Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851
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 philistinism, unjust economics, social indifference, and, inevitably following, a senseless war whose only real result was the death of millions—as Pound puts it: “Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid.” Although he mentions no names, Pound was undoubtably thinking especially of his friend, the brilliant young sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed in the trenches of France. Much of Pound’s fury in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is fueled by intense personal anger and anguish.
Having renounced his society, Pound next renounced much of the artistic credo he had embraced during his stay in England. The poem “Yeux Glauques” (gray eyes) is the occasion for this renunciation. It refers to a painting by the Pre-Raphaelist artist Edward Burne-Jones which was itself an attack upon the crass materialism and hypocrisy of English culture. Pound rejects both the culture and the artistic responses of the Pre-Raphaelites and the aesthetic movement, because both were ultimately inimical to true art: the first because it placed no value on such creations, the second because they neglected the duty of artists to improve their society. From this point on in his poetic career, Pound was increasingly outspoken about social and economic matters. Though he may often have been wrong, he was seldom silent.
Part 1 of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley ends with a poem called “Envoi,” based on the verse “Go, Lovely Rose,” by the seventeenth century English writer Edmund Waller. By using Waller’s poem, Pound is being subtly but severely ironic, for he believed Waller to have been one of the greatest of English lyric poets. In modern England, Pound is intimating, Waller would be rejected and unhonored—just as Pound is.
Part 2 gives the fictional case history of a modern English poet, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, who is in many ways a mask, or persona, of Pound himself. Attempting to write true, rather than merely popular, poems, Mauberley is battered by life, ignored by the public, and tempted by the cynical advice of more successful writers. Mr. Nixon—perhaps based on well-known author Arnold Bennett—is one such character, a thorough materialist who has prostituted his talent for monetary reward and a “steam yacht.” Other literary figures encountered by Mauberley are equally spurious as guides, having abandoned art for the momentary success of the marketplace world.
Pound, however, lets the reader understand that Mauberley’s way is ultimately no more correct than Mr. Nixon’s. The poem that ends the book, “Medallion,” seems to be a typical piece by Mauberley, although critics have debated this point. At any rate the poem, while technically proficient, is limited. It employs many of the poetic devices that Pound advocated—close attention to detail, the creation of a sharp visual image, the juxtaposition of elements—but it employs them in a way that limits, rather than expands, the reader’s comprehension. In a sense, “Medallion” bids farewell to an aspect of Pound’s career, just as Hugh Selwyn Mauberley does: After this, Pound would write on a larger scale.
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