The emergent properties of The Cantos as a unified work

Vasiliki Poula

Let’s start with a rather fundamental assertion. The title of a literary work serves one mandatory function within the literary practice and institution – that of identification. Yet, there is a second function, which might be optional in principle, yet is inescapable in practice. This function is the descriptive one – where description replaces notions such as focusing, summarizing or representing. As a result, the title creates some expectations – be it from the part of the reader who often feels the need to interpret what he is reading under the light of the title or from the part of the author, for whom the title is an ideal, that he seeks to fulfill.

Independently of whether one believes that the title is actually part of the text or not, it necessarily occupies a space, more important than merely appearing as a place holder on the book cover and the title page. Starting from this premise, that the title of a literary piece has some value, it follows that the choice of Pound to call his work The Cantos, is also valuable. For this plural shows that Pound decided to create one single work containing a hundred and sixteen constituents, which he calls cantos, rather than a hundred and sixteen independent pieces. And Pound composed and ordered the sections to reflect a sort of journey, a process.

This choice raises two main issues:

Firstly, the issue of unity – did Pound create one united work, with orderliness and coherence?

Secondly, the issue of unification – even if the poem is not really united, does it still make sense as one, unified piece?

In Canto a hundred sixteen, there are two passages that recognize these two issues, and I believe, answer the questions:

First, he writes:

And I am not a demigod, / I cannot make it cohere.

Pound suggested to Yeats that his long poem’s structure was much like a Bach fugue. He then wrote to his father that his poem was to operate musically, somewhat like subject, response and counter response, having three interplaying elements, a descent to the realm of the dead, the repeat in history and the magical moment of metamorphosis when contact is made with the divine or permanent world. After several such attempts at explanations, it began to seem clear that Pound really did not have an answer to questions concerning coherence.

Yet, in a second section in Canto a hundred sixteen, he writes:

And then: / It coheres all right, / Even if my notes do not cohere.

These two passages are not mutually exclusive – his notes, his sections might not cohere, in a strict sense, when read one after the other – but there are moments in the poem, where it coheres all right, where everything feels just in place. His work is unified, yet might not be united.

The moment that I first felt this was in Canto thirteen. When I tried to rationalize this intuition, I realised that what I have been reading until that point, somehow inevitably led to canto thirteen. In a sense, canto 13 could be read properly only under the light of all the previous cantos or that canto 13 crystallised and at the same propelled all the previous cantos, since the introduction of Confucius stands against a background, which Pound has began to prepare since the beginning of the poem.


Narrative usually implies the unfolding of events in time, but while the Cantos have the appearance of a narrative poem and contain many fragments of narrative, the movement of the poem from beginning to end is not one of unfolding, it is rather the completion of a single manifold vision which remains static.

The completion of the vision takes time in the writing and in the reading, but the time it takes is not active in the poem, simply because in the poem, Pound wants to show the time lost, the wasted time, which goes unredeemed.

This is why Pound seeks for moments rather than for wholeness. He finds many translucent moments in history and these moments become a kind of destiny for the man, just as the shades in Hades are held eternally in the attitudes of their deaths, at the moment when fate touched them. After all, for the living men, moments speak more than sequences; for instance, death is not a relative position in the unending flow of events, but an absolute calamity, an event of a higher order, a moment that throws the whole of existence back into question. Pound would have lost sight of the living man, if he was to see the whole fabric.

In order to capture and illuminate those moments, he often draws on materials created or developed by others. Canto one feels like a translation of the eleventh book of the Odyssey, but it is not a translation of Homer. Neither is it really a translation of its Latin translation by Andreas Divus – hence, it is him, Pound, that eventually chooses where to put and hot to connect those materials.

But Pound is not interested in recreating the characters of Odysseus or Malatesta. He cannot, as he asserts in canto 2 that there cannot exit but the one Sordello. He does not re-tell rusty stories, he does not reiterate them, rather he re-calls them, as embodiments of a certain force of spirit. He lets these facts speak; or better, he creates the language for these facts to speak, he draws out of memory their original voices, he unveils them.

Under this light, the engagement of Canto 13 with several passages from Confucian texts can be read through a different angle. We have learnt to trust the narrating voice, despite its fragmented nature, even if it guides us through perplexed paths, which might not always make sense at face value. And in Canto 13, it feels like we are rewarded for our loyalty, for our trust, as the impressions we have gained from reading the previous cantos are now confirmed with certainty, since Canto 13 might be the first among the early Cantos to be absolutely clear in its values and assertions, lacking as it does any non-English phrased or sudden changes in mythological or historical references.

Yet, the ease that the reader feels, stems from the previous more “challenging” cantos, throughout which we extensively witnessed how malleable history is in Pound’s hands. In his previous Cantos, the poet has exposed his methodology, he has shown us that he can tame his voice, rendering it as inconspicuous as the sound of a bee's wings, silencing it, blurring it with the voice of others. It is in Canto thirteen, that closure comes. He has come to term with the reader, he has introduced him into what he is purporting to do and he is ready to set out.

After all, we shall remember that in Canto ten, a fight takes place between Truth and Calliope, muse of epic poetry. The jagged edge of Truth wins out over the artificially seamless reality proposed by the traditional epic form defended by the muse. Truth’s victory is fundamental for Pound. Traditionally, epic poets foreshadow the end of their story, safeguarding their tales and their readers from unexpected intrusions and endings. Yet, by having truth win, he asserts in canto eight, that he intends to create a bolder kind of epic tale. In canto thirteen, we have been persuaded that he is ready to assert a truth that would not be beaten down by the predictable structural form of a traditional epic.

The twelve cantos are not foreshadowing canto thirteen to the reader. Instead, they are moulding the intuition of the reader, they are indicating in a subtle way where her attention should focus, so that when time comes, she feels ready and familiar enough to trust the voice of the poem and grasp it.


And this familiarity with the form, grounded in Canto thirteen, is very important for the importance of the content of the canto, which has again been cultivated progressively throughout the previous twelve cantos. The focal point of the thirteenth canto is that of the character, yet when Kung refers to it, the reader feels that she already knows what Pound means.

Pound seems to be fascinated by great personalities. The chorus of the Greek tragedy commonly celebrates the pious man, but every tragedy presents an act of profanation in which the protagonist, the tragic man, asserts his will against the laws of tradition, the power of generality and the common fate. He suffers, of course, and the righteousness of the collective opinion is borne out. Yet our attention is riveted to the suffering of the single man, not to the collective righteousness of the chorus. Following this pattern, Pound wants us to focus on the individual.

In Canto 13, the personality of Kung is introduced and its penultimate lines underscore that a person’s character is the most important accomplishment of a human being: ‘And Kung said, Without character you will / be unable to play on that instrument / Or to execute the music fit for the Odes’.

But how could Pound effectively present Confucius as the moral exemplary he believes he was, if Malatesta has not preceded? Either as an ethically ambiguous personality against whom Confucius benevolence emerges even stronger, or as a man in the line of Odysseus and now, Kung, representing the doers of the world, who are often stopped from fulfilling their visions as a result of the dark and imbecilic forces of their day.

And how could Pound convince the readers of the necessity of Kung’s benevolence?

Canto 4 acts as the perfect foil, as it includes details from violent tragedies. Mythic Acteaon turns into a stag and is devoured by his own hunting dogs, Seremonda’s husband kills her lover, the medieval troubadour Cabestand, and serves his cooked hear to her in a dish. Philomela and her sister Procne kill the latter’s husband, who is also the son of Tereus, and serve him to Tereus for dinner to avenge a rape, escaping afterward through the air following their transformation intro birds by the empathetic gods.

Against this dystopia, Pound embedded Confucius’ action in Asian culture, to make the shift from the occidental greed even greater: Canto thirteen begins in this way: “Kung walked / by the dynastic temple / and into the cedar grove, / and then out by the lower river, . . .”

In contrast to the impurity and the disorder of the West, Pound can properly present his panacea – the principle of good is enunciated by Confucius; it consists in establishing order within oneself. In contrast to the husks, those old men of Canto seven, whose voices produce merely a rattle and who live in a spiritual waste-land of darkness and indecision, Pound refers to Confucius with admiration. He wrote: “And Kung gave the words ‘order’ / and ‘brotherly deference’ / And said nothing of the ‘life after death”. He asserts a universal moral vision wherein the muddied forces of materialism struggle against those of natural process, intellectual clarity and spiritual light.

Collectively, it emerges that humankind cannot defeat fate, or the forces of human passion and self-interest. Yet at the same time, amid fated circumstances, humanity still continues to live, to create, to try. Cabestand loves Seremonda, Cadmus builds Thebes, Kung continues to teach. Canto 4 traces the course of human sensibility toward and away from the light – Canto 13 confirms that light can be reached and celebrate human triumph, or rather the triumph of humanity.

And Pound pledges that he supports this noble cause of infusing the corrupted Western morals with the pure Eastern ideal, by claiming, in the last lines of the canto, that the blossoms of the apricot blow from the east to the west and he has tried to keep them from falling. Such a commitment would be hollow if we have not been slowly introduced to the west’s decadence.


And also if we have not gradually understood the value Pound attaches to the role of the poet, as he does not engage with the issue of character to raise its importance for man in general, but specifically for the artist, for the poet. And as such, the pledging of preventing the falling of the apricot blossoms acquires a different gravity – it becomes a manifesto.

The ideal of the poet is slowly built through the Cantos. There is a very brief appearance of the ideal in Canto 2 in the barely visible figure of Acoetes, the captain of the unruly crew who tried to kidnap Bacchus and were turned in fish for their impious impudence. Acoetes is the one straight man of the ship, and knows something unusual is up.

In Canto 4, this idea becomes clearer than ever, as Pound first introduced us to a Troy which, past its grand splendour, has been reduced to ‘but a heap of smouldering boundary stones’. Yet, the destroyed legacy will be used in order to create something new. The poet invokes Cadmus of Golden Prows, to whom mythology attributes the foundation of Thebes with the soldiers sprung from the teeth of the dragon that used to guard the territory. Poetry is a revival, not like that of the Phoenix, from its dead ashes, but like the one of nature, whose successive changes reflect those in poetry. And who is to control those poets? The answer is given on the final lines of the same Canto: ‘And we sit here, there in the arena’. So, the poet shall move from the seats to the arena, from the position to the spectator to the one of the actor, to ground imagination in reality.

In Canto 13, the ideal of the poem is epitomized. The issue of poetic discipline becomes a matter of stripping the operative self of contingencies, of getting back to that bedrock self which is unique, and just as important with the basic forces or structures of reality. And to do that, the poet had to find his own language, in order not to distort or conceal reality from its user. Pound often equated the poet with the Confucian Master Man, the ‘serious character’ – a man with the power not merely to order the flux of emotional experience into a poem, but to reveal order in the flux as such, to render up a picture of the order in reality hidden from most people.


In the Cantos, all things change, yet everything essential remains. And how do we understand what is essential? By closely observing the things that remain, the things than persist, the ideas and the values which are amplified, which are made loud and strong. The particular ideas can, of course, be different for each reader, without changing the overall intent of the poem.

But this schema requires a very basic premise: that there is a spine for the idea to traverse, so that it can, in a sense, prove its strength. This is why Pound’s poem needs to be one unified work, rather than a hundred and sixteen independent pieces – so that there can be recurring ideas, from which the most essential remain, leading to the formation of an entity, which is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts.

Or as more eloquent conclusion, an excerpt from Basil Bunting’s poem, ‘On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos’:

There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don't make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l'on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et leger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?

There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

Vasiliki Poula

Vasiliki Poula is interested in human relations, memory and the significance of place. She enjoys reading and writing on these themes, as well as embarking on improvised photography projects.

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