Sylvan Esh: On "Canto 81"

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)


Criticism Overview
Title Sylvan Esh: On "Canto 81" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Sylvan Esh Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 10 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

Item Type Criticism
Average Rating 0/100
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media