Okay, six pages in, I think I know why Robert Browning’s Sordello was such a massive, career-destroying failure, and why it was so important for Ezra Pound that he mentioned it in his second Canto.
Of course, the strange thing is that for me, as a reader familiar with Pound, with “language poetry”, with all kinds of post-1950 stuff, Sordello doesn’t seem to me so opaque. Okay, medieval characters, indexing time by kings and popes? Okay, on the topic of a troubadour living during a bloody feud in Italy? Cool.
I can handle not knowing the year, not getting the reference to this or that pope. I can handle that it’s full of blood and war and awfulness. But I guess people in Browning’s time had been brought up (in poetry) to expect things like musings on lonely clouds and dandelions, or poems about religion, or — at its most referential — amusing farces about non-historical figures like Don Juan.
But on some level, it’s this taking the poem out of the realm of fantasy, into the realm of history, that I think really would have shocked people. Real history — and the real world — doesn’t have its present shape because of people stopping to smell the roses. History — and the real world — has been shaped by the shedding of blood, the clashes of factions that most of us have never heard of. When someone holds this up before you, and then has the gall to tell you that you ought to know it, and then, on top of all of that, proceeds to tell it to you at great length, it cannot but infuriate most people. At bottom, I don’t think it was an “audience of the time” thing, because I don’t think it’s only Pound’s opacity that drives readers away disgusted; it’s also his obscurity and range of reference.
And yet for Pound, for whom I suppose (due to his specialized studies and voracious reading) there would have been little obscurity surrounding the figure of Sordello and the war(s) he was surrounded by. For Pound, it would have been a kind of reassuring, pleasurable experience to read this poem about history, filled with vividly familiar figures and characters, but which rotated history slightly on its axis, changed the focus, altered the angle of approach. I’m sure for Pound, reading that book must have been pure pleasure.
As for me, I don’t know that I’ll finish more than one section of Sordello, if for no other reason than that I’m coming down with a cold, the book is due back at the Jeonbuk University library soon (it’s only a two-week loan, on Lime’s card), and because I really need to focus on reading the Cantos for now, with Harold Bloom’s The American Religion and Nabokov’s Pale Fire as sidelines (though, in the case of the Bloom, a rather profitable sideline when lined up beside the Cantos, considering my interest in Pound’s interest in the occult).
UPDATE: Well, the meeting was put off till Wednesday this week, because a guy who was supposed to come to our school to hock books showed up, but we’d forgotten he was coming. So 11:00am is the real Cantos meeting, session 1.
As per David’s request in the comments section, I’ll try to keep a log here, under a new category called Ezra Poundings, tracking our progress through the Cantos.