What (to ask one bizarrely unfashionable question) is civilization? Set aside geography, climate, genetics, and luck. The high classical civilizations are marked by certain indispensible accomplishments: a serious respect for facts; related to this, a steady application of work toward stable wealth; a conception of justice moving in two directions, toward society as a whole and toward individuals, implying also respect for family, the process of ancestry and descent, the commonnesses—but also the differences —among persons; a sense of the divine mystery of being and the cosmos; and finally, all of the above taking place within and by grace of the handing down from generation to generation of a rational polity—in other words, respect for the rule of law.
There are exactly three loci of sustained high classical civilization: the Mediterranean world, which ultimately blew north-northwest on the winds of renaissance and reformation; the Far Eastern world of China (and later Japan); the so-called New World—meaning north-northwest of a certain navigator’s landfall on the shores of a tropic isle later called Santo Domingo.
Let it not pass unnoted that some centuries earlier a certain Venetian made a diplomatic journey overland to a certain Great Khan who ruled what a certain gifted drug addict would one day call a “stately pleasure dome,” Cathay, whence he brought into fashion preservative spices, primitive explosives, paper money, and spaghetti. Let it not pass unnoted that both the pedestrian and the navigator subsequently passed some years in jail for opinions out of phase with conventional wisdoms.
Early in our present century, a young American male set out for this Venice, whose Republic was one stepfather to our own, to dedicate his life to writing the definitive poem of civilization. His poem occupied 50 and more years of his turbulent life and flat out requires its readers to become familiar with the Greek of Homer and Plotinus, the Latin of Catullus and Roman law, the idiogram of various Confucian Classics, the Occitan of troubadours, the French of Villon and Magna Charta, the English, even, of Layamon, Sir Edward Coke, and John Adams. Needless to say, Americans, who have been freed by their educators from the necessity to learn history or languages, do not read this poem.
In an age when writers, apart from obligatory influences like Dostoevsky, Freud, and Kafka, are supposed to be what John Berryman said he was—”fiendishly original,” this most modern of modern poets (who once told a French surrealist he admired “bon sens plus que l’originalite“) deliberately set out to be as comprehensively derivative as possible. Ezra Pound shows the vital influence of virtually every great poet who ever wrote. He even quotes whole sequences of these other poets in the middle of his poem! Only a supremely endowed master of his art who was also supremely aware of who he was (in other words “fiendishly original”) could bring off such a thing. “It takes strength (retorted Vergil to a suggestion he was too influenced by Homer) “to wrest the torch from the hand of Hercules.” So we confront a Pound/Homer, also a Pound/Sappho, a Pound/Catullus, a Pound/Propertius, a Pound/Dante, a Pound/Villon, a Pound/Wang Wei (this is a very partial list), a Pound/Thomas Jefferson, a Pound/Confucius, on and on to a Pound/Ovid. Among an almost inexhaustible supply of superlatives—not all of them equally honorific—Pound is Ovid’s most significant disciple.
In an age immortal by virtue of its poets, the Augustan Age of Rome, this Ovid scaled, in the afterglow of Catullus, Horace, Propertius, and Vergil, the heights of acclaim with such sexual gumdrops as the Amores (Marlowe apprenticed on these), the Heroides (Middle-Englished by Geoffrey Chaucer as “Tales of Good Wimmen”), and the Remedia Amoris, a handbook for Lotharios, from which Pound places a swatch at the beginning of his seventh canto:
And then the phantom Rome, marble narrow for seats
“Si pulvis nullus” said Ovid,
“Erit, nullum tamen excute.”
(“Should the lady’s lap lack lint, brush it off anyway.”) At 30, Ovid had become Rome’s best-loved, best-selling poet. He would seem to have enjoyed this immensely: He took three wives (successively) and was happy with the last.
At 50 he was banished. Augustus suddenly condemned the fresh and delightful verses of his youth, now two decades old, as of “immoral tendency.” He was to sail by trireme into a remote trading post, Tomi, on the Black Sea—for a Roman this was like being banished to the moon!—and stay there. Now nothing is sure about this case, except that it was partly personal and that it seems to have involved the Emperor’s own daughter (his consort Livia’s by her previous marriage), a young lady of taste and tendencies which can only be euphemistically described as “immoral.” She too was banished—her cause “license,” the timing suspicious. Ovid mumbles something in one of his five late books of Sorrows about his crime having been Actaeon’s. Use your imagination.
Stunned, stung, at first he burnt his manuscripts. Later, from exile, he asked friends to unsequester their draft copies of his life’s work, 15 books of epic hexameter comprising myth and history down to the accession of the Emperor Augustus. He hoped that the magnitude and majesty of his accomplishment would (especially in view of the moving manifest patriotism of the finish) change the Emperor’s mind. It never did. Augustus died in moral rectitude, surrounded by the detestable stepchildren who succeeded him. Ovid, in exile, died and lived on: Dante, Chaucer, Villon, Shakespeare, Goethe, Keats, Hugo, virtually every one has been vitally influenced by the Metamorphoses.
Not dissimilarly, Pound was held at the close of the war in particularly nasty confinement on charges of giving aid and comfort to the enemy by speaking, wildly to be sure, over Rome Radio. Yet recently unearthed correspondence in the Fascist Archive indicates that the Italian government was so aided and comforted that it was ready to shoot him as an Allied spy! (Mussolini’s intervention—”He’s nuts, he doesn’t grasp Fascism at all, but he’s a true friend to Italy. Let him alone!”—spared the poet a Fascist firing squad.) Pound was remanded as mentally unfit to stand trial to a federal hospital for the criminally insane wherein he passed a third of his working life captive (he also spent all of his captive life working), but ultimately was released to go into mandatory exile through combined efforts of senators, congressmen, undersecretaries, plus petitions signed by distinguished writers. Pound’s response to reporters was: “Waal, Ovid had it worse!”—Ovid having died at just the age (60) Pound’s worst began.
Of Ovid’s pervasive apparition in The Cantos of Ezra Pound, finally abandoned as unfinishable at their 803rd page, one can point to at least three aspects: a technical, a substantive, and a cosmic, which we might describe as Mask, Money, and Mythos.
The mask, a literary device in which the narrative voice of the text itself is clearly not the author’s own but someone else’s, became Modernism’s fundamental feature in prose and verse—Rilke, Yeats, Apollinaire, Eliot all flaunting it, Pound employing it, sole, throughout his first volume proper, Personae. In origin, Persona refers to Roman theatrical masks. Pound’s volume accumulated momentum over time with masks of various troubadours, with “Cathay” (Marco Polo, again): a medley of Chinese masks; with the “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” an anti-(Roman: but also British)-imperialist mask that constantly threatens to meld Propertius into the opprobrious tones of Henry James; and finally “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” whose persona is that of some fictitious esthetician-poet of the London of the years of the Great War who undertakes to bury and eulogize the pseudo-defunctive author, a shifting blend of newspeak, Ronsard, Gautier, Villon, Waller (Edmund, not Fats), and Bion’s Lament for Adonis.
Mask-as-such was an artistic strategy Pound simply took (though he hardly leaves it as he found it) over from the dramatic monologue of Robert Browning, whose forever unread, unknown, and unpraised masterpiece, Sordello, Pound called “perfect” mask.
Sordello, the original, was, for reasons of poetic simplicity, one of Pound’s special favorites among the troubadours, appearing not only in the Purgatorio but also in Pound’s own 36th canto, masks both, and if you ever wondered why on earth the second begins
Hang it all, Robert Browning,
there can be but the one “Sordello.”
But Sordello, and my Sordello?
I guess that partly solves it. But the balance of that same canto takes up the betrayal at the hands of sailors of the god Dionysus, a radical retreatment in mask out of Ovid, and it was Ovid, in Heroides, an assemblage of made-up lovelorn letters by legendary women, who first brought mask (out of its occasional use by Vergil, who drew on Theocritus and a Greek tradition going back at least as far as Arehilochus) to full-blown opus-sustaining prominence.
But (to return to our opening query; what is civilization?) respect for fact, for meaningful wealth, for people, for the divine mystery of being, and for the integrity of the state and its body of law are in all phases of human history—like the Dionysus of the Ovidian second canto—betrayed. In the midst of the portrait of John Adams, which is as memorable in its unread way as Stuart’s Washington, Pound reads between the lines of Adams’ letters and strokes onto his canvas a panoply of infamy—call it Federalist Original Sin—as the Hamilton clique pull off the Scandal of the Assumption. The word “mask” actually appears in the text, assuming outright its grand-theft sense:
To T. Jefferson:
“You fear the one, I the few.”
In this matter of redeeming certificates
that were used payin’ the sojers . . .
Mr. Madison proposed that the original shareholders
shd / get face value
but not speculators who had bought in the paper for nothing
ov the 64 members of the House of reppyzentativs
29 were security holders,
lappin cream that is, and takin it
off the veterans.
an’ Mr. Madison’s move wuz DEE-feated
Maclay and Jim Jackson stood out against dirtiness
smelled this stink before Madison
smelled it or before he told Tom about it.
The facts are that revolutionary-period promissory notes used to salary the army were at first to be redeemed at 20 percent until the congressional speculators bought them up at 25 to then redeem at “face,” creating fortune by fiat, ushering us into the hell of money where, in this poem, we spend most of our time:
The evil is usury . . .
Hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall . . .
. . . between the usurer and any man who
wants to do a good job (perenne) without regard to production—a charge
for the use of money or credit . . .
In the texture of this poem, everything recurs in modulatory sequence. Later, a mask is crafted out of Thirty Years’ View, the magisterial (unread!) memoir of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. The mask dissolves at the very moment when Henry Clay, Secretary of State for the Quincy Adams Administration, and the resolute and statesmanly Randolph of Roanoke might have shot one another over the Panama Affair. In fact, both fired wide, shook hands, and stood everyone a needed drink. But Pound deliberately modulates into the earlier crisis, when Aaron Burr, marksman, definitively dispatched the conniving and corrupting Alexander Hamilton.
This modulatory maneuver is a trademark of The Cantos, and the author has termed this sort of thing the “repeat-in-history.” It is a creative transformation of the concept of metempsychosis—that a soul (psyche) may transfer from form to form—at the heart of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. What really motivate this entire drama are the out-of-circulation coins about which Pound, as usual, tells us absolutely nothing.
They are (for the interested) Gold Eagles, with resplendent portrait busts of Lady Liberty on their obverse, withdrawn at the end of Jefferson’s term of office to keep them out of the hands of speculators. One of Hamilton’s many perfidies as first Secretary of the Treasury was the deliberate undervaluing of the gold-silver ratio (15- instead of 16-to-one) so that the beautiful symbols of the soundness of the new nation—Jefferson was, among so many other triumphs, the virtual father of the American dollar—were carried abroad and melted down for their gold. The rough reversion of Jackson—who restored the coin and paid, paid, the National Debt—was yet to be.
Now nothing fascinates the American character—Pound being the only offspring of the Chief Assayer for the Franklin Mint in Philadelphia—like hard, cold cash. To make (artistically) so much of it—Dante and Balzac aside—was an achievement reserved for a Yank. But what of Ovid, that poet of erotic iridescences and people turned to birds and trees?
The Eagle replaces the British “Sovereign,” and Lady Liberty has taken over the place of a particularly pig-visaged portrait bust medallion of George III swathed, like a Roman, in laurels. Point is, the first of these laureled “majesties” was Ovid’s contemporary—his busts at least looked like emperors, and the Roman race was very keen on their coin, standing as it did for the integrity of markets, weights, measures, standards, the treasury itself, in fact the national heritage. Coining was sole prerogative of the High Priest (Pontifex Maximus) of the temple of Juno Moneta atop the Capitoline, moneta meaning the coin, the die, the mint, the goddess Moneta being mother of the Camenae (Rome’s Muses), monitae (from the same verb, moneo, to warn) being prophecies: the so-called Sibylline Books lodged in this temple which doubled as Rome’s Mint. These matters were not lost on either of our poets.
In the long harsh winters of Pontus, Ovid worked at his greatest love letter to the city he would never see again, his Fasti, a calendar of the events that made Rome Rome. Near mid-January occurs the anniversary of the founding of the temple of Juno Moneta, which the poet marks with:
Thee hath the next light.
Whiteness, set within winter’s temple,
one lofty stairway to the birth of coin:
now, Concord, canst thou scrutinize thy horde of Romans,
now sanctifying hands have made thy House.
Nowhere (so far as I know) has Pound alluded to this passage—probably the most exalted lines ever written about the moral grandeur of honest currency—but everywhere The Cantos aspire to its spirit and at one point they actually create Ovid’s passage’s exact inversion:
That the Pontifex ceased to be holy
—that was in Caesar’s time—
who was buggar’d
and the coin ceased to be holy,
and, of course,
they worshipped the emperor.
The Caesar mentioned here is, of course, Julius, whose sexual degradation was noted by Catullus and merely parallels his other desecratory activities: as Pontifex he debased the coin, destroyed his own human integrity by pretending to be a god, and ruined the state, turning the Republic into the Empire. “The temple is holy,” asserts our modern poet in the spirit of our ancient one, “because the temple is not for sale.” The temple is not for sale (at least in a moral epoch such as we might presently hope to return to) because access to the mysteries of the cosmos is one thing money can’t buy.
Wearing the masks of our various historical personae, we have passed through the valley of the shadow of money into Elysian Fields of mythos. Let us pause a moment to note that I employ the Greek term for a reason. Loose journalistic usage has all but destroyed any pure sense of the word myth, now indicating convenient political fictions maintained by coercion or inertia against the truth over time. There is also the merely decorative tradition of the verses of the troubadours or a multitude of high Renaissance rapes (various lecherous excuses for a display of giggling cleavage); there is some of that sort of window dressing even in the Commedia: There’s a lot in Shakespeare, in the tusheries of French Classical Tragedy. Almost all of it goes back to the often titillating verse of Ovid himself Yet all these poets also used such things in a more serious sense; there is a current of profound wisdom communicated through the medium of myth whose devotion to the cultivation of which has set Pound in a class by himself among moderns while making him, as mentioned at the start, Ovid’s most significant disciple.
Neither the skeptical urbanities (“Gods are convenient so we tend to believe in them”) of our ancient poet nor the caustic empiricisms of our modern one were, in the end. proof against urgent accesses to the “truth” of this form of knowledge:
Dwelleth within us the god. We warm warmed to his motion.
His cast soweth seeds of sacred mind.
I have outstanding right to have gazed upon gods’ faces:
I am a medium; I am a singer of truths.
So Ovid. The initial phrase (“est deus in nobis” etc.) weaves through the late cantos of Pound and leads Ovid on (in the original) to a vision of that same deity, Juno Moneta, whose temple was the shining mint atop Rome’s highest hill.
In mythos we enter another world: Perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that another world enters us (est deus in nobis . . . ) wherein our usual state of rational mind no longer obtains. “A god,” said Pound, “is an eternal state of mind“:
The dogs leap on Actaeon,
“Hither, hither, Actaeon,”
Spotted stag of the wood;
Gold, gold, a sheaf of hair,
Thick like a wheat swath.
Blaze, blaze in the sun.
The dogs leap on Actaeon.
That a man out hunting has stumbled onto the secret bathing-place where the Moon renews her virginity; that the goddess in outraged modesty turns him into a stag; that his own hounds run him to earth: through this poet’s glorious sleight-of-hand we see (hear) it all. If this be but wishful thinking, it is not a kind that most of us have ever done unless in our most intimate horrific nightmares. Are such things so?
I have seen what I have seen.
When they brought in the boy I said:
“He has a god in him, though I do not know which god.”
And they kicked me into the fore-stays.
I have seen what I have seen . . .
So the boy-god Dionysus, shanghai’d by King Pentheus’ pirates, is betrayed (we have mentioned this before).
Now, the questing genius of poetic imagination might carry one (an Ovid, a Dante, a Pound) very far into merely assuming mysteries of the cosmos on intuition and language alone. Yet unless the universe itself in some even unfathomable fashion respond, one is left forever wondering whether such traditions of the literally marvelous are not just instances—however esthetically superior—of contagious delusional systems of nightmarish wishful thinking. After all. Pound was adjudged to have been, officially, mad. No one answers such a question for another; probably one can’t even answer it for oneself But by the closing book of Metamorphoses (wherein Pythagoras actually teaches the central doctrine of transconsciousness to Rome’s King Numa), Ovid has passed from any putative state of superficial fascination with mythos to something approaching certitude.
This personal witness is the root significance of the stuff of Ovid’s poem. that individuality is merely a mask a temporary giving of face to the flux of eternity. And so it was for Pound too.
At Pisa Pound underwent the most sustained trial of faith of any poet known to me. As had the exiled (kid before him, there Pound earned in tears (while that classical Civilization for which he cared with reckless ultimate love lay virtually shattered on top of him) his own “outstanding right to have gazed upon gods’ faces.”
In the company of the gods—not those he”d always read about but those that actually came—he became the medium and the singer of truths.