With Usura With usura hath no man a house of good stone each block cut smooth and well fitting that design might cover their face, with usura 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.
with usura 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.