A lucky dive into Google Books sent me back to the surface clutching a reference to a book I hadn’t known about but knew I had to read, A Poem Containing History: Textual Studies in The Cantos, edited by Lawrence S. Rainey. (Since the damn thing costs $85.00 and nobody’s selling a used copy for a pittance, I’m reading a library copy.) All the essays are interesting, but the one that grabbed my attention, and that I’m going to write about here, is Rainey’s own contribution, “‘All I Want You to Do Is to Follow the Orders’: History, Faith, and Fascism in the Early Cantos.” I don’t know why it says “the Early Cantos,” since the whole essay is about the Malatesta Cantos (8-11); one of the things I learned from it is how important that section was to Pound: “After completing the four Malatestas in April and May 1923, Pound suddenly understood the shape that he had been seeking for his long poem; he swiftly revised all the previous cantos, added five more, and completed the first sixteen cantos in their modern form, leading to the publication of A Draft of XVI. Cantos in January 1925.” The focus is on just two lines of text, the ones that appear near the end of Canto X and then are repeated at the start of Canto XI; in the current New Directions edition, they read:
E gradment li antichi cavaler romanj
davano fed a quisti annutii
The web pages I’ve linked to have convenient hypertext annotations; for some reason the Canto X page has “grandment” and “annuntii,” which disturbs me, but I guess it’s just another variant in the tangled textual history I am about to summarize. Some might find the fifty-page chapter ridiculous overkill, but I love this kind of thing and read it avidly. (I should add here that the same site has links to facsimiles of the original magazine publications of the first twenty Cantos and of the gorgeous first book publication, A Draft of XVI. Cantos — I urge you to check out the beautiful illustrations and decorative capitals. What a wonderful world we live in, in bookish terms at least!)
After discussing the historical Sigismondo Malatesta and Pound’s discovery of him, Rainey gets to the lines I quoted above, pointing out their oddity to anyone who knows Italian: “quisti” looks like questi ‘these’ but isn’t “immediately recognizable as either an older form or a dialect variant.” He goes on:
Equally puzzling is the word “cavaler”; while it is plainly a cognate of the modern cavaliere (plural cavalieri), a reader will at least pause and be distracted by the peculiar form in which it appears here. Is it an older form that has vanished, or simply a mistake? And if a mistake, whose is it?
More troubling are three other words: “fed,” “gradment,” and “annutii.” The first one, fed, seems to be a variant of the Italian word fede (faith), which derives from the Latin fides […]. But why is the final letter e missing? Is it an older or a dialect form that has since disappeared? More perplexing is the case of gradment, a word that is not even recognizably Italian. One might guess that it comes from Provencal, or Catalan, or some other poorly known Romance language; but then what is it doing here?
Rainey then explains that the source of the lines is “a fifteenth-century chronicle written by Gaspare Broglio Tartaglia da Lavello (1407-1493), a soldier of fortune and counselor who served at the court of Rimini from 1443 until Sigismondo’s death in 1468,” and he transcribes them thus (embedding them in their context and providing an image of the MS): “grandemente li antichi e valenti romani davano grandissima fede a questi annuntii.” He continues:
Broglio’s account was still unpublished in 1923, nor had this passage ever been quoted or transcribed in any secondary source prior to that date. Instead, as is clear from a variety of evidence, Pound examined the only extant copy of the work, the original manuscript in Rimini, which he consulted between 21 and 27 March 1923 when he stopped there in the course of his research tour of Italian libraries and archives. Yet what Pound actually saw was something different from the edited and orderly passage above.
He explains that Broglio was using an antiquated local variety of chancery script which Pound was unfamiliar with and inevitably misread:
Pound has little sense of the conventional abbreviations derived from the tradition of Latin writing and therefore cannot resolve words such as per and parte. He is also uncertain about the horizontal line above a letter that represents a missing m or n. He is unfamiliar with fusion and cannot detect its presence in words that make use of it, chief among them grandemente (where fusion occurs between d and e and between t and e) and fede (again between d and e). He is also uncertain about the value of the letter j and has difficulty distinguishing graphemes for the letters e, c, r, i, t, and n. Finally, he has difficulty distinguishing some versions of the letters s, f, and capital I (whence his reading of “frey stra” for ieri sera).
It is difficult, however, to specify a standard by which to assess Pound’s transcription. A typical professor of American literature, at present, will seldom read or speak a foreign language with ease, let alone decipher a written version of it such as Broglio’s. […] Moreover, to compare Pound with modern specialists who have been trained in paleography is not to acknowledge that he occupied a position outside the university, and that his learning, notwithstanding his M.A. in Romance Philology, more closely approximated that of elite bourgeois readers than that of highly trained experts. Yet it is in part because Pound himself highlights his acquaintance with primary documents, because he himself seems to insinuate a deeper and more extensive engagement with archival materials, that some readers may choose to assess his transcription harshly.
I think that’s a fair assessment. I’ll pass over further details such as Pound’s problems with evaluating his own transcription when putting together his notes for the Canto (he had recorded one sequence as both “caveler” and the correct “e valenti,” but selected the former and then “normalized” it to “cavaler”) and pass on to the problems encountered in publication, limiting myself to the word “gradment,” where Pound knew there should be a sign indicating the nasal above a; since there was no macron on a typewriter keyboard, he first turned the platen to place an underscore over it, then (in Canto XI) used the simpler solution of using an umlaut, adding instructions to the printer to make it a slightly curved line. One printing wound up with an umlaut, another with a horizontal line; unfortunately, in the 1930 Hours Press edition that wound up being the basis for all future printings, the line was omitted, leaving the canonical “gradment.”
I’ll reluctantly leave out the very interesting discussion of how the complex history of the reproduction of this passage symbolizes Pound’s attempt to reproduce in his long poem his own process of coming to learn about and understand the significant facts from which he built up his picture of history, and end with what is to me the extraordinarily amusing fact that the same error made in the Hours Press edition occurs in this very essay. One sentence reads: “This time the sign above the a in grandemente (or “gradmente,” as it appeared here) was changed from an umlaut to a straight, horizontal line — a.” Obviously that last letter was supposed to be ā. Such, such are the joys of publishing a complex text!
Addendum. It occurs to me that it might be helpful to translate the text in question and give a brief explanation of context. It’s from a passage about the battle of Nidastore in 1461, when Sigismundo led his troops to victory over superior papal forces (Pope Pius II was one of his many enemies); here he is addressing his men and “assuring them of victory; for the evening before he had witnessed an omen — an eagle that had landed on his tent.” Thereupon follows the text quoted above, which means (in Rainey’s translation) “Greatly the ancient and valiant Romans placed great faith in these annunciations”; Pound’s version changes “and valiant” to “cavaliers.”