Canto 49 Themes
by Ezra Pound

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In many ways, the Seven Lakes canto is simply a masterly imitation of classical Chinese verse. Thus many of its themes may be treated as the traditional ones associated with Oriental poetry. On the other hand, Pound introduces an important sub-theme toward the end of the canto, which throws the earlier, more conventional meanings into contrast.

As in much of the Cantos (and as in much poetry throughout history), the theme here centers on a journey. In this case, the poem deals with the voyage of a solitary traveler on a nearly deserted waterway late in the year. Because of the mixture of past and present in the voyager’s perceptions and because of his loneliness, his journey readily suggests the voyage this person makes through life. One of the great themes of Chinese and Japanese poetry—perhaps in part because of the strong Buddhist influence in those cultures—is the transience of life, its evanescent and even illusory quality.

Much of what the persona sees as he travels downstream seems insubstantial: The changing weather of autumn, the changing of day into night, the moon, the migrating birds, the chimney smoke—all these images combine to create a picture of a universe that Buddhism views as only partly real. Although the reader is never told exactly what troubles the persona, the speaker’s emotions are clearly the most solid element in his world.

A key line in stanza 2—“Sail passed here in April; may return in October”—may reflect the poem’s central meaning, the coming and going of human relationships. Here Pound relies upon a conventional theme in Chinese poetry: the departure of a beloved person on a long journey. In poems that employ this theme, the persona, the person being left behind, is often uncertain that the traveler will return.

Thus the smaller incident of saying goodbye to one person—perhaps forever—mirrors the larger course of any individual’s life, from which friends, lovers, and family are eventually taken by death or distance.

This theme in the poem might be termed the “personal” one, but the canto concludes with another theme, the “social” one. Here Pound turns his emphasis from the emotions of one lonely person to passions...

(The entire section is 565 words.)