James F. Knapp

James F. Knapp: On "Canto IX"

The portrait of Sigismundo which Pound creates out of the gradually assembled details of cantos 8 and 9 reaches its point of clearest focus in the series of letters which Sigismundo's enemies find upon intercepting his postbag. By dating the correspondence to 1454, the year in which the Malatesta fortunes began to fail, Pound establishes a background of dangerous political strife. But though Sigismundo might be expected to be concerned with nothing beyond his own survival at such a time, the letters reveal only the character of his household. In presenting a detail such as Sigismundo's gift of a pony to his six-year-old son, Pound defines a structure of relationships through the precise manipulation of tone. Thus, the young Malatesta thanks his father in language which expresses the respect and formality he was being taught through writing letters like this one, while still revealing a natural innocence and enthusiasm: the pony is "a fine caparison'd charger, upon which I intend to learn all there is to know about riding." Against the formality of the boy's letter, Pound sets a comment by his tutor, in a style which is sheer colloquial American: "It would take me a month to write you all the fun he gets out of that pony." The cumulative effect of these letters is to suggest the respect, decorum, affection, and businesslike free speaking which Sigismundo (as a true Confucian hero) has established as the heart of his properly ordered household.

In terms of content, however, these letters are mostly concerned with Sigismundo's patronage of the arts. Filled with the very concrete details of building - inventories of material, problems with securing proper measurements, waiting for the frosts to end before attempting to lay stone - they help to define a man whose overriding passion, even at a time when his political survival was threatened, was the creation of meaningful beauty. Canto 9 ends with a terse summary of the remaining contents of the postbag, noting that Sigismundo "lived and ruled," and that he had "built a temple so full of pagan works"

and in the style "Past ruin'd Latium"

The filigree hiding the gothic,

            with a touch of rhetoric in the whole 

And the old sarcophagi,

            such as lie, smothered in grass, by San Vitale.

San Vitale is a Byzantine church in Ravenna, nearly a thousand years older than the Tempio, and by closing on this image of time's inexorable passage, Pound implies that the vital new achievements of Sigismundo's Renaissance must also fall before the smothering grass of a world in constant flux. Sigismundo was, for Pound, a man who had seen the vision, and who had struggled to create a cultural vortex in his own time. But he was also a man in history, and history was the destructive element in which visions could be carried into action only in part, and only for a time.

From Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall and Co.

James F. Knapp: On "Canto I"

Pound's journey through history begins with canto 1, which translates a passage in the Odyssey in which Odysseus travels to the underworld to speak with Tiresias. Like Odysseus, Pound seeks knowledge, and he seeks it in the minds of men long dead. He cannot speak to them directly, as Odysseus does, but their ghosts remain, nevertheless, if only in the words of old books. Pound begins The Cantos with a concrete representation of the way in which language contains the past. On one of his earliest trips to Paris he had picked up a Renaissance translation of the Odyssey, by Andreas Divus, published in 1538, and it is this version that he himself translated in canto 1. However, in translating it, he chose to use poetic conventions derived from Old English verse. Pound knew that the shape of Odysseus's quest has survived through millenia, but he also knew that the means for its survival has been a long series of metamorphoses into the particular words of new places, new times. If we would seek ancient visions, we must seek them wherever they have reappeared in the matter of successive cultures, and in canto I Pound reveals the complex filter of language and changing culture which is nevertheless his only way of viewing the past.

From Ezra Pound Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall and Co.

James F. Knapp: On "In a Station of the Metro"

"In a Station of the Metro" relies on just two images, both presented in a simple, direct way, plus the catalyst of one word which is not straightforward description: "apparition." Through the metaphoric suggestion of that word, Pound fuses the mundane image of "faces in the crowd," with an image possessing visual beauty and the rich connotations of countless poems about spring. And because "apparition" means what it does, he is able to convey the feeling of surprised discovery which such a vision in such a place must evoke.

From Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall and Co.