And now for something completely different: Some Holy Week Ezra Pound

Today there was a review in The Wall Street Journal of a book compiling letters that poet Ezra Pound wrote to his parents, which I read with some interest.

I don’t really know all that much about Pound. I remember something about him boxing with Ernest Hemingway, I recall that he was sort of a godfather to some of the young expatriates of that generation, and the fact that he took an EXTREME wrong turn when he came to support Fascism.

But my horror at his politics doesn’t keep me from appreciating an interesting piece of writing, any more than I dismiss Lindbergh’s achievement as an aviator because of his political sympathies.

And not being an English major or anything, I’m only familiar with one thing about his work. My uncle had this anthology of English literature lying about at the family home in Bennettsville, and I read this poem by Pound in it, back in my college days. And it’s always stuck with me as one of the most distinctive and iconoclastic portraits of Jesus I’ve ever read, even more so than Anthony Burgess’ version. Aside from the words, I like the rhythm of it; it’s almost like a sea chanty or something. I tend to like things that cause me to think a little harder and question my assumptions about someone, especially someone as important as Jesus. Even when it comes from a fascist.

This being Holy Week, I thought I’d share it:

Ballad of the Goodly Fere

Ha’ we lost the goodliest fere o’ all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O’ ships and the open sea.

When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see,
“First let these go!” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Or I’ll see ye damned,” says he.

Aye he sent us out through the crossed high spears
And the scorn of his laugh rang free,
“Why took ye not me when I walked about
Alone in the town?” says he.

Oh we drank his “Hale” in the good red wine
When we last made company,
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere
But a man o’ men was he.

I ha’ seen him drive a hundred men
Wi’ a bundle o’ cords swung free,
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.

They’ll no’ get him a’ in a book I think
Though they write it cunningly;
No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Fere
But aye loved the open sea.

If they think they ha’ snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
“I’ll go to the feast,” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Though I go to the gallows tree.”

“Ye ha’ seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead,” says he,
“Ye shall see one thing to master all:
‘Tis how a brave man dies on the tree.”

A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree.

He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free,
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue
But never a cry cried he.

I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men
On the hills o’ Galilee,
They whined as he walked out calm between,
Wi’ his eyes like the grey o’ the sea,

Like the sea that brooks no voyaging
With the winds unleashed and free,
Like the sea that he cowed at Genseret
Wi’ twey words spoke’ suddently.

A master of men was the Goodly Fere,
A mate of the wind and sea,
If they think they ha’ slain our Goodly Fere
They are fools eternally.

I ha’ seen him eat o’ the honey-comb
Sin’ they nailed him to the tree.

29 thoughts on “And now for something completely different: Some Holy Week Ezra Pound

  1. Brad

    I’m glad you liked it, Karen! I always have…

    I like when Jesus is portrayed less like a wimpy victim. I mean, the guy was a carpenter. None of the carpenters I know look like many of the depictions of Christ that we see.

    Anthony Burgess of Clockwork Orange fame (I mentioned his Jesus book above) took it sort of to the opposite extreme. He portrayed Jesus as an unusually tall, big guy who stood out in a crowd, and inspired respect, because of it. I don’t know about that. Seems the gospels would have mentioned that. But I think he WAS a guy who was at home among carpenters and fishermen and others who worked with their hands. Yet he could more than hold his own with scholars of the law and the powerful.

  2. Kathleen

    English major here. Why was I allowed to escape this? You are right; extremely off kilter views and great insights can inhabit the same body. Thank you for sharing this poem.

  3. Steven Davis

    Is there any proof that Jesus actually lived and wasn’t just some fictional character in the Bible? Is there any proof that such a man actually existed? The Shroud of Turin hasn’t proven 100% who was wrapped in it, and radiocarbon dating shows the cloth is dated somewhere between the years 1200 – 1300 “AD”. No grave site, no written documentation or history outside of the Bible that the man actually walked the Earth. It’s been proven that the Bible contains forgeries (books written by others than who they are named for), rewrites, oral histories which of many are likely altered, etc… How do we know any of it is true and not the most popular fictional book written?

  4. Brad

    Oh, boy… but Steven has reminded me of a couple of posts I meant to do this week, on the Gospel of John, which is simultaneously the most mystical, theological, political and unfortunately antiSemitic of the Gospels, and yet gives flashes of insight that prevent you from ever having a thought like the one that Steven just expressed — small things that provide a stamp of authenticity that are striking.

    But no, Steven, there’s no chance that he wasn’t a real person. Too much happened in that first generation after his death, involving people who personally knew him, to think he was an invention.

    As for finding his “grave site.” Well, there was a complication about that… it’s part of the story… But you can visit the church of the Holy Sepulchre if you’d like. Me, I don’t need things like that. Or the Shroud.

    The Shroud does fascinate, though. If it was a fake, what an amazingly detailed and realistic one. When you look at the art of the time when it was found, and see how wildly ahistorical it was, you have to wonder, who could have conceived and executed such a hoax.

    I don’t need the Shroud to be real. But genuine or fake, it’s pretty amazing…

  5. bud

    This makes for an interesting follow-on to another post. What if someone comes into a public shool classroom and gives a lecture that essentially discounts everything in the bible. And this person demonstrates that there really never was someone called Jesus. Better yet, let’s say this is not just a guest lecturere but a teacher and she gives lectures of that type at the start of every day. Or we can even go further and say this teacher not only discounts the existence of Jesus but suggests Christianity is actually detrimental. How long do you suppose it would take someone like Brad to come howling about this type of instruction?

  6. Brad

    Bud, you’re not understanding anything I’ve said about school prayer.

    First, remember, I’m not pushing for it — I just think both sides in the debate make too much of it. I don’t think it’s the end of the world either way. Have the prayers or don’t — no biggie. (And, by the way, I can strongly make the case for either side, saying only things I truly believe. And BECAUSE I see both sides so clearly, and agree with parts of them, I don’t take sides.)

    Second, you refuse to make a distinction that I make. And to me it’s a HUGE distinction. I do not equate 30 seconds of respect shown to the deity with some sort of “indoctrination” or “instruction.” To me, there’s miles of daylight between the two. To you, there’s not.

    So the scenario you paint above is irrelevant to anything I’ve said.

    Aside from the fact that it’s a bit hard to imagine me “howling”…

  7. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    30 seconds to whose “deity”?

    I vote for some downward-facing dogs to Krishna.

    Maybe the Angel Moroni (my favorite named deity)?

    Allah, anyone?

  8. bud

    I do not equate 30 seconds of respect shown to the deity with some sort of “indoctrination” or “instruction.”

    I strongly disagree. For someone who may not even believe in a deity the showing of respect is tantamount to indoctrination. Teacher led prayer is just plain wrong and should not be tolerated.

  9. bud

    Besides, you didn’t follow my argument. At first we may have a guest lecturer in a high school philosophy class that gives a talk on the non-existence of Jesus. Most of us can agree that this is simply showing respect to a different point of view. But then that leads to a more general inclusion of daily “showing of respect” for that non-existence. And finally we reach a point where the only tolerable position in the classroom is one where non-existence of a deity is acceptable. That’s the reverse of what happens with teacher led prayer.

  10. Brad

    They got philosophy classes in high school?

    Sorry, folks, we’re not going to agree. I see this as a simple “when in Rome” thing, and to you (and the school prayer advocates) there’s no room for relaxing and showing a little respect for local custom; it’s all or nothing for y’all.

    If I’m in some heathen country (and yes, I used that modifier intentionally, to provoke) where they don’t know that there’s only one deity (and I put that in there for Kathryn’s benefit), I’m going to stand there politely and let them finish their devotions. I am NOT going to demand that my faith (or lack thereof) be given equal time. I would see that as presumptuous and self-centered in the extreme. Which is kind of how I feel about people in this country who can’t just shut up and sit still through a short prayer and get on with their lives.

    I’m just not an absolutist, folks. If I were, I wouldn’t have survived having 5 kids. You can’t insist on having the world JUST SO all the time. Sometimes you have to defer a little to the way other people are…

  11. Brad

    Oh, and Kathryn — I will go on the warpath against any religion that wants me to do downward-facing dog. I’ve tried, and it just ain’t natural.

    Which reminds me of one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons. I wish I could find it. There’s a guy in a yoga class, and of course he’s the only guy. And he’s trying his best to do downward dog. And the woman next to him observes, “You do yoga like a GUY…”

  12. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Of course you show respect “when in Rome”–it’s that a public school classroom, or a government function, isn’t “Rome.” It’s supposed to be religion neutral, and it isn’t. Children, especially, are sensitive to being different, and even having them bow their heads can make them feel “less than” if they do not share that religious custom.

    Pray silently all you want. Please.

  13. Doug Ross

    “Sometimes you have to defer a little to the way other people are…”

    Including the people who aren’t in the majority.

    If it’s no big deal to do it, it should be no big deal to not do it either.

    What’s the purpose anyway? People can (should) pray whenever the mood strikes them. The intent of prayer in schools was about forced conformity rather than individual spirituality.

    And I assume you are for Christmas parties in school? It’s a holiday that reflects most community standards.

  14. bud

    Brad, you’re confusing an event open to all, including adults, with a state sanctioned classroom. Last time I checked you are a 50 something man who is unlikely to attend 5th grade. (Perhaps in this instance you could learn something about separation of church and state from that 5th grade class). If you’re in Baghdad on your own volition and happen to be somewhere come prayer time you would be polite when everyone bows down to Mecca but I doubt you would follow suit. Now would you?

  15. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    actually, bud–it’s more than a state-sanctioned classroom–the state REQUIRES students to be there or have their parents fund some alternative, be it private school or home school.Many parents don’t have that option, even with “vouchers.”

  16. Pat

    re: public schools – There is something to acknowledging the culture in which you live, but it seems like the culture has made an 180 degree turn… and where does that leave you? The moment of silence and pledge of allegiance seems to be a good way to start the day. It acknowledges the better self and sets the tone for the start of the school day. It tells the mind “settle down and go into learning mode”.
    It would be totally wrong to require children to engage in Christian prayer in disregard to their parents’ beliefs. However, I do believe the Christian Bible should be taught in school – for the cultural history, literature, and the religious philosophy. There are many books, such as The Heart of Darkness, that were written with a background of the Christian culture. It would be impossible to get to the deepest meaning of The Heart of Darkness without some understanding of the belief in the depravity of man. It seems to me that the fear of promoting religion gets in the way of exploring deeper thought in some of the AP classes and stifles critical thinking. And the Bible is part of our history and culture.

  17. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Sure, let’s teach the Bible–it is indeed the cornerstone of a lot of literature, for one thing, as well as politics and history–but we need to teach other religions’ significant texts, as well–the Koran (Quran) is such a major cornerstone for current political events, it must be taught as well. Greek and Roman mythology–is that still taught?

  18. Brad

    Sigh… no, it would not be relevant to teach the Koran in our schools. At least, NOT for the reason that Pat suggests.

    An understanding of the Bible — Old and New Testaments — is essential to cultural literacy. As essential as studying Shakespeare. And while it’s not the version I personally read the most, I’d recommend going with the KJV, as the most esthetically pleasing and culturally influential. I mean, as long as your motive is CULTURE rather than theology. (And that means you don’t study the Catholic books that the Prods consider to be apocryphal, because they are NOT part of the core culture.)

    I mean, come on, folks. Be sensible. Teaching one’s own culture to children is NOT some wicked, insensitive act. It’s a way of avoiding cultural death as a society, and of equipping individual kids to function on a high level in the society. Study other cultures is a great thing to do (although a bit challenging on the grade-school level, I would think), but it is a completely SEPARATE issue. They are not one and the same.

  19. Brad

    Here would be my academic standard for such Bible-as-culture study: The test should be to see whether the student can explain all the biblical references in Elvis Presley’s “Hard-Headed Woman.” (Of course, we’d have to keep the fact that that’s the test a big secret, or kids would only study the stories of Adam and Eve, Samson, and Jezebel.)

    When they can do that, they’ll be more culturally literate than most kids today…

  20. Doug Ross

    Would you teach about Adam and Eve in English class right before the science class covering evolution?
    Would you present the story of Adam and Eve to children as factual or just an interesting story?

    Presenting it as factual opens up a WHOLE can of worms…

  21. Brad

    Doug, that seems like a bit of a silly question.

    If I were teaching it in a RELIGION class at my own church, I wouldn’t teach Adam and Eve as historical fact, much less science. It’s a story that teaches certain morals about our relationship with God. That’s pretty much it.

    Certainly NO ONE would propose teaching it as historical fact in a class that was intended to treat the Bible as a cultural artifact…

  22. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    You don’t think a critical knowledge of the Koran would be valuable in assessing current affairs?

  23. Brad

    Yep. And it would be great for people at the State Department, or journalists being sent to cover the Mideast. Should be required, in fact.

    Seems a tad advanced and specialized for K-12 though.

    I mean, it would be cool for all kids to have fluency in Mandarin, and an understanding of what’s at stake in the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. But I think we’re going to have to settle for the three R’s, some science, maybe some Spanish, plus THE most important thing to prepare people to be productive citizens — a working understanding of the society in which they live (something that, unfortunately, most people get out of school without).

    I said “settle.” Wrong word. If we could get all of that right, we would have done wonders, compared to where we are now.

  24. Brad

    Remember, I didn’t bring up this “Bible as culture” thing. I just said it sounded fine.

    I’m just reacting to the highly questionable proposition that if you do THAT, you must also place equal emphasis on OTHER cultures’ foundational documents. That makes no sense to me at all.

    That is for the specialization of higher education. Some people WILL become Koran scholars (and I think we could use a lot more of them). Some will become masters at trading with China (need more of them, too). But no, they should not be considered lowest-common-denominators of K-12 education.

  25. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    I’d rather we focus more on science and math than teaching much Bible in the K-12 schools.

  26. Scout

    Gee, I’m a bit late getting in here. Bud, I find your example of a teacher discounting the bible on a daily basis unlikely because these days there is so much scrutiny and pressure to teach the standards and only the standards – to document in your lesson plans that you have covered every standard before the all important test….that I just don’t see that happening, because I find it highly unlikely that such as you suggest would be in the standards. Teachers have to turn in their lesson plans indicating which standards they are covering, and administrators observe regularly with lesson plans in hand to see that it is happening. Any teacher that discussed such on a daily basis would most likely come to notice in most schools.

    Another random thought – I think I’ve heard that the original word used to describe Jesus’ profession could be translated as builder and given the place and culture, it is as likely he worked with stone as wood. A stone mason would probably be a physically solid guy at home with other workers. I agree.

  27. Brad

    I like that, Scout. It reminds me of something far afield.

    I had this English teacher in 7th grade — Mr. Kramberg, as I recall. At one point, he undertook to read us a story — “Flowers for Algernon.” (Actually, he may have been reading the short story upon which the novel was based, but I forget.) It seemed a bit goofy, reading to people our age. I had been a very, very avid reader for quite a few years at that point.

    But I really got into it. The story, and the way it was written — by a retarded man who, after a mysterious operation, gradually becomes a genius — was fascinating to me, and took my love of reading and writing to new levels.

    I sincerely doubt it was in any curriculum or standards. But it was great.

    Mr. Kramberg was later called up, and went to Vietnam. I don’t know what happened to him.


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