The Cantos by Ezra Pound

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Browning’s Sordello first appears as an isolated, solitary figure in the midst of a heated dispute between Guelphs and Ghibellines on the streets of Verona, so that the poet’s ‘single eye/From all Verona cared for the soft sky’ (I, 85-6). Some two hundred lines further on, comes the central tableau of Browning’s poem (to which Pound’s ‘one whole man’ is an allusion):

Nor mutes nor masquers now;
Nor any…does that one man sleep whose brow
The dying lamp-flam sinks and rise o’er?
What woman stood beside him?’ (I, 327-30)

Later on, the reader will understand that Sordello has just taken part in a secret conference with Palma (Browning’s version of Cunizza), which leads to a decision to involve himself in the world of active heroism – Salinguerra’s world – in which he will, finally, lose his life. This is the dramatic centre of Browning’s poem, in which Palma inspires her lover to an act of determined will .

Referring, therefore, to Browning’s Sordello as ‘one whole man’ is a complex allusion on Pound’s part. Sometimes Sordello is heroic, sometimes he is not, but, at the heart of Browning’s poem, he is truly the ‘one man’ among his peers, and it is at this moment that Browning’s portrayal of Sordello provides a further insight into Pound’s understanding of the hero :

And Palma’s fled.
Though no affirmative disturbs the head.
A dying lamp-flame sinks and rises o’er,
Like the alighted planet Pollux wore,
Until, morn-breaking, he resolves to be
Gate-vein and heart’s blood of Lombardy,
Soul of this body – to wield this aggregate
Of souls and bodies, and so conquer fate
Though he should live – a centre of disgust
Even – apart, core of the outward crust
He vivifies, assimilates. (III, 551-61)

It is this last phrase – ‘core of the outward crust/He vivifies, assimilates’ – that powerfully suggests a paradigm for heroism in The Cantos . All the heroes of Pound’s poem, from Ruy Diaz to John Adams, from Sigismundo Malatesta to Confucius, are seen to impress their directed will upon ‘the outward crust’ of their time and place and to bring about a ‘new age’.

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Ezra Pound