A reading of Pound’s poem
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) is a long poem by the American-born modernist poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who described the poem as his ‘farewell to London’. It is partly a response to the First World War, but it is more self-reflexively about the artist or poet’s role in the wake of the war: whereas another great long poem of the early 1920s, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, would address this issue in only an oblique sense, Ezra Pound’s poem tackles the issue more directly, being an analysis of the role of poetry in a world torn apart by conflict and mass carnage, and about Pound’s own struggle to recover the ‘dead art’ of poetry in the years leading up to the war. So, as well as being about poetry itself, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is also about WWI and the effect of the war and its aftermath on the generation to which Pound belonged (his earlier associate, T. E. Hulme, had been killed in the war in 1917).
But to understand Hugh Selwyn Mauberley it is also necessary to understand Pound’s fondness for adopting personae – this was the title he gave to his second collection of poetry published in 1909. (It’s somewhat amusing that when Pound published Ripostes three years later, the page at the beginning of the book listing ‘Books by the Same Author’ misprinted the title of Personae as ‘Personal’ – try as Pound might, people were intent on taking his poetry personally!) Pound told his friend Viola Baxter that each of the figures dramatised in his poetry was a mask (in other words, a persona – the word is Latin for ‘mask’) through which to ‘give you that part of me which is most real, most removed from the transient personality’. Like T. S. Eliot’s theory of impersonality (put forward in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’), Pound’s adoption of personae in his poetry – an idea also strongly indebted to the poetry of Robert Browning – is a way of transmuting personal truths into art.
Pound explained his approach to the dramatic lyric in a letter to his friend William Carlos Williams (who himself would become an important modernist poet, but over the other side of the Atlantic). For Pound, the dramatic lyric was a matter of ‘catch[ing] the character I happen to be interested in at the moment he interests me – usualy a moment of song, self-analysis, or sudden understanding, or revelation’.
The influential critic F. R. Leavis was one of the first to subject Hugh Selwyn Mauberley to detailed analysis, in his 1932 book New Bearings in English Poetry which discussed Pound alongside T. S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Leavis remarked that the poem was ‘the summing-up of an individual life’ but also reflects the ‘miscellaneousness of modern culture’ and ‘the absence of direction’; another important theme in Mauberley, for Leavis, is ‘the uncongeniality of the modern world to the artist’. The poem also hammers home just how exhausted the older, Romantic mode of English poetry had become by the early twentieth century. Poetry needed to be revitalised and rejuvenated, but nobody – not even Pound – was clear about what needed to be done. Leavis also observed that Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a great autobiographical poem, but with the impersonality that we find in great art (again, we feel that T. S. Eliot would approve).
This is, then, how we might approach an analysis of Pound’s poem. It is personal yet impersonal; ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ both is and is not Pound himself; the poem rejects one mode of English poetry as moribund, but is aware that the new mode – whatever form it might take – is powerless to be born. One question to ask ourselves of this poem is: what is the relationship between form and subject matter, between the way Pound has written the poem and what the poem is about? If the poem is partly about how the Romantic age of poetry is exhausted, then how would the impersonality of the poem, and the quatrain form it utilises in various ways, help to reflect this? Well, one answer to this question is that the poet seeking a more ‘classical’ or restrained style might do well to utilise a more rigid stanza form to reflect a classical spirit.
Another remark of Leavis’s is worth bearing in mind here: talking of Eliot and Pound, he writes of how both Eliot and Pound have found a way ‘to express so subtly by rhythmic means the break-down of rhythm’. So although Mauberley is written in quatrains, Pound allows himself to depart from the regularity of the quatrain form – something he does particularly in sections IV and V of the first part of the poem, when discussing the breakdown of civilisation that had culminated, recently, in the First World War.
On the issue of Pound’s use of a persona here – the figure of Mauberley – we might also ask: how far is the poem an indictment of society and how far is it also sending up its protagonist? Mauberley is attacking the cheapened philistine consumerism of the modern age, but are we also being invited to laugh at Mauberley? He is an aesthete, a self-conscious poet, out of key with the age in which he lives; we can find ourselves responding sympathetically to such a person but we can also find him laughable and a bit ridiculous. How seriously should we take Mauberley, or Pound’s own self-conscious treatment of poetry? Should we make a clear distinction between Pound’s voice and Mauberley’s? Pound wrote in a letter of 1922 to Felix Schelling, ‘Of course, I’m no more Mauberley than Eliot is Prufrock’, but then Pound wouldn’t be the first poet to distance himself from the speaker of one of his poems.
In the last analysis, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley – like many great modernist poems – refuses to be pinned down or to have its paradoxes and contradictions resolved in a neat or glib way. It was Ezra Pound’s ‘farewell to London’ but also a poem of transition, between the old Pound of the war years and the new Pound who would spend much of the rest of this life writing his vast modern epic, The Cantos. But that really is another story.
Image: Ezra Pound photographed in Kensington, London, October 22, 1913. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn, first published in Coburn’s More Men of Mark (New York: Knopf, 1922); Wikimedia Commons; public domain.