N.B. Colleagues – James Atkinson, Marcella Spann Booth, Eva Hesse, and A. David Moody – read through early drafts and offered valuable suggestions. Martina Kleinert (Arcadia Film) saught out and adapted the Janequin recording.


When confronting The Cantos Wittgenstein's philosophy of mind – enactivism – is a reasonable guide.  There is no single, repeatable to be applied, but much can be gained by ambling through the landscape and mapping it. In The Spirit of Romance (1911) Pound used a similar metaphor which remained hauntingly relevant throughout his later career:

Art or an art is not unlike a river, in that it is perturbed at times by the quality of the river bed, but is in a way independent of that bed. The color of the water depends upon the substance of the bed and banks [both] immediate and preceding. Stationary objects are reflected, but the quality of motion is of the river.| 1 |

  1 | ( London; J .M. Dent,1911, rev. 1952), p. 7.

His sense of formal structure in The Cantos evolved slowly, even as the river bed shifted and changed, but always congruent with his immediate thought and passionate involvement in public affairs. Anyone who writes that many letters a day and gives his life over, wholly, to writing poetry, is not only expressing himself, but also identifying/defining/establishing that ever-changing self. The Cantos are essentially a poem of personal experience.

The attempt to reconstruct a publishing history of ‘The Great American Epic,’ required total immersion in the text, itself, and its various versions, not to mention surviving correspondence, both published and unpublished – as preserved in public archives as well as publishers’ files and private collections. Taken together, such documentation sheds much light on the poet’s shifting objectives, developing technique, changing states of mind, and reactions to outside events (history itself). Charting the evolution of the poem(s) also leads to the recognition of differing structural frames and changing strategies which, in fact, reflect significant shifts in personal sensibility. Reading through thousands (and thousands) of unpublished letters raises awareness of the persistence with which the poet approached the notion of form in each published collection – the revisions and rearrangement of individual poems, until satisfying structures emerged.

There can be no doubt that the two European wars of imperial aggression (1914 1918 & 1939 1945), not to mention the interim economic depression, affected Pound greatly, as did his wide reading in historical and cross-cultural literatures. Before attempting to establish a wider context for the discussion of the poet’s mindscape (the shifting panorama of a mind’s landscape), subject matter, and sense of form, however, a brief digression – an ideological context – must be allowed. In The Cantos Pound operates on a dichotomy between ‘emotional synthesis’ (poetry) and ‘intellectual analysis’ (prose) which supercede each other whenever their partial untruth in rendering the whole, is acknowledged. Operating, as he did, between antinomies, the intrusion of discord was inevitable. Adding to the problem, his thought and practice was profoundly unconventional, and included:

An ideogramic linking of ideas through interaction and juxtaposition which creates meaningful networks rather than linear progressions; an obvious evolution from the early technique of Imagism to the concept of ‘unity of image’, in which a cluster of images organizes itself around a single, signifying idea.

The ‘Omniformis’ principle – identity based on non-identity – the creative projection of ‘self’ into the ‘other’ which evolved from the ‘personae’ technique of the early translations. Writing outside a self-perceived personality displaces and distances the inner from the outer self.
Through aestheticism, the concern for psychic experience, so central to the earlier Mystical-Occult Revival, gave rise to psychological fictions which often address the author’s distress and even despair. | 2 |  

2 | See Max Saunders, “Autobiografiction”, Times Literary Supplement, (30 October 2008, 13-15).

A break with traditional literary genres. The Cantos include epos, lyric poetry, and drama – epos as the collective voice, lyric as the individual, and drama mediating between them in the form of ‘personae’.

The simultaneity of past and present which comprehends archaic records as well as the latest achievements in literature.

A break with – and criticism of – Western culture based on comparisons with the achievements of non-Europeans.

His goal, obviously, was to identify an ideal, social order – one that ‘holds’ by attraction and from within. As opposed to the earlier symbolist phase, but still in sympathy with its theoretical base, he wished to discover an underlying coherence in the self-evident chaos of human endeavor, history, and individual character. Images, narratives, personae, and dramatic vignettes become units which, when arranged aesthetically, constitute an anterior reality.

Having internalized the eclipse of class privilege for the scions of colonial stock by newly risen speculative capitalists and the dilution – even debasement – of traditional, Yankee values by immigrants from Ireland, as well as Eastern and Southern Europe, the poet fled the provincialism of America, but not without a sense of having been excluded/rejected. According to Alex Zwerdling, that perception also contributed to the expatriation of Henry Adams, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot. | 3 |

Pound also retained a high-minded sense of social responsibility; after all, he had grown up in a culture which prized Ralph Waldo Emerson’s humanistic idealism – “a transcendental ethic which gave mind a creative, primary, and active role” as well as a sense of wholeness. | 4 | Emerson was, after all, a prophet of bipolarity: “A believer in Unity, a seer of Unity, I yet behold two.” The Sage of Concord was both an idealist and an Antinomian, rebelling against formalism which stultifies intellection. He was nothing if not a speculative moralist and adherent of mystical experience.

3 | Improvised Europeans: American Literary Expatriates and the Siege of London (New York; Basic Books,1998).

4 | Reginald L. Cook, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Prose and Poetry (New York; Rinehart, 1950), pp. vi-xii.

In ‘Nature’ he wrote: “[There is] a sea of forms radically alike and even unique. […] Nothing is beautiful alone; nothing is beautiful but in the whole. […] Every word  which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its roots, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Right means straight; wrong means twisted. […] It is not words alone that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic.” | 5 |

Compare Pound’s 1937 translation of The Analects (5th – 4th Century BC), Book 2, XIX: “Duke Ai asked how to keep the people in order. He [Kung Fu Tzu] said: promote the straight and throw out the twisty, and the people will keep order; promote the twisty and throw out the straight and they won’t.”

Another possible forbear is John Ruskin who published Unto This Last in 1859 – in reaction to the dishonesty of government officials and crude, inhuman, free- market economics. He held that here is no wealth but in life – with all its powers of love, joy, and admiration, and that a country is rich only when it nourishes a noble and happy people – likewise an individual, when inherent talents are honed to the utmost and have the widest possible influence over the lives of others.

5 | Pp. 12-1

The received perception that Pound’s preoccupation with economics derives from the fact that his father worked at the Philadelphia mint, where, as a boy, he saw sweating, shirtless men shoveling heaps of coins, is simply silly. On the other hand family history is certainly relevant to his development, and references in The Cantos to his grandfather’s financial ups and downs are elaborated upon in Homer Pound’s memoir. | 6 |

The late novels of Howells which were primarily concerned with questions of economics and moral conduct, are far more germane, not to mention the work of the American Naturalists. Crane’s Maggie was published in 1883, Norris’s McTeague (1899), and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900). Like their European antecedents, and, indeed, contemporaries, the Naturalists wrote of grim and often violent experiences which were reactions to personal pain as well as despair and general disillusionment. They reacted against the uplifting excesses of Romanticism, and as Carvel Collins notes in his edition of McTeague, they gave themselves over to both scientific materialism and determinism as well as direct observation – “the frank acceptance and depiction of the thing as it is”. | 7 | One might well add: – or as it is perceived to be.



6 | Small Boy, The Wisconsin childhood of Homer L. Pound. The Ezra Pound Association; Hailey, Idaho, 2003.


7 | Frank Norris, McTeague (New York; Rinehart, 1950), pp. viii-ix.

In order to explain basic human behavior, the Naturalists tended to invoke heredity, in the Puritanical sense of ‘the beast within’, but the shaping force of social environment was equally acknowledged. The sordid nature of lower class life predominated, and characters were possessed of either little intelligence and/or oversimplified psychological defects which inevitably ended in degeneration and self-destruction. Motivated by moral outrage, Naturalism was played out in the ironic juxtapositions of events (often using crude symbols) and the massing of exact detail. Principally, the corrupting influence of an industrialized and urbanized society destroys the innocence and harmony of a rural/artisanal culture. In the early Cantos there is a strong reflection of Naturalist notions as well as transcendental aspirations: the Inferno vs. an imagined Paradiso.