Reading the 'Cantos': A Study of Meaning in Ezra Pound

Reading the 'Cantos': A Study of Meaning in Ezra Pound

Reading the 'Cantos': A Study of Meaning in Ezra Pound

Reading the 'Cantos': A Study of Meaning in Ezra Pound


First published in 1967, this is a study which tackles the central problem of meaning, within Ezra Pound's The Cantos. It deals with the question of important critical issues, as well as of interpretation and understanding. Students of modern poetry will derive great benefit from this vigorous and lucid analysis of Pound's masterpiece. Noel Stock's finding is radical: that The Cantos is not a really a poem at all, but rather notes towards a poem. It is a collection of fragments of varying quality - some of extraordinary power and beauty - but in no sense formed into a work of art.


Of the following pages it may be said that the aim is simpler than the result. I have tried to show what Ezra Pound has actually written in the Cantos, insisting upon what he has written as the necessary original around which any reading must revolve. At the same time I suggest that the work is nothing like advertised. That too much has been read into it which is simply not there. Too much taken for granted, for which there is no warrant in the text and scarce any or none in Pound’s other writings.

Even Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie have erred in these respects. Both have written elaborate, learned and often penetrating studies of various aspects of the Cantos: Professor Kenner with the brilliance that is his trademark; Professor Davie, in his book, Ezra Pound, Poet as Sculptor (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), with an ease that is truly admirable. For their task they possess many notable qualifications, but they lack at least one which might be fairly thought to be indispensable, namely the ability to distinguish between what the Cantos actually say and what they might have said had Pound written a more comprehensible work. They supplement the deficiencies of the former with arguments from the latter, which is of their own imagination. With the result that they cannot come to grips with the special problems which the work presents to the reader who wants to read it as poetry. Even George Dekker, who in his Sailing after Knowledge (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963) is sometimes more critical, and in some ways more valuable, than the other two, is far too easygoing in his assumptions about the text, and, like Professors Kenner and Davie, far too apt to accept, even if only indirectly, Pound’s own estimates of his achievement. Much as we admire their work, and have profited thereby, the gap between what they say about the Cantos and what the Cantos say is far too wide for us to be able to accept them as interpreters.

It is one thing to comment on the difficulties or obscurities of a classic the general import of which has for long been accepted as a basis for admiration and disagreement. Quite another to treat as a classic a work which nobody has yet shown any signs of understanding. Our present task is not then to discuss the obscurities of a text in the main already understood, but to work out what the text means.

As it is not in the nature of this book to deal with textual problems, of which in the Cantos there are many, I have for convenience used recent editions readily available: The Cantos of Ezra Pound (Faber & Faber, London, 1954), Section: Rock-Drill (Faber & Faber, 1957), and Thrones (Faber & Faber, 1960), all of which are collected in the . . .

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