Study Guide

The Cantos

by Ezra Pound

The Cantos Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ezra Pound may be considered one of the most powerful, disturbing, and enigmatic literary figures of the twentieth century. Often his public persona overshadowed his interest in being a poet who would be remembered for his poetry, but part of that was due to Pound’s own unflagging energies and ambitions as an editor, as a friend to writers in exile from America, and as the “foreign correspondent” for Harriet Monroe’s 1912 publication Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. He was responsible for the final version of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), he influenced William Carlos Williams, he was instrumental in getting James Joyce published, and he spent time with Ernest Hemingway in Italy. He was the guiding voice behind the Imagist movement in poetry early in the twentieth century, and his association with Benito Mussolini still stands in infamy. Pound’s time in a temporary detention center in Pisa, Italy, still stands in infamy—and led to The Pisan Cantos (1948)—as does his later imprisonment in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., from 1945 to 1970.

Many who attempt to analyze Pound’s literary career are so struck by its richness that they miss the kernel at the core of his poetry: the Cantos. While Pound worked on other types of poetry and poetic movements, his mind and his focus remained on the Cantos, which he 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 Alighieri’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802); 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. Small press publications of parts of the Cantos appeared upon occasion, but the poem as a whole was not published until 1948. The publication date was, perhaps, meant to coincide with the availability of The Pisan Cantos.

After his release from St. Elizabeths, Pound returned to Italy, where he had about five years of peace. Some who visited him there related that he continued to work on his masterpiece, but there is little, if any, of that work remaining.

Pound’s poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), also considered a classic in the English language, is often discussed in reference to the style of the Cantos, although the Cantos are much more ambitious. In Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound uses a rhetorical persona who reflects on a wide variety of experiences. In many similar ways, the first sixteen cantos use a reactive rhetorical narrator, and at times these two figures have similar interests—not surprising, since the poems began to be composed at about the same time.

There is another influence on Pound’s work, that of Eliot’s narrator in The Waste Land. The difference between Eliot and Pound is clear: Eliot presents a rhetoric rich in narrative, while Pound presents a rhetoric steeped in speculation, myth, and ancient history. Some critics see the first canto as a reflection on Odysseus, and they believe that the Odysseus references are broad rather than specific, but if readers follow the Odysseus beginning, they are able to become grounded in specific myth.

In the Cantos, Pound displays his knowledge and his ability to present it without introductions, borders, or transitions. The poem is as much instructive as it is reflective, and it is in...

(The entire section is 1513 words.)

The Cantos Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Pound began writing the Cantos in 1915, published the first ones in 1917, published his first collection in 1925, and continued on them for most of the rest of his long life. He finally abandoned them after fifty-three years of effort. The Cantos are his most notable work, crammed with allusions, learning, splendid poetry, musical notations, Chinese ideograms, bitter invective and insults, baffling transitions and private jokes, and characters from Pound’s personal life as well as from world history. They form an immensely long work, and the Cantos have caused despair in ordinary readers and produced an entire Pound industry among literary scholars.

Although it is not immediately apparent, there is a loose but definite structure to the poem. Crucial concepts reappear throughout the work, embodied in specific actors who are either actual historical figures or characters from literature or mythology. These concepts can also be expressed by reference to images from the natural world or by artistic creations—specific examples of music, architecture, poetry—which Pound thought significant.

In this way, the nineteenth century American president Martin van Buren appears to underscore the idea of economic justice, while a single column in a cathedral, signed by its carver, represents the ideal of true art as opposed to mass-produced imitations. Because Pound presents these images in quick flashes without overt connections, the reader must rely on juxtaposition rather than narration to discover the meanings. Despite their expansive nature, and although they were composed over a period of half a century, the Cantos contain only a few major subjects: the importance of knowledge and art, the power of nature, the need for economic justice, and the necessity to order human society in accord with natural rhythms and cycles.

As befits a work that attempts to survey all human history, the Cantos contain many changes—metamorphoses, or shifts from one form to another. It was a concept pervasive in Greek mythology, and a continual fascination for Pound. These metamorphoses can be for good or evil; the first lead to harmony, while the second cause decay in society and culture. The chief villain for Pound was economic injustice, which inevitably changed societies for the worse. Usury, the lending of money at excessive rates of interest, was Pound’s primary economic concern, and he railed against it powerfully in his famous “Usury Canto,” XLV:

With usura hath no man a...

(The entire section is 1061 words.)

The Cantos Summary

The Cantos really has no plot. The poem consists of approximately 120 shorter poems (themselves called "cantos," after the sections...

(The entire section is 1679 words.)