1Recorded archives of poets reading their own works sometimes yield provocative insights into the texts they chose or were asked to recite. In the case of T.S. Eliot’s performance of The Waste Land the jarring contrast between the work’s built-in polyphony and the neutral soundscape created by Eliot’s leveling of intonational differences is symptomatic of the poem’s simultaneous “dismissal of connections between images, scenes and voices” and blurring of the “proper boundaries between things.” (Davidson 122). Likewise Pound’s haunting performance of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920 & 1960), half threnody, half diatribe, foregrounds the agency of the voice as that tantalizing object whose lasting fascination exerts itself upon the reader beyond and/or despite the meaning it aims to convey. This seductive function of the poetic voice, I hope to show, plays a central role in the poem’s dialectic.
2To introduce this analysis, I would like to focus on the title and its complex epigraph, which summarize the ambiguities of the entire sequence:
HUGH SELWYN MAUBERLEY
(Contacts and Life)
‘VOCAT ÆSTUS IN UMBRAM’
Nemesianus, Ec. IV.
E.P. ODE POUR L’ELECTION DE SON SEPULCHRE
- 1 The various intertextual references of Pound’s poetic sequence are conveniently identified in the (...)
3Chief among those hesitations is the status of the lyrical I, split between the fictitious character of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and the initials E.P. immediately preceding the first section, but also the fluctuating definition of a “sepulchre,” a place where a dead body is left to decay, as well as one that preserves it from outer aggression and thus in its own way a shady spot similar to the “umbra” of the Latin quote. Moreover, the hybridity and possible duplicity of the poetic voice is foregrounded in the quotes from Nemesianus and Ronsard,1 since the Latin fragment has no specific addressee, and the French one designates the poet Ezra Pound in the third person, i.e., as a non-person, further estranged from himself by a title borrowed from another poet writing in a different idiom and time frame — unless, that is, the possessive “son” is intended to refer to Mauberley, a less likely although grammatically acceptable hypothesis. In addition to those uncertainties, the paratext raises at least two issues that will prove central to the sequence as a whole: the function of the voice —both the calling voice and the voice that is heard— in the poet’s vocation; and the dialectic of extinction and preservation thematically implicit in Pound’s epigraphs, but also formally highlighted by the very act of quoting, whereby a dead poetic voice is resurrected and brought to bear on the present of utterance within the context of a modern ode which, as Pound’s reading amply demonstrates, is meant to be vocalized as was indeed Ronsard’s own poem, whose initial stanzas read:
Antres, et vous fontaines
De ces roches hautaines
Devallant contre bas
D’un glissant pas :
Et vous forêts et ondes
Par ces près vagabondes,
Et vous rives et bois
Oyez ma voix. (1950)
4The elegiac third section of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley paints a fresco of waste, expenditure and universal flow which provides the backdrop of the entire sequence. Here the Poundian speaker powerlessly laments the endless supplanting of one thing by another and a general deterioration of old values he blames on the four evils of mechanization, christianization, democratization, and ultimately, the rule of market economy. In order to delineate the successive rises and falls of ideological and aesthetic empires, Pound resorts to a set of massive oppositions. In the field of human artifacts, lines 33-6 show how mechanical reproduction, corresponding to the age’s demand of “a mould in plaster/ Made with no loss of time” (29-30) challenges the uniqueness of the text, to be understood both etymologically as fabric and as verbal composition. Greek muslin and Sappho’s poetry thus share a common destiny as they are supplanted by industrial fabric and the pianola, whose indigence is manifested in at least two complementary ways. First, by the repetitiveness of line 33, culminating in an abbreviation which proclaims the demise of poetic speech: “The tea-rose tea-gown etc.” Second, by the omnipresence of quotation marks throughout Pound’s poetic sequence, conveying the sense that speech is simultaneously borrowed and deprived of any meaningful depth, or even caught up in a process of evaporation that may occur from one line or stanza to the next. Thus, between lines 21 and 29 the clause “the age demanded” seems to have become the mere shadow of itself by dint of the quotes, as is the case also, between lines 184 and 188, with the epithet “Milesian.” This general erosion of meaning symptomatized by the proliferation of double inverted commas may then culminate in their utter disappearance, as in line 42 where Heraclitus’s “All things are a flowing” is quoted, not in Greek but in English, and is laughed into irrelevance by the present state of affairs: “But a tawdry cheapness/ Shall outlast our days”.
5As such cheapness comes to prevail, the Christian ideal, already a step down from its Greek counterpart in Pound’s Swinburnian perspective, is itself overthrown by the instruments of democracy: “We have the press for wafer; / Franchise for circumcision” (51-2). In the same way as lines 45-6 sardonically point out the reversibility of victory into defeat (“Even the Christian beauty / Defects—after Samothrace”), the last stanza of section III, in its specific use of the quote, stages the devaluation of cultural currencies bemoaned by the speaker in the very letter of the poem. Thus the epanaphora that adds rhetorical weight to the quote from Pindar’s ode, “O bright Apollo, / tin andra, tin heroa, tina theon,” is mockingly echoed by Pound’s own, “What god, man or hero/ Shall I place a tin wreath upon,” where the signifier /tin/ once imported into English, becomes the none-too heroic epitome of factitiousness.
6As Pound suggests, this depreciation is a direct function of the perverse economy typical of an age which tolerates “no loss of time” (30), yet allows “wastage as never before” (80) — the same perverse economy in which cultural currencies were caught during World War I, when “two gross of broken statues” —Victory of Samothrace included— and “a few thousand battered books” (94-5) were purchased at the cost of the death or disillusion of the generation evoked in section IV, the only one where the form of the quatrain temporarily breaks down. Whether in Mauberley’s accessibility to the treacherously seductive voice of tradition or in the young soldier’s receptiveness to the patriotic ideology deconstructed in Pound’s partial quote of Horace’s “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (71-2), falsehood provides the one connecting thread between artists and warriors. Indeed the very signifier “lie,” omnipresent in Section IV, contaminates bodies as it does artistic products, since already legible in the poetic “lilies” (7) Mauberley was seen trying to wring from the American acorn, it also crops up further on in the soldiers’ “dead bellies,” a perverse rewriting of incarnation whereby only the lie is made flesh.
- 2 It is worth bearing in mind that the same mythological creatures haunt at least two other modernis (...)
7In the face of this universal leveling of values where cheapness is the only constant, various modes of preservation are explored in Pound’s poetic sequence. The first one is embodied, in section I, by the young Pound-as-Mauberley’s creative efforts within the tradition of what he calls “‘the sublime’ / In the old sense.” This attempt is condemned as hubristic by the reference to Capaneus who challenged Zeus, and contrary to the direction of history as conveyed by “the mottoes on sundials” (16), reminding us that time passes. By lending an “unstopped ear” to the siren’s voice of tradition, Mauberley fishing “by obstinate isles” (14) is caught in his own trap and proves himself “trout for factitious bait” (8): thus for him poetry boils down to little more than what it later on turns out to be for Lady Jane in the hands of Lady Valentine: just a “hook to catch lady Jane’s attention” (208). It is worth pointing out here that the content of the quote from the Iliad (“Idmen gár toi pánth hos eni Troíe”) has little bearing on the significance of this section. It exists primarily as a seductive voice distinct from the message it conveys, a succession of sounds whose reason for being seems limited to facilitating the hybrid rhyme “Troíe”/”lee-way,” thus deriding what Pound in the next section calls “the ‘sculpture’ of rhyme” (32). Not only is this section haunted by proper nouns (Circe, Capaneus, Penelope, Flaubert) and parasitical voices from the Iliad, Ronsard’s Odes and Villon’s Testament, but suspicion is also cast on its wording by Pound’s repeated use of quotation marks, lines 3 and 17. Indeed, the whole poetic sequence proves similarly resonant with misleading voices. In “Yeux Glauques” “foetid Buchanan lifted up his voice” to condemn the pre-raphaelites, even though history ultimately belied his critical judgment. In section X, the stylist listens to the voice of the epigraph at the cost of giving up literary fame. In “Mr Nixon” the writer’s proffered advice, “And give up verse, my boy,/ There’s nothing in it,” is invalidated by the very poem in which his voice is made to resonate. Nixon thus joins in the chorus of sirens, perhaps by virtue of his very name, echoing those water-elves known in German mythology by the name Nixen.2 Finally, the “Lady Valentine’s vocation” does not respond to the voice of art, but answers a purely social, and therefore mendacious, calling.
8Both an epitaph and a testament, this first section partakes of the duplicity I pointed out in my introduction. As an epitaph written in the preterit it seals the death of the “he” we may be tempted to identify with Mauberley. As a testament in which Pound like Ronsard claims to choose the manner of his burial, and which he significantly concludes with an allusion to Villon’s Grand Testament, it is also a modality of survival. This hesitation is reflected in the way the section is or is not to be related to the rest of the sequence. A brief survey of Mauberley’s life, it may be thought to enclose all following sections, whether or not they are spoken in the first person, as reflecting the now departed Mauberley’s perspective — or alternately it may be read as Pound’s farewell to the post-Swinburnian version of himself that some of his early work exemplified, to be followed by the next twelve poems now spoken in Pound’s own voice, before the sequence ends with an Envoi, which, being italicized and rife with archaic diction, might once again be attributed to Mauberley. That this farewell remains incomplete, however, is borne out by the metrical form of the sequence, which, with the exception of section IV and the poem entitled “Mr Nixon,” is written for the most part in quatrains of alternating rhymes. This form was inspired by Théophile Gautier who, one might argue, was to the art of poetry what Flaubert was to prose: Gautier thus also proves to be Pound’s “true Penelope” in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Finally, while within the limited context of section I the quote from the Iliad functions primarily as a rhyming device, within the broader context of the sequence, its reference to the Trojan war prefigures Pound’s own indictment of World War I in section IV. The value of the quote as currency thus fluctuates, based on the textual boundaries within which it is made to operate.
9In the face of universal flux, the ivory tower of artistic detachment where Mauberley takes refuge, although an ultimately inadequate response, is also embodied by the “stylist” of section X, who gives up economic aspirations as well as those claims to social recognition which are a recurrent theme of the sequence, as indeed they were of Pound’s own literary career. While in the preceding section Mr Nixon’s advice to a young writer seems exclusively dictated by monetary considerations, the “unpaid, uncelebrated” (174) stylist chooses to withdraw from the “market place” (48). He prefers a “placid and uneducated mistress” (177) over the shallow sophistication of aristocratic sponsors such as the Lady Valentine who is portrayed in the penultimate section. He also chooses a life in the shade similar to that of Pound’s friend Ford Maddox Ford in his Provence villa, and thus seems to obey the injunction of summer, voiced in the initial quote from Nemesianus. Clearly the irony of lines 179-182, paratactically juxtaposing the genuine merits of “succulent cooking” and the more dubious ones of “a creaking latch,” suggests the shortcomings of this artistic stance. It is worth noticing, however, that by withdrawing from the literary marketplace, Pound’s stylist also eludes the demands of the perverse economy whose workings I have briefly described. His sheltered existence, therefore, while it may not provide an adequate model to the ambitious writer, nonetheless proves the pertinence of Pound’s epigraph within the poem’s own economy: Pound thus makes sure that the voice that calls from the initial quote does not remain unanswered.
10If section I is meant as an epitaph of the late Mauberley, it is notably devoid of pathos. Indeed it is much more the pathology of an era which Pound seems eager to scrutinize, and in this respect, it comes as no surprise if the conclusion of this first section is spoken in the tone of a medical examiner, in lines where the enjambment creates a striking contrast between analytical distance and somewhat outdated poetic diction: “the case presents / No adjunct to the Muses’ diadem.” (19-20). This investigative stance, which may be interpreted as a variation upon the theme of detachment, finds its most spectacular echo in the section entitled “Siena Mi Fe ; Disfecemi Maremma.” This chiasmatic title, borrowed from Dante’s Purgatory, is directly relevant to the rest of the section, which revolves in particular around the theme of decomposition. Indeed, being the “last scion of the / Senatorial families of Strasbourg” (122-3), Monsieur Verog does not only embody the possible end of a lineage, as programmed by the title of the section. By the very meaning which the word “scion” carries in other contexts, that of “a slip for grafting, a graft” (OED), he also raises the issue of the longevity of grafts of a more textual nature, such as quotes, for instance. Additionally, being seen “among the pickled foetuses and bottled bones” (120), “out of step with the decade” like Mauberley “out of key with his time” (1), like him addicted to “reveries” (25 & 139), he has much in common with Mauberley’s own attempts at resuscitating “the dead art/ of poetry,” and more generally, with the Poundian speaker whose recurrent use of quotation marks has already been shown to hint at an ossification process that predisposes certain linguistic fragments to end among Monsieur Verog’s “bottled bones.”
11As the chiasmus of the title announces, being a figure of reversibility, Monsieur Verog is both the poet and his other. The “pickled foetuses” he preserves are reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s “still-born Rubayat” (110), promised to literary fame despite its initial poor reception. As a “detached” scion (ll. 122 & 137), Verog is also a metaphor of textual “tissue preserved” in Pound’s own use of fragments, in his rewriting of Edmund Waller’s “Song” at the end of the sequence, and in his cultivation of bilingual rhymes, lines 9-11 (Troíe/ leeway) and 13-15 (Flaubert/ Circe’s hair). In Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, however, Pound is not simply like Verog “engaged in perfecting the catalogue” of western culture’s “broken statues.” Where in line 130 of this section, tissue is only “preserved”, the poet goes beyond performing the “autopsy” of a dead culture or wallowing in nostalgia: he is also eager to meet the demands placed on the artist by his own time. Thus while in section II we read: “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace,” Pound playfully satisfies this request in lines 133-134, where an “Image” is indeed produced, Selwyn by his first name: “Image impartially imbued / With raptures for Bacchus, Terpsichore and the Church.” Juxtaposing Verog’s pickled foetuses and Brennbaum’s “infant’s face” (141), Pound’s poem thus provides the space where dead tissue, textual or otherwise, comes back to life in that constant cycle of fragmentation and recomposition inscribed in the section’s title.
12Contrariwise, as the “pickled foetuses and bottled bones” of line 120 only survive in formaldehyde, Pound suggests, so the memory of a race is only readable when the appropriate light falls on human features. Hence in the section entitled “Brennbaum” we are told that “the heavy memories of Horeb, Sinai and the forty years,/ Showed only when the daylight fell/ Level across the face/ Of Brennbaum the impeccable.” Being only visible in the twilight, racial memory proves much more vulnerable to the passage of time than the aforementioned “preserved tissue.” This, according to Pound, is even more true of that most transitory form of preservation which is social conservatism, the object of section XI. Written in brace rhymes perhaps intended to mirror the love embrace euphemized in the lines, “Conservatrix of Milesien / Habits of mind and feeling,” this short section essentially mocks family traditions by reducing them to a set of erotic recipes or instincts that rarely outlast two generations, thus exhibiting their failure as bulwarks against the gradual collapse of values.
13In section III of the sequence we hear the poet deplore how after the demise of Dionysus, “Faun’s flesh is not to us” (49). Yet in “Yeux Glauques,” where Pound celebrates the perennial work of those precursors of modernity that were Ruskin, Swinburne, Rossetti and Burne-Jones, the same faun is resurrected in the poet’s description of Burne-Jones’s model, Elizabeth Siddal: “Foetid Buchanan lifted up his voice / When that faun’s head of hers/ Became a pastime for/ Painters and adulterers” (100-103). Further on in the same section we read again that “the thin, clear gaze, the same/ Still darts out faun-like from the half-ruined face” (112-113). Following the pendulum motion programmed by the quote from Dante’s Purgatory, Pound’s poetic sequence thus seems to alternately bury and resurrect cultural landmarks and offers an alternative to the shortcomings of those other methods of preservation previously hinted at. It is quite significant in this respect that while in the dirge of section IV, Pound mourns the loss of those who “walked eye-deep in hell” (73) and in section V once again synecdochically refers to them as “quick eyes gone under earth’s lid” (92), these seem to resurface in the title “Yeux Glauques” and in the Burne-Jones cartons of Elizabeth Siddal which, Pound declares, “have preserved her eyes” (105). While “the obscure reveries / Of the inward gaze” (25-6) did not meet the demands of modernity, the same gaze is thus externalized and revived in Burne-Jones’s paintings as it is, further down in the sequence, in “the sky-like limpid eyes” (140) of Brennbaum. This flickering presence of the gaze throughout Hugh Selwyn Mauberley thus mirrors the comings and goings of the various voices that echo throughout the poetic sequence.
14“O bright Apollo […] What god, man, or hero/ Shall I place a tin wreath upon!” Pound asked in the poem’s third section. If only such tin wreaths are currently available, what choice is left to a poet of Pound’s caliber other than to identify with the God of poets himself? This, I would suggest, is the scenario we witness in the first stanza of section XII: “Daphne with her things in hark/ Stretches toward me her leafy hands, —/ Subjectively. In the stuffed-satin drawing -room/ I await The Lady Valentine’s commands.” Here, while Daphne, turned into a laurel tree, seems about to crown the speaker, he himself is implicitly assimilated to the God Apollo who pursued her. By virtue of this quote from an English translation of Théophile Gautier, Pound thus playfully crowns himself god of poets, and by this “subjective” reappropriation of the ancient myth similar to Eliot’s retelling of the rape of Philomel in The Waste Land, he grafts it into a specifically modern context. Likewise, by portraying himself awaiting “The Lady Valentine’s commands,” he also reintroduces the paradigm of courtly love within the context of ordinary polite intercourse.
15Wishing, as does the voice of the Envoi, to preserve roses in amber (“I would bid them live/ As roses might, in magic amber laid”), or capturing a gaze for posterity like Burne Jones, are both ways of challenging Heraclitean universal flow. Another one is suggested by the classical practice of imitation exemplified in the Envoi. Clearly, compared to the style of the preceding sections the archaic diction of the piece betrays a degree of self-irony on Pound’s behalf, as may be verified by examining such earlier volumes as his 1909 collection Personae, for instance. Yet it is worth noticing that in his pastiche of Waller’s song, Pound intentionally chooses a subtext which itself is but the umpteenth rewriting of the motif of the poem surviving the lady it sings, a topos made familiar to us by Ronsard’s “Quand vous serez bien vieille” or Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” By grafting his own voice onto Waller’s, Pound’s speaker inscribes himself in a poetic lineage that stretches beyond the 17th century poet: against the general collapse of cultural values sketched in section III, he thereby advances an alternative to the supplanting of the voice of tradition that the age seems to encourage.
16One central feature in Pound’s diatribe against the late 19th and early 20th century, is a theme that resurfaces later on in the Cantos: the triumph of market economy that creates or annuls the value of cultural artifacts, and the related evil of “usury age-old and age-thick” (78). While usury condemns its victims to the payment of arrears, one practical response is suggested to the young writer by Mr Nixon who advocates obtaining “advance on royalties” (154). Pound, however, prefers loans of a slightly different nature. To begin with, his speaker adopts a borrowed identity that cannot be pinned down to a pure replica of Pound himself, yet shares most of his literary preoccupations. As for the borrowed identity of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, it too partly vanishes behind his own “contacts” who, in their various forms of conservatism, appear as so many diffractions of Mauberley himself. Borrowed personae are thus superposed and end up mirroring Pound’s handling of literary motifs in his Envoi. Furthermore, the innumerable textual borrowings scattered throughout the sequence may be read as a way to lend the intertext a new space by the technique of grafting. That textual profit may indeed accrue to the writer from one initial placement (to be understood both as investment and location), may be inferred, for instance, from the expansion of the matrix “vocat aestus” into the three stanzas of section X.
17By inserting extracts from previous texts in his poetic sequence, Pound not only anticipates The Waste Land’s famous “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” he also acknowledges his symbolic debt toward literary tradition. Additionally he preserves old cultural currencies from being turned into worthless counter. While the Great War witnessed “wastage as never before” (80) and the addressee of the Envoi “sheds […] treasure in the air” (237-8), so that usury and hoarding prove to be little more than the flip side of general dilapidation, Pound chooses to favor massive intertextual expenditure over hoarding, to maintain the circulation of symbolic commodities, and to locate his own poem within the circuit of textual exchanges, which may explain why he ends the sequence with an Envoi whose very form, albeit somewhat archaic, inscribes Hugh Selwyn Mauberley in a potentially infinite lineage of other readers and writers. This may also help us understand why, based on the principle that as money can be converted and transferred from one country to another, so cultural currencies may also be translated, Pound repeatedly draws our attention to the act of translation, notably by referring to Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubayat as one of the 19th century’s lasting literary accomplishments, and also by quoting the English version of Gautier’s rewriting of the myth of Daphne.
18Hugh Selwyn Mauberley might thus be read as an alternative treatise of poetic economy where the poem exists as a transitional textual space, a locus of translation as a potentially unending process of transferring poems from one period to the next. No longer a corpus of dead texts or “battered books,” tradition thereby becomes an on-going movement. The form of circulation which is advocated here presents a way out of the end of history where “tawdry cheapness” prevails, inscribing instead the poem within what Gadamer calls that “horizon which determines [human life] as provenance and transmission” (Gadamer 145). Neither the “unpaid” stylist of section X nor the mercantile persona of Mr Nixon, “E.P.” constitutes a compromise solution between the anatomist of an era and the elegiac poet of its twilight. Hence the ambivalence characteristic of the speaker’s overall stance, both weighing the death of “the best” (89) against “two gross of broken statues” (94), yet sprinkling his own poem with textual fragments, both deploring that “to kalon” is decreed on the market-place, yet concluding his Envoy with an assertion of the perennity of beauty. A split subject oscillating between voices and social positions, Pound’s speaker is caught between approval and disapproval, Mr Nixon’s “there’s nothing in it” and Lady Valentine’s “well-gowned approbation/ of literary effort” (201-2); he acknowledges his poem both as a sepulchre and as a preserver of beauty. In this respect, the rhetorical figure of correctio might be seen as the poem’s most emblematic stylistic device: “Wrong from the start— / No, hardly” (4-5); “‘Conservatrix of Milésien’ […] No, ‘Milésian’ is an exaggeration.” (184-8)
19As befits the occasion, I would like to conclude this presentation with a few quotes, from Hans Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method: “What fills our historical consciousness,” Gadamer writes, “is always a multitude of voices where the echo of the past resonates. It is only present in the multiplicity of such voices: this is what constitutes the essence of the tradition of which we are already part and in which we want to take part.” (123) As we have seen, it is precisely this historical consciousness as resonating with multitudinous voices of the past which is displayed in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, whose numerous references to literary classics partakes of the historical act of preservation that defines the role of the classic in the eye of modernity. Here is Gadamer again:
20If ‘classic’ is a truly historical category, it is precisely because it is more than a concept designating an era, more than a historiographic concept of style, without however having the ambition to represent supra-historical value. It does not designate a quality that may be applied to determined historical phenomena, but a specific modality of historical being itself, the historical act of preservation which, by dint of constantly renewed confirmation, maintains an element of truth in being. (126)
21As Gadamer points out and as Pound’s ambiguities manifest, this act of preservation does not exclude keen awareness of the distance and of the breakdown of classical models, since “it is in the awareness of decadence and remoteness that the classical norm emerges.” (128) To this extent, the poem’s modernity looks beyond the closed horizon of post-World War I civilization in the very act that contributes to define it as a classic of its own time.
22I will leave the last word to Gadamer in a passage from which I borrowed a fragment earlier on:
Are there closed horizons? […] The closed horizon that circumscribes a civilization is an abstraction. The historical mobility of human Dasein is precisely characterized by the fact that it is not purely and simply connected to one perspective, that it is, therefore, never delimited by a truly closed horizon. The horizon is much rather something that we penetrate gradually and that moves with us. When we move, the horizon eludes us. Likewise the horizon of the past […] which is present in the form of transmitted tradition is also constantly in motion […]. If our historical consciousness relocates itself in historical horizons, this does not mean that it escapes into foreign worlds without connection with our own. On the contrary, all those worlds together make up the unique, broad, intimately mobile horizon which, beyond the borders of the present, embraces the historical depth of the historical awareness that we gain of ourselves. Actually, it is thus one single horizon that encloses everything that historical awareness contains. The past […] towards which our historical consciousness turns, contributes to form that mobile horizon on which all human life depends, that horizon that determines it as provenance and transmission. (145)