London: Bloomsbury, 2012
by Peter Liebregts



Adams cantos cover


As David Ten Eyck rightly notes, the Adams Cantos (62-71) were written at a crucial point in Pound’s life and poetic development, and constitute an essential part of The Cantos. Nevertheless, they have received a proportionally small amount of critical attention, most of which was not very positive. Dismissed by even convinced Poundians as too hastily written and too closely tied to the original source texts, the Adams Cantos in the eyes of many seem to represent a nadir in Pound’s magnum opus, only to be redeemed by the quality of The Pisan Cantos.

Having offered a chronological narration of Chinese history from 2837 BC to AD 1736 in the Chinese History Cantos (52-61), Pound in the Adams Cantos focuses largely on a single individual. Both sequences are based on a single text, Joseph de Mailla’s Histoire Générale de la Chine and the ten-volume Life and Works of John Adams. Pound himself saw this use of extended citation from single source texts as a major advance in his work on his epic. Yet where the depiction of Chinese history is marked by the clarity of its chronology, the Adams Cantos does not offer such a neat chronological account as Pound stayed true to the original division of the works of Adams by genre.  Volume one offers a biography, volumes two and three Adams’s diary and autobiographical writings, volumes three to six his political writings, and the concluding volumes seven to ten his state papers, and official and private correspondence.  By selecting his quotations from his source text in the original order of the volumes, Pound does not offer a chronological account, and in the eyes of many critics seems to be moving in circles, and lacking a clear purpose in presenting his material. Moreover, the lyrical poetry definitely seems to have given way to a mere mediation of a pre-existing text. Ten Eyck’s monograph is a masterful and successful attempt to set the record straight by situating the Adams Cantos in their historical and archival context, and offering new reflections on Pound’s poetic accomplishment. 

Although it is a fact that Pound composed these Cantos very quickly at the end of 1938 and over the first few months of 1939, which is a major reason why critics tend to dismiss them as the result of a rapid skimming through his source, Ten Eyck convincingly shows how the Adams Cantos are actually the fruit of a long engagement with American history. In chapter 1, “The Genesis and Composition of the Adams Cantos”, Ten Eyck shows how Pound as a student at the University of Pennsylvania attended classes in American history in 1901-1902, and took copious notes. In the 1930s Pound turned to a more detailed study of John Adams while working on the poems that would constitute Eleven New Cantos (1934). He devoted considerable time and thought to John Adams, including studying the Works of John Adamswhich he read at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, although the volume of  Eleven New Cantos does not fully reflect this. Ten Eyck’s monograph usefully offers us Pound’s extensive reading notes, and thus makes clear how already in the early 1930s Pound was familiar with the contents and organization of his Adams source. Moreover, these notes also show how stable Pound’s view on Adams was throughout the 1930s, seeing him as a man concerned with establishing a basis for orderly democracy, with precise verbal definition, and with a distrust of oligarchy and the possible abuse of credit. This view would crystallize in the Adams Cantos at the end of the decade, and although they were written quickly in a period of hyperactivity in which Pound was involved in many other activities and writing projects, their themes and poetic strategies had already taken shape in the poet’s mind before he actually set about writing the sequence, which is why he could compose them so quickly, as he was going over what by that time was very familiar ground. Pound’s method in reading the Works thus consisted of gathering evidence that would confirm his preconceived understanding of Adam’s life, times and thought.

rsz john-adamsIn Chapter 2, Ten Eyck demonstrates how Pound’s documentary method used in composing the Adams Cantos grew out of his earlier technique of incorporating pre-existing prose documents, as in the Malatesta Cantos (8-11). Ten Eyck argues how these earlier Cantos had explored the interdependence of material evidence and insubstantial vision, where the documentary evidence presents examples of ‘ideas going into action’, giving a material form to a concept.  Pound here still made use of a combination of a lyrical voice (expressing the vision of timeless ideas), a narrative voice (summarizing events or connecting the fragments), and a documentary mode (presenting the pre-existing material). This documentary mode gained more ground in Eleven New Cantos, in which Pound severely limited narrative commentary. Formally, Pound relied on the juxtaposition of fragments of source-based material, using a narrative voice only to make the documents more easily comprehensible. In the Chinese History and Adams Cantos, the narrative voice generally fell silent but is still implicitly there as the conceptual framework that made Pound select his fragments from the source-based material, while the lyrical voice now was supposed to arise in the reader’s mind when recognizing the vision arising out of the ideogrammic juxtaposition of fragments. The crucial difference between the Chinese History Cantos and the Adams Cantos is that Pound in Cantos 52-61 wants to let the events of Chinese history speak for themselves, thereby suggesting the evolvement of an independent historical space, whereas in Cantos 62-71 Pound shows how it is the written record that transmits knowledge of the past. Emphasis thus shifts from when and where events occurred in history to how events are recorded. As such the criticism directed against the Adams Cantos as lacking clarity and purpose is shown by Ten Eyck as a misreading of a major aim of the Adams Cantos, namely the struggle to understand history and the possibility to shape it while in the midst of it.

In Chapter 3, “Reading the Adams Cantos”, Ten Eyck shows how most of the various negative responses to this section of The Cantos are misrepresenting Pound’s project in the Adams Cantos. The poet is not offering a biography, nor does he want to disseminate a body of work in the interest of political propaganda. And to claim that these Cantos are marginalia to a source, and only will make sense if one reads Pound’s selections in parallel with its source is to overlook the creative use the poet made of the material.  Offering a number of close readings of passages, Ten Eyck makes clear that Pound in the Adams Cantos is juxtaposing elements that had not been associated with one another in the Works. By taking lines and passages out of their original context, Pound creates new combinations and surprising connections, which then is what constitutes the poetry of these Cantos: the poet’s perspective on Adams as representing and performing the themes permeating this section.

The reader quickly learns to recognize these themes: John Adams’s active and passionate intelligence; the cultivation of natural wealth and the careful attention to natural processes; the law as a means of defining the legitimate basis of authority and erecting the framework of a well-ordered state; the basic importance of economic justice to good government; and the clear definition of language, or the ‘right naming of things’. (73)

These themes arise from the textual fragments culled from the Works, and Pound does help the reader to establish the connections by the use of poetic techniques such as repetition, assonance and alliteration; enjambment and change in rhythm also serve to emphasize key ideas. (It is a shame, although quite understandable, that Ten Eyck does not fully work out his observation, derived from Delmore Schwartz, that Pound is fond of using trochees or spondees to signal important moments in the text.) Moreover, more than before, Pound has an eye for the spatial arrangement of the words on the page, making The Cantos as much a visual as a verbal poem. These typographical arrangements also help the reader to perceive meanings.

Having successfully countered the generally negative criticism of the Adams Cantos that emphasizes the speed of composition, resulting in a sloppy “section” which lacks unity and poetic accomplishment, Ten Eyck in the second half of his book discusses three main topics related to these poems. Given Pound’s didactic ambition to use examples from history to present an ideal of good government or as tools to bring about such, the question arises if and to what extent the poet has a public responsibility and whether poetry can transmit historical knowledge. Pound would have been quite positive on these matters, but that does not allow the critic to avoid answering these questions. In chapter 4, “The Representation of History and Law in the Adams Cantos”, Ten Eyck analyzes the tension between representation of the individual subjectivity of Adams and the public sphere in which he worked: Pound seems to have blurred this distinction since the ‘men of exceptional intelligence’ in his poem stand for ideas, they are embodiments of the will of the people, and forces of history. As such, Pound projects his notions upon his study of historical sources and manipulates the facts to serve his message, although he still suggests that he is only quoting sources and thus is imparting historically accurate information. Ten Eyck gives a careful analysis of passages to depict Pound’s approach to his source, whereby Adams becomes more than a man. As a visionary he sees into the essential nature of things and the absolute order of reality, thereby transcending his own time and even his own subjectivity. Ten Eyck’s critical eye emphasizes how nuanced his understanding of the Adams Cantos is, as he sharply sees what Pound’s blind spots are.

In Chapter 5, “The Adams Cantos and Ezra Pound’s Social Criticism of the 1930s and 1940s”, this study, as the title indicates, describes how Pound’s attitudes to history and the law as reflected in the Adams Cantos have deep roots in the poet’s political, economic and social writings of the decade, which to a large extent determined the critical and poetical choices behind these poems. The tension between the public and the private, the blurring of the line in the case of ‘great men’, and the championing of the synthesis between individual freedom and the authority of the state, are all key notions, which Pound dealt with in his criticism of the 1930s and 1940s. Here too Ten Eyck subtly analyzes the link between the Adams Cantos and Pound’s commitment to Italian Fascism, and deftly nuances Pound’s ‘Fascism’. (And I do not like to point it out but there is a serious misprint on p. 120 which nowadays seems all too common even with very established publishers when it comes to the use of Greek in the original: “'τὸχαλόν'” should read “'τὸκαλόν'”.) Pound’s interest in state authority on the basis of permanent principles of justice rooted in ‘natural’ order, which he saw reflected in Confucian thought, carried over into the Adams Cantos, which in many ways shows how a Confucian ethics of good government can be carried into action. Here too, then, Pound made his poetry serve his ethical and social cause. In fact, as Ten Eyck rightly points out, these Cantos remain the section of Pound’s poem where the nature of good government and the legal framework of the state are given their fullest expression.

Of course, these notions are also very much present in Rock-Drill and Thrones, in which John Adams seems conspicuously absent. Yet in his final chapter, “The Continuing Importance of the ‘Adams Paideuma’ in Ezra Pound’s Late Cantos”, Ten Eyck makes a strong case for the continued presence of Adams and the poetic strategies used in the Cantos devoted to him in the last sections of Pound’s epic. As such, we receive the ‘legacy’ of the Adams section, especially in the Coke Cantos (107-109), where Pound once again reflects upon the foundation of the American Republic by focusing on the work of Sir Edward Coke, one of the major influences on John Adams’s legal work in support of the American Revolution. The themes touched upon in the Adams Cantos find a continuation in the later Cantos, thereby making very clear that the Adams Cantos are not “an isolated poetic adventure”. Ten Eyck persuasively argues that they were composed “in order to give voice to a thematic convergence that expressed the basic premises of [Pound’s] Confucianism in the late 1930s, and that would remain of fundamental importance to the later stages of his work on The Cantos.” (151)

As part of the ‘Historicizing Modernism Series’, this monograph at the end includes primary sources relevant to an understanding of Pound’s view on John Adams. As such, we are given a selection of Pound’s college notes on Colonial and Revolutionary America, taken when he was a student in 1901-1902; Pound’s 1931 reading notes for the Works of John Adams; annotations in his copies of the Works; the unpublished but important Italian essay “Confucio Totalitario” with an English translation by Ten Eyck; and unpublished material on John Adams and the American Revolution from the Thrones Poetry Notebook (Beinecke Library). All this material is part of the extensive analysis of the Adams Cantos offered by Ten Eyck. The result is a carefully researched and well-written book that is very informative and insightful, and which will without any doubt become an indispensable tool for any reader of Pound’s work.