On "Canto IX"
Lawrence S. Rainey
The Cantos of Ezra Pound has long been considered the most important work of Anglo-American literary modernism. It is also the most intractable: its difficulties are notorious, its obscurity legendary. Though we are ignorant about many matters in Pound's work, at least one point has gradually attracted a substantial consensus: the decisive event in the formation of The Cantos occurred when Pound composed the Malatesta Cantos in 1922 and 1923. This event marked a catalytic moment. It enabled Pound to discover poetic techniques essential to the formal repertory of The Cantos, such as the direct quotation of prose documents, a device that effectively dissolved the distinction between verse and prose--a crucial development in the history of modern poetry. Equally important, the Malatesta Cantos precipitated a radical revision of all the earlier cantos, crystallizing the design of the larger poem, which had until then remained obscure for Pound himself. These events, the outcome of an intense struggle with an enormous body of historical materials, consumed eleven months of his life. Yet t heir reverberations extended far beyond 1923. In later cantos Pound returned to historical topics connected with Malatestan material some one hundred times. In prose he treated the subject in reviews and essays of the 1930s, at times comparing himself with Sigismondo Malatesta and his work with the church Sigismondo had constructed. In his private life he talked about Sigismondo to anyone who would listen; he purchased slides and photographs of historical documents important for Sigismondo's life or times; he kept above his writing desk a bas-relief that depicted Isotta degli Atti, the woman who had allegedly inspired Sigismondo's greatest achievement; and in the closing years of his life he journeyed to Rimini again to visit the church of San Francesco one last, haunting time. For Pound, it is clear, the issues he had encountered in the dramatic moments of 1922-23 became a reference point for all his subsequent thinking about civilization and cultural politics. The Malatesta Cantos are a locus for exploring the entire project of The Cantos, the central aspirations of literary modernism, and the intricate history of their critical reception by modern scholarship.
Quotation is a salient feature of major modernist texts, whether The Cantos or The Waste Land, Ulysses or To the Lighthouse. Its appearance in the modernist novel may not be surprising: after all, quotation has typified the novel since the day when Don Quixote recited Petrarchan sonnets and the formulas of chivalric romance. But quotation is also ubiquitous in modernist poetry--seven of the last eight lines of The Waste Land, for example, are quotations--surpassing the boundaries of generic expectations. Further, the modernist practice of quotation is not only pervasive, but qualitatively different: in addition to earlier poems or traditional literary materials, it cites tags from popular songs (O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag--), or the nightly injunction of pub-tenders (HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME), materials wrested from outside the conventional literary domain. And the citation of historical documents, a procedure first adopted in the Malatesta Cantos, seems an especially intransigent form of this practice. The source texts are aggressively quotidian and antiliterary, invoking materials so alien to conventional notions of the "poetic" as to reconstitute the boundaries of subject matter acceptable in poetic discourse. Morever, they are presented without ragged right margins, miming the graphic characteristics of prose as if to emphasize their departure from poetic norms. In part, then, they have elicited critical interest because evaluating them is essential to our understanding not only of The Cantos, but of literary modernism. Another reason for interest is that criticism of the last two decades has virtually defined itself by the problem of quotation.
Pound's use of quotation was ambiguous and ambivalent. It invoked the standards of philological accuracy in order to juxtapose them against a higher accuracy of the spirit. It enacted a critique of the bourgeois mentalité and a radical rejection of the reformist socialism that allegedly shared its foundations; yet the result was a utopian aspiration imperiled by its own emptiness, a threat that could only be met by authorization from the past, by the invocation of historical precedent--which meant a return to the terrain of philology and history. The cycle became vertiginous and inescapable, its gestures both rebellious and conservative its implications poised on an abyss of ambiguity.
. . . distaste for the world engendered by capitalism is structured through a radical antimaterialism that rejects both the historicist trend of elite bourgeois culture and the repetitious "uniformity" of an urban lower class public associated with socialism. Meanwhile the "middle" (read also "mediocre") socioeconomic strata are rejected in favor of an imaginary cultural aristocracy that embodies and is unified with the vitality of a traditional-rural folk, and this imaginary construct becomes the vehicle for values uncontaminated by the mentalité that has engendered the culture of capitalist industrialism, materialism, or its academic exponent, philology. And it was but a short step from the 1917 essay to his 1922 view of the courtly culture of Rimini, where the "men of unusual intelligence" become "men of unusual genius" as Pound approvingly cites (in the final version of the Malatesta Cantos) Bartolomeo Scacchi's report that Sigismondo typically discussed "books, arms, / And men of unusual genius." This was the background to Pound's use of historical quotation in the Malatesta Cantos--an aggressive, accusatory assault on the historicist trend of elite bourgeois culture.
Viewed in Pound's own terms, the quotations in the Malatesta Cantos are not structured by philology, but against it: the "passion for completeness" is replaced with "selection"; the consultation of "commentaries" gives way to "direct study of the texts themselves" (ten long weeks of archival research from February to April 1923); the method of "science" is superseded by "art"; the "dullness" of "the earnest" is met with "levity"; and the study of "mediocrity" is supplanted by the "primitive religion" of "hero-worship." Pound invokes the standards of philological accuracy only to savage the institutional apparatus that sustains them. His literalist translations parody the typical features of the loathed institution. Consider his citation of a single phrase from a letter of 1454: "the bay pony (ronzino baiectino) the which you have sent me." Here are the gestures of philology--meticulous report of the original wording in parentheses (ronzino baiectino), and a translation so literal as to skirt the absurd ("the which" for il quale). It is, of course, too literal, a cruel parody of the philological fetish with "unvital detail."
From Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos. Copyright © 1991 by the U of Chicago P.
Canto IX is one of Pound's four "Malatesta Cantos" (VII-XI), a series based on the life and times of an Italian lord and condottiere, or professional soldier: Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (1417-68). Pound's attraction to this obscure Renaissance hero arises from the fact that, while actively and riskily engaged in the political intrigues of the Italian city-states, which finally led to his excoriation by Pope Pius X, Sigismondo also managed to "gather the artists and savants about him" (Canto XIII) at his court and to leave behind him a work of art - the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, Italy - which registers the complex historical temper of his time. In the midst of political turmoil, Sigismondo created in Rimini a little "civilization," to which his Tempio (Temple) enduringly testifies.
. . . .
Sixty years later, we can hardly avoid seeing problematic complications in the value Pound placed on Sigismondo's high "cultural awareness" - hero worship being chief among them. In 1923, Pound could discount Sigismondo's violence and immense egotism for the sake of the great value he attached to the triumphant embodiment of his antimonotheistic sensibility in the Tempio, "against the current of power." Looking back from the second half of our century, however, it is no longer possible to overlook the ruthless acts of barbarism on which this "cultural high" was raised. While we may still be moved by the eloquent "record of struggle" Sigismondo left in the Tempio, we must judge this Renaissance record of struggle, as Pound himself could not, within the context of the record of struggle Pound's poem has left for our own time, which mirrors the still unresolved crisis of the heroic values on which Western civilization is founded.
From A Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Poems. Copyright © 1982, 1983 by Christine Froula.
The next Cantos - VIII-XI - turn from myth to history: from Acoetes to the landlocked Odysseus of fifteenth-century Rimini, the warlord Sigismundo Malatesta, ever harassed, ever trying to construct his private Ithaca, the Tempio. These four Cantos are the most coherent, chronologically intelligible sequence in the whole Cantos, until the Chinese dynastic Cantos LII-LXI. And yet they are as technically advanced as any of their predecessors.
Pound had been long experimenting with personae that were not (so to speak) whole-body personae, personae in which the poet was completely hidden by the mask: Pound was fascinated by personae in the form of half-masks, in which the poet only partly hid himself. In the year that he began The Cantos, 1915, Pound wrote "Near Perigord," in which the poet dramatizes the difficulty of finding out enough about the belligerent troubadour Bertrans de Born in order to adopt him as a persona: we see Pound gathering puzzling documents, bemusing himself with possible constructions of Bertrans' physical appearance, pretending for a moment to speak in Bertrans' voice, but at last watching the whole charade fall apart into "a broken bundle of mirrors" (P, 1926, 157). Sigismundo is Pound's most far-reaching experiment with the half-mask: Pound prints documents, sometimes in translation, concerning Sigismundo's life (a poem he wrote to his mistress Isotta; instructions concerning his generous patronage of the arts; a gracious letter he received from his son; a description of the bonfire at St. Peter's basilica, in which an effigy of Sigismundo was burnt, following his excommunication by Pope Pius II); but Pound is reluctant to feign Sigismundo's voice, and prefers to let "Sidge" speak for himself.
. . . .
Much of the narrative is told in the third person, but Pound occasionally slips into the first person plural, as if the poet had enlisted in Malatesta's army:
And we beat the papishes and fought
them back through the tents
And he came up to the dyke again
And fought through the dyke-gate
And it went on from dawn to sunset
And we broke them and took their baggage (XI/48)
The repeated And suggests the soldiers' inexorable advance. This technique, in which the poet retains a half-anonymous, tentative presence on the fringes of the poem, would persist in The Cantos. . . .
But there is a moment in the Malatesta Cantos, toward the end f Sigismundo's life, when the poet presents himself in a slightly different manner:
and came back with no pep in him
And we sit here. I have sat here
for forty thousand years (XI/50)
This might be the exaggeration of a footsoldier, whose hard life might seem forty thousand years long; but it also might be the voice of the poet of Canto IV, conjuring up the shadows of the fifteenth century in an old arena; and it also might be the voice of Eliot's Tiresias, who sat by Thebes below the wall, and walked among the lowest of the dead. Sometimes Pound's voice is focused through a mask; but sometimes it blurs, grows hollow with echoes, as if a whole Grand Canyon had opened around it. As Sigismundo's dreams crumble, as it becomes clear that his syncretic temple, in which the gods of pagan antiquity would be worshiped along with the Christian god, will never be finished, the poet starts to disengage himself from Sigismundo, to range for new ghosts. . . .
Sigismundo was a contemporary of Villon, on a higher social plane, but equally engaged with sex, religion, and death. Instead of excerpts from testamentary poetry, Pound provides for his "score" the documents that constitute Sigismundo's testament - his generosity to painters such as Piero delta Francesca, his consultation with Alberti on the architecture of the unfinished (but still preserved) Tempio. Instead of cello and bassoon, Pound provides cues that establish the right timbre, the right roughening of voice: the poet's own macho zest for combat ("we had smashed at Piombino and driven Out" - X/46) or explicit judgments about Sigismundo's accomplishment, as when Pound visits what is left of the Tempio and notes, "The filigree hiding the gothic,/with a touch rhetoric in the whole" (IX/41). Perhaps this will serve as a judgment on The Cantos as well as on the Tempio that seems a stone metaphor for The Cantos.
From "Early Cantos I - XLI" in The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1999 by Cambridge University Press.
. . .out of the whirl of jag detail the various aspects of Sigismundo - fighting, negotiating, protecting his family and his city - assert themselves and imply a personality, the centre of which is the construction of the Tempio Malatestiano at Rimini. 'A splendid church,' admitted his enemy Pope Pius II, 'dedicated to St Francis, though he filled it so full of pagan works of art that it seemed less a Christian sanctuary than a temple of heathen devil-worshippers. In it he erected for his mistress a tomb of magnificent marble and exquisite workmanship with an inscription in the pagan style as follows: "Sacred to the deified Isotta".
The Tempio, though never finished, is a great achievement; Alberti was the architect, the bas-reliefs are by Agostino di Duccio, Piero della Francesca and others, the marble was brought from San Apollinare in Classe. It is unique, perhaps the most original church of its time, a monument of beauty and power. Like many a Renaissance church it is really a monument to the greater glory of its patron and to his ideals; in this case, to his love for his third wife, Isotta. The Tempio is a monument very similar to the Cantos. It stands off the beaten track in the old town, which is now a dusty annexe to the popular beach resort. From the outside it is powerful and austere, the masterpiece of the first architect of the Renaissance; inside, it is a cabinet of beauties, disregarded.
From The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1979 by Michael Alexander.
James F. Knapp
The portrait of Sigismundo which Pound creates out of the gradually assembled details of cantos 8 and 9 reaches its point of clearest focus in the series of letters which Sigismundo's enemies find upon intercepting his postbag. By dating the correspondence to 1454, the year in which the Malatesta fortunes began to fail, Pound establishes a background of dangerous political strife. But though Sigismundo might be expected to be concerned with nothing beyond his own survival at such a time, the letters reveal only the character of his household. In presenting a detail such as Sigismundo's gift of a pony to his six-year-old son, Pound defines a structure of relationships through the precise manipulation of tone. Thus, the young Malatesta thanks his father in language which expresses the respect and formality he was being taught through writing letters like this one, while still revealing a natural innocence and enthusiasm: the pony is "a fine caparison'd charger, upon which I intend to learn all there is to know about riding." Against the formality of the boy's letter, Pound sets a comment by his tutor, in a style which is sheer colloquial American: "It would take me a month to write you all the fun he gets out of that pony." The cumulative effect of these letters is to suggest the respect, decorum, affection, and businesslike free speaking which Sigismundo (as a true Confucian hero) has established as the heart of his properly ordered household.
In terms of content, however, these letters are mostly concerned with Sigismundo's patronage of the arts. Filled with the very concrete details of building - inventories of material, problems with securing proper measurements, waiting for the frosts to end before attempting to lay stone - they help to define a man whose overriding passion, even at a time when his political survival was threatened, was the creation of meaningful beauty. Canto 9 ends with a terse summary of the remaining contents of the postbag, noting that Sigismundo "lived and ruled," and that he had "built a temple so full of pagan works"
and in the style "Past ruin'd Latium"
The filigree hiding the gothic,
with a touch of rhetoric in the whole
And the old sarcophagi,
such as lie, smothered in grass, by San Vitale.
San Vitale is a Byzantine church in Ravenna, nearly a thousand years older than the Tempio, and by closing on this image of time's inexorable passage, Pound implies that the vital new achievements of Sigismundo's Renaissance must also fall before the smothering grass of a world in constant flux. Sigismundo was, for Pound, a man who had seen the vision, and who had struggled to create a cultural vortex in his own time. But he was also a man in history, and history was the destructive element in which visions could be carried into action only in part, and only for a time.
From Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall and Co.
Return to Ezra Pound