Themes and Meanings

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Canto 81 is a poem about worth. In the larger work, the Cantos as a whole, Pound looks across the history of human civilization and contemplates what endures. Pound thought that civilizations fall because of economic reasons. For example, he dearly loved the intellectual and artistic successes of the Italian Renaissance but believed that it disintegrated because of money lust and private banking. He thought that Italy could serve as the locus of a model or experiment that combined honest Confucian government with the celebration of the Eleusian Mysteries. In Canto 81 he demonstrates the process of finding what is worthwhile.

Overall, this poem uses the scientific method. That is, it starts with observations that the speaker believes are important. From his solitary confinement in Pisa, Pound fondly recalls people who helped other people, both individually and through a community. From this evidence, Pound reaches a thesis: “What thou lovest well remains,/ the rest is dross.” The next line, the most famous in the Cantos, intensifies this image of purification and relates it more immediately to Pound’s desperate condition: “What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee.” Pound uses the authority of the inductive method to test the value of his conclusion that love and anything done with love have enduring value.

As a guiding principle of love Pound uses Aphrodite, known to Romans as Venus and cited in line 3 as “Cythera,” a Greek island where the goddess landed. Directly after Pound’s profound cry of loss and loneliness as “a leaf in the current” of life and history with “no Althea” to comfort him, a supernatural figure rises like Botticelli’s Venus from the sea. With the cadences and rhetoric of God speaking from the whirlwind in the Book of Job and the preacher in Ecclesiastes, she inspires harmonious community by asking of individual artists and craftspeople, “Has he tempered the viol’s wood// Has he curved us the bowl of the lute?” Later she states that “it is not man/ Made courage, or made order, or made grace,/ Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.” She asks them to contemplate the source of their creative energies.

Pound sees worth in community. Canto 81 offers a heterogeneous community that includes peasants, political leaders, and gods. Contrary to the elitism that some people see in Pound’s poetry, this canto is inclusive. Unlike the more homogeneous world of the Cavalier poetic tradition, Pound’s world is global. Love and caring can create a viable new transnational community. As Pound sifts through the pieces of his life, the people of a Europe wrecked by World War II must choose the fragments worthy of creating a new world.

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