The Cantos by Ezra Pound

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The first two sections of the poem, for example – A Draft of XXX Cantos and A Draft of Cantos XXXI-XLI – present, in succession, two such ‘new ages’: the Italian Renaissance, followed by the ‘Nuevo Mundo’ of American independence.

The hero, then is the ‘core’ and those around him the ‘outward crust’. He is more alive than other men. In connection with this idea, Pound had been impressed by the writings of the poet, novelist and critic Remy de Gourmont and quoted approvingly the following words of the Frenchman in an essay of 1915 – the year he began The Cantos :

A very few only…can transform the acts of others into their own personal thoughts, the multitude of men thinks only thoughts already emitted, feels but feelings used up, and has but sensations as faded as old gloves.

The Cantos in Canto VII , where it is applied to one of the leaders of Irish nationalism:

The words rattle: shells given out by shells.
The live man, out of lands and prisons,
shakes the dry pods, (52/27)

Later, in a letter to his father of 1927, Pound was to epitomise the heroic complex of his poem in this connection as ‘Live man goes down into the world of the Dead.’ The hero of The Cantos then, is, according to Pound, more alive than his contemporaries (who are, by and large, metaphorically dead ); he possesses a directed will, and through that will , he revives and renews his own particular historical and geographical milieu.

The idea of a ‘live man’ going down into ‘the world of the Dead’ was already engaging Pound’s mind in 1915, as he wrote in ‘Affirmations’ – an essay published in the February edition of The New Age :

This type of mind shuts…You find a man one week young, interested, active, following your thought with his thought, parrying and countering, so that the thought you have between you is more alive than the thought you may have apart. And the next week (it is almost as sudden as that) he is senile. He is anchored to a dozen set phrases…You look sadly back over the gulf, as Ut Napishtim looked back at the shades of the dead, the live man is no longer with you…He has gone from Elysium into the basso inferno.

The Cantos with Odysseus among the shades of the dead rather than Ut Napishtim from the Epic of Gilgamesh . But the idea is independent of any particular character from literature or myth, and it is, of course, a very common motif in most ancient cultures, as Pound knew very well, referring to stories of heroes descending to the underworld in his book The Spirit of Romance as ‘a confirmed literary habit of the race.’

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Ezra Pound
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