On the topic of politics and poetry, there was something in the list-like, incantatory tone of ‘Hengist wants men’ that brought to mind Pound’s usury canto, which for some reason or other had been floating around the back of my consciousness.
‘For some reason’? Well, largely to do with having been watching, not always comfortably, the rantings of The Keiser Report, the RTV-based soap-box from which ex-trader Max Keiser inveighs against the greed and corruption of bakers and the weakness of politicians and regulators. He‘s a startling performer: part comedian, part demagogue, part righteous prophet. Or false prophet, depending on whom you ask. From what I can gather, he has associations with conspiracy theorists and 9/11 truthers, and yet is taken seriously enough by mainstream news organisations to appear as a panelist alongside apparently soberer commentators, having accurately predicted key events in the financial tumult of the last few years.
In a recent interview with the Independent on Sunday, he made the following prediction regards Britain: “[The Pound] is about to collapse. And the collapse of the British economy will be one of the biggest in modern economic history. Of course you will take the American dollar and the euro down with you, for sure. But this place – London – is about to go belly up.”
Well, mayhaps it is and mayhaps it ain’t – all soothsayers get it wrong eventually. His characterization of London as the global centre of financial chicanery, however, is unquestionably accurate. During Britain’s long period of economic growth the City of London assured the government and opposition alike that thanks were due to them for the good times. After the crash, and as Britain appears to be entering its third recession in half a decade, the city isn’t helping the nation very much at all, although its institutions are still very good indeed at making huge profits for their own members. Perhaps that’s all they were ever good at.
Pound took an even dimmer view of speculators and usurers. They were actively damaging to the health of a society. Usury is defined by Pound in a footnote as ‘a charge for the use of purchasing power, levied without regard to production; often without regard to the possibilities of production.’ I don’t know if the arcane transactions in the City fit that definition exactly, but certainly they are carried out without much regard for the producers of the nation, what was left of the industrial areas, for example, without any regard for anything but the profit of the people in the City, in fact.
Of course – of course – Pound himself comes with a health warning, certainly any poem as political and polemical as this does. Pound was a fascist, a great admirer of Mussolini. Despite the focus on usury in this poem, and its attendant historical associations, there is no suggestion that he was ever an anti-Semite (and the tone of the poem is even in some ways reminiscent of Old Testament prophets). Still, he was on the same side of World War Two as Hitler, and that is probably why this great polemical poem is not quoted as often as it could be. Here are some choice snippets:
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, sin against nature,
is thy bread made ever more of stale rags
is thy bread dry as paper,
with no mountain wheat, no strong flour
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
wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
Usura is murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning.
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
They have brought whores for Eleusis
Corpses are set to banquet
at behest of usura