Historical Context

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Pound wrote his The Cantos over a long period of time—the first canto was published in 1917 and the final installment to be published during Pound's lifetime appeared in 1968. Needless to say, these years were turbulent; they constitute the majority of the last century. But Pound's poem is especially steeped in history: his own description of the poem as he formulated it was "a poem containing history." History, therefore, both formed the raw material for the poem and impinged upon its construction and creation.

When Pound first thought of writing his "tale of the tribe," he was living in London and had gained a great deal of fame as a literary impresario and provocateur. From the time that he arrived in London—1909—he had set himself the task of wresting art and literature from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. To achieve this end, he did everything: he served as a foreign editor for American publications, he "discovered" such writers as T. S. Eliot, he edited anthologies, he promoted operas, he gave money and materials to sculptors, he harangued and wrote and dashed about the city, an unforgettable figure in his pointy beard and cape.

But by 1920, Pound had tired of London. WWI had taken its toll on the writers and artists he sponsored, and London's openness to artistic experimentation was waning. Pound wrote his wellknown "Hugh Selwyn Mulberry" poem cycle in 1920 and moved to Paris. He only stayed there a few years, though, feeling that Italy was a better place for him to be to work on The Cantos, the poem that now consumed his energies. In the 1920s, as Pound finished the first thirty cantos, he grew increasingly interested in European and American history and economics, subjects that supplemented his already extensive knowledge of Chinese and Provencal history and art and of classical civilization. The Cantos began to be Pound's "tale of the tribe," the "tribe" being intelligent, artistic, culturally-minded people. In his historical research, Pound came across a number of men who brought together what he saw as political justice, economic wisdom, and an artistic temperament and The Cantos quickly became a tale of how those men—Jefferson and Adams, Confucius, Malatesta—had to fight against the venality and stupidity of their contemporaries.

Unfortunately for Pound, though, he felt that his time's answer to these "factive personalities" was the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Through the late 1920s and the 1930s, Pound began to write more and more on economics and argued that Mussolini's programs epitomized the kind of humane system that Pound hoped to see succeed in the world. In Cantos 42 through 71, Pound wrote extensively on Chinese and American history, but Mussolini's name and ideas come up more and more often. Even more disturbing is a growing anti-Semitism in the poems. Consumed by a hatred of banks and always possessed of an affection for medieval times, Pound concluded that powerful Jews were behind the world banking system. Exacerbating Pound's fascist and anti-Semitic sympathies were his very real mental problems—by the late 1930s Pound was showing clear signs of paranoia.

Pound returned to the United States briefly in 1939 and gave a few speeches, but managed only to convince his audiences that he was a crank or just mad. When war broke out in Europe, Pound was forced to remain in Italy, and for the duration of the war he lived there. To earn money, he made broadcasts on Italian state radio, broadcasts filled with anti-Semitism and venom directed at President Roosevelt. In 1943, Pound was indicted for treason in the United States, and...

(This entire section contains 849 words.)

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as the war was ending he was captured by Italian partisans and turned over to the U.S. Army. He was kept in a cage in Pisa for a while before being returned to the U.S. to stand trial.

Upon his arrival in Washington, D. C., Pound was found mentally unfit for trial and sentenced to detention in a mental hospital. However, at this same time, a collection of the poems that he had written while held by the Army, The Pisan Cantos, appeared, and to many readers they were the best poems Pound had ever written. As ever, they were difficult and relied on an enormous body of crosscultural knowledge, but for the first time Pound shows weakness, doubt, and regret about his actions and beliefs. In these poems, he is as honest with himself as he had ever been. While in the hospital, he published one other set of cantos before his 1958 release.

When he was released, he returned to Italy to live out the rest of his life quietly. But Pound's epic engendered many difficult questions for American culture about the relative places of art and politics. Should a traitor be lauded by his nation for his poetic accomplishments, as Pound was when he won the Library of Congress' Bollingen Prize in 1949? Can a man with abhorrent beliefs write great poetry? Can that poetry be great when it expresses those beliefs? Pound's The Cantos continues to cause critics and general readers to examine their ideas about these complex issues.

Literary Style

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The construction of The Cantos is extremely complex. It is an epic, so it involves a journey, but unlike the Odyssey or the Aeneid the journey is not through space but through history. Pound initially thought of his poem in terms of Dante's medieval epic the Divine Comedy, in which the poet journeys from earth to the depths of hell, then ascends through purgatory to the heights of Heaven. But Pound's poem does not do this in any linear fashion. The first canto presents, in Pound's translation of a translation, Odysseus' preparations to journey into the underworld, and in these early cantos, Sigismondo Malatesta braves terrestrial and spiritual hells. The first section of cantos ends with the famous "Hell Cantos," which present images as horrific as anything since Dante.

But after the first sixteen cantos, the Dantean structure fades. Pound provides the reader the occasional glimpse of what he called his "paradiso terrestre," the earthly paradise, especially in his descriptions of light glinting off artworks such as the mosaic over the doorway in the church at Torcello, Italy, but for the most part the bulk of the cantos are concerned with what might be "purgatorio," or the world of history. Entire cantos are enumerations of Chinese rulers or of the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Only in the last few cantos does Pound begin to concern himself fully with what is in his paradise, and over the fifty years he spent writing the poem he seems to have come to the conclusion that paradise is both fleeting and the most simple of things: "Do not move / let the wind speak / that is paradise," he says in a fragment for one of the final cantos.

Perhaps the best description of the structure of the poem is Pound's. At times, he told friends that he had built the poem to mirror the construction of the musical fugue, a form that consists of the announcement of a theme in one voice, the echoing of that theme from other voices, and the contrapuntal development of that theme. Pound diagrammed this in 1927 as "A. Live man goes down into world of Dead. B. The 'repeat in history.' C. The 'magic moment' or moment of metamorphosis, bust through from quotidian into 'divine or permanent world.'" He wrote in 1944 that his epic "begins 'In the Dark Forest,' crosses the Purgatory of human error, and ends in the light."

On a lower level, the individual cantos are structured not as coherent narratives but as details linked together imagistically. Canto 3, for instance, begins in Venice, where Pound "sat on the Dogana's steps / For the gondolas cost too much, that year." He muses on the appearance of Venice in 1908, talking about such specifics as the Buccentoro rowing club and the citizens "howling 'Stretti,'" a line from a popular song, but quickly moves to the baths at Baden, Switzerland, and from there to Burgos, Spain. These details are linked by images and concepts: the air and colors of Venice make Pound think of Tuscany, which makes him think of the ancient gods and nymphs. From that fleshy, earthly image he jumps to a Roman text about the baths where young women bathe nude. For Pound, the image was the basis of all poetry, and communicated not just a picture in the mind but "presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time," in his words of 1912.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: The United States, fresh from its success in World War I, enjoys the ''Roaring Twenties,'' a period of economic expansion and artistic experimentation. Many prominent American artists and writers, though, are living in Paris, fleeing what they see as American bourgeois provincialism.

1990s: The United States enjoys an unprecedented period of economic expansion and the creation of wealth. During these years, however, many experimental artists find themselves in conflict with conservative American values. Such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, Andres Serrano, and Chris Ofili see their esoteric, avant-garde work become the subject of impassioned public debate because of its perceived immorality or blasphemy.

1930s: Europe sees the rise of fascist, military-dominated states such as Spain, Italy, and Germany. America remains "isolationist," tending to its own affairs, while Americans in Europe warn of an impending conflict.

2000: After the fall of the Soviet empire, the former Eastern Bloc states create their own destinies. Some, like the Czech Republic and Poland, are stable and improve their citizens' economic lives. Others, such as Yugoslavia, break apart. In 1999, the United States gets involved in an ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, bombing targets in Serbia in an effort to convince the Serbian leader to end his war on the people of Kosovo.

1940s: World War II, the greatest and most destructive conflict the world has ever seen, kills millions. Europe, Japan, and much of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia are devastated. In response, the victorious powers help the defeated nations rebuild, but dictate the rebuilding of the political systems of their former foes.

2000: The United States, NATO, and the UN keep their eyes on two nations: Iraq and Serbia. Each of these countries was recently defeated in military action by the United States and its allies, but neither fully capitulated, and the countries regard each other with wary hostility.

Media Adaptations

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In 1958, Pound was released from St. Elizabeth's hospital in Washington, D.C. Before leaving the United States to return to Italy, Pound agreed to be recorded for an audio record. The Caedmon record label produced two records of Ezra Pound Reading His Poetry, both of which have extensive selections from The Cantos.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES Kenner, Hugh, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, University of Nebraska Press, 1985 (reprint).

Partisan Review, May 1949, p. 518.

"Poetry's New Priesthood," in Saturday Review of Literature, June 18, 1949, pp. 7-9, 38.

Sutton, Walter, Ezra Pound: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1963.

‘‘Treason's Strange Fruit: The Case of Ezra Pound and the Bollingen Award,’’ in Saturday Review of Literature, June 11, 1949, pp. 9-11, 28.

FURTHER READING Carpenter, Humphrey, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, Faber & Faber, 1988. Carpenter's biography is the most extensive and detailed of the many books that tell the story of Pound's life.

Casillo, Robert, The Genealogy of Demons, Northwestern University Press, 1988. Casillo confronts Pound's ugliest side: his fascist and anti-Semitic ideas.

Kenner, Hugh, The Pound Era, University of California Press, 1971. Many consider this to be the definitive book not only on The Cantos but on Pound's contribution to twentieth-century literature and culture.

Rainey, Lawrence, Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture, University of Chicago Press, 1991. Rainey's book examines in close detail the historical and artistic sources behind the "Malatesta cantos’’ (8-11).

Terrell, Carroll F., A Companion to 'The Cantos of Ezra Pound, University of California Press, 1980. Terrell compiles an incredibly detailed and helpful annotation of almost every proper name, place, historical event, and foreign word used in Pound's poem.


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Baumann, Walter. A Rose in the Steel Dust: An Examination of The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1970. A revisionist examination of the Cantos, with a view toward the post-industrial age seen through Pound’s extreme interest in Dante and the French Provençal troubadours.

Emery, Clark. Ideas into Action: A Study of Pound’s Cantos. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1958. One of the original sources on the Cantos, written well after The Pisan Cantos but well before Pound’s release from St. Elizabeths and the official ending of the poetry sequence. Analyzes the active in relation to the passive.

Goodwin, K. L. The Influence of Ezra Pound. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Places the poet firmly in the pantheon of modern poets, largely because of his having attempted the epic poem the Cantos.

Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1951. With Donald Davie, Kenner is the foremost authority on Pound, his work, and his influence. Chapters are devoted to the Cantos, but Kenner explains how the sequence drew together common threads in all Pound’s work.

Leary, Lewis, ed. Motive and Method in The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: Columbia University Press, 1954. Early treatment of the epic poem. Explores both political statements, prosody, and technique in Pound’s fusion of myth and personal statement.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide