Ce Rosenow.“‘High Civilization’: The Role of Noh Drama in Ezra Pound’s Cantos.”

Papers on Language and Literature: 

A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature

48:3 (2012): 227-244.


Summary by Matthew C. Mackey


In the article, ‘“High Civilization”: The Role of Noh Drama in Ezra Pound’s Cantos,” Ce Rosenow offers an interesting view of the construct and purpose for Pound’s use of traditional Japanese theater. Rosenow's work differs from other research on Noh drama in The Cantos by arguing its more philosophical role as a guiding objective for Pound’s vision. She writes:

Pound believed that Noh drama represents the highly civilized and artistic life of Japan, and examining the references to Noh with Pound’s perspective in mind reveals a previously unrecognized function of Noh drama in the Cantos. Pound invokes Noh specifically as a touchstone for high civilization in order to employ it as a counterbalance for the instances of destruction he saw around him and attempted to respond to in his monumental poem. (227-8) 

Carefully considering the opposing forces of “creation/destruction” and “civilization/barbarism” in the Cantos, Rosenow illustrates Pound’s attempt to offer Noh as a possible reconstruction of fallen civilizations, faulty government, and cultures that lack artistic vision (228). Rosenow argues that Pound sees Japan as an organizing force for The Cantos, with Noh being the epitome of Japan’s artistic and cultured influence. In this case, Noh acts as a civilizing force behind the uncivilized world that Pound critiques in his work.

            Rosenow also tracks Pound’s early and limited use of Noh drama in the Three Cantos published in 1917. After that initial publication, Pound began to reconsider his project and, more specifically, Noh’s purpose in the re-envisioned epic. Rosenow states, “This limited use of Noh drama would not, however, be useful to Pound once he started to revise his project after the publication of Three Cantos” (231).  She then uses specific instances in the further developed Cantos to illuminate Pound’s use of Noh drama. 

Following that initial investigation into The Cantos, Rosenow uses Canto IV and its use of the Noh play Takasago as a counterbalance to the destruction of Cabestan and Actaeon, thereby suggesting the inseparable relationship between suffering and beauty. By focusing on passionate and destructive loves and framing them by scenes of fallen civilizations, Rosenow suggests that Pound uses Noh drama to represent the potential for creating beauty out of suffering and tragedy. 

Moving to the Pisan Cantos, Rosenow considers Pound’s use of Noh drama and demonstrates that “Japan surfaces as an artistic, civilized, ancient culture that provides a sense of hope in the middle of circumstances that would otherwise lead to despair” (234). Carefully observing several Noh plays in the Pisan Cantos, Rosenow outlines Pound’s vision of the world at a time when he was trying to look past the stark reality of war and the threat of execution. The Noh plays herein discussed by Rosenow serve to reflect Pound’s ideology about art as a creative and saving force. 

            Finally, Rosenow surveys Drafts and Fragments of Cantos and suggests the role of Noh drama, specifically the play Awoi no Uye (Aoi no Ue), as contributing to the sense of closure in The Cantos. Rosenow points out that Pound’s understanding of the play was considerably flawed, but is still consistent with his larger use of Noh drama in The Cantos as a balance to destructive forces. She points to Cantos LXXVII and CX as referencing Awoi no Uye (Aoi no Ue) and conflating the character of Persephone to express “figures trapped in desolate landscapes and seeking release” much like Pound himself (241). 

            Rosenow concludes by offering Noh drama as Pound's way of constructing a new political and governmental order out of a chaotic world. More importantly, she argues that Noh drama became a highly civilized and cultured organizing force that brings personal and artistic clarity to Pound's personal struggles in The Cantos