COMPANION TO CANTO XVII
Without gods, no culture. Without gods, something is lacking.
(Ezra Pound. Guide to Kulchur 128)
When I say above that technique is the means of conveying an exact impression of exactly what one means, I do not by any means mean that poetry is to be stripped of any of its powers of vague suggestion. Our life is, in so far as it is worth living, made up in great part of things indefinite impalpable; and it is precisely because the arts present us these things that we–humanity–cannot get on without the arts. The picture that suggests indefinite poems, the line of verse that means a gallery of paintings, the modulation that suggests a score of metaphors and is contained in none: it is these things that touch us nearly that “matter.”
Ezra Pound. “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris” in Selected Prose 33)
Annotations in the List of Works Cited:
Contributor name. The Online Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound, IV: n.gloss number. The Cantos Project. Web. Date of access.
Example: Preda, Roxana. The Online Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound, IV: n.13. The Cantos Project. Web. 5 September 2016.
(Contributor name, OCCEP IV: n.no).
Example: (Bressan, OCCEP IV: n.3). If no name is indicated, the gloss or translation was written by Roxana Preda. In this case, the citation will have this format: (OCCEP IV: n.13).
References to The Cantos
As The Cantos Project is numbering the lines of The Cantos, references to cantos already glossed will be by canto number and line(s), as standard with classical works. Example: III: ll.7–17.
For cantos that are not yet glossed within the project, the references will be by canto number slash page number, as standard in the research on the poem. Example: III/12. The page number refers to the American edition of The Cantos by Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1998.
© Roxana Preda. Companion to Cantos XVII, 12 September 2017.
Updated 14 January 2021.
LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS
Terrell, Carroll F. A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
Moody, David. Ezra Pound Poet. II. The Epic Years: 1921-1939. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2017.
Preda, Roxana.Online Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound. The Cantos Project.
Pound, Ezra. Ezra Pound’s Poetry and Prose. Contributions to Periodicals. Eds. Lea Baechler, Walton Litz and James Longenbach. New York: Garland, 1991.
Pound, Ezra. Selected Prose 1909-1965. Ed. W. Cookson. New York: New Directions, 1973.
Beinecke Library, Yale University. Ezra Pound Papers YCAL 43. Box no./Folder no.
- So that: – A new start, echoing the beginning of The Cantos: Pound first used the formula at the end of canto I. At the time of composition, canto 17 was the beginning of a new volume published in folio, designed to continue A Draft of XVI Cantos and at the same time be governed by the same beginning as the preceding volume.
In the first drafts, the “so that” formula was added to “With the first pale-clear of heaven,” which shows that the first six lines of the final version of the poem were conceived as a preamble that connected to the preceding cantos and set the scene, affirming the importance of Zagreus as presiding over the dream-world that follows (YCAL 43 71/3175 and 3176).
- vines burst from my fingers – the sacred act of divine manifestation as man and god become one in the mystical experience. The vines grow in homage to Dionysus, the god of wine: though the speaker seems to be the god himself, passages in the poem, like “Io Zagreus” (“Hail Zagreus”) and later “Zagreus feeding his panthers” (XVII 43) indicate that the speaker is not the god, but a worshipper who makes himself one with the god in the mystical vision. As an initiate in the mysteries of nature, he is free to roam in it as a god would do. Though his journey leads him from the city on the hill through wood to sea and grotto, the world he goes through, though seemingly identical with the natural world, is divine. In his first draft, Pound inserted the word nous twice in the canto (XVII 45, 56), which suggests he understood this otherworld as a neo-Platonic universe of ideal, therefore divine forms.
Compare analogous passages from canto VI where Guillaume de Poitiers feels the godlike fertility of the soil flowing through him when he says: “The stone is alive in my hand, the crops/ will be thick in my death-year ...” (VI: 7-8). Or the lines in canto XLVII “by prong have I entered these hills/ that the grass grow from my body/that I hear the roots speaking together” (238).
- bees weighted with pollen – honey under the form of mead or added to the wine for sweetness was a component in the Greek rituals to the gods (See canto I Odysseus’s sacrifice to the dead: “first mead and then sweet wine”). Like the invocation to Zagreus below, the “bees weighted with pollen” indicate the potentiality before the honey and the wine are created. Historically, mead, an alcoholic drink fermented out of honey, is older than the discovery of wine and precedes it in ritual.
- a purring sound – Pound is conjuring a sleepy, lazy world, where “bees … move heavily” and the birds are sleepy in the branches.” The purring sound may come from Zagreus’ panthers, his emblem animal.
- ZAGREUS – The first hypostasis of Dionysus, the god of wine. Zagreus was the son of Zeus and Persephone: Because of Hera’s jealousy, the child was killed by the titans who cut him into pieces and ate him. But Athene saved his heart and brought it to his father. Zeus ate the heart and begat his son anew with Semele, who gave birth to Dionysus. The god henceforth was called δίγονος (“digonos,” “the twice-born”) (Liebregts 167).
Since Zagreus died, was dismembered and reborn as Dionysus, he is considered a god of the underworld, and bears affinity with other gods such as Osiris and Persephone who were dragged to the world of the dead and achieved there a different form of life. Zagreus is “Dionysos Khthonios” (Chthonic), (Nonnus Dionysiaca 4.268 ff), the manifestation of a god of life still as a potentiality in the world of the dead (EPP II: 88); ultimately, the vine still latent in the earth. See the myths of Zagreus.
The mention of Zagreus also refers the reader back to canto II, which has at its centre a revelation of Dionysus.
- IO – H. “Hail” (C n.4).
Massimo Bacigalupo has observed the pun between the Greek word for “Hail” and the Italian first person pronoun (Forméd Trace 37). Pound may have intended this overlapping, since the dreamlike journey is his own. The poet had identified with Zagreus before: in the Post-Ulysses Calendar he devised in 1921, he placed the feast of Zagreus on his own birthday (Little Review 1922).
While the name of the Zagreus worshipper is never mentioned in the canto, the references to “Borso,” “Carmagnola,” and later of “Malatesta, after that wreck in Dalmatia” are unmistakable signs of Pound’s identity and memory associations that surface into the dreamlike wandering towards Venice.
Pound wrote the canto on an extended Italian stay in Florence, Perugia and Assisi, where he was recuperating and resting after illness. On 25 March, he wrote his father that “D & I hope to go up into the hills south of Venice in April” (L/HP 526). Venice is at the heart of his new volume of cantos, 17-27, which the present canto introduces.
- goddess of the fair knees – The Greek goddess Artemis [Lat. Diana], the goddess of wild nature and the hunt. Pound had introduced her in Canto IV, where Actaeon has a mystical vision of her (See IV: 33-63). In Metamorphoses III: 138-250, Ovid recounts how she had turned Actaeon into a stag and caused him to be torn to pieces by his own hounds. The white hounds that Pound introduces here are a symbol of that act of power (OCCEP IV: n.13). The wanderer of canto XVII is privileged to see Artemis alone, unprotected by her nymphs, and in all her naked beauty; he seems to follow her as she goes down into the valley of Gargaphia to her secret bathing place: “thence down to the creek mouth.” Artemis would re-surface in cantos XXI, XXIX and preside over canto XXX.
- palazzi – I. “palaces.”
The vision of Venice arises as in a dream – it will be the goal of the voyager, his exit from the underworld to the “known water” at the end of the canto (XVII 107). In the lines 14-19, the dreamer mystic has a vision about a city whose marble columns are like trees arising out of water; further along, he meets a stranger whose description matches and enriches his own (XVII: ll.61-72); he has a vision of the city by night, glowing in the torch light – Pound seems to remember and quote his own line, recently composed for canto XI: “in the gloom the gold gathers the light about it,” which might suggest that Venice by night is not so much a vision as a memory (XVII: ll.73-82); finally, after spending three days between life and death, with Koré’s arm around his shoulder, the voyager decides to ship to the “stone place” (XVII: ll.104-112). The name of the city is never articulated, but appears as a magic gate between life and death, a place of fascination and peril – Pound, now awake, decides to sail to the city over “known waters” and remembers figures from history who took their chances: Borso d’Este, Francesco da Carmagnola, the Murano glassmakers and Sigismondo Malatesta.
Chrysophrase – an apple-green chalcedony, a semiprecious stone.
- Cave of Nerea – Nymph of the sea, a mythological figure Pound created as a female counterpart or daughter of Nereus, a pre-Homeric god of the sea.
Going into the cave as an allegory of mystical descent into an underworld, (Gr. “katabasis”), lies at the core of Hellenistic pagan mysteries. It is the first stage towards spiritual revelation and is followed by a phase of confusion and wandering (Gr. "dromena") and finally by illumination (Gr. “epopteia”). For Pound, the key element was the sexual nature of the initiation during katabasis, re-enacting the reproduction and fertility processes of nature. The goal of the ritual was the mystical revelation, the illumination and spiritual reawakening of the initiate (Tryphonopoulos 101-126).
Pound declared in his article “Terra Italica” (1931):
“Paganism, which at the base of its cosmogonic philosophy set the sexual phenomena whereby Life perpetuates itself mysteriously throughout the universe, not only did not disdain the erotic factor in its religious institutions but celebrated it and exalted it, precisely because it encountered in it the marvelous vital principle infused by invisible Divinity into manifest nature” (SP 55; P&P V: 329-333).
Extensive commentaries on the cave of Nerea as central topos of sexual and mystical initiation can be found in Surette, Tryphonopoulos, and Liebregts. See bibliography.
- malachite – a deep-green mineral whose patterns in eyes and layers look like the layers of sand seen through the water of the sea.
- choros nympharum – L. “chorus of nymphs.” This is another motif first introduced in canto IV that Pound takes up again to create the mystical experience of a divine world infusing the natural one. See “Choros nympharum, goat-foot, with the pale foot alternate” (IV: 10).
- Hermes – In Hellenistic culture, Hermes, the Greek god of commerce, communication and roads, messenger and herald between the mortal and divine worlds was conflated with Thoth, the Egyptian god of the logos, universal balance, writing, and magic. In this hypostasis, Hermes was called “thrice great” (Hermes Trismegistus) and was considered the source of a body of texts called Corpus Hermeticum. These texts configure an alternative gnosis (knowledge) and spiritual forms of initiation and revelation.
- Athene – Gr. Athena, goddess of intellect and wisdom. She was born out of the head of her father Zeus, having achieved maturity in his body. In accordance with this mythological tradition, Plato, in Cratylus (407B), gives the etymology of her name as signifying “the mind of god” (theou noesis).
- shaft of compass – if this is a compass to a divine geography, a needle hovering between Athene and Hermes would point to a space between a Hellenic world ruled by Athene, and an Egyptian/Hellenistic one, presided by Hermes.
A metaphorical reading would infer that the world of the canto implies a syncretism between a divine world of ideas, (the Plotinian nous seen as a universe of eternal intelligible forms underlying nature as we perceive it), symbolized by Athene, and the underworld, where the wanderer is guided by Hermes. Yet another reading would distinguish between Athene as symbol of intellect and philosophy, and Hermes as gnosis, i.e. occult (hidden) knowledge and wisdom. Further, Athene would preside over the world of consciousness and practical intelligence, whereas Hermes would make possible a spiritual rebirth, an esoteric wisdom leading to a revelation of world and self.
- to the left – formula repeated a few lines further down (“to the left, the alley of cypress” (XVII: 60)). Both instances point in the direction of the Greek and Italic world of forests, nymphs and cypresses. There is no “to the right,” but if we assume there is, the “alley of Memnons” suggests it is Egypt. The drafts of the canto show that line 60 was added later, consolidating the hypothesis that if North is “left,” the “right” suggests the necropolis of the Valley of Kings on the west bank of the Nile.
- sylva nympharum – L. "wood of the nymphs." (C n.17)
- the great alley of Memnons – Memnon, Ethiopian king and son of the goddess of dawn (Eos) came to Troy to aid its king Priam in his war with the Greeks. Memnon was killed in battle by Achilles – his warriors were changed into birds, allowed to mourn the death of their king, and guard his grave.
However, Pound may have thought of the two statues of Amenhotep III in the Theban Necropolis on west bank of the Nile, opposite Luxor. They are called the Memnon Colossi because one of them was reputed to make a sound at dawn.
The speaker’s change of visual perspective to an Egyptian space (“Beyond, sea, crests over dune”) suggests that the alley of Memnons may be the correlate of “the alley of cypress” and symbolize an Egyptian, hermetic ritual. Both alleys are suggestive of a tomb or sanctuary.
- alley of cypress – since ancient times, the cypress has been a symbol of immortality in the afterlife and a tree that is often used to guard, lead to, or symbolize the tomb.
“The cypress, sometimes referred to as the Tree of Life, has been associated with death and immortality since pagan times. The dark evergreen leaves symbolize solemnity, longevity, resurrection, and immortality; its sticky resin symbolizes incorruptibility; when cut down, it will never again spring up from its roots, symbolizing the finality of death; […] The cypress can be found in pagan and Christian cemeteries. In Roman and Greek societies, it was linked with Hades (Pluto), god of the underworld” (Keisler Stories in Stone).
- a boat came – the worshipper of Zagreus comes to a point in his wanderings where he meets another man, sailing in a boat towards him. That man has another journey behind him and tells him of a magical city with its “forest of marble” and its “silver beaks rising and crossing.” The stranger’s tale has affinities with the wanderer’s own vision at the start of the canto and leads him to remember the dangers other travellers had to face by going to the enchanted city.
- gilt beams flare of an evening – an old memory of Pound’s, which he had commemorated in canto 3. In the summer of 1908, while in Venice, Pound had helped organize Katherine Ruth Heyman’s piano concerts. One of these took place at the Morosini palace – Pound was not invited and looked at the play of light on the gilded beams of the concert hall ceiling, probably from the street. See OCCEP III: n.6.
- Borso – Borso d’Este (1413-1471), illegitimate son of Niccolò d’Este, and Duke of Ferrara (1452-1471). Borso was known throughout Italy as a peacemaker and negotiator. On a visit to Venice, while riding on the Grand Canal in his boat, Borso barely escaped an assassination attempt when a sniper took a bow shot at him. Pound introduced this event in Canto X (143-45), and refers to it again in the last lines of the canto (XVII 110). See also OCCEP X: n.35.
- Carmagnola – Francesco Busone da Carmagnola (1385-1432), condottiere in the military service of Venice. As he was under suspicion of treason, he was “invited to lunch,” seized, and executed between the two columns of San Marco. Pound referred to Carmagnola in Canto X: 21-23 (OCCEP X n.7).
- i vitrei – I. the glassmakers. Like Borso and Carmagnola, the glassmakers chose to come to Venice and work with its administration in spite of the risk to their lives. They were not allowed to live in Venice because of the danger of fire and were located on the island of Murano in 1291.
The perilous beauty of the glassmakers’ work partakes of the imagery of fire and water that Pound is conjuring in the canto as twin symbols of Venice, where the glow of gold in the dark fascinates the traveller, the adventurer, and the visionary: the glassmakers alone turn the fluid, natural elements and materials into glass – a permanent reminder of the water on which the city is built, of its essence and origin.
“In the gloom ... it” – the lines quote and redesign a memorable line of a Malatesta Canto (XI: 127) as in a memory, or echo. If in canto XI the line seemed to refer to Sigismondo and act as a poetic summing-up of his life, here, the revision refers to the city of Venice. The redesigning of the line puts the word “gold” as a pivot: it is gold that attracts, not the play of light and dark. Compare:
In the gloom the gold gathers the light against it (canto XI)
In the gloom the gold (canto XVII)
Gathers the light about it
- with Athene – the line suggests that the initiate is waking up and coming back to the world of reality. He is not yet ready to stand just yet, but the sight of the sea and the noises are sunk in short visions and dreams.
- Zothar – mythical figure that Pound invents as a sort of Eastern counterpart to the Greek nymphs dancing in the forest. In his earliest draft, Pound jotted down a scene where “Dacar = upon the great beast upright – with the gold cloth at the loins/ singing – loud over banners/ lords there of feast – of wine flow/ gold grape & the crimson/ = before the shrine of the lotus/ & in that shrine in the pool/ Zohar/ sitting in quiet.” “Dacar” may point to a feast in the honour of Mithras (YCAL 43 71/3175). Pound decided to cut this additional ritual and change “Zohar” (Hebrew for “splendour” or “radiance”) to “Zothar.” This change cut the link to the Hebrew word and its meaning (a collection of esoteric books forming the foundation of the Kabbalah).
Pound would use the name again in canto XX, where he associates Zothar with Zoe, Marozia, and implicitly with Helen.
Pound’s mythological inventiveness and syncretism in this canto may have been encouraged by an article by G. R. S. Mead, “The Meaning of Gnosis in the Higher Forms of Esoteric Religion.” Mead emphasized the freedom of the gnostic initiate to create his own divinities:
“there was the greatest freedom of adaptation and interpretation of the formal symbolism. Thus we find that in characteristic gnosticism every pupil can bring ever new completions and transformations to the teachings of his master, that refined primitive folk-notions together with the most personal phantasies of vision permeate such teachings and that Oriental mystery-beliefs and magical conceptions change clothes with Greek philosophy” (Mead 179). Meaning of Gnosis.
- Sistrum – musical percussion instrument used in Egyptian ritual by Isis and Hathor.
“The sistrum makes it clear that all things in existence need to be shaken, or rattled about, and never to cease from motion but, as it were, to be waked up and agitated when they grow drowsy and torpid” (Plutarch “On Isis & Osiris,” section 63).
- Aletha – Pound’s invention of a sea deity. Her holding a sea-wrack in her hand suggests she presides over the tombs of sailors, as a sort of maritime Persephone.
- Koré – H. “maiden, daughter,” reference to virgin Persephone, the daughter of Demeter and Zeus, before she was abducted by Hades. Persephone is the queen of the underworld and the mother of Zagreus.
- brother of Circe – in Pound’s drafts of the canto, it is Koré who speaks to the “brother of Circe” and holds her arm over his shoulder for three days. As Peter Liebregts has pointed out, “brother of Circe” cannot refer to Circe’s actual brother, the king of Colchis, as this would not make sense in the economy of the canto (Neoplatonism 177). Rather, the “brother of Circe” is the mystic himself, hovering between death and life and slowly emerging from his otherworld quest to the light of the sun and the real world.
- fulvid – reddish yellow; tawny.
- splendour of Hermes – The purpose of the gnostic quest is the spiritual rebirth and the contemplation of the splendour of divinity. The appearance of Hermes here suggests the nature of the quest in this canto: not a Christian, Neoplatonic, or Homeric quest, but a gnostic one, resting on its description by G. R. S. Mead in his article “The Meaning of Gnosis in the Higher Forms of Hellenistic Religion.” At its end, the mystic experiences a spiritual awakening, the awareness of the self and a splendid vision of the god. Surette, and later Tryphonopoulos refer to it as theophany (revelation of the god) and epopteia (“illumination”) (Eleusis 75; Celestial Tradition 126). The splendour of Hermes’ revelation is that:
“The spiritual man, the man who knows himself, should not make anything succeed through magic, not even if he think the thing is good; nor should he compel fate, but suffer it to take its natural course. He should move onward by the quest of his true self alone, and thus attaining unto gnosis of divinity, should gain the ‘three’ that has no name on earth, and let fate carry out its will on its own clay-that is upon the body.” The “three” gifts are Light, Life and the Good. (Mead 200). Pound was certainly aware of Mead’s article, as it appeared in the same issue of Quest as his own “Psychology and the troubadours” (Quest vol. 4 1912-13). See also notes 13, 15, 18 and 26. Meaning of Gnosis.
- Sigismundo – Sigismondo de Malatesta (1417-1468) Italian condottiere and Lord of Rimini whose life Pound retells in canto VIII-XI, also called the “Malatesta Cantos.”
- after that wreck in Dalmatia – After he was defeated at Senigaglia in 1462, Sigismondo Malatesta travelled south to confer with his allies. On his way back home, he suffered a shipwreck on the Dalmatian coast and was rumored dead. He managed to return to his patron and protector, Venice, and thence home to Rimini in October 1462.
“After suffering further losses in Puglia, Sigismondo headed home, but a ‘horrendous storm’ sunk his ship: ‘Observers on the coast saw him disappear and everyone assumed he had drowned. But,’ Pius regretfully intoned in his Commentaries, ‘the wind and the sea could not destroy a man worthy to be burnt at the stake and threw him onto the Dalmatian coast, shaken and shocked. Then, in disguise as was his habit, Sigismondo with a few companions walked over rough mountain passes to Friuli and from there to Venice to plead for help’” (D’Elia 268).