CANTO III – Commentary

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Canto III is an autobiographical canto, a portrait of the artist as a young man, told reticently, as Eliot had remarked on reading Pound’s Three Cantos in 1917.

The date of composition is August 1923, when Pound created the canto using fragments from Three Cantos I and II (See Calendar). His look is retrospective: he uses memories of 1908 (Venice stay), 1922 (reading D’Annunzio in Paris), 1910 (holiday in Sirmione), 1906 (his postgraduate trip to Spain), 1911 (visit to Mantua). It is a self-portrait in the manner of a Cubist collage, gathered out of meaningful scenes, symbols and attitudes at various times in his youth.

The canto starts with “I” and an old memory of Pound’s young life – sitting on the steps of the Dogana, the old customs-house in Venice. Before his eyes, a confluence of two waterways into the lagoon: the Grand Canal on his left, and the Canal of the Giudecca on his right. It is a good place to meditate on one’s own future. Above his head, a statue of Fortuna on the top of the building.

Pound mentions he was poor. That is an understatement. He held himself afloat with casual jobs; the spectre of starvation was always in front of him, as it is evident from the correspondence with his parents at the time. Pound mentions the lights dancing on the ceiling in the Morosini palace. He obviously looks at them from the street: he could not afford gondolas, neither was he invited at parties, even if he had helped create them - he was a mere spectator to Venetian luxuries.

His young mind was full of his phantastikon, reveries of gods and nymphs that he was to “see” or intuit better two years later in Sirmione. Not the dreary details of the everyday, but the beauty of learning, paganism, and literature, the search for the paradise on earth were te elements to define and inform his poetry. Pound sees both the Latin humanist Poggio Bracciolini and the poet/warrior Gabriele D’Annunzio as kindred spirits: both had lived through significant events which they transmuted into literary works, both had seen/intuited the courage of lived experience. Pound had appropriated Poggio as a mask of himself in an imaginary conversation published in 1917: his conclusion was that the natural object was always the only adequate symbol (“Aux Etuves de Weisbaden” P&P II 223-26). Nevertheless, his youthful vision of a paradise of naked swimmers and natural deities (or alternatively, gray steps to a temple among cedars, an image in Three Cantos I which he does not develop again) did not come close to the force of D’Annunzio’s image of the white peacocks roaming the grounds of an unfinished, ruined palace. Pound’s insertion of Poggio’s name (a later interpolation made for A Draft of XXX Cantos in 1930 (Pryor 283-84)) can well be interpreted as a self-ironic jibe at his own sensibilities of that time, infused as they were by his reading of Latin humanists. Poggio here is Pound himself, someone whose recondite erudition filtered and recoloured every personal experience.

A careful reading of the canto will suggest D’Annunzio as an eminence grise presiding over Pound’s evaluation of his youth. Pound embroiders on D’Annunzio’s passage “La lune é colma. Non v’è bava di vento. La casa de Coré è abitata dai pavoni bianchi” (Notturno 443) transmuting it into his own: “And peacocks in Kore’s house, or there may have been.” Koré’s house is the unfinished and (in 1908 as well as 1923) dilapidated Palazzo dei Leoni, a building whose “life” had been cut off prematurely, before the ground floor was completed. D’Annunzio had been good friends with the owner, Luisa Amman Casati, an extravagant socialite who was often photographed with leopard skins and (peacock) feathers. Unlike Pound, D’Annunzio was rich, he could afford gondolas and parties – in Notturno, he evokes white harlequins on the marble steps of the palazzo on just such an occasion.

D’Annunzio’s situation while writing Notturno makes him particularly significant in the context of the first three cantos: the poet was wounded in the war, writing his memories and fantasies against doctor’s orders while lying in hospital with his eyes bandaged. His English translator retold his circumstances:

On Jan 16, 1916, while on a combat flight during the First World War, D’Annunzio’s plane, on which he was an observer, was forced to make an emergency landing and D’Annunzio was flung against the machine gun mounted in front of him and as a result of the blow lost the sight of his right eye. The doctors insisted that he go to bed and lie perfectly immobile, declaring that if he did not he might lose the sight of his other eye as well. So from February 23 to the end of April, in a handwriting that was nearly illegible, D’Annunzio set down his ‘commentary on the shadows,’ a succession of memories and dreams that rose spontaneously from his unconscious as he lay supine, or during the long nights of insomnia: ‘I had inside my wounded eye a forge of dreams which my will could neither direct nor interrupt. The optic nerve drew in all the strata of my culture and my previous life, projecting on my vision innumerable figures with a rapidity of transition far beyond the most daring lyricism.’ (Rosenthal 6)

In other words, D’Annunzio was blind and immobile, writing his subconscious visions and memories in messages barely legible – a modern Tiresias lying in a funereal Venice haunted by death, suffering, ghosts, and darkness: In Notturno, Venice itself is the underworld. During his short stay in the city between April and August 1908, Pound may well have been unaware of this dimension, enchanted as he was with its beauty. However, by the time of writing the canto in 1923, Pound knew this complex of situations and was fascinated by the magic of D’Annunzio’s image. A comparison between himself and the Italian poet, a lesson, a warning and a spectral re-enactment of the Odysseus–Tiresias encounter might well be discerned between the lines of the canto. The image of Koré’s house and the details around the story of Persephone might be the centre around which Pound’s meditations gravitate. His dilemma of 1908, as he looks at it retrospectively from the point of view in 1923 is: flourish or untimely ruin?

A provisional answer to this question may lie in Pound’s retelling of the opening chapter of the Lay of the Cid, which occupies the middle part of the canto. This is the fourth time Pound told the story of Ruy Diaz and the Jewish money-lenders. The first time, he related it in an article of 1906, presenting it as a picturesque detail of Spain, somewhat in the style of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (P&P I: 11-14). The next time, the episode showed up in Pound’s book Spirit of Romance (1910 66-68) where it is told as part of a retrospective of the European epic tradition: here Pound evaluated the Lay of the Cid for its literary qualities and praised it for its attention to the realistic detail of practical life. The third time, the story appeared in Three Cantos II (July 1917) as an item in a list of pastiches delineating his own education in the epic genre, the background he was going to use as a foundation for his own poem.

Here, in Canto III, El Cid appears in a different way, as a figure that is integral to the framework of A Draft of XVI Cantos: “Il Campeador” reminds the reader of Odysseus and of Malatesta, associations also observed by Caroll F. Terrell (C III: n.16). Like Odysseus, El Cid is “resourceful” (polumetis): he manages to build up from the ground of poverty, royal disfavour and exile, finding ingenious solutions to desperate situations. In 1906, Pound had called El Cid “Cassie Chadwick” (an American forger who obtained loans from American banks by claiming she was Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter). He must have been amused to see one of the trunks that El Cid used to cheat the moneylenders hanging on a wall in the Burgos cathedral. But at the same time, Pound obviously admired El Cid’s ability to take advantage of desperate circumstances to ultimately win in a grand way: a city for himself (Valencia), the grudging forgiveness of his sovereign, military honour in his lifetime and centuries-long prestige after his death.

Going even further, El Cid’s return to Burgos at night, riding through a city frozen by the king’s interdiction, mute and unable to act; finding no one in the streets, all the windows closed and his own house locked against him must have been like returning to a city of the dead. His Tiresias is a girl: she has a shrill voice ringing with fear, like the wail of Persephone when abducted by Hades. The Hymn to Demeter, where her story is being recounted was not included in Pound’s edition of Divus’ Odyssey. Not having a Latin translation of the hymn at hand, Pound used Catullus’ “voce tinnula” (ringing voice) to suggest that El Cid’s house in Burgos is another Koré’s house. Pound had seen the ruins in 1906.

At the same time, Pound is aware that El Cid is a mercenary, a Spanish condottiere. As a historical, not a literary figure, he was not the hero of Christian emancipation in Spain as the poem portrayed him, but fought for or against the Moors as he needed to. He is followed by the rage of his king as Sigismundo Malatesta (Cantos VIII-XI) is followed by the rage of the pope Pius II. Like Malatesta, he fights for his own survival in the contemporary game of changing military alliances and political loyalties. El Cid is tied to Burgos and Valencia (cities he considers his) as closely as Malatesta is tied to Rimini and Fano. Finally, behind both men there is a splendid church that keeps their memory alive and commemorates their efforts to leave a trace on this earth.

By 1906, as his reference in his article on El Cid attests, Pound had read Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. He must then have been aware of Hugo’s argument in his chapter “Ceci tuera cela” (This Will Kill That): the “writing” by forms of monumental architecture had been replaced by another form of immortality – that of print. Pound was no war hero of old, his commemoration was not going to be in a cathedral or a palace, but in the books he was going to write. In Canto 76, in another retrospective moment at Pisa, Pound added one of the thoughts that he had on Dogana’s step: “shd/I chuck the lot into the tide-water? / le bozze ‘A Lume Spento’” (LXXVI/480). Guy Davenport rightly observed that Browning on his palace step had been haunted by similar doubts about Sordello: his retrospective of “those girls” was meant to decide on a person for whom the poem should be continued (Cities on Hills 121; Scherman 123). By recalling Browning’s precedent, Pound decided not to throw away the proofs of his first volume of poetry, but “break his way” to his war and his Valencia: London.

On the steps of the Dogana then, Pound may have meditated on the possible success or failure of his life. The fable of El Cid and the moneylenders could have encouraged him to be resourceful, take heart and proceed in the designs for his future in spite of the unfavourable odds.

But Pound may also have thought of the possibility of failure and ruin. “Koré’s house” was a few steps away from the Dogana: Palazzo dei Leoni had been begun with the best auspices by the rich Venier family, one of the oldest and most powerful in Venice. Yet, they had been unable to finish it and interrupted the construction at the ground floor. Its “life” as a house had been cut off “in youth,” before it had matured into completeness and use. Pound saw the palazzo as a dead building still appealing by its beauty: he resonated with D’Annunzio’s imagining it as a spectral tomb where white peacocks roam. Pound reinforced this theme by adding “And Ignez de Castro murdered” towards the end of the canto. Ignez was another Koré figure, whose life was cut short before flourishing and who “survived” only in death, in her royal husband's Pedro’s ceremony and through the stories and poems that recounted not so much her life, which had been brief, but her afterlife, the devastation her death wrought on Pedro and implicitly on the kingdom of Portugal.

The poem suggests that in spite of assuring his parents in every letter that he had enough to eat and that he was comfortable, Pound may have felt his life to be fragile. However, he does give the episode from El Cid pride of place in the canto, with all the hope for success that it entails, pushing the symbols of ruin and youthful, unfinished splendour cut short, to the margins.

He closes his retrospective by choosing yet another emblem, Nec Spe nec metu, for the resolution of his dilemma, this time derived from Isabella d’Este’s motto from another ruined palace, another Koré’s house, the Ducal Palace in Mantua. Poor, with all the odds against him, the young Pound continued in his project “neither by hope, nor by fear”: his fate, still in the balance.

©Roxana Preda, The Cantos Project, 24 April 2016.

Updated 21 December 2023 

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REFERENCES

D’Annunzio, Gabriele. Nocturne and Five Tales of Love and Death. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. Quartet Books: 1993.

D’Annunzio, Gabriele. Notturno. Milan: Treves, 1921.

Davenport, Guy. “Taishan.” In Cities on Hills. A Study of I-XXX of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Epping: Bowker, 1983. 121-26.

Pound, Ezra. “Aux Etuves de Weisbaden” [sic] Little Review IV: 3 (July 1917): 12-6. P&P II 223-26.

Pound, Ezra. “Paris Letter.” The Dial LXXIII.5 (November 1922): 549-54. In P&P IV: 259-63.

Pound, Ezra. “Burgos, A Dream City of Old Castile.” Book News Monthly XXV.2 (October 1906): 91-94. In P&P I: 11-4.

Pound, Ezra. Spirit of Romance. 1910. New York: New Directions, 2005.

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

Pryor, Sean. “‘How Will You Know?’: Paradise, Painting, and the Writing of Ezra Pound’s Canto 3.” Paideuma: Studies in American and British Modernist Poetry 37 (2010): 267-92.

Rosenthal, Raymond. Introduction. In Gabriele D’Annunzio. Noctune and Five Tale of Love and Death. Quartet Books, 1993.

Scherman, Timothy H. “Towards a New Translation of Canto III.” Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship 19.3 (1990): 123-7.

Terrell, Carroll F. Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1993. 7-10.

 

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