The Song of Roland: Pound's Commentary, 1912


Some comparison of the Poema del Cid with its French predecessor is inevitable. 

The French epopée, according to Gaston Paris, takes its source under Clodovic, and becomes apparent in the time of Karl Martel: the three figures, Martel, Charlemagne, and Charles the Bald, are later amalgamated into one heroic figure, "à la barbe chénue."

The Chançon de Roland, dating in its present form from the second half of the Eleventh Century, is based upon the historic fact, which an earlier Latin chronicler dismisses thus: "In this battle Edghardus, master of the royal table, Anselmus, count palatine, and Rollandus, præfect of the borders of Brittany, with very many others, were killed." That is, Hrodland, Count of the March of Brittany, commanding the rearguard of Charlemagne's army, was defeated by the Basques in the Valley of Roncevaux, August 15, 778 (A.D.), Charles the Great being at this time thirty-six years of age. 

Three centuries later this has solidified into 4002 verses, in what Paris terms the "national style," which style is likely to seem a rather wooden convention to an outlander. The personality of the author is said to be "suppressed," although it might be more exact to say that it has been worn away by continuous oral transmision. Summarizing further, from Paris' lecture on the "Chançon de Roland et la Nationalité française": "You will remember that from their conversion the French proclaimed themselves the people beloved of Christ, chosen by him to defend his church."

This ideal pertains in the Chançon; the enemies are no longer idolaters. They are Mahometans, but the French Christians are little concerned with trifling distinctions, so far as the dramatic proportion is concerned they are "pagans." These pagans held Spain; the duty of France is to take it away from them, because they have a false religion. The poet's idea is that "The pagans are wrong, the French are right."

When Charlemagne has taken Saragossa, he converts the population en bloc.

En la citet n'est remis paiens

Ne seit ocis, on devien crestiens.

In the city remained no pagan

Who was not killed, or turned Christian. 

Paris notes this feeling of national destiny, the love of la douce France, and the love of the national honor, as the three qualities which give the poem its "grandiose character." But we, who have not had our literary interest in the poem stimulated of late by the Franco-Prussian war and the feelings of outraged patriotism attendand thereupon, notice a certain tedious redundance before being charmed by this "caractère grandiose." 

The poem is nevertheless quite interesting as a monument to "la nationalité française." Its championship of Christianity against Paganism makes it almost as much of Chrostendom as of France; it is most certainly heroic in outline, far more so than the Cid. 

Threatened by the Franks, the Spanish king and the Sarrasin, Marsille, in Saragossa sues for peace. Ganelon, Charlemagne's ambassador, bears the reply: but, jealous of Roland, he arranges to betray him for a price. Charlemagne, told that Marsille accepts his terms, is, in spite of warning dreams, persuaded to leave Roland behind with the rearguard.

Marsille attacks this rearguard; Oliver sensibly advises Roland to sound his horn to call back the Emperor. Roland bombastically refuses. The warrior Bishop Turpin blesses the French, but neither Roland's hardihood nor the sanctity of the Bishop avert the natural result. Roland dying, sounds the "olifan," and recalls the Emperor, who is already thirty leagues off. All the rearguard are slain. Charles takes vengeance, aided by Ogier, Geoffrey of Anjou, and the Duke Nayme. Saragossa is garrisoned, and the dead of Roncivaux are buried with honor.

Aude appears for the first and last time, faints, and dies of grief at hearing of the death of her betrothed Roland; Ganelon is punished; the widow of Marsille is converted. "St. Gabriel de la part de Dieu," tells Charles to start a new war; and Charles weeps in his white beard at the prospect of carrying a crusade into Syria.


"Ah, la vaillante épopée, chevaleresque et bien française!" exclaims Leo Claretie. It is, indeed, somewhat French, and Roland is not unlike Galiffet at Strasbourg. We hear somewhat his echo in Cyrano's "quel geste!" Take this, perhaps the finest passage in the poem, to witness:

Then Roland felt that death approached,

His brains rush out through his ears.

He prays God to receive his peers.

He confides himself to the angel Gabriel.

He takes the olifan, to be without reproach,

And his sword Durendal in the other hand.

Further than an arblast sends a quarrel bolt

He goes toward Spain, he enters a field and mounts a hillock,

Four marble rocks surround two beautiful trees,

On the green grass he falls backward.

He swoons, for death is near to him.

High are the mountains and very high are the trees.

There are four shining rocks of marble.

Upon the green grass the Count Roland swoons. 

A Sarrasin had his eyes open,

Feigning death, he lies among the others.

Blood reddens his body and his visage,

He rises to his feet and runs forward.

He was great, of very great bravery.

Full of pride and of mortal rage,

He seized Roland, his body and his armor,

And spoke thus: "The nephew of Charles, conqurered!"

This sword will I carry away into Arabie." 

Roland awakes, feeling that someone us pulling his sword away from him; he opens his eyes and says:


"By my faith! you are not one of us."

He holds the olifan, whereof he would not leave hold.

He smites (the Sarrasin) on the cimier all overworked with gold,

Despite the steel and the cap within the helmet, and the bones.

The Sarrasin's eyes burst from his head,

He falls dead at his feet

Then he said to him, "Gredin, how were you so hardy,

As to touch me, either right or wrong?

Whoever might hear of it would hold you for a fool.

I have split my olifan,

I have spoiled the carbuncles and the gold.

Then Roland felt that the life went from him.

He rises to his feet as well as he could manage it,

The color is gone from his visage,

Before him was a brown rock;

Ten blows he struck in grief and rage,

The steel cracked, but neither broke nor split,

And said the Count, "Saint Mary, aid!

Ah good Durendal, what dolor!

I can no longer use you, but I do not neglect you!

In how many battles have I conquered with you!

And for such great lands have I battled

To give them to Charles who has the white beard,

You could never belong to a poltroon,

A bold soldier would have kept you long.

Never will there be his equal in free France."

Roland struck upon the rock of "Sardonie."

The steel cracked, but it broke not, nor split.

When he saw that he could not break it

He commenced to lament to himself,

"Oh Durendal, how white you are,

To the gay sunshine you gleam, you flame!"

He recalls his past glories, and again tries to break the sword; he shivers the hilt, but the blade rebounds and points heavenwards; he prays to the sword in vain, and death comes upon him. 

There he is lying under a pine! the Count Roland!

He wished to turn toward Spain,

He stretches to God the glove of his right hand:

St Gabriel received it.

Then his head falls on his arm,

He is gone, hands joined, to his end.

God sent to him His angel Cherubim,

St Rapahel, and St. Michael of Paul.

St Gabriel is come with them,

They take the soul of the count to Paradise.

A victim, not to the treachery of Ganelom, but to that pride which forbade him to sound the horn for aid, he dies. Perfect chivalric pose, perfect piety! The hero goes out of this chançon of gesture, and one feels that perhaps he and the rest of the characters are not wooden figures, that they are simply "latin." Heroic, his hands joined, in death he forgets not etiquette. He is the perfect hero of pre-realist literature.

But as one is grateful for Cervantes after Montemayor, one is grateful for the refreshment of the Spanish Poema, and for the bandit Ruy Diaz. I perhaps profane the Roland: the death scene is poignant; parts of it are natural; all of it might seem natural to minds differently poised. Poetry it has in plenty; its stiffness may often become, or seem to become, dignity; but the quality of eternal youth is not in it in such a degree as in the Spanish Poema, or in the old captive's song fable, Aucassin and Nicolette. 

Whatever the Cid owes to the Roland, it is an immeasurable advance in simplicity; it is free from such formalizations as in the two trees and four white stones of marble. Indeed, the Roland is either too marvellous to be natural or too historical to allure by its mystery. In the realm of magic, the land of the "romances" one expects and demands, haunted fountains, betwitched castles, ships that move unguided to their appropriate havens; the Breton cycle, the cycle of Arthur, was already furnishing these attractions to the mediaeval audience and supplanting the semi-verities of the "Matter of France."



Pound, Ezra. The Spirit of Romance. New York: New Directions, 2005. 73-78.



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