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The Spirit of Ezra Pound's Romance Philology:
Dante's Ironic Legacy of the Contingencies of Value
For George Merino
September 11, 2001
The Spirit of Romance (1910) embodied Ezra Pound's reaction against a current of Romance philology prevailing in his day—a positivistic discipline that used texts as artifacts in the ultimate service of newly constructed national ideologies and literary canons. Throughout the rise of nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European countries began defining their modern histories. They consolidated a cultural identity, defined in part through national texts purported to reflect essential and transcendent qualities of the nation, and created rivalries both among their own inhabitants and with neighboring nations. Pound tried to free philology from this type of divisive service by defining himself not as a direct descendent of British or American philologies, but of Dante's philology instead—a discipline based on the intrinsic value of the literary work regardless of temporal constraint or national affiliation.
Dante's De vulgari eloquentia, written in 1303-1304, was one of his responses to the Florentine political battles of ideology and culture similar to the battles and forces that were fracturing Ezra Pound's world. Dante manipulated the divide of high and low cultures, of Latin and vulgar cultures, to his advantage, disavowing claims to literature's national and temporal essences. He was an imperfect ancestor for Pound, however, since Dante ultimately replicated the type of divisive system he was challenging by setting himself up as the god in a cult of the vernaculars and silencing the poetic voices of his literary rivals. Pound refashioned Dante for his own ends—as a corrective to the ills of philology in the early [End Page 201] twentieth century. Pound promoted certain literature that he felt transcended time and place because of its lyrical and synchronistic essences. Like Dante, Pound too manipulated literary histories and references, which he touted as transcending national and temporal boundaries. Pound's own poetry and cantos derived authority and weight from the ancestors he legitimized. Ultimately, Pound stood at the pinnacle of the personal pantheon he created. He was not vexed by the type of anxiety of influence proposed by Harold Bloom but basked in the "beneficent conception of literary influence" termed by George Bornstein. 1 Neither all of Dante's judgments were acceptable to Pound, nor were all of Pound's tastes and controversial views acceptable to us, his modern readers. The legacy that Pound would leave us, his readers, however, like Dante's original legacy, ultimately exposed the contingent natures of poetry and of its aesthetic value and judgement.
Ezra Pound's work was linked to Dante's through a regenerative legacy that redefined literature and literary histories. Pound was a craftsman of a new Romance philology that resisted the normative academic philology of his day by championing the type of literary history first written by Dante in the De vulgari eloquentia. Romance philology, as it would later be known in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was a political tool Dante used unremittingly in his own fourteenth century: he arranged his own canonization and the oblivion of some of his fellow poets. Pound used Dante's tradition to enfranchise, within a new historiography, medieval poets and works written out of national literary canons and teleologies for centuries as illegitimate ancestors. Pound chose these particular figures because of the transcendental universal quality he saw in their work. He lent them a voice and, through his translations, a new language with which to speak to modern readers. Guido Cavalcanti was one of these elided poets whose virtual absence from literary histories was already contrived in Dante's work. Pound recovered Cavalcanti and exalted his poetry, thereby rewriting the tradition he inherited from Dante, as he used it to supplant the philological vein of his own day. As a craftsman of literary history, Pound rebelled against the Cartesian apparatus 2 of nineteenth century German romanische Philologie...