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Canto I

Canto I

by Ezra Pound

Stanza 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-7 

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, so winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.

  • Right from the get-go, we seem to be entering a story in the middle, which you can tell from the line "And then went down to…" Someone, or some group, seems to be going to a ship after just getting done with something else.
  • Next, we hear some fancy nautical language, learning about how this group of people "Set keel to breakers," or in other words, got the ship all ready to sail away. And before you know it, bam, they're already sailing "forth on the godly sea."
  • Now what would a sailing journey be without food? So the crew (which is a "we" by this point) makes sure to bring a bunch of sheep onto the ship. So you can probably guess that this isn't a modern voyage we're talking about. This story is definitely coming from the days when sea voyages could take weeks or even months at a time.
  • Line 4 also introduces some fine alliteration, with plenty of B words bouncing along. For more on how that relates to the form of the poem, check out "Form and Meter." For some talk about the poem's overall sound, check out "Sound Check."
  • But why would the crew's bodies be "heavy with weeping"? It sounds like something bad has just happened, and they're sailing away from where it just happened. We don't know what this thing is yet, but we should be curious by this point.
  • In line 7, we get the name "Circe." A quick Google search can tell us that Circe was the name of a sorceress from Homer's Odyssey, which is an epic poem from Ancient Greece that was first written down around 800 to 600 B.C.E.
  • It turns out that Circe had herself an island that Odysseus (the main character of The Odyssey) landed on while sailing home after the Trojan War. Odysseus was sexually tempted by Circe, who was a beautiful woman (what with her "trim-coifed" pixie cut and all) and who apparently used her magical powers to turn all of Odysseus' friends into pigs. You know, because men are pigs when it comes to beautiful women.
  • So yeah—at this point, it might be a safe bet to say that the narrator of "Canto I" is Odysseus himself. 

Lines 8-16

Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day's end.
Sun to his slumber, shadows o'er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays
Nor with stars stretched, nor looking back from heaven
Swartest night stretched over wretched men there.

  • Lines 8 to 11 are pretty straightforward, since they basically say: The crew kept sailing around at a pretty good clip ("wind jamming the tiller") until night fell ("till day's end"). Line 12, though, mentions something called the "Kimmerian lands," which is a reference to the Cimmerii, a mythical group of people who lived on the edge of the world (remember, people used to think the world was flat and that it had an edge you could fall off of).
  • Odysseus closes by saying that the people who lived at the edge of the world never saw much sunlight, because they were always covered in darkness and mist. Given that, it's no wonder that these people were probably pretty "wretched." But it's still pretty cool to see the edge of the world, even if there are no stars or sunlight and you have to stumble around in the darkest ("Swartest") night, stubbing your toe and stepping on Lego pieces.

Lines 17-23

The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe.
Here did they rites, Perimedes and Eurylochus,
And drawing sword from my hip
I dug the ell-square pitkin;
Poured we libations unto each the dead,
First mead and then sweet wine, water mixed with white flour.

  • Well, in line 17, you might wonder how the ocean could flow "backward." But it makes total sense if you believe the Earth is flat. Just think: you're probably going to try and sail away from the edge of the world, but the edge will be like a waterfall, so water will flow toward it and pull you even as you try to sail away.
  • But Odysseus and his men sound like they made it out alive, because they eventually arrived somewhere that Circe told them they would go.
  • At this new place, the people performed some sort of "rites," which is what you do to commemorate the memories of dead men. Odysseus actually specifies that two guys named Perimedes and Eurylochus performed the rites.
  • Next, Odysseus says that he took out his sword and dug a "pitkin," which is just a word Pound made up to signify a small pit. When that was done, Odysseus and his men "Poured […] libations unto each the dead." Or in other words, they poured out some wine to show their love to their fallen brothers (just think about a modern day gangsta pouring out liquor for their homies).
  • At first, they just pour out mead (beer) and sweet wine, but they eventually run out and have to pour out "water mixed with white flour" instead. Yum. Thirsty, anyone?

Lines 24-30

Then prayed I many a prayer to the sickly death's-heads;
As set in Ithaca, sterile bulls of the best
For sacrifice, heaping the pyre with goods,
A sheep to Tiresias only, black and a bell-sheep.
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and at the old who had borne much; 

  • While mourning his fallen friends, Odysseus prays a lot to their "death's-heads," which are basically just their human skulls. Next he mentions how things are done in Ithaca, which is the name of the place he's trying to get to so he can see his wife Penelope and son Telemachus again.
  • He mentions also how it's good to sacrifice animals (especially sterile bulls) to help commemorate the dead. When you sacrifice something in Greek tradition, you burn it in a big pile (or pyre) and throw some more stuff onto it (everyday goods).
  • While burning the sacrifice, Odysseus makes sure to include an extra sheep specifically as a sacrifice to the blind prophet Tiresias (whom you might remember from "The Waste Land" as well). He specifically sacrifices the "bell-sheep" for Tiresias, since the bell-sheep is the sheep that leads its herd (kind of like an alpha sheep, the leader of the pack, the bleater-in-chief… you get the idea).
  • So as you can imagine, there's a lot of blood at Odysseus' sacrifice party. Watch your step. All this blood flows into a ditch (or "fosse"), and people's souls seem to come out of "Erebus," which is the darkness of Hades, or the Greeks' version of hell. This suggests that the people who've died aren't currently in the best of places.
  • The final mention of "brides," "youths," and the "old" is just Odysseus' way of remembering that he and his army just killed a bunch of people at the city of Troy—brides, kids, retirees, you name it—regardless of whether those people were soldiers.
  • Hmm. Why would he mention this point? It seems like he kind of feels bad about it now.

Lines 31-41

Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the herds, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias. 

  • And so Odysseus continues on in his list of all the innocent and young people whom he and his men killed back at Troy. But hey, a soldier's gotta do what a soldier's gotta do—right?
  • And now, as Odysseus remembers the dead and pays tribute to them, he can feel all of their souls crowding around him. As you can imagine, they're annoyed that he killed all of them (plus they have dreary—"dreory"—arms, which seems like a bummer).
  • As these people all crowd around Odysseus, he decides that the best way to make them happy is to sacrifice even more animals to them. So he tells his men to bring more animals to chuck onto the giant sacrificial fire. He even pours valuable "ointment" on the fire and cries to the gods to take care of the souls of the dead.
  • He prays specifically to Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, and to Proserpine, Pluto's wife.
  • The fact that Odysseus takes so much trouble to keep the dead away suggests that the dude has a bit of a guilty conscience for killing all of them. But when he realizes that he can't keep them away, he takes out his sword and fights to keep them away until he can hear Tiresias (even though he describes the dead as powerless and "impotent"—conflicted much, Ody?).
  • At this point, it actually sounds like Odysseus has entered the world of the dead, and now he's looking for Tiresias among the crowds of all the people he killed back at Troy. As you can imagine, he's probably looking for Tiresias because he needs some sort of advice, since Tiresias is a prophet who knows the future and stuff.

Lines 42-48

But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre, since toils urged other.
Pitiful spirit. And I cried in hurried speech:
"Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
Cam'st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?"

  • But before Odysseus can run into Tiresias down in the kingdom of the dead, he runs into one of his buddies named Elpenor. This is kind of awkward, since Odysseus didn't even know that Elpenor was dead.
  • It turns out that Elpenor actually died back on Circe's island. But because nobody realized where he'd gone, they sailed away without him, leaving him without a proper burial. Well that's a big no-no in Ancient Greek culture, because if you don't get buried after you die, your soul wanders in limbo for all eternity—no GPS or nuthin'.
  • Eventually, Odysseus wants to know how Elpenor died and how he came to the "dark coast" of the underworld. Maybe he walked ("afoot")? Check that—maybe he powerwalked super-fast ("outstripping seamen")?
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