Sincronía Winter 2009

Pound and Provence:  The Sense of Place in The Cantos



Stephen W. Gilbert


Universidad de Guadalajara

     One of the consistencies of The Cantos (particularly in reference to the Provençal tradition) is the use of place as material for the poem.  The associations Pound creates are many – places recall names, stories from older times, Pound’s own personal recollections of travel, buildings (castles, temples, towns and cities).  The poem believes in place, the importance of place.  Pound wrote, in the short pamphlet Patria Mia, “No nation can be considered historically as such until it has achieved within itself a city to which all roads lead, and from which there goes out an authority.”1  And within the particular lexicon of the poem created out of Provençal material there are many places of significance.  As is well documente, one of the central techniques of The Cantos’ poetic is subject-rhyme.2  We shall have reason to examine the way in which the Provençal places of the poem resonate, illuminate, rhyme with places of other times, other traditions.

     Another category under which the Provençal material comes clear is that of event, including the occurrence in time of particular persons and their actions, both individual and societal.  We should recall in this context Pound’s comments on the “factive personality” in Guide to Kulchur.  Relating to Provençal matters, the stuff of events is mostly to be found in the razos or vidas of the troubadours.  Pound was more than an adecuate student of these materials; his fascination with the language and poetry of the period necessarily led him to an interest in the men who employed and wrote it.  He even wrote his own version (or extended the original) of a razo concerning Arnaut Daniel.3  But the separation between troubadour poetry and the lives of the troubadours is not so great as some might imagine.  Although highly artificial, the poetry of 11th – 13th century Provence still reflects real concerns.  (Matters of love, however artificially expressed, are nevertheless matters of love.)

     Another heading, under which I would like to investigate the majority of Provençal material in The Cantos might be labelled “light-metaphysics.”  Pound’s reading of the Provençal poets is largely a reading of a poetry of light.  (In this regard, the possibility exists that Pound’s fascination and high regard for Dante’s Divina Commedia and its treatment and use of light may have guided his reading of the earlier poets.)  Pound’s familiarity with medieval philosophy also suggests that his reading of Provençal poetry may have been influenced the sources other than the poetry itself.4

     In the literary history of the Middle Ages, the movement of what Hugh Kenner, in a brief passage on Cavalcanti, calls the “tradition of light” from Southern France into Northern Italy could be of major interest in plotting certain structural movements of The Cantos.  Our investigations under this heading will be to discover the manner in which Pouond uses the Provençal stuff as representative of one moment, one expression of that “tradition of light.”

     Canto V opens with the vision of Ectaban.  The “barb of time” interrupts the continuity of the possible:


     The fire?  Always, and the vision always,

     Ear dull, perhaps, with the vision flitting

     And fading at will.



The process of ritual sets the tone of the canto, and the vision of possible permanency, the heavenly order reflected in this world.  But the vision is part of a cycle including barrenness and neglect; the marriage ritual (“The bride awiting the god’s touch,”) is susceptible to dissolution and error.  The metaphor of sterility:


     And the vinestocks lie untended, new leaves come to

          The shoots,

     North wind nips on the bough, and seas in heat

     Toss up chill crests,

          And the vinestocks lie untended

     And many things are set abroad and brought to mind

     Of thee, Atthis, unfruitful.



is balanced by the story of Gaubertz de Poicebot:


     And from Mauleon, fresh with a new earned grade,

     In maze of approaching rain-steps, Poicebot –

     The air was full of women.



The story is told in the old biography of the troubadour5 and translated by Pound at the beginning of his essay, “Troubadours – Their Sorts and Conditions”:


The monk, Gaubertz de Poicebot, was a man of birth; he was of the bishopric of Limozin, son of the castellan of Poicebot.  And he was made monk when he was a child in a monastery, which is called Saint Leonart.  And he knew well letters, and well to sing, and well trobar.  And for desire of woman he went forth from the monestery.  And he came thence to the man to whom came all who for courtesy wished honor and good deeds – to Sir Savaric de Mauleon – and this man gave him the harness of a joglar and a horse and clothing; and then he went through the courts and composed and made good canzos.  And he set his heart upon a donzella gentle and fair and made his songs of her, and she did not wish to love him unless he should get himself made a knight and take her to wife.  And he told En Savaric how the girl had refused him, wherefore En Savaric made him a knight and gave him land and the income from it.  And he married the firl and held her in great honour.  And it happened that he went into Spain, leaving her behind him.  And a knight out of England set his mind upon her and did so much and said so much that he led her iwth him and he kept her long time his mistress and then let her go to the dogs (malamen anar).  And En Gaubertz returned from Spain, and lodged himself one night in the city where she was.  And he went out for desire of woman, and he entered the alberc of a poor woman; for they told him there was a fine woman within.  And he found his wife.  And when he saw her, and she him, great was the grief between them and great shame.  And he stopped the night with her, and on the morrow he went forth with her to a nunnery where he had her enter.  And for this grief, he ceased to sing and to compose.6


He follows immediately with another example of the razo, that of Pieire and Austors de Maensac.  Both are taken from the Miguel de la Tours manuscript at the Bibliotéque National in Paris.  He gives the same order to the stories in The Cantos, condenased and crafted into poetic form:


     And Pieire won the singing, Pieire de Maensac,

     Song or land on the throw, and was dreitz hom


     And had De Tierci´s wife and with the war they made:

              Troy in Auvergnat

     While Menelaus piled up the church at port

     He kept Tyndarida.  Dauphin stood with de Maensac.



The first story (of Poicebot) takes its place in the balance of references to the marriage ritual:  Gaubertz in parallel opposite to Atthis, “went forth from the monastery, enamoret se d’una donzella gentil e bella.”  Atthis, driven also by passion:


     Carried in a fast ship over profound seas,

     Atthis, eager and hurried, reached the Phrygian grove,

     The goddess’ dark places, crowned with woodland.

     And there, exalted by amorous rage, his mind gone,

     He cut off his testicles with a sharp flint. 7


An interesting fact, concerning methods of balance and mixture in this canto is that Pound brings a line from the razo or Pieire de Maensac into his poetic version of the razo of Gaubertz de Poicebot.  The provençal, Lei fassa furar a del, according to Pound’s version in Literary Essays, is a reference to the wife of Bernart de Tierci, for whom Pieire wrote his songs, whom he carried off to the castle of the Dauphin of auvergne whence “Troy in Auvergnat.”  In this manner the two stories are blended, or balanced, or interwoven and in this manner focus on the survival in Provence of the epic scale of ancient Greece – a Provençal variation of the Odysseus story (Gaubertz) connected by Pound’s own poetic with a Provençal version of the Troy story.

     As in Canto IV, Pound here makes subtle use of the poetry of Catullus in clarifying and delineating the story, or perspectives on the story, which he is presenting.  Revision, repetition, even reversal combine to focus our attention on some unchanged, immutable kernel of human impulse that motivates action recorded as important by poets of ancient Greece – Imperial Rome – and 12th century Provence.

     Further investigation of this technique could be followed by reference to the Catullus material that also provides imagery of passion in the canto.  The reference to the Atthis poem (LXIII) is interrupted by the line “And the vinestocks lie untended,” which is a line from Catullus LXIV, a poem celebrating the marriage of Thetis and Peleus.

     Not only has Pound conjoined the Roman material of Catullus with the Provençal of the de Maensac story, but he presents the resonance between fragments of each work being used.  A curious four-part harmony (“like or unlike a fugue” as he put it in a letter to his father in 1927).  The de Maensac material is easily interspersed with bits  of catullus, forcing us to consider that kind of historical relationship; and lines from the Catullus material are inverted with each other, as is true of the Provençal, inviting a consideration that repetition takes place in more than temporal fashion – it is as well a reality of poetic harmonics.

     Many of the events which Pound focuses on from the poetry were concerned with matters of love.  This is not the place to attampt any definitive statement on the problems of “courtly love,” but we should recognize that the poetry of the Troubadours is really inseparable from the factual and complex relations which existed between the poets and their ladies.  This problem may be exxagerated by the vact that most of the razos involve stories about love affairs.  This tempts one to take a kind of exclusive perspective.  Pound’s “Near Perigord”  provides a knowledge of Pound’s own grappling with this particular problem.

     One of the more exceptional women whose story has come down to us is Cunizza da Romanao, who was married to Ricciardo di San Bonifazzio, and had an intrigue with Sordello between 1227 – 1229.  Sordello was staying at her brother’s at Treviso and abducted her at the brother’s urging, primarily for political reasons.  In 1265 (when she was about 67 years old), she freed her slaves by a deed of manumission executed at the house of Cavalcanti.

     The action she performs, together with her association with Sordello, make her

a character often referred to in The Cantos.  Her appearance in the Divine Comedy in the third heaven of Venus (Par. IX, 13-66) must also have heightened Pound’s interest in her.

     In Canto VI, the women are introduced via the attitudes towards them held (once again) by the Hellenic and Provençal literatures.  Odysseus and Guillaume IX are associated by virtue of their ability to enjoy women while concentrating primaily on “masculine” matters: getting home, establishing ground rents.  Perhaps the ability of both Eleanor and Cunizza, bound together in this canto, to act determinedly on their own behalf is reason enough for Pound’s interest in them.  Yet their relations to men – Cunizza’s to Sordello, Eleanor’s (domna jauzionda, mother of Richard) to Bernard de Ventadour – seem to guide Pound’s treatment of them.

     There is no need to defend the interest in Eleanor of Aquitane whose lineage and marital history is outlined at the beginning of Canto VII.  For many scholars, she represents the height of achievement of the courtly tradition of Provence.  The marriages of Eleanor, taking place at high levels of society, shaped to a great extent the style of that society, and as a patroness of poets, Eleanor helped elevate the attention paid to the lyric form among members of the courts.  The position of the poet himself at court must also have been strengthened.  Pound tells the story that Bernard de Ventadour appealed to Eleanor in hopes that she could free his lady (the wife of the Viscompte de Ventadour, Eblis) from the bondage into which the Viscomte had thrown her on discovering the liaison between his wife and the poet:


     Eleanor, domna jauzionda, mother of Richard, whom:

              My Lady of Ventadour

     “Is shut by Eblis in

     “And will not hawk nor hunt

          nor get her free in the air

     “Nor watch fish rise to bait

     “Nor the glare-wing’d flies alight in the creek’s


     “Save in my absence, Madame.

          ‘Que la lauzeta mover’

     “Send word I ask you to Eblis

          you have seen that maker

     “And finder of songs so far afield as this

     “That he may free her,

          who sheds such light in the air.



The act of Cunizza in freeing her slaves (“ona Wednesday”) is told by Pound in conjunction with his telling of Sordello’s love for her.  The free nature of the adulterous love enjoyed by the poets and their ladies undercuts the machinations and extra-amatory concerns (lands, political alliances) described in the outline of Eleanor’s marriages.

     The de Maensac story is re-created again in Canto XXIII.  The “Troy in Auvergnat” correspondence is enlarged, the story is given its ending, and balanced by others.  The destruction of Troy as a loss becomes an explicit statement.  The ending of the Provençal tradition as a reflection of that other city’s destruction is made concrete by Pound’s moral stance toward every destruction of beauty.

     As an encapsulated history of the short-lived Provençal moment, the story of Pieire de Maensac serves well.  Pound’s development of it in Canto XXIII is much more prosaic (indeed it imitates the razo form of the Provençal biographies) than his condensed treatment in Canto V.


     And my brother De Maensac

     Bet with me for the castle,

     And we put it on the toss of a coin,

     And I, Austors, won the coin-toss and kept it,

     And he went out to Tierci, a jongleur

     And on the road for his living,

     And twice he went down to Tierci,

     And took off the girl there that was just married to Bernart.


     And went to Auvergne, to the Dauphin,

     And Tierci came with a posse to Auvergnat,

     And went back for an army

     But never got Pierre nor the woman.

     And he went down past Chaise Dieu,

     And went after it all to Mont Segur,

          after the end of all things

     And they hadn’t left even the stair,

     And Simon was dead by that time,

     And they called us the Manicheans

     Wotever the hellsarse that is.


               The comparison to Troy is augmented strikingly.  Our attention is immediately directed to the figure of Anchises – survivor of Troy’s destruction.


     And that was when Troy was down, all right,

          Superbo Ilion ...

     And they were sailing along

     Sitting in the stern-sheets,

     Under the lee of an island

     And the wind drifting off from the island.

     “Tet, tet...

          What is it?” said Anchises.

     “Tethneke,” said the helmsman, “I think they

     Are howling because Adonis died virgin.”



     Anchises’ attention is then directed to the virgin death of Adonis by the helmsman of the ship in which he is travelling, and we may recall that the aearlier telling of the de Maensac story (Canto V) was conjoined to the Atthis poem of Catullus.  To consider a figural relationship betweeen Atthis and Adonis, Mont Segur and Troy, reveals perhaps Pound’s moral stance towards the destruction of beauty, his sense of loss in face of sterility.

     Pound’s interest in the de Maensac story may be illuminated by the fact that in his comment on the razo of Miquel, he refers to the “straightforward prose” of the de Maensac story as “an epic.”8  The fact that Miquel de la Tour is aware of the comparison (he speaks of the abduction of the wife of Bernart de Tierci as occurring “in the manner of the golden Menelaus”9), is probably the source of Pound’s perception.

     The end of the Provençal literary tradition is one event to which Pound returns often.  At times simply by mentioning the place name of the final slaughter, Mont Segur.  Of course, he refers more often, and more hopefully, to the survival of the tradition in the Tuscan poets, but while the survival of the tradition is almost entirely literary, its end was the result of a misguided religious philosophy cum politics on the part of the Catholic church.

     The Encyclopedia Britannica gives the information that in 1245, royal officers assisting the Inquisition seized the heretical citadel of Mont Segur and burned 200 heretics in a single day.  This was almost the final blow to the Albigensian heresy.  The Crusade of 1209 – 1229 under the direction of Pope Innocent III and championed by Simon de Montfort already had effectively destroyed the political (and literary) autonomy of Provence.

     Our knowledge of the Albingensian heresy relies entirely on statements by the triumphant church, Catholic controversialists of the day, and confessions of the heretics preserved among the documents of the Inquisition.  It has been concluded10 from sources such as these that the Albigensians were part of a neo-Manichean heresy spreading generally through Western Europe having arisen in the Balakan peninsula.  The term Cathar, adopted by many of the new heretics, is taken from the Greek, CATHAROS, “pure.”

     Although M. de Rougement (Love in the Western World) may be too insistent in his reading of heretical doctrine as principal motive for the lyrics of the Troubadours, we may assume that the poetry and the love-relations about which the poetry spoke were to some extent influenced by the new philosophy.  The notion that the lady can be seen as a metaphor for spiritual purity, revealed truth, even theology itself, was undeniably part of the lyric tradition before Dante. 11

     Pound makes no attempt to resolve or even grapple with the term “manichean.”  The accusations of the Church are treated in the simplest and roughest of terms: “Wotever the hellsarse that is.”

     It is clear that Pound considers it important only in its application as a label by the Church authorities, interested primarily in extending political and territorial power into the south of France.  The result, however, the destruction of the singular beauties of Provençal society, was to Pound as tragic (perhaps because he sensed it as repetition) as the destruction of Troy.


1 Ezra Pound.  Patria Mia.  Chicago, Ralph Fletcher Scymor, 1950, p.21.

2 Hugh Kenner’s discussion in The Pound Era is particularly useful as he discusses the notion of subject rhyme as it illuminates much of Pound’s juxtaposition of fragments.

3 Ezra Pound.  Literary Essays.  New York, New Directions, 1953, pp. 109-115.

4 See, at least initially, Pound’s short essay “Neo-Platoicks Etc.,” in Guide to Kulchur, pp. 222-226.

5 Here is the original, from Shepard, William P., ed., Les Poésies de Jausbert de Puycibot.  Paris, Lirairie Ancienne, Edouard Champion, 1924, p. 57. lo monges Jousbertz de Poicibot si fo gentils hom e fo de l’evescat de Lemozi, fills del castela de Poicibot; e fo mes monges qand era enfas en un mostier que a nom Sain Leonart.  E saup ben letras e ben chantar e ben trobar.  E per volontat de femna issic del mostier e venc s’en a celui on venion tuich aquill que per cortesia volion honor ni benfaich, a.N Savaaric de Malleon; et el li det arnes de joglar e vestirs e cavals.  E pois el anet per cortz e trobet e fetz bonas chansos.  Et enamoret se d’una donzella gentil e bella, e fazia sa chansos d’ella; et ella no.l volía amar si no.fezes cavallier e no la tengués per mollier.  Et el dis a.N Savarics lo fetzcavallier donet alberc e terra e renda; et al tolc la donzella per moiller e tenc l a grand honor e avenc si quél anet en Espaigne e la donzella remas.  Et us cavalliers d’Engleterra s’entendía en ella e fetz tan e dis que la menet via ab se e tenc la lonc qand Jausbertz tornet d’Espaigna, el alberguet una sera en la ciutat on ella era.  E qand venc lo ser, el anet de foras per volontat de femna et intret en l’alberc d’una paubra femna fon dich que la entre avía una bella donzella.  E trobet la sua moiller.  E qand el la vi et ella lui, fo grans dols entre lor e grans vergogna.  Ab lei estet la nuoich, e l’endeman s’en anet ab alla, e menet la en una mongia on la fetz rendre.  E per aqella dolor el laisset lo chanta e.l trobar.

6 Ezra Pound, “Troubadours – Their Sorts and Conditions,” Literary Essays. New York, New Directions, 1968, pp. 95-96.

7 C. H. Sisson.  The Poetry of Catullus. New York, The Viking Press, 1966, p. 103.

8 Literary Essays, p. 96.

9 Cited in Literary Essays, p. 97.

10 Francis Hueffer.  The Troubadours: A History of Provençal life and Literature in the Middle Ages. London, Chatto and Windus, 1878, pp. 231-233.

11 See sonnet XXXV of Guido Cavalcanti, in which he explains to a fellow poet the miracles of the madonna perfomed in the temple of the town of Orto, by telling whose image it is: “Una figura de la donna mia / S’adora, Guido, a San Michele in Orto....”

Sincronía Winter 2009