Kayton - The Development of Stillness in Ezra Pound’s Cantos
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The Development of Stillness in Ezra Pound’s Cantos

Stained Glass by Jennifer Kayton Stained Glass


            Like so many areas of Pound, studying the “dimension of stillness” reveals various cultural layers, associations, and matters of style and technique. In surveying both the image and the concept of stillness in the Cantos, several lenses are useful for interpreting the various effects and instances of stillness within this epic. These lenses include the merits of restraint and efficiency in Pound’s poetry, the metaphysical and neo-platonic realms, and the Confucian foundation upon which stillness rests. For this paper, Cantos XVII and XLIX will be called upon for close review and testimony while Cantos LXXXIII, XC, and CXVI will be used for making comparisons.


            Canto XVII


            Of most importance to our review of Canto XVII is the living presence of Istrian stone in the Venetian landscape. Stone itself is a hard, concrete, and unmoving object for many people. However, Pound is notably interested in the inherent life within objects, including stone. Pound closely read Adrian Stokes work The Quattro Cento which states, “the marbles [of Venice] afford you an image of living process” (14) and “[stone is] the greatest instrument of mass effect, of instant revelation” (15). Arguably these descriptions influenced Pound’s use of stone in Canto XVII when he borrows Stokes’s words in lines 17/64-17/72


            “ There in the forest of marble
            “ the stone trees – out of marble
            “ the arbours of stone –
            “ marble leaf, over leaf
            “ silver, steel over steel,
            “ silver beaks rising and crossing,
            “ prow set against prow,
            “ stone, ply over ply,
            “ the gilt beams flare of an evening”

This stone setting acts as a back drop for limited activity in the beginning of Canto XVII. “And the bees weighted with pollen/move heavily in the vine shoots” (17/2-3) is followed by sleepy birds sitting in tree branches in line five, and later the image of flat water suggests motionlessness. What is particularly significant about these images is the depiction of sleepiness and stillness for objects and creatures that are often times associated with perpetual movement. To enhance this observation, lines 17/26-29 call even more attention to images that are not supplying the usual sensory experience one might associate with them:


And the boat drawn without sound
Without odour of ship-work,
Nor bird-cry, nor any noise of wave moving
No splash of porpoise, nor any noise of wave moving,


            Pound is a writer who is heavily interested in perception, ways of knowing, and the power of images speaking for themselves. What can one make of writing that conjures up images that are not present within the scene? For the sake of answering this question, one lens is particularly useful. James Longenbach writes an insightful essay titled Purity, Restraint, Stillness that offers the general observation, “the restraint of the language itself – the immediate sense that we are being told far less than we could be told – establishes a decorum in which the clear sense of what is being said raises the mysterious specter of why it is being said.” (230) Within the context of Canto XVII this is especially poignant. Utilizing the images of stillness and calling attention to missing sensory experiences, Pound is embarking the reader on a greater journey – a narrative descent into the Underworld that is rooted in Virgil’s Aeneid. Therefore, to utilize Longenbach’s term, the mysterious specter calls attention to an alternative experience to that of our physical realm.


            To further develop this idea, it is again useful to refer to Longenbach who also writes, “rather than fostering a poetry of direct statement, [writers who utilize restraint] employ extremely restrained diction in order to suggest something other, something spooky or mythic, than what the language of the poem denotes.” (230). Again, in looking at the diction Pound uses to present stillness to the reader in Canto XVII, the language is inherently simple and astutely observational, yet it leads to and surrounds a mythic descent to the Underworld. This seeming contradiction employs a poetic technique Pound uses quite often, the layering of various details that bring one another to the forefront of the reader’s attention. Within these depths comes yet another layer. As Pound depicts the luminous, yet still, stone, the play between light and shadow that was also important to Stokes suggests the presence of Neo-Platonist ideals.


            It is important to remember that in Canto XVII Pound is moving towards his paradiso terrestre. These images of stillness and concepts of descent and Neo-Platonist ideals do not fully encapsulate Pound’s notions of a paradiso terrestre which is why moving on towards the development of stillness within Canto XLIX offers yet another stage of understanding.


            Canto XLIX


            Moving from Canto XVII to Canto XLIX shifts the pagan Venetian landscape to one set in Confucian China. Images of stillness in this landscape are similar to that of Canto XVII most prominently in the opening lines


            Rain; empty river; a voyage
            Fire from frozen cloud, heavy rain in the twilight
            Under the cabin roof was one lantern
            The reeds are heavy; bent;


            Again, stillness emerges with an image of water, a voyage, and heaviness. Later the images of evening as a curtain of cloud and the sound of the monk’s bell on the wind also suggest distance and solitude. Referring to the beginning of the second stanza, Pearlmen comments that “There is almost no sound, and whatever there is of sound and motion serves only to intensify the prevailing impression of stillness.” (196). With lines 49/15-16 “Sail passed here in April; may return in October,” the passage of time itself is present, yet remains understated. Canto XLIX does evolve through a seasonal cycle and the autumn of the first two stanzas leads to winter when “The flowing water clots as with cold.” (49/23). As spring and summer progress, the stillness of the early parts of this Canto is replaced by a flurry of agricultural activity revealed in the short choppy lines


            Sun up; work
            sundown; to rest
            dig well and drink of the water
            dig field; eat of the grain


Yet, of special significance are the two concluding lines of the poem, “The Fourth: the dimension of stillness./ And the power over wild beasts.” (49/46-47). This “dimension of stillness” begs for further contemplation and understanding.


            Pearlman’s overall reflection on Canto XLIX is that “one is left with the general impression of static, symmetrical balance, and the structure of its imagery appears largely to confirm such an impression” (193). The origin of this poem lies with Pound’s old Japanese manuscript titled Sho-Sho Hakkei which depicts eight famous scenes along a river in China (Terrell, 190). These eight scenes certainly provide a structure for Canto XLIX, but Pound’s departure from the original text is all his own. Qian offers useful comments on the literary elements of stillness and imagery within the Canto. Qian writes, “Indeed, in the canto he mimics the pictorial language so intensely that his lines do not become ‘audible’ unless a source image shows ‘aura’ or breaks muteness” (135). Qian points to an essential element within stillness and this canto; Pound is in fact writing as much from the visual text of the original source as much, if not more, than the written text. By focusing on the visual text, Qian also explains that “By ignoring such musings [stretched imaginings] he succeeds in producing a version nearer to the ‘mute speech’ of painting, an ideal of modern ekphrasis” (134). In essence, by translating pictorial images into textual images, Pound is exercising his ability to present concreteness in his writing. Stillness, therefore, especially in the sense of muteness, is a vehicle for such a technique.


            Pound’s interest in Confucian ideals of social order and sense perception also presents an important lens in understanding stillness within Canto XLIX. Pearlman breaks the canto into three major parts with the first part moving from social disorder, the abstract principle of order, and finally the underlying principle of order in human affairs (201). The second part, according to Pearlman, develops social and economic meanings of order (201). Furthermore, Zhu describes Pound’s use of sense perception as “a way of getting to ‘true knowledge’ the knowledge based on ‘fact’” (59). The connection here is that stillness rests on the ideals of Confucius, especially with the imagery suggestive of “true knowledge.” The next questions, therefore, is what “true knowledge” the imagery of the “dimension of stillness” offers.


            Pearlman writes very strongly about the third part of Canto XLIX, or the final two lines of the poem, and states that they “[subject] the two previous image sequences to a metaphysical analysis” (203). Pearlman goes on to explain that the “dimension of stillness” is a response to the philosophical implication of Einstein’s theory of relativity which suggests disorder to Pound (204-205). In contrast, stillness in Canto XLIX is connected with the order associated with the light of the sun and moon (Pearlman 207). In response to the imagery of stillness in the canto, Pearlman writes


In the temporal sense [still] means ‘without ever having ceased’ and gives the impression of permanence. In the spatial sense, the canal is ‘still’, unmoving in itself, but facilitating movement. The qualities of permanence and immobility are both involved in the ‘dimension of stillness,’ and the conception of an immobility that ‘causes’ movement . . . is highly suggestive of the Unmoved Mover. (207-208)


Although Pearlman is writing about the canal in Canto XLIX, this also connects directly with the images of living stone and flat water in Canto XVII. However, stillness has developed to another level for Pound when the context of Confucius is added, and Pearlman states “The ‘dimension of stillness’ comes to symbolize the Confucian system in general, which for Pound contains the metaphysical, political, and ethical principles needed to maintain social order and give men the ‘power over wild beasts’” (209).


            Canto XLIX stands at a central place in the Cantos. Can Canto XLIX represent the axis, or unwobbling pivot, of the Cantos as Pound seeks to write his paradiso terrestre? Pound’s own words define this axis as “What exists plumb in the middle is the just process of the universe and that which never wavers or hobbles is the calm principle operant in its mode of action.” (Pearlman 208). With the heaviness of still imagery and the “dimension of stillness” in Canto XLIX clearly rooted in Confucian ideals, one can certainly interpret Canto XLIX as the axis, or “calm principle”, of the paradiso terrestre that Pound is writing towards in his epic.




            Moving beyond Canto XLIX engages the reader in yet another shift in landscape and development of stillness for Pound. Canto LXXXIII is within the cluster of Pisan Cantos where Pound’s views of an earthly paradise are fragmentary and rooted in a close connection to nature. The depiction of stillness also follows this trend. Kearns writes “In these opening pages from Canto 83, we find the poet, almost at peace and almost invisible, in a landscape imbued with a moral-religious sense, as the poetry brings together his Confucianism and his neoplatanism.” (172). Certainly Kearns is accurate when one finds words like the following: “in the drenched tent there is quiet/ sered eyes are at rest . . .,” (549) “Dryad, thy peace is like water,” (550), “this breath . . ./ nourishes by its rectitude,” (551) and “Oh let an old man rest” (556). These lines are strikingly different from stillness within Canto XVII and Canto XLIX in that the images do not speak for themselves in the same manner. Pound is clearly connecting with and reflecting on these images in a new way. Sense perception is merging with personal musings. For example, in “as he was standing below the altars/ of the spirits of rain,” rain is more than just rain. Rain takes on the spiritual qualities Pound wishes to explore. This idea is further enforced by Kearns’s statement, “For Canto 83, in which what the prisoner sees – weather and landscape – becomes the occasion of an active serenity based on mutual intelligence between man and the cosmos . . . “ (177). Stillness, in compliance, also becomes merged with these ideals in a new and less imagist manner. Stillness comes to mean, in effect, the feelings associated with serenity and peace.


            Continuing with this idea, Surette also provides another lens for understanding this new sense of stillness and peace. Surette comments on the repeated words, “ Le Paradis n’est artificial” (548), “It states the corollary of the belief that the ideal has somehow its manifestation in the world . . .” One can understand Surette as meaning that the ideal is a mental state, belief, or philosophy that is present in the images that Pound includes in Canto LXXXIII. One such example is the presence of la vespa building a house. Furthermore, Surette adds “In the Cantos paradise is of course not a place, but a psychic state, ‘the burst thru from quotidian into ‘divine a permanent world’” (187). This line is certainly true for the context of Canto LXXXIII, but rings strangely false when considering Canto XVII and Canto XLIX. Those earlier cantos were so grounded in place and imagery of stillness, that one could see evidence of Pound searching for the physical place of his paradiso terrestre. Moving out of the Pisan Cantos and into the Rock-Drill section brings another strong element of stillness that is striking when compared with the peace in Canto LXXXIII.


Canto XC


            Rock-Drill takes the reader from Pound’s musings directly to an almost severe form of layering between images and associations. Stillness is depicted towards the center of this canto in the lines “And in the flat pool as Arethusa’s/ a hush in papyri.,” “Grove hath its altar/ under elms, in that temple, in silence/ a lone nymph by the pool,” and “ and the waters clear with the flowing/ Out of heaviness where no mind moves at all” (627). Again the image of stillness is present in the water and in mute silence. In later lines, the image of stone returns again in “ the stone under elm,” “ the curled stone at the marge,” and “ the stone taking form in the air” (627-628). If one considers these images as a recollection of descent in Canto XVII, then Surette makes a excellent argument regarding the element of ascent in this canto. Surette states, “The ascent ‘out of Erebus’ in canto 90 is thus not clearly an ascent into paradise” (238) and later continues “The ascension is more like the return to the daylight world of the Eleusinian initiate . . .” (238-239). One might read Canto XC as the sequel to Aeneid’s/Odysseus’s/Pound’s descent found in Canto XVII. The echoes of water, tree, and stone imagery certainly bridge this connection and echo the elements of stillness. This return to the early elements of Canto XVII with the addition of the new, colder voice is a bit puzzling after witnessing the development and change in Canto XLIX and Canto LXXXIII. Yet, later, Canto CXVI offers yet another strikingly different view.


Canto CXVI


            Stillness only makes a relatively small, yet significant, appearance in Canto CXVI. Amidst Pound’s words, “I cannot make it cohere,” we are privy to his new, simpler, and more humble definition of paradise:           


             But about that terzo
                         third heaven,
                                     that Venere,
            again is all “paradise”
                       a nice quiet paradise
                                over the shambles,
            and some climbing
                                before the take-off,
            to “see again,”
            the verb is “see” not “walk on”
            i.e. it coheres all right
                                even if my notes do not cohere.


These words are pound’s admission that paradise does exist even if he is unable to write it. Again, Longenbach’s words regarding restraint are instrumental here. The simple, restrained diction of the line, “A nice quiet paradise” suggests the myth, the mysterious, or the something other than what the words actually denote. In actuality, this nice quiet paradise embodies the “dimension of stillness” that is suggested in Canto XVII and upheld in Canto XLIX. The nice quiet paradise recalls the Pound who is insightful and reflective in the Pisan Cantos along with the cold persona in Rock-Drill. Surette claims that Canto CXVI is “ . . . Pound’s final statement, there is no question of walking in paradise. There paradise is only the ecstatic vision that it had always truly been for Pound – although he had tried . . . ‘to make a paradise/terrestre’” (262-263). Pound’s final statement actually embodies the depth of the paradiso that he has explored throughout the cantos, of which stillness has been an inherent element.




            As noted, stillness initially acts as a strong image within Canto XVII and Canto XLIX. Later, Pound moves away from this strictness of imagism as he handles the concept of stillness. Pound, who is given the distinction of founding Imagism, would surely have struggled with this departure. Raitt states, “ . . . practitioners and advocates of Imagism justify their literary style in terms of its economy and its commensurability with the world.” (840). However, economy and Imagism are entirely missing in the words, “ a nice quiet paradise” (116/). Is it possible, as Raiit suggests, that strictly adhering to Imagism was impossible for all that Pound wanted to imply? “Perhaps it was as impossible to write a truly Imagist poem as it was to lead an absolutely efficient life.” (Raitt 843). Pound’s own words, “ ‘The point of Imagisme is that it does not use images as ornaments. The image is itself the speech.’” seem self-contradictory when regarding the words “a nice quiet paradise” found in Canto CXVI (Raitt 843). Kenner describes the Imagist principle as “that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them” (199). Again, this principle is challenged as one surveys the development of stillness in the Cantos.


            In closing, Longenbach’s insights are again useful in understand the presence and development of stillness. Longenbach writes “[Pound] turned away from his characteristic callings and rhythms, willing a poetry of immense energy rather than succumbing to the stillness that truly distinguishes him” (225). Pound does not fail in his attempts to evoke an image of stillness. Rather, Pound instead returns to utilizing restraint as he presents stillness and his paradiso terrestre. According to Longenbach, this return may have been his greatest accomplishment as a writer, “The greatest poems we will write already exist, and the work of a lifetime is to become meek enough to recognize them as our own.” Certainly, the argument can be made that at long last Pound surrenders to meekness at the end of his Cantos.



Kearns, “from Canto 83.” (article handed out in class)


Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.


Longenbach, James. “Purity, Restraint, Stillness.” Virginia Quarterly Review 82 (2006): 223-234.


Pearlman, David. The Barb of Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.


Raitt, Suzanne. "The Rhetoric of Efficiency in Early Modernism." Modernism/modernity 13(2006): 835-851.


Stokes, Adrian. The Quattro Cento and Stones of Rimini. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.


Surette, Leon. A Light from Eulisis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.


Qian, Zhaoming. The modernist response to Chinese art : Pound, Moore, Stevens. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.


Zhu, Chugeng. “Ezra Pound’s Confucianism.” Philosophy and Literature 29 (2005): 57-72

Works Referenced


Froula, Christine. To Write Paradise. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.


Hofer, Matthew. "Modernist Polemic: Ezra Pound v. "the perverters of language".” Modernism/modernity (2002): 463-489.


Marsh, Alec, Benjamin Lockerd. "Pound and Eliot." American Literary Scholarship (2001): 155-186.


Pound, Ezra. “Immediate Need of Confucius,” in Ezra Pound’s Selected Prose 1909-1965 (New York: New Directions, 1950), 75-80.


Pound, Ezra. “Meng Tze,” in Ezra Pound’s Selected Prose 1909-1965 (New York: New Directions, 1950), 75-80.


Zheng, Jianqing. “An Approach to Lines 2-6 of Ezra Pound’s Canto 49.” ANQ 14.2 (Spring 2001): 35. Humanities International Index. EBSCO. 7. Apr. 2008

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