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PETER LIEBREGTS
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U. OF LEIDEN

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Ezra Pound’s modern epic The Cantos is grounded in various cultural, literary and philosophical traditions from all over the globe, rethinking and appropriating them at the same time. Pound uses these traditions to show how throughout history the forces of Evil, such as sterility, destruction, selfishness, lust and usury, are opposed to the forces of the Good, the fertile, the philanthropic, the sacred, the creative, the spiritual and the intellectual. These abstract forces are given concrete forms through the exempla of enlightened individuals and harmonious communities as opposed to the ignorant and self-interested hoarders of everything that promotes general well-being. At the heart of The Cantos lies, therefore, what Pound succinctly stated in his Italian Canto LXXII as “il canto della guerra eterna/ Fra luce e fango,” “the song of the eternal war between light and mud” (805).

Pound’s class of enlightened individuals includes not only political-pragmatic thinkers and doers such as Sigismundo Malatesta, Confucius, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benito Mussolini and Sir Edward Coke, but also figures belonging to the (Neo-)Platonic tradition in a wider sense, such as Plotinus, Iamblichus, Gemisthus Plethon, and the ninth-century Irish theologian, scholar and poet Johannes Scottus Eriugena. The latter’s name was not that familiar to Pound’s contemporaries as his importance in intellectual history has only come to be recognized in recent decades. Yet Pound, dealing with not always entirely adequate or accurate sources, already discerned the intellectual magnitude of Eriugena’s works many years before his role within the context of the Carolingian Renaissance could and would be properly assessed. As such, Eriugena’s prominent position in Pound’s canon of philosophers is an excellent example of the poet "catching the point before the scholars got there" (to quote a Poundian line).

As Walter Michaels claimed in his seminal “Pound and Erigena” (Paideuma I/1 (1972), 37-54), Pound’s interest in Eriugena began in the late 1920s and was more or less related to his interest in Cavalcanti. Pound annotated the chapter on Eriugena in the first volume of Francesco Fiorentino’s three-volume Manuale di Storia della Filosofia (1921, 3rd edn of 1879-1881). This led to the first reference to Eriugena in The Cantos, when Pound in Canto XXXVI, immediately after his rendering of Cavalcanti’s canzone, presented the philosopher as someone who had been condemned by the Church as a heretic. Although Eriugena’s philosophical system was very much influenced by the Neoplatonic tradition, and drew upon the imagery of the metaphysics of light, Pound did not as yet incorporate such elements of the philosopher’s thought into Canto XXXVI. Pound’s interest in Eriugena then gradually shifted to his metaphysics in the late 1930s, and he began to study Joannis Scoti Opera (1853), Volume 122 of Migne’s Patrologia Latina. This included Eriugena’s original work De divisione naturae or Periphyseon, his translations of Pseudo-Dionysius, his commentary on Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy, his verse, as well as other writings which are no longer thought to be authentic. Pound thought of writing a long essay on Eriugena, which, as he wrote to Eliot in January 1940, was to be part of a trilogy along with the Ta Hio and an article on Mencius (SL 335). Although this Eriugena essay was never written, Pound remained interested in the Irish thinker and in fact, Eriugena’s thought, seen as part of the Neoplatonic tradition, became one of the informing principles behind The Pisan Cantos.

Several Poundians, such as Peter Makin, A. David Moody, Ronald Bush and myself, have written on Pound’s use of Eriugena, placing this interest in the larger context of Pound’s study of the Neoplatonic tradition and describing his attempts to link up that tradition to Confucian thought. Now we have Mark Byron’s Ezra Pound’s Eriugena - the first monograph fully devoted to an analysis of Pound’s reading and appropriation of Eriugena. It is a very worthwhile contribution to the field, as it deals with the topic in far more detail than anyone has done before, and makes available much material that until now only could be consulted in situ at the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

In the first third of his book, Byron gives an excellent introduction to John Scotus Eriugena’s life and work in the light of recent Eriugena studies, which have been going through a renaissance in recent decades. At the same time, he links elements of this discussion to what Pound actually knew and did with his knowledge in the several stages of his interest in Eriugena. In Chapter I, Byron focuses on why Eriugena came to be seen as a heretic (mainly due to the so-called Predestination controversy of 859-60, discussed at length in Chapter 2), and how Eriugena came to be presented in Canto XXXVI as an emblem of persecution. Byron offers a detailed interpretation of Pound’s translation of Cavalcanti’s Donna mi prega and its use of classical and medieval philosophical sources. Pound’s main source for Eriugena at this time was Fiorentino’s Manuale, and in Appendix A of his book, Byron usefully gives us an annotated transcription of Pound’s reading of the chapter devoted to Eriugena, also the source of a phrase Pound repeatedly used to summarize what he regarded as the philosopher’s stance toward tradition: “Authority comes from right reason, never the other way on.”

Chapter 2 locates Eriugena and his thought in its own historical and philosophical context, and takes into account the latest developments in the field of Eriugena Studies, although never losing track of what Pound could have known in his own time. It contains, among other things, detailed discussions of Eriugena’s major works, such as the Periphyseon or De divisione naturae, while the chapter makes clear why Pound may have been interested in these writings. (However, although Byron notes on p. 129 that the word physeos or ‘nature’ “bears significance for Eriugena (if not overtly for Pound) in its connection to works by Anaxagoras, Heraclitus and Empedocles ΠΕΡΙΦΥΣΕΩΣ/ Peri Physeos (On Nature)”, it must be pointed out that none of these pre-Socratic philosophers produced a work under that title – it was Parmenides who wrote a poem called Peri Physeos.) It is also well known that Pound admired Eriugena for his ability to use Greek phrases in his verse, and Byron discusses in detail the extent of Eriugena’s mastery of Greek, and what sort of verses he wrote.

Chapter 3, “The Missing Book of the Trilogy,” largely focuses on Pound’s study of Migne’s Latin edition of Erigena’s work, with a preference for the material pertaining to Pseudo-Dionysius, sections of the Periphyseon, and the verses. This chapter constitutes the second third of the book, and is perhaps even its most important part as Byron gives us complete annotated transcriptions of Pound’s Eriugena notes with commentary, as available in the Beinecke Library. This truly allows us to see what Pound did read, what he felt important enough to jot down, and what he made of his reading. The first set consists of 26 pages of notes inserted in early drafts of The Pisan Cantos, while the second set of 38 pages, some of which in two columns, gradually shift into original verse composition while incorporating quotations from Eriugena. For any student of Pound’s use of Eriugena but also of The Pisan Cantos, this is essential archival material. Byron’s annotations are mostly factual but also offer preliminary critical commentary, which is unavoidable as Pound’s notes would at times be incomprehensible without further contextualization. Byron’s commentary is enlightening in discussing the thematic patterns in Pound’s notes and in relating them to the poet’s writings and thoughts. He modestly prefaces his annotations as given to “facilitate further scholarly research,” but they do not pretend “to the expertise required for a philologically precise evaluation of Pound’s sources and his mediation of them” (118). They make use of authoritative translations of Eriugena wherever possible, while Byron himself has offered translation when such texts could not be found.  The result is an excellent edition of these notes, in which the often very fragmentary quotations are traced back to their sources of which Byron offers extended quotations enabling the reader to contextualize them.

However, it must be said that in a few cases the translations of the Latin sources are not always accurate or clear, and sometimes the long Latin sentences, given by Byron to provide the original context of the fragmented quotations, are cut off at the wrong point. Thus on p. 128, the sentence:

“quibus per actionem et scientiam rationalis anima crescit, donec occuramus in virum perfectum, hoc est, in plenissimam Christi, qui est finis perfectionis nostrae, contemplationem, et in ipso et cum ipso perfectissimum adunationem” (Exp. Cel. Hier. 136A),

is rendered as:

“by the action of the rational soul and its developing knowledge, unto human perfection, that is, Christ in his plenitude, who is the culmination of our perfection, contemplation, and with Him and in Him, being united together in the highest perfection.”

This is a translation that not only distorts the Latin but is also not making full (grammatical) sense; an alternative would be

“through which by action and knowledge the rational soul grows until finally we attain the perfect man, that is, we attain the most complete contemplation of Christ, who is the culmination of our perfection, and in Whom and with Whom we attain the most perfect atonement.”

A similar case can be found on p. 157 where we may find:

“est omnium sacrorum mysteriorum, quibus nostra rationabilis natura eruditur in doctrina, purgatur in actione, illuminatur scientia, deificationis virtute perficitur, primum et immobile firmamentum” (Exp. Cel. Hier. 138A),

rendered as:

“of all the sacred mysteries, by which the doctrines of reason instruct our nature, purged in action, enlightened by knowledge, perfected deific power, the fundamental immobile firmament”.

I would suggest here an alternative translation:

“… [as this] is the fundamental and unmoving support of all the sacred mysteries, by which our reasonable nature is instructed in doctrine, purged in action, enlightened by knowledge, and made perfect by virtue of deification.”

A last example is on p. 159, where part of the Latin (here italicized by me) is not rendered at all while the Latin phrase is also severely truncated and thus will make no sense unless we add a bit more of the original (added by me in italics in parentheses):

“Ac brevi sentential beatus Dionysius docet nos, incunctanter non solum humanos animos adhuc in carne detentos per sensibilia symbola, verum etiam angelicos intellectus omni carnali gravitate absolutos per invisibiles significationes, quas theologia theophanias nominat [ipsam veritatem cognoscere]” (Exp. Cel. Hier. 141AB).

The annotation gives this as:

“And as the pithy utterances of the blessed Dionysius teach us, the angelic intellect is filled with sensible symbols, although not of the fleshly kind, but the meaning of the absolute gravity of the flesh, by what he calls theological theophanias.”

A full and more accurate translation of this statement about the nature of the divine would read:

“And the blessed Dionysius teaches us in a pithy utterance that not only human souls that are unhesitatingly still detained in flesh, discover that truth through sensible signs, but also that even angelic intellects that have been made free of all weight of the flesh discover it through invisible signs, which theology calls theophanies.”

Finally, on p. 161 we are presented with three Latin quotations with no translations.

However, it must be admitted that the medieval Latin of Eriugena is at times challenging and not easy to read, to say the least, as his sentences tend to develop into very long periodic twists and turns, and the use of specific ecclesiastical and philosophical terms is often baffling and hard to grasp. Given these difficulties, Byron has done a remarkable job of making sense of Pound’s notes, and his edition is invaluable for anyone wanting to delve deeper into Pound’s appropriation of Eriugena and its importance to the genesis and development of The Pisan Cantos

This is also what Byron himself emphasizes in the final part of his book, a long chapter discussing how Pound while composing The Pisan Cantos drew upon the notion of hilaritas, and upon Eriugena’s use of the metaphysics of light, which served Pound as a thread linking the Neoplatonic tradition to Confucian thought. Byron is particularly good in analyzing these Poundian connections between Eriugena, Neoplatonism and Confucianism, which includes an extended reading of Canto XLIX, the ‘Seven Lakes’ Canto, here linked up to The Pisan Cantos through its use of the figure of the literatus

As part of the ‘Historicizing Modernism Series’, this monograph at the end includes primary sources relevant to an understanding of Pound’s views on Eriugena. Apart from the already mentioned annotated transcriptions of Fiorentino, we are also given a valuable edition of a two-page typescript digression on Eriugena in Italian and English, interleaved within an extensive sequence of canto drafts towards prospective Cantos LXXIV and LXXV in Italian.

At the end of this review I must admit that I wrote an endorsement for Mark Byron’s book that appeared on the back cover. It follows another one by Ron Bush, with whom I fully agree that this book fills a crucial gap in Pound studies.