The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727

Canto 49—often called the “Seven Lakes” canto—is one of a set of ten cantos appearing in the third book of Ezra Pound’s twentieth century epic, the Cantos. This long poetic sequence, including 120 cantos, weaves scores of subjects and themes into the longest important poetic work of the modern era. By the time the “Fifth Decad” of cantos was published, Pound had already been at work on his epic for nearly twenty years; he would continue to write new cantos for thirty more.

The time is late autumn, and the persona is evidently someone journeying down a canal, noting the passing landscape. In the poem’s first line, however, Pound tells us that “these verses” are “by no man”; his intention here is possibly to suggest that the poem itself is a natural object, swelling up from the landscape like the mist or the flocks of birds who live by the banks of the canal.

The persona is evidently standing in the riverboat’s small cabin, lit by a single lamp; later, in stanza 4, he describes the “hole of the window” from which he views the landscape he describes. The canto’s second line sets the scene: The persona travels late in the year, when the normally busy canal is empty. The weather is turning cold; during the course of the poem, the rain noted in the second line becomes a snow flurry. Meanwhile, under the heavy rain, plants growing on the banks, the reeds and bamboos, bend and creak. The cold rain and the persona’s loneliness evoke an aura of sadness, and he feels that the natural world empathizes with him.

Finally, in the second stanza, the weather clears. The sun sets and the moon rises over the surrounding hills. Although Pound gives the reader too little information to be certain about the exact landscape through which the persona passes, the canal on which he travels may link the “seven lakes” of the poem’s first line. As the persona sails over one of these lakes, he hears a distant bell from a monastery. The boat voyages on downstream, floating on the silver river lit by the dying sun.

In the short third stanza, the persona now sees the banner of a canalside wine shop and a small settlement adjacent to the shop. Snow begins to fall. There are signs of other people moving about on the lake; a fisherman’s boat hung with a small lamp looks from a distance like one of the floating paper lanterns used during Chinese festivals. The village of San Yin, on which the persona comments in the stanza’s fourth and fifth lines, may be either the wine-shop settlement the persona is now viewing or another village the persona simply remembers. Throughout the poem, the persona’s current perceptions and past memories are often mixed, reflecting time’s unimportance to him. Migrating geese alight on a sandbar for a moment and then take off. Other birds, rooks, circle the fishermen’s boats, looking for fish. On the distant shore, small boys with lamps turn over rocks, looking for shrimp.

In stanza 5, there is a definite change of tone, probably caused by a shift in persona, from the anonymous Chinese traveler to Pound himself, who comments on the building of the canal. The canal, built by a civic-minded Chinese ruler, represents to Pound the right use of state wealth. Instead of using the state’s riches to accumulate debt, the “old king” has used his resources to improve his country. Pound contrasts this with the lending and borrowing of state money for profit. “Geryon,” in the stanza’s second line, is a mythical beast used in Dante’s Inferno (c.1320) to signify usury, the immoral accumulation of wealth through lending at interest—in other words, using money to make money, rather than using money to create the physical means to generate wealth, such as a canal that facilitates commerce.

The next stanza is a Japanese transliteration of a Chinese poem. The lines mean “Bright colorful auspicious cloud/ Hang gracefully/ Let sun and moon shine/ Morning after morning.”

Stanza 8 describes in shorthand the natural cycle of ordinary human life and work, which is contrasted with the life of the state. The poem ends with a cryptic reference to classical mythology—probably relating to Bacchus’s enchantment of wild beasts.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425

The Seven Lakes canto is generally considered one of the most beautiful portions of the Cantos. In theme and language, it reflects Pound’s lifelong love of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Although it is impossible to render oriental verse forms into English, Pound here tries to capture the flavor of a classic Chinese poem, using short free-verse lines and syntax that often dispenses with the subject-verb-object structure of English sentences. Largely, then, the canto is made up of traditional natural images drawn from Chinese poetry.

Canto 49 is an imitation of the classical Chinese shih, or song, first collected in the ancient Shih Ching (Classic of Songs). The main structural characteristic of the shih, which Pound adopts here, is the use of short one-or two-syllable words, grouped in four-word lines. Stanza 6 exactly reproduces one such shih. As a result, the rhythm of the poem is terse and far more clipped than most Western poetic styles.

Even though the language of the Seven Lakes canto is direct, the imagery attempts to suggest emotion rather than state it openly. Thus the persona never tells the reader what he himself is feeling; instead, he allows the imagery of the natural world to do that for him. The heavy rain falling in the twilight of the first stanza, the bent reeds, and the “weeping” bamboos all strongly indicate the persona’s sadness and loneliness, and the fire and ice of the cloud in the third line suggest a deep unstated conflict within the persona’s psyche.

Contrasted to this imagery of cold, rain, and emptiness, however, is another set of images suggesting delicacy, light, and calm. The poem’s second stanza introduces both the light of the bright autumn moon and the silvery blaze of sunset on the canal. The persona is also calmed by what he hears: The thin tune carrying through the canalside reeds seems to echo the chill of the air, and the gong of the monk’s bell picks up the echo.

The flag waving in the sunset and the chimney smoke from the village reinforce the imagery evoked by this delicate, transitory landscape, which is as constantly changing as the persona’s viewpoint as he moves downstream.

The imagery of the poem’s fourth stanza is perhaps the jewel of the canto. The flurried snow, the jade-colored landscape, the pinpoint lights of the fishing boats, and the small boys strongly suggest a classical Chinese painting. In such a painting, elements of line and color are subtly implied, giving viewers the impression of a vivid dreamworld.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 123

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