Study Guide

Canto I Dead Spirits

By Ezra Pound

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Dead Spirits

Poor Odysseus. All the guy wants to do is descend into the underworld to have a friendly chat with a blind prophet. Is that too much to ask? But no, the second the guy gets into the land of the dead, his mother rushes up to him and asks why he doesn't leave flowers on her grave anymore. Odysseus really doesn't want to deal with this, nor does he want to deal with his friend Elpenor, who's lying dead and "Unburied, cast on the wide earth" (43) on some island, and who wants Odysseus to backtrack halfway across the world to bury him. Even before the prophet Tiresias will speak to him, Odysseus has to slaughter his best lamb as a sacrifice.

All of this goes to show that when it comes to talking to the dead, it can never be a one-way street. The dead have demands of their own, and first and foremost of these demands is that we pay them proper respect. And there might be no poet who respects dead poets more than Ezra Pound. So let that be a lesson to you. While you're reading the words of Ezra Pound, just remember that all he asks in return is for a little respect while you pick up all the awesome pearls of wisdom he wrote down nearly a hundred years ago.

  • Line 22: Pouring some out for your homies? That's an act of tribute that's centuries old. Here Odysseus and crew go through the ritual of honoring those who have passed before them.
  • Lines 29-34: The dead aren't always cool. Here the ghosts of those slaughtered in the Trojan War come back to menace Odysseus. You can read them as symbols of Odysseus's guilt for the violence he committed, but then he seems to literally draw his sword and beat them back. It's as if he's as violent toward them in death as he was in life.
  • Lines 50-57: What's Elpenor's beef? He wants to be buried properly. Here we see the importance of ritual, and how a mistreated (or in this case, overlooked) corpse can be a symptom of a larger disturbance. Hook me up with a proper tomb, Elpenor seems to say, and help set things to right.
  • Line 58: Okay, now even Odysseus's mom is bugging him. What does all of this spirit-clamoring seem to suggest? It's as if the dead themselves are restless, nagging our hero to help restore a sense of order (the way your mom might nag you to make your bed in the morning).

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