“Quiet this Metal” – Art & Alchemy

Ezra Pound was a hard man to like. As an American ex-patriot living in Italy during the 1930’s and 40’s, he spouted pro-fascist, anti-Semitic propaganda on international short wave radio.  After WWII, he was imprisoned for treason, then returned to the U.S. where he was declared mentally unstable and institutionalized. His long-time friend Ernest Hemingway famously said “It is impossible to believe anyone in his right mind could utter the vile and utterly idiotic drivel he has broadcast.”   Yet 20 years earlier, Hemingway wrote a tribute to Ezra Pound that painted a much different portrait

“He defends (his friends) when they are attacked, and gets them into magazines and out of jail. He loans them money. He sells their pictures… He advances them hospital expenses and dissuades them from suicide.”

This probably explains the steady stream of visitors Pound enjoyed during his ignominous stay at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C., and their relentless petition for his release. Those to whom he had shown support and kindness, showed him kindness in turn. They also recognized that the man they knew, whose generosity of spirit was at direct and baffling odds with his political and philosophical crimes, was one of the most important poetic figures of the century.

While incarcerated in Italy, Pound began drafting (on toilet paper) the Pisan Cantos ;a work which he continued to write and eventually published during his residency at St. Elizabeths. In 1947 he was awarded the Bolligen Prize for Poetry. The selection committee decided that Pound’s treasonous activity was not reflected in the work and did not detract from its merits. The decision was a controversial one, as was Pound’s release in 1958. The general public proved far less forgiving than his peers. His reputation ruined, he returned to Italy and died there in 1972.

I have always had trouble with Pound – unable to completely separate my knowledge of his poisonous antisemitism from his work. But the work is beautiful, evocative, and remarkably complex. He was also, perhaps more importantly, the father of Modernism, and like the poets he championed and influenced  (Yeats, H.D., Eliot, et al.) his interests ranged wide and included mythology and the occult.  The Alchemist remains one of my favorite poems.

The Alchemist

Chant for the Transmutation of Metals

Sail of Claustra, Aelis, Azalais,
As you move among the bright trees;
As your voices, under the larches of Paradise
Make a clear sound,
Sail of Claustra, Aelis, Azalais,
Raimona, Tibors, Berangere,
‘Neath the dark gleam of the sky;
Under night, the peacock-throated,
Bring the saffron-coloured shell,
Bring the red gold of the maple,
Bring the light of the birch tree in autumn
Mirals, Cembelins, Audiarda,
Remember this fire.
Elain, Tireis, Alcmena
‘Mid the silver rustling of wheat,
Agradiva, Anhes, Ardenca,
From the plum-coloured lake, in stillness,
From the molten dyes of the water
Bring the burnished nature of fire;
Briseis, Lianor, Loica,
From the wide earth and the olive,
From the poplars weeping their amber,
By the bright flame of the fishing torch
Remember this fire.
Midonz, with the gold of the sun, the leaf of the poplar,
by the light of the amber,
Midonz, daughter of the sun, shaft of the tree, silver of
the leaf, light of the yellow of the amber,
Midonz, gift of the God, gift of the light, gift of the
amber of the sun,
Give light to the metal.
Anhes of Rocacoart, Ardenca, Aemelis,
From the power of grass,
From the white, alive in the seed,
From the heat of the bud,
From the copper .of the leaf in autumn,
From the bronze of the maple, from the sap in the
bough;
Lianor, loanna, Loica,
By the stir of the fin,
By the trout asleep in the gray-green of water;
Vanna, Mandetta, Viera, Alodetta, Picarda, Manuela
From the red gleam of copper,
Ysaut, Ydone, slight rustling of leaves,
Vierna, Jocelynn, daring of spirits,
By the mirror of burnished copper,
O Queen of Cypress,
Out of Erebus, the flat-lying breadth,
Breath that is stretched out beneath the world:
Out of Erebus, out of the flat waste of air, lying beneath
the world;
Out of the brown leaf-brown colourless
Bring the imperceptible cool.
Elain, Tireis, Alcmena,
Quiet this metal!
Let the manes put off their terror, let them put off their
aqueous bodies with fire.
Let them assume the milk-white bodies of agate.
Let them draw together the bones of the metal.
Selvaggia, Guiscarda, Mandetta,
Rain flakes of gold on the water
Azure and flaking silver of water,
Alcyon, Phaetona, Alcmena,
Pallor of silver, pale lustre of Latona,
By these, from the malevolence of the dew
Guard this alembic.
Elain, Tireis, Allodetta
Quiet this metal.

Resource links:

http://www.poets.org

http://www.poemhunter.com

http://www.jstor.org/pss/3831403

and I HIGHLY recommend seeking out Modernist Alchemy by Timothy Matterer, sadly out of print

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