The Lasting Importance of The Cantos

Reviewed: The Cantos by Ezra Pound (Fourth Collected edition). Faber and Faber, 1987.

A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound by Carroll F. Terrell. University of California Press, 1980.

No long poem of the twentieth century has been the subject of more debate than TheCantos 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.

[private]Whether 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.

To 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 the Iliad:

Sing for me, Muse, the mania of Achilles
that cast a thousand sorrows on the Greeks
and threw so many huge souls into hell,
heroes who spilled their lives as food for dogs
and darting birds. God’s will was working out,
from that time when first fell apart fighting
Atrides, king of men, and that god, Achilles…

to the Aeneid–

I sing of arms and of a man: his fate
had made him fugitive; he was the first
to journey from the coasts of Troy as far
as Italy and the Lavinian shores.
across the lands and waters he was battered
beneath the violence of High Ones, for
the savage Juno’s unforgetting anger;
and many sufferings were his in war…

and, finally, to the Divine Comedy–

Midway through the journey of our life, I found
Myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed
From the straight pathway to this tangled ground.
How hard it is to tell of, overlaid
With harsh and savage growth, so wild and raw
The thought of it still makes me feel afraid.

the 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,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.

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,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.

We 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.

The 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 been doubled.

To 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?

Here 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 glosses.

And, 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.

This 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,
There can be but the one “Sordello.”
But Sordello, and my Sordello?
Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana.
So-shu churned in the sea.
Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash,
Sleek head, daughter of Lir,
eyes of Picasso
Under black fur-hood, lithe daughter of Ocean…

Now, 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?

More 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.

This 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?
1. Rather like, or unlike subject and response and counter subject in fugue.
A.A. Live man goes down into world of Dead
C.B. The “repeat in history”
B.C. The “magic moment” or moment of metamorphosis burst thru quotidien into “divine or permanent world.” (Selected Letters, 210)

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.

No 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.

In 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?

Of 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:

He 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.

Should 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.

But 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.

Among 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,
“Hither, hither, Actaeon,”
Spotted stag of the wood;
Gold, gold, a sheaf of hair,
Thick like a wheat swath,
Blaze, blaze in the sun,
The dogs leap on Actaeon.
(Canto II)


And Kung said, “Without character you will
be unable to play on that instrument
Or to execute the music fit for the Odes.
The blossoms of the apricot
blow from the east to the west,
And I have tried to keep them from falling.”
(Canto XIII)


Where memory liveth,
it takes its state
Formed like a diafan from light on shade
Which shadow cometh of Mars and remaineth
Created, having a name sensate,
Custom of the soul,
will from the heart;
(Canto XXXVI)

can even be said to have a permanent claim on their affections.

If 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.[/private]

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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