Study Guide

Canto VII Analysis

By Ezra Pound

  • Sound Check

    Wistful and Angry

    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?

  • What's Up With the Title?

    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.

  • Setting

    The Old House of Pound's Mind

    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.

  • Speaker

    Who Else But Pound?

    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.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (10) Mount Everest

    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.

  • Calling Card

    The Editor Behind Eliot's "The Waste Land"

    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.

  • Form and Meter

    Mixed Bag

    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.

    Mostly Iambic and Trochaic

    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.

    Stressin' Out

    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.

  • Locusts and Shells

    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.

    • Lines 70-72: Pound introduces his shell and locust imagery beyond the midway point of Canto VII, but you can make a strong argument that this is the central, most memorable imagery of the entire poem. When Pound mentions the "Thin husks [he] had known as men," the entire tone of the poem changes. Pound goes from being sad to being angry. Or to put it another way, the first half of Canto VII has a conflict (the absence of beauty), but no real antagonist or enemy to pin the conflict on. From the moment he starts to talk about the modern men as "Dry casques [shells] of departed locusts/ speaking a shell of speech," he identifies his enemies and launches an assault against them.
    • Lines 74-75: Pound combines his imagery of locusts and shells by specifically comparing the old, modern men to the shells left behind by locusts that have molted. He's accusing these men of having no true, spiritual core, and claims that these men are "moved by no inner being." In other words, Pound doesn't see these people as fully human, though we're not totally sure why. It seems to have something to do with these men not caring about things that matter to Pound, like beauty and personal depth. Instead, these men are just a bunch of phonies whose lives don't matter, and all they add to the world is "a dryness calling for death."
    • Line 91: Line 91 simply says, "Only the husk of talk," which doesn't seem to add much to Pound's earlier claims about the old men of the modern world speaking with empty, meaningless words. But the fact that this line follows that claim, "The young men, never!" in line 90 shows us that Pound blames the problems of modern society specifically on old people who aren't open to hearing the opinions of the younger generation. 
    • Lines 104-105: Every time Pound seems to gather hope for the future, the image of old, locust-husk men keeps appearing in front of him and discouraging him. After all, the empty speech spoken by these men is hard for just one guy to overcome, even if that guy is Ezra Pound. When it all comes down to it, Pound looks to the future and finds that "the husks, before me, move,/ The words rattle: shells given out by shells." There's only so much he can do as an individual when the entire culture around him has embraced falsehood and emptiness. What's a guy to do?
    • Lines 106-107: Despite all of his despair, Pound never quite gives up on the project of bringing beauty and depth back to modern experience. At this later point in the poem, Pound thinks of himself as a "live man" in contrast to the dead men around him. He thinks of himself as a man fresh from wandering "out of lands and prisons" and who tries to "shake the dry pods" of modern people, hoping to jar them out of their dry, boring habits and to make something better out of them. In a sense, this image captures what Pound is trying to do with The Cantos in general. He's trying to educate people in the ways of beauty and to get them to live a more authentic life. In short, he wants us to stop being shells. 
    • Line 117: So far in Canto VII, the image of a shell has drawn a clear line between real, genuine people like Pound and the phony, boring old men he's fighting against. But in line 117, we hear mentions of "a more living shell," which totally changes Pound's emphasis. Rather than being totally black and white about good and bad people, Pound suggests here that people can be improved little by little. In other words, he finds hope in the idea that people can become "a more living shell" over time, until they hopefully become not a shell at all, but a full-fledged human being capable of appreciating beauty and the best things about human culture.
  • Empty Rooms

    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.

    • Lines 28-30: When he suddenly claims that "We also made ghostly visits," Pound introduces the image of walking through an old house that he remembers being in before, since "the stair […] knew us." By saying "we," he also seems to pull us into his journey, making us feel like we have a stake in what's going on.
      Pound caps off this first mention of wandering through empty rooms when he says that we were "Knocking at empty rooms, seeking a buried beauty." So in other words, he's using the wandering through empty rooms as a symbol of the modern quest we should all be on to revisit the old books of the past and to look for true beauty in them. The beauty isn't gone, just "buried," meaning that we'll have to put in some work if we're going to uncover it. 
    • Lines 32-33: As Pound keeps looking through the old house and searching for beauty, he knocks on doors and waits for an answer. In this case, he represents beauty as a beautiful person (probably a woman) who is supposed to answer his knocks. But unfortunately, beauty's "well formed fingers/ Lift no latch of bent bronze" to let Pound in to see her face to face. Worse yet, there's "no voice to answer," meaning that the house gives no evidence that the beauty Pound's seeking is anywhere inside. At this point, the beauty Pound is after is starting to seem like a figment of his imagination. 
    • Lines 41-42: After describing the sad experience of knocking on doors and getting no answers, Pound shifts his focus to the threshold spaces of the old house he's wandering through. More specifically, he focuses on the house's lintel. That makes us think of thresholds and spaces that are caught in-between two rooms, just as Pound feels himself caught between the modern time he's living in and the classical past that he wants to bring into the modern world. The fact that Pound compares the lintel he's standing beneath with Liu Ch'e's lintel creates a comparison between Pound's work and the poetry of Liu Ch'e, a Chinese poet from the 1300s. But the comparison is short-lived, as Pound feels like "Time [is] blacked out with the rubber." In other words, it's like someone just took a pink, rubber eraser and destroyed all of the history that still clings to the room Pound's walking through. For Pound, one of the worst aspects of the modern world is its tendency to not care about the past and to focus only on the present. 
    • Lines 45-47: Pound makes one final trip around the old house, focusing on the "Low ceiling and the Erard and silver." It really seems here as if Pound is remembering a specific room from his own life, complete with its "Four chairs [and] bow-front dresser." But this trip down memory lane will be the last of Pound's sad wanderings through empty rooms. After these lines, the poem quickly turns aggressive and hateful. Pound stops focusing on his sadness and turns angry when he thinks of the people who are responsible for banishing beauty from modern life. For more info on these enemies of Pound, check out our Shmoopy commentary on the imagery of "Locusts and Shells" in this poem.
  • Tacky Decorations

    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.

    • Lines 13-15: Not everyone is gong to understand these lines because they're all written in French. And without a Google search, even fewer people are going to realize that these lines are taken from a story by the French author Gustave Flaubert. Further still, it's hard to figure out what Pound's getting at even after you know where these lines come from and realize that they just list a bunch of details about an old house. It's not until you really grasp the tone of Pound's whole poem that you begin to realize that Pound is probably quoting these lines with irony, making fun of people's tendency to focus on unimportant things like the objects in their house instead of worrying about the good stuff, like whether or not the whole world is falling apart. 
    • Lines 16-22: In these lines, we really get a sense of just how much Pound has it out for the modern folks—who are to blame for the death of beauty, of course. More specifically, he seems to blame boring, middle class people who spend their lives trying to act like rich, cultured people without taking the time and effort to actually educate themselves. Oh, and when he talks about "columns of false marble," Pound symbolizes the fact that these people want their houses to look like buildings from classical Greece. But the fact that they use cheap, false marble means that they really don't get the point. If you're going to build something beautiful, you can't be worried about doing it quickly or cheaply. It has to take time, energy, and resources. And as we read on, we realize that the house with the false marble columns isn't even owned by the people inside it. It's a rental or "leasehold" building, meaning that any repairs or improvements people make to it are going to be quick and slapdash. The people living in this place don't actually have any stake in whether or not it will last. They just want to put in cheap, tacky decorations that'll last a few years until they move back out. 
    • Lines 76-80: By this point in the poem, we might think we've seen the last of tacky decorations. But that's not the case, as Pound places us "between walls of a sham Mycenian,/ 'Toc' sphinxes, sham-Memphis columns." The repetition of the word "sham" alone should do the trick for us. If the people just ignored the past and made their homes ultra-modern, that'd be one thing. But the fact that these people try to recapture the beauty and greatness of the past and do such a terrible job is what really bothers Pound. 
    • Line 89: By this point, Pound is starting to feel a glimmer of hope for the future of humanity in general. But just when things might get a little better, "The old room of the tawdry class asserts itself." Pound is still talking about the connection between lame modern people and the tacky rooms they tend to hang out in. And overall, the message seems to be: if you spend all of your time hanging out in tacky rooms, how do you ever expect to be something other than a tacky person?
    • Lines 109-110: One last time, Pound can't help but mention "the tawdry table" that's being occupied by the same old men whom Pound blames for the problems with the modern world. To learn more about these men, check out our analysis of "Locusts and Shells" in Canto VII. Pound sees himself as a poet trying to jar these boring people back to life. But all they want to do is sit around their boring dinner table and "put forks in cutlets" without speaking to one another about anything worthwhile. And we all know how brutal a boring dinner conversation is, right?
  • The Beautiful Woman

    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…

    • Lines 31-33: While he's wandering through the empty (symbolic) house, Pound tells us that he's looking for a buried beauty. But unfortunately, he also tells is in lines 30 and 31 that "the sun-tanned gracious and well-formed fingers/ Lift no latch of bent bronze, no Empire handle." Worse yet, there is "no voice to answer." In these lines, Pound implies that some beautiful feminine presence might be somewhere inside the house of his mind. But he just can't find her, and she doesn't give any answer to his calls. Shmoopers, can we just pause for a second to acknowledge that these lines are a big ol' bummer? In one of the saddest moments of this poem, Pound seems to be on the verge of giving up his search for beauty. By this point, he's spent the better part of his life trying to make the world understand his point of view and trying to get people to appreciate everything that's beautiful in life. Alas, ain't gonna happen.
    • Lines 56-59: After wandering through the rooms of his mind and looking for beauty, Pound wonders if beauty is actually "dead as Tyro." Tyro was the name of a nymph who was raped by the sea god Poseidon. Here, Pound is no doubt wondering if the modern world has ruined beauty in an irreversible way, and he seems genuinely concerned that all of this efforts to find beauty might be for nothing. Follow this concern, he yells out the name "Eleanor," which probably refers to Helen of Troy, the symbol of classical beauty whom Pound feels to be fading away from him as his despair grows. 
    • Lines 61-68: But just when his hope starts to wane again, Pound finds his feet and mentions "Lamplight at Buovilla," which is an allusion to poetry from medieval France that focuses on the poet's love for a beautiful woman. As he continues, Pound mentions how "Nicea moved before me," claiming that his ideal of beauty is still somewhere in his mind, guiding his actions. Pound ends the passage by saying "We alone having being." In other words, he thinks that the only things in the world that are actually real are himself and his ideal of beauty. Everyone else has been robbed of life by ignorance and stupidity, and only Pound knows how to bring them back to life. And that, folks, is what people today would probably call Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 
    • Lines 84-87: In one last effort to call up his ideal of beauty and show it to his readers, Pound talks about the "Square even shoulders and the satin skin" of the woman who's supposed to symbolize beauty. But unfortunately, this woman's cheeks are "gone" because she's been made unhealthy and sickly by the warped modern world. Instead, this woman is totally imprisoned by the dead, boring talk of modern men, whose language "makes stiff about her a glass." Here, you can picture the beautiful woman being put underneath a glass dome and turned into a specimen by the shell-like words and empty thoughts of modern people who don't care about beauty like they should (at least according to Pound).
  • Steaminess Rating

    G

    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.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Homer (2)
    • Ovid (6-7)
    • Bertrand de Born (10)
    • Dante Alighieri (12, 23,92)
    • Gustave Flaubert (13-15, 54)
    • Liu Ch'e (41)
    • Ezra Pound, "Ione, Dead the Long Year" (40)
    • Propertius (52)
    • Luis de Camoens, Lusiads (52)
    • Tyro (56)
    • Arnaut Daniel, "Sweet Songs and Cries" (61)

    Historical References

    • Eleanor of Aquitaine (1)
    • Helen of Troy (2,57, 59, 63)
    • Fritz Vanderpyl (49)
    • Dido, Queen of Carthage (95)
    • Lorenzo de Medici (112)
    • Alessandro de Medici, Duke of Florence (119)