Michael Alexander: On "Canto I"

And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea. . . .

There is no more splendid testimony to Pound's resource as a translator than the account of his visit to Hades with which Odysseus opens the Cantos. A salute to Homer is traditional in epic openings, yet to begin with a translation of a translation of Homer is exceptional, as Pound acknowledges with his placatory

Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus, 

In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.

This epic, which Pound described as 'the tale of the tribe', is also a tribal encyclopaedia, and in places resembles an archive.

This is the first acknowledgment of a source in a poem much given to quotation and adaptation. Bibliographically speaking, it is a much fuller style of reference than we usually get -author, edition, date, subject - and it comes in the right place. We are to know that Pound has been translating, or cannibalizing, a Latin translation of Homer. Those who consult Pound on Andreas Divus in the Literary Essayswill find the Latin sources of Canto 1, though little about the translator or his printer, Wechel. Yet, to understand what the poet is doing here, we must turn to his prose. At such points, however available the ancillary material, the primary communication of the poem must be weakened. The bond of continuous understanding between poet and reader is broken, although appreciation of this interplay between poem and source may eventually strengthen a reader's involvement. Direct access to Pound's masters - Homer, Ovid, Dante, Confucius, Jefferson - is more worthwhile than such a cross-reference to the poet's own prose, and is equally a part of reading Pound. Both source and cross-reference, however, must remain subordinate to the uses they assume in the poem.

'And then went down to the ship' is a genuine plunge in medias res, into an action immediately invigorating and significant. The res here - Odysseus' nekuia, or journey to the underworld, seeking direction from the dead - being older than the matter of Homer himself, has conscious symbolic intention for Pound. Like Eliot's recourse to Sanskrit in The Waste Land, it goes back to the original ground of knowledge for its author, a respecful if enquiring relation with nature and with the human past, gained through arduous submission. We ascend to the source of Western literature and wisdom in order to get our bearings. This consultation of the oracle declares the huge cultural role of the Cantos, the epic of knowledge. But Calliope as well as Clio is the Muse of this poem, and the role of Odysseus the solitary explorer also has a more personal as well as a cultural significance. The Canto is strikingly prophetic of the course of Pound's life; it records a dedication.

Pound translates from a Renaissance humanist crib, making a point about translation and tradition. Divus had helped him to see a Homer without a Victorian halo. The last line taken from Divus - the suppressed reference to Odysseus' mother - is printed in lighter ink in some editions; but there is no typographical device before 'Lie quiet' to indicate a change of speaker. In effect, Odysseus, the first-person speaker of the Canto, is deliberately not distinguished from Pound, and the identification is significant. Pound half-dramatizes his relationship with what he is rendering by glossing his aside to Divus for our benefit; but we are meant to see that Pound is protagonist as well as author.

The remaining lines begin the movement of the next Canto: 'And he sailed, by Sirens ... and unto Circe.... Aphrodite ... thou with dark eyelids.' The direction towards a different kind of knowledge is adumbrated in the progression of these names and fulfilled in the sensory, then carnal, then visionary awareness of nymphs and of Dionysus in the next Canto. We can distinguish three levels of interest for the reader of the envoi to Canto 1: the subject-matter (sexual and mystical knowledge); the poet's relation to his subject-matter (intent, rapt, awed); and the sources. Just as in the body of Canto 1 we perceived clearly Odysseus' journey, and, more briefly, Pound's identification with Odysseus, and then, more briefly and less clearly, Andreas Divus 'out of Homer', so in the end of the Canto we have the same diminishing scale of intelligibilia, though the scale is compressed.

To recapitulate: we gather (1) Odysseus sails on his appointed voyage past the Sirens to Circe's enchantment, leading to a worshipful encounter with Aphrodite; (2) Pound, not easily distinguished from his hero, repeats her praises in a fervent cadence until he conjures up her presence; (3) Pound the craftsman is dealing with a Latin text in praise of Aphrodite, from which he cites and renders phrases.

From The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1979 by Michael Alexander.

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Criticism Overview
Title Michael Alexander: On "Canto I" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Michael Alexander Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 06 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound
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