Get your jaw warmed up, because you're gonna have to chew on this poem for a while before the thing starts making sense.
For starters, Pound begins by mentioning some woman named Eleanor and says that she spoiled (like fruit?) in a British climate.
If you've read Canto II, you might remember that Pound uses the name Eleanor in that poem to refer to Helen of Troy, whose beauty started the Trojan War and got a bunch of people killed. But by saying that Eleanor spoiled in a British climate, Pound seems to be referring to Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124-1204 C.E.), a woman who was married to King Louis VII of France, but later got a divorce and ran off to marry King Henry II of England. Pound's allusion to Eleanor "spoiling" in a British climate might refer to the fact that Eleanor came to England from France having ideals about "creative love" and partnership between men and women. Henry II liked this type of thinking at first, but eventually got tired of being partners in marriage and imprisoned Eleanor while he had an affair with another woman. So Pound here might be starting things off by talking about how people have a tendency of disregarding true beauty once they grow tired of it.
We'd like to take this opportunity to let you Shmoopers know that, for the purposes of this poem, we're going to mash together Ezra Pound and the speaker. We know, we know: your English teachers strictly forbid this. But with the number of references to his own life and work in this poem, we think it's expedient. See the "Speaker" section for more.
Whew, only 123 lines left to go…
'Ελανδρος and Ελέπτολις, and poor old Homer blind, blind as a bat, Ear, ear for the sea-surge—; rattle of old men's voices.
Pound again refers back to Canto II in lines 2-4. The mention of 'Ελανδρος and Ελέπτολις is a reference to the names that the ancient dramatist Aeschylus gave to Helen of Troy. The names sound like "Helen" in Greek, but they actually translate into English as "Destroyer of men" and "Destroyer of cities." So now Pound is either talking about how beauty can be dangerous, or he's criticizing Aeschylus for being afraid of true beauty. It's tough to say which way he's going at the moment, so we're just gonna roll with it.
When Pound talks about Homer here, he's basically saying that it was a huge bummer that the poet Homer was blind. But, hey, this blindness is also what made Homer sensitive to sounds—like the sound of the sea—and there's little doubt that Homer's blindness gave him a better ear for writing great poetry.
Unfortunately, line 4 ends by replacing the beauty of Homer's ear with the "rattle of old men's voices." We don't know who these old men are just yet. They might be the old dudes Pound mentions in Canto II, who sit on the walls of Troy and complain about the trouble that the beautiful Helen will bring to their city. In any case, we're gonna' have to watch out for these old men and their dry voices, because Pound doesn't seem to like them.
And then the phantom Rome, marble narrow for seats "Si pulvis nullus…" In chatter above the circus, "Nullum excute tamen."
All of a sudden, Pound goes from talking about the world of Ancient Greece to the world of Ancient Rome. And we're all thinking, "Yeah, what's the diff?" According to Pound, the world of Rome is "phantom" compared to Greece. We're not sure why yet, but Pound is saying here that there's something more substantial or genuine about Ancient Greece compared to Rome.
Next things we know, Pound is talking about the marble seating and saying something in Latin that translates as "Even if there is no dust…" [Si pulvis nullus], "brush it off anyway" [Nullum excute tamen]. It turns out that he's referring to the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote about how the narrow, marble benches of the Roman Colosseum were designed to force men and women to sit closely to each other and to get intimate. The line about dust is basically taken from the words of a guy who wants to brush his hand against a girl's leg by pretending that there might be dust on her dress.
So Pound introduces us to his vision of Rome by describing people sitting in the audience at a "circus" and being more interested in flirting with one another than with the show or the beautiful building they're inside. It's still pretty vague and weird at this point, but he seems to be criticizing Roman culture as having lower quality values than the Greek.