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John Gery

 

WHAT ARE TEMPLES FOR:

SPONTANEITY, SIMULTANEITY AND FORTUNA IN CANTO 97

 

None of the notoriously challenging poetry in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos – not even lines from Drafts & Fragments – seems more demanding, more idiosyncratic, more elusive than that in Thrones. Yet paradoxically, the very lack of an ostensible “poetic” style in Cantos 96-109 may well result from Pound’s conscious intent to make his epic almost universally available, not merely to the elite among readers. What seems the driving force behind the cryptic style of Thrones, as Michael Coyle observes, derives from a creative dilemma that Pound initially acknowledges in Canto 19, when he quotes “the stubby fellow” Arthur Griffith, the Irish founder of Sein Fein, acknowledging the major challenge of stirring a successful social revolution, when he says, “Perfectly true,/ but it’s a question of feeling,/ Can’t move ‘em with a cold thing, like economics’” (19/85). While most of the cantos in Thrones, even more than in Section: Rock-Drill preceding it, dwell on Pound’s economic vision, nevertheless, the intensified, singularly compressed style of Thrones suggests a development in Pound’s poetic method from his earlier “ply over ply” technique, evident since Canto 3, to what we might call a “phase over phase” technique. Specifically, as evident in a relatively lyrical passage in Canto 97 where Pound introduces the Sumerian hieroglyph of the temple, a graphic mark of three pillars on base that appears four times within a space of five pages mid-canto, to frame a passage on the unparalleled power of Fortuna, a passage that works as an epic rhyme to the ceremonial procession on love enacted in Canto 90, Pound adopts a method that relies oddly on both simultaneity and spontaneity of association to inform the poem’s vision of a world free of economic tyranny.

Without pretending a full reading of Canto 97 – and in deferring the wide array of formidable, impressive readings of this canto by Pound’s critics -- I focus here specifically on the lines framed by the hieroglyph of the temple with three pillars and its contiguous sentence, “The temple [sign] is holy” (97/696), together with its telling variants. Among others, Gerd Schmidt has delved into the quandaries caused by the questionable nature of Pound’s source for his Sumerian text, Lawrence Austin Waddell’s Egyptian Civilization, Its Sumerian Origin and Real Chronology (London, 1933), which Pound discovered through Boris de Rachewiltz: If the interpretation of the hieroglyphs is, in fact, erroneous, where does that leave a reader in following Pound’s effort to find uncanny truths within it? Nonetheless, through the hieroglyph of the temple Pound constructs his lines, “phase over phase,” including apparently some chance associations, yet he simultaneously remains deferent to Fortuna, in order to stir life into his economic vision to “move” his reader.

Although the lines under consideration (approximately lines 239-321) -- from “All neath the moon, under Fortuna,/ splendor’ mondan’ ” (97/696) to “The temple is holy       because it is not for sale” (97/699) -- are thickly layered with the names of gathered participants in a manner that may weigh down the poem’s lyrical effect (unlike the rhetorical flourishes in, say, Cantos 36, 81, 90, and 93), the visual effect of the framing of this passage with the hieroglyph of the temple works to lighten a reader’s load considerably. As the passage literally illustrates, what a temple is for – akin to the stained glass windows in a cathedral or bas reliefs on the Parthenon – may well be to carve out perceptible daises upon which the ablutions or acts of Fortuna can be readily performed, without the impingement of restrictive forces. Yet at the same time the poetry devises an economics to benefit of human endeavors.

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WORKS CITED

Coyle, Michael. Ezra Pound, Popular Genres, and the Discourse of Culture. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995. Print.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1995. Print.

Schmidt, Gerd. “‘Sumerian’ Hieroglyphs in Cantos 94, 97, and 100.” Draft of an unpublished essay (19 July 2015).