As Reviewed By:
The Lasting Importance of The Cantos
by Ezra Pound (Fourth Collected edition). Faber and Faber, 1987.
No long poem of the twentieth century
has been the subject of more debate than The
Cantos by Ezra Pound. It is, by
common consent, one of the few modern works whose size and scope allow it
to be considered for the mantle of the epic, to be placed alongside those works of Homer, Virgil, and Dante
that are the monuments of their ages. Stretching more than 800 pages in
its final edition, containing passages from a score of languages, and
innumerable historical figures, The
Cantos simply dwarfs the other long poems of the last century, and is
apt to inspire awe in the reader. “These are the Alps,” the poet Basil
Bunting wrote, and not a few readers have agreed.
Pound’s work deserves to stand in such illustrious company is, of
course, a question that will not be answered soon. For the true test of
the epic poem, as any other, is the test of time: of what future
generations will find of permanent interest in our present literature. The
critic can only say what he thinks they ought to like, which is another
way of saying what he likes; in any case, the generations rarely listen.
And so, among so many uncertainties, of what can the critic be certain?
Only this—the Iliad, the Aeniad, and the
Divine Comedy exist. They are
the Alps, and may usefully serve as reference points from which to view
the scale of Pound’s mountainous poem. And from that vantage-point, a
number of differences become clear at once.
begin with, the epics of the past were grand narrative poems—that is,
they were stories told chronologically in poetic form. From the opening of
Sing for me, Muse, the mania of Achilles
I sing of arms and of a man: his fate
finally, to the Divine Comedy—
Midway through the journey of our life, I found
reader is introduced to plot, character, and action. That characters are
delineated, actions explained, and plots elaborated sequentially seems
hardly worth noting, until one turns to The Cantos. There, the absence of such elements as constitute a
story is felt, and felt keenly, from the beginning:
And then went down to the ship,
Here, the action begins in
media res, the characters assigned the pronounal we
are not identified, and the reason for their tears never divulged. After
sixty-five lines, and a thicket of proper Greek names, the identity of the
ship’s captain is revealed: it is Odysseus. We are reading Homer. In
fact, the entire first Canto is a truncated translation of the Odyssey’s
eleventh book. But why?
A canto which begins with And
only to conclude with So that:
would seem to provide few clues. The only interruption in this bewildering
but otherwise brawny translation are these lines:
Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
know this cannot be Odysseus or Tiresias speaking because of the
date—1538—a year these Homeric figures never lived to see. This must
be the author speaking, providing essential information of some kind. So
who is Andreas Divus? Readers who lived without a subscription to Paideuma must have shrugged their shoulders and moved on.
first problem of reading The Cantos,
then, announces itself on the very first page. The poem incessantly refers
to obscure personages, places, and events so that the reader faces a
choice: ignore these mysteries, or look them all up. Prior to the
publication of such reference works as Carroll F. Terrell’s Companion,
of course, there was no choice: ignorance was the rule, unless the reader
was also a scholar. But the conscientious reader now faces a greater
challenge, for he must negotiate nearly every line of the poem with the
aid of a second book, which is just as long as the first. His task has
answer the question: Andreas Divus of Justinopolis was a translator of the
Odyssey into Latin, which was
published in Paris at the offices of one Christiani Wecheli, in 1538. A
second gloss adds that Pound bought this translation around 1910. But why
is it mentioned at all; why won’t Divus lie quiet?
the glosses cannot help. The reader must answer for its meaning, alone. As
Virgil took his themes from Homer’s first epic, and Dante was given
Virgil as a guide through Hell, so Pound begins his tale by invoking an
ancestor, the Odyssey. Its
eleventh book deals with prophecy and the dead: Odysseus summons Tiresias
from Hades to learn of his future. And just as Odysseus must shun his
mother, and the numberless ghosts, before Tiresias can feed on blood and
speak, so too Pound asks Divus to remain silent. For Pound has raised
Divus from the dead as well, by using his translation. Or so the
conscientious reader might conjecture, after deliberating over the
thus, the second problem of reading The
Cantos: the reader must not only account for the poem and the glosses
but, on occasion, interpret between
them. Here, the gloss is not incidental to the poem—it is integral. To
have ignored the Companion in this case, would have been to ignore information
essential to the meaning of the poem.
is what a close reading of the first Canto suggests, but only after a
familiarity with all the references has been gained. The reader may be
pleased that, at least, a meaning can be suggested at all. For when the
page is turned, the second Canto presents us with:
Hang it all, Robert Browning,
with glosses or without, we are confronted with many questions. What
relationship does the English poet Robert Browning, and his Sordello,
have to Book XI of the Odyssey?
What relationship exists between Browning and So-shu, a Chinese poet of
the second century who was insulted by Li-Po? Is So-Shu the seal mentioned
in the following line? Or is it merely a common seal that has the lineage
of a Celtic sea-god and the eyes of a Spanish painter?
importantly, what unites the first and second Cantos? What character, what
action, what theme do they share? The answer seems to be: nothing. Nor is
this lack of continuity between cantos an aberration: it is endemic to the
poem. From its very first pages, the
poem exhibits an utter disregard for all the conventions of the epic.
It has no plot, no central figure, no linear time or chronology, and no
fixed verse structure. In short, The Cantos has no coherent form.
formlessness does not trouble the reader alone: it troubled Pound too.
Writing to his father in 1927, two years after A
Draft of XVI Cantos was published, Pound admitted:
Afraid the whole damn poem is rather obscure, especially in fragments. Have I ever given you outline of main scheme...or whatever it is?
This was not a very satisfactory outline, to say the very least,
and yet eight hundred pages were built upon precisely this foundation. The
story, if we can credit it with that name, is a metaphysical abstraction
in search of supporting details. Now details the author was never in short
supply of, so The Cantos
endlessly rambled through a thousand names, and thirty centuries.
But the letter raises more questions than its feeble description
absolves. Pound was, after all, one of the most historically astute and
deliberate craftsmen of his age; it is simply inconceivable that he was
unaware of the enormous risks he was taking. That he would eschew all the
formal conventions of the epic poem, the reader familiar with Pound’s
virtuosity will admit, was certainly possible—but that he would begin
forty years of labor on his masterpiece with only a paragraph for outline
seems an absurdity which even his daring and confidence would not
countenance. Yet this appears to
be precisely what he did.
biography, no letter, no footnote explains it. We are simply forced into
sheer conjecture, which can hardly satisfy our desire to understand, no
matter how perspicacious our intuition. Clearly, he was never convinced of
the adequacy of his poem’s structure (have
I ever given you outline of main scheme...or whatever it is?) which
begs the question why he continued to expend his poetic energies
exclusively upon it, to the end of his life. Perhaps the editor of The
Waste Land concluded that his poem, too, would have as its structure,
“A node of points that define a periphery.” Perhaps he believed that
its formlessness would be resolved in time, its structure discovered in
the act of writing.
the end, and we cannot say how much of this was decision or expediency,
Pound began his epic without a significant organizing principle. Thus, the
first few cantos continually reference older epics without settling on a
single theme, just as the first three printings of Pound’s epic were
titled drafts. Even the title of
the poem betrays its lack of unity, so that scholarly battles have raged
over applying singular or plural verbs to the name. Here is almost the
whole problem of Pound’s work: The
Cantos or the Cantos? Is it
a single work, or a miscellany?
course, scholars have offered countless explanations for the formlessness
of the poem, some of them quite ingenious—the great critic Hugh Kenner
even invoked fractal geometry and the geodiscs of Buckminster Fuller to
explain its implied order. This is no great surprise. Much of the pleasure
of reading The Cantos is the pleasure of solving a gigantic
crossword puzzle, which is why it has appealed so consistently to
professors. One might almost say that it has enjoyed the attention of more
scholars than readers: a dubious honor, to be sure. After all, they
don’t wish to read it, they wish to explain it—Pound, it
turned out, was the face that launched a thousand dissertations. The poet
who would have nothing to do with universities became an academic
industry; while his epic was treated as the great garbage heap of
Modernism, from which anyone could extract a thesis topic. In time, the
man whom Gertrude Stein disparaged as a “village explainer” acquired
an army of interpreters. What would he have made of such a fate? Of that
vast pile of addenda—concordances, indexes, and compendiums—that now
surround his work?
What remains indisputable is that Pound continued to write his poem. He
was to write in an essay, years later and probably with his own work in
mind, “Major form is not a non-literary component. But it can do us no
harm to stop for an hour or so and consider the number of very important
works of world literature in which form, major form, is remarkable for
[its] absence.” How can we account for this absence? What destined The
Cantos to never achieve major form?
I am tempted to believe that Pound could not order his poem because no
such order existed in him, which is another way of saying that the
incoherent form of The Cantos is due to the incoherent
philosophy of the author. Pound forced himself to write the one poem which
least suited his sensibility, since he lacked precisely that quality which
is indispensable to the epic poet: a unified vision of the world.
Pound was conspicuous in his adherence to a paganism bereft of dogma, and
it is much to be wondered how any man could write “a poem including
history”—which was Pound’s definition of the epic—when history, to
be significant, must be ordered according to some philosophical or
religious insight. For how can a pagan order history, even his own? His
history, like his poetry, will accumulate details, but details
unsubordinated to any dominant theme. They can never be arranged into
meaningful order—only the vulgar pattern of repetition suggests itself
to the pagan, in which events cycle endlessly, so long as the world
endures. With this worldview, history becomes a loose collection of tales,
and all life picaresque. The spirit which hovers over the form of The
Cantos is not, finally, Homer or Dante but Ovid and his Metamorphoses.
Has the seeming disorder of The Cantos been a half-perceived
pagan order all along? Has the modern world misread the poem because it
misunderstands the philosophy? This would be to credit Pound’s paganism
with more consistency than it, in fact, possessed. The pagans might have
worshipped incomprehensible gods, but they possessed whole myths;
Pound’s stories are fragments and pastiche. Allen Tate was to
worry, in a review of the first thirty cantos, that:
cannot believe in myths, much less in his own power of imagining them out
to a conclusion. None of his myths is compelling enough to draw out his
total intellectual resources; none goes far enough to become a belief or
even a momentary fiction. They remain marvels to be looked at, but they
are meaningless, the wrecks of civilization.
The Cantos be counted among those wrecks of civilization, those myths
that will not live? For considered as an epic poem, The Cantos is a failure according to any critical measure we wish to
use. It is so obscure that a small army of scholars has gained tenure by
annotating its lines, and that enterprise has taken fifty years. It is so fragmentary that, even with notes, most of it
seems willfully private in the worst way: like the diary of an
encryptionist, written for an audience of one. Without such notes, of
course, the poem is merely a terrifyingly polylingual puzzle. It, in fact,
depends upon the glosses of scholars to render it readable; it is
inscrutable without exegesis. The
Cantos is simply not a unified
work of art.
to judge it so is not to be insensible to its virtues, which are many.
Indeed, if it did not attempt to cohere, if its title was simply The
Later Poetry of Ezra Pound, then its reputation would be assured. The
shift to the plural is paramount. For, considered as a miscellany
rather than as an epic, as a storehouse of sublime fragments, these
Cantos contain some of the
finest poetry of the twentieth century. In truth, readers have digested
them in piece-meal fashion since the very beginning—an approach which
only academic opinion has not yet embraced. The anthologists continue to
publish excerpts, compiled in random assortments without explanation, but
rarely a whole canto. Their efforts, it must be added, have provided the
poem with its only readership outside of scholars and fellow poets.
the latter, of course, it will always retain a reputation, and the reasons
for this are not hard to find. Indeed the poet Robert Duncan has remarked,
with only slight exaggeration, that “there are more varieties of verse
technique in this poem than there are in the whole book of Oxford English
Verse.” Sections that modulate from:
The dogs leap on Actaeon,
And Kung said, “Without character you will
even be said to have a permanent claim on their affections.
The Cantos can be called an epic
poem at all then it qualifies as such only in this sense: it is a
catalogue of Pound’s mind as he searches through history for matter to
celebrate and details to recall. The hero is obviously Pound (though in
sections it is ostensibly Sigismundo Malatesta, or Confucius, or John
Adams), and the subject of the poem is whatever Pound was studying at the
time (first Italian, then American and Chinese history, followed by
philology, economics, and so forth). It is, in other words, a
diary-in-verse kept over fifty years. Does this qualify The
Cantos as an epic? Do the studies, memories, desires, and hatreds of
this one man rise to the old Homeric standard?
They do not, but there will always be a coterie that thinks so; and that
is well. Always, there will be lonely and independent minds who find
sustenance in these pages, who supplement their education through these
notes, and who discover in the local details and in the babble of
languages the outposts, the very frontiers which modern poetry reached
before it passed beyond the understanding of any reader.
They are, and will always remain, one of the great curiosities of literature.