Study Guide

Canto I Suffering

By Ezra Pound

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Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, (4-5)

First of all, it can't be easy to get a bunch of sheep onto an old-timey wooden ship. On top of that, it can't be easy to do this when you've got a body that "Heavy with weeping." Do you know what Homer's talking about here? Have you ever cried so badly that it leaves your abs and legs feeling tired? That's kind of what he means when he says the sailors' bodies were heavy with weeping.

Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and of the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, (29-31)

When Odysseus meets the spirits of the underworld, it's not like he's only running into old men. He's running into all sorts of people, including people who died when they were still young, like brides and youths. These people were in the prime of life when they died, and truth be told, it might have been Odysseus who killed some of them. The guy did, after all, just get finished with massacring the city of Troy.

But first Elpenor came, our fried Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth. […]
Unwept, unwrapped in sepulcher, since toils urged other. (42-45)

So when Odysseus runs into his old buddy Elpenor in the underworld, things get a little awkward. First, Odysseus is all like, "Hey, I just saw you a few days ago. When (and how) did you die?" And Elpenor is all like, "Hey man, you gotta turn back and make sure I get buried, or else I'm suffering in limbo for all eternity."

          And he in heavy speech:
"Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe's ingle.
Going down the long ladder unguarded,
I fell against the buttress," (49-52)

So here's the deal with Elpenor's death: he got really hammered off of wine and climbed up on a roof for a nice snooze. But then when he was getting back down the ladder, he fell and basically broke his neck, killing himself. We feel bad for all of this poor guy's suffering. But it also would've helped if Elpenor hadn't drunk too much and climbed onto a roof—just saying.

And he strong with the blood, said then: "Odysseus
Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
Lose all companions." (65-67)

Now it's time for the prophet Tiresias to tell Odysseus what's going to happen in the future. If turns out that Odysseus and his crew aren't going to have an easy time of it. In fact, Odysseus finds out that he's going to lose every one of his friends before he makes it home. So now Odysseus can start the suffering a little early, since he already knows what's coming.

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