Last Updated October 11, 2023.
Ezra Pound wrote "The Return" in 1912, a time of significant change and upheaval. The Industrial Revolution had transformed Europe and North America, and new technologies were emerging at a rapid pace. However, this progress came at a cost. The progress was disrupting the traditional social order, and many people felt alienated, lost, and left behind.
Pound was among those who were disillusioned with the modern world. He saw it as materialistic and spiritually impoverished. He was particularly drawn to classical mythology, which he saw as a source of wisdom and beauty. In "The Return," Pound imagines the ancient gods returning to a world that has forgotten them in this poetic critique of modernity.
"The Return" is a concise poem. Pound creates a powerful image full of meaning in just five stanzas and twenty short lines.
The poem begins with the speaker calling attention to the return of the gods in the first stanza:
See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet
The gods' movements are slow, hesitant, and uncertain, suggesting they are unsure of their place in the modern world, having lost much of their power and strength. The audience is meant to imagine that these once-mighty beings have been gone for a long time. They seem to have forgotten how to walk or even move around.
In the second stanza, the speaker restates the opening line, "See, they return…" This is a moment of excitement and possibly even surprise. The speaker wants to be sure that the audience is paying attention to this momentous event. Although there are many returning gods, they come "one, and by one." It seems that they are not the fearless and "inviolable" beings they were ages ago. Their time away has made them fearful and unsure of themselves.
The third stanza describes the returning gods' weakened state by mentioning their once impressive and powerful position. They were "Gods of the wingèd shoe!" a reference to the fleet-footed Hermes, the messenger god of the ancient Greeks. The speaker also mentions the "silver hounds," possibly a reference to Khryseos and Argyreos, the dogs who guarded the mythical palace of a legendary king. The description of these gods and their hounds as swift and powerful is meant to contrast with the earlier stanzas, which show how weak and tentative they have become.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker directly addresses the gods and their silver hounds. He calls to them, "Haie! Haie!" which is an ancient Greek warcry or perhaps just an exclamation to get their attention. He also reminds them of their former ferocity and power:
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.
The poem's last two lines show how the gods and their dogs have changed. The once-powerful "silver" dogs now walk slowly on their leashes. It is almost as if they have been domesticated to be more like a human's pets than the ferocious hound of an immortal god. The gods themselves are now pale and sickly-looking as well. Their strength and vitality are completely gone.