Friday morning, stuck in Pound’s forty-seventh canto, a student (precocious, ambitious reader) broke me free from the jam(b) I was in:
Wheat shoots rise new by the altar,
flower from the swift seed.
Two span, two span to a woman,
Beyond that she believes not. Nothing is of any importance.
To that is she bent, her intention
To that art thou called ever turning intention,
Whether by night the owl-call, whether by sap in shoot,
Never idle, by ni means by ni wiles intermittent
Moth is called over mountain
The bull runs blind on the sword, naturans
My trouble came in the line “two span, two span to a woman”–my getting wrong what span measured, convinced that it was a quantity of grain doled out; not so, I was corrected: “two span” refers to the two seasons allotted Ceres and Aphrodite in the presence of their loved ones (Persephone, Adonis), and so the cycles of the seasons, the fertility of the earth, the fertility of erotic love, and the recovery of life and knowledge from death are brought to bear in a passage that many of Pound’s readers (Thom Gunn, for one, in his neat selection) feel to be beautiful.
But what most powerfully fell into place was the startling phrase, “Nothing is of any importance,” emanating, my student immediately realized, from the pain experienced by Ceres during the seasons of separation: in that stretch of time, nothing would or could be valued or held precious. Here was her voice, but, as with other voices in the Cantos, not only her voice.
With it, the poem quickens; the rhythm is impelled, rushing through several lines, and the description of the seasons moving, progressing, is simultaneously Ceres’ effort at hastening time, at spurring onward change so that she might recover her daughter sooner.
The coincidence of the personal grief of the goddess with the symphonic surge of seasonal time is not only moving, it gives purpose and urgency to the poem’s movement–here is a poem about bereavement and exile, and about the world and nature being at one with the human experience of these, in so far as nature and the world are often trying, through the processes we take for granted, to overcome them. Earlier in the poem, the votive lanterns in the bay, let out to sea, pass by the dangers that Odysseus had to will himself to overcome:
The red flame going seaward.
By this gate art thou measured.
From the long boats they have set lights in the water,
The sea’s claw gathers them outward.
Scilla’s dogs snarl at the cliff’s base,
The white teeth gnaw in under the crag,
But in the pale night the small lamps float seaward
That word “But” is to contrast with the efforts of Odysseus: the world will achieve the same way by its own powers; their gentleness, honoring the dead, makes a journey without striving.
Readers are often told that to read the Cantos it is necessary to shed the assumption of an individual “character”; that the poem is depersonalized, impersonal, a collage of voices and characters whose significance is animated by sudden juxtaposition. But what the poem’s images, historical anecdotes, myths possess in common is a notion of willpower that must explain also some of the poem’s own structure, in so far as it dramatizes the poet’s own exertion over the stuff of memory, the records of history, and the idiosyncratic exacerbations and frustrations unique to him.
The great scholar of Pound and Eliot, Ronald Bush, remarked once that Eliot is a poet of love and Pound a poet of beauty; that distinction begets the urge to distinguish further. I would add to it that Eliot is the poet of the nerves, the possibility for action; and Pound is the poet of the muscle, the will in action. There might be a relationship between love and possibility and beauty and action, but I am not sure what it would be.
In Canto 47 at least, the poem’s turns coincide with altered perspectives on the capacity for action, be it human, natural, or mythic:
The bull run blind on the sword, naturans
To the cave art thou called Odysseus,
By Molu hast thou respite for a little,
By Molu art thou freed from the one bed
that thou mays’t return to another
The stars are not in her counting,
To her they are but wandering holes.
Begin thy plowing
When the Pleiades go down to their rest,
Begin thy plowing
40 days are they under seaboard
The poem’s shifts of rhythms and address reckon with, meet, the various efforts to reckon with the world that they describe. By Molu, the mystical plant, Odysseus is freed from the prospect of being enslaved, of losing his will to animal desire and animal instinct, and obeying Circe, whose existence is detached from the proper reckoning of time that would count the stars and, pace Hesiod in the lines that follow, dictate when man must harvest, conforming his will to the return of Proserpine to Ceres.
The Cantos is written under the same “ideology of possibility” (a “good ideology”) that Franco Morretti finds manifested in Ulysses. Moretti tell us, convincingly, that the effect of Joyce’s stream of consciousness is a bombardment of things, “a horizon always open, which gives sense and color to Bloom’s days, and which therefore binds him to the world despite everything,” and which “helps Bloom to live,” representing what Erving Goffman has called “civil inattention” of the metropolis and modern life; none of it has the meaning of an epiphany, none has much meaning at all, but instead represents a cognitive “neutrality, opacity, and emotional mediocrity, that enable[s] millions of human beings to live side by side without exterminating each other.”
But Pound’s accumulation of facts, voices, quotations, and historical figures is not to felt as a “horizon always open which gives sense and color” to Pound’s days; instead, it is a demonstration of the possibility for striving in the world (to make a good civilization; to create a chapel; to wage a war; to harvest; to hew), as well as a measure of the weight and clutter and impossibility of much striving; where readers of Pound’s poem prefer, as many do, the natural descriptions, it is perhaps because the burden of the will to shape the world has been lifted; the burden lies instead in conforming to the will that is the way of the world, happily adjusted to the world’s own direction; there Pound’s own rhythms relax into the tautened form of the poem.
Moretti quotes Kristeva claiming that “Joyce’s work has contributed to the discrediting of the subject”–and then comments: “The least that can be said is: wrong guess.” That wrong guess could also be hazarded against the ordered disorder of the Cantos. It would be wrong there too, because the poem is centrally a recalibration of the acting subject in the world, attempting to readjust our sense of how the will of an individual conforms to others, to nature, to memory, and to the dead, each of which (like Ceres) has a will of its own.
As in Greek tragedy, there is nature on the one side of man, the gods on the other in Pound’s poem, and man must act in accordance with either; but in Pound’s poem there is also, as there is not for the Greeks, not for Dante, “history,” heaped alongside and beneath–in Canto 47 it is barely present, and the poems where it is most present, the Malatesta Cantos, present readers with the most difficulty, perhaps because they presented Pound with difficulties himself: is it a burden against which, within which the will moves, reminding us what we ought to regain, chiding us for where we go wrong; does it provide echoes and reflections of the will; or does it offer exemplars and warnings, as it might for Dante? And the density of the material of history likewise rarely answers to the will that is a poem’s form–at least not with much consistency until The Pisan Cantos, written in the wake of Pound’s terrible foray into history, and opening with the image of the willful Fascist bully Mussolini hanged.