Reviews of recent Publications on Ezra pound

Capelli, Roberta. Carte Provenzali: Ezra Pound e la cultura trobadorica (1905-1915). Roma: Carocci, 2013.

Capelli, Roberta and Carlo Pulsoni. “Una nuova carta provenzale di Pound.” Vanni Scheiwiller editore europeo. Ed. C. Pulsoni. Perugia: Volumnia, 2011. 159-174.


review by Claudio Sansone


Roberta Capelli’s outline of Pound’s engagement with Provençal literature looks simultaneously to his poetry, criticism, and translations, providing a much-needed account of an intellectual development that appears to be filled with contradictions. One of Capelli’s key merits is that her study makes no attempt to reduce the levels of complication and inconsistency in Pound’s thought and writing, preferring instead to treat the various strands holistically, effectively opening them up in a critical network of scrutiny. Over the course of her study, which grew out of her 1998 PhD thesis, she aims to demonstrate that Pound’s progressive use of Provencal material conforms to his poetic maxim of ‘condensation,’ something she is able to express through her perspective as a philologist and connoisseur of the very diverse materials with which Pound experimented. By examining Pound’s myriad publications, she is able to give a cogent shape to a period which leads up to the beginning of the Cantos, in terms of Pound’s learning from the Provencal models that he studied, imitated and interpreted for a public that was generally ignorant of this tradition.

She faces the challenge by picking apart the various drives that motivated Pound’s different approaches to Provencal materials, and related medieval literature. In turning to the motivations behind the studies and projects Pound undertook, Capelli relies on close-readings of parts of A Lume Spento, Exultations, Personae, The Spirit of Romance, Walking Tour in Southern France and Pound’s translation projects. Her work is bolstered by an exploration of a large number of published and unpublished papers (notes, drafts, letters), which serve to illuminate the output of the period more widely, whilst also keeping in mind wider arcs of development such as the genesis of the Cantos.

The first chapter (looking at the years 1904-7) outlines Pound’s encounter with Provençal literature during his university years, and his formation of a personal canon based around three authors who form an unlikely triptych: Peire Cardenal, Raimon de Miraval, and Giraut de Bornelh, became the basis for Pound’s early explorations, bringing to light how philological speculation and image-based appreciation of poetry contributed to the formation of certain structural foundations of Pound’s poetics, namely the concept of “personae,” and his radical translation practices, which included the wish to go beyond the literal version, exploring translation as a re-creation of the poem in the target language under its own rules, the effects of which would be analogous to the original’s.

In the second chapter (1908-10) we are given insights into Pound’s years in Venice, his early career in London, and his first efforts to work in methods that appear to oppose the reigning trends of contemporary scholarship. By looking into the genesis of A Lume Spento, we are shown Pound’s early infatuation with the metaphor of the sun and the poetic concept of “luminous detail” that would become touchstones for the rest of his life. We begin to see, in Capelli’s account, a studious Pound who takes his cues directly from the tradition, rather than from scholarly speculations, as well as a poet who is more and more interested how a poem is laid out, forming an image on the page—demonstrating how the roots of Imagism (that Capelli does not treat in detail) can be discerned in the earliest collections of Pound’s poetry.

The efficacy of Capelli’s readings is manifested in close-readings of both finished and draft-stage, as well as plainly functional, illustrative translations. In analysing the developing material structure of “Na Audiart” as an original text born out of thinking about translation practice (specifically, looking at Bertran de Born’s “Domna, puois”), she reveals Pound’s intersecting interests as they appear at each stage of drafting and re-drafting, up to the proof stage for A Lume Spento. Capelli is able to harness evidence for an important synthetic hypothesis: that, in observing the importance of translation as an abstract, and conceptual, as well as concrete, in terms of its involvement with language as materially sound- and image-based, Pound’s earliest work might be read as an experiment in the “poetic mask sub specie translationis” (44). This is not a radical statement, but the examination Capelli performs by reading into Pound’s drafting stages open the field to new questions, and conclusions, for example with regard to the specifics of Pound’s appreciation of Browning’s Sordello.

As the second chapter moves on to examine Exultations, Capelli engages in a compelling close-reading of Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte.” One feature of the poem that Capelli brings into sharp relief is the co-existence of an Apollonian Pound (confident in his artistic talent) and a Dionysian Pound (who is aware of the radicalism of his poetic tenor, but goes on regardless) (53). The chapter goes on to close-read “Planh for the Young English Kind,” “Piere Vidal Old,” Personae, “From Syria,” and also “Marvoil.” Capelli’s readings explicate for each the specific and more general treatment of Provencal materials that led to their composition—concluding, at the end of the chapter, that Pound felt he had reached the point, though his poetry, at which the reader ignorant of Provencal had been told all that it was possible to tell without him/her pursuing the materials further on their own. This conclusion ties “Marvoil” and its final “PERGAMENA DEEST” with the phrases’ repetition at the end of the Guide to Kulchur that Pound would publish only many years later—as if to suggest Pound had reached a preternatural conclusion. This kind of conclusion is exemplary of Capelli’s at times gnomic argumentation, but these moments notwithstanding, the study moves back and forth (attempting to maintain as much as is reasonably and usefully possible a chronological structure) with ease and success.

In her particularly rich third chapter (dedicated to Pound’s 1910 book The Spirit of Romance) Capelli provides an important new perspective on Pound’s intellectual formation by looking at the mutation of the Poundian canon, which now includes Peire d’Auvergne, Aimeric de Belenoi, Aimeric de Pegulhan, Folquet de Marseilla, and—most crucially—Sordello. Capelli’s analyses of the new corpus underlines how Pound organizes the authors not by school, or type of troubadour lyric, but rather by their musicality and “singability.” In reading into Pound’s counter-scholarly principles of taxonomy, Capelli adopts an approach that refuses to chastise Pound for his experimenting, recognising that his products are more than poor scholarship. This allows her to pre-empt a number of predictable oversimplifications of Poundian notions with regard to his wider interpretation of the tradition. For example, she rejects the supposed connection between Pound’s “spirit,” and the Hegelian “Geist,” highlighting instead the greater import of Remy de Gourmont’s and Josephin Péladan’s studies of mystical unity of European literature on the development of this “spirit”—an analysis that is useful for its contextualization of both the essays of The Spirit of Romance, and for Pound’s larger projects of translation, that she will examine in her fifth chapter.

By way of closing chapter three, Capelli provides a context for “Psychology and the Troubadours,” exploring the importance of Pound’s thesis that a Hellenic paganism (tied to the cult of Eleusis) persisted up to and beyond the Middle Ages, and that its persistence can be discerned in the writings of the Troubadours. Pound’s perhaps indefensible thesis begins to take on a more palatable shape if we read it, with Capelli, as a theory of transmission and archetype—even though Capelli’s implicit pessimism towards a possible defence of the thesis reminds the reader of Surette’s own in A Light from Eleusis (1979). However, in turning to a notional interest in the thesis and complementing Surette’s study, Capelli helps the reader understand what Pound qua poet found useful and interesting, and the chapter’s accretion of detailed examples provides an additional perspective through which we might approach the genesis of the Cantos, armed with a greater understanding of the specific network of ideas that gave rise to “this persistent awareness” (Canto CVII) that persisted, nonetheless, in Pound’s vision. An interesting addition to the key players (Peladan, Gourmont, and Daniel) is Dante, specifically in the Vita nuova, wherein

Chapter four turns to the impulses that moved Pound to effect translations of Arnaut Daniel and Cavalcanti’s poetic oeuvres, delving into Pound’s lingering scholarly aspiration, and his solidified commitment to treating authors as symptomatic of their tradition. She reads Daniel as an Osiris figure, granting luminous access to the moyen age, and to enact this analysis comparatively, Capelli claims that Pound invoked Cavalcanti as a “shadow,” that is, a similarly emblematic figure of his age in the similar neighbouring context of Tuscany. In this respect, Pound’s interest in Cavalcanti becomes relevant to an understanding of Pound’s treatment of Provencal materials. She reads in this phase of Pound’s carrer an attempt to constitute a personal literary corpus, or canon (centered around his exploration of Daniel’s extant works) through which he can set out to investigate the spirit of the age. Much of the argumentation here is only original in terms of the amount of detail Capelli is able to handle, especially in accounting for the importance of the symbol of “luminous detail,” and in exploring what it meant to be “translating the absolute rhythm from which the absolute symbol will develop [lit. scaturisce, ‘to flow or derive from’]” (140), completing an analysis begun in the previous chapter.

Capelli’s thesis in the fifth chapter is that we might better understand the years 1910-12 as a gathering of older forms [vecchie forme] (nominally, the poems that went into the 1909 Personae and his earlier translations efforts) into new ideas [nuove idee], that is, the compilation of a canzoniere [“collection”] through which both Pound’s beloved Provencal authors, and his own public persona as a poet and intellectual, may come to the fore. Pound’s self-named method of “recycling” material is shown to be of essence to his poetic mentality as (at once) a “desire to maximize the circulation of [his] compositions” and a “fundamental dissatisfaction… for the result achieved by and by, which is perceived as provisional and perfectible” (156). This sense of a Pound who is always busy revising himself and his wide range of interests is key to the study’s exegesis of temporally overlapping phases of development that come to be embodied in collections Ripostes. And while this feature of Pound’s career that makes a chronological scrutiny all the more challenging, Capelli should be lauded for approaching it with great patience even when a strictly linear explication is impossible.

The sixth and final chapter (1912-5)looks into the abandoned project, Walking Tour in Southern France, which survives only in the form of the notes. As it stands, in what Capelli describes a loosely verse-based prose style, filled with brief substantive clauses that are thrown together for their evocative effect, the text is curiously anti-philological, and its interest lies in an aesthetic exploration of the region as a repository for the “cult of emotions,” more than it is interested in devising a literary history of Provence (part of the project’s original aim). She proposes to read in Pound’s abandonment of the project a recognition that certain key conclusions had already been reached, and that the core thesis—that certain authors, like Dante, Cavalcanti and Daniel, represent the spirit of their age—was concretized in this idiosyncratic prose better than it might have been in a more coherent exegetical study. This helps Capelli reveal the apogee of Pound’s polemical stance towards Provencal scholars and translators whose taxonomical approaches appeared ignorant of the real issues of Provençal poetry, namely its itinerant orality, which Pound was attempting to recapture first-hand.

Reading into Provincia Deserta, Capelli argues for the crystallization of Pound’s efforts of self-stylization and poetic research, seeing in the poem the problematization of historical distance—a feature that, Capelli notes, has often been argued with regard to the illusory levels of temporal vicinity implied in Near Perigord. It is mystical thought, Capelli speculates, which permits ‘atemporal symbols’ to reconcile as a uniting theme of Poundian poetics (171). Furthermore, Capelli sees in this process the birth of Pound’s poetic “I,” no longer tied strictly to a persona, but, becoming more and more atemporal, is now more similar to the epic “I” of the Cantos. The chapter proceeds to investigate Pound’s engagement with Bertran de Born along these lines,finally arguing (very convincingly) that “Provincia Deserta”might best be understoodas the end of a cycle of subjective re-readings of the Provencal materials (including “Near Perigord”) that culminate in an investigation of the observer’s distance from his materials along different notional and poetic levels. The study concludes with a thematic connection, picking up on a theme hinted at in the second chapter, by looking to “The Alchemist” as a poem that implicitly embodies the thesis behind Pound’s process of translation as ‘transmutation’ of content across language and history.

The book includes four useful appendices, which I will briefly summarize. The first is a brief overview of Pound’s Provencal “library,” the second an outline of Pound’s translations of Daniel, the third a concordance between Walking Tour in Southern France and “Provincia Deserta,” the fourth, a brief look at the translation projects Hesternae Rosae and Langue d’Oc.

In brief, the study’s basic procedure is biographical, but Capelli neatly avoids over-psychologising the materials at hand, and attempts to frame her speculations within broader axes of Poundian thought. This technique serves her particularly well in attempting to discern what, to put it plainly, Pound was actually doing at any moment, instead of stopping short at the facile conclusion that the strangeness of certain products is simply due to scholarly negligence. Throughout, Capelli constantly combats the short-sightedness of pedantic critics who failed to see how practically every element of Pound’s work on Provençal literature was always in some manner part of a wider experimentation in poetic theory, or translation practice. Now, for the first time, a number of Pound’s famous “inconsistencies” are placed in a context that reveals them to be pointed moments of experimentation, consistent with Pound’s varied theses on art. Therefore, beyond the Provencal specialist, this study is also useful to scholars of Pound’s interest in translation and poetry as ‘ritual’ praxis, involving a quasi-mystical engagement with the tradition, and a hands-on approach to the materiality of language as performed, even if it remains, literally speaking, on the page.

In addition to this study, Capelli had previously co-authored a book chapter exploring an unexamined Poundian paper—a transcription of Arnaut de Maruelh’s Bel m’es quan lo vens m’alena. Capelli and Carlo Pulsoni engage with Pound’s annotations to his own transcription, and specifically two kinds of notes: those that appear to question the textual integrity of the manuscript he was copying from, and those that seem to be glosses for a possible translation of the piece into English. The authors also raise interesting points with regard to Pound’s metrical annotation.

At the heart of the chapter is the realization that Pound’s transcription must have involved at least two manuscript sources, which he made use of along philological lines that are not rigorous in the scholarly sense, but rather indicative of Pound’s own poetic thoughts—even though, somewhat surprisingly, it is suggested that this transcription likely belongs to Pound’s more philologically-minded University years. The chapter outlines Pound’s engagement with Provencal literature, from Personae to The Spirit of Romance, in a manner much in line with Capelli’s book-length study, including some discussion of A Walking Tour. The paper then returns to its immediate topic in considering that this poem and its author seem to remain a juvenile interest for Pound, and neither his words nor name appear in the Cantos, unlike many other Provencal poets with whom Pound engaged. The chapter does not stop to speculate, unfortunately, on the interesting fact that this poem, while carefully copied and annotated by Pound, may never have been translated by him.

The paper does spend time attempting to trace Pound’s purported encounter with the necessary manuscripts, attempting to locate his engagement with the Parisian manuscripts during his 1906 visit (a trip dedicated to thesis research) or to his longer 1908 sojourn. This thesis presents a number of problems that lead Pulsoni and Capelli on a speculative endeavour to date the Poundian transcription, and to understand its rich history. The key issue is whether Pound really did manage to consult the necessary manuscripts, or whether this transcription is based on notes compiled by other scholars he was interacting with, like Walter Morse Rummel. Failing to reach a secure dating, the authors feel confident in inferring that there must have been a straight, if not direct, line of transmission from the manuscripts to Pound. That is, even if it was filtered through one careful go-between, at least we are sure that go-between had access to manuscripts—rather than simply a published edition of the text. This conclusion turns out to be over-confident; the opinion expressed on this subject in her book-length study suggests that it is more likely that Rummel hashed together many transcriptions for Pound, including this one, and that the philological reliability of this paper, as with many others prepared for Hesternae Rosae, is dubious at best. Overall, the chapter is indicative—on a much smaller scale—of the detail-oriented approach Capelli perfects in her longer study, and demonstrates her preternatural ability to deal with labyrinthine detail, and the archive of an author whose vast output still retains many important secrets.