Between Apocalypse and Extinction: Eschatology in Ezra Pound’s Poetry

Ezra Pound’s lifelong poetic project, The Cantos, aspired to comprise ‘the best that had been thought and read’ in history by way of citation, gloss, allusion and quotation of a formidable variety of sources. Although Pound intended his poem to perform a paideutic function as a repository for important ideas and their often-precarious textual transmission, his project was also aimed at the poetic representation of a paradiso terrestre, an ideal state of intellectual community at the end of history. Consequently, in a critical phase during the 1930s he was drawn to models of theological and political eschatology, not least those of the Confucian cosmos and Italian Fascism. This intensified interest was to have drastic consequences: Pound was arrested on charges of treason as detained in the US Army Detention Training Center outside of Pisa for his radio broadcasts during World War Two in Italy. During his incarceration Pound wrote much of The Pisan Cantos, in which pastoral observation is combined with political vituperation and nostalgic reminiscence. Pound also makes sustained reference to Johannes Scottus Eriugena, the ninth-century Hibernian-Carolingian theologian and poet who was condemned on account of disseminating heretical doctrines during his lifetime and then posthumously in the Averroist condemnations at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century.

Eriugena serves a critical function in Ezra Pound’s thinking on medieval theology and its formative role in his aesthetics. In particular, Eriugena’s masterwork, the Periphyseon or De Divisione Naturae, provides Pound with a totalising account of history in its exegetical model of the reditus (the return of creation to the godhead), an eschatology to accompany Pound’s other preferred model in the paradiso terrestre. Although there is minimal critical scholarship on Eriugena’s significance in Pound’s prose and poetry, this Carolingian thinker plays a crucial part in Pound’s development of an anti-Aquinian view of medieval theology, part of an obscured tradition that is in itself millennial, and which serves to overturn what Pound saw as conventional, retrograde religious and social eschatologies. Eriugena’s significance is evident in critical passages of The Cantos – particularly Canto 36, the ‘Donna mi prega’ canto, and The Pisan Cantos – as well as in Pound’s prose. Pound also drew up extensive notes for a book on Eriugena, to form a trilogy with his books on the Ta Hio or Great Learning and Mencius, but which never eventuated in publication. These notes throw additional light onto the crucial role Eriugena plays for Pound in his vision for the paradisal poet who speaks for and from the end of days.

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About msbyron27

Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary British and American Literature, Department of English, University of Sydney
This entry was posted in Abstracts – Presentations (2014). Bookmark the permalink.

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