‘Canto I’ is the first piece of Pound’s The Cantos. He started this enormous undertaking when he was thirty years old and worked on it till his death in 1972, spawning a total of fifty-seven years. In The Cantos, readers get an insight into Pound’s mind. It is in total around 600 pages in length and yet unfinished. This particular canto is unusual. It is a loose translation of one passage of The Odyssey, attributed to Homer and written 2,500 years ago. This particular passage details Odysseus’s journey to the edge of the world and his questioning of spirits from the underworld.
In this section of The Odyssey, Pound translates Odysseus’ journey into the realm of the dead. He speaks briefly on Circe’s island, what the trip along the sea is like, and then about the edges of the earth. There, he seeks out information about what’s going to happen in the next part of his journey. In the underworld, Odysseus runs into one of his friends who died on Circe’s island, Eplenor. He begs his friend to go back and give him a proper burial. He also sees his mother briefly and gets a prophecy from Tiresias. The prophet tells Odysseus that he’s soon to encounter the Sirens and, at some point, lose all of his friends.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Canto I’ by Ezra Pound is a long three-stanza poem that is translated from the Ancient Greek. Pound, in order to maintain as much of the original’s structure as possible, looked to Old English meter (known today as an accentual meter) in order to structure the lines. This means that he focuses on the stressed syllables entirely. The unstressed syllables are much more random. These stressed syllables are emphasized through the use of literary devices such as alliteration and internal rhyme.
Pound makes use of several literary devices in his translation of this part of Homer’s The Odyssey. These include but are not limited to, examples of alliteration, enjambment, and imagery. The latter is one of the literary devices for which Pound is remembered today. As an imagist, the imagery was always of the utmost importance to him. There are several wonderful examples in ‘Canto I.’ For instance, these lines from the first stanza: “Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward / Bore us out onward with bellying canvas.” The best examples of imagery are those which engage all of the reader’s senses.
Alliteration is another common device in poetry, one that involves a very specific type of repetition, the use, and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “stretched sail” in line nine of the first stanza and “bloody bever” in line five of the third stanza.
Enjambment is a formal device that pound uses several times in ‘Canto I.’ It is concerned with where the poet cuts off a phrase. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and eight and nine of the third stanza.
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
This poem begins in medias res, a technique in which a writer thrusts the reader directly into the middle of a story without providing peremptory information. In this case, the speaker brings the reader into a nautical scene in which they use sailing-related words in order to describe the situation. A group, the speaker, says, got the ship ready to sail and enter out onto “the godly sea.” On the ship, there are plenty of sheep for substance and for an as yet unknown reason, a great deal of sorrow. Something happened to the crew that’s still affecting them.
It’s in the seventh line of the first stanza that it becomes clear which part of Homer’s Odyssey Pound is focused on here. The speaker mentions Circe, a reference to a sorceress from the story. The men are setting sail in Circe’s boat after spending a terrible period of time on the island as pigs. It’s also at this point that it becomes clear that Odysseus is the speaker here.
Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day’s end.
Sun to his slumber, shadows o’er all the ocean,
Swartest night stretched over wretched men there.
Over the next four lines, there are several examples of alliteration, seen specifically in the use and reuse of words starting with an “s.” Odysseus also provides the reader with details about this new section of their journey. He speaks on the wind, the water, and the movement of the sun. They were moving at a pretty good speed.
In the twelfth line of this stanza, Odysseus mentions the Kimmerian, a mythical group of people who supposedly lived at the edge of the world. These wretched people lived forever in the mist and darkness of that place. There were no stars only eternal night.
The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe.
Here did they rites, Perimedes and Eurylochus,
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and of the old who had borne much;
In the next lines, Odysseus describes the ritual he and his men performed at the edge of the world, the place that Circe told them to go. He took out his sword and dug a “pitkin,” or a small pit, and everyone poured wine into it to honor the dead. Odysseus muses about the power of sacrifices, especially bulls, in the following lines. He adds a sheep t the pile for the blind prophet Tiresias. Because of all this praying and sacrificing, souls come out of “Erebus,” a part of the underworld.
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
Pitiful spirit. And I cried in hurried speech:
“Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
“Cam’st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?”
The following lines of the poem elaborate on all the souls that come out of Hell. Most of these are youths, young women, or “girls tender”. There are also a lot of men, “mauled with bronze lance heads”. They come around Odysseus and shout at him. In order to appease them, he kills more animals and prays to the gods. He mentions Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld specifically, as well as Proserpine, his wife. The fact that so many dead men and women appeared, along with Odysseus’s attempts to get them to leave him alone, is likely meant to convey his guilt in regards to their deaths.
Unfortunately, Odysseus meets one of his friends in this realm of the dead, someone he didn’t actually know was deceased. He cries out to Elpenor, asking what happened to him. It turns out that he died on Circe’s island and didn’t get a proper burial. He was left “Unwept, unwrapped in spulchre.” He asks his friend how he got here and if he walked.
And he in heavy speech:
“Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe’s ingle.
“Going down the long ladder unguarded,
“And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows.”
The second stanza is far shorter than the first. In it, Odysseus conveys what happened to his friend. He got drunk one night and fell and broke his neck while climbing down a ladder. He broke his skull and his spine, and his soul “sought Avernus” or entry into the underworld. Elpenor asks his friend to sail back to Circe’s island and take care of his body properly. Therefore he won’t have to stay in limbo for the rest of eternity. –
And Anticlea came, whom I beat off, and then Tiresias Theban,
Holding his golden wand, knew me, and spoke first:
In the first lines of the third stanza of ‘Canto I,’ the speaker describes how all of a sudden, Anticlea (his mother) shows up before Odysseus gets to answer Eplenor. He sends her off before running into Tiresias, the man he’s been looking for. This is the second time that Odysseus has existed in the underworld, and Tiresias notes that. Tiresias prepares to share a bit of knowledge with Odysseus in exchange for the drink of wine he’s brought him.
And I stepped back,
And he strong with the blood, said then: “Odysseus
“Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
Cypri munimenta sortita est, mirthful, orichalchi, with golden
Girdles and breast bands, thou with dark eyelids
Bearing the golden bough of Argicida. So that:
The last lines of the canto include Tiresias’ words to Odysseus, a prophecy. He tells him that he’s going to need to go back the way he came and that he’s soon going to lose all of his friends. There is an interesting moment when Pound inserts the line “Lie quiet Divus” into the poem. This is an allusion to the medieval translator who published a Latin version of The Odyssey in 1538. Once the story resumes, Tiresias tells Odysseus that he’ll pass the Sirens on the next part of his journey.
Finally, Pound ends the canto by including a respectful dedication to Aphrodite. He uses the phrase “Cypria munimenta sortita est” which is Latin for “The citadels of Cyprus were her appointed realm,” suggesting that it’s only for love that a journey like this can be made. Without explaining why Pound felt like he needed to make a dedication to Aphrodite, the poem ends with “So that:”.
Readers who enjoyed the first canto of The Cantos should also look into some of Pound’s other best-known poems. These include ‘In a Station at the Metro’, ‘The River Merchant’s Wife’, and ‘The Garden’. Some other related poems include ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ by John Keats and ‘Odysseus to Telemachus’ by Joseph Brodsky. The former was written after Keats read Chapman’s translation of Homer for the first time on a night in 1815. ‘Odysseus to Telemachus’ is told from the perspective of the epic hero, Odysseus while he is stranded on Circe’s island.