Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1741
In his 1928 introduction to the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot writes that “I am sure of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,’ whatever else I am sure of.” “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is generally seen as the poem that takes Pound from his early adventures in poetry to his mature lifelong endeavor of The Cantos. Admirers of Pound’s epic poem praise “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” as a prefiguration of the methods and subject matter of The Cantos, while critics who see The Cantos as a failure laud “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” for its traces of imagism, Vorticism, and Pound’s other early obsessions. Almost all critics, though, admire “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” as perhaps Pound’s most purely successful creation.
Much of the commentary on “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” centers on the personae Pound constructs in the poem. E. P. and Mauberley represent two types of aesthete and, most critics agree, also represent two aspects of Pound himself that he wished to exorcise. E. P. is callow and immature, a follower, a hanger-on to the literary scene of early 1900s London. He latches onto people such as Mr. Nixon, the Lady Valentine, and Monsieur Verog but ultimately creates nothing of any importance. Mauberley, by contrast, is an older and more selfassured E. P. His aesthetic sense is more refined, but at the same time, he is more separated from the world, desiring more to observe and appreciate rather than to interact. It is telling that the poet compares E. P. to a sailor lured by a siren (i.e., one who wants contact) and Mauberley to a lotus-eater (i.e., one who wants to be alone with his objects).
In addition to being equated to a lotus-eater, Mauberley is repeatedly associated with a “medallion.” The medallion—its appearance and the process of its creation—are both indicative of Mauberley’s aesthetic tastes, but at the same time, the use of the medallion indicates that Mauberley’s taste in objects was a stage that led, later, to Pound’s own taste. In the 1910s, Pound went through a series of aesthetic incarnations, moving from the caped Swinburnian decadent to the austere imagist to the blustering Vorticist to, ultimately, his final incarnation as the man who tells the “tale of the tribe,” as he called The Cantos.
Driving that evolution was a belief that energy, meaning, and aesthetic power could all be concentrated in a single thing. At times, that “thing” was a particular artwork (such as the mosaic in the church on the island of Torcello, near Venice, or the relief medallions of Sigismondo and Isotta Malatesta in the church of San Francesco in Rimini); at times, that “thing” was a “luminous detail” of history. For years, influenced by the scholar Ernest Fenollosa, Pound pursued the (ultimately incorrect) theory that the Chinese written character was a unique combination of the sign for and picture of an object. Sometimes this combination was a person, a “factive personality” in Pound’s terms, a man who embodied the spirit of a time and place and single-handedly sought to fuse the artificially sundered strains of power and politics and art. And for the later Pound, obsessed with money and the machinations of power, coinage itself was also one of these combinations of material fact, power, and symbolic value. The images of medallions that recur in the “Mauberley” section of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” are another example of Pound’s preoccupation with coins. Their meaning in the poem is just a stage in the development of Pound’s thought about the conjunction of aesthetics and politics.
The first section is dominated by images of different kinds of artistic production but focuses on the art of the engraver. The poem begins “Turned from the ‘eau-forte / Par Jacquemart’ / To the strait head / Of Messalina,” a confusing batch of images. “Eau-forte” means “strong water” and is the French term for an etching (a type of print that uses acid to make the image); Jules Jacquemart was a Parisian artist who did an etching of the French poet Theophile Gautier. But, the unnamed subject of the verb “turned,” a subject that we can assume is Mauberley, has left the aestheticism of Gautier and the art of the etcher behind for the “strait head of Messalina,” a reference to the Roman emperor Claudius’s wife whose head appeared on Roman coins of the first century A.D. Like E. P., Mauberley’s “‘true Penelope / Was Flaubert,’” indicating his essential aestheticism, but Mauberley grounds his art in the concrete: “his tool / The engraver’s.” Mauberley’s art is “colorless,” “not the full smile,” “an art / In profile.” In other words, Mauberley’s art is incomplete, lifeless. The poem ends with an implicit comparison of the engraver’s art to the craft of the ironworker: “Pisanello [an Italian carver who made medallions] lacking the skill / To forge Achaia [ancient Greece].”
The incomplete art of the engraver, the art in profile, is paralleled to Mauberley’s own life in the second poem, which is (in the words of Christine Froula in A Guide to Ezra Pound’s “Selected Poems,”) “a fable of Mauberley’s uncomprehending response to the urgings of Eros.” Mauberley’s response to the woman’s advances is stiff, jerky, nonrhythmic, much like the rhythm of the poem itself. The erotic drives of the woman are incomprehensible to Mauberley, whose “fundamental passion” is for art: he wants to describe her, to present “the series / Of curious heads in medallion.” Unable to respond to her as a woman, Mauberley is metaphorically turned to stone. Unlike in the E. P. section, the Greek phrases here are rendered in phonetic translation rather than in the Attic script—like a medallion carving in profile, the Greek is rendered only partially faithful to the original.
The third poem, “The Age Demanded,” moves us from the private to the public. Criticizing Mauberley’s ultimate irrelevance, the poet notes, “The glow of porcelain / Brought no reforming sense / To his perception / Of the social inconsequence.” (The reference to “the glow of porcelain” alludes, as well, to another school of artists, the della Robbia family of Renaissance Florence who made medallion-shaped, glazed terra-cotta sculptures that were placed over doorways and over wall altars.) Mauberley has retreated into aestheticism, into antiquarianism, and as a result, suffers “social inconsequence,” or an ultimate irrelevance to society. In the poem, Mauberley’s perceptions are filtered through his preoccupations with art. He sees women not as they are but as they might be portrayed in an engraving or a porcelain representation. Mauberley’s aestheticism, moreover, has made him incapable of even creating art any more. All he can do is appreciate art, evaluate it, eat the lotuses; he is “incapable of the least utterance or composition.”
“Medallion,” the final section of the Mauberley sequence and of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” as a whole, has generated some critical controversy. Is this poem Mauberley’s own? Is Pound trying to indicate the kind of verse that Mauberley might write? Or is this poem a production of the narrator, or of Pound himself? Is it a good poem or a bad poem? “Critical opinions over the past several decades,” writes Jo Brantley Berryman (writing in Circe’s Craft: Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”) in her study of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” “have agreed in assigning ‘Medallion’ to Mauberley.” However, Berryman argues that Pound himself speaks in “Medallion.” Basing her argument on Pound’s Vorticist dogma, she states that “Medallion” “can be vindicated and identified as Pound’s own poem.” The poem, she continues, illustrates the Vorticist preference for “hardness of outline,” sharpness, gauntness, and austerity.
In this, of course, it is like a medallion or a coin, and thus it represents a link between Mauberley’s characteristics (antiquarianism, lifelessness) and Pound’s interest in the luminous detail or the node of power. The poem is stripped of all unnecessary words and attempts simply to construct a luminous image of a woman’s face. Returning to the second poem of the Mauberley sequence, this poem can be seen as what Mauberley is seeking to create when the real woman is trying to connect with him: “This urge,” the poet says, “to convey the relation / Of eye-lid and cheek-bone / By verbal manifestation.” “Medallion” accomplishes this. But, at the same time, the poem condemns the living woman it describes to the dusty pages of archaeology— specifically, of the archaeological writings of Solomon Reinach, alluded to in the eighth line. This musician, her sensual face, the heat of the room, the sound of her voice and of the piano, are transformed into a static, lifeless medallion through the intervention of Mauberley. They are beautiful, the description accomplished, but the fact is that they are devoid of inspiration (“inspiration” deriving from the Greek term for “to blow life into something”). Even the eyes, the seats of life, “turn topaz.” Life becomes stone.
In later years, Pound’s own thoughts on economics began to reflect just such ideas about medallions, coins, and the like. Pound viewed purchasing power as a dynamic thing. Money was simply a flawed representation of purchasing power, he felt, and should not be admired or valued for itself. In the 1920s and 1930s, Pound developed a quite complicated theory about banks and their control over purchasing power. Money, initially used as simply a marker or a symbol, becomes itself value, and eventually, banks are able to create money out of money by charging interest on credit. This, for Pound, was an abomination, for one should not be able to create value out of nothing— this perverted the idea that all value was in the end based in human effort. The coin “petrifies,” or turns to stone, the dynamic nature of purchasing power and allows an essentially free entity to be captured and owned. Even more than being lifeless, it petrifies life itself, taking purchasing power and turning it into an object. Similarly, Mauberley’s medallions are valuable things, desirable and wellcrafted, but lifeless. “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is not only a stylistic indication of where Pound has been and where he will eventually go; the poem also contains a structure of symbols and images that will make sense only in the light of Pound’s later beliefs and writings.
Source: Greg Barnhisel, Critical Essay on “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Barnhisel directs the Writing Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1471
The first major work in which Pound expresses this embittered social vision is Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920). Pound wrote the sequence as a poetic farewell to London on the eve of his departure for Paris. In it, he adumbrates the reasons why, after a residence of twelve years, he no longer finds England congenial to art and artists.
His analysis is complex and uncompromising. To begin with, his formidable style makes few concessions to the common reader. Those tackling the poem for the first time may well come away with little more than a general impression of angry urgency and bitter irony. A major source of difficulty is the extreme condensation of the images and allusions, which often imply discursive arguments made elsewhere in Pound’s writings but not repeated here. In the absence of an easily identifiable central speaker or persona, another problem lies in gauging the point of view and tone of voice of the various sections of the sequence. The reader is forced to construe unfamiliar, heterogeneous materials juxtaposed according to a logic that is not immediately apparent. It is as though the imagistic technique of “In a Station of the Metro” had fissioned.
To bring the Mauberley sequence under control, each reader must make a set of personal hermeneutic decisions about the meaning and connection of its various elements. Here is one set of choices that may prove helpful. In its first twelve sections, the sequence analyzes the false values of modern civilization by showing their effects upon the market for art and upon the careers of a series of minor artists. As in many of his earlier poems, Pound takes the vida of the secondary artist to be a valid index of the general culture of his society. The poem is by no means a neo-romantic “Kunstlerroman” (novel of the education of the artist) in verse, however. Ironically, the title character, a fictive poet named Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, does not even appear until the second part of the sequence, beginning with “Mauberley 1920.” Instead of spotlighting a protagonist, the first part of the poem presents a critique of “the age” and shows its effects upon the lives and works of other English artists, from the mid-Victorian period on.
These portraits provide an aesthetic heritage for Mauberley and a glance at some contemporary careers with which his may be compared. The voice that knits the sequence is the flexible voice of Pound himself, speaking in various tones of irony, rage, detachment and impersonal sympathy; but the voice does not build up a persona or generate an illusion of dramatic character. There are moments of lyric affirmation, especially in the “Envoi” and “Medallion,” but the predominant tone is diagnostic, ironic, and satiric.
Pound’s criticism is two-edged. First, he condemns the philistine priorities of a society which values money more than life, profit more than beauty. Secondly, he criticizes modern artists themselves for their escapist responses to the pressures of the age, for either giving up or taking refuge in a hedonistic aestheticism. In other words, Mauberley is an extended case study of what happens when, as Eliot put it, the doctrine of “Art for Art’s sake” is challenged by the demand that art “be instrumental to social purposes.”
After the opening “Ode,” sections II–V present Pound’s critique of British values in an era of “tawdry cheapness.” In art, the age demands a prettified image of itself, a “mould in plaster” or a photographically realistic drama and fiction which are endlessly replicable for a mass market. When beauty (TO KALON) is “decreed in the market place,” art becomes mechanical; the pianola which “replaces” Sappho’s barbitos or lyre symbolizes this decline. In politics, a mechanical democracy of electoral franchise and mass-circulation newspapers displaces a traditional religious sense of community and chooses corrupt or ineffectual leaders. Aesthetic and political ideals “defect” and turn into hollow mockeries.
The Great War of 1914–18 was the logical outcome of this displacement of life values by money values. Those who went to battle out of patriotic idealism returned with no illusions:
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving came home, home to a lie, home to many deceits, home to old lies and new infamy; usury age-old and age-thick and liars in public places.
The Social-Credit conspiracy-theory of the economic and political causes of the war underpins these bitter lines, which mark the first appearance of the term usury in Pound’s poetry.
Pound traces the philistine phase of modern British society back some seventy-five years, to the Pre-Raphaelite controversies of the mid-Victorian period. Much of Mauberley is devoted to showing how different artists have responded to economic and social pressures during this period. Pound does not let his sympathy for the artists’ cause prevent him from making an unsentimental diagnosis of the flaws in their will and their aesthetic views. After all, “the age” is not wholly to blame if its minor talents do not succeed.
Mauberley’s gallery of impaired, failed, and compromised artists begins with the “E.P.” of the opening ode, a version of Pound himself in the years just after his arrival in London. Well-meaning but immobilized by the dated cultural baggage of his provincial American upbringing, “E.P.” fails to modernize his style and falls behind, trapped in the contemplation of an old-fashioned ideal of beauty.
The gallery resumes in “Yeux Glauques” and proceeds in roughly chronological order, from Ruskin, Rossetti, Swinburne and Burne-Jones, to the Rhymers of the Nineties (Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson), to Max Beerbohm (“Brennbaum”), Arnold Bennett (“Mr. Nixon”) and Ford Madox Ford (“the stylist”). In Sections XI and XII, the focus shifts from the artists to their audience, as Pound satirizes bourgeois, aristocratic and popular representatives of modern public taste. If the economic and social demands of the age induce escapism or compromise among artists, among consumers of the arts they erase all notions of patronage based upon aesthetic merit.
The second part of the sequence, beginning with “Mauberley 1920”, traces the effect of these forces upon the career of a fictive English poet. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is not modelled upon any identifiable, historical individual. Rather, he is a type of the aesthete. Mauberley begins as an Imagist poet but declines, under the pressures of the age, into hedonistic impressionism.
Mauberley starts out as an admirer of the Parnassian poetry of Théophile Gautier in Emaux et Camées. (The “eau-forte / Par Jacquemart” is the engraved portrait bust of Gautier on the frontispiece of the 1881 edition. With this allusion, the poem is also declaring its own aesthetic allegiances, for Gautier’s quatrains are one model for those of Mauberley itself.) The connoisseur admires engravings, coins, medallions, relief sculpture and the linear style of Italian Renaissance portraiture. With Flaubertian precision, he models his own imagistic poetry upon this lapidary visual art. Indeed, the “Medallion” which closes the entire poem should probably be read as a work by Mauberley himself, a typical profile portrait in “sculpted” rhyme of a beautiful woman singing. (The “Envoi” offers a more melodic treatment of the same subject).
After three productive years, however, Mauberley’s talent recedes into silence. He misses an opportunity for love because he simply lacks erotic desire. (For Pound, as the French epigraph from “Caid Ali” suggests, eros and creativity are different manifestations of the same energy.) Mauberley’s response to the age is not to yield to its demands but to withdraw into a private, subjective world of “selected impressions,” rare and exquisite apperceptions of beauty passively received but not returned to the world as art.
A pale gold, in the aforesaid pattern, The unexpected palms Destroying, certainly, the artist’s urge, Left him delighted with the imaginary Audition of the phantasmal sea-surge.
Mauberley drifts into psychic isolation or solipsism, depicted as a tropical lotos-land where he need do nothing but enjoy the “overblotted / Series / Of intermittences” which now constitutes his consciousness. His poetic quest is over. Like one of the failed crewmen of Odysseus, he leaves an engraved oar (his “Medallion”) to commemorate his passing.
With this bleak critique of the modern poet’s dilemma, Pound himself ceased to write minor poetry. He did not lapse out like Mauberley, but turned his considerable energies to his epic. After 1921, all of Pound’s serious, original poetry went into The Cantos. But his conception of that project had changed since the palmy days of his novitiate. After writing Propertius and Mauberley, he was convinced that only a huge, indigestible poem would stick in the craw of a monstrous, all-consuming age. Into that poem he would put what needed saving. Few might read it, yet only thus could he continue to serve both art and society.
Source: Hugh Witemeyer, “Early Poetry: 1908–1920,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound, edited by Ira B. Nadel, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 43–58.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1462
It might be best, given all the vexed and vexing discussion that has surrounded Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, to begin with some simple observations. After briefly making these, I would like, less briefly I’m afraid, to draw out their implications for a reading of Pound’s poem and for some perspective on the critical debate that has engulfed it for some seventy years. Whether we agree or not with A. L. French’s assessment that “Mauberley has never really caught on,” the poem has certainly caught many a reader up in its accomplishments and demands, and threatens to continue doing so. The success of Mauberley in stirring up strife among its commentators is due in large part, I believe, to its being a unique sort of poem— a “homage,” to borrow the designation that Pound applied to its companion piece, Homage to Sextus Propertius. Understood as a homage—which, as we will see, is the particular form taken by the confrontation Pound stages between tradition and the individual talent—Mauberley exhibits both internal coherence and the consistent line of development of Pound’s pre-Cantos poetics.
First, then, and, on the surface at least, most simply, Mauberley exploits the conventions of the dramatic monologue. “Exploits” is a better word here than “adapts” or “works within” because it draws attention to the deliberate violence that the poem enacts upon these conventions and the pervasively (and, some might say, perversely) selfconscious and self-aggrandizing irony observable in this relentless unsettling. As well, “exploits” seems a more appropriate term to identify the poem’s ambitious play with various normative expectations that come with the genre, expectations regarding consistency of tone and voice, the identity of the speaker and interlocutor, and a generally perspicuous orderliness of discourse, narrative and context. Of course, Pound had exploited the monologue and unsettled its conventions long before Mauberley. It could well be argued, based on the evidence of many of the poems in Personae that precede it, that he had made a career of doing just this. The adaptations of Browning’s form in such performances as “Cino,” “Marvoil,” or “Piere Vidal Old,” or the hybridization of translation and monologue in “The Seafarer,” “Exile’s Letter,” and Homage to Sextus Propertius, are different in degree but not in kind from the radical formal experiment of Mauberley. Pound had practiced these scales long enough to earn the right to improvise.
Second, Mauberley is a love song, by which I mean it places itself, again deliberately and with a fine ironic gusto, in the tradition of courtly love. Circe and the Sirens, pre-Raphaelite muses and Edwardian patronesses, Penelope and Messalina, singers and models, and, as John Espey was so patient to explain, the sexual innuendo of irides and orchids, lilies and acorns—these are not empty allusions, one time name-dropping as French would have it, but concomitants in a complex structure of genre markers in Pound’s play on the stock euphemisms of this convention. This tradition had been an obsessive concern and the dominant theme of Pound’s early verse and translations. The pre- Mauberley poetry covers the spectrum: from the mawkish and lugubrious posturing of so much of the Exultations (1909) and Canzoni (1911) volumes, through the gentle ironies of Riposte’s “Silet” and “Portrait d’une Femme” (1912), to the indecorous satire of “Tenzone,” “The Garden” and “The Garret” (1913), and the vitriolic barbs of Lustra’s epigrams (1916). Pound’s translations from this period rarely stray from the theme, a consistency not surprising given his preoccupation with the Troubadours and Cavalcanti. The imagist poet, presumably, can practice “direct treatment” in his presentation of any subject, but more often than not the terse products of Pound’s contribution to the movement—“In a Station of the Metro,” say, or “Liu Ch’e”—fasten on courtly love. This is the ground that Pound cultivates for the reticent regret of such poems, as it is for the sustained brio of the Homage to Sextus Propertius. If the amorous exploits he patched together out of Propertius’s opus are questionably courtly, it is clearly the purchase that Propertius gave him on the theme that attracted him. Just as Mauberley represents a sort of completion of Pound’s project in transforming the monologue, so too it is a consummation of his efforts to put the courtly love tradition to use in modern poetry in a way that is not maudlin, trite or merely cynical. What is crucial is that all these resuscitations of the dramatic monologue and the courtly love lyric not be reduced to either the imitative or the parodic. From very early on, at least from Canzoni’s “Und Drang” (1911), Pound had worked to realize the precarious equilibrium between preservation and rejection, affirmation and denial, self-defense and self-indictment that characterizes the homage registered in Mauberley.
Third, Mauberley is a poem including history. If this history is both real and fabricated, public and private, actual and literary, in being such it is representative of a consistent tension in Pound’s early poetry and directs us to see Mauberley as a culmination of his decade-long effort to free his poetry from the constraints of lyric utterance and to stake out some middle ground between a subjective and an objective poetics. The poles of this opposition were personified for Pound by his two early masters, Yeats and Browning, and it is instructive to read his early work as a sort of dialogue between these two influences as he answers his Yeatsian exercises in autobiographical mask-making with Browningesque excursions into “objective” history. “Near Perigord” (1915) is the most interesting instance before Mauberley of Pound dramatizing the rival claims of the two poetics in a single poem, and “Three Cantos” (1917) is a revealing exhibition of Pound’s failure to turn his “phantastikon” to objective account. This failure instigated not only the lengthy project of revision on the early cantos, but the catharsis and exorcism undertaken in the homages of Propertius and Mauberley.
Fourth, Mauberley is a surface. By this I mean, and I think that Pound meant, that it is a poem more concerned with registering tone, attitude and treatment through its multiple voicings than with investigating the inner life of its protagonist. Mauberley does not present a personality or indepth psychology; it presents an indictment, which is at times inextricable from a self-indictment, through a mode that I am calling a homage and that Pound was later to explain (in the 1934 essay, “Date Line”) as “Criticism by exercise in the style of a given period”. I also mean that Mauberley is a work of art that, as the work of Marjorie Perloff, Reed Way Dasenbrock and Vincent Sherry has helped us to see, is true to its vorticist aesthetic foundations in drawing attention to its constructedness, to its “surface,” to its experimentation with form in order to display the creative energies of the maker through the “composition” and “arrangement” of that art’s materials. In this case, the materials are not “shapes, or planes, or colours”, nor are they “masses in relation”; they are the verbal textures and tonalities of the various homages that, from part to part, compose the poem’s “surface.” Whether this surface is “mere” or “thin,” terms that Pound applied to his technical accomplishment in Mauberley in moments of self-deprecation in his letters, and which unsympathetic critics have been only too quick to fasten on, is another story. R. P. Blackmur was the first of the persuasion (and I doubt whether Donald Davie will be the last) that Mauberley’s display of craft and “workmanship” is at the expense of substance, which for him is merely “commonplace” and “conventional”. His assessment—that “the poem flows into the medium and is lost in it, like water in sand”—was delivered in a memorable enough simile to convince a number of later detractors who did not take the trouble to see that Mauberley’s hard and highly polished surface is, among other things, a mirror that reveals the limitations of the presuppositions and conventional expectations that are brought to it. Such dichotomizing of surface and substance, treatment and subject, outer and inner, which always privileges the latter term in an oversimplified opposition, is a commonplace in the criticism, not only of Mauberley, but of Pound’s work as a whole. “I believe in technique as the test of man’s sincerity,” Pound had the temerity to announce to an audience complacent in the belief that sincerity was a matter of unproblematized authenticity of utterance, of confessional self-exposure, or of sententious moralizing. Perhaps he is still paying the price, not just for saying it, but for writing poetry out of this belief.
Source: Thomas F. Grieve, “Pound’s Other Homage: ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,’” in Paideuma, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 9–30.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7288
Conceived as a poem with formal parts so unified as to subserve the whole—complete and possessing a certain magnitude—Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley reveals its virtues and powers in the style—the devices of representation—by which the poet is able to “imitate” or render in expressive form the subtle, refined workings of a unique sensibility. Our idea of the sensibility to which we attribute the nuances of attitudes and feelings, the antinomies of imaginative logic, articulated in the poem is of course an inference which depends on our grasp of the structure of the poem itself. For Pound, sensibility is a method of transfiguring personae or masks in order to actualize a complex harmony of vision. In Mauberley, the speaking voice syncopates in fugal arrangement the splenetic, the maudlin, the serious, and the sublime. Style accordingly conforms in texture and tone—confessional, ironic, pompous, banal—to the shifts of personalities that one will observe as the main cause, the primary rationale, for the intricate variety and the highly allusive, elliptical mode of representation in the poem.
Critical opinion concerning the formal organization of Mauberley has in general been diffuse, impressionistic, or ingeniously assured—in any case, unable to define cogently the formal unity of the multiple elements contained within the architectonic rhythm of the whole utterance. While there is agreement about the themes of aesthetic revolt, the polemic of self-justification, and the rhetoric of elegant irony, we still lack a clear and precise elucidation of the organizing principle behind the poem. F. R. Leavis’ comments, for example, betray a simplistic opacity: “The poems together form one poem, a representative experience of life— tragedy, comedy, pathos, and irony.” In his synoptic gloss, Leavis fails to distinguish the speaker of the first poem from that of the rest. Hugh Kenner, by contrast, is infinitely suggestive about Pound’s impersonality: his style is “an effacement of the personal accidents of the perceiving medium in the interests of accurate registration of moeurs contemporaines.” But his actual explication fails to yield the total pattern and orchestration of the various motifs and topics. I suggest that the limitations of modern exegeses of Mauberley stem from the approaches and procedures used to determine the informing motivations of the poem by emphasizing language and its symbolic resources to the neglect of the ends or purposes for which language is only a means.
Pound him\self demanded a refocusing of attention on the underlying forces that determine poetic structure or, in his terminology, “major form.” He implicitly stresses the primacy of ends, controlling intentions, in the creative process:
Any work of art is a compound of freedom and order. It is perfectly obvious that art hangs between chaos on the one side and mechanics on the other. A pedantic insistence upon detail tends to drive out “major form.” A firm hold on major form makes for a freedom of detail. In painting men intent on minutiae gradually lost the sense of form and form-combination. An attempt to restore this sense is branded as “revolution.” It is revolution in the philological sense of the term.
By “major form” Pound means exactly the shaping principle which measures and adjusts the possibilities of material and technique toward the realization of an intelligible form. In interpreting Mauberley, our concern should be with the kind of action or activity—Aristotle’s praxis includes doings, thoughts, feelings in dynamic suspension— the poem seeks to present by means appropriate to the attainment of that end.
Our concern, in short, would be with “major form.” Explicating the poem on the basis of its organizing principle, of the thematic argument which determines the dialectic interplay of incidents, character, thought, and linguistic properties crystallized in style, we would then formulate the meaning of the poem from the inside, as it were, since our knowledge of what the poet’s ends are would tell us by inference the means which he employed to accomplish his ends. These propositions about critical method will make sense only as they show pragmatic efficacy in the process of textual analysis.
Mauberley consists of two parts: the first part, with thirteen sections, projects the negative milieu of the artist by mock-elegy, condensed report, and satiric editorializing; by retrospect, direct monologue, and other means. The concluding poem, “Envoi,” may be unquestionably assigned to the persona nearly coinciding with Pound, assuming that the work is partly autobiographical. But I propose that the different personae here be deemed functions of Pound’s sensibility; and despite the short-circuiting nexus or asyndetons in syntax and thought, each persona is never exactly equivalent to the poet’s mind in its isolation and integral place in the sequence. The totality of the poem may be considered identical with a process of awareness occurring in Pound’s mind. In this sense “Envoi” with its rich lyrical cadence affirms a part of the ideal poetic self whose orientation is not toward the Pre-Raphaelite earthly paradise, to recollected scenes in his life, but to the complementing and reconciling possibilities of the future. The address to “dumb-born” (because mutely renouncing) artifice— the bulk of the poem—descants on the sic transit idea with triumphant confidence that time and change will prove “Beauty’s” immortality.
Like the first poem, presumably E. P.’s “election” or choice of his tomb, “Envoi” confronts the finitude of existence and looks backward, prophetic in adventurousness. But unlike the mock-elegy of the “Ode,” which condemns the poet in terms of the past without any hope of appeal, “Envoi” asserts the power of the poet to resurrect the splendid past and reinstate by alchemical magic what time has destroyed in the realm of eternal permanence: “Giving life to the moment,”
I would bid them live As roses might, in magic amber laid, Red overwrought with orange and all made One substance and one colour Braving time.
And the third stanza accepts the future with qualification: “Till change hath broken down / All things save Beauty alone.” Within this tight contrastive frame, between the varyingly ironic and pathetic assessment of the poet’s heroic aspirations in the “Ode’” and the intimate, cantabile praise of beauty (“her” may refer to integrity, the glorious past, beauty, and England), the ten poems fall in a deliberate sequence whose development leads toward the peripeteia, the hypothetical twist, of the “Envoi.” In this last section, the poet, cognizing the degenerate times, reverses his fortune by passionately affirming the metempsychosis of experience into vision. The second part of the poem entitled “Mauberley” may be designated as the exploration of conscience, the elaborate plight of identification: the speaker recognizes at last that Mauberley, with his cult of “l’art pour l’art” (theory and practice now being delineated in a quasi-narrative manner), has caused his own downfall. “Medallion,” the epilogue vindicating his private if passive strength, counterpoints “Envoi” by a successful confrontation of “the face-oval” (the oval being an image of completion or perfection) and a dazzling lucidity transcending the flux of sensual, chaotic experience.
Turning now to the stages of establishing the situation in part one for a character like Mauberley who composes the twelve poems, I would like to trace Pound’s ventriloquism—the constant incommensurability of leading motives and surface complexity— as a method of characterizing his persona. In the first poem, as Pound testified, we perceive Mauberley trying to get rid of the poet—a fragment trying to eschew the whole psyche. A certain duplicity, a mixture of condescending praise— “wringing lilies from the acorn”—and restrained, unresolved scorn may be observed in this passage:
His true Penelope was Flaubert, He fished by obstinate isles; Observed the elegance of Circe’s hair Rather than mottoes on sun-dials.
Note the verbs of motivation in context: “strove,” “bent resolutely,” and “fished,” with positive accent laid on the intensive effort giving vital thrust and pressure to the career and poetic vocation which is the object of mourning. Ronsard, Villon, and Flaubert exemplify the creative agents redeeming the apparent failure of the poet to realize the ambition of transforming the tastes of a historical period by cultural discipline. But Pound’s death, Mauberley (construing him as the funeral orator) suggests, bears heroic justification. Later the “Envoi’s” melodic and delicate speech of farewell will transubstantiate the “Ode’s” epigrammatic terseness.
I submit that Mauberley’s “juridicial” pronouncement on Pound presents an ambiguous “case”: he admires and yet censures, by turns lamenting and casuistic. He thus creates a curious “bastard” genre that violates the elegiac form by ramified yet conscientiously accurate and compact descriptions of the ordeals Pound has undergone for the sake of preserving his integrity and his exemplary ideal of cultural engagement. The siren song of surrender and escape to the ivory tower beguiles and chastens at the same time: Circe counsels the pursuit of knowledge when he conveys to Odysseus the importance of communicating with Tiresias, as Cantos I and XLVII indicate. Such active passion lurking behind the scrupulous gravity of the poet demonstrates itself in the pure, absolute devotion in the “Envoi” and, by empathy, in the trancelike elevation of “Medallion.”
After disclosing his ambivalent but comprehensible attitude to the “dead” and buried self, the whole poet embracing the dualities of self and the world, Mauberley proceeds to place the celebrated figure in relation to his milieu: the “age” demanded exactly the opposite of what Pound intended to achieve. It wanted not “the obscure reveries / Of the inward gaze” but “chiefly a mould in plaster,” a mass-manufactured icon for gratifying its narcissistic impulse and death-drive. Poem II identifies the denied offering: the static harmony of truthful, objective synthesis. It accounts also for the futility of the poet’s existence: his works “still-born,” he becomes useless, later associated with the image of “pickled foetuses.”
With a notion of the radical disparity between the poet’s conception of the ideal and the epoch’s need for “an image / Of its accelerated grimace,” Mauberley elaborates on the massive corruption of the body politic and the exorbitant decay of ritual, the commercialized vulgarity of the middle class subverting Attic grace and “ambrosial” Dionysus. The philistine public has ruined tradition, profaned Eros and the mysteries, and annihilated any hope for a transvaluation of norms:
All things are a flowing, Sage Heracleitus says; But a tawdry cheapness Shall outlast our days.
The flowing image of reality is fully evoked in Mauberley’s drifting and drowning in the second part. But now Mauberley parodies Pindar’s invocation: instead of bestowing a wreath on Olympic heroes, Mauberley registers the deplorable decay of honor and virtue in his milieu. Less a jubilant praiser than a mordant mourner, he criticizes the age in sharply juxtaposed contrasting imagery. Poem III seeks to assign responsibility for the poet’s passage “from men’s memory”—the phrase itself being a non-committal remark. In context, the passage signifies a temporal and spatial departure in a questpilgrimage to the past, later projected in Mauberley’s drift to solipsistic ecstasy in part two. In cinematic montage, Poems II to XII seek to diagnose the malady and explain the death of the poet by attributing the cause to the convergence of time and place to which fate has consigned him.
Poem IV locates corruption and denounces the perversion of ideals embodied in the sanctity of the homeland by the sacrifice of lives in meaningless mass-slaughter. The allusions to Cicero and Horace point to the discrepancy between past and present: the present is witness to the inane confusion of motives, the desecration of qualities (the fortitude and frankness of youthful combatants) exacted by the crisis. Hence the age with its fraud and avarice ultimately gets what it deserves: “laughter out of dead bellies.” Yet Mauberley does not descend into hell (the Homeric motif) simply because he is in hell. He remains the unflinching if Mephistophelian observer of reality, austerely bitter but not savagely cynical. Here one discerns an elegiac homage, a truncated bucolic inspired by Bion, whose intensity is measured by the indignant response to the visible survivor—in effect, Poem V attacks the equivocal mourner in Poem I and converts Mauberley from a grudging obituarist to an outraged spirit instigating revolt by incantatory repetitions—his remedy for the absence of ritual, Yeats’s “custom and ceremony.” The balance is restored: the kind of death acknowledged here, though futile, redeems Pound’s “death” from ignominy or innocuous obscurity:
There died a myriad, And of the best, among them, For an old bitch gone in the teeth, For a botched civilization, Charm, smiling at the good mouth, Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid.
Poems VI to XII, with swift incisive rhythms and sensitive transcriptions, render a plot-like continuum: from retrospective portrayal of the Nineties and the Pre-Raphaelites, then a gradual transit to the present via the interview with Mr. Nixon, a visit to the “stylist,” and witty sizing-up of sophisticated females in Poems X and XI. Poem XII ushers us into a drawing-room as setting from which Mauberley launches his tempered indictment of the genteel but debased elite: Lady Valentine’s heart seems made up of papier-mâché. On the whole, this section prepares us for Pound’s “Envoi” which may be considered as the authentic, noble heritage the dead poet bequeaths to his contemporary apologist-arbiter Mauberley. Clarification of this movement will further disclose the probability of the “Envoi” appearing at this point in the sequence as an eloquent reversal of what the “age” would expect despite the hostile tenor of the previous forensic quatrains.
Yet Mauberley’s true sympathy—for the dead Pound (a persona within the poem), not for society— chooses the last two stanzas of Poem XII as the epiphanic contact between the soul and its paradisal repose: the Augustan poise of Dr. Johnson’s culture. Charting the sordid plight of the artists from “Yeux Glauques” up to the “stylist” cultivating his own garden so to speak, Mauberley nonetheless halts that merciless, self-chastising exposure of the artist’s vanity in order to pay sincere tribute to the dead poet—his real total self—by evoking “Pierian roses” and introducing the matrix of music-flower-love motifs which integrate the second part.
Poems VI to IX present concrete dramatic situations in stylized patterns, the persons and their surroundings contrived to illustrate those who compromised with the age and those who persisted in intransigent defiance. These scenes also serve to distill emotions recollected in tranquil review affording sardonic and aphoristic violence of notation. Spiritual discipline is exercised in achieving balance, a “perspective by incongruity” yielding comic innuendo, as for instance: Lionel Johnson’s “pure mind / Arose toward Newman as the whiskey warmed” or “Dowson found harlots cheaper than hotels.”
In Poems IV and V, the demands of the age receive exaggerated and abusive response in the loss of innocence and potentiality, a cataclysmic holocaust reducing all human purpose into dust. A reversal of the idea that piety and mores always prevail occurs here. Mauberley painstakingly discovers in disillusionment the vain delusive cause which mocks the value of sacrifice and deprives life of all sacramental import. To withdraw into memory seems the only alternative out of the impasse (later merging into “apathein,” impassivity), the intractable mood of nihilism, in Poem V. With “Yeux Glauques,” Mauberley strives to resurrect those “quick eyes” swallowed by war’s ruins.
Poem VI incorporates in the figure of the female victim the larger scheme of transformation in the whole poem. The Muse here becomes a prostitute: art, represented by Ruskin, Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites, has already entered its dying phase at the apotheosis of the pandering bourgeoisie. For the puritanical prudes of Victorian England, beauty smacked of obscene pagan deviations:
Foetid Buchanan lifted up his voice When that faun’s head of hers Became a pastime for Painters and adulterers.
Yet Burne-Jone’s painting, levelling the ranks of king and beggar-maid, has ably transfixed an orgiastic moment which defies mutability and fashionable canons of taste. Now, however, the beautiful features of the Pre-Raphaelite model (Elizabeth Siddal) seem artificially fragile, destitute: “Thin like brook-water, / With a vacant gaze.” Her luminous eyes still search for a sympathetic or possessive gaze, such as the mesmerized Mauberley’s in “Medallion.” But there, of course, the rapturous vision explodes so powerfully as to dissolve the firm, “suave bounding-line” and immediately impose self-transcendence. Despite the oppressive indifference of the audience, Mauberley preserves a suspicious distance and reveals the fidelity and sincerity of art in the person of an animated fiction. Thus the persona Mauberley energizes another persona, Jenny the pure unfortunate, liberating the aesthetic vision from the stasis of memory and incarnating its presence in the vivifying context of secular betrayal:
The thin, clear gaze, the same Still darts out faunlike from the half-ruin’d face, Questing and passive.… “Ah, poor Jenny’s case” … Bewildered that a world Shows no surprise At her last maquero’s Adulteries.
Indignant but cautious, aware of the great propensity for sentimentalism in his subject, Mauberley handles language with ascetic and economical finesse. He does not really believe that Jenny’s status is hopeless and beyond rectification. His tone and mode of representing her decline obviously deride the age for its hypocritical rectitude; amidst all indignities, Jenny’s beauty remains unblemished, radiant. The pathos of her situation assumes allegorical significance in the quotation heading Poem VII: in Dante’s Purgatory, Pia de’ Tolomei’s flat statement of birth- and death-place attests to a possible salvaging of which Pound’s “Envoi” is the prophetic affirmation.
Poem VII resumes the elegiac but detached, condensed critique of a hermetic aestheticism founded of Flaubert’s code of le mot juste and the anti-bourgeois policy of the French Symbolistes. If eunuchs and maqueros ruin the vital erotic union between man and woman (by extension, between artists and the Muse), they also disrupt the continuity of a viable tradition. Paralyzing deracination afflicts Verog’s existence:
Among the pickled foetuses and bottled bones, Engaged in perfecting the catalogue, I found the last scion of the Senatorial families of Strasbourg, Monsieur Verog.
In a recollection within the framework of nostalgic recall, Verog imparts information about the last days of the Rhymers: Dowson’s dissipation, Lionel Johnson’s fall, etc. His reminiscences, refracted through splintered immediacies of detail, give proof of the arbitrary, shifting modus vivendi that the Nineties adopted amidst universal anarchy and disorder. Lumping Bacchus, Terpsichore and the Church, they pursued a Paterian goal of attaining organic beatitude. Intoxicated by alcohol and hashish, Dowson succumbed to his “artificial paradise”; in part two, Mauberley sails toward his occult mirage, an island of spices, but drowns in the process. Aesthetics, exemplified by Pound’s assimilation of “influences”, appears to be the only hope for restoring a sacramental ambience to the industrial, dehumanized atmosphere of the years circa World War I. With the public’s rejection of the “inward gaze,” we find Mauberley defining the estranged distinction of the gentleman-scholar:
M. Verog, out of step with the decade, Detached from his contemporaries, Neglected by the young, Because of these reveries.
Where Poem VII conveyed Mauberley’s imitation of Verog’s conversation, the next poem “Brennbaum” renders with impressionistic vigor the countenance of a ludicrous “clerk,” or connoisseurintellectual. Infantile and lugubrious stiffness in conformity with orthodox norms blights Brennbaum “The Impeccable.” His subservience to the rule of prudence and punctilio undermines memory and repudiates genealogy. Thus Brennbaum appears as Mauberley’s nemesis in so far as Brennbaum represents the futility of looking backward, the vapid past signified by his ignoring Mt. Horeb (life-renewing water gushing from the rock) and Sinai, and the mechanical efficiency of mere formal correctness:
The skylike limpid eyes, The circular infant’s face, The stiffness from spats to collar Never relaxing into grace;
The heavy memories of Horeb, Sinai and the forty years, Showed only when the daylight fell Level across the face Of Brennbaum “The Impeccable.”
Mauberley’s act of describing what is basically the studied shape of a cadaver, anticipated by the preceding “pickled foetuses and bottled bones,” constitutes a severe epitaph for Brennbaum. Contrasting with the eulogistic overtones of Poem I, “Brennbaum” factually states what is left of a human being. Anesthetized by empty decorum, Brennbaum’s substance reflects his unhonored origin and the tenebrous exodus and liberation of the tribe left unheeded by his public self.
Another case of a death-in-life existence is dramatized in Poem IX, where Mr. Nixon advises compromise in a smugly opportunistic expertise. Selfish Mr. Nixon, however, is seriously limited by his surroundings; he looms as the anti-Odysseus (a composite of worldly, complacent citizens) who negates all the values Mauberley upholds in his twin role of ironist and annalist:
“I never mentioned a man but with the view “Of selling my own works. “The tip’s a good one, as for literature “It gives no man a sinecure.
“And no one knows, at sight, a masterpiece. “And give up verse, my boy, “There’s nothing in it.”
Mr. Nixon’s coaxing and proverbial rhetoric, though ultimately intended to purge suicidal ambitions, aims to persuade Mauberley to sacrifice his life for the glory of the bitch goddess Success. Mauberley, however, recalls Bloughram and the anti-pastoral equations and imperatives of Victorian evangelists. He recalls the aesthetes whose deaths burlesque those of the soldiers in Poems IV and V. The Rhymers and the Pre-Raphaelites served a spiritual ideal—“the thin, clear gaze” of Venus in her temporal revelations—that was once immanent but is now hardly perceptible.
The next three poems attempt to effect a reincarnation of beauty (Venus) in a female figure only to end in the resigned news that the sale of “half-hose” has superseded the appreciation of art in the city. As an answer to Mr. Nixon’s doubleedged program—to save one’s life by violating one’s integrity—Mauberley allies himself with the impoverished “stylist” who has retreated to the country. But Poem X is not less ambiguous, no more pro- or anti-art, as the first poem if one notes the allowance of positive gifts to the “stylist” and recognizes his incapacity to conduct a harmonious transaction or rapport with his society. Nonetheless, his talent and gusto flourish by coalescing with nature’s self-renewing life:
Nature receives him; With a placid and uneducated mistress He exercises his talents And the soil meets his distress.
The haven from sophistications and contentions Leaks through its thatch; He offers succulent cooking; The door has a creaking latch.
But what then is the “placid and uneducated mistress” doing if the stylist manages household affairs? The next two poems show Mauberley’s discriminating insight into the fate of art as personified by female personages or acquaintances.
By the evidence of Poem X, Mauberley conceives of Nature as generous and patronizing, set beside which the stylist’s companion is an ineffectual mistress. Certainly it is difficult to envisage this mistress as one of the metamorphosed forms of Sappho or Penelope, let alone Circe. Yet she is one of the representatives of the generative, erotic force in Mauberley. Although the house is wretchedly falling apart, the stylist is happy and at peace with his environment. If his proper function is to observe “the elegance of Circe’s hair” like Pound’s in Poem I, then he is temporarily defunct. But Circe is concealed nowhere; the fault is not his, perhaps. In Poem XI, Mauberley hardly suspects the wife-mistress of “the most bank-clerkly of Englishmen” to be one of her profane re-incarnations.
In “habits of mind and feeling,” she scarcely evokes the fabled seductiveness of the archetypal goddess. To call her “Conservatrix of Milesien” would be an insinuating joke if not forthright anachronism; her “tea-gown” and her alliance with the commercial class betoken her low pedigree. In Poem XII, Mauberley projects himself in a drawing-room where amid the insipid and pretentious crowd he suffers an eclipsed consciousness:
“Daphne with her thighs in bark Stretches toward me her leafy hands,”— Subjectively. In the stuffed-satin drawing-room I await The Lady Valentine’s commands,
Knowing my coat has never been Of precisely the fashion To stimulate, in her, A durable passion;
(Note the repeated “bass” beat of aesthetic stasis in frozen Daphne/laurel tree, “tin wreath” of Poem III, metallic flowers, pickled foetuses, porcelain images, etc.) Mauberley experiences an illusory triumph: he imagines Daphne the legendary nymph stretching out a laurelled crown. But that happens “Subjectively,” he bravely confesses. In truth he apprehends his actual circumstance with self-deprecatory reference to his non-dandiacal appearance, his nondescript clothes being a natural consequence of his loathing for frills or fustian:
Doubtful, somewhat, of the value Of well-gowned approbation Of literary effort, But never of The Lady Valentine’s vocation:
Mauberley sees the Lady Valentine as a powerful authority who, like Circe, can accomplish her sinister designs by exploiting the thaumaturgy of art. Lady Valentine also functions here as mock- Muse to the poet-Pierrot (Petrushka in Stravinsky’s ballet). Defensive and shrewdly realistic, Mauberley would seize this opportunity for his own advancement: for promoting a dubious liaison or ingratiating himself into theater business. Throughout the sequence, Mauberley’s sexual prowess is sublimated into Latin ribaldry and etymological punning—as Espey has shown—to fulfill Venus’ mandate. In revolution or in any emergency, Lady Valentine would be a refuge, a possible “comforter.” Mauberley’s physical self as free agent accepts the circumscribed realm of action imposed by a degenerate milieu. But if he can perceive the possibility of living in another manner— the stylist and the dead Pound of the “Ode” offer alternatives—it is because he has a virile spirit capable of epic dignity and tragic purposiveness, a spirit which does not share the mood of resigned futility and his later castrating numbness, nor participate in the body’s commitments. Yet his “soul” sent on a journey to an Augustan haven of the imagination only intensifies his awareness that such a haven cannot be found anywhere today:
Conduct, on the other hand, the soul “Which the highest cultures have nourished” To Fleet St. where Dr. Johnson flourished;
Beside this thoroughfare The sale of half-hose has Long since superseded the cultivation Of Pierian roses.
We encountered this “ubi sunt” motif before in Poem III where we learned that the discordant “pianola” has overthrown Sappho’s lure. Cheap imitations flood the market. Nourishment of sensibility is succeeded by “macerations”; the memory of Dr. Johnson’s (like Lionel Johnson’s) career receives the discounting pun in “Fleet Street”—for fleeting time spoils the genuine artifice and dissolves sensations into phantasmagoria—as part two exhibits. Perhaps the anatomical connotation of “half-hose” escapes the diffident but restrained Mauberley. He forgets the ubiquity of those roses in the “tea-rose” of Poem III; his temperament favors only the precious, rarefied luxuries: “The thin, clear gaze, the same / Still darts out faunlike from the half-ruin’d face.” Contrast further Pieria, seat of the worship of the Muses, with Ealing where the lady curator of Milesian ware languishes in chill respectability.
Comparing the amorous “Envoi” and the chiselled strophes of the first part, we note that except for the change in cadence and texture there exists between them a unity of focus on an idealized past (Mauberley celebrated the Pre-Raphaelite model; Pound casts his challenging valedictory in Waller’s mold) and in a dualistic notion of existence as comprised by perishable flesh and undying spirit, the spirit able to preserve in art the lineaments of fleshly beauty. Two or three lines uttered by Mauberley may be orchestrated with the climactic bravura of “Envoi”:
The thin, clear gaze, the same Still darts out faunlike from the half-ruin’d face, Questing and passive … (Poem VI)
“Daphne with her thighs in bark “Stretches toward me her leafy hands,”— (Poem XII)
Young blood and high blood, Fair cheeks, and fine bodies; (Poem IV)
The thirteenth poem, instead of enacting a disproof of Mauberley’s sentiments, offers him a finely-controlled modulation into Pound’s voice. It is as if the poet, whose death occasioned the memorial in Poem I, were resuscitated by the enigmatic verbal magic of Poems II to XII—both the dissonant and the mellifluous—while Mauberley, in speculative and abstracted vigil over his corpse, muses on the whys and wherefores of the artist’s ordeal in this mercantile, inimical world. Can one then plausibly construe the “Envoi” as the envoy/ embassy of Pound (The dead poet’s ghost) speaking with the oracular gestures of hindsight and foresight?
In the second part entitled “Mauberley,” Pound vigorously turns the tables over and maneuvers the situation so that Mauberley assumes the role of partisan and accomplice, and alter ego with his flawed consciousness. In a condensed and telescoped summation of Mauberley’s struggles, this second part modifies and enhances by specific demonstration the attitudes supporting the manner of expression in the first part. Messalina, her licentious urge curbed by her rigorously defined head, supplants Circe; Mauberley, to the speaker Pound (tagged here as the persona), also regards Flaubert “His true Penelope.” Kins or brothers by elective affinity, Mauberley and Pound share many interests in common. But Mauberley is distinguished by the kind of art-form he has chosen to concentrate on (announced in Poem I):
Firmness, Not the full smile, His art, but an art In profile;
The laconic characterization hits the bull’seye: Mauberley himself has fearfully turned sideways and avoided the full gaze of the female sex: Lady Valentine, the “Conservatrix,” and the stylist’s mistress. With his satiric craft, however, he was able to depict Brennbaum’s countenance: “The skylike limpid eyes, / The circular infant’s face”— but then Brennbaum turned out to be a frigid corpse. After Poem II where he indirectly refuses to indulge the age’s egocentric delight in beholding its grimace, he is stunned by the impact of war’s grotesque testimony: “Charm, smiling at the good mouth, / Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid” (Poem V of part one). Brutalized by the ignoble present, he recoils to the past and for a moment he can contemplate directly not Circe’s hair but the Pre- Raphaelite nymph, her eyes “Thin like brook-water, / With a vacant gaze.” And he records his sympathy and sad impotence in yoking polished loveliness and carnal corruption together:
The thin, clear gaze, the same Still darts out faunlike from the half-ruin’d face, Questing and passive… “Ah, poor Jenny’s case”…
This inclination to retreat into an idealized past and witness amid insidious decay the last desperate gasp of the adored Muse (an eclipsed Medusa/Circe/Venus type) seems to have caused Mauberley’s “anaesthesis” and his slow disintegration in cosmic nirvana. Poems II, III, and IV in the second part relate the progressive extinction of Mauberley’s spirit. The epigraph at the head of Poem II, signed by Caid Ali (Pound masquerading as a persona stepping out of an exotic Oriental utopia, or out of the Rubaiyat), functions as Pound’s flamboyant tribute to his moribund proxy. If Mauberley’s passion is too mystical as to be incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, then—Caid Ali (Pound’s persona within a persona) implies— whatever feeling or attitude we may have toward Mauberley’s earthly vicissitudes will fail to correspond with the real worth of the motives or purposes that have governed his spirit. Fatality has “translated” Mauberley into the empyrean of dreamy necessity, somewhat analogous to Baudelaire’s artificial paradise (duly authenticated in Canto LXXVI):
For three years, diabolus in the scale, He drank ambrosia, All passes, ANANGKE prevails, Came end, at last, to that Arcadia.
He had moved amid her phantasmagoria, Amid her galaxies, NUKTIS ’AGALMA
Is beauty then a deceitful and traumatic hallucination? The experience is valid nonetheless as an example of what “the obscure reveries / Of the inward gaze” can generate. Drifting away from time, Mauberley with his “orchid” as the possessed grail finally reaches “the final estrangement.” The erotic associations of orchid-iris-mouth-eyes cluster of images combine with allusions to Hesper, Arcadia, flamingo, thunder, etc., to produce a consistent unifying theme of Eros-in-action throughout the poem. Indeed, the mandate of Eros requires Mauberley’s introspective recollection and subtle conjuring: for instance, the perception of “The thin, clear gaze.” Obeying such a mandate, he becomes “inconscient” to the phenomena of normal life. He does not need a “sieve” to sift beauty from chaos—in “Envoi,” Pound described the “siftings on siftings in oblivion” as ultimately a refining technique. What Mauberley needs is a “seismograph,” an inner equipment, fit for his experiment whereby aesthesis evolves into “anaesthesis”:
—Given that is his “fundamental passion,” This urge to convey the relation Of eye-lid and cheek-bone By verbal manifestations;
To present the series Of curious heads in medallion—
Mauberley as engraver concerns himself with anatomy. Somehow his knowledge or technique fails to reconcile “eye-lid and cheek-bone”—objective perception—with “aerial flowers,” his “orchid”: organic sensations, physiological vibrations. Thus Pound’s oblique judgment of the simultaneous victory and defeat of his enterprise is foregrounded in an Ovidian tableau:
Mouths biting empty air, The still stone dogs, Caught in metamorphosis, were Left him as epilogues.
Transfixed in this posture, the dogs accompanying the hunt are freed from their violent biological urge. Yet such freedom manifests the impotence, the vitiating inability, of mere animal existence to satisfy man’s infinite desires.
Poem III centers on Mauberley’s rejection of the age’s demands, thus confirming his sympathy for Pound the dead persona-poet in the “Ode.” Chance found Mauberley and his unctuous vanity unfit for fulfilling any civic responsibility: his mind is all focused on “The glow of porcelain,” the vibrant color of his model’s beauty reflected in “a perfect glaze,” a translucent veil: to him “the month was more temperate / Because this beauty had been.” Inner mood dictates outer climate. But just as in Poem XII in part one, Mauberley suffers from a worsening imbalance: his will to inhabit Arcadia heightens the conflict between Anangke and the “manifest universe” and his confessed “diastasis” (separation) from all life, ignoring the erotic or sexual (“The wide-banded irides / And botticellian sprays.”). His psychic malady is suggested:
The coral isle, the lion-coloured sand Burst in upon the porcelain revery: Impetuous troubling Of his imagery.
Exclusion of everything alien to his sensibility induces “the imaginary / Audition of the phantasmal sea-surge,” linking up with the earlier signal of “Minoan undulation … amid ambrosial circumstances.” “Olympian apathein” postulates the antithesis to Dionysian celebration and loss of self which accompanies creation; art as icon mediates between the spiritual and the sensual, mobilizing knowledge into action. The deterioration of Mauberley’s ego increases with the coagulated sounds of the polysyllabic diction toward the close of Poem III:
Incapable of the least utterance or composition, Emendation, conservation of the “better tradition,” Refinement of medium, elimination of superfluities, August attraction or concentration.
In spite of Pound’s sensitive appreciation of Mauberley’s delirious union with deity (“subjective hossanah”) in the context of a depraved world, he maintains ironic distance throughout with fastidious quotation marks and subdued parodic touches in such phrases as “insubstantial manna,” in sly idiom or parenthetical asides.
Poem IV represents Mauberley’s death by the metaphoric vehicle of an aborted voyage cursed and waylaid by the constellation of Hesperus (Beauty). Elpenor’s image, the voluptuary aspect of the heroic Odysseus, hovers over the last stanza which discharges Mauberley’s barren epitaph on a defunct oar:
“I was “And I no more exist; “Here drifted “An hedonist.”
With “consciousness disjunct,” Mauberley attains a kind of supernatural insight into transcendence with the vividly pigmented landscape of his tropic paradise. Associations with Daphne, rose, water, Pindar’s wreath, aereal flowers, faun’s flesh, oar and foam substantiate the regenerative implications of Mauberley’s last glimpses of the world, a world half-dreamt and half-real:
Thick folliage Placid beneath warm suns, Tawn fore-shores Washed in the cobalt of oblivions; Or through dawn-mist The grey and rose Of the juridical Flamingoes;
The grey and rose flamingoes seem to render a judgment on Mauberley’s struggles, a verdict cancelling the drowning utterance of the “hedonist” inscribed on a drifting oar. But just as Poems II to XII of the first part delivered over the poet’s corpse, miraculously revived the poet so that he could sing his “Envoi,” so here Poems I to IV succeed in effect, summoning the spirit of the drowned Mauberley back to life in order to recite “Medallion,” his true “epilogue” and his humble “adjunct to the Muses’ diadem.”
Conceived as an epitaph as well as a last will and testament, “Medallion” aptly illuminates the surface complexity, the overall pattern, of the poem. The principle of coherence in the poem lies in the process involving the transfiguration of Venus Anadyomene’s face, seen in a reproduction, into a dazzling vision. The depth of Mauberley’s inward gaze has succeeded in embodying beauty in a medium perfectly indivisible with the content of his intuition: the verbal medallion redeems the second part just as “Envoi” redeems the whole of the poem. Plunged in “porcelain revery,” Mauberley insulates himself against the “profane intrusions” of the blasphemous hollow world. Avoiding direct confrontation with reality, Mauberley sought only the profile; but now nature, in her guise of Anadyomene the goddess of fertility and love, forces him to look straight and recognize that art draws its energy and life-enhancing virtù (the emphasis on light accords with Pound’s concept of paradise in the later Cantos) from the erotic experience itself which lies at the core of the imagination.
In his essay on “Cavalcanti,” Pound writes: “The Greek aesthetic would seem to consist wholly in plastic, or in plastic moving toward coitus…” That truth Mauberley has sought to obscure by pure aestheticism and timorous pride, but now this truth asserts itself. “Medallion” embodies this slow awakening into the mystery, the artifact becoming a vessel of the sublime:
The sleek head emerges From the gold-yellow frock As Anadyomene in the opening Pages of Reinach.
Honey-red, closing the face-oval, A basket-work of braids which seem as if they were Spun in King Minos’ hall From metal, or intractable amber;
The face-oval beneath the glaze, Bright in its suave bounding-line, as, Beneath half-watt rays, The eyes turn topaz.
(Note the affinity between the “Envoi’s” “in magic amber laid” and the phrase “intractable amber” in “Medallion.”) All the other disgraced female personages in the poem, in particular the Pre-Raphaelite Muse with her “clear gaze,” merge with the oval face and luminous eyes of sea-borne Aphrodite (Anadyomene: literally, “birth foam”). “Topaz,” usually transparent yellowish mineral, continues and amplifies “glaucous eyes” of the Muse-Siddall-Jenny-harlot constellation in the first part. The Sirens, Circe, Penelope, Messalina, Venus, and the courted virgin in “Envoi” (Circe’s hair finds analogue in the “basket-work of braids” in “Medallion”) blend into the radiant image of Venus arrested yet hauntingly moving in Mauberley’s verbal artifice. The poetic “Medallion” then provides a foundation in experience and myth for the dominant action symbolized in the two parts of the whole poem.
For the action imitated by Mauberley is essentially the tragic experience of death metaphoric and literal after the loss of psychic equilibrium, conducing to an inquiry by turns comic, satiric, serious, and detached, into motives and ideals in the context of a civilization which has victimized the bearers of the life-sustaining vision of mystery. Poem I states the death of the clairvoyant poet; Poems II to XII survey past and present to define Mauberley’s anger, doubts, and despair. Poem XIII, a lyrical affirmation of the spirit, may have inspired Mauberley’s “Medallion” since both poems dramatize metamorphosis and exaltation by art. Poems I to IV in the second part recount Mauberley’s fortunes, with a reversal effected in “Medallion.”
Celebrating the symbolic death and rebirth through art of two poets in a reflexive mode, the whole sequence of Mauberley may be seen from one point of view as an extended epitaph to the tombstone of art at a specific time and place: England circa 1918–20. Exorcising demonic skepticism, it functions as a cathartic consolation for the speakerelegist whose technique, resisting the temptations of the lotus-life ascribed to the exiled Mauberley as well as to the successful literati, changes completely our expectations of the conventional elegy by its problematic orientation. Although the power of nature and pagan cults determine the sympathetic response of the speaker to the poet’s predicament, the manner of elucidating death alternately depends on the human resources of rhetoric, calculated irony, recollection, music, intuitive learning, insights, etc.—in short, the complete ensemble of faculties harnessed against the human condition of finitude and contingency. Oscillating between the polarities of “faun’s flesh” and “saint’s vision,” the whole poem evolves as a new species of “ode,” neither Pindaric nor Horatian; at first subverting the sublime and elegiac, then developing into a sustained counterpoint between past and present in order to resolve the tension of the predicament (bondage by Circe/art) in the first poem. After showing how civilization drives men to senseless death in war and hinting the prospect of a bleak future, Mauberley is left with no other choice but to seek refuge in the pathetic relics of memory. If he acquiesces to a mediating position in Poem XII, he still implicitly subscribes to the premise of a sharp disparity between, say, neo-classic urbanity and the vulgar materialism of the present. With “Envoi,” Pound himself shifts the modality of expression to pure lyrical assertion of art’s transcending life. In the second part of the poem, such a transcendence is projected as immanent in Mauberley’s “porcelain revery” which fuses vision and artifice together. The second part functions as the validating framework of the first part, for here Mauberley’s character is drawn in terms of his behavior, his decisions, which are needed to clarify his utterance of Poems I and XII of the first part. Pound traces Mauberley’s career after the first part has furnished us by suggestion and implication all we want to know (from Mauberley himself) of his “contacts” or crucial experiences, his thoughts and feelings about them. It remains for the poet to give an objective accounting, a graphic résumé, of Mauberley’s endeavors to pursue his vocation amidst the perils of the market and the drawing room. But he would not remain for long in society: the exile-death wish motif is announced in the poem’s epigraph, a quotation from Eclogue IV of Nemesianus, a counterpart to the sportsmanscholar of the Rubaiyat.
Withdrawing from any profound involvement with the issues of his age, Mauberley proceeds to commit the error of the inveterate pleasure-seeker: he elevates the means—sensual experience—into an end. He therefore condemns himself to exhaustion, abandoning the aesthetic imperative of justifying his own thoughts and feelings. Paradoxically, sensuality leads to “anaesthesis”; but this detachment does not yield any knowledge or insight of an informing purpose—except “Medallion.” With “Medallion,” his scrupulous indulgence of the senses may be thought redeemed because of his having experienced (for he has been by training and disposition prepared for this and has indeed practically brought it about) an illumination equal to the degree of his devotion and talent. One cannot legitimately expect anything more from Mauberley at this point, given his character and the conditions of his existence. The nature of the action imitated by Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is then organized around the idea of life’s affirmation by art as achieved in the tragi-comic quest of a hero assuming varied personae—his ethos in the mode of disclosing its formal wholeness—according to the tensions and resolutions of his agonizing, incandescent consciousness.
Source: E. San Juan Jr., “Ezra Pound’s Craftsmanship: An Interpretation of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,’” in Critics on Ezra Pound, edited by E. San Juan Jr., University of Miami Press, 1972, pp. 106–24.