Sestina: Altaforte Analysis

The Poem (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In some respects, this poem is not only old-fashioned but archaic—quite different from the modern free-verse poetry for which Ezra Pound is famous. For one thing, as the poem’s title indicates, the verse structure is that of the sestina, a form invented by the Provençal poets of the early Middle Ages. For another, the speaker is Bertran De Born, a medieval warlord.

The sestina is a complex seven-stanza verse form: The first six stanzas are six lines long, and the seventh stanza, the “envoy,” is three lines long. The first six stanzas all use the same set of concluding words in their six lines, but these recurrent words shift position as the stanzas progress so that the word that ended line 1 in stanza 1, for example, ends line 2 in stanza 2, line 4 in stanza 3, and thus the pattern continues. In a sense, these recurrent ending words take the place of rhyme in giving structure to the stanzas. In this sestina, the ending words are “peace,” “music,” “clash,” “opposing,” “crimson,” and “rejoicing.”

In the lines appearing before the first stanza, Pound provides some background information to help the reader make his or her way through this difficult verse form. “Loquitur” means “speaker,” in this case “En” (Sir) Bertrans De Born. In La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy) Dante portrays De Born as a “stirrer up of strife,” a characterization that fits his remarks in the poem that follows. “Eccovi!” is Italian for “here you are,” which is addressed to the reader, as is the following line, “Judge ye!”; Pound is inviting the reader to make his or her own judgment about whether Dante’s condemnation of De Born was fair. Finally, Pound...

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Sestina: Altaforte Forms and Devices (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The sestina’s highly structured pattern of end words dominates other aspects of this poem’s form. Imagery is especially affected by the connotations surrounding the words “peace,” “music,” “clash,” “opposing,” “crimson,” and “rejoicing.”

In fact, clusters of imagery may be grouped about a division of the six words into two sets or about oppositions between individual couplings of the words. “Peace, music, rejoicing,” then, serve as one cluster, suggesting obvious associations with joy and art, while “clash, opposing, crimson” clearly suggest strife. Similarly, “clash” contrasts with “music” and “peace” with “opposing.”

Each of the “image centers” created by the end words plays on strong sensory description. The poem particularly exploits hearing, smell, and sight in its use of clanging armor and clashing spears, stinking and rotting peace, enflamed and bloody crimson. Yet, just as complex as the end-word structuring of the sestina form is the ironic use to which the image centers are put. “Music” is a good example. In this poem, “music” can mean the delightful songs sung by the jongleur, Papiols; the “frail” tunes of peace; or the sounds of battle. “Peace,” too, holds this sort of ironic implication: For the “weak” and “lily-livered,” peace means food, women, and wine; De Born, conversely, is only at peace when he is in the middle of combat. Thus, the major...

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Sestina: Altaforte Bibliography (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Froula, Christine. A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1983.

Heymann, David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking Press, 1976.

Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber & Faber, 1951. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Knapp, James F. Ezra Pound. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1987.

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Ezra Pound: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound. 1970. Rev. ed. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.

Surette, Leon. Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P., and Stephen J. Adams, eds. The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.