Anthony Woodward: On "Canto 81"

[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:

AOI! 

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:

-------------- libretto  ---------------

Yet 

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 

                                                                   played. 

              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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Anthony Woodward: On "Canto 81" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Anthony Woodward Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 10 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Ezra Pound and The Pisan Cantos
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