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Nature's First Green is Gold: The mysteries in Ezra Pound's The Cantos

Stained Glass by Sally Owen Stained Glass


            Throughout Pound's Cantos, beauty emerges from a mosaic of images to propel a "sexual religion of nature" modeled after the Eleusinian mysteries of the ancient Greeks. This Gnosis (knowledge) is Pound’s woven conception of mythology, history, and literature discovered through decades of reading and research. Every reference, layered and compounded by opposing forces, reveals a Pandora’s Box of endless connections in the syncretism of Pound’s intellect. A sense of dualism pervades this theme, light versus dark, good versus evil, female versus male. A close examination of Pound’s light/good/feminine associations reveal that he has folded three goddesses into a single presence, a triad capable of imparting the divine spark of understanding. An exploration Pound’s Gnosticism, heavily influenced by James Frazier’s Eleusinian mysteries of The Golden Bough, reveals a trichotomy that encompasses the body as “darkness/man,” the soul as “light/heaven” and the spirit with “spirit/wisdom. Persephone, the goddess of the underworld and the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the earth, are interwoven with Aphrodite, the goddess of the light to form a magnanimous feminine deity.


            Pound overlaps traditional allusions to one goddess with another: Aphrodite wraps around to Persephone, Persephone leads to Demeter, and she in turn evokes Aphrodite. Each goddess is also compounded by references to many other spirits, leading to a polytheism that can best be understood through The Child’s Guide to Knowledge.

“What is a god?
A god is an eternal state of mind
When is god manifest?
When the states of mind take form.
When does a man become a god?
When he enters one of these states of mind.”

(McDowell 173)


            This Gnostic version of spirituality encompasses the knowledge that Pound so urgently imparts to observant readers: man alone can not achieve total knowledge of the cosmos. Man and women together with gods and goddesses are needed to form a complete divinity. The thoughts that lead to understanding these crucial elements instruct the reader how to reach above and beyond matter of the earthbound world. Pound expands this idea further in “The Child’s Guide to Knowledge”:

What are the kinds of knowledge?
There are immediate knowledge and hearsay.

The greatest hearsay is the tradition of the gods.
Of what use is this tradition?
It tells us to be ready to look.

(Religio 48)

            To look, and to perceive the tradition of the gods in the natural beauty in the surrounding world results in the ultimate knowledge (gnosis) leading to spiritual fulfillment. In “Psychology and Troubadours” Pound reminds us of the line from Arnaut Daniel: “E quel remir contral lums de la lampa” and connects the perception of beauty with the “cult for the purgation of the soul by a refinement, and lordship over, the senses” leading to the rise of Mariolatry.


            Pound unites female wisdom (Sophia) as a counter-balance against male action of the Cantos. Through knowledge of female stimulation, either carnal lust or emotional knowledge, man’s creativity ascends spiritually. This counter balance of female against male, sun and moon, positive and negative, is expressed in sexual metaphors, sometimes thinly veiled within The Cantos. Pound expresses the movement between these two opposites as “the flowing” in “Psychology and Troubadours,” as: in “contemplation of the flowing we find sex, or some correspondence to it…a man has in him both ‘sun’ and ‘moon’” and thus sex is of a double function, reproductive and educational. A young man who has not yet experienced the energy flowing between these two poles is portrayed in Canto XX, when Nicolo d'Este’s son breaks the elephant horn and wails, in immature agony, over his bad luck as “born under a bad star.” Pound interrupts this fable with a reference to Ganelon, in the midst of impetuously aggravating the king in “Song of Roland.” The reader connects the two youth as not yet initiated to the love of a woman, and thus without knowledge of the life-force. This heightens the following reference to King Ferdinand and his pivotal "God what a woman!" before "Neestho, le'er go back.../in the autumn” (91) evoking Persephone's return to Hades in the fall.


            Hades’ rape of Persephone, and her eternal cyclical return to and release from his underworld, echoes in Sigismundo’s rape of “that German-Burgundian female” in Canto IX. It appears that the more “polumetis” (many-minded) the man, the more powerful the goddess he evokes. These moments, not instigated or caused by women, are dominated by images of women passively watching or receiving male wrath. While women are near men they cast a shadow of influence in the reader’s mind as strongly as when Pound inserts the sound of bells chiming or the waves crashing at the beginning of a series of images.


            Pound evokes specific personages from throughout history and leaves the reader, his student, to form their own connections between them. In Canto XX, not one goddess appears, but three negligibly reminiscent names: Zoe, Marozia and Zothar, all females of sexual reputation. They appear to have no obvious location in history and thus lack a clear function within the Canto until a realization that their presence sits directly before "HO BIOS." The second two names are phonetic derivations on Zoe, Greek for the female life spirit – a personification of the Greek “life” BIOS. Thus, Zoe “life”, echoed twice more with the phoneme “z” is then followed by a Homeric pronouncement of “HO BIOS” to emphasize the importance of meditation upon life. The echoes of life instigate Pound’s vision of female sexuality as earthly virile vegetation.


            As Pound creates the vision of unbounded female sexuality in the jungle image, the three women resonate behind the "Basis of renewal, renewals; /rising over the soul, green virid, of the jungle," to remind the reader women are female, uncontrollable sources of verdant growth in their abundant regenerating reproduction. Pound’s choice of the word “virid” is particularly apt for this passage; “green virid” rising over the soul displays the release of the soul from the confines of the body to the earthly realm. The word itself is reminiscent of Ovid, and thus evokes the Metamorphoses, the main metaphor of this canto, set forth with “Qui son Properzio de Ovidio” as if all that follows is the property of Ovid. (89) Emphasizing Pound’s focus on Eros and Aphrodite as his muse throughout the early cantos, as well as the theme from Ovid of human transformation tree or vine.


            Pound elaborates upon the human metamorphosis into trees to some length in his early poetry, the poem “The Tree” demonstrates the transformation that a personal conception of knowledge leads to:


I stood still and was a tree amid the wood,
Knowing the truth of things unseen before;
Of Daphne and the laurel bow
And that god-feasting couple old
That grew elm-oak amid the wold.
‘Twas not until the gods had been
Kindly entreated, and been brought within
Unto the hearth of their heart’s home
That they might do this wonder thing;
Nathless I have been a tree amid the wood
And many a new thing understood
That was rank folly to my head before.

(Personae 3)


            In “Homage to Sextus Propertius” Pound instructs the reader on the basics of how transformational “psychic experiences” are communicated in myth and are thus translatable across varying degrees of human understanding, yet only fully realized in the light of divine inspiration. That is to say, a man can achieve gnosis by grasping the spark and envisioning the heavens while his body remains fully rooted in the earth. Through realization of the spark of knowledge a man becomes one with nature in the moment he achieves sublimation into communal human history. Pound has hyphenated two varieties of trees into an elm-oak, and thereby combines various myths and conflates their associated deities. Hiroko Uno in “Trees in the Poetry of Yeats and Pound” states that “in Greco-Roman mythology the elm is a tree sacred to Dionysus-Bacchus, while the oak is sacred to the Great Goddess or Isis in the Osiris myth…identified by the Greeks with Demeter and even Aphrodite.” (Uno 141) The two deities, united through the unity of their sacred trees creates are thus magnified in stature in Pound’s Gnosticism.


            Canto VII provides a more varied pastiche of the female as divine image, through the words of great authors translated to Pound’s language. The canto is driven by the seventh through the tenth lines. According to Terrell, Pound encourages, through Ovid, men to find an attractive girl to follow into the theater. By following a girl "into the theater" and sitting as close as possible next to her to "watch" images evoked by Dante, Flaubert, and James, the man might witnesses earthly moments of beauty to spark a divine inspiration, and become initiated into modern Gnostic (knowledge) through mediation upon the sublime, the sensation of adoration and to feel and experience desire.


            The references "old men's voices" and "ear ear for the sea-surge" (24) encourage the reader to listen to the words of admirable authors to discover beauty through sound. The reference to Eleanor is magnified twice with two Homeric words to phonetically resonate the sound of her name. In the reference to “poor old Homer, blind/ blind as a bat,” the blindness phonetically reverberates with two more bilabial rushes of air, to emphasize the voicing of words. Pound then layers a third sensory allusion "ear, ear for the sea-surge" to magnify the synchronous and magnified effect of feminine beauty upon the visual and aural senses. The inclusion and importance of the senses is an esteemed aspect of the Gnostic faith.


            Pound emphasizes the ear, believed from the time of the earliest myths to be the source of life to compound the auditory “breath of life.” This notion is elaborated by Donald Mackenzie in The Migration of Symbols. “The ‘breath of life’ was heard as the ‘voice’ before it was breathed by the individual. It came from the god’s sky house as the windy murmur comes from the sea-shell" (143). Thus canto VII echoes the words of Ovid, James, Flaubert, and Homer: "the words rattle: shells given out by shells" and "make sound like the sound of voices" from "the tall indifference moves, / a more living shell /Drift in the air of fate, dry phantom, but intact" (27).


            The shell casing allusions resonate in images of empty houses, "Knocking at empty rooms/seeking for buried beauty." "Brown yellow wood, and the no colour plaster" emphasizes the locust-casque of a "house expulsed by this house." The "shell of life" magnified by empty houses resonates a Jungian metaphor of a body as the casing for the soul. The presence of Eleanor, Tyro, and Ione are set against the men with the lines "Against their action, aromas." Female aromas opposing male action foreshadows Canto XX and Arnaut Daniel's untranslatable "noigandres" – aromas that repel intellectual stagnation as feminine perfume stimulates the male imagination.


            Intellectual stimulation leads to an image of "Flame leaps from hand" (27) at the crescendo of the canto, another image that will be echoed in Canto XX with the vision of the female reclined, perhaps after coitus:

The right arm cast back
            right wrist for a pillow
The left hand like a calyx,
Thumb held against a finger, the third,
The first fingers petal'd up, the hand as a lamp,
A calyx.

The hand as calyx evokes transformation to vines with the fingers cradling the blossoms, physical metamorphosis resulting from spiritual awakening. This in turn recalls the Dantean ciocco of Canto VII, the spark rising from the log aflame with the expansion of the imagination. Motivated by images of the goddesses and passion Pound’s creative energy and force propels these passages into sublime knowledge.


            Persephone is often pictured in her ascent from the underworld with a torch in hand, thus her presence is strongly felt in Canto VII. Etymologically, Persephone means "she who shines in the dark." (Cashford 369) Thus the hand-as-torch signifies the seasonal cycle of death and rebirth celebrated in the Mysteries. According to Jules Cashford in The Myth of the Goddess, the "Mysteries at Eleusis grew out of a much older autumn festival dedicated to Demeter at the time of the sowing of the seed" and occurred in the month of October (374). The rituals, to Demeter in the fall or to her daughter Persephone’s return to the earth in the spring, are all evoked as one magnanimous ritual, leading to gnosis. The final vision of this canto concludes with an oft-repeated image of the "more living shell" signifying the infusion of life that spiritual awakening can imbue to the soul-shell of the human body.


            The Eros of Aphrodite is layered upon the cyclical renewal of Persephone to emphasize their magnified sexual power when combined into one female deity to paint the essence of the female as jungle. According to Michael Andre Bernstein in "Image, Word and Sign," Pound created a duality between opposing instances of female sexuality between Circe's wrath and Aphrodite's creative force:

"Already in the opening cantos Pound is careful to establish the central opposition between two kinds of female sexuality. The one leaves men empty of consciousness, transformed into a desolate bestiality as victims of Circe's random lust:

        When I lay in the ingle of Circe
        I heard a song of that kind.
        	Fat panther lay by me
        Girls talked there of fucking, beasts talked there of eating,
        All heavy with sleep, fucked girls and fat leopards,
        					[39: 193]

But the other is crystallized in an apparition compelling admiration ("Venerandam"), Aphrodite rising "with golden/Girdles and breast bands" as guarantor of a desire ennobled by its issue in city-founding Aeneas(1:5) ... her sexuality is simultaneously "civilized" and restrained by the golden lines of the metal worker's craft... linking the motifs of an ordered and order-building Eros, of color contained within the "bands" that underline its perfect and stable form, and of a precious commodity that is used to serve an aesthetic rather than a mercenary end."

(Bernstein 360)

            ...the female
Is an element, the female
Is a chaos
An octopus
A biological process

            Pound demonstrates in Canto XXXIX that is no discernible difference between the function of either form of a mortal female’s sexuality because they both serve as the source of all life. Pound unites the destructive and the generative sexualities into one that functions independently (and often to the frustration) of the ways of man. The octopus reference appears as a reiteration of the element of chaos that in Gnosis separates the earth from heaven. Mackenzie clarifies the connection: “Some ‘diffusionists’… have connected [the spiral] with whorled shells, with the octopus [and] …many climbing plants, including the ivy… [all are] a symbol suggested at the outset of Nature” and the original embryo from which all life has sprung came from a whirlpool. “Ultimately the ‘embryo’ was identified with the [female] egg and lotus. But the idea that life began in the first whirlpool, or came from the whorled shell … was perpetuated, and was as widespread as it was consistent” (Mackenzie 71). Mackenzie also demonstrates Aphrodite’s connection to the spiral image, with her birth from whirling water:

Till now swift-circling a white foam arose
From that immortal substance, and a maid
Was nourish’d in the midst. The wafting waves
First bore her to Cythera’s heaven-blessed coast;

(Mackenzie 71)


            Kurt Rudolph clarifies this central myth in Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism with the activity of the Demiurge: “This twofold position of Sophia [the female embodiment of wisdom] has led to the conception of a higher “incorruptible” and a lower fallen Sophia…her dual role becomes visible in the creation of man in so far as she has a part in it through the implanting of the divine spark” and “what is above descends to below, inorder to return to its old position above….” He states a third illustration “the image is of the serpant moving this way and that, which symbolizes the turning of the middle principle from above downwards and the reverse. The first principle remains always unaffected; it is the static pole of what has come to pass, the goal of becoming.” (86) Rudolph demonstrates the feminine duality in the Nag Hammadi document Thunder: the perfect Mind.

I am the honoured / and the despised.
I am the prostitute / and the respectable woman
I am the wife / and the virgin.
I am the mother / and the daughter.

I am the silence / which is unattainable
The insight (epinoia) / which much (in the world) recalls.
I am the voice / whose sound is manifold,
And the logos / which has many images.

I am knowledge / and ignorance
I am shame / and boldness

Yea, I am the wisdom (Sophia) of the Greeks / and the knowledge (gnosis) of the barbarians.

I am she who is called “life” / and yet [you] have called [me] “death”.

I am the mind of those [who understand] / and the rest of him [who sleeps].

I am the union / and the dissolution.
I am the desire in the vision / and [yet] the mastery of the heart dwells in me.

(Rudolph 82)


Pound incorporates this dualistic nature of female as biological processes as the driving force of his Gnosticism. The coexisting female elements are essential to human spiritual life, and this understanding is a step towards achieving divine knowledge, shown in Canto XLVII:


            Knowledge the shade of a shade,
Yet must thou sail after knowledge
Knowing less than drugged beasts. phtheggometha
Thasson (236)


            Phtehggomeths thasson is a phonemic transcription of the following Greek lines, invoking Montallegre Maddona, a festival reminiscent of early vegetation rites celebrating the return of Persephone and Adonis to the earth. Further on in the canto, the two gates to the underworld are evoked to illuminate a continual reiteration throughout The Cantos of significant ritual signifiers that appear in sets of two: two almond shoots, two olive trees, two doors, two oxen for example.

By this gate art thou measured
Thy day is between a door and a door
Two oxen are yoked for plowing


            The two "slender thighs" of Canto XX could now serve as the "two almond trees" which when "planted deeper" to bring “swifter shoot” after one "enters more deeply the mountain." The transformation and metamorphosis into the divine knowledge of the way when one "enters these hills" and becomes nature incarnate in the form of a tree:

By prong I have entered these hills:
That the grass grow from my body,
That I hear the roots speaking together,
The air is new on my leaf,
The forked boughs shake with the wind.


And while in the form of a tree, imbued within the tree and fully a part of nature the speaker asks of all that is around him:

Is Zephyrus more light on the bough, Apeliota
more light on the almond branch?


The processes of ritual sex are laid out as to when and where this needs to happen in order to recreate the ritual. Pound layers the languages into a palimpsest of evocations until he reaches the summation at the end of the canto:

When the almond bough puts forth its flame,
When the new shoots are brought to the altar,

And Pound then returns to an evocation to Aphrodite, in love with Adonis, who spent the winter in Hades with Persephone and returns to the earth in the spring when the almond bough puts forth the flame, and the forked branches of the trees hold the petals of the blossoms upturned like a calyx.


            Canto XLVII, an elaborate vision dominated by Circe, incorporates many of the goddess images of The Cantos. The motif of the loom, of weaving/spinning, houses made of stone, olive trees, and the flame. The canto ends with the line "I have eaten the flame" recalling the image of the flame in the hand from cantos VII and XX. In Canto XX images of this flame are followed closely with references to the lotophagoi, the lotus-eaters connect the "flame" with the sacred lotus – a flower revered for its connection to the generative power of nature, and associated with spiritual growth. The lotus is also noted by Mackenzie as revered by certain cultures as the origin of all life. The lines in Canto XXXIX, "Cantat sic nupta", and "His rod hath made god in my belly" maintain The Canto's focus to the power of creation that lies in a woman's belly. "Hath swallowed the fire ball" from this canto is reminiscent of the line "shot from stream into spiral" of Canto XX, to recall the joining of a man and a woman in the creation of new life. We can thus read “spiral” as “new life,” the creation metaphor that Pound carries throughout The Cantos. Thus the "fire-ball" of Canto XXXIX becomes the embryo of Odysseus' and Circe's child, Telegonus. This child, born of a goddess and a mortal man follows the pattern of sexual unions involving the divine in The Cantos, usually between "a human and a god or goddess as in the case of Odysseus and Circe.


            Albeit through a "biological process," the female element stands in opposition to magnify the importance of the male. The desire for sexual union (especially a man with a goddess) embodies what Pound's Gnosticism valued as the intimate "knowing" that would lead to enlightenment. As every reader of The Cantos understands knowledge through a unique comprehension and imagination, Pound evokes the goddesses in a variety of names and allusions. Bernstein states: "the engulfing dangers of an ungovernable female sexuality" are linked by Pound to a "language freed from stable references" (358). These engulfing dangers are "vital components of a full human realization...as long as they are bounded and made serviceable by the shaping, linear, and phallic male order." The mortal female sexuality is dangerous to men because this unspiritual sexuality is ungovernable and capable of deceit. Bernstein alludes to the shaping serviceable lines of Aphrodite's golden girdles: "her sexuality is simultaneously 'civilized' and restrained by the golden lines of the metal worker's craft" (360). Pound takes the image of gold and links it with the female in more ways than just the lines created by a girdle.


            Pound unites the goddess' action into one aspect to balance masculine action. Pound embraced the Gnostic and advocated “pleroma” as the way to achieve paradise. In a pleroma, all of the gods and goddesses must be united in a totality of divine power and spirit, otherwise the balance crumbles and man falls into darkness, confusion and deceit, what Pound described as a state of usury. By evoking a variety of female forms, earthly and divine, Pound is calling forth the return to an age in which the female sexuality was as revered as the female chastity weighed heavily by Christianity in the presence of the Mother Mary. Through the convoluted tale of Canto XII, Pound apparently tells his readers the need for the mother – the father can not be alone in creating life:

"You called me your father, and I ain't.
"I ain't your dad, no,
"I am not your fader but your moder, " (57)


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