Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ezra Pound on Gloom

Here is a relatively early poem by Ezra Pound:

Ballad on Gloom

FOR God, our God is a gallant foe
That playeth behind the veil.

I have loved my God as a child at heart
That seeketh deep bosoms for rest,
I have loved my God as a maid to man—
But lo, this thing is best.

To love your God as a gallant foe that plays behind the veil;
To meet your God as the night winds meet beyond Arcturus' pale.

I have played with God for a woman,
I have staked with my God for truth,
I have lost to my God as a man, clear-eyed—
His dice be not of ruth.

For I am made as a naked blade,
But hear ye this thing in sooth

Who loseth to God as man to man
Shall win at the turn of the game.
I have drawn my blade where the lightnings meet
But the ending is the same:

For God, our God is a gallant foe that playeth behind the veil.
Whom God deigns not to overthrow hath need of triple mail.

The diction here is pre-Modernist, especially for Pound, who would soon advocate the overthrow of almost everything Victorian and Edwardian in poetry, but the sentiments are certainly Modern. God isn't quite dead yet, in the sense Nietzsche meant that phrase, but God is certainly complicated, even inscrutable, in the poem. The speaker, however, remains distinctly heroic--and male. The last line is darned good: If God decides not to overthrow you--well, that's when you'll really need to be tough.

Is the poem really about gloom--despair and depression? Maybe. It's certainly full of roiling gray emotions. I'm not sure we've advance all that far, since the poem was written, with regard to gloom. I think many people still see depression as a choice and regard the pharmaceutical treatments of it as mere snake-oil. True, pharmaceutical companies have an interest in peddling new pills; on the other hand, one may follow the trail from a pill back to the science, in most cases, and "the mind," whatever we consider it to be, is encased in the brain, which is an organic thing, which can malfunction because of chemical problems. It is only natural for humans, especially American ones, to believe that gloom can be overcome by the will, or by talking (therapy), or by battling with God (Pound). Even if there is some truth in the value of will, therapy, and a desire to do cosmic battle, one may (ironically) be better prepared for all this activity by getting the right brain-medicine. If you get a bacterial infection, anti-biotics are just the ticket. It's not really that much of a stretch to see that if the brain isn't hitting on all chemical cylinders, some chemicals might work. But of course we cling to the old mind/body dualism, one of the most intractable of the old beliefs.

Ironically, Pound himself would end up being sent to a mental "institution" for many years, partly as a result of his having made radio broadcasts in support of Mussolini during World War II (treason). He also seemed unfortunately obsessed with Jews, and even referred to Roosevelt using an anti-Semitic slur, in the Cantos. Probably something organic went wrong with his brain, something to turn him a bit paranoid. He might have been diagnosed as "bi-polar" in this day and age. A pill might have helped. Who knows? He certainly was a scrappy fellow and a combative poet--willing to take on God in this poem. It's interesting to see him in his pre-Modern phase, using antique diction but expressing post-Darwinian sentiments. Sleep well, Ezra.

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