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Landscapes and Taoism in Ezra Pound’s Cantos

Abstract

The paper seeks to discuss the Taoist elements in the evocation of Chinese landscapes in Pound’s Cantos 4 and 49. Canto 4’s Peach Blossom Poetics is believed to be the first under the Tianyuan of Chinese landscape poetry initiated by Tao Yuanming (365–427). This type of poetry shows the pastoral, tranquil life of natural beauty. The settings are domestic and localized, most being backyards, small rivers, huts or countryside. The images in Tianyuan poetry are serene and peaceful with no impositions of the human. They tend to explicitly focus on the scene itself rather than on the viewers or any human elements. On the other hand, Canto 49’s Seven Lakes represents the Shanshui poetry that originated from the works of Xie Linyun(385–433). This type of work displays adventurous treks through beautiful and untamed mountainous regions. In spite of their seemingly different settings, the essence of the two styles is the same. The two cantos elucidate the Taoist philosophy of “non-action,” which follows the effortless and spontaneous movement of nature. These two landscapes represent the glimpses of the tranquil, temporary paradiso that Pound has been attempting to reach throughout his poetic career.

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Notes

  1. The phrase forms the structural patterns of the following examples from Canto 4:

    1. 1.

      “The valley is thick with leaves, with leaves, the trees,/The sunlight glitters, glitters a-top” (14).

    2. 2.

      “Lifting, lifting and waffing:/Ivory dipping in silver,/Shadow’d, o’ershadow’d/Ivory dipping in silver” (14).

    3. 3.

      “Gold, gold, a sheaf of hair,/Thick like a wheat swath,/Blaze, blaze in the sun” (4/14).

    Hugh Witemeyer (1979) defined the “ply over ply” model as a “recurrent phrase in the Cantos, used to describe dynamic, multi-layered processes.” It is used to “intensify the reader’s perception of each process by distinguishing its constituent elements” (pp. 231–235).

  2. Binyon (1908) discusses Guanyin’s heavenly symbols (pp. 73, 79, 86, 142, 179, 208). He also shows the illustrations of the goddess, pp. 76, 82.

  3. Binyon’s Guide to an Exhibition of Chinese and Japanese Paintings (1910) includes the following items on Guanyin: Standing Guanyin (no. 21), The Goddess of Mercy (no. 39), The Unsurpassable Guanyin (no. 44), Kwannon (no. 4).

  4. Pound was already thinking about Guanyin while composing the “Three Cantos:”

    • Fine screens depicted, sea waves curled high,

    • Small boats with gods upon them,

    • Bright flame above the river! Kwannon

    • Footing a boat that’s but one lotus petal,

    • Leading along, one hand upraised for gladness,

    • Saying, “Tis she, his friend, the mighty goddess!”

  5. Canto 4 was drafted in 1915 and published in nearly final form in October 1919 by John Rodker’s Ovid Press. “Canto IV,” Cantos Project. Web. http://thecantosproject.ed.ac.uk/index.php/a-draft-of-xvi-cantos-overview/canto-iv/companion-to-canto-iv. Accessed 18 February 2019.

  6. In Billings’ new critical edition of Cathay (2019), the excerpt from Fenollosa’s notes shows his awareness of xing, which he learned from Mori’s lectures. Fenollosa defines xing into two meanings, “to rise and raise,” or “pleasure [for] any feeling” (p. 93).

  7. As the scenes had “no strict order of sequence,” the artist-poets had the freedom to choose which scene they wanted to start first.

  8. Terrell’s annotations: “Pound’s notes show this originally transcribed as ‘Sai Yin.’ The two Chinese characters ‘shan yin’ –‘san yin’ in the dialects of China – form a phrase meaning ‘north side of the mountain’ but Pound turned them into a place name.”

  9. The reign of the Emperor Kangxi is the subject of Cantos 58-61 and his Sacred Edicts is covered in Cantos 98-99.

  10. In the original draft of Canto 49, Pound contains a long invective against usury, but ultimately omits the passage in favour of preserving the immediacy of his Chinese vision; see Ezra Pound, Posthumous Cantos, ed. Massimo Bacigalupo (2015b), (Carcanet), pp. 42–45.

  11. Dante defines paradiso terrestre as the earthly paradise: “The divine forest, which was dense and alive,/So that it tempered the new light to my eyes” (Purgatorio XXVIII. 2-3).

  12. The phrase, “aura dolce,” appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy as the breeze of the earthly paradise (Purgatorio XXVIII.7).

  13. Terrell (1980), p. 181.

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Su, K. Landscapes and Taoism in Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Neohelicon 48, 179–210 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11059-020-00571-w

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Keywords

  • Ezra Pound
  • Taoism
  • Comparative literature
  • Landscape
  • Paradiso Terrestre