“Pound’s encyclopaedic imperative […] led him to question intellectual orthodoxies, and to seek out and understand ideas and texts that ran counter to the received narratives of literary and cultural history. One prominent figure in Pound’s counter-tradition is the ninth-century Irish theologian, scholar and poet Johannes Scottus Eriugena. This figure came to prominence in the court of Charles the Bald, two generations after Charles’s grandfather, Charlemagne, had initiated the Carolingian Renaissance by establishing a new centre of learning at Aachen.

Pound saw in Eriugena a strikingly original and courageous thinker, willing to endure ecclesiastical opprobrium in his pursuit of systematic theology, and an intellectually adventurous scholar who sought to advance Greek learning in Western Europe at a time of its near-eclipse. Pound was prescient in his support of Eriugena’s importance in intellectual history, made the more striking by the fact that it is only in recent decades that his contributions to theology, poetics and dialectics have received the scholarly attention they deserve. Eriugena served multiple intertwined functions for Pound: he was an intellectual sphinx, arising out of the desert wastes of early medieval thought as an alternative to scholastic narrow mindedness; his embroilment in various controversies demonstrated that he was prepared to stand for his beliefs counter to a bull-headed ecclesiastical hierarchy, and for which he earned the loyalty and protection of his royal patron; and in the composition of courtly poetry in Greek, Eriugena serves Pound as a model for his own cosmopolitan, polyglot, experimental poetics.” (M. Byron, Preface xv-xvi)



Introduction 1

1 Pound’s Eriugena: Neoplatonist and Heretic 15

2 John Scottus Eriugena: the Meeting of Athens and Rome in Gaul 51

3 The Missing Book of the Trilogy 113

4 The Poetics of Exile: Laon to Changsha 207


A Francesco Fiorentino at Brunnenburg: An Annotated Transcription of Pound’s Reading in Eriugena 259

B YCAL MSS 53 Series II, Box 29 Folder 627

Cantos LXXIV–LXXXIV, Typescript Drafts in Italian 267

Bibliography 270

Index of Works by Pound 288

Index of Works by Eriugena 289

General Index 290





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Let me begin (full disclosure) by confirming what I wrote when I was sent the proofs of Mark Byron’s Ezra Pound’s Eriugena toward providing a cover blurb: The book constitutes “a remarkable piece of scholarship that fills a crucial gap in Pound studies: why did Pound choose a now obscure ninth-century philosopher as the prospective basis for the Paradise section of The Cantos? Byron’s book addresses both the theoretical and the archival elements of the answer to that question with consummate intelligence and expertise, and like many of Pound’s best commentators exhibits as much insightfulness about the object of Pound’s curiosity as about Pound himself. I highly recommend it.”

Byron comes equipped for his job. An accomplished scholar of Pound and modernist textual practice, while a Cambridge Ph.D. student he sat in on the great medievalist Peter Dronke’s seminar on Eriugena’s Periphyseon, and he has since steadily expanded his grasp of medieval poetry and philosophy. All this is evident in his book’s second chapter, which focuses on “Eriugina’s intellectual and historical milieu, his patronage in the court of Charles the Bald, the controversies in which he was enlisted and implicated, and the means by which his work survived and was subsequently transmitted” (51).  Byron relays for his Poundian readers a sense of the “rapid gains” scholars have made in Eriugena scholarship over the last generation (52), a token of which inheres in the complicated story (19) of how the accepted English spelling of the philosopher’s name came to change late in Pound’s career from Erigena to Eriugena. More to the point he establishes fascinating affinities between the material nature of Eriugena’s texts and Pound’s “interlinguistic puns and comedic set-pieces” (82), his “use of ideograms, epistolary material, poetic space, annotation, and the splicing of historical documents and other texts into his poetry” (52).

The core of the book, though, has to do with what Pound made of Eriugena’s philosophy. Byron is at his imaginative best when he demonstrates how Eriugena’s early participation in the Predestination controversy sharpened the philosopher’s understanding of the way reason allows us to read scripture as poetic allegory, thereby giving Pound’s fixation on Eriugena’s  “Authority comes from right reason, / never the other way on” (C36/179) an interesting twist. He is equally good (though he might have said more about Dante’s mediation) on more familiar matters, such as Pound’s affirmation of Eriugena’s deployment of light as an expression of theophany and his concomitant interest in Eriugena’s translation and commentary on The Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysus (a lynchpin text in the fusion of Neoplatonic and patristic thought, authored not as originally believed by the Areopagite himself but by an anonymous fifth- or sixth-century follower of Proclus). Byron might have said more about the central significance of Eriugena’s Neoplatonic myth of fall and return to Pound’s presentation of paradise, but he is outstanding on teasing out how Pound’s staging of Eriugena in his wartime drafts echoes the way Eriugena’s own poems frame “the role of Charles as benevolent ruler facing hostilities and warfare” and then figure the disorder of a “king at risk from malevolent forces both internal and external to his kingdom” as “an attack on reason” itself (104).

Byron is not the first to point out that Pound’s assimilation of Eriugena encompassed two distinct phases -- the first (1928-39) conducted at second hand through Pound’s reading of various editions of Francesco Fiorentino’s history of philosophy; and the second (1939-40) the result of Pound’s whirlwind gallop through Eriugena’s Latin works as collected in the 1200-page double-column edition that constitutes Volume 122 of Migne’s Patralogia Latina. Surpassing previous scholars, however, Byron’s book-length presentation supplies the hard evidence of Pound’s Eriugena notes themselves: a transcription of Pound’s underlinings and marginalia in his copies of Fiorentino, and full transcriptions of and commentary on the two freewheeling sets of notes Pound made as he raced through the Migne volume twice -- first on a visit to the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice and then after he was able to obtain a copy back in Rapallo. Both sets are filled with cryptic allusions to Cavalcanti; the second also contains some of Pound’s earliest poetic formulations of the Cantos’ paradise.

As one of a small company of unfortunates whose work has imposed a first-hand encounter with the obscurity of these materials,1 I applaud Byron’s courage but confess that I do not always concur with his transcriptions of Pound’s enormously compressed, allusive and almost illegible jottings. Nevertheless I wish to affirm the value of his efforts and the excellence of his annotations. Because Pound’s notes record page numbers in Migne, it is possible to identify what he is reading as he sets down his abbreviated citations and reflections. Byron has done this and more. With a honed instinct and what can only be called Herculean labor he has also transcribed and translated the most relevant passages of a Latin that in some cases has never been properly edited in English, has identified these passages’ local and global contexts in Eriugena’s writing, has parsed the philosophical nuances of key terms, and with what space and energy remained has made a stab at connecting the passages to Pound’s racing flights of fancy. To anyone who has doubted the reach of Pound’s Latin or his grasp of philosophical nuance, the evidence Byron presents will come as a revelation.


1. See Ronald Bush, “Between Religion and Science: Ezra Pound, Scotus Erigena and the Beginnings of a Twentieth-Century Paradise,” Rivista di Letterature d'America XXXII.141/42 (2012): 95-124. Print.




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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.