The Cantos by Ezra Pound

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It is something of a surprise, therefore to discover that the translation of the passage of the Odyssey in which Odysseus visits Tiresias among the dead, and which, in the final version of Pound’s poem, takes up most of Canto I , was not intended originally to introduce the theme of live man among the dead . What is now Canto I began life, somewhat confusingly, as the final section of Canto III (usually termed Ur-Canto III for the sake of clarity). Pound’s original theme in this text can be summarised as the consulting of oracles – Odysseus’ purpose in visiting Hades is, after all, necromancy: he is calling up the dead shade of the seer Tiresias to learn what his fate will be. In Ur-Canto III , the Homeric passage is preceded by another ‘oracle’, in which an obscure Rosicrucian occultist called John Heydon supposedly sees a spirit called ‘Euterpe’ in a vision who promises him ‘the way of holy wisdom’ ( Ur-Canto III quoted, Bush, 67). Pound then imagines his own oracular dream, with visits from Layamon and Chaucer, followed by Heydon himself who imparts to him the secret wisdom of the Neo-Platonists. A line or two later, there is a similar anecdote concerning Marsilio Ficino, the famous Renaissance humanist, who serves as an oracle to Lorenzo de Medici, an incident which Pound describes in a satirical vein. The whole passage is rather tongue-in-cheek.

In these lines, at the very inception of his epic poem, Pound is playing with the idea of some form of invocation to a muse, prophet, or poet from the past who can inspire his new undertaking. The playfulness of his early drafts, however, may well mask a genuine search for something which can bring order to the ‘many fragments’ of Pound’s incipient poem (and, by extension, perhaps, to the world itself). Neo-Platonic thought was certainly one of the areas Pound was researching in connection with this, as another essay written for The New Age confirms (‘Affirmations – Analysis of this Decade’, February, 11th 1915) where Pound writes, as in Ur-Canto III , of Marsilio Ficino:

Ficino was seized in his youth by Cosimo dei Medici and set to work translating a Greek that was in spirit anything but ‘classic.’ That is to say, you had, ultimately, a ‘Platonic’ academy messing up Christian and Pagan mysticism, allegory, occultism, demonology, Trismegistus, Psellus, Porphyry, into a most eloquent and exciting and exhilarating hotch-potch, which ‘did for’ the medieval fear of the dies irae and for human abasement generally. Ficino himself writes of Hermes Trismegistus in a New Testament Latin, and arranges his chronology by co-dating Hermes’ great-grandfather with Moses.

The Cantos certainly came to resemble this ‘exciting and exhilarating hotch-potch’ that Pound had in mind as a model as early as 1915, and Neo-Platonism is specifically referred to in many of the first thirty Cantos. It is amusing to see him parading his knowledge of the obscure in this journal as though he had spent years in library reading rooms mastering all there was to know of Neo-Platonic thought.

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Ezra Pound