Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
HANG it all, Robert Browning,
there can be but the one "Sordello."
But Sordello, and my Sordello?
Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana.
- For starters, we can tell from the tone of the opening line that "Hang it all" is just Pound's version of "To H-E-double-hockeysticks with it all." He's not directing this comment at us, but at some guy named Robert Browning. Anyone know who that is? You in the back? That's right, he was a famous British poet from the late 1800s whom Pound admired quite a bit.
- So, if Pound admired Browning, why is he cursing at the guy, and where does this person named Sordello come into the mix? Well Sordello was an Italian "troubadour" (think hobo-meets-poet) who lived in the French region of Provence way back in the 1200s. Pound also admired this dude. And it turns out that Browning did, too, because he wrote a long poem about Sordello.
- But no matter how much he likes Browning, Pound seems to think that there's no point writing a poem about Sordello's work, because there can "only be one Sordello." Line 4 uses old French to say that Sordello was from the Mantua district. This was a detail that Browning apparently left out of his poem about Sordello. So Pound is basically telling us that if we want to know anything about Sordello, we should read the stuff written by Sordello himself, and not by someone else writing about him. So there, Robert.
So-shu churned in the sea.
Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash,
Sleek head, daughter of Lir,
eyes of Picasso
Under black fur-hood, lithe daughter of Ocean;
And the wave runs in the beach-groove:
"Eleanor, ἑλέναυς and ἑλέπτολις!"
- Next up, we're hearing about someone named "So-shu" who likes to churn in the sea. So-shu is actually just a name that Pound made up for a sea god, and the name is designed to sound like the swishing of the ocean's waves. So yeah, now we're out at sea and we're pretty much going to spend the rest of this Canto here.
- Line 6 is a textbook example of Pound's ability to summon vibrant images with his words. In it, he's talking about seals playing in the ocean ("Seal sports") while describing the white foam and spray that's kicked up by the ocean's waves as they wash against rocky cliffs.
- The sleek head of line 7 just describes the seals' heads. It also really adds to the alliteration, too. Just look at all those S words, cavorting about in this line. For more on how that relates to both the poem's form and its overall sound quality, check out "Form and Meter," and then go see "Sound Check."
- But then Pound calls the seal the "daughter of Lir." The word Lir literally means "ocean" in Celtic, and also refers to the Celtic sea god Manannan mac Lir.
- This all goes to say that Pound's speaker sees a connection between the seals he sees in the ocean and the sea-god who is supposed to rule over the ocean. And you have to admit, this is a more exciting way of looking at the ocean than just seeing a bunch of grey water. Here, Pound's showing you how making connection with Greek myth can make the world a more interesting place.
- But why does Pound then mention the "eyes of Picasso"? Well as you might know, Pablo Picasso was a Spanish painter who was well known for seeing the world from new, interesting angles that others couldn't see. So here, Pound seems to be saying that seeing the seals as connected to Greek myth can give us eyes like Picasso's and allow us to find hidden beauty in the world.
- The next two lines just describe the seals some more, calling them the daughters of the ocean and talking about how the waves move.
- In line 11, though, the speaker suddenly shouts out the name Eleanor, then two more words in ancient Greek. But what's all this now?
- Well Pound here is using the Greek name for "Helen." In other words, he's talking about Helen of Troy, the woman whose beauty was responsible for setting off the Trojan War. Basically, she was going out with guy #1. But guy #2 kidnapped her and then guy #1 started a war to get her back. Got it?
- The two names in ancient Greek are puns on Helen's name. The first one translates as "destroyer of ships" and the second one as "destroyer of cities." So at this point, Pound was just talking about seals being connected to mythical gods, and now he's talking about Helen of Troy, a woman who started a war that was fought mostly by ships on the ocean.
- Helen's beauty is something that is destructive for Pound, since her beauty is apparently the reason why many soldiers died in the Trojan War. It's not clear how we're supposed to feel about this yet. Hey, we've got a great idea: let's keep reading…
And poor old Homer blind, blind, as a bat,
Ear, ear for the sea-surge, murmur of old men's voices:
"Let her go back to the ships,
Back among Grecian faces, lest evil come on our own,
Evil and further evil, and a curse cursed on our children,
Moves, yes she moves like a goddess
And has the face of a god
and the voice of Schoeney's daughters,
And doom goes with her in walking,
Let her go back to the ships,
among Grecian voices."
- And now Pound, using a simile, is talking about poor Homer being blind. Well the Homer part makes sense, since Homer was the guy who wrote the Iliad, an epic poem that tells the story of Helen of Troy and the Trojan War. The blind as a bat part seems insulting, but Pound here might actually be suggesting that Homer's blindness (the guy was blind) made him more sensitive to the beauty of sounds. (Bats get around using sound.)
- The next line seems to suggest as much, as Pound says that Homer had an ear for the "sea-surge," meaning that he knew how to talk about the sea in poetry (which Pound spends most of "Canto II" doing, too).
- In the second half of line 13, Pound blends the sound of the sea-surge with the sound of old men murmuring, though we're not sure yet what they're murmuring about. We find out from lines 13-22 that these old men want some girl or woman to go back to the ships.
- If we remember that we were just hearing about Homer's Iliad, we realize here that the old men are murmuring about Helen of Troy. They want her to go back where she came from, back to the Greeks with the "Grecian faces." Basically, these old men seem to realize that Helen of Troy showing up in their city is going to cause a big war and get a bunch of people killed—not good.
- Lines 15 and 16 talk about how the men are scared of evil coming to their city because of Helen's presence, because they know her lover is going to try to come and take her back. They don't want their children to die just because the guy who kidnapped Helen (named Paris) wants a new wife. That's fair enough, if you ask us.
- In the next two lines, the men admit that Helen is very beautiful and, in another simile, say that she "moves like a goddess." But it's not such a nice thing when they use a metaphor to say that Helen has the "voice of Schoeney's daughters." The person Pound is talking about here is Schoeneus from Ovid's Metamorphoses. And Schoeneus's daughter was Atalanta, who was famous for challenging men to foot-races. If the men won, they'd get to marry her. If they lost, Atalanta got to kill them. And the men never won…
- Basically, the comparison between Helen and Atalanta shows us that the old men of Troy realize that they might all get killed because of Helen's beauty. The idea of beauty being a dangerous and possibly destructive thing pops up here again. Coincidence? We don't think so.
- And yeah, lines 20-22 use some figurative language ("doom goes with her in walking") to reiterate the old men's belief that Helen is gonna' get them all killed.
And by the beach-run, Tyro,
Twisted arms of the sea-god,
Lithe sinews of water, gripping her, cross-hold,
And the blue-gray glass of the wave tents them,
Glare azure of water, cold-welter, close cover.
Quiet sun-tawny sand-stretch,
The gulls broad out their wings,
nipping between the splay feathers;
Snipe come for their bath,
bend out their wing-joints,
Spread wet wings to the sun-film,
- Now it seems like we've shifted scenes again. We're back to some sort of beach, and there's someone named Tyro we're supposed to be looking at. Well, a quick search online tells us that Tyro was a mythical nymph who was raped by the sea-god Poseidon after he disguised himself as a river.
- So, from this back story, we can figure out that lines 23-27 describe the god Poseidon as he rapes Tyro as a river. His "twisted arms" grip her and even more water hides them from sight by "tenting" over them.
- While all of this sexual assault is happening under a thin layer of water, the rest of the world seems to go on in its own pleasant way. Seagulls fly around and nip at their feathers without a care in the world. Other seabirds called "snipes" ruffle some of the water off of themselves. But none of them seem to realize what's happening nearby.
- It's hard to be certain about what Pound is saying here. The scene seems to show us that beauty is a very desirable thing, but its desirability can cause a lot of violence, whether it's the example of Helen getting Troy burned to the ground, Tyro being raped by Poseidon, or Atalanta killing every man who tries to marry her—a pretty mixed bag, really.
And by Scios,
to left of the Naxos passage,
Naviform rock overgrown,
algae cling to its edge,
There is a wine-red glow in the shallows,
a tin flash in the sun-dazzle.
- So everything in lines 34 and 35 makes total sense (in terms of the directions we're given), except for the words "Scios" and "Naxos," which are a pair of islands off the coast of Greece. More specifically, Naxos used to be the home of cults that worshipped Dionysius, the Greek god of wine and sex.
- The word "Naviform" in line 36 just means "boat-shaped," so now we're looking at a boat-shaped rock off the coast of the island of Scios. But even though a boat-shaped rock might be kind of cool, it's not enough to make us interested. We're also told that algae clings to the edge of this rock, which again doesn't seem all that interesting. Can you spice it up a bit there, speaker?
- Maybe. The next thing we know, we're being told that there's a wine-red glow in the shallow water surrounding the island. This wine-red glow might be a reference to Dionysius, who was the god of wine after all. The red coloring could also mean there's blood in the water. And the "tin flash" of the sun reflecting off the waves should make you think of sunlight hitting a piece of tinfoil.
- Hmm. It sounds like Dionysius himself might be hanging out somewhere nearby. Let's keep reading…