A summary of Pound’s poem
Ezra Pound’s colossal work of modernist poetry, The Cantos, runs to nearly 800 pages and took him over half his life to write – and even then, he never finished it. Pound himself said that the structure of The Cantos could be analysed as follows: ‘Live man goes down into world of dead. “The repeat in history.” The “magic moment” or moment of metamorphosis, bust through from quotidian into “divine or permanent world.” Gods, etc.’ This structure can be observed in the poem which opens The Cantos, predictably but perhaps inevitably titled Canto I, which is an English rendering of a Latin translation of the ancient Greek poem The Odyssey, specifically that section which involves Odysseus and his crew travelling down to Hades, the Underworld. You can read ‘Canto I’ here.
The content of Canto I can be summarised as follows: Odysseus narrates how he and his crew sailed to Hades to have their fortunes told by Tiresias, the blind seer. While in the Underworld, Odysseus sees the shade of Elpenor, a young man who had previously sailed with Odysseus. But while they were sojourning on Circe the enchantress’s island, Elpenor got left behind; rushing to catch up with Odysseus and the ship before it left without him, the hapless Elpenor fell off a ladder and broke his neck. Odysseus and his men were already long gone before they noticed that Elpenor wasn’t on board. The ghost of Elpenor asks that when Odysseus returns to the land of the living, he will give Elpenor’s body a proper burial. The seer Tiresias (who also features in Eliot’s The Waste Land) then tells Odysseus his fortune and informs him that he will have a troublesome journey travelling home on the Mediterranean, and will lose all of his companions. Not exactly a good fortune, then.
It could be that Pound sees himself as an Odysseus figure. Certainly one can analyse his use of the character in this opening Canto in this way. For one, he would also liken himself – albeit via the invented poet-persona, Mauberley – to Odysseus in another poem written shortly after Canto I, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920). There, the poet figure is likened to the voyaging Odysseus. Just as Odysseus was trying to get home to his wife, Penelope, so Pound (or the invented Mauberley figure) is trying to get back to ‘his’ mistress, literature, embodied by the French novelist Gustave Flaubert. So it may be that what Pound did more directly in Mauberley, he is also doing in Canto I: likening himself to the great epic hero of Homer’s poem. Odysseus was renowned for his cleverness as much as his physical bravery, so he is not a bad intellectual hero for a poet to have. In this opening Canto, then, Pound is suggesting that the ‘journey’ that lies ahead for him – the poetic journey of embarking on The Cantos – is like Odysseus embarking on his journey in one of Western literature’s first great epics. And just as Odysseus must visit the dead before he can begin his journey home, so Pound must turn to ‘the dead’ – poets and authors of the past – before he can begin his modern ‘journey’ as a poet. In choosing to begin with this specific episode from The Odyssey, Pound suggests that in order to move forward we must look to the dead for guidance, just as Odysseus and his crew are sailing to Hades to find out what their future holds.
This opening Canto is thus an English translation of a Latin translation of a Greek poem; what’s more, Pound borrowed the metre of Canto I from his earlier version of an Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘The Seafarer’. Thus the epic and elegy, English and Latin renderings, Greek and Anglo-Saxon originals, all meet and are transformed into something new in Pound’s Canto I. It’s an exemplary demonstration of T. S. Eliot’s concept of poetic tradition (from ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’). And in being, essentially, a translation of a translation, Canto I calls into question any notion of true originality in art, suggesting that all literature is built upon what has gone before, engaging with established tropes and devices. The echoes of Anglo-Saxon verse in a poem retelling a story from Greek literary tradition also implies that these different nations and cultures have certain shared values and ideas, a notion that we find writ large in The Cantos as a whole, where Pound is often juxtaposing different time periods and parts of the world, encouraging us to observe the similarities between, for instance, Homeric epic and the twentieth century.
Canto I is also self-aware: it ‘breaks the fourth wall’, as we say of theatre, film, and television. Just as we may be settling into his English translation of the poem, and starting to feel at home among the dead with Odysseus and Tiresias, Pound decides to tell Andreas Divus to be quiet. Divus was the sixteenth-century translator of the Latin version of The Odyssey that Pound is creating his English version from; suddenly, with that reference, Pound reminds us of what we are reading, that it is nothing more than a translation of a translation, and he reminds us of his status as the modern poet trying to follow these writers of the past.
If you found this short summary and analysis of Canto I useful, you can continue your Poundian odyssey with our discussion of his ‘In a Station of the Metro’ here.
Image: Ezra Pound photographed in Kensington, London, October 22, 1913. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn, first published in Coburn’s More Men of Mark (New York: Knopf, 1922); Wikimedia Commons; public domain.