blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Canto I"


James F. Knapp

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.


Michael Alexander

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 Essays will 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.


Joseph G. Kronick

Think of how Pound's Cantos is constrained by such arbitrary events as his chance happening upon Andreas Divus' Odyssey. In Canto 1, Pound writes in several languages—Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, English—every language but his own. The Nekuia traces the voyage of the poet into the realm of death and mourning. Odysseus discovers among the dead the unmourned Elpenor, who bids him

                                        "remember me, unwept, unburied,
"Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
"A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
"And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows." (1:4)

Odysseus is to undertake what Freud calls the work of mourning. Through assimilation—introjection, in psychoanalytic terms—he is to sustain the memory of his shipmate and free his libido to attach itself to a new object of affection. But what can this tale be but an allegory of Pound's theft of Divus' translation of Homer's Odyssey, which is itself a theft? In fact, Pound carries into his text Divus' corrupted text that reads "’A second time?'" The whole canto is riddled with repetitions that mark the failure to carry over into Pound's own language the translation unmarred by the presence of death. For as Pound repeats the text in another language, he seeks to assimilate the Homeric epic into his own poem, but like Elpenor in the underworld, Divus, and with him Homer, arises from the grave. Thus, Pound tells Divus to "Lie quiet." The resurrection, though, is a partial one. A remnant always stays beyond the grasp of translation, hence the absence of the proper name on the tomb. But it is the absent name that allows the continuation of the journey and the narrative. The name Elpenor will be translated in later cantos when Pound puns on the el in Sordello, Elizabeth, Helen, and Eleanor. He even steals from Aeschylus' Agamemnon a series of puns on Helen—"helandros," "helenaus," and "heleptolis" ("man-destroying," "ship-destroying," and "city-destroying")—which he then applies to Eleanor of Aquitaine (7:24,25). Pound also weaves the epitaph on Elpenor's tomb into this complex of puns when in the Pisan Cantos he too becomes "a man of no fortune and with a name to come" (74:439; 80:513, 514). Finally, the man with no name is Odysseus himself, who tells Polyphemus that he is called "No-man."

Pound's periplus takes him back to the books and places he has already visited, just as Odysseus, after his second visit to the underworld, must return to Circe's island to bury Elpenor on the sea-bord. Indeed, the sea-bord is but the border between texts and between languages that sets Pound's text afloat upon a sea of texts. Another text embroiled in thefts and translations—so much so that it sinks beneath the burden—is Eliot's Waste Land, more specifically, "Death by Water." In its rather lengthy early version, it is a web of allusions to the Ulysses canto of Dante's Inferno, Tennyson's "Ulysses" and In Memoriam, the Odyssey, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and, most important, "Dans le Restaurant," a poem by Eliot written in French from which he translates the Phlebas passage that forms the final version of this section. (We might also say that "Death by Water" looks forward to the Four Quartets, as it contains Eliot's first mention of the Dry Salvages.) "Death by Water" consists of false starts—does it begin in "Dans le Restaurant," the manuscripts he sent Pound, or in the published version? Does it end in the Four Quartets? Eliot's final decision to of follow Pound's advice to keep only the Phlebas section from "Dans le Restaurant" in the poem suggests his own inability to keep afloat in/on the edges of his text.

If the Cantos lives on, it is as translation, as a poem that never begins but only "starts": "And it 'starts' only with living on (testament, iterability, remaining [restance], crypt, detachment that lifts the strictures of the 'living' rectio or direction of an 'author' not drowned at the edge of his text)." What comes before the "And" of line 1 is not, as Kenner claims, an ancient past "reclaimed by Homer as he [Pound] reclaims Homer now." In his Eliotesque reading of Pound, Kenner interprets Pound's translations and quotations as a rejuvenation of the past; consequently, his dissociation of the poem from its language allows him to posit a metalanguage that would guarantee translation without remnants. When he quotes approvingly Pound's advice, "Don't bother about the WORDS, TRANSLATE the MEANING," he ignores Pound's comments about interpretative and exegetical translation. In a note to Cantos LII-LXXI, Pound says that the foreign words add little to the text and merely serve as underlinings. The foreign words serve neither as an expansion of the English (or is it American ?) text into a universal language nor as an archaeological recovery of the past. The foreign words are the supplement that reveals the irreducible untranslatability of all languages, thus marking the limits of a humanism that maintains national boundaries while insisting on internationalism as well.

from American Poetics of History: From Emerson to the Moderns. Copyright 1984 by Louisiana State UP.


Return to Ezra Pound