Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1513
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 part the breadth of Pound’s knowledge that causes so much continued study of the Cantos. To as great a degree as may be possible in English or American poetry, this poem is about everything.
Many sections of the poetic discourse written in English are interrupted by quotations from Provençal, Italian, German, French, Latin, and Greek, not to mention Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. There are quotations from the prosy diplomatic correspondence of John Adams, phrases more than a century old and deader in intrinsic interest than that. There are quotations from the fiscal regulations of Leopold of Habsburg-Lorraine, who instituted solid financial conditions in Tuscany before the disaster of Napoleon Bonaparte’s arrival. There are abundant references to historical and literary figures good and bad, Eastern and Western. There are references to many people, both well-known and obscure. These people include contemporaries familiar to Pound; through them he memorializes the literary crusades and battles of the first half of the twentieth century. Further, there are many pages adorned with the completely enigmatic ideograms that Pound derived from classical Chinese, which he uses to symbolize ideas that are important to him. Pound also translates some foreign-language sources, among which his translations of Japanese poems are considered exemplary.
All this is included and woven into a tight but anecdotal structure that Pound introduces and embroiders with great metrical variety and dexterity. His language varies from noble simplicity and elegance through imitations of the banality (with which people of all ages have conducted the affairs of the world) to the argot of the illiterate. A special interest appears in the section entitled The Pisan Cantos, in which Pound describes his life in a prison camp at Pisa, working on an installment of his masterwork.
Many of the sections of the poem are highly musical, and Pound is virtuosic in his use of forms, but he never forgets the lessons of his early villanelles and of his poem “Sestina: Altaforte,” which some see in the Cantos, in smaller form. Pound also uses the technique of the theatrical mask, taken from Greek tragedy. His speakers are often half-revealed or not revealed at all. This adds a dramatic texture and a certain richness to the poem and, once again, satisfies Pound’s need to say as much as possible, to be as allusive as possible.
Most versions of the Cantos rely heavily on footnotes to direct the reader elsewhere, often to moments or events in the poet’s life. Just as often the footnotes fill in historical or mythological information. When reading the Cantos, it must be remembered that Pound is attempting to write an epic poem and that he is very aware of his ambition and the requirements for an epic. He does not follow these requirements, however, because they would not work—and that lesson is as important as any other lesson about this work.
To a great degree, the Cantos are Pound’s reactions to and reflections of his own almost limitless reading and to his broad knowledge and curiosity about his world and the preceding worlds. There are references to influences noted elsewhere, to Homer, to Ovid, and to Remy de Gourmont. Contemporary literary figures and occasions in Paris and London, and his important meetings with William Butler Yeats in 1908 and later, are also included, as are earlier poems by Pound.
Strange and without many literary parallels in its lack of plan and in its preference for jumble rather than clarity, the continuing poem that is the Cantos is a record of the workings of a sophisticated and ingenious mind that conducted a decades-long war with a world out of joint. In this work, language is in decay, social life is ebbing, and the economic system is a center of rot. The Cantos represents a break with the going social order and the modes of literary expression grateful to that order. Pound, in a phrase he derives from the Chinese, must “make things new.” The techniques of confusion, blending, and non sequitur in the poem are techniques of assault; indurated sensibility must be awakened, and new habits of direct, nonabstract apprehension must be set up. Pound gathers hints from Homer, Confucius, the Provençal poets, and countless other writers who managed to be “human.” By tearing apart the tapestry of the conventionally viewed past and weaving the threads into a new pattern of his own, Pound assaults ingrained and complacent sensibilities.
Pound also startles conventional and unreflective moral tastes by expressing admiration for such “natural” monsters as Sigismundo Malatesta, whose evil was at least direct and not transmogrified into a neutral entry in a ledger. One must have, in the world of the Cantos, a considerable amount of sin; in “good” ages, unlike the poet’s own, sin and virtue declare themselves for what they are and do not masquerade as something else.
Thus the organized confusion of the Cantos becomes the pattern of Pound’s own outraged and crusading sensibility. What the poem expresses is always clear to that sensibility. If it is not clear to readers, then, according to the poet, so much the worse for them and their blindness. Such, at any rate, is the intransigent accent of many a canto.
Many critics consider the Cantos to be flawed, but even such critics marvel at what Pound accomplishes in an epic poem of the twentieth century. This poem shows what can be done within the poetic medium, and Pound will always be one of the great literary masters because of it.