Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The central theme of the Cantos as a whole is the poet’s search for a philosophy capable of validating an ideal system of ethics, economics, and politics—for a social order that will prove a “city of Light,” or an ideal civilization. In line with this search Pound presents examples of social behavior on the part of humanity which not only can prove self-destructive but also can prevent a city of light from emerging or destroy one that is existing. Apart from the theme that beautiful women can prove Circes, possessing enough sexual power to turn men into swine, there is always the danger that a human being can feel irrational desire, whether it be in respect to wealth and power or in respect to irrational attachment to sexual pleasure.
Canto 29 presents an example of both overweening ambition and attachment to sexual pleasure in Pernella, the concubine of Count Orsini of Verona; these weaknesses bring about her destruction. Pound also presents two examples from the Middle Ages respecting the destructive power of lust: the Italian troubadour Sordella di Goito, who loves the noble lady Cunizza, and the French troubadour Arnaut Daniel, who loves the noble lady of Gascony. “Pure love” is bypassed in both cases.
Finally, Canto 29 moves through time and space to the United States of the 1920’s. The period between 1919 and 1929 has been called the Flapper Age, the Jazz Age, and the Roaring Twenties. In 1917, while World War I was still raging, the Prohibition amendment, outlawing the sale of alcoholic beverages, had been adopted. With the war over in 1918, the women’s suffrage amendment was adopted in 1920. All at once it seemed to older Americans that the younger generation was revolting against all the former Victorian moral standards in fashions and behavior. Young women wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, and applied rouge to their faces. They danced the fox trot and the Charleston. They drank bootleg whiskey, smoked cigarettes, and believed in “free love” and divorce. It was the period of gangsters such as Al Capone and Jack “Legs” Diamond. Corruption and violence reigned. It seemed to many that the United States was rapidly heading for disaster—and with the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, disaster did indeed strike.