Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Canto 116” begins with Neptune’s divine mind asserting its presence and prompting some summing-up or self-criticism inspired by impending death. Pound’s original ambition of structuring the Cantos on a cosmic scale is found wanting. His many errors, such as his involvement with fascism and the scapegoating of the Jews, prevented him from “making things cohere.” Acknowledgment of this is the dominant theme of the canto, so a sense of dark despair underlies it. Along these lines, Pound’s constant model and source of inspiration, Dante’s Divine Comedy, provided him with a vision of Paradise that he could not sustain. What he could attain, though, was a kind of private paradise of personal fulfillment and love, a humble experience of purgatorial ascent.

Although Pound resorts to such limiting terms as “palimpsest,” “record,” and “notes,” he seems eager to uphold and defend his work. There is perfection in it (“the crystal ball”) or great promise (“an acron of light”) or a reassuring permanence (Ariadne’s “golden thread”). The whole setting seems to take part in this positive outlook: the luminous gold of Italian geography and art (the golden mosaic at the church on the island of Torcello, the “lane of gold” in the wake of the setting sun across the Bay of Tiguillo), the equally luminous feminine presences, the muses of memory (Sheri Martinelli and Marcella Booth, née Spann) in the arboretum at St. Elizabeth’s, the simplicity and elemental alertness of bluejays and squirrels in Disney’s films (contrasted with the “metaphysicals”—modern scientists who disregard the radiance and splendor of the created universe). Pound’s confidence is shattered only when it comes to the question of the decoding of his message by some future generation.

Beyond that concern, “charity”—the chief Dantescan value—remains one of his genuine experiences, though somewhat frustrated by his own sense of guilt, which does not allow a full rejoicing in it. Finally, “the dim rush of light,” symbolizing his love for his infant daughter, lends to his longing for the “splendour” of bygone days with both poignancy and wistful hope.