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From: Canto 1

July 17, 2017

Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and of the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the herds, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias.
But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre, since toils urged other.
Pitiful spirit. And I cried in hurried speech:
“Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
“Cam’st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?”
And he in heavy speech:
“Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe’s ingle.
“Going down the long ladder unguarded,
“I fell against the buttress,
“Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus.
“But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
“Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
“A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
“And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows.”

Ezra Pound ~1924

COMMENTARY: These are my favorite lines from the opening to Cantos, the incomplete “epic” poem that Ezra Pound worked on throughout his life. By the time he died, Pound had completed 116 sections (over 10,000 lines) but most anthologies only reprint the opening section–the labyrinthine denseness of the poem–like much of the modernist work he inspired–being forbidding to most general readers.

This excerpt describe the arrival of Odysseus to the underworld where he has come to seek the council of the prophet Tiresias. The dead crowd around Odysseus, (Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides/ Of youths and of the old who had borne much;/ Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,/ Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,/ Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms). Before he finds Tiresias, though, he sees his old shipmate Elpenor. Puzzled Elpenor he has made it to the underworld before him, he asks “How art thou come to this dark coast?” Elpenor, then, tells him the story of how he was drunk on the roof of the nymph Circe, fell, and broke his neck. Since it is impossible for him to receive a proper burial, he asks Odysseus to make the oar that he rowed with into a memorial.

I admire these lines for the rugged, jostling pace of the images–the crowded subway sense of the various dead reaching out for Odysseus and crying for more sacrifices. I also like the surprising musicality of lines like, “Ill fate and abundant wine, I slept in Circe’s Ingle.” When my father and his friend Jack were working at Geno’s in the 70’s, they had a habit of saying to each other (commenting on a hangover) “Last night was ill fate and abundant wine” or something of the sort.

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From → Elegies

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