Study Guide

Canto II

By Ezra Loomis Pound

Canto II Introduction

"Canto II" is the second out of more than a hundred poems collected within Ezra Pound's massive project, The Cantos. Like his first Canto, Pound spends most of "Canto II" translating and retelling a story from classic poetry. While "Canto I" focuses on The Odyssey by Homer, "Canto II" takes its story from Book 3 of a long poem called The Metamorphoses by a Roman guy named Ovid. The first part of "Canto II," though, doesn't dive straight into Ovid, but continues talking about the sea and about Helen of Troy, the woman whose beauty helped to set off the Trojan War after a guy named Paris kidnapped her from her husband, Menelaus. In this section of the poem, we find Pound exploring the idea that beauty can be a very dangerous thing that can provoke people to extreme violence. Yikes.

In fact, the idea of violent beauty seems to be almost everywhere in "Canto II." As with "Canto I," Pound leaves it largely to us to figure out how his poetry is connected to our modern situations. But, when you think about it, Pound might be trying to help us understand how people from the past tended to think about beauty. When we modern folks think about beauty, we might often think about delicate things like flowers and violins. But when the Greeks thought about beauty, they thought about something that was dangerous, something that could cause war and death.

For the most part, Pound seems to write Cantos I and II the way he does because he wants to prepare us for the long-term experience of reading The Cantos as a whole. For this reason, he chooses to expose us directly to the kinds of classical stories, poetry, and themes that he thinks are crucial for understanding what role art plays in modern people's experience. So with that in mind, sit back and enjoy this harrowing story about panthers, killer ivy plants, fugitive murderers, and gods who turn people into fish.

Yup, it's all in there.

What is Canto II About and Why Should I Care?

When you get down to it, Ezra Pound uses "Canto II" to try to teach us all about beauty. But when Pound talks about beauty, he ain't talking about airbrushed photos of celebrities on magazine covers. He's talking about the kind of beauty that starts massive wars and kills an entire crew of sailors. Confused yet? Well, one of the main things Pound wants to show us in "Canto II" is that for the Greeks, beauty was never a sign of delicacy. It was actually a sign of power and danger.

Take, for example, Michelangelo's statue of David. Nowadays, a lot of people think of this figure as a representation of style and technique. But originally, this statue was placed at the gates of the city of Florence with its glaring eyes turned toward Rome, as a way of telling other people not to mess with the Florentines. You might notice that David has something slung over his left shoulder. That's the slingshot he used the kill the huge, muscular Goliath. Well, the early, menacing symbolism of this statue can kind of give us a hint on how to read Pound's thoughts on beauty.

Basically, Pound is saying that modern folks have a warped sense of what beauty actually is. Beauty is not a china mug or a fancy piece of bling. Beauty is aggressive and potentially very dangerous. It's more like an eagle: beautiful to look at, but not something you want to disrespect or mess with. 

So why should you care about a sexy, killer eagle? One reason is that this idea, the idea at the center of "Canto II," is a chance to think about an everyday value in a new, revealing way. Beauty doesn't just look like what you're shown in a catalog, or your secret crush in study hall. There's a whole hidden possibility there, if you just take this chance to, you know, think about it. Pound's thinking, too: if we can get back to looking at beauty this way, we have a shot at recovering the roots of our culture and rediscovering where our world belongs in the grand scheme of things. And what could be more beautiful than that?

Canto II Resources

Websites

Pound's Modern American Poets Page
Great poems and commentary—comin' at you from the University of Illinois

Ezra Pound at Poets.org
For a smooth, trivia-packed account of Pound's life and his place in modern poetry, check out this site.

Great Timetable
For a clear timetable of Pound's life and some other cool links, follow us here.

Video

Italian Interview with Ezra Pound
Finding film of Ezra ain't easy, so enjoy his grandfatherly kookiness. Just make sure to click cc to get captions.

Great Ezra Pound Documentary
That's right folks. After reading such a tough poem, just lean back and enjoy part one of a great doc about Pound.

Audio

Tons of Lost Pound Recordings
Check out this site for an amazing database of Pound recordings.

Zender Does Pound
Check out this cool musical interpretation of "Canto II," by composer Hans Zender.

Images

Whacky Old Man
Whatever the title leaves out, the pic will fill in.

The Humanity
This pic gives us a good look into the suffering mind of Pound.

The Razor's Edge
Here's a rare pic of middle-aged Pound.

Articles and Interviews

The Sound of Pound: A Listener's Guide
Critic Richard Sieburth takes us through some of the things we should be looking for whenever we listen to something written by ol' Pound Cake himself.

Pound Interviewed by The Paris Review
Here you'll find some great comments from the horse's mouth, especially about his time working as a secretary for W.B. Yeats.

Books

The Celestial Tradition: A Study of Ezra's Pound's The Cantos
Here's one critics attempt to make sense of Ezra Pound's Cantos as a whole. Whew!

Ezra Pound's Cantos: A Casebook
Here we've got a book with articles written by different experts on Pound's Cantos. Like they say, many heads are better than one.

Ezra Pound and the Mysteries of Love: A Plan for The Cantos
Now we're looking at a whole new approach to The Cantos. This author seems to think that we should read them in general as being an expression of love. You'll just have to read the book to figure out how the author can argue this.

Movies & TV

In Search of Ezra Pound
Check out this two-part TV series from way back in the '60s.

American Odyssey
Yes, we'd guess that's an appropriate title for an Ezra Pound documentary.