(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley cover image

In the poems of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound expressed the disgust and rejection of British society which had been building in him during World War I. Increasingly at odds with a culture that had embraced sordid economic gain at the expense of art and lives—ten million people died in the war, and for nothing, in Pound’s view—Pound used Hugh Selwyn Mauberley to pen a sharp, critical farewell to England and to his own poetic theories and practices. The book is thus a dual break: with his society and with his own poetic style.

The book is in two parts, and it comprises eighteen short poems. In the first part, Pound gives a general survey of contemporary England, attacking the low value it places on true art, especially poetry. There is much trenchant social criticism in these brief poems, and Pound makes direct attacks on a corrupted civilization whose marketplace ethics debase everything, especially human life and art. The second part of the book focuses on the career of a representative poet of the time, the fictitious Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and his gradual descent into a sterile and isolated aestheticism, an artistic philosophy that Pound once shared, at least in part, but which he found artistically and morally untenable after the cataclysm of the war.

The work opens with one of Pound’s best-known and most often anthologized poems, “E. P. Ode pour l’Election de son Sepulchre” (“E. P. ode for carving upon his tomb”). In this introductory poem, Pound, the E. P. of the title, gives an ironic, mocking farewell to his own artistic efforts in England: In an artistic sense, he is dead, and this brief work is his epitaph. The poem is satirical, but its satire is double, aimed at both Pound and his society. He was, Pound writes, “wrong from the start” in his attempts to bring a new renaissance into such indifferent, even hostile surroundings.

The rest of the poems in the first part show just how indifferent and hostile that culture was to poetry. In succeeding poems, Pound turns to the baleful effects of artistic...

(The entire section is 851 words.)