The Poem

Canto 74 is the first poem in an eleven-poem set called The Pisan Cantos, which occurs about midway in the long poetic sequence the Cantos. Most Ezra Pound scholars agree that The Pisan Cantos contains some of the most powerful and beautiful passages in the entire sequence of 120 cantos. Like the remainder of the poem, The Pisan Cantos interweaves scores of themes and motifs into a tapestry containing elements drawn from world history, the literature of many countries and periods, and from Pound’s own life. In fact, Pound often described the Cantos as “a poem containing history,” including his own life history, and Canto 74 is a particularly good example of the ways in which Pound used personal and universal history as the foundation of the Cantos’s poetic structure.

The sequence was written during Pound’s internment in the Detention Training Camp, a U.S. Army prison outside Pisa, Italy, during 1945 and 1946. During World War II, Pound had sided with Benito Mussolini’s Fascists and had spent much of the war making pro-Fascist propaganda broadcasts for Rome Radio. When the Allies captured northern Italy, Pound was arrested as a traitor and held in Italy to await trial in the United States. Pound’s incarceration in the camp forms the autobiographical basis for these cantos, and much of their subject matter has to do with Pound’s day-to-day life in the open-air prison.

There are two difficulties with presenting a straightforward summary of Canto 74’s content. The first is that by the time the reader reaches The Pisan Cantos (at page 425 of the American edition of the Cantos), he or she is expected to have assimilated dozens of references and allusions developed more fully in earlier cantos. The second is that this is one of the lengthiest of the cantos, running to nearly fifty pages in the standard edition.

In the opening seventy-four lines, for example (ending with “thereby making clutter”), nearly each line contains a different allusion, either to an earlier section of the Cantos themselves or to literature or history. The first eight lines allude to the death of Mussolini (“Ben”), who, having been captured by Italian Resistance fighters was killed along with his mistress (“Clara”) and hung by his feet in a public square in Milan. Yet this reference immediately flows into one having to do with the “resurrected-god” motif of Mediterranean folklore and religion (in Greek, Digonos means “twice born”), and that in turn spurs the persona, Pound himself, to recall his friend T. S. Eliot’s famous line about humankind ending with a “whimper” not a “bang”—Pound reverses this idea and thus...

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Forms and Devices

As are the other cantos in general, Canto 74 is written in free verse—poetic lines that have no set rhythm or consistent number of feet and that do not rhyme. The poem is broadly segmented into verse paragraphs; there are stanzas, which, similar to free verse, follow no regular structure and run anywhere from one line to several pages.

One immediately recognizable structural feature of this canto—again as with nearly all the other cantos—is fragmentation: Normal syntactic patterns are often absent, so that individual lines may lack subjects, objects, or verbs. Moreover, such lines may begin abruptly, in midsentence, and may often be written in a foreign language. A good example occurs at the beginning of Canto 74, where “sorella la luna” (“sister the moon”) on one separate line is followed by an imperative sentence (“Fear god . . .”), followed by a noun phrase begun by a conjunction (“but a precise definition”).

Another unfamiliar structural device, which Pound used increasingly toward the end of the Cantos, is the Chinese character, often inserted to the side of the text as a kind of commentary on the Western-language lines. Pound believed that such ideograms were “picture writing,” able to be read as visual images without knowledge of Chinese. Thus, ideograms provided direct, unmediated messages embodying the themes of certain portions of the poem.

Largely, however, it is the striking imagery of...

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