Monday, July 05, 2004

Right. Canto 81. Who is Pound addressing here?:
What thou lovest well remains,
                                    the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                 or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
      Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee

The ant's a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
      Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention of true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity,
                              Paquin pull down!
The green casque has outdone your elegance.

"Master thyself, then others shall thee beare"
      Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst'ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
                     How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
                     Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity,
                     I say pull down.

But to have done instead of not doing
                     this is not vanity
To have, with decency, knocked
That a Blunt should open
               To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity.
      Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered . . .
For a long time Pound's apologists read the "Pull down thy vanity" as Pound's address to himself: a renunciation of his bad works, Prospero drowning his Fascist books. Nowadays it's more common to see that injunction as addressed to the conquering American army. The first part of the passage ("What thou lovest well remains") seems to reinforce the first interpretation, for surely Pound is trying to reassure himself, in his desperate situation, that he has not in fact lost everything. The second interpretation is reinforced by the end of the Canto, which makes claims for Pound's "doing," preserves an "unconquered flame," and suggests if anything that Pound's "error" resulted from not trying hard enough. So both interpretations coexist uneasily in my mind—an unlooked-for case of negative capability.

Still, the tone of resignation and renunciation that I noticed earlier continues into Canto 82, in which Pound appears to be preparing himself for death: "Where I lie let the thyme rise / and basilicum / let the herbs rise in April abundant". But this momentary vision of a pastoral resting-place is almost immediately supplanted by guilty self-knowledge: "but I will come out of this knowing no one / neither they me / connubium terrae" and repeatedly invoking the Greek word chthonos (of the earth, under the earth) and then dakruon (tears), which we've seen before. The Canto closes with the image of three birds on a wire, tied again to Pound's word "periplum": the view from up close, with one's own eyes. Death is at hand. But the last two Pisan Cantos seem to have come out of renewed engagement with life—perhaps it was at this point Pound learned that he would not be immediately executed. But this is life as seen by Persephone after leaving Hades, or perhaps Orpheus before the Maenads struck. The presiding figure of Canto 83 is the "Dryad," Pound's name for Olga Rudge (he also gave this title to H.D., to whom he atttributed the same gray eyes). Whereas the lynx/Dorothy episode of Canto 79 was a pure idyll, the Dryad's landscape is shadowed by Pound's dark new knowledge. The image of Pound the person that emerges here is Pound at his best, at his most lyrically sensitive and compassionate:
[Dryas], your eyes are like clouds

Nor can who has passed a month in the death cells
      believe in capital punishment
No man who has passed a month in the death cells
      believes in cages for beasts

[Dryas], your eyes are like the clouds over Taishan
      When some of the rain has fallen
      and half remains yet to fall

The roots go down to the river's edge
      and the hidden city moves upward
        white ivory under the bark

With clouds over Taishan-Chocorua
        when the blackberry ripens
and now the new moon faces Taishan
one must count by the dawn star
      Dryad, thy peace is like water
There is September sun on the pools
There is an emphasis on restraint and harmlessness: "'Non combaattere' said Govanna / meaning, as before stated, don't work so hard" (this is followed by the Chinese characters for wu, chu, and chang: "Do not help to grow [what will grow well enough on its own]"). Nature's phusis has a redemptive power: "the sage / delighteth in water / the humane man has amity with the hills" and "where the mind swings by a grass-blade / an ant's forefoot shall save you / the clover leaf smells and tastes as its flower". (Whitman is a strong presence in these Cantos and he gets an explicit mention in 82: "Whitman, exotic, still suspect".) The rest of the Canto drifts through memories of loved Italian places, working with Yeats in Ireland, and repeated acknowledgments of his age and weariness. It ends with a familial memory of visitng the U.S. Capitol with his mother, but this "descent / has not been of advantage either / to the Senate or to 'society' / or to the people". The "descent" refers to the descent to Washington, but it also seems to indicate the poet's Orphean descent into the underworld, from which he has returned empty-handed. "Oh let an old man rest" is the plaintive conclusion. And probably if Pound's friend the English poet J.P. Angold hadn't been killed in the war, that's where The Pisan Cantos would end. Instead, Canto 84 returns us to the familiar space of the Poundian jeremiad against "th' eastern idea about money". There's another shout-out to Mussolini ("il Capo") and his executed lieutenants and a conversation in Italian through the barbed wire with a shepherdess ("pastorella") who calls the behavior of the American soldiers "poco," no better than the Germans. (Though it occurs to me that Pound's indictments of the American warmaking power are not entirely off base. WWII was the real beginning of the military-industrial complex that dominates our unhappy world to this day. Pound saw the inherent evil of the war machine, even if he blinded himself to the better aims to which that machine was put.) Still there are flashes again of lyricism and resignation, along with a nursery-rhyme like passage whose hidden meaning intrigues me: "ye spotted lambe / that is both blacke and whtie / is yeven to us for the eyes' delight." Cookson's trot says nothing; Sieburth postulates that it's a pastiche of Blake and Burns from the tattered anthology Pound had found in the shithouse at the DTC. The particolored lamb also reminds me of Hopkins, but in any case it's a highly pastoral image: the lamb's value is aesthetic and completely detached from any economic purpose. A bit later Pound muses, "Under white clouds, cielo di Pisa / out of all this beauty something must come". His sufferings at Pisa have also exposed him to tremendous natural beauty (not to mention the kindnesses of the faux-naif shepherd-like black soldiers). The Canto ends with a bit of doggerel: "If the hoar frost grip thy tent / Thou wilt give thanks when night is spent." Pound is grateful, of course, for the literal tent he was moved to (Canto 83: "in the drenched tent there is quiet / sered eyes are at rest"), but to end The Pisan Cantos on this note suggests that, for the moment, the impulse toward pastoral renunciation has won out over Pound's urges to castigate and remake the world.

Now I'm already five Cantos into Section: Rock Drill and there he takes up the struggle once again, re-establishing his Confucian principles , condemning various examples of usury, and taking another stab at American history (Pound is always on the search for heroes). They're a bit of a slog. I'm more looking forward to the "paradiso" of the Cantos that follow, De Los Cantares (90 - 105), but next I'll have a report on Pound's attempts to re-orient his epic project from within the confines of the "bug house" at St. Elizabeth's.

1 comment:

Francesco Conte said...

Very interesting Josh!
I had the honor of hearing this poem read by Pound's daughter in Venice some years ago..
a local politician was talking blablabla
so I started saying aloud "Pull down thy vanity.." until Pound's daughter finally picked it up and interrupted the woman politician, in order to recite the poem.
Another woman, who sat by me, found my behaviour absolutely rude, until a few days later I saw her in the middle of Campo Santa Margherita, running toward me, and saying: "Which Canto was 'Pull down thy vanity'? It's fantastic".
I found this poem through amazing interview of Pasolini with Pound in 1968. Thank you for the insights and all the best!

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