The Cantos by Ezra Pound

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Marinetti and Pound had one crucial thing in common, though: for both of them man as hero was the most essential ingredient of the future age. Marinetti’s superman reads like some sort of bizarre hybrid combination of Nietzsche and Bugatti: ‘We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.’ In The Cantos , Pound’s heroes are certainly men of action but they are also men of the past , set in recurrent patterns of ‘awakenings’. The first ‘matter’ of The Cantos – the Italian Renaissance – has as its dominant hero, Sigismundo Malatesta, who certainly ‘hurled his lance of spirit’ but who was also a great patron of the arts.

Allan Upward, prophet of the ‘new age’, was also prophet of a type of heroism quite distinct from Marinetti’s ideas, and also from Nietzsche’s übermensch , although Upward himself occasionally used the term ‘Overman’ in homage to the famous German philosopher . He preferred the term ‘Genius’, however, by which he meant someone sensitive, in a unique way, to a spiritual reality to which the common run of men and women are oblivious:

…this invisible environment in which we live and move and have our being has found no better name than Heaven. The Divine Man or, as he is better named, the Genius, is the spokesman and interpreter of Heaven.

hero acts under some form of divine inspiration – either metaphorical or real – and this enables his actions to renew and re-invigorate the time and society into which he is born.

It is undoubtedly the case that Upward’s version of the Overman came to inform The Cantos , but there is at least one crucial difference between his ideas and those of Pound. Upward’s notion of a ‘Divine Man’ is intimately coupled with the Genius’s rejection by the mass of mankind, so that heroism inevitably implies Christ-like suffering: ‘He is the hero in the tragic meaning of the word,…the sufferer, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ This is obviously not a description that sits well with a list of Pound’s heroes from his early poems: the Seafarer, Cino Polnesi, Bertran de Born, Piere Vidal, François Villon...

In fact, if the pattern of heroism implied by these names derives from anyone, it is perhaps a type of Browning character, conveniently exemplified by the character of Salinguerra in the Victorian’s early poem Sordello , which Pound used as a starting point for The Cantos .

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Ezra Pound