The emergence of modernity marked an urge to break with the conventions of the “old world.” Traditional systems of thought and literary composition were suddenly challenged by the emergence of new models, and movements such as Futurism advocated the complete abandonment of the past. Amid the clamor of rising ideologies and artistic movements, though, were voices which stressed the value of tradition as a vital component of national, even global cultural heritage. One such voice was that of T.S. Eliot. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot emphasizes the importance of the “historical sense” in artistic production. This does not amount to the “antiquarian” historicity of which Nietzsche speaks in “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life.” It is, rather, a prerequisite to achieving an adequate consciousness of the present, as every epoch is ultimately defined by its relationship with the past. Thus, the artist is expected to appropriate tradition and, to use a Poundian expression, “make it new” by infusing it into modern culture, reinforcing its “timelessness.” That Ezra Pound himself was a typically “traditional” artist is demonstrated in his Cantos, which are thematically inspired by what Pound would term the “celestial tradition.”
But what is the “celestial tradition?” When T.S. Eliot writes that “the mind of Europe […] abandons nothing en route” (153), we take it to mean that there is a certain ethos that courses through the veins of European culture, ever-present throughout the radical, often tortuous transformations that have shaken the continent. Some might call it “humanism” or “democracy,” both of which find their origins in Hellenistic thought. Ezra Pound, however, is among those who point to another, more secretive undercurrent that runs through European history – the spiritual gnosis perpetuated by the initiates of the “Mysteries,” shielded from the eyes of the “profane.” There is ample evidence to suggest that Pound possessed a profound interest in esoteric thought. According to Demetres Tryphonopoulos in his article “Ezra Pound’s Occult Education,” one of the main reasons for which Pound traveled to London in 1908 was to further his acquaintance with occult teachings through William Butler Yeats, who is well-known to have been involved in esoteric circles (76). Although skeptical of Yeats’ theurgical practices, Pound nonetheless valued the wisdom that could be obtained from their discussions, as is demonstrated by his relationships with other like-minded individuals, notably the theosophists Alfred Richard Orage, founder and editor of the journal The New Age, and George Robert Stowe Mead, personal secretary to Helena Blavatsky and founder of both the Quest Society and the literary journal The Quest (82). Through his interactions with these individuals, Pound developed a theory of continuity between the different esoteric schools that have appeared throughout the ages. In his work The Celestial Tradition: A Study of Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, Tryphonopoulos writes that this was “a tradition which at various points in history emerges as a light that energizes and determines the nature of exceptional human achievement” (17). It appeared, for example, in the Pythagorean, Orphic, and Eleusinian mysteries of the Greeks, in the songs of the Troubadours of medieval Provencal culture, and finally in the gnosis of the Alchemists and the Rosicrucian and Masonic brotherhoods of Europe.
The modern age, with its industrial revolution and the birth of consumer culture, witnessed the growth of a materialistic paradigm which Pound and his companions saw as a direct threat to the survival of the “celestial tradition.” In his work The Birth of Modernism, Leon Surette cites a lecture which Pound gave at the Quest Society in which he stated “‘one must consider that the types which joined these cults survived, in Provence, and survive today – priests, maenads and the rest – though there is in our society no provision for them’” (136). The activities of the Golden Dawn and other theosophical off-shoots constituted a reaction against this tendency, attempting to bring about a spiritual revival that would reinvigorate the human spirit and breathe new life into modern society, leading to the birth of a “New Age.” It was along these lines that Pound composed his historical epic The Cantos, reconstituting, in a sense, the lost fragments of tradition that had been scattered throughout history in the hopes that they could contribute to this imminent “rediscovery” of esoteric wisdom.
“Canto I” is modeled on the section of Homer’s The Odyssey in which Odysseus descends into Hades to invoke the prophet Tiresias and seek his advice. On an exoteric level, this is a perfectly legitimate classical model on which to base an epic poem. Some critics, however, claim that Pound made use of the myth as a palingenetic model: “the importance Pound attaches to the ‘mysterium’ points to one of his primary topoi in The Cantos, […] the topos of palingenesis or rebirth” (Tryphonopoulos 3). The notion of palingenesis is central to the ritual initiations of the “Mysteries:” neophytes would pass through a series of trials which often included being secluded in a dark chamber – this constituted the symbolic “death” of their profane identity. When successful, the candidates would re-emerge into the light, symbolizing their rebirth into a state of perfection, or spiritual enlightenment. Towards the beginning of the poem Pound writes:
Sun to his slumber, shadows o’er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays (l. 10-14, p.62)
This passage can be read as an account of initiation in many ways. The simple fact of Odysseus and his crew’s epic journey, for example, can be interpreted as an allusion to the spiritual voyage of the initiate. The fact that they have travelled to the ends of the earth, to a “mythical realm,” according to Rainey’s note (62), symbolizes that they have passed beyond the physical world and have entered a spiritual dimension – a locus more suited to the reception of metaphysical revelations. The “close-webbed mist,” in addition, constitutes a reference to the disorientation of the neophyte as he undergoes his trials; the latter are meant to destabilize him, causing him to lose his bearings in relation to the world. As a consequence, he becomes a tabula rasa, a blank sheet on which the wisdom of the mysteries can be inscribed, endowing him with a new, spiritual identity. Their entrance into Hades, finally, is a literal rendering of the symbolic death to which the initiate is subject, a notion which is echoed by the passage’s repeated references to “shadows” and to the absence of sunlight.
The next passage of the poem is a detailed description of the nekuia – or ritual raising of the dead – which Odysseus and his crewmen conduct:
Here did they rites, Perimedes and Eurylochus,
And drawing sword from my hip,
I dug the ell-square pitkin; […]
As set in Ithaca, sterile bulls of the best
For sacrifice, heaping the pyre with goods,
A sheep to Tiresias only, black and a bell-sheep.
Dark blood flowed into the fosse (l. 19-21, 25-28, p. 62)
This vivid description of ritual sacrifice to appeal to the spiritual knowledge of the dead is consistent with the pagan practices of the esoteric organizations with which Pound was so fascinated. Despite the fact that Pound himself remained skeptical of the reality of such interactions, the possibility of direct voluntary communication with the spirit realm remains essential to esoteric thought, which supposedly draws much of its knowledge from the practice of “divination” or “automatic writing,” as in the case of Yeats’ A Vision, Carl Jung’s Liber Novus, or Emmanuel Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia.
Surette discusses the significance of such a ritual in relation to the Cantos as a whole, writing that it “serves as a paradigm for ritual enlightenment. The poem as a whole can be thought of as a long nekuia, cataloguing in a seemingly random manner the struggle of enlightened individuals to bring their wisdom into the world” (68). Thus, throughout his epic, Pound is “raising the spirits,” figuratively speaking, of those historical representatives of “exceptional human achievement” who are singled out, in Pound’s mind, by their supposed custodianship of the “celestial tradition.” Another aspect of the poem which reinforces this notion, according to Surette, is the fact that “the order of appearance of these heroes is out of historical sequence because they appear in the unpredictable and unstructured manner of ghosts in a séance” (68). Indeed, immediately following the libations, a seemingly chaotic stream of spirits begins to harass Odysseus and his men:
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and of the old who had borne much;
Souls strained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me (l. 29-34, p. 62-63)
In his work The New Word, Allen Upward (another artist with occult interests with whom Pound was acquainted) describes the “whirl-swirl”—a vortex-like force that expresses the sensation of mystical experiences: “It has this deeper magic that it will show you, not only the thoughts you knew about before, but other thoughts you did not know of, old drowned thoughts, hereditary thoughts; it will awaken the slumbering ancestral ghosts that haunt the brain” (198). This sequence in the “Canto,” then, can be seen as evoking the confrontation of one’s “inner ghosts” or “demons” during initiation, or as one experiences the supernatural. The non-linear sequence in which these figures appear throughout the Cantos, in addition, can be interpreted as a rendering of the cyclical – rather than teleological – perception of time that characterizes esoteric philosophy. The unanticipated manifestation of spirits preceding Tiresias, then, is highly consistent with the occult thematic which dominates the poem.
The figure of Tiresias is also significant in relation to the “celestial tradition.” According to Surette, “his residence in the underworld and his complete sexual experience make him a suitable hierophant for an initiation into the mysteries” (278-279). Indeed, both his gift of prophecy and the fact that he dwells in a spiritual realm reinforce the notion that he possesses deep esoteric knowledge. But this is not all: Surette mentions Tiresias’ “complete sexual experience,” which refers to his experience of both sexes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Tryphonopoulos maintains that “Pound read Ovid’s Metamorphoses as an account of initiations, of palingeneses of the soul” (4), advocating “the application of a similar hermeneutics to Pound’s epic” (4). This suggests that Pound included Tiresias due to the thematic relevance of his androgyny. Interestingly, Alchemical illustrations often depict the hieros gamos or “sacred marriage,” which symbolizes the attainment of spiritual perfection, as a visibly androgynous figure – the soul has merged its “dark” and its “light” sides or its “male” and “female” aspects, becoming complete through the refining process of the “Great Work.” Thus Tiresias represents the archetypal esoteric instructor, initiating Odysseus (or the reader) into the “Mysteries.” It is no coincidence, in this respect, that Tiresias’ parting words to Odysseus are to “lose all companions” (63), alluding to the transformative process of ritual enlightenment which one must ultimately face alone.
There is no shortage of material that could be used to further demonstrate the importance of the “celestial tradition” to Ezra Pound. His essay “Vortex,” for example, which was featured in Wyndham Lewis’ periodical BLAST 1, is replete with references to the “celestial tradition” – as is the symbol which stands at the heart of “Vorticism.” Despite the prominence of esotericism in Pound’s work, though, many critics refuse to recognize the centrality of this theme to his oeuvre. They leap at the opportunity to deny its relevance by appealing to correspondences in which he dismisses the credulity of occultists such as Yeats. The exegesis of texts such as the Cantos, however, and the consultation of biographical accounts which illustrate the poet’s fascination with the occult, furnish undeniable evidence to the contrary. It shows that despite his skeptical attitude towards the “spirits” which students of the occult attempt to contact in their séances, the palingenetic doctrines of esoteric schools were nonetheless “real” enough for him to construct his magnum opus around them. To accord excessive importance to such “outside forces” might have, after all, represented a digression from that which stood at the heart of Pound’s “celestial tradition” – Man, and that human will-power which alone could elevate the human race beyond its deplorable condition and into the heavenly spheres of enlightened consciousness.