How would you characterize the tone of Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley?
Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”, like many classic modernest poems, mixes an elegaic tone with biting satire. Pound saw himself as a crusader against the conventionality of Victorian poetry, but despite his revulsion against the previous generation, he was no more enthusiastic about modern society than he was about Tennyson; in fact, despite his radicalism, his dominant voice was, like that of his Victorian forebears, one of nostalgia for antiquity. In a manner similar to Eliot, he did not see innovation as occurring ex nihilo but as evolution within a tradition (cf. ABC of Reading and Tradition and the Individual Talent).
The subject of the poem is portrayed as a poet of the fin de siecle, enamoured of the pre-Raphaelites, and uncomfortable in the modern world of commercial literature. The figure of Nixon, like the anti-hero of Trollope’s The Way We Were, epitomized the commercialization and degradation of literature by the periodical press, which makes it possible for the writer to earn a modest living by doing superficial and mediocre work.
The narrator, despite satirizing his protagonist’s nostalgia, still symapthizes with the dilemma of “being caught between two worlds, one dying and one unable to be born”, and reserves his harshest condemnation for the crudely materialistic modern world, rather than the protagonist’s retreat to nostalgia.
The speaker of this poem is disappointed and defeated. The titular figure—Hugh Selwyn Mauberly—is a persona that Pound created, a character that is a poet himself. It could be that Hugh represents Pound or that Hugh just represents the poets and artists of the time period. Either way, the speaker is disappointed. The poem is a condemnation on the failure of Hugh and, in a larger sense, of Pound's generation. The poem questions what the true nature of art is only to conclude that art is a thing of the past. The Greeks knew art (hence the use of Greek language in the poem), but the modern world is incapable of producing such beauty. This defeat is admitted in the early lines:
He strove to resuscitate the dead art
Of poetry; to maintain "the sublime"
In the old sense. Wrong from the start—
No hardly, but, seeing he had been born
In a half savage country, out of date;
Pound, like Hemingway and Fitzergerald and the other ex-patriots of the post-WWI era, was dissatisfied with the world. War had brought carnage and destruction to society, had turned the world savage. This tone of this poem suggests that literature was a victim as well. Like T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the poem's tone is hopeless and vaguely bitter.