Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Pound was one of many thinkers and writers at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century who believed that the Judeo-Christian religious tradition had crippled the spiritual and psychological life of many people. He believed that the otherworldly, self-renouncing tendency of monotheistic religions had caused people to ignore the world around them, making them dull and ridden with guilt.
Yet, Pound also believed that, under the surface, modern human beings still retained an older belief in a polytheistic universe where godlike spirits dwelled in springs, trees, mountains, and fields. Throughout his poetic life, Pound reasserted this conviction in an attempt to refresh the minds and senses of twentieth century urbanites cooped up in their cities and penned in by their guilt.
“The Return” is an expression of this belief in the continuing reality of human-kind’s ancient gods. Although these beings, as the poem portrays them, have been defeated, they are by no means dead. In “The Return,” Pound, through his persona, calls out to his readers in an attempt to gain their attention: The gods still exist for those who have eyes to see them.
Generally, this poem has an elegiac tone: Even as Pound reasserts the continued existence of the gods, he acknowledges their lost vitality. Thus, the poem struggles with two contrasting themes: the isolated, forgotten status of the gods in the modern era and the memory of their ancient splendor. Pound acknowledges that the gods at the zenith of their power were neither kindly nor merciful. These were superhuman beings with ferocious, superhuman passions. The gods were hunters, perhaps of human souls, and their strengths were those associated with predators—keen senses, an aptitude for violence, power, and speed. Yet these same attributes, Pound seems to say, are ones that humans have lost in the modern world. For all their faults, the ancient gods lived in close association with humans, imparting to mortals these full-blooded immortal traits. In contrast, contemporary human beings live in a universe remote from their all-seeing, omnipotent, monotheistic God, whose ultimate characteristics humans cannot share.
The poem ends hesitantly, akin to the stumbling pace of the returning gods. Perhaps, the final stanza implies, the gods have fallen so low that a recovery of a polytheistic world view is impossible. In the modern world, both humanity and its ancient heroes have grown weak, pale, and slow.