Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008

“Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” was originally published by the small private press of John Rodker, a printer who specialized in expensive, finely made editions of books by modernist authors. At the time, Pound was often issuing his works twice in quick succession—once with small publishers such as Rodker, who would sell...

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“Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” was originally published by the small private press of John Rodker, a printer who specialized in expensive, finely made editions of books by modernist authors. At the time, Pound was often issuing his works twice in quick succession—once with small publishers such as Rodker, who would sell books to collectors and devoted fans of Pound’s, and again with trade literary publishers such as Alfred A. Knopf or Farrar and Rinehart, whose books were sold in bookstores and purchased by a broader group of readers. As a result, it is important to keep in mind that early readers and reviewers are often responding to two different presentations of the poem, for “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” appears quite different when printed on fine paper, accompanied by illustrations, and bound in hand-tooled leather versus when it is printed on inexpensive paper and machine bound.

The earliest reviewers read the Rodker edition and were often swayed by the poem’s classy, or very established, face in that version. An anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement (reprinted in Eric Homberger’s book Ezra Pound: The Critical Heritage) in July 1920 remarks on the “beautifully printed book” but finds the poems “needlessly obscure.” The reviewer notes that the book “has no wish to appeal to more than a small circle of readers.” The poems, the reviewer continues, seem to be both courting and hostile to readers; however, they have a “mathematical charm.”

Other contemporary reviewers caught the acerbic tone of the poem but, as with the Times Literary Supplement writer, felt that Pound was unnecessarily obscure. Writing in the New Age (as reprinted and quoted from Ezra Pound: The Critical Heritage) in 1922, Edwin Muir wished that “the condemnation of our age which is implicitly damning in this book had been explicitly so.” Muir was impressed by Pound’s refusal to slip into “rhetoric”; his scorn “is so great that it does not even express itself.” However, Muir felt that the poem simply pronounces the end of the possibility of poetry: “the tragedy,” Muir says, “is that an artist here tells us that art is no longer possible, and that the only thing we can utter now is our desperation and our contempt.” In January 1922, John Peale Bishop of Vanity Fair (also reprinted in Ezra Pound: The Critical Heritage) compared Mauberley unfavorably to a contemporary’s work, stating that the poems are “elliptical, coolly wrought, delicately pointed satires, but there is nothing here so poignant as the poems of T. S. Eliot in a similar genre.”

As Pound’s fame grew and critics began to look at “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” not simply as an isolated poem but as a moment in a long career, judgements on it grew more sophisticated and more accepting. In 1928, T. S. Eliot wrote in the introduction for an English edition of Pound’s selected poems that “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” was “a great poem . . . I know very well that the apparent roughness and naivete of the verse and rhyming of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ are inevitably the result of many years of hard work.” Other critics of the day are similarly favorable. Maxwell Bodenheim, writing for the Dial (reprinted in Ezra Pound: The Critical Heritage), found the two war poems to be “the most condensed and deftly sardonic account of the war and its causes that has so far appeared.”

In his 1932 book New Bearings in English Poetry, the eminent British critic F. R. Leavis took Eliot’s judgments and refines them, arguing that “the verse is extraordinarily subtle, and its subtlety is the subtlety of the sensibility that it expresses.” After describing the individual poems, Leavis concludes that “the whole is great poetry, at once traditional and original. Mr. Pound’s standing as a poet rests upon it and rests securely.” However, this was faint praise; Leavis believed that Pound’s earlier work was substandard, and that The Cantos were simply obscure and sloppy.

The first full-length study of Ezra Pound’s work appeared in 1951 from an emerging Canadian scholar. Hugh Kenner placed Pound, not Eliot or Joyce, at the center of the movement. In his book, Kenner states unequivocally that “had not a single Canto been finished, [‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’] dispels any doubt of Pound’s being a major poet.” But Kenner also argues with Leavis explicitly, denying that “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is the high-water mark in Pound’s career and insisting instead that the poem simply sets the stage for the much greater and more important The Cantos (which Kenner definitively explains in his 1973 volume, The Pound Era).

After Kenner, dozens of critics began writing on Pound, and two scholars produced book-length studies of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” John Espey’s Ezra Pound’s “Mauberley”: A Study in Composition is an “experiment,” in Espey’s words,

focused on the question of how effective the traditional academic method of attack, with its full panoply of textual collation, identification of sources, and historical method, would prove when used in analysing a piece of contemporary poetry.

Its purpose is less to judge the value or importance of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” than to judge the viability of academic criticism. A later study, Jo Brantley Berryman’s Circe’s Craft: Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” is intended to use a greater knowledge of Pound’s early readings and aesthetic beliefs to shed light on the meaning of the poem.

More recent criticism of Pound has generally focused on the prose and The Cantos, but scholars still continue to put “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” in context as a number of different interpretations of Pound’s ultimate importance compete with each other. If The Cantos fail because of their ultimately fascist meaning, what does that mean for “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”? Is the poem a more perceptive analysis of late Victorian aestheticism than readers realize? Are E. P. and Mauberley ironic versions of Pound himself, or are they creatures that “the age demanded” and that Pound is ridiculing? These and other questions about gender, sexuality, war, and aestheticism dominate current studies of the poem.

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