The Echo of Villon




Pound’s efforts to learn the art of poetry from Provençal and Italian poets from the 12th to the 14th century, through criticism, biography, translation, and new composition are well recorded. His effort to transcribe these poetries into music is less studied but constituted in Pound’s eyes a legitimate way to grapple with the technicalities and modes of expression inherent in these poetries. In his “Dateline” essay of 1934, Pound made it clear – setting words to music was a method of criticism (LE 74). We would add: it was a method to create a new prosody that had more to do with Stravinsky than with classical meters.

Fisher presents in quick tempo the outline of Pound’s activities as a composer: these are known and finely presented here for readers unfamiliar with them. For the purpose of this review I will concentrate on the essential parts of Fisher’s argument, which hinge on Pound’s notion of harmony and rhythm. For Pound music was “pure rhythm: rhythm and nothing else, for the variation of pitch is the variation in rhythms of the individual notes [that is the frequency of vibrations], and harmony the blending of these varied rhythms.” (Introduction to Sonnets and Ballate 1910) 

The concept of harmony, Pound explained in A Few Don’ts, (Poetry 1913), refers to a poet’s technique of building a residue of sound from the tonal leadings of words. Pound remarked: “The term harmony is misapplied to poetry; it refers to simultaneous sounds of different pitch. There is, however, in the best verse a sort of residue of sound which remains in the ear of the hearer and acts more or less as an organ-base” (LE 6-7). Pound considered scoring a poem as an effort to transmit its emotional/musical virtues where words in the translator’s language fail. This rhymes well with W. Benjamin’s comment that translation can deliver not so much fidelity to the meaning of a poet but an echo, a “reverberation of the work” in an alien language. If the true voice of a poet is manifested through the construction of his particular sound, then music CAN translate where words cannot.

Fisher points out that French poems are the most difficult to set to music (or translate, we would add) because, quoting Susan Youens,

accents in French have nothing to do with beat and meter but rather with cadence or phrase, with measure governed by syntax. The language is syllabic before it is accentual… Rhythm and syntax are interdependent; grammatical and syntactical groupings form the smallest units of measurement. (418)

 Meter in French is measured solely by the number of syllables in the line, the duration and pace/cadence are determined by moveable stresses (accents mobiles) which occupy varying positions within the line. Within Villon’s 8 to 10 syllable line, for example, the mobile accents offer variety and unpredictability, making irregularity a natural condition. In music, this would be analogous to variable time signatures changing very fast and also to “irrational meters” like 7/8, or 3/16, instead of a regular beat of say 4/4 or 3/4. 

Fisher concludes that Villon’s poetry offered Pound a model on how he could write free verse without sacrificing structure; more specifically, on how to establish relative proportions between units of pattern within the lines. Fisher calls these “relative durations” and in her examples she shows how these “cross-brace” the seemingly random fragments, conferring upon the poem a “feeling of coherence, even if subconsciously.”


Pound had absorbed two very different examples of internal cross-bracing in art: the first was Wyndham Lewis’s Timon of Athens series: Fisher relies here on Ron Bush’s analysis of Lewis’s design as a system of interlocking pattern units in relation and repetition (Genesis 30, 41). The second example is the intricate construction of sound pattern, rhyme-schemes, assonances and alliteration in Cavalcanti’s poem Donna mi prega  (Fisher 20). 

Fisher coins the term “duration-rhyme” and “duration-resonance” for the proportional structures emerging out of rhythmic variation and precisely delimited intervals within the phrasing of the poem. From Pound’s acute sense of the duration of syllables, words, and phrases and their rhythmic correlation, he could construct a repertoire of design units he could combine in stable relationships, arrange in symmetries, repeat in new contexts. In a letter to Mary Barnard in 1933 Pound wrote:

“Get a metronome and learn HOW long the different syllables and groups of them take.

   and don’t go telling everybody I said so/

I don’t want the NEXT “movement” smeared over by Lowells and people who WONT work.” 

(letter to Mary Barnard, December 2, 1933 in Barnard 54)

Determining length, duration, and relative proportion of words and syllables was the integral part of Pound’s new aesthetic of 1919. “To compose in the sequence of the musical phrase not in sequence of a metronome” (LE 3) as he had insisted in his imagist credo of 1913 was not a rejection of the metronome (which would be contrary to his creating and relying on precise durations – ultimately this sort of precision can only be obtained by mechanical means) but merely avoiding the assignment of  “each sonic event to the regularly occurring beat.”

Pound’s interest lies in how long it takes to say or sing the internal phrases and their combination as entire lines. The brain can remember proportional relationships between phrases and lines so that phrasal duration becomes a viable way to “cut a shape in time.” 

The 1923 version of the Testament score aimed for the absolute – the musical rhythms were notated so minutely that they revealed if not the original breath then the supposed mathematics emanating from Villon’s words, according to Pound, we might add. They were impracticable because they had irrational time divisions, double dots assigned to very short temporal subdivisions, and continuous change from one unfamiliar time signature to another. However, Pound found that most of his rhythms could be contained in a 5/8 time signature and this is the meter he chose for the reworking of the Testament score in 1926 (letter to Isabel Pound 1926, Letters to his parents 588).

It was vital to Fisher’s argument for her to show that these procedures traduced musical composition into the actual writing of poetry. Fisher flowed Pound’s audio into a digital timeline viewed on her computer screen against regularly occurring time divisions so as to be able to transcribe into musical notation the durations and rhythms of phrasal groups in Canto IV, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and cantos 17, 30, 36, 45, as Pound recorded them for Harvard Vocarium (1939) and Caedmon records (1958). She wrote Pound’s rhythms as metrical proportions to indicate the durations of phrasal groups relative to a tempo of 88 metronome beats per minute. 

Mutatis mutandis, Fisher’s analysis, based on a re-transcription of lines of verse as music, using digital tools is a variation of the method that Pound had used to transcribe Villon into an opera. She has the advantage that Pound actually recorded himself reading his poems so she can precisely establish both the tempo and the relative durations of Pound’s spoken phrases. Ironically, like Pound she too has to have recourse to double dots and irrational meter that has to change very often to render the inflections of intonation, syllable length and silences into musical terms.

In Canto 4 for example, the meter may change twice in just one line:

Saffron sandal so petals the narrow foot: Hymenaeus Io!

9/16                  7/16              7/16                8/16

where 16 is a time subdivision lasting 1/6 seconds at a tempo of 88 beats per minute and the numerators 9, 7, 8 are the number of notes of the 16th time value in a rhythmic cell. (See Moody’s Ezra Pound Poet II: 20 for even more complicated rhythmic structures in the Testament, derived from Fisher and Hughes’s facsimile edition of the 1923 score.) 

Fisher used scoring the words to the same purpose as Pound did, to reveal a new dimension of criticism, to understand the meaning and design of the poem via the concept and example of rhythmic cell or “rhythmicle” defined as a “modular unit joined into interlocking patterns.”

In her analysis of Mauberley, Fisher shows how symmetries are established across the verse lines from asymmetries arising in the rhythmic cells. This is what she calls cross-bracing, creating an underlying sense of structure and regularity that the brain might perceive as a trace – It would be interesting to test if these symmetries occur in the Testament score as well, facilitating the recognition of proportion and pattern.


The Duration rhyme

Fisher hypothesizes that Pound may have created a lexicon not of words and phrases, but of “phrasal units, catalogued according to duration and banked in his ear.”

The method allowed him to orchestrate a poem made of fragments similarly to the way in which Lewis had governed the pattern units in Timon. Pound used the aural properties of phrasal units much like a composer would combine rhythmic and melodic cells. 

It is not that the composition of an opera influenced the writing of poetry by educating Pound to use rhythmicles and arranging durations in relation to one another. The analysis shows that Pound was already bringing musical understanding into his poems before the Testament was composed so that actually scoring these rhythms developed naturally out of Pound’s prosody/methods.

Still, the fact that Pound took so much time out of a busy schedule to learn musical notation, and notate the Testament four times shows that Villon was especially important not only in the essential task of renewing prosody but also in his agenda of introducing the quantitative element into English poetry (SL 181). People who listened to him recite his poems aloud observed this. In a letter that John Peale Bishop wrote to Edmund Wilson in 1922, Bishop remarked: “I got Pound to read one of the cantos, which was an extraordinary business, since he treats English, his English at least, as a quantitative language. I don’t mean that he treats words like lockjaw as spondees; the whole business is treated as if accent existed no more than in classic Latin and the combination of long and shorts were all there were to it.”2

Pointing to the period when Pound’s musical composition overlapped his writing of Mauberley, Fisher finds tantalizing hints that Pound reserved characteristic durations for the poets he loved and of himself as well: Villon at 7/16; Homer at 5/16; Catullus at 9/16 and his own voice at 3/16. Music was Pound’s domain of self-discovery that started in his first translations of Cavalcanti, even before his imagist phase and ended with an opera dedicated to the poet, Eleven New Cantos and the theorization of the ideogram in 1934. By that time he felt ready to involve himself with music in new ways: organise concerts, participate in musical research, even copy Vivaldi scores. But the duration rhymes remained his way of poetic thinking. As he remarked in “A Few Don’ts” about poetry and music: “The same laws govern, and you are bound by no others.”


1           Since these books are published in Kindle editions, the present review will not have page references. Kindle ebooks are unpaginated, type size adjusts to individual requirements for comfortable reading thus changing the number of pages and placement of quoted material.

2           I owe the insights found in this letter to Joshua Kotin, who quotes from it at length in his article on Walton Litz in the current issue of Make It New.



Barnard, M. Assault on Mount Helicon. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1984.

Bush, Ron. The Genesis of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.

Fisher, M. “‘Donna mi prega’ between Cavalcanti Rime and Canto XXXVI.” Make It New 1.1 (May 2014): 18-23.

Moody, David A. Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man and his Work. II: The Epic Years 1921-1939. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.

Moody, David A., Moody J and M. de Rachewiltz. Ezra Pound’s Letters to His Parents, 1895-1929. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968.

Pound, Ezra. The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound 1907-1941. Ed. D. D. Paige. New York: New Directions, 1971.

Youens, S. “From the Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth: Considerations of Musical Prosody in Debussy’s Trois Ballades de François Villon.” The Journal of Musicology 2.4 (1983); 418-433.



rsz facsimilecontents-cover