BK. Ezra Pound

27. Three Cantos. Poetry 10 (June 1917): 113-21; (July 1917): 180-88; (August 1917): 248-54.

Pound was at work on The Cantos by 1915 at the latest (see 70a) and these ‘Ur-Cantos’ were submitted to Poetry together in January 1917, along with a letter to Harriet Monroe allying the ‘theme’ of the long poem-in-progress with the nô play Takasago (see 70c and 88, especially b). In Pound’s recently discovered introduction to that play (88c) he emphasises the ‘sense of past time in the present’, and describes the ‘flawless’ construction of the work, the ‘speech telling the names, the speech saying: we have arrived, the . . . hero’s voice raised for the first time . . . [and] the . . . “flow-along tune”’, structural elements he finds in stark contrast to ‘occidental “dramatic construction”’. An attempt to trace these structures through these and later cantos would require more space than these notes allow, but would not go unrewarded. By 1917 Pound himself had thrice allied a ‘unity of image’ or ‘emotion’ in the nô with the possibility of a ‘long Imagist poem’ (see 12 and 17f and 87), and one may see throughout these works evidence of what one critic has called the ‘spark’ that ‘flew between’ Pound’s major projects of 1915 and 1916, his work with the nô and his beginning of The Cantos (see 81e and 161). The most compelling conflation of themes and devices from the nô with the ‘Three Cantos’ is Longenbach’s, in the ‘Ghosts Patched with Histories’ chapter of Stone Cottage (183). Each of these cantos, Longenbach finds, has its own ‘rhythm of metaphor’ (Yeats’s phrase about the nô that parallels Pound’s understanding of its ‘unity of image’ [see BL11]), and each, like the mugen nô, is ‘organized around a place made sacred by myth and history’, where a speaker—the waki in the nô (see BL207), a Poundian persona here—encounters spirits of the dead allied to the place, and as ‘Pass each in his appropriate robes’ (III) they speak and are spoken to, the past coming alive in the mind of the present consciousness. This technique is as much a ‘metaphor for historical reconstruction’, Longenbach argues, as Browning’s use of the showman’s booth in Sordello, the work Pound explicitly contrasts with his own ‘visions’ (I) here, and may be allied with Yeats’s ontology, also partially derived from the nô, in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (BL13). This ‘visionary’ Pound calling forth spirits and conversing with them is largely edited out of later versions of cantos I-III, and is not prominent in those written in the following quarter century, but returns, like the angel of Hagoromo, at Pisa (see 56) and thereafter. The ‘Three Cantos’ appear significantly revised in the 1918 American edition of Lustra (see 20), and are only partially incorporated in Pound’s major rewrite of the opening of the poem published in 1925 (35), the basis for The Cantos now taken to be the final versions. See also 8, 23, and 145. Richard Taylor’s Variorum Edition of Three Cantos, A Prototype (Bayreuth: Boomerang, 1991) provides a full tracing of textual variations.

a. I. The work opens with an introductory address to Browning, about the historical methodology of Sordello, before Pound turns to the key lines of the poem and an indication of his own methods, which Longenbach and others have equated to his work with the nô: ‘Ghosts move about me / Patched with histories’, a line cut from later versions of the beginning of The Cantos, but recalled three decades later at Pisa (see 56a). The ‘sacred place’ here is Sirmio during the Italian Renaissance, though voices appear as well from classical Rome, Egypt, China, and Greece, twelfth century Provence, and twentieth century England. The speaker ‘walk[s] the airy street’ in ‘one glorious blaze of all its lanes’ and ‘the place is full of spirits’, not ‘dark and shadowy ghosts, / But the ancient living . . . / . . . firm of aspect’, and ‘Gods’ who ‘float in the azure air, / . . . back before dew was shed’. The colours and sounds of Sirmio bind the work together and remind of the ‘unity of image’ Pound discovered in the nô, and in deciding which past with which to infuse his own present, Pound explicitly equates his persona with the angel of Hagoromo (13d): ‘What’s left for me to do? / Whom shall I conjure up; who’s my Sordello, / . . . / Whom shall I hang my shimmering garment on / Who wear my feathery mantle, hagoromo . . . ?’ The sources of the work are many, but the nô must be counted among them, both in this explicit imagery and more importantly in the method for incorporating history and myth into the ‘long Imagiste poem’. The work includes also an extended reference to ‘Kwannon’ that Bush (145) and others find traceable to Pound’s version of Tamura (17i).

b. II. The methodology Pound established for incorporating history and myth into his long poem in ‘Three Cantos’ I derives in part from the infusion of past into present in the mugen nô, and is followed through in II and III. The ‘sacred place’ here is the Dordogne Valley, where the Poundian persona comes upon a road ‘full of peoples, / Ancient in various days, long years between them’. Voices rise from distant past to contemporary present, and as in I an image from the nô occurs at a key turn. Between episodes relating tales of deception and cruelty—the occupation of Valencia by El Cid and the murder of Ignes de Castro by the courtiers of Afonso IV—the speaker recalls an image from the heroic age of Japan, and sets it in super-position (see 3 and 12) to what precedes and follows: ‘And Kumasaka’s ghost come back to tell / The honor of the youth who’d slain him’ (Minamoto no Yoshitsune). The reference from KUMASAKA (17g) sets spiritual nobility in counterpoint to the corruption of the Cid, the Portuguese court of Afonso, and, ultimately, to Odysseus himself. The image is lost in revision of canto II, but returns thirty years later at Pisa, contrasted in canto LXXIX to the ‘vulgarity’ of Odysseus’s attack on Ismarus (56d). See also the discussion of the nô ‘technique’ of the canto in Bush (145).

c. III. The canto continues with the methodology of I and II, and establishes explicitly that the Poundian persona in these cantos will ‘take the old way’ in visualising spirits of the past, as ‘Pass each in his appropriate robes’, though the voice ultimately becomes that of Homer, in the Nekuia, Odysseus setting forth to meet the ghost of Tiresius to learn the secrets of the past and of the future, a long passage that in only slightly revised form becomes canto I in the standard text of the poem.





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