The Cantos

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by Pericles Lewis

Ezra Pound’s epic, The Cantos, begun during the first world war but still incomplete at his death in 1972, shares some of the features of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, but it shores its fragments on a much greater scale. (Canto VIII begins with a reference to Eliot: “These fragments you have shored (shelved).”) It makes use of quotation and allusion to other poets in a method that somewhat resembles cubist collage, but at epic length. Pound combines borrowings from Homer, the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel, the history of the Italian Renaissance, President John Adams, Robert Browning, and Chinese poetry (as interpreted by the scholar Ernest Fenollosa) with offbeat economic and social theories to relate what he calls “the tale of the tribe,” that is, the intellectual life of the human race, exemplified in certain key historical or literary moments.[1] The result, though tainted by Pound’s anti-semitism and adoration of Mussolini, is, like The Waste Land or Joyce's Ulysses, a major expression of the modernist ambition to bring the whole of world history to bear on the understanding of modern life and the remaking of poetic tradition. Pound called it an epic, “a poem including history,” and it is also a poem shaped by history, by Pound’s rejection of his own country and democracy, by his embrace of fascism, and by his subsequent imprisonment and confinement.[2]

  1. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (University of California Press, 1971), p. 507.
  2. This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis's Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 147.
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