Poet and Persona in Sestina: Altaforte

Sestina: Altaforte” by Ezra Pound explores the character of Bertran de Born, a French baron and Occitan troubadour. Pound manipulates the relationship between poet and persona, emphasizing the simultaneous artifice and naturalness in Bertran, to show Bertran’s primal and authentic character. Pound portrays Bertran independently to create a historical authenticity and objectivity, but cannot help but hint at the poet’s influence and own ideas. Hugh Kenner precisely notes this, saying Pound’s persona “crystallizes a modus of sensibility in its context.” (Kenner 11) The persona can thus be seen as a transparent mask: Pound wears the face of Bertran to immerse the reader in the historic context and character, but to make his own personal sensibilities stronger. Using this technique, Bertran is portrayed more vividly and personally, and “Sestina: Altaforte” can be read as an acceptance and vindication of Bertran de Born.

The prelude, before the Bertran persona is assumed and the sestina begins, indicates Pound’s intention to defend Bertran and his method to do so. Pound notes Bertran’s reputation, “Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer up of strife,”(Pound line 2-3)  but asks the reader to judge for themselves if the disrepute is deserved. “Eccovi! / Judge ye!” (4-5) By overtly referring to the audience in an exclamation, Pound emphasizes that the purpose of his poem is to provide a contrasting narrative for the reader to judge from. Importantly, there is an explicit separation of the poet and persona: “Have I dug him up again?” (6) The first person and third person personal pronouns emphasize the necessary artificiality of assuming any persona: the poet can never seamlessly don the mask; instead, Pound has created a Poundian version of Bertran that is distinct from the historical figure. Pound alludes to this necessary distinction in “Gaudier-Brzeska” where he says translations “were but more elaborate masks.” (Pound 85) That is, even in translations, the poet cannot completely capture the source—both translations and “Sestina: Altaforte” are elaborate personas created by the poet based on and mimicking, but separate from, the original. It is therefore important to acknowledge Pound’s Bertran as artificial and created by Pound. This is the “sensibility” Kenner spoke of, how Pound controls Bertran to evoke Pound’s own thoughts. Indeed, the poem’s first word, “LOQUITUR” (1) indicates this. “Loquitur” is widely used as a stage direction, for “he speaks”. The “he” in question is a subtle reference to Pound, establishing the necessary creative powers of the poet to any persona. This is important as Pound has effectively made Bertran into a war fanatic. Bertran in “Sestina: Altaforte” cannot help himself, as he does not have existence independent of Pound. This lack of control becomes increasingly obvious and relevant as the sestina progresses.
By assuming a persona, Pound absorbs the objectivity from Bertran, sharing in the same “context” Kenner referred to. There exists what George Steiner calls an ontological difficulty in “Sestina: Altaforte”. The reader has problems relating to Bertran’s state and culture. Bertran’s use of dramatic monologue helps to clarify this issue. While the Romantics used dramatic monologues to express the subjective psychological state of individuals, Pound was more inspired by Robert Browning’s persona’s objective historicism. Pound uses persona to combine the Romantics’ subjectivity, making it easier for the reader to empathize with Bertran, with Browning’s objectivity, making the context more realistic. He strikes a delicate balance between sensibility and context, overcoming the ontological difficulty.
Pound’s decision to make Bertran’s dramatic monologue a sestina is revealing. Firstly, it reiterates Bertran’s artifice. The strict adherence to end words that is demanded is a nod to the poet’s craft. This criterion permeates every line of the poem, suggesting Pound’s over-arching and omnipresent hand. It is also of note that a troubadour invented the sestina form, creating a subtle Romantic irony. This self-referencing metafiction further hints at Pound’s presence.
More specifically, the dramatic monologue also serves many purposes to make the reader sympathize with Bertran, who is portrayed as natural. Firstly, it makes him more convincing to the audience, as it is easier to relate to a character speaking in the first person. Furthermore, the dramatic monologue demands a listener. Bertran is addressing his jongleur Papiols, who acts as an audience surrogate. By indirectly addressing the reader through Papiols, Bertran’s points are more cogent and easy to empathize with. Interestingly, Bertran does not flatter Papiols. Instead, he emphatically insults him: “You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!” (10) The reader begins to understand the full force of Bertran’s personality. He is unfiltered and unapologetic, entirely authentic. There is a sense of euphonic invitation by Bertran’s part for the reader to join him in mad war. “Papiols, Papiols, to the music!” (39) The double entendre of “music”, one meaning the literal music played by Papiols, the other meaning the metaphoric music heard in war, puts great pressure on the audience. Papiol’s function is to serve his lord and create music, an act that has increasingly become associated with battle. By placing the audience surrogate as someone below Bertran, Pound creates a distinct patriarchy where the reader is aware of Bertran’s dominance. Indeed, Bertran later emasculates peacemakers, “fit only to rot in womanish peace.” (34)
This conveying of power is where the sestina excels. Through its repetitive form, the sestina is capable of creating an extremely vibrant portrait of Bertran as a fixated and fanatical force. Again, it should be mentioned that this Bertran is a creation of Pound: he literally has no control. Pound deliberately paints such a powerful picture of Bertran so the reader cannot help but side with Bertran. The repeated end words of “peace”, “music”, “clash”, “opposing”, “crimson” and “rejoicing” are key to understanding Bertran’s state. The end words in different line contexts provide a range of permutations and meanings, which slowly shift so the reader can understand Bertran and his devolution into violence. This development is exemplified between the first and second stanza. As per the sestina’s cyclical form, the end word of the last line is the same as the first line of the following stanza. “Then howls my heart nigh mad with rejoicing. // In hot summer have I great rejoicing / When the tempests kill the earth’s foul peace.”  (13-15) In the first stanza, Bertran’s rejoicing is cacophonic and primal. The enjambment of the second stanza takes away this impact, redirecting the emphasis onto “the earth’s foul peace.” Instead of viewing Bertran as an anomaly, the second stanza argues that Bertran is only being authentic. The heavy use of pathetic fallacy further suggests that Bertran is not only natural, but also dominative enough to influence the weather and his surroundings.
Along with nature and music, perhaps the most potent motif is that of Heaven and Hell. The concluding envoi finishes with “Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash! / Hell blot black for always the thought ‘Peace!’” (45-46) Bertran does not seem to shy away from Hell. Morality escapes him, as good and evil no longer matter; he is only occupied with the joy of battle. Pound’s persona would not deny that “he was a stirrer up of strife” (2-3), but revel in it. “Better one hour’s stour than a year’s peace”.  (24) Heaven, too, is mentioned only in terms of battle: “And through all the riven skies God’s swords clash.” (20) Again, war is portrayed as natural and inevitable, constant in every aspect of all realms.
Ultimately, Pound utilizes persona extremely effectively to explicate the savage nature of Bertran. By delicately playing with the relationship between poet and persona, “Sestina: Altaforte” is able to create a simultaneously subjective and objective, and artificial and natural text. These contradictions capture the essence of Bertran de Born: he is beyond rationality, operating on a purely primal and authentic level. In the end, the reader understands Bertran as Pound intends, and cannot fault him for what he himself cannot control.

Works Cited

Kenner, Hugh. “Introduction.” Translations, ed. Hugh Kenner. By Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1962. 9-14. Print.
Pound, Ezra. “Vorticism.” Gaudier-Brzeska. New York: New Directions, 1970. 81-94.  Print.
Pound, Ezra.  “Sestina: Altaforte.”  Personae. New York: New Directions, 1990. 26-28.  Print.

2 replies on “Poet and Persona in Sestina: Altaforte”

There are many accurate and subtle point in this, but when all’s said and done Bertran de Born was the most feudal and warmongering of the troubadours and Pound made that recording with the dreadful drum in (I think I’m right in saying) 1939.

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