The Cantos of Ezra Pound
Essays

Clarity from Chaos in the Rock-Drill Cantos Paradise

“Section: Rock-Drill De Los Cantares” is the sequence of Ezra Pound’s “The Cantos” containing Cantos LXXXV-XCV. Here, Pound’s ideas on paradise, slowly built upon in the previous cantos, are brought to their zenith. These eleven cantos capture the idea of paradise that Pound is trying to articulate and achieve, and the relationship this has on culture and language.

Pound’s ideas on paradise are vast and multifaceted. “The Cantos” is notoriously difficult, and “Rock-Drill” proves no exception. The vast number of literary, historical and philosophical references in “Rock-Drill” makes it all but impossible to fully comprehend. Instead, greater themes and ideas are at the forefront. Despite the reader not being able to completely understand “Rock-Drill”, Pound’s ideas on paradise are nevertheless extremely clear. Pound’s ability to separate and distinguish is astonishing. The excess of ideas do not seem to stifle him—instead, this chaos actually enhances clarity. By the end, Pound’s idea of paradise is quite clear, even if the audience does not fully understand how they reached that conclusion. This essay seeks to show how and why Pound’s idea of paradise is clarified through the complex chaos of “Rock-Drill”.

While this essay focuses primarily on “Rock-Drill”, a brief exposition of the presence of paradise in “The Cantos” is useful.  Canto XVII first brings up the idea of light and paradise, and its relationship with nature and growth. Here, light is also intimated tied with paradise:  “silver beaks rising and crossing.” (XVII) The flame is described through the metaphor of a beak, with connotations of nature and animals. The dynamic verb of “rising” also alludes to the idea of a necessary ascension into paradise. This natural power is continued in Canto LXXXII through an apostrophe, “O GEA TERRA, what draws as thou drawest?” (LXXXII)  Natural paradise is personified, and seen as a person that requires determination and drive to reach. There are dangers associated with such a journey. Canto XLVII reminds the reader of the destructive nature of light and fire: “When the almond bough puts forth its flame.” (XLVII)  This idea of a destructive and potent nature is most clear in the Canto XC of the Rock-Drill sequence. Central to Canto XC is Ygdrasail, the tree of life that housed the nine worlds in Norse cosmology. The tree is a powerful symbol of life and nature, as well as the necessary relationship with the universe. Indeed, there is a distinct sense of unity, as “Beatific spirits welding together / as in one ash-tree in Ygdrasail.” (XC 625) The pre-modifier “ash” again hints at the destructive and regenerative powers of fire and light. Hence, before the start of the Rock-Drill Cantos, the intercorrelated ideas of light, fire, genesis and nature are already firmly burned into the reader’s memory. These motifs and ideas are absolutely crucial to paradise. Unlike the relatively self-contained “Pisan Cantos”, “Rock-Drill” must be examined in the great context of “The Cantos” to fully appreciate Pound’s efforts.

Interestingly, “The Cantos” can be examined in the greater context of literature and history. Perhaps the most obvious and potent literary allusion is to Dante. Wilhem notes that Pound deliberately constructed his idea of paradise in comparison and contrast to Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. Wilhem makes an extremely strong argument, noting the differing ideals and values that Pound and Dante held dear. Whereas Dante emphasized the metaphysical with the physical, Pound only strives for the physical and natural. While a comparison of the “Divine Comedy” with “The Cantos” would be extremely interesting, it falls outside the scope of this paper. Instead, what must be emphasized is Pound’s cleverness in using juxtaposition. By using Dante, one of the most influential poets ever, Pound is able to emphasize his own works in the audience’s mind. If “The Cantos” is read in relation to the “Divine Comedy”, Pound is able to draw strength from Dante’s existing ideas and reputation.

In an interview, Pound explained that he used the title of the “Rock-Drill” “to imply the necessary resistance in getting a certain main thesis across–hammering.” This forceful repetition and historical and literary allusions are crucial to an understanding of paradise. Pound applies great force through the drill, slowly chipping away at a small area of rock. In a similar sense, Pound uses a vast number of literary techniques and texts to slowly infuse the idea of paradise into the reader.

The complexity of Pound’s language and ideas deepens as the “Rock-Drill Cantos” begins. Even in relation to the difficulty of “The Cantos”, “Rock-Drill” is particularly dense and elusive. “Rock-Drill” has a certain fragmented and airy nature, characterized by numerous elliptical duplicated lines and phrases. Liebregts attributes this to Pound’s desire his original thesis of 1940. (Liebregts 291-292) Again, Pound referring and returning back to the earlier Cantos can be seen.

What is striking about “Rock-Drill” is Pound’s synthesis of the subjective and objective. Whereas the Pisan Cantos was explicitly autobiographical, and the Adams and China Cantos were starkly objective, “Rock-Drill” is an interesting middle ground. Again, Pound returns to ideas expressed in his previous Cantos and work, ideas that are familiar to the reader through repetition. Such a technique is reminiscent of Pound’s work with persona. Pound wishes to have the factual objectivity of history, with the emphatic subjectivity of his own personality. This historicity draws primarily from the Confucian history of ancient China, “Classic of History” and the American history of the bank wars, “Thirty Years View”. Pound wishes to study what makes a good government that can create a terrestrial paradise. The subjectivity comes from Pound’s beautiful expressions on light and paradise. Pound believed that an artist had a social responsibility, and such an idea of action and duty manifests in “Rock-Drill”.

Such repetition and reinforcement allows for brevity. After all, the foundation for Pound’s ideas have already been explored. Such a condensation of ideas also signals the closing distance towards Paradise. Indeed, in Canto XCVIII, Pound characters the gods as having great “Speed in communication.” (XCVIII)  Liebregts characterizes this acceleration towards paradise found in “Rock-Drills” as being reflected in its form and structure. (Liebregts 291-292) And indeed, the fragmented lines of “Rock-Drill” seem to carry great weight, and are able to succinctly represent dense pieces of knowledge. In Paradise, all knowledge exists concurrently, and the reader is expected to grasp them intuitively and explicitly.

Ardizzone explores the influence of Frobenius and Fenollosa on Pound’s language. Pound viewed form and language as a product of culture. Froebnius’ “paideuma” defined the idea of culture as a presence which molds and determines humanity through the forms it takes. (“Pound’s Language” 132)  Hence, Pound sees a direct correlation between culture and language. As evidenced in the Usury Cantos, a sick culture has sick language. In “Rock-Drill”, then, on paradisiacal culture, paradisiacal language is used: words with connotations of nature, light and so on.. This is why Pound believes poetry is capable of reaching the highest levels of knowledge. (“Pound’s Language” 124)

The rejection of the metaphysical here is also crucial: language has a concrete effect and reflection on society. Metaphysical fancies had no substance, and hence the language would have no substance. An articulation and exploration of metaphysics must therefore be avoided. (“Genesis and Structure” 22-25) It is this reason that Pound appreciates Chinese characters so much. The ideograms are made up of culture and substance, whereas “The language of the West is the product of a monotheistic and dogmatic thinking.” (“Pound’s Language” 136) Pound sees usury, metaphysics and monism in the Western language as coincident (indeed, the rationality behind Pound’s anti-Semitism can be seen here). Chinese natural polytheism, and its ability to incorporate deities into things, appealed greatly to Pound. Poetry, influenced heavily by Chinese culture, becomes Pound’s tool to change the Western decay.

As mentioned, Pound saw form and function as critically linked. “Rock-Drill” reflects its ideas of paradise in their form. The Rock-Drill Cantos are not monolithic and divided cantos, but intimately connected fragments that reflect and reproduce the light of Paradise. Interestingly, Pound engages in meta-fiction, as he addresses the nature of his Cantos in his Cantos. Pound’s description of the Throne of God, “Belascio or Topaze, and not have it sqush, / a “throne,” something God can sit on”, combines thrones, jewels and divinity. (LXXXVIII) Liebregts believes the fragmented Cantos is comparable to the jewels that make up God’s throne: in that sense, paradisiacal enlightenment can be reached through this scattering of ideas. (Liebregts 292) Interestingly, the topaz is a prominent symbol in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, where it represented the transformation of the transient into the everlasting—the seemingly fleeting and fragmented “Rock-Drill” Cantos actually comprise a greater eternality.

Ardizzone concurs with such a view of Pound’s language, believing it to be constructed with a functional task. Pound’s language frequently invokes regeneration and renewal, particularly against usury and despair. There is a distinct search for knowledge through poetry. Ardizzone particularly notes what she calls a teleological “utopistic tension.” (“Pound’s Language” 125-126) This tension in form and language has a clear telos, purpose. “Rock-Drill” forwards a utopian language that culminates in the Na-khi language in Canto CIV, where the vocalization of the poem is distilled into natural sounds. At this point, language and culture are completely interchangeable: there is a return to the divine natural paradise.

This return only happens at the very end. An examination of the evolution of language is necessary. Pound uses Chinese ideograms to indicate various paradisiacal virtues that are superior to Western language: wisdom, sincerity, truth and so on. These ideograms indicate virtue and intelligence as evidence of divinity in man, and man’s potential to create a physical paradise. For example, Pound uses the ideogram chih 止 to simultaneously escape from metaphysics and emphasize tranquility. Chih 止 means solitude or peacefulness. Pound uses chih 止 precisely because it does not have the same connotations of Western “stillness”.  Pound earlier defined stillness as “The fourth. The dimension of stillness.” (XLIX) By being in the fourth Euclidian dimension (i.e. not time, but a dimension outside of humanity), stillness is metaphysical. Chih 止, on the other hand, as an ideogram composed of the Chinese character for foot, and hence has the physicality so crucial to Pound’s paradise. The relationship between language and culture must be remembered. By using Chinese, Pound hopes to mimic Confucianism, which is closer to nature than the Western language of usury and monotheism. By Canto CIV, Pound’s poetic form has evolved and matured. By using natural sounds, Pound indicates that he has become one with nature and arrived at paradise.

The ideogram ling 靈 opens the “Rock-Drill” cantos, and exemplifies the relationship between Chinese characters and a natural paradise.  Ling 靈 is understood as “sensibility”. Ardizzone posits a link between Ling and knowledge, based on an etymological root of “sensibility” as “intellectus” and “nous.” (“Pound’s Language” 127)  Importantly, Pound purges any Romantic associations with “sensibility” by placing it in the context of the Chinese character. The ideogram 靈 is made of the sky over raindrops, with the word for ritual infused too. Ling 靈 captures the idea of a paradise attuned with natural order. This occurs because of the presence of the sky, which symbolizes paradisiacal genesis—indeed, sky in Chinese is synonymous with heaven. This paradise can be achieved through the descent of paradisiacal virtues onto earth, namely heaven, knowledge and light.

This does not necessarily mean that paradise must come from heaven. Pound emphasizes the importance of an able authority that can lead, be it the government or an artist. The first half of “Rock-Drill” focuses on the government. Pound is effectively espousing the values of a capable ruler in bringing order. By emphasizing Confucian values and cautionary against the bank wars of American usury, it is obvious that Pound prefers Eastern philosophy. Confucianism stresses loyalty, honesty, benevolence and so on—all traditional virtues that Pound would value. It is only in the second half, in Cantos XC-XCV, that Pound begins to feature artists. Canto XCVIII reintroduces Ocellus, a fictional character whose name derives from the latin word for “eye.” Ocellus is first introduced in Canto LXXXVII, “Y Yin, Ocellus, Erigena.” This tripling is crucial to an understanding of Pound’s motivations. Here, he combines Confucianism with Neo-Platonism—Y Yin was a Chinese minister famous for his justice, while Erigena refers to the Irish Neo-Platonist who emphasized regeneration and polytheism. Ocellus is hence the imagined amalgamation of Eastern Confucianism and Western Neo-Platonism. Ocellus’ presence in Canto XCII is extremely interesting:

Renew

jih 日

hsin 新

renew

Plus the luminous eye 見 (XCII)

Pound uses both English and Chinese here to indicate his new synthesis. The first Chinese character means Sun, having immediate connotations of fire and light. The second means new, re-iterating the regenerative and creative powers of nature. Lastly, “the luminous eye” can be seen as both the Sun, and Ocellus’ etymological root. The succinctness of the text further plays with their independent but connect natures. Ocellus, then, symbolizes the mix between East and West. The result is an image that is close to nature and light. Indeed, Ocellus speaks in XCVIII: “The boat of Ra-Set moves with the sun / “but our job to build light” said Ocellus.”  Ocellus represents the individual man, the artist, and Pound. He is the light-builder, the bridge that closes the gap to the  East, bringing Confucianism to the decaying West. Ocellus is only the first example in “Rock-Drill”. As mentioned, the repetition of a rock-drill is what makes it so forceful. Pound continues to create and reference East and West unions: Kati, Apollonius, Saint Augustine and so on. Pound explicitly espouses individual virtue, capturing such an idea through Kati’s maxim, “A man’s paradise is his good nature.” (XCIII) This explicit reference to paradise indicates how Pound believes that a physical and nature paradise on Earth is possible. Indeed, it is an individual’s responsibility to strive for such accord. Metaphysics and usury are the challenges towards a harmonious society.

“Section: Rock-Drill De Los Cantares” is an extremely intricate and deep study of language, culture and paradise. Its literary density cannot be stressed enough—the examples and quotes chosen above are but a small portion of “The Cantos”. Despite the near-impossibility of being able to fully comprehend “The Cantos”, it is surprising that Pound’s ideas can be ascertained so clearly. The great effort and hammering required to create a small hole in a rock with a rock-drill emphasizes the greater difficulty of the rock itself. It is from greater chaos that clarity can be found. By understanding a fraction of “The Cantos”, the reader will necessarily have had to interact with the full scale of Pound’s endeavors. It is precisely this difficulty and magnitude that makes “The Cantos” so compelling.

Works Cited

Ardizzone, Maria Luisa. “Pound’s Language in Rock-Drill, Two Theses for a Genealogy.” Paideuma 21.1-2 (1992): 121-147. Print.

Ardizzone, Maria Luisa. “The Genesis and Structure of Pound’s Paradise: Looking at the Vocabulary.” Paideuma 22.3 (1993): 13-35. Print.

Liebregts, P. Th. M. G.. “Section: Rock-Drill, 85-95 de los Cantares.” Ezra Pound and Neoplatonism. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004. 291-328. Print.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp., 1996. Print.

Terrell, Carroll Franklin, and Ezra Pound. A companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Wilhem, James J.. “Two Heavens of Light and Love: Paradise to Dante and to Pound.” Paideuma 2.2 (1973): 175-191. Print.

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