The Poem

“Canto 116” (or “Canto CXVI,” as it was first known) was composed in Italy in 1959. It is a relatively short poem in free verse. Its seventy-four lines vary in length from three to eleven syllables. The figure the poem makes on paper is jagged because of frequent indentation; many of its lines begin in the middle or toward the end of the page.

Upon scrutiny, “Canto 116” reveals a threefold structure: Part 1, so called, extends from Neptunus (Neptune) of line 1 to Justinian, including the next line (line 22), “a tangle of works unfinished.” Muss (Mussolini), the “old crank” dead in Virginia, and the vision of the Madonna are stages in this section. Part 2, comprising the next thirty-four lines, begins with the definite emergence of the first-person narrator (“I have brought the great ball of crystal”) and ends with a concession in line 56: “even if my notes do not cohere.” This median group of lines may be further subdivided into two unequal parts, from line 23 to line 31 and from line 32 to line 56. Finally, part 3 goes from line 57 (“Many errors”) to the end of the poem (line 74), “to lead back to splendour.” The quest for paradise is brought to a rest here, but it promises a new dawn and a renewed beginning.

The first character to burst upon the scene is Neptune, the god of the seas in Greek mythology, whose mind frolics like leaping dolphins. Then there is talk about cosmos-making in a world of the possible: the political realm of Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943, and the poetic sphere of fashioning an epic poem, Ezra Pound’s Cantos themselves. The “record” (line 8) and the “palimpsest” (line 9)...

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Forms and Devices

“Canto 116” is part of a large-scale, 800-page epic poem that was forty years in the making, roughly from 1920 to 1960. The Cantos (the later poetry of Ezra Pound) bears comparison in scope, complexity, and difficulty with Ulysses (1922), the well-known novel by James Joyce, and with the other masterwork that appeared in that same year, T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. All three works are representative of English Modernism, the literary trend that dominated the first half of twentieth century Western culture.

As part of a larger whole, “Canto 116” is only a relatively independent piece of writing. However, being practically the last completed unit of the sequence, it represents a vantage point from which the compositional strategies of the Cantos can be surveyed and grasped as a whole. In contradistinction to most of the previous cantos—and, for that matter, to any other epic poem—“Canto 116” is written in the first person. Hence it possesses a higher consistency of viewpoint, even though subjective, and greater clarity and accessibility than much of Pound’s work.

The engine that drives this canto’s unfolding is Pound’s usual resort to parataxis: the placing side by side of bits of information, names of important people and places, mythical allusions, and phrases in foreign tongues (sometimes translated, sometimes not)—all in rapid succession, with no grammatical connectives...

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