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.