With usury has no man a good house
made of stone, no paradise on his church wall
with usury the stone cutter is kept from his stone
the weaver is kept from his loom by usura
Wool does not come into market
the peasant does not eat his own grain
the girl's needle goes blunt in her hand
The looms are hushed one after another
ten thousand after ten thousand
Duccio was not by usura
Nor was 'Calunnia' painted.
Neither Ambrogio Praedis nor Angelico
had their skill by usura
Nor St. Trophime its cloisters;
Not St Hilaire its proportion.
Usury rusts the man and his chisel
It destroys the craftsman, destroying craft;
Azure is caught with cancer. Emerald comes to no Memling
Usury kills the child in the womb
And breaks short the young man's courting
Usury brings age into youth; it lies between the bride
and the bridegroom
Usury is against Nature's increase.
Whores for Eleusis;
Under usury no stone is cut smooth
Peasant has no gain from his sheep herd.
(Ezra Pound, from Canto LI)
We begin this book with these 26 lines from Ezra Pound's Cantos which resonate with many meanings. Pound is accepted throughout the world as being one of the three greatest Englishspeaking poets of the twentieth century, the other two being W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot.
Let us consider for a moment the palimpsest of meaning in the extract which is from Canto LI. Usury (or, as Pound preferred, 'usura'), like all middle men in commerce, intervenes between the spontaneous instinct of the labourer and what he produces, whether it be the building of a house, the shaping of a piece of cloth or wood, or the decorating of the wall of a church. With Usury or Usura, everything becomes abstract, divided, a matter of manipulation. The desire to produce is killed in the womb - or rather tomb - of the imagination, and the fruits of labour are no longer a delight, the result of the natural energy or inclination of the labourer.
Style, our individual way of doing things, is, as W. B. Yeats has it, the energy that remains after the dictates of necessity have been satisfied: it is, for example, the foam on the beer, not essential to the beer, but a sign of good beer. Usura, Pound concludes, 'destroys the craftsman, destroying craft.' Over time he becomes a slave of the middle man. His real will to work is sucked out of him and he begins to labour for survival or profit. The 'azure' of inspiration and the heavens has been infected with cancer.
The extract quoted above concludes by extending the power of usura to interrupt love and procreation: 'it lies between the bride and the bridegroom,' as material considerations always do. Usura turns love into an exercise of the mind where the main objective becomes the outfoxing of one's partner. 'Whores for Eleusis,' Pound says, and that one line communicates the sense of profundity when women become calculating machines.
Eleusis, the site of an ancient Mystery School, had at the heyday of Greece a magnificent temple north of Athens to which all Greeks flocked to participate in the mysteries: the gradual unfolding of the higher faculties, the awakening of the spiritual light of which matter is a lower manifestation. 'The mystery of wheat and sex celebrated at Eleusis andby medieval Christianity,' Professor Massimo Bacigalupo reminds us, 'has degenerated to whoredom (i.e. a love that can be bought), to a macabre banquet of corpses.' As Pound puts it in Canto XLV:Usura slayeth the child in the womb It stayeth the young man's courting It hath brought palsey to bed, lyeth between the young bride and her bridegroomCONTRA NATURAM They have brought whores for Eleusis Corpses are set to banquet at behest of usura.
Sexuality and religion have met a joint death. Once we have understood the references in those lines, Pound's irony is as clear as crystal: otherwise the lines are opaque. Scholarship has a purpose.
Of other particular references we can note that Ambrogio Praedis and Angelico were Italian painters and that the twelfth century cloisters of St. Trophime at Arles and the ornamented arches of St. Hilaire at Pontiers were manifested out of the deep faith of the people rather than out of the thought: 'Wouldn't it be nice to construct a church in the village for our children.'
The reference in the line 'Duccio came not by usura' is to the Italian painter, Agostino di Duccio's figure of Flora. Annotators of the Tempio Malatestiana called her 'Botany' because she fits an allegory of the Liberal Arts. The figure is etched in Rimini, Italy - a favourite haunt of the troubadours - on what some commentators call the most beautiful stone in the world, creating a luminousness from, as Professor Hugh Kenner from John Hopkins University calls it, 'the irradiation of ambient light around the high polish Duccio gave her tranquil gaze, an arcanum and temple of Light.'
The Usura Cantos 'would be more comprehensible,' Pound writes, 'if people understood the meaning of the term 'Usury'. It is not to be confused with the legitimate interest which is due, Del Mar says [in A History of Monetary Systems, London 1895], to the increase in domestic animals and plants. The difference between a fixed charge and a share from a proportion of the increase.'
Elsewhere, in his ABC of Economics, Pound defines Usury as 'a charge for the use of purchasing power, levied without regard to production; often without regard to the possibilities of production.'
James Laughlin Pound's publisher, suggests that the poet's insight into the nature of Usury goes back to the canonist writers, principally St. Ambrose. Professor James Wilhelm from Rutgers University has located the linking passage in Ambrose's De Tobia (Patrologia latina, vol. 14):
The De Tobia attacked usurers who ruined farmers with high rates of interest on crop loans. (Duke Leopold of Siena was one of Pound's heroes because he limited the Monte dei Paschi to 3 percent on loans to the peasants). Pound had nothing against bank loans which support any kind of production at a fair rate. And he had nothing against service banking. In fact, all his life he had a savings account at a bank in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania (Marcel Smith and William A. Ulmer, Ezra Pound: The Legacy of Kulchur, p.79).Summarizing Pound's Cantos, Professor Chang Yao-Hsin (Chairman of the English Department at Nankai University in Tianjin, China) writes:
A major thematic concern of the Cantos is the treatment of usury, which takes up an enormous amount of space. Canto 12 talks of banks not likely to ease distribution. Canto 30 mentions how money debases the arts and customs of Venice. Canto 34 records the fact of banks breaking all over America and prostrating every principle of economy. Canto 37 registers the pernicious effect of the Bank of the United States deranging the country's credit and controlling the public mind. Before the denunciation of the malpractice of the Bank of England in Canto 46, Pound lashed himself into fury at usura in Canto 45. In short, to Pound, much of the Western disease is derivable from usury and ink money. Hugh Kenner is right when he says that the first fifty cantos paint for us a picture of 'the complete and utter inferno of the past century,' and so is Angela Jung, who sees these cantos as a vehement condemnation of the cardinal crime against humanity (ibid., pp.90-1).Pound's friend, the British philosopher Herbert Read, notes in his book on Pound that there were two points on which they always agreed: 'the evil wrought in mediaeval society by the Church's admission of the principle of usury, and the dependence of any social revolution on its ability to deal with the monetary problem.' As TT puts the point in The New World Order and the Throne of the antichrist: 'They collect from the poor and unfortunate, of course - mostly when they are at church; they launder the money by means of narcotics, prostitution, gambling, and by buying out politicians' (p. 188).
Usury is the creation of money out of nothing. Money educes a sense of false stability in a world in which everything is in a state of flux. Usury perverts nature by ignoring the purpose of nature, creating ex nihilo - instead of by the rhythms of nature and cyclical ritual - consumer societies, debased dollars and coinage with no real goods behind them. In modern times man experiences alienation under capitalism and sees 'his productions, his food, his love objects, all equally reduced to commodities.'
Usury has its roots in the Manichean separation of the flesh and the spirit, its hypocritical insistence that the flesh is sinful, and only the flesh. This perverts nature. The energy so released in this perversion of true Christian doctrine is diverted into other radical perversions: profiteering through money, power, war, or - in Freud's interestingly capitalistic term -'reinvesting' it: we see the total irony of the situation when we observe the wealthiest in a parish regularly take up the 'Collection' at Sunday morning Mass.
Usury is seen by Pound as the root of all evil, 'a vice or a crime condemned by all religions and by every ancient moralist,' a departure from the divine and natural order of things and 'more than faintly connected with such unpredictable criminals as FDR [Roosevelt].'
Unlike usury and politics, art does not attempt to create something out of nothing, but reveals the shape and rhythm of what is already there, within the propensity of the paint, words, or living stone to express, as Pound suggests, what is 'in the mind of heaven.' Usury, James Laughlin, writes is 'the excremental doppelganger of [potentially] poetic gold.'
The connection between excrement and usury is clear in Pound's work. In the ABC of Economics Pound refers to the /economic mess'. In Guide to Kulchur, the nineteenth century is described simultaneously as the 'age of usury' and 'mainly mess'. In Gold and Work 1944, middle-men - usurers - are considered the 'most stinking dregs of humanity.' In ABC of Economics, disorder in America is described as a condition in which 'Their dung has covered their heads', and [in National Culture, A Manifesto 1938] the usurers find themselves in 'filthy and damnable control of the Union.' 'The usurers,' Pound concludes in A Visiting Card, 'in their obscene and pitch-dark century, created this satanic transubstantiation, the Black Mass of money.'
University of Wales Professor Alan Durant concludes in his book on Pound, Identity in Crises: 'In Gold and Work (1944) this usuriocratic, Hebrew-Christian perverted and infernal blend is intertwined, by way of the nineteenth century's designation as an era of usury, with Marxian economics, "a species of monetary Black Mass."'
Usury then for Ezra Pound - and many of his predecessors and successors - is associated with number, measurement, containment, inversion, evil and murder: swift murder of the spirit as well as the slow murder of the body with mort gages, etc. In Cato's De Rustica, we find the following piece of dialogue:
And what do you think of usury?