Ezra Pound: Poems

Ezra Pound: Poems Summary and Analysis of "The Cantos: XXXI - LI" (1934-1937)


An alternate name for Cantos XXXI-XLI is "Eleven New Cantos." In the the first four of these Cantos, Pound uses many quotes from the writings of American politicians such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren in order to illustrate the history of the United States and the American banking system. In Canto XXXV, Pound contrasts Revolutionary America with "Mitteleuropa," a German term for central Europe, and reveals traces of his famous antisemitism. In Canto XXXVI, Pound translates the poem Donna mi pregha by Cavalcanti; the poet felt this poem was a significant representation of "clear song."

In Canto XXXVII, Pound returns to familiar topics like the Bank War and the Peggy Eaton affair, as well as historical figures like Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson, Nicholas Biddle, and Alexander Hamilton. Canto XXXVIII opens with a quote from Dante, and then goes on to address modern commerce, trade, and the problem of purchasing power. In Canto XXXIX, Pound returns to mythology, taking his reader to the island of Circe. Canto XL opens with Adam Smith's beliefs about trade as a conspiracy, and then includes a condensed retelling of Hanno the Navigator's voyage along the coast of west Africa. Pound closes the "Eleven New Cantos" by calling Benito Mussolini a man of action and then denouncing war again.

Cantos XLII-LI is also known as the Fifth Decad or "the Leopoldine Cantos." In Cantos XLII-XLIV, Pound discusses the Sienese bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena (the oldest surviving bank in the world), and the 18th century reforms of Pietro Leopoldo, the Habsburg Archduke of Tuscany. The Monte die Paschi was different from most banks because it was low-interest and not-for-profit, thus embodying Pound's non-capitalist ideals. In Canto XLV, Pound speaks out against usury and unethical bank loans. Canto XLVI is about the Bank of England and its corrupt profit practices, which Pound believed contributed to poverty in the nation.

Canto XLVII returns to Circe's island once again, where Odysseus is about to "sail after knowledge." In Canto XLVIII, Pound presents more instances of usury, and once again displays hints of antisemitism. Then, the setting moves to the village of St. Bertrand-de-Comminges, which stands on the former site of the ancient city Lugdunum Convenarum. Pound believed that the destruction of this ancient city represented the barbarous nature of human civilization.

In comparison, Canto XLIX is a tranquil verse, based on a Chinese picture book. Canto L contains more antisemitism, as Pound moves from John Adams to the failure of the Medici bank and other images of the European decay after Napoleon I's rule. The final canto in this section is about usury, and also contains instructions on making fishing flies, which shows man in harmony with nature. The first Chinese characters in this work appear at the end of this canto.


The first set of cantos focus on history with allusions to economics. In general, this group of cantos contains an in-depth analysis of modern finance. Pound examines the American banking system and the American Bank War, comparing it to the Monte dei Paschi (which he viewed as non-corrupt) and the failure of the Medici bank. He claims that the practice of usury is both contrary to the laws of nature and inimical to the production of powerful art and culture. He examines the history of banking and how it become increasingly corrupt throughout the course of history.

Pound also focuses more on America in this section of cantos than he did in the previous one. Most of his writing after his move to Europe underlines his cynicism about America, and it seems that his opinion has only become more bleak. Pound frequently brings up America's forefathers as examples of corruption, scandal, bad business and predatory banking practices. One of the explanations for Pound's negativity was his hatred of capitalism. Since America exemplified capitalism during this time, it certainly stroked Pound's anger and criticism.

Pound's antisemitism had not yet hit its peak when he wrote The Cantos, but it is certainly evident throughout these verses. Pound was living in fascist Italy during that time, and both Italy and fascist Germany were filled with anti-Semitic propaganda, calling Jews "disease" and "vermin" and insisting that they brought a plague onto society. Soon after The Cantos was published, Pound started recording anti-semitic and pro-fascist broadcasts, which would significantly ruin his reputation for the rest of his career. The hints of antisemitic sentiment in The Cantos foreshadow his downfall.

Pound's concept of "clear song" is apparent in the previous section of The Cantos as well as this one. His supported the eradication of antiquated poetic language in favor of inventing a new one that would allow him to pierce the readers' minds with his "clear song." He described the "clear song" as an instantaneous understanding of the world and its connections. To do this, Pound wrote in free-verse and constructed this poem like a collage of quotes, historical anecdotes, and examples of prominent figures. Pound's "clear song" philosophy explains why The Cantos does not progress in chronological order. The poet cycles through different phases of history and poetry, moving from ancient Greek myths to modern banking practices, in order to show that everything is connected in some way.