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 Cabestanh), who carried on a love affair with a married woman. Her husband grew jealous and murdered Cabestan, and he prepared a meal of Cabestan’s flesh and served it to his wife, whom he considered unfaithful. After his wife had consumed the meal, her husband informed her what she had eaten. She rushed to a second-story window and jumped to her death.
Turning away from this darkness, Pound sees the glittering...
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roof of the Romanesque gothic church in Poitiers, France. This image, emblematic of Catholicism, is followed immediately by recognition of the classical world and the worship of Diana, the goddess of the moon. Then the poet’s vision sweeps far away to Japan and then China. In Japan he notes “the pine at Takasago,” which refers to the legend of the twin pines of Takasago and Sumiyoshi. They are the homes of a very old married couple who have not only lived very long lives but also remained strictly faithful to each other all their lives; they have become immortal. She lives in the pine at Takasago; he lives in the other pine at Sumiyoshi, and for countless years he has paid nightly visits to his wife; the two converse until the break of day. Thus this immortal couple symbolize longevity and conjugal fidelity. Pound now returns from Japanese culture to classical Roman culture. In the voice of Catullus he again celebrates the marriage of Aurunculeia, hailing Hymen, the god of marriage.
Pound next moves to ancient China, where he considers the political question of the power of the ruler in respect to the common people and in respect to nature. At the same time he introduces the reader to the literary question of the relationship of Chinese poetry in style and subject to the poetry of the West. He discusses the main theme of a poem by the distinguished Sung Yü (in the third century b.c.e.), who served as a courtier at the court of King Hsiang Yü, ruler of the state of Ch’u. One day the king was taking his ease on the terrace outside his palace when the wind blew. The king remarked to Sung Yü: “What delightful breeze!” Then he added: “And I and the common people may share it together, may we not?” Sung Yü replied: “The wind does not choose between the high and the low, but it belongs to the place where it seeks out.”
Pound concludes Canto 4 by returning to the theme of the city and its violent crime. Pound’s city here is Ecbaton (or Ecbatana), the capital of ancient Media during its decline under King Acrisius in the early sixth century b.c.e. According to Herodotus, it was surrounded by seven concentric walls, each of a different color. It was a planned city that contained “plotted streets.” It also contained a brazen tower that was the king’s treasure house. King Acrisius had been warned by an oracle that he would be slain by a grandson. A coward, he imprisoned his daughter, Danae, in the tower so that no man could love or wed her. Zeus, however, angry that the king should seek to alter a prophecy of the gods, visited Danae in the form of golden rain and made her pregnant. Although Acrisius tried to kill both her and her child, Perseus, he failed. Later Perseus killed Acrisius accidentally.
Then Pound introduces his reader to the city of Sardis (or Sardes), the capital of Lydia during the reign of King Candaules (c. 700 b.c.e.). The city contained a temple to Artemis, the goddess of the moon. Sardis is believed to have been the first city to issue gold and silver coins. A story of considerable irony is associated with King Candaules. Much in love with his wife, he never tired of recounting to other men the beauty of her face and figure. He tried to impress his young bodyguard, Gyges, on this matter. The youth listened politely to his master’s ravings, but he was unmoved. Thinking that his bodyguard did not believe him, the king insisted that Gyges hide in the queen’s bedroom until she came in to retire for the night; the bodyguard was much opposed to this plan. He obeyed his master, however, and saw the queen naked. However, from the corner of her eye she saw him dart out the door. The next morning she sent for the bodyguard. She informed him that he had two choices. He must kill her husband, marry her, and become king or he must forfeit his own life. He chose the first alternative.
Canto 4 is only one segment of the Cantos, a poetic cultural history of the world that is multicultural and multilingual. Pound’s poetry is cryptic and sometimes aphoristic. Reflecting his interest in myth and world history, his verse is peppered with foreign languages and with English translations of foreign languages. The style of the Cantos in general is fragmented; one small bit of history or myth bumps against another from a different era and part of the world. To Pound, poetry is a “charged language” that has a definite relation to music and, to a lesser degree, to painting and sculpture. He employs free verse, precise imagery, and the rhythms of common, sometimes slangy, speech. One of Pound’s major devices is the so-called ideogrammatic method, which he took from his impression of the structure of Chinese characters: A character is formed from two or more pictographs (or indicators) to suggest a larger idea.
Pound pays strict attention to the consonance of words and music. In every case he tries to find the most appropriate word, not only in meaning but also in emotional resonance. He held that a poet’s rhythm and meter reveal the poet’s sincerity and commitment.
Pound makes considerable use of mythology—for example, he applies classical myths to the lives of the troubadours—and this practice makes the reader aware of certain types of constant relations, as between the Tereus and Cabestan. Pound uses these myths to present moral problems and create psychic experiences. Myth enables him to record dark passions and crimes and to contrast them with the bright light of the world.
The principal device Pound uses is the forma or virtù. The forma or virtù is the pattern (or simply the “something”) that lies behind concepts or techniques of artistic, literary, and social phenomena and enables a notable tradition to develop—as with the songs of the thirteenth century troubadours or the strange metaphysics of light of Grosseteste. Canto 4 presents no formal organization; like the Cantos as a whole, it represents the personal improvisation of a great poetic sensibility.
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