[And Playing the Part of the Jongleur…Ezra Pound] [10.8.07]

The use of alternate identity being a mechanism of disguise, or masking, Personae is an apt title for Ezra Pound’s collection first published in 1909. The poems collected here exhibit an enthusiasm for the kind of theatrical presentation fashionable in poetry of the Victorian era, and Pound has written many of them in the form of dramatic monologue, as spoken or sung by a medieval troubadour. The troubadour – Pound uses the French “jongleur” – would compose and perform in the courts of the wealthy songs about chivalric adventures or imperiled romances. Jongleurs relied on their comedic talents, as well, to keep their audience engaged between songs; Pound, as jongleur, conveys his own humor, and undercuts the high-mindedness of his language with the exercise of an ironic tone.

While many of the pieces in this early collection rely on language sometimes Biblical (in the King James sense), the distance Pound places between formal language structure and jocose sentiment serves to undercut a supposedly sincere gist. A prime example of this is the colloquial treatment Pound gives to the crucifixion story in “Ballad of the Goodly Fere.”[1][2] In this particular piece, attributed in an epigram to “Simon Zelotes [who] speaketh it somewhile after the Crucifixion,” a fellow or follower of Christ casts aside the idea that he can be so easily subdued: “If they think they ha’ slain our Goodly Fere / They are fools eternally” (51-2). In line with the ironic presentation of the Christian savior, Simon says of “the goodliest fere o’ all” (1):

Oh we drunk his “Hale” in the good red wine
When we last made company,
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere
But a man o’ men was he. (13-6)

To some, such talk would register as blasphemy; indeed, a medieval poet might have met his grisly end bound to a burning stake to say such things.

Another solemn occasion for which Pound dons a mask of mock genteelness is the early death of a young royal, “that is, Prince Henry Plantagenet, elder brother to Richard Coeur de Lion.”[3] “Planh for the Young English King” is, appropriately for its title, a poem overflowing with grief – according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a planh is a “lament for the loss of a person.” So great is the loss that the speaker effuses inconsolable grief, crying:

‘Las! Never was nor will be in this world
The balance for this loss in ire and sadness. (15-6)

There is more felt sadness here than in the crucifixion piece, which an expectation for resurrection in the latter might explain; but the distance, again, between one sentiment and the other allows suspicions to arise as regards the sincerity of the most dire exclamations. As if to deflate the emotional pageantry of his own poem, Pound follows shortly thereafter with the unambiguous “Mr. Housman’s Message” (43):

O woe, woe,
People are born and die,
We also shall be dead pretty soon
Therefore let us act as if we were
dead already.

The bird sits on the hawthorn tree
But he dies also, presently.
Some lads get hung, and some get shot.
Woeful is this human lot.
Woe! woe, etcetera…. (1-10)

This is no one-note collection, to be sure, and there are many voices, many actors projecting a varied range of experience from the page. Not all the speakers, though, are so rambunctious or desolate as those above. The opening poem of the sequence, titled simply, “The Tree” (3), begins: “I stood still and was a tree amid the wood, / Knowing the truth of things unseen before.” The muse here, the impulse honored, is one of quiet detachment, meditative; the jongleur has his moment of solemnity, already in costume before his long performance, but speaking softly to his debt of gratitude to stillness:

…I have been a tree amid the wood
And many a new thing understood
That was rank folly to my head before. (11-2)

Of course, this sober admission may be just the first of many put-ons, as the first line of the next poem seems to indicate: “No more for us the little sighing.”

[1] Pound, Ezra. Personae. New York: New Direction, 1926.
[2] The epigram concludes: “Fere = Mate, companion.”
[3] From the epigram to “Planh for the Young English King”

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