"High Civilization": The Role of Noh Drama in Ezra Pound's Cantos

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The importance of Noh drama to Ezra Pound's poetry, and especially to his Cantos, has long been acknowledged and has previously been approached from a variety of perspectives: focusing on the sources and accuracy of the translations in 'Noh' Or Accomplishment; debating the degree of Pound's understanding of the genre and the individual plays; tracing the references to specific Noh plays in the Cantos; and even arguing that the Cantos is structured around the organizing principles of Noh drama and that The Pisan Cantos can be read as a Noh play. (1) All of these approaches reveal that Noh has a significant role in Pound's work and that it is an important component of his Cantos. In addition to these previous considerations of Pound's sources, the accuracy of his renditions of specific plays, and its formal influence on the Cantos, however, Noh has another, more philosophical role in the Cantos. Pound believed that Noh drama represents the highly civilized and artistic life of Japan, and examining the references to Noh with Pound's perspective in mind reveals a previously unrecognized function of Noh drama in the Cantos. (2) Pound invokes Noh specifically as a touchstone for high civilization in order to employ it as a counterbalance for the instances of destruction he saw around him and attempted to respond to in his monumental poem.

Pound's Cantos contain representations of two distinct forces that Pound believes operate throughout history. (3) These forces can be described through the binary relationships of creation/destruction and civilization/ barbarism. Through the many historical allusions and references, the poem suggests that these forces cannot be separated from each other; instead, their presence contributes to what George Kearns calls "the tragic theme" of the Cantos "in which splendor and savagery, civilization and destruction are inextricably mixed" (35). In the Cantos, Japan operates as a "civilizing" force. References to Japan, and especially to Noh drama, occur as counterpoints to fallen civilizations, poor government, and cultures that lack artistic vision.

Extensive studies of the relationship between the formal aspects of Noh and the formal aspects of the Cantos already exist. It is important, however, to recognize that Pound did have a reasonable knowledge of Noh drama and its aesthetic with certain limitations. His knowledge of Noh comes primarily from the notes and translations of Ernest Fenollosa, and his understanding of the form includes both the strengths and weaknesses of this source. I have argued elsewhere that Fenollosa was in a unique position to understand the tradition of Noh drama for two reasons: he was adopted into the Kano family of artists, and he studied Noh drama with Minoru Umewaka, the Noh master. (4) From the Kano family, Fenollosa learned about painting. For instance, every Noh stage has a pine tree painted at the back. Fenollosa notes that this painting "is a great secret of Kano artists," suggesting that he gained information about set design from the artists themselves (Pound and Fenollosa 36).

His experience as a serious student of Noh also gave him insights to the form and its history. He states:

  For the last twenty years I have been studying the Noh, under
  the personal tuition of Umewaka Minoru and his sons, learning
  by actual practice the method of the singing and something of the
  acting; I have taken down from Umewaka's lips invaluable oral
  traditions of the stage as it was before 1868; and have prepared,
  with his assistance and that of native scholars, translations of
  some fifty of the texts. (63)

The knowledge Fenollosa gained led him to conclude that Noh drama was on par with the great works of Ancient Greece. He claims that "A form of drama, as primitive, as intense, and almost as beautiful as the ancient Greek drama at Athens, still exists in the world" (62). Given Fenollosa's credentials, it is not surprising that Pound accepted his summary of various plays, his facts about the formal aspects of Noh, and, most importantly for this essay, his belief that it was the drama of a very artistic and civilized culture. …