Marjorie Perloff: On "Pound and Sigismondo Malatesta"

Much has been written on the background and themes of the Malatesta Cantos, and I don't wish here to go over familiar ground. Thomas Jackson has shown, quite conclusively, I think, that Malatesta is not simply, as many commentators have assumed, Pound's hero--the Renaissance ruler as beneficent patron of art--but that the emphasis in these Cantos is on Sigismundo's very mixed motives and consequently dubious successes. From the beginning of Canto VIII, Sigismundo is depicted as a man torn between his love for the arts and his concern for war-politics and "service money"; the public man, in Jackson's words, "is forever undoing the private man." If Sigismundo was responsible for the architectural splendors of the Tempio at Rimini, he was also the first man to use metal cannonballs. If he wrote beautiful love poems to Isotta degli Atti, he also engaged in the most petty materialistic power struggles with the Sforza and Medici dynasties.

The portrait of Malatesta that emerges from these Cantos is thus hardly novel: it takes us back to Burckhardt's understanding of the Italian Renaissance as a time of incredible tension between sexual brutality and courtly love, between physical violence and artistic delicacy. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, "if you were to read the Malatesta Cantos for their thematic interest, your patience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself." And this is precisely how some readers have responded. "Reading," says Donald Davie, "is an unsatisfactory word for what the eye does as it resentfully labors over and among these blocks of dusty historical debris."

Yet, on closer inspection, Pound's manipulation of these "blocks of dusty historical debris" exerts a peculiar fascination. It is not just a matter of "cultural overlayering" or of alternating a love letter with a list of building materials, a list of building materials with a papal edict. I would posit that Pound's basic strategy in the Cantos is to create a flat surface, as in a Cubist or early Dada collage, upon which verbal elements, fragmented images, and truncated bits of narrative, drawn from the most disparate contexts, are brought into collision. Such "collage poetry," as David Antin points out, "no longer yield(s) an iconic representation, even of a fractured sort, though bristling with significations." It thus occupies a middle space between the mimetic on the one hand and the non-objective or "abstract" on the other; the referential process is not cut off but it is subordinated to a concern for sequential or spatial arrangement. Indeed, in the case of the Malatesta Cantos, the text becomes a surface of linguistic distortions and contradictions that force the reader to participate in the poem's action. just as Rimbaud invents cityscapes in which Swiss chalets on magic pulleys dissolve into Vesuvian craters and then into gorges spanned by little footbridges, so Pound dislocates language so as to create new verbal landscapes.

The 1923 version of Canto VIII opens as follows:

Frater tamquam et compater carissime 

                        (tergo

                                . . hanni de

                                . . dicis

                                . . entia

Equivalent to: Giohanni of the Medici, Florence)

Letter received, and in the matter of our Messire

    Gianozio

One from him also, sent on in form and with all due 

    dispatch,

Having added your wishes and memoranda.

Unlike, say, the opening of "Gerontion" or the first page of Ulysses, this passage is not polysemous. As D. S. Carne-Ross, in a general discussion of the Cantos, puts it: "Pound's first level doesn't point beyond itself... the whole reverberating dimension of inwardness is missing. There is no murmuring echo chamber where deeps supposedly answer to deeps." But neither is the passage a ragbag of dusty historical debris. Its strategy is best understood if we compare it to its source: a 1449 letter from Sigismundo to Giovanni di Medici. The original begins with the address:

Magnifice vir tamquam frater, et compater carissime.

Pound lops off the standard form of address ("Magnifice vir") and reverses the next two words, emphasizing Sigismundo's rather oily appeal to his Medici patron as a true brother. Next, the sonorous formality of the address is undercut by a series of incomplete words, meant to reproduce what is on the back of the envelope ("tergo"). Here the reader has to fill in the first few letters of each word in order to make sense of the address: "Johanni de / Medicis / Florentia." The poet thus insists on our participation; it is up to us to fill in the blanks, to play the game. But just when we become accustomed to this strategy, Pound does a further turnabout and tells us matter-of-factly: "Equivalent to: Giohanni of the Medici, Florence."

The lines, in short, do not convey information; rather, they take certain facts and present them from different linguistic perspectives (formal, florid Italian; broken Italian words; English translation) as if to undercut their historicity. Fact, in other words, is repeatedly transformed into fiction. Thus in the body of the letter, Pound takes Sigismundo's perfectly straightforward "Ho ricevuto vostra lettera" ("I have received your letter") and turns it into business English--"Letter received"--whereas the phrase "li preghi et recordi vestri" ("your best wishes and remembrances") becomes, by an absurd sleight-of-hand, "your wishes and memoranda," as if Rimini were dissolving into Wall Street.

Such linguistic indeterminacy is one of the central devices of these Cantos. Pound uses a variety of techniques to command our attention. Perhaps the simplest is condensation and modernization. In Canto VIII, for example, Sigismundo's letter to Giovanni di Medici regarding his renewed alliance with Venice is a seven-line condensation of the original eighteen lines of prose, in which Sigismundo gives a formal explanation of the precise terms the Venetians have offered him, his military troubles caused by renewed flooding, and so on. Here is Pound's rendition:

Venice has taken me on again

                At 7,000 a month, fiorini di Camera.

For 2,000 horse and four hundred footmen, 

And it rains here by the gallon,

We have had to dig a new ditch.

In three or four days

I shall try to set up the bombards.

Such updating of history would not in itself make the Malatesta Cantos unique; it is a device many poets have used. But Pound's forte is to take a passage like the one just cited and then suddenly to switch back to the voice of the Renaissance chronicler, in this case describing the wedding of Bianca Visconti to Francesco Sforza:

Under the plumes, with the flakes and small wads of 

    colour

Showering from the balconies

With the sheets spread from windows,

            with leaves and small branches pinned on 

    them,

Arras hung from the railings; out of the dust, 

With pheasant tails upright on their forelocks,

                The small white horses, the

Twelve girls riding in order, green satin in pannier'd 

    habits.

Another frequent form of montage is to set the original Italian side by side with a correct English translation so as to intensify and reinforce a central image; thus "non gli manchera la provixione mai" is followed by "never lacking provision," and the line "With his horsemen and his footmen" precedes "gente di cavallo e da pie." Or again, Pound may translate a given letter or document written in highly formal Italian so literally that it sounds like a parody in English. The best example of such satiric super-literalism is the letter of Sigismundo's five-year-old son, which Pound translates in Canto IX with tongue-in-cheek pedantic fidelity:

"Magnificent and Exalted Lord and Father in especial my

"lord with due recommendation: your letter has been pre-

"sented to me by Gentilino da Gradara and with it the bay

"pony (ronzino baiectino) the which you have sent me, and

"which appears in my eyes a fine caparison'd charger, upon 

"which I intend to learn all there is to know about riding, in

"consideration of yr. paternal affection for which I thank 

"your excellency thus briefly and pray you continue to hold

"me in this esteem....

In English, the endless "the which," "upon which," and "for which" clauses, the consistent circumlocution, and the involuted address sound wholly absurd, especially since the subject of the letter is no more than the gift of a bay pony. Translated thus literally, the letter has neither the status of fifteenth-century document nor twentieth-century adaptation; it remains a curiosity, removed from a specific time-space context. The introduction of the Italian phrase "ronzino baiectino" is particularly skillful: "ronzino baiectino" does mean "bay pony," but in the context it sounds more like a zoological specimen or a rare disease.

The Malatesta Cantos "cut" back and forth between such literal translation on the one hand and intentional mistranslation on the other. We have one example of the latter in the above passage. Pound translates "uno grosso et apreciato corsiero" as "a fine caparison'd charger." "Apreciato" means "worthy" or "admirable"; "caparison'd" is a pure invention, used to enhance the bombastic formality of the child's letter. Frequently in the Malatesta Cantos, the straightforward expository prose of the original gives way to business English ("This to advise...... the said load"); illiterate spelling ("I think it advisabl that I shud go to rome to talk to mister Albert so as I can no what he thinks about it rite"); abbreviations ("yr. Lordship," "The Illus. Sgr. Mr. Fedricho d'Orbino," "Sidg"); modern slang ("that nicknosed s.o.b. Feddy," "And old Sforza bitched us at Pesaro," "worked the wangle," "And he found 'em, the anti-Aragons, / busted and weeping in their beards"); regional American dialects ("provided you don't get too ornry," "But dey got de mos' bloody rottenes' peace on us"); and comic name-calling ("old Wattle-Wattle," "Siggy darlint," the transformation of Giorgio Ranbutino into "Giorgio Rambottom").

Closely related to such artful mistranslation is the purposely incorrect rendering of the Italian itself. In the letter to Giovanni di Medici which opens Canto VIII, for example, Pound has Sigismundo say: "And tell the Maestro di pentore / That there can be no question of / His painting the walls for the moment, / As the mortar is not yet dry / And it wd. be merely work chucked away / (buttato via) . . ." In the original, the Italian phrase is gettata via, which means "thrown away." Pound substitutes the harsh "buttato via," partly to suit his own meaning--"chucked away"--and partly, no doubt, for comic sound effect.

One of Pound's most effective ways of distorting perspective is to juxtapose a snatch of Italian with the "official" Latin document relating to the same thing, and then to tack on an English conclusion, thus incorporating linguistic conventions of various centuries. Canto IX, for instance, begins on a note of quasi-Biblical repetition--"One year floods rose, / One year they fought in the snows, / One year hail fell"--then moves through a series of paratactic "And . . ." clauses ("And the Emperor came down and knighted us, / And they had a wooden castle set up for fiesta"), gives way to the series of "real" letters discussed above, and then comes to the following climax:

"et amava perdutamente Ixotta degli Atti"

e "ne fu degna"

            "constans in proposito

"Placuit oculis principis

"pulchra aspectu"

"populo grata (Italiaeque decus)

 

"and built a temple so full of pagan works" 

            i. e. Sigismund and

in the style "Past ruin'd Latium" 

The filigree hiding the gothic,

                with a touch of rhetoric in the whole 

And the old sarcophagi,

            such as lie, smothered in grass, by San Vitale.

The Italian lines (1-2) were written by Pope Pius II. The four Latin lines that follow come from a fifteenth-century chronicle attributed to Alessandro da Rimini, although Pound condenses and rephrases the original. The conjunction of the Italian and Latin encomia emphasizes Isotta's special charms and justifies Sigismundo's boundless passion for her. But now both are further set off by the English conclusion, which begins with a translation from the Latin chronicle ("and built a temple so full of pagan works"), modulates into American shorthand ("i.e. Sigismund"), and then provides a variation of Walter Savage Landor's Victorian poem, "Past ruined Ilion Helen lived." The love affair of Sigismundo and Isotta degli Atti is thus viewed in the perspective of three centuries as well as three languages. In the final lines of the Canto, Pound reverses the movement, and we come back to the old sarcophagi, "such as lie, smothered in grass, by San Vitale"--that is, to the early Christian world. We also come back to the poet who contemplates all these things, whose vision of the sarcophagi at San Vitale has prompted his meditation on the Malatesta in the first place.

The Malatesta Cantos do not, then, recreate history; they decompose and fragment historical time and action so as to draw the "events" recorded into the world of the text. This is not to say that Pound updates the annals of the Malatesta family; he is, on the contrary, quite faithful to the record. But the linguistic deformations I have been describing project the world of the Renaissance condottiere onto a flat picture plane or shallow film screen, upon which categories like "past" and "present" become irrelevant.

Here a comparison of Pound and Yeats is instructive. For Yeats, the "broken wall, the burning roof and tower" of Troy embody certain basic human conflicts that recur at other moments in history. Troy, like Byzantium, or like the "Romantic Ireland" of Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, is a symbolic landscape. Pound's history collage, on the other hand, retains fidelity to the literal events but brings those events into the reader's circle by transforming the history lesson into a kind of "VORTEX, from which and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." History becomes the impetus for the play of language. Thus the lengthy Latin statement describing the auto-da-fé of Sigismundo, complete with bibliographical references to its sources (X, 43-44) is exploded by the slangy passage that follows it:

So that in the end that pot-scraping little runt Andreas

               Benzi, da Siena

Got up to spout out the bunkum

That that monstrous swollen, swelling s. o. b.

            Papa Pio Secundo

            Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini

            da Siena

Had told him to spout, in their best bear's-greased 

    latinity ...

And this narrative, rendered in Pound's best Western twang, is again displaced by a Latin passage, listing the sins for which Sigismundo was excommunicated: "Stupro, caede, adulter, / homicida, parricida ac periurus," and so on. Neither "Renaissance" nor "modern" characters, Andreas Benzi, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pius II), and Sigismundo Malatesta exist only in the collage-text of the poem. And the reader, making his way through Pound's paste-ups and film-splices, finds himself inside the circle of fragments.

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Copyright © 1981 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

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Criticism Overview
Title Marjorie Perloff: On "Pound and Sigismondo Malatesta" Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Marjorie Perloff Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 10 Oct 2015
Publication Status No Data Publication The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage
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