When it comes to The Cantos, Pound can often seem like a bit of a two-trick pony. In Canto VII, for example, you'll either find him writing in a slow, sad tone or a thumping, angry one. And this all pretty much depends on how much Pound feels like blaming other people for the so-called fall of the modern world.
Earlier in the poem, for example, you get more a sense of Pound's sadness in the sound of lines like, "We also made ghostly visits, and the stair/ That knew us, found us again on the turn of it,/ Knocking at empty rooms, seeking a buried beauty" (28-30). The language is very light and wandering, conveying to us a sense of Pound's own sad search for beauty in a world where the chances for beauty to exist are all but gone.
On the other hand, Pound starts to get angrier as the poem unfolds, and he marks his anger by giving his poem a thumping, even booming sound as his language gets more aggressive. Starting at line 70, for example, Pound blames the problems of the modern world on the "Thin husks I had known as men,/ Dry casques of departed locusts/ speaking a shell of speech…" Later still, he explodes with the line, "The young men, never!", which helps convey just how much dislike Pound has for these old men who close their minds to the ideas of younger, fresher generations. Don't you just hate it when older people are like that?
First of all, "canto" is the Italian word for "song." Second, the word comes from classical Italian poetry, where poets would divide long poems up according to cantos the way that novels have chapters. So by using the word canto, Pound is definitely connecting himself to an old, old tradition of European poetry.
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 (which was so awesome they made a video game out of it) and Purgatorio. In these poems, Dante follows the main character Virgil down into hell to explore the darkest depths of the human soul. 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.
Yes, Shmoopers. You read it right. This poem takes place for the most part in a bunch of rooms in an old house. But the old house is actually a symbol of what's going on in Pound's mind as he lives day after day in the sad and boring modern world. We first hear about this strange mind-house when Pound describes how he "made ghostly visits" to "the stair that knew us, found us again on the turn of it,/ Knocking at empty rooms" (28-30).
The fact that Pound is knocking at empty rooms means that he's searching for "a buried beauty" in his current life. The problem, though, is that the "well-formed fingers" of beauty "Lift no latch of bent bronze" and offer "no voice to answer" (30-33). In other words, Pound is never able to find what he's looking for as he wanders through his day-to-day life. Like T.S. Eliot, Pound has a way of imagining the inside of his mind as a physical space, something he can wander through like an old house, searching for something he might never find.
Yeah, it's sad. But then again, it's also Modernism.
If Pound is trying to hide the fact that he's the speaker of Canto VII, he's not doing a very good job. Even the most skeptical reader in the world would have to say that if the speaker isn't Pound himself, then he's some sort of poet-hero who is very (and we mean very) similar to Pound. But that always tends to be the case with lyric poetry. Quite often, the speaker tends to harbor the same feelings and thoughts as the poet.
Besides, who else would know all of the obscure references and allusions that Pound so generously sprinkles all through this poem? Whether he's quoting about "Le vieux commode en acajou" from Gustave Flaubert, or speaking about someone's slow and honest eyes ["gli occhi onesti e tardi"] in Italian, Pound gives us the strong feeling that whoever is speaking in this poem has the exact same body of knowledge as Pound. So you can see how it's not a big leap to connect the speaker to Pound himself.
Like any of Pound's Cantos, Canto VII is full of allusions to classic literature and quotes from other languages that make it tough to understand. But what makes this poem especially difficult is the fact that even if you understand every single reference and translate every non-English, passage, it's still extremely hard to make sense of what Pound is trying to say in the first place.
One reason for this difficulty is that Canto VII went through fewer drafts than some of Pound's other Cantos, which means it's a bit rougher and less polished. But also, the poem's resemblance and historical closeness to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" might have made Pound eager to experiment with fragmented, difficult poetry.
For example, let's take a look at lines 5 through 10, which are supposed to give us a nice introduction into the poem, but instead plunge us into a bunch of random images with no apparent connection to each other:
And then the phantom Rome,
marble narrow for seats
"Si pulvis nullus…"
In chatter above the circus, "Nullum excute tamen."
Then: file and candles, e li mestiers ecoutes;
Scene – for the battle only, –but still scene,
Pennons and standards y cavals armatz
What you have here is a quotation in Latin describing how to pick up a hot date at the Roman theater, followed by a description of a sacred medieval religious ritual, followed again by a description of French knights sitting on horses with flags and spears. Even for the greatest Pound scholars in the world, the connection between these lines is not totally clear, and different people are bound to have different takes on what it all really means.
For these reasons, people tend to spend most time talking about the things in Canto VII that we can understand more easily, like Pound's sad search for beauty in an empty house and his dislike of modern men who are only shells of their former selves. In other words, don't get discouraged if you don't understand every little detail in this poem. The truth is that no one knows exactly what every single word of this poem is supposed to mean. So hey, you're not alone.
To put it bluntly, Canto VII is a lot like T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," which it predates by about three years. There is no question that Pound had some of Eliot's work in mind when he was writing Canto VII, and that Eliot's poem was in turn influenced by the fact that Pound cut more than half of its original lines. The constant shifts between different times, places, and cultures are one of the dead giveaways of Pound's style, as we see with the shift from ancient Rome to medieval France and Renaissance Italy all within lines 5 to 10.
Further, the tone of constant yearning mixed with allusions to a more beautiful, glorious past are also total Pound—through and through. But unlike Eliot's "The Waste Land," which uses several different narrators, Pound doesn't seem to trust anyone to speak his poem other than Ezra Pound himself. This is why the humbler Eliot had a tendency to speak his poetry through different characters, while the more confident and brazen Pound was more than likely to always put himself front-and-center in his own poetry.
Take, for example, the lines that read, "Damn the partition! Paper, dark brown and stretched/ My lintel, and Liu Ch'e's lintel" (38/41). In these lines, Pound inserts himself and his poetry directly into a worldwide tradition of poetic beauty that stretches back to 14th century China and its poetic master, Liu Ch'e. Other Modernist writers tend to be a little more modest about comparing their own work to the great classics of the past, but Pound doesn't even bat an eyelash. You have to hand it to him. The dude has swagger.
It can be really easy to read Canto VII and feel tempted to label the whole thing as free verse. But when studying a poet who knew the history and craft of poetry as well as Pound, we need to always assume that he's doing something interesting with his form and meter. And sure enough, if we look close enough, we find that Pound is mostly alternating between iambic lines and trochaic meters—so he's not just free-forming his way through this thing. For those who need a refresher, iambs are units of meter that go from unstressed to stressed, and trochees go from stressed to unstressed.
So in checking out the meter of this poem, let's have a look at the following passage:
The old men's voices—beneath the columns of false marble,
And the walls tinted discreet, the modish, darkish green-blue,
Discreeter gilding, and the panelled wood
Not present, but suggested, for the leasehold is
Touched with an imprecision… about three squares;
The house a shade too solid, the paintings a shade too thick.
And the great domed head, con gli occhi onesti e tardi
As you can see in line 2 of this passage, Pound almost falls into two trochees when he writes "modish, darkish." In the fourth line, on the other hand, he nearly settles into the typical tick-tock sound of iambs, writing "Not present, but suggested, for the leasehold is."
But as Pound once famously wrote, rhythm should never imitate the tick-tock of a clock or metronome. It should instead copy the more balanced and open rhythm of a musical phrase. In other words, it shouldn't be totally random like everyday talking, but it should never fall into a steady beat, either. And that's the exact kind of balance Pound strikes by always hinting at normal meters, but never really falling into them.
You might also notice while looking at the meter of these lines that Pound is a pretty big fan of creating a sense of power and gravity by throwing out three stressed syllables in a row. Whether it's the "old men's voices" of line 1 or the "great domed head" of line 7, these triple stresses have a way of interrupting the poem with a big boom-boom-boom and giving you a sense of just how massive and godly the stakes of this poem are for Pound. Then again, no one ever accused the guy of not taking himself seriously enough.
When Pound compares modern people to pesky insects and calls them "shells" of real human beings, it might seem like he's being really harsh. And he is. But on the other hand, these images are also some of the easiest to understand in all of Canto VII. This imagery first makes it appearance in line 70, where Pound starts to speak of "Thin husks I had known as men." In other words, he claims that he has seen good people ruined by the modern world and turned into shadows or shells of their former selves.
As the poem continues, Pound accuses these modern people not only of being shells, but also of turning other people into shells by "speaking a shell of speech" and infecting other people with their bitter, empty words.
When it all comes down to it, Pound is suggesting that modern people lack a spiritual core or center that people in the past used to get from their belief in beauty and art. Once these people become shells, Pound more or less loses all respect for them and calls them locusts, comparing them to insects that should be exterminated. The guy isn't all that willing to compromise on his social and artistic ideals, and you really get a sense of it through the anger he expresses in his locust and shell imagery.
It can be tough to distinguish between the images of empty rooms and badly decorated rooms in this poem, but the two actually serve very different purposes. For example, Pound talks a lot of smack about poorly decorated rooms, which is his way of symbolically saying that the modern world has no clue what it's doing when it tries to imitate the beauty of bygone eras.
When he talks about wandering through empty rooms, though, Pound is a lot more melancholic than when he's criticizing people. Instead, he has a tone of sadness as he describes himself walking through empty rooms and looking for beauty. In this sense, he symbolically represents his own quest to look for beauty in the modern world, a quest that led him from America to England, then to Paris, and eventually to Fascist Italy, where we're betting he didn't find it.
As if the empty rooms in this poem weren't bad enough, the speaker also has to contend with rooms that are full of tacky decorations. Early in Canto VII, Pound starts listing off all of the furniture in a room, and we're not really sure why at first. As he keeps doing it, though, we begin to realize that he's being sarcastic, suggesting that modern people have absolutely no clue what true style is, and that their attempts to decorate their lives with class and beauty are total failures because they don't understand the history of art and beauty like Pound does.
As the poem continues, Pound keeps bringing up images of fake Greek columns and similar decorations to show modern readers how easy it is to see through their phony attempts to look cultured. For Pound, there's just no substitute to reading the classics and knowing what you're talking about. Unfortunately, modern folks aren't willing to put in this kind of study. They just want to look like they know what they're doing, rather than actually knowing it.
Our speaker is not above the obvious. For lots of the poem, he compares our search for beauty in the world to an attractive woman. This woman, though, is always spoken of in ghostly terms, and it's unclear whether she's a figment of Pound's imagination or an actual woman Pound might have known during his lifetime.
In any case, the ghostly presence of this beautiful woman in Canto VII definitely seems to capture Pound's uncertainty about whether the beauty he's looking for is something that can actually be attained or if it's just some pipe dream that could only ever exist in his head. Not knowing the answer himself, Pound elects to leave this question with his readers, at least for the time being…
When it comes to sex, this poem is as dry as the "dead speech" given off by the people Pound dislikes so much. In fact, you can basically tell that this poem is negative because there's not a trace of sex in it. If there were sex, that would be a sign that Pound felt some sense of hope for beauty coming back to the modern world. But there's really none at all, just a "dryness calling for death" (75). So in conclusion: no sex + no beauty = one sad Ezra.