Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
by Ezra Pound
Part One, Section I Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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—
- Well the first three words are straightforward enough. Who ever said this Pound guy was tough to read? Just kidding. It gets harder, but right off the bat, we realize that whomever the poem is talking about (probably Hugh Mauberley) was "out of key with his time" for three years. In other words, Hugh spent three years feeling like he wasn't totally in sync with the world around him. He was "out of tune" in the same way this hilarious piano is.
- So why did Huey feel so out-of-place? Well, mostly because he "strove to resuscitate the dead art/ Of poetry." This line isn't all that tough to figure out, since most of us know that poetry isn't really read as widely as it was back in the day. Even in Pound's time, poetry didn't have the same status it once had. So Huey Mauberley thought he could bring it back and make it relevant again. We can probably already tell that the effort didn't work out all that well.
- The poem tells us that Huey wanted to maintain "'the sublime'/ In the old sense." And he's not talking about a bunch of reggae rockers who used to play back in the '90s. He's actually talking about a feeling of the sublime, which means a feeling of being totally overwhelmed by the beauty of a work of art. Pound associates this kind of feeling with a bygone time ("in the old") sense. And the phrase "Wrong from the start" tells us that Huey might have been a little naïve thinking that he could make poetry cool again.
- It's also interesting to notice in this first stanza that Pound is using a fairly classic quatrain rhyme scheme of ABAB. As far as poetic form goes, it doesn't get much plainer than that. But the rhyme scheme might also be his way of giving a shout-out to classic poetry, which Hugh wishes he could bring back to the modern world.
- That said, the meter inside each of the lines doesn't really go smoothly at all. The first line even sounds like it's made completely out of stressed syllables, which gives it a smash-smash-smash quality: ("For three years, out of key…"). This aspect could reflect Pound's frustration and aggression, even as he tries to mimic a classic quatrain.
No, hardly but, seeing he had been born
In a half savage country, out of date;
Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn;
Capaneus; trout for factitious bait;
- When Pound writes, "No, hardly but," he's just finishing his thought from line 4, and saying that Huey didn't stand much of a chance of rejuvenating the art of poetry. After all, the poor guy "had been born/ In a half savage country." But what barbaric, non-poetic country is Pound talking about here? He's actually talking about the United States, which is where Pound was born, and which Pound fled from to move to Europe when he had finished university (remember; we're talking about Pound and Mauberley as the same dude here). As you might guess from these lines, Pound didn't think that classical art or "culture" could find much of a place in the United States, which he saw more as a country of filthy cowboys.
- We learn at the end of line 6 that poor Huey was "out of date" for his time. He was a guy who wanted poetry to be important even though he was a few centuries too late. But for three years he kept trying to "wring lilies from the acorn." So how could you get something beautiful like lilies from a hard little acorn? The answer is that you can't, and that's why it was so naïve for Mauberley to think he could get something beautiful (great art) from something so ugly (America).
- In line 8, Pound compares Huey to Capaneus, who was a warrior in Greek mythology. Old Capaneus and six of his warrior buddies decided that it'd be cool to attack the city of Thebes to show how strong they were. The god Zeus though Capaneus was a little too cocky though, and killed him with a lightning bolt. So this comparison might show Pound admitting that maybe Hugh (and maybe Pound) was a little cocky for thinking he could change the world.
- The final phrase of this second stanza is a bit of a noodle-scratcher. When Pound says "trout for factitious bait," he seems to be talking about fish swimming after bait. This might be like Pound or Hugh going after a lofty goal. But the word "factitious" means artificial or unnatural, which might even mean that Huey's goal of changing the world through poetry was never realistic to being with. It was just a fantasy that wasn't worth pursuing, like artificial bait.
- Let's not forget that Pound's telling this poem in hindsight, and is suggesting to us that Huey has already failed.
Idmen gar toi panth, os eni Troie
Caught in the unstopped ear;
Giving the rocks small lee-way
The chopped seas held him, therefore, that year.
- Does line 9 look a little weird to you? Well if not, then you speak perfect Ancient Greek. Seriously though, the line translates as "For we know all things suffered in Troy," and it's the first line of the Sirens' song in Homer's Odyssey. The Sirens, you see, were these beautiful women who hung out on some rocks singing a really pretty tune that tricked sailors into sailing straight into the rocks.
- In the Odyssey, though, Odysseus was able to resist the Sirens because he got his shipmates to tie him to the mast of the ship while everyone else poured candlewax into their ears to stop their hearing. But here, it looks like Pound's making a comparison between Odysseus and Mauberley. He says that Mauberley had an "unstopped ear," which means there was probably something that tempted him really badly during the three years Pound is talking about. It had to be something that would lead him off-course, away from his goal of reviving poetry in the modern age.
- Line 10 suggests that Mauberley almost gave into his temptation, since it says that he almost sailed into the Sirens' rocks (gave them "small lee-way"). So for "that year," Pound writes, the "chopped seas" held onto him. We can tell from the chopped seas that Hugh was involved in some sort of conflict, since that's what we usually associate with rough sailing weather.
- So altogether, it seems that Hugh spent a year sort of flirting with his temptation. The fact that this temptation is connected to the figure of the beautiful Sirens might suggest that Hugh got distracted from his poetic quest by sex and women—which makes sense, really. He wouldn't be the first.
His true Penelope was Flaubert,
He fished by obstinate isles;
Observed the elegance of Circe's hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.
- Anyone know who Penelope is? She was the wife of Odysseus, the main character of Homer's Odyssey. How about Flaubert? He was a French novelist Gustave Flaubert, who wrote around 1860 and is considered one of the greatest novelists ever. So it looks like while Hugh was wandering his way through the world, his great love was the novelist Flaubert.
- Despite his dedication to Flaubert, though, Hugh "fished by obstinate isles." The word obstinate here means stubborn, so the line might mean that Hugh symbolically fished in places that didn't give him very much to live on. Whatever he was looking for in life, he only got small bits of it, if anything at all. It's still pretty vague what Pound's getting at with all of this Homer imagery.
- The next line continues with the Homer stuff and says that Hugh "Observed the elegance of Circe's hair." Now Circe was a sort of sorceress-temptress who delayed the hero Odysseus from getting home to his wife, Penelope. So this line might mean that rather than focusing on the important things, Hugh let himself get distracted by superficial things (and maybe sexual things) while he should've been trying to write good poetry.
- The final line suggests that instead of looking at girls and feeling horny all the time, Hugh should have paid more attention to "the mottoes on sun-dials." Now this is a super-obscure reference to the craft of sun-dial making. To refresh your memory, a sun-dial is a sort of clock that tells time based on the position of the sun in the sky.
- Now traditionally, the folks who made sundials would put some sort of motto or poetic statement on them that commented on the meaning of life and all that deep stuff. These mottoes could often be very beautiful pieces of short poetry that made people reflect on their own mortality or the passing of time. But instead of paying attention to these deep, beautiful things, Hugh Mauberley spent his time chasing girls.
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.
- Line 17 tells us that Hugh lived his life without being affected by "the march of events." The fact that Pound puts the phrase "march of events" in quotation marks suggests that he's quoting someone here. Different people have used the phrase at different times, but judging by the fact that Pound was writing in 1920, he was probably quoting American President William McKinley in The Treaty of Paris, which was signed in 1898.
- The Treaty of Paris came at the end of the Spanish-American War and gave the states control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and parts of the West Indies. In the treaty, President McKinley wrote that "the march of events rules and overrules human action," basically saying that history was governed by fate. Pound was fifteen years old when McKinley wrote this, and he might have had a strong reaction against it as an ambitious young man who didn't want fate to decide anything for him.
- So what we know is that Hugh Mauberley didn't really pay attention to larger historical developments (the march of events).
- So instead of keeping up with the times, he passed out of people's memory when he was only "thirty years old" (or in French: l'an trentiesme/ De son eage).
- So Pound tells us that Mauberley's life presented "no adjunct" to the "Muses' diadem." Clear enough? As with all things Pound, no, that's not clear at all. So let's break it down. The muses were mythical figures who inspired people to write great poetry, and their "diadem" was the crown each of them wore. So to say that Mauberley's life presented no "adjunct" to these Muses and their crowns is Pound's way of saying that Mauberley's life added nothing important to human culture or history.
- So in other words, Mauberley might have talked a big game about making poetry beautiful again. But it wasn't like this guy wrote or said anything Earth-shattering himself.
- This is kind of funny, since Pound would go on to transform the face of 20th-century literature. But hey, maybe the guy was a little insecure about how much change he'd actually be able to bring about.