There's no sugarcoating it, Pound blusters through this poem like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. From the opening two lines, you can tell that Pound is getting totally Biblical on us, and we're not talking about the nice "love one another" New Testament stuff. We're talking some Old Testament, "You're gonna' burn" stuff.
Just get a load of lines 1 and 2, where Pound writes, "With Usura/ With usura hath no man a house of good stone" (1-2). For starters, he capitalizes the word "usura" and gives it to us in the Latin form to make it sound like one of the seven deadly sins. On top of that, the imagery of a house made of stone makes the poem seem like it's set in Bible times, even though this description could still apply to houses today.
As Pound continues, he gets even more aggressive, occasionally pulling out all caps to say something like "CONTRA NATURAM," which means "against nature" in Latin. No doubt about it, you can tell just from the way this poem sounds that you're gonna get yourself a heaping bowl of moral indignation from Pound. And if you think it sounds blustery when you're reading it, just try listening to Pound reading it. You might notice that at the end, he actually breaks off and tries to explain his point in a few words.
At first glance, this is one of those titles that might make you go, "Um… what?" Don't worry. Shmoop's got your back.
First of all, "canto" is the Italian word for "song." The word comes from classical Italian poetry, where poets would divide long poems up according to cantos that way that novels have chapters. So by using the word canto, Pound is definitely connecting himself to an old, old tradition of European poetry. Think of this poem as wearing a big sign that says "Look at me! I'm profound and educated and important and awesome!"
More specifically, the most famous poet to divide his works into cantos is Dante Alighieri, the Italian master who wrote such famous poems as Inferno and Purgatorio. In these poems, Dante (who is also the speaker) follows his guide Virgil down into hell to explore the darkest depths of the human soul. That's sort of like the same thing Pound is doing by following Odysseus into the underworld in these Cantos. So in this sense, both Pound and Alighieri are trying to express the dark side of humanity in poetic form, maybe so they can come to terms with it and find a way to make it beautiful.
That this Canto is numbered XLV (45) means that 44 other Cantos have come before it (and there will be more after, too). It might be right around this time that people realized that Pound's The Cantos was going to be a lifelong project. Scholars and anthologies usually refer to this Canto as the "Usura" Canto, which also makes total sense, since Pound uses the word "usura" twenty times in fifty lines. The repetition of this word also gives the poem a tone of obsession, which is probably an accurate reflection of Pound's state of mind at the time he wrote the thing. After all, he wasn't that far away from his twelve-year stay in a psychiatric hospital.
Seriously, this is a lyric poem, which means that its main purpose is to give us insight into the thoughts and feelings of a given speaker. In this case, we're getting access to the thoughts and feeling of Pound himself. And if you were to draw up a picture of what the inside of his mind looks like, it looks a lot like some village from Bible-times that's being ruined by usura and modern finance.
For example, when Pound writes that, "With usura hath no man a house of good stone/ each block cut smooth and well fitting" (2-3) or that "weaver is kept from his loom/ WITH USURA" (22-23), you'll notice that he's not talking about skyscrapers or telephones. He's using images that make us feel connected to our humanity's quaint, rural roots. You feel like you're in a nice little village, except this village is being totally ruined by modern finance and usura.
Knowing what we do about Pound's personal views on modern economics, it's really impossible to say that the speaker of Canto XLV is anyone other than Pound himself. In earlier Cantos, like I and II, Pound is happy to adopt the voices of ancient poets like Homer and Ovid. But by the time he reaches Canto XLV, Pound is ready to take up the role of speaker himself.
And not only is it Pound speaking, but it's Pound speaking as though he were some sort of Christian God. You can tell by the way he uses language that Pound thinks pretty highly of his moral position. Lines calling usura a "sin against nature" (14) are one thing; but saying the same thing in Latin and with all caps ("CONTRA NATURAM") makes Pound sound especially angry and godlike.
As with most modernist poetry, you're going to have a tough time following Canto XLV if you don't get all of Pound's references. But with that said, you can at least get a sense of how much this guy doesn't like what he calls "usura."
Also, you can probably get a general sense of how usura tends to discourage craftspeople and artists from doing good work. Even though the poem is difficult, it is also very repetitive, which can help you understand it a little more easily than something like Eliot's "The Waste Land," which keeps jumping between speakers and talks about lots of different things.
As you probably know by now, Ezra Pound (and the Modernists in general) weren't shy when it came to telling their audiences that the modern world stank and that poets were the right people to help make it better. But in this poem, Pound really outdoes himself and all of his contemporaries.
The amount of times this guy goes back to the word "usura" (twenty times) is staggering, and it gives all of Canto XLV the vibe of a sermon being delivered by a hectoring old priest. You especially get a sense of Pound's preachiness when he starts using all caps, like in line 24, "WITH USURA" and line 47, "CONTRA NATURAM." The use of Latin also helps you identify the poem as Pound's, since Pound loved to throw in different languages to help establish his intellectual and moral authority over his readers.
Oh yeah, and Pound loves to throw out the obscure references in this poem, too. Totally a Pound move.
As with many of his Cantos, Pound decides not to worry too much about unstressed syllables in Canto XLV. The only syllables he counts out for each line are the stressed ones, which is a type of meter known as accentual verse. Pound would have known that this type of meter is closely associated with Old English poetry (we're talking maybe 1100 C.E., like Beowulf). Yeah, the guy knew a thing or two about the history of poetry.
It might be a tricky thing to get your head around, but Old English poetry uses a different kind of meter than the one you're probably used to, where you count the number of stressed and unstressed syllables. Old English poetry only cares about the number of stressed syllables per line, leaving the number of unstressed syllables totally random. This type of meter is called accentual verse, while the kind you're used to is called accentual-syllabic (because the number of syllables—both stressed and unstressed—matters).
Confused yet? Well here's a good example of this accentual trimeter, which means that each line has three stressed syllables and a totally random number of unstressed ones:
Usura rusteth the chisel
It rusteth the craft and the craftsman
It gnaweth the thread in the loom
None learneth to weave gold in her pattern (38-41)
As you can probably see, there's no real logic to the syllables that aren't stressed. The one consistent thing is that there are three stressed syllables per line, and that's all that matters for accentual trimeter.
Throughout Canto XLV, Pound tries to criticize the modern world's obsession with money by focusing on the more beautiful parts of life that money doesn't care about. One of the beautiful things he chooses to focus on is the notion of skilled craftspeople, the people who build our homes, lay our bricks, and weave our clothing. For Pound, the modern world doesn't care if these people do their job well. It only cares if they do it cheaply…
… Which, if your Pound, is a huge bummer. It's because the modern world is bottom-line driven that Pound says, "With usura hath no man a house of good stone" (2). In other words, houses aren't built to last the way they used to be. They're designed so that they won't cost very much—that way you can build a whole ton of 'em on the cheap. When you're walking down the street sometime, take a moment to glance at an old stone church; then compare it to a strip mall. Which one do you think is more beautiful? Which one was built to last? And finally, which one was built in the modern, money-hungry world? Think about it.
Of all the things that get ruined by a modern world obsessed with money, great art is the one that bothers Ezra Pound the most. For Pound, there's honestly not much point to life without beauty, and the main way we're able to get beauty into our lives (according to him) is through art. Pound makes no bones about it; if the world had always cared about nothing but money, we wouldn't have all of the beautiful art that has been passed down to us from centuries ago.
If you know your Bible and your ancient myths, you'll know that the idea of fertility is central to pretty much all of Western thought, right up into the modern age. Simply put, fertility is the quality of being able to reproduce or give birth. In other words, a form of life without fertility isn't able to create future generations. For Pound, the modern world's inability to create anything beautiful is a type of symbolic infertility. Sure, we have great works of art from the past; but without making any ourselves, we're not making any meaningful contribution to the future of humanity. We're just looking out for ourselves and our money.
Sure, Pound sort of mentions sex in this poem when he talks about how usura has "brought palsey to be" (45), but he only mentions sex for the sake of saying that the "young bride and her bridegroom" can't have any (46). The modern obsession with money pretty much ruins everything that's beautiful about human life, at least according to Pound. It's really only the mention of "whores" in line 48 that bumps this thing up to PG-13. That's just not nice language, Ezzie.