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Faults and Faulted Lines in Ezra Pound’s Cantos

Failles et lignes fautives dans les Cantos d’Ezra Pound
Emilie Georges


Partant des remarques de la critique poundienne et eliotienne sur la quasi-impossibilité d’appliquer une poétique de l’impersonnalité dans les œuvres des poètes modernistes, l’objectif de cet article est de révéler, à travers l’analyse des incohérences idéologiques et sémiotiques de la prose et de la poésie d’Ezra Pound, les lignes de faille de son discours, qu’il soit de nature didactique ou plutôt lyrique. Ses opuscules politiques et économiques sont ouvertement idéologiques, mais le soutien fervent de Pound au fascisme italien est souvent rendu moins lisible par des phrases où il exprime du respect pour des idées politiques que des fascistes puristes auraient estimées pour le moins inorthodoxes. Ce qui domine finalement ces textes des années 1940, ainsi que les cantos que Pound écrivit après la Seconde Guerre mondiale, est une écrasante impression de fragmentation. Sa poésie comprend de nombreux vers dans lesquels les critiques ont perçu des fautes d’ordre moral, en ce qu’ils dévoilent pleinement l’étendue du soutien de Pound au fascisme italien. Mais l’étude attentive de ces vers démontre que la préférence de l’auteur pour une poétique du collage affaiblit toute autorité de la voix lyrique. Cela remet en question l’entreprise idéologique du poète, sans pour autant l’annuler : la psyché fragmentée de Pound est perceptible dans la texture craquelée des sections plus tardives de son poème de toute une vie. Cela reflète finalement son expérience personnelle du monde toujours plus complexe dans lequel il vivait, plutôt qu’une simple représentation de ses opinions idéologiques.

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1As readers have long realised, the personas of Pound’s and Eliot’s poems are not characters, but “name[s] and […] voice[s]”, “the center[s] of a field of consciousness” (Kenner 40-41) and “the poet has, not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium” (Eliot 20). These spatial terms (“field”, “medium”) invite us to look to geography and even geology and think of what fault lines might disrupt these expanses of the poetic mind and text. Viorica Patea argues that “[t]he [modernist] ‘I’ is composed of a collage of voices” (n.p.) and, because of the very nature of collage, this necessarily means that there must exist cracks in the modernist text. Perhaps, through these cracks, the poet’s personality may come to light.

2Ezra Pound shared T.S. Eliot’s idea that great poetry should be impersonal, that the personality of a poet should not transpire in their work. However, as several critics have pointed out, this idea turned out to be more important in theory than in each of these two poets’ praxes. For instance, Russel Kirk believes that “the poetry of Pound is the proliferating Pound himself, while the poetry of Eliot, though intensely personal, is veiled and enigmatic” (698). Putting things in a more general way, Maud Ellman sees as much subjectivity in their poetry as in any discourse, including those of a scientific kind: she reminds us that Eliot “insists that poetry originates in personal emotion, implying that the author’s subjectivity pervades the text”, and that while “Pound, on the other hand, argues that poetry should be as objective as science”, he “fails to see how deeply the subject is entoiled in the object he observes” (3). Interestingly enough, Eliot too has used a chemical analogy to speak of the poetic process: “[This catalytic process of poetry] may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material” (18). Catalysis allows the “shred of platinum” (18) that is the poet’s mind to be imbued with a combination of emotions out of which art will be made. As Patea suggests, this process seems to “[draw] heavily on the unconscious” (n.p.) and one may surmise that the separation between man and artist, the “escape from personality” (Eliot 21), so desired by these two modernist poets, will always be incomplete, as the subconscious will show through the cracks of the poetic text. Eliot himself wrote: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things” (21). The difficulty is in leaving behind what makes the man, so that none of those elements permeate his poetry and the poetry can thus have its claim to universal truth. That is, therefore, the first split that we must take into account in this analysis of Pound’s Cantos: Pound, like Eliot, exhibited in his work what could not remain hidden despite their best efforts to the contrary, and in The Pisan Cantos especially, we are given a glimpse of the poet’s individuality. This happens, for instance, when he defines his paradise in Canto LXXIV: “it exists only in fragments unexpected excellent sausage, / the smell of mint, for example, / Ladro the night cat,” (Pound 1996, 458). The fragments he chooses to mention seem to be brief moments of pleasure experienced by him during his imprisonment at the US Army Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) at Pisa, and they therefore constitute a deeply personal form of lyricism.

3There is a long-standing debate as to what exactly Pound’s true self was and where in his poetry it showed. Early commentators of The Cantos often thought that those of Pound’s interests which were extraneous to poetics and aesthetics—in other words, politics and economics—are an “obsession” which “affected” his writing, as Noel Stock puts it in Pound’s entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2023, n.p.): the verb suggests the idea of contamination, Pound’s obsessions endangering his lyricism. According to this stance, Pound’s obsessions, his political faults, create fault lines in his work. This position was contested by researchers like Robert Casillo who demonstrated that Pound’s lyricism and didacticism were entwined: he tells us that “Pound himself described The Cantos as a ‘political weapon, implying that they demand to be judged on the validity of their truth claims’” (12) so that “The Cantos, besides being lyrical and emotional, are didactic” (13) but, conversely, “the radio broadcasts [are not] an example of extraneous and emotionless ideology” (13). Hence, Pound’s political ideas could not be separated from his poetics—and the reverse is true as well: his heinous prose texts have poetic qualities. For instance, the radio speech entitled “Pogrom” contains anaphora (“DON’T start a pogrom” is repeated several times) and at least one antisemitic statement that can be read as an iambic pentameter: “the problem, the Chewisch problem, is not insoluble” (qtd in Doob 255). Thus, if there could be no complete “depersonalization” (Eliot 17) in The Cantos, it remains to be asked whether the faulted lines of the poem—the lines with which critics have found fault—are simply cracks that reveal the author’s sometimes horrifying ideas and his blustery personality, that of a far-right crank, as he sometimes presented himself (Pound 2015, 84). Or might there not exist other cracks within these faulted lines which, by their very existence, reveal a conflict in the author’s mind which would necessarily seep through his creation?

Fault Lines in Pound’s Fascist Prose

  • 1 The translations from Italian are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

4As some researchers have shown, it is possible to read elements of far-right ideology in some of Pound’s non-political prose writings. For example, his taste for formalism in the visual arts can be linked with “middle class meritocratic values [which] are closely related to the individualism central to Pound’s political beliefs throughout his career” (Beasley 49) and although individualism is found in diverse ideologies, when associated with a masculinist stance, which has also been identified in Pound’s work (Nicholls 234-236), it is closest to fascist ideologies. However, Pound’s writings were rarely so coherent as to be a useful ideological tool for the regime he wanted to serve, and research has shown that Italian fascist officials did not trust his sanity (Zapponi 51). Mussolini’s reaction to The Cantos (“è divertente”, “it is entertaining”),1 which Pound presents in Canto XLI (1996, 202) as a compliment, can also be understood as a dismissal: the poet, like the ancient jester, is seen as a fool—though there might be an ounce or two of wisdom in his folly. Thus, it is possible, to a certain extent, to compare Pound with Paul de Man and to apply to his work what Jacques Derrida has written about de Man: in spite of the appearance of ideological coherence, his work is “constantly split, disjointed, engaged in incessant conflicts” (Derrida 607). Derrida was arguing that de Man’s work cannot be read as ideologically coherent, not least because de Man spent a lifetime analysing, and thus undermining, linguistic mystification in poetic discourse (Bush 1991, 68-69). In Pound’s case, the economic-ideological problem of production with which he was trying to come to grips led him to reflect on his own verbal productions and to use splitting as a radical way of going back to the uncorrupted roots, as in the case of usus and usura (Rabaté 28). Because he was so intent on dissociating elements, following the Confucian doctrine of “right naming” (Makin 120), his ideological prose, rather than being totalitarian as he should have hoped, sometimes bears the mark of his laboured reflection. For instance, the Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini identified one such crack in a fascist polemic by Pound, saying that the American poet’s assertion can only make sense if it is understood that a part of him loves, rather than hates—as any fascist should—Bolshevism.

  • 2 “Bolshevism was a feigned, and, in part, betrayed, revolution”. This is a sentence written by Pound (...)

“Il bolscevismo fu una rivoluzione finta ed anche, in parte, tradita.” È una frase di Pound in un opuscolo scritto nel 1944. Spesse volte, in questi suoi scritti “fascisti”, Pound non riesce a nascondere una sua simpatia di principio per il bolscevismo che odia. Come può essere finta una rivoluzione tradita? Si può tradire solo una cosa autentica, un amore. Mettendosi dalla parte di chi ne condanna il tradimento, Pound ha rivelato un certo suo amore per il bolscevismo. (Pound 1972, 111)2

  • 3 Pound’s heavily annotated copy is available at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. Pound’s af (...)

5Pier Paolo Pasolini may have wanted Pound to be a Marxist because he admired his work and was himself a communist, but his analysis of Pound’s language does indeed reveal some of the paradoxes which govern Pound’s relationship with Marxism. The American poet had not only read but also annotated almost all of the 680 pages of the Italian translation of Marx’s Das Kapital,3 and though the notes may show his points of disagreement with the author, their sheer amount evinces his commitment to the study of the source of the principles of communism. As an avant-garde poet, he was obviously very attracted to the concept of “revolution”, of radical change in man’s—social or aesthetic—experience of the world. Claiming that the Bolshevik revolution was “feigned” was a way for Pound to evade the question of his own feelings towards Marxism: if the revolution was not authentic, then he—in true fascist fashion—was right to hate Bolshevism. The question that remains unasked by Pound is: how should he have felt about Bolshevism if the revolution was in fact authentic to the principles of Marxism? Then he would have had to face his own sympathy towards the principles of Marxism, which would be just as unacceptable to fascist purists. As Pasolini asserts, this very sympathy is revealed by the past participle “tradita” (betrayed) which Pound would also use about the fascist revolution in the first of the Pisan Cantos: “dell’Italia tradita / now in the mind indestructible” (1996, 450). His love for fascist Italy being indisputable, the word “tradita” in those lines must be understood to evoke the acute pain of seeing his beloved adoptive country in the throes of a civil war which he mistakenly believed to have been avoidable. The distinction between attacking capital and attacking property, which follows Pound’s aphorism about the Bolshevik revolution (1972, 53), puts him again squarely in the fascist camp since fascist regimes supported the right to property while submitting large-scale capitalism to state control (Payne 10). Similarly, in another Italian essay about economics, Pound links Bolshevism with liberalism, telling his reader that both had a profound disregard or even contempt (“disprezzo”) for the human being (Pound 1972, 17). More suspicious is the sentence “Ogni revoluzione viene tradita” (Pound 1972, 42): “Every revolution ends up being betrayed”. Pound was thinking then of the American Revolution and seems not to have realised that his words could also resonate as an omen for the fate of Italian fascism. The American poet apparently believed that men, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, kill the thing they love, in this instance, the revolutions they have helped bring about. This particular aphorism would seem deeply flawed to a fascist ideologue, since it proclaims the eventual failure of any revolution, not excluding Italian fascism. This reflection on the Bolshevik revolution therefore constitutes a first fault line in Pound’s ideological discourse.

  • 4 The English translations are the following: “These are the pieces of a mosaic [that is] not yet com (...)

6There are other ways in which Pound appears not to have had complete, unwavering faith in the fascist regime he publicly supported. The writer had been a big proponent of the “totalitarian” approach in his 1938 Guide to Kulchur, where he proposed to write a treatise about culture which would teach men about “the shored relics of a very high and human state of culture” (Pound 1966, 24), in a holistic fashion which went against the way subject-matters were being taught in universities (1966, 28). His proposal is also “totalitarian” or, more rightly, of an anti-capitalistic strand of fascism, in that the aim of his teaching is to help “future critics” “tell from the quality of a painting the degree of tolerance or intolerance of usury extant in the age and milieu that produced it” (27). However, the allusion to “shored relics”, an echo of the end of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, reads like an elegiac phrase, and it would later find its full lyric form in The Cantos in the lines “from time’s wreckage shored, / these fragments shored against ruin” (Pound 1996, 801). Collecting fragments had seemed a cheerful enough enterprise in the 1910s when Pound spoke about it in his series of articles entitled “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris”, highlighting the “luminous” detail” among all kinds of fragments (1973, 24), but the words he chose in 1938 sound more melancholy: these fragments have become “relics” salvaged from a “wreckage” whose agent is only identified as the great destroyer, time. Though seemingly apolitical words, in a work that is very political, they cast a sombre light on Pound’s fascist prose, and the idea of fragmentation—the very opposite of the totalitarian wholeness the fascists aspired to—would find more and more echoes in his works as the war started and then went on. In 1942, he wrote in an Italian pamphlet of a culture and a faith broken to pieces (“La nostra cultura è spezzetata” [2012, 49]; “colla discussione la fede si spezza” [59]). In 1944, as the Axis were losing the war, he added three allusions to a metaphorical mosaic in his Italian translation of Jefferson and/or Mussolini which he had written in the 1930s, when fascist regimes had been standing strong: “Questi sono pezzi d’un mosaico, non ancora composto” (2015, 33); “Continuo a raccogliere I frammenti del mosaico” (34); “Altro pezzo del mosaico” (34, 35).4 Here Pound presents himself piecing together the puzzling mosaic of Italian culture, using an approach which, in spite of what he tells us, does not feel totalitarian to the reader who is being presented with a string of facts and anecdotes about Pound’s adoptive country. It is true that the poet’s tone is inquisitive rather than melancholy here, but this very curiosity runs counter to fascist tenets against intellectual discussion that he himself supported in such writings as Carta da visita where, as seen above, he told his readers that discussion tore faith to pieces; he was perhaps thinking of the Catholic religion then, but the sentence easily applies to his own fascist faith. Any discussion of fascist ideology would have risked destabilising his faith in the regime and that was not a risk Pound was willing to take consciously. Unconsciously, as his writings reveal, he was constantly disputing the validity of many of the totalitarian principles which he otherwise professed to see upheld.

Faulted Lines in Pound’s Poetry

7Because Pound was primarily a poet, it seems evident that such splitting in his ideological stance should wend its way into his poetry and, indeed, “ideological inconsistencies” have been identified in The Cantos (Bush 1991, 71). After his indictment as a traitor to the United States of America, certain passages were censored and removed from The Cantos (McGann 10), but many culpable lines remain. In those faulted lines, which are some of the most ideologically driven passages of Pound’s poetry, similar cracks are to be found and they reveal the writer’s uneasiness, which makes smooth coherence difficult to achieve. For instance, in Canto XXXV, composed in the early 1930s, at the height of his period of commitment to the then thriving Italian fascist regime, he wrote the following lines.

this is Mitteleuropa

and Tsievitz

has explained to me the warmth of affections,

the intramural, the almost intravaginal warmth of

hebrew affections, in the family, and nearly everything else…

pointing out that Mr Lewinesholme has suffered by deprivation

of same and exposure to American snobbery… “I am a product,”

said the young lady, “of Mitteleuropa,”

but she seemed to have been able to mobilize

and the fine thing was that the family did not

wire about papa’s death for fear of disturbing the concert

which might seem to contradict the general indefinite wobble.

it must be rather like some internal organ,

some communal life of the pancreas….sensitivity

without direction…this is… (Pound 1996, 172-173)

8The first two lines are very short, contrasting with the long lines and run-on sentences that follow. They consist in one full, independent clause and the beginning of another, which is composed of a coordinating conjunction and a name, introducing the coming description in indirect speech. This antisemitic passage about incestual family relationships and intricate family dynamics relies on run-on lines and overlong sentences built on juxtaposition (using commas and coordinating conjunctions) but also using some subordinate clauses (“that Mr Lewinesholme has suffered…”, “which might seem to contradict…”). This construction replicates the intricacy of the “affections”, a telling word whose meaning can be related to the idea of love or to that of contamination—a common theme in Pound’s antisemitic prose passages (Casillo 54-55). The rhythm imitates the topic and the reader feels almost suffocated when speaking the lines, having to embrace all at once the quick succession of phrases and clauses. It would seem here as though there were no cracks at all, since they are precluded by this smothering rhythm, and no possible escape from either the words or the extremely disturbing family picture they convey. However, towards the end of this quotation, we witness a return to a calmer rhythm where breaks between semantic or syntactic units tend to correspond to line breaks, as the comma after “organ” indicates. The topic now is a pseudoscientific analysis of the situation which has just been presented to the reader: as with a microscope lens Pound makes his images more and more precise, going from the very general “indefinite wobble” to the hypernym “internal organ” and finally to the very specific “pancreas”. This would only seem to make his racist analogies less vague, but, in contrary motion, there is a growing number of ellipses in those last lines, as if Pound was reaching aporia, and thus they might reveal cracks in this crank’s discourse. His rambling lines end on an impossible definition (“this is…”), antisemitic speech coming to a halt where essentialist ontology fails the poet.

9One solution to this might be to refer back to the source of one’s ideology. A few pages ahead, in Canto XLI, Pound would try to make Mussolini’s voice audible:

[…] And the Boss said but what will you

DO with that money?”

“But! but! signore, you do not ask a man

what he will do with his money.

That is a personal matter.

And the Boss said but what will you do?

You won’t really need all that money

because you are all for the confine.” (Pound 1996, 202)

10We are being reminded here of the didactic purpose of The Cantos as Pound chose to use English rather than Italian in order to make his discourse more accessible to the poem’s English-speaking readers. The first Italian word that is found in these lines, “signore”, only aims at producing the effect of local colour. Highlighting “do” by the indentation of the line as well as the use of capital letters and then again, two lines down, by putting the word in italics, signals the importance of this verb to the reader. Additionally, it is only used here in its lexical, not auxiliary, sense, and is stressed both times when the verse is read out loud: there is in fact an emphasis on action. This, along with the affectionate epithet that Pound gives to the fascist leader, “the Boss”, presents to the reader an image of the Duce as a man of action, in total contrast with the ineffectual man who is being sent away for having betrayed fascist ideals and would be unable to “do” anything even if he had the means (which take the form of money here). These elements give the passage a strong appearance of ideological coherence, but the final line actually undermines this impression. Indeed, the final, Italian word “confine” jars with the rest because it is not the one we expect. Pound makes only a slight mistake, replacing the final “o” with an “e”, but, while confino denotes the form of exile that was practised under the fascist regime in Italy, “confine” means boundary or frontier, which paradoxically suggests the possibility of going beyond the limits, or confines, of a country, and perhaps of the political regime which governs it. Thus, choosing this word effectively creates a crack in the ideological system of the poem. Pound’s erratic mastery of the Italian language plays against his ideas as the echo he tries to inscribe in his text refers the reader to a different word and a different image entirely.

11In like manner but with much less confidence, since he was now speaking from a place of defeat, Pound attempted, in Canto CIV (written towards the end of his life), to save Adolf Hitler from the general opprobrium that had been put on his name since the Second World War:

And who try to use the mind for the senses

drive screws with a hammer


Adolf furious from perception

But there is a blindness that comes from inside—

they try to explain themselves out of nullity (1996, 761)

12What jumps out at the reader here is the Nazi dictator’s first name being thrown into a poetic and philosophical reflection on perspective. Pound is recycling the ancient literary topos of the blinding rage, which animates heroes like Homer’s Achilles, Ariosto’s Orlando and Shakespeare’s Romeo. The modernist poet turns this epic trope around so that fury—the Führer’s furor—is now linked to perception, to acute or even accrued sensitivity, rather than blindness and the loss of sense—in both its meanings. Using this ancient trope situates Hitler on an ahistorical plane which functions differently from practical, temporal reality but similarly to fascist ideologies in which, as opposed to communism where the historical process dominates, “the eternal laws of nature” are deemed pre-eminent (Arendt 1968, 43). Opposing the Nazi leader in Pound’s poem are those who replace the use of their senses with a wrong use of their mind and whose blindness “comes from inside” (Pound 1996, 761). The poet seems to be alluding to other people here, and yet it is significant that he cannot help mentioning blindness, thus creating a contradiction which returns us, his readers, to the original topos. Adding up those elements directs us to the existence of a split between the writer’s intentional meaning and the manner in which his lines echo his own sense of being at a loss in the face of the undoing of the regimes whose ideologies he had so vehemently supported. Moreover, the syntax seems truncated as there is no obvious antecedent for “who” and it is thus difficult for both this relative pronoun and the subject pronoun “they” to point to a clear referent. In the absence of a clearly defined antagonist, could not this nameless enemy be Pound’s own nebulous mind, working against him?

13Richard Sieburth remarks that Pound, like Remy de Gourmont, “considered the eye the privileged organ of perception, the true locus of love and revelation” (43). However, towards the end of The Cantos, this “perception”, which, because it is being contrasted with blindness, is presumably of a primarily visual nature, leads only to fury, rather than wisdom. Subsequently, peace only comes “in the mind indestructible” (Pound 1996, 450) in the form of a fragmented (“spezzato”) paradise (458), that is an idealised—and therefore unrealistic, even wrong—vision of man’s life on earth. The multiplication of perspectives, allowed for by the poetic technique of collage, reflects Pound’s bewilderment when faced with the “extraordinary complexity” and the “extraordinary dimension of multiplicity of the world in which we live” (“l’extraordinaire complexité et […] l’extraordinaire dimension de multiplicité du monde dans lequel nous vivons“ [Glissant 25; my translation]). Tellingly, Pound also featured Wyndham Lewis choosing blindness and certain death over a surgical operation that might have made “his mind stop” in Canto CXV (1996, 814). Like Eliot, who used the character of the blind man Tiresias as a prophet figure in The Waste Land, Pound was well aware of the ancient association between external blindness and accrued internal perception, that is, in the eye of the mind. However, as Ronald Bush points out, this cannot be read as an endorsement of blindness but should instead be understood as a multi-layered expression of Pound’s mixed feelings on the matter (Bush 1991, 85). In sum, Pound could not decide which, of perception or blindness, he wanted to favour, and the complexity of his writing reflects that very hesitation.

Faults and Fissures in Pound’s Psyche

14The cracks in Pound’s lifelong poem seem to be leading, ultimately, to the fragmentation of the text, but also of the author’s projected self. Ronald Bush explains that Pound’s wife Dorothy recognised in the drafts of The Pisan Cantos the fragments of an autobiographical work they had discussed years prior to their composition (1991, 79). Furthermore, the implosion of the Italian fascist republic and the death of Mussolini, the destroyed monuments which Pound would lament in his late Cantos (Bush 2007, 72) and the way this section of his poem “produced in the aftermath of a breakdown, dramatizes the resurrection of a self” (71) all point to images of fragmentation. For Jean-Michel Rabaté, “Pound’s lyric voice [is] split and broken after Pisa” and it “thus enacts the tragedy of history,” although its original model was Dante’s Divine Comedy (292). In the hell—as Pound presents it in his text—that is the DTC where he was being held captive, paradise “exists only in fragments unexpected” (Pound 1996, 458). After that period, paradise can never be expressed as whole again, and the later Cantos are strewn with references to an underlying tension between the ideal of a coherent superlunar plane which would correspond to a “paradiso” and an overwhelming sense of fragmentation, as Pound realises he cannot bring the fragments together to form a totalitarian whole. He writes in Canto LXXXV: “‘Gentlemen from the West, / Heaven’s process is quite coherent / and its main points perfectly clear.[’]” (Pound 1996, 572). Here the speaker is King Wu and his speech is used to justify the overthrow of the previous ruler (Terrell 475); the aim is very much temporal where the language is spiritual.

15Choosing these particular words is, however, consistent with other passages in which Pound laments the instability that prevails on the sublunar plane: “all under the Moon is under Fortuna / CHÊN / e che permutasse” (1996, 676); “but man is under Fortuna / ? that is a forced translation? / La donna che volgo / Man under Fortune, / CHÊN” (586). These images from the first Cantos of the section Thrones de los Cantares were written when Pound was being kept in Saint Elizabeths Hospital after he was spared a trial for high treason, having been judged mentally unfit to stand it (Stock 1982, 419). The moon (“Io son la Luna” [458]), the notion of fortune associated with the act of turning a wheel (“volgo”, the truncated quotation of a line from a canzone by Cavalcanti: “Io son la donna che volgo la rota”, “I am the woman who turns the wheel”), and, in The Pisan Cantos, Mussolini as the hanged man, hanged “by the heels at Milano” (445), are all figures that evoke the grand trumps of the tarot. While there is no mention of Pound’s interest in this oracle, his association with W.B. Yeats, when the Irish poet was involved in occult groups, is well known (Tryphonopoulos 74), and he had edited The Waste Land in which Eliot uses the figure of “The Hanged Man”. Moreover, Pound had had, at least since his university years, a strong interest in European medieval culture, from which the figures of the tarot emerged. The images he chose are associated with uncertainty (the moon), instability (the wheel of fortune), and an immobility which forces introspection (the hanged man)—in this instance Pound also associates this last image with being treated without regard for one’s dignity, which is also what happened to him when he was put in a cage at the DTC (Stock 1982, 408). All of these elements point to a time when doubts prevail in the broken self as man must face upheavals in his personal life and in the political life of the country that he cannot fully accept. Permutation is the law on the sublunar plane, against all totalitarian reassurance that certain things may be eternal, even on earth. There is no earthly paradise and any paradise man aspires to must now be built as “a nice quiet paradise / over the shambles”, as Pound tells us (1996, 816), undermining once again any totalitarian wholeness by presenting us with another image of fragmentation, which can never be suppressed but only soothed by the balm of niceness and quietness.

  • 5 “Les ultimes cantos ne sont que ‘fragments and drafts’ et la voix ne tombe plus du haut des ‘throne (...)

16It is far from certain whether Canto CXVI, from which these lines are extracted, is a recantation of Pound’s political stance in the 1930s and 1940s. But, at the very least, it is a Canto where Pound finally admits the failure of his poem, as Hélène Aji suggests when she writes that the final Cantos can only express the poet’s final aphasia.5 I would, however, suggest that the fault lines in Pound’s poem signal a split that is not really between Pound’s poetic and political work as it is inscribed within his entire work, which has always been both poetic and political. This apparent split between politics and poetics is in fact a split in his psyche as a political poet: he cannot make his life’s work cohere when the ideals he has supported have failed so spectacularly (Aji 2006). Collecting fragments to compose poetry was an enterprise which, in his 1912 series of articles entitled “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris”, seemed a hopeful aesthetic project. The addition of ideological elements throughout the 1920s and 1930s transformed it into a doomed endeavour which could only result in a fragmentary poetics, as the mind that produced this poetry was facing the totalitarianism it had adhered to coming undone. When Pound writes in Canto CXVI “Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me / And I am not a demigod, / I cannot make it cohere” (Pound 1996, 816), the phrasing of the first line is reminiscent of the way he evokes the fragments of paradise he has gathered for his poem (“From time’s wreckage shored, / these fragments shored against ruin,” [1996, 801]). This points to the possibility of a hidden image of an exploded fascist ideal behind the word “errors”: Pound’s errors are the fragments of a fascist paradise to which he is actually still holding on (Aji 2001).

17When Pound asks the rhetorical question “How came beauty against this blackness,” a few lines down, he seems to be confessing, implicitly, what he also told Allen Ginsberg: that The Cantos are “a mess”, that his intentions when writing them were bad and that the beauty that emerged in them was only created by accident (qtd in Ginsberg 8). This last point is difficult to believe considering Pound’s proficiency as a poet—and he might be falsely modest here—unless one thinks of the poem as a record of his very worldly, very human faults, and deems that the beauty of it partly resides in the many cracks that are to be found in the poet’s attempt at totality. This is certainly the approach that was retained by Ginsberg, a man who, except for the fact that he, too, was a poet, was Pound’s polar opposite. Indeed, he wrote that in The Cantos “poetry is as a model of the actual activity of the mind itself; poetry is as a working model of consciousness. Rather than narrative or didactic logical or ‘linear’ structure for a long or short poem, we have the notion of discontinuity as another continuity, a more realistic version of notating how we think, moment by moment in real time” (7). According to the younger poet, the older virtuoso showed his and later generations how to write a record of one’s mind in poetry, inserting its cracks or discontinuities into the text rather than plastering over them with an artificially logical structure. Yet, Pound hesitates to acknowledge his failings, “my errors” becoming “[m]any errors” which are offset by “a little rightness” (1996, 816, 817). Here, as in his reflection on fury and perception, blindness—or error—is associated with an indeterminate “they”: “And as to why they go wrong, / thinking of rightness” (817). Pound does not tell us who “they” are, and it is very tempting, because of his use of “my” before the word “errors” on the previous page, to include him—and perhaps only him—in this pronoun which normally excludes the speaker, and to believe that he is thinking about how he himself went wrong, though he cannot move himself to admit it.

  • 6 More recent English translations of the Bible, such as the New International Version, prefer the te (...)
  • 7 There are many examples of resplendence in Dante’s Paradiso, including Cunizza, an important femini (...)

18His intention becomes clearer at the end of the Canto (“To confess wrong without losing rightness” [817]) and the key to that, he tells us, as in other places in the late Cantos, is love, in the form of “Charity” or altruistic love. It is telling that Pound would choose the term “charity”, which can be traced back to a famous passage from the Bible, in Corinthians 13:6 the best-known verses (Corinthians 13:4-8) list the virtues of love, but they are followed by the prophecy that “when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (Corinthians 13:10). Fragmentary experience will be replaced with perfect harmony, a dream that takes on a totalitarian tinge in Pound’s mind. However, rather than using a spherical and static image of wholeness, as could be expected, Pound expresses the desire to make charity or love “flow thru”, giving it the form of an albeit flickering (rush)light, “to lead back to splendour” (1996, 817), a state of illumination that is associated in Pound’s poetry, as in Dante’s Paradiso,7 with sacredness: “plowed in the sacred field and unwound the silk worms early / In tensile / in the light of light is the virtu [sic].” (449). Thus, this melancholy Canto about Pound’s “errors” ends on a hopeful image, with the poet envisioning paradise in the blindingly luminous form that Dante had given it. In spite of that, the image of the flow of light suggests to the critical reader the idea of a stream of consciousness, which is broken and disjointed in many places, but continues to flow through the poetic text, as Allen Ginsberg so rightly told us.


19Personality being, in the end, inescapable, it was Pound’s psychological breakdown that shaped the final version of his Cantos. It therefore appears as though the undefeatable messiness of The Cantos, against which Pound had struggled in vain, is both irremediable—no remedy can be found for it—and irredeemable—Pound’s faults are indelibly inscribed in the text, a testament to his faults as an erring human. As the French paronym signals to us, erring (errer) is often also an occasion to wander, as those who are lost—as Pound was in the face of the implosion of the Italian fascist regime—are wont to do. He could only wander in the mind, though, since he was imprisoned, but the wanderings of his mind are precisely that in which the reader of The Cantos is interested. The study of some of Pound’s texts from before the fall of Mussolini, both in prose and in poetry, shows that, even then, Pound would already waver in his ideological stance, albeit unconsciously. His lifelong poem is a record of his errors and wandering (errance), his fool’s journey as he watched the towers he had helped build crumble and shatter. All that was left was the “splendour and the wreckage” (Pound 1996, 631), for there was still splendour, Pound insisted, to be found among the wreckage; a version of his Paradise still existed, though in mere flashes, on Earth. Pound preferred these flickers of perfection to a “general indefinite wobble” (1996, 173) and strove to piece them together in the collage of The Cantos. He failed, of course, but left, in the interim, an indelible mark on English-language poetics, and this very messiness of The Cantos, in all its pyrrhic undefeatability, continues to speak to us as erring humans, even in very different historic circumstances.

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1 The translations from Italian are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

2 “Bolshevism was a feigned, and, in part, betrayed, revolution”. This is a sentence written by Pound in a short prose work dating from 1944. Very often, in those of his writings that are called “fascist”, Pound does not manage to conceal the sympathy of principle which he feels for the Bolshevism he hates. How can a betrayed revolution be feigned? One can only betray an authentic thing, a thing one loves. By siding with those who condemn the betrayal, Pound has revealed a certain love he feels for Bolshevism.

3 Pound’s heavily annotated copy is available at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. Pound’s affinity with Marx’s theories is also discussed extensively in chapter 5 of Tim Redman’s Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism.

4 The English translations are the following: “These are the pieces of a mosaic [that is] not yet composed”; “I continue to collect the fragments of the mosaic”; “Another piece of the mosaic”.

5 “Les ultimes cantos ne sont que ‘fragments and drafts’ et la voix ne tombe plus du haut des ‘thrones’ du passé : aphasique, le poète ne peut qu’énoncer un constat d’échec — fissure, écart, différence insoluble entre travail poétique et travail politique : ‘I cannot make it cohere’ (The Cantos, 810). Quand la logique se rebelle et que le sens s’opacifie, il ne reste plus au poète qu’à ‘laisser parler le vent’ / ‘Let the wind speak’” (Aji 1997).

6 More recent English translations of the Bible, such as the New International Version, prefer the term “love”, but it is “charity” that is found in the King James Version, which was the most commonly used version in Great Britain and North America until the mid-twentieth century at least. As Pound probably knew, the Latin Vulgate uses “caritas”, which means charity.

7 There are many examples of resplendence in Dante’s Paradiso, including Cunizza, an important feminine figure for Pound, who, in Canto IX of this section of the Divine Comedy, shines (“refulgo”) in Venus’s “third heaven” (Pound 1996, 816).

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Emilie Georges, « Faults and Faulted Lines in Ezra Pound’s Cantos »Polysèmes [En ligne], 30 | 2023, mis en ligne le , consulté le 23 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Emilie Georges

Emilie Georges est agrégée d’anglais et ancienne élève de l’École Normale Supérieure de Lyon. Ses recherches se concentrent sur le plurilinguisme dans la poésie moderniste anglo-américaine et sur les liens entre esthétique et politique dans la littérature anglophone du début du XXe siècle. Elle travaille actuellement à une thèse intitulée « L’Italie et l’italien d’Ezra Pound : l’esthétisation de la politique au prisme de la langue » sous la direction d’Hélène Aji, au sein du Centre de Recherches Anglophones à l’Université Paris-Nanterre. Elle a écrit divers articles sur la prose et la poésie d’Ezra Pound, notamment « Ezra Pound’s Representations of Sexual Intercourse and the Female Genitalia in The Cantos », publié à l’automne 2020 dans la revue Miranda, et « Un Américain en Italie : le dépaysement par la langue dans les écrits d’Ezra Pound datant des années 1940 », publié en 2021 dans la revue Textures. Elle est aussi membre de la Société d’Etudes Modernistes et de la Ezra Pound International Society.

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