By Benedick Flexmore McDougall
Ezra Pound’s work in the 1910s and ’20s reflects an eclectic mix of influences ancient and modern. But unlike Dante, the troubadours, Noh drama, and translations from Chinese, Greek epigram is seldom discussed as a major source of Pound’s inspiration. The concise power that characterises much of Pound’s early output is usually attributed to the influence of haiku, yet the impact of classical epigram on his style in this period is no less important. Imagism, the movement aiming at lucid, laconic style that first brought Pound international fame, represents the first attempt in English verse to recapture the force of ancient epigram in modern poetry. But besides equipping Imagist verse with its signature pointed style, Greek epigram’s transmission and reception gave Pound a new conception of time as it relates to poetry, a sense of modernity dwelling within a past it was constantly re-writing.
The Greek Anthology, the baggy florilegium in which most Greek epigrams were transmitted from antiquity, is the very embodiment of literary history, with its contingencies and accidents. Contributions to the Anthology span almost a millennium, incorporating poems attributed to Archilochus (c. 680-645 BC) alongside the ninth-century verses of Leo the Philosopher; allusion between epigrammatists throughout the collection means that the Anthology is among the few books that can claim to enact a large part of their own reception. The collection both enforces a sense of simultaneity we find nowhere else in Greek literature and reflects in small scale the textual vagaries of the classical tradition. Our text represents centuries of Byzantine recompilation of classical miscellanies; the collection circulated in the West only in the abridged Anthologia Planudea until the Anthologia Palatina’s rediscovery in 1606. Since the text is still being collected and re-collected to this day, the specific edition a reader encounters can considerably affect their response.
The founding myth of Imagism locates Pound, Hilda Doolittle (or ‘H.D.’), and Richard Aldington in the British Museum in August 1912 reading John William Mackail’s translations of Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology. Yet ‘Greek Epigram’, an obscure poem from Pound’s 1908 collection A Quinzaine for this Yule, demonstrates that Pound had already acquainted himself with this material in some form much earlier. Pound’s interest in the Anthology had also inspired ‘The Cloak’, an adaptation of two Greek epigrams, published in January 1912 in the North American Review.
But Greek epigram also helped Pound move beyond Imagism, which he abandoned in 1914. By the publication of his sixth collection, Lustra (1916), Pound had discovered the Latin translations of Greek epigrams by the sixteenth-century poet and satirist Florent Chrétien. Pound never discloses where he first encountered this little-known Renaissance Hellenist – Chrétien goes unmentioned in his letters, essays, and papers – and the ‘Homage to Quintus Septimius Florentis Christianus’ appears, as it were, from nowhere.
Although Pound’s debt to the Greek Anthology is obvious throughout Lustra both in individual epigrams and overall structure, nowhere is it more clear than in the ‘Homage’: the poem gives us an Anthology-in-miniature, six Greek epigrams mediated by Chrétien’s Latin. Thematic links emerge between sections, but no synoptic thread is obvious on a first reading; the reader is tasked with engaging both with each epigram individually and the sequence as a whole. A close reading of this complex but overlooked poem will demonstrate how the poet of the Cantos emerges in these translations.
Adapting an epigram dubiously attributed to Simonides, Pound begins his translation by defying the typical couplet form of the classical epigram, appending a third line:
Theodorus will be pleased at my death,
And someone else will be pleased at the death of Theodorus:
And yet every one speaks evil of death.
Supplementing the epigram’s traditional two-line form (dactylic hexameter followed by pentameter), Pound embarks on his ‘Homage’ to the Anthology and its translator by demonstrating his own contribution to the genre, his vers libre virtuosity. Structurally unconstrained, Modernist epigram pursues brevity as an aesthetic decision rather than a metrical inevitability. Vers libre, Pound implicitly suggests, can revitalise epigram, can ‘make it new.’
Pound’s anthology continues with an epigram by Anyte:
This place is the Cyprian’s, for she
has ever the fancy
To be looking out across the bright sea,
Therefore the sailors are cheered, and the waves
Keep small with reverence, beholding her image.
While there appears to be little connection to what precedes, subtextually the translation continues the focus on resentment and alienation. Pound passes comment here on the contemporary state of the Imagist movement by alluding to the work of H.D., his friend and erstwhile fiancée, who had adapted another Anyte epigram in ‘Hermes of the Ways’, often considered the first Imagist poem.
Pound had met H.D. in 1901 and they had been engaged between 1907 and 1908, but by H.D.’s marriage to Richard Aldington in 1913 and Pound’s to Dorothy Shakespear in 1914 any friendship had soured, a situation intensified by hostility between Pound and Amy Lowell, who was a late but zealous convert to imagism. Pound disdained Lowell’s attempts to arrogate to herself a brand he had established; his relations with Lowell never thawed—particularly because H.D. defended Lowell, and Pound took this as a personal offense. His bitterness and resentment are evident throughout Lustra.
When Pound translates Anyte, he is turning H.D.’s own arsenal against her to represent the betrayal he felt when she sided with Lowell. ‘This place is the Cyprian’s’ suggests H.D. had ‘marked out’ translation of epigrams as her ‘place’ (topos), playing on her fondness for adapting Greek epigrams. That the Cyprian ‘has ever the fancy / To be looking out across the bright sea’ may imply boredom with the marine monotony of her early poetry, epitomised in the title of her first published collection, Sea Garden.
Concluding with ‘the waves keep[ing] small’, Pound highlights the dramatic potential which Imagism’s focus on stillness and compression forgoes. This translation significantly expands the Greek’s πόντος δειμαίνει, ‘the sea is afraid’, perhaps scoffing at ‘the great waves’ which break over the ‘hard sand’ at the beginning of H.D.’s ‘Hermes’ and ‘the great sea’ that ‘foamed, / Gnashed its teeth about me’ towards its end. Pound subtly twists H.D.’s words to suggest Imagism cannot attain anything greater than what it has already achieved.
By contrast Pound’s fourth epigram, translating the late-antique Agathias’ eulogy of Troy, highlights his interest in using the Anthology as a model for collapsing literary history; this technique, so important for his later verse, will also help explain his use of Renaissance translation.
Whither, O city, are
your profits and your gilded shrines,
And your barbecues of great oxen,
And the tall women, walking your streets, in gilt clothes,
With their perfume in little alabaster boxes?
Where are the works of your home-born sculptors?
Time’s tooth is into
the lot, and war’s and fate’s too.
Envy has taken your all
Save your douth and your story.
In this initial ‘whither’, the address to a ruined city becomes an address to a city yet to be ruined: ‘whither’ does any city’s pomp lead but to ruins and mythology? The epigram represents a crucial moment in the development of Pound’s philosophy of time, which Eliot explored in a contemporary essay: ‘As the present is no more than the present existence, the present significance, of the entire past, Mr. Pound proceeds by acquiring the entire past; and when the entire past is acquired, the constituents fall into place and the present is revealed.’
Time as a continuous present would become a central feature of the metaphysics of Pound’s magnum opus, the Cantos. Pound sketches his philosophy of time in an early draft of Canto I:
And half your dates
are out; you mix your eras;
For that great font Sordello sat beside—
’Tis an immortal passage, but the font
Is some two centuries outside the picture—
And no matter.
Ghosts move about me patched with histories.
These ‘Ghosts’ suggest the more oblique statement of this model of time in Canto I’s final draft, which translates a translation of the Odyssey. These poems both present texts at once as volatile objects continually recreated in the process of transmission and ‘still points’ of focus for poets and scholars over millennia. Pound’s method juxtaposes figures, events, and texts disparate in time and place. ‘Time’s tooth is into the lot’, as Agathias via Chrétien via Pound puts it: time is the measure of all things.
Throughout Lustra runs an anxiety about the destructive power of time redolent of countless Anthology epigrams, along with a dismissive misogyny absent from Pound’s earlier works. The theme of ruined splendour continues in section V, translating an epigram by the ever-pessimistic Palladas:
Woman? Oh, woman is a
but dead, or asleep, she pleases.
Take her. She has two excellent seasons.
The thematic link between these two epigrams is clear: the traditional allegory of the Trojan War as male suffering due to female fickleness. The Agathias-Palladas transition suggests a bitter coded analogy between H.D.’s alleged betrayal of Pound, leading to Imagism’s decline, and Helen’s betrayal of Menelaus, resulting in Troy’s ruin.
The sardonic humour of this penultimate section moves us from epic to satire; Pound’s finale maintains his ironic preoccupation with death, with an epigram attributed to Nicarchus on a physician who cannot heal:
Phidon neither purged
me, nor touched me;
But I remembered the name of his fever medicine
These final sections, like the first, are three-line epigrams. Here the bathetic third line takes us back to the narrator’s predicted death in the first epigram, confirming that the poem is delivered from beyond the grave. The sequence of epigrams in the ‘Homage’ is thus doubly epic, Iliadic and Odyssean: Pound both evokes a personal Troy in ruins and engages in a literary nekyia, or descent to the underworld. Summoning Chrétien’s ghost through these retranslations, the collection anticipates Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’s heroic endeavour, in Pound’s eponymous long poem, ‘to resuscitate the dead art of poetry’ and Odysseus’ instruction by the shade of Tiresias in the first Canto.
So the ‘Homage’ stands at a transitional point in Pound’s career, encapsulating several key anxieties in his poetic development. These epigrams look back on his formative encounters with Imagist precision and brevity, and onwards to the epic that would occupy the rest of his career. Rather than basing a new poetic style on epigram, as H.D. and Aldington had, Pound recognises the many voices of epigram can only speak through the living poetry of the twentieth century. He would not join the Orphean mission of his contemporaries to give life to shades, but rather kept Odysseus’ distance, receiving guidance from the Ancients but leaving them lifeless.
Pound’s use of Renaissance Latin translations as a means of accessing Greek literature set a precedent for his work with Latin cribs in the Cantos, which begin from Andreas Divus’ 1537 translation of the descent to the underworld (known as the nekyia episode) in Book XI of the Odyssey. Canto I is almost entirely translated from Divus. Only the concluding lines are Pound’s invention; even these memorably incorporate the publisher’s information from Divus’ title page, ‘In officina Wecheli’, a device familiar from the ‘Homage’’s epigraph ‘Ex libris Græcæ’, drawnfrom Chrétien’s title page. This preoccupation with a work’s bibliographical information, with the book as physical vehicle of transmission, updates the epigrammatic topos of a book’s ‘seal’ as indication of authorship and reveals the importance of these Renaissance mediators to Pound.
Although the ‘Homage’ credits Chrétien with inspiring his interest in a double-layered classical reception, his absence from Pound’s important ‘Early Translators of Greek’ essay has led scholars to overlook the Anthology’s influence on Modernism. In 1931, having released thirty Cantos, Pound makes his final comment on the Anthology in a letter to Harriet Monroe, who had published his first Greek epigram translations in 1912. He writes simply: ‘[I]n the last analysis the grade of any period depends on one, two or a few of the best writers. The Greek Anthology is not a contradiction; it does not represent the mediocrity of one decade but the florilegium of a long series of decades.’ The Anthology had come to represent the beauty of compilation, the diverse flowers of countless generations gathered in a single volume. While this model exerted a significant influence on Pound’s output more generally throughout the 1910s, it was never more important than when he set about weaving his own intricate garland of images, ideas, and characters in the Cantos.
Benedick Flexmore McDougall is an MPhil student in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He has recently written on Neo-Greek poetry in early modern France and is now exploring the relationship between obscurity and elucidation in Ovid’s Ibis and its scholia.