The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Canto 1 is the first poem in a long sequence of 120 cantos making up what the poet, Ezra Pound, conceived of as a twentieth century epic. Pound worked on the Cantos for nearly fifty years, weaving scores of subjects and themes into the longest important poetic work of the modern era. When he set out on his poetic odyssey, Pound conceived of his poem as a modern version of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (c.1320); his intention was to mirror Dante’s epic organization into “inferno,” “purgatory,” and “heaven.” Pound, following Dante, called the individual units of the epic cantos.
When Pound finished Canto 1, in 1921, he had no idea what the final shape of his modern epic would be, but he was aware that this first canto would have to act as an overture to whatever followed. So in many ways, Canto 1 is a capsule form of many of the themes and poetic devices that would come in the succeeding cantos. At the same time, this poem reflects many of Pound’s interests in subject and form that appear in his earlier works.
Canto 1 can be divided into two sections: The first, longer section (ending with “Lie quiet Divus”) is drawn from the Odyssey (c.800 b.c.e.), Book XI, and certain other Homeric works; the second half is a pastiche, which, although it still refers directly to Odysseus, also echoes other classic poems, chiefly a Homeric hymn to Aphrodite.
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Although scholars argue about the exact verse structure of the Cantos, it is fair to say that generally Canto 1 is written in free verse—poetic lines that have no set rhythm or consistent number of feet and do not rhyme. This is not to say that Canto 1 is without structure: The first section of the poem echoes the rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poetry, while the final lines loosely mimic certain classic verse patterns.
The language that Pound uses in the first part of Canto 1 is that of the Old English “seafarer poet.” The result is a story drawn from Greek literature told in the mock-language of early medieval England. Throughout the Cantos, Pound uses this kind of juxtaposition of subject matter drawn from one literary or historical period and poetic language drawn from another. In making such junctions, Pound’s intention was to show the reader certain important similarities—in thought and feeling—between eras that might seem at first glance very different.
In this case, Pound believed that Odysseus and the anonymous seafarer from the European Dark Ages were spiritual brothers. Both were animated by the desire to sail unknown seas in small, perilous ships, simply for the sake of discovery. Both find that the discoveries they make have more to do with their own inner landscape than with the geography of new lands.
Devices echoing Anglo-Saxon poetry include reversal (“Circe’s this craft,” “unpierced ever,”), alliteration (“swart ship,” “sun to his...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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Heymann, David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking Press, 1976.
Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber & Faber, 1951. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
Knapp, James F. Ezra Pound. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1987.
Nadel, Ira Bruce. Ezra Pound: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
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Surette, Leon. Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P., and Stephen J. Adams, eds. The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.