Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The back-swell now smooth in the rudder-chains,
Black snout of a porpoise
where Lycabs had been,
Fish-scales on the oarsmen. And I worship.
I have seen what I have seen. When they brought the boy I said:
"He has a god in him, though I do not know which god."
And they kicked me into the fore-stays.
- Oh, did we mention that, in the story from Ovid's Metamorphoses, Dionysius turns all of the men from the ship into dolphins and sends them out to sea? Well knowing this, we can make sense of the fact that the "black snout of a porpoise" shows up in line 103. Pound is taking a little poetic license here, but he's basically saying that Dionysius is turning the men from the crew into porpoises.
- And when he makes this transformation happen, Dionysius starts with the guy who started it all, the guy named Lycabs (the ex-convict from Italy we heard about earlier).
- Next thing you know, there are "fish scales" growing on the oarsmen, which means that they're getting turned into fish. Bad times for them.
- Meanwhile, Acoetes prays that Dionysius won't punish him in the same way. He "worships," and, looking back on everything that happened on the boat, he tries to convince us that it was all true and that he's "seen what I have seen."
- In retrospect, he even tries to argue that he knew from the get-go that the crew would pay for kidnapping the boy. He says that as soon as they brought the boy, he recognized that the boy had a god inside him, though he wasn't sure which god it was. Yeah, buddy. Sure—hindsight is 20/20. But hey, dude's arguing for his life, so we'll let it slide.
I have seen what I have seen: Medon's face like the face of a dory,
Arms shrunk into fins. And you, Pentheus,
Had as well listen to Tiresias, and to Cadmus, or your luck will go out of you.
Fish-scales over groin muscles, lynx-purr amid sea...
- After repeating that he's seen what he's seen, Acoetes says that he saw another one of his crewmates, a guy named Medon, wearing the face of a "dory," which is a type of fish. He's seen men's arms shrink into little fins as men turned to fish.
- And after all this, Acoetes focuses again on King Pentheus, the dude who defied Dionysius in another story. He says that Pentheus should have listened to the advice of the prophet Tiresias, or to Cadmus. Cadmus was the mythical founder of the city of Thebes, and he advised Pentheus not to defy Dionysius. But do you think Pentheus listened? Nope. He died.
- Lines 117-118 just reassert that the fish scales are growing all over the men. The fact that these scales are growing over the men's groins suggests that the men are actually losing their penises as they turn into fish—so much for the big bad ex-cons being proud of their manliness.
- This part trails off with the sound of a lynx purring…
And of a later year,
pale in the wine-red algæ,
If you will lean over the rock, the coral face under wave-tinge,
Rose-paleness under water-shift, Ileuthyeria, fair Dafne of sea-bords,
The swimmer's arms turned to branches,
Who will say in what year, fleeing what band of tritons,
The smooth brows, seen, and half seen, now ivory stillness.
- So now that that's all over and done with, we seem to join Acoetes as he reminisces about these events from some future time. He tells us that in, later years (maybe even today), if we go to the same place (maybe the island of Naxos), and if we lean over a rock in the sea, we might see a face down in the water.
- But who does this face belong to? Well according to the speaker, it belongs to "Ileuthyeria" or "fair Daphne." The first name belongs to a character Pound just made up, a woman who escaped from a gang of mermen ("tritons") who were trying to kill her. Here's the kicker, though. She only escapes by getting turned into a bunch of coral ("ivory stillness"), which looks like this.
- Pound's model for this story comes from the myth of Daphne, a woman who escaped the god Apollo by transforming into a tree. In both cases, mythical women escape from men by getting turned into plants.
- And the moral of the story is… well, it's hard to tell. Basically, a bunch of men want to have sex with these women because the women are beautiful, and the only way for the women to stay chaste is to turn into plants. Pound here might actually be showing us the dark side of celebrating women's beauty through art. We might want to elevate women to the status of paintings and sculptures, but we can only do that by turning them into non-living art objects. What about the women themselves? Do they need to die, or be turned into objects, to stay perfect in the eyes of men? We hope not, but it sure seems that way.