Conceived in 1915 when Pound was reading Herodotus and William Roscoe’s Life and Pontificate of Leo the Tenth, Canto 5 was published in 1921. This plunge into historiography would strongly impinge on the turn the Canto was to take in shaping The Cantos project, since it shows Pound’s moving away from myth and, like the historian, travelling into chronological time. Here he tackles for the first time accuracy in reporting the “facts,” anticipating a documentary method – the ‘fact over fact’ technique – he later refines in the Malatesta cycle. The baffling muse of history does indeed enter Canto 5 without banishing previous themes: the splendour of Ecbatan, Herodotus’s ideal city, and Danaë’s sacred marriage, relocated here from Canto 4, gradually fades as the narrative descends into time-bound realities with love-etic tales from Greece, Rome and Provence. Fratricidal war among ruling families dominates the second part of the Canto and introduces the dark side of the Renaissance ideal city. By focusing on the murders of John Borgia and Alessandro de’ Medici as reported by coeval historians John Burchard and Benedetto Varchi (one “wanting the facts”), and later by XIX-century historiography, Pound poses the question of a correct transmission of the events in the absence of source material. It is indeed the conscientious historian pondering the morality of the crime, who demands the most attention in Canto 5. Pound admires Varchi – dealing with Alessandro’s murder – for leaving open his own query about Lorenzino de’ Medici’s noble or ignoble behaviour. History, and the readings of history, remain a puzzling heritage.
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