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Hugh Selwyn Mauberley

by Ezra Pound
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a poem about poetry. Unlike many such poems, however, it is not so much a justification of its own existence as a speculation into what poetry might become. In Pound’s poetry leading up to Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Hugh Kenner has said in The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951), one can see “the history of the purification of our post-Victorian speech.” In this poem, Pound self-consciously charts that purification by evaluating the state of the art (part 1, I-V), discussing the recent history of English poetry (part 1, VI-IX), examining the cultural climate of poetry’s audience (part 1, X-XII), recapping the tradition (“Envoi”), exorcizing one aspect of his own poetic weaknesses in the form of Mauberley himself (part 2, I-IV), and then, dropping the masks of E. P. and Mauberley, finally offering an example in his own voice of what the future of poetry might be in “Medallion.”

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As Pound’s own footnote to the poem explained, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a “farewell to London,” but it is also a farewell to all that the “obstinate isles” of Britain offered him in the way of literary influence and society. Like John Ruskin’s “Kings’ Treasuries,” this is Pound’s indictment of a society inimical to the arts. E. P. had come to London from a “half savage country,” it is true, with only the rudiments of a poetic sensibility: He had the passions without the craft, and so was “wrong from the start.” As his craft grew, the age demanded something more than the “obscure reveries” of the Romantic’s “inward gaze,” but something less than “the ‘sculpture’ of rhyme.”

World War I, with its grotesque wastage, only underscored the bankruptcy of the civilization with its prizing of statues and books over human life. Yet one laudable result of the war was the shock that breeds honest expression, “frankness as never before,” although this expression for some comes as “laughter out of dead bellies.” The problem is that those who fought in the trenches are not those who control the literary salons of the postwar period, the hollow laughter of which competes with the grotesque laughter of the dead.

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Pound’s interest in the Pre-Raphaelites and Decadents was based on their devotion to art for art’s sake, a faulted view but one in which passions could be sincerely explored, unlike the views of their critics, the moralistic Buchanans and the materialistic Mr. Nixons. In the “yeux glauques” of Elizabeth Siddal—the ill-fated wife and model of Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and model for Edward Burne-Jones’s Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, which “preserved those eyes”—one sees reflected the beginning of the late-Victorian conflict between the aestheticism of Rossetti and Swinburne and the prim respectability of Robert Buchanan, who in his “Fleshly School of Poetry” attacked them for their pagan sympathies. In such a society, Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám could only be “still-born.”

Yet it is the hedonism of the Rubáiyát and the English Decadence that Mauberley’s (and in part Pound’s) own expression is based on. Like Brennbaum, whose art is a posture, stiffness never relaxing into grace, Mauberley’s art consists of “Firmness,” but “Not the full smile.” It is “an art/ In profile.” When he tires of the extra effort it requires to go beyond technique into new beauties of grace, he relaxes not into grace but into “maudlin confession.” He regresses into the kind of egoism a deux that Rossetti had with Elizabeth Siddal, except that Mauberley has only his own reverie to keep him company.

Only in “Medallion” does Pound show the purity of poetry “in porcelain.” Reminiscent of Rossetti’s prefatory sonnet to his sequence The House of Life (1869), “Medallion” has the effect of turning the language into what Rossetti calls “a moment’s monument.” It is in this way that Pound shows one direction, within the strictures of the tradition and before his experiments with the Cantos (19171970), that the purified language of post-Victorian speech can go in poetry.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 774

“Aestheticism” was the nineteenth-century term for the desire to live one’s life completely in pursuit of aesthetic beauty. The “aesthete,” or one who lived an aestheticist life, disdained the world as a fallen, brutal, ugly place. Only in art could the aestheticist find solace. Aesthetes spent their lives attempting to refine their own aesthetic taste, to be able to make finer and finer distinctions between the beautiful and the ugly. In the end, aesthetes dreamed of surrounding themselves with beauty.

In the mid-Victorian period, aestheticism gained a new popularity among the upper middle classes. An Oxford scholar named Walter Pater, active in the mid-nineteenth century, has become the very emblem of aestheticism. His book The Renaissance is a series of essays on Italian Renaissance painters, but many of the essays stray from scholarship toward simple appreciation and even reverie—especially in his essay on da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. “All art,” Pater once said, “aspires toward the condition of music,” by which Pater intended to say that the aesthetic experience at its most pure is without content or themes. It is intoxicating, it simply carries one away.

Inspired by Pater and by his followers, many of London’s important literary figures of the 1880s and 1890s adopted aestheticist ideas and poses. The Pre-Raphaelites attempted to bring art back to medieval times, but in reality their art was unlike medieval art. Instead, it is shimmering, complicated, ravishing, and highly romantic. The Pre-Raphaelites also wrote poetry, and their verse concentrated primarily on sensual pleasures. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, and Algernon Charles Swinburne are the best-known of the Pre-Raphaelite or, as they later came to be called, “decadent” poets. Their poems were caught up in the beauty and complexity of language, and often piled on adjective after adjective in an attempt to make language carry the weight of sensory experience.

Eventually the aesthetes or decadents became parodies of themselves. Eschewing seriousness, social commitment, or any kind of relevance whatsoever, decadent literature became the verbal equivalent of opium for many readers: a stimulant for sensory pleasure and a spur to “drop out” of society.

The ultimate expression of decadent or aestheticist literature is J. K. Huysmans’s book Against the Grain, which tells of a wealthy Frenchman, des Esseintes, who spends his life insulating himself from the world and searching for the rarest, most refined sensory pleasures possible. He orders strange plants from all over the world and fills his house with them. He spends weeks locked in his overstuffed basement sampling the liqueurs of the world. In becoming decadent, aestheticism moved from being simple appreciation for good art and became a way of turning one’s back on the world. In “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” Pound sketches out a portrait of such decadents, ridiculing their shallowness and suggesting that literature must be involved in the world or risk utter irrelevance.

World War I
World War I was a cataclysmic event in Pound’s early career, although he barely mentioned it while the war was taking place in either his correspondence or his literary work. Imagism’s harsh attacks on late Victorian poetry and the frankly violent language of the Vorticist movement headed by Pound seemed ridiculous when the real slaughter began. Eventually and inevitably, Pound lost friends in the conflict. He even wrote a book about one of these friends, a French sculptor named Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who had carved a “Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound” out of a discarded chunk of marble Pound found for him under a London bridge.

It was not until the publication of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” in 1920 that Pound finally confronted the war in his writing. Pound’s verdict on the war’s meaning was blunt. He condemns the rhetoric used by leaders to inspire young men to fight and die. He conjures up terse, memorable images for death more effective than paragraphs of long-winded prose. He determines, memorably, that the civilization for which these men were fighting consisted of nothing more than “broken statues” and “battered books.” Nothing justified war for Pound. War was the ultimate evil, and throughout his life Pound tried to identify war’s deepest causes and bring them to public light. Pound came to the conclusion that wars occur because wealthy peoples’ financial interests benefit from war: banks, arms manufacturers and dealers, and politicians all benefit when a country must go to war. Sadly, though, beginning in the 1930s, Pound brought this insight to a disturbing conclusion when he began arguing that Jews were behind most war profiteering and decided that Mussolini’s Italy was a state that would never contribute to the causes of war.

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