Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1513 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1061 words.)
The Cantos really has no plot. The poem consists of approximately 120 shorter poems (themselves called "cantos," after the sections into which Dante divided each book of his Divine Comedy), some of which tell unified stories and some of which are simply collections of musings, observations, memories, and exhortations. To summarize the "plot" of The Cantos, therefore, it is probably best to describe the poem in terms of sections.
Although the first draft of the first three cantos appeared in Poetry magazine in 1917, these three cantos were significantly changed for their first appearance in a book. This book, A Draft of XVI Cantos, appeared in 1925. Ten other installments followed, ending with Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII in 1968 (a publication that was prompted by an illegal "bootleg" edition of the same poems). Pound never lived to complete the entire 120-poem cycle that he envisioned, but as it stands today the complete Cantos includes 116 complete cantos and fragments of the remaining four.
A Draft of XVI Cantos
The first installment of cantos appeared just as Pound was leaving Paris. Published in a small, limited, expensive edition with medieval-looking illuminated capitals, the book was self-consciously aimed at an exclusive public. In these first sixteen poems, Pound introduces the themes that he intends to pursue throughout his long "poem containing history."
(The entire section is 1679 words.)