Pound and Philological Knowledge

This article is a summary of my ‘Counter-Philology: Ezra Pound as Translator of Provencal and Cavalcanti, 1917–34’, Textual Practice 33.4

In 1917 and ‘18, the poet Ezra Pound left a puzzle for his readers which took a century to solve. That puzzle came in the form of a series of abstruse and arcane words woven into the fabric of his ‘English’ translations of a set of medieval poems particularly dear to him. Those arcane words were not English. Some appeared French, some Scottish, but their source was a mystery; more importantly, so was Pound’s reason for using them: dree, galzeard, gesning, raik, and a host of others. His ‘translations’ are no such thing as long as these words remain opaque.

Pound’s translations of 1916 and ’17 are, for my line of work, a prime case study, because the research I do is about how a field of study called philology influenced other domains of knowledge, and vice versa. Philology, in Pound’s time, was about the study of extinct languages like Anglo-Saxon, ancient Greek, and Old High Gothic. But at the universities of Germany and America, as Pound wrote in 1917, the teaching and practice of philology had declined into a stultifying, mechanical labour, involving such drudgery as counting commas and tabulating syntactic variations across authors of the same time period. Philology turned students, Pound believed, into mindless and obedient drones: ‘The student as the bondslave of his subject, the gelded ant, the compiler of data, has been preached as a summum bonum’. And he believed this intellectual slavery ‘is all one with the idea that the man is the slave of the State, the “unit”, the piece of the machine’ (‘Provincialism the Enemy. I’ 245).

In the War years of 1916–17 Pound’s attack on philology had a special resonance. For him and many others, including Ford Madox Ford, philology was essentially German. In a series of essays called ‘Provincialism the Enemy’, Pound tried to argue that Germany’s way of doing philology had cultivated its intellectual class to accept the mandate for the Great War unthinkingly. The ‘atomised’ study of micro-areas in German philology encouraged university graduates to roam within their small area of expertise and ask no questions beyond it. German philology was crippled by a ‘provincialism’ of time and of place, which fed into nationalism and a desire for societal uniformity.

Regardless of how we assess Pound’s diagnostic, the fact that he thought this way about philology raises an important question. For it turns out that the weird words in Pound’s translations (their titles are ‘Homage a la Langue d’Oc’ and ‘Glamour and Indigo’) come directly from a little-known philological source text. How could he slap philology down with one hand, and lovingly caress it with the other?

The answer is in the particular way Pound mixed his philological source-text—a gigantic Scots glossary from 1710—with the poems he translated, which were written in a medieval Occitan dialect, called Provencal, once widely spoken in the south of France. Pound found it permissible—even desirable—to use philology this way because he anticipated that, by mixing early modern Scots with medieval Occitan and modern English, his translations would work against the ‘provincialism’ of place inculcated by German philology. He used philology in a heterodox mode to see what might be redeemed of it.

Pound got the vocabulary from a glossary appended to a 1710 re-edition of Gavin Douglas’s Scots translation, originally done c. 1510, of the Aeneid. We can use it to decode Pound’s translations into legible English. When we do so, it turns out the translations are more than what they first appear: they change from love lyrics to a lady into love lyrics to philology itself.

Pound had already believed Provencal poetry was originally set to music now lost. And his usage of one of the arcane words—raik, which he took from the 1710 Scots glossary—enciphers Pound’s argument about the poetry’s original musical setting beneath a lexical code.

Raik in the glossary Pound used. Source is Gawin Douglas,  Eneados . 1710. Printed by Thomas Ruddiman.

Raik in the glossary Pound used. Source is Gawin Douglas, Eneados. 1710. Printed by Thomas Ruddiman.

In the glossary (above), the first meaning of raik is ‘to go fast or apace’. So far, so straightforward. But the writer of the glossary also suggests that one ‘might perhaps find some affinity betwixt this and the E[nglish] rake, rastrum’. A rastrum is a five-pointed device for drawing musical staves. Now look at this stanza from ‘Glamour and Indigo’, one of Pound’s translations:

Behold my prayer,
. . .
Seeks whom such height achieves;
. . .
To her I raik,
Sole her; all others’ dry
I count not worth the leering.

‘To her I raik’ is not only ‘I go quickly to her’ but also ‘I draw a musical stave across her’. Pound means: here I mix music and philology. And he does as part of his attempt to redeem philology.

While Pound would later turn, while living in Italy under Mussolini, to a more nationalistic mode of philological poetry, during the First World War he had asked what might be redeemed of a stagnant institutional order of knowledge—philology—by conscripting it to a multinational poetic service. Pound’s twist on philology is what I call counter-philology, and it is part of a genre called philological poetry (a concept first proffered by Chris Jones at St Andrews). Philological poetry can be thought of as an activist philology in verse, and it unites under one head the work of several periods: Macpherson’s Ossian poems, Walter Scott’s mock-Saxon lyrics, and of course, Ezra Pound’s translations and his Cantos too. There are many others, not mentioned here, and some still waiting to be found.

Registering the concept of philological poetry is about recovering how poetry did, or tried to do, knowledge-work. Given philology’s centrality to cross-disciplinary models of change from the eighteenth to the twentieth century (about which: more to come), it should be no surprise that these poets found things to play with in philology, things to love and redeem, things to despise and condemn. But without the broader consideration of philology’s history—beyond its role as the progenitor-or-not of the modern humanities—we have perhaps been missing some of the wood for the trees.

A talk of mine about Thomas Percy, David Jones, and genre theory is on YouTube

A talk of mine from the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference held in 2017 in Cardiff turns out to be on YouTube!

The title of the talk was ‘At the Traverse of the Wall: Archaeological Transformations in Thomas Percy and David Jones’.

I was trying to articulate the possibilities of the transhistorical study of genre in terms of tracking knowledge developments in adjacent fields.

Philology Today: Select Secondary Bibliography

I’m five years into my doctorate at NYU and have gathered up quite a bit of the secondary literature on philology in the English-speaking world. Here are some of the central texts.

A good overview of the entire contemporary discourse on philology can be read in Hui, Andrew. ‘The Many Returns of Philology: A State of the Field Report’. Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 78, no. 1, 2017, pp. 137–56, doi:10/gf2vt8.

Interesting reflections on methodology and conceptualisation within the history of philology can be found in Daston, Lorraine, and Glenn W. Most. ‘History of Science and History of Philologies’. Isis, vol. 106, no. 2, June 2015, pp. 378–90. doi:10/gfc4wx.

World philology

World philology is about the histories of philological practices around the globe.

Holquist, Michael. ‘The Place of Philology in an Age of World Literature’. Neohelicon, vol. 38, no. 2, Dec. 2011, pp. 267–87. doi:10/czqs35.

Pollock, Sheldon, et al., editors. World Philology. Harvard UP, 2015.
Pollock’s Introduction to this volume is the seminal framing of the ‘world philology’ concept.

(See also Anthony T. Grafton and Glenn W. Most, eds. Canonical Texts and Scholarly Practices: A Global Comparative Approach. Cambridge UP, 2015.)

Philological Encounters.
A journal: 3 volumes since 2016.

Cox, Whitney. Modes of Philology in Medieval South India. Brill, 2017.

Ahmed, Siraj. Archaeology of Babel: The Colonial Foundation of the Humanities. Stanford UP, 2018.

Philology as humanities disciplines’ origin

Was philology the ancestor of the humanities?

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. ‘History of Literature, Fragment of a Vanished Totality?’ New Literary History, translated by Peter Heath, vol. 16, no. 3, 1985, pp. 467–79. doi:10/d7mmq9.

Ziolkowski, Jan. ‘What Is Philology’, Introduction. Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 1990, pp. 1–12.
The rest of Comparative Literature 27.1 is also relevant.

Guillory, John. ‘Literary Study and the Modern System of the Disciplines’. Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle, edited by Amanda Anderson and Joseph Valente, Princeton UP, 2002, pp. 19–43.

Momma, Haruko. From Philology to English Studies: Language and Culture in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge UP, 2013.

Turner, James. Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Princeton UP, 2014.

New philology

There are two ‘new’ philologies: one reconsiders MSS treatment in medieval studies, aiming to de-centre the ‘original’ and treat textual copying as worth studying in itself; the other names a linguistic orientation in Mexican ethnohistory.

Nichols, Stephen G. ‘Introduction: Philology in a Manuscript Culture’. Speculum, vol. 65, no. 1, 1990, pp. 1–10. doi:10/dpgwmj.
The rest of Speculum 65.1 is comprised of articles on the medievalist new philology.

Restall, Matthew. ‘A History of the New Philology and the New Philology in History’. Latin American Research Review, vol. 38, no. 1, 2003, pp. 113–34. doi:10/fhg2xd.

Digital philology

The fitness of textual-philological practices for digital and digitally-mediated texts.

McGann, Jerome. ‘Philology in a New Key’. Critical Inquiry, vol. 39, no. 2, 2013, pp. 327–46. doi:10/gf2xxv.
And more in McGann, Jerome. A New Republic of Letters. Harvard UP, 2014.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. ‘Philology and the Complex Present’. Florilegium, vol. 32, Jan. 2015, pp. 273–81, doi:10/gf2xxs.

Philology's Formal Function in Modernist Verse and in Academe

This week I’m trying to figure out why remediation of philology in verse exploded right when philology’s academic fortunes fizzled out.

From 1900 to 1920, philology went into steep decline in the English-speaking world. But during that time, and the decade or two right after, the presence of philology in poetry exploded. Think of all the philology in the works of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Hugh MacDiarmid, David Jones, James Joyce, etc., etc., etc., which has been covered more admirably by other scholars than I could ever hope to do.

I’ve gestured at this topic before, and offered a genre called ‘philological poetry’. But that name doesn’t explain why that discrepancy happened, it only describes it—and only one half of it. That was a much easier thing to do.

But, foolishly, I submitted to BAMS 2019 an abstract which promised to finally solve that puzzle. Worse, my abstract was accepted. The title is ‘Why Did Philological Poetry Take Off as Philology Declined in the Academy?’ The conference is next week. Never submit a title that promises to answer a question. It will be accepted, and you will have to make good on your promise.

I have a few half-baked ideas so far.

1. Genres condition the kinds of knowledge expressible

If one genre (academic philology) is going down, while another (philological poetry) is coming up, the differing outcomes may lie in how the genres themselves differ. Texts don’t just represent the world; they stand in between the world and the reader. And the particular way a text does that is affected by its particular genre. 

Complicating, however, is that philological poetry doesn’t just stand between the reader and the world; it also stands between the reader and philology. There are two layers of mediation to think of. What could poetry do with philological knowledge that academic philology could not (or could no longer) do itself?

2. Philology bound knowledge and language together

There is something in philology’s content—what philology is at this time—that kills it in an academic sense. Philology gave form to the relation between knowledge and language. It did that for as long as such a relation was intellectually viable (until 1916, if you want to know).

That very quality of philology—how it gives form to the knowledge–language relation—may make it poetically fertile. The formal disconnection of knowledge and language after the early twentieth century was something of a modernist poetic cause célèbre. As W. H. Auden wrote, ‘the most poetical of all scholastic disciplines is, surely, Philology’. He goes on to say that language is poetic to the degree that the specific forms of words (their sounds and shapes) matter. When that form doesn’t matter, poetry is impossible, it becomes prose.

3. Philology’s forming function

If there is that formal function in philology which makes it academically dead after 1916, that formal condition may still be operable in poetry, which is not subject to the same strictures as academic truth-claiming; or, better stated, is subject to other strictures than those.

The paper will probably be a synthesis of these three ideas.

But what remains to be explained is the rise. The above may be sufficient conditions, but are they a sufficient cause?

(Note: the Auden quotations are from ‘Making, Knowing, and Judging’.)

Review of Rabbit, by Sophie Robinson

I recently reviewed Rabbit, by Sophie Robinson, for Review 31.

In the review, I write about affected verse, a genre of contemporary poetry:

Affected verse… collides big feelings with hyper-awareness of artifice—two categories which appear antithetical at first glance. We want to have a genuine response to the seemingly-real feelings on display, but we know they are formally mediated. The real of affect is pitted against the affectedness of poetry and its conventions. They form a ‘shitty picture’, the position and authenticity of whose affective elements are always in question.


TS Eliot House Sep 6–27

I’ll be in residence at the TS Eliot House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Sep 6–27.

I’ll be using the time to work on a new book of poems, Crown, about Northern Ireland, dislocations of class and geography, accent, dialect, education, and memory.