Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Pound and world civilizations

Once a staple of the curricula of American universities, Western Civilization courses are being phased out.  Of course there is a case for semester-long studies of other major cultures, such as China, India, Islam, and the Pre-Columbian societies.  But these interests should not be achieved at the cost of deep-sixing Western civ.

In recent years some historians have rallied to the cause of Big History.  What in fact is Big History? It is an emerging academic subdiscipline that extends its purview all the way back to the Big Bang. By its very nature, Big History resists specialization, searching instead for universal patterns or trends. It embraces long time-frames using a multidisciplinary approach that combines numerous disciplines from science and the humanities.   

Other scholars are attracted to an ambitious framework, but keep to the human sphere.  They may be termed multiculturalists in the broad sense.  This essay asks what is the role of Ezra Pound (1885-1972) in this context.

For their part, readers of The Cantos, Pound’s major life work, are inevitably struck by his range of references to a variety of civilizations, from ancient Greece to modern times, with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance ranking as important components along the way. Yet he was not limited to Europe, as through much of his life he turned approvingly to early China and early Japan.  More sporadic were his incursions into Islam, ancient Egypt, and sub-Saharan Africa. Pound, it seems, was a culture vulture - though of what sort remains to be established.

Pound’s early education - which seems not to have included history courses - provided little foundation so that in this realm he was self-taught.  In college he took courses in Romance languages, especially Provençal (Occitan) and Italian.  In those days philologists held that the early stages of these tongues were crucial - hence Pound’s focus on the Middle Ages.  In this way he joined a major current of Victorian literature and art, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Robert Browning were important creative influences, in part because of the lure of the Italian connection.

Remarkably fertile was his encounter with Mrs. Ernest Fenollosa, who in late 1913 presented him with a collection of manuscripts by her deceased husband, an early Japanologist who was also interested in ancient China.  Hence Pound’s ongoing concern with the historic civilizations of the Far East.

In addition to this cultural richness, readers encounter difficulty with the overlay principle, already evident in the first thirty Cantos, where he seems to veer unexpectedly from one topic to another.  Another obstacle is the many quotations in the original languages.  In an age like today with the study of languages in decline, we read works from other traditions in translation.

With a rare display of modesty Pound once characterized his Cantos as “a poem containing history” (ABC of Reading, 1934).  Yet what history? Not the chronicle of any particular nation - though his own United States figures significantly in some sections - but the history of civilizations - at least of those that he deems important.

Pound’s approach to the panoply of civilization shows similarities, as well as differences with another approach.  This is the cultural morphology of Danilevsky, Spengler, and Toynbee.  On the one hand, these writers emphasized the distinctiveness of each civilization.  At the same time they showed similar patterns, not unlike that of a single human life: infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and senescence.   Fear of the latter takes concrete form in the example of the decline and fall of Rome.

First we take up the little-known founder of the cultural morphology approach, the Russian Nikolay Danilevsky (1822-1885). He pioneered the use of biological and morphological metaphors in the comparison of cultures. Danilevsky compared cultures and nations to biological species, denied their commonality and argued that each nation or civilization is united by its language and culture, which it cannot pass on to any other nation. He thus characterized Peter the Great's reforms in Russia as doomed to failure, as they had attempted to impose alien values on the Slavic world.

Danilevsky distinguished four categories of historical-cultural activity: religious, political, sociopolitical, and cultural.

Interacting, they generated ten identifiable historical-cultural types:

Roman or ancient Italian
Hamitic or Egyptian

Danilevsky applied his teleological theory of evolution by stating that each type went through various predetermined stages of youth, adulthood, and old age, the last being the end of that type. He characterised the Slavic type as being at the youth stage, and he developed a socio-political plan for its development, involving unification of the Slavic world, with its future capital at Constantinople (now Istanbul), ruled by an Orthodox emperor. While other cultures would degenerate in their blind struggle for existence, the Slavic world should be viewed as a Messiah among them. Danilevsky, however, believed that there is no genuine or absolute progress, as history is circular.

Aspects of Danilevsky's book prefigured some of the theories in Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. Arnold J. Toynbee mentions them in A Study of History. The Danilevsky hypothesis became the subject of much controversy and polarized its readers. 

In his Decline of the West (1918-23), apparently conceived without knowledge of Danilevsky’s work, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) lists eight Hochkulturen or "High Cultures" that have existed:

Mesoamerican (Mayan/Aztec)
Classical (Greek/Roman)
Faustian or Western (European)

I retain his original terminology, including such neologism as Indic and Sinic; Magian is his term for Islamic civilization.

The "Decline" is largely concerned with comparisons of the Classical and Western Cultures, but some examples stem from the Islamic, Chinese, and Egyptian Cultures. Each Culture arises within a specific geographical area and is defined by its internal coherence of style in terms of art, religious behavior and psychological perspective. Central to each Culture is its conception of space which is expressed by an “Ursymbol.”  Although not amenable to a strictly logical examination, Spengler's idea of Culture is, he claims, justifiable through the persistence of recurrent patterns of development and decline across the thousand years of each Culture's active lifetime.

Spengler excludes the Southeast Asian and Peruvian (Incan, Tiahuanaco, etc.) cultures from Hochkulturen. He thinks that Russia is, while still in the course of defining itself, may be bringing into being a Hochkultur. The Indus Valley Civilization had not been discovered at the time he was writing, and its relationship with later Indian civilization remained unclear for some time.

A Study of History is a 12-volume universal history by the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975), published in 1934–61. For a number of years it garnered enormous popular attention, but according to historian Richard J. Evans, "enjoyed only a brief vogue before disappearing into the obscurity in which it has languished.”  Toynbee's goal was to trace the development and decay of 19 world civilizations in the historical record, applying his model to each of these civilizations, detailing the stages through which they all pass: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.  In this way he recognizes both the autonomy of civilizations, while also seeking to detect morphological similarities in their course of development.

The 19 major civilizations Toynbee posits are: Egyptian, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumerian, Mayan, Indic, Hittite, Hellenic, Western, Orthodox Christian (Russia), Far Eastern, Orthodox Christian (main body), Persian, Arabic, Hindu, Mexican, Yucatec, and Babylonic. In addition there are four "abortive civilizations" (Abortive Far Western Christian, Abortive Far Eastern Christian, Abortive Scandinavian, Abortive Syriac), and five "arrested civilizations" (Polynesian, Eskimo, Nomadic, Ottoman, Spartan), making up a grand total of 28.

Pound had (it seems) no knowledge of these three figures, but he was acquainted with the somewhat similar work of Leo Frobenius, a German culture morphologist who specialized in sub-Saharan Africa.

What then was Pound’s delineation of civilizations? His initial preoccupation was with what may be termed the central Middle Ages in Southern Europe in the period from about 1100 to 1300.  Bypassing the Chanson de Roland, he posits the major accomplishment of the era as the highly intricate poetry of the Provençal troubadours.  He then traced this heritage to the slightly later Italian development of the dolce still nuovo as seen in such figures as Dante and Gudo Cavalcanti,  These concerns were implicit in the way he was taught Romance languages in college, which focused on origins.  Later, after he settled in London he embodied his discoveries in his prose book entitled The Spirit of Romance.

Having grappled with one of the most creative epochs of the Middle Ages, his attention traveled forward, extending itself into the Italian Renaissance, the era of the American Revolution, and the modern times in which he lived. In the other direction Ancient Greece remained a cynosure. 

Thanks to his access to the Fenollosa manuscripts in the period just before World War I, Pound contracted a long-lasting commitment to historic Japan and especially China.  By contrast his concern with Islam was relatively slight, though later in life he became concerned with Africa, based on his knowledge of the work of Frobenius. Since the Africa material is chiefly of tribal origin, his perspectives were not limited to the higher societies, though clearly, because of his reliance on written sources, his emphasis lay there.

There are some salient differences between the approach of Pound and that of the three culture morphologists.  As a rule he does not offer an overall assessment of each civilization, but relies, as stated in an early prose essay, on his method of “luminous detail.”  Occasionally, the historical record, often dreary and problematic, is broken by “magic moments.”  This particularism tended to work against a holistic approach towards any particular civilization, though it could be asserted that such preferences are implicit as in the cases of ancient Greece, the European middle ages, the early days of the American republic, and imperial China.

Pound’s first inclinations to cultural otherness emerged in his decision in college to study the early literature oft the Romance peoples of southern Europe.   His particular foci were the Italian writers of the Dolce Still Nuovo.   Through much of his creative life he sought to produce adequate renderings of Guido Cavalcanti.  This general path had been followed earlier by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other Victorians.  By contrast, Provence was relatively unfamiliar, though some philologists held that it was the primordial Romance tongue from which the others derived.  The modern preoccupation with the troubadours as supposed adherents of Courtly Love was to come after Pound’s encounter.  For his part the poet came to believe that Provence fostered an esoteric continuation of the Eleusinian culture of ancient Greece.

Unlike Toynbee and the other cultural morphologists, Pound’s interest in world civilizations was usually selective rather than holistic.  One factor that guided his choice of elements - “luminous details” if you will - was his encounter with the occult, a major theme in intellectual circles during Pound’s London years.  His mentor William Butler Yeats was heavily involved in such interests, including the practices of spiritualism. 

Pound was reluctant to follow this trend, preferring the approach of a learned private scholar George Robert Stowe Mead (G. R. S. Mead; 1868-1933).  Initially active in the Theosophy movement, Mead seceded with a number of others to form the Quest Society, which focused on Neo-Platonism and other historical aspects of the hermetic tradition. Together with his wife Dorothy, Pound attended a number of lectures by Mead.  Prompted by this example and others, Pound was eventually to settle on the Hellenic Eleusinian Mysteries as a kind of red thread running through much later European history, including the work of the Provençal troubadours.  Arguably, this preoccupation played a significant role in his selection of positive events and personalities through the centuries.

Pound’s approach combines a recognition of the inherent value of other civilizations with his discovery of perceived links among them, as well as with our own.  A possibly relevant comparison is with an approach unknown to Pound.  The Axial Age is a concept first advocated by German philosopher Karl Jaspers in a German book of 1949.   During the period from about 800 to 200 BCE., in Jaspers' view, new ways of thinking appeared at this time in Persia, India, China and the Greco-Roman world in religion and philosophy  In a striking parallel development, without any obvious direct cultural contact among the participating Eurasian cultures, a number of key innovators appeared who had a profound influence on future ways of thought.   Jaspers presented his outline of the Axial age in a series of examples:   “Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers—Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato,—of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.”

At first little noticed, the concept of the Axial Age became widely discussed in the closing years of the twentieth century.

From his early days in London, Pound regarded the senior poet William Butler Yeats as his mentor.  They shared certain mystical inclinations, though Pound declined to follow Yeats onto the stranger paths of spiritualism.  To be sure, on this basis Yeats evolved his own version of comparative historiography.  With the first version of the book appearing in 1925, Yeats's "A Vision" offers an esoteric and occult view of the nature of civilizations.  It was the product of years of collaboration between the poet, W. B. Yeats, and his wife, George, in automatic writing. The system presented in the book regards everything as subject to cycles, known as "gyres", with the stages of each cycle symbolized by the phases of the Moon. This process and its phases apply to human incarnations, yielding character types.  While the examples given are mainly European, some also stem from ancient Greece and Islam, showing that the system has a broad comparative scope.

Yeats was not satisfied with the first edition of “A Vision,” and not long after its appearance he journeyed to Rapallo to confer with Pound.  No complete record of their conversations exists, but the opening chapter of the revised edition (1937) is entitled “A Packet for Ezra Pound.”  If the intent of the Irish poet was to convert his colleague he failed, but may have been correct in detecting affinities linking their approaches.  Clearly Pound differed in his approach, subjective as it may sometimes seem, as he was committed to drawing attention to cultures at their maximum, disregarding other phases.

Why the disregard?  For Pound, an ongoing theme, a negative one, is his denunciation of usury, a kind of plague he believed, to be shunned as eroding the integrity of a civilization.  This idea shows some affinity with the normative ideas of John Ruskin, who held that good art could only arise in the context of a decent society, while a bad society will produce bad art.

Another general theme, imperfectly realized, is the contrast between order and disorder.  Order, he held, is best achieved through the guidance of certain gifted individuals, such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the US and Chinese rulers who followed Confucius.  In the last analysis he is unable to state what the principles of order consist of, nor to indicate a path to achieve them.

During his Italian years Pound became briefly interested in the work of Brooks Adams, a scion of the Adams family.  The Law of Civilization and Decay is a book published by the latter-day Adams in 1895, wherein he sought to prove that the rise and fall of civilizations follows a definite cycle of centralization and decay. Unfortunately, Adams restricted the exemplification of his approach to Western history. In his Italian book Carta de Visita (Rome, 1942), Pound relates Adams’ work to the Kulturmorphologie tradition.

We turn now to The Cantos themselves.  Presentationally, in keeping with his generally modernist approach, Pound adopts a poetic practice in terms of overlay, splicing together items from different eras.  An example occurs in Canto 4 with the story of Itys.   Itys was the offspring of Procne and Tereus, king of Thrace.  Discovering that Tereus had raped Philomela, Procne cooked their son, feeding him to her husband.  From this gruesome tale Pound segues to the story of the twelfth-century figure Guillem de Cabestan.  According to a legendary account, he was the lover of Margarida or Seremonda, wife of Raimon of Castell Rosselló. On discovering their affair, Raimon fed Cabestan's heart to Seremonda. When he told her what she had eaten, she threw herself from the window to her death.  The alignment of these two similar stories shows the “rhyming” of events over the centuries.  More generally, Pound’s modernist method of splicing together persons and events of different times and cultures serves to inhibit any straightforward narrative of the type usual in megatheories of history, with their template of rise, apogee, and fall.

A major exception to Pound’s non-sequential approach is the Chinese Cantos (52-61).
These are based on the first eleven volumes of the thirteen-volume Histoire générale de la Chine by Joseph-Anna-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla, a French Jesuit missionary who had resided in China for many years. Completed in 1730, it was not published until 1777–1783.  Pound was able to purchase a set of this vast compilation, relying on it heavily in Canto 52, out of sequence, presents a rendering of the classic Chinese text known as the Li Chi or Book of Rites, especially those parts that deal with agriculture and natural increase.  The remainder of the set (Cantos 52-61) deals with an orderly sequence of imperial China from prehistoric times up to the eighteenth century.  Created with the authorization of the court in Peking, the work adheres to the then-dominant Neo-Confucianism, castigating Taoism, a prejudice Pound endorsed. Some confusion has ensued from Pound’s rendering of the Chinese names in the French forms found in Mailla.

Until this point, in the 1930s. Pound’s concern with China had focused on two eras: the early (pre-imperial) period, centering on Confucius: and the Tang period (618-907 CE) with its lyric poetry as seen in his iconic Cathay. The incorporation of the Mailla material greatly widened the scope - with significant consequences, for arguably his preoccupation with China constitutes Pound’s only sustained effort to characterize a specific civilization as a whole.  His more usual procedure is to identify specific events and personalities as exceptional - sometimes having a particular radiance.  Moreover, each particular radiant instance is capable of “rhyming” with such instances of radiance in other civilizations.  In this way he broke with usual orthodoxy of culture morphologists holding that each civilization is purely autonomous in its development, though they may arise out of earlier precursors and generate offspring in turn.

It is instructive to follow the early instances of Pound’s Sinophilic preoccupation and its union with other themes.  In the cycle of Cathay, first published in book form in March, 1915, Pound inserted his translation of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon “Seafarer” as a contemporary work  - representing two poles as it were, East and West, of the vast Eurasian landmass.  Turning now to the Cantos themselves, the first sixteen are dominated by Europe (ancient Greece and Italy, Renaissance and modern); yet China gets a look-in near the start of Canto II, with the legendary So-Shu, who churned the sea,  Then there is a big Sinic incursion in Canto XIII, where Confucius (Kung) stands for a concept of the Ideal society.  At that time, the late ‘twenties, Pound had been reading French translations of texts ascribed to the Chinese sage.  Exceptionally, Canto XVIII opens with brief account of the visit of Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. 

Pound first approached the writings of Confucius as early as 1907, apparently reflecting his parents’ interest in missionary work in China. However, his serious engagement with the ancient Chinese philosophy began in 1913 when AllenUpward, the author of The Sayings of K’ung the Master (1904), introduced him to Guillaume Pauthier’s French rendering of Confucian texts,
Les Quatre livres de philosophie morale et politique de la Chine(1841). In a letter to his wife, Dorothy Shakespear of 1913, Pound reported, “I’m stocked up with K’ung fu Tsze [Confucius], and Men Tsze [Mencius], etc. I suppose they’ll keep me calm for a week or so.” Pound’s introduction to Confucian works (via Pauthier) yielded the publication of his first article on Confucius in the periodical The Egoist.  Entitled “The Words of Ming Mao ‘Least Among the Disciples of Kung-Fu-Tse’,” the article stresses the importance Confucius placed on self-cultivation. In fact, Pound argued that this endeavor was the “core” value in Confucianism.  Pound’s first poetic creation based on Confucian works is Canto XIII, which explores the concept of self-cultivation extensively. In it, Pound relies on Pauthier’s translations to synthesize and condense two of the Confucian classics, Daxue. [The Great Learning] and Lunyu
 [The Analects]. In Canto XIII, the reader encounters a series of dialogues between Confucius and his students. Whenever Confucius asks a question, the student must contemplate a range of possible answers. One of the students, Zeng Xi, asks Confucius, “Which [student] had answered correctly?” Confucius calmly replies, “They have all answered correctly, / That is to say,each in his nature.” Notably, Pound’s rendering diverges from the original text. In
Lunyu 11.25.  Confucius evaluates his students’ answers critically, favoring Zeng Xi’s answer over the other students’ responses. As noted above, Pound revises Confucius’s apparent preference, claiming that Confucius accepts all the answers equally. In doing so, Pound aligns this canto with ideas he had previously expressed in his essay “Provincialism the Enemy” (1917). Here, as in Canto XIII, he maintains that Confucius respects the students’ individuality and diversity even though the original text suggests otherwise. Hence, Canto XIII neither follows the traditional views on Confucianism nor aligns with critical studies on the ancient philosophy. Instead,Pound’s interpretation of the text suggests that different ideas and discussions are to be valued in their own right. In Pound’s version, students are asked to reject the practice of blindly following instructions in favor of thinking independently – a trait that Pound highly admires and promotes. After the dialogue between Confucius and his students in Canto XIII, Pound presents one of the most important passages, one which develops the philosophy of self-cultivation and assertion of the self: If a man have not order within himHe can not spread order about him;And if a man have not order within himHis family will not act with due order;And if the prince have not order within himHe can not put order in his dominions. While the original text (Daxue 1.4) opens with Confucius reasoning with the prince about the necessity of ordering the state, Pound starts not with the state but with the individual. In the passage above, Pound’s repetition of the word “order” in every line creates a sense of urgency and compels the reader to take careful note of the word. His speaker notes that order must first be created in oneself, adding that it will consequently irradiate outwards to family and state. The Chinese scholar Zhaoming Qian points out that Pound uses the word “order”six times whereas his source only used the word twice. Through its frequent repetition,Pound stresses the importance of order for both Confucius’s moral and political system and his own beliefs.According to Pound’s rendition, Confucius taught his students that a prerequisite to achieving order in human affairs is to achieve order in oneself. A peaceful, stable world thus depends on a carefully integrated program of personal self-cultivation, harmonized family life, and well-ordered states.

After the publication of Canto XIII, Pound’s enthusiasm for Confucianism culminated in the 1928 rendition of theTa Hio: The Great Learning,  once again based on Pauthier’s translation. Pound regarded his version as “[n]ewly rendered into the American Language”, a statement that points to his self-perception as a Confucian disciple, one who was compelled to convey the virtues of this ancient philosophy to his English readers. In “Date Line”(1934), Pound answered T. S. Eliot’s earlier query: “What does Mr Pound believe?” with the simple, emphatic sentence: “I believe the Ta Hio.

The ninety-ninth Canto concerns some aspects of the Sacred Edict (Sheng Yu), a document issued in 1670 by the Kangxi Emperor.  This text comprises sixteen maxims, each seven characters long, serving to inculcate the basic principles of Confucian orthodoxy. To be publicly posted in every town and village, they would each be read aloud twice. 

Eventually, as his knowledge of the Chinese language improved, Pound went on to translate the three major works ascribed to Confucius and his circle, together with the early Book of Songs, traditionally regarded as edited by the sage.  

Pound was imperfectly aware of the lines of transmission whereby enthusiasm reached the West.  They stemmed from Jesuit missionaries, who in order to obtain their goals “went native,” learning Chinese customs and steeping themselves in the Classics of that language, which they claimed were in accord with Christianity.  With due changes, this enthusiasm for ancient China was adopted by such Western thinkers as Leibniz and Voltaire.

In his mature years Pound identified as a Confucian.  In fact his day was not propitious for this allegiance as modernization pressures in twentieth-century China diminished the reputation of Confucius, a disparagement culminating during the Communist Cultural Revolution.  
Pound did not live long enough to see a massive change in the sage’s home country, for in recent years the People’s Republic has reversed course, financing a chain of Confucius Institutes.  There are now internationally some 500 of these, including 90 in the United States.  Generally attached to universities, the Institutes are dedicated to the promotion of Chinese language and culture.

Given the massiveness of Pound’s commitment to China, one has to wonder if he did not see world civilization as a partnership between two major components: the West, starting in ancient Greece; and the Celestial Kingdom.  Yet the situation was more complicated than this dyarchy would suggest.

Late in life Pound became interested in a non-Han people of southern China, the Naxi or Na Khi.  The idea of paradise is manifested in two Cantos that make explicit reference to the life of the Naxi. In Canto CI and CIV. Only a few researchers on the works of Pound have realized the importance that the Nakhi culture had in the last part of The Cantos.  Yet in the context of the search for a Confucian paradise as the main theme of the works, the Naxi paradise figures in the realization of this dream.

In a sense the Chinese concern was reinforced by a lesser interest In Japan, as seen in his citations of his rendering of the Noh plays, mediated in the first instance by the Fenollosa manuscripts.  In 1917 Pound wrote to Harriet Monroe that The Cantos was based “roughly on the theme of Takasago,”  This particular claim seems exaggerated, yet it does show his enthusiasm for these venerable dramas.  In addition, Canto XLIX - the “Seven Lakes” - was largely based on an illustrated Jaoanese manuscript owned by the poet’ s father.  Sadly, Pound was never able to visit either of these major Far Eastern nations,

Over time there were other components, such as ancient Egypt, where the poet was guided by his father-in-law, the Egyptologist Boris de Rachewiltz. Yet Pound’s knowledge of ancient Egypt was never secure or extensive, as seen in his references (beginning in Canto XCI) to “Ra-Set,” a conflation of two deities.

Connections with the Islamic world were also sporadic.  One indication is the first name of Omar Shakespear Pound, evidently alluding to the famous Persian poet, Omar Khayyam.  The boy was born in a hospital in Paris, the son of Dorothy Shakespear, the long-time wife of Ezra Pound. Omar entered the world fourteen months after Maria (the future Mary de Rachewiltz), who was the daughter of Pound and his long-time mistress, violinist Olga Rudge. Dorothy was separated from Pound for much of 1925. She spent the autumn of 1925 in Siena with her mother, then headed to Egypt from December 1925 to March 1926. Dorothy was pregnant on her return. Nonetheless, Ezra Pound signed the birth certificate for Omar and assumed responsibility for this son.  At around 18 months, Omar was sent to London to be reared by his maternal grandmother, Olivia Shakespear. While his mother visited annually, after being sent to England Omar did not see Ezra Pound again until he was 12.

We turn now to Subsaharan Africa.  Instrumental herein was the direct influence of the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius (1873-1936), the one cultural morphologist to occupy this honor in Pound’s work.  In 1904 the German scholar undertook his first expedition to Africa to the Masai district in Congo,  Over the years he traveled to other parts of Africa. In 1920 he founded the Institute for Cultural Morphology in Munich.   Frobenius served as a professor at the University of Frankfurt. In 1925, the city acquired his collection of some 4700 prehistorical African stone paintings, currently housed at the University's institute of ethnology, which was named the Frobenius Institute in his honor in 1946.   From Frobenius Pound derived his ideal of paideuma, the systematic study of culture.

Pound never traveled to Subsaharan Africa.  Yet the contact with Frobenius seemed to have influenced his sympathetic relations with African American soldiers during his confinement in Pisa.

Other parts of the world were more scantily represented.  in due course Byzantium and Islam received some attention, especially as regards monetary policy.

Some light is thrown on Pound’s overall procedures, which at first seem disconcerting,  by a concept that originated in  critical thought in Russia in his time, with which he was evidently unacquainted.  This is estrangement (ostranenia),  Also known as defamiliarization or disautomatization, estrangement originated as a principle of literary and poetic theory within Russian formalism in 1917, being elaborated largely through the work of Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky. In essence, estrangement is a method of exploring the artfulness, rather than the psychological import or logical message, of imaginative works of prose and poetry.  Focus on these aspects leads, by virtue of its very unfamiliarity, to new perceptions.

When all is said and done, The Cantos remains a poem.  In this light there are other relevant aspects, such as the method of shifting Personae, that is, adopting the mask of a historical figure.  This approach, dominant in his early poetry, was less common in The Cantos, where he was in quest of bigger quarry.

It goes without saying that the approach followed in this essay, emphasizing civilizations, leaves much out.  For example, it neglects the element of poetic metric - and more generally of music.  The Cantos could be translated as The Songs. Pound's ear was attuned to the motz el son - words and sounds -  of troubadour poetry where, as musicologist John Stevens has noted, "melody and poem existed in a state of the closest symbiosis, obeying the same laws and striving in their different media for the same sound-ideal.”   

In his middle years Pound composed two operas, one called Le Testament on François Villon, the other on Guido Cavalcanti.  Needless to say, they are rarely performed.  Reflecting his friendship with the avant-garde composer George Antheil, he also wrote a Treatise on Harmony.

More generally, we sense musicality in many passages of The Cantos. “In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it.” (Canto 11)