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If the classics had a wide circulation
Linda Oreilly posted the following poem and quote in these posts: post, post . I hope she doesn’t mind that I quote her here as I wanted to start a discussion on this beautiful poem of Ezra Pound:

Cantico del Sole

The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation
       Troubles my sleep,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation
      Troubles my sleep.
Nunc dimittis, now lettest thou thy servant,
Now lettest thou thy servant
       Depart in peace.
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation...
       Oh well!
       It troubles my sleep.



“Cantico del Sole” is a particularly funny example of Pound’s critique of the contemporary American culture’s rejection of art. The poem is based on a judge’s ruling that obscenity is okay in the classics because the audience for the classics is so small. In his poem, Pound mockingly repeats a sentiment that might be said by the advocates of censorship, but he substitutes “classics” for “pornography”: “The thought of what America would be like / If the Classics had a wide circulation / Troubles my sleep.” Hearing Pound draw out “America” and “wide circulation” adds a strikingly performative element to his send-up.
---Charles Berstein

 
It’s an amazing poem. But let me start with the problem raised by the quote she brings:
How important is it to know the circumstances surrounding the poem to “understand” the poem? To get it? The usual answer is that the more you know the better, but that’s an easy escape and also false as many times knowledge is destructive to enjoyment, as from too many trees you can’t see the forest.

In this case the exterior knowledge certainly adds a layer, but is it really needed? Moreover, upon thinking about it I’m not even sure I agree with Berstein. You see, the classics are often insipid in a way. The Iliad is extremely violent; Decameron pornographic; The Bible both. The statue of David had its penis covered, and John Ashcroft had an $8000 drape made for miss justice so her breasts won’t be showing:




Nunc dimittis - Now lettest thou thy servant  Depart in peace. The story is of Simeon who after seeing the savior could die in peace. Imagining the classics having wide circulation is thus compared to seeing the savior.
Troubles my sleep is then from hope rather than worry.

What would be so different if the classics had a wide circulation?
Books Discussed
The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New Directions Paperbook)
by Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations (Library of America)
by Ezra Pound
The Decameron: A New Translation (Norton Critical Editions)
by Giovanni Boccaccio

Oh, good! I was just about to reply to the pornography discussion on this very topic, but it's less of a distraction here.

One of the things I find wonderful about this poem is how liturgical it is. The repetition, the sing-song, the chant, the triples, and the explicit inclusion of the canticle (Nunc dimittis, traditionally part of the evening compline service) all add to this effect. It all amounts to something very much like a hymn. A hymn to pornography is, I think, the sort of sublime joke only Pound could give us.

I agree with Hugh that the poem can stand perfectly well on its own (though, as an incisive commentary on an event, it's also enjoyable to know the context). There's the wonderful movement of first laying on lines of calming, rhythmic rhymes -- punctuated by "Oh well!"  -- mildly interrupting our doze.

More context: If I recall correctly, the famous "Canticle of the Sun" is St Francis'. I don't remember the content of it (one of the ecstatic songs to nature?) and whether it was relevant here, but that's one pointer.
"Nunc dimittis - Now lettest thou thy servant  Depart in peace. The story is of Simeon who after seeing the savior could die in peace. Imagining the classics having wide circulation is thus compared to seeing the savior.
Troubles my sleep is then from hope rather than worry."
~HD

If the classics had wide circulation in America what might happen?
Who reads the classics in America right now?
If everybody read them what would happen?
What different  thoughts would arise in America?

Now lettest thou thy servant  Depart in peace
It may be that the classics could be compared to seeing the savior. 
But the savior brought as much strife as he sought to solve.
Was that intentional?
Any bit of classic literature can be read in many ways.  It can be used as validation for this cause or that (a la the bible).
I think about the classics I've read and continue to read...I read them from my own optimistic point of view, I see what is important to me.
I see the archetypal contradictions, the death the betrayal the horror.  But I see them from my own kind of slap happy existence and I turn them into what I need.
The classics are both mutable and immutable (I can't clarify that right now because its not altogether clear to me but I do think that its true)

Now lettest thou thy servant  Depart in peace
I'm seeing Simeon with the baby in his arms and in his blindness and from his long years of experience he's thinking, 'this is BIG...get me out of here before all hell breaks loose'

Saviors and classics and archetypes:  they're good and they're bad.  They bring hope and worry.
If we read them from the heart and the head, they wake us up for a while.
I get very nervous around quoting someone like Ezra Pound when they start waxing classical ideals... perhaps not unlike the classical ideals that Mussolini argued for and helped realize in Fascist Italy. Classical Ideals that I could imagine Tea Party types might at some future date want to be put into "wider circulation" here in America. Ezra Pound very much supported and indeed worked directly for the fascist government as a propagandist.  I quote Wikipedia...
"... He moved to Italy in 1924 where throughout the 1930s and 1940s, to his friends' dismay, he embraced Benito Mussolini's fascism, expressed support for Adolf Hitler, and wrote for publications owned by the British fascist Oswald Mosley. The Italian government paid him during the Second World War to make hundreds of radio broadcasts criticizing the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in particular Jews, broadcasts that were monitored by the U.S. government, as a result of which he was arrested for treason by American forces in Italy in 1945."

If the classics had wide circulation in America what might happen?  It troubles my sleep!
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