Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

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 having to do with statecraft. The image that links the private and the public is the canal: For the lonely traveler, the canal symbolizes life’s solitary journey through an achingly beautiful natural landscape; but for the social observer, the canal symbolizes the just use of a state’s wealth—to promote commerce, to enhance the lives of all the people who live by the thoroughfare. These are the people who live simple, direct lives, untroubled by the more sophisticated worries of the traveler. When the sun comes up, they work; when it sets, they rest. Their efforts are concentrated on not merely observing nature, but making it productive—they dig wells and work the fields.

Pound possibly suggests at the end of the poem that there is another dimension that transcends both the public and the private. In this, he is simply following the Chinese sage Confucius (who was much admired by Pound). Confucius argued that there was no separation between the good of the individual and the good of the people as a whole—that, like the flow of the canal through the lakes, individual health moved naturally into the public realm.

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