The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

The apparent simplicity of this twenty-line poem belies its mysterious subject and persona. Its short lines, straightforward diction, and compelling rhythms pull the reader forward through a series of striking images, but at the poem’s end, he or she is nowhere nearer to discovering the dramatic situation.

Most scholars agree...

(The entire section contains 1318 words.)

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  • Themes
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The apparent simplicity of this twenty-line poem belies its mysterious subject and persona. Its short lines, straightforward diction, and compelling rhythms pull the reader forward through a series of striking images, but at the poem’s end, he or she is nowhere nearer to discovering the dramatic situation.

Most scholars agree that “The Return” is about the return of the ancient, pre-Judeo-Christian gods to earth, but others argue that the poem describes the retreat, the “anabasis,” of a once-mighty army. Either interpretation fits, although the “Gods of the winged shoe” in the third stanza suggest the former reading. In either case, “The Return” portrays the passage of a group of formerly heroic beings, now weary and worn out by their anxieties. The persona watches them pass and describes their slow, uncertain movement. He seems to be calling others to witness the defeated return of this godlike host.

Line 1 suggests that the persona was present when these hero-gods were at the zenith of their power or that he is at least knowledgeable about their former glory; the fact that they have “returned” implies an earlier journey. If these are indeed the ancient gods who held sway before the advent of modern religions, then the assumption is that monotheism has conquered but not yet destroyed them. The less mysterious interpretation—that these are warriors returning after years of hard campaigning—would also account for the persona’s description of the defeated, but still awe-inspiring, host.

The speaker describes the exhausted pace of the returned heroes. Their slow, “wavering” step in stanza 1 is the result not only of their simple physical enervation but also of their moral collapse. Although these beings have not met with formal defeat, their long struggle has drained them of self-confidence and psychological strength. Their uncertainty, moreover, suggests that they have no real destination; in their absence, they have lost their former home.

Stanza 2 continues the description of their march. At one time, they moved forward in confident phalanxes, but now they have been reduced to a mass of stragglers, returning “one by one.” The implication is that each being has been reduced to an isolated individual who no longer draws power from their combined might. Once again, the persona stresses the emotional climate that hangs over the returnees: Some nameless fear makes them hesitant. He contrasts their timidity with their original appearance of inviolability.

In stanza 3, the speaker continues his description of the heroes’ former strength. They seemed to take flight in their eager movement forward. Supernaturally powerful hunting dogs, their “silver hounds,” accompanied them, and in their keenness, the dogs sniffed the air and strained at their leashes. The characterization of this former greatness continues in stanza 4. The persona summons up the full-throated hunting cries of the beings, the swiftness and ruthlessness of their hounds, and the ominous excitement of the hunt. In the final stanza, however, the speaker returns to the present: The dogs lag on their leashes and the beings who hold them are pale and drained.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 693

“The Return” is written in free verse, having no set number of beats per line, no recurring rhyme scheme, and no regular stanza pattern. Although it is certainly not the first instance of free verse in Western literature, it has been said that the poem marks the start of the free verse “movement” that has dominated English-language poetry in the twentieth century. Moreover, “The Return” is widely praised as a model of the form, an example of the supple power of free verse when its “freedom” is fully under control.

Yet, despite the poem’s label as free verse, individual lines use a variety of complex rhythms, including variations on ancient prosodic patterns. The rhythmic pattern of the final stanza, for example, mimics the classical “adonius” meter, often used in Greek heroic poetry; this same rhythm is similar to that used in older English-language liturgical writing.

The key thing to note, however, is the way that Ezra Pound has wed his theme to his prosody: As the poem describes the straggling return of defeated heroes, its rhythms mirror the hesitant pace of their march. Stanza 1, for example, accomplishes this conjunction of theme and rhythm in two ways: through internal rhythms and through the curtailments at the ends of lines. Line 1 is broken midway by a semi-colon (the line’s caesura), causing a pause in the reader’s forward movement. Yet the line is also punctuated by strong stresses, beginning with its first word, “See,” which is in turn followed by two unstressed beats, “they return.” The initial stress acts as an exclamation calling the persona’s hearers to witness the heroic column as it passes, but the two succeeding unstressed beats and the following midline break are a kind of letdown, mirroring the disordered step of the returning gods. Immediately, however, the speaker regains his awe and repeats the opening “see,” thereby pulling his hearer’s attention more strongly to an event that is important to him.

At lines 1 and 3 of this stanza, the syntax is unnaturally broken between an adjective and its modified noun, causing the reader to stop and “stumble,” matching the slow, unrhythmic pace of the gods. This break and pause is reinforced by the meaning of the separated words: “Tentative” ends line 1 before it can be joined to “Movements,” beginning line 2; “uncertain” cuts short line 3 before it can modify “Wavering” in line 4. The resulting rhythm exactly reproduces the footfalls of defeated men as they step uncertainly forward, pause, look around, and stumble on.

This device is repeated in stanza 2, where the speaker describes the movement of snow blown by shifting winds. In this metaphor comparing the gods to the light, powerless snow, line 3, ending with “hesitate,” itself “hesitates” before it continues on to line 4, completing the thought—“And murmur in the wind.”

In contrast to the broken, uncertain rhythms of stanzas 1 and 2, stanzas 3 and 4 describe the godlike heroes as they were in the past, full-blooded, keen, and “inviolable.” Stanza 4, for example, begins with the repeated hunting cry, “Haie! Haie!,” a double stress that underscores the power and unity of the gods as they hunted during their golden age. This line is followed by a series of repetitions in lines 2, 3, and 4 (a parallelism): The speaker is eager to recall the gods’ splendor to his hearers, and he does this by underlining their heroic attributes through the repeated “These were . . ./ These . . ./ These were. . . .”

The other crucial formal device in “The Return” is its vivid sensory imagery. In fact, the poem is an example of Imagist method; Imagism was a poetic theory, largely created by Pound himself, that sought to emphasize highly charged visual, tactile, and olfactory impressions instead of distinct subject matter, so that the images themselves would join directly to tell the poem’s story. Here, the persona carefully describes the “trouble” of the returnees’ “pace,” their “pallid” appearance, and their straggling, isolated march. The snow metaphor in stanza 2 reinforces this collection of images. In contrast, the “silver hounds” of stanza 3 and the hounds’ keen scent in stanzas 3 and 4 bolster the once-glorious appearance of the gods, while the dogs’ slack leashes of the final stanza mirror the enervation of defeat.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 123

Froula, Christine. A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1983.

Heymann, David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking Press, 1976.

Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber & Faber, 1951. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Knapp, James F. Ezra Pound. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1987.

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Ezra Pound: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound. 1970. Rev. ed. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.

Surette, Leon. Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P., and Stephen J. Adams, eds. The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.

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