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Leon Surette <[log in to unmask]>
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Ezra Pound discussion list of the University of Maine <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 14 Mar 1999 15:14:17 -0500
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Michael Coyle asked: "what *do* these lines mean?
>The ant's a centaur in his
>  dragon world."
        I like this question a lot--because I don't know the answer either,
but have puzzled by it for about ten years, after taking it for granted for
the previous twenty.
        In the first place, a centaur is not emblematic of power, dominance,
invulnerabilty, etc.--a condition required for the common implausible
reading that the ant is a dragon in his insect world.
        A centaur is rather more emblematic of hybridism. He is neither man
nor horse--rather like a mermaid. It is true that the centuar is thought to
retain some of the the power and instinctual wisdom of the horse, and thus
Chiron is an appropriate mentor for Achilles. But all the same, he is
neither horse nor man, but something in between.
        We would expect, then, the ant to represent some sort of hybridism,
lke the centaur. But nothing leaps to mind. The ant is a social animal, so
if Pound had written, "the ant's a cenutrion in his dragon world," we would
be home free. Alas, he didn't.
        Nor is it obvious in what respect the ant's world is a "dragon
world." One supposes that Pound has in mind the ant's tiney relative size as
compared to other creatures on earth from birds, ant-eaters to people and
cows. Many species prey on smaller--or even larger--insects, I believe.
Perhaps, Pound's point is that the ant is mid-way in the hierarchy of eat
and eaten, just as the centaur is half way between animal and human. If so,
it is a much less resonant figure than most readers think.
        Kenner's invocation of the Bible seems not entirely persuasive to
me. And not only because Pound is not great bible-thumper, but also because
it makes the centaur entirely otiose.
        Incidentally, mu POxford Classical Distionary tells me: "for the
Greeks Centaurs are representative of wild life, animal desires, and
barbarism. They are lustful and over-fond of wine." Not much help there. Of
course, Nessus was a Centaur, so we can perhaps read him in from Pound's
later translation of Sophocles' Women of Trachis.
        The dictionary also speaks of the war in which the centaurs engaged
as a result of their attempt to rape the Lapith women. On this tale, we can
unite lust with organized violence. Without much effort, then, we can
recognize the passage as invoking the same nexus as Malatesta and the
German-Burgundian woman.
        By this redolent route, we can paraphrase the line: "the ant's a
ferocious, unbridled lover in a world where he has no chance of triumph" --
a Quixote, like Malatesta. It  might be worth rememberin that in 76 Pound
describes himself as "a lone ant from a broken anti-hill / from the wreckage
my account might not be entirely wide of the mark. I like my account better
than Kenner's anyway.