The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 695

“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...

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“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) seem to refer back to both. With line 13 Pound himself gets his picture into the text. He will gradually emerge as the protagonist of “Canto 116.” Then a picture of the Madonna, the mother of Jesus, is introduced. The next several lines seem to deal with Justinian, the Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565 c.e., famous for his code of laws.

With line 23 the first-person voice proclaims its presence and firmly takes over. Things become clearer, especially for those readers who are familiar with Pound’s troubles in old age: his incarceration and trial for treason at the end of World War II, his subsequent thirteen-year-long confinement at St. Elizabeth’s (an asylum for the insane in Washington, D.C.), the scandal caused by the first Bollingen Prize being awarded to his Pisan Cantos in 1949, and his final release and return to Italy in 1958. In the middle of “Canto 116” the speaking persona of the poet is intent on building an argument regarding his mismanagement of the entire large-scale project of the Cantos as an epic poem. In doing so, however, Pound is also keen in pointing out various extenuating circumstances, and even the relative strengths of his whole endeavor.

While hammering out his pseudo-defense, the speaker evokes the strength and encouragement he drew from a range of benefic agencies, including two beautiful and sympathetic creatures “under the elms,” “squirrels and bluejays” popping up from Walt Disney’s world of animated films, “Ariadne,” the famous heroine of Greek mythology who gave Theseus the thread with which he found his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, André Spire, the Jewish French poet and humanist, the French symbolist poet Jules Laforgue, Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist, and “Venere”—the goddess of love and beauty, also known as Venus or Aphrodite. The point is reached that paradise (“paradiso” in the text, most probably in honor of Dante Alighieri) seems still within reach, here on earth: “a nice quiet paradise/ over the shambles” (lines 49-50). The spirit is upbeat. The failure acknowledged in lines 28-29 is mitigated, even reversed, in lines 55-56.

In the concluding section, the speaker’s voice ruminates on the balancing act involved: “many errors,/ a little rightness” (lines 57-58) and “To confess wrong without losing rightness” (line 70). To make most of what endures is the lesson in humility that the poet has learned the hard way. At long last, a glimmer of light flickers, showing the way back to splendor. The whole epic cycle comes to rest on this hopeful note.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449

“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 whatsoever between them. Thus words are grouped in rhythmical, self-sufficient units or paragraphs, a fact which renders their meanings more readily available. The lines of varying length yielded by this process are further highlighted by their typographical arrangement down the page in doublets or triplets. The emotional highs and lows that alternate during the unfolding of the canto can be thus followed and plotted. The reader is also urged to spot the instances of hypotaxis, when such syntactical connectors such as “but,” “though,” or “even if” (see the beginnings of lines 8, 26, 27, 45, 56, and 66) restrict or qualify the significance of the statements. Likewise, inversion of a Miltonic type (a device generally avoided by Pound) powerfully launches the opening line: “Came Neptunus.”

Pound’s text production, with its reliance on disconnected fragments, arresting images, and recondite allusions, requires considerable critical research. All modernist works demand initiation prior to comfortable enjoyment. Since there is no such thing as an omniscient reader, an industry of modernist exegesis has flourished. The reader who has developed a taste for Pound, Eliot, or Joyce will eventually have to read the findings of Eva Hesse, Walter Baumann, James J. Wilhelm, George Kearns, Christine Froula, and Peter Stoicheff, to name some of the more insightful commentators on “Canto 116.” Likewise, periodically interesting and rewarding articles are published in Paideuma, the main journal focusing on Pound’s work.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 123

Froula, Christine. A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1983.

Heymann, David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking Press, 1976.

Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber & Faber, 1951. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Knapp, James F. Ezra Pound. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1987.

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Ezra Pound: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound. 1970. Rev. ed. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.

Surette, Leon. Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P., and Stephen J. Adams, eds. The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.

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