by Edgar Garcia
“An epic,” writes Ezra Pound in the ABC of Reading, “is a poem including history.” History is the story of peoples through time. But Pound’s bare definition of epic according to its historical aspect fails to identify who the given history includes. Elsewhere, Pound identifies a historical subject with a phrase borrowed from Kipling, “there is no mystery about The Cantos, they are the tale of the tribe.” But The Cantos do not focus on a group that could be identified by ethnic, geographic, or national determinants. Instead the poem, even in its rudimentary form in Quia Pauper Amavi, ranges from an initial apostrophe to Browning regarding the troubadour Sordello through an Italian Humanist re-translation of a Latinized Homer into Anglo-Saxon meter. In The Cantos the tribe is a kind of cultural community, which is international. But even this identification doesn’t do much good. ‘Doesn’t do much good,’ that is, until one observes what is being communicated about this people. In other words, we cannot see Pound’s tribe until we examine the values he intends to transmit to them about them. As the values of poetic expression and erotic love as a healthy kind of growth are revealed to Pound, the subject of his epic becomes better revealed to him and subsequently to his readers. But, to discover what the healthiest parts of the world’s cultural history are, we will have to backtrack a bit and determine what this thing called culture is to Pound.
In attempting to internationalize a subject, the impulse would be to subsume the subject into a delocalized collectivity. But in his essay, “Provincialism the Enemy,” serialized in The New Age through July 1917, Pound diagnoses the disease of provincialism as “an ignorance of the customs of other peoples, a desire to control the acts of other people.” The hope in combating provincialism does not bear collectivity as a necessary result, but instead values a potential in broadened scope for imagining oneself as somebody else, thus imparting “some real respect for personality, for the outline of the individual.” A humanistic formalism emerges as an individual in one locality could be said to rhyme with an individual in another locality though the distinct accents should distinguish each one in contraposition without interference. The general ethical inheritance of the west was, however, in utter degradation in Pound’s judgment. The project of writing a history for a people in ethical degradation would therefore necessarily include an instructive function. Pound would have to re-inscribe in poetry the values defaced by the enemies of culture. And, to finally get at this thing culture, he reverts to Leo Frobenius:
Frobenius escaped both the fiddling term ‘culture’ and the rigid ‘Kultur” by recourse to Greek, he used ‘Paideuma’ with a meaning that is necessary to almost all serious discussion of such subjects as that now under discussion. His ‘Paideuma’ means the mental formation, the inherited habits of thought, the conditionings, aptitudes of a given race or time.
Pound’s role in epic, in consideration of this quote, would be to transmit those habits, conditionings and aptitudes, which world civilization had to offer. I stress aptitudes here because they are the aspect of available knowledge that finally guide Pound, with a faith that the troubadours got it right, to an effort to transmit their cultural legacy in a global register.
The problem for Pound at the time of the publication of Quia Pauper Amavi is that he did not know how to reconcile the composition of “an endless poem… all about everything” with his faith in local, erotic and artistic, growth. The book begins with five songs from the “Langue d’Oc,” and moves on to eight satiric vignettes of his contemporaries before concluding with a version of “Three Cantos” and the “Homage to Sextus Propertius.” The works are suggestively ordered, if one considers how the items relate to each other. In an attempt to sever his work from the local outlook of Provence troubadours—despite the utter health of that poetry—Pound offers the “Homage” as a transitional effort. The “Homage” contradistinguishes the erotic poet, Propertius, unheard herald to the trobars, against a satirizing critique of militaristic distension:
Out-weariers of Apollo will, as we know, continue their
We have kept our erasers in order,
A new-fangled chariot follows the flower-hung horses;
A young Muse with young loves clustered about her Ascends with me into the aether, . . .
And there is no high-road to the Muses.
Pound’s chariot, conveying him upward into the aether, is carried over the earth by sexually suggestive “flower-hung horses.” Moreover, the association of the chariot with the Muse as entities of conveyance brings these two together in logical resonance. Pound will literally ride his love into the heavens. But the erotic is not easily tamed. The chariot follows a number of horses and the muse is surrounded with various young loves. This poet’s romantic aspirations could only inevitably lead to frustration and conflict. The heartbreaking, glorious sexuality, however, creates a conflict that is redefined in epic terms:
And if she plays with me with her shirt off, We shall construct many Iliads.
Pound did not want to become a national poet. His distaste for Tennyson and Virgil expresses this. Propertius was the key which unlocked the possibility for transmitting a global outlook while keeping the virtues of love, passion and erotic poetics, which Pound believed essential to the health of culture. And the first attempt at transplanting the erotic into the epic—into the global outlook (rather than the epic into the erotic, as is found in the “Homage”)—occurs in the “Three Cantos.”
The “Three Cantos” as they appear in Quia Pauper Amavi (trans. “Because I’ve Loved the Meager”) are an exhaustive though unsuccessful attempt to build the big by generating energy among the small. They begin with an address to Browning, regarding the style of his Sordello:
Hang it all, there can be but the one “Sordello,” But say I want to, say I take your whole bag of tricks, Let in your quirks and tweeks, and say the thing’s an art-form, Your “Sordello,” and that the “modern world” Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thoughts in…
It seems that in Pound’s early composition the poem would happen as a dialogue between him and Robert Browning, in which he would find his own “Sordello,” or nodal character. But Sordello, and the dialogic structure by which he would be found, would simply not be multifaceted enough to embody the nature of the project. The attraction to Sordello is based upon a stylistic principle, which generates narrative progress by creating excitement among the elements, or, as Pound put it in describing the style of the historical Sordello da Goito, by fusing into life “word, sound and movement.” But Sordello as a hero would simply not stand in a poem that had so much to engage with—a poem of historical rhythms unfixed and voices polytroponic. The constant churning of history would need a figure of many-minds and great cunning, a “polumetis,” as Pound, quoting Homer, later puts it. Moving beyond Browning and the monologue, Pound would focus his poem around Homer’s Odysseus translated into Latin by Andreas Divus, embedded and nearly invisible in Quia Pauper Amavi, in the third canto. This episode would have to come first because it is a moment of historical churning that could send Pound in the global direction he sought. Setting out upon unfriendly seas, Odysseus descends into the underworld with an offer of blood transfusion—read here translation—to return with the blessing/bledsian of direction.
Pound’s translation, out of Divus’ Latin Homer into Saxon meter, enabled the poetic linkage across history that was necessary for orienting the poem in a figure, which could navigate global culture. And, in his journeys, this figure would purge the toxic while being elevated in the healthy. The “Three Cantos,” like the revised and repositioned first canto, ends with a hymn to Venus—goddess of erotic love. “Cypri munimenta sortita est,” concludes the poem, “the protection of Venus is received;” and those virtuous elements with which the book began—the troubadour elevation of love and song as a psychologically redemptive force, “For in her is all my delight/And all that can save me”—are reoriented as healthy elements of human society in a larger scale. The epic, a global cultural history, is here defined by the virtues, which build healthy culture in every place and in every epoch—namely love and lyric. Pound’s epic is led, at its core, by a troubadour gone global
- ↑ ABC of Reading. (New York 1930), 46.
- ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1938), 194.
- ↑ Selected Prose (New York 1973), 193.
- ↑ Ibid., 190.
- ↑ Pound/Joyce: The Letters of Ezra Pound to James Joyce (New York, 1970), 102.
- ↑ Quia Pauper Amavi (London 1919), 32.
- ↑ Ibid., 40.
- ↑ “Virgil is a second-rater, a Tennysonianized version of Homer.” The Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907-1941 (New York 1950), 87.
- ↑ Ibid., 245, 293.
- ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 146.
- ↑ Quia Pauper Amavi (London 1919), 10.