Pound felt himself to be in an earthly hell, in the cage in which the Pisan Cantos were written. But Pound’s Hell is nonetheless less convincing than Eliot’s, in so far as Pound’s vision of Hell extends beyond the cage to a vision of the demonic that is paranoid, antisemitic, racist, and that believed fascism to be a means to something better. In the Pisan Cantos, Pound accepts that he is among damned, but cannot fully make sense of his guilt; in this he is, without having wanted to be, a true figure from Dante’s Inferno, his judgment of the world’s sins shattered. In the first of the Cantos, he suggests that he knows he has betrayed himself and fallen. Just where it becomes most disjointed and most damaged in its beliefs, the canto (74) also alive to the possibility that the voices he hears, and the voice he offered, were sirens best refused; the word “sirens,” in Ancient Greek, brackets one of the ugliest passages, and in another, where the high romance of high finance, and the Morgenthau family and Rothschild empire are maligned, and where an antisemitic slur appears, the poem registers also that the slur itself was deployed to mobilize the “goyim.” Pound registers, and recognizes, that the hateful rhetoric and racist paranoia are themselves demonic.
What saves the Pisan Cantos and makes them—I’m only feeling it for myself now—as great a long poem, or poetic sequence, as any in modernism or the twentieth century, is that Pound writes in order to glimpse paradise (which is not, we hear as a refrain of sorts, artificial), and that doing so means a few things that work to their benefit. One is accepting the hell that is the cage, and so placing the Pisan Cantos in a defined vantage point of successive departure and return, affording them a place that is lacking in many other Cantos. Another is, with the circumstance of the cage recurrently present in the poems, making the poems a dramatization of the saving power of memory, the particulars of memory yielding the beatific generality. And finally, without fully accepting it, writing to escape the rhetoric and poetry of recent history, so that Pound’s warped vision of the corruption of the world, and the hatred he feels, is made to seem itself a symptom of his damned condition, rather than a knowing diagnosis; this last is as great an instance of art turning on the artist as any I can think of, not redeeming him, but itself placing him within the breadth and depth of his own imagination as he would otherwise be unable to do.
The first Canto (74) is most thick with the mud of the years through which he has just trekked, and he returns to it, feels it thicken around the feet of the poems time and again, but he also repeatedly pulls away from it; it is a poem that is conflicted between Pound’s politics and Pound’s sense of history, as if, from the cage, he is learning to free his mind from what has been eating at it, to find nutrients in other parts of his memory, his vivid recall for times and fantasies, concrete and particular, of what they mean and the glimpse they offer of paradise, the proof they offer that it can be had on earth, even if Pound never fully accepts that the beauty he perceives in these spots of historical time are achievements of his poetry and imagination, rather than his political analyses. Without his saying so, or even maybe knowing it, this poem, and the sequence that follows, is a memory poem (it is a radical re-invention and return to the Wordsworthian root; it is also, like The Prelude, a poem of political disappointment, though not quite disillusionment) that wants to heal the ache and poison of the recent past with a historical past he can summon at will in his mind. He is learning, in 74, to ride the wave of memory as it crashes, and to catch the ore it carries before it washes away, and the last lines reflect on the power of memory:
How soft the wind under Taishan
where the sea is remembered
out of hell, the pity
out of the dust and glare evil
This liquid is certainty a
property of the mind
nec accidens est but an element
in the mind’s make-up
est agens and functions dust to a fountain pan otherwise
Hast ‘ou seen the rose in the steel dust
(or swansdown ever?)
so light is the urging, so ordered the dark petals of iron
we who have passed over Lethe.
Dust to a fountain pan, but also a fountain pen; otherwise the dust not worth the being written, were memory not an element in the mind’s make-up, an agent, functioning; a fountain pan later becomes the “pan” of “Come pan, nino,” the food of memory, the food of thought, the food of grain—the memory of Parisian restaurants, by now gone, not only marks a vanished belle epoque but also invokes the civilized elevation of food, rooted in the peasant’s rituals of grain and food, descendants from the rituals around Ceres and Dionysius and Persephone— which here suggests that, if not an active agent, memory is itself dust to the nourishment of a fountain, imaginative, and sacred nourishment— but also dust in the pan, the hollow basin, of a fountain, dry rather than vital. ““Or swansdown” ever?” is Ben Jonson, and the Swan that is Zeus (though this is not Yeats), and the Swans that are the sacred birds of Aphrodite are both relevant, since Pound’s vision of paradise requires both memory and desire (the catalogues of women throughout these stanzas); but also relevant are the further lines, “Or have smell o’ the bud o’ the briar? Or the nard in the fire?” where the spikenard, a perfumed flower, is burning in the fire, emitting its fragrance, but suffering the fires, as Pound suffers hell (with its flames). “So light is the urging” gives two senses of “light.” First, though it runs against the syntax, we can think “in such a way, light is the urging,” where Pound is urged towards the light of paradise; in another sense, light is a modifier, the urging itself being light, faint, without violence, an urging to something that is out of hell, that is like a breeze through the mind, with Pound poised, waiting for the transport. The dark petals of iron transform the cage to dark petals, but also the dark petals are the prisoners, stripped, drawn by the magnetism of the Zephyr, caught up in the light breeze and carried, like the leaves that blow around Paolo and Francesca, but also unlike those leaves, since they are carried out of hell by the “soft wind under Taishan”; or they are the magnets, and doing the urging. To pass over Lethe is perhaps to forget, or to succumb to a force that would compel forgetfulness, but it is more likely that to pass over Lethe is to avoid its perils and not to drink, and so to remember. The final note is triumphant; the poem is complete and something has happened as a consequence of its being written, which will give way now to the other Cantos.