Saved by the Ant’s Fore-Foot

David Trotter

  • The Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound, edited by Richard Sieburth
    New Directions, 159 pp, US $13.95, October 2003, ISBN 0 08 112155 5
  • Poems and Translations by Ezra Pound, edited by Richard Sieburth
    Library of America, 1363 pp, US $45.00, October 2003, ISBN 1 931082 41 3

In the years since their publication in 1948, Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos have given rise to interpretative bad faith on a scale unusual even by the lofty standards of literary criticism. The reason for this is not some special failing on the part of Pound’s adherents, but rather the burden of expectation laid from the outset on a sequence of 11 poems written in the US Army’s Disciplinary Training Center in Pisa in the summer and autumn of 1945.

The initial hope was that the Pisan Cantos would finally bring Pound’s epic poem to a conclusion that would make apparent the philosophical principles informing it. In January 1940, Pound had published Cantos LII-LXXI, which survey the purgatory of human malevolence and error awaiting any conscientious effort at good government. He now wanted at last to get his poem out of ‘dead matter and negations’ and into the light. He made it clear that he planned one further volume only, which was to be his Paradiso: a resolution modelled on Dante, and on classical epic (the Aeneid as well as the Odyssey), and incorporating Confucius, Scotus Erigena, hymns to Aphrodite, and much else besides. The much else besides turned out to include, by 1948, the defeat of the Fascist regime whose spokesman he had become, and its mortifying consequences: arrest, imprisonment in the DTC in Pisa, and then, back in Washington, psychiatric examination, and transfer to St Elizabeth’s Federal Hospital for the Insane.

In 1957, Forrest Read put forward the view that the movement within the Pisan Cantos from hell through purgatory to a glimpse of paradise recapitulated a similar movement within the poem as a whole, and thus brought it to a triumphant conclusion (though Pound rather thoughtlessly showed no desire to leave off, and indeed published a further sequence, Thrones, in 1959). Crucial to arguments of this kind was the conviction that Pound had undergone a fundamental change of heart in Pisa. Robert Fitzgerald, reviewing the Pisan Cantos in the New Republic in August 1948, was glad to find the poet ‘for the first time expressing a personal desolation and a kind of repentance’. The trick was to imagine a desolation so extreme that, whatever Pound did or did not say during it, or about it, it could only have led to repentance. Read supposed that desolation had made Pound the hero of his own epic. ‘He is “Old Ez” in the stockade; the sufferer “au bout de toutes mes forces”; the self-critic who has been “hard as youth sixty years”.’ For some reason, Read was particularly touched by what he saw as Pound’s change of heart towards Winston Churchill. The Pisan stockade remained on active service in literary criticism for rather longer than it did in the US army’s penal system. The opening paragraphs of the relevant chapter in Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971) read like an extract from the script for a Hollywood biopic (‘they existed from today’s exercise liberty to tomorrow’s, from this meal to the next: the heavy padlock opened, the door swung a little to admit the tin plate and receive the latrine can’).

The other thing the Pisan Cantos were supposed to redeem the poem from was its own previous lack of poetry. Most readers had found Cantos LII-LXXI hard going: in large part it took the form of transcriptions from de Mailla’s 18th-century Histoire générale de la Chine and the writings of John Adams, the head of a great Confucian American dynasty. What awaited them now was a reviving cocktail of Pound’s trademark bohemian-pantheism. The inspiration for the Pisan Cantos was a visionary encounter on a hillside near Sant’ Ambrogio with a barefoot girl and a group of ghostly companions including the troubadour Sordello’s lover, Cunizza da Romano, who in Pound’s view had transmitted the atmosphere of Provençal lyric, with its basis in Hellenic mysteries and a pagan ‘cult of Amor’, to Cavalcanti and Dante. Pound thought that the troubadours had, ‘in some way, lost the names of the gods, and remembered the names of lovers’. In his paradise, he wanted to be able to remember both. The gods and goddesses are back in the Pisan Cantos, as both stimulus to and evidence of poetic renewal; along with various Amor-related items kept in storage in the early lyrics, or on loan from Keats and Swinburne (vineyards, olive groves, emblematic minerals, pards, maelids, bassarids, the pad of furry feet in the undergrowth). This looks like dionysiac kitsch. But it was considered an improvement on the documentary rigours of Cantos LII-LXXI.

Most reassuring of all, to Pound’s critics, was the fervour with which he now approached the natural world. The Cantos, he had said, was to be a poem including history; now it also included sunrise and sunset, cloud over the mountains, birds on the wire:

and as for the solidity of the white oxen in all this
perhaps only Dr Williams (Bill Carlos)
will understand its
its benediction. He wd/ have put in the cart.

There is poetry in the white oxen (all the more, perhaps, for the cart’s omission), and humility. The poet, as Read put it, ‘contemplates the world of nature as the source of possible redemption.’ More solid even than the oxen, in moral and poetic terms, was Brother Wasp, who, in a wonderful passage in Canto 83, performs his own epic descent into the underworld, to ‘carry our news’ to Tiresias and Persephone. Pound had been brought down low, to insect-level; henceforth, his aspirations would at least have the ground beneath them. ‘When the mind swings by a grass-blade/an ant’s forefoot shall save you.’ Saved by the ant’s forefoot at once from too much Fascism and from too little poetry, Pound also found in that fragile talisman a philosophical principle: his paradise would be a terrestrial one through and through.

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[*] Vincent Sherry is the most recent critic to try to make sense of this and other statements by Pound about the British Empire’s imbecility, in The Great War and the Language of Modernism (Oxford US, 416 pp., £15.50, May 2004, 0 19 517818 1). Sherry argues that in poems such as ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, Pound developed a ‘poetics of critical mimicry’. The object of that critical mimicry was the logic – and the ‘idiom’ – of Liberal policy, as articulated in Britain in the years immediately before and during the First World War. Sherry’s hypothesis, established by meticulous readings of a wide variety of texts by Pound, Eliot, Ford, Stein and Woolf, is that Liberal war policy was the provocation to an ‘experimental verbal art’.