Posted by Richard on  UTC 2016-08-15 07:44

[Note: In the following texts, words and phrases the meanings of which are not immediately apparent – such as foreign languages – and which are not explained in the discussion are highlighted in grey. Hover the cursor over the highlight for an annotation. Highlights inothercolours are usually just markers.]

The shipwreck theme in the Pisan Cantos

We enter the first Pisan canto, Canto 74, on page 425 and pass through 18 pages of allusive, resonant poetry. If you are completely new to the poem those pages will just be an incomprehensible jumble of fragments. The novice will require much patience to keep going, even with the help of annotations. To the specialist, however, many phrases, many lines will resonate in some way, some others will still be annoyingly obscure.

In those 18 pages there are many words and phrases that can be said to set the scene for our shipwreck theme. There are also many hints of divine manifestation, there are also many allusions to the Odyssean journey and so on. We have time only to note that fact and move on: we have to start somewhere just as we shall have to stop somewhere.

Pound in the tempest

When we arrive on page 443, after all the incomprehensible harmonies that have beset us so far, suddenly we hear something we recognise – assuming, that is, that we read the shipwreck text from Homer's Odyssey carefully.

ΧΑΡΙΤΕΣ possibly in the soft air

with the mast held by the left hand

in this air as of Kuanon

enigma forgetting the times and the seasons

but this air brought her ashore a la marina

with the great shell borne on the seawaves

nautilis biancastra


We will probably first notice the line 'with the mast held by the left hand' as being the Odyssean 'These stars the beautiful Kalypso bade him / hold on his left hand as he crossed the main'. Now alerted, we will then note that the previous phrase 'possibly in the soft air', which we initially just read as a pleasant poetic line, now reminds us of Kalypso's farewell breeze to Odysseus 'Then she conjured a warm landbreeze to blowing – / joy for Odysseus when he shook out sail!'. The shipwreck theme has been opened explicitly.

The theme is here associated with hints ('possibly') of the divine: the ΧΑΡΙΤΕΣ, the three Charities or Graces whose presence we associate with the birth of Aphrodite, the 'foam-born', who we now see now carried ashore, blown by the winds – all the elements we know well from Botticelli's allegorical paintings, The Birth of Venus and the Allegory of Spring.

FoS image, size 708x445
FoS image, size 708x465

Sandro Botticelli (1445?-1510). Top: Nascita di Venere, 'The Birth of Venus' (c. 1485). Bottom: La Primavera, 'Allegory of Spring' (c. 1482). Both in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Having announced the theme, Pound now begins to weave together the events leading up to Odysseus’ shipwreck as we encountered it in Book 5 of the Odyssey:

By no means an orderly Dantescan rising

but as the winds veer

tira libeccio

now Genji at Suma , tira libeccio

as the winds veer and the raft is driven


In the wry remark ‘By no means an orderly Dantescan rising’ Pound adds his own situation as author of The Cantos to the mix. Pound in the prison camp at Pisa is indubitably tossed by the tempest of history and his epic poem is definitely not on its foreseen course. The Odyssean tempest is therefore also a metaphor for the Poundian tempest.

Unlike the smooth progress of the Dantescan journey from Hell, through Purgatory and to Paradise, Pound/Odysseus is buffeted by winds: no longer the ‘soft air’ or the Odyssean ‘warm landbreeze’, but increasing in strength and changing direction.

Pound/Odysseus names the winds that buffet him, firstly Libeccio, the Italian name for the south-west wind. The phrase the raft is driven recalls Odysseus on the raft, after Poseidon has spotted him and ‘called up wind from every quarter’, where we find a similar listing of the winds of the compass:

Hurricane winds now struck from the South and East
shifting North West in a great spume of seas,

So the winds drove this wreck over the deep,
East Wind and North Wind, then South Wind and West,
coursing each in turn to the brutal harry.

Throughout The Cantos the layout of text on the page is important and grows more so as we progress through the work. The repetition of the phrase tira libeccio, tira libeccio 'the south-west wind blows' forms a single block, a block which shows Pound, the student of Chinese, thinking ideographically – or, if you prefer, in the manner of a collage.

The 'inset' on the left of that ideographic block now Genji at Suma alludes to the Japanese 'Noh' play he titled Suma Genji, the atmosphere of which he described as:

The suspense is the suspense of waiting for a supernatural manifestation – which comes. [TR:236 'Suma Genji']

The play revolves around the appearance of the ‘spirit of the sea shore at Suma’

The air is alive with flute-sounds,
With the song of various pipes
The land is a-quiver,
And even the wild sea of Suma
Is filled with resonant quiet.
Moving in clouds and in rain,
The dream overlaps with the real;
There was a light out of heaven,
There was a young man at the dance here;
Surely it was Genji Hikaru,
It was Genji Hikaru in spirit.
My name is known to the world;
Here by the white waves was my dwelling;
But I am come down out of sky
To put my glamour on mortals.
[TR:235 'Suma Genji']

We can see why Pound found this allusion so appropriate. Not only do we have spirits manifesting themselves to mortals, these spirits have left behind their mortal names. The Japanese figure was called 'Genji Hikaru', 'My name is known to the world', and used to live by the sea. The Greek figure of the daughter of Kadmos was known as 'Ino', but became the spirit 'Leucothea'.

But Ino saw him – Ino, Kadmos' daughter,
slim-legged, lovely, once an earthling girl,
now in the seas a nereid, Leukothea.

Throughout The Cantos we are confronted with supernatural manifestations, whether ghosts or gods. Such occasions become more frequent as we move through the Pisan Cantos towards the poem's Paradise. The appearance of the sea-nymph Leukothea is just one example. On many occasions we hover between two worlds.

At Pound’s crisis in Pisa the ‘dream overlaps with the real’. Throughout the Pisan Cantos– and indeed throughout all the later cantos – there are moments of heightened perception, the ‘land is a-quiver’ with mere hints: the ‘smell of mint under the tent flaps’ [C74:428], ‘by thy herbs menthe, thyme and basilicum’ [C74:434], such fragrances reminding us of the description of Hermes in the cave of Kalypso.

Upon her hearthstone a great fire blazing
scented the farthest shores with cedar smoke
and smoke of thyme, and singing high and low

A deep wood grew outside, with summer leaves
of alder and black poplar, pungent cypress.

All these fragments hint at presences that have not (yet) fully formed:

Le Paradis n’est pas artificiel

but spezzato apparently

it exists only in fragments unexpected excellent sausage,

the smell of mint, for example,

Ladro the night cat;


We may just gain a glimpse of these underlying worlds. Such hints and glimpses make it difficult to identify a clear starting point and a clear conclusion for a theme such as the Odyssean shipwreck. The potential for the divine is everywhere, as are its manifestations; the manifestation of Leukothea is one special case of a general state. For example, at one point the potential of Bacchic gods and sea gods – and the potential appearance of Leukothea – is suddenly glimpsed in the middle of an otherwise quotidian section:

black that die in captivity

night green of his pupil, as grape flesh and sea wave

undying luminous and translucent

Est consummatum, Ite.;


Odysseus: summoning ghosts

Let us return to the final section of this first occurrence of the shipwreck theme in the Pisan Cantos. Those wearing hats will be well advised to hold on to them tightly. Only five lines to go, but very compressed, very 'Poundian' lines indeed.

and the voices , Tiro, Alcmene

with you is Europa nec casta Pasiphaë.


In these two lines Pound has knitted together his memories of three sources. Firstly, Book 11 of the Odyssey; secondly, 'Elegy 28c' in Book 2 of the Carmina of the Latin poet Propertius; thirdly, Pound's own translations of 'Elegy 28c'.

Book 11 of the Odyssey is traditionally entitled the νέκυια, 'Nekuia', a name for an act of necromancy that summons up the ghosts of the dead, which is exactly what Odysseus does so that he can speak to the Theban seer Tiresias and obtain from him guidance about the rest of his voyage home.

Book 11 of the Odyssey is a key text for The Cantos. Pound's translation of the invocation scene makes up the very first canto and his invocation of and communion with the shades of the dead is one of the great themes that run right through the work.

The necromancy calls up other shades, too. The Odyssey tells us of the 'rustling cries' of the 'surging phantoms' of the dead who surround the pit filled with the blood of the sacrifice, the noise which we hear now in the phrase and the voices. Odysseus describes at length a particular group of shades who come to the pit: the ghosts of a number of women, among them Tiro and Alcmene. Who these women were is not important for us at the moment.

Here was great loveliness of ghosts! I saw
before them all, that princess of great ladies,
Tyro, Salmoneus' daughter, as she told me,
and queen to Krêtheus, a son of Aiolos.

Next after her I saw Antiopê,
daughter of Asopos.

Amphitrion’s true wife, Alkmênê, mother,
as all men know, of lionish Heraklês,

but how name all the women I beheld there,
daughters and wives of kings? The starry night
wanes long before I close.

Propertius: the women of Hades

The second of Pound's sources for this section is the Latin poet Propertius (50BC?-15BC?). In his poem, 'Elegy 28c' in Book 2 of his Carmina, he alluded to the scene of the women in Hades in Book XI of the Odyssey. 'Elegy 28c' is an appeal to Persephone, the goddess of Hades, to spare the life of Propertius' lover 'Cynthia'. There are, argues Propertius, enough beautiful women in Hades already, Persephone won't miss another one, therefore Cynthia should remain among the living. Of the 'thousands' of women in Hades he names four:

Haec tua, Persephone, maneat clementia, nec tu,
Persephonae coniunx, saevior esse velis.
sunt apud infernos tot milia formosarum:
pulchra sit in superis, si licet, una locis!
vobiscum est Iope, vobiscum candida Tyro,
vobiscum Europe nec proba Pasiphae,
et quot Troia tulit vetus et quot Achaia formas,
et Thebae et Priami diruta regna senis:
[PROP:Elegy 28c:47-54] (Pound's own translations are below).

'Elegy 28c' has now completed for us the collection of women in Pound's 'voices': Tiro and Alcmene from Homer, Europe and Pasiphae from Propertius. We know he is referring to Propertius' 'Elegy 28c' because he quotes the Latin source: with you is Europa nec casta Pasiphaë– albeit imperfectly – though creatively – remembered at the typewriter in the Medical Center. The original is vobiscum Europe nec proba Pasiphae: nec proba and nec casta being equivalents for 'shameless', 'impious' or 'not praiseworthy'.

Pound: translating Propertius

The poetic conceit of 'Elegy 28c' clearly had an impact on Pound, for he translated it into English twice.

The first of these translations appeared in Pound's Canzoni, published in 1911, in a poem he titled 'Prayer for his Lady's Life', which he – more helpful in his youth to the reader than he would be later on – tells us is 'From Propertius, Elegiae, Lib. III, 26'.

Here let thy clemency, Persephone, hold firm,
Do thou, Pluto, bring here no greater harshness.
So many thousand beauties are gone down to Avernus
Ye might let one remain above with us.
With you is Iope, with you the white-gleaming Tyro,
With you is Europa and the shameless Pasiphae,
And all the fair from Troy and all from Achaia,
From the sundered realms, of Thebes and of aged Priamus;
And all the maidens of Rome, as many as they were,
They died and the greed of your flame consumes them.
[CEP:149 or CSP:52 'Canzoni']

Here we meet the Pound that used to be, shortly after his arrival in London in 1908: the late Victorian / Edwardian / Georgian poet using the linguistic apparatus of the time: 'thy clemency', 'Do thou, Pluto', 'sundered realms' and so on. The one consolation is that the young Pound gives us his source, albeit a source that would puzzle a reader with a modern edition of Propertius, whose poetry has been published in various configurations.

In 1917 Pound produced an Homage to Sextus Propertius, which contained another stab at what we know as 'Elegy 28c'. The poet Pound has come a long way in those six years of upheaval and slaughter:

Persephone and Dis, Dis, have mercy upon her,

There are enough women in hell,

quite enough beautiful women,

Iope, and Tyro, and Pasiphae, and the formal girls of Achaia,

And out of Troad, and from the Campania,

Death has his tooth in the lot,

Avernus lusts for the lot of them,

Beauty is not eternal, no man has perennial fortune,

Slow foot, or swift foot, death delays but for a season.

[CSP:225 'Homage to Sextus Propertius', IX, 2]

The fustian has gone, it is an 'homage' not a translation ('the formal girls of Achaia'!, 'Europa' is cut out etc.), Pound is simply letting himself be inspired by the Latin original, to which his work is an 'homage'. Since this is an 'homage' the direct references to the original poems have gone: this is poem IX.2 in the collection. In Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius we also see the beginnings of the structured layout of text with which we are now so familiar in The Cantos.

Returning to our text in Canto 74, the two lines have expanded and filled with meaning.

and the voices , Tiro, Alcmene

with you is Europa nec casta Pasiphaë.


Those readers who plugged through the first 18 pages of Canto 74 will have noted all the ghosts and memories of his London years that Pound, now in the prison camp at Pisa, invoked. We should not be surprised that we now hear him alluding to the original of 'Elegy 28c' and thus to his early translation and his later homage to Propertius from the London years. In the current context, the female shades of 'Elegy 28c' are aligned with the shades of women named in Book XI of the Odyssey, forming a bridge with the Odyssean shipwreck and his ponderings upon his own shipwreck in Pisa. The part of The Cantos we are looking at forms a tight knot of personal memory (the mother of the muses, we remember), the storm-tossed Odysseus, the Latin poet Propertius and Pound's own translations and 'homages' from his London days.

Homer: winds and wandering

One more Poundian line: more sailing, more wind.

Eurus, Apeliota as the winds veer in periplum


With Eurus we return to the Homeric world of the shipwreck:

σὺν δ᾽ Εὖρός τε Νότος τ᾽ ἔπεσον Ζέφυρός τε δυσαὴς
καὶ Βορέης αἰθρηγενέτης, μέγα κῦμα κυλίνδων.

Together the East Wind [Eurus] and the South Wind [Notos] dashed, and the fierce-blowing West Wind [Zephyros]
and the North Wind [Boreēs], born in the bright heaven, rolling before him a mighty wave.


With Apeliota we hear the Italian name for south-east wind.

Periplum is Pound's term for periplus, the route taken on a voyage, in ancient times, coasting, in modern times using waypoints, contrasted with navigation from a map. Failing a map, the course of the journey cannot be foreseen. We remember that Kalypso gave Odysseus 'orientation instructions' or 'procedural instructions' for his journey, not a map:

These stars the beautiful Kalypso bade him
hold on his left hand as he crossed the main.

Pound uses periplum at many points in the later cantos, too numerous to follow here. He introduced the term in Canto 50 [C50:199f] when he wrote a synopsis of the Perplus of Hanno, being the voyage of Hanno, King of the Carthaginians, to the Libyan regions of the earth, beyond the Pillars of Heracles… Unlike Dante's orderly journey with various guides, the periplum is the route followed by one man relying on his wits, on his Homeric wanderings. It is therefore a perticularly appropriate metaphor for Pound's biographical wanderings, in which he also had to rely on his wits, as well as his un-Dantescan 'rising' to Paradise.

Dante and Cavalcanti: spirits of the third heaven

After this distinctly Homeric line five brief words return us to Pound's world, to Dante's world and the world of Sordello, the troubadour.

Io son la luna”. Cunizza


The line is in two parts, which we have to take separately. The first part comes from Pound's world, with the mysterious Io son la luna, 'I am the moon' and its especially mysterious punctuation, the floating double quotation mark. If we think very hard we may remember that we stumbled across the phrase 'Io son’ la Luna' on page 438, four pages before the shipwreck section. Readers of The Cantos can never doze off. Furthermore, if we hold the phrase in our minds for another six cantos, 57 pages of the poem, we will stumble across something that looks like a solution.

“a S. Bartolomeo mi vidi col pargoletto,

Chiodato a terra colle braccie aperte

in forma di croce gemisti.

disse: Io son’ la luna."

"in San Bartolomeo I saw a small boy
nailed to the ground with limbs outstretched
in the form of a Maltese cross.
He/She said: I am the moon."


Io son la luna in Canto 74 is a quotation within a quotation but is given only the one, terminal double quotation mark. The phrase makes many appearances in The Cantos. However, do not place your faith in anything in this section, particularly the English translation. It is fair to say that the leading Italian commentators on The Cantos are puzzling over this obviously corrupt text ('Now what the DEFFIL can that mean'™): is it 'he said', 'she said' or even 'I said'?; is it a Maltese cross or something else?; who is/are the speaker/s? It seems unlikely that a young boy nailed to the ground is saying 'I am the moon'. The best resolution we have is a jumble that ought to satisfy no one.

We have to stop somewhere: we cannot follow Pound down the rabbit hole of Io son(') la luna just as we did not follow him down the periplum hole. And then pargoletto/a is yet another rabbit hole… enough already!

But what about Cunizza, who makes up the second part of the line? She brings us back to Dante, for she is Cunizza da Romano, the troubadour Sordello's lover memorialised in Canto 9 of Dante’s Paradiso. However, she appears here as an Odyssean shade, al triedro, ‘in the corner’ [of Pound's tent], whereas in Dante she is a glittering light in the heaven of Venus, Dante’s third heaven. Using that epithet she was mentioned a few pages before this, at the same point where we also found Io son’ la Luna:

E al Triedro, Cunizza

e l’altra: “Io son’ la Luna.”


Throughout The Cantos, Cunizza is the spirit who appears al triedro. Pound has referred to her once before in Canto 74, on that occasion associated with l’altra, ‘the other female’. The colon attributes to ‘the other female’ the phrase that has already stumped us, Io son’ la Luna, still with its apostrophe. At other points in the poem l’altra becomes la scalza, the ‘barefooted one [female]’.

In short, in Pisa Pound is surrounded by manifestations of goddesses or other female spirits, a situation that parallels Odysseus' meeting with the female shades of Hades and Propertius' description of the women there.

Finally, closing the section, we repeat the winds:

as the winds veer in periplum


Well, not quite closing: after a line or two we read Spiritus veni, the 'spirit comes', and with that our first instance of the shipwreck theme has come to an end – dying, as it were, like a fading chord.


After all this detail, all this jumping about, all this general puzzlement and irritation at Pound the mad polymath, now read the text again and see what you think. It's only 17 fragmentary lines. Hover the cursor over a highlight to see a reminder.

Is any of this effort worth the result?

ΧΑΡΙΤΕΣ possibly in the soft air

with the mast held by the left hand

in this air as of Kuanon

enigma forgetting the times and the seasons

but this air brought her ashore a la marina

with the great shell borne on the seawaves

nautilis biancastra

By no means an orderly Dantescan rising

but as the winds veer

tira libeccio

now Genji at Suma , tira libeccio

as the winds veer and the raft is driven

and the voices , Tiro, Alcmene

with you is Europa nec casta Pasiphaë.

Eurus, Apeliota as the winds veer in periplum

Io son la luna” . Cunizza

as the winds veer in periplum


We have heard that Pound's 'rising' towards Paradise is not orderly. He is buffeted by winds and blown off course. He is sailing a 'periplum', not stage by stage along a known route and his record of that periplum is a monologue. It is still a bit of a surprise that the important shipwreck theme suddenly submerges for 70 pages before resurfacing in Canto 80 with an unmissable allusion:

hast’ou swum in a sea of air strip

through an aeon of nothingness,

when the raft broke and the waters went over me,


The final line is instantly recognisable to us shipwreckers as the key moment in Book 5 of the Odyssey, the moment when the raft is finally destroyed and Odysseus decides to take the veil of Leuocotha and strike out to shore:

A gust of wind, hitting a pile of chaff,
will scatter all the parched stuff far and wide;
just so, when this gigantic billow struck
the boat's big timbers flew apart.…

Here is the most direct identification we have yet been given of Pound as Odysseus: Pound's sea is of 'air strip' and now 'the waters went over me'.

And then a surprise: nothing more of the shipwreck in the Pisan Cantos; that is, for another five cantos and 27 pages, nothing more.

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