Pound wrote his The Cantos over a long period of time—the first canto was published in 1917 and the final installment to be published during Pound's lifetime appeared in 1968. Needless to say, these years were turbulent; they constitute the majority of the last century. But Pound's poem is especially steeped in history: his own description of the poem as he formulated it was "a poem containing history." History, therefore, both formed the raw material for the poem and impinged upon its construction and creation.
When Pound first thought of writing his "tale of the tribe," he was living in London and had gained a great deal of fame as a literary impresario and provocateur. From the time that he arrived in London—1909—he had set himself the task of wresting art and literature from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. To achieve this end, he did everything: he served as a foreign editor for American publications, he "discovered" such writers as T. S. Eliot, he edited anthologies, he promoted operas, he gave money and materials to sculptors, he harangued and wrote and dashed about the city, an unforgettable figure in his pointy beard and cape.
But by 1920, Pound had tired of London. WWI had taken its toll on the writers and artists he sponsored, and London's openness to artistic experimentation was waning. Pound wrote his wellknown "Hugh Selwyn Mulberry" poem cycle in 1920 and moved to Paris. He only stayed there a few years,...
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The construction of The Cantos is extremely complex. It is an epic, so it involves a journey, but unlike the Odyssey or the Aeneid the journey is not through space but through history. Pound initially thought of his poem in terms of Dante's medieval epic the Divine Comedy, in which the poet journeys from earth to the depths of hell, then ascends through purgatory to the heights of Heaven. But Pound's poem does not do this in any linear fashion. The first canto presents, in Pound's translation of a translation, Odysseus' preparations to journey into the underworld, and in these early cantos, Sigismondo Malatesta braves terrestrial and spiritual hells. The first section of cantos ends with the famous "Hell Cantos," which present images as horrific as anything since Dante.
But after the first sixteen cantos, the Dantean structure fades. Pound provides the reader the occasional glimpse of what he called his "paradiso terrestre," the earthly paradise, especially in his descriptions of light glinting off artworks such as the mosaic over the doorway in the church at Torcello, Italy, but for the most part the bulk of the cantos are concerned with what might be "purgatorio," or the world of history. Entire cantos are enumerations of Chinese rulers or of the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Only in the last few cantos does Pound begin to concern himself fully with what is in his paradise, and over the fifty years he spent...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s: The United States, fresh from its success in World War I, enjoys the ''Roaring Twenties,'' a period of economic expansion and artistic experimentation. Many prominent American artists and writers, though, are living in Paris, fleeing what they see as American bourgeois provincialism.
1990s: The United States enjoys an unprecedented period of economic expansion and the creation of wealth. During these years, however, many experimental artists find themselves in conflict with conservative American values. Such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, Andres Serrano, and Chris Ofili see their esoteric, avant-garde work become the subject of impassioned public debate because of its perceived immorality or blasphemy.
1930s: Europe sees the rise of fascist, military-dominated states such as Spain, Italy, and Germany. America remains "isolationist," tending to its own affairs, while Americans in Europe warn of an impending conflict.
2000: After the fall of the Soviet empire, the former Eastern Bloc states create their own destinies. Some, like the Czech Republic and Poland, are stable and improve their citizens' economic lives. Others, such as Yugoslavia, break apart. In 1999, the United States gets involved in an ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, bombing targets in Serbia in an effort to convince the Serbian leader to end his war on the people of Kosovo.
1940s: World War...
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Topics for Further Study
In many of the middle cantos, Pound focuses on the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. He is also interested in the establishment of the first and second Banks of the United States, and on how these two early presidents clashed with Alexander Hamilton on economic policy. What was the purpose of the Bank of the U.S.? What were Jefferson's and Adams' opinions of it? What is Pound's opinion?
Beginning in Canto 13, Pound examines the thought of the ancient Chinese philosopher Kung Futse, or Confucius. What are some important Confucian ideas? How has Confucianism influenced Chinese society over the centuries? What is the current Chinese government's attitude toward Confucian thought?
Ezra Pound greatly admired the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, and Mussolini makes appearances in The Cantos. What was Mussolini's government like? How did he rise to power? What relationship was there between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s?
An important cultural moment for Pound, one that informed the conception of The Cantos, is the Provencal or troubadour culture. Where did these people live? What language did they speak? How was their society organized? What does the word "troubadour" mean?
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In 1958, Pound was released from St. Elizabeth's hospital in Washington, D.C. Before leaving the United States to return to Italy, Pound agreed to be recorded for an audio record. The Caedmon record label produced two records of Ezra Pound Reading His Poetry, both of which have extensive selections from The Cantos.
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What Do I Read Next?
Pound's earlier and shorter poetry is collected in the volume entitled Personae. Although none of the poems in this book were written after 1920, they give an important introduction to the methods that The Cantos use: the centrality of the image, free verse, and the speaking voice. In addition, many of the poems prefigure the themes that Pound addresses more expansively in The Cantos.
In the Literary Essays of Ezra Pound and Ezra Pound: Selected Prose 1909-1965, the New Directions publishing house collected almost all of Pound's important writings on literary, political, and economic topics. (Pound was such a prolific writer that a collection of all of his writings would fill dozens of books.) The Literary Essays contain important statements that illuminate Pound's use of the image and his opinions of literary predecessors. Selected Prose, by contrast, includes many of Pound's most controversial statements on politics and economics.
Pound got most of his ideas about the power of Chinese and Japanese poetry from the short book The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry by Ernest Fenollosa. This book deeply influenced the composition of The Cantos, even if many of Fenollosa's ideas have been shown to be wrong.
If The Cantos were only a moderate success critically, a poem that Pound helped author was his greatest public success. T. S. Eliot's poem...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Kenner, Hugh, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, University of Nebraska Press, 1985 (reprint).
Partisan Review, May 1949, p. 518.
"Poetry's New Priesthood," in Saturday Review of Literature, June 18, 1949, pp. 7-9, 38.
Sutton, Walter, Ezra Pound: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1963.
‘‘Treason's Strange Fruit: The Case of Ezra Pound and the Bollingen Award,’’ in Saturday Review of Literature, June 11, 1949, pp. 9-11, 28.
Carpenter, Humphrey, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, Faber & Faber, 1988.
Carpenter's biography is the most extensive and detailed of the many books that tell the story of Pound's life.
Casillo, Robert, The Genealogy of Demons, Northwestern University Press, 1988.
Casillo confronts Pound's ugliest side: his fascist and anti-Semitic ideas.
Kenner, Hugh, The Pound Era, University of California Press, 1971.
Many consider this to be the definitive book not only on The Cantos but on Pound's contribution to twentieth-century literature and culture.
Rainey, Lawrence, Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture, University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Rainey's book examines in close detail the historical and artistic sources behind the "Malatesta cantos’’ (8-11).
Terrell, Carroll F.,...
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Bibliography (Magill Book Reviews)
Baumann, Walter. A Rose in the Steel Dust: An Examination of The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1970. A revisionist examination of the Cantos, with a view toward the post-industrial age seen through Pound’s extreme interest in Dante and the French Provençal troubadours.
Emery, Clark. Ideas into Action: A Study of Pound’s Cantos. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1958. One of the original sources on the Cantos, written well after The Pisan Cantos but well before Pound’s release from St. Elizabeths and the official ending of the poetry sequence. Analyzes the active in relation to the passive.
Goodwin, K. L. The Influence of Ezra Pound. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Places the poet firmly in the pantheon of modern poets, largely because of his having attempted the epic poem the Cantos.
Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1951. With Donald Davie, Kenner is the foremost authority on Pound, his work, and his influence. Chapters are devoted to the Cantos, but Kenner explains how the sequence drew together common threads in all Pound’s work.
Leary, Lewis, ed. Motive and Method in The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: Columbia University Press, 1954. Early treatment of the epic poem. Explores both political statements, prosody, and...
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