Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
by Ezra Pound
Part One, Section II Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;
- Now Pound's telling us about what "the age demanded" when Huey Mauberley felt so out of place. Mauberley, remember, wanted to revive some sense of classic beauty through poetry. But if the modern age demands "an image/ Of its accelerated grimace," it seems like they're not interested in beauty at all, only conflict (Jersey Shore, anyone?).
- For Pound, the modern world is a world where classic beauty has gone away and all that's left is a cheap sort of ugliness to everything. Better yet, this trend seems to get worse as each day goes by. So it makes sense that he would show us this ugliness through the image of a "grimace." The fact that the grimace is "accelerated" might mean that it's rapidly getting worse.
- In the last line of this quatrain, we read, "Not, at any rate, an Attic grace." Attic here is a word that means things that come from Athens, Greece, which is sort of the birthplace of great Western art (think marble statues). Don't forget that the poet Homer came from around there, too. So this quatrain basically seems to be telling us that Mauberley didn't fit in with the modern world because the modern world demanded cheap and ugly entertainment an accelerating rate. It definitely wasn't interested in the stuff that Huey (Pound) was, like classic Greek ideas of beauty.
Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Than the classics in paraphrase!
- So we know that the modern world is looking for some sort of cheap, ugly entertainment. What it doesn't want is "the obscure reveries/ Of the inward gaze." So what's that, then? Well, an inward gaze is basically when you look inside yourself and try to figure out things about yourself that may be hidden at first. Or in other words, the modern world doesn't care about anything that tries to make people think deeply about their lives.
- A poet like Pound (or Mauberley) might take it for granted that it's a poem's job to give us an "inward gaze" and to make us take a long hard look at ourselves and the world we live in. But the modern world thinks that this sort of thing is just pointless, a stupid dream or "obscure reverie." The modern person would always ask, "How is thinking about my life going to make me any money?"
- So what's this bit in line 27 about "Better Mendacities"? Well the dictionary says that "mendacity" basically means a lie or a false statement. So if the modern world is looking for "Better lies," then it's not looking for art that'll reveal the truth of the world. It's looking for art that'll take people far away from the world, to a land where they don't have to think about their boring jobs or their empty lives.
- With the last line, Pound says that the modern world wants better lies than "the classics in paraphrase!"
- The exclamation mark means that someone's pretty excited or pretty angry about this last line. But if Huey Mauberley wanted to bring back the classics, then why does the world want "better lies" than the classics in paraphrase? Well, the experienced Shmoopers out there will know that paraphrase means giving a short summary of something. So Pound might actually be making fun of modern readers here, saying that the only way you'd ever get them to read the classics is if you got them to read the paraphrased versions.
- But even these paraphrased classics aren't good enough for the empty, superficial modern reader, who demands a "better lie" than a paraphrased classic. The modern reader a story that's crafted skillfully enough to make him/her totally forget about life and escape into the story. Now some of us might think that's awesome, but Pound wasn't impressed. He wanted literature to heighten our sense of the world around us, not numb it. But that's exactly what he saw modern literature doing.
The 'age demanded' chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the 'sculpture' of rhyme.
- So it looks like the modern world is more interested in making things out of plaster instead of something called "alabaster."
- Well if you look up the two words, you'll find that plaster is basically a cheaply made substance that you can shape into whatever you want for low cost (think papier mâché). The only downside is that it isn't all that durable. Alabaster, on the other hand, is more durable and lets you work with more detail, but more time-consuming and more expensive (think classic Greek statue).
- The use of the word "mould" in line 29 is also really important, since using a mould is totally different than using your hands to sculpt something beautiful. With a mold, you just pour liquid plaster into a pre-made mold and make the same statue over and over again quickly and with little cost (here's one for a Smurf statue). With a rock like alabaster, you have to actually sculpt each statue you make as a totally unique thing, and it takes a lot of time and money.
- So guess which option is a better symbol for the modern age, according to Pound? You got it: quick and easy plaster, which you can use to make something "with no loss of time."
- We see on line 31 that the modern world wants a "prose kinema." Kinema here is basically another word for "cinema," as in the movie theater, which was getting more and more popular in the 1920s. The fact that Pound links the movie theater with prose (the opposite of poetry) lets us know that he links the dumbing-down effects of movies with people's desire to read trashy novels instead of classic poetry.
- And all of this trashy movie and novel stuff is what the modern audience looks for instead of the craft, or "sculpture" of rhyme. But how is rhyme like a sculpture? Well if you think about it, the poet painstakingly tries to chisel the right word out of every line, chipping away at this and that until the line is like a polished stone, totally finished. Now that might sound really beautiful, but as Pound tells us, we modern folks are probably more interested in movies or trashy novels.