"Canto II" is the second out of more than a hundred poems collected within Ezra Pound's massive project, The Cantos. Like his first Canto, Pound spends most of "Canto II" translating and retelling a story from classic poetry. While "Canto I" focuses on The Odyssey by Homer, "Canto II" takes its story from Book 3 of a long poem called The Metamorphoses by a Roman guy named Ovid. The first part of "Canto II," though, doesn't dive straight into Ovid, but continues talking about the sea and about Helen of Troy, the woman whose beauty helped to set off the Trojan War after a guy named Paris kidnapped her from her husband, Menelaus. In this section of the poem, we find Pound exploring the idea that beauty can be a very dangerous thing that can provoke people to extreme violence. Yikes.
In fact, the idea of violent beauty seems to be almost everywhere in "Canto II." As with "Canto I," Pound leaves it largely to us to figure out how his poetry is connected to our modern situations. But, when you think about it, Pound might be trying to help us understand how people from the past tended to think about beauty. When we modern folks think about beauty, we might often think about delicate things like flowers and violins. But when the Greeks thought about beauty, they thought about something that was dangerous, something that could cause war and death.
For the most part, Pound seems to write Cantos I and II the way he does because he wants to prepare us for the long-term experience of reading The Cantos as a whole. For this reason, he chooses to expose us directly to the kinds of classical stories, poetry, and themes that he thinks are crucial for understanding what role art plays in modern people's experience. So with that in mind, sit back and enjoy this harrowing story about panthers, killer ivy plants, fugitive murderers, and gods who turn people into fish.
Yup, it's all in there.
Why Should I Care?
When you get down to it, Ezra Pound uses "Canto II" to try to teach us all about beauty. But when Pound talks about beauty, he ain't talking about airbrushed photos of celebrities on magazine covers. He's talking about the kind of beauty that starts massive wars and kills an entire crew of sailors. Confused yet? Well, one of the main things Pound wants to show us in "Canto II" is that for the Greeks, beauty was never a sign of delicacy. It was actually a sign of power and danger.
Take, for example, Michelangelo's statue of David. Nowadays, a lot of people think of this figure as a representation of style and technique. But originally, this statue was placed at the gates of the city of Florence with its glaring eyes turned toward Rome, as a way of telling other people not to mess with the Florentines. You might notice that David has something slung over his left shoulder. That's the slingshot he used the kill the huge, muscular Goliath. Well, the early, menacing symbolism of this statue can kind of give us a hint on how to read Pound's thoughts on beauty.
Basically, Pound is saying that modern folks have a warped sense of what beauty actually is. Beauty is not a china mug or a fancy piece of bling. Beauty is aggressive and potentially very dangerous. It's more like an eagle: beautiful to look at, but not something you want to disrespect or mess with.
So why should you care about a sexy, killer eagle? One reason is that this idea, the idea at the center of "Canto II," is a chance to think about an everyday value in a new, revealing way. Beauty doesn't just look like what you're shown in a catalog, or your secret crush in study hall. There's a whole hidden possibility there, if you just take this chance to, you know, think about it. Pound's thinking, too: if we can get back to looking at beauty this way, we have a shot at recovering the roots of our culture and rediscovering where our world belongs in the grand scheme of things. And what could be more beautiful than that?