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Melancholy in lieu of Recantation: Ezra Pound’s “Drafts and Fragments”

Hélène AJI

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1From the clinical point of view, melancholy is this moment of stasis in between two active stages in the development of depression, a moment of transition in which the patient measures the extent of his suffering and recognizes his powerlessness in despair and often in silence. First medical descriptions and diagnoses of melancholy date back to Hippocrates, and the detailed enumerations of its symptoms are also to be found in literature, be it through the observation of others or as a result of introspection. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Achilles’ narcissistic figure, confining in egotism, solipsistic isolation and sociopathic cruelty, is but one of many examples. However, when the melancholic state becomes part of an individual’s self-portrayal, as is often the case with Romantic melancholy, there arises the issue of drawing the line between what would be the discourse of (produced by) melancholy and the discourse of (staging or commenting on) melancholy. This dichotomy, and the whole gamut of literary possibilities it implies from the tragic voice of the undone self to the playful ironic stance of the distanced self-conscious author remain operative in the Modernist text, outlining a space characterized by ambiguity and undecidability. This is the domain of “haunted” Modernism, as Jean-Michel Rabaté defines it when he evokes Ezra Pound’s work after the fall of the Mussolini’s regime in The Ghosts of Modernity:

The poet gives voice to various ghosts or shades who write their fate or fame through him. In the opening lines of the Pisan Cantos, when Pound contemplates Mussolini’s corpse, a dead leader identified with Dionysos, the post-Nietzschean collapsing of “Dionysos or the Crucified” into one single, composite, suffering body is suggested by the name “Diogenes,” punned as “digenes” or “digonos,” meaning twice-born. Made up of ghostly doublings, Pound’s mythical fascism provides a deeper insight into the nature of our century’s politics. (xvi)

2The aim here is not to return to the issue of Pound’s politics, although it will appear by the end of my argument that any reflection on Pound’s absence of recantation after the collapse of the fascist regime in Italy–a regime which he had forcefully and unambiguously supported–and on his adopting a melancholic stance does have serious political consequences, since both might have had political motivations. By arguing the Modernist “impossibility of mourning” (Rabaté Ghosts of Modernity xvi), thus barring the possibility of recantation and opening up the possibility of melancholy, Rabaté opts in favor of a Pound that suffers from the narcissistic wound of his political errors, and from the Pisan Cantos on unfolds the specific rhetoric of what could be called a discourse of melancholy. My argument will be that the rhetoric of melancholy is part of Pound’s defensive project of his œuvre, designed to erase the controversial referent that had become the core of his Cantos by the 1930s, but in no way rejecting it.

A short biographical and psychoanalytical detour

3At this juncture the temptation of clinical description and psychoanalytical evaluation is strong to enlighten not only contextual biographical data, but also and above all the evolution of Pound’s Cantos after World War II. Approaching this material as a set of symptoms, one can indeed recognize in the collapse of Pound’s megalomaniac projects the key factor in the onset of melancholic retreat as well as veiled aggression–both of which become expressed in the increasingly fragmented, decontextualized, and formulaic patterns of the later cantos. There would be stages of temporary and partial megalomania which make him construct his persona as center of the Modernist revolution in London when most data places him on the margins of this revolution. A good example would be the creation of Vorticism which is but a spin-off, albeit an officially vindictive and oppositional spin-off, of Futurism. The perception of a failure in this initial, artistic, enterprise would be what triggered further exilic choices leading him to Italy in the 1920s, and the turn to politics as a substitute for poetics. Henri Gaudier-Brezska’s Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound followed him everywhere as a reminder of the poet’s choice of a hieratic self and as the objective correlative of his desire to acquire the hieratic signature of a master. Signing Ezra Pound in correspondence with the portrait made by same Gaudier thus confers to the poet the stature of a genius, the “maestro di color che sanno,” which he thought Eliot to be and longed himself to become in a manner very akin to the behavior of one of Annie Reich’s patient, which she evokes as follows:

Ou encore, si le niveau du Moi est plus primitif, on peut assister à un abandon partiel de l’épreuve de réalité, et l’état du sujet peut être décrit comme une mégalomanie partielle et passagère. Sans avoir perdu le contact avec la réalité, ces personnes ont le sentiment d’être l’équivalent de leur idéal narcissique, quel qu’il soit. Exemple: un malade, que son Moi infantile et des difficultés névrotiques ont écarté de la réussite professionnelle, s’exerce pendant des heures à signer “comme un banquier.” Tout en ayant pleinement conscience de ses échecs dans le domaine de la réalité, le fait de tracer une signature “importante” lui procure une satisfaction, comme s’il était le président d’une banque. (151)

4In Pisa Ezra Pound cannot any longer ensure this modicum of satisfaction, which the pre-war Rapallo-based Ezuniversity, the wartime bigamist balance between Dorothy Shakespear and Olga Rudge, and the wartime radio speeches had provided. The semblance of immersion in the world and of involvement with the business of the world is irredeemably suppressed in such a way that the hatred of the United Sates–once a personal fiction born of being rejected by the academic world, both as a teacher and as a researcher in the Romance languages–becomes disturbingly motivated by what he can now construe as actual persecution. Unable to tolerate guilt, Pound thus would turn to further hostility to his own country and undying devotion to the place which has come to embody if not his actual greatness at least what he sees as his times of grandeur. This would be corroborated by his decision to hail Italy with the Fascist salute as sailing into Naples harbor as late as in 1952, a powerful sign of his continuing allegiance to the megalomaniac totalitarian ideology to which he has identified. This aggressive posturing as well as this obstinacy in errors demonstrated by the course of history are to be linked to an inability to recant and the choice of the position of the persecuted to sustain this denegation. In Paula Heimann’s words:

La difficulté d’une personne à tolérer le sentiment de culpabilité vient essentiellement de sa difficulté à admettre, même pour elle-même, qu’il y a quelque chose de mauvais en elle, c’est-à-dire que quelque chose d’elle-même est mauvais, et qu’elle ne peut s’en défaire en traitant ce quelque chose comme un corps étranger à l’intérieur d’elle-même. Le résultat de la technique de projection délirante est double : la crainte de la persécution de la part de la personne qui est choisie pour cette projection, et la conviction de la bonté de ce qui est senti comme faisant partie du sujet. On pourrait dire que l’individu achète son estime de lui-même au prix de la persécution. (214)

5The horrifying life conditions of a war prisoner in the Disciplinary Training Center can indeed appear to one who refuses the intimation of personal responsibility for his failures as the final proof of a lasting persecution, one which will only be worsened by repatriation, the threat of a trial, and psychiatric incarceration. Interestingly enough, the very motive for psychiatric incarceration is alternately seen by biographers as a ploy to avoid capital punishment for high treason and as the medical response to an actual mental break-down. Here is not the place to examine the arguments in favor or against this or that account of Pound’s life, but rather to see how the poetry can be read as working at this ambivalence in a strategy which is perhaps rather a defence and reconstruction of the poetic persona than an actual voicing of this persona’s regrets and reflexive questioning. A discourse of melancholy then which would allow to bypass recantation.

Melancholy as a mask

6This is why the case of Ezra Pound’s work, and particularly of what comes to the fore in his later poetry, remains the locus of much critical debate and hesitation. A quick return to his first poems, the shorter poems contained in Lustra or in Ripostes, shows melancholy not so much as a state of the poet, not so much then as a momentary stasis in a process of escalating neurosis than as a strategy using the signs of melancholy so as to further the poet’s agenda as a poet. The intertextual choices of Latin love poetry, Provençal troubadour lore, classical Chinese verse, or Dantean inspiration combine to form the outline of a neo-Romantic Modernist poet borrowing from the traditions that will either guarantee or energize his own project. If it so happens that these traditions possess a melancholic tonality, it does not seem obvious that this tonality, in Pound, mirrors any actual poetic distress. Rather, the melancholic tone emerges as what he conceives of as an integral part of the poetic persona. Whenever the poem actually turns away from the construction of this poetic persona as in “Dogmatic Statement on the Game and Play of Chess–Theme for a Series of Pictures,” the melancholic tone is replaced by aggression, chess being the war game par excellence, and the movements of the pieces on the chess-board a figuration of speed and action.

Red knights, brown bishops, bright queens
Striking the board, falling in strong “L's” of colour,
Reaching and striking in angles,
Holding lines of one colour:
This board is alive with light
These pieces are living in form,
Their moves break and reform the pattern:
Luminous greens from the rooks,
Clashing with “x's” of queens,
Looped with the knight-leaps.
“Y” pawns, cleaving embanking,
Whirl, centripetal, mate king down in the vortex:
Clash, leaping of bands, straight strips of hard colour,
Blocked lights working in, escapes, renewing of contest. (Blast 19)

7The high-energy construct, which this poem claims to be as an enactment of the Poundian melopoeic dimension of poetry, does not evidence the stagnation and powerlessness which the melancholy of other, contemporary Pound poems seem to command: thus “Moeurs contemporaines” with injunctions such as the Latin “Siste viator” (Collected Shorter Poems 181). Similar tensions are found in the first cantos, starting with the very choice of the term “canto” to entitle them: this term apparently sends the reader back to Dante’s Divine Comedy, or (because the plural word would be the Italian canti) would it be to Byronic melancholy and irony? In both cases though, the reference is to texts that stage the melancholic state, its morbidity and quest, its irony and dark humor rather than actually convey it through emotional appeals to the reader, or through ominous retreats into silence. And indeed this is not something Pound’s Cantos do (at least not until Pisa), as they inscribe themselves in the didactic project of a poet preoccupied with personal as well as collective recognition in a world perceived as hostile to the arts and corrupted by usura. The impulse can be linked to manifestations of nostalgia for the agrarian age of John Adams, for instance, or of anger against the capitalistic and materialistic behavior of a modern world. Such behavior becomes embodied by America and its boom-and-bust economy in which there is no room for art except as a commodity. But can it be deemed “melancholic” in more than ironic posture?

8In the Cantos, and up until the Pisan Cantos, the “polyphonic” play which Jean-Michel Rabaté evokes is a play indeed. It comes as an imitation of Robert Browning’s rag-picking poet and of his Sordello. It also happens as a literary enactment of the games on point of view and of the collaging experiments of the visual artists. This polyphony tends to fade in the more political cantos of the 1930s as the poet’s persona envisions the possibility of coming into power. According to Rabaté, the Pisan break-down marks the return of the polyphonic mode as a consequence of the poet’s abandoning his fantasies of absolute mastery.

The legalist overthrows the literato, or rather annexes him, reducing the implications that could be drawn from the intertextual play to a few traces from other texts already written, to be translated in the new idiom… The tension between truth and ideology, between intertextuality and the idiomatic voice comes from the fact that the discourse of order cannot help ordering around the other discourses, at the expense of the polyphonic play. One has to wait until the “Pisan Cantos” to hear this polyphony again. The actual trauma of incarceration brings about not just a redistribution of ideological positions, but another economy of the voices: the rapid shifts of tone, the discovery of a new kind of “truth,” through the unceasing dialogue with oneself and one's past, disentangle the tight net of codified discourses and restart the craftsman's main study, a study of the relationship between words and money, symbols and names. (Language, Sexuality and Ideology 104)

  • 1  On this, see Savinel 216.

9In Language, Sexuality, and Ideology in Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Rabaté indeed defines the post-World War II Pisan Cantos as a turning point in Pound’s œuvre, a moment of recollection and recantation in which one could find the recognition of past errors and attempts at correcting them, a righting of wrongs in keeping with Pound’s problematic ethical concerns. Yet, the regret bears on the failure of the ideals not on the ideals themselves, and the Pisan Cantos teem with references to the original utopian project that underpins the allegiance to fascism: “To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars” (LXXIV 445); “so the total interest sweated out of the Indian farmers / rose in Churchillian grandeur / as when, and plus when, he returned to the putrid gold standard” (LXXIV 446); “those words still stand uncancelled, / “Presente!” / and merrda for the monopolists” (LXXVIII 99). The exclamation “Presente!” is at the same time an indirect quote from the subtitle of Canto LXXII (“Presenza”), one of Pound’s few but very violent cantos in Italian, and a direct quote of the Fascist salute to the Duce.1Such examples undermine the reading of the post-Pisa cantos in terms of recantation so that their increasing fragmentation, their growing referential complexity and density, and their hermeticism have to be ascribed elsewhere: “the paradox of [Pound’s] writing, which emphasizes division, heterogeneity, disintegration in order to reassert the fundamental cohesion of the whole” (Rabaté Language, Sexuality and Ideology 76) remains as relevant in a shifting balance, which however does not imply the suppression of the unifying force purported by the theses of total disintegration in guilt and depression. The post-World War II cantos evidence the tensions between the desire to pursue the original aims and the confrontation with irreducible adversariness and irredeemable demystifying. The return to earlier devices of fragmentation and hermetic reference as well as the new dialectics of voice and silence which occur in Pound’s later cantos are the signs or symptoms of a discourse of melancholy, in which the staging of a fallen self’s poetic silencing coincides with the resistance of a solipsistic and egotistical self. Melancholy, as momentary stasis and silent retrospection, is thus staged and instrumentalized to prevent the analytical questioning of what the melancholic subject is actually stating.

10This would be an alternate reading to Rabaté’s evaluation of the Pound’s post-Pisa “locked, barred, blocked voice” as producing “a writing which repeats its silence, in a proleptic trope–to express the name of the Name it just says, ‘that the name be the Name’; this is how the aphasic voice can be sealed by a hieratic signature.” (Language, Sexuality and Ideology 144). Pound’s strategy also shifts, returning to the neo-Romantic melancholic posture of the poet as a saving option to escape the consequences of his Modernist incursion into the merciless world of war and politics. Thus the aphasic voice of the melancholic subject as a new version of an older mask.

11From Thrones to “Drafts and Fragments”

12In his analysis of Thrones, the 1959 series of Cantos XCVI to CIX, Peter Nicholls outlines the remanence of this older persona of the poet as psychopomp, oscillating between esoteric knowledge and didactic impulse. He points out the complexity of references, but shows how it does not so much validate encyclopaedic readings as it makes “a countervailing claim for the autonomy of the text” (43).

The didactic impulse has hardly diminished, but it now informs a radical reconstruction of the source which might even seem to prefigure the way in which a contemporary poet such as Susan Howe uses historical materials, combining unrelated details often pages apart in a new constellation that asserts a problematic independence from the source. (Nicholls 44)

13The poems offer all the characteristics of melancholic discourse: in spite of the fall of the idealized city which Rome had come to embody, they retain the vision of Dioce or Byzantium as the final retreat for the poet and as the “still point which is at once the most transparent expression of justice and one of the poet’s own imagined resting places” (Nicholls 45). The loss of contact with reality which allows for the survival of the subject and the preservation of his integrity is evidenced by the use of historical material, which “seems curiously unmotivated” (Nicholls 46) up to the point that references seem to be interchangeable as they are more and more subservient to “a few paradigmatic plots… at work beneath the surface” (Nicholls 47). The language prevents the circulation of meanings which at the same time seem to saturate its semantic and syntactic, referential as well as ideogrammic, organizations. In Nicholls’s words:

Even as Pound wants to expose the malign forces at work in history his language recoils from direct statement, characteristically beginning in medias res, giving the verb, and holding back the subject. Formulations such as this encode a deep anxiety, twisting language against itself and withholding that which it yearns most to deliver. (47)

14Similar forces are at work in the “Drafts and Fragments” which make up cantos CX to CXVII which were published in 1970, two years before the poet’s death. However, this last series of poems contains one particular element which is entitled “Fragment (1966)” and which is placed at the end of the volume despite its having been composed before the fragments for Canto CXVII. This poem has occasionally been commented upon as one of the most beautiful that Pound ever wrote, and as the proof of his love for Olga Rudge, his companion and mistress of more than fifty years. And it is indeed a love poem whose tonalities of nostalgia, eulogy, and emotional emphasis turn it into an a-posteriori dedication of the whole Cantos to the loved woman, in the grand gesture of a modern troubadour:

That her acts
Olga’s acts
of beauty

be remembered.
Her name was Courage
& is written Olga

(Pound C “Fragment (1966)”  824)

15Yet the poem does not stop here, but goes on in a reflexive manner to anticipate, as it were, the closure of the poem, to perform its end before it actually ends, in short to place the Cantos deliberately and programmatically under the sign of this sentimental allegory of Olga as an avatar of Mother Courage.

16The irony of the parallel I am making here between Olga Rudge and Brecht’s Mother Courage is not gratuitous since it underscores the out-of-character resort to topical allegorizing in a poet whose whole work is marked by the quest for original sources. This self-conscious construction of the end of the poem as a melancholic ending, retrospective and yearning for lost beauty and virtue, is not so much designed for the last canto as it is for the “ultimate” canto, one which would represent the quintessential canto and which would reveal the ultimate end, or aim of the poet. Can this emblematic canto really be this sober elegy to a woman who, according to Carroll F. Terrell’s index to the Cantos, is not mentioned once in the rest of the poem? In spite of its moving elegance, this “ultimate canto” is above all yet another mask for a poem that might, in the 1960s, want to pass for the expression of a melancholic self, lost in the maze of his memories and of his feelings. Does “Fragment (1966)” achieve this transformation of our reading of Ezra Pound’s poetry? Probably not, if it makes us consider the poems not as melancholic expressions per se, but as the instantiations of a masterfully designed and staged discourse of melancholy.

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Heimann, Paula. “Le narcissisme selon les disciples de Mélanie Klein.” in Haynal, André, éd. Narcisse: L’amour de soi. Paris: Tchou (Laffont), 1980. 203-215.

Nicholls, Peter. “‘2 doits to a boodle’: Reckoning with ‘Thrones’.” in Aji, Hélène, éd. Ezra Pound and Referentiality. Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2003. 43-57.

Pound, Ezra. “Dogmatic Statement on the Game and Play of Chess–Theme for a Series of Pictures.” Blast 2 (July 1915) 19.

Pound, Ezra. Collected Shorter Poems. London: Faber, 1990.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. New York: New Directions, 1998.

Rabaté, Jean-Michel. Language, Sexuality and Ideology in Ezra Pound’s Cantos. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Rabaté, Jean-Michel. The Ghosts of Modernity. Gainesville: The University of Florida Press, 1996.

Reich, Annie. “Idéal du Moi et Surmoi.” in Haynal, André, éd. Narcisse: L’amour de soi. Paris: Tchou (Laffont), 1980. 145-169.

Savinel, Christine. “Ezrac Pound: Presenza and Presentation.” in Aji, Hélène, éd. Ezra Pound and Referentiality. Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2003. 213-24.

Terrell, Carroll F. A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

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1  On this, see Savinel 216.

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Référence électronique

Hélène AJI, « Melancholy in lieu of Recantation: Ezra Pound’s “Drafts and Fragments” », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 6, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 25 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.364

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Hélène AJI

Université du Maine
Hélène Université du Maine Aji is Professor of American Literature at the Université du Maine. In addition to a number of articles on Modernist and contemporary American poetry, she is the author of Ezra Pound et William Carlos Williams: pour une poétique américaine (L'Harmattan, 2001), William Carlos Williams: un plan d'action (Belin, 2004), and a book-length essay on Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (Armand Colin, 2005). She is the editor of special issue 16 of Annales du monde anglophone on “Ezra Pound dans le vortex de la traduction” (2nd semester 2002), Ezra Pound and Referentiality (Presses de l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2003), and Revue Française d'Études Américaines 103 (February 2005) on “Poètes américains, architectes du langage.” She is currently working on an Ezra Pound biography.

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