POUND, YEATS, REMORSE – Pound’s Canto CXVI and Yeats’ “Man and the Echo”.

I’ve been dipping into Ezra Pound again, moving from the Selected Poems edited and introduced by Eliot, which I devoured as a sixth former in the late sixties to the very useful New Selected Poems and Translations edited by Richard Sieburth. The selection from The Cantos in the latter brought me to Canto CXVI, which excited me enormously in the early seventies. I seem to remember seeing it cited as showing that Pound finally “got it” in the sense of feeling remorse at his role as Mussolini’s propagandist in the Second World War. I’m not sure about that, at least on the evidence of this passage, though there may be a mountain of evidence elsewhere.

The precision and power of the writing is immense, both in splendour and defeat:


I have brought the great ball of crystal;
……………………..who can lift it?
Can you enter the great acorn of light?
……………But the beauty is not the madness
Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.
If love be not in the house there is nothing.
The voice of famine unheard.
How came beauty against this blackness,
Twice beauty under the elms –
……………To be saved by squirrels and bluejays?


I can only feel awe at the first of those lines, with its simplicity and clarity, its calm exhilaration, the smooth and beautiful flow of its phonemes. I find the modulation between that line and the next even more beautiful in its economy and understatement, in the control of cadence that makes a sense of great spaces of unspoken implication open around the four simple words, and in the way the words themselves shimmer between open invitation, challenge and perhaps a doubt that anyone reading him now actually could lift such a weight. Another modulation makes the invitation an intimate and personal address to the individual reader. How wonderfully rich and simple the metaphors are, too – the great ball of crystal suddenly felt as a challenging weight, then the acorn of light that we might enter, with the suggestion that to do so would be to make ourselves part of a vast growth of illuminated life, the oak tree of light that the acorn might become.  And then how poignantly such aspirations both crumble to and are heightened by contrast with the bleak admissions, the humble hopes and joys of what follows. “If love be not in the house there is nothing” is unforgettable in the way it trembles between celebrating love and evoking the bleakness of the loveless house.  Yes, this is writing of genius, beautiful in its mastery, humanly moving in its aspiration and acceptance of defeat.

And yet I do find myself responding to it in an uncomfortably divided way. This is partly to do with the fundamental method of The Cantos. Reading them I find myself swinging from joyful excitement at individual lines or passages to a sense of disappointment as the imaginative impulse they’ve generated fails to be followed through or gathered into a sufficiently coherent field of force. This perhaps means no more than that in the end I’m too wedded to other kinds of structure to be properly attuned to Pound’s methods of working.

There are more specific problems with this Canto and particular passage though. Coming to terms with The Cantos generally, one can enjoy the lyrical beauty, humour, visionary idealism or personal pathos of particular passages without too much regard for Pound’s overall cultural, historical and economic theories or his Fascist commitments. And indeed there is intense personal pathos in the passage I’ve quoted. However, for me this pathos is complicated and vitiated by the sense that he’s still failing to see the ugliness and horror of Mussolini’s rule and of his own extraordinarily virulent anti-Semitism. He makes it almost inevitable that the reader will bring such a context to this passage by referring near the start of the Canto to “Muss., wrecked for an error”. “Muss.”, of course, is Mussolini. “An error”? Whatever Pound thinks of the error as being, the line suggests pity for Mussolini himself, not for his victims. Worse, when he says “my errors and wrecks lie about me” there’s no specific confrontation of his extreme anti-Semitism or the anti-Semitic writing for Italian newspapers that no doubt had dreadful consequences for individual Jews.[1] Rather than remorse for moral failure what we seem to have is something balancing between self-blame and self-pity for failure of an intellectual and aesthetic kind – failure in the great artistic project of making it all cohere. Even this is confession of failure is vitiated by the extraordinary explanation he gives: “I am not a demi-god”. Who but Pound and perhaps his most infatuated admirers would mistake him for one? Even in abjection and professed humility he can’t shake off fantasies of grandeur. And yet – going back to my comment about humble joys – there is something deeply touching in the pleasure he takes in the squirrels and jays. It puts me in mind of the last two stanzas of Mahon’s moving sequence “A Kensington Notebook”[2].

Yeats’s “Man and the Echo” couldn’t be more different. This is a haunting poem, despite or perhaps even in part because of the exhausted, thumping quality of its rhythms and the peculiarity of the situation it posits. The old and ill poet has come to a rocky cleft that he thinks of as a possible site of communication with the spirit world. He’s looking for answers to tormenting questions about his own responsibility in various situations. All that comes is a dismal echo of the last phrase of each of his speeches. I think it’s illuminating to compare this extract with my quotation from Pound:


All that I have said and done,
Now that I am old and ill,
Turns into a question till
I lie awake night after night
And never get the answers right.
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
Did words of mine put too great strain
On that woman’s reeling brain?
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house was wrecked?
And all seems evil until I
Sleepless would lie down and die.

Nothing here has the dazzling beauty of so many lines in Canto CXVI. What there is is a compelling sense of the responsibility not just of the artist but of the man, not just to art but to the people he lives among. Where Pound focuses on purely artistic failure to “make it cohere”, the Yeats of “Man and the Echo” is racked by fears that both his actions and his inaction may have had disastrous consequences in what we can call the real lives of the people he lived among. However tempted he may have been by fantasies of the superiority of the artist to ordinary life – the kind of posture shrilly indulged in in “Lapis Lazuli” or beautifully and very ambivalently floated in “Sailing to Byzantium” – in the end he was inescapably rooted in and passionately involved with a solid social world. That gives his writing a depth that I think Pound’s lacks. It supplies the coherence underlying his struggles against himself. It makes “Man and the Echo” a deeply moving poem despite the drabness of its expression. In fact that drabness is integral to the idea and feeling of the poem, and though I don’t imagine many people would think of this as one of the great poems I think it’s expressed with considerable skill. The beauty of image and cadence in Pound’s poem, in contrast can seem an aspect of its evasiveness.

This may seem a facile thing to say, but I do wonder whether what seems to me the fundamental weakness of Pound’s poetry as compared to that of Yeats relates to the way Pound always seems in a sense to have escaped full engagement with his conflicts. That may seem an odd thing to say about someone who was such an energetic, aggressive polemicist and entrepreneur in the cultural wars, but as far as I can see after he left America at twenty-three he lived a happily rootless life, struggling with poverty, making huge contributions to the life of literature and the arts, but with no social commitments deeper than intellectual friendships and affinities and with no sense of having to justify himself in the eyes of people who might think of his poetic passions as airy fairy nonsense.


[1] I’m not sure if he’d come to see any of these things as wrong at the point when he wrote Canto CXVI, though I know he remained virulently anti-Semitic throughout his imprisonment in St Elizabeth’s lunatic asylum between 1945  and 1958 and that he gave a Fascist salute on arrival in Italy in 1958. When he did declare a sense of the wrongness of his anti-Semitism in 1967 he did so in what seem strikingly inadequate terms: ‘Any good I’ve done has been spoiled by bad intentions—the preoccupation with irrelevant and stupid things,’ [he] replied. Then very slowly, with emphasis, surely conscious of Ginsberg’s being Jewish: ‘But the worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-semitism.’ I can’t remember where I first read this but it appears in Wikipedia, which cites Humphrey Carpenter’s 1988 biography, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, which I haven’t read. For most of us, I imagine, “stupid, suburban prejudice” grossly trivializes his offence. I suppose in his terms it marks a devastating collapse of self-belief, given his apparent earlier sense of being one of the tiny handful of creative geniuses who saw into and shaped reality and were the only people who really mattered. This sense is reflected in many comments scattered through A. David Moody’s Ezra Pound: Poet, Volume I, The Young Genius 1885 – 1920. I haven’t read the later volumes but I imagine it only grew on him in succeeding years.

[2] Collected in Antarctica and in the 1999 Collected Poems but incomprehensibly omitted from the Collected Poems of 2011.

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