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 introduces a note of defiance and even hope in the middle of his own defeat.
Next, a series of references to the writings of Confucius and to classic Chinese poetry intervene (“rain is also of the process”). These lines are followed by allusions to the journeys of Odysseus and of the Argonauts. One line in this sequence, “when Lucifer fell in N. Carolina,” remains a mystery to Pound scholars, who are baffled by its meaning. In fact, the “Lucifer” line is typical of many others in this canto, making a coherent summary difficult.
The poem opens with Pound’s lament for the death of Mussolini, who, Pound felt, was to lead Italy into a new Renaissance. Pound then contrasts political upheaval with the steady processes of nature praised in the Chinese classics. The reference to Confucius leads to remarks on the financial probity of the Chinese emperors and the contrasting usury practiced against Indian peasants during the last years of the British raj....
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Pound believed that the economic structure of the modern world was the source of its evils, including war and the loss of freedom, to which he refers in “the Constitution in jeopardy.”
Returning to Odysseus, Pound compares one meaning of the Greek hero’s name, “no man,” with that accorded to an Australian god, Wanjina, who, like the God of the Old Testament, brought the created world into being through naming. The poem now shifts (at “from the death cells”) to Pound’s own impressions of the landscape in and around the detention camp. That landscape includes gallows for hanging criminals, and the gallows remind him of various executed criminals, including the medieval French poet François Villon and Barabbas. In the lines following, Pound introduces some of his fellow prisoners, “Thos. Wilson” and “Mr. K.”; at “there was a smell of mint under the tent flaps,” Pound inserts a lyrical passage having to do with the beauties of nature, visible even in the camp.
The Chinese character that then appears (“shien”) means “to manifest, shining,” and this ideogram is meant to stand for the light of the natural world, which illuminates everything, even the prison, with the clarity of truth. From light, Pound then returns to the darkness of economic falsehood (at “Never inside the country”) and to the hidden machinations of usurers (those who lend money at exorbitant interest—Pound’s chief villains).
At “Pisa, in the 23rd year,” Pound describes the execution of a fellow prisoner, Till, and the natural wisdom of another prisoner, called “Snag.” The Chinese character here means “mo,” or evening; Pound expands the character’s meaning to “a man on whom the sun has gone down,” such as the executed Till. That is followed by a series of lines contrasting the illumination of mystical light with the darkness of history. The verse paragraphs beginning “Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven” relate Pound’s memories of his fellow writers, some of whom are now dead: Ford Madox Ford, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, and others. These memories are followed by others having to do with various twentieth century events, which had been related to Pound through anecdotes told by witnesses of them.
These main subjects—Pound’s life in the camp, his memories, the evils of a corrupt economic system, the beauty and light of the natural world, the fleeting events of history—recur throughout the remainder of Canto 74 and on into the rest of The Pisan Cantos. As the poem picks up its pace, however, the subjects are interwoven at smaller and smaller intervals. For example, in the passage beginning “autumnal heavens under sha-o,” Pound moves in rapid succession through Chinese poetry (three lines), Old Testament dictates on money (three lines), the fees charged on an ancient toll road (three lines), Confucius (four lines), a description of a fellow prisoner (five lines), usury (two lines), state funding of the Athenian navy (two lines), and the infamy of Sir Winston Churchill (two lines). Often, the change of subject occurs in the middle of a line, complicating matters greatly for the reader intent on detecting a consistent narrative thread.
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 Canto 74 that most readers admire. Although a simple paraphrase of the many subjects Pound addresses in this canto makes the poem appear incomprehensible, the poet’s imagery helps these divergent motifs to cohere.
The main imagery comprises three elements: light, natural processes, and the Celestial City. Much of Pound’s imagery in Canto 74 is in direct contrast to the drab realities of prison life. In fact, Pound uses the simple details of his life in the detention camp as symbols of natural forces that flow on, oblivious to human beings and their history. In the passage beginning “and there was a smell of mint under the tent flaps,” for example, the many small, piquant details seem to shine like the universal light that is one of the canto’s main themes. The odor of rain-drenched wild mint, the brilliant white of oxen on the road outside the prison, the dark sheep standing out against the rainy mountainside take on the quality of eternal emblems of the natural world. Because this world has nothing to do with Pound, it “upholds” him—keeps him going—precisely as watching the lizards crawling around the camp keeps his mind off his coming trial.
In the lines that follow the “mint” passage, Pound uses the imagery of universal light “to manifest” (as the Chinese character here says) the underlying reality reflected in individual elements of the natural world. Such light also appears in imagery concerning the Celestial City, where the “light of lightvirtu” illumines human works as well. The “four giants at the four corners,” who appear following the above images, were the colossal ancient statues that marked the boundaries of an ideal city-state; however, the statues also symbolize the “giant” that lies dormant in human potential.
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