Canto XLV Summary
Welp, the first thing you find out about this poem is that it constantly begins its statements with the phrase "With usura." And in this doing this, Pound hopes to outline all the crummy things in the modern world that he blames on the practice of moneylending with high interest. He specifically uses the Latin form of the word "usury" to give his poem a real "fire and brimstone" vibe to it. Or in other words, he makes usury sound like a super deadly sin just by tacking the Latin "a" ending onto it.
And the biblical tone doesn't stop there. Throughout Canto XLV, Pound keeps up the classical, high-morality tone of voice, saying things like, "with usura/ hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall" (5-6), and the poem pretty much goes on like that until the end. For the most part, Pound spends his time listing all of the wonderful things the world had back in classical times, like great art and great political leaders. He seems a lot less interested in the good aspects of the modern world, like a cure for tuberculosis or houses with running water.
As the poem continues, Pound gets a little more specific about what the modern world is lacking because of usury. He starts listing the names of great artists who, according to Pound, never could have existed in a world dominated by money. "Pier della Francesca," for example, "came not by usura" (29). Or in other words, this Italian painter (who none of us has probably heard of) is someone Pound admires. But the guy could only make his art in a world that cared about beauty more than money, and unfortunately, the modern world has sort of reversed this emphasis, valuing money over beauty.
As the poem winds to a close, Pound throws out the phrase "CONTRA NATURAM" (all caps, in case you missed it). This Latin phrase means, "Against nature," and Pound uses it to say once and for all that usury, greed, and the obsession with money not only go against human nature; they corrupt and ruin nature in general. They're just the worst. According to Pound, modern greed has completely warped our relationship to the natural world, and if we don't get our priorities straight, we'll all die and turn into a bunch of "Corpses […] set to banquet" (49). Lovely. Whether Pound means this literally is unclear, though it probably doesn't matter. If we die in our spirits, we're as good as dead in our bodies, too.
With usura hath no man a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting
that design might cover their face,
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
harpes et luz
or where virgin receiveth message
and halo projects from incision,
- This poem opens with the phrase "With usura" and you'd better get used to it, because Pound is going to use himself some good anaphora to build emphasis for the rest of this poem. But emphasizing what happens when you have "usura" isn't going to help us much until we figure out what "usura" is. So here we go.
- Usura? That's the Latin form of the word "usury." And "usury" in English refers to the practice of lending out money with extremely high interest rates. Basically, it's a way for people with lots of money to keep making more money without ever actually doing anything else. People come and literally buy money from these people for more than it's worth, so they can get it quickly.
- In any case, Pound was a pretty big economics buff, and he felt that there was no greater cause for the decline of the modern world than the practice of usury. With usury, the richest people in the world would continue to get richer without ever doing anything productive for the rest of society.
- So to make his point, Pound talks about how "with usura," good houses don't get built because the absurdity of usury makes a mockery of common sense. Carpenters don't bother to work hard when there are people out there making money for nothing.
- In line 6, Pound repeats that when usury is happening, no one will ever paint a beautiful picture on a church wall, because true artists don't care about money, only great art. But the practice of usury makes everything about money, and so stuff like Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel doesn't get made. Bummer.
- The phrase "harpes et luz" in line 7 translates into English as "harps and lutes." So in other words, there's no beautiful music being made in a world with usury. (Okay, Ezzie, we're definitely getting the picture here…)
- Lines 8-9 seem to refer to the Virgin Mary, and they basically say that even something as important as Mary hearing about the birth of Christ can no longer happen in a world with usury.
- Can you tell yet that Pound isn't a fan of usury?
- We'd like to take this opportunity to let you Shmoopers know that, for the purposes of this poem, we're going to mash together Ezra Pound and the speaker. We know, we know: your English teachers strictly forbid this. But with the number of references to his own life and work in this poem, we think it's expedient. See the "Speaker" section for more.
seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines
no picture is made to endure nor to live with
but it is made to sell and sell quickly
with usura, sin against nature,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags
is thy bread dry as paper,
with no mountain wheat, no strong flour
- Line 9 reestablishes the theme of "With usura," and Pound goes on to say that in a world with usury, no man gets to see "Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines." This line is a reference to a painting by Andrea Mantegna called Gonzaga: His Heirs and His Concubines. Basically, Pound is saying that this beautiful painting would never get made if the old world cared as much about dirty money as the new one.
- According to our speaker, in our modern world, no one cares whether or not they've actually earned the money they have. No one cares to make any sort of painting or picture "to endure" or last for a long time. Instead, people only make pictures "to sell and sell quickly." In other words, the modern world is all about making a quick buck and not caring whether art can stay meaningful for centuries.
- In lines 13-16, Pound takes his argument up a notch and gets all Biblical with us. He calls usury a "sin against nature" and says that our bread will never be fresh in a world with usura. Those who know the Biblical reference would also see that Pound is talking about the metaphorical "bread of life" here, meaning that our souls have nothing to live on in a world with usury.
- He continues the metaphor to say that not only do our souls have nothing to live on (bread), they don't even have the basic ingredients (flour) to make something nourishing. It's a bleak world once usury starts happening.
with usura the line grows thick
with usura is no clear demarcation
and no man can find site for his dwelling.
Stonecutter is kept from his stone
weaver is kept from his loom
- So what does Pound mean when he says the line "grows thick" with usury? Well he tries to clarify in the next line by saying there is no "demarcation" with usury. He's sort of saying that before usury came along, our lives were organized along clear lines. Each person had a place and did what they were supposed to. But now that usury happens, no one can figure out where they belong in the world, because everything is corrupted by money.
- For these reasons, he thinks that usury ends up ruining the joy of work for everybody. In the old days, people might have become carpenters because they liked working with wood. But nowadays, people become stockbrokers and bond analysts because they want cash monies. So for these reasons, someone who might want to be a stonecutter is "kept from his stone" and someone who's a weaver is "kept from his loom" (a loom is a tool for weaving).
wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid's hand
and stoppeth the spinner's cunning.
- And in case you didn't get the point, Pound decides to start capitalizing every letter of "WITH USURA" in line 22. Now he's really starting to preach.
- He says that if no one wants to be a noble worker anymore, then there won't be anymore to make wool for us and bring it to the market. They won't do this because "sheep bringeth no gain with usura." In other words, you can't make enough money off of sheep when the world's full of people playing stocks and making money without actually producing anything real.
- You should notice, too, that Pound uses nice quaint, rural imagery when he talks about what usury ruins in the modern world.
- He's definitely a fan of the idea of returning to some sort of a pre-industrial peasant world. In a word, the guy's nostalgic.
- Next, Pound says that usury is a "murrain," which is another word for plague. And in keeping with his quaint imagery, Pound says that usury ruins the needle in the maid's hand. In other words, women can't sew clothes because there's no incentive to create anything physical in a world with billions of dollars changing hands over the stock market. The bit about usury stopping the "spinner's cunning" means the same thing, only this time it's talking about the skills of a person who spins wool.
came not by usura
Duccio came not by usura
nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin' not by usura
nor was 'La Calunnia' painted.
Came not by usura Angelico; came not Ambrogio Praedis,
Came no church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit.
- In the second half of line 27, Pound mentions someone named Pietro Lombardo. We shouldn't be surprised, since it's pretty clear to us by now that Pound adored a lot of guys with Italian names.
- And sure enough, this guy was an Italian sculptor from the 1400s. In other words, he was a pre-modern artist who was sponsored by rich patrons to create his art, so he wasn't concerned with how well his art would sell on the free market.
- It makes sense here that Pound would say that artists like Lombardo existed in a world before usury, when they could just care about good art and nothing else.
- The same goes for a person called Duccio, who was an Italian painter, as well as Pier della Francesca and Zuan Bellin, who were Italian painters. All of them worked in the 1400s.
- The rest of the stanza is similarly a bunch of things Pound thinks would never have been made in the modern, money-hungry world. La Calunnia is an allusion to a painting called Calumny by Sandro Botticelli. Angelico and Ambrogio Praedis were also 15th-century Italian painters.
- In line 33, Pound finishes by saying that in a world with usury, there would be no church made of stone that is signed "Adamo me fecit." This phrase translates as "Adam me made." The allusion is to the Church of San Zeno in Verona, Italy. Pound likely admired this church very much, and he also knew that the stone of the church had been signed with the phrase "Adam made me," meaning that Adam from the Bible had made the church as a holy object.
Not by usura St. Trophime
Not by usura Saint Hilaire,
Usura rusteth the chisel
It rusteth the craft and the craftsman
It gnaweth the thread in the loom
None learneth to weave gold in her pattern;
- St. Trophime and Saint Hildaire are churches in Arles and Poitiers, France, respectively.
- Just to be clear, though, Pound isn't trying to push Christianity on you here. He's talking about the buildings as beautiful pieces of art—that's what he wants you to appreciate.
- Next, he continues in his trade metaphor by saying that usury makes a chisel rusty, meaning that people who work with stone won't care about their work anymore in a world ruled by money.
- It ruins the craftsman and makes people less skilled at their work, because no one who's smart and creative will bother to become a tradesperson in a world that pays these people very little money.
- Similarly, no one will know how to weave gold into a pattern because anyone who's skilled will just end up working some boring job that makes them a lot of money.
Azure hath a canker by usura; cramoisi is unbroidered
Emerald findeth no Memling
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 bridegroom
- Apparently, usury gives a "canker" to "azure." Azure is a clear color of blue, as in a clear blue sky. To say that this color of blue has a canker, though, means that a nice, peaceful shade of blue has a cancer growing on it in a world with usury. So in other words, things that are pretty and peaceful are ruined by usury—as if you didn't see that coming.
- Similarly, cramoisi is "unbroidered" in a world with usury. Cramoizi is a type of crimson-colored French cloth. In the old days, a person would embroider this cloth with nice patterns, but there's no point to doing all that hard work when people won't pay for it anymore.
- Basically, in a world run by efficiency and moolah, people just want plain cloth and don't care if it has any beautiful embroidery.
- Line 41 tells us that emerald finds no "Memling." This is an allusion to Hans Memling, a Flemish painter from (you guessed it) the 1400s, who likely had a really good way of using the color emerald.
- And Pound's not done yet. He says that usury kills children while they're still in the womb. Yikes. He might not mean this literally, but might be saying that anything that has a lot of potential ends up being cut off before it can grow into something beautiful, because the modern world doesn't care about anything that takes a long time to accomplish.
- Usury also stops the young man from "courting" a girl, because the young man is presumably more concerned with making money than making love. Usury leaves people paralyzed or "palsied" in their beds, and it splits up husbands and wives (brides and bridegrooms).
- And if you think that Pound is being melodramatic about this stuff, just remember that money is by far the number one cause of divorce today.
They have brought whores for Eleusis
Corpses are set to banquet
at behest of usura.
- Shmoopers, it's time for Pound's final flurry. He opens with a real haymaker, shouting in all caps that usury is CONTRA NATURAM or "against nature."
- The allusion to "Eleusis" in line 47 refers to an ancient Greek town where ceremonies of beauty and sexual fertility were celebrated. But instead of bringing beautiful, chaste women to these ceremonies, Pound says that the world of modern money brings "whores" to these sacred ceremonies.
- Without a doubt, the dude has to work on his gender politics. But here, he's basically saying that feminine beauty and sexuality are ruined by the world of money.
- And finally, Pound closes with the outlandish claim that all of us modern folks are basically just chowing down on a banquet of corpses in a world with usury. This could mean several things. It could mean that we live in a dog-eat-dog world where we're all just chasing money all the time at the expense of other people. It could also mean that the beautiful art of the past is all we have left to enjoy because we aren't making our own anymore.
- In either case, Pound is basically saying that unless the modern world can get over its obsession with money, we will never be able to make good art again. And our souls will keep suffering…
- With usura.