A piece of literary criticism that analyzes Ezra’s Pound’s notion of beauty, especially as portrayed in his "epic" poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly".
Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley was first published in 1920 just prior to Pound’s departure from England. The poem is regarded by many scholars as an important shift and breakthrough in Pound’s illustrious career. Yet, despite the prominence and academic popularity of Mauberley it remains a challenging and elusive poem. It has even been regarded that Mauberley “invites the charge of incoherence” due to the frequent shift of perspective and personae and the numerous and layered allusions” (Sutton 17). Walter Sutton, in his essay “Mauberley, The Waste Land, and the Problem of Unified Form”, however, provides clues into the necessity of Pound’s fragmentation, ultimately concluding that the poem “accepts a necessary incompleteness and fragmentation in the work of art as in keeping with the nature of the universe in which it exists” (34). When viewed through Sutton’s lens, Pound’s commentary on the social and poetic direction of the time emerges with far more clarity. By decoding Pound’s fragmentation, his views on God and spiritual mysticism, it becomes clear that he upholds natural beauty above all else as the salve for the tribulations of the commercial, industrial, post World War I world.
Within Mauberley, Pound criticizes the trends of poetry that were contemporary to his time by satirizing his place within it. Pound seemed to recognize a growing infertility of the art of poetry as it was being pursued in his time and sought to stake out a new direction in the poetic mode of world literature in general and English literature in particular. In his essay, Sutton recognizes that Mauberley “has been generally recognized…as a coherent summary statement by the departing poet on the situation of the writer and of literature in England” (16). Pound establishes this theme overtly in the first few lines of the poem when he states, “He strove to resuscitate the dead art / of poetry” (lines 2-3). Though there is some debate amongst scholars whether the “he” being referred to in these lines is Pound himself or the fictional persona of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, this clear criticism of the “dead art” of poetry is too strong to disregard. Later, in the section of the first part of the poem entitled “II”, Pound calls for poetry that is “Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries / Of the inward gaze; / Better mendacities / Than the classics in paraphrase!” (lines 25-8). Here Pound provides an exhortation against contemporary writers who are simply copying, or to borrow Pound’s own parlance, paraphrasing what has come before.
Pound goes beyond simply rejecting the exhausted forms of his art and calls for a new poetic mode that more readily coheres to his rapidly transforming world. In other words, Pound not only expresses his displeasure with the artistic trajectories of his contemporaries and rejects the continual echoing of classical forms, but seeks to encode and establish a new tradition and direction for poetic expression. Of this Sutton notes that “Mauberley does project an image, fragmented though it is, of the modern poet who recoils from the corruption of his society” (35). Further, Sutton adds that Pound “affirms his creative role as the formulator and perpetrator of the values with which his art is concerned” (35). This formative attitude is evident in lines such as, “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace, / Something for the modern stage” (lines 21-3). The struggle of the poet’s persona to discover and forge this “something” becomes one of the principal tensions for the remainder of the poem.
In a manner almost performative in nature, Pound uses incompleteness and fragmentation to enact his view, and that of others of the time, that man’s knowledge of the universe is relative and incomplete. A pervasive sentiment in the early twentieth century, and one to which Pound vigorously ascribed, was the notion that man’s knowledge of the universe was fragmented and imperfect. Pound shaped his art to reflect this worldview. Sutton notes that, “it is as natural that a medieval Christian like Dante would symmetrically structure his Commedia to conform to the symmetry of his Thomist philosophy as it is that the twentieth-century poet like Pound should incline toward fragmentation and discontinuity in structuring his work” (34). Mauberley, along with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land published two years later, employ a remarkable, if not mildly exasperating, degree of fragmentation. Sutton asserts that “[Eliot] produced a work of greater formal unity than Pound was able to achieve in Mauberley, with its unidentifiable and ambiguous persona and its shifts from a relatively objective to a subjective and impressionistic viewpoint” (35). The high degree of fragmentation and experimentation in both The Waste Land and Mauberley, then, becomes more than just a stylistic reaction to poetic modes that had come before, but a reflection and enactment of a shifting worldview that was becoming popular at the time.
Pound also rejects God and Christianity as a solution to what Sutton describes as the “cultural disintegration” of the time. Though many, but certainly not all, poets and authors at the time articulated the notion that it was the undermining of Christian belief that was the root of this disintegration, and the elimination of which that might lead to a solution, Pound seems to utterly reject this idea. This fundamental difference becomes one of the distinct discrepancies between The Waste Land and Mauberley. Sutton notes this disparity, remarking that “It is true that Pound lacks Eliot’s religious sensibility” (32). But along with this lack of “religious sensibility” Sutton notes that Pound lacks the “Puritan preoccupation with guilt and alienation” (32). As a result, Pound also avoids the “pessimism and despair” so prevalent in Eliot (Sutton 32). Pound’s employs this rejection of Christianity in satirical, if not somewhat sacrilegious, lines such as, “Even the Christian beauty / Defects-after Samothrace” (lines 45-6), or “Christ follows Dionysus” (line 37). Here Pound evokes the mythological figure of Dionysus, the Greek god of fertility who, as the poem’s footnotes articulate, is “associated with orgiastic rites performed in his honor”. Having Christ “follow” a Greek god associated with behavior that most Christian sensibilities would view as licentious and depraved is a clear rejection of Christian tenets and a brazen rejection of God and Christianity as a solution to the societal tribulations that Pound observed in his time.
Instead of religious sensibility, Pound asserts natural beauty as the solution to this social and artistic degradation by repeatedly appealing to its virtue. It is the beauty of the world and the human condition that becomes the focus of Pound’s hope for recovery. The poet, or rather an artist of any guise, becomes the crucial disseminator of this beauty. Sutton articulates this notion when he observes that Pound “maintains an unwavering belief in the power of natural beauty, in his vocation as an artist, and in the importance of art as a needed source of cultural value” (32). It is impossible to ignore the fact that Pound ends his “Envoi” with the lines, “Siftings on siftings in oblivion, / Till change hath broken down / All things save Beauty alone” (lines 243-5). This crucial conclusion comes at the end of the first section of Mauberley after a long, satiric criticism of London and of the literary world. This final, strikingly positive gasp in the first cycle of Mauberley is almost jarring in its juxtaposition against the rest of the poem as well as against the bleak hopelessness of Eliot’s The Waste Land. Sutton notes that “in the “Envoi” that follows these poems of rejection the poet reaffirms his commitment to beauty” (Sutton 18-9). He also notes that “Through a traditional image of roses preserved in amber, Pound boasts the permanence of human beauty fixed in art” (19). Sutton then points to the lines, “I would bid them [her graces] live / As roses might, in magic amber laid, Red overwrought with orange an all made / one substance and one colour / Braving time” (lines 231-5). This beauty, then, provides for Pound the hope for redemption that religion could not supply.
Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a difficult and challenging poem that is, nonetheless, a quintessential part of the canon of Modernist poetry. Though Pound’s liberal application of fragmentation and experimentation seems at times to obfuscate his social and artistic commentary, he nonetheless articulates his frustrations with many social and political trends of his time. This same fragmentation, in fact, becomes an enactment of the shifting mores of science and morality and an attempt to “shove” his art form in a new direction. The solution, for Pound, to the social and artistic degradation of the time was not traditional religious sensibilities as it was for Eliot and other literary figures of the time, but instead an appeal to the timeless of human and natural beauty. That beauty, and the preservation thereof, becomes the solution to the sorrowful world that Pound observed.
Pound, Ezra. “from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Life and Contacts).” The Heath Anthology of American
Literature: Modern Period: 1910-1945. Sixth ed. Volume D. Ed. Paul Lauter. 2006. 1404-13.
Sutton, Walter. “Mauberley, The Waste Land, and the Problem of Unified Form”. Contemporary
Literature 9.1 (1968): 15-35. JSTOR. Tomlinson Library, Mesa State College, Grand
Junction, Co. 12 February 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1207389>
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