and significance when it first appeared, as probably the "Seafarer" insertion was originally meant to suggest a certain implicit relation between the thematic formula of the First World War. Indeed, Kenner thinks that Cathay is "largely a war book, using Fenollosa's notes much as Pope used Horace or Johnson Juvenal, to supply a system of parallels and a structure of discourse" by means of "an oriental obliquity of reference." This is no doubt true. From among the diverse wealth of the Fenollosa notes for Chinese poems at Pound's disposal at the time, he selected only a dozen or so to make up Cathay, evidently more interested in the type of poems that embrace themes of war and exile, separation and heroism, and other related themes.
Again, the coupling of "The Seafarer" with "The Exile's Letter" in particular is significant for Pound, who believes that the Seafarer is the only European poem of the period that can be weighed on the same scale as Li Po's "The Exile's Letter." Pound's sense of the equivalence of the two poems is more than a mere comparison in terms of the national literatures they are supposed to represent. Pound's secularization of the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer is not motivated by sheer textual considerations: "The groundwork may have been a longer narrative poem, but the 'lyric', as I have accepted it, divides fairly well into 'The Trials of the Sea,' its Lure and the Lament for Age." Pound's emphasis on the "lyric" suggests that he regarded The Seafarer as a dramatic lyric. The unhesitant dramatic quality of feeling and mood and the directness of address in the form of the dramatic lyric link Pound's "The Seafarer" with poems like "The Exile's Letter" or "The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter," and the poet of The Seafarer with "Rihaku," with Pound presiding over both. It is the elegiac genre and theme of exile that led Pound to translate The Seafarer as we have it now. Pound stresses the elements of exile and solitude and nostalgia even more than the original Anglo-Saxon poem. The Anglo-Saxon elegy deals chiefly with the theme of exile, as different from the tradition of the classical pastoral elegy. Though it is strongly conditioned by its generic and rhetorical formulae, The Seafarer clearly exhibits a dramatization and projection of subjective mood, the emotional predicament inherent in a mode of life given individual focus in an explicitly personal narrative, as is similarly the case in Pound's "The Exile's Letter" with its form of personal statement and individualized narrative. "The Seafarer" and "The Exile's Letter" share a similarity of attitude and value in their respective personae—a recognizable type of individual predicament (seafarer and exile) and a defiance through indifference to conventional attitudes. It is thus possible for Pound to enact, through his adopted Anglo-Saxon and Chinese masks, his own personal and historical situation. Although never unmistakably explicit, this meaning is nevertheless implied clearly enough. In selecting the group of "Rihaku" poems of exile and solitude, Pound follows his own generic considerations, and in translating them, develops his own generic framework and personal style which have been determinants for the later writings in the Cantos.
The sense of exile and estrangement is also markedly different from melancholy: this is perhaps why Pound deliberately introduces a strong note of antibourgeois stringency into his version of The Seafarer. With the Cathay poems, he tries to employ radical structural strategies, for example, a greater reliance on and exploitation of the individual speaker in each poem. In these poems Pound follows the prosaic realism of the original Chinese and accentuates the particular emotional and psychological qualities that reside within the completeness of each individual speaker. "The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter" and "The River Song" are examples of this strategy.
Pound's own gradual evolution from his experiments with the "hokku-like" sentences, the epigrams and epitaphs in the earlier poems, to the longer Cathay poems in which the elegiac mood prevails, indicates his gradual generic modulation of the epigrammic into the elegiac, paralleled by his developing theory of the Image. As a result Pound extended the repertoire of elegy by modulating it into a mixture of styles and moods: the epigrammic, the rhetorical, the dramatic, the narrative, the epistolary, and so on, all to be unified in a cluster of simple, natural and distinct images.
The connection between Pound's haiku images and his earlier epigrams might be viewed as the logical precedent for what he sets out to do in the Cathay poems. Alastair Fowler suggests that "rejection of Victorian poetic diction by the modernists has had the indirect effect of making the survival of elegiac poetry depend on epigram, which now provides its usual external form." David Lindley's distinction between epigram and elegy is also extremely suggestive here: "Where epigram pushes the lyric towards compression, elegy opens it, among other things, to quasi-personal 'passionate meditation.'" It might be said that Pound's apparent ignorance of Chinese and Chinese literary forms has perhaps enabled him to modulate and transpose freely the original Chinese poems in terms adapted to his own generic experiments and expressive considerations. He was perhaps fortunate enough not to be in a position to render literally from the original Chinese; he evidently derived a stimulus to innovate forms of a more immediate expressiveness from this ostensibly unpromising activity, that of translating from a language not fully understood. His Provençal versions, by contrast, do not have this radical directness.
Pound's "Lament of the Frontier Guard," for instance, shows his ability to handle creatively, yet still under constraints, Fenollosa's notes for the poem:
By the North Gate, the wind blows full of sand,
Lonely from the beginning of time until now!
Trees fall, the grass goes yellow with autumn.
I climb the towers and towers
to watch out the barbarous land:
Desolate castle, the sky, the wide-desert.
It is notable that Pound's new title for the poem makes the poem a monologue spoken by the guard: what in the original is the "barbarian pass" (hu-kuan), the whole corridor across which the invaders push southwards, is for Pound "the North Gate": it is but the last outpost of the empire left to be defended by those posted to it. Thus the guard is lonely, hence the whole place is so; the "desolation" of that emptiness is personalized by the voice which speaks of it: the guard's tour of duty seems to last for ever, in its wearisome isolation, and yet it is the briefest interval in a vast expanse of time matching the vastness of space.
Pound here has grasped the latent psychology of this contrast, following the hints from Fenollosa, because he was ready to import a little of Browning's psychology of dramatic mood, entitling the poem as "The Lament of the Frontier Guard" (Li Po's title is simply "Ancient Style, No. 14"), to bring in a central defining pronoun "I" (Li Po's poem does not specify the singularly personal speaker) as the locus or pivot for these contrasts: thus trees, formerly standing "naturally," fall to the ground, but towers and castles, built by man, hold out against this wastage of time. Yet by an irony already latent in the mood of the "lament" the wastage of time will eventually destroy all the works of man, the high heaps again covered with natural vegetations:
Desolate castle, the sky, the wide desert.
There is no wall left to this village.
Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
In the Chinese line "desolate-castle-empty-vast-desert," the middle character "empty" is ambiguous enough to serve both as a "verb" reinforcing "vast desert" and as a "verb" (past participial in this case) looking back to "desolate castle": the desolate castle made more empty by the vastness of the desert. Pound's version captures this pivotal image in its complexity as well as its simplicity. Partly the complexity is given by the interactive ambiguities of the key terms at the start and finish of the line, with their associations and overtones in English: "desolate" and "desert." The castle is desolate because as a far outpost it is solitary and alone, far from human habitation, on the edge of the barren emptiness which is the desert. But the dreary sorrow of personal isolation and wretchedness is matched by seeing the barbarous lands as deserted, forlorn and abandoned. All these aspects interact and empty their senses into the vast neutral emptiness of sky "Desolate castle, the sky, the wide desert."
And sorrow, sorrow like rain,
Sorrow to go, and sorrow, sorrow returning.
Desolate, desolate fields,
And no children of warfare upon them,
No longer the men for offence and defence.
Here omitting the word "tears" supplied by Fenollosa's crib, Pound has grafted "like rain" straight on to "sorrow, sorrow," thus effecting a memorable abstract-concrete simile. Since in Western tradition fighting soldiers are not supposed to weep at their posts but instead often turn their emotion into a kind of half-joke, as in the exotic last line of Pound's version, the overall shape and development of sorrowful feeling is itself "translated": "A gracious spring, turned to blood-ravenous autumn, / A turmoil of wars-men, spread over the middle kingdom." Note the tacit pun on ravening/raven (the carrion bird of ill omen on the battlefield), and the comparably tacit reference to heroic warrior-elegy in the north-European tradition in Pound's line near the end of the poem: "Ah, how shall you know the dreary sorrow at the North Gate." "Dreary," from the Anglo-Saxon dreorig, means dark with spilled blood. Pound here assembles and draws upon his latent precedents, to diagnose and express the fundamental mood of the poem. The word "dreary," in variant archaic forms, also appears in Pound's "The Seafarer" and in "canto 1".
It must be stressed here, though, that the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer represents a kind of proto-elegy in which the primitive oral element predominates, whereas the more modern kind of elegy or elegiac poem is distinctively personal. The generic framework of classical elegy has gradually evolved into the poem of the elegiac mood during the major part of the nineteenth century. Tennyson's In Memoriam would be a pivotal example, because it was so complex and so massively influential. In the late eighteenth century, [Thomas] Gray ("Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"), [Oliver] Goldsmith ("The Deserted Village") and [William] Cowper ("The Poplar-Field") had defined for later Romanticism and the whole nineteenth century "the elegiac tone as a mood rather than as a formal mode." "Farm House on the Wei Stream" by the T'ang poet Wang Wei, as translated by Amy Lowell, reminds one of the elegiac poems by Goldsmith (his "The Deserted Village" for example):
The slanting sun shines on the cluster of small houses upon the heights.
Oxen and sheep are coming home along the distant lane.
An old countryman is thinking of the herd-boy,
He leans on his staff by the thorn-branch gate, watching.
Pheasants are calling, the wheat is coming into ear,
Silk-worms sleep, the mulberry-leaves are thin.
Labourers, with their hoes over their shoulders, arrive;
They speak pleasantly together, loth to part.
It is for this I long—unambitious peace!
Disappointed in my hopes, dissatisfied, I hum "Dwindled and Shrunken."
Of course, it is the community which has "dwindled" for Goldsmith, as the rural population leave the fields of their forefathers; whereas in the more individualized personal mood-elegy it is the individual speaker who is isolated and unhappy from the separating consciousness and sometimes tacit self-congratulation of his own sorrowfulness. The narrative and thus prospective element diminishes as the retrospective element increases, eventually to produce an overwhelming mood devouring everything: this is what Pound was to see as the corrupt elegiac lyricism most typical in Victorian poetry. However, first-person autobiographical elegy is a much more difficult case, because it is frequently the ambiguity of the self or person presented that may cause the reader the greatest difficult. Arthur Waley's version of "The Chrysanthemum in the Eastern Garden" by Po Chü-i is one such example:
The days of my youth left me long ago;
And now in their turn dwindle my years of prime.
With what thoughts of sadness and loneliness
I walk again in this cold, deserted place!
In the midst of the garden long I stand alone;
The sunshine, faint; the wind and dew chill.
The autumn lettuce is tangled and turned to seed;
The fair trees are blighted and withered away.
All that is left are a few chrysanthemum-flowers
That have newly opened beneath the wattled fence.
Here within the objective setting of the garden the elegiac self tries to establish its own present validity and solidity by way of reflection and anagnorisis; yet the very identity of this self is threatened by the multiple functions it tries to embrace: the elegiac self is both the focus and occasion of present feeling, while also serving as the free epitome of its recognition. In addition there is the bound subjectivity of the first-person self. Across the pattern of these shifting relations the reader's position is not at all easily determined.
By contrast, Pound consciously strives for the clear presentation of narrative and emotion and displays a much more effective use of the dramatic lyric medium to render precisely the predicament of the original Chinese protagonists. And here the elegiac poetry of Thomas Hardy can serve as a useful comparison. Pound has said that Hardy "woke one to the extent of his own absorption in subject as contrasted with aesthetes' preoccupation with 'treatment.'" "Hardy at his best stems out of Browning, as Ford does, and does so by shedding his encrustation." Pound praises Hardy's elegies of 1912–1913 as the best among Hardy's poems. The Cathay poems also display the importance of a certain kind of provincialism of feeling, feeling deeply rooted in details of the actual circumscribed world of the protagonists. In this respect they closely resemble Hardy's "dramatic or personative" poems, especially those from his Poems of 1912–13: "The Going," "The Voice," "After a Journey," and "A Wet August," for example, though Hardy is frequently more dramatic and ironic. But the similarities abound: both Pound and Hardy are often concerned with the reality of memory and retrospection, regret and melancholy, time and consolation. One chief characteristic of Hardy's speaking voice in the first-person elegiac poem which differentiates him from Pound is the ghostly, barren, and depersonalized present self as compared to the vitality and personal involvements of the remembered past life: this is a principal irony for Hardy, that the narrating voice is always belated in regard to the events which have meaning for it, isolated in an empty present in which memory can be called upon but no longer shared, except vicariously, with the reader.
The use of natural imagery in the Cathay poems is often of primary importance. There is a natural relation of the natural setting to the speaking and observing persona in the poems, as well as a sense of distance that separates the observer or speaker from the natural world that he or she observes. But the resulting tension is precisely what is most important in any good poem. Here Pound differs from Hardy's procedure, partly because of the translator's constraints but more importantly because of Pound's complete trust in the matter of his Chinese poems; there is no arbitrary or dramatic staging of either personae or natural images for certain subjective effects. In Hardy's verse the inevitability of emotion and sadness often combines with the installation of certain particular figures or scenes to produce an elaborate apparatus for capturing and rendering past experiences. Most of the Cathay poems do not exhibit this elaborateness with regard to both scene and persona; these poems seem more reticent in their articulation of personal loss and sadness. For example, the image of "flowers falling" at the end of Pound's version of "The Exile's Letter" by Li Po functions both as a reminder of the distance between the persona and the natural setting and as the persona's subjective identification with the natural world:
And if you ask how I regret that parting:
It is like the flowers falling at Spring's end
Confused, whirled in a tangle.
Such images exhibit the sense of control and restraint, so characteristic of much of Chinese poetry, in the expression of strong emotion and feeling, especially passionate love between man and woman. Such reticence and impassivity are very well conveyed in most English translations from the Chinese, including those of Arthur Waley. But it must have suited Waley to maintain a coyly decorous absence of recognizably particular and overtly personal emotion in Chinese poetry, a kind of Edwardian or Georgian reticence and understatement about personal and intimate feelings. Pound himself in part suffers from this coyness of his age, while trying hard to shake it off. As for Hardy, characteristically, all passion lies in the past, so for Pound it was often found most alive in the forms of alien and remote cultures, whereas Waley by contrast has sought to bury passionate expression of feeling or emotion in respectable discretion and understatement.
Pound has complete trust in the subject-matter of the poems he translates; the emotions of the personae in these poems are completely real for him. He is always seeking out specific European cognates whenever he discusses Chinese poetry. The form and subject-matter of "The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter," for example, has its cognates in European literary traditions too: especially in some of Browning's poems such as "Men and Women" which, Pound believes, belong to the tradition of Ovid's "Heroides" and Theocritus' idyls, while the special feature of Li Po's poem is its grace and simplicity. The "simplicity" and beauty of this poem (both the original Chinese poem and Pound's version of it) consist chiefly in the convincing speaking voice of the persona, yet full of emotional maturity and sophistication.
A. R. Orage believed that Pound's "The Seafarer" is "a little less perfect; it has not the pure simplicity of its Chinese exemplars. On the other hand, it is as we should expect, a little more manly in its sentiment." Orage also noted the similarity between Browning's "Bishop Bloughram's Apology" and Pound's "The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter" in terms of their "natural" simplicity: "The difference is that Browning was 'perfecting' the expression of a powerful and subtle mind, while Rihaku was perfecting the mind relatively of a child. The extension of the directness and simplicity, the veracity and the actuality aimed at by vers librists, into the subtler regions than the commonplace is advisable if they are not to keep in the nursery of art." Perhaps deliberately, Pound has brought over and constructed the image of a tender, ordinary, yet emotionally sophisticated and mature woman in his rendition of "The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter":
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
In Pound's version the emotion of the woman speaker is presented within her confined perspective through particular stages of emotional development and psychological retrospection, out of which emerge different shades of meaning and significance. It is significant that Pound finds it necessary to divide the original Chinese poem into different stanzas or strophes, in order to delineate more sharply and contrastively the successive stages of retrospection and revelation. In the original Chinese poem, due to lack of specified relations of tense or number, the narrative sequence is not explicitly established by the syntactical markers. It is therefore all the more difficult for the English translator to grasp the intimations of feeling and attitude in the original and to devise an effective inner logic of psychological development.
Thus the English translator is called upon to utilize whatever resources in English he or she can muster, in order to present a convincing structure of feeling and sensibility in a new English poem. The word "still" in Pound's first line, for instance, is absent from both the original Chinese poem and Fenollosa's transcriptions. Pound's "still" thus introduces into the narrative a prefigured sense of lost innocence, nostalgic pleasure, and subsequent frustration from the point of view of the woman speaker before she married her present "Lord." Her girlish confidence in perpetual romance is implicit in "Forever and forever and forever" (this is, in fact, Pound's addition), because the ironies inherent in life had by that stage not yet made their first appearance: at the start of the poem the reader is asked to recognize that he, as a reader, knows more of what is to come than she does ("still"). A sense of retrospective ambivalence and nostalgia is thereby subtly implied.
If in the first part of the "River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter" he more or less follows Fenollosa's original phrasings, Pound departs significantly from them in the second half in terms of rhythm and speech representation as necessitated by his own adopted strategy of translating the poem into a dramatic lyric, a structure of feeling generated from within the speaking persona.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
This is a strikingly direct presentation of emotional nakedness of the woman speaker, dramatizing as it does the subtleties of love, sorrow and ambivalence by closely following the inner speech rhythm of the speaker herself. Pound's "The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind," modifying Fenollosa's notes but still retaining the essentials, wonderfully recreates the emotional implication of the Chinese line as a whole. It is comparable to Hardy's closing lines in the "The Voice" (1912). In Pound's "River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter," there is a complex psychological interaction between the tone of playful, childish innocence, carefree and ironically insouciant ("I never looked back"), and the sorrowful gravity of a young wife suddenly made older by the loneliness and anxiety of separation. Because the young wife in Li Po's poem is unpracticed in grief, she feels all the more sharply what are in fact all the traditional signs of her desertion and solitariness: the moss, the paired butterflies, and the autumn leaves falling in wind. Freshly to her, they hurl. To put the full stop after me, and then state "I grow older," is a display of great control and objectivity on the part of Pound the translating poet. The young woman feels that she is growing older, aging by having to bear this hurt so early in life by an abrupt gap in the onflow of her short-lived happiness. The ending (represented by the full stop) of her happiness makes her realize that life's bitterness and wantonness have started and await her in the future: "They hurt me. I grow older." She is too demure to complain openly, and Pound, through his tacit understanding, remains rather too discreet to hint at this, since she seems to have no reason to reproach her husband who as a merchant has to rely on his travel for their survival, so that his is not a tacit abandonment.
In Pound's version, this acute sense of time and change is again captured in the word "already" of the following line: "The paired butterflies are already yellow with August." The woman has begun to notice for the first time the change of the seasons and to recognize the painful images of their transience and mutability. And then she reminds herself that what makes leaves fall, early or not, is not grief or anxiety but wind ("The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind": "in wind" is poignantly isolated by a comma), so that the source of her present predicament is a natural cause for a natural phenomenon. Yet there is an even more somber underlying suggestion that grief itself may be "natural," part of the "natural" course of things, the autumn season coming earlier or later, inciting "natural" human emotion but beyond human control.
"The River Song" is made up of two poems by Li Po, the title of the second poem being versified and submerged in Pound's version. The dramatic irony in the new context of Pound's version emerges from the persona's unique position and perspective, the ironic contrast between the two parts of the poem being generated from within the poem through the speaker's individualized response to a succession of images underscored by the very sequence of narration and reflection:
He returns by way of Sei rock, to hear to hear the new nightingales,
For the gardens at Jo-run are full of new nightingales,
Their sound is mixed in this flute,
Their voice is in the twelve pipes here.
Here, the word "this" in "this flute" echoes the first word in Pound's version: "This boat is of shato-wood …," thus binding the whole poem together across the diverse parts and aspects of the two Chinese poems thus conflated. The specified reference to the dramatic-lyrical persona clinches the whole poem's meaning with an intensely dramatic disclosure. In Pound's new poem, if we take it that the poem's speaker is a poet, out carousing on a splendid and expensive boat and entertained with flute and pipes, remembering how he had lingered in the Emperor's garden "awaiting an order-to-write" ("And I have moped in the Emperor's garden…." and then the memory changed into the past tense), we can indeed take the section starting "the eastern wind" to be the poem that he writes or recalls, leading back into the garden where he awaited his order and the sound of those remembered nightingales "rhyming" with the flute and pipes on the boat here ("This boat …," "the twelve pipes here"). If so, the conflation of the two poems would indeed be deliberate, because in Pound's new poem the first contains as it were the setting for the writing of the second, and also contains its author. In this respect, the poem is more akin to what Pound defines as the "Noh" image rather than being merely Browningesque monologue. But in one respect, the "moping poet" of Pound's version can be seen as a piece of Browningesque irony, in that the court-poet, waiting for the imperial nomination of a theme for composition, heard the nightingales' singing as "aimless" because he was not free to respond to it or even to take notice of it. The exaggerated cacophony of these birds ("five-score") is in sharp contrast with all the potentially sensitive and interesting images that were wasted simply because the poet was unassigned. But now, in the poem's present tense, the poet is in full spate of delicate observation and description: "the fine birds sing to each other" and so on. In this light, Pound's version is not a literal translation, but a rendering and reshaping of the original persona in a new dramatic-lyrical situation.
Thus Pound consciously or unconsciously superimposes Browningesque monologue and Poundian lyrical persona to from one poem. He emphasizes the virtù of the persona of the poem being translated. In the "Lament" poem, for example, Pound introduces near the end of his version "Ah, how shall you know the dreary sorrow at the North Gate," where the "Ah" testifies to the extent to which Pound is able to enter into the original Chinese and emerge out of it with a transmuted sense of emotional paradox and irony, unifying the whole apparatus of the rhetorical voice in the traditional planctus cry of the lament poem.
In Cathay Pound frequently invokes vocalized speakers, whether the personae themselves or the projected voices of the personae, whereas these voices are mostly absent or only latent in their Chinese originals. Pound ends "To-Em-Mei's 'The Unmoving Cloud'" with the birds' speech:
The birds flutter to rest in my tree,
and I think I have heard them saying,
'It is not that there are no other men
But we like this fellow the best,
But however we long to speak
He can not know of our sorrow.'
I think I have heard them saying this is purely Pound's own addition. Pound's version dramatizes the presence of the birds, not in order to displace the focus of personal elegiac meditation of T'ao Ch'ien's poem and thus to transform it into a different poem about the sorrow of the birds, but to find an analogy of sorrowful feeling in the birds themselves. Thus the emotion of the solitary who cannot speak his feelings directly because he has no human company is mimicked with a peculiar pathos by the birds who have plenty of company and many voices but who also cannot communicate their sorrow. The birds are given a kind of demotic speech ("this fellow") because they are also a common bunch: their fanciful grief thus imagined and imputed must of course be all in the mind and heart of the desolate human onlooker. But the solitary human figure has momentarily become all transparent—a kind of objective vehicle for embodying a mood—so that the reader does not really see him, but rather sees through his eyes and beyond him to a nature outside his window from which he has been alienated, so that the solitary human can only think that he hears the message of the birds.
The individualized perspective in Cathay is for the most part retrospective and is almost always tinged with an elegiac coloring. Yet this coloring is not a general, all-pervasive mood or atmosphere enveloping or devouring the individual speakers in the poems. It also often tends to leave the emotional stance of the translating poet (Pound in this case) somewhat uncommitted, in a kind of sympathetic neutrality, not by any implicit collusion expressing his own personal elegiac feeling. Thus the expression of this elegiac mood or feeling exists on three levels: that of the original Chinese poet being translated, that of Pound the translator, following Fenollosa's often neutral and uncommitted cribs, and finally the implied voice or stance of the resulting poem in English. These three levels are often not easily distinguishable; in a given poem they may exist simultaneously as a kind of superimposition of one upon the other.
Tennyson and other Victorian poets often, if not always, invoked a kind of elegiac collusion, whereas, to Pound, Joyce in his Dubliners was very close to the pathos and sense of suppressed unhappiness in his characters but remained fastidiously impartial in the matter of his own feelings. For Pound, Flaubert was the master to be set in contrast to the Tennysonian tradition. With the Cathay poems Pound comes closer to the Browningesque dramatic monologue, in that they depend very much on the individual speakers and their narratives for dramatic development and psychological truth, rather than solely on generalized moments of subjective lyricism. The speaker of each of the poems in Cathay is engaged in a particular dramatic monologue, dramatizing the narrated facts or events or imaginings in his or her individual life. However, the dramatic monologue of the Cathay poems differs greatly from the characteristic Browning monologue. Browning's speakers are often there to provide some striking perspective on certain unusual moral or emotional motives. Yet it has to be emphasized that in English the Chinese poems are decidedly unusual, especially so to the English readers of the time when Cathay was first published. The unusual for Pound is often replaced by the culturally distant, unfamiliar and hard to retrieve as vital rather than merely antiquarian.
The Cathay poems as a whole do not provide some extraordinary moral perspective in which the reader would be invited to judge morally; rather, they almost invariably invite the reader to participate and sympathize in an ordinary yet highly individualized emotional or psychological perspective, except that the exotic and unfamiliar context—alien culture, lack of historical background or perspective as well as strange, unknown names—makes this for the Western reader "ordinary" only by an act of consciously maintained vicarious projection, not altogether different from, if not more extreme than, Browning's Renaissance Italy. Pound's narratives in Cathay do exert this leverage on the Western reader's imagination by presenting, as if in realistic description, actions and settings which a Western reader can only reconstruct by rather exotic envisagement. So the mood is muted and low-key, as if belonging to a familiar naturalism of emotional coding where hints and intimations are all that is needed. And yet all these narratives are to a significant degree alien and unfamiliar: they represent a remote and strange domesticity and moral ambiance which the Western reader cannot take in knowingly but must rather apprehend by acts of extended and parallel intuition. So that what looks so strange can yet seem so familiar, and it is perhaps the nuances of implied irony that give the rhythm of a poem its tension and laconic artfulness.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8116
SOURCE: "Gold, Representation, and the Reversible Dynamic of Symptomatic Return in Ezra Pound," in Boundary 2, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring 1995, pp. 117-42.
[In the following essay, Moncef examines Pound's disdain for gold as a symbol of evil. According to Moncef "the malevolent aspect of gold exists in its own right throughout Pound's works; however, within this negative imaginary dimension of gold, there also lies its positive function as a master-signifier of discursive and economic author-ity."]
Gold and silver have been established by a general agreement as the means of purchasing all goods, and as a pledge of their value, because these metals are rare, and useless for any other purpose: of what consequence was it to us, then, that they should become more common, and that to mark the value of any commodity, we should have two or three signs in place of one?… [A]miable simplicity, so dear to our holy Prophet, constantly recalls me to the artlessness of the olden time, and the peace which reigned in the hearts of our first fathers.
—Montesquieu, The Persian Letters, Letter 106
So much has been written about Pound's obsessive deprecation of gold that one can hardly avoid approaching the subject without confronting a sort of Manichean division whereby gold is relegated to an almost exclusively "evil" function in his works. Even if we limit ourselves to the vague parameters of "good" and "evil," however, a close inquiry into the symbolic (that is, discursive) implications of gold in Pound's writings reveals its highly ambivalent function of a condensed signifier that points to a complex interplay of both "good" and "malevolent connotations." As Peter Nicholls rightly argues, when viewed against the background of a debilitating overproduction of monetary signifiers, gold undoubtedly emerges in Pound's writing as a malevolent master-signifier, the obsessive index of a "psychological" fear of the dislocation of "the genuinely creative signifying system." I shall argue that this anxiety ultimately reflects the poet's fear of symbolic castration through dislocution and his relegation to the status of a dead author. Considering the recurrence of Pound's explicitly negative statements about gold and money, it is tempting to take his words at face value and see in his obsession with the destabilization of monetary and discursive referentiality a desire to reject gold as the cause of the destabilization—which would be a typically Poundian strategy.
One way to deal with the facile one-sidedness of this temptation is to articulate Pound's fear for the "genuinely creative signifying system" as a motive inseparable from his fear for the monetary signifying system. The analogous relation between a literary medium of representation based on nonreferentiality and the dissemination of meaning in what Pound defines as an "abstract" monetary discourse has been investigated by Jean-Joseph Goux, who posits the principle of nonreferential money as the paradigm of a literary discourse "devoid of … evocative capacity":
The token, as a word or a currency devoid of all evocative capacity, is therefore, in turn, the symbol of formalized reason…. Thus all exchange [monetary, discursive] is done through a mediating substitute, or a substitute of a substitute, indefinite deferral…. Nowhere presence. Always deferral.
In Pound's works, a similar occurrence of gold as the master-signifier of a morbid overproduction of dead, non-"evocative" monetary signs (the Hell Cantos) and its elusive otherness vis-à-vis the poet ("Canto 1") argue for its qualification as the symptomatic signifier of a subject fearing a fundamental loss of symbolic mastery at the hands of an all-powerful agency.
For this reason, one might argue that Pound's conscious pronouncements on the relation between usurious gold and the dislocation of the order of monetary and discursive representation is the simple sum of a binary education in a paranoid construct. From a Manichean perspective, the obsession with "usurocratic" gold in particular and the "toxicology of money" in general is the subjective symptom of a suppressed fear of physical dislocation and discursive dislocution: the literal and the symbolic castration of the authorial self. In "Canto 74," for instance, this symptomatic return of Pound's subjective fear of physical and symbolic castration emerges transformed into the social symptom of a usury-sapped, impotent "culture [that] lies shattered in fragments," a culture whose incomprehensible economic structure "has become a closed book to the aesthetes." My adoption of the term symptom in relation to Pound's dislocation-dislocution anxiety owes much to the Freudian dynamic of symptomatic return, the "substitutive process" whereby a repressed "instinctual impulse" returns in a "displaced" way: in Pound's case, castration anxiety returns in the form of an obsession with the deconstructive influence of usurocracy on the order of discursive and monetary representation.
Having examined this dimension of gold, however, the same disturbing question remains: all negative aspects of the question considered, does Pound write binarily about gold as an exclusively "good" or "evil" agency; or does the latter emerge throughout his career (and often against his authorial intentions) as an ambiguously "good" and "evil" signifier that can invest itself with a baffling form of reversibility, an alternate power of attractiveness and repulsiveness that the poet's conscious comprehension fails to corner? Even if, admitting to a shift in his outlook on the question, we argue that Pound's conception of gold becomes predominantly negative at a certain point in his career, we are still likely to miss the extremely ambivalent and far-reaching meaning of this signifier's double function as a telling index of the ideological dynamic at work in his poetic, cultural, economic, and political agendas. As I shall try to demonstrate, the very assumption of gold as the signifier of reversibility answers the first part of the question by ruling it out as simplistic.
If we stop ascribing to gold an exclusively negative capacity of subversiveness, its symptomatic emergence in Pound's imagination starts occupying the double role of an agency that is debilitating not simply through sheer inert malevolence but through a mortifying power of subjection. As. I have suggested above, the malevolent aspect of gold exists in its own right throughout Pound's works; however, within this negative imaginary dimension of gold, there also lies its positive function as the master-signifier of discursive and economic author-ity. This function of gold as a condensed signifier becomes emblematic of the poet's and society's impotence only insofar as its supplementing power is withheld from the "right" poet or the "right" politician who suffers from its demonic otherness—that is, its alienation and its misappropriation by the subverters of concrete monetary and discursive representation: the agents of abstract usurocracy. This reversibility of the function of gold (its protean capacity to shift, according to who possesses it, from the signifier of monetary and discursive power to the demonic emblem of impotence) partly explains Pound's ambivalence toward the monopolizers of wealth in general. Hence the fundamental impossibility of simplistically polarizing the function of gold as "good" or "evil," and the necessity of viewing it as a condensed signifier and a strong motive force behind Pound's economics and poetics: one of his key metaphors for rationalizing the systemic contradictions of the order of monetary and discursive representation.
At this level of conflation between subjective and systemic rationalization, the integration of the marginal usurpers of gold in the Poundian demonological scene becomes a conditional necessity in Pound's views on monetary and discursive representation in particular, and in his cultural and political outlook in general. Those usurpers, the aliens of the Western economic and cultural scene, are naturally the usurers who, through a strange effect of displacement, are transferred beyond the purely economic sphere and made to function as the morbid other of the true poet, the "perverters of language," whose presence saps the poet's voice, condemning it to the symbolic castration of dislocution. If we assume, as Pound does, that the hoarding of gold and then the dissemination of its imaginary value along a chain of signifiers without objectal signifieds implies the loss of all meaning, then it seems quite plausible to posit it as the paradigm of an initially referential discourse that gets sucked into what is, in Pound's poetics, the equivalent of a spatial black hole. By this black hole I mean, of course, the "muzziness" of nonreferential chaos, the discursive element that absorbs the "soft" poet unable to "cut in hard substance." It is a measure of the complexity of gold as a condensed signifier that it has come to occupy this conflationary point where a seemingly subjective symptom ends up reflecting a broader literary, cultural, and economic symptom. Subsequently, what might be initially discerned as Pound's subjective symptom emerges, in the final analysis, as a manifestation of the foundational symptom of the social order and its systems of symbolic representation. Because of this isomorphic conflation of the subjective and the social realms, gold, as an elusive signifier floating in the others' sphere (the usurers), can be viewed as the symptomatic signifier of both a culture's and a poet's subjection to the order of symbolic representation under its various guises.
Having established gold as the signifier of subjection, however, we should not overlook its role as an ideologically overdetermined agency that can stitch the seamy tissue of the monetary discourse that Pound criticizes at the level of its incidental margin rather than at the level of its foundational core. This mutation in the function of gold occurs when the state puts the fragmented economic fabric under the aegis of its normative design and reappropriates gold and the monetary order for their "true" function. Subsequently, from the Hell Cantos to the [Chinese] Dynastic Cantos, gold shifts from the signifier of "soft" amorphousness and perversion to the politically functional signifier of the state's unifying authority. When he envisions this reappropriation, Pound argues (consciously or unconsciously) in a strictly ideological way: namely, by repressing the fact that it is the system of monetary representation itself that is based on a fundamental slippage impossible to halt even through the supplementation of state mediation; by repressing the fact that any order of monetary representation (state-supplemented or "usurocratic") must posit as its raison d'être an endless combinatory drift of abstract monetary signifiers with no objectal signifieds. To frame the reappropriation of gold in Poundian terms is simply to state that the sole mediation of the right state suffices to restore the transparency of a referential equivalence between monetary sign and economic thing. The same applies to the appropriation of the order of signification by the concrete word of the author-itative poet who "compose[s] to the feel of the thing"—the poet who can capture the objectal thingness of the world in the word. At this level, we clearly recognize the conflation between Pound's artistic agenda and his politico-economic views. In effect, when, in anticipation of his later economic views, he announces, as early as 1912, his "scientific answers" to the social justification of literature, he envisions the coining of a "self-sustaining" objectal word in no need of further discursive supplementation as the only instrument of the poet's social credit:
[L]anguage, the medium of thought's preservation, is constantly wearing out. It has been the function of poets to new-mint the speech, to supply the vigorous terms for prose … poets may be "kept on" as conservators of the public speech, or prose, perhaps, becoming more and more an art, may become … self-sustaining.
Needless to say, the only way to keep language from "wearing out" into the amorphous muzziness of usurious hell is to cut it in the "hard substance" of concrete referentially. Thus, Pound seems to imply, only when reconsidered from the perspective of objectal concreteness will the newly acquired author-ity of the poet, like the renewed signification of the stamped gold coin, be taken at face value.
Later, in a 1919 text, the two functions (monetary and discursive) are more explicitly paired; their dialectical interplay, however, is cast in such a way as to shed a totally different light on Pound's association of the reappropriation of gold with the reappropriation of discursive author-ity:
The genius can pay in nugged and in lump gold; it is not necessary that he bring up his knowledge into the mint of consciousness, stamp it into either the coin of conscientiously analyzed form-detail knowledge or into the paper money of words, before he transmit it [Pound's emphasis] … the sudden coagulation of bits of knowledge collected here and there during the years, need not be re-sorted and arranged into coin. This sort of lump-payment is not mediumistic [my emphasis]; it is mastery.
Passages such as this one reveal the bedrock of Pound's contradiction, a contradiction that, let me say again, cannot be limited to a phase in his career but represent a motif that recurs throughout his works. On the one hand, his synthetic monetary-discursive metaphor implies that "lump" gold and the word of the true poet can be creditable only when they do not bear the stamp of a system of representation—that is, when they appear in their full embodiment of prediscursive thingness. On the other hand, throughout his career, he asserts ad nauseam that the only way of guaranteeing a stable monetary and discursive order is to trust their "new-minting" to the regulating mediation of the state and the poet—sole preservers of a monetary and a poetic discourse "which represent … something alive." If we follow this self-contradictory assertion from its premise to its logical conclusion, the assumptions we can make about it can only be imaginary. For what Pound seems to imply by his non-"mediumistic" gold is no less than the death of any medium of monetary and discursive representation, be it state-/poet-endorsed or usurocratic. Thus, as in the passage from "Art Notes," the contradictory split between the presymbolic anarchy of the monetary signified called non-"mediumistic" gold and the normative mediation of the order of signifiers provides a nodal Manichean metaphor for Pound's aporic quest. This aporic quest is embodied in a contradictory war waged against monetary and poetic discourse with its own impotent weapons: as with any monetary signifier that attempts to point to its signified in its premonetary thingness, a sign-thing is a fundamental logical contradiction in that the very presence of the one implies the irredeemable cancellation of the other.
In the more moderate passages where he discusses money exclusively, Pound is aware of the impossibility of a monetary order based on unmediated thingness. In order to close the gap opened by such an impossibility, he resorts to a process of rationalization whereby usurocratic deconstruction is made to represent the subversive force obscuring the referential relation between money and its specular double: the realm of things. During such moments, his political and cultural thought appears with its fundamental ideological contradictions. That is when he starts arguing simultaneously that gold is a monetary element whose evil lies solely in its misappropriation (its "false representation") and in its "inherent" liability to end itself to abstract manipulation:
The durability of metal gives it certain advantages not possessed by potatoes or tomatoes … in addition to this potentiality for unjust manipulation inherent in metallic money … man has invented a document provided with coupons to serve as a more visible representation of usury…. No! it is not money that is the root of the evil. The root is greed, the lust for monopoly…. All that is needed is a kind of money that cannot be kept waiting in the safe.
A similar indicator of Pound's contradictory diagnosis of a monetary order that is inherently speculative and potentially redeemable lies in his assertion, shortly before his discussion of inflation and stamp scrip, that silver money can actually serve as "a ticket for the orderly distribution of WHAT IS AVAILABLE. It may even be an incentive to grow or fabricate more grain or goods that is, to attain abundance." Although he deposits money as an inherently speculative economic factor, the emphasis on the fact that ultimately the false representation of usurious monopolizers is only a marginal phenomenon whose expansion has reached the core of a culture and an economy "shattered in fragments." In this context, I intend the term core as a structural component that Pound sees at work in the fabric of Western society, for, his contradiction aside, what he seems to discern in the false representation of money by the betrayers of language ultimately not a phenomenon intrinsic to the structure of monetary representation. Through this emphasis on the ultimate productive function of money, he manages to repress the inherently speculative an disseminatory nature of monetary discourse by ascribing its excessive malfunctions a displaced and incidental phenomenon: the subversive manipulations of usurocaratic cell that has worked its way from the margins of the socioeconomic fabric to its central core. It is against the background of this complex repression of a disseminatory quality inherent in the monetary as well as the discursive order that gold emerges as a reversible signifier. The first dimension of its reversibility is its liability to become a symptomatic signifier pointing to the death of the monetary and discursive thing through a cancellation of referential totality ("fragmentation"). The second dimension of its reversibility lies in its imaginary figuration as a signifier of potential empowerment through reappropriation of the non-"mediumistic" objectal other of money and language. In both cases, Pound's works emerge as the line of osmosis between the symptom of an individual and the symptom of a society meshed in an involuted ideological process whose obsessive aim is a desperate attempt to rationalize the unreasons of reason.
Which brings me to the oft-discussed question of the historicity of Pound's works—the irreducible relation between his poetics, his economics, and his totalitarian politics. By focusing on the symbolics of Pound's socioeconomic and poetic obsessions, the following discussion primarily attempts to sound the profound discursive irrationality of his totalitarian politics. In this sense, my interpretation of the symptomatics of Pound's work intends to reveal not so much the historical context of his political affiliation as the conceptual and symbolic limits of that affiliation, the inescapable bedrock of contradiction and ambivalence upon which his ideologically determined rationalizations repeatedly run aground. This does not mean, however, that we should conceive Pound's political, economic, and poetic re-expression of his anxiety in a static way. Paradoxically enough, Pound's fixation on the need to oppose author-itative order to disintegration, his obsession with the historically determined concept of the "conspiratorial Jew" as a principle of socio-economic rationalization, and so on are discursive loci that are crucial for revealing both the symbolic condensation of his socio-economic discourse and the baffling openness of his poetics to almost all types of totalitarian theories and practices. Thus, we can argue that the symbolic condensation of Pound's monetary and discursive obsessions is perhaps the key element in explaining his often incoherent synthesis of totalitarian principles as disparate as European feudalism, American populism, and Italian fascism. In the final analysis, the most telling symptom of the symbolic condensation of Pound's discourses—a condensation that the expresses politically through a disorienting capacity for ideological ventriloquism—is perhaps that ultimate Poundian paradox; the unrelenting, and yet constantly wavering, belief in the Poem pregnant with the aggregate echoes of an author-itative order to come.
The obsessive nature of Pound's desire to recover the non-"mediumistic" objectal double of language already manifests itself in as early a poem as "Near Perigord." In it, the rhetoric of desire that gives birth to Maent as a poetic persona and a historical object reveals Pound's concern with precise discursive representation as a token of the author-ity of the poetic word. It is true that, for Pound as well as for Bertrans, Maent is only a factitious fantasy object that "has no existence, no form outside the tyranny" of the poetic construct. Stating Maent's existence uniquely in terms of her subjection to the poetic frame, however, is an incomplete assessment of her role in Bertrans's and in Pound's poems as well as a considerable understatement of the "tyranny" of which she is capable. For is not her subjection to the tyranny of a factitious construct also, and by the same token, a sign of her rebellion against the possessive desire that she manages to elude even while it claims to capture her in words? In other words, because of Maent's unwillingness to manifest herself physically to the poet, Bertrans's poem stands as the imaginary supplement that, by, hopelessly trying to bridge the gap of her absence through substitutive intercourse, points to its own referential impotence. As is indicated by the conclusion of "Perigord," the construct that tries to synthesize fact and fiction retrospectively in a master-artifact, the poet and the historian eventually have to admit that a "shifting change" is the outcome of any discursive attempt (factitious or factual) to rationalize Maent's absence into presence. And if Pound "fails to detect the seam between fact and fiction" in Bertrans's poem, it is precisely because he finds himself unwittingly occupying that seam in exactly the same way Bertrans did!
Placed against Pound's concern with the referential authority of poetic discourse, we see, then, how crucial the Bertrans-Maent substitutive relation is for him. For even when we momentarily disregard the quotations from Bertrans's poem, we realize that it is through a similar dialectical interplay of presence and absence that Maent is initially posited as the condensed matrix of historical and discursive truth animating "Perigord"'s rhetoric of desire. What we find in the excerpts from Bertrans's poem only serves as further corroboration of Maent's key role. In effect, through Bertrans, we learn that all the supplementary parts he erects against Maent's absence—"'The voice at Montfort, Lady Agnes' hair, / Bel Miral's stature, the viscountess' throat'"—put "'all together, are not worthy of'" the real thing as a whole. Thus, against Bertrans's incremental drift of imaginary substitutes (including his poem), Maent emerges in her double function as the longed-for specular double of discourse, a source of desire that teases the grasp of the poet-lover (Bertrans) and the poet-historian (Pound) who try to capture, respectively, the real thing of amorous fantasy and historical imagination through the poetic word. Through her double existence in Bertrans's and in Pound's poem, Maent can therefore be viewed as the nodal signifier of discursive author-ity—the transcendent sphere where "somewhere, in the Other, it knows" the truth.
Another more significant dimension of Maent's double function concerns her position as a reversible signifier both for Bertrans and for Pound. For although she may be the real thing of Bertrans's writerly desire, and the matrix of historical truth for Pound, she ultimately turns into the matrix of truth as a vacant otherness that sucks, and suckers, the poet's power of expression through her teasing elusiveness. Pound expresses this totally different dimension of Maent in his final realization that her factitious existence as a steady referential whole in any poem is only an other substitutive supplement: a gaping black hole that absorbs the poet's energy through its vampishness. This vampishness of Maent, the presumed referent of poetic representation, ultimately degenerates into discursive vampirism, a "disease of proliferation" that can suck the poet's creative vitality unto death.
It is the final metamorphosis of the vampish Maent into an alien vampiric other that qualifies her as a reversible signifier: that which marks the poet's initial belief in the truth of discursive thingness as well as the symptomatic return of his fear of (symbolic) castration. In the latter case, Maent's poetic persona can be viewed as the master-index of the powerless moment when the poet can speak himself to death without being able to capture the living object of his imaginary representation, the moment when "truth stammers" despite all the poetic supplements deployed.
So to this last estrangement, Tairiran!
There shut up in his castle, Tairiran's,
Gone—ah, gone—untouched, unreachable!
She who could never live save through one person,
And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors …!
Given Maent's eventual emergence as the symptomatic signifier that represents fragmentation in poetic as well as in historical discourse, Pound realizes that the only person who can have intercourse with her as an unmediated, living whole is, after all, Tairiran; as to both poets, they can only evoke her as a dead object of fantasy condemned by the very substitutive constructs of their poetry to live as a reflection in fragmented imaginary mirrors. This debilitating otherness of Maent and the incapacity of the poet's imaginary attempt to relate to her as a living whole in his poetic mirror become all the more telling of Pound's concern with the dialectical interplay between discursive author-ity and impotence as we learn that "Perigord" is initially set against an intertextual background of (symbolic) castration. In this respect, it is important to know that Dante, the master that Pound uses to supplement his poem, sees in Bertrans's decapitation a vicarious mutilation of his own voice; hence, probably, the opening of Dante's Canto with the ominous six lines indicating the powerlessness of the poetic word in particular and of language in general. The intertextual resonances of "Perigord," then, create a double play of reflection: at one level, we have Dante, the poetic master, who starts his Canto with an acknowledgment of discursive powerlessness, contemplating another mutilated master; at a second level, we have Pound, a young poet aspiring to mastery, contemplating the powerlessness of both predecessors.
The same dialectical interplay between discursive author-ity and the impotent poetic voice informs "Canto 1," the Canto in which Pound the cultural crusader merges indistinctly with the figure of Odysseus, the literary epitome of the drifting adventurer, as the central subject or the Bildungsgedicht. Here, the discursive author-ity in which I am most interested concerns the intricate symbolic overtones surrounding Odysseus's/Pound's desired appropriation of the golden wand and its capacity to endow the holder with access to the underworld. Far from being a clearly positive or negative symbolic factor, the function of the golden wand is ambivalent in the sense that it operates as a reversible signifier marking a division within the (poetic) subject between a proleptic access to discursive author-ity and a denial thereof. But before proceeding to the analogical relation between the (poetic) subject aspiring to discursive mastery and the reversibility surrounding the precarious appropriation of the golden wand, I would like first to turn to one of Pound's remarks on the relation between literary discourse and life as a biological process. In a plea for the importance of literature, he argues that
the function of literature as a generated prize-worthy force is precisely that it does incite humanity to continue living…. They ["lovers of order"] regard it as dangerous…. They try to tame it down. They try to make a bog, a marasmus, a great putridity in place of a sane and active ebullience. (my emphasis)
With the same degree of precariousness (the potential movement of the poetic word between the (pro)creative drive of phallic generation and the "boggy" stillness of anal degeneration), a similar dialectical interplay between access to the life-generating power of the poetic word and the stillness of symbolic castration operates as the central motif of "Canto 1." Again, this interplay finds its locus of conscious return in one condensed signifier loaded with a reversible function: the phallic golden wand of Tiresias. In this Canto, the persona of Odysseus/Pound in the underworld emerges as that of the vicarious redeemer of the "impotent dead," invoking the authority of "Pluto the strong," god of gold and precious stones, and waiting to hear the pronouncement of Tiresias, holder of the golden wand. For it is Tiresias, seer and representative of the author-itative word, who holds the power of access to the underworld through his possession of the phallic signifier. Thus, from the outset, phallic author-ity is systematically associated with discursive author-ity. And it is to a paternal figure of author-ity that Odysseus/Pound turns, hoping to obtain the golden key to the word and the underworld. Through its function as the signifier of (discursive) potency, the golden wand stands in antithetical relation to the general lethargy of the impotent dead. Subsequently, it appears as a power-endowing source, enabling the holder to occupy the key role of redeemer of the underworld rough his author-itative function as recorder of the hell dwellers' misfortunes. Those hell dwellers are the people "with a name to come"—that is, a name hibernating in the underworld and waiting to be resurrected through the poet's desired function of naming. "I bid remember me," says the impotent Elpenor, asking for a prospective resurrection of his body through an inscription of his name, "A man of no fortune, and with a name to come. / And set my oar up …" (Pound's emphasis).
Access to the underworld and the resurrection of dead names through the golden wand refer us to the golden bough of Hermes, another prophet of the word and a "begetter" of discursive author-ity. Insofar as he aspires to the prospective moment of (re)generating the dead names through remembrance, inscription, and naming (the author's function), Odysseus/Pound, like Hermes, waits with deference for Tiresias's word. If we consider Hermetic virtues as a whole—that is, in their (pro)creative biological/symbolic function as the "male origin of life"—then the bough of Hermes is the signifier antithetical to the (pro)creative stasis of the dwellers of the uterine underworld who cannot inscribe their names.
For the aims of this essay, I will focus on the symbolic function of the sailor/poet in relation to the (pro)creative Hermetic word, especially insofar as it foreshadows a proleptic moment of appropriation. For it is obvious that Odysseus's/ Pound's deference to Tiresias's refusal ("I stepped back") is the placatory gesture of an effaced "noman" aspiring to future possession of the signifier of discursive author-ity. Its most significant implication, however, is that it is at the same time a sign of deferral, indicating that the sailor/poet is still like the impotent dead: a "name to come" condemned through paternal decree to drift "over dark seas" before acceding to the author-ity of the seer with the golden wand.
With its central image of the sailor/poet aspiring to the signifier of discursive and (pro)creative power held by an other, this first Canto lays the foundation of the poet's identity as an initially dispossessed and selfless vacancy in the process of being impregnated with the voices of author-ity—the Odyssean "noman," who defines himself as a receptacle pregnant with other voices. In this sense, the pronouncement "by no man these verses" can be viewed as emblematic of the poem's obsessive strategy of endless supplementation through the presence of other author-itative men. In this qualification of the poetic persona as a mediator delivering other men's voices, we already see an anticipation of the derivative "ego scriptor" of the Pisan Cantos emerging "from the wreckage of Europe" and trying to represent, through the agency of retrospective naming, the deeds of great men reduced to figures "with a name to come"—that is, a name awaiting rebirth through the discursive intercession of a Hermetic poet destined to represent all the dead names of the Western scene.
When viewed as a masked affirmation of the ego scriptor, however, it is precisely this selfless vacancy of the dispossessed poet that grants him natural author-ity. In an earlier text, we already discern an inceptive form of this ambivalent function of the poet as a selfless reflector of "many men's" voices:
The so-called major poets have most of them given their own [Pound's emphasis] gift but the peculiar term "major" is rather a gift to them from Chronos. I mean that they have been born upon the stroke of their hour and that it has been given them to heap together and arrange and harmonize the results of many men's labor. This very faculty for amalgamation is a part of their genius and it is, in a way, a sort of unselfishness. (my emphasis)
This view of the poet as a "modest," "unselfish" (shall we read "selfless"?) entity is important only insofar as it acquires a double relevance. First, it qualifies the naturally "gifted" poet as the representative of all significant poetic voices, thus making his poetry the ultimate "amalgamation" of author-itative poetic expression. Second, when applied beyond the poetic sphere, Pound's definition of the poetic voice as an amalgamating matrix empowers the latter to represent, thanks to the poet's natural genius for "harmonization," the various figures of political and cultural author-ity. It is probably in the light of this ambivalent interplay between selfless effacement and the poet's natural "gift" of multiple representation that we should read the pronouncement "There be thy mirror in men."
A strong indicator of Pound's conception of himself as a selfless receptacle filled with other men's author-ity and "labor" appears in his attempt to reaffirm the role of his Poem as the source of rebirth of the poet-son through the word. Needless to say, it is important to remember the political affiliation underlying this ambivalent filiality: more than ever, the poet-son of the Pisan Cantos reiterates his role as the specular double of Mussolini, the man in whose mutilation the name of the father (sole guarantor of the stability of the order of monetary and discursive representation) finds its literal dislocation. The (re)generation of the order of discursive representation in, and through, the poet (the specular double of the dead father) is a major motif in "Cantos 74" and "80." In effect, in both Cantos, the ego scriptor of "Canto 76," the "lone ant," the synecdochical part of the "broken ant-hill" of dead names, looks forward to a rebirth of "the wreckage of Europe" through the word spoken in the name of the dead father(s).
In "Cantos 74" and "80," the motif of the rebirth of the figure(s) of authority in the word of the poet is played out against an intricate amalgamation of pagan myths of the son as specular double of the father and the Christian myth of the incarnation of God the Father in the son's word. This relation to the father(s), symbolized through the filial image of "DIGONOS" (the "twice-born"), allows the ego scriptor to function as a specular double symbolically reborn, through the discursive agency of the poem, out of the dead name(s) of the father(s):
the name of my family.
but a precise definition
transmitted thus Sigismundo
thus Duccio, thus Zuan Bellin, or trastevere with La Sposa
Sponsa Cristi in mosaic till our time / deification of emperors.
Paradoxically, it is only insofar as he accepts the Odyssean image of a noman that the poet can accede to his symbolic role as the ego scriptor destined to incarnate the dead name(s) of the father(s) through the "verbum perfectum." In other words, facing the crippling author-ity of other men's names, the poet can only affirm his symbolic/second birth through his author-ial death; hence the necessity of giving poetic credit to his Poem through the endless drift of other author-itative names and voices integrated in order to supplement the ego scriptor's voice. Because he perceives it as an "amalgamating" necessity, supplementation in Pound becomes a poetic form of rationalization—that is, a justification through poetic method of the specular relation of desire that defines the poet in relation to other authoritative men. Thus, in a way that is strongly illustrative of his amalgamating practice, Pound posits this specular relation as a premise to be applied with the rigor of an aphoristic statement: "There be thy mirror in men."
It is probably from the paradoxical perspective of a self-negating affirmation of the ego scriptor (simultaneously a male specular double and a female receptacle) that we should read Pound's emphatic assertion of his "nomanhood" in relation to Ouan Jin, the "man of letters" and the negative Poundian alter ego who tries to usurp the father's function of creating the world through the word:
"I am noman, my name is noman"
but Wanjina is, shall we say, Ouan Jin
or the man with an education
and whose mouth was removed by his father because he made too many things
Ouan Jin spoke and thereby created the named
In stark Manichean opposition to the excessive discursive "clutter" of the son, Pound then introduces immediately the biblical word of the creation. The latter, as we know from the earlier Hell Cantos and A Visiting Card, was betrayed through a usurious clutter of abstraction whose monetary and discursive "falsification" has caused the power of (pro)creative referential discourse to degenerate into the "satanic transubstantiation" of the word. The latter, with its metaphoric suggestion of a relapse into anal amorphous ness, represents the ultimate "falsification" of the natural generation of wealth through a chaotic overproduction of nonreferential signs. (If, at this point, I refer to a process of causality in relation to this Manichean polarity in Pound's vision, it is not so much to delineate a clear-cut opposition as to point out a process of ideological rationalization whereby the systemic failures inherent in monetary and poetic discourse are ascribed to a factor judged external and incidental to the order of monetary and poetic discourse.) The first passages of A Visiting Card, in which the nonreferential amorphousness and fragmentation of the order of words is not only justified by but also yoked to the monetary falsification of usury, provide a good instance of Pound's ideological rationalization according to the vague terms of concrete good and abstract evil:
We find two forces in history: one that divides, shatters, and kills, and one that contemplates the unity of the mystery.
"The arrow hath not two points."
There is the force that falsifies, the force that destroys every clearly delineated symbol, dragging man into a maze of abstract arguments, destroying not one but every religion. (my emphasis)
The resurrection of the "arrow" with one point, the seminal word-as-God-incarnate reerected as an antidote against the abstract forces that disseminate, "shatter," and "kill," is the event that Pound seems to celebrate in the Christian intimations of a reincarnation and a regeneration of the name of the Father through the word of the Son. Like those who emerge out of "the gates of death" after having "swum in a sea of air strip / through an aeon of nothingness," the poet turns to Christ's affirmation of His and God's rebirth and proliferation in the seminal word. The imagery of rebirth out of the chaos of death ("nothingness") is further sustained by an apposition of the dark "souterrain" (an agrarian metaphor for the underworld?) and the grain ready to sprout:
if calm be after tempest
that the ants seem to wobble
as the sun catches their shadows
with a smoky torch through the unending
labyrinth of the souterrain
or remembering Carleton let him celebrate Christ in the grain
and if the corn cat be beaten
Demeter has lain in my furrow.
More than just a homage to a secular figure of agricultural productivity (Carleton), the celebration of "Christ in the grain" has deeper symbolic connotations related to the biblical motif of the (pro)creative seminal word, the specular bind between the name of the Father and the word of the Son. In effect, using a similar agrarian image of proliferation after death, Jesus-as-God-incarnate posits His physical death as the necessary condition of a resurrection of the name of the Father through the filial word (John 12:24, 28).
Through the appropriation of the biblical interplay between the death of God-in-Jesus and His resurrection in the seminal word, Pound's affirmation of other men's rebirth by means of the (pro)creative agency of the Poem comes to stand for the matrix (the "furrow," the line) pregnant with the dead names' life to come. It is probably in this sense that "the [poetic] forma, the concept rises from death"—a dictum that refers us back to Pound's early-phrased desire to see the true poet new-mint language. For it is through such a regeneration of the dead order of representation that the perennial word of the hard poet, like the hard gold coin of the true leader, can be made to transcend its death by usurious disincarnation and dissemination: "The bust outlasts the throne / The coin Tiberius." Naturally, by confining it to the bearing of other men's names, Pound qualifies the (pro)creative poetic word as partaking of an exclusively homoerotic process. By virtue of its exclusiveness, this positing of a phallocentric order of representation as the antidote against the uterine stasis of death is not devoid of ambiguity. As we have seen in "Canto 1," the initial positing of the life-giving word of the Hermetic poet as an affirmation of the redemptive virile ego scriptor is always already a reversible function in the sense that, ultimately, it reveals the ambivalent position of the poet as both a potential holder of the seminal phallic word and a vacant noman. For even while aspiring to appropriation of the name of the father in "Canto 80," the ego scriptor still has to assert himself defensively—that is, as the matrix of the deferential noman, the furrow pregnant with the seed of names hibernating in the underworld of the Western scene. In a strangely infectious way, this reversible function if the ego scriptor (a specular double of other men and a female matrix) eventually marks the reversibility of the Poem itself: its status as an androgynous signifying body oscillating between its ideal of formalized being and its nightmare of fragmented nothingness, between the chaos of uterine vacancy and the (pro)creative plenitude of semantic presence.
As I have tried to demonstrate, the death stasis of the order of representation and its representatives appears in the Cantos as the symptom of a fragmented culture whose dislocation is rendered in the paroxysmal climax of the Pisan Cantos but whose liability to a collapse through a dislocution of the voices of author-ity already finds its inception in "Canto 1." With Pound's vision of the "amalgamating" function of the poet's voice in mind, we can see the cultural dimension of his invocation of the names of the impotent dead and the powerless figures of "Cantos 1, 76," and "80." If the poem fails to redeem the broken anthill of the Western scene by reviving its author-itative voices, however, we already know Pound's justification of this failure as well as the outcome of the justification. The outcome is, first, a repression of the inherently dislocutionary nature of discourse and the disseminatory nature of the monetary order; and, second, a symptomatic return of this repression in the deconstructive powers of usurious monetary misrepresentation—the betrayers of language.
In the Hell Cantos, usury is represented as a dissembling signifying force that eludes concrete, as well as meaningful, representation—a disseminating agency threatening creative and procreative power:
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
harpes et luz
or where virgin receiveth message
no picture is made to endure nor to live with
but is made to sell and sell quickly
with usura, sin against nature,
is thy bread as dry as paper,
It slayeth the young man's courting
It hath brought palsy to bed, lyeth
between the young bride and her bridegroom.
The usurious overproduction of dead monetary signifiers, the false representation of wealth, can turn "natural" (referential) art into an "unnatural," infinitely reproducible and marketable surface—a "picture." Likewise, instead of producing the real thing called bread, usury transforms the latter into a sign falsely represented on, and by, paper. This complete subversion of the natural thingness of the order of monetary and discursive representation, symbolized by the castration (the "palsy") of the male procreative capacity, eventually culminates in the images that refer to the misappropriation of gold and precious stones by usura and the discursive consequences of such a misappropriation. If, as Rabaté argues, we posit gold as being initially the signifier that "connotes the work of the poet writing with care," then it does not seem unwarranted to argue, against Rabaté's diachronic framing, that even in the later "Canto 45," for instance, the absence of gold from the weaver's work can be taken as a metaphoric expression of the usurpation of natural meaning from the poet's discourse:
It rusteth the craft and the craftsman
It gnaweth the thread in the loom
None learneth to weave gold in her pattern
Azure hath a canker by usura; cramoisie is unbroidered
Emerald findeth no Memling.
Pound's metaphoric equation of the misappropriation of gold with the monetary and discursive misrepresentations of the usurocratic "perverters of language" appears more emphatically in the Hell Cantos' association of the monetary overproduction of nonreferential signifiers with the "perversion" of anal sterility. It is true that in the Hell Cantos, as well as in "Canto 45," the signifiers of wealth (gold, jewels, money) seem the loathsome tokens of unnatural (noncreative) perversion—nameless, amorphous objects sucked in by the "mud" of chaotic anality. As the early and late Cantos how, however, it is this very regression of gold, the "natural" signifier of monetary and discursive referentiality, to the "ooze" and "lost contours" of anal amorphousness that necessitates the reestablishment of its author-iative status as the master-signifier of hard money and the hard word. Ultimately, and despite their attempts to defile jewels in the mud of hell chaos, the dwellers of Pound's hell end up "howling to find them unstained."
It is, then, in view of Pound's desire to restitute the true function of a disappropriated gold that the latter should be regarded as a reversible signifier in his works: it can shift from the usurious sphere of anal amorphousness and death to the (pro)creative sphere of the true political author-ity, which, as announced in Gold and Work, concerns itself with the referential dimension of money in concrete economic terms of vital creation of goods. In this sense, the later Cantos—with their scenes of reappropriation of gold by figures of authority—represent Pound's ideological belief that the monetary-discursive hell of the Western world is not a phenomenon inherent in discourse and in capital but an incidental occurrence redeemable through the Utopian centralization of the monetary order—a belief already expressed in A Visiting Card: "State or imperial money has always been an assertion of sovereignty. Sovereignty carries with it the right to coin or print money." Hence the constant emphasis (in "Canto 87," for instance) on a strict state control of issue rather than the nature of capital itself: "attention to outlet, no attention to source, / That is: the problem of issue. / Who issues it? How?" The master-metaphor for such a state of affairs (which is ultimately an affair of the state) is the libidinal tapping of perverse usurious excess. Hence the "order" and the "norm" of the Dynastic Cantos, which rise against the "semitic" fragmentation, the "grades and gradations" of a social body aspiring to "corporate" homo-geneity: "CHI KING ostendit incitatque. Vir autem rectus / et libidinis expers ita domine servat."
It is in view of an "attention to outlet" and the author-ity that issues and controls gold that such figures as William Jennings Bryan and Thomas Hart Benton (other paternal figures) are "Willing to see a currency of hard money," a "currency of intrinsic value" antithetically opposed to the usurocratic overproduction of "unconvertable [sic] paper." From this perspective of the recuperation of gold by the right figures of author-ity, it seems reasonable to suggest that for Bryan, as well as for the hard poet who posits himself against the anal overproduction of the soft poet, the only standard that should be erected as the index of monetary and discursive referentiality is hard gold. It is through a desire to reaffirm what is out of circulation, what needs to be new-minted, that Bryan rebels against the disseminatory power that has dispossessed him of his gold:
Wanted gold, coins not then in circulation,
Asked for the state of his account. The teller took up packages of bills and
asked in what size notes he wd/ have it.
"I want money." said Mr. Randolph.
The teller, beginning to understand him, said: Silver?
For both the figure of author-ity and the poet lost in the usurocratic ooze of disseminatory overproduction and misrepresentation, value on paper is still not the real thing of monetary and discursive representation. In this respect, perhaps the most important aspect of Pound's works stems from his obsessive belief that the mission of both figures lies in a search for the real thing outside the confines of formalized monetary and discursive representation (the bank, the soft word). It is a measure of the importance of such works that they should survive as the traces of a reversible struggle between a bondage to the chains of monetary and discursive signification and the aporic utopia of their identity as the incarnation of thingness beyond (or rather before) discourse.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 365
Beach, Christopher. "Ezra Pound and Harold Bloom: Influences, Canons, Traditions, and the Making of Modern Poetry." ELH: English Literary History 56, No. 2 (Summer 1989): 463-83.
Compares Pound's modernist theories of literary innovation and influence with those of contemporary literary critic Harold Bloom.
Casilo, Robert. "The Italian Renaissance: Pound's Problematic Debt to Burckhardt." Mosaic 22, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 13-29.
Discusses the influence of historian Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy on Pound's conception of Renaissance scholarship, cultural and aesthetic ideals, and historical view of Italian fascism.
Dasenbrock, Reed Way. "Ezra Pound, the Last Ghibelline." Journal of Modern Literature XVI, No. 4 (Spring 1990): 511-32.
Examines Pound's affinity for Mussolini in terms of his admiration for Italian culture and Dante's political ideals.
Goidensohn, Barry. "Pound and Antisemitism." Yale Review 75 (Spring 1986): 399-421.
Discusses Pound's anti-Semitic views and fascist loyalties.
Hartnett, Stephen. "The Ideologies and Semoitics of Fascism: Analyzing Pound's Cantos 12-15." Boundary 2 20, No. 1 (1993): 65-93.
Examines the historical context and semiotic representation of Pound's fascism and anti-Semitism in The Cantos.
Kronick, Joseph. "Resembling Pound: Mimesis, Translation, Ideology." Criticism XXXV, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 219-36.
Explores the mimetic function of ideology, economics, and aesthetic representation in Pound's poetry.
Nicholls, Peter. "'A Consciousness Disjunct': Sex and the Writer in Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley." Journal of American Studies 28 (1994): 61-75.
Examines issues of sexuality, romantic desire, and authorial identity in "Medallion" from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.
―――――――. "An Experiment with Time: Ezra Pound and the Example of Japanese Noh." Modern Language Review 90, No. 1 (1995): 1-13.
Explores Pound's assimilation of temporal structures from Noh theater to create dramatic movement in The Cantos.
Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P. "Ezra Pound's Occult Education." Journal of Modern Literature XVII, No. 1 (Summer 1990): 73-96.
Examines the significance of Pound's exposure to theosophy and psychic spirituality, gained through association with occult circles including William Butler Yeats and G.R.S. Mead.
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