Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
As difficult as Canto 1 may be in form, its theme is a traditional, straightforward one: descent into the underworld. In fact, Homer’s account of Odysseus’s search for knowledge among the dead spirits of Hades is the earliest version in Western literature of this motif.
In speaking to the dead, Odysseus acquires knowledge that is normally forbidden to mortals: He learns the cause of Elpenor’s death, for example, and, more tellingly, discovers his own fate. This kind of supernatural knowledge can be won only through sacrifice, and Odysseus’s journey over unknown seas and the deaths of his crewmen prepare him for this knowledge. The holy, sacrificial rites with which he calls up the spirits of the dead are part of this mystery, whereby mortal human intelligence exceeds the usual limits of reality.
Pound uses this theme for two reasons: so he can create variations on it at the end of Canto 1, and to introduce what he projected to be the grand theme of the Cantos as a whole.
Just as Odysseus summons the dead to acquire knowledge, so Pound, the narrator and the scholar, calls up the dead Renaissance translator Divus to step from his own historical and literary period into world culture as a whole. By studying Divus’s Renaissance Latin version of the Odyssey, Pound animates a dead era and two dead languages. In fact, Pound’s admonition to “lie quiet Divus” suggests that the experience has been too enlivening, too overwhelming. Moreover, in another historical layer, Pound discovers that Odysseus and the anonymous Anglo-Saxon seafarer are spiritual brothers.
This swirl of characters and eras may account for the confusion at the end of the poem, at which point the various currents of history and literature threaten to dislocate the narrator’s consciousness.