The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 710

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.

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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 provides three key background facts: The setting for the poem is De Born’s castle Altaforte; the person to whom De Born is speaking, “Papiols,” is De Born’s “jongleur,” or court singer/poet; and “The Leopard” is an emblem of Richard the Lionhearted.

In stanza 1, De Born rages at Papiols, who evidently is his confidant, that the “South” (of France) is too peaceful: He is a warrior, only happy in battle. In fact, during De Born’s lifetime the many small fiefdoms of France were often at war with one another and with the forces of Richard of England, who was also lord of much of France. For noblemen such as De Born, warfare was the only honorable occupation (winning a war with a neighboring fiefdom was also the principal source of income). So although the peace that has fallen on Provençe at the opening of the poem is probably only temporary, De Born chafes at being kept from the exercise of his profession.

De Born is so warlike that, as he says in stanza 2, even summer thunderstorms make him happy. Tempests and lightning remind him of war in that such storms disturb the tranquillity of sunny summer days. He imagines that the thunderclouds are engaged in combat and that heavenly beings clash their swords.

The reference to heavenly war in stanza 2 leads naturally to the reference to hell in stanza 3. De Born petitions the hellish powers to grant him strife; he longs to hear the neighing of war-horses and the clang of armor. As far as he is concerned, the concentrated experience of an hour of battle is worth a whole year of peaceful pleasures.

In stanza 4, he returns to the theme of warring nature. The crimson dawn sky reminds him of blood, and the rays of the rising sun appear to be spears in combat against the night. In stanza 5, De Born turns to cursing peace-lovers. Such men, according to him, are weak-blooded and “womanish,” and he relegates them to rotting in inactivity. Only in battle, he claims, does a man prove his worth: Peaceful men are not men at all, and he “rejoices” in their deaths.

Once again, in stanza 6, De Born summons Papiols to accompany him to war, specifically against the forces of “the Leopard,” King Richard of England—and once again, he damns those who would try to make peace between De Born and his enemies. Stanza 7 acts as a reprise of the preceding themes: De Born yearns for the “music” of battle, prays for combat, and condemns peaceful living.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

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 challenge of the sestina form—using each end word in a different sense with different associated imagery each time the word changes position—is clearly met in this poem.

Although the sestina is usually associated with Romance-language poetry of the Middle Ages, Pound here employs a kind of mock medieval English to place his poem in the English-language tradition. He does it in at least two ways: First, frequent alliteration, a major structural feature of Middle English poetry, is prominent in “Sestina: Altaforte”; second, archaic words are scattered throughout the work.

Stanza 1 offers a good example of Pound’s use of alliteration and other sound repetitions. In line 1, for example, alliteration occurs in “this our South stinks peace” and in the repetition “all! All”; in line 3, “save/ sword,”; in line 4, “purple, opposing”; and in line 5, “broad fields beneath.” Most readers will immediately note the use of archaic, Middle English words such as “vair” (the bluish-white color of squirrel’s fur) in stanza 1, “destriers” (war-horses) in stanza 3, and “stour” (battle) in stanza 5. Finally, the syntax of the poem also mimics Middle English poetry. Reversal of parts of speech, for example, is common: “have I great rejoicing” in stanza 2 and “howl I my heart nigh mad” in stanza 1. In addition, a number of other archaic syntactic patterns appear, such as “Let’s to music” in stanza 1 and “fierce thunders roar me their music” in stanza 2.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 123

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