Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

The historically specific persona and setting, the medieval verse form, and the archaic word use of “Sestina: Altaforte” combine to suggest one of the poem’s major themes: the culturally specific consciousness of a warrior during the Middle Ages. At this period in his poetic development, Pound was very much under the influence of the English poet Robert Browning, part of whose fame rests on his dramatic monologues, poems whose speaker is a real or fictional character usually drawn from past history. Pound was fascinated with this use of “personae” (the word originally meant “masks”), through which a poet could enter into a sensibility utterly different from his own: The challenge of creating another kind of awareness—remote in time and preoccupations from his own—excited him.

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Indeed, De Born’s personality, as the reader sees it in “Sestina: Altaforte” is in conflict with most modern assumptions about the value of peace over war, of nonviolence over violence. The poem turns ironically about the reversal the persona places on these assumptions: For him, war and death are paradoxically life-giving, and art and joy are to be found in the cries and noisy clamor of battle. Similarly, De Born’s view of nature contrasts strongly with contemporary perceptions. The modern person, conditioned in part by the Romantics to see nature as benign and serene, may well be shocked by De Born’s glorification of the violence of natural phenomena—the bloodiness of a sunrise or the way a storm “kills” a peaceful afternoon.

Ultimately, the irony in “Sestina: Altaforte” is twofold: First, there is the irony arising from the contrast between De Born’s sensibility and that of the modern reader; second, there is the narrative irony existing between Pound’s warlord persona and Pound himself.

The period during which this poem was written has often been viewed as a golden age in Europe, whose nations were then at the height of their imperial power. No significant conflict had disturbed European peace since the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and no real continent-wide war had occurred since the battle of Waterloo in 1815. European commerce was thriving, and the general standard of living had never been higher. Curiously, though, many people, as De Born did, chafed at the complacency and dullness of this time of plenty; they longed for the “excitement” of struggle, which they would experience all too soon in the tragedy of World War I.

Thus, although “Sestina: Altaforte” concerns the warlike impatience of a petty ruler nearly eight centuries in the past, the sort of rage De Born felt over the stagnation of peace was beginning to rise to the surface in early twentieth century Europe. Pound captures this impatience while producing a masterful illusion of the past, both in the vivid re-creation of a medieval warrior and in the crafting of a difficult and archaic verse form.

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