Sestina: Altaforte

by Sam Alexander

Ezra Pound‘s “Sestina: Altaforte” (1909) was first published in June, 1909. Pound had given a reading of the poem to the Poets’ Club two months earlier, which was so emphatic that at the Soho restaurant where the club met “a screen had to be placed around the gathering to prevent a public disturbance.”[1] The violence of Pound’s reading suggests his dramatic ability to identify with the poem’s speaker, the Gascon nobleman and war-loving troubadour Bertran de Born, who lived in the second half of the twelfth century. As Pound points out in his epigraph, Dante encounters this “stirrer up of strife” in Canto XXVIII of the Inferno, in which he is presented carrying his own severed head (a punishment for parting the union of father and son by encouraging young Prince Henry’s rebellion against Henry II).[2] Born is one of the personae, or “complete masks of the self,” that Pound discusses in “Vorticism” (1914), and this poem (like “Piere Vidal Old,” which appeared in the same volume, Exultations) is one of Pound’s early experiments in the dramatic monologue– a form that would become increasingly important to him as his career progressed (particularly in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly and “Homage to Sextus Propertius”).[3]

Set in Born’s castle, Altaforte, the poem consists of the troubadour’s complaint to his “jongleur” (singer), Papiols, that their home in the south of France “stinks peace”; his strong statement of preference for tumult (or “stour,” a British dialect word that Pound uses twice) over such “womanish peace”; and his order– given to Papiols at the beginning and end of the poem– to play the songs of war that alone can bring him comfort (“to the music!”). The cyclicality of the poem is expressed not only in its content, but also in its form, which Pound chose, as he explains in “How I Began” (1913), for its “curious involution and recurrence.”[4] The sestina consists of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy. Instead of rhyming, it repeats throughout the six end-words of the first stanza, rearranging them such that the last end-word of each stanza becomes the first of the next. This process results in a kind of metonymic linking that appears most clearly when the end-words are taken in isolation:

peace – music – clash – opposing – crimson – rejoicing [Stanza I]
rejoicing – peace – crimson – music – opposing – clash [Stanza II]
clash – rejoicing – opposing – peace – music – crimson [Stanza III]
crimson – clash – rejoicing – music – peace – opposing [Stanza IV]
opposing – crimson – peace – clash – rejoicing – music [Stanza V]
music – opposing – rejoicing – crimson – clash – Peace [Stanza VI]
crimson – clash – Peace [Envoi]

Christine Froula interprets the repetitive form of “Sestina” in terms of individual psychology, arguing that “the repetitions of end-words show Bertran’s mind revolving tightly about his war theme” in an “obsessive” manner.[5] More broadly, however, the “curious involution and recurrence” of the sestina also models Pound’s own engagement, in this poem and throughout his career, with a past that is always coming back, always available for renewal; indeed, the wavelike motion by which the poem folds back upon itself calls to mind the image of the “ocean flowing backward” in the first Canto, as Odysseus sails to the land of the Kimmerians to undertake the nekyia that is linked to the poet’s own descent into literary tradition (Canto I, line 13). It is to this kind of modernist recurrence that Pound seems to be referring in his epigraph, when he asks (in a line that may have inspired Eliot’s similarly worded warning in the first section of The Waste Land), “Have I dug him up again?” (cp. TWL, line 75).

While characteristically eschewing rhyme, Pound displays his technical virtuosity in “Sestina: Altaforte” in a number of ways. Foreshadowing the appropriation of Anglo-Saxon verse form in his translation of “The Seafarer,” he makes elaborate use of alliteration throughout, and especially in the fifth stanza, where the initial consonants of “fears war” in the first line are emphasized in each of the next three:

The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But is fit only to rot in womanish peace
Far from where worth’s won and the swords clash
For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music. (emphasis added)

Pound successfully evokes the voice of a man who delights in violence and bloodshed through cacophany (“rush clash” in stanza VI) and the harsh b-alliteration that traverses the poem (“blot black … the thought of Peace!”). And in a technique Yeats would use to depict sexual violence in “Leda and the Swan” (“her helpless breast upon his breast”), Pound manipulates his syntax to mimic on the page the collisions of battle: “Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!”; “There’s no sound like to swords swords opposing” (Pound, stanzas III, VI; Yeats, “Leda,” line 4).

It is unlikely that Pound would have written a poem so gleeful about war in the years after 1914, and already in 1913, he would write that while “[t]echnically it is one of my best … a poem on such a theme could never be very important.”[6] But war, Pound’s “theme” in this poem, is the traditional subject matter of epic. As Robert Hollander points out, Dante invokes Bertran de Born– whom he called elsewhere “a poet of salus, or ‘arms'”– at a point in the Inferno at which he is considering “possibly for the first time … the epic resonance of his own poem.”[7] By inhabiting the voice of Bertran, Pound too may have been experimenting with the role of the epic poet that he would take on more fully in The Cantos.

  1. ↑ Ira B. Nadel, The Cambridge Introduction to Ezra Pound (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 42-43.
  2. ↑ I paraphrase the translation of Robert Pinsky: The Inferno of Dante (Farrar, Strauss and Girous, 1994), p. 301.
  3. ↑ “Vorticism,” in Pound, Early Writings: Poems and Prose (Penguin, 2005), p. 282.
  4. ↑ Early Writings, p. 214.
  5. ↑ Froula, A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems (New Directions, 1983), p.25.
  6. ↑ In “How I Began (Early Writings, 214).
  7. ↑ Hollander’s commentary is available online at the Dartmouth Dante Project: