A brief introduction to a modernist epic
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. Is The Cantos a masterpiece of twentieth-century poetry or an artistic failure? Is it sheer self-indulgent verbiage or an under-read and underappreciated epic for the modern world? We can hardly scratch the surface in this short introduction to Pound’s Cantos, but we’re going to address some of the key aspects of the poem and offer an analysis of its overall aims and features.
Ezra Pound referred to The Cantos as, variously, ‘an epic including history’ and, with more muted self-praise, a ‘ragbag’. Yet although it is undeniably a ragbag, there are a number of key themes running through The Cantos. Pound has started out with Imagism, in 1912, and the idea of ‘superposition’: placing, as it were, one image on top of another, so that in his most famous early poem, the two-line ‘In a Station of the Metro’, the faces of the commuters in the Metro station are placed next to the image of petals on the wet, black bough of a tree. In a sense, The Cantos sets out to apply such a principle, not to individual images, but to whole epochs and systems: capitalism, history, politics, economics, art, poetry, and the relation between these various disciplines and institutions. For instance, art and finance are connected through a theme that is glimpsed at several points in The Cantos, namely the relationship between an artist and his patron.
The Cantos is also a ragbag in terms of its geographical range: it’s a truly international poem, containing numerous languages including Italian (two of the Cantos, LXXII and LXXIII, are written entirely in that language), Latin quotations, and Chinese characters, as well as focusing on the history of East Asia, Africa, the beginning of the United States of America in the eighteenth century, as well as medieval Italy. To an extent, Pound’s intention is to draw parallels between these different historical and geographical cultures and histories. Pound’s own analogy for his poetry was that of the iron filings and the magnet: although the iron filings do not form a solid shape themselves, when brought into contact with a magnet they can be made to form shapes. It’s also a highly allusive work, like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Pound’s own earlier poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. The Cantos alludes to, among many others, the works of Homer, Ovid, Dante, Omar Khayyám (author of the Persian Rubáiyát, or ‘quatrains’, later translated into English by the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald), Robert Browning, and many, many others. It’s as if Pound is saying that, in order to respond to modern culture and the contemporary world, one must first study the past and look for patterns – and the same is true of past literature.
Although Ezra Pound’s name has been tarnished by his antisemitism – something he later admitted, and disowned, albeit too late – The Cantos actually contains barely any trace of his anti-Semitic beliefs, although it does explore Pound’s views of usury and finance, which are related to his views on Jewish people. Many readers may be put off reading The Cantos by Pound’s anti-Semitic views; others may be put off because they find the work impenetrable, even unreadable.
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 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. But Pound’s title for his epic, The Cantos, also suggests the medieval Italian poet Dante as a model: his Divine Comedy, comprising numerous ‘cantos’, is about the poet’s journey into hell, thence to purgatory before arriving in heaven. Pound’s Cantos might be regarded as a modern secular version of Dante’s spiritual journey, provided we don’t view it as solely that.
The Cantos evolved into the huge tome it became, with various sections being published piecemeal over the decades, as Pound wrote them. Pound began work on The Cantos in 1915, and the first three Cantos were published in Poetry magazine in 1917. Over the ensuing decades, Pound would rewrite the beginning to the poem, and The Cantos would follow various threads. The most celebrated of these are the Pisan Cantos, which Pound began following his arrest in Italy in May 1945, and his detainment in the American Disciplinary Training Center just north of Pisa. For a short while, Pound slept on the ground in the open air, before being transferred to an open-air cage. He was denied access to his reading, but he continued to write – he appears to have drafted the first Pisan Cantos on toilet paper.
He was later moved to the medical compound in the Center, where he gained access to a typewriter and a handful of books, including the works of Confucius and the Bible. In Canto LXXX Pound (or Odysseus; the two personas have merged now) is rescued from his sinking raft by the poets Richard Lovelace and Walt Whitman, who are discovered in an old poetry anthology in the camp toilet, or ‘jo-house’ (p. 527).
Pound was then moved to the United States, where he was charged with treason, but judged unfit to stand trial and incarcerated in a mental hospital, where he would remain until 1958. He died in 1972, having left The Cantos unfinished, and frustrated with his failure to make the poem work. The best place to begin is, perhaps surprisingly in this case, at the beginning, with the first two Cantos; thereafter, highlights include the Pisan Cantos, especially Cantos LXXX-LXXXI (though these are, to an extent, our own personal favourites).
If you’ve found this short introduction to The Cantos interesting, you can discover a more in-depth analysis of the first Canto 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.