When I started reading the Cantos several days ago (which I have to admit I had already started reading prior to writing the last blog entry), I was expecting a difficult poem, but was pleasantly surprised by the first Canto. With the help of Modern American Poetrys comments on Canto I reading the Canto was relatively painless, and I was impressed by Pounds successful combination of Odysseus and Old English poetry.
The Second Canto, however, was an altogether different matter. The allusion in the first three lines:
Hang it all, Robert Browning,
there can be but the one Sordello
But Sordello, and my Sordello?
led me on a wild chase for several days.
The reference to Robert Browning took me to Gordon Rays 900 page volume Victorian Poetry and Poetics, my college text for a 5-hour course in Victorian Poetry. Though I did not remember that particular poem, I did recall several Browning poems that had caught my attention. However, in the whole 180 page section on Browning there are only two short references to the poem, one mentioning it was set in medieval Italy.
There was, however, an interesting comment on Brownings influence on Pound:
Browning's experiments in rhythm and diction his achievement of a flexible monologue form and his bold obscurity, opened up new possibilities in poetry. Through the influence of Ezra Pound (who began his career as an imitator of Browning), and less directly of T S Eliot the dramatic monologue has become the dominant form of contemporary poetry. Most of Pound's important poems, and the chief poems of Eliot's early and middle period are variations on the form Browning developed.
An even more relevant comment, one that somehow seemed particularly pertinent to my reason for re-reading this old textbook was the following comment on what the author describes as touch-and-go allusions:
Browning's obscurity, also, is the result of a method that is characteristic of much modern verse. He was addicted to touch-and-go allusions which demand extensive knowledge on the reader's part, to the plunge in media res without preliminary description of character, place, or time, and above all, to elliptical syntax and the sudden jump from thought to thought without benefit of connecting links. His friend, Julia Wedgwood, once protested to Browning (and her objection has since been echoed by readers of Eliot and Auden) at his use of "hieroglyphics." "You must treat us respectfully," she said, "and not fling us torn scraps of meaning, leaving us to supply the gaps." Elizabeth Barrett, dismayed by the same qualities, offered an analysis: "I have observed ... that a good deal of what is called obscurity in you, arises from a habit of very subtle association; so subtle, that you are probably unconscious of it, . . . the effect of which is to throw together on the same level and in the same light, things of likeness and unlikeness - till the reader grows confused as I did." But Browning was no more unconscious of it than is T. S. Eliot. When Ruskin complained of his obscurity, he answered: "You ought, I think, to keep pace with the thought tripping from ledge to ledge of my 'glaciers,' as you call them; not stand poking your alpenstock into the holes, and demonstrating that no fool could have stood there; - suppose it sprang over there?"
Frustrated that several hours of reading left me no closer to finding out what the reference in the poem meant, I started an internet search that led me to Bartlebys transcription of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (190721), Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One. At last I found something relevant, as revealed by the lines "This poem, as already hinted, was Sordello, Brownings second study of a poetic soul, but a soul, this time, caught in the context of large and imperious circumstance and quite unlike Aprile. So, at least, this idea of the study of a poetic soul seemed relevant to Pounds Cantos.
Somehow, though, the next few lines of the article:
Many have explained Sordello, and some have comprehended it. It is uncompromisingly and irretrievably difficult reading. No historical account of the conflicts of Ghibelline and Guelph, no expository annotation of any kind, not even its own wealth of luminous ideas or splendour of Italian city scenes and solitudes, can justify it entirely as a work of art.
offered more insight into the Cantos than I wanted to believe at this point. It seems strange to me that Pound would choose a poem that disappeared into relative obscurity and that diminished the reputation of one of his favorite poets as a starting point for his own masterpiece. Was it a realization that the Cantos themselves were doomed to the same kind of reception, or did he believe that he could transcend Browning description of the poetic soul with his own poem?
Though I now at least knew what the lines referred to, I certainly didnt have enough knowledge to transform those lines into anything meaningful. My search next led me to The Sordello Site where I discovered parts of the poem transcribed, a discussion of the actual Sordello, and, perhaps more importantly, a quote from Pound stating that Brownings Sordello was probably the greatest poem in English. To me, at least, that wasnt a good sign.
Having finally satisfactorily read the first four lines, I returned to the poem, only to be confronted by:
So-chu churned in the sea,
Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash,
Sleek head, daughter of Lir
Despite the irrefutable beauty of the line Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash, I hardly notice that, in fact I didnt notice for hours later, because Im immediately confronted by the questions of who the hell is a So-chu and who the hell is the daughter of Lir?
Thanks to the miracle of the internet I did manage to find the answers to these questions in several places but, most notably, at the URL entitled Robert Anton Wilson commentary on The Cantos of Ezra Pound which begins with the following introduction (typos included):
Ez told his father, Homer[!] Pound, that
the theme of metamorphoses dominates this canto
[I think Ez has multiple realities, not just mutltiple fathers.
He walks an uneasy waltz between Method Acting and Multiple
Personality Disorder, like some nitwit "channeling,"
but instead of producing their horsesht he somehow
produces great poetry. Robert Graves, oddly, said
all first-rate poetry emerges in semi-trance.
And Batty Billy Blake said a buncha naked angles
dictated his poems to him.]
This Canto seems psychedelic........
The site includes a complete explication of this Canto II, and Cantos XX. Though I had some doubts about how authoritative Robert Anton Wilsons interpretation might be after searching his site, at this point I decided to just read his explication of the poem and leave it there. But reading someone elses translation of a poem isnt exactly the same as reading a poem yourself, is it? At best it might get you the grade you need in a class if you can manage to paraphrase it successfully, but its not going to do much more than that.
Needless to say, Im not going to try to explicate the entire Cantos. I doubt if even Shelley would hang with me through that. Ill offer a few words tomorrow on what Ive really learned once I finish reading Selected Poems of Ezra Pound tonight.