Mary Ellis Gibson

Mary Ellis Gibson: On "Notes for CXVII"

Pound's final cantos do not relinquish the desire to make coherence in the very bone shop of history. Neither chaos nor the need for order can be projected into another world. The poet's situation—historical, personal, and poetic—is altogether more stark. In Canto 116, Pound says that the young are still burdened with the records of history, with a tangle of laws, with a literature that heals nothing. The poem's effort, like Mussolini's effort as Pound saw it, is still "To make Cosmos— / To achieve the possible."

The poignancy of The Cantos, for readers who find poignancy in a poem so violent, is in their never giving up on their desire to make the world better, a desire Pound understood as the effort to "make Cosmos." Yet the very terms of the dream, the dream of benevolent and natural hierarchy in a modern industrial world, contained its own undoing. The poet was left, in the words of the last fragments, with a question: "Where is what I loved?" This question surely answers the poem's earlier one, "And as to why they go wrong, / thinking of rightness" (116.811).

Where is what I loved? In great measure it is violently destroyed in the contradictions of its own dreaming; if anything is left, it is in the valediction to Olga Rudge now placed at the end of the Faber edition of The Cantos. But as to "why they go wrong," the fragments answer:

That I lost my center

                        fighting the world.

The dreams clash

                        and are shattered—

and that I tried to make a paradiso


Ironically, the clashing dreams, the oscillations and contradictions of The Cantos come back, in Canto 116, to late-nineteenth-century irony, the ironies The Cantos have gone so far to escape. Pound returned, in part and in fragments, to the mental landscape of Jules Laforgue, to the "deeps in him," and to the terrible ironies of a paradiso terrestre that could only be "a nice quiet paradise / over the shambles."

Mary Ellis Gibson: On "Canto 81"

. . . 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 University Press.