Pound’s Is Published Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the publication of “Three Cantos” (1917), Pound launched his modernist epic, the Cantos, a project that absorbed most of his creative career.

Summary of Event

Ezra Pound’s Cantos is a modernist verse epic. It is a very long poem, at 802 pages, with 116 complete cantos and four fragments at the end. A lifetime effort on the part of the poet, this ongoing work was published in ten sections from 1925 to 1968, then as a one-volume collected edition, The Cantos of Ezra Pound I-CXVII (1970). Canto LXXII and Canto LXXIII did not appear in any of the collections, having been suppressed because of the fascist sympathies they expressed. Cantos (Pound) Poetry;Cantos (Pound) [kw]Pound’s Cantos Is Published (1917-1970)[Pounds Cantos Is Published (1917 1970)] [kw]Cantos Is Published, Pound’s (1917-1970) [kw]Published, Pound’s Cantos Is (1917-1970) Cantos (Pound) Poetry;Cantos (Pound) [g]England;1917-1970: Pound’s Cantos Is Published[04180] [g]France;1917-1970: Pound’s Cantos Is Published[04180] [g]Italy;1917-1970: Pound’s Cantos Is Published[04180] [g]United States;1917-1970: Pound’s Cantos Is Published[04180] [c]Literature;1917-1970: Pound’s Cantos Is Published[04180] Pound, Ezra Williams, William Carlos Yeats, William Butler Eliot, T. S. Lewis, Wyndham

Although the Cantos has an epic basis, except for its length it does not conform to the main features of the classical epic. It is not a progressive narrative describing the actions of a mythical hero; Pound himself defined an epic simply as “a long poem about history.” He referred to his Cantos as “a tale of the tribe.” When he began this work, he had in mind the actions not of one hero but of many who would be presented as personae. He realized that his verse would have to be something new, that he would have to invent for himself a new poetics and a new language.

Instead of providing a principal hero and his actions, Pound wished to present in his long poem many heroes and each one’s particular actions. He tried to present them objectively by presenting them dramatically, at the same time having them expose themselves through their own actions and voices, often through documentation. In projecting his own self into his characters, he hoped that their personae would disguise his own subjectivity. Because each hero would be presented in this manner, Pound saw Robert Browning’s long, personal, confessional blank-verse poem Sordello (1840) as a model for what he wanted to do. In Canto II, Pound writes: “Hang it all, Robert Browning, there can be but the one ’Sordello.’/ But Sordello, and my Sordello?” After long and tiresome work, Browning had made himself master of the dramatic monologue, and Pound admired the Victorian romantic for his vitality and gusto.

At the same time, Pound saw his many heroes as representatives who merged into “man” (humankind), whom he saw as basically good but capable of being corrupted by the power of money. A person’s life, Pound believed, is a struggle to resist temptation, to pass through the darkness of suffering and sadness until he or she sees the radiant light of the Godhead.

The structural model Pound chose for the Cantos was the fourteenth century epic La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Divine Comedy, The (Dante) by Dante. Dante The Divine Comedy sets forth its narrative in vernacular Italian (Tuscan) in hendecasyllabic verse. In one hundred cantos, it describes the journey of Dante, guided by the Roman poet Vergil, through the netherworlds of Hell and Purgatory and then upward into Paradise, where Dante has a radiant vision of God.

Dante’s long poem was designed for educational purposes, to convey the kind of knowledge he thought would bring about a renewal of a better life for humankind. Pound also intended to educate, although in a quite different way. The Cantos presents an unorthodox curriculum, a result of Pound’s personal unorthodoxy in pursuit of his studies. There was nothing parochial about Pound’s outlook. Literature concerned him as a whole, without regard to nation or language. He wanted “to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world” and believed in the comparative method and the close observation of an individual specimen.

Pound saw history as a matter of motion, of the rise and fall of civilizations, of order and disorder, of cultural values, of personalities righteous and unrighteous. History also included economics. He stated bluntly, “History that omits economics is mere bunk, it is shadow show.” Finally, he was not content to know one or two foreign languages, for languages are the keys to cultures, and he preferred to read texts in their original languages. He was critical of the narrow range of education in his day. He remarked sternly, “A sane university curriculum would put Chinese where Greek was.” The Cantos contains words, phrases, and passages in some sixteen languages other than English, including Chinese (in both romanization and original characters), romanized Japanese, romanized Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, and Greek (both romanized and in the original). The difficulty of reading the Cantos for average educated readers stems not from the work’s obscurity per se but from the disadvantage of their not having studied Pound’s unorthodox curriculum, which he outlines in his Guide to Kulchur (1938). Guide to Kulchur (Pound)

Although Pound found the Dante and Browning models useful in projecting the shape of his long poem, unlike the earlier poets he did not plan to contain his poetry in the traditional narrative frame. Because he planned to present numerous persons and actions scattered in time and space, his idea of the “repeat of history” came in handy. This idea amounted to a doctrine of correspondences whereby, as time went on, persons, events, and actions were repeated. He called each such recurring pattern in history a “subject-theme.” He derived his cyclical theory of history from Brooks Adams’s Adams, Brooks The Law of Civilization and Decay (1895). Law of Civilization and Decay, The (Adams, B.) Adams postulated that society oscillates between barbarism and civilization in a process that goes through definite stages. When society concentrates into nations, greed dominates the economy. Usurers weaken the people by constricting the money supply, causing nations to fall. Pound’s objection to usury is a persistent leitmotif throughout the Cantos.

Pound saw each cultural stage of society reflecting a complex of ideas and energy, expressed in thought, action, and art forms. In studying the ethnologist Leo Frobenius, Frobenius, Leo Pound found a term for this complex in the word “paideuma.” In the Cantos, he sought to reveal such composites. The perspective he chose to do so was partial rather than complete, an examination of parts and specimens rather than of wholes.

Pound deliberately lost his self in the many-voiced cantos written prior to The Pisan Cantos (1948) Pisan Cantos, The (Pound) in an effort to conform to Homeric objectivity. At the prison camp near Pisa where Pound was held pending trial on charges of treason after World War II, his humiliation and suffering restored his self and voice. This revival, reflected in The Pisan Cantos, disclosed that the poet’s struggle against the evil forces of usury always had been a personal struggle and also revealed that the essential tension in the Cantos is the opposition between objectivity and subjectivity. This personal struggle may be the most dramatic part of the Cantos and is in large part responsible for its unity.

The Cantos is wide-ranging in terms of persons, places, and times. It consists of a miscellany of single cantos together with important groupings concerning persons and subjects. Two important single cantos are Canto I, introducing the Greek hero Odysseus, and Canto XIII, introducing the Chinese sage Confucius. Of the groupings, Cantos VIII-X are the “Malatesta Cantos,” featuring the Italian Renaissance hero Sigismundo Malatesta, the lord of Rimini. Cantos XIV-XVI are the “Hell Cantos,” showing the just punishment of usurers. Cantos XXI-XXIV are the “American History Cantos,” in which appear Pound’s American heroes Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and John Quincy Adams. Cantos XLII-LI are the “Bank Cantos,” in which the evils of banking and monetary policy are discussed. Cantos LII-LXXI are the “Chinese History Cantos,” in which Confucian principles are upheld. Cantos LXXIV-LXXXIV are the “Pisan Cantos,” which concern Pound’s imprisonment and personal failure. Cantos LXXXV-XCV are the “Rock-Drill Cantos,” which attack usury but end on a personal note. Cantos XCVI-CIX are the “Thrones Cantos,” in which the poet proclaims the need for social order and right action. Cantos CX-CXII are drafts and fragments. There is no settled conclusion to Pound’s epic, and it is regarded as not having been complete at the time of Pound’s death.


The first three of Pound’s cantos were published in 1917. Later, these initial cantos were almost completely revised. The first collection of cantos appeared in the volume A Draft of XVI Cantos, published in Paris in 1925. Pound then brought out successive volumes of cantos. The last one, Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII, appeared in 1968. The Cantos as a whole appeared for the first time in one volume in 1970, containing Cantos I-CXVII. The effects and impact of the epic are therefore spread over a lengthy period. For practical examination, this period can be divided into two parts: prewar and postwar. The critical attitude toward Pound’s lengthy poem differed radically during the prewar and postwar periods.

The controversy over Pound’s epic is partly a result of the character of the work itself. In studying China’s history and literary classics, Pound became a Confucian. Confucius, the son of a magistrate, had become a teacher of government and ethics. He sought a prince who would give ear to his principles of good government and the virtues of the exceptional man. Pound apparently sought to be such a prince and to pass these principles on as well. The contentiousness is also a result in part of Pound’s political actions in Italy, actions that resulted in his indictment and arrest for treason. He was accused but never tried and convicted.

In considering the effect of the Cantos on critics and other literary persons (the general public was little involved in such appraisal), it is noteworthy that none of Pound’s friends pulled punches when criticizing Pound’s writing. For instance, Wyndham Lewis in 1927 attacked aspects of Pound’s style in the Cantos. He alleged that Pound’s addiction to “clipping and stopping” produced a “melodramatic, chopped, ’bitter tone’” that he found undesirable. He charged that Pound’s characterizations were “made up of well-worn stage properties.” According to Lewis, Pound’s “comic reliefs” amount to caricature of his efforts “to deal with real life—they are Pound at his worst.”

William Butler Yeats complained that the Cantos has “more style than form.” Pound’s “raging at malignants” he presents in grotesque shapes indicates a “loss of control.” This is shown by the work’s “unbridged transitions” and “unexplained ejaculations.” These faults, Yeats contended, contribute to the poem’s unintelligibility.

In reviewing The Fifth Decad of Cantos (1937), Edwin Muir recorded that it dealt with “usury, banks, scarcity, and their consequences,” together with a variation on the descent-into-hell theme. Muir reported on the powerful and strange effect this installment has on readers’ emotions. It develops a pattern that conveys the feeling “that all the events in the poem are contemporaneous, that they are all together in one place.” Indeed, Muir contended, “everything in the poem tends to be archetypal and fixed; everything is on the same plane and in the same time, a prolonged present.” In sum, Muir held, there is “little doubt that it is one of the most remarkable poems of our time.” In 1940, Muir commented on Cantos LII-LXXI (1940; the “Chinese History Cantos”) as political, having to do with “the ways in which societies are ruled, well or badly.” He believed that Pound had “a clear idea of good rulership and bad; the first thing being to him in accordance with nature, and the second against it.” According to Muir, the Chinese cantos “are vivid and condensed,” presenting history skillfully “in a series of concrete images.” The American section, however, to Muir “reads like a prolonged footnote to a detailed history” and requires knowledge that most readers are unlikely to possess.

While Pound was incarcerated from 1946 to 1958 in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., after being declared mentally unfit to stand trial for treason, the Library of Congress announced on February 20, 1949, that his book The Pisan Cantos had won the prestigious Bollingen Prize in Poetry, which carried a monetary award of one thousand dollars. This prize was to be awarded annually by a jury of selection of the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress in recognition of the highest achievement in American poetry in any one year. In making the award for 1948, the jury stated: “The fellows are aware that objections may be made to awarding a prize to a man situated as is Mr. Pound.” Indeed, a volatile controversy took place immediately following announcement of the prize. The controversy focused largely on the question of “pure poetry” versus “impure politics.” The debate raged wildly throughout the 1950’s. Although it eventually became less heated and less often voiced, no reconciliation had been accomplished by the time of Pound’s death.

Critics have varied in the manner in which they have treated Pound. Peter Viereck dismissed both the man and the Cantos as satanic and repugnant. Randall Jarrell accepted the poetry but condemned the man. A third approach was employed by Max Wykes-Joyce, who made a sympathetic attempt to understand Pound’s behavior in terms of his upbringing, his education and social experience, and his personal character. Wykes-Joyce acknowledged the poet’s unwise support of Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, whose character Pound completely misjudged, and Pound’s selective anti-Semitism. Wykes-Joyce argued that Pound’s “view of the function of banks” and “his pleasure at a ruler who ruled” accounted for his praise of Mussolini.

As a man of letters as well as a brilliant poetic technician, Pound influenced two other great poets who had become his friends, Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Pound introduced Yeats to the Japanese No drama, influences of which appear in Yeats’s play At the Hawk’s Well (pr. 1916) and several others. As for Eliot, Pound helped him with Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and carefully tidied up the long poem The Waste Land (1922), Waste Land, The (Eliot) for which tasks Eliot always remained grateful. Pound also helped in the poetic training of Hart Crane, Crane, Hart who eventually composed the long poem The Bridge (1930). Crane never met Pound but did correspond with him and became a disciple of both Pound and Eliot.

Pound and William Carlos Williams met in college in Philadelphia. Williams might never have made it as a poet if Pound had not critically abused him; Williams’s long poem Paterson (1946-1958) shows Poundian influence. Pound thus influenced perhaps the three greatest long poems in English, other than his own, of the twentieth century. Pound also had an impact on the work of other distinguished poets, including E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Archibald MacLeish. His influence continued with Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Cantos (Pound) Poetry;Cantos (Pound)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Michael. The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. An appreciation of Pound’s poetry as a whole but with the main focus on the Cantos. Provides a useful introduction to Pound’s poetry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, Ian F. A. Critic as Scientist: The Modernist Poetics of Ezra Pound. London: Methuen, 1981. Argues that Pound’s critical terminology was derived from analogy to the scientific disciplines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cookson, William. A Guide to the “Cantos” of Ezra Pound. Rev. ed. New York: Persea Books, 2001. Useful reference tool presents background information on each canto and supplies detailed explanations of allusions, cross-references, and foreign phrases.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwards, John Hamilton, and William V. Vasse. Annotated Index to the “Cantos” of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957. Both an index to the Cantos and an annotation of the materials indexed. The general index contains the names of persons, places, and things; quotations in English; and all foreign-language expressions except those in Greek and Chinese scripts, which appear in the appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flory, Wendy Stallard. Ezra Pound and the “Cantos”: A Record of a Struggle. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980. Argues that in 1938 Pound envisioned the central theme of the Cantos as the struggle in which he and like-minded others engaged against the obstructors of knowledge (the academies) and of the distribution of wealth (the banks), but that in 1945, at Pisa, Pound entered into a personal struggle against the moral authority of his own government, with this struggle giving the Cantos its unity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kayman, Martin. The Modernism of Ezra Pound: The Science of Poetry. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. A historical and formal analysis, pursued from the perspective of dialectical materialism and the Marxist ethic, of the Poundian discourse as it is related to the central issues of modernism. Evaluates Pound’s importance as a modernist—in a tradition he himself helped to establish—and examines the relationship between art and politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knapp, James F. Ezra Pound. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Brief volume offers accurate information on Pound’s life and work as well as perceptive criticism. Serves as a useful introduction to the development of Pound’s thought and art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Makin, Peter, ed. Ezra Pound’s “Cantos”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Collection of critical essays on the Cantos shows how Pound’s work was affected by personal and historic events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pound, Ezra. Guide to Kulchur. 1938. Reprint. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions Books, 1968. Indispensable guide to the Cantos discloses the unorthodox curriculum Pound pursued.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Redman, Tim. Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A carefully muted inductive examination of Pound’s relationship to Italian Fascism, with the goal of discovering whether Pound’s political activity squares with what his critics allege he did. Covers Pound’s actions from the early 1930’s to the end of World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Terrell, Carroll F. A Companion to the “Cantos” of Ezra Pound. 1980. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Update and supplement to the Edwards and Vasse volume cited above. Designed not for Pound scholars but for those beginning the study of Pound’s epic. Includes sources, background, exegeses, and glosses.

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