402 Cohen Hall
Ezra Pound’s modern epic poem The Cantos aspires to the inexhaustibility of his predecessors Dante and Homer. The poem’s themes span the history of civilizations (east and west), philosophy, theology, politics, economy, as well as contemporary matters of war and social change. Pound draws deeply on his cultural heritage, deploying a wide range of source materials from the Greek and Roman classical spheres, as well as the lights of high medieval culture in the troubadour poets, the Paris philosophers, and the Tuscan poets Dante and Guido Cavalcanti. As Pound attempts to establish the foundations for the paradiso section of his epic, he turns, conspicuously, to early medieval sources such as Martianus Capella and the Eastern Church Fathers (Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor), sensitive to their reception in the translations and commentaries of the great ninth-century theologian and translator John Scottus Eriugena. Pound intended to use Eriugena’s masterwork, the Periphyseon, as an eschatological framework for the concluding sections of The Cantos until war and incarceration changed its direction and tenor. Why did Pound draw so heavily upon early medieval sources at this point in his poem? What role might his training in Romance philology have played, and were other influences at play in shaping this creative direction? This paper sketches out a preliminary answer to this question, evaluating the encyclopaedic intensities of Pound’s poem and the way he discerned early medieval sources themselves to function as models of preservation and reception of classical (especially late-classical) knowledge, including his view of Byzantine architecture and mosaic production as a model for aesthetic integrity. Pound’s early medievalism is a key mode of his thinking, both in terms of cultural preservation and poetic experimentation. A broader question situates this paper within my current project: is this preoccupation particular to Pound, or is there evidence of a wider interest in early medieval themes among modernists more generally?
Mark Byron is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Sydney and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow. His current work is in developing digital scholarly editions of complex Modernist texts and their manuscripts, including the Watt module of the Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. Another project, Modernism and the Early Middle Ages, has thus far produced the monograph Ezra Pound's Eriugena (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) and a dossier co-edited with Stefano Rosignoli on Samuel Beckett and the Middle Ages in the Journal of Beckett Studies (2016).