Canto 4 is one of the 117 cantos, or divisions, that make up Ezra Pound’s sequence the Cantos, one of the major poetic works of the twentieth century. In Canto 4 Ezra Pound introduces the main factors that promote civilizations: urbanization, writing, and religious worship. He describes the ancient city of Troy sacked and destroyed by the victorious Greeks, its palace “in smoky light,” the city “a heap of smouldering boundary stones.” Then he speaks of Cadmus, the Phoenician trader who founded the city of Thebes. Cadmus gave the Phoenician alphabet to the Greeks; from it they devised the Greek alphabet as it is known today. Pound refers to religious worship by mentioning the “Chorus nympharum”—an assembly of bathing nymphs who are worshipers of Pan, the pastoral god who has the legs and feet of a goat.
Once cities, writing, and religion are combined in such a way as to create a civilization, other things can pull civilizations down: The ignoring of tradition by failing, in the words of Matthew Arnold, “to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” This reverence for tradition also includes the principles of morality, good government, and economics. In addition, self-discipline on the part of rulers and citizens—the ability to curb the meaner passions, greed, selfishness, revenge, desire for power, hatred leading to murder—is necessary if a culture is to survive. It was the coveting of another man’s wife by Paris that led to the abduction of Helen and brought about the Trojan War, which destroyed Troy.
The world has darkened for the poet as he contemplates the burning city of Troy, and he seeks relief by recalling moments of light. He recalls the “victory songs” of Pindar and the “nuptial songs” of Catullus, crying out gleefully, “ANAXIFORMINGES!” (“Lords of the Lyre!”) and “Aurunculeia!” (the name of a virgin bride honored by Catullus).
After experiencing some light, the poet returns to the dark side of life by recalling the horrible crimes and violence that were perpetrated by the members of the family of Tereus, the king of Thrace. Tereus had lost control of his sexual passion and raped his wife’s sister. Then he had cut out her tongue to ensure her silence. Nevertheless, his wife learned of his crimes. In retaliation she murdered their little son, Itys, and fed his cooked flesh as a meal to the king. When she informed him of what he had eaten, he tried to kill both women, but the gods turned all three into birds.
Then Pound moves ahead in time to medieval Provence, a region and former province of the kingdom of Naples and later of France. Provence was the home of the troubadours, poet-musicians who composed in Provençal and practiced courtly love (amour courtois). Courtly love was a contradictory form of love: It was illicit (the love of someone else’s wife), yet as “pure love” it was considered passionate, disciplined, and able to elevate the lover morally. The danger was that if it was passionate but without discipline, it could lead to trouble and violence. Now Pound metamorphoses Itys into the troubadour Cabestan (Guillen da...
(The entire section is 1301 words.)