Pound’s Friends

Donald Davie

  • Pound’s Cantos by Peter Makin
    Allen and Unwin, 349 pp, £20.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 04 811001 9
  • To Write Paradise: Style and Error in Pound’s Cantos by Christine Froula
    Yale, 208 pp, £18.50, February 1985, ISBN 0 300 02512 2
  • Ezra Pound: Politics, Economics and Writing by Peter Nicholls
    Macmillan, 263 pp, £25.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 333 36159 8

Number ten in the Unwin Critical Library, Peter Makin’s book is very good. No one can say with any confidence that it will attract new readers to Pound ’s immense poem; and in fact one of its great virtues is that it doesn’t try to minimise how difficult The Cantos is, and always will be. The difficulties are of three kinds: first, those inseparable from the nature of the enterprise (i.e. epic); second, those inseparable from Pound’s temperament; lastly, those involved with the political and other vicissitudes endured by Pound through his more than fifty years labour on the poem. Devoted work by commentators through now several decades has in one sense ‘cleared up’ difficulties in each of these areas: for, though The Cantos have attracted a quota of pedants and loonies, that quota is surprisingly small, and most Poundians have worked harder and more responsibly than, for instance, the Hardyans have. But their clearings-up necessarily partake of the refractory and multifarious and arcane nature of the text that they work with, and of the sources of that text; and so mastering the elucidations is not much easier than mastering the poem. The Cantos is or are, and through any foreseeable future will remain, ‘caviare to the general’: and yet there they sprawl, a labyrinthine ruin (to put the case at its worst) plumb in the middle of whatever we understand by Anglo-American Modernism in poetry. Anyone may be excused for deciding that life is too short for coming to terms with The Cantos: but if we make that decision we thereby disqualify ourselves from having any opinion worth listening to, about the poetry in English of this century.

What incessantly threatens to disable and demoralise commentators on Pound is precisely this clear-sighted recognition that the poet to whom they devote themselves can never have in any ordinary sense ‘a public’. It’s against the permanent drag of this dispiriting awareness that we should measure, and applaud, the élan that Peter Makin finds, nine times over, to impel him on to seven or nine or ten or twenty cantos at a time, from Canto One to Canto 117 – this after six chapters of preliminary and necessary throat-clearing. True to his briefing from Claude Rawson as general editor, Makin doesn’t restrict himself to summarising what previous commentators have uncovered (though he’s good at that, scrupulous and thorough – for instance, noting German and Italian writing as well as English), but he has pursued his own researches and presses his own line – nowhere to better purpose than on Canto 36, the translation of Cavalcanti’s ‘Donna mi prega’, where his elucidation of the psychology and metaphysics of Albertus Magnus is so far as I know unprecedented, and awesomely illuminating. Moreover, having to decide with each batch of cantos those that he will concentrate on, he honourably steers clear of those that are most winning, most ‘lyrical’ – scanting in his Chapter Eight Canto 17 for the more rebarbative Cantos 21 and 25; or in Chapter Ten passing over Canto 47, which can be, and has been, applauded by some to whom the thrust of The Cantos as a whole is unappealing.

Over quite long stretches it doesn’t appeal to Makin either. Written at speed in the last months before war broke out, Cantos 52 to 71, known to initiates as the Chinese History Cantos followed by the John Adams Cantos, seem to him as to many of us wrongly conceived as well as sloppily executed. His dislike of them takes a special turn, however, when for the failure of the Adams sequence he blames John Adams, not Pound: ‘What flatness, undifferentiation, the section none the less has seems to come from Adams. Both Adams’s morality and his aesthetic seem negative, stoic, Horatian ...’ I’d quarrel with this. The writings by Adams that Pound takes his scissors to can be shown to be repeatedly livelier and more humane as Adams wrote them than after Pound has performed his slapdash surgery. But in any case notice how Makin would bully us into accepting that in morality and aesthetics ‘stoic’ and ‘Horatian’ are self-evidently words of ill omen. A helluva lot of people through the centuries have thought them very honourable words indeed, as Peter Makin certainly knows. There is a brazenness about the manoeuvre which in an odd way I find engaging, as it is in the young Hugh Kenner from whom I would guess Makin learned it. But someone who so dashingly cuts his corners – he does so at one point about the iambic pentameter, and elsewhere (really rather deplorably) about the British Great War poets – has to be watched, all the more because he is trenchant, rapid, brilliant – that’s to say, persuasive.

The put-down of John Adams isn’t a side-issue. It’s almost true to say that Makin sees Adams as Pound’s evil genius, sidetracking him time and again from what was his true gift and the glory of his poem: a recovery for our time of the perceptions that the Romance languages in the 12th and 13th centuries were carrying forward from the Roman bequest of Ovid (not Horace, and not Virgil either). Makin’s previous book was Pound and Provence, and it’s clear where his heart lies. He is sure that Pound was right to discern that the perceptions in question carried with them, implicitly were, a morality – and a morality that can be formulated and talked about, not just sealed in the amber of Walter Pater’s cadences. His own talk about it, particularly when he shows it in splendid action in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is as good as Pound’s talk, and comes, as Pound’s does, from taking seriously what is being talked about by Guinicelli and Cavalcanti as well as Dante. But how was any of this to be brought to bear on the condition of being an American in the 1930s? That was Pound’s problem, and it was no good telling him that there couldn’t be a connection, for the connection was there, in him: he was both a devotee of the Medieval Romance literatures, devoting his own poetry to the values those literatures embodied, and an American patriot. Panicked, like everyone else of any alertness, by the drift (not to say, torrent) from Depression towards War, Pound had not the time to work out what could only be a circuitous and tenuous connection anyway. The connections he made in his politico-economic tracts have convinced hardly anybody, ever (certainly not the Italian Fascists). The connection he made inside the ongoing poem has convinced more people, but still not many. The problem there was how to get from the nature and essence of light as explored by poets and philosophers of the duecento to the light implied in the intellectual historian’s term, ‘the Enlightenment’ – especially, for Pound the patriot, in the American Enlightenment of which Jefferson and Adams were luminaries. And Pound himself later came to acknowledge that the connection he was looking for, if it existed, was much less direct than in the 1930s he rashly and urgently supposed. None of this, however, gets us any nearer accepting Makin’s implication that Pound’s interest in Adams, and incidentally in Jefferson, was a simple aberration or (worse still) an avoidable wrong move in poetic strategy. Not far under the surface of Makin’s writing on these matters is a series of polarities which look downright silly when brought into the open: Ovid good, John Adams bad; Mediterranean good, North Atlantic bad; Romanism and Paganism good, Protestantism bad; Middle Ages good, Enlightenment bad; and finally (inside Pound), translator of Cavalcanti good, Philadelphia Presbyterian bad.

And yet ... not only has Makin solidly done his fair-minded homework on figures like Adams whom he finds unsympathetic, but time and again his feeling for verse and for the ghostly half-remembered presence of earlier verse in later, triumphs over the skeletal armature of history-of-ideas prejudice which orders his discourse for him, but need not for us. Thus the Philadelphia Presbyterian who survives into the polytheistic poet from his laxly conditioned boyhood has never been discerned more brilliantly than when a strenuous passage from the Pisan Canto 83, overtly Greek and Chinese in colouring (over the indispensable base of acute sensuous perception), is set beside ‘the hymnology of Pound’s youth’:

It breathes in the air,
It shines in the light,
It streams from the hills,
It descends to the plain,
And sweetly distils
In the dew and the rain.

Unfair that we neither know nor care that the author of ‘O Worship the King’ was Robert Grant (1785-1838). Grant’s virtual anonymity is the clearest proof that he has entered into the folk-memory, his verses remembered or half-remembered by those who neither know nor care – nor need they – what it is they remember. And who can doubt, once Makin has suggested it, that the polyglot author of The Cantos participated in this folk-memory, and profited by it, along with (one may still hope) the rest of us?

I have a further and specialised though quite important quarrel with Makin about his lumping together, as much of a muchness, the two late Canto-sequences, Rockdrill and Thrones. Rockdrill strikes me as much the better, and 1 believe Makin’s own citations and his commentary bear me out. But this bone may be picked elsewhere. For now I’ll quote one more sentence, about lines from Canto 49, the so-called ‘Seven Lakes’ canto, which stands apart from all the others: ‘Such verse seems to demonstrate that emotion works by a negative law: mere absence of aggression, distortion, haste allows us to read into things (qualified only as to texture, shade and other exact physicality) powers that favour human well-being.’ Extremely distinguished itself, in diction and (yes) cadence, this sentence is on the one hand an exceptionally exact registering of the effect that certain verse-lines have on us and, at the same time, precisely by virtue of that exactitude, it opens up vast vistas, not just on what poetry is and does, but on how we do – or might, or should – traffic with ‘things’, whether verbally or non-verbally. There are other sentences like this, in a book that ideally should reach people with no special interest in Pound or Pound’s poem.

There is a certain naiveté, which I’d be the last to reprehend, about supposing that poetry traffics with ‘things’ at all, or with any things other than the verbal things called words. This is what deconstructionists say, and they are not easy to rebut even though experience continually belies them. Deconstructionism says also that the poet can’t lose, because he can’t win; he’s not to blame for what goes wrong in his poems, because he gets no credit for what goes right in them. Christine Froula, who follows up her fresh and idiosyncratic commentary on Selected Cantos with what is the first thoroughgoing deconstructionist reading of Pound’s poem, adheres at all points to this latter precept. The received text of The Cantos (not that there is one, but let that pass) is riddled with errors; and, to leave aside the mistakes made by printers and proof-readers and officiously well-meaning editors, many of the errors not only originate with Pound but were perpetuated by him. Often, having the errors pointed out to him, he refused to sanction changes. This is a black mark against him? Not at all, says Ms Froula: the very fact that he refused revisions when these were offered shows that he repudiated for and in his poem any conception of human history as possessing a factual truth beyond the variously unreliable witnesses through whom (culminating in the poet himself) the historical record is transmitted to us. His and their orthographical and other errors are themselves part of the historical record, a most important and salutary part since they disabuse us of the delusion that what we call history comes down to us except as, innocently or not, corrupted by each and every chronicler and historiographer in the chain by which the past, or a version of it, is communicated to the present. Thus every howler that Pound commits, whether intended or inadvertent (and mostly we can’t tell the difference) counts unto him for virtue.

This argument is much harder to retort to than hearty common sense will suppose. Many of Froula’s pages are closely argued, and some are eloquent. Moreover, as the first scholar to work directly from the work-sheets which, astonishingly voluminous and complete, are now available in the Beinecke Library at Yale, she has written a book that has to be called indispensable, even as one shudders to think how many less intelligent books the Beinecke archive is sure to spawn. Her focus is on Canto Four, a choice by no means arbitrary nor ill-considered; and her publishers deserve much credit for reproducing, in hardback at this price, drafts and variants and diagrammatic stemma – the full bibliographical apparatus.

When a book has so many virtues, it seems unfair to launch an attack on it at its weakest. But the points at issue are important enough to require this. So here goes – with a justly famous poem, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’:

Much have 1 travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western Islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did 1 never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keats made a mistake: it wasn’t Cortez but Balboa who first saw the Pacific. The editors of The Norton Anthology of English Poetry say that this error ‘matters to history but not to poetry’; and Christine Froula, rashly I think, agrees with them. But, she goes on to say, this excuse for Keats won’t hold for Pound, because The Cantos is ‘an epic, not a lyric; a self-proclaimed poem including history, not a fantasy of poetic power or a literary rhapsody’. Whereupon, having dismissed this simple-minded excuse for Pound’s errors, she proceeds to her own more sophisticated excuse for them. But meanwhile what has happened to Keats? Are we to take his poem as ‘a fantasy of poetic power’ or ‘a literary rhapsody’? That’s not clear; what is clear is that neither description does it justice. Keats’s sonnet includes history, just as The Cantos claim to do, and the history it includes is a sort of history The Cantos are much concerned with – the transmission of cultural values (from Homer via George Chapman to John Keats). The error about Cortez doesn’t matter, not for the reason the Norton editors give or imply, but because it is an error in the history of European discovery and colonising of the New World – and that is not, except incidentally, the history that Keats’s poem is concerned with. Should we not say in fact that, if there can be such a thing as an epic sonnet, Keats has written it? We cannot say anything else so long as we accept Froula’s definition of the epic, following Pound, as ‘a poem including history’. The definition will not serve; more than this must be asked of a poem before it can qualify as epic, just because Keats’s sonnet meets the one declared condition as clearly as The Cantos do. But if this is granted, most of Christine Froula’s intricate argument falls to the ground.

It is a very ‘concerned’ argument. She is anxious to see the end of ‘the Western epos, grounded since the Iliad in a tradition of conquest by violence’; and so, at the opposite pole from those who cannot forget nor forgive that Pound was a fascist, she wants to think that with The Cantos ‘the history of epic takes a radically different turn’ – towards an inclusive humanity, recognising without prejudice, for instance, the Chinese along with the European cultural and ethical traditions. But the plain fact is that The Cantos hymn the martial virtues among others; that Sigismundo Malatesta might as well have been a conquistador, and that if he isn’t exactly lauded for this, he isn’t in The Cantos censured for it either. Though we need not deny that Pound launched himself on his long poem out of revulsion and indignation at the loss of life in World War One, all the same his poem cannot be squared with bien-pensant liberal sentiments as smoothly as Christine Froula believes, and would persuade us.

It is rather disgraceful that ‘epic’and ‘lyric’, terms bequeathed to us by a poetics we no longer believe in, should still figure so largely (never properly nor strictly defined) in our own discourse. Taking advantage of this laxity, we can say that, much as Christine Froula harps on the epic nature of The Cantos (inadequately defined, as we have seen), in fact she responds most fervently to the dimension of the poem that can reasonably be described as ‘lyric’. This is a not uncommon response, and isn’t to be sneered at, since it measures up to at least one dimension of the poem. It most often shows up in readers for whom the Pisan Cantos constitute so obviously the most moving sequence that they lament the rest of the poem was not written in the same mode; and though Ms Froula’s scheme allows her only a few pages for the Pisan Cantos, it’s notable that she writes there with uncommon ardour. What’s more, even as she argues for the poetics of Canto Four as thoroughly Modernist (with genuflections to Kandinsky and Brancusi and others), she speaks of ‘a poetics based not on words as signs but on their powers of suggestion’, and of how Pound ‘was more attracted to what the words of his sources did not say than to what was there on the page’. This is as much as to say that as late as the 1920s Pound was still working in terms of a Ninetyish aesthetic that sought ‘moods’ and ‘the ineffable’ – a suspicion borne out on inspecting the drafts, which show a poet doggedly (not to say, sickeningly) diligent indeed, self-critical and self-demanding, but in the service of an aesthetic which still valued the fugitive and evanescent over the overtly stated: a lyrist in fact, though, as Froula compassionately and rightly persuades us, desperately in earnest about gearing up his Imagist-lyric talent to epic requirements. One has noticed before how easily what looks like austere Modernism – in Kandinsky, for instance – can be rendered back into the vocabulary of the Nineties. The crucial point surely is whether the sensibility on display is that of the agonising poet (in which case we are still in the world of lyric), how far it is that of someone else, of ‘the hero’ (at which point we have moved into epic). Christine Froula makes just and witty play out of how the epic hero is always errant, prone to error, wandering both in geography and morally. But in The Faerie Queene it is the Redcrosse Knight whom we see making errors, not Edmund Spenser, whereas in The Cantos it is not Malatesta nor John Adams nor any other hero whom we see erring, but their chronicler, the poet.

For me the case breaks wide open when Froula quotes with approval Otto Rank saying that the modern artist ‘does not practise his calling, but is it, himself, represents it ideologically’. A very dangerous sentiment, and very German! It is plainly what underwrote the careers of the late Robert Lowell, the late John Berryman. And Froula, by endorsing it as a judgment on Pound’s career, in effect debases The Cantos to the level of Lowell’s History, with the agonising poet at centre stage. Is that what Froula really thinks? I suspect it is, though she might be ready to credit Pound with more finesse, for instance in the inventing of cadence. But Pound’s attempt to move out of lyric into epic, though in the event it may not have succeeded, was surely more sustained and more arduous than anything Robert Lowell conceived of. And when Pound refused to clear up spelling errors that were pointed out to him (some he cleared up, but not all), his refusal can be vindicated short of sharing Froula’s and Hayden White’s sour scepticism about historiography generally. The elderly Pound, as Froula uneasily concedes, was not thus sceptical – which commits her to the familiar deconstructionist assumption that the critic (herself) knows what the poet is up to, better than the poet does. I’m afraid that about this admirably painstaking but seldom commonsensical book the hard thing to say is what needs saying: with friends like this, what poet needs enemies?

Peter Nicholls’s dry and difficult but necessary book makes Peter Makin look very old-fashioned. Nicholls is up to the minute. His index lists Althusser, Barthes, Benjamin, Derrida, Eagleton (Terry), Foucault, Gramsci, Lukacs (and yes, in case you wondered, Davie); but it has no entries for Ford (F.M.), Gaudier-Brzeska, Hulme (T.E.), Ovid, Adrian Stokes, Yeats. Some of this is not easily excusable: it is timely to point out where the young Pound was in debt to Pater, but not without considering Yeats as possible intermediary; and it is outrageous to connect Pound’s interest in metamorphosis with Emerson rather than Ovid. (For an American of Pound’s generation not to be bothered with Emerson is remarkable and significant; but others before Nicholls have shown themselves determined to read Emerson between the lines from which he is conspicuously excluded.) Suppressing the names of Gaudier and Hulme, both killed in the Great War and many times indignantly recalled by Pound for just that reason, allows Nicholls to write that it was Pound’s reading of Major Douglas’s Economic Democracy in 1919 which ‘suddenly alerted him to tensions in society’. A man who, having lived 1914 to 1919 in London, needed a book thus to alert him would have to be a cerebral monster. Pound was a very bookish poet, but not so bookish as that.

Books are what Nicholls is good at, and at home with. Because he is content to imagine Italian Fascism wholly in terms of its books (Gentile’s, Odon Por’s, others), he can depict Pound’s embrace of that cause temperately, without any of the vindictive self-righteousness that has disfigured other accounts. This is much to the good. Yet it comes through as singularly bloodless, in more senses than one; what was wrong with Mussolini’s Italy can hardly be located, plausibly, in a wrong or disputable reading of a passage from Aristotle’s Politics, or of 18th-century physiocrats. Still, it’s just here that Nicholls is at his strongest. Stripping away the heated bogeyman aura from Pound’s fascism, he is able to show that this was no avoidable aberration on the poet’s part, rather an almost inevitable consequence of the aesthetics and the psychology that he started out with; and equally that after 1945 there was not, as in honesty there could not be, the recantation of fascism that Pound’s well-intentioned apologists have foisted on him – the Pisan Cantos are defiant, not (except in the private and domestic sphere) contrite. Others have been sure this must be so, but Nicholls, so cool about it and also doggedly omnivorous, is the first to carry conviction – to those, that is, who will trudge with him through some of the most arid stretches of the poem.

Nicholls is not just an ‘ideas’ man. He can make discriminations about style, showing, for instance, how line after line of the winning Canto 17 duplicates rhythmically lines from poems by Swinburne that no one reads, showing, too – conclusively to my mind – how Pound’s style in the Adams cantos had to travesty Adams – had to technically, but ideologically also. And yet, though he can explain why Pound wrote, for instance, the Chinese History cantos in the way he did, he doesn’t thereby make them any more readable. And indeed that’s no part of his intention. His coolness is clinical. Impossible to say what pleasure he took in writing this book, or in reading The Cantos so as to write it. Impossible equally to say, when we get to the end, how he feels about Pound or Pound’s poem. He’s neither friend nor enemy. The sickness, whether of poet or poem, turns out to be deep-seated, complicated, and of long continuance: accordingly, diagnosis is intricate, and has to proceed by stages. The only pleasure offered (and it is considerable) is that of seeing the diagnostician practising his remorseless, learned and scrupulous skills. Those skills are Marxist? Structuralist? Freudian? Peter Nicholls is impassively eclectic. It is all rather unnerving to woozy and ardent characters like me or, if I may co-opt him, Peter Makin.