Critical opinion on Pound's The Cantos is more divided than is the critical opinion on any other important modernist work, and the epic's critical fortunes have risen and fallen with time. Even during the half-century during which the work appeared in installments, readers and critics were widely divided on the poem's merits. As the critical literature on The Cantos is vast, here we will look only at how some of the most prominent writers and critics have felt about Pound's epic.
As the poem was being composed, even Pound's close friends and admirers were unsure about the structure of the poem—how it fit together and what it would look like as a whole. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote in 1936 that "the relation of all the elements to one another, repeated or unrepeated, is to become apparent when the whole is finished... Like other readers I discover at present merely exquisite or grotesque fragments." Yeats felt that the poem had "more style than form; at moments more style, more deliberate nobility and the means to convey it than in any contemporary poet known to me, but it is constantly interrupted, broken, twisted into nothing by its direct opposite, nervous obsession, nightmare, stammering confusion."
T. S. Eliot echoed Yeats' criticisms, writing in 1946 that in '‘The Cantos there is an increasing defect of communication, not apparent when he is concerned with Sigismondo Malatesta, or Chinese dynasties, but, for instance, whenever he mentions Martin Van Buren. Such passages are very opaque: they read as if the author was so irritated with his readers for not knowing all about anybody so important as Van Buren." Eliot praised Pound's influence in the highest terms, but was less enthusiastic about his most important poem.
In 1950, the prominent English critic F. R. Leavis responded to Eliot's opinions on Pound. Like Eliot and Yeats, Leavis felt that Pound did not use the historical sources well. "Pound's various addictions,’’ he wrote, "speak the amateur: one cannot doubt his enthusiasm, but something else, surely, was needed to impel significant innovations in poetry." But where Eliot felt that...
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