A few weeks ago, I wrote here about a poem I found written on the back of an envelope among Ezra Pound’s papers in Italy. It is a small poem and it runs in full:
Hast thou 2 loaves of bread
Sell one + with the dole
Buy straightaway some hyacinths
To feed thy soul.
It does not look much like a Pound poem. It is perhaps too tender, too straightforward. Yet, I suggested, it is filled with Pound’s perpetual concerns: with economics, in a minor key; with the possibility of the spiritual in the world of capitalist trade; and with the eternal problems of exchange.
However, some sharp-eyed and well-versed readers soon wrote in to say that this sounded awfully like another poem, or other poems. (One subject line: “The Paris Review has been hoodwinked!”) This was, they reported, hardly a Pound poem at all, and in this they were right. Some expert sleuthing by Paris Review editors turned up the likely culprits. The following appeared in The Century magazine in August 1907, by James Terry White, under the title “Not By Bread Alone”:
If thou of fortune be bereft,
And in thy store there be but left
Two loaves—sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.
Here, beneath the title, is the attribution “After Hippocrates,” as if this were a reworking of a cure dreamed up by the classical Greek physician. At Christmas of that year, these same lines appeared in a privately printed collection of White’s poems called In Saadi’s Rose-Garden. In this second printing, the lines lack the attribution to Hippocrates, but their presence in a collection inspired by the thirteenth-century Persian poet Saadi suggested that this is a reworking of an ancient poem.
The story does not end here, for White returned again to the poem. In his 1917 collection, A Garden of Remembrance, a lightly reworked version of these lines appears:
If thou of fortune be bereft,
And thou dost find but two loaves left
To thee—sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.
There are now also extra verses, which continue in the same manner (“Only the heart, with love afire, / Can satisfy the soul’s desire”). But it was specifically the first stanza that proved popular, and in its revised form. When White died in 1920, one obituary noted that he was “well known as a publisher and at one time president of the Yost Typewriter Co. He was the author of the familiar quatrain, so often used in florists’ publicity.” From here, it resurfaces in treasuries and anthologies, of Christian worship and inspirational verse, through the twenties and thirties and after.
White always implies he was rewriting an older poem, by Hippocrates, or Saadi. Although it is in the style of something that might have been written by an ancient mystic, there is apparently not—or at least I have not been able to find—a definitive source. In the late nineteenth century, translations of Eastern poems—such as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, translated by Edward FitzGerald—were hugely popular in America, so perhaps White wished for his works to share in this fashion.
The poem has had an afterlife as a vaguely remembered refrain. During his mayoral campaign speech in Los Angeles in 1911, the socialist Jeb Harriman said, “If you have two loaves of bread sell one and buy a hyacinth to feed thy soul.” Others repeated this quotation while attributing it vaguely to the Koran. The poem shifts in each new attribution. On the Internet, inevitably, its origins are variously given: as a saying of Mohammed or a nameless Persian poet. It is sometimes attributed to Elbert Hubbard, the philosopher and exponent of the late nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement, and sometimes in his version those hyacinths are specified as “white hyacinths”; and sometimes to the Quaker and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier.
So we have Ezra Pound, chief modernist, jotting down a hackneyed old all-purpose inspirational verse. The two White versions are too close to choose between, but we might imagine Pound working from one, cutting, rearranging; or perhaps he is, like so many others, simply remembering and lightly garbling an anyway uncertain original. What does he change? He speeds it up; he eradicates one of the rhymes, so that now the quatrain’s single rhyme—on soul and dole—draws together these two opposites. He adds the jaunty “straightaway” and cuts the apparent sadness in White’s suggestion of a loss of fortune. Both White’s versions include a hyphen; by removing this, Pound smoothes out the little stumble in the iambic measure. That “hast” added to the opening is deliberately archaic. By contrast, he turns the “two” and the “and” to a numerical figure and a plus sign, as if to stress that here is an act of accountancy more than poetry.
Some of this, in miniature, is classic Pound: he loved to spoof and to pastiche, as in—the most obvious example—the opening of the Cantos, which rewrites a section of the Odyssey in a deliberately archaic style. Some of it is old fashioned modernist recycling. “The poem which is absolutely original is absolutely bad” wrote T. S. Eliot, of Pound’s early poetry, and Pound happily pinched from Eliot in return. The opening of Pound’s Canto VIII runs: “These fragments you have shelved (shored).” This lifts the most famous line from Eliot’s most famous poem. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” mourns The Waste Land. We might see these modernist poets as always thus, making new with the pieces of the past, on the edge of theft. Those hyacinths, of course, crop up near the opening of The Waste Land, too. “You gave me Hyacinths first a year ago” observes one of poem’s speakers, and: “They called me the hyacinth girl.”
The hyacinths are never new, but always something borrowed or a gift; they are not really Pound’s at all, nor Eliot’s. “Do you remember / ‘Nothing?’” demands another voice in The Waste Land, and in the manuscript, which was edited by Pound, is a reply which was subsequently cut from the final version: “I remember the hyacinth garden.”
Daniel Swift’s book The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in November.