‘“ both eyes, (the loss of) and to find someone
who talked his own dialect. We
talked of every boy and girl in the valley
but when he came back from leave
he was sad because he had been able to feel
all the ribs of his cow ….”’
The Pisan Cantos, 76: 190-194
In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of the final days when God shall judge the nations and people, and the worthy who remain “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks” (The Bible, Isiah 2.4). God is saying the righteous shall know peace, yet Pound paints a far more pessimistic picture for the wounded young men who are returning home from war. The man’s cow has been poorly treated, it can provide little sustenance, and may even be near death which could devastate a poor farmer who relies on his livestock not just to eat but also to produce an income. Yet beyond just this farmer’s situation, Pound reveals how the whole natural world has been mistreated during the war, that so much which requires care has been neglected, that what the young men were off fighting for was dying in their absence.
In the time of Isaiah, a cow might also provide the meat of the sacrifice needed to maintain the covenant with God, yet could such a starved beast be worthy enough for God? Perhaps this farmer is sad because he finds himself in a similar situation with Cain whose sacrifices were not respected by God. Perhaps the farmer senses the beast’s exposed ribs as evidence of the distance he and God have grown apart and he is reminded of how much killing he was involved with during the war. And, like Cain whose sacrifice was rejected by God because he assumed it was his works alone, not faith, which would grant him favor, the farmer may see his reprieve from war as merely a temporary situation – he is only on leave after all, which is ironic since he has lost both his eyes and yet the army still expects him back at some point.
As the farmer touches his starving cow he is reminded of the endless and fruitless toil of his lonely existence. While “We” have the luxury to gossip about “every boy and girl in the valley”, the farmer, alone, must sustain not only himself, but all of us who depend on him. Just as “We” depended on his service in the Army to protect our lives, “We” continue to depend on him to feed and nourish us. Yet how can he provide for so many when his cow has been starved? How much life can he wring out of the land and livestock? How much life is even left in the earth which has been bombed and blasted and turned into a moonscape of rubble? If the cow cannot eat, how can “We”? The entire fate of existence seems to rest upon a blind man and his starving cow.
Starved of faith, food, and friendship, the farmer and his cow resemble the most horrific terrors of war. The cow’s exposed ribs resemble the millions who were starved in concentration camps: men, women, and children who in broad daylight were rounded up while their fellow citizens did nothing. Where was God when endless trainloads of people were turned into ash in a perverted sacrifice to evil? Where was God when everyone else let it happen? Why did “We” not sustain our neighbors with the bravery required to stand up to injustice, to sacrifice ourselves in an act of pure faith in God that could have saved millions? Yet we willingly went blind and so God rejected our empty actions. “We” only “talked of every boy and girl in the valley”, not acted in their defense.
Yet while this poor farmer took up the call of his nation, would it not have been better had he stayed home? Was the cause he fought for righteous? Was the nation he killed for virtuous, or did he take part in an act of complete barbarity, blindly following the rallying cry of a corrupt state? Perhaps “We” who “talked of every boy and girl in the valley” are like the women in Siegfried Sassoon’s “Glory of Women” who, having also succumb to the state’s propaganda, gave a white feather to all the young men who believed
wars” (78: 224-228).
This blind farmer, who carries with him the memory of war, speaks with the unique “dialect” of wartime experience that the boys and girls of the valley are ignorant of. Yes, he is blind, and he may try to tell them that pursuing senseless violence against each other only leads to misery, but he might as well be speaking a dead language to deaf ears. In fact, he is speaking for the dead, a “dialect” that no one living wants to understand. And in this sense Pound and the farmer are deeply connected at the center beating heart of this Canto. The cow’s ribs resemble the bars on Pound’s cell, and Pound’s efforts to connect all of history, time, truth, and memory are only seen by the camp psychologists as curious scribbled poetry and not the cry of all human experience that begs to be heard by every boy and girl and even Presidents.
And now “We” reap what “We” have sown: a God who seems to have turned his back on all of humanity as he did with Cain, a starving cow, and a blind farmer who laments his fate because whom he placed his faith in turned out to be a false God, like the golden calf in the desert.
Yet perhaps there is hope here, too. Pound writes “he was sad because he had been able to feel”, and this line in isolation reveals that the farmer is still capable of feeling, even if it sadness and even if it does not follow sight. The farmer has not been totally deprived of his humanity, he is still capable of intense emotion even after suffering though the horrors of war. The farmer reaches out to his cow, starved as it is, and places his hand on the animal, comforts the beast with the simple gesture of a gentle, caring touch. He reconnects with what for so long he had been away from and begins the process of healing, of creating life rather than taking it. His first act home is not to pick up the hammer and beat his blood-soaked sword into a ploughshare, but to simply allow himself to be reminded of his connection with life.
Pound creates a humble scene of this blind farmer caressing his cow between the gentle sloping green-grassy hills below the snowy mountain peaks as if the entire weight of this single act of human kindness was enough to impress a sacred spot “in the valley” that could shelter and nurture all those with enough faith who chose to live there. He is like Moses descended from the surrounding mountains into the valley below to bring the true law – righteousness – to those who have been starved with false faith in the bombed-out desert wasteland they themselves created. This gift may seem meager and nearly incapable of sustaining life, but the farmer can offer his starving cow to provide the nourishment the soul requires.
Thus the farmer seems to be existing in two possible states: one in which he has been forsaken in a wilderness of death, and another where he is like the shepherd who, though blind, through kindness, can lead his starving flock out of the valley of the shadow of death because he has faith God is still with him, will restore his soul, and will prepare a table for him in the presence of his enemies. The cow still lives and thus God has maintained the sacrament in kind. The farmer can now either choose to accept this offering or turn his back because it appears too meager.
This is a critical moment for the farmer and Pound uses the ellipses to denote the uncertainty of what the outcome shall be. Pound is requiring each of us to complete the image, to freely choose which direction we will walk. Do we listen to Pound’s and the farmer’s strange “dialect” and put down our swords to be beaten into ploughshares so that the life of the farm can increase? Or do we turn our backs and send Pound and the farmer back to war, their eyes missing though they see far better than any of us do?
Additional Works Cited
The Bible, King James Version. Bible Hub, 2018. biblehub.com, https://biblehub.com/kjv/isaiah/2.htm.