Sincronía Winter 2006

Ezra Pound and the Past

Stephen W. Gilbert

Universidad de Guadalajara


In Guide to Kulchur, a 1938 work, Ezra Pound suggests, “There is no mystery about The Cantos, they are the tale of the tribe….”[1].  Taken alone, or as an introduction to The Cantos, this might mislead many.  Perhaps a more tempting statement, one that might seem more useful as an aid to consideration of The Canto’s unity, is from a 1927 leter to his father, Homer L. Pound:


Afraid the whole damn poem is rather obscure, especially in fragments.  Have I ever given you outline of main scheme ::: or whatever it is?

                 1.  Rather like, or unlike subject and response and counter subject in fuge.

     A.A.  Live man goes down into world of Dead.

     C.B.  The ‘repeat in history’

     B.B.  The ‘magic moment’ or moment of metamorphosis, bust thru from quotidien into ‘divine or permanent world.’ Gods, etc.[2]


Again, taken alone, the statement could lead to generalization or mistaken oversimplification.  But in both cases, Pound follows his large statement with clarification of particular images, identification of particular figures, and the like.  After asserting the lack of mystery to The Cantos, he immediately illuminates the particular intention of the Malatesta cantos:  “They are openly volitionist, establishing, I think clearly, the effect of the factive personality, Sigismundo, an entire man.”[3] He follows that with statements on the importance of the founding of the Monte dei Paschi, clarifying thereby the healthy and natural mode of exchanging money by rejection of which the world has been forced into usurious modes of monetary exchange.

Of course, Pound could be accused here of misleading the reader who is sincerely hoping to unravel the complexities of The Cantos.  To maintain that there is no mystery about them, and to offer as proof of that statement two of the clearest images of the whole poem might seem to be an attempt to satisfy only the most easily placated reader and to further frustrate those who have passed the first stages of initiation but are yet wandering in a labyrinth of unexplained particulars.

But it might occur to us that Pound here (as he often does) offers light on more than one isolated though central image.  By inviting us to consider the Malatesta cantos as “openly volitionist” and Sigismundo as a particular kind of character, a “factive personality,” Pound offers us an opportunity to check our reading of other sections of the poem.  With Pound’s perception of Sigismundo as a “factive personality,” do we not discover added dimensions to the Adams cantos, or the character of Ulysses?  Indeed, the lexicon of criticism useful in study of The Cantos has been supplemented with yet another term, the more useful for its undeniable authority.  The notion of the “factive personality” and his effect in the world, are seen as another (perhaps constant) thread in the texture of the poem.  The search through volumes of Pound’s prose for statements relevant to The Cantos is a long and sometimes confusing one.  Often one does not recognize relevant comment until he recalls it in another context.  But gems of clarification occur often enough to make the search worthwile.

In the essay entitled “Canti” from the Guide to Kulchur, we find the dictum: Gli indifferenti non hanno mai fatto la storia.[4]  In conjunction with his previous statement about Sigismundo Malatesta, we might consider the possibility that the fascination with the Malatesti (particularly Sigismundo) is based on some fundamental precept like the one expressed by the notion that the making of history is performed by the interested or committed, never by the indifferent.  But  Pound’s choices of images, events, and characters for his poem are based on more than a desire to select and examine or recreate moments of involvement in the history of the world.  Also implied is the notion that the poet’s or chronicler’s selections must not be a matter of indifference.  The Italian proverb is followed in the essay by Pound’s comment on the process of writing history:  “The indifferent or ‘cold’ historian may leave a more accurate account of what happens, but he will never understand WHY it happens.”[5] 

On dealing with a poem like The Cantos, talk about intention is unavoidable.  Many of the choices made in the poem are only understandable if one considers the purpose they were intended to fulfill.  Reference to Pound’s critical writings becomes indispensable, guesswork concerning his singular reading of historical context and his views on older literatures becomes part of one’s reading of the poem.  Hunding sources becomes a major occupation.

We might recall in this context that Dante placed the indifferent entirely outside the evaluative context of the Divina Commedia:

            Questo misero modo

Tengon l’anime triste di coloro

Che visser sanza infamia e sanza lodo


Mishiate sono a quel cattivo coro

            delli angeli che non furon ribelli

            ne fur fedeli a Dio, ma per se foro.


Caccianli i ciel per non esser men belli,

            ne lo profondo inferno li riceve,

            ch’alcuna gloria i rei avrebber d’elli.

                                                           (Inferno III, 34-42.)


            The process of focus in The Cantos, the manner in which our minds ae directed towards certain events or characters, places or ideas, becomes a process of evaluation.  Indifference toward event or character on the part of the poet is impossible to assume; indifference on the reader’s part is equivalent to lack of attnetion.  Of course, it is apparent thaqt the evaluations we are invited to perform as we read The Cantos are Pound’s as often as they are our own.  It is his vision of the world’s history that we are shon; he does not pretend merely to hold up a mirror to the world or simply chronicle its significant moments.

            Since mention has been made of Dante´s Commedia, I may as well take this opportunity to express the belief that a fairly coherent first reading of Pound’s epic might be constructed in terms of an understanding of the ways in which Pound uses Dante.  Both poems have been called “epics of judgement.”[6]  It might be considered that Dante examines the results of human will in a universe ordered by God’s justice, while Pound must examine the effect of human will without reference to a coherent external order, but with a determined insistance that the concept of justice is not an empty one.  Pound’s heroes, like Dante’s, are often secular men, men committed to statecraft and perfection of the sodial order.  But too often Pound’s vision of the moral and effective state gros dim, it doesn’t have the clearly dilineated pattern of the celestial order to give it assurance.  Consequently, a comparison between Pound’s epic and Dante’s would seem to be finally a comparison of an achievement with an attempt.  Perhaps the reason Pound’s poem is seen so often as a failure is simply that this comparison is carried to far.  The Divina Commedia is not a model for The Cantos.  Pound’s vision is is own, his use of older literature is not use of extablished pattern or philosophy lifted whole from one age to another, but is a search for particular truths, or developments and culminations of truths.

            The more valuable study of The Canto’s relation to the Divina Commedia might rather be conducted in terms of particular modes of moral perception which Pound discovered in Dante than in terms of structural or poetic arrangements of the two great works.  Both Pound’s and Dante’s works are moral works.  The kinds of heroes both poets choose for their poems (both in terms of heroic achievement of the two “narrators” and the objective canonization of secular figures from history) along with the poetic imagery with which these heroes are associated might illuminate much of the problem.

            A comparison of the sort outlined above would be valuable primarily in that it would shed light on the larger moral problems of The Cantos and would illuminate details of the poem from that perspective.  This is a project begun  by James Wilhelm in 1974; an approach to the problem within the current considerations of ethics and literature would prove most rewarding.  An excellent example is a recent article by Reed Way Dasenbrock, “Paradiso ma non troppo: The Place of the Lyric Dante in the Late Cantos of Ezra Pound”.[7]

            The ways into The Cantos are many; the ways out, I suspect, are somewhat fewer in number.  Paths in, leads followed, often end before the poem does.  It is possible, of course, to pursue Pound’s treatment or development of one theme without considering its effect on or relation to the rest of the poem as a whole, and these studies are valuable.  But of equal value, I popose, is the attempt to investigate a limited aspect of the poem with the intnetion of using that study as a means of recognizing some aspects of the poem as a whole.  (The phrase “poem as a whole” when speaking of The Cantos does not have the innocence it does when one speaks of almost any other poem, the notion being surrounded by some debate.)

            Pound’s fascination with Provençal poetry began early in his career as a student.  It lasts through the entirety of The Cantos.  By examining his use of that tradition, that literature, we may discover aspects of his habit of mind that would illuminate his use of other traditions, other literatures, other moments in the world’s history.  For it seems, at least initially, that of primary importance in understanding The Cantos is the issue of Pound’s attitudes towards the materials he selects as the stuff of the poem.  And, as he is a supreme craftsman, examination of placement of separate materials in the fabric of the whole should serve as a basis for some interpretive statement concerning the craft.

            I shall refer to some points early in The Cantos that make use of the lyric tradition of the Provençal troubadours.  Occasional reference will be made to the Tuscan poets whose literature immediately followed and responded to the Troubadour legacy.

            Two issues concerning Pound’s use of Provençal poetry in The Cantos should be touched on immediately.  First, we notice that often his references to the poetry consist of no more than quotation of a few lines (sometimes a single word) of a given poet or mention of his name.  Second, attention must be paid to the fact that names of places occur almost as often as references to the poets or their work.  We must bear in mind that references to the troubadours in The Cantos may be functioning in several ways.  At least three uses of Provençal material can be easily detected.  They may function in Pound’s poem as poetry, history or biography.  The quotation from poems of the troubadours often supply Pound’s Cantos with a desired image or rhythm; the references to place and person often establish the contributions of Provence to European history; and since much of the Provençal material consists of stories from the razos and vidas of the Troubadour poets, the value of this material to The Cantos operates within the framework of biography.  We are justified in looking for heroes (and villains as well) among the poets of Provence as they become characters in The Cantos-as-drama.

            In discovering relationship between these diverse functions of the Provençal material in The Cantos, we will hopefully have dcome upon a way of examining other processes of evaluation in The Cantos as regards poetry, the history of literature, and the relationship between art and society, all main concerns in the poem, all essencial factors in the development of Pound’s vision.  One further, and perhaps more important, element of Pound’s crafted references to Provençal poetry is in their relationship to the poet’s own development as poet, scholar, translator, historian, linguist.  Mature reading of The Cantos of Ezra Pound must involve an appreciation (if not sympathy) for the poet’s growth, the development of his mind, as recorded in the poem.  Clearly his love for the poetry of old Provence, one of his first and most abiding loves, reflects one face of the poet which is capable of reassuring the reader during those times in the poem when he must face “errors and wrecks,” confusion, even incoherence.

            The initial references to the Provençal tradition that occur in the first three cantos lay the groundwork, establish theme, and contribute to the creation of the world and time, a textworld, of those cantos.

            What the first lines of the first canto establish, as a result of Odysseus talking, is the immediacy of historical event and personage.  Essential to the poem, the authenticity of this immediacy is promptly questioned or placed in more accurate perspective.  It is not Odysseus speaking, the process is not that created by an invisible author inspiring or setting loose the character and speech of one long dead.  Pound is translating, “Andreas Divus / In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.” [8]  Not only accuracy and authenticity, but a new vortex is a result of this process.  The chain of events, or spiral of time touches a single point three times.  Homer – Andreas – Pound:  Odysseus in hell each time the story is told.  Not only are we invited to consider the survival of a story, but the preservation of a story by language, even the growth of cultures as reflected by language.

            The “tale of the tribe” is here – at least in the sense that while the story and character remain the same, the telling undergoes changes as the tribe changes.  From the Greek of Homer to the Rennaissance Latin of Andreas, to the English of Pound tinged with Anglo-Saxon rhythms.  And no pretense here that Pound’s Odysseus is more, or more real, than the Odysseus of Andreas.  Yet he is Odysseus.  The note struck here becomes insistent with the opening lines of the second canto:

            Hang it all, Robert Browning

            there can be but the one “Sordello.”

            But Sordello, and my Sordello?

            Lo sordels si fo di Mantovana.


Pound authenticates his reference here in a more arresting and different manner than he did in the preceding canto.  The awareness of necessarily dealing with literary tradition, the handing down from one time to another of the story, event told and retold, which awareness intrudes abruptly into the last lines of canto 1, has become in the opening lines of the next canto the awareness, equally abrupt (partially because it is expressed in Provençal) that there existed an historical personage, Sordello.  Pound’s rebuke to Browning is effectually a rebuke to the intolerance with fragmentary knowledge which plagued the entire nineteenth century.  Browning’s “Sordello” is guided by the desire to behold or create the entire man, to “pursue his fortunes to the end.”[9]  That is to say, the fragment could not suffice for Browning; the past, in its pastness, was seen as incomplete.  The response was to re-create, by using all the materials of the present, a more available past, one which became, inevitably, merely another face of the present.

            Pound’s response to this impulse, “Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana,” is simple enough, straightforward, but its implications for The Cantos, the amplification of significance that it entails, go far beyond the insistance that the poet be obliged to recognize and accept the fragmentary nature of his knowledge of history.  The knowledge that Sordello was an authentic historical person is a part of the means whereby The Cantos becomes a poem “including history.”  By refusing to rely totally on the imaginative fictionalizing powers of the poetic process, the realities of the past become more valuable to the poem, more than they would if they were summoned or conjured (as in Browning) into the present.  By maintaining their pastness, Pound allows events and personages of the past to carry weightier significance for the present insofar as they are described, evaluated within a context which is built on a belief that events, persons, moments, are repeatable in time.  It is in this manner and within these limits that Pound’s characters are allowed to function figurally for each other.  This kind of figuration is perhaps less straightforward than the allegorical variety in Dante, but like Dante’s, it creates a kind of moral perspective on character.

            It is necessary to note that the long poem begins with this complex laying out of the problem of perspective on past literatures, a perspective on the problem of tradition.  The admission that past literatures are perceived clearly only in their pastness, in as original a form as possible, seems a keynote of The Cantos.  Apparently, this was a difficult notion to accept for critics contemporary with Pound.  Raised with the Browning style (not to mention Tennyson), they were uncomfortable with the notion of an authentic (if fragmented) past.

            In the original and more garrulous draft of the first three cantos, Quia Pauper Amavi, Pound’s rebuke of Browning, the rejection of an imagined history created or completed by the poet’s mind, is more elaborate and quite revealing.  As Hugh Kenner points out in The Pound Era, “He knew Guido Cavalcanti probably better than Browning knew Sordello,”[10] yet Pound questions:

            What have I of this life,

                        Or even of Guido?

                        Sweet lie! – Was I there truly?

            Did I know Or San Michele?[11]


We could suppose that it was more than simple impatience with Browning’s inventive treatment of history that led Pound to these questions.  Despondence over the inability to get at all the truth leads to deeper knowledge of how the fragmentary truth honestly possessed may serve:

                        No, take it all for lies.

            I have but smelt this life, a whiff of it –

            The box of scented wood

            Recalls cathedrals. [12]




[1] Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur.  New York, New Directions, 1968, p. 194.

[2] D.D. Paige, ed., The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, New York, Harcourt Brace and World, Inc., 1950, p. 210.

[3] Guide to Kulchur, p.194.

[4] Ibid., p. 195.

[5] Ibid., p. 195

[6] James J. Wilhelm, “Review of Ezra Pound and the Troubadour Tradition by Stuart Y. McDougal.”  Paideuma, Vol. 2, No. 1, (Spring 1973), pp. 133-137.

[7] Reed Way Dasenbrock, “Parradiso ma non troppo: The Place of the Lyric Dante in the Late Cantos of Ezra Pound,” Comparative Literature, Winter 2005.

[8] Ezra Pound.  The Cantos of Ezra Pound.  New York, New Directions, 1995, p. 5.

[9] Robert Browning.  The Complete Poetic and Dramatic Works. Cambridge edition, Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1895, p. 75.

[10] Hugh Kenner.  The Pound Era.  Berkely and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1971, p.22.

[11] Ezra Pound.   Quia Pauper Amavi.  London, The Egoist Ltd., p. 22.

[12] Ibid.

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