Canto 1 is the first poem in a long sequence of 120 cantos making up what the poet, Ezra Pound, 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’s The Divine Comedy (c.1320); 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.
When Pound finished Canto 1, in 1921, he had no idea what the final shape of his modern epic would be, but he was aware that this first canto would have to act as an overture to whatever followed. So in many ways, Canto 1 is a capsule form of many of the themes and poetic devices that would come in the succeeding cantos. At the same time, this poem reflects many of Pound’s interests in subject and form that appear in his earlier works.
Canto 1 can be divided into two sections: The first, longer section (ending with “Lie quiet Divus”) is drawn from the Odyssey (c.800 b.c.e.), Book XI, and certain other Homeric works; the second half is a pastiche, which, although it still refers directly to Odysseus, also echoes other classic poems, chiefly a Homeric hymn to Aphrodite.
Although the speaker in the earlier part of Canto 1 is clearly Odysseus, the personae in the poem’s later parts are more difficult to identify. Odysseus speaks first, and is followed by a quotation from the blind sage Tiresias, whom Odysseus meets in his journey to the underworld. Then, at the line beginning “Lie quiet Divus,” Pound himself intervenes as both epic storyteller and classical scholar.
The first half of the poem retells the story of Odysseus’s journey to Hades: Odysseus describes setting out to find the entrance to Hades, which had been described to him by the sorceress Circe. His crew loads the ship, and they push off, sailing until they reach the “place aforesaid by Circe.” There they perform sacred rites—pouring wine on the ground, saying prayers, sacrificing a sheep—to summon up the dead.
A number of souls appear, including one of Odysseus’s crew, Elpenor, who had been killed accidentally when Odysseus and his men had been delayed by Circe. One night, having drunk too much, Elpenor fell off a ladder, breaking his neck (“shattered the nape-nerve”). He asks Odysseus to build a tomb for him, including his epitaph, “A man of no fortune, with a name to come.” Then Anticlea, Odysseus’s mother, appears, followed by Tiresias, from whom Odysseus wants a prophesy. Tiresias does foretell Odysseus’s future, telling the hero that he will eventually return to his homeland but will lose all his shipmates in the process.
At this point in the poem, it is as though Pound the narrator looks up from the old book in which he has been reading Odysseus’s story—the Latin translation by Andreas Divus, produced in 1538. Pound also finds in the back of this book some hymns said to be composed by Homer. One of these is a poem in praise of Aphrodite, and Pound ends Canto 1 by quoting the hymn’s description of the goddess of love.
Although scholars argue about the exact verse structure of the Cantos , it is fair to say that generally Canto 1 is written in free verse—poetic lines that have no set rhythm or consistent number of feet...
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and do not rhyme. This is not to say that Canto 1 is without structure: The first section of the poem echoes the rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poetry, while the final lines loosely mimic certain classic verse patterns.
The language that Pound uses in the first part of Canto 1 is that of the Old English “seafarer poet.” The result is a story drawn from Greek literature told in the mock-language of early medieval England. Throughout the Cantos, Pound uses this kind of juxtaposition of subject matter drawn from one literary or historical period and poetic language drawn from another. In making such junctions, Pound’s intention was to show the reader certain important similarities—in thought and feeling—between eras that might seem at first glance very different.
In this case, Pound believed that Odysseus and the anonymous seafarer from the European Dark Ages were spiritual brothers. Both were animated by the desire to sail unknown seas in small, perilous ships, simply for the sake of discovery. Both find that the discoveries they make have more to do with their own inner landscape than with the geography of new lands.
Devices echoing Anglo-Saxon poetry include reversal (“Circe’s this craft,” “unpierced ever,”), alliteration (“swart ship,” “sun to his slumber”), and archaic language (“swart,” “ell-square pitkin,” “ingle,” “bever,” “fosse”). Overall, the rhythm of this section suggests the rolling of the small ship over the sea’s breakers.
“Kennings,” compound terms that describe metaphorically some common object, are another Anglo-Saxon poetic device used in Canto 1 (“nape-nerve” for “neck”).
Pound wants his readers to pay close attention to his poem’s sources, its allusions. Generally, allusion takes place in poetry through mention of a name, place, or idea associated with some other work of literature or with some historical event. More rarely, a poet may quote or mimic another writer. In the Cantos, however, Pound goes even further: In the section describing Odysseus’s journey to the underworld, for example, Pound is freely translating a Latin translation (that of Divus) of Homer’s original Greek. In the last lines (“Cypri munimenta sortita est,” or “Cyprus is allotted to her”), Pound even reproduces Divus’s exact words. Pound’s abundant use of foreign languages throughout the Cantos—sometimes with English translations following, sometimes not—forces the reader to pay attention to the literary and cultural sources of his allusions. Untranslated words and phrases in Canto 1 include “in officina Wecheli” (a reference to the place of publication of Divus’s translation); “Venerandam,” “worthy of veneration”; “Argicida,” “killer of Argus” (a reference to the Greek god Hermes); and “orichalchi,” “coppery.” In this canto, all foreign-language phrases are in either Greek or Latin.
There are also abundant allusions to classical myth and Homeric epic. Perimedes, Eurylochus, and Elpenor are all members of Odysseus’s crew. Erebus and Avernus are different names for the underworld. Finally, Canto 1 displays a formal device that, although it runs throughout the Cantos, is generally nontraditional: Many lines are fragmented, having no clear grammatical subject or object. The final phrase—“So that:”—is characteristic of this device. Moreover, Pound shifts abruptly from speaker to speaker in Canto 1, as in the jump from “And then Anticlea came” (spoken by Odysseus) to “Lie quiet Divus” (ostensibly Pound himself). As a result, fragmentation and abrupt shifts in persona create much disorientation in most readers, but Pound’s intention here is to spur the reader to greater efforts, to motivate him or her to participate more fully than usual in generating meaning from the poem.
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