The Poem

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...

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Forms and Devices

“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...

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