The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.