Arachne: A Literary Journal. No. 1
The Pisan Cantos
The Pisan Cantos
The ten most recent cantos of Pound's gigantic poem in progress were written in mid-1945 while he was in an American prison camp at Pisa awaiting trial on a treason charge. A wisely obtuse court has since found him to be insane and he is at present, apparently, in a mental hospital. These fantastic circumstances and his earlier activities as a broadcaster for the Italian Fascists are, I suppose, a fairly appropriate expression of the relationship which Pound's poetry has indicated to exist between him and his community.
Unlike the other prominent English poets of his time Pound is thoroughly pagan. When he turns to the middle ages it is to their craftsmanship and not their metaphysic and in the ancient East it is China and not India which fascinates him. The consequence of this freedom from the vistas of eternity is, for a man of such generous emotions, a painfully intense love for the detail of temporal beauty and an ungovernable indignation against those who ignore it or destroy it—
'the useful operations of commerce
stone after stone of beauty cast down and authenticities disputed by parasites'
These feeling made Pound an expatriate from the Anglo-Saxon world; that he should have added to expatriation a belief in social credit and broadcasting for Radio Roma was certainly excessive but he was so clearly born to excess that one can hardly call it deplorable. Indeed, comparing the Pisan Cantos with the Four Quartets one cannot but feel that this is one of the occasions where the tigers of wrath have been wiser than the horses of instruction—
'yet say this to the Possum: a bang, not a whimper,
with a bang not with a whimper,
To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars.'
(lines which follow a description of the end of Mussolini—
'Ben and la Clara a Milano
by the heels at Milano
That maggots shd/eat the dead bullock)
The Four Quartets are, in their way, a brilliant achievement and suffer by comparison only with the verse of Eliot himself and a very few others in this age. But the qualities which Eliot has gained, unlike those he has lost, do not seem to me of primary importance. The Quartets, as against the Cantos and, say, Prufrock, are the consummately skilful expression of certain beliefs about the world rather that the transmutation of experience itself into verse. They confirm one's suspicion that Eliot may be allowing too great scope to the useful but dangerous devil of theology.
No such doubts are suggested by the comparison of the Pisan Cantos with Pound's earlier verse. There is much in the Cantos of which the beauty or the meaning escapes me and I am prepared to remain for the moment undecided as to how far the fault for this lies with myself. There is so much, however, that is fine and fine in a unique way that it seems not too audacious to argue that whether or not Pound is accomplishing his full design he is writing the only really memorable poetry, apart from a few isolated lyrics, to have been published in English since the beginning of the present decade.
The Pisan Cantos offer an initial advantage to the reader. Their immediate setting, that portion of the flux which we would normally call the present, is the dramatic and easily recognisable situation of Pound in an American prison camp in the final days of the war. To speak of April, 1945, as the foreground of the poem, however, and suggest that Pound's own earlier reminiscences are the middle distance and quotations from Classical and Chinese antiquity the background would be gravely to misrepresent the character of the Cantos. Their especial quality is the immediate and contemporaneous existence given to events of different times, and, by ordinary standards, of very different kinds.
In Pound's mind there flow, in the one stream, Confucius—
'"and having got 'em (advantages, privilege) there is nothing, italics nothing, they will not do to retain 'em"
yrs truly Kungfutseu'
'La beaute "Beauty is difficult, Yeats" said Aubrey Beardsley
when Yeats asked why he drew horrors
or at least not Burne-Jones
and Beardsley knew he was dying and had to
make his hit quickly hence no more B-J in his product.
So very difficult, Yeats, beauty so difficult'
and one Till who
' . . . was hung yesterday for murder and rape with trimmings plus Cholkis
plus mythology, thought he was Zeus ram or
'a man on whom the sun has gone down the ewe, he said had such a pretty look in her eyes;'
The reverberations between the present and the more or less distant past are noted with an art that has the appearance of extreme nonchalance. In many respects the Cantos are an approach from the side of poetry towards that new medium of expression which Joyce sought in Ulysses. The flexibility of their form is obvious enough—equally unquestionable seems to me the precision with which Pound uses it to catch a certain casual and fleeting beauty which has so far eluded the rhythms of English verse. There is no effort to raise every line to a high level of poetic intensity. More or less casually made observations precede or follow the flashing of the lightning as in the passage quoted at the end of this review.
Attention has rightly been drawn by critics to a sustained passage in the grand manner at the end of the 81st Canto beginning—
'What thou lovest well remains
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage' Many readers who admire this magnificent passage may be disappointed to find that it is the only thing quite of this kind and length in the Pisan Cantos. But it is the apparently