k a m a t e k a o r aa new zealand journal of poetry and poetics
|issue 3, march 2007|
POUND’S FASCIST CANTOS REVISITED
Nearly ten years ago now, I published a chapbook called Pound’s Fascist Cantos (or, to be precise, Ezra Pound’s Fascist Cantos (72 & 73) together with Rimbaud’s “Poets at Seven Years Old.” Auckland: Perdrix Press, 1997). As the title suggests, the book included an annotated translation of Pound’s two Italian Cantos, with a fairly extensive afterword. Only a few copies were issued – for reasons I will go into below – and it attracted only one review. John O’Connor said of it:
“A perversity of which Ross is acutely aware.” The idea of this essay is to go a little more deeply into my reasons for undertaking such a perverse project in the first place, to mention various subsequent developments in the field of Pound scholarship (such as the recent publication of an English translation of Canto 72 by Pound himself), and finally to discuss the continuing significance of the poems themselves.
“Costa più della Divina Commedia” (Kenner, 306).
It seems that one day in the 1930s Ezra Pound went into a chemist’s shop in Rapallo (where he lived at the time), and noticed that they had American toilet paper in stock. The chemist was indignant that the toilet paper cost more than a local edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy which was also on sale. Pound saw this as the “epitaph on Anglo-Saxon civilization” – a stunning illustration of the difference between what a thing costs and what it is worth.
The Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression led a great many people to question orthodox economics, so Pound was certainly not alone in being fascinated by the subject. Characteristically, though, he took it further than most. The founder of Social Credit, Major C. H. Douglas, was his first mentor, but the train of thought which started there led eventually to a conviction that Benito Mussolini, Italy’s man of destiny, was the only world leader who could really reverse the mess that Capitalism (or, as Pound preferred to call it, Usura) had made of the world.
Since perhaps 1903, Pound had been working on and off on a “poem of some length” to be called The Cantos. Loosely modelled on Dante’s Commedia, it was to be a “poem containing history,” which meant in practice having to be loose enough to contain almost anything that Pound chose to put in there. Except for a few extractable lyric portions, it’s never been a particularly easy poem to read – nor, one would imagine, to write: and the various instalments which he published between 1924 and 1940 had taken it only up to Canto 71 of an eventual 117.
In Italy, during the war, as a supporter of Mussolini and critic of the arch-usurers Churchill and Roosevelt, Pound wrote and broadcast extensively on behalf of the Axis powers. Among many other things, he wrote two poems in Italian, entitled, respectively: Canto 72: Presenza [or “Presence”] and Canto 73: Cavalcanti – Corrispondenza Repubblicana [“Cavalcanti – Republican Dispatches”]. They were first published (in part) in the Fascist newspaper Marina Repubblicana on (respectively) January 15 and February 1, 1945. Pound was close to a mental breakdown at the time (worried for the safety of his family, among other things), and when he finally went to give himself up to the invading Allied forces, he was surprised to be told that he was regarded as a war-criminal, and would shortly be facing charges of treason. In the meantime they shut him up in a cage.
Treason carried the death penalty, so the only way Pound’s old friends and colleagues in America were able to save him was to have him declared insane. It wasn’t a particularly difficult diagnosis to sustain, given some of the eccentricities both in Pound’s behaviour and his wartime propaganda, so he was duly shut up in St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital near Washington DC. There he stayed for the next twelve years, from 1946 to 1958. During this period Pound published two new instalments of his long poem, among many other works. The interesting thing, though, was the numbering of the new cantos: there was an unfilled gap between the “John Adams” Cantos (1940), Nos 62-71, and the Pisan Cantos (1948), Nos 74-84.
The subject was, understandably enough, a sensitive one; so there the gap stayed in all editions of The Cantos until 1987, fifteen years after the poet’s death. The Ezra Pound Estate (he has a surviving son and daughter, as well as many literary trustees) sponsored, for copyright reasons, a private printing of the two Italian Cantos in America in 1973, but this had a very limited circulation. Only when the world of scholarship began to reveal more and more details about the missing sections in Pound’s masterpiece (Eastman, 1979; Bacigalupo, 1984) were his publishers (New Directions Press in New York and Faber in London) allowed to include them, in Italian – without translation or notes – as an appendix to the fourth collected edition.
So what exactly is so shocking about these poems? The answer is quite a lot. To give an idea of the controversy, let me quote a few of the opposing opinions.
First Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, in her 1971 memoir Discretions:
Second James Laughlin, from his collection of reprinted pieces Pound as Wuz:
Third Massimo Bacigalupo, from his 1984 essay, cited above:
Mary de Rachewiltz, Pound’s daughter, who has supplemented her own translation of The Cantos into Italian with a translation of these two into English prose is the most enthusiastic about the poems – but her recommendation extends only to the comment that they are “full of vigor and images.” Besides that, the two poems serve mainly as a pretext for her last-ditch defence of the bona fides of the German-dominated Salò Republic: “Mussolini had drawn up a new program, clear and strict.” She does, however, admit that “the dream of the ideal republic had materialized too late and under bad auspices” (de Rachewiltz, 1971, 196).
There is indeed, as James Laughlin remarks, something rather abhorrent in Pound’s hymning the casual slaughter of the Canadian soldiers – and his identification of them as rapists does not do much to palliate the offence. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see it as much worse than the Tudor poet John Skelton’s poem on the Scottish defeat at Flodden (“Gup, Scot, / Ye blot”), or Alexander Blok’s Bolshevik hymn “The Twelve,” or – for that matter – Shakespeare’s uncritical celebration of violence in Henry V. In short, one suspects that Laughlin’s disappointment in the two cantos (like de Rachewiltz’s enthusiasm for them), boils down in the end to a matter of politics.
It is Pound’s lack of “historical consciousness” (Bacigalupo, 1984, 79) which makes the Italian critic Massimo Bacigalupo most indignant. Since Pound is (at any rate on the surface) one of the most historically conscious poets of the twentieth century, one is forced to interpret this as yet another – again, perhaps justified – reaction to Pound’s failure to see through the Fascist régime before it was too late.
Bacigalupo is also rather dubious about Pound’s Italian: “the spectacle of the old sculptor hewing off his bit … in the scarcely mastered tongue” (70-71). The footnote supporting this contention cites, first, a “hilarious parody of the Cantos” in James Joyce’s Selected Letters; and, second, a “superfluous apostrophe ... in Canto 72, line 49 (‘un’altro tono’)” – an error which has in fact been removed from the 1987 edition. It would be pointless to doubt Bacigalupo’s sensitivity as a judge of the language, but it is rather disturbing to find that he is unwilling to provide examples of Pound being “unintentionally funny” in either tongue. After all, as he admits, “all poetry requires a certain suspension of disbelief and of schoolboy tendencies to snicker.”
It’s easy to see how taking a position on the “poetic merit” of these cantos has become tantamount to committing oneself to an opinion on Fascism. Hence the basic agreement of Bacigalupo, Laughlin, and Pound’s most recent biographer Humphrey Carpenter (“there is nothing even faintly ambiguous about the political stance of this canto , but its support of Fascism and the Axis seems mild by comparison with Canto 73, the second of this Italian pair”(639)). Hence, too, the disagreement of the believer Mary de Rachewiltz.
Which is where I come in. I bought a copy of the 1987 edition shortly after it came out, as I was very curious to read the new cantos 72 and 73. Having studied Italian at university, and especially read quite a lot of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch and other Medieval and Renaissance writers, I thought that I could understand the poems better than most. Even an Italian native speaker unacquainted with Pound’s characteristic style in English might miss certain points about them.
Purely for my own interest, then – to fill a gap in my understanding of the Cantos as a whole – I set to work and produced a verse translation of the two Italian (or “Fascist”) cantos. Having done so, though – especially as I’d had to annotate the poems in detail in order to be sure of their meaning, I thought I’d check out the possibility of publication. I knew that this was unlikely to be successful, but thought it would be interesting to see what the situation actually was. I accordingly wrote to James Laughlin, Pound’s American publisher and one of his last remaining associates, enclosing a copy of the translation, and received the following, very polite, reply:
This letter took some time to reach me, and in the meantime, after waiting a month, I had written to the editor of the principal Pound journal, Paideuma, asking if he had any interest in my version, pending word on copyright from New Directions Press. The next letter I received, though, was not from Paideuma but from James Laughlin again:
With this “permission,” I felt emboldened to pursue the matter further. But the next letter I received was from the recovered editor of Paideuma, and it was far from encouraging:
This made me feel like giving up altogether – but I thought I’d better at least write to James Laughlin again to see if he agreed with Professor Terrell’s interpretation of the position. This was his reply:
In other words, Laughlin appeared to have given me permission to publish my version in the Antipodes, provided that “no claim was made to world rights.” I suspected that this was more out of kindness and (perhaps) a lingering fondness for Timaru beer than a sound business proposition, though, and the various journal editors to whom I submitted it took a similar view.
The editor at Faber to whom I wrote, quoting from Laughlin’s letters, had, however, confirmed that they had no objections per se to my publishing the translation for circulation “down under,” so I finally decided to put the whole business behind me by issuing it as a chapbook (though I was careful to stipulate on the copyright page that this was for “private circulation only,” and that no claim was being made to “world rights”).
“Pound’s English translation of Canto LXXII was first published in the fall 1993 issue of The Paris Review, and was included for the first time in the thirteenth printing of The Cantos.” So begins the small section entitled “Acknowledgments” in the latest edition of Pound’s Cantos. What’s more, Cantos 72 and 73 are no longer relegated to an appendix, but have made their way into the body of the text. Like it or not, they’re clearly a part of the poem, and will have to be dealt with in subsequent discussions of it. Canto 73 remains in Italian with no English translation appended.
This is the text of my 1991 version, for those who are curious to fill this gap in their understanding of the poem:
And then I slept
And, waking in the wasted air,
Saw and heard thus –
He whom I saw seemed like a cavalier,
And I heard this:
“Watching my people die
Does not satisfy
even if they broke their word,
Even if they deserve
to be governed by King Turd.
Roosevelt, Churchill and Eden
bastards to a man,
Liar, Jew and glutton
have squeezed the people dry
At Sarzana I lay still,
waiting for the call
I am Guido, whom you loved
as a spirit from above
And for the burning-glass of my mind's reason.
I knew the cleansing fire
Of Venus's third sphere
already as I rode
Cavalcanti, the cavalier
(Not a mere follower)
through the squabbling streets
Of our città dolente
Not men, but a vain and touchy
race of slaves!
Passing through Arimino
I met a gallant soul
Singing as though her heart would break
A young contadinella
– Big-boned girl, but bella –
with a German on each arm;
And she sang,
she sang of love
without thought of
She had led some Canadians
into a field of mines
Where the Tempio of Ixotta
used to stand.
They were coming in fours and fives
– I felt a wave of passion
steal over me again
as if I were still alive.
That's the way girls are
The Canadians had come
to 'mop up' German scum,
To pull down the remains
They stopped to ask the way
to the Via Emilia
of a girl,
a poor young girl
Raped by the first of that canaille.
– Be'! Bene! soldiers,
Let's all go together
to Via Emilia! –
She showed them – where to go.
Her brother had dug the holes
For that mine-field,
there beside the sea-side.
Towards the sea-side, she
(big-boned, but a beauty)
Led the boys.
Brave kid! A real cutie!
She played that prank
acing 'em all for poise!
Death-threats arrived too late,
she died –
That big-boned girl –
hitting the target straight!
To hell with the enemy!
Twenty of them lay dead
The girl dead, too
in the midst of that canaille.
Everyone except the prisoners.
A real hard-case
Along the road that leads
beside the sea.
Gloria della patria!
Gloria! the glory
Of dying for one's land
The dead are not all dead,
Myself I have returned
from the third sphere
To see the North reborn
among the mountains,
In this 'morte saison'
to see the home-land,
And yet – that girl ...
Canto 72 begins with the poet being visited by a number of ghosts – first the Futurist poet Marinetti, then the librarian Torquato Dazzi, then Ezzelino da Romano, a character from Dante’s Inferno, and finally the Roman Empress Galla Placidia – all of whom insist that he sing of the origins of this “guerra di merda [shitty war].” The style ranges from a parody of Dantean invective to lyrical grace, and the politics – though extreme – are arguably subordinated to the poetic situation.
Canto 73, as you can see above, is simpler in form and (arguably) more dubious in status. The framework of the poet speaking to ghosts is kept, only this time the spirit is that of Pound’s old favourite Guido Cavalcanti, praising the actions of a patriotic peasant girl who led a group of Allied soldiers to death in a minefield.
As far as critiquing the two poems goes, two points seem to me worthy of mention.
First, Cavalcanti is not so much a persona as an interlocutor of Pound’s in this Canto. Assuming the latter’s complete agreement with and endorsement of the former’s sentiments seems to me to mistake the nature of the poem.
The comment about “waking in the wasted air” [svegliandomi nell'aere perso] in line 2 is presumably a reference to the stuffy air of Pound's own room, “wasted” by the presence of so many supernatural visitors. Bacigalupo sees it also as “a metaphor of the dark days at war's end” (1984, 78). More importantly, though, it recalls Dante’s:
‘O animal grazioso e benigno,
Francesca da Rimini’s first words when she greets Dante in the circle of the lustful.
Dante the poet’s view of the souls he depicts in Inferno must always be distinguished from Dante the character’s reaction to them. The latter feels considerable pity for the miserable Francesca, for which he is rebuked by his companion Virgil. Dante the poet is concerned here to point out the dangers of romantic love – just as his portrayal of Ulysses and his “folle volo” (Inf. XXVI, 125) is designed to warn us of the dangers of restless curiosity.
It’s interesting, despite this, that generations of readers have persisted in reading both Francesca and Ulysses as attractive, even admirable characters. The poetry, in this case (as in so many others), seems to contradict its author’s deliberate intentions. Could this be true of Pound also? Hardly – the unedifying tale of the minefield is actually told by him, even if mimed through in the mouth of a ghost, but the Dantean parallel should at least make us ready to take the words of his visitors with a grain of salt. Just as in the Commedia, they are meant to be queried and interpreted, not simply taken straight.
Secondly, Cavalcanti is only the last in a succession of apparitions. It makes sense to read his sabre-rattling, jingoistic reaction to the Allied invaders in the light of the other “witnesses” who have already appeared in the earlier canto.
They are, in order:
72: 9 – 'Filippo Tomaso'.
72: 53 – 'Torquato Dazzi'.
72: 80 – 'Eccerinus'.
72:173 – 'Placidia fui, sotto l'oro dormivo'.
Marinetti’s demand is for more heroes, more fighting, more war. Pound (the character), though, is tired of all that:
The ghost finally departs with the thought:
The librarian Dazzi trembles in and out of contact, just long enough for Pound to mention his “double-act” with Marinetti:
Do we sense here the two warring halves of Pound’s own nature – aesthete and ideologue? In any case, Dazzi is a mere herald of the next substantial presence, Ezzelino.
Ezzelino, once again, appears to stand for a certain aspect of ‘Ez’ himself, as Humphrey Carpenter speculates in his biography A Serious Character (1988, 639): “he defends having ‘made fun of reason’ [l.147], and says that ‘one single falsification’ [l.152] does more harm to the world than ‘all my outbursts.’” This particular outburst consists mainly of abuse of King Victor Emmanuel for having concluded a treaty with the Allies, and also of Pope Pius XII, for being a friend to usury and international capitalism.
As the atmosphere darkens, however, all is momentarily transformed by a burst of birdsong and the presence of Placidia, Dante’s Pia:
Pound begins to speak to her in the tones of his earlier love poetry, but is abruptly shouldered aside by Ezzelino, who concludes with one more prophecy of victory.
Pound as character, then, in these two cantos, is constantly chided by his visitors for his lack of devotion to the cause and to war in general. It’s not (presumably) that he doesn’t agree with them in theory, just that he has to constantly work himself up to feel enthusiasm for “one more hero” [un eroe fra tanti] .
Cavalacanti, his next “presence”, allows him even less room for manoeuvre. There is no interaction here, only a single ranting voice celebrating the patria. When Pound himself next begins to speak, in propria persona, we are in Canto 74, the first of the Pisan Cantos. His words turn out to have been worth waiting for:
If at least one of those dreams was the collective, the ideal of Fascism, then he is right in saying that it was the people who ended up paying for it. A tragedy on this scale ends up drawing in even the privileged, though.
The only thing that remains to be said for this particular mad, misguided, utopian dream, is that it ended with “a bang, not a whimper.”
Taken as a whole, then, Pound’s two cantos 72 and 73 are much more of a piece with the rest of the poem than readers have hitherto felt comfortable admitting. He doesn’t miraculously come to at the end of 1945 and resume his former course. What has always been disconcerting about The Cantos, their tone of ill-digested rant, is certainly visible here. What is (I’d like to think) lastingly valuable about Pound’s work, the author’s ability to do justice to all his different poetic moods, inconsistencies and shifts of opinion, is also on display, however.
There seems little purpose here in rehashing the details of Patricia Cockram’s recent (2000) astute summary of the immediate political context of the two Italian Cantos, but I’d like at least to concur with her introduction:
Canto 73 will always remain a hard nut to swallow, but in the context of the self-questioning dialogues of 72, it takes its place in the tapestry far less obtrusively.
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Bacigalupo, Massimo. “Ezra Pound’s Cantos 72 and 73: An Annotated Translation.” Paideuma 20 (1991): 9-41.
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Ross, Jack, trans. Ezra Pound’s Fascist Cantos (72 & 73) together with Rimbaud’s “Poets at Seven Years Old.” Auckland: Perdrix Press, 1997.
Skelton, John. Poetical Works. Ed. Alexander Dyce. 1843. 2 vols. New York: Garland P, 1965. 1: 193.
Terrell, Carroll F. Letter to the author. 6 November 1991.