The Fifth Decad, as published, opens with a celebration of sound fiscal policy and responsible governance in Tuscany, centering on the creation of a bank in the seventeenth century which had been founded on the earth’s fecundity and dedicated to the benefit of the community (XLII-XLIV). In its pursuit of economic and social justice, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena is contrasted with the economic corruption of the Medici and the baser aspects of Napoleon’s regime. Correspondence, however, shows that ‘Usura’, XLV, was written first (before December 1935) and the rest in random order, often overlapping – with a first, complete draft finished at the end of October, 1936.    

Two brief quotations from unpublished letters make an important point about Pound’s evolving sense of form. On 5 September, 1936, he wrote to his wife: “AT last a block [underlined twice] to balance the Malatesta. 3 all of a piece [XLII-XLIV] & seguito – Even if it don’t run to 4. the USURA wd. fit it. & count as symmetricizing.” | 12 | A little later he wrote to J. Laughlin [17 September 1936]: “Have shipped the three Sienese Cantos, & have a fourth pretty well set, but a few hunks of Orient [XLIX] and Adonis cult [XLVII] must intervene”. | 13 | XLV commands attention, both in its “otherness” and pivotal nature. Adopting the metric of ancient Hebrew (patterns of syntactical repetition), the poet takes on the persona of an Old Testament prophet.

What he meant by ‘Usury’ is simply the corruptive force of  finance (paper) capitalism which benefits a very small percentage of the population rather than the community as a whole. Anyone aware of the 2008, world-wide, economic crash can hardly doubt his acuity. The “otherness” of XLVII and XLIX, however, contrasts with, and contradicts, the context within which they are set. They represent what ought to be rather than what is or has been.

XLVI echoes the seemingly disassociation of images that had first surfaced at the end of Canto XXXVI. It also counters Eliot’s objection to the absence of hell fire in XIV-XV with an observed snowfall. Attention then turns to memories of C.H. Douglas at the offices of The New Age, etc. which rhymes well with Pound’s Hell as the seat of Geryon. The jump to Marmaduke Pichtall’s discourse on Islamic vs. Christian values at a suburban garden party returns the reader to the present and underscores the ironic distance between the modern (monetary) perfidy of the Greeks and a Muslim camel driver’s disinterest in anything other than natural harmony with a circumambient universe – and is underscored by a reprise of the evils of the present monetary system.

12 | Lilly Rare Book and Manuscript Library; Pound Archive, III

13 | 17 September 1936. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; Pound I (Laughlin).

The ‘Adonis’ canto follows naturally – a classical vision of fertility and regeneration which ends logically with the power of Dionysus-Adonis-Tammuz (and even Apollonius of Tyana) over wild beasts as counterpoint to the corruption of civilization. A similar point is made again at the end of Canto XLIX. For the individual, as Pound would have it, love (and sexuality) lead to fulfillment, as does responsible government for the community. XLVIII returns to the practical world and the political-economic concerns of America’s founding fathers.

XLVIII, like XLVI, appears, at first, to be a mixed bag – a bewildering, if not incoherent, sequence of references: the Turks at Vienna and then the Great War, Van Buren and Adams, Marx and Bismarck, Dionysus and a puppy’s pedigree, Olga’s shopping and a religious festival in Gais witnessed by his daughter, as well as the purgation of heresy at Mont Ségur and  late-Victorian prudery on the Lido. Each can, however, be seen as a free-wheeling, even jokey, contrast between individual affirmation (creativity) and political, fiscal, or social corruption. Certainly, The Fifth Decad confirms evidence from period correspondence that a shift in the poet's mindscape was taking place.

Reversing expectation, the incantatory ‘Seven Lakes’, Canto XLIX, presents an idealized, East Asian relationship between a contented people, benevolent government, and the natural world. A sheltered peasantry rejoice in their well being, and in culture-specific ways, as did the Sienese earlier, at a Palio. The Chinese tranquility of nature’s silent and distant views, tinged by melancholy, as opposed to Italian boisterousness. Oxen bellow: “Mn-YAWW!!!”, “pnAWH!” and mothers shout after truant children: “Nicchio! Nicchi-iO-né!!” [XLIII: 63 & 67]. The poem’s sensuality calls to mind the antithetical différance of ‘Kung Fu Tsu’ and ‘Donna mi prega’ in the earlier volumes. After the incursion of a Confucian world, a return to economics and Tuscan politics is inevitable – so, too, is a reprise of ‘Usura’ in LI. It is altogether obvious that the structure of The Fifth Decad has an inescapable logic of its own.

When preparing Cantos LII-LXXI (1940), Pound was not altogether unaware that ominous clouds were gathering across Europe. It was hardly the moment for a Dantesque paradise. Assertions of ideal, authoritarian (patriarchal) order might be more stabilizing. Both the ‘China’ and ‘Adams’ cantos abandon the symmetry of preceding volumes and adopt new strategies. Instead of developing his own subjects, Pound selects material from existing sources, juxtaposing snippets in rapid succession. To do so he used a telegraphic style which echoes that of contemporary correspondence and further reflects an altered mindscape.

A possible explanation for this more irascible technique offers itself in Edward Said’s concept of ‘late style’ (to be discussed later in more detail). The basic idea is that when the hot breath of mortality blows at one’s back, a new and radicalized idiom may come to the fore – one which is characterized by intransigence and unresolved contradiction rather than an aspiration to harmony and resolution – sorely aware of the wholeness that has consistently eluded recognition. Pound had often before, offered absences and silences, disjunctions and distractions, rather than a reasoned, logical exposition. As early as Cantos LII-LXXI such extensions/exaggerations, as well as constant self-justification through anachronistic texts – prompted, no doubt, by socio-economic and political pressures – dominated.

Chronological rather than narrative, the ‘China’ cantos follow traditional, East-Asian historiography which concentrates on alternative cycles of good and bad governance. The first leads to harmony with nature and communal contentment. Its antithesis is characterized by individual self-interest, public corruption, and oppression of the people. On the other hand, the material in the ‘Adams’ cantos is arranged by theme rather than chronology. As David Moody points out, they also constitute a radical advance on modes of reading by involving the reader in the process of moral analysis. | 14 | One is required to recognize not only the relationships between seemingly disparate statements and details, but also the larger patterns of thought which give coherence to each sequence. So far, not many readers have shown themselves quite up to the challenge. Moody also identifies five different constellations, or clusters, which constitute a symmetrical pattern – each testifying to a facet of Adams’ career:

14 | The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia, eds. Demetres Tryphonopoulos & Stephen Adams (West Port, CT; Greenwood, 2005), pp. 38-39.


Perceived Public Service

Conception of Government

Record of Public Service

Personal Retrospection

As in the ‘China’ cantos, the structure is not of Pound’s making, he again followed the sequence of his sources:

Vol.  1             Biographies

Vol.  2-3          Diaries and Autobiography

Vol.  3-6          Political Essays

Vol.  7-9          Official Letters, etc.

Vol.  9-10        Private Correspondence

Before beginning the ‘Pisan’ sequence, fitful and false starts in Italian were drafted, but there is little point in examining them here. Images and phrases from those texts are sometimes carried over into the final publication, but they can hardly be taken as a dry run. Pound had always recycled abandoned material. Although partaking of the earlier avantgardisme, those rejected drafts are in nature, closed rather than open-ended, and executed with an altogether different poetic technique from that used in those which follow.


The Pisan Cantos (1948) certainly constitute an amazing recovery of creativity and a more complex sense of form in response to the devastating implosion of both internal and external order which he experienced at first hand. Instead of concentrating on a single theme in each canto and aligning or juxtaposing subject matter within a larger construct, Pound now alternates them with great rapidity and verve within each poem. Both the cyclical and clustering patterns of Cantos LII-LXXI figure in the ‘Pisans’ as do the more formal strategies based on symmetry with poems of “otherness” for contrast. Pound was not unaware of what he was doing and wrote to his wife on the fifteenth of October [1945], “The new cantos are simpler in parts, there is a certain amount of new technique but good in so far as no one will see it.” | 15 |

The incantatory ‘Lynx’ canto (LXXIX) stands out both in its poetic “otherness” and pivotal position in the volume, while the addition of the ‘Angold’ canto, LXXXIV, along with the repositioning of the first ten lines of LXXIV, reframe the whole (pace Bachigalupo). | 16 | On the second of October [1945] the prisoner had written: “There is a lynx canto which I should have sent for your birthday, but permission didn’t reach me till the 20th anyhow.” | 17 |

A different dimension of “otherness”, however, is even more significant and comes near the beginning of the decad rather than its end. The poems of “otherness” could well be considered as exemplifying The Great Bass and having a centripetal (or perhaps gravitational) pull over everything else around them. | 18 | They are not themselves a formal concept, but rather conceptions governing form. It is noteworthy that none occur in either the ‘China’ or ‘Adams’ decads; nor in the  collections which follow the ‘Pisans’.

In Canto LXXV (another poem of otherness) musical notation actually challenges the poetic text, and as Mark Byron has argued, constitutes an intellectual structure, at once corporeal and transcendent, an iconic object as well as an aesthetic experience. | 19 |

“Le chant des oyseaulx” (1528) by Clement Janequin was written for chorus, and the lyrics include nonsense words in imitation of bird song. Gerhard Münch’s arrangement for violin and piano – based on an adaptation for the lute by Francesco da Milano (1497-1543) – was never recorded. Canto LXXV reproduces only the music for violin and consensus among musicologists has it that the piano part probably no longer exists. In Guide to Kulture (151) Pound wrote: “Münch has an equal right, and is equally laudable in setting the same eternal beauty in the fiddle part. If the piano obscures the fiddle, I have a perfect right to HEAR Janequin’s intervals, his melodic conjunctions from the violin solo.” | 20 | *

Pound revives and advances the avantgarde concept of collage – an incorporation of the ‘other’ in the artist’s own work, whether in the form of fragments of everyday experience or quotations from the work of other authors.

15 | Ezra and Dorothy Pound; Letters in Captivity, 1945-1946 (New York; Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 137.

16 | “The Myth of the Revised Opening of the Pisan Cantos”, Notes and Queies,54 (2007), 169-171).

17 | P. 101.

18 | See Murry Schafer, Ezra Pound and Music, The Complete Criticism (New York; New Directions, 1977), p. 479.

19 | ‘A Defining Moment in Ezra Pound’s Cantos: Musical Scores and Literary Texts,’ in Literature and Music, ed. Michael Meyer (Amsterdam & London; Rodopi, 2002), pp. 157-182.

20 | I am grateful to Robert Hughes for this information.

A sound recording of the original as well as its text can be accessed here.

By the inclusion of heterodox material the poet  declares his text to be part of a larger context, abandoning authorial privilege and acknowledging himself as reader – receiver as well as sender. The birds’ song is antiphonal and had to come where it does because it epitomizes all that is contained in LXXIV and sets the tone for everything that follows. Byron’s most important insight is that the music, like memory itself, releases the poet from his present physical restraint.

In The Poetics of Fascism Paul Morrison makes a more sweeping claim; “As in Coleridge’s ‘This Lime-tree Bower my Prison,’ literal confinement is redeemed as spiritual and aesthetic liberation.”
| 21 | Indeed – the Muses are the Daughters of Memory, and there is a reprise in the ‘Dolmetsch’ canto (LXXXI) which celebrates the revival of Elizabethan song and ends with the self-reflective refrain, “Pull down thy vanity”. Here again, the visual recognition of ‘otherness’ which the poet originally intended through typographical means, has been obliterated by the middlemen of the publishing world. The marginal tag, libretto, was meant to appear within the margin and lines 7-115 (from “Yet” to “I may the beaute…”) were to be set off by indentation and stanza breaks.
21 | (New York; Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 40


If nothing else, The Pisan Cantos celebrate the consolation of everyday experience at the Disciplinary Training Center, not to mention memory, love, nature, and art in the face of cultural disintegration. In a note to the Base Censor, the prisoner wrote: “The form of the poem and main progress is conditioned by its inner shape, but the life of the D.T.C. passing OUTSIDE cannot but impinge or break into the main flow.” | 22 | The avantgardist notion of merging life and art becomes crucial in dealing with the reality of his incarceration.

22 | Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear; Letters in Captivity, 1945-1946 (New York; Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 117.