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Hugh Selwyn Mauberley

by Ezra Pound
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a sequence in two parts. The first part consists of thirteen poems dated 1919; the second part contains five additional poems dated 1920. The quatrain is the dominant stanza in both parts.

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The title concerns the career of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, an aesthetic poet of the old school. The name, like “J. Alfred Prufrock” in T. S. Eliot’s poem, suggests a somewhat stuffy, old-fashioned, Milquetoast character (mauviette means “Milquetoast” in French). The subtitle, “Life and Contacts,” suggests affinities with the tradition of the novel, and also a certain modern superficiality to Mauberley’s career.

Mauberley is only one of the poem’s poet personae. As K. K. Ruthven explains in A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Personae (1969), “Self-analysis produced the two personae in the poem, Mauberley and E. P., each of whom is an oversimplification of radically different elements in Ezra Pound himself.” E. P., the poet concerned with renewing rather than reiterating the poetic tradition, is the dominant persona in part 1.

Sections I-V introduce E. P. and state the present situation of poetry after World War I. Having studied poetry in the “obstinate” British isles, the American E. P. is “out of key with his time” in striving to “resuscitate the dead art/ Of poetry” and to wring “lilies from the acorn,” an impossibility in an age of “tawdry cheapness” which demands an image of “its accelerated grimace.” The modern age believes only in “the market place,” not in the beautiful, in either pagan or Christian form. The apostrophe to Apollo asks, ironically, who deserves the “tin wreath” in this “botched civilization,” which sacrificed a generation “For a few thousand battered books.” The next four sections (titled but unnumbered) assess the recent history of English poetry, from the Pre-Raphaelite aestheticism of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne in “Yeux Glauques” to the raptures of the Decadents Ernest Dowson and L. P. Johnson in “Siena Mi Fe’; Disfecemi Maremma.” “Brennbaum” caricatures the “stiffness from spats to collar/ Never relaxing into grace” of the dandy Max Beerbohm as a ridiculous posture for the poet, whose business is grace, not polish. It is better than the view of “Mr. Nixon,” however, for whom avarice is greater than aesthetics: “The ‘Nineties’ tried your game/ And died, there’s nothing in it.” In other words, poetry does not pay.

The final group of poems before the envoi (sections X through XII) is a series of portraits. The “stylist,” true to Mr. Nixon’s analysis, remains “Unpaid, uncelebrated” for his artistic accomplishments and leaves the “sophistications and contentions” to raise pigs in the country with an “uneducated mistress.” The middle-class woman of section XI, with her superficial education, is bereft of any aesthetic passion (much less eroticism), her only “instinct” being limited to what “her grand-mother/ Told her would fit her station.” The only instinct in dully respectable Ealing is the instinct for social survival. For Lady Valentine of section XII, poetry is fashion, “her border of ideas,” such as they are in her literary salon. The poet concludes that poetry has been ousted in favor of journalism and commerce.

The “Envoi” is the poet’s swan song, a tour de force that incorporates the poetic tradition in the free-verse adaptation of a seventeenth century song. Unconverted to the tawdry cheapness of the Mr. Nixons, the poet reasserts his belief in the erotic and the aesthetic, figuring himself and his beloved as “two dusts”: “Siftings on siftings in oblivion,/ Till change hath broken down/ All things save Beauty alone.” In the end, for him at least, beauty remains the goal of art.

In part 2, beginning with “Mauberley: 1920,” the poet Hugh Selwyn Mauberley appears for the first time. Unlike E. P., with his wry critique of aesthetes and philistines, Mauberley is not ready to break out of the ivory tower of his aesthetic reveries. He is a minor artist, “lacking the skill/ To forge Achaia.” Section II shows that he is also unable to seize on passion, except in “retrospect,” so his art is like the “epilogues” of “the still stone dogs” whose mouths are left “biting empty air.” “The Age Demanded” shows Mauberley unable to apply his art “to the relation of the state,” because to him beauty is a way of making the month “more temperate.” This inability results in his neglect of his craft in favor of “maudlin confession/ Irresponse to human aggression,” and finally to his “Exclusion from the world of letters.” In section IV, Mauberley finds himself washed up (in more ways than one) on the shore of one of his own tropical reveries, with this epitaph: “I was/ And I no more exist;/ Here drifted/ An hedonist.” “Medallion,” which ends Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, has often been thought to be Mauberley’s only poem, but it is more likely that it is Pound at last throwing off the masks of E. P. and Mauberley (if not uniting them) and speaking in his own voice, an example of his vision of the future of poetry.

Forms and Devices

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Pound is a master of poetic technique. T. S. Eliot called him “the superior craftsman.” As a student, Pound vowed to know “everything” about verse and meter, and in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley he gives a virtuoso performance. The “Envoi,” for example, is a creative adaptation of Edmund Waller’s seventeenth century “Go, Lovely Rose,” to his modern purposes. Pound offered Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’s quatrains, modeled on Théophile Gautier’s Émaux et camées (1852), as a “countercurrent” to the excesses of free verse. Pound’s quatrains are masterful in their fluidity and in their variation of meter and rhyme.

Off-rhyme is used to satiric effect, often bilingually or in conjunction with an ironic use of myth. In part 2, the modern age’s “accelerated grimace” is contrasted with the ancient Greek’s “Attic grace.” A similar effect is achieved in “The sale of half-hose has/ Long since superseded the cultivation/ Of Pierian roses.” Ancient names are rhymed with present vulgarities: “Samothrace” with “market place”; “Pisistratus” with “rule over us”; “Milesien” with “Englishmen.” Bilingual rhymes are also used: “Tpoin/leeway” and “Oeou/upon” (Greek); “later/patria” and “slaughter/decor” (Latin); “trentuniesme/diadem” (French).

At first glance, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley may seem to be an intimidating web of foreign phrases, quotations, literary allusions, and impenetrable puzzles. The poem is dense with Pound’s erudition, but the reader should not be deterred. This erudite scaffolding, while adding to a full understanding of the poem’s architecture, need not detract from one’s appreciation. The foreign phrases, for example, may seem formidable, but they are rarely essential. Their very presence is, in a sense, more important than their meaning. Like glass fragments in a kaleidoscope, they reflect upon one another for their color.

The allusions to the poetic tradition, however, are essential, since Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a poem about poetry, especially modern poetry’s relationship to the tradition. Pound believed that poetry should incorporate all that culture had to offer in the way of language, philosophy, history, religion, myth, and literature. His one proviso was that the poet should “Make it new.”

The poem is not written from a single point of view. Instead readers overhear Mauberley and E. P. thinking or composing, snatches of conversation, or omniscient pronouncements, not unlike the variable point of view in a novel. (Pound even called the poem “an attempt to condense the [Henry] James novel.”) Still, the poem manages to present a unified consciousness against the background of its time, even though E. P. and Mauberley are distinct halves of that consciousness.

One way of making the tradition reflect upon the present is the ironic use of myth. Like James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, Pound invokes myth to contrast the lusterless present with the heroic past. Daphne in the drawing room in section XII has a precedent in Alexander Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock (1712), but what is original in Pound is the collage effect achieved by juxtaposing quotations of dead and living languages, real and fictional poets, myth and history. From such a kaleidoscopic range of allusion one really does get a sense of the vital presence of the supposedly dead past, a quality that Pound insisted was at the heart of a living culture.

Historical Context

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World War I
Pound’s poem provides a number of brief vignettes and portraits of literary London in the 1890s and 1900s. The frivolity of these times, though, becomes patent when the poem abruptly moves to a discussion of the unthinkable catastrophe that became known as World War I. In the years leading up to World War I, the London literary scene fragmented into ever-smaller feuding movements, all based on minute distinctions in aesthetics. Because of what they saw as their daring in challenging the morality of the Victorian age, modernist writers found themselves cast in the roles of rebels, pariahs, even dangerous men and women. Such writers as Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis even began to believe their own hype about being dangerous to society.

The coming of World War I, though, fulfilled the modernist predictions of a coming fragmentation and destruction beyond anything they could have imagined. The war itself came upon an unsuspecting Europe almost in a way that the modernists might have envisioned, for it was society’s faith in its own structures that ended up destroying it. Specifically, the complicated network of alliances dividing Europe into two moderately hostile camps (one consisting largely of democracies such as Great Britain and France, the other consisting of monarchies or dictatorships such as Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but even these categories had exceptions—Czarist Russia fought on the side of the democracies) became not a means of stability but the mechanism of Europe’s destruction.

The war began when the Serbian rebel Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. Austria- Hungary sought reprisals against Serbia, the Russians came to the Serbian defense, the Germans came to the assistance of the Austro-Hungarians, and Eastern Europe was at war. At the same time, the Germans took this opportunity to try out a plan they had been developing for years. The German strategic command had worked out a way to march across Belgium and northeastern France and take Paris in six weeks, and in 1914 they attempted to do just this. The plan bogged down, though, and soon the English came to the assistance of the French and Belgians. Pushing the Germans back from the very suburbs of Paris, the Allied forces managed to save the French nation, but the armies soon found themselves waging trench warfare in the forests and fens of northern France and Belgium. Millions died in futile attempts to move the line forward a few yards. Among these were a number of modernist artists and writers, including the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a friend of Ezra Pound’s.

The tone of excitement about violence that characterized early modernist writing disappeared after the war, for the writers who exalted in the promise of destruction were utterly numbed by the effects of real destruction. Although the soldier-writers like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon have left readers with vivid, horrifying pictures of combat, perhaps the most enduring modernist imagery of the war is contained in two poems: Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Pound’s poem addresses the war directly, stating “There died a myriad, / and of the best, among them, / For an old bitch gone in the teeth, / For a botched civilization.”

Literary Style

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Point of View
The most enduringly difficult aspect of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is the maddening way that Pound creates two alter egos. These alter egos may be aspects of himself but to what extent? What in them does he admire, what in them does he wish us to condemn, what of himself does he unconsciously include? E. P., one of the alter egos, even has Pound’s own initials—is he an earlier version of Pound, accurately portrayed, or is he (like James Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus) a satirized version of some of the author’s old traits?

E. P. is the first alter ego. We learn this from the fact that the first poem is called “E.P. Ode pour l’election de son sepulchre,” or “E.P. Ode for the Selection of His Tomb.” E. P. is clearly the “he” of this first poem, a young poet who came to Europe from his own “half-savage country” and wanted to “resuscitate” the art of poetry and the old-style “sublime.” The imagery of the poem presents E. P. as an aesthete, contemplating “the elegance of Circe’s hair” while history passes him by. Most of the poems of the E. P. section of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” show snapshots of late Victorian London and its literary scene; E. P. is either absent or his presence barely registers (much as Pound seems to think is the case with aesthetes in general). However, throughout the poem, he observes everything that is going on around himself. But a knowledge of Pound’s own life shows that E. P. and Pound have much in common: acquaintances, artistic tastes, life experiences.

Mauberley is a different matter. He almost literally fades out of the poems as he refines his aesthetic tastes even more. Pound often uses the image of a medallion throughout the five poems of the Mauberley sequence, alluding to Pound’s own fascination with Pisanello, with coinage, and “mould in plaster” that “the age demanded” in the second poem of the E. P. sequence. Like the profile on a medallion or a coin, Mauberley is only seen in halfview; he is never fully there. Mauberley is a different kind of aesthete than E. P. While E. P. will follow the sirens, Mauberley will lose himself in the sensual pleasures of the land of the lotus-eaters. E. P. exists in the world but does nothing of importance in it, while Mauberley, a man of admittedly more refined aesthetic sensibilities, runs the risk of just fading out as he melts into his sensual pleasures.

Allusions (implied or indirect reference) to dozens of sources fill “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Whole books have been written tracking down all of Pound’s allusions, but it is possible to understand the essential message of the poem with the explanation of just a few of them. Most of the allusions fall into two categories: allusions to the classical world and allusions to the aesthetic/decadent worlds.

Most important, probably, are the allusions to classical civilization, for at this point in his career Pound was searching for a way to use classical civilization as a way to understand the modern world. On a basic level, E. P. and Mauberley represent two types of Odysseus’s companions from Homer’s Odyssey: E. P., the sailors lured by the sirens, and Mauberley, the sailors who stay on the island of the lotus-eaters. But these are by no means the only classical allusions. The poem begins with an epigram by the Carthaginian poet Nemesianus, and in the first poem Pound also alludes to the Odyssey three times, the muses, and one of the “Seven against Thebes” from Sophocles’s play. The rest of the poem continues to allude to the Greeks and Romans, referring to “an Attic grace,” “the mousseline of Cos,” Samothrace, Pisistratus, Horace, and many others, in the first few poems alone. There is no unifying structure to the allusions; Pound saw the classical world as still being alive and relevant, and the poem shows how both E. P. and Mauberley felt the same.

The allusions to the late 1800s and early 1900s in London are much more specific and less accessible to the nonspecialist. “Mr. Nixon,” for instance, alludes to authors Arnold Bennett and Henry James, and “Yeux glaugues” alludes to Victorian politicians Robert Buchanan and Prime Minister William Gladstone and writers John Ruskin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Some of the allusions are plain; others, such as Brennbaum, are disguised.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: Calvin Coolidge is elected President of the United States. After Woodrow Wilson—an intellectual who tried to persuade the reluctant, isolationist United States to join the League of Nations—Coolidge is a drastic change. While Wilson was cerebral and visionary, Coolidge is practical and bourgeois. Advancing U.S. business interests is his primary concern.

Today: In the election to succeed, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Texas Governor George W. Bush face-off. After the closest election in American history, the Supreme Court declares Bush the winner.

1920s: The aftereffects of World War I continue to resonate in defeated Germany. Because of its need to pay off massive war reparations, the German government simply prints more money. The effect is massive inflation, so much so that in the 1920s German shoppers must bring wheelbarrows full of cash in order to do their grocery shopping.

Today: After almost eight years of continuous record economic expansion, the U.S. economy begins to slow down. Large corporations decree massive layoffs, and small companies simply go out of business. A terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, only exacerbates the economic troubles, putting the airlines in particular at risk.

1920s: Theaters dedicated exclusively to the exhibition of motion pictures spring up around the United States. This new form of entertainment proves to be surprisingly popular, so much so that a number of performers become internationally famous. Some industry experts predict that within twenty years, motion pictures will have simultaneous soundtracks.

Today: The film industry is perhaps America’s most powerful export. American film stars such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta are more recognizable than the leaders of most nations. And although Congress continues to grumble about violent, antisocial, or sexual content in Hollywood films, the major studios are able to avoid federal regulation by policing themselves.

1920s: The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote, is ratified. For the first time in U.S. history, women can have a direct say in the governance of the nation.

Today: In the Presidential election of 2000, numerous voting irregularities in states such as Florida may have determined the outcome. As a result of the contested election, many commentators and even some politicians begin arguing that the Constitutional prohibition against convicted felons voting be eliminated.

1920s: The first Red Scare (a public hysteria, led by politicians and business leaders, about the presence of communists in America) reaches its climax, and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer stages raids in thirty-three cities without search warrants to seek communists. Four thousand people are jailed and denied counsel, and more than five hundred are deported, as the labor leader Emma Goldman was in 1919.

Today: After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, thousands of U.S. residents of Arab or Middle Eastern descent are detained without charge. Almost six thousand people are rounded up in the Justice Department’s search for collaborators.

Media Adaptations

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In 1958, after being released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., Pound made a series of recordings that feature him reading his own poetry, including “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” for the Caedmon record label. Many libraries still have the original vinyl LPs of these recordings, and they have been reissued by HarperCollins in audiocassette form and by Caedmon/HarperCollins in audiobook format (2001).

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Berryman, Jo Brantley, Circe’s Craft: Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” UMI Research Press, 1983.

Eliot, T. S., “Introduction,” in Selected Poems, by Ezra Pound, Faber & Faber, 1928.

Espey, John, Ezra Pound’s “Mauberley”: A Study in Composition, University of California Press, 1955.

Froula, Christine, A Guide to Ezra Pound’s “Selected Poems,” New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1983.

Homberger, Eric, ed., Ezra Pound: The Critical Heritage, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

Kenner, Hugh, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Leavis, F. R., New Bearings in English Poetry, Chatto and Windus, 1932.

Pater, Walter, The Renaissance, World’s Classics, 1998.

Further Reading
Brooker, Peter, A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, Faber and Faber, 1979. Like Christine Froula’s book, this critical resource is less a study of Pound than a guide to the references and allusions of the poems collected in Pound’s Selected Poems anthology.

Carpenter, Humphrey, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, Houghton Mifflin, 1988. Of the dozen or so biographies of Pound, Carpenter’s is the most thorough and least ideologically driven.

Kenner, Hugh, The Pound Era, University of California Press, 1973. Kenner’s book magisterially surveys Pound’s entire career. Although the majority of the book is concerned with Pound’s The Cantos, Kenner discusses “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” extensively, including its influences and its place in Pound’s career as a whole.

Sutton, Walter, Ezra Pound: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1963. Sutton provides a good introduction to critical thought on Pound. This anthology includes essays from a number of important literary critics and spans all of Pound’s work and almost his entire career.

Witemeyer, Hugh, The Poetry of Ezra Pound: Forms and Renewal 1908–1920, University of California Press, 1969. After Kenner, Witemeyer is probably the leading Ezra Pound scholar in the world. Witemeyer, moreover, tends to ground his studies in the particulars of Pound’s life and contacts, while Kenner is much more interested in larger cultural trends. This book contains an excellent chapter on “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” that draws parallels between the poem and James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses.


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Espey, John. Ezra Pound’s Mauberley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. In this major full-length study devoted exclusively to Mauberley, Espey focuses on the Mauberley persona, Pound’s sources, and the poem’s overall structure. Concludes that Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a summing up of all Pound had achieved up to that point and prefigures the Cantos.

Hoffmann, Frederick J. The 20’s: American Writing in the Post-War Decade. New York: Macmillan, 1962. The definitive treatment on that rich literary decade, Hoffmann’s study discusses Hugh Selwyn Mauberley in its social, literary, and intellectual context.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. A critical overview of Pound’s achievement and of his place in and impact on twentieth century literature and culture. A highly engaging text for the more ambitious student who wishes to understand Hugh Selwyn Mauberley in the context of Pound’s career.

Leavis, F. R. New Bearings in English Poetry: A Study of the Contemporary Situation. 1932. Reprint. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960. Leavis’ chapter on Pound set the tone and direction for much subsequent criticism and remains an important source for the discussion of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.

Witemeyer, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound: Forms and Renewal, 1908-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. This thoroughgoing analysis of Pound’s early poetry and poetic theories culminates in an extended treatment of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. The poem is a critique of a failed impressionist aesthetic rendered in the emerging terms of the modernist aesthetic Pound was to perfect in the Cantos.

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Critical Essays