Canto 81 Analysis
by Ezra Pound

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Canto 81 is a free-verse poem of 173 lines in Ezra Pound’s long epic poem entitled the Cantos. “Canto” is an Italian word for song, poem, or chant. Pound worked on the Cantos for more than fifty years, from about 1915 until his death. Canto 81 is part of The Pisan Cantos (cantos 74-84), which Pound wrote in 1945 while a prisoner of war in the United States Army’s Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) near Pisa, Italy. With a naïve and misplaced faith in the economic reforms of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Pound had delivered broadcasts over Rome Radio criticizing the United States’ actions in World War II. Without visits from family or friends and without his books, Pound wrote the eleven Pisan cantos mostly from memory as he struggled for survival during seven months of solitary confinement before being formally accused of treason.

This poem has two sections. The first ninety-two lines offer a meditation on attempts to find worth in life. Through short narratives and direct quotations, often in colloquial diction, the speaker presents ways of worship as well as rituals of everyday life from ancient to contemporary cultures. The first line grounds the poem in Greek antiquity: “Zeus lies in Ceres’ bosom.” Zeus is a newer male god resting like a baby or lover on the breast of Ceres, the older female god of corn and nature. The section ends with a journalistic account which states that “my ole man went on hoein’ corn.” Pound believed in the community-strengthening power of the Eleusinian Mysteries, during which the Greeks celebrated the seasonal plant cycles of “the green world,” to which Pound often turns for organic principles of order. The speaker ends images of worship, friendship, hospitality, writing, communal dance, and newspaper reporting in this section, along with a three-line lament on his loneliness in prison.

The poem shifts at line 96, where the second section is labeled “libretto,” or words for music. Here the poem becomes more consciously musical. The speaker turns to the supernatural with an image that suggests the goddess of love, Aphrodite, Pound’s personal deity: “Yet/ Ere the season died a-cold/ Borne upon a zephyr’s shoulder/ I rose through the aureate sky.” This god seems to preside over the seventeenth century English lyric community. The speaker considers the ability and inability to see and know until, at line 133, the section shifts into a powerful prayer, probably spoken by Aphrodite, that starts, “What thou lovest well remains,/ the rest is dross.” It is an encouraging and comforting message to artists and others passionate enough to “Make it new,” Pound’s words that served as the motto of the modern era.

Readers must sort through often confusing and apparently esoteric fragments. This process requires interpretation of the poem in order to find its value. The end of the poem can function as Pound’s rationale for radio broadcasts intended to improve rather than betray his country, as the goddess may be addressing Pound: “How mean thy hates// Rathe [quick] to destroy, niggard in charity// But to have done instead of not doing/ this is not vanity.” In another interpretation, the goddess may be admonishing Pound’s critics, so quick to destroy him and so deficient in compassion. It is up to the reader to ponder whether Canto 81 presents a repentant or defiant Pound—or whether it is more important to contemplate love and love contemplation.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem, like many by Pound and other modern poets such as T. S. Eliot, accumulates images and documents that leap across time and place without explanatory connective material. Pound used an ordering device that he called the ideogramic method. Taking his cue from some Chinese characters called ideograms, he assembles images that present aspects of an idea. For example, he follows an image of nature comforting Zeus with a Spanish priest who helped Pound with research on the troubadour poet Guido Cavalcanti and...

(The entire section is 1,189 words.)