George Kearns

George Kearns: On "Canto 116"

In Canto 1, Tiresias predicted that Odysseus would "return through spiteful Neptune." The god who rules the sea of time and history pursues the voyager, smashing his fragile raft at the end of Canto 95, but "Leucothea had pity," and the drowning poet comes safety to shore. In Canto 116, we hear that he has been saved again, this time by "squirrels and bluejays." He appears to have made peace with Neptune, whose mind, like his own, is "leaping / like dolphins." The suggestion is that Pound/Odysseus has been able to catch, and to record as images, only glimpses of that flashing sea, or "Cosmos."

There is distinctly a nostos or homecoming in this canto, with a wry recognition that it is not the destination he had in mind when he began writing the poem. His "paradiso" is now enclosed in quotation marks, an earthly third heaven (terzo cielo)of human love, its geography mapped by Torcello/Venice, Tigullio/ Rapallo. It is not a final resting place, however, for there is still "some climbing" toward the splendor of that light which makes the poem (perhaps poetry itself) inadequate. The relation of the visible, intelligible paradise - with its landscape of elms, squirrels and bluejays, the Venetian lagoon, and the sea at Rapallo - to the paradise beyond the poem . . . . Canto 116 is not a rejection of the long poem it is concluding but a redefinition, a careful definition, of the relation between the smaller cosmos of the poem (which does not cohere) and the Cosmos it takes for its subject, about the coherence of which there is no doubt. . . .

Standing among his "errors and wrecks," admitting the madness they contain or that brought them about, Pound still asserts the value of the effort and takes pride, after all, in his achievement.

From Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Cantos. Copyright © 1980 by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

George Kearns: On "Canto 81"

The canto moves almost imperceptibly through the early morning hours, as Venus and her stars give way to an "aureate sky" and finally to a light by which we can observe "the green world." Yet one hardly notices the movement of light and time, for the intensity of focus is on the mind within the tent. The shape of the canto dramatizes its own meaning, risking, for the first half, an imitative fallacy to do so. The three major sections (interior monologue, libretto, and final chant) mark a movement from egotism (me, my life), through participation in traditions of craft and song, to humility and a sense of the prisoner's true scale within nature.

After a prelude in which a natural world alive with mythological lovers emphasizes the prisoner's isolation (no Althea at his grates), we hear a rambling, prosy interior monologue touching on events of four-and-a-half decades, memories of Wyncote, Madrid, London, Paris, Frankfurt, and Italy. Toward the end, the monologue, which has at least moved from concentration to concentration, becomes deliberately thinned-out and chatty in the lines about George Horace and Beveridge, its discursiveness reflected in the image of the loose rabbit.

Suddenly - with the mysterious cry that forms the refrain of The Song of Roland, "AOI!" - he appears to understand what is happening to himself and to his verse: "a leaf in the current." Through the mediation of poetry, and with the help of Speare's Pocket Book of Verse discovered in the latrine, the canto makes its "turn." There is a kind of heroic gesture to it, as if by an effort of will (yet the results are artistically effortless) he draws on the deepest resources of his craft to compose a "traditional" lyric in which the history of song in reconstructed. For all his ill fortune, he is still il miglior fabbro.

It is this act, this homage to the marriage of words and music, more than the prayers and invocations beard in earlier cantos, that brings the spirits at last. The appearance of the eyes within the tent is the closest thing to a mystical moment in theCantos. The presence of the eyes, an event not willed by the prisoner, then releases the great moral-religious chant with which the canto ends. The chant, like the "libretto," draws on traditional poetic language, imagery, and sentiments (and is marked, as Kenner has noted, by the very iambic pentameter Pound has just boasted of breaking); yet it is unmistakably written in the twentieth century.

. . . .

The chant against vanity springs both from the presence of the eyes and from the demonstration that the finest poetry is produced through loss of oneself in tradition (though paradoxically, as Eliot intended, the libretto is a brilliant display of individual talent). The opening pages of the canto, by contrast, are ingenious modernism.

From Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Cantos. Copyright © 1980 by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.