A summary of Pound’s poem
Ezra Pound’s colossal work of modernist poetry, The Cantos, runs to over 800 pages and took him over half his life to write – and even then, he never finished it. In Canto II, Pound does something which he had previously done in his long 1920 poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: that is, he analyses and considers the status and role of poetry, and the poet, in the world.
In summary, Pound opens Canto II by mentioning four different versions of the 13th-century troubadour poet Sordello: Pound’s version of the poet, Robert Browning’s version from a work of 1840, Sordello the real man, and the version of Sordello that can be gleaned from the biographical fragments appended to his poems. (Browning’s Sordello wasn’t particularly well-received when it was published in 1840: Jane Carlyle famously said that when she finished reading it she still wasn’t sure whether Sordello was a man, a city, or a book.) Which one of these – Browning’s, or Sordello’s own version of himself – is the ‘true’ Sordello?
From this, we move to a discussion of Homer – a loose translation of whose Odyssey Pound had offered as the previous canto. From Homer, Canto II comes to focus on the abduction of Helen of Troy, and the reaction which her arrival in Troy, having been whisked away from her husband by the Trojan prince Paris, has on the locals. Pound mentions other women who might be called femmes fatale: powerful and beautiful women whose beauty and reputation brought death and war on the world. These latter-day Helens of Troy include Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II of England; and Atalanta, from Greek myth.
Much of the rest of Canto II, in summary, focuses on a ship which arrives at the Aegean island of Scios, and is bound for the Cycladean island of Naxos. A boy is on his own on the island, and asks if the ship will take him to Naxos. The crew agree. The captain of the ship, Acoetes, is the speaker of this section of Canto II. He describes how the boy reveals himself to be the god Dionysus and, angered by the crew’s plan to sell him into slavery once they reach Naxos, brings down his wrath upon them.
Canto II allows us to see one of the central artistic aims of The Cantos in microcosm: that of juxtaposing people and episodes from different cultures and historical periods in order to suggest a comparison between them. Pound opens Canto II by talking about the Italian troubadour poet Sordello, who abducted a countess; he then moves to the abduction of another noblewoman, Helen of Troy, from Greek myth. Later in Canto II we also have references to Tyro (a woman raped by Poseidon) and Daphne (as ‘Dafne’), who was pursued by lustful Apollo and saved from rape or abduction by being transformed into the laurel tree. How we are supposed to interpret, or analyse, the juxtaposing of these variously doomed or reprieved women from myth and history remains unclear, but one way of interpreting all this is to note the link between epic poetry and the abduction of Helen of Troy: it was her abduction, after all, that caused the Trojan War, and it was that war that gave Homer the material for his two great epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. But a modern poet, Pound seems to be saying, cannot content himself with a single tradition (and therefore a single instance of such abduction and war): he must weave together myth and history, and take a comparative approach to these events and stories, acknowledging the manifold and international nature of modern poetry in an era that has, after all, just featured a ‘First World War’. (Indeed, the war was still raging when Pound drafted the original Canto II.)
Also featuring heavily in Canto II is the Greek god of wine, fertility, and the arts, Dionysus, who appears in the guise of the young boy on board the ship. What is his significance? Is Pound trying to affirm the importance of Dionysus to Western culture, beginning with the origins of Greek theatre at the City Dionysia, festivals held in his honour? Pound certainly links the god Dionysus to poetry, though he does so – as is typical of his technique in The Cantos – by suggesting comparisons between various sources. For instance, his reference to Tiresias and Cadmus alludes to an episode on Euripides’ The Bacchae, in which these two characters go up a mountain to take part in an orgy devoted to Dionysus (also known as Bacchus, hence the title of Euripides’ play). Later on in Canto II, we have a reference to ‘the frogs singing against the fauns’ which has been interpreted as an allusion to Aristophanes’ The Frogs, in which Dionysus, as if returning the favour, goes down into the Underworld to find the dead poet Euripides (who had written about him, of course, in The Bacchae). Thus a complementary relationship between Dionysus and the figure of the poet is established – or at least, suggested. Remember, Canto II began with a reference to Sordello, the troubadour poet, and then moved to a consideration of Homer. Poetry, and poets, are arguably Ezra Pound’s chief focus in Canto II.
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.