(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ezra Pound may be considered one of the most powerful, disturbing, and enigmatic literary figures of the twentieth century. Often his public persona overshadowed his interest in being a poet who would be remembered for his poetry, but part of that was due to Pound’s own unflagging energies and ambitions as an editor, as a friend to writers in exile from America, and as the “foreign correspondent” for Harriet Monroe’s 1912 publication Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. He was responsible for the final version of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), he influenced William Carlos Williams, he was instrumental in getting James Joyce published, and he spent time with Ernest Hemingway in Italy. He was the guiding voice behind the Imagist movement in poetry early in the twentieth century, and his association with Benito Mussolini still stands in infamy. Pound’s time in a temporary detention center in Pisa, Italy, still stands in infamy—and led to The Pisan Cantos (1948)—as does his later imprisonment in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., from 1945 to 1970.

Many who attempt to analyze Pound’s literary career are so struck by its richness that they miss the kernel at the core of his poetry: the Cantos. While Pound worked on other types of poetry and poetic movements, his mind and his focus remained on the Cantos, which he conceived of as a twentieth century epic. Pound worked on the Cantos for nearly fifty years, weaving scores of subjects and themes into the longest important poetic work of the modern era. When he set out on his poetic odyssey, Pound conceived of his poem as a modern version of Dante Alighieri’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802); his intention was to mirror Dante’s epic organization into “inferno,” “purgatory,” and “heaven.” Pound, following Dante, called the individual units of the epic cantos. Small press publications of parts of the Cantos appeared upon occasion, but the poem as a whole was not published until 1948. The publication date was, perhaps, meant to coincide with the availability of The Pisan Cantos.

After his release from St. Elizabeths, Pound returned to Italy, where he had about five years of peace. Some who visited him there related that he continued to work on his masterpiece, but there is little, if any, of that work remaining.

Pound’s poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), also considered a classic in the English language, is often discussed in reference to the style of the Cantos, although the Cantos are much more ambitious. In Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound uses a rhetorical persona who reflects on a wide variety of experiences. In many similar ways, the first sixteen cantos use a reactive rhetorical narrator, and at times these two figures have similar interests—not surprising, since the poems began to be composed at about the same time.

There is another influence on Pound’s work, that of Eliot’s narrator in The Waste Land. The difference between Eliot and Pound is clear: Eliot presents a rhetoric rich in narrative, while Pound presents a rhetoric steeped in speculation, myth, and ancient history. Some critics see the first canto as a reflection on Odysseus, and they believe that the Odysseus references are broad rather than specific, but if readers follow the Odysseus beginning, they are able to become grounded in specific myth.

In the Cantos, Pound displays his knowledge and his ability to present it without introductions, borders, or transitions. The poem is as much instructive as it is reflective, and it is in...

(The entire section is 1513 words.)