Pound began writing the Cantos in 1915, published the first ones in 1917, published his first collection in 1925, and continued on them for most of the rest of his long life. He finally abandoned them after fifty-three years of effort. The Cantos are his most notable work, crammed with allusions, learning, splendid poetry, musical notations, Chinese ideograms, bitter invective and insults, baffling transitions and private jokes, and characters from Pound’s personal life as well as from world history. They form an immensely long work, and the Cantos have caused despair in ordinary readers and produced an entire Pound industry among literary scholars.
Although it is not immediately apparent, there is a loose but definite structure to the poem. Crucial concepts reappear throughout the work, embodied in specific actors who are either actual historical figures or characters from literature or mythology. These concepts can also be expressed by reference to images from the natural world or by artistic creations—specific examples of music, architecture, poetry—which Pound thought significant.
In this way, the nineteenth century American president Martin van Buren appears to underscore the idea of economic justice, while a single column in a cathedral, signed by its carver, represents the ideal of true art as opposed to mass-produced imitations. Because Pound presents these images in quick flashes without overt connections, the reader must rely on juxtaposition rather than narration to discover the meanings. Despite their expansive nature, and although they were composed over a period of half a century, the Cantos contain only a few major subjects: the importance of knowledge and art, the power of nature, the need for economic justice, and the necessity to order human society in accord with natural rhythms and cycles.
As befits a work that attempts to survey all human history, the Cantos contain many changes—metamorphoses, or shifts from one form to another. It was a concept pervasive in Greek mythology, and a continual fascination for Pound. These metamorphoses can be for good or evil; the first lead to harmony, while the second cause decay in society and culture. The chief villain for Pound was economic injustice, which inevitably changed societies for the worse. Usury, the lending of money at excessive rates of interest, was Pound’s primary economic concern, and he railed against it powerfully in his famous “Usury Canto,” XLV:
With usura hath no man a...
(The entire section is 1061 words.)