Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”

Normally I hate it when critics insert comments in the middle of a poem and break it up so that it’s nearly impossible to read it as a whole. I always want to read a poem and form my own opinion before being influenced by someone else’s opinion. However, I don’t feel quite as badly about breaking up Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” because it’s already segmented by its very nature. Besides, I’m not sure how else I could discuss it.

E. P. Ode pour l’élection de son sépulchre

For three years, out of key with his time,
He strove to resuscitate the dead art
Of poetry; to maintain "the sublime"
In the old sense. Wrong from the start –

No, hardly, but, seeing he had been born
In a half savage country, out of date;

I agree whole heartedly with what Pound says here; it’s precisely what I would love to do through my web site, though I’m not sure I mean the same thing by “sublime” that Pound does.

Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn;
Capaneus; trout for factitious bait:

At times, particularly when I watch beer commercials or MTV, I’d have to agree with this assessment, too. I can only guess what the third line must mean and don’t really give a damn what the fourth line means, though I’m sure that it is some obscure reference to a literary work.

"Idmen gar toi panth, os eni Troie

Jonathon, Jonathon, Jonathon, forget Japanese, tell me how the hell to reproduce Greek in a weblog. I’d guess that this must have something to do with Odysseus, though I don’t really care enough to look it up.

Caught in the unstopped ear;
Giving the rocks small lee-way
The chopped seas held him, therefore, that year.

His true Penelope was Flaubert,
He fished by obstinate isles;
Observed the elegance of Circe’s hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.

Unaffected by "the march of events",
He passed from men’s memory in l’an trentiesme
De son eage; the case presents
No adjunct to the Muses’ diadem.

I’d assume poor Hugh, unlike the more celebrated Odysseus, though his cause was no less noble, faded from existence without ever wearing the Muse’s crown.

The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;

No, despite what Shelley Powers may think, this is no longer the age of Audrey Hepburn. It’s the age of Jeniffer Lopez or Britanney Spears (you’re right I don’t know how to spell their names and don’t care enough to look them up on the net, either) or of an aged Senator Dole pushing Viagra in commercials.

Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities
Than the classics in paraphrase!

The "age demanded" chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,

No doubt about this. This is the age of cheap copies, free copies if you’re to believe the young people demanding their Napster.

A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the "sculpture" of rhyme.

Certainly no time for rhyme, unless you count that rap crap.

The tea-rose, tea-gown, etc.
Supplants the mousseline of Cos,

When you do a Google search on these terms all you can find is Pound’s poem, so I don’t have a clue what it’s referring to.

The pianola "replaces"
Sappho’s barbitos.

Christ follows Dionysus,
Phallic and ambrosial
Made way for macerations;
Caliban casts out Ariel.

Not sure what this means, but I know that it’s not a good thing when Caliban casts out Ariel. Reminds me of Hawthorne’s tale of Alymer (yeah I discussed this earlier, but you can look up the link if you’re interested. I’m not paid to provide these kinds of links to my own works).

All things are a flowing,
Sage Heracleitus says;
But a tawdry cheapness
Shall reign throughout our days.

Amen, amen. You can say that again. It’s hard to watch much television or many movies and not arrive at this conclusion.

Even the Christian beauty
Defects — after Samothrace;
We see to kalon
Decreed in the market place.

Faun’s flesh is not to us,
Nor the saint’s vision.
We have the press for wafer;
Franchise for circumcision.

All men, in law, are equals.
Free of Peisistratus,
We choose a knave or an eunuch
To rule over us.

When I read somewhere that Pound saw himself as seer, it gave me a chuckle, but when you read this and look at our country you almost begin to wonder if he couldn’t foresee the future.

A bright Apollo,
tin andra, tin eroa, tina theon,

Here, again, is that irreproducible, incomprehensible Greek.

What god, man, or hero
Shall I place a tin wreath upon?


These fought, in any case,
and some believing, pro domo, in any case ..

Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later …

Nice parallel structure, almost Whitmanesque in it’s style, though the vision seems very, very different.

some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor" ..

walked eye-deep in hell
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.

‘Tis the Age of Enron, of Exxon, of the Soon-to-be-Gone.

Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
Fair cheeks, and fine bodies;

fortitude as never before

frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.


There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,

Ginsberg’s “Howl” can still be heard.

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

I don’t know what happened to Pound’s compact with Whitman, but this is certainly no Transcendental vision, is it? Instead, it’s time for reality therapy, I guess.

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

It’s hard to deny Pound’s main contention here that the arts have been debased while society has turned to mass-produced culture. Unfortunately, I also suspect that it is precisely poems like this that contributed to that decline.

Worst of all, Pound’s poems make me think I’m going to have to look seriously at the “art as art” movement, “postmodernism,” and hermeneutics as I’m beginning to wonder exactly what it is I expect from poetry and the arts.

It’s impossible to deny that Pound’s poetry, even poems like this, have had a profound effect upon modern poetry. When you look at a poem like this, it’s hard not to see Pound’s direct link to the Beat poets, as well as other modern poets. How can I agree with so much of what he says and still be so repelled by the poems themselves?

16 thoughts on “Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly””

  1. I have to ask, did you mean this to be funny? Because I did find your comments, amidst the muse to be funny.

    To be honest, if you hadn’t broken the poem up, I would have run, howling, from the room after the first Greek bit.

  2. Let us just say that I hard time keeping my sarcasm under control, Shelley.

    I’m beginning to realize just how influential Pound has been on modern poetry, perhaps in retrospect the most influential poet in a lot of ways.

    Unfortunately, I just can’t like what he’s written, and, in some ways, I think he took poetry down a road that lost it much of its audience.

  3. Sorry, Loren, but I’ll stick to Japanese. For anything to do with Greek, AKMA’s your man. But, as an antidote to Pound, here’s a summer poem by Buson:

    Mijika yo ya
    murasame wataru

    In the short night
    a passing shower
    across the wooden eaves.

  4. Thank you for sparing us the rest of it. I can’t help with the first bit of Greek, but the second is roughly “the man, the hero, the god”. But hey, who cares? Not me. He seems to have thrown in bits of all sort (Wilfred Owen, most obviously to me, lacking a classical education) so it’s an unsuccessful quilt.

    But good things have come of it, at least for me. I found this site (attempt at a link) of audio of interviews with well-known arty types, including a harang from Mr Pound. Which I might never have stumbled on otherwise.


  5. “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is a great poem. But of course if you’re not willing to take the slightest effort to find out what anything means, you’re going to have trouble with it. What poetry *do* you like?

  6. Well, I’ll address the “slightest effort” part in a later entry, after I dig myself out of all the stuff on Pound I’ve been reading, but I’ll just point to the list of poets on the left and say that I “liked” at least 80% of them, language hat.

  7. Pound is the greatest poet of all time. He is original in his writings, says all he has to say in a very concise manner. The only way one would not appreciate his work is if he or she did not understand it. read “In a Station of the Metro” and try and tell me that he is not a genius!

  8. i just dont understand this poem…IS THERE ANYONE IN THIS UNIVERSE TO HELP ME????!!!!

  9. john – you need to understand very little; as Pound once said “poetry atrophies when it strays too far from music”, and he wants you to hear him before you understand him. That being said, a gloss of the Greek and Latin phrases would help a bit (see the link below). For instance, “to kalon” is Greek for “beauty”; knowing that, the line about its being “decreed in the market place” links up rather nicely with our host’s interpolated comment about J Lo etc.

    Read the French subtitle; but do not ignore the pun “E.P Ode” – this is not a classical “ode”, but an retrospective review of a life (and in the final part, a lost generation), it is an “epode”, or poetic epitaph. The pun indicates that Pound wants it known that he has thought about every syllable of his work, so it will bear scruitny. The French line refers to Mauberley, by the way, not Pound (“EP”) himself: Mauberley, perhaps an alter ego, who has failed to resuscitate poetry in his half savage land (America), now has to be interred.

    There are other websites which try to explain the poem, and while not wholly convincing, this one has a coherent narrative and some useful insights, at http://www.tengrrl.com/vita/hsm.html

    But the best way to “understand” Pound’s shorter poems is to buy a book of them and read them, in no paticular order, until you hear their music in your head. Don’t be too cerebral, as critics of Pound (and his protege, Eliot) tend to be. Pound saw himself in the bardic tradition. Try reading him aloud:

    And the days are not full enough
    And the nights are not full enough
    And life slips by like a field-mouse
    Not shaking the grass


  10. Caliban casts out ariel refers to the savage in ” the tempst” and the sprite in that play, respectivly. fits with the rest of the poem. tea-rose,tea gown probably refers to contemporary fashion, Mousseline probably refers to muslin fabric. any other terms should be in a good commentary

  11. If you think this was meant to be serious commentary on the poem, xyz, I’m afraid you’d better try another field — poetry probably isn ‘t your forte.

    At least Shelley and Language Hat got the main point of this piece.

  12. This is the age of google and the internet, sport … if you don’t know what’s being quoted, then just search it, it takes no more than a few seconds. Otherwise stick to nursery rhymes.

  13. A joke’s not quite as funny if one must have it explained; an obscure allusion or a phrase in an unfamiliar language can really stop dead a poem’s music and argument if it can’t be either easily comprehended by the reader or at least skirted entirely. Yes, if one wishes to dissect and pickle every line of the poetry, one may enjoy running to Google, the OED and whatever encyclopaedias of symbols, mythology and so forth one favours.

    Pound was sharp enough to know that he’d thicken and embitter his poetry on the tongue of the casual reader by doing what he’s done here… This is certainly evidence that Pound tried to write for “the initiated” and not for hoi polloi.

    For those of us whose knowledge of Greek extends little beyond the term “hoi polloi”, Pound rather ruins the music with too much… intellectual snobbery, I suppose.

  14. It is greek “For we know all that was suffered in Troy” It’s a line from Homer’s Odyssey. When they reprint this poem they should start putting this in the margin, The poem flows better when you don’t have to know greek to read it.

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