“The Cantos of Ezra pound would be the foundation myth of a universal civilization”(p79).
I will get round to reviewing A. David Moody’s second volume in his life of Ezra Pound, but before I do that I want to consider at least two paragraphs to support what I’m going to say about the book as a whole.
The following paragraph, which leads up to the striking claim I’ve quoted above, is disturbing. As a survey of literary history it is so obviously incoherent. What’s troubling is that the flaws in the argument should be obvious to anyone who has read the texts Moody mentions. And that should be anyone with a serious interest in Poetry. (I admit I haven’t read 'Clarissa'). Why such a prestigious figure as Moody thinks it’s acceptable, or why his editor didn’t point out the problems, is a question I have no answer for.
Discussing the first book publication of the Cantos, both ‘A Draft of XXI Cantos’ and the deluxe edition of ‘A Draft off XVI Cantos’, Moody writes:
“In its beginnings an epic was the foundation myth, the once and future story of a tribe, a nation or people.” [So far so good but then watch how the definition gets left behind and changed by the random assortment of texts.]
Ancient Greece had its 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey' [neither are foundation myths] and its classic tragedies; Rome had its 'Aeneid' [a genuine foundation myth]; Medieval England had the Arthurian Romance [not so, the foundation myths are the ‘Bruts’ which trace the English back to Troy after Geoffrey of Monmouth turned the story into a medieval best seller, or the stories in Bede and the AS Chronicle which tell of the coming of the Anglo-Saxons] and the mystery plays [which are dramatizations of the Bible???); Elizabeth’s England had Shakespeare’s Histories [why not the Fairy Queen as well?]; and England after the civil war had ‘Paradise lost’”.
We’ve already skidded from Epic as foundation myth, to Epic as long story, to Paradise Lost and the Mystery Plays which are retelling of Christian Narratives. From collectively shared stories retold to make sense of the world and passed on, to the work of individual writers giving their particular take on a well known story. The definition is now going to be stretched even further as the list becomes increasingly strange.
Then the story changed, with ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and became concerned rather with the life of the individual than the fate of a people [This too is debatable, as Pilgrim represents the Medieval Everyman, a point made by the allegorical frame of the story: his challenges on the way to salvation are everyone’s]. England’s epic in the 18th century was Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ and after that came ‘Don Juan’ and Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude or The Growth of the Poet’s mind” and next Browning’s ‘Sordello’.
As a list of disparate texts this can hardly be bettered. Browning’s ‘Sordello’, ‘Don Juan’ and ‘The Prelude’ are long poems but what else do they have in common other than they were written by English poets? 'Sordello' is there presumably because Pound will refer to it in the Cantos, but it has no claim to be ‘England’s epic’ nor does ‘Don Juan’ or the ‘Prelude’. You could make a good case that Tennyson’s rewriting of the Arthurian cycle is the nearest thing 19th century England got to a national ‘epic’, given the way it participates in the British rediscovery of its medieval past.
So Moody has developed his definition, and by illustrating it with such a scattered range of poems, has emptied his terms so that Epic and Myth now mean nothing more than “long poem regardless of genre, readership, content, reception or usage”.
In the mid-nineteenth century, in a United States still inventing itself, Whitman felt the need to reconnect the individual poet with his people and asserted that his experience must be the common, democratic experience of everyone in America. [If he did the arrogance of that claim is either staggering or reduces ‘democratic experience’ to sleeping eating excreting and possibly reproducing.] Pound went on from that to create an epic in which an individual poet would again tell the tale of the tribe, only his tribe would be all of humanity that one man could comprehend; and his tale would not be of himself but be a universal story; and it would shape a future not for any one nation but for all. ‘The Cantos of Ezra Pound’ would be the foundation myth of a universal civilization. The global order capitalism has been busily creating is quite possibly the antithesis of what he had in mind’ (p.79).
1) Because the history here is not good, I think it undermines any confidence in what the writer is about to say next. Pound said he believed that right naming was the root of justice. There is no right naming here.
2) Having moved through a paragraph that has no logical sequential coherence except for the chronological, we arrive at a final claim that is not underwritten by historical precedent and surely questions Pound’s grasp of reality and raises suggestions of megalomania. That an ability to rearrange words might give any individual any kind of privileged position and or inherent understanding or insight is ridiculous. Which means the understanding and insight on offer must be judged on their own, stripped of any baggage anyone might attach to the word ‘Poet’ or attempts to redefine ‘truth’ or ‘accuracy’.
3) So the question I suggest should be asked is how and why anyone of any intelligence or perception could be so deluded, then or now, to believe that a poem in the real world could “shape the future” of humanity. Pound was guilty of taking Shelley seriously, but why should anyone else?
4) The reality of the claim can and should be also evaluated against the realties of its production and reception: How was writing poems released in limited, sometimes expensive editions, written in a style that was off putting to almost all readers, going to be able to change the world the poet lived in?
5) If, on the other hand, the claim is taken seriously, then the poems should be evaluated against their ability to achieve their intended purpose, and as such they are a monstrous failure and the waste of a man’s writing life. They are not, cannot be, a foundation myth for a universal civilization. So they fail. So why are we bothering with them or the man who wrote them?
To be continued.