Margaret Fisher


rsz grotte di catullo 1The ruins of the Catullus villa in Sirmione.





Part I


As well begin here. Began our Catullus:

(Three Cantos I, Poetry, 1917)


The music sketches for Pound’s third opera Collis O Heliconii, which include settings of Catullus carmen 61, Sappho poem 1, plus incidental music, afford a larger view of Pound’s compositional acumen and his use of music as a forum for criticism. The music from this last period of his composition—Collis O Heliconii and Al poco giorno—shows Pound at the crest of his powers as a composer of melody (1931-1934). This article, the first of two parts, discusses the composition project related to the setting of opera’s main aria, Collis O Heliconii.


Greek and Latin in one opera

Pound accorded Catullus major recognition in a music work (composed c. 1932-1934) that was tangential to The Cantos, as he had done similarly for François Villon, another seminal figure in Pound’s poetic.

Catullus figured prominently in the genesis of the Cantos: while Pound copiously translated and referenced a number of Catullan carmine in Three Cantos I and II, he removed the Latin poet’s presence from the finished version of his poem’s beginning.

He refers to Catullus obliquely in Canto III and then to Catullus carmen 61 directly in Canto IV, where he both translates and cites the Latin,

Saffron sandal so petals the narrow foot: Hymenæus Io!
                Hymen, Io Hymenæe! Aurunculeia!   
One scarlet flower is cast on the blanch-white stone. (IV/15)

Vinia Aurunculeia is the young bride who will marry Manlius Torquatus in carmen 61. Canto V carries several references to carmen 61: “gold-yellow saffron”; “shuffling feet”; “Da nuces!” Ron Thomas attributes Pound’s shift from Catullus to Homer to the “inappropriateness of beginning his epic poem with the work of a lyric poet” (Thomas 24).

Perhaps. But Homer’s epic was both epic and lyric. Acknowledging the attraction of this double achievement better prepares us to understand Pound’s assiduous study of music as part of his training as an epic and lyric poet. And it better prepares us to recognize a consistency and coherency in his musical output that never strays from its devotion to words. Like Thomas Campion, Pound honed his musico–poetical skills by steeping himself in Latin verse.

Pound refined his interest in the Greeks with comparative studies of Latin translations of Greek literature, as in the six-part article titled “Hellenist Series” for the Egoist.1 English translation of Greek poetry and drama on the whole, in Pound’s opinion, had been a great failure. One had to read either the original or the Latin translation, since “Greek seems to me a storehouse of wonderful rhythms, possibly impracticable rhythms. If you don’t read it and if you can’t read Latin translations from it, it can’t be helped. Most English translations are hopeless. The best are in prose.”2 Pound used Andreas Divus’s Latin 1538 translation of Homer to assert his own musico-poetical rhythms in telling the Odysseus legend in Canto I.

Catullus set the Latin verse of carmen 61 to Greek poetic meter. The poem itself draws on ancient Greek rituals related to the celebration of a marriage. Carmen 61 that begins Collis O Heliconii provided Pound a platform on which to regain the lost Greek culture by way of Roman culture, by means of translation and music. Pound would set the word rhythms of each of the opera’s two poets without mirroring the Sapphic or Catullan meter (see below). Pound did not choose a Sapphic text that Catullus had referenced, but selected very different texts that evidence similarities in subject and voice.

Throughout the 1930s Pound encouraged the young poet Mary Barnard to be selective when studying the Latin writers, and then, only to improve style: “Only Catullus and Propertius up to greek rhythms . . . Ovid for clarity of the writing” (Barnard 54). He pressed her for a translation of the Catullan epithalamium 62, neglecting to mention his own attempt at a musical setting of Catullus’ epithalamium 61 (Barnard, 56-58). The letters to Barnard highlight the importance Pound attached to carmen 61 for modern literature: “Catullus, especially the Collis O Heliconii” (Gordon 165-170).

For drama and contrast in his third opera, Pound would have his listener hear Sappho and Catullus as a comparative exercise—the strategy he had used to dramatize Cavalcanti’s debt to Sordello in his second opera Cavalcanti. The Sappho and Catullus poems each turn on the exhortation by a mortal to a god to bless a union between couples. That mortal is the poet herself, as in Sappho 1, and Catullus himself, in carmen 61. Of primary interest in both is the poet’s power of words to convince the god to make him/herself seen, to move among lovers, and to be felt by sentient beings. For Pound, the love object was at best a secondary concern.

This latter fact kept Pound from fully appreciating the difficulties he would face as a composer when negotiating the change of emotional tone from one section of the poem to another. Pound commences with ceremony and joyousness in the music. Here, Catullus as master of ceremonies addresses the god, the young bride, the young boys and girls, his comments being very much in line with a festive sacred ceremony. Pound’s sketchy libretto reads, “And then they all together began a solemn hymn to that god as they went onward through the twilight to Manlius’s house.3

The Catullan congratulatory tone, however, does not hold throughout the poem. From line 105, the sentiment jokingly turns against Manlius and surprisingly, brings Manlius’ slave boy, the concubine, forward as a prominent personage in the action. Pound’s challenge would have been to accommodate the Fescennina iocatio (the tradition of coarse jokes directed to the bridegroom during the procession [after about line 105]) within the lyrical vein of the melody underway. As a composer, Pound had no experience changing from one emotion to another within the same piece of music. Each poem that he set to music carried a single emotion. For his opera Cavalcanti, he was able to anticipate the emotion of the entire poem in the first melodic line of each song setting. We can find a single example in his opera Cavalcanti where Pound manages to change the emotion within his melody. In Act I he interrupts Guido’s lyric aria “Era in pensier” with the Cobbler’s rougher, marching rhythms found in “Guarda ben dico.” Pound then has Guido finish the “Era in pensier.” Based on a complete study of the music, I would say that Pound was unprepared technically to manage Catullus’ biting sarcasm as a secondary subject within the larger aria. (“Subject” in this usage refers to the musical treatment and, serendipitously to this study, also to the literal content). Part of the technical problem is that the sarcasm continues in the same meter as the first hundred lines of ceremonious celebration. Pound wrote of the third opera, “half done, and no small technical problem” (Guide to Kulchur 368).

There is an additional problem related to the meaning of the words. The poem concerns the transitional state in which the bride and bridegroom find themselves at the beginning of the marriage ceremony. In the course of the procession, the bride is reminded of her responsibilities as wife: to run the household, to submit fully to her husband’s sexual demands, and to create progeny to carry on the family name. The bridegroom is reminded that it is now time to renounce sexual liaisons with others, the poem placing emphasis on others of the same-sex. Current scholarship recognizes two interpretations of the poem’s literal intent, one optimistic, the other cynical. The first, which I believe Pound subscribed to, is that the poem upholds an ideal of marriage rooted in love and fidelity. The second view, which began to circulate well after Pound’s lifetime, sees the poem as acknowledging the ideal of marriage but scoffing at the prospect of its attainment in this particular union: that of Vinia and Manlius. The first interpretation understands Manlius’ concubine to be his last, with Manlius’s attraction to slave boys as part of a passing phase that will end with his marriage to Vinia. Did Pound intend to incorporate this reading of the poem into his third opera, given the point for point contrast it makes with the Sappho poem? The second interpretation holds that Manlius’ concubine will be followed by others in the future. The onus is on the bride to curb her husband’s roaming, but the matter is beyond any woman’s wiles.

In themselves, the barbed speech directed at the bridegroom and the concubine, and the warning to the bride do not argue against the notion that the bridegroom and his lover will be able to separate and the marriage will be spared of embarrassments. The arguments for the second interpretation hinge on why Catullus made the concubine central to the ceremony, and why he is asked to perform the traditional scattering of the walnuts. The throwing of the nuts, often performed on birthdays and at weddings, symbolized either fertility or the toys of childhood. At weddings, it was a task given to the young boys.Another argument concerns Catullus’ writing of the word concubine as plural.

The poem’s final strophes insist the young couple produce a son to bear the ancient family name forward. A child coming of this union must can be seen either as a victory for the bride or as a questionable achievement given the obstacles presented in the middle section of the poem.

Pound’s failed attempt to translate the poem (undated) reveals some of the difficulty.4 His phrases “you stupid inert” and “vile old man” are at odds with the libretto he sketched out (see above). Pound had written: “The perception of the intellect is given in the word, that of the emotions in the cadence” (Pound’s Cavalcanti, 18).  But in carmen 61, the rhythms do not change whereas the emotion does change. The emotion would change yet again for the solemn collocatio at the end, which locates the bride in her new home. Pound’s project required a new approach to the music beyond invention in the tonality of the aria (to be reviewed in the second part to this article), and beyond slight variances in the meter to serve the music (see below).

It is likely that Pound brought programmatic ideas to the musical setting of carmen 61 that exceed those he brought to the Villon and Cavalcanti operas. The epithalamium genre reaffirmed the institution of marriage as a positive and stabilizing social force. It was a good foil for the first two operas—the Villon treats of love as a commodity for sale; the Cavalcanti treats of love as a refinement of the mind. It appears the third opera was to celebrate the sanctity of the physical bond between a man and a woman (which is not to say this was an idea Pound nurtured when he started the composition of either the Villon or the Cavalcanti). Sappho’s Poikilothron can be viewed as treating the opposite phenomenon—a same sex union that is unstable with and without the god’s intervention; unstable because it is a union that fulfils the individual ego, and, within the context of Pound’s project, does not contribute to the society at large.

Excerpt: Pound’s unfinished translation (COLLIS 106)


Make haste, day goes,

Come forward, little bride.

Come out thou novelty. Thou art. (There.)

(Tis seems). Thou becriest all

our words.

            See 'st thou the pine-knots,

cast up their aureate hair.                                            100

Make haste, new bride

No laughtadulterer, is given thee

to thine hurt,

persequens, etc.

Would lie soft between thy breasts,

Slow as the tree is

encircled of vine-shoot.

So slowly shall he feel your embrace.

Day goes. come forth

little bride =                                                                     110


Bright foot - to bed





Bear up the flames, you boys.                                      120

See come the flaming cloak,

Run on, sing out your tune.

Yo! Hymen, Io Hymanaeus =

[No more hold back the

rushing speech,

Give out the nuts,

listening to the abandoned love

[Concubine of the master,                                          130

Give the boys nuts, you stupid inert,

concubine =

you’ve fondeled them too long.



Give nuts.

You vile old man, give nuts =

today & yesterday


The sexton shave thy bones =

you______, you______

give nuts =

You will speak ill to yours.                                         140

To abstain. but hold off.

Io hymen.

___ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____

alone known. but these same things are

not permitted an husband.

Io Hymen

Bride, you also ,                                                            150

beware lest you deny what your man

asks. lest he seek elsewhere.

            Io hymen


Among the reasons that had attracted him to Catullus’ supposed epithalamium was the higher value placed on the (hetero)sexual union. The overriding subject is the call to Hymenaeus to bless the marriage bed. Also of primary interest to Pound would have been the power of words to convince the god (Hymenaeus) to appear to sight, to move among lovers, and to make himself felt. The Christian sacrament of the marriage bond, in Pound’s view, masked the true mystery, which was coition itself (Pound, “Coition the sacrament,” passim).   

These concerns—the necessity of Latin to salvage the Greek heritage for an English audience; and, the role of the gods in the ritual of the marriage bed—set up the opera’s third and fourth underlying concerns: the anthologizing reach across centuries and cultures to forge in music the recurrence of a love cult; and, the culmination of Pound’s operatic love trilogy in Catullus and Sappho, portending the creation of an earthly paradise in which coition would again be upheld as a sacrament. The recovery was crucial to the presentation of the earthly paradise Pound had hoped to write in The Cantos: the gods in their plurality might once again appear on the radar of human perception.  

It is surprising, then, to learn that Canto XXVIII, one of the last to be composed for A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930), marks Pound’s last ‘innocent’ mimesis of a Latin phrase from Catullus carmen 61.”4 “‘l’in.. fan... terie KOH- / lon- / i-ale’ / voce tinnula ” (XXVIII/137). The word “tinnula” was unique to carmen 61. In Pound’s oeuvre, the word is used to echo the poem and identify Catullus as either crucial to or associated with the thought expressed. Single words from carmen 61 continue to appear in The Cantos, but they are either Greek in basis and therefore not specific to Catullus, or a word such as “concubine,” which in Pound’s context, grafts carmen 61 onto his own Canto XLV/229 in a manner that signifies the opposite of an epithalamium. Pound will later bring forward the lovely word “Hamadryas” from carmen 61 into Cantos LXXIV/451; and LXXVI/472.

Did Pound, who had never been satisfied with his early attempts to translate the poem, revise his understanding of carmen 61 once he was faced with the task of creating musical structure? How was one to arrive at the blessing of the marriage bed in the face of a recalcitrant bridegroom? The chronology of events—Pound set aside the opera c. 1934; he first published Canto XLV in 1936—is but one example of how the study of Pound’s music illuminates the study of The Cantos. Pound’s use of the word “concubine” in relation to the results of usury seems to be the last smoldering ember of what had once flamed as a promising opera project. By 1936, “Usura . . . lyeth between the young bride and her bridegroom.” The scholar Ole Thomson argues that carmen 61 is a parody that did not intend to celebrate but rather to sully Vinia’sand Manlio’s marriage bed  (Thomsen, 1992).

When Pound ceased work on the setting of carmen 61, he appears to have also ceased work on his setting of Sappho’s Poikilothron.


Dramatic action of carmen 61 and of the opera


The setting:    

In the distance, the hills or mount (as it is sometimes translated) of Helicon, where Hymenaeus and the muses abide. 

In the foreground, two houses, one belonging to the family of the bride, the other to the bridegroom, and a path or road between them.

The players:    

The young boys

                       The young virgins

                       Catullus: master of ceremonies of the wedding procession

                       Bride: Vinia Aurunculeia

                       Bridegroom:  Manlius Torquatus

The action:     

A festive crowd that gathers outdoors at dusk. The boys carry pine torches and toss the nuts that are sacred to the marriage celebration. The virgins scatter flowers.

The bride must dress and make the traditional journey from her mother’s embrace to the bridegroom’s bed chamber. Here the wedding party will sing and joke outside the closed door, preventing jealous gods from disturbing the couple’s lovemaking.

The master of ceremonies calls for Hymenaeus to descend from Helicon. He instructs the young girls to prepare the bride and directs the young boys to form the wedding procession.

Catullus 61 instills a sense of urgency toward the marriage bed with its refrain sed abit dies, translated by Pound as “day goes.” (Note that the line reverses the direction of Pound’s earlier troubadour-inspired alba, “Eyes, lips, dreams  / and the night goes” [Personae, 1909]).


Excerpt, Pound’s unfinished translation (YCAL 43, Box 138, Folder 6074)


Tiller of the Heliconian Hill

Urania's son who snatchest the

Slight maid for her man

                        O Hymen Hymanaeus,

Bind her temples with flowers

Of the soft smelling amaracus,

Take up the flaming cloak,

                        Come hither

Hith gladly

                        [?] with snowy white foot

in saffron shoe.                                                                    

Rouse for the galliard day

Sing out the bridal song

With reedy voice, beat quick

Your feet on Tellus,

                        shake out

The piny torch

                        for Julia

Weds Manlius & comes,

As Venus came

before the Phrygian Judge, &

                        sweetening in her coming.

Good thing with good


Meter and Vocabulary


Until 1933 or 1934, carmen 61 was Pound’s favored exemplar of incisive language expertly joined for lyrical affect. Carmen 61 seamlessly accommodates the Greek names within Latin verse, as in lines 1, 2, and 4 of the first stanza:




Out of these pairings Catullus constructs a metrical scheme of “graceful Glyconic strophes” with a final pherecratean line for forty-seven stanzas of 5 lines each (Wilkinson, 101; see the scansion given below). The encounter of two languages and two cultures in an instant of time was undoubtedly one of the attractions that Pound had in mind when he said the poem could not survive translation into English.

The glyconic sequence used by Catullus derives from the aeolic meter of Sappho and Alcaeus. It has an “almost universal fixed quantity of the last three syllables [of each line] and the strict observance of synapheia [maintenance of the same rhythm throughout]” (Wheeler, 209-210). Nagy identifies the glyconic as “a fundamental unit in the rhythmical structure of song” (Nagy, 1997). Here is the scansion—four lines in late glyconic meter followed by a single line in late pherecratean meter:

                                                                                    (Stanza 2)

x – ˘ ˘ ˘ –                     cin-ge tem-por-a flor-i-bus
x – ˘ ˘ ˘ –                     sua-ve˘o-len-tis a-mar-a-ci
x – ˘ ˘ ˘ –                     flam-me-um ca-pe, lae-tus huc
x – ˘ ˘ ˘ –                     huc ve-ni ni-ve-o ger-ens
o o – ˘ ˘ – –                       lut-e-um pe-de soc-cum

(x = anceps [freedom to place a long or short syllable];

o o = two positions of which at least one must be long).

This meter is a truncated form of Catullus’ hendecasyllabic meter, lines ending with ˘ – – .

The 8-syllables of lines 1-4 form the 3rd through 10th positions in the Sapphic hendecasyllabic sequence.

Carmen 61 uses  – x for the positions designated as o o (West 1982, 195, 198).

The precise pattern is all but absent in the music notation of Pound’s draft, but it does have a ghost presence that places the composer’s rhythms in conversation with the poet’s meter, as in the musical durations of Pound’s setting of the first line:  

  –   –  ˘   ˘             ˘  –
Col-lis O He-li - con- i - i

Pound weans the words from their metrical armature to demonstrate a harmony and lyricism arising from time intervals that are optimized for oral performance and what he called “three-dimensional sonority,” a phrase that probably refers to spatial acoustics and how long or short a time it takes to hear a pitch given its overtones and what comes before and after the pitch.5 


Maurice Emmanuel’s posé and levé

Pound’s source for the development of a new interface between poetic meter and musical rhythm was Maurice Emmanuel’s entry on the music of ancient Greece for the Encyclopédie de la Musique et Dictionnaire du Conservatoire. Emmanuel proposed three proportions to cover the entire range of classical meters: 1:1, 2:1, and 3:2. This system eschewed the fixed long and short values, where a long was defined as the duration of two shorts.

Emmanuel replaced the long–short metrical durations with the terms “posé” (lowered) and “levé” (raised) to refer to two unequal regions of intensity.

Reference to a beat is misleading, Emmanuel writes, because it does not account for the prolongation of sound after impact. Emmanuel’s “prolongation” was probably the inspiration for the phrase “three-dimensional sonority,” coined by Pound in 1933 and coeval with his music composition Collis O Heliconii.

Pound demonstrates this principle with his setting of the word “Col-lis” in two equal durations. The lingual tone with short vowel sound following the glottal open vowel sound has to fight for equality. Pound makes “Col-” a pick-up note in order to place “-lis” on the posé—the ictus or downbeat of his first bar. The second syllable, weaker than the first because of the shorter vowel sound, gains strength for four reasons. 1) It receives a note duration of equal value to the first syllable. 2) It falls on the ictus of the musical bar. 3) It is one whole step higher in pitch than the first syllable. 4) It is the dominant (the fifth) position of the scale where the first syllable is the subdominant. There is no question that the composer is working against the implied security of the first syllable in the glyconic line.

Collis O Heliconii, opening bars:


(the levé on the      (the posé on

 pickup note)          the strong position of a first beat)

score 1

Returning to Emmanuel, we learn that although sounds which endure have an aptitude for intensity, intensity is not inevitable. He warns against automatically designating the longer values as the stronger one, and reminds his readers that there always remains the possibility that a strong value can be derived from a short duration. When, for example, Pound elongates the 2nd syllable, he delays the final “s.” The ear hears the “s” as belonging both to “Collis” and to the upcoming “O”, which gains presence from the contrasting sounds. (Consider what would happen if a longer value for “O” were to follow the elongated 2nd syllable.) The “O” also gains presence from the repeat of the E, the pitch of the first syllable. At Pound’s preferred slow tempo of quarter note = 88, the open 3rd vowel “O” requires no more than the eighth note in the scalar ascent of tones.

The repeated ascent from E to F# sets up a basis for hearing the salient sound of the tritonic interval between the opening E and the A# of the 5th syllable “li”, which is then repeated on each of the final two syllables—closed vowel sounds that are tasked by the music to perform the most important work of the line, i.e., establish Pound’s iconic tritone of genius (on this, see the Music Column, MIN 2.1 [June 2015])

The melodic line carries two strong sustains in the position of posé with contrasting vowels, “-lis” and “-con-.” These replace the accents natural to the Latin words, accents of repeated vowel sounds that would otherwise be over-emphasized in song by the glyconic meter: “Col-,” “O,” and “-con-.” Pound’s rendering of the line is more lyrical; and it anticipates the lyricism of the poem as a whole.

Pound’s larger strategy in the first fourteen stanzas of Collis is to create sweeping and unpredictable lyrical movement punctuated by recognizable events that give the music a feeling of proportion and structure. The feeling for an Eastern music idiom (subject of Part 2 of this article), the scoring for bass soloist rather than the more fashionable tenor, and the slow tempo all aspire to ritual formality for a marriage rite. Even if we did not know of Pound’s preferred tempo at 88 beats per minute, a slower tempo is implied by the long values of the vowels of the opening lines. M. L. West, writing about ancient Greek ceremonies that involve libations and invocations to the gods, describes the tempi (rather than the meter) of these texts as “spondaic.”7 Given Pound’s isolation of tempo as the “great bass” in music, I find West’s description particularly useful. Pound’s setting of carmen 61 aspires to just this kind of ceremony.8

Sappho’s signature 5-syllable adonic sequence, found within the glyconic (above), appears in many of the line endings (not just in the stanza’s final line). Pound’s settings of stanzaic fifth lines that end with Greek names—Hymen and Aganippe—end by conforming to the adonic pattern.

The adonic pattern:  –  ˘ ˘ ––


Collis O Heliconii

cultor, Uraniae genus,

qui rapis teneram ad virum

virginem, O Hymenaee Hymen,

     O Hy [men Hymenaee]                     [text in brackets = adonic pattern in the music, see music below, first refrain]  


quare age huc aditum ferens

perge linquere Thespiae

rupis Aonios specus,

nympha quos super irrigat

friger [ans Aganippe]                                    [text in brackets = adonic pattern in the music]


Pound’s various settings of the refrain “O Hymenaee” (lines 4, 40, 50, 60), the supplications to the god and the dramatic pivot of the poem, call attention to the adonic sequence at their beginnings as well as at their ends (See below, first, third, and fourth refrains; note also the second refrain where the 3 eighth notes ascending in scalar sequence may be considered the posé or one longer duration).  

score 2

Pound’s settings of other end lines in carmen 61 do not conform to the adonic sequence. By highlighting the Greek origins of the Catullan poem, Pound appeals critically to two audiences. He keeps the easily recognizable adonic pattern in the ear for continuity—something every listener will hear—and he appears to play against the expectation of the formal metrical pattern, for those trained to hear glyconics.


Audio example:

Collis O Heliconii (excerpt, stanzas 1-2), sung by David Varnum.


from Ego scriptor cantilenae, The Music of Ezra Pound, track 22

Other Minds 1005-2 (used by permission)

Download a pdf of the music for this excerpt here.

Although Pound’s setting is characterized by asymmetric and irregular, rather than regular movement, it would be misleading to suggest that his rhythms deviated significantly from the meter identified by Wheeler. Following the music score while listening to a recitation of the poem’s stresses in the glyconic-pherecratic sequences, one discovers that Pound’s rhythmic events stay surprisingly close to the parameters of meter and stress. His dramatic musical events, even if determined by short durations, more often than not occupy the same position in the line as the long durations identified by metrical scansion.

Pound’s lyrical approach to the refrain and the poem’s meter serve the first seventy lines well. He stopped just shy of the central part of the poem where begin Catullus’ personal affronts to the bridegroom and concubine. And we cannot say for certain why.


Translation and Publication history of Catullus carmen 61 and Ezra Pound

Translation by Ezra Pound: holograph (unfinished) n.d. but c. 1917

            Archive: [YCAL 43, Box 138, Folder 6074, Beinecke Library.]

            Published: Fisher, The Recovery of Ezra Pound’s Third Opera, 2005. Frontispiece and 103-111.


Other translations of Catullus that appear in Pound’s poetry

carmen 3:         “Ladies” (from Lustra, 1916)

carmen 4:         “Phasellus ille” (Ripostes, 1912)

carmen 31        mention of Sirmio, the repose and laughter found there (Three Cantos I, 1917)

carmen 43:       “To Formianus’ Young Lady Friend” (from Lustra, 1916)

carmen 51:       “God’s peer is that man in my sight,” a translation of Sappho (Loeb 31)

                           (phainetai moi, Three Cantos II, 1917 )

carmen 58:       “That Lesbia, Caelius, our Lesbia, that Lesbia” (Three Cantos, II, 1917)

carmen 61        “Saffron sandal . . . Aurunculeia!” [Canto IV]; “voce tinnula” [Canto XXVIII]

carmen 63:       “And the water is full of silvery almond-white swimmers” (Three Cantos I, 1917; Canto III)

carmen 70        “Your words are written in water” (Three Cantos II, 1917)

carmen 72        “I love her as a father”; (Three Cantos II, 1917)

carmen 85:       “I hate and love.” (The Translations of Ezra Pound 1963)


For a full treatment of Pound’s references to Catullus, see Davidson 53–63.


Performance/Recording history of the opera’s main aria Collis O Heliconii

Composed:       1931-1934 (?)

1st Performed: Excerpt: Aria from carmen 61

                        Other Minds Festival 7, March 9, 2001. Fort Mason Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

                        David Varnum, bass-baritone

                        Other Minds Ensemble, Robert Hughes, conducting.

Recorded:        Excerpt: Aria from carmen 61

                        March 23, 2001, Bay Records, Oakland CA

                        Robert Shumaker, audio engineer

Audio CD:       Excerpt: Aria from carmen 61, track 22 (4 min. 51 sec.)

                        Ego Scriptor Cantilenae, The Music of Ezra Pound

                        Label: Other Minds #1005-2, 2003


What Pound said:

“Greek seems to me a storehouse of wonderful rhythms, possibly impracticable rhythms. If you don’t read it and if you can’t read Latin translations from it, it can’t be helped. Most English translations are hopeless. The best are in prose.” (Letter, Ezra Pound to Iris Barry, July 1916, in L 87).

“Only Catullus and Propertius up to Greek rhythms . . . Ovid for clarity of the writing.” (Barnard 54).


Part 2 of this article will feature:

            Critical Gestures in Pound’s setting of Catullus’ carmen 61

            Modality and Tonality





1. “Hellenist Series” for the Egoist V. 7; V.9; V.10; VI.1; VI. 2 (August 1918; September 1918; November–December 1918; January–February 1919; March–April 1919): 95–97; 106–108; 130–131; 6–9; 24–26.

2. Letter, Ezra Pound to Iris Barry, July 1916, in D. D. Paige, ed., The Letters of Ezra Pound 1907–1941, 87 (hereafter referred to as L).

3. YCAL 43, Box 138, Folder 6074 (Beinecke). A transcription of Pound’s libretto is in Fisher, The Recovery of Ezra Pound’s Third Opera, xvi.

4. The typescript with orthographical notes is in Fisher, The Recovery of Ezra Pound’s Third Opera. 103-111.

5. Cantos XXXIX, LXXIV, and CV draw from the shorter poems of Catullus 34, 58, and 1, respectively (Davidson 141f).

6. “After having written the music of two operas in order to get the best work of Villon and Cavalcanti out of prisoning print and into three-dimensional sonority, I am just finding out simple fundamentals” (Ezra Pound, “Abject and Utter Farce,” Harkness Hoot IV.2 [November 1933, New Haven]: 6–14; in P&P, vol. VI, 87).

7. “Because of the association with libations . . . the ancients gave the name ‘spondee’ (spondeios) to the foot consisting of two long syllables, and the meter of the texts in question is usually described as spondaic. In fact several different metres are represented, and it would be better to say that it is the tempo that is spondaic” (M. L. West, 1992, 155).

8. Reference to a spondaic tempo in Collis also promotes a subject rhyme with the libations that open Canto I.



Works by Ezra Pound

“Coition the sacrament.” (n.d., YCAL 53, Beinecke; See EPRO 33, 153, 231 n72).

Collis O Heliconii. [Opera (1931-1934]. The Recovery of Ezra Pound’s Third Opera. Ed. Margaret Fisher. Emeryville: Second Evening Art, 2005. (COLLIS)

Cavalcanti: A Perspective on the Music of Ezra Pound. Eds. M. Fisher, R. Hughes. Emeryville: Second Evening Art, 2003. (CPMEP)

The Letters of Ezra Pound 1907–1941. Ed. D.D. Paige, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950. (L).

Lustra. London: Elkin Mathews, 1916.

Personae. London: Elkin Mathews, 1909.

Pound's Cavalcanti: An Edition of the Translations, Notes and Essays. Ed. David Anderson. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

Ripostes. London: Stephen Swift And Co. Ltd., 1912.

“Three Cantos,” Poetry X.3, 4, 5 (June, July, August 1917): 113–121; 180–188; 248–254.

The Translations of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1963.


Works by other authors

Barnard, Mary. Assault on Mount Helicon. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Cornish, F. W. and G. P. Goold, trans. Catullus, Tibullus, Pervigilium Veneris. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

Davidson, Peter. Ezra Pound and Roman Poetry: A Preliminary Survey. Amsterdam and Atlanta GA: Rodopi, 1992.

Fisher, Margaret. Ezra Pound’s Radio Operas, the BBC Experiments 1931-1933. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2002. (EPRO)

Fisher, Margaret. The Recovery of Ezra Pound’s Third Opera: Collis O Heliconii, Settings of Poems by Catullus and Sappho. Emeryville: Second Evening Art, 2005.

Fisher, Margaret. “Recovery of Ezra Pound's third opera Collis O Heliconii: the transmission of history through song. Diss. U of California, Berkeley, 2003.

Gordon, David. “Ezra Pound to Mary Barnard.” Paideuma 23.1 (Spring 1994): 159-179.

Nagy, Gregory. Pindar’s Homer. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. Web. 25 October 2015. Free online.

Thomas, Ron. The Latin Masks of Ezra Pound. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1983.

Thomsen, Ole. Ritual and Desire: Catullus 61 and 62 and other ancient documents on wedding and marriage. Aarhus: Aarhus UP, 1992.

Wilkinson, L. P. Golden Latin Artistry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970.

West, M. L. Ancient Greek Music. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1992.

West, M. L. Greek Metre. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1982.


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