Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
by Ezra Pound
Part One, Section III Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The tea-rose tea-gown, etc.
Supplants the mousseline of Cos,
The pianola 'replaces'
- In this quatrain, we hear about how the "tea-rose tea-gown, etc." supplants or replaces the "mousseline of Cos." You can probably already tell from Pound's tone that this is going to be an example of something trashy replacing something beautiful from the past, and you're right. "Cos" is a Greek island that was famous in Roman times for the beautiful muslin material it created (here's a look at some muslin). But in the modern world, this beautiful fabric gets symbolically replaced by some sort of flashy, cloth-made tea-gown (maybe like this).
- The next two lines pretty much rehash this same idea about modern convenience replacing classic beauty, as the "pianola" replaces "Sappho's barbitos." The pianola is what people might also call a "player piano," which means a piano that can play a song by itself (check it out here). As you might imagine, this totally takes the skill out of piano playing, just like using a mold for statues takes the skill out of modern sculpture. Worse yet, the thing the pianola is replacing is the poetry or "barbitos" of Sappho, a 6th-century B.C.E. poet whom Pound seems to think is a model of classic poetic beauty.
- Anyone starting to see the contrast between classic beauty and modern ugliness yet? Because old Poundy is laying it on pretty thick.
Christ follows Dionysus,
Phallic and ambrosial
Made way for macerations;
Caliban casts out Ariel.
- Lots of us probably know who Christ is, but what about Dionysus? He was the Greek god of wine and passion. Now Christ liked his wine, too, but only when it'd been turned into his own blood. So yeah, there's a bit of a difference between a god that parties and a god who dies on the cross. But while you might think that Pound would favor Christ over Dionysus, it's actually the other way around. Pound is upset that Christ's model of self-sacrifice has overtaken Dionysus' model of passion.
- In this world, people don't have time anymore for true passion, which for Dionysus is connected to the penis (that's what "phallic" means) and strong beverages ("ambrosia" is another name for the wine of the gods). But in the modern world, says Pound, true passion has "Made way for macerations." Maceration basically means to waste away and become thin, usually from hunger. And yeah, it turns out he's not a huge fan.
- But before we move on, we need to bring up an interesting point. Up until now, it's seemed like Pound's biggest problem is the modern world's lack of discipline and its failure to appreciate classic beauty. But now, he seems to say that the problem with the modern world is that it doesn't understand true passion anymore.
- In this situation, he also makes the comparison of Caliban casting out Ariel. These two characters are from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Caliban is a sort of ugly monster and Ariel is a beautiful water-fairy. So yeah, Pound's just laying down another contrast to illustrate the ugliness of the modern world casting out the beauty of classic art.
Lines 41- 44
All things are a flowing,
Sage Heracleitus says;
But a tawdry cheapness
Shall outlast our days.
- Anyone know who Heracleitus was? Well he was this Greek philosopher from back in the day (and by back in the day, we mean like 2500 years ago) who's really famous for saying that everything in the world is constantly changing. He symbolized this idea with the phrase, "You can't step into the same river twice," which is what Pound seems to be alluding to with "All things are a flowing."
- In saying this, Heraclitus meant that since the water in a river is always flowing, you can never step into the exact same river you stepped into in the past. For Heraclitus, this is what life is like. Every moment is always slipping away from us, and we can't hold onto it.
- For Pound, though, there's no comfort to be had in the idea that everything is flowing. Even though the world is full of change, Pound pessimistically says that the "tawdry cheapness" of modern life "Shall outlast our days" or continue on after we're dead.
- This should make us sad, because even though Pound hates the ugliness of modern life, he's also convinced that it's too strong a force to stop. And in hindsight, he was probably right. After all, Dan Brown sells a lot more books today than Homer does.
Lines 45- 48
Even the Christian beauty
We see Toh Kalon
Decreed in the market place.
- You might remember that a few lines ago, Pound said he wasn't all that happy about the symbol of Christ taking over for the passion of Dionysus. But now, he says that even whatever beauty the Christian religion once had "Defects" in the modern world. Defect here basically means changing teams in the middle of a battle. So here, Pound seems to admit that Christianity has some beauty in it, but it has "defected" in the modern world. Now we're not totally sure yet what "team" it has changed sides for, but Pound will tell us soon.
- But what the heck does Pound mean by saying "after Samothrace"? Well to get this, you have to know that Samothrace is a Greek island that's associated with the god Dionysus and the cults that celebrated him. So this phrase basically mirrors the one in line 37, where Pound says "Christ follows Dionysus." He's saying here that even though Christ has come after Dionysus in history (or after Samothrace), even Christian beauty has sold out to the modern world.
- In the modern world, says Pound, we still see "Toh kalon/ decreed in the market place." Toh Kalon is Ancient Greek for "beauty," so Pound seems to say that modern folks still talk about beauty. The problem, though, is that people talk about beauty "in the market place." So what's the problem with that, you might ask? Well, Pound seems to imply here that people's idea of beauty in the modern world is determined by market forces.
- In other words, he's talking about the rise of advertising and consumer culture in the 20th century. In consumer culture, a piece of art can't have any sort of essential beauty anymore. It can only have market value, which depends entirely on how much money people are willing to spend on it. At this point in the poem, Pound doesn't sound like the biggest fan of consumer culture, or the idea that the value of something is determined by money instead of beauty.
Faun's flesh is not to us,
Nor the saint's vision.
We have the press for wafer;
Franchise for circumcision.
- Whatever "faun's flesh" is, Pound's saying it doesn't have much to do with us modern folk. You shouldn't be surprised by this point that Pound is whipping out another classical reference here. Basically, a faun is a mythical creature that's sort of like a human with goat's legs and a goat's horns. And here's the kicker: they're commonly associated with the god Dionysus and with wine. So once again, it looks like Pound is bringing up this image of classical passion, only to say that we modern folks have no connection to it.
- On top of this image of Dionysian passion, Pound also brings in a Christian image in line 50 and says modern folks don't have anything to do with "the saint's vision" either. So, in other words, we've traded away the passion of classic Greece for Christian spirituality. But we don't even have the saint-like "vision" or clearness of mind that Christianity is supposed to give us.
- So now that Pound has spent a dozen or so lines telling us how lame we are, it's time for us to ask: "Why don't we have Greek passion or Christian wisdom?" And for an answer, Pound talks about how we create a mold or "press" to make communion "wafers" for Catholic church services. He follows this image by saying that circumcision (a sacred ritual for Jewish people) is now performed by franchises.
- So what's so wrong with a press for communion wafers or a franchise for circumcision? Well Pound is suggesting that a communion wafer is supposed to be a sacred object—literally, Catholics believe that it's the body of Christ. So it's hard to think of these wafers as the body of Christ when you've got someone in a back room churning them out on a press.
- Similarly, it's hard to think about circumcision as a sacred rite of passage for Jewish people when you think about Jewish companies starting up and giving you a 10% discount on your third child's circumcision. Like he says earlier, Pound is basically saying that the money-driven world of consumer culture robs things of their sacredness and their beauty, and this is his biggest problem with the modern world.
All men, in law, are equals.
Free of Peisistratus,
We choose a knave or an eunuch
To rule over us.
- In line 53, Pound seems to be alluding to all our fancy modern ideas about people being totally equal. Line 52 mentions an ancient Greek tyrant named Peisistratus only to say that modern people are "free" from this kind of oppression. Now that might make us feel pretty good, because we're all like, "Yeah, our modern world might be bad in some ways; but at least we're free." Well Pound's not finished yet. Because what do we do with all of our awesome freedom? According to Pound we just "choose a knave or a eunuch/ To rule over us."
- Here, it definitely seems like Pound isn't all that impressed with the types of people who get elected in democratic elections.
- We feel all good about democracy, but for Pound, we always elect idiots (knaves) or men who literally and symbolically have no testicles (eunuchs) as our leaders. So yeah, don't bother making the whole "Democracy is great" argument against Pound, because he's not buying it.
O bright Apollo,
Tin andra, Tin eroa, Tina theon
What god, man, or hero
Shall I place a tin wreath upon!
- Pound closes section III of Part One of Mauberley with what looks like a direct call to Apollo, god of the sun and truth (which explains why he calls Apollo "bright"). The next line is actually written in ancient Greek again, and it translates as "What man, what hero, what god." Pound actually cuts us some slack on this one and gives this same translation himself in line 59.
- But what's all this about a tin wreath in line 60? Pound wants to put a tin wreath on someone or something, but he's not sure what. Well the fact that the wreath is made of tin make it a little less impressive than gold. So maybe Pound's saying that anything we celebrate in the modern world isn't quite as glorious as the "golden" things of the old days.
- But also, he seems to actually be asking what in the modern world is worth celebrating. The question could totally be rhetorical, and Pound might actually mean that there isn't anything left celebrating. But the question could also be an actual question, and he could be genuinely asking what's left in the world to celebrate. It's unclear at this point.