blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Canto 81"

Anthony Woodward

[O]ne can surely feel that all The Pisan Cantos show a religious temperament in quest of the Holy; yet, in token of the peculiar presence-in-absence of the Holy in modern times, a mood of elegiac distance subtly pervades their grasp of the religious. The poet caught that mood unforgettably in a few lines from one of the Last Fragments of The Cantos:

The Gods have not returned. 'They have never left us.'
                They have not returned.

In The Pisan Cantos the poet is plunged through the extremity of his plight into Heideggerian authenticity .Yet we shall see how, in Cantos 81, 82 and 83, poetic instinct and spiritual tact lead him to render his religious intimations in an oblique stylised manner, befitting the distance that must supervene in any dealings between so isolated and sophisticated a sensibility of the twentieth century and the realm of the sacred. It may even be that we shall sense the presence in those Cantos of an aesthetic attitude to the religious as much as the religious itself.

Let us now turn to those aspects of Cantos 81, 82 and 83 which may lend substance to the point of view I have adopted. Although it is difficult to determine structural fixed-points in so fluid a poetic medium, I think one can say that these three climactic Cantos are framed, in the first part of Canto 81 and at the end of Canto 83, by passages suggesting disillusion with worldly action and politics. Yet the whole opening section of Canto 81, down to the beginning of the libretto, is no mere record of despair, since it recalls things like the memory of a Spanish peasant woman's rough kindness, and a charitable negro's making of a table for the prisoner-poet, and also appreciatively evokes the philosopher Santayana's temperate acceptance of things and people for what they are, Such vignettes, however, stress private virtues and personal acts of kindness in a section whose mood is one of disillusionment with the hatreds, deceptions and pointless activism of the political world, It ends with the strange cry of ‘Aoi’ which, as Mary de Rachewiltz tells us, records one of the deepest moments of personal loss and abandonment in The Pisan Cantos:

a leaf in the current
                        at my grates no Althea

At this point, Canto 81 moves abruptly into a quite different register. A highly formal lyric in the seventeenth-century Cavalier mode cuts across the drifting despair of the preceding lines:

Ere the season died a-cold
Borne upon a zephyr's shoulder
I rose through the aureate sky
                            Lawes and Jenkyns guard thy rest
                           Dolmetsch ever be thy guest,

Has he tempered the viol's wood
To enforce both the grave and the acute?
Has he curved us the bowl of the lute?
                           Lawes and Ienkyns guard thy rest
                          Dolmetsch ever be thy guest,

Hast ' ou fashioned so airy a mood
To draw up leaf from the root?
Hast ' ou found a cloud so light
              As seemed neither mist nor shade ?

                              Then resolve me tell me aright
                               If Waller sang or Dowland
              Your eyen two wol sleye me sodenly
               I may the beauté of hem nat susteyne

And for 180 years almost nothing.

With rapt solemnity this lyric, seemingly spoken by Aphrodite, appears to affirm in its third stanza a tentative hope that the poet's creations may not be unworthy to evoke the ultimate mysteries of Being or, in Confucian terms, the Process. After the lyric there is a pause; then the eyes of a courtly love lady, evoked in Chaucer's own fourteenth-century English, remind us that the eyes ef a goddess are one image of religious mystery in The Cantos. Another pause; then an abrupt shift into a totally different register:

And for 180 years almost nothing.

That moody comment on the lack of any good poetry set for music after the death of John Jenkins (1678), court musician to Charles I and II, and with the birth of Arnold Dolmetsch (1858) symbolising the possible revival of true lyric, puns us back into the presence of a regretful, discriminating connoisseur of the twentieth century .This connoisseur is also a virtuoso at re-creating the lyric measures of another age, as he has just demonstrated. He has bodied forth for the reader, with conscious aplomb, a creative relationship with what is valuable in the past; and implied also, in the words of that re-creative act, is an affirmation that such poetry is an expression of religious mystery .Yet—and this is surely crucial—the calculated artifice of the whole sequence is as marked as the moving quality of the lyric itself. The poet goes out of his way to draw our attention to the artifice by the line 'And for 180 years almost nothing', which is a device for distancing the lyric as well as the Chaucer quotation both from his own self and from the reader. The lyric gracefully ritualises Pound's sense of himself as an artist, which is obviously what redeems him from the despair of the previous section; and by the words of its last stanza it also hints at the religious mystery in which great art can participate. But the lyric's stylistic virtuosity, its prominence in the text as aesthetic gesture, establishes a certain distance between the poet and the mystery he is evoking, just as it distances the reader's response as well. This distance should not be seen as evasion or inadequacy .It is a kind of spiritual tact which enables Pound to put his stylistic virtuosity to the service of, his awe at the mysteries contemplated. The artful rhetoric, and then the sudden change of tone, have the effect of establishing a remoteness from the religious wholeness craved. So too a hint of distance and loss is the silent companion of the exquisitely moulded cadences of this slightly later section of Canto 81:

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 lov'st 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 or 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

To call this parody or pastiche on account of its archaic mode is far too crude. It is wonderfully moving in its own right. The poet seems to be claiming to have exorcised Vanity through having seen what is man's limited place in the scale of a green world in which 'it is not man / Made courage, or made order, or made grace'. And there is an odd suggestion of the eighteenth century in the cosmos evoked; a Scale of Being that recalls Pope's Essay on Man as well as the Book of Ecclesiastes. The celebration of such a cosmos, in such an archaic mode, creates a slight gap between the reader and the religious insight conveyed. Hence the evocation of cosmic order has an undertone of remoteness in its assertions of consummated insight and possession. Moreover the assertion of cosmic order, in the latter part of the quotation, does not quite chime with the awestruck yet wistful agnosticism of earlier lines: 'Whose world, or mine or theirs / or is it of none?' These lines, placed amid the variously rendered 'What thou lovest well' refrains, augment a curious impression of sadness pervading the seeming assertion of spiritual triumph. The iterations have a dying fall. It is as if the poet is inventing as he goes along certain rituals for the articulation of his religious need, and these personal rituals carry an oblique hint of distance and loss in the estranging formality of their idiom. The refrains and the repetitions of ritual can also be a sophisticated means of inducing and sustaining religious emotions, and of this we shall shortly meet other examples…. Did not Pound in some sense envisage even the religious wholeness of the universe in aesthetic terms? To see the universe as one harmonious organism of interpenetrating vital forces in which there is 'no duality' is, in an extremely elevated sense, to see the universe as a work of art, self-sustaining and entire in itself. In politics, too, Pound admired the 'factive' personality who creates from dissident elements some harmonious totality. In Cantos 81, 82 and 83 the political element has been in abeyance as the poet creates his own rituals of religious contemplation. The materials of that religion may be ideologically eclectic, but their poetic embodiment is singularly pure and authentic, intimating with a fine elegiac tact the obscure intermingling of religious wholeness with distance and loss .

from Ezra Pound and The Pisan Cantos. London: Routledge, 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Anthony Woodward

 George Kearns

The canto moves almost imperceptibly through the early morning hours, as Venus and her stars give way to an "aureate sky" and finally to a light by which we can observe "the green world." Yet one hardly notices the movement of light and time, for the intensity of focus is on the mind within the tent. The shape of the canto dramatizes its own meaning, risking, for the first half, an imitative fallacy to do so. The three major sections (interior monologue, libretto, and final chant) mark a movement from egotism (me, my life), through participation in traditions of craft and song, to humility and a sense of the prisoner's true scale within nature.

After a prelude in which a natural world alive with mythological lovers emphasizes the prisoner's isolation (no Althea at his grates), we hear a rambling, prosy interior monologue touching on events of four-and-a-half decades, memories of Wyncote, Madrid, London, Paris, Frankfurt, and Italy. Toward the end, the monologue, which has at least moved from concentration to concentration, becomes deliberately thinned-out and chatty in the lines about George Horace and Beveridge, its discursiveness reflected in the image of the loose rabbit.

Suddenly - with the mysterious cry that forms the refrain of The Song of Roland, "AOI!" - he appears to understand what is happening to himself and to his verse: "a leaf in the current." Through the mediation of poetry, and with the help of Speare's Pocket Book of Verse discovered in the latrine, the canto makes its "turn." There is a kind of heroic gesture to it, as if by an effort of will (yet the results are artistically effortless) he draws on the deepest resources of his craft to compose a "traditional" lyric in which the history of song in reconstructed. For all his ill fortune, he is still il miglior fabbro.

It is this act, this homage to the marriage of words and music, more than the prayers and invocations beard in earlier cantos, that brings the spirits at last. The appearance of the eyes within the tent is the closest thing to a mystical moment in the Cantos. The presence of the eyes, an event not willed by the prisoner, then releases the great moral-religious chant with which the canto ends. The chant, like the "libretto," draws on traditional poetic language, imagery, and sentiments (and is marked, as Kenner has noted, by the very iambic pentameter Pound has just boasted of breaking); yet it is unmistakably written in the twentieth century.

. . . .

The chant against vanity springs both from the presence of the eyes and from the demonstration that the finest poetry is produced through loss of oneself in tradition (though paradoxically, as Eliot intended, the libretto is a brilliant display of individual talent). The opening pages of the canto, by contrast, are ingenious modernism.

From Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Cantos. Copyright © 1980 by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Christine Froula

He describes what he sees: several pairs of eyes, in "half mask's space," interpassing, penetrating, shining with the colors of sky, pool, and sea. These eyes, like Chaucer's or Jonson's words, carry a message to the poet in the cage who has lost everyone and everything: "What thou lovest well remains." It is the same message Chaucer and Jonson bequeathed, a paradisal message. The eyes, the "seen," bring "the palpable / Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell" - the mind's paradise that bears the "formèd trace" of all it has loved well. But with the assurance of that heritage, the eyes also bring an exhortation, the famous "Pull down thy vanity" passage which deflates the writer's romantic pretensions and ranks his creations in the larger-than-literary, larger-than-aesthetic context of "the green world." The self-accusations Pound has made before ("Les larmes que j'ai créees m'inondent") now take external shape as the vision becomes an oblique confession of wrongness and error - a confession which would have cost too much, there in the prison camp, had it not been simultaneously an affirmation of love and memory, and of a place in the green world.

At the end of the canto, the vision has vanished, and the shaken poet salvages from his self-accusations of vanity that part of his life which he had devoted to carrying on "a live tradition," gathering it from the "fine old eye" of a Blunt, a Yeats, a Hardy ("Swinburne my only miss," C, 523).

From A Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Poems. Copyright © 1982, 1983 by Christine Froula.

Paul Smith

The first stages of Pound's personal tragedy occur when the gods in the shape of the American liberation forces in Italy had punished him for his hubristic bent by imprisoning him in the DTC camp at Pisa. There he is supposed to have learnt the humility that is often taken to pervade the Pisan cantos. Yet even in those cantos, where the aridity and arrogance of some of the earlier work are apparently replaced by the repentant lyrical voice, there emerges a clear indication of Pound's refusal to do anything but trust completely and rely upon the correctness of his perception. The famous lyrical passage at the end of 'Canto 81', the 'Pull down thy vanity' section (520-522), is given to the reader as the utterance of an enlightened oracle, as the lesson that has been rescued from historical process by careful and privileged contemplation, so that it is now available for transmission as truth. In 'Canto 81' Pound refers to the appearance of the tangible goodness and enlightenment he seeks in the form of seventeenth-century English music - especially that of Henry Lawes and John Jenkyns. That music, the leaf that rises from the root of Waller and Dowland, is capable of establishing a proper tradition, but Pound sees after it 'for 180 years almost nothing'. In fact the revival of interest in that enlightenment was only finally brought about by himself and Arnold Dolmetsch. This perception of his, or his realisation of that beauty, comes with the by now familiar appearance of a 'new subtlety of eyes into my tent', a version of the great epiphany of clarity. This epiphanic moment, not the 'full EV', but what Michael Schuldiner calls the possibility of 'affective knowledge', gives way to the bland statement of its lesson, its import. The 'what thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross' section of this canto conveys nothing other than Pound's knowledge and his confidence in that knowledge. It can be related to the opening of 'Canto 52' which I have just quoted: it embodies the knowledge that man's errors and vanities result from his inability properly to 'Learn of the green world what can be thy place'.

Here, then, the EV has actually made its way into the poem and Pound even congratulates himself on the actual enactment of that knowledge in the prosecution of his poem; he reminds us that 'to have done instead of not doing / this is not vanity'. The claims of the final few lines of the canto seem to cast an ironic light on the assumptions of the whole passage and on the critical attentions it has received: as well as encouraging us to 'Pull down [our] vanity', our emptiness, the passage contains its own vanities, those of self-congratulation. The voice which rhetorically attacks man as a 'beaten dog beneath the hail', as 'Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity' and full of 'mean hates /fostered in falsity' makes an almost comical and certainly brazen, self-righteous epilogue to its attack:

    To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity. (522)

Such a paradoxical movement in the text's direction presents another sort of fissure in Pound's rhetorical confidence: as I have already shown, he regards truth to be the ineluctable component of the correct and proper handling of the language. Language for him has the innate ability to close up the gap between its signifier and its signified and so refer directly to the referent. That attitude is plainly enough expressed in a footnote to the essay on Cavalcanti, written as far back as 1910. Referring to the thirteenth-century use of the word 'rhetoric', he says that it 'must not here be understood in the current sense of our own day. "Exact and adequate speech" might be a closer rendering.' The cratic confidence that I have pointed out before in relation to this theoretically rigorous use of language is surely not missing from this canto either: 'the unconquered flame' that emblemises the establishment of 'a five tradition' from historical process contains all the necessary phallic qualities to allow it to stand as the champion of 'thy true heritage' - the richness of natural generation.

From Pound Revised. Copyright © 1983 by Paul Smith.

Jean-Michel Rabaté

At the end of the previous Canto, Pound had managed to overcome a vehemently expressed despair ('Je suis au bout de mes forces/'); the image of a drowning Odysseus saved at the last moment by the redeeming power of lyrical poetry was succeeded by a nostalgic evocation of England culminating in the surprisingly grandiose or flippant conclusion, 'sunset grand couturier'. This stemmed from the mention of 'her green elegance', connecting Nature as Gea-tellus in her spontaneous artistry with the conventional world of fashion suggested by the evocation of London. Thus it is no real surprise to find the name of Paquin, a well-known dress-designer at the turn of the century, spliced into the famous penitential hymn to the real source of love, contrition and atonement. Anyhow, the biblical rhetoric of lustration, taking its impetus from a private vision of eyes in the Camp's tent, has so much grandeur in its obsessive repetitions that Paquin's name has struck certain commentators as being slightly irrelevant. For my part, I knew of Paquin only through a popular bawdy song of the 1910s, 'Je suis biaiseuse chez Paquin', increasing the negative connotations of lust, luxury and vanity, while Pound's American pronunciation of the name with a strong plosive 'p' would make it sound almost like 'faquin' (meaning cad, knave).

When we manage to learn more about Paquin, relevant features may be found, some of which destroy the web of speculative associations each reader is likely to spin for himself; for instance, the fact that she opened a house in London in 1912, at a time when Pound lived there but felt attracted by whatever came from Paris ('"We" in London 1911-14 were subsequent to a great deal of Paris'), strengthens the connection between the end of Canto LXXX and Canto LXXXI. But, on the other hand, she was the wife of a rich banker, Joseph Paquin, and exploited her entries into the higher echelons of Parisian society. Did Pound know of this, and is she meant to represent beauty bought by usury? Besides, she was not only a gifted designer, but also her own mannequin, and knew how to promote, advertise and manage her house in a very modern and efficient way. Is she a symbol of grace and elegance, or of corruption and decadence? The only other explicit mention of her by Pound seems to go in the direction of a negative view: 'the mode Paris 1892-1910 is over. It is as uninteresting as a Paquin model for 1894."' Is Paquin's name a kenning for what Williams calls 'obsolete'? Or is she a symptom of pure complacency and idolatry, since we learn that she exhibited a wax figure of herself at the Paris Exhibition of 1900? Pound seems to have known that green, along with white and gold, was one of her favourite colours for her much-admired evening gowns.

In the Cantos, the 'green casque' of Paquin has been undone by the elegance of nature, just as the pink casque of Stuart Merrill's 'baladines' assert hope and resilience. And we thus are brought back to the text itself in order to ascertain the full impact of Paquin's association with Pound, and the real intention of the forceful anaphoric link 'Paquin' --'Pound' -- 'Pull down'. The passage opens with a description of a vision which may have been real or dreamt, since the atmosphere is suffused with a half-light, a chiaroscuro bordering on hallucination. Pound may allude to Dorothy's visit to the DTC, or may wish to fuse the three women who haunt him ('Tre donne intorno alla mia mente' -- LXXVIII, p. 483). The subtle conceptual framework situates 'stance' between the two antagonistic terms 'hypostasis' (meaning foundation, support, to stand under) and 'diastases' (meaning separation, division, disintegration, displacement). An earlier passage had already introduced the scene with almost mystical overtones:

                            …nor is this yet atasal
        nor are here souls, nec personae
        neither here in hypostasis, this land is of Dione
and under her planet
        to Helia the long meadow with poplars
to K n p r i V

Reticence and denegation manage to call up a scene which is not there, since it is in the negative, although here as elsewhere the rhetorical impetus of the verse transforms negation into affirmation: thus invocation replaces the absent 'presentation'; the hymn and prayer are the logical outcome of such a process. 'Hypostasis' takes on the clearly neo-Platonic sense of fusion with the nous or world-soul, just as 'atasal' hints at full reunion with the divine. However, a separation of the eyes is necessary as the real condition for the sublimation of love and reunion, just as the interpenetration of glances binds Donne's lovers in 'The Ecstasy', a poem on which Pound commented: 'Platonism believed.' The nous is seen in spite of obstacles, but also because of the obstacle of division.

And Paquin? Her presence acquires greater justification as soon as we are alerted to the intertextual overtones, which derive from the relatively strange orthography of eidos: eidos is grammatically a noun in Pound's sentence, but he spells it with an omega (w ), which dissociates it from the normal form with an omicron (o), meaning form, vision, beauty. We have therefore moved away from the Platonic eidos and are confronted with eids s, a participle meaning aware, knowing. Indeed, Pound is quoting from the Homeric 'Hymn to Aphrodite', which stresses that the union between a mortal and a goddess can never be achieved in full light, in the full knowledge of the action; when Anchises sleeps with Aphrodite, she disguises her divine nature: 'Then by the will of the gods and destiny he lay with her, a mortal man with an immortal goddess, not clearly knowing what he did.' Ou sapha eids s, which implies semi-consciousness, is reserved for mortals, while in the following hymn to Aphrodite the gods can be 'amazed at the beauty [eidos] of violet-crowned Cytherea'. The omega makes the difference between awareness, knowledge, perception and pure form or beauty. The lyrical impulse behind Pound's purgatorial prayer starts from an awareness of the limits of physical beauty, be it human or divine. The phenomenology of consciousness outlined here ('first came the seen, then thus the palpable') acquires its full importance when related to the conditions surrounding it ('Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell'). Paquin appears then as the necessary mediator between Nature and culture, man and goddess, above all between the poet's lonely fight and the forces of adversity, directly embodied by the victorious American armies (for whom she might pose as a dated pin-up).

There are clearly two worlds, the world of the 'live tradition' mastered at the cost of a life's dedication to beauty, and the world of anonymous barbarians: 'Whose world, or mine or theirs/ or is it of none?' The suggestion that the goddess might only appear to a 'No one', or blinded--castrated--mute Ou tis, has been explored before, but here the dialectical turn of the lustration brings back the vision and the awareness to the poet's own eyes:

A fat moon rises lop-sided over the mountain
The eyes, this time my world,
        But pass and look from mine
        between my lids
            sea, sky, and pool
            pool, sky, sea

In Pound's unequal struggle, Paquin has to be punned into the feminine complement of 'No one', since she is pas qu'un, 'not just one': a feminine hand extended from the heavens or a tent's canvas, reawakening desire only to lead to sublimation, expiation and purgation. This is why the ending is so surprisingly triumphant:

            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 ... (LXXXI, pp. 521-2)

In the same way as a name was necessary to illustrate the point about beauty and fashion, a poet's name is given as another example of moral integrity (Pound alludes to Blunt's strong pacifist position during the First World War). The pairs of feminine eyes have taught other eyes to master their diastases and find the 'old flame' of a tradition conveyed through glimpses and conversation. The substitution of Blunt's eyes for women's eyes reveals Pound's masculine bias, but also overcome the position of an aesthete such as Mauberley, who had remained 'inconscient' (like Anchises) of the 'diastases' of 'wide-banded irides'; his belated connection between eyes and sexuality, crudely invoked by the pun on 'orchid',' flower and testicle, has been replaced by the latent play on 'casque', helmet, and flower of the genus of the orchis; the 'green casque' has indeed 'outdone' both Paquin and Mauberley.

'The error would only have been not doing, not acting -- Mauberley's sin of 'drifting' to an estrangement; here this is expressed by a complicated mixture of negatives and positives: 'all', 'not done', 'all', 'diffidence that faltered'. The error would have consisted in maintaining a modesty, a lack of confidence which hesitates, wavers: if the way to reference leads through difference, the way to difference leads through conquered diffidence, or, in other terms, reverence. For, while Williams wrote that there were 'no ideas, but in things', Pound could state that there is 'no presence, but in Names'.

From Language, Sexuality and Ideology in Ezra Pound's Canto. Macmillan, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by Jean-Michel Rabaté

Mutlu Konuk Blasing

Pound's "resuscitation" of dead languages (P, 187) is both literally a translation of texts and a passage of "air" through abiding patterns or codes. The patterns are abiding not because they carry the authority of the past but because tradition only carries on the form/force that inheres in the nature of things. His use of a global tradition in the Cantos is neither an exoticism nor an archaism. It is meant to show that '''as a wind's breath / that changing its direction changeth its name'" (106:752 ), different languages, literatures, and ages variously name the same breath animating all life. Because the tradition records the shape of things, the poet's language is naturally allusive. Poetic ontogeny repeats phylogeny; organicism rewrites the tradition. In Whitman's words, "See—as the annual round returns the phantoms return" (LG, 299).

Such knowledge underwrites the chant of creaturely "humility" in canto 81:

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 or true artistry [81:521]

The pun on "scaled invention" is Pound's axis here: the poet bows before nature and scales down his pride before the artistry of scaled creatures, the "green casque" that has outdone his "elegance." Yet the entire canto 81, which reiterates "(To break the pentameter, that was the first heave)" (518), is also an extended homage to the scaled music of the English lyric tradition and indeed scales the very climax of its "awakening" to the pentameter:

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. [520-21]

In the same move, Pound scales his "vanity" to both nature and tradition yet concludes by reaffirming, in clear speech rhythms and diction, that his attempt to "make it new," to gather "from the air a live tradition," was not "vanity." The Cantos extol such a community of nature, tradition, and the individual poet. The signatures in nature, the seeds that carry its mystic cipher, are borne on the wind, just as the verbal tradition is borne on the breath. And just as the "whole tribe is from one man's body" (99:708), its whole long tale is from one "man's" breath.

from American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

Mary Ellis Gibson

. . . in Canto 81 the poet excoriates vanity, and invokes the "beaten dog." McGann has asserted that in the famous declaration "Pull down thy vanity," Pound addresses as a "beaten dog" not himself but the U.S. Army (Toward a Literature of Knowledge, 114). Certainly it would make sense that Pound might characterize the army by the very sort of bestiality and illegitimate mixtures he mocked in The Fifth Decade of Cantos. The army is after all the American partially integrated army:

         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

Other commentators have seen this as Pound's address to himself, and the identification with dogs as victims gives a certain probability to this reading. Ultimately, I think Pound leaves any such identification between the poet and the beaten dog, the poet and the black-and-white army, at best ambivalent; the poem is left to the reader's charity.

In Canto 81, the poet claims to have acted without vanity in the service of his art: "to have done instead of not doing / this is not vanity" (535). An uncharitable reader—or one who identifies more solidly with the dogs than Pound does and who doubts Pound's self-identification with the soldiers—would not be comforted by the poet's claim to sins of omission: "Here error is all in the not done, / all in the diffidence that faltered" (81.536). If Pound is to be seen as the "beaten dog," it is in admitting errors of omission and m claiming to be himself a victim.

from Epic Reinvented: Ezra Pound and the Victorians. Copyright © 1995 by Cornell UP.

Sylvan Esh

Pound's canto 81 opens with Zeus "in Ceres' bosom" (517), then turns sharply, if not inevitably, to hard personal and historical concerns. The exact emphasis of the vanity refrain in the final third of the canto—which makes the canto one of the best-remembered sections of The Cantos—has given rise to a certain controversy regarding whose vanity, specifically, is being addressed, Pound's or some other's. Pound seems to develop this question along two, conflicting fronts and to rely, in part, on a source in John Adams' Discourses on Davila to resolve the matter. He has been humbled by his stay in Pisa; he remains, nevertheless, unrelenting in his attack on the civil and moral corruption of others; and a final recognition allows him to subsume both of these positions.

One of the most succinct readings of this canto is probably George Kearns' in his Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Cantos. This and Peter D'Epiro's "Whose Vanity Must Be Pulled Down" survey past readings and then, going beyond them, introduce new and critical perspectives for reading the canto. The Discourses connection accords well with these two readings. I believe, and I will review one of these—Kearns—and a few others briefly in my conclusion. First, though, I would like to spell out the specifics of this connection, which has gone unnoticed in spite of The Cantos' extensive consideration of Adams, and in spite of an allusion in canto 81 itself, just two pages preceding the refrain, to the Adams/Jefferson correspondence: "'You the one, I the few' / said John Adams / speaking of fears in the abstract" (518) (itself a reprise of an earlier allusion in canto 69/407). This allusion refers to a passage in the correspondence, where the meaning of these lines is clarified: Jefferson feared a monarchy, Adams an aristocracy (Adams 8:464; Terrell 334). The issue is probably the one upon which Adams is most defensive, and it is in the Discourses that he states his case most elaborately.

According to the Concordance of Ezra Pound's Cantos, Pound mentions the Discourses specifically only once, in canto 68. The lines "'No man in America then believed me' / J .A. on his Davila" appear in a passage concerned with the problems posed by the aristocracy in various historical settings: "Be bubbled out of their liberties by a few large names"; "Whether the king of the Franks had a negative on that assembly" (395). While both Pound and Adams explore the question at length, the emphasis here is on the intellectual isolation both experienced. Pound's reference is, specifically, to the preface to the Discourses that Adams added in 1812. I cite the entire preface because it describes so nearly several aspects of Pound's own situation in the period beginning with the thirties.

This dull, heavy volume, still excites the wonder of its author,—first, that he could find, amidst the constant scenes of business and dissipation in which he was enveloped, time to write it; secondly, that he had the courage to oppose and publish his own opinions to the universal opinion of America, and, indeed, of all mankind. Not one man in America then believed him. He knew not one and has not heard of one since who then believed him. The work, however, powerfully operated to destroy his popularity. It was urged as full proof, that he was an advocate for monarchy, and laboring to introduce a hereditary president in America. (6:227)

In addition to this direct reference, Pound refers to the Discourses indirectly on at least several other occasions. One reference is in the line from cantos 69 and 81, given above; another occurs in canto 84, where the speaker observes, "We will be about as popular as Mr John Adams" (538); and still another appears in canto 65, in a line referring to the "offer to make 200 peers (in America)" (373).

It is in the Discourses on Davila, in any case, that Adams delivers one of his most concise (and defensive) descriptions of the dynamic that drives the social body. Here Adams adopts a classically analytical style, discriminating carefully between the related forms of his object. That object is the "passion for distinction " whereby individuals are driven by the social dynamic to become, for the most part, socially effective. That is, human beings, in accordance with the law of self-preservation, respond to the social factors of rewards and punishment, of esteem and admiration, and of neglect and contempt; and these factors, more than standing armies, are responsible for the generally prevailing state of social stability. I would like to quote here in its entirety a paragraph that follows the preface by only a few pages, one that both sets forth a basic outline of Adams' ideas on this point and serves as a source for allusions of direct relation to the vanity refrain of canto 81.

This passion [for distinction], while it is simply a desire to excel another, by fair industry in the search of truth, and the practice of virtue, is properly called Emulation. When it aims at power, as a means of distinction, it is Ambition. When it is in a situation to suggest the sentiments of fear and apprehension, that another, who is now inferior, will become superior, it is denominated Jealousy. When it is in a state of mortification, at the superiority of another, and desires to bring him down to our level, or to depress him below us, it is properly called Envy. When it deceives a man into a belief of false professions of esteem or admiration, or into a false opinion of his importance in the judgment of the world, it is Vanity. These observations alone would be sufficient to show, that this propensity, in all its branches, is a principal source of the virtues and vices, the happiness and misery of human life; and that the history of mankind is little more than a simple narration of its operation and effects. (6:233-34)

Two items in particular from this passage are clearly of significance to the content of Pound's refrain and, even more, they are important in combination. Vanity and envy, the delusions concerning one's standing in the world and the attempts of the vulgar to bring down those who excel, are central to the refrain of the canto; they make up the two poles of its body of meanings perhaps even more essentially than does the polar reading of humility (Pound's/others'), for they indicate the motives underlying such consequences. On the one hand, envy, in its refusal to accept excellence, distorts its perceptions of the other and so lays some of the grounds for the divergence of perceptions upon which vanity is situated; on the other, vanity prevents one's objective perception of both one's own achievement and the nature of envy.

In alluding to the Discourses, Pound wishes to develop a more defensive, but also more explanatory reading of the vanity considered in the canto; for if he wishes to castigate bad citizens and shallow critics, and if he also wishes to puncture his own vain pride, he also wishes to acknowledge another kind of error which the years of the thirties and forties had slowly enveloped him in—of his own standing vis-a-vis the world outside. That this recognition would have caused him to feel a special affinity with the writer of the Discourses becomes especially convincing when one notes Adams' subtextual 'castigation (in light of the preface which was added later) of the ignorance of his audience. "Bring him down," used by Adams to describe the desires of a public that senses its own inferiority and turns hostile, rhymes too nearly with Pound's "Pull down thy vanity" in canto 81 for the reference not to include, in addition to an impulse for self-correction, an equally powerful impulse for self-explication. If vanity is about Paquin and excess, and about Pound and error, it is also about the gaping abyss between the speaker of these cantos and his audience. It is about the abyss between his original perception of his role in the social community and the more restricted role he is now forced to see, and the reasons for that difference. That difference is implicitly represented as the result of a dialectic involving two forms of passion. As such, vanity, the passion characterizing the speaker, stands opposite the passion of envy that motivates the mob. This relationship is both reinforced and questioned by the myriad of historical, personal, aesthetic, and philosophical specifics also introduced by the canto.

This connection, based on the two categories of vanity and envy, reinforces the note of self-vindication at the close of the canto, and contributes meaningfully to a reading of Pound's own sense of his error of vision: it suggests the subtlety that Pound views his own failure as less a failure of vision than a failure to understand his public. While the errors are acknowledged, the Discourses connection ultimately allows the canto to insist on attaching the blame for this gap of vision in equal parts to the two parties, Pound and the public he had assailed already for decades for being too ignorant or lazy even to take the measures necessary for beginning a conscious and effective process of social improvement.

from "Paquin and Davila: Pulling Down Vanity in Canto 81." Paideuma 24:1 (Spring 1995)

Return to Ezra Pound