Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909
The Cantos is one of the most difficult and erudite of the epic poems. Attempting to rewrite Dante's journey from hell to paradise, Pound chooses the form of a fugue in which to write his poem. The work is suffused with history, myth, crosscultural allusions, striking images, pedantry, and a deep love for humanity. However, the poem also expresses many opinions that are almost medieval in their ignorance and hatefulness. Pound's poem makes us confront questions of whether truly great art can express abhorrent viewpoints.
The Palimpsest A palimpsest, most simply, is a piece of paper or parchment that has been written on a number of times and on which the earlier writing has been only partially effaced. But the term also designates a building that incorporates an earlier building, especially one from a previous historical period. The image of the palimpsest is both a structural principle for The Cantos and one of its most important themes. Pound began his adult life as a scholar of Provencal, the Latinate language spoken in southern France, and in his early years in Europe he traveled extensively in the Provence region. In that part of France, as in much of Europe, cultures are laid on top of each other both metaphorically and literally. Roman architecture and literature were important influences for the Provencals, and the Romans, of course, appropriated Greek themes and religion. Pound loved Provence and Provencal troubadour literature, but he traced its influence forward, to Dante and from there to the Italian Renaissance and to modern times.
Pound strongly believed in the idea, most pithily stated by the American novelist William Faulkner, that the past is not gone—it is not even past. Throughout The Cantos Pound argues how the past underlies our present beliefs and practices. He felt, for instance, that one could not understand modern war and finance without carefully studying the foundations of modern banking in Florence and Siena. His obsession with the idea of the image or the "luminous detail" found a correlative in his study of the Chinese ideogram, in which he felt that the very ideas at the base of language itself were expressed in pictorial and verbal form. In an early poem, "The Return,’’ he writes of the ancient gods of the classical world waking up in modern times and returning to active life. They are not dead, he felt; they are just dormant, but their influence lives. Perhaps the most striking palimpsest in the poem is the first canto, in which Pound translates into Anglo-Saxon sounding English a Latin translation of a Greek text that he found at a Paris bookstall.
Beauty Although Pound is often faulted for how his Cantos so often consist of transcribed historical documents and are thus barely artistic, much of the poem is concerned with the search for beauty. Pound was not a nature poet and did not find beauty to reside solely in nature, as did the early Romantics. For Pound, the collaboration of human creation and natural forces—especially light—create the greatest beauty. He is fascinated with the strong sunlight of the Mediterranean as it illuminates the ruins of ancient cultures, and he imagines those cultures when they were young. Human striving is not vain, for Pound. He admires strong historical figures who seek to create both beauty and justice. Unfortunately, Pound often set forth as models historical personages whom we have come to understand were cruel people—Benito Mussolini, most notably, but also Sigismondo Malatesta, Pope Alessandro Borgia, and others. But he also admires Confucius, Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, John Adams, and like men who wanted to create cultures...
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in which art and governance worked together, not in opposition.
But the strongest parts of Pound's poem are his descriptions of beauty. In haunting lines, Pound describes images that strike us as beautiful but that, for the poet, also exemplify good governance and healthy culture. Such passages as "Seal sports in the spraywhited circles of cliffwash," "Gods float in the azure air, / Bright gods and Tuscan, back before dew was shed," or "Thus the light rains, thus pours, e lo soleills plovil / The liquid and rushing crystal / beneath the knees of the gods" from the first installment of cantos remain in the memory. In later installments, the same kinds of images return: "To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the color of stars," he says in canto 74, and in one of the final cantos he concludes with the memorable line "A little light, like a rushlight / to lead back to splendour."
Time and History Time is a constant theme in The Cantos , and history is the poems' most important element. As he conceived of his epic, Pound described it as "a poem containing history" and as "the tale of the tribe." Pound mixes together diverse times constantly, often in adjacent lines. Almost all of the cantos jump wildly around in time. Rather than using chronology to construct his poem, Pound structures his poem with ideas and images, and he can move easily through history and geography, connecting ancient China to the nascent American republic, for instance. His ideas of time are related to Faulkner's, for both men feel that the past is not, in fact, past. But where Faulkner examines one small area of the United States and focuses on how the past is never dead in or for that area's inhabitants, Pound follows concepts and relations, comparing them in vastly different periods.