The title The Pisan Cantos was conferred by New Directions' publisher James Laughlin on the eleven cantos, numbers LXXIV-LXXXIV, that Pound composed while a prisoner of the US army in the detention training camp north of Pisa, Italy, in 1945. Pound agreed to Laughlin's suggestion, but the poet had originally wanted to title the collection with the opening and closing canto numbers, as he had with previous volumes of his long poem as they were issued.
Pound had begun The Cantos during the First World War, while he was still based in London. Individual cantos appeared separately, and sometimes Pound revised them, and in 1925 he published A Draft of XVI Cantos with William Bird's Three Mountains Press. A Draft of XXX Cantos appeared in 1930, and various additions appeared up to 1940. The sequence would continue until Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII in 1968, four years before Pound s death. Following an opening canto based upon book XI of Homer's Odyssey, the sweep of this challenging epic takes in the social, political, economic, and cultural history of East and West, across three continents, in multiple languages, and is structured around particulars and allusions that are juxtaposed, recur, and connect - sometimes across widely separated cantos.
The central theme of the poem is the search for a just society. The China of Confucius and the United States of John Adams are two examples in the poem of what for Pound were societies that held such potential. The just society, for Pound, would be one in which art and artists could flourish, and where economic values were not distorted by charging interest - what the poem calls "usury" - and upon which a good deal of Pound's anti-Semitism in this poem and elsewhere is focused. The poem is also the story of Pound's own history, as he wrote and published the stages of his epic, and as his particular interests shifted. In The Pisan Cantos Pound himself enters the cantos more fully than anywhere else in the poem, and the memories, allusions, observed particulars, and lyrical heights are anchored in the present experience and recollections of a 60-year-old man held in sometimes harsh conditions, in danger of possible execution as a traitor, and coming to terms with the implications of the end of what for him was another potential just society - Mussolini's Italy.
Pound's view that the practices of American banks violated the US Constitution, and his faith in the values of Italy's fascist government - he had lived in Italy since 1924 - led him to make a series of radio broadcasts during the war in support of the Axis powers and against the allies. With the fall of Italy he was arrested on charges of treason and was incarcerated, initially in an open-air cage, in the camp just outside Pisa. He was held there from May 24 to November 16, before being flown on an hour's notice to Washington for trial. The commander of the camp, Colonel Steele, allowed the poet the use of the typewriter in the camp's dispensary in the evenings, and upon this machine he composed the cantos between July and October, although he had earlier begun writing them in longhand on toilet paper. His personal library consisted of an edition of the Confucian classics and a small Chinese dictionary, both of which he had brought with him when arrested, a Roman Catholic missal, and an anthology of English poetry that he found in one of the camp latrines. He also had access to a copy of the Bible, and, after a few weeks, to the camp's American news magazines and a few Italian newspapers. When his daughter Mary was allowed to visit him in October, he gave her the rough typescripts of the poem to take away and prepare for publication.
Canto LXXIV, the longest in the sequence, begins with the executions of Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci, which had occurred on April 28, 1945, and the public display of their bodies, hanging from a scaffold, in Milan:
The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant's bent shoulders Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed, Thus Ben and la Clara a Milano by the heels at Milano
Manes, the third-century Persian sage and founder of the Manichaeans, was crucified and his body stuffed with hay. The thematic and historical levels that come from the association of the two events continues the structural principles of the earlier cantos and is the governing principle of this canto and those to come. The emphasis is upon particulars, not generalizations, and the particulars for Pound are to cohere in the multiple themes and levels of the poem as phrases and events are visited and revisited, alluded to later in a fragmentary way, or expanded.
The major themes of government and economics in the Pisan Cantos are taken up from earlier parts of the sequence, but in these cantos they are in the context of a fuller emphasis upon the world of nature (often what Pound sees from his cage) and upon memory, loss, and the attempt to reassert in this desperate time the poem's vision of paradise, by reaffirming what is indestructible.
Nature in the poem is sometimes the mountain Pound could see in the distance near Pisa that reminded him of Mount Taishan, a sacred mountain in China. Or it is the ants or wasps building, creating, around him, the fragility of their existence reminding the poet of the fragility of his own. In Canto LXXXIII:
And now the ants seem to stagger as the dawn sun has trapped their shadows,
When the mind swings by a grass-blade an ant's forefoot shall save you the clover leaf smells and tastes as its flower
Canto LXXV consists almost entirely of a musical piece, a transcription with a heritage going back to the sixteenth century. This "Song of the Birds" combines for Pound the mutual support that song and music, art and nature, artists across the centuries, and lovers - it was a favorite piece of violinist Olga Rudge, Pound's companion, in the concerts held in Rapallo -could bring to one another.
With few books beside him when he was writing these cantos, memory became a key resource for Pound in the poem. The eleven cantos build up in a mosaic-like form the story of the poet's writing career: boyhood memories, memories of his arrival in Venice in 1908, his London years, quotations from the now dead Yeats and Ford Madox Ford and others, Paris where he knew Joyce and Hemingway, and then his 20 years in Italy. These personal memories all mingle with the other themes of the poem and with other historical periods, while the poet's present straits are never far from the poem - whether it is "old Ez" folding his blanket, or the conversation or kindnesses of his guards, or the movements or cries of his fellow prisoners -soldiers, some of them scheduled for execution.
The best-known lines in The Pisan Cantos, and probably in the Cantos as a whole, close Canto LXXXI and are often anthologized as a separate lyric. The lines begin: "What thou lovest well remains, / the rest is dross / What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee / What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage," and they go on to equate usury with "vanity" and with decadent art throughout history. In contrast is "true artistry," which is linked here to humility and self-discipline. Also important is nature, surrounding the poet from whom so much has been "reft." He asserts: "Learn of the green world what can be thy place," and a little earlier, "The ant's a centaur in his dragon world."
Pound was a controversial figure when he was flown to Washington for his trial, and some influential people protested the judicial finding that he was unfit to stand trial because of insanity, although many important writers came to his aid too. Pound had begun his thirteen and a half years in St. Elizabeths Hospital and the controversy was dying down a little when in 1949 a committee associated with the Library of Congress, and including Robert Lowell, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Robert Penn Warren, awarded The Pisan Cantos the first Bollingen Prize for Poetry. The volume had been published on July 20 the previous year. Despite protests and pressure, and questions in Congress, the committee defended its choice and stuck to it, arguing that the poet's political beliefs, the anti-Semitic material in parts of the poem, and the poet being in effect a prisoner of the government did not detract from its achievement as the outstanding poem among those judged. Pound received a much-needed $1,000, but the prize was removed from the jurisdiction of the Library of Congress and subsequently administered by Yale University. The prize began the restoration of Pound's reputation and respectability as a writer, rescuing him from the position of being seen as a figure of largely historical interest whose finest work had appeared in the earliest years of modernism. This renewed interest and status would bring many of the new generation of poets and scholars on a pilgrimage to St. Elizabeths over the next decade.
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