Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
by Ezra Pound
Part One, Mr. Nixon Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
In the cream gilded cabin of his steam yacht
Mr. Nixon advised me kindly, to advance with fewer
Dangers of delay. "Consider
"Carefully the reviewer.
- We can tell from the title that Pound is about to start talking about another figure in this section, named Mr. Nixon. The first line tells us that the speaker of the poem (Pound/Mauberley) was visiting Mr. Nixon in "the cream gilded cabin of his steam yacht." Now owning a yacht at any time would suggest that a guy has some money. But owning a steam-powered yacht in Pound's time meant that Mr. Nixon would have been super-rich. The "cream gilding" of the cabin also suggests that the whole boat is decked out with some pretty sweet swag.
- It was in this room, says Mauberley, that Mr. Nixon gave him some advice "to advance with fewer/ Dangers of delay." In other words, Mr. Nixon wanted to give the speaker of the poem some advice to keep him out of trouble. And his advice was: "Consider/ Carefully the reviewer." So in other words, whenever you write something, make sure that the person you're writing for is the person who's going to review your book.
- In other words, this Mr. Nixon guy is a total sellout. He doesn't care about what he writes, as long as it gets him good reviews.
- You can start to assume at this point that Mr. Nixon is going to be an example of the money-driven mentality that Pound thinks has ruined literature in the modern world
"I was poor as you are;
"When I began I got, of course,
"Advance royalties, fifty at first," said Mr. Nixon,
"Follow me, and take a column,
"Even if you have to work for free.
- When Mr. Nixon talks about how he used to be poor like Mauberley, it seems like he's going to tell him exactly what he needs to do to make money. Writing good literature is beside the point. Mr. Nixon says that when he started writing he made sure to get "Advance royalties," which was only fifty bucks or pounds at first. Advance royalties just means that a publisher pays you a certain amount of money for a novel before you even write it.
- So Mr. Nixon is trying to say that everyone has to start from somewhere, and that's what he did. He also tells Mauberley to "follow me, and take a column." In other words, he thinks Mauberley should do the same thing he did and write a column for the newspaper just to get his name out there, even if he has to work for free. So for you folks who don't like the idea of doing a paid internship before you can get a job, just realize that this isn't anything new. It's been going on since at least Pound's time.
"Butter reviewers. From fifty to three hundred
"I rose in eighteen months;
"The hardest nut I had to crack
"Was Dr. Dundas.
- "Butter reviewers" Mr. Nixon says to Mauberley. In other words, butter them up with some nice compliments. It doesn't really matter who they are. After all, says Nixon, that's how he rose "From fifty to three hundred […] in eighteen months." Who wanna make money? Then get your voice out there and brown nose all the important reviewers.
- Mr. Nixon seems to take special pride in cracking one really stubborn reviewer named "Dr. Dunas." So the main lesson here is, "Hey, wanna get rich? All you gotta do is work really hard at selling out."
"I never mentioned a man but with the view
"Of selling my own works.
"The tip's a good one, as for literature
"It gives no man a sinecure.
- It looks like Mr. Nixon is still bragging away about being a totally shallow writer. Now he's saying that he has never ever said anything about someone else without "the view/ Of selling my own works." In other words, he's happy to write columns for the paper and to praise other people's work, but only if praising these people will get more readers to buy his books.
- He goes on to say plainly that his tip to brownnose is a good one, since literature "gives no man a sinecure." "Sinecure" is a word the means a job that pays well and requires little effort.
- So by saying that literature never gives people an easy job, Mr. Nixon is basically bragging about how hard you have to constantly work at making reviewers like you and getting your books sold. The problem here is that there's no emphasis at all on the fact that books should be good. Mr. Nixon wouldn't care about whether his books were good, only that he sells a lot of them.
"And no one knows, at sight a masterpiece.
"And give up verse, my boy,
"There's nothing in it."
- Finally, Mr. Nixon wraps up his little speech by saying that "no one knows, at sight a masterpiece." Now this is the ultimate sort of cynicism from Pound's perspective. Mr. Nixon is basically saying here that all art is totally subjective, and that the only way people can tell if a book is good is if a bunch of people buy it. Nixon is basically saying that if Coldplay sat down at your local open mic and played Yellow, people might think it was pretty good, but no one would recognize it as great. That part can only come if record companies and producers spend hundreds of hours plugging the song, getting people to give it good reviews, and getting it played on the radio. It's a pretty depressing thought for anyone who dreams of making great art.
- Mr. Nixon ends by telling Mauberley not to bother writing verse, or poetry, since there's "nothing in it." Now he's not saying that there's no value in it. He's just saying that there's no money in it, which for him is the same as saying it's worthless. The fact that he says "my boy" means that he's being pretty condescending as he says it, so we can tell that the ultimate sellout, Mr. Nixon, is pretty proud of himself. He wrote what people wanted and made a lot of money, so he's kind of like the Simon Cowell of his time.
Likewise a friend of Bloughram's once advised me:
Don't kick against the pricks,
Accept opinion. The "Nineties" tried you game
And died, there's nothing in it.
- Before wrapping up the "Mr. Nixon" section of the poem, Pound throws in a little dotted break. You might have noticed that this poem has quite a few sudden stops and pauses, which are often marked by some sort of dotted line or ellipsis. You see a lot of this in T.S. Eliot's poetry, too, and it's fairly common in modernist poetry.
- But why all the sudden breaks, you might wonder? Well it seems like Ezra Pound has a tough time finding some sort of general logic to the way things work in the modern world. Modern experience seems a little bit chaotic to him, so all the sudden stops and starts might be his way of making a collage of all the things that bug him about modern life.
- Now then, Pound (or Mauberley) says that "a friend of Bloughram's once advised" him on something "Likewise" to what Mr. Nixon did. So we can tell that this so-called friend probably gave him some cynical advice like Nixon did. The name "Bloughram" is a reference to a character named Bishop Bloughram in a poem by Robert Browning (a 19th-century poet).
- In the Browning poem, Bishop Bloughram is a priest who tries to justify the fact that he has a totally shallow love for money.
- In any case, the friend who gave Mauberley advice told him not to "kick against the pricks." This expression comes from the Bible, and it basically translates into "Don't try to fight the times." It means that people should just "Accept [popular] opinion" and go along with whatever society is doing at any given time.
- Finally, this friend of Pound's/Mauberley's tells him that the "Nineties" already tried his game and died. Now today, we might think of the '90s as the 1990s; but Pound's talking about the 1890s. Basically, his friend is telling him that people have tried in the past to shake things up and to change the way people think. But they all failed, and it's best to just give people what they want and make money while you can.