Belatedly posting this odd sighting of Ezra Pound, which appeared in the letters column of “Science Times,” the Tuesday section of the New York Times. It responded to an article (link) that reported that antibiotics were proving ineffective in treating urinary tract infections in men, with harmful side effects when the treatment was prolonged. The letter writer, Ronald Macaulay (Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at Pitzer College, Claremont, CA), noted that methenamine is readily available as an alternative. His letter concludes: “Ezra Pound gave thanks for the benefits of methenamine in ‘The Pisan Cantos,’ in the days before antibiotics were common.” Not your expected authority, although I suspect no other literary figure has ever mentioned the drug (the OED, for instance, gives the same reference in its definition, the only non-scientist so cited).
Pound’s thanks for the drug comes in the first of the Pisan cantos, in a passage that is often cited, though not for this particular line:
and Mr Edwards superb green and brown
in ward No 4 a jacent benignity,
of the Baluba mask: “doan you tell no one
I made you that table”
methenamine eases the urine
and the greatest is charity
to be found among those who have not observed
As Richard Sieburth notes in his annotated edition of The Pisan Cantos, “Mr Edwards” is Henry Hudson Edwards, an African American serviceman and fellow prisoner. On account of his race, Edwards is figured here as a Baluba mask, an African artifact of the sort Pound learned about from Leo Frobenius. The table, made from crate, is immediately linked to the “methenamine”: two instruments of kindness that Pound upholds with his allusion to Corinthians. “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Greatest, perhaps, because it came to Pound from outside, faith and hope having been his inner resources. Charity, perhaps, for the rhyme with “benignity,” which, in light of the drug, can be seen as an easing of the poem’s own malignancy, an easing of the infection of anger (the gift table having served as a writing surface).
I find it meaningful that Pound credits the drug itself with charity, not the medic who dispensed it: my thought is that he wanted to avoid associating his guards with kindness, Perhaps, too, he wanted to hint at an Axis benignity. Only nine lines before, a German pharmaceutical factory is mentioned: “and the Farben works still intact.” This is the infamous I. G. Farben, broken up after the war for its role in various war crimes; and since its name means “colors,” there may be a tie-in too, poetically speaking, with the charity of Edwards, especially since Edwards is then described in terms borrowed from the German “works” of Frobenius.
The Wikipedia entry for the underlying chemical describes methenamine as a “white crystalline compound” having “a cage-like structure,” noting further: “It sublimes in a vacuum at 280 °C.” A description that serves quite nicely for the poem too.
* [Back to text] Unfortunately, the indentations in the poem are lost in this blog format. Clicking on the linked reference will take you to a reproduction of the page.