THE WORLD IN EZRA POUND’S WORK
by Eloisa Bressan
But to set here the roads of France,
of Cahors, of Chalus,
the inn low by the river's edge,
the poplars; to set here the roads of France
Aubeterre, the quarried stone beyond Poitiers---
---as seen against Sergeant Beaucher's elegant profile---
and the tower on an almost triangular base
as seen from Santa Marta's in Tarascon
Reading A Walking Tour in Southern France… in Southern France:
A Geographical Approach
The present article, the first instalment of a mini-series of two episodes detailing Pound’s travels in Provence, aims to improve on the map published in Richard Sieburth’s A Walking Tour in Southern France by providing a more detailed and helpful online version of the 1912 tour; a second instalment will propose a map for the 1919 Provençal trip: this has been retraced by Wilhelm and Moody mostly on the basis of Pound’s postcards and letters but no map has been proposed for it yet. Both articles aim to tie the cities and towns Pound chose to visit (and eventually re-visit) with the vidas, or biographies of the troubadours who lived in them.
Ezra Pound’s interest in troubadour poetics is widely acknowledged. Since his studies at Hamilton College, under the direction of Professor W. P. Shepard, the young poet considered troubadours’ art as one of the most important traditions one had to refer to in order to accomplish a renewal of modern poetic language.
This interest grew stronger as Pound moved to Europe: he kept working on his translations of troubadours’ poems and started reading the medieval manuscripts recounting their lives at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. On the 26th of May 1912, the poet decided to leave Paris and go on a journey on foot in Southern France (Wilhelm 95), in order to discover personally the places where the troubadours lived and sang. His trip, later to be split into two parts by the unforeseen suicide of Margaret Cravens in Paris on June 1st,1 covered a great part of the South-West of France, stretching from Poitiers, at the very North of medieval “Occitania,” to Limoges, down to Toulouse and the West coastal Region and heading North again to Clermont-Ferrand. The purpose of the tour was to collect some material for a prose book Pound wanted to write: Gironde. This book has never been published and “the typescript […] having vanished, one can only surmise what kind of book it might have formed” (Sieburth xiii). However, Pound’s notes from his walking tour of 1912 — initially to be published by Marcella Spann — were transferred from Brunnenburg to the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where they were deciphered and published by Richard Sieburth in 1992, under the title of A Walking Tour in Southern France, Pound Among the Troubadours. A map and many pictures complement Sieburth’s book — mostly those of the postcards Pound himself sent during the second journey in Southern France when he travelled with Dorothy and was joined by T. S. Eliot, in 1919.
The map I am proposing is an online map, created with the software “umapper.” It traces the two parts of Pound’s 1912 walking tour: the first one, from Poitiers to Limoges —shown by red path and blue markers — took place between the 26th of May and the 7th/8th of June (Moody 183-187); the second one, from Uzerche to Clermont-Ferrand — marked on the map by a blue path and red markers— lasted from the 27th of June to approximately the 18th July.
The map allows us to follow precisely Pound’s itinerary (I have tried to be as accurate as possible in highlighting stop-offs and intermediary stop-overs, which are marked in white), and to understand different aspects of the walking tour in Southern France: by clicking on the markers, readers will indeed be able to access various sorts of information, including excerpts from Pound’s comments on the city, pictures of the monuments that struck his attention and the lives of the troubadours.
Pound started his walking tour with the aim of collecting material for Gironde: in a published fragment of this book, he states that:
there are three ways of ‘going back,’ of feeling as well as knowing about the troubadours, first, by the way of the music, second, by the way of the land, third, by the way of the books themselves, for a manuscript on vellum has a sort of life and personality which no work of the press attains. (Sieburth 84)
Ezra stuck to these three ways himself, first by working on music with the composer W. M. Rummel during the spring and summer of 1912, for the settings of nine of Pound’s troubadour translations into music, secondly by consulting manuscripts at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, and at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.
So far as I can determine, Pound consulted troubadour manuscripts on two occasions. In Milan in 1911, he studied the melodies of two songs by Arnaut Daniel in a manuscript of the Ambrosian Library known by the siglum G […]. The second publication for which Pound certainly consulted troubadour manuscripts is the essay ‘Troubadours—Their Sorts and Conditions,’ published like Hesternae Rosae in 1913. In it he made abundant use of statements from the vidas and razos, or ‘lives’ of the troubadours and ‘reasons’ for their composition of individual songs. He adduced two manuscripts sources for the essay: (1) ‘In the Bibiliothèque Nationale at Paris the manuscript of Miquel de la Tour, written perhaps in the author’s own handwriting; at least we read ‘I Miquel de la Tour, scryven, do ye to wit’ (Literary Essays, p. 95). (2) ‘A manuscript in the Ambrosian library at Milan’ (p. 97). The latter statement refers undoubtedly to manuscript G. (Paden 405, 408)
Miquel de la Tour’s auctorial conscience in his vida d’Elias Cairel impressed Pound, who chose Miquel as his first guide in his search of the troubadours by the way of the land. In fact, Pound often stated in his notes which of the troubadours were or weren’t mentioned by De la Tour, relying more on this primary source than on Ida Farnell’s The Lives of the Troubadours,2 which he had cited in The Spirit of Romance (1910). The second of Pound’s journey guides was J. H. Smith’s The Troubadours at Home, Their Lives and Personalities, their Songs and their World, a sort of sentimental guide of Southern France, focusing on anecdotal details and landscape observations. These readings, along with Baedeker’s Southern France and some maps, were his pieces of luggage for Occitania.
In comparing Pound’s tour to Smith’s book, one feature becomes immediately evident: while The Troubadours at Home begins with the description of the cities in Southeastern France (Aix en Provence, Carpentras, Les Baux, Die, Valence, roughly speaking today’s Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), and moves westward to today’s Languedoc-Roussillon (Montpellier, Béziers, Narbonne, Perpignan) and Midi Pyrenées (Toulouse), maintaining the same East-West direction in volume II, from today’s Auvergne (Le Puy, Clermont Ferrand) to Limousin (Ventadour, Égletons, Uzerche), to Aquitaine (Bordeaux, Ribérac) et Poitou-Charente (Angoulême, Poitiers),3 Pound’s journey begins in Poitou-Charente and moves southward and eastward.
The choice to start his trip from Poitiers is not trifling: this is, indeed, the city of Count Guillaume IX of Poitiers, traditionally considered as the first of the troubadours. Pound thus starts his journey in Southern France from the heart and the cradle of western poetry: following troubadours’ footsteps, the poet walks in the core of western tradition, meeting the ghosts of his literary ancestors4 and gradually taking leave from them, in order to build his own poetic path — just as the Ulysses of the nekuia of Canto I —and as the somewhat nostalgic poem “Provincia Deserta,” published in Lustra (1916), seems to suggest:
That age is gone;
Peire de Maensac is gone.
I have walked over these roads;
I have thought of them living.” (P&T 299)
The path followed by Pound in 1912 led him to the cities and castles of most of his favorite troubadours, soon to become recurring personae and characters of his mythical Provence, as their cities will become sacred places (Kenner 318-348) in Pound’s textual Provençal geography.
As he visits the cities of the troubadours, and walks on the roads they had presumably taken in their itinerant journey from one castle to another, Ezra Pound tries to tie them to the vidas he read in the manuscripts in Paris. This is evident from the very beginning of his notes on Poitiers:
There are many rose bushes pleached against many walls. And Notre-Dame-La-Grande has a face older than anything I know or care about though in fact built under Count Guillaume’s eyes—with scant assistance from him. […] I say well the mother city for it was Aquitaine or if you like Limoges which raised up song again, and it was this Count Guillaume who set the fashion for the district, and if Henry began the cathedral here his grandfather & his son began & continued the trobar and at the court of the Plantagenet princes sang Daniel & De Born & Borneil and as I continue you will find many another troubadour of whom it is written, ‘Si fos de Limousi.’ He was of Limousin, a courteous man, or a man of little generation, or something else of that sort. (WTSF 3-5)
Pound took the Cathedral of Poitiers as a chance to look at the world with the eyes of the first of the troubadours and at once declared that he would not stick to Ford Maddox Hueffer’s realistic principles of prose. Indeed, in observing Southern France architecture and landscape, Pound focused on the possibility of understanding and questioning troubadour poetry and biographies. Even the rose bushes, apparently just an ornamental detail, become a way of understanding troubadour compositions:
And anyone who objects to the manner & form of their singing, to canzoni or cantos is as foolish as a man would be if he objected to growing roses on a trellis. And no one could sit here at this window and believe that there is any folly growing roses in that manner.” (WTSF 5)
If the medieval buildings and the flourishing nature of Poitiers makes it possible for Pound to grab the spirit of Guillaume IX, he is nevertheless very disturbed by the modern aspects of the city, which make it look like London or Paris, with “the charm of Germantown or Utica” (WTSF 6): in its incomprehensible mixture of antiquity and modernity, the whole of Poitiers becomes a metaphor for the “trobar clus,” the cryptic and complex way of troubadour poetry, as opposed to the “trobar leu,” the simpler and more melodious way.
The example of Poitiers allows us to delineate three major aspects through which Southern France is perceived and bound to troubadours biographies and composition: firstly, questioning the vidas through the observation of the territory; secondly, the attention to landscape and buildings, and thirdly, the act of walking as a form of poetic composition.
The first aspect is well-illustrated by the example of Bertran de Born, whose territories Pound visited extensively, from Périgueux to Blis-et-Born, and to Hautefort. Bertran, the “stirrer-up of strife,” was one of Pound’s favorite troubadours and personae: in 1912, he had already published a revised version of Bertran’s poem about the “borrowed lady,” Dompna Pois de Me No’us Cal, under the title of “Na Audiart” (A Lume Spento 1908) and taken on his persona in “Sestina: Altaforte” (Exultations 1909). Pound’s tour in Southern France is at the heart of his theory about Bertran, later dramatized in “Near Perigord” (Lustra 1916): on this theory, the legend we read in his biography — according to which he sang of a lady composed of the finest features of the ladies in the area around his castle because he had been rejected by Lady Maent of Montignac — and based on the Dompna Pois song, actually hides a political plan of conquest. Thus, his observations of the castle of Hautefort and the town of Blis-et-Born, focuses on the possibility of defense and on the geographical situation of Bertran’s lands:
Born itself is a prime nest for highwaymen. You come at it through a bridlepath the entrance of which almost concealed. Tho it stands sheer from the cross road, a wide path skirts the stream, reaching into the hill, watching itself from clumps of underbrush, watching the high rd.—winding thru a field speckled white with daisies following the base of the hills & ascending. It is over hung by a strong farm, gaunt above the poppy-field at Bliss.
& he would be a bold man who would try it at night—in times uncertain.
—Also for strategy, it runs from main rd. to main rd. in two loops. (WTSF 23)
Born is later described as the key of “further complexity,” a “part of the network” of castles which would have assured, from Pound’s point of view, Bertran’s full domination in the region.
The trip to Southern France will thus be the basis of questioning the possible interpretations of de Born’s Dompna Pois, leading to the new version proposed in Near Perigord:
“Bertrans, En Bertrans, left a fine canzone:
‘Maent, I love you, you have turned me out.
The voice at Montfort, Lady Agnes’ hair,
Bel Miral’s stature, the viscountess’ throat,
Set all together, are not worthy of you…’
And all the while you sing out that canzone,
Think you that Maent lived at Montaignac,
One at Chalais, another at Malemort
Hard over Brive—for every lady a castle,
Each place strong.” (P&T 303)
Generally speaking, Pound's attention is much drawn to castles and fortresses, with a certain obsession — as I have tried to point out in the map— for towers. He mentions every tower he comes to find in his path, and his interest in this kind of building is to become of primary importance in The Cantos, where towers will be a characteristic feature of the imaginary Mediterranean-Provençal landscape,5 linking medieval Provence to the antiquity by way of reference to the mythical city of Ecbatana in Canto V. Pound affirms that “if one wish sensation from Architecture, one had better stay in New York” rather than in the South of France, but the interest in medieval France building derives precisely from his avowed incapability of separating “sheer delight in mass & line from sentiment & lust for age” (WTSF 7).
The second aspect by means of which Pound interlaces his enjoyment of Southern France with his attention to the lives and works of the troubadours consists in a particular perception and description of the landscape. The nature Pound describes is rural and magnificent, characterized by plenty of colors, such as those projected by the sun on the fields or the shades of the deep blue sky, a major feature of the South of France. Thus, arriving at Quillan, Pound writes:
Whether it is a haze of heat or whether it is only the effect of sunlight & of great distance, I do not know but there come with these mts, as the sun lowers, a color at once metallic & oriental, as of a substance both dim & burnished.” (WTSF 51)
Or, walking around Gourdon during St. John’s Eve:
“& somehow it was rather fun to walk about this place in the blue of the evening, for the blue, clear, a little lavender, was drawn close to one, & close in at sides, for the peak of Gourdon is so narrow that all the streets ended in it, & no street was long. The sky was for once like a tent really, & not the plainsman’s basin.6” (WTSF 40)
This accurate description of pastel-colored skies and wheat fields recurs throughout the Walking Tour and contributes to the creation of a rarefied Mediterranean light, which characterizes the sacred place of Southern France in The Cantos. It is indeed interesting to point out that Pound speaks already of a “terre sainte” in leaving Claix towards Blanzac, walking in a landscape that reminds him of Corot and Hobbema:
“The next moment descent above Campagne—bent trees toward a Corot, tufted poplars after Hobbema & in the elbow of the road the 1st black cedars of the terre sainte.” (WTSF 9)
The suspended and sacred atmosphere of medieval Southern France becomes the perfect link between the Mediterranean and the unreal oriental shores: “we are come again to a place where the water runs swiftly & where we have always this chinese background” (WTSF 48), “above Quillan the rd. leads into Chinese unreality” (51), “there is a Chinese bridge of poles across this current” (52). Provence is the sacred meeting place between Greece and China (“Greece & Orient/ In Provence” (WTSF 67).
The features by the way of which Pound constitutes this landscape are easily retraceable in troubadours’ songs, where medieval Provence is celebrated as the land of love, with a particular attention paid to the flowers (hence Pound’s attention on rose bushes or on the “anachronistic violets7”), the warm sun and the wind. The air of Southern France is, in the song of the troubadours, filled with poetry, and one needs to breathe it in order to be inspired:
“Breathing I draw the air to me
Which I feel coming from Provença,
All that is thence so pleasureth me
That whenever I ear good speech of it
I listen laughing and straightway
Demand for each word an hundred
So fair to me is the hearing.” (Vidal 243)
Pound pays special attention to the wind, which is certainly the typical meteorological element of the South of France. Nonetheless, the stress on the wind is at the same time an echo of the troubadours’ poetry, a hint to a land where we could breathe poetry, where poetry is inherent to the place. Thence, while observing the traditional dances in the city of Arles, Pound remarks that poetry is in Southern France a part of life, and that it takes the form of dancing. And it is “the place that made the people,” the poetical power of the city which moves him and strikes him:
Then there are cities that are passionate in their personal hold upon us. You may play the string as you like. It is not the bath of the crowd, it is different, it is the place, the place that made the people, it is seductive as the creative principle is always seductive, it touches or it clings and we go out & through & into it, and are one with it, infused & inflowing.
The air. The sun. The wind.
& the stars above the city” (WTSF 64)
The third, central, aspect of Pound’s perception of Southern France is the very act of walking as linked to the troubadours’ activity. From the beginning of his notes, the poet makes it clear that he is not traveling “to see,” and that he is actually contrary to this type of purpose when traveling. He aims to feel, as well as to see, and his walking will enrich him with an unexpected better comprehension of troubadours’ poetry.
For instance, the walking experience apparently allowed Pound to seize the composition of the sestina8: he sees the origin of this highly complex poetical form in a sort of recurrence in nature (“sestina vs. recurrence in nature” WTSF 15), stating firstly that a better understanding of poetry by the means of experience is possible and secondly that composing poetry is as much a practical act as a theoretical one, the pace of the foot being correlated to poetic rhythm. The road to Celles thus becomes “a sort of sestina,” in its alternation of “cusp & hills, of prospect opened & shut, or round trees & poplars aligned” (WTSF 15): walking the road of Southern France, Pound literally walks into the core of the troubadours’ melopoeia.
This implies on the one hand a sort of almost unaware immersion in the world of medieval poets which for Pound rests on his choice to travel on foot (as opposed, for instance, to Henry James’ choice to travel by train): the act of walking forces one to be more in touch with the surrounding environment and with the weather which is so present and important in troubadours cansos. The colorful and blooming nature helps us understand the link between the awakening of spring and the emergence of the poet’s desire, as well as his obsessive attention to birds, flowers and —again— wind. Pound cites the example of a canso by Guillaume IX, where he announces that he will compose a new song before it freezes, or the wind blows, or it rains: the urgency of poetic composition becomes self evident once one has proved the troubadours’ conditions of life:
Living in houses, or even decently equipped with aquascuta, the weather means little to us, but the life of such lines of verse, if we consider them as sung by men to whom the condition of the weather was a necessary concomitant of every action & enjoyment, is vastly increased, the prelude of weather in nearly every canzon becomes self evident, it is the actual reflection. (WTSF 31)
On the other hand, the act of walking in the South of France is for Pound an act of poetry: as he walks, he will compose songs in the manner of the troubadour of the town.9 We find a composition about the rose bushes of Poitiers he will later attribute to Raimon Jordans, Viscount of Saint Antoni (Sieburth 111); one in the manner of Arnaut Daniel that he composes while walking through Ribérac; and one in the manner of Bertran de Born in Hautefort.
All along his notes about his wanderings on the roads of Southern France, Pound makes it clear that the purpose of his trip is not to give in to melancholy for the medieval troubadours, but to impregnate himself of what was left of their world, of its colors and rhythms. At times, he reaffirms his modernity by expressing his wish to see the Pyrenees, “a wish shared by no known troubadour” (WTSF 48): if he is admittedly not seeking adventure, he situates his trip between the ancient and respectable habit to go on pilgrimages and the modern and somehow decadent desire to go to the mountains.
Between the Middle Ages and modernity, to walk among the troubadours is for Pound a way to question the mythical and historical value of their lives, and to relive their way of making poetry. To visit the places where troubadours biographies were set, allowed Pound on the one hand to rethink the biographies of these poets who devoted their lives to love and singing, and who greatly interested him in their being medieval mythological figures. On the other hand, Southern France landscapes become a source of inspiration for the geographic description of an imaginary, literary and mythical Provence we find in The Ur-Cantos and in A Draft of XXX Cantos. Finally, walking and composing, composing in walking, Ezra Pound presents himself as a new troubadour, who adds the passion for myth to the craft of words and tune.
Bacigalupo, Massimo. “Ezra the Troubadour.” Provence and the British Imagination. Eds. Claire Davison, et al. Milano: Di/segni, 2013. Print.
Farnell, Ida. The Lives of the Troubadours. London: In the Strand, 1896. Print.
Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1971. Print.
Moody, David A. Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man & His Work. Vol. I The Young Genius 1885-1920. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
Nadel, Ira. “On the Road: Ezra Pound’s Poetry of Place.” LATCH 2 (2009): 129-135.
Paden, William D. “Pound’s Use of Troubadour Manuscripts.” Comparative Literature 32.4 (Fall 1980): 402-411. Print.
Pound, Ezra. Poems & Translations. Ed. Richard Sieburth. New York: The Library of America, 2003. Print.
Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. London: Faber and Faber, 1975. Print.
Pound, Ezra. Three Cantos. The Cantos Project. Roxana Preda, January 2015. Web. 17 April 2015.
Sieburth, Richard. “To set here the road of France.” A Walking Tour in Southern France. Ezra Pound among the Troubadours. New York: New Directions, 1992. Print.
Smith, Justin H. The Troubadours at Home. Their Lives and Personalities, their Songs and their World. 2 vols. New York and London: J. J. Putnam’s Sons, 1899. Print.
Vidal, Peire. “The song of Breath.” Transl. Ezra Pound. Lark in the Morning. The Verses of the Troubadours. Ed. Robert Kehew, London: The U of Chicago P, 2005. Print.
Wilhelm, James J. Ezra Pound in London and Paris 1908-1925. Pennsylvania State U, 1990. Print.
1. Pound only had the information when he reached Limoges on the 7th or 8th of June (Moody 187).
2. I used Farnell’s versions of the lives to fill in the map.
3. I am here highlighting the geographic pattern in Smith’s exposition, even if the path is sometimes scrambled by some comings and goings due to the fact that the author focuses more on troubadours’ lives than on a coherent geographic itinerary.
4. Ever since his earliest poetic collections, Pound presented himself as a twentieth century troubadour: in A Lume spento (1908), for example, he includes the factitious Miraut de Garzelas and Bertran de Born (Bacigalupo 175).
5. See, for example, the description of the town of Chalus: “The road gives on Chalus suddenly, the ruin high in the centre of the landscape like a great headless duck in a circular nest” (WTSF 29) and the end of Canto II: “The tower like a one-eyed great goose/ cranes up out of the olive grove” (II/10).
6. The luminous detail of Gourdon’s sky will reappear in Ur-Canto II: “And the blue Dordoigne/ Stretches between white cliffs,/ Pale as the background of a Leonardo./ ‘As rose in trellis, that is bound over and over,’/ A wasted song?/ No Elis, Lady of Montfort,/ Wife of William à Gordon, heard of the song,/ Sent him her mild advances./ Gordon? Or Gourdon/ Juts into the sky/ Like a thin spire,/ Blue night’s pulled down around it/ Like tent flaps, or sails close hauled. When I was there,/ La noche de San Juan, a score of players/Were walking about the streets in masquerade,/ With pikes and paper helmets, and the booths,/ Were scattered align, the rag ends of the fair./ False arms! True arms? You think a tale of lances…” (Ur-II/111-128) and in Canto IV: “Blue agate casing the sky (as at Gourdon that time)” (IV/15).
7. “The violets are I admit an anachronism and this is not the chateau of Marueil, but there are roses enough to make up for it.” E. Pound, quoted in WTSF 16.
8. This poetic form was invented by Arnaut Daniel, and composed of six stanzas, each one of them composed of six lines respectively. Each line’s rhyming word is repeated in the following stanza, following a spiral pattern that Pound tried to recreate in Sestina: Altaforte (1909), although he made a mistake in the rhyme pattern of the fourth stanza: see Fisher MIN 1.4 and 1.2.
9. Nadel notes that “for Pound, place is always in motion,” yet he recognizes that “his pursuit of place is always in search of making the transitory permanent” (130): this can only happen by means of writing, seen as “the art of inscribing space, the landscape” (132). Place becomes, thus, “the condition of the possibility for writing” (132).