E grādment.

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.”


  1. As Ezra Pound, le bricoleur bâclé, famously retorted, “Well of course any idiot can misconstrue Chinese!”

  2. Thanks for all this. I had a high school English teacherwho said that in her old age, she finally could read and understand Milton. I’ve had a volume of the complete Cantos since I was 23, 45 years ago, and I’m hoping that maybe pretty soon I’ll be old enough (and have time enough) to read and have some degree of understanding them. The Cantos Project website you linked to looks like it could be a terrific resource for this.

  3. Yes indeed!

  4. I would like to add my thanks to Martin’s. I enjoy reading other people’s scholarship, and his reference to Milton provides me with a springboard to my off-topic addendum, written in Vancouver International Airport on my return from Habana Vieja.
    Although I could read Poemas del Rio Wang and Planetary.org while there, for some reason I couldn’t call up Languagehat through Internet wizardry, which gives me lots of catch-up reading.
    But because of MasterCard’s ass-holishness, cutting me off because I was in a ‘restricted country’, I was able to learn how to live cheap, learn more from and about Cubans (strengthening my Spanish), and have long siestas, reading from my electronic library of out-of-copywrite books (who has the up-to-date story on Gutenberg.com? I’m dying to download more C17 Eng. prose), and so I come to the point of this perambulating preamble:
    One of the books I read for a second time was Norman Douglas’s ‘Old Calabria’, his 1915 travel book. In it he reveals some obscure scholarship about Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ that shows it to be a retelling of ‘Adamo Caduto’, a poem written by Serafino Della Salandra and published at Cosenza in Calabria in 1747, ten years before Milton’s epic. I suppose there is a reader out there who can bring this story up to date.
    Later in ‘Old Calabria’, Douglas gives us a good long excursus on his investigations into the Albanian language in the mountains of southern Calabria.
    I hope that finally getting to the point qualifies my ‘comment’ for inclusion.

  5. Your comments are always qualified! I just hope some reader more knowledgeable than I will be able to address your point about Milton.

    for some reason I couldn’t call up Languagehat through Internet wizardry

    Great heavens! Am I considered subversive??

  6. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    I was reading just yesterday a Latin text penned perhaps in the 15th century. Not only did it abbreviate n’s and m’s with a macron or tilde (-, ~), it also abbreviated r’s with something more angular (like a ^, but turned).

  7. Am I considered subversive?

    Not for the first time.

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    Pound’s spelling of English in the same cantos is in multiple places abbreviated, informal, eye-dialectish, or otherwise non-standard. Sometimes this creates a pleasing aesthetic effect, but much of the time it is a distracting affectation of a willful eccentric whose quirks do not actually make him as interesting as he might think they do (and I say this as someone with a strongly positive view of EP on net).

    So how strong is the implicit premise here that any oddities of his Italian spelling would have been inadvertent rather than intentional?

  9. Pretty strong. He enjoyed the faux-crackerbarrel effect of his Murrkin spelling because he knew everybody knew it was only a put-on, but getting Renaissance Italian wrong would just have made him look ignorant. Plus the whole point was that he was reproducing the source for you, not riffing on it.

  10. January First-of-May says:

    I was reading just yesterday a Latin text penned perhaps in the 15th century. Not only did it abbreviate n’s and m’s with a macron or tilde (-, ~), it also abbreviated r’s with something more angular (like a ^, but turned).


    Reminds me of that one time when my amateur genealogy research landed me in a Google Books copy of the 1589 Meslanges historiques of Pierre de Saint-Julien.
    I was trying to figure out the heirs of William the Conqueror under the modern British succession rules (no-preference primogeniture), and needed some clarification on the Toulongeon and Bauffremont families of the 15th century (as far as I can tell, I wanted to know the birth order of Pierre de Bauffremont’s daughters Agnes and Francoise).
    Anyway, I did find the passage I was looking for (and, after some further googling to figure out what “aisnée” meant – it wasn’t a word I recognized from my limited French – also the clarification… which was sadly not in the direction I hoped it would be*); but wow, the spelling.
    It was a story of (a particular section of) the Toulongeon family; and in maybe three pages it spelled the name “Toulongeon” in something like a dozen different ways – some of which, yes, involved tildes (I’m not actually sure if I ever saw it spelled “Toulongeon”, but it must have been or I wouldn’t have found the text in the first place).

    The weirdest part? I’m still not sure how I managed to understand any of that stuff in the first place. I did kind of study French at university… for a bit under two years of one class per week, and I only got 4/10 [basically a D] for it anyway. And it certainly could not have prepared me for 16th century French that hadn’t yet learned how to spell consistently.
    I’m seriously considering reading some Rabelais in the original – it shouldn’t be that much harder.

    Incidentally – I wonder whether the French circumflex for missing “s” (as in “aînée”, the 20th century French descendant of the word I had to figure out) is also based on a similar convention (I’m almost sure the Portuguese tildes for nasal vowels are).

    *) it was the difference between having a fairly certain line up to the present day – which incidentally happened to pass through Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand – and a line that got very muddy sometime in the 16th century; sadly it turned out to be the latter.

  11. And that was a printed book — just imagine trying to read the chicken-scratches of a contemporary manuscript!

  12. January First-of-May says:

    And that was a printed book — just imagine trying to read the chicken-scratches of a contemporary manuscript!

    I can imagine – I sometimes had trouble reading some stuff I myself wrote a few years earlier.

  13. In earlier centuries, most people who could write wrote clearly, in what would today be called calligraphy. Except, horribly, Thomas Aquinas.

  14. tangent says:

    Speaking of orthographic history — people here of all places might know the answer to a question I’ve never managed to research. When did spelling approach regularity in various languages?

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Thomas Aquinas

    The fascinating part of this is that it looks like Roman handwriting from imperial times. Perhaps that tradition wasn’t forgotten in Italy like it was elsewhere, where people had to develop such things as Carolingian minuscles from scratch?

    (And no, I can’t read a single word.)

    Incidentally – I wonder whether the French circumflex for missing “s” (as in “aînée”, the 20th century French descendant of the word I had to figure out) is also based on a similar convention (I’m almost sure the Portuguese tildes for nasal vowels are).

    The French circumflex is based on the tradition of using a circumflex for long vowels, itself based on a bit of a misunderstanding of the Greek circumflex. A few people, notably Notker III of St. Gallen, used the circumflex in Old High German, too.

    I’m sure you’re right on the Portuguese and Spanish tildes, however.

    Informally, the macron was sporadically used to abbreviate double letters in German up to the mid-20th century. I’ve still encountered a sign saying “Ter̄asse” in Vienna; I’d date the font to the 1950s or thereabouts, and there wasn’t enough space to spell the word out.

    When did spelling approach regularity in various languages?

    In English it seems to have been the early 18th century; I don’t know what changed in society around that time.

  16. Rodger C says:

    in 1747, ten years before Milton’s epic

    You must mean 1647.

  17. The fascinating part of this is that it looks like Roman handwriting from imperial times.
    Roman cursive looks to me like handwriting. Aquinas’s hand, like Demotic Egyptian, barely looks like handwriting at all.

  18. Rodger C: Of course, you’re right. My mind is more frequently in the 1700s.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    tildes for nasal vowels

    Medieval spelling, being handwritten on expensive materials, included a number of standardized symbols intended both to simplify the scribe’s task when writing frequent combinations of letters and to save space. Only a few of those symbols have remained.

    I think that the tilde is a flattened version of “N”. In Portuguese it must have started from the time when vowels were nasalized before /n/, which was itself omitted in casual speech before disappearing completely after the vowel (as happened in French, where the nasal letter remained, the combination “VN” indicating a nasal vowel). In Spanish, “ñ” derives from Latin /nn/, so the tilde is a flattened “N” on top of the basic “n”. The new symbol was then kept after the sound started to evolve from a repeated /nn/ to a different sound.

  20. m-l: Your description of the development of the tilde makes a great deal of sense.
    I have been reading (in my electronic library) a book you must have in hardcover: How to Kill a Dragon; Aspects of Indoeuropean Poetics. Of course my interest is dilitantish, but I enjoy deciphering his (Calvert Watkins) phonomorphosyntactic comparisons. Did I get in over my head with that polysyllabic monstrosity?

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