Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
by Ezra Pound
Part One, Section XII Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
"Daphne with her thighs in bark
Stretches toward me her leafy hands,"—
Subjectively. In the stuffed-satin drawing-room
I await The Lady Valentine's commands,
- Okay, tell us Pound: who's Daphne? Is it that girl who wears purple in Scooby-Doo? Shucks, turns out that Daphne is (wait for it) a character from Greek myth. The god Apollo wanted to have sex with her, but she wasn't into it. So for some reason, she was turned into a tree to escape from him, which would explain the fact that her thighs are "in bark" in line 190.
- But Pound says this woman-turned-tree is stretching her leafy hands toward him. But wait a second. Is Pound saying that he has the power to make women reconnect with their ancient past? If so, that's a little creepy. Does he think that he can symbolically save Daphne from being a tree and make her a woman again?
- But before we can answer, Pound throws us into a modern woman's drawing-room, where he "await[s] The Lady Valentine's commands." All of a sudden, Pound has gone from having an ancient beauty reaching out for him to a modern woman giving him commands.
- It could be that Pound feels more romantically connected to women from Greek myth than he does modern women. And the reason seems to be that ancient women reach out for him, almost begging, while modern women give him commands. It could be that Pound saw female empowerment as one of the things that ruined the modern world.
Knowing my coat has never been
Of precisely the fashion
To stimulate, in her,
A durable passion;
- Now Pound's talking about how his coat has never been the type to make The Lady Valentine feel passion. But why does it matter what kind of coat he's wearing? Isn't it a little superficial of Lady Valentine to only get aroused by a fashionable coat?
- Frankly, yes it is, and that's Pound's point. He seems to suggest here that modern women are superficial, and that their passion is only connected to dumb things like coats and clothing, and not some deeper instinct.
Doubtful, somewhat, of the value
Of well-gowned approbation
Of literary effort,
But never of the Lady Valentine's vocation:
- Pound goes no to say that he's a little bit "Doubtful" about the value of "well-gowned approbation/ Of literary effort." So first, we need to look at "well-gowned." A gown is a fancy sort of dress, so well-gowned probably means fashionable in a sort of superficial way. Approbation means the same thing as "approval." So Pound is talking about the approval that comes with being well-dressed.
- But if this same sort of approval is what gets connected to "literary effort," then it might mean that Pound isn't sure if he can trust any positive feedback he gets about his writing. What if the same people who like his writing are the same people who only care about clothes? Then that means Pound's writing might be superficial too. These lines seem to suggest that Pound can never take being popular as a sign of whether his writing's any good.
- And for all the things he might be unsure about, the one thing Pound never doubts is "the Lady Valentine's vocation." Judging by the sexual atmosphere and the fact that this lady is giving Pound commands, she might be some sort of prostitute, or maybe a wealthy woman. For Pound, there's little difference if one wants money and the other wants fashionable clothes. It all boils down to shallowness.
Poetry, her border of ideas,
The edge, uncertain, but a means of blending
With other strata
Where the lower and higher have ending;
- So how can poetry be Lady Valentine's "border of ideas"? Well a border is kind of like a horizon, in the sense that it tells you the limits of a certain territory. So maybe poetry is on the very "edge" of what the Lady Valentine (a modern reader) can understand. There might be some uncertainty at this border. But for Pound, this uncertainty gives poetry "a means of blending/ With other strata/ Where the lower and higher have meaning."
- Basically, it seems like the idea of reading poetry is at the very edge of Lady Valentine's awareness. But for Pound, it still worth trying to get her to read poetry. If we challenge ourselves, maybe poetry can make us think about other parts of our lives, which will make the poetry "blend" with other levels (strata) of life. Maybe it can even get us to think differently about the "higher" and "lower" aspects of life, and where they end.
- All in all, this stanza seems to be Pound's way of saying that it's still worth our effort to try to get people to read poetry, since poetry still has the power to make us think differently about every aspect of our lives, even if we usually think superficially.
A hook to catch the Lady Jane's attention,
A modulation toward the theatre,
Also, in the case of revolution,
A possible friend and comforter.
- In the last stanza, Pound said a few hopeful things about poetry. But what are we to think about line 206, where he says that poetry can be "A hook to catch the Lady Jane's attention"? Is Pound now saying that poetry is a great way to pick up women?
- Maybe, but maybe he's also saying that poetry can be a way to make superficial people look inside themselves and find some depth.
- Next, Pound says that poetry can have a "modulation toward the theatre." Modulate here just means to adapt, so maybe Pound is admitting that poetry can be adapted to the theater if that's what it takes to make modern audiences appreciate it (after all, Shakespeare wrote his poetry for the theater).
- Finally, Pound says that poetry can be a "possible friend and comforter" in the "case of revolution." In this case, Pound seems to be talking about the political power of poetry. Lots of poets and poems have played a big part in revolutions over the centuries. But in this case, Pound talks about poetry giving us comfort when times look bleak. He really seems like he's let go of his anger at this point, and is genuinely trying to tell us about the wonderful things poetry can do for us.
Conduct, on the other hand, the soul
"Which the highest cultures have nourished"
To Fleet St. where
Dr. Johnson flourished;
- When Pound says "Conduct" here, he means it as the verb "go." He also uses the phrase "on the other hand," setting up a contrast with all the stuff he's just said. Now he's telling us to conduct or take our souls to a place called Fleet Street.
- In line 211, he also sneaks in a quotation from the 19th-century French poet, Jules Laforgue, which says that the human soul has always been nourished by the best or "highest" cultures. Pound sounds like he wants modern culture to be better so it can nourish the soul, too.
- So back to Fleet Street. Why do we want to take our souls there? Well for Pound, it has something to do with the fact that a guy named Dr. Johnson flourished at this place.
- In the history of the world, there have probably been a bajillion Dr. Johnsons. But the famous one that Pound's referring to here is Samuel Johnson, a famous English poet and essay writer from the 18th century. Fleet Street is a center of newspapers and journalism in London. So Pound seems to be telling us to go into the heart of modern news organizations. We don't know why yet, but we're about to find out.
Beside this thoroughfare
The sale of half-hose has
Long since superseded the cultivation
Of Pierian roses.
- So now we're in Fleet Street, where people seem to be selling stuff on the street, which should be a giveaway that Pound is about to say something negative, since he's not the biggest fan of consumerism. In any case, he says that the sale of "half-hose" has long been bigger (superseded) than the growing of Pierian roses. Pound is using symbolism here to show how low modern culture has sunk.
- In other words, Pound hasn't asked us to come to Fleet Street for inspiration, but to feel depressed. Half-hose is an older terms for socks, and Pierian roses are the flowers that come from Pieria, a place in Ancient Greek myth where the Muses (the creatures that inspired artists) were born. So basically, modern folks are more interested in getting a good deal on their socks than actually coming face to face with something beautiful (symbolized by the roses).