Pound, Ezra 1885–1972
American poet, translator, essayist, and critic, Pound is heralded as the initiator of modern twentieth-century poetry. Influenced by Whitman's Leaves of Grass, his own lifetime masterpiece, Cantos, was constantly revised and added to during the more than forty years of its construction. Literary allusions, foreign phrases and forms abound in this volume, which T. S. Eliot called "an inexhaustible reference book of verse form." His translations of Chinese poetry are often criticized as misrepresentative of their original structure, reading like Pound's own work; such experimentation, however, added new dimensions to the genre, later expounded upon by other twentieth-century poets. Pound's political sympathies at one time threatened to diminish his reputation as one of the most innovative and creative artists of his generation. Influencing poetry before, during, and after his career as a poet, Pound was a secretary to Yeats, playing an important part in transforming that great poet's artistic vision during his last period. He is responsible for editing The Waste Land into the form that won Eliot world-wide acclaim, and his tenacious support of Joyce during a period of financial distress allowed the novelist to finish Ulysses. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 58, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)
Surprisingly little has been written about Pound's translation of the Old English "Seafarer." (p. 127)
Truly, the scholar who possesses the original poem is in an awkward position, faced with two poems remarkably alike but different; his approach inevitably suffers from a psychological interference—something like hearing a new interpretation of a familiar song. He may prefer a bland Modern English substitute, that reminds him of the original, to a fully recreated poem. The scholar too will have his own understanding of the poem; Pound's, following a line of scholarship now in disfavor, will almost certainly differ. The reader without Old English, on the other hand, may find Pound's poem magnificent …, but he may be troubled by rumours of Pound's blunders. The question can only be settled by a line-by-line comparison of the two poems, with a mind alert to possible reasons for whatever divergences do exist—for it will be found that their number has been exaggerated. A simple check-list of Pound's "errors" is most misleading. But, before such a comparison is possible, some other points must be kept in mind.
Pound first published his "Seafarer" in … 1911. Except for a brief "philological note" it formed without comment the first of a series of twelve articles under the title "I Gather the Limbs of Osiris," which were said to illustrate a "new method" in scholarship…. His "new method" of scholarship is a deliberate reaction against the German philological tradition in which he was trained: he explains it as the method of the "luminous detail," the single relevant fact that crystallizes all the facts comprising the Zeitgeist more efficiently than the catalog-of-details method that he opposed. Like Pater before him, Pound took for his model Jacob Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance. "The Seafarer," then, he offers as the "luminous detail" capturing the essence of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England. Such a method has less to do with scholarship, perhaps, than with imagism, which was the next step in Pound's development, and the method is sufficiently displayed in the Cantos, which combine both old and new in a veritable Germanic card-file of luminous details.
Thus the "Seafarer" has closer ties with Poundian imagism than first appears. The realism of the seafaring details in the original have impressed most of its readers (and they need not be less realistic even if we do accept the more recent...
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allegorizing interpretations). And Old English poetry, like imagism, is a poetry of nouns. This is apparent even in the metric, which characteristically stresses nouns rather than verbs. The kennings, too, are strikingly reminiscent of the juxtaposed pictures, the "verb-nouns," that Pound was soon to discover in Fenollosa's notes on Chinese poetry. (pp. 128-29)
The appearance of the "Seafarer" … [points up Pound's desire] to show that translation is itself an act of criticism. The translator must not merely bring over the semantic meaning of his text, he must first determine the text itself and then try to recreate its indefinable poetic qualities within the conditions of another language. With a doubtful text, the translator must make editorial decisions for the reader. When matters of interpretation or nuance are doubtful, the translator must choose, while the reader of the original may suspend judgment. And when the original is remarkable for some one quality in particular, its sound for example, the translator is artful insofar as he captures it, even while sacrificing other more ordinary accuracies. Generally in translating Old English poetry there are two special problems: to create a diction in which the kennings and double nouns seem natural, and to find an equivalent for a metric non-existent in Modern English.
Pound's solution for the diction of his poem has drawn criticism…. His diction is a vaguely archaic pastiche resembling no idiom ever spoken. Archaic language has been all but excluded from verse now for the past half century, and we commonly expect translations to pretend that they are poems written yesterday: for this Pound himself is partly responsible. But in 1911 not even Pound had shed the diction of Rossetti and the Nineties, and no contemporary poetic idiom was available. Contemporaneity had not yet emerged as a criterion. The archaic pastiche, with its "—eth" verbs and syntactic inversions, would have been more difficult to make convincing a few years later, but in 1911 it simply represented the first Georgian Anthology (1912) pushed to an extreme. This in itself would not save Pound's poem—it does not save William Morris's Beowulf or Gilbert Murray's Euripides—but Pound's diction proves itself capable of expressiveness, and I for one would not trade the passage beginning "Lordly men are to earth o'ergiven" for anything else in poetry. Pound, though, would not have made his seafarer speak like a contemporary in any circumstances. For one thing, Old English translates so readily into cognates and derivatives which tend to have a more archaic feeling than other types of words; yet Old English is comfortably translated so, while Latin poetry is insufferable in a Latinate vocabulary—a convincing demonstration that we still feel Old English as the root of the language. For another thing, Anglo-Saxon culture itself, like Provençal, has a remote and archaic feeling, while the culture of Latin poetry is closer to ours, decadent, urban, urbane. Accordingly, Pound's improvisations on Propertius are thoroughly modern, while his versions of Old English and Provençal are archaic, and those of Cavalcanti deliberately recall the idiom of Wyatt. (pp. 129-30)
The translator having dropped the pretense of contemporary diction, the alien constructions of Old English, the kennings, the double nouns, all fit naturally into a field of diction already remote in feeling. But this raises a further question: how metaphorical are the metaphors? The verb wrecan in the first line of the "Seafarer," for example—it means "to express," literally "to ex-press," to push out, and it is thus related metaphorically to the exile theme of the poem; but is the metaphor really felt, or has it been lost through overuse at the beginnings of poems? Some of the kennings, too, are doubtful. Is hwaeles ebel … really felt as "whale's home," or is it just another word for the sea, or is it more comparable to "scaly herd" for "fish" in a more recent poetic convention?… Pound, like most translators, assumes that such expressions ("song's truth," or "breast-cares") are truly metaphorical.
Pound's solution for the metric problem, unlike that for his diction, has been widely admired, and it is one of the best reasons for studying his "Seafarer." There is, or at least before Pound there was, no viable equivalent for the four-stress alliterative line; the translator must either use a metric already familiar (blank verse? fourteeners?) or else invent a form on the pattern of the original. (pp. 130-31)
Pound has always assumed that accurate translation includes an accurate equivalent for the sound and movement of the original, if the aural value is in some way remarkable. He had in these early days developed a mystique about word-rhythm, a belief in every rhythm as a unique Ding an sich: "I believe in an 'absolute rhythm,' a rhythm, that is, in poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed." This belief stands behind some of the practices in his "Seafarer" translation just as it stands behind the vers libre of imagism…. Many times Pound sacrifices semantic meaning for a sound-effect. But is is amazing to see how Pound is able to reproduce the cadence and sound of so many lines with uncanny accuracy:
hrim hrusan band, haegl feoll on eorban…. Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then….
Obviously this sort of thing is not possible very often, but the frequency of Pound's successes suggests the direction of his effort.
While Pound attempts to reproduce the sound of the original line, sometimes slavishly, he does not, like some translators …, make his metric conform to the rules of Anglo-Saxon prosody. Most of Pound's lines alliterate, but not all, and some on patterns impossible in Old English ("Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days….). A few stand as quasi-Virgilian half-lines. Pound most of the time tries to approximate the stress-pattern and the number of syllables found in the original, since variation in the number of slack syllables in the "drop" is the major resource for variety in a stress-metric. Pound's lines are tighter or looser, slower or faster, in accordance with the original; his divergences, though, are consistently in the direction of tightening the line, probably because in the new metre too many light syllables would create ambiguities about where the stress should fall. This results in a less free-flowing movement, a more gnomic quality than the original. In addition, Pound tends to break up longer sentences into shorter units, so that his style is somewhat more disjointed than some more recent critics might like.
Pound's most important metric practice, however, is a fairly simple one, yet it has been missed by every other translator I have seen. Old English verse rhythms are predominantly falling, and a majority of the lines drop away from a strong initial stress, presumably marked by the harp. Individual words, too, are regularly stressed on the first syllable (except for a few common prefixes). Consequently, Old English lines are marked as well by feminine endings, and individual words tend more toward feminine patterns than in Modern English (partly because of the inflections). This rhythmic phenomenon is perhaps a reason why the elegiac mood came so naturally to the Anglo-Saxon poet. But although falling rhythms are slightly unnatural in modern English verse, which is basically iambic, Pound takes great pains to preserve the falling patterns of the original. A glance at the beginnings of his lines will show how many have a strong initial stress—even more, in fact, than the original, as if to prove the point. I have looked too for single words with rising rhythm, but Pound seems to have avoided them entirely (again except for prefixes). And not surprisingly, Pound has taken equal care to make his line-endings overwhelmingly feminine. No other translation reproduces the falling rhythms of Old English poetry so successfully. (pp. 131-32)
Pound uses one device in his translations which has often been misrepresented as ignorance or carelessness, and this is the bilingual pun. An example is the translation of wrecan as "reckon." Pound's rationale for this practice is connected with his effort to approximate sound-effects, even at the expense of semantic meaning. Nearly always, though, the meaning Pound substitutes is a fair paraphrase which would pass without comment were it not for the suspect pun. Wrecan means "to express," but the metaphorical weight is doubtful; Pound's word is another verb meaning roughly "to suppose," or even sometimes "to express," and it is a slightly overworn metaphor…. Pound's puns sometimes have little more defense than that he liked the sound. And it is no wonder that teachers of Old English raise their eyebrows, having watched so many students stumble into the same traps. But I think it is quite clear at least that Pound knew what he was doing—the device appears often enough in this and other translations, and Pound occasionally translates literally in one place and by pun in another. In nearly all cases the effect can be justified by sound, tone, or nuance.
I have stressed that translation is always a kind of interpretation, and the translator of the "Seafarer" is forced to make a number of editorial decisions. Much has happened in Old English scholarship since 1911 to date Pound's version of the poem. It is worth noting Pound's position on the two questions of interpretation that have occupied most of recent criticism. On the first of these it is enough to say that Pound agrees with Sweet and a majority of scholars that "the simplest view of the poem is that it is the monologue of an old sailor." (pp. 132-33)
The question of Pound's de-Christianization of the "Seafarer" is a more serious matter. The difference in tone between Pound's version and the current conception of the original as a Christian lament, or even a Christian allegory, is far more drastic for this reason than for all of Pound's local blunders taken together. Yet Pound was perfectly in line with the best scholarship of his day. This must be understood, or else Pound's suppression of the Christian elements in the poem will seem arbitrary. That it was clear in his own mind what he was doing is shown in the "philological note" appended to the New Age printing of the poem:
The text of this poem is rather confused. I have rejected half of line 76, read "Angles" for angels in line 78, and stopped translating before the passage about the soul and the longer lines beginning, "Mickle is the fear of the Almighty," and ending in a dignified but platitudinous prayer to the Deity: "World's elder, eminent creator, in all ages, amen." There are many conjectures as to how the text came into its present form. It seems most likely that a fragment of the original poem, clear through about the first thirty lines, and thereafter increasingly illegible, fell into the hands of a monk with literary ambitions, who filled in the gaps with his own guesses and "improvements." 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 purpose in including the "Seafarer" in his New Age series was … to represent the native, pagan Anglo-Saxon stock ready to receive influences from the south; he had by 1911, furthermore, developed his personal anti-Christian prejudices. Accordingly, and with the full sanction of scholarship, Pound attempted to recreate in his translation the original Ur-"Seafarer" systematically stripped of its Christian references. (p. 134)
S. J. Adams, "A Case for Pound's 'Seafarer'," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1976 by the University of Manitoba Press; acknowledgement of previous publication is herewith made), Vol. IX, No. 2 (Winter, 1976), pp. 127-46.
Because of [the] cavalier disregard of ascertainable facts and documents we can be offered, as a portrait of the youthful Pound, a figure who [according to George Quasha] "was seeking a radical redefinition of poetic possibilities and returning to the roots of civilization in order to show how much had been lost in the watery conventions handed over to us by the nineteenth century." The ascertainable records present us on the contrary with a man who admired Swinburne and Thomas Hardy and D. G. Rossetti, Beddoes and Landor and Browning, Gautier and Heine and Leopardi, Stendhal and Remy de Gourmont and Flaubert; a man who had virtually no views of American nineteenth-century literature, since he appears not to have read attentively (nor was he to read) Emily Dickinson or Melville or Hawthorne, Fenimore Cooper or Thoreau; who thought on the other hand that "there is more wisdom, perhaps more 'revolution' in Whistler's portrait of young Miss Alexander than in all the Judaic drawings of the 'prophetic' Blake", in short, a man who carried more nineteenth-century baggage than any comparably gifted contemporary among writers in English. If Pound is a master and founding father of twentieth-century modernism in the arts, it is certainly not by virtue of having exploded, and persuaded us to reject, nineteenth-century pretensions.
we may reach back further, and consider not the nineteenth century but the eighteenth…. As with nineteenth century "romantic" culture, so with eighteenth-century "Enlightenment" culture, we find Pound cast in a role of iconoclast which an unprejudiced scrutiny of his recorded opinions simply will not support.
Accordingly, when we hear it happily declared of the United States in the 1970s, "Our scene is very different from the cultural vacuum at the turn of the century which drove Ezra Pound heroically to seek to 'resuscitate the dead art of poetry,'" we ought to be on our guard. And sure enough the documents make it clear that, for the young Ezra Pound, London between 1908 and 1912 was anything but a "cultural vacuum"…. Moreover, many readers of Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley take the line, "resuscitate the dead art of poetry," ironically, as a gibe at anyone who is damfool enough to think that the art of poetry is, or could be, "dead." In short, everywhere we turn, so long as we have some scruples about evidence, we encounter in the young Pound not a revolutionary or iconoclast but a sometimes militant conservative.
Indeed, it is possible to argue that Pound was at bottom an Edwardian man of letters …, and that the provocative oddities of his later poetry and his later opinions reflect merely the increasingly desperate straits to which a man formed in that milieu was compelled, as political and social developments destroyed any possibility of that kind of milieu being reconstituted. Certainly Pound's Edwardianism, if we may call it that, was something that he never wholly outgrew. And so when he died, there disappeared not only the last surviving specimen of one sort of twentieth-century modernist but also, odd as it must seem, the last survivor of a still older breed, formed by the century before. (pp. 7-9)
The European "confederation" that Pound thought he spoke for throughout his life was effectively a Europe that spoke Latin and its Romance derivatives, including English as the most remote and partial of those derivatives, and making special provision for classical Greek as in important ways the original source of them all, even of Latin. And the sanities and wisdoms that Pound conceived of himself as promoting against the evermore impudent barbarians were carried—so he thought, and was to think—pre-eminently in Latin and the Romance languages…. (p. 13)
But if the language trusted by the young Pound is Romance language in this respectable, technical, and well-defined sense, what's to be said of language like this?
Aye, I am wistful for my kin of the spirit And have none about me save in the shadows When come they, surging of power, 'DAEMON' 'Quasi KALOUN'. S.T. says Beauty is most that, a 'calling to the soul.' Well then, so call they, the swirlers out of the mist of my soul, They that come mewards, bearing old magic.
Here we have "Romance language" in an altogether less reputable sense, which has more to do with romanticism (and with Victorian late-romanticism) than with the harshly direct language of a genuine "Romance" poet like Villon. The lines above are from "In Durance" (1907), which appeared in Pound's third collection, Personae (… 1909); and what they are struggling to say is after a fashion in keeping with the language that Pound tries to say it in. "S.T." is Coleridge, and the Coleridge text appealed to is the essay "On the Principles of Genial Criticism," which advances a Platonic or neo-Platonic idea of the nature and function of poetry, as Pound's poem does also. Moreover, the neo-Platonic matter of these lines is something that persisted in Pound's thought. And if, as historians of ideas, we were to concentrate on the paraphrasable content of Pound's poetry, we could see such an early poem as saying things which he will still be saying at the end of his life. But it is precisely the radical difference in the manner of saying, early and late, which is crucial. For the experience of reading Pound's Cantos isn't remotely like the experience of reading neo-Platonic romantic poets like Shelley or D. G. Rossetti…. "Pseudo-archaic" is exact for "Aye, I am wistful," and "They that come mewards."… This is romance language in the sense that it is the language of historical romances written in late-Victorian and Edwardian England; it is not a medium in which anything can be communicated forcefully or crisply.
This is, however, only one component in the language of these lines. "Surging of power" belongs in some different idiom altogether, which is impossible to name; the notetaker's telegraphese of "S.T." belongs in another idiom again; and the Greek expressions, "DAEMON" and "Quasi KALOUN," belong in yet another. These last are syntactically quite without anchorage in what offers itself as a normal English sentence. And this abandonment of grammar mirrors accurately the desperation of the poet, who can manage no more than to have these disparate idioms jostle helplessly one against another, though he is possessed of a conviction that they could be articulated one with another, if only he could find the key. At this stage he cannot; and so all that is conveyed is the desperation of the effort and the need. The language is a chronically unstable mix of linguistic elements from the European past, held together by will, by nothing more than the urgency of the poet's need. Their coherence is something wished for and vehemently gestured at, certainly not demonstrated or achieved. The vehemence of the need is quite without parallel among poets writing and publishing in London in the first decade of this century…. (pp. 13-16)
[Pound's peculiar rashness and impetuosity] had everything to do with the fact that [he] was American; that is to say, a poet of the English tongue to whom it came naturally to regard English as just one of the princely dialects of Europe. An American like Pound came to Europe; and if he came to England, it was to one of the provinces of that larger cultural entity. No Edwardian Englishman thought of England that way…. [He] defined himself in his national identity as that which Continental Europe was not. But to a devoted American Europeanist like the young Pound, what was precious about England was not what marked her off from the Continent but what bound her to the Mediterranean heartlands. Hence the unconvincing impetuosity with which the poet of "In Durance" moves from mock-archaic English to Greek…. [Pound] wanted to create or re-create a lingua franca of Greco-Roman Christendom in which English would operate as a sister language with French and Spanish and Italian. The mere mix of "In Durance" was to become the compound language of The Cantos—a compound still perhaps unstable, but not so easily dissoluble.
The author of "In Durance" and of The Spirit of Romance was the author also of Patria Mia (1912), in which he wrote consciously and explicitly as a citizen of the United States, addressing himself specifically to the state of culture, and the prospects for culture, in his native land. (pp. 17-18)
It is in any case highly significant that [Patria Mia], Pound's most obviously and explicitly American book, should have a Latin title. He attempts to foresee a future for America according to paradigms he had learned about in Europe. Neither at this time nor afterward does Pound share the conviction and the hope which as a matter of historical record have fired the cultural achievements of the white man in North America ever since Plymouth Plantation—the hope and belief that the new continent offered a new start, a new Eden for a new Adam, liberated from the corruptions and errors of Europe and forewarned by European history of how to avoid European mistakes. On the contrary, Pound takes it for granted that if America is ever to produce or become a noble civilization, it can do so only by modeling itself on European precedents, precedents that are ultimately or originally Greek and Roman. (pp. 20-1)
Imagism (originally "imagisme," as if by French spelling to borrow the required Parisian éclat) was an exclusively literary movement, whereas the later vorticism claimed to comprehend all the arts and was strongest in painting and sculpture. Yet Pound himself seems to have thought of vorticism as only a prolongation and theoretical elaboration of what he had fought for under the banner of imagism, until imagism was taken away from him, and trivialized, by Amy Lowell. If we ask for the theory of imagism, it is otherwise hard to find; though it can be put together out of certain speculations of T. E. Hulme as early as 1909, at which time the movement had had a sort of aborted birth. But the imagism of 1913, when Pound's energy and impudence made it a talking point in London and Chicago, was not theoretical at all but came across as two or three punchily expressed rules of thumb, as in the famous "A Few Don'ts for an Imagist":
Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.
Don't use such an expression as "dim lands of peace." It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.
Go in fear of abstractions. Don't retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don't think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths….
Don't imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music.
Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it.
Don't allow "influence" to mean merely that you mop up the particular decorative vocabulary of some one or two poets whom you happen to admire….
Use either no ornament or good ornament.
This is a striking change from the "Romance language" of only a few months before. And with pronouncements in this impatient plain-man idiom there emerged the figure of Pound the iconoclast, a rhetorical illusion which still too often obscures the lineaments of the man who fabricated and deployed the rhetoric for certain short-term purposes; who chose for those temporary purposes to conceal the far from "plain-man" perspectives that he nonetheless had in mind…. In Pound's mind imagism was, perhaps centrally, a program [derived from convictions of Ford Madox Ford] for bringing into poetry the Flaubertian mot juste. In other words, it was, despite appearances, just one more program in, or out of, "Romance languages." (pp. 32-5)
The mot juste that Ford and Pound admired was to be found as readily in Catullus or Villon or indeed George Crabbe as in Flaubert. And a Catullus or a Villon was more instructive than Flaubert because, like any poet of any century, each had had to deny himself the cumulative effect with which a Flaubert could recreate a whole milieu by a multitude of exactly registered particulars. Upon the poet there was imposed the further task of selecting, from among the array of significant particulars, that one, or those one or two, which could be made, by judicious deployment of a specifically poetic resource like cadence, to stand for all the rest. And so there enters into Pound's thinking the principle of "the luminous detail," the single particular which, chosen with enough care and rendered with enough exactness, can impel the reader to summon up for himself all the other particulars implied by that salient one. It is a principle crucial to all poetic structures, as Pound realized…. In later life Pound was to suppose, perilously, that this principle which worked for poetic structures applied to intellectual structures also…. (pp. 35-6)
Pound was in trouble, in any case. For the valuable prosaicism which Ford had taught him to look for and demand is much more readily attainable, perhaps also more important, in poetry written for the speaking voice than in poetry that aspires to be sung. And yet Pound's natural bent and talent had always been for poetry that should be sung, rather than for such spoken genres as epigram, lampoon, epistle. Apart from anything else, these genres call for a sure grasp of social tone, whereas there is much evidence that Pound was socially maladroit. Accordingly, in the years of imagism and vorticism we find him painstakingly attempting, in epigram and lampoon, niceties of urbane insolence and Jamesian nuance such as he could not command. (pp. 36-7)
[There] is no question of making Pound out to be "classical" or a "classicist," as against "romantic" or "romanticist."… Pound was, despite appearances, conservative; and to be conservative in his generation meant prolonging some romantic attitudes as well as prolonging or reviving preromantic ones. (p. 38)
Pound had little patience with the central endeavor of symbolisme, which explored the analogy [of words] not with sculpture but with music. It is easy to get this wrong. Have I not just insisted that Pound wanted to write poems for singing rather more than poems for speaking? And do we not find him at every possible opportunity telling poets how much a study of music will do for them? Yes; but the music that Pound has in mind is real sounds in sequence, an actual melody, whereas the idea of music which fascinated Mallarmé and Valéry was precisely that—the idea of music, the idea of a poetic art that should be nonreferential or self-referential like the art of music. Pound seemingly had no interest in that. What Pound had in mind was a marriage of the two arts, not an analogy between them…. [The] momentousness of imagism as Pound conceived of it lies just in its being not a variant of symbolisme or a development out of it, but a radical alternative to it…. Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (1916) is overtly concerned with vorticism, not imagism—which only shows how the two movements were, in Pound's sense of the matter, really one. Gaudier-Brzeska is a work of theory; and so the difference between symbolisme and imagism can there be presented as philosophical, epistemological. It should not by this time surprise us that in this perspective imagism is revealed as the conservative and traditional rejoinder to symbolisme's dangerous innovations. The traditional authority that Pound appeals to is Aquinas. Like Aquinas, the imagist holds that a proposition—for instance, "the pine tree in mist upon the far hill looks like a fragment of Japanese armor"—is either true or false; true or false, not just to the state of mind or angle of vision of the perceiver but to the real appearance, the real relations in real space, of what is perceived. Either what is reported of pine trees and plates of armor is a true account of the spatial and other relations asserted, or else it is not true, however honestly it may reproduce the impression produced upon a perceiver who may be abnormally situated or in an abnormal state of mind. The idea of "normality" is unphilosophical, in the sense that one takes on faith the existence of a norm in perceiving. But the imagist will make that act of faith, just as common sense does, and as the symboliste does not. Pound, like Gautier, is one of those "pour qui le monde visible existe"; and the best pages of Gaudier-Brzeska are those in which Pound most exultantly justifies that proclivity, and insists on the impoverishment that comes as soon as we begin to doubt that the perceivable world truly exists as something other than ourselves, bodied against us. On the other hand, we must not suppose that our organs of perception are limited to the five senses; Pound was sure—for some of us, excessively sure—that they were not. (pp. 39-41)
[Hugh Selwyn Mauberley] is, and has proved to be, the most accessible of Pound's longer poems, the one that it is easiest to start with. For just that reason it is a poem that one must grow through, and grow out of, though the literary world is full of people who got this far and no further—for whom, accordingly, this is Pound's best poem, or the only one of his poems that is "an assured achievement." Pound's word for it, when he sent it to Hardy, was "thin"—"the Mauberley is thin." And "thin" may well be the right word, which explains why thin and constricted and rancorously distrustful sensibilities can respond to this poem by Pound as to no other.
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley consists of two sequences, one of thirteen poems dated 1919, followed by one of five poems dated 1920. The appearance of intricate interlinkings and cross references between the sequences and between the poems is, I now think, largely illusory. But one that is not an illusion is the relationship between the poem that closes the second sequence, "Medallion," and the poem that closes the first, "Envoi." It has been proved that these two poems are companion pieces…. (p. 50)
[Hugh Selwyn Mauberley] is the elaborate culmination of Pound's attempts to be urbane, but urbanity did not come naturally to him; on the contrary, he rather often adopted the wrong strategems in social situations. Among such stratagems was a range of expedients subsumed by Pound under the name of persona or mask. His protégé Eliot had made brilliant use of the strictly verbal persona J. Alfred Prufrock; and his Anglo-Irish mentor, Yeats, was to make brilliant histrionic use of masks called Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne and Crazy Jane. Pound seems to have intended Hugh Selwyn Mauberley to serve him in the same way. But his temperament was quite different from either Eliot's or Yeats's; his treatment of Villon in The Spirit of Romance reveals that he responded readily in his reading to a quality of robust self-exposure in poets, precisely what the doctrines of persona and mask were designed to obviate. Accordingly, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a mask that continually slips…. What is the mask for, if, as often as not, the poet throws it off and speaks vulnerably as and from himself? More distractingly still, since we are advised of the mask in the very title, how are we to know in which poems Pound speaks through the mask, in which he doesn't? Hugh Selwyn Mauberley remains a very important poem; apart from anything else, it has proved to be the most insidiously and aptly quotable of Pound's poems, and it has very great merit as an Englishing of Gautier. But it looks as if it will figure in Pound's oeuvre … as a relatively early piece which unsympathetic readers can use as a stick with which to beat later work that the poet set more store by. (pp. 53-4)
[The] language of Homage to Sextus Propertius, or … much of it, is "translatorese."… [It exemplifies] the English of the bored schoolboy lazily construing his Latin homework but, equally, the proudly pompous clerk (Pakistani, Cypriot, or whatever) using the language of those who were lately his imperial masters. The point is a crucial one, for Homage to Sextus Propertius is often presented as a model of how to translate, whereas much of the time it is a deliberate model of how not to! So far from being a model for translators to follow, it deliberately and consistently incorporates mistranslation…. It is most often a case of unsuitably heightened diction; and this accounts for hilarious passages in an idiom which we have learned to call, since Pound's day, "camp." But sometimes … the comical oddity is not in the vocabulary so much as in word order and syntax…. (pp. 58-9)
Every [example] of mistranslation can be detected as such by an attentive and halfway sophisticated reader of the English. There is no need to check back to the Latin text of Propertius. But Pound, for good measure, deliberately planted ludicrous howlers, to amuse those who knew the Latin or chose to consult it. This was a miscalculation…. [All] the manifold ironies of Homage to Sextus Propertius are directed ultimately at the reader, who is convicted, line by line, of having only pompously imperial, [elaborately mistranslated] English, into which to render a poem that derides and deflates imperial pretensions. Thus it appears that by wholly transposing "imperialism" into language, into the texture of style, by forgetting his own existence "for the sake of the lines," Pound has effected a … wounding and penetrating critique of imperialism in general…. (pp. 60-1)
Those who know [The Cantos] by hearsay—and few know them any other way—will think they can declare at least some of the ideas of the poem. That usury is a vicious and desolating force in both public and private life; that it may be defined in such-and-such a way; that it has operated in recorded history after such-and-such a fashion; that international Jewry has played, and continues to play, such-and-such a crucial part in its operations; that Mussolini, unlike Roosevelt, had a grasp of what usury was and had a practicable plan for containing and disinfecting it—such, hearsay reports, are among the ideas which The Cantos incorporate, if indeed they are not the ideas which The Cantos were written to promote.
And yet these, it may be said, are not ideas at all, but opinions. For "opinions" read "convictions," and the case is not altered…. One may feel that in Pound's poem, when Roosevelt grapples with Mussolini, the bout is rigged; that one of the wrestlers is prevented from exerting his full strength; and accordingly that the fixity of the fixed opinion in favor of Mussolini lacks the vibrancy of the hard-earned fixities we esteem in other poems by other hands. (pp. 62-4)
What is crucial is that we should understand by "idea" in The Cantos the whole of [a] process of circling round and throwing out. (An idea, we might say, is thrown out, whereas an opinion is held by or held on to.) The whole of this process, and indeed a little more; for [there is a] turning inside-out, [a] switch into [an] inverted spiral…. (p. 74)
What is fatal, though it is very common, is to regard the idea as having been stated in the initial proposition; and the verses which follow … as supplying no more than embroidery upon the idea, at best illustrations or elaborations of it. Read in that way, the Cantos are merely boring. They were found so by the late Yvor Winters, who, conceiving of an idea as that which could be stated in the form of a proposition, recorded his experience of reading The Cantos by saying, "We have no way of knowing whether we have had any ideas or not." Winters meant to be dismissive and disparaging; but in fact, if we take account of what he understood "idea" to be, Winters' remark is one of the few valuably exact formulations that we have, of what reading The Cantos amounts to, and feels like.
As we start to read The Cantos, we float out upon a sea where we must be on the lookout for waterspouts. These, when they occur, are ideas, the only sort that this poem is going to give us. And meanwhile we can forget about such much-debated nonquestions as whether this poem has a structure, and if so, what it is: or again, why the poem isn't finished, and whether it ever could have been. Does a sea have a structure? Does a sea finish anywhere? (pp. 74-5)
Though the Cantos are "epic," rather few of them display "the surge and sway of the epic music." (Canto I displays it, as does [part of] Canto 47; and so we respond to these without much trouble.) For the most part the rhythms of the Cantos … are the sung rhythms of Burns, not the intoned or chanted rhythms of Swinburne.
And so the verse lines of the Cantos have to be read fast for their meanings, but slow for their sounds. It is a miracle that they find any responsive readers at all…. (pp. 92-3)
In English there is no other poet of the twentieth century, and few of any century, with an ear fine enough to have managed [progressions as Pound has]. And in demonstrating it we've taken note only of those principles which our notation can register. The haunting musicality depends equally on other principles at work, which we detect at work but have no way of registering. (p. 98)
To Pound it seemed, as it has to others, that in Protestant cultures it was the Hebraic component which instilled fear and distrust of sensuous pleasure; and so he threw his weight always on the side of the Hellenic voice which called on sculptors to make images of the gods, as against the Hebraic iconoclasm which was set against "graven images." (p. 101)
[Poetry] composed so as to be spoken aloud, or to be chanted or sung to a suitably scrupulous accompaniment, does address itself directly to one of the senses. It addresses itself directly to the ear, by creating discernible and pleasurable audible rhythms. And this, as one might expect, is a dimension of literature with which Pound concerned himself very assiduously throughout his career…. Nothing marks Pound off so sharply from the avant-garde of the past thirty years, which tries to sail under his colors; for this avant-garde, if it does not explicitly abandon audible rhythms in poetry as a traditional indulgence which it will no longer tolerate, concerns itself with them not at all so as to give pleasure to reader or auditor but on the contrary only so as to stay purportedly more true to the mood, and the sensitive or even physical constitution, of the poet. It was not thus, nor on those grounds, that Pound declared: "To break the pentameter, that was the first heave."… [It] was because Pound knew himself capable of creating for his reader rhythmical pleasures which the expectation of the pentameter prevented both him and his reader from realizing. Many critics who would deny to Pound any other achievement have allowed him at least this one—that he had "an ear," that he truly could command a range of audible rhythms which only a liberation from the authority of the pentameter permitted him first, and his reader afterward, to recognize, positively to hear. (pp. 101-02)
Donald Davie, in his Ezra Pound (copyright © 1975 by Donald Davie; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), Viking Penguin, 1976.
The reader who is not a student of poetry has [a] ground for indifference [towards Pound]. Pound, he has always heard, has no "matter." Granting the "importance" of his verse, granting the possibility that having been for poets fertile it might prove on acquaintance agreeable or beautiful, what has he to do with this sport, a matterless poetry?… "I confess," Eliot once wrote, "that I am seldom interested in what he is saying, but only in the way he says it"; and R. P. Blackmur, "He is all surface and articulation." We notice Eliot's qualification ("seldom") and we are puzzled by an ambiguity in Blackmur's "articulation" (is this jointing or merely uttering?); but on the whole they put authoritatively the established view. Now there can be no question of traversing such authorities directly. But it is a violent and remarkable charge; I think we are bound to look into it a little. (p. 256)
Pound's poetry treats of Provence, China, Rome, London, medieval living, modern living, human relationships, authors, young women, animals, money, games, government, war, poetry, love, and other things. This can be verified. What the critics must mean, then, is that they are aware of a defect, or defects, in the substance of the poetry. About one defect they have been explicit: the want of originality of substance. Pound has no matter of his own. Pound—who is even in the most surprising quarters conceded to be a "great" translator—is best as a translator…. I do not feel sure that time is bearing out … [this] judgment; the finest sections of Pound's postwar farewell to London, where the grotesquerie of Tristan Corbière is a new element in the complex style, naïve and wily, in which he celebrates the modern poet's difficulties and nostalgia, seem to me somewhat more brilliant, solid, and independent than the finest sections of the Roman poem [Propertius]. (p. 258)
Does any reader who is familiar with Pound's poetry really not see that its subject is the life of the modern poet? (p. 260)
It is everywhere (as well as in the Chinese work) in the more "original" poems and epigrams of Lustra, written 1913–16. (A lustrum is "an offering for the sins of the whole people, made by the censors at the expiration of their five years of office." It has not perhaps been sufficiently observed that Pound is one of the wittiest poets who ever wrote. Yet he is serious enough in this title. In certain attitudes—his medieval nostalgia, literary anti-Semitism, others—he a good deal resembles Henry Adams; each spent his life, as it were, seeking an official post where he could be used, and their failure to find one produced both the freedom and the inconsequence that charm and annoy us in these authors.) (p. 261)
[Certain] themes in the life of the modern poet [are] indecision-decision and infidelity-fidelity. Pound has written much more love poetry than is generally realized, and when fidelity and decision lock in his imagination, we hear extraordinary effects, passionate, solemn…. If Pound is neither the poet apostrophized here nor the poet apostrophizing, not Milton or Wordsworth, his place will be high enough. These themes of decision and fidelity bear on much besides love in his poetry, and even—as one would expect with a subject of the poet-in-exile (Ovid, Dante, Villon, Browning, Henry James, Joyce, Pound, Eliot, as Mann, Brecht, Auden) whose allegiance is to an ideal state—upon politics:
homage, fealty are to the person can not be to body politic …
Of course there are other themes, strong and weak, and multiplicity of topics, analogies to the life of the modern poet, with or without metaphor the interests of the poet. But this would appear to characterize any poet's work. I mean more definitely "Life and Contacts," as the subtitle of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley has it.
It is not quite Ezra Pound himself…. Pound is his own subject qua modern poet; it is the experience and fate of this writer "born / In a half savage country, out of date," a voluntary exile for over thirty years, that concern him. Another distinction is necessary. Wallace Stevens has presented us in recent years with a series of strange prose documents about "imagination" and "reality." If Stevens's poetry has for substance imagination, in this dichotomy, Pound's has for substance reality. A poem like "Villanelle: the Psychological Hour" … could have been made only by Pound, and the habit of mind involved has given us much truth that we could not otherwise have had…. The "distance" everywhere felt in the finest verse that treats his subject directly has, I think, two powerful sources, apart from the usual ones (versification and so on). First, there is the peculiar detachment of interest with which Pound seems to regard himself; no writer could be less revelatory of his passional life, and his friends have recorded—Dr Williams with annoyance—the same lifelong reticence in private. Second, his unfaltering, encyclopedic mastery of tone—a mastery that compensates for a comparative weakness of syntax…. Behind this mastery lies his ear. I scarcely know what to say of Pound's ear. Fifteen years of listening have not taught me that it is inferior to the ear of the author of Twelfth Night. The reader who heard the damage done, in my variation, to Pound's line—So old Elkin had only one glory—will be able to form his own opinion.
We write verse … with our ears, so this is important. Forming, animating, quelling his material, that ear is one of the main, weird facts of modern verse. It imposes upon the piteous stuff of the Pisan Cantos a "distance" as absolute as upon the dismissal of the epigram just cited. The poet has listened to his life, so to speak, and he tells us that which he hears.
Both the personality-as-subject and the expressive personality are nearly uniform, I think, once they have developed. In Yeats, in Eliot, we attend to re-formations of personality. Not really in Pound; he is unregenerate. "Toutes mes pièces datent de quinze ans," he quoted once with approval from a friend, and the contrast he draws between the life of the poet as it ought to be (or has been) and as it is, this contrast is perennial. But if this account of the poet's subject is correct, what can have concealed it from most even sympathetic and perceptive critics and readers? (pp. 262-64)
The reader is in one way more nearly right than the majority of critics. He is baffled by a heterogeneity of matter …, but he hears a personality in Pound's poetry. In fact, his hostility … is based upon this. The trouble is that he hears the personality he expected to hear, rather than the one that is essentially there. He hears Pound's well-known prose personality, bellicose, programmatic, positive, and he resents it. Pound is partly responsible. This personality does exist in him, it is what he has lived with, and he can even write poetry with it, as we see in "Sestina: Altaforte" and elsewhere early and late. A follower of Browning, he takes a keenly active view of poetry, and has, conceivably, a most imperfect idea both of just what his subject is and of what his expressive personality is like.
This personality is feline, supra-delicate, absorbed. If Browning made the fastest verse in English, Pound makes the slowest, the most discrete and suave…. There is restlessness; but the art of the poet places itself, above all, immediately and mysteriously at the service of the passive and elegiac, the nostalgic. The true ascendancy of this personality over the other is suggested by a singular fact: the degree in which the mantic character is absent from his poetry. He looks ahead indeed, looks ahead eagerly, but he does not feel ahead; he feels back. (p. 265)
The Cantos seem to be a metaphor…. I believe the critical view is that it is a "rag-bag" of the poet's interests, "a catalogue, his jewels of conversation." It can be read with delight and endless profit thus, if at any rate one understands that it is a work of versification, that is, a poem. The basal rhythm I hear is dactylic, as in the Swinburne and Ouang Chi passages and in the opening line, "And then went down to the ship,"—in this line we see the familiar tendency of English dactyls to resolve themselves into anapests with anacrusis, but the ambiguity seems to me to be progressively avoided as the poem advances. But the rag-bag view depends for support upon lines that Pound cut out of the primitive printed versions of the earliest cantos; the form greatly developed, the form for the subject. For a ragbag, the poem sets out very oddly. (p. 266)
[The] interpenetration of life and art, in metaphor, is one of the poem's triumphs, a Coleridgean "fusing." (p. 267)
Reviewers of the Pisan Cantos have showed surprise that they were so "personal," and yet very fine,—it is the most brilliant sequence indeed since the original thirty. The Cantos have always been personal; only the persona increasingly adopted, as the Poet's fate clarifies, is Pound himself. The heterogeneity of material … seems to have three causes. The illusion of Pound's romanticism ("—if romanticism indeed be an illusion!" he exclaims in Indiscretions) has given him an inordinate passion for ages and places where the Poet's situation appears attractive, as in the Malatesta cantos, where Sigismondo is patron as much as ruler and lover …, and the Chinese cantos …; here he is sometimes wonderful but sometimes ungovernable. Then he is anxious to find out what has gone wrong, with money and government, that has produced our situation for the Poet; several of the money cantos … are brilliant, but most of the American historical cantos … are willed, numb, angry—the personae Jefferson and John Adams are not felt and so the material is uncontrolled. The rest of his heterogeneity is due to an immoderate desire, strong in some other modern artists also, for mere conservation—
And lest it pass with the day's news Thrown out with the daily paper….
Once the form, and these qualifications, are understood, Pound's work presents less difficulty than we are used to in ambitious modern poetry. Pieces like "A Song for the Degrees" (an anti-Psalm) and "Papyrus" (a joke, for that matter, a clear and good one) are rare. Occasionally you have to look things up if you don't wish to be puzzled; and it does no harm to use the index volume of Britannica 11th, and various dictionaries, and to be familiar with Pound's prose, when you read the Cantos; the labour is similar to that necessary for a serious understanding of Ulysses, and meditation is the core of it. To find out what a modern poet has done, we have often to ask why he did it.
The poet's own statements must be accepted with a certain reserve, which neither his admirers nor his detractors have always exercised. Thus the Cantos are said to be written in an equivalent for ideogram. We have recognized their relation to parts of Fenollosa. But Fenollosa's technical center is an attack on the copula; I observe that four of the lines about Ouang Chi successively employ the copula without loss to characteristic beauty, and I reason that we must inquire into these things for ourselves. More interesting, far, are the equivalents for musical form, and the versification. So with Pound's remark that the Cantos are "the tale of the tribe"; they seem to be only apparently a historical or philosophical epic, actually a personal epic—as he seems to understand himself elsewhere in Culture when he suggests that the work may show … the "defects inherent in a record of struggle." Pound, too, may really, like his critics, regard the work nearly plotless and heroless…. The Hell allusions in the first half of the work, with the allusions to Heaven in recent cantos,… strongly imply a major form. But all present discussion must be tentative. I have the impression that Pound allowed, in whatever his plan exactly is (if it exactly is, and if it is one plan), for the drift-of-life, the interference of fate, inevitable in a period of violent change; that this may give us something wholly unpredictable in the cantos to come, as it has given us already the marvellous pages of the Pisan Cantos…. It would be interesting, if the Cantos were complete, to compare the work with another poem, not more original in conception, exhibiting, if a smaller range of material and technical variety, greater steadiness, a similar substance, and a similar comprehensive mastery of expression, The Prelude; but the argument of my very limited essay is ended. Let us listen to this music. (pp. 267-69)
John Berryman, "The Poetry of Ezra Pound," in his The Freedom of the Poet (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1949, 1960 by John Berryman; copyright © 1976 by Kate Berryman; renewed copyright © 1976 by Kate Berryman), Farrar, Straus, 1976, pp. 253-69.
Joyce's and Eliot's concern for time certainly needs no emphasis. Everyone has spoken of it. But Pound's concern is probably less widely realized. And this despite the fact that his critics have written significantly about its importance. It is perhaps best, then, to begin with two of the finest of these, with Daniel Pearlman, who has stated Pound's interest strongly ("The Cantos, as I read the poem, is precisely an elaboration of this thesis—that the central problems in all spheres of human involvement must be referred ultimately to a consideration of the nature of time."—The Barb of Time, 1969), and with George Dekker, who finds in Pound's changing attitude toward "the tyranny of place and time" the Cantos' "formal principle of development" (Sailing after Knowledge, 1963).
These two critics must be consulted in detail by everyone interested in Pound's work. I refer to them primarily to single out a major point they both stress: that Pound found significance implicit in the very heart of this world and not in some ideal world set over against this one. This fact seems so important to Pearlman that he suggests a word for the view: "holism." And Dekker, who speaks of Pound's near pagan attachment to this world in many places, uses at one point a very enlightening metaphor. Speaking of the famous "Envoi" to the first section of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, he says that in it timeless beauty suddenly breaks through that otherwise time-saturated poem "like Botticelli's Venus emerging from the flux of the sea." (pp. 194-95)
As George Dekker has said, the Cantos may be "the last great unqualified affirmation in English poetry of fertility and procreation—of the life force expressing itself through both man and nature, and, as such, harmonizing their wills." Thus the passage … from the celebration of fertility rites in Canto 47 is a very important one, central to the Cantos as a whole, as [many critics] have insisted. (p. 199)
Canto 47 is pagan. It celebrates life and death as aspects of one another. And it is in that pagan sense of unity that we approach what John Espey … and George Dekker have both called the Canto's "bedrock."… For Pound by the time he wrote Canto 47 there was no denying time's beauty or its most physical law, or their essential oneness:
By this gate art thou measured Thy day is between a door and a door…. Thus was it in time. (p. 201)
In Canto 47 no final division can be made between those who experience the greatest fire and those who see the greatest light. The passage quoted above goes on immediately with [the lines central to the Cantos as a whole]:
Hast thou found a nest softer than Cunnus Or hast thou found better rest Hast'ou a deeper planting, doth thy death year Bring swifter shoot? Hast thou entered more deeply the mountain? The light has entered the cave. Io! Io! The light has gone down into the cave, Splendour on splendour! By prong have I entered these hills….
The interpenetration of the light and the fire to be observed here was crucially important to Pound, for it let him avoid a Western dichotomy he's been caught in. It helped him, that is to say, to avoid an unbalanced emphasis upon either the light or the fire which he'd been led into one way with the troubadours (with their "lordship over the senses") and in another with Propertius (whose view [in Homage], as he clearly saw, was a lot more fire than light). But Canto 47 unified Pound's world only at a cost. A feeling for life based on pagan fertility rites and tied to the repeating cycles of the seasons could carry him just so far. He lived in a civilization whose defining characteristic was that it conceived of itself as moving through time in a linear and not a cyclical fashion; and a linear society's basic concern is that it sees itself involved in an ongoing course of things which asks more than the cyclical renewal of life as such. Neither sex nor fertility is in itself enough here for neither can give meaning to the wide range of individual and racial potentiality, or to the crucial problem of the individual's importance as an individual, which a linear view of time brings with it. (pp. 202-03)
[The] kind of awareness he found in [the troubadours] was of a highly esoteric order. They split his world in two: the fire of passion on the one hand, and on the other the light of an awareness that went so far beyond its Eleusinian base that the initial passion could only be seen as "an intellectual instigation" to the subsequent, highly refined intellectuality. As a result he had actually decided as early as 1917 that the troubadour way was fine for some but not widely applicable. As he wrote John Quinn in a letter I'll come to shortly, Provençe was "a special interest." It was China that was "fundamental."
What Pound found in China that he thought of use was of course the Chinese ideogram and Confucius. And what he found in both of these was that a single, evolving process flows through all things, even time itself…. [This process] does not lead away from the physical world or merely circle about within it. The process is infinitely perfectible, for the individual and the race. But it leads as it does only because desire and perception are clarified and perfected only by their mutual interaction in a continued, ever evolving relationship with the ongoing act of living in time. For Pound, the passage below and its ideogram became central to all he believed:
This is the first chapter of the comment giving the gist (sorting out the grist) of the expressions: Make clear the intelligence by looking straight into the heart and then acting. Clarify the intelligence in straight action.
Pound had found what he wanted. And as a poet bent on writing an epic of man's achievement, he badly needed what he had found. For there just isn't any major Western philosophy or movement founded on the belief that a single process unites all things…. Pound's gloss upon the ideogram given with the passage above is therefore an important one:
The sun and moon, the total light process, the radiation, reception and reflection of light; hence, the intelligence. Bright, brightness, shining. Refer to Scotus Erigena, Grosseteste and the notes on light in my Cavalcanti.
This passage shows us Pound's belief that what he found in Confucius echoed what he had found in the troubadours, in the medieval light philosophers, and in Dante and Cavalcanti, thus bringing the West and East into relationship. And it did. But if the gloss seems to imply also that what Pound found in Confucius was not in any important way different, the gloss is misleading. For the difference is marked. First, though less important, Confucius was no mystic. He was indeed the most prosaic of philosophers, and his interest in the way a single light shines through all things was tied at every point to the everyday world. He therefore helped Pound about 1917—as did Propertius—to escape from the more neo-Platonic and cultish emphases that Pound had found in the troubadours about 1912 and at that time shared with them. (pp. 204-05)
But much more important, Confucius's concept of a single process uniting all orders of human activity gave Pound a way of grounding his thought in the process of nature which enabled him finally to escape from the typically Western separation of the enlightened spirit from the enlightening flesh which he had been forced to accept in one way with the troubadours and in another with Propertius, and to go on from the basic but limited way he had found the two at one in the fertility rites he celebrated in Canto 47. What Confucius taught Pound, then, was how to build a high civilization on the fact that (note the singular) "the celestial and earthly process pervades and is substantial; it is on high and gives light, it comprehends the light and is lucent, it extends without bounds and endures." (p. 205)
[In] the cantos Pound wrote in the late 'thirties,… he stopped—in George Dekker's phrase—"jumping about from epoch to epoch" and turned to writing of particular civilizations existing in fixed times and places, seeking to find in the prosaic facts of their histories "no end to the action" of the tensile light.
These two sets of cantos (the long history of China according to Confucian views and the "Confucian digest" of Charles Francis Adams's edition of his grandfather's works) are the longest and most "fact-ridden" in Pound's poem. In them Pound was putting his thesis to the test. For most critics the result is his least successful work. But writing these cantos on the eve of the Second World War Pound himself believed he had found his Tao. He had submitted to time and found its radiance. He was of course about to taste of a bitterness he could not have foreseen, a failure to succeed in time that was to cause him to deepen and revalue the view of the oneness of the celestial and earthly process (and of the unity of the sincere man with that process) which he had been working to clarify since he began to revise the first draft of his Cantos sometime after 1917. The Pisan Cantos initiate that deepening and revaluation: Rock-Drill, Thrones, and the final Drafts and Fragments carry it through to the Cantos' final lines:
I have tried to write Paradise Do not move Let the wind speak that is paradise. Let the Gods forgive what I have made Let those I love try to forgive what I have made. (pp. 207-08)
Vincent Miller, "Pound's Battle with Time," in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1977, pp. 193-208.