‘The Return’ by Ezra Pound is a twenty-nine line, five stanza poem constructed from short lines of varying lengths. The poem was written in 1913 and then published in The New Poetry: An Anthology in 1917. Pound has not chosen to structure this piece with a standard pattern of rhyme or rhythm. Instead, the lines flow in free verse—a way of writing that was still relatively new at the time during Pound’s life. He is known as a pioneer of the form.
A reader will immediately notice the varying lengths of the lines. Pound has chosen to structure his writing in this way as it forces a reader’s eye to jump from line to line. The use of enjambment, especially between the third and fourth lines, is very effective. Here, the words “uncertain” and “wavering” are separated by a line break. This is not a natural stopping point in one’s speech. It emphasizes the meaning within the words themselves. The “wavering” comes after a break in the line— the word wavers uncertainly itself.
Summary of The Return
The poem begins with the speaker stating that “they” are returning. The gods are tentative in their steps as if they are unsure how to proceed. They sway and have trouble walking. It is immediately clear they do not have some strength they used to.
This is only emphasized in the next lines as the speaker remembers what they, and their “silver hounds” used to be like. They had a strength that was unmatched and a ferocity to be feared. ‘The Return’ concludes with the gods remaining in their “pallid” and sick form. In the speaker’s eyes, they will never have the power they used to.
Analysis of The Return
See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
In the first stanza of ‘The Return’ the speaker begins by noting, very casually, that “they” have “returned.” Without any prior details, this phrase is quite mysterious. It could apply to any range of beings. The followings lines to not confirm or deny a reader’s idea of what could possibly be occurring. Instead, lines 2-4 describe how beings move. They are “tentative” in their “Movements.” These undetermined people move slowly as if unsure of their “feet.”
The speaker says that they are having trouble creating a normal “pace” for their steps. Everything they try to do is “uncertain.” These lines give one the impression that the beings have been away for some period of time and come back to somewhere they used to know. They seem to have forgotten how to walk and function on what one may assume is earth.
See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”
The second stanza contains seven lines and begins with the same three-word phrase, “See, they return.” This fact of the situation is being emphasized as if the speaker wants to make sure the listener understands they not visiting for the first time.
The following lines emphasize that there are many of “them.” They are coming “one, and by one.” Their actions are still not confident. The speaker observes “them” as sees them as being filled with “fear” and functioning in a “half-awakened” state. These notions are very human and easy for any reader to understand. One might not take note of this at first, but on second reading the human way these beings move is more significant. It is not until the next stanza that these beings are referred to as “Gods.” They are much more than human but in these moments they are suffering as any might who has not walked or faced the world for a long time.
Next, the speaker utilizes the landscape to further express the way the “Gods” feel. They were so tentative in their steps it is like they are worried the “snow” is going to “hesitate” in its judging of them. Rather than marveling at what should’ve been their power, it sees them and whispers about their weakness. Their inner lives, emotions, and most likely experiences, have rid them of the status they once had. They were once ‘“Wing’d-with-Awe,”’ but no longer.
Gods of the wingèd shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air!
The third stanza of ‘The Return’ returns to the speaker’s perspective and elaborates on the weakness that has overcome these once-powerful beings. He states that they were once the “Gods of the wingèd shoe!” This could refer to the gods of Greek and Roman mythology specifically Hermes or Mercury. The following lines also support the idea that the Gods are those of this specific mythology. In Greek mythology, there were dogs, Khryseos and Argyros, who were said to be made out of silver and gold.
Whether this is the subject matter Pound meant to reference or not, these phrases do a lot to describe the presence the beings used to have. They moved through the world with the “hounds/ sniffing the trace of air.”
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.
Here the speaker begins with the word “Haie!” This word is unusual, meaning different things within different contexts. It can refer to a hedge, a physical obstacle hurdle, or a fence of some kind. While Pound might’ve had this in mind, the word also acts as a simple exclamation. It could be used as a command for the dogs to heel, and obey their masters.
This is supported by the next lines which are devoted to the way the dogs used to be. At one point they were “swift to harry,” or fight with their enemies. They also used to be “keen-scented” and carriers of “souls of blood.” The animals were tough to their core.
Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!
The final two lines of ‘The Return’ summarize the change in the dogs and the Gods who walk them. Here, the “silver” hounds are described as being “Slow on the leash.” This would’ve been unimaginable in the past. Additionally, they are said to be walked by “pallid…leash-men,” a reference to the Gods themselves. They are “pallid,” or weak, and sickly looking. There is nothing left of the strength there used to be.
Pound is using this poem to speak on the nature of power. Even if it seemed “inviolable” at one point, it can still wane. The text is acting as both a warning and allusion to the future. Those who read this in a position of power might consider the tenuous nature of their position. While on the other hand, those who are subjected to the power of god-like men will read it as uplifting.
Another reading of this piece can cast the “gods” as a reference to the god of the Judeo-Christian religions. Pound was known for his dislike of organized religion and the control it had over everyday life. This piece also speaks to a longing for the removal of those who have for too long been in power.