Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
by Ezra Pound
Part One, "Siena Mi Fe'; Disfecemi Maremma" Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
"Siena Mi Fe'; Disfecemi Maremma"
Among the pickled foetuses and bottled bones,
Engaged in perfecting the catalogue,
I found the last scion of the
Senatorial families of Strasbourg, Monsieur Verog.
- Okay, so we've got some more romance languages on the go here. This time, Ezra's writing to us in Italian, and the phrase translates as "Siena made me; Maremma unmade me." Now that translation probably doesn't make the line any more understandable, because it's also a literary reference (sigh) to Dante Alighieri's Purgatorio.
- The line is spoken by a woman named Pia de' Tolomei, who refers to her birth in Siena and her death in Maremma, where she was killed by her husband. Based on her role in Purgatorio, we can tell that Pia is supposed to be some sort of symbol for people who find redemption at the last moments of their life. So hey, maybe that means this section of "Mauberley" is going to be a bit cheerier…
…nope. Pound wipes away any thoughts of cheeriness with the opening line, "Among the pickled fetuses and bottled bones."
- Reading this, we might think we're in the storeroom for a high school biology lab, filled with all those lovely pickled pig fetuses and other unpleasant stuff.
- The next line talks about someone who's interested in "perfecting the catalog. So in other words, we're in some sort of room that dedicated to taking things that were once alive and cataloging all of them for the sake of knowledge.
- In this room, Pound (or Mauberley) says that he ran into "the last scion of the/ Senatorial families of Strasbourg, Monsieur Verog." Now let's try to break this thing down. The term "last scion" basically means the last remaining member of a family that was once rich or powerful.
- In this case, this last family member seems to be named Mr. Verog, and his family was filled with a bunch of senators (i.e., Senatorial families) from Strasbourg, which is the capital of the Alsace region in Eastern France. We don't know why this guy's in the poem yet, only that he likes collecting fetuses in jars.
For two hours he talked of Gallifet;
Of Dowson; of the Rhymers' Club;
Told me how Johnson (Lionel) died
By falling from a high stool in a pub…
- This Monsieur Verog guy sounds like he enjoys talking a lot, because the poem says that he talked about something called "Gallifet" for two hours. Gallifet is a reference to the Marquis de Gallifet, a French general who led a group of guys on horses into a crucial battle in a war between France and Germany. So maybe Monsieur Verog is a big fan of his French heritage.
- Next, Mr. Verog talks about Ernest Dowson, a man who was part of a poetry club called the "Rhymers' Club" that met together at a pub in London around 1890. Another guy in this same club was named Lionel Johnson, whom Verog also mentions in lines 124-125 as someone who died by falling off his stool in a pub. No word yet on what these guys have to do with the poem, but hopefully Pound will get to it.
But showed no trace of alcohol
At the autopsy, privately performed—
Tissue preserved—the pure mind
Arose toward Newman as the whiskey warmed.
- Now Mr. Verog wants to talk about that guy named Lionel Johnson showed "no trace of alcohol" in his body after falling off a bar stool and dying. It seems like Verog is trying to defend the guy's honor now that he's dead, but the fact that Johnson's autopsy was "privately performed," though, should make us a little suspicious.
- Now we're hearing about "the pure mind" rising toward someone named "Newman." We really wish that Ezra was talking about Newman from Seinfeld. But alas, he's talking about Cardinal John Henry Newman, who converted to Catholicism from Protestantism, just like Dowson and Johnson.
- So yeah, this Mr. Verog guy seems to like talking about people who had big spiritual ideas, but who sound like they were just a bunch of drunks. Pound might be using them as example of people who don't live up to their own ideals, but it's really not clear yet.
Downson found harlots cheaper than hotels;
Headlam for uplift; Image impartially imbued
With raptures for Bacchus, Terpischore and the Church.
So spoke the author of 'The Dorian Mood."
- Mr. Verog says that the Downson guy "found harlots cheaper than hotels." Harlots here means sexually promiscuous women, which means that, for all his religious ideas, Downson sounds like a guy who like his fair share of sex with prostitutes, since these women were "cheaper" than hotels.
- Another guy named Headlam (Reverend Stewart D. Headlam) seems to have found harlots "uplifting." The word Image in line 131 seems to refer to a poetic image, but the fact that it's capitalized after a semicolon means that it's a proper noun. So it turns out that Pound is referring to Selwyn Image, another poet from the 1800s who said some really religious things, but acted in a different way.
- Pound specifically writes that Selwyn Image had a taste for "raptures for Bacchus." Bacchus is actually another named for our old friend Dionysus, god of wine and sex. Image was also a fan of "Terpischore" and the church. Terpischore is the name of the Muse of dance, which means that Image was a fan of church, but also a fan of dancing, sex, and drinking. Or at least he was according to the guy who wrote "The Dorian Mood."
- "The Dorian Mood" is the name of a book published in 1896, which was written by a guy named Victor Plarr, the head librarian at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Plarr was obsessed with cataloging stuff, so it looks like Plarr is the inspiration for Pound's figure of Monsieur Verog.
M. Verog, out of step with the decade,
Detached from his contemporaries,
Neglected by the young,
Because of his reveries.
- In this quatrain, Pound seems to gain a sense of sympathy for Monsieur Verog. Just like Mauberley has felt out of place in his life, M. Verog is also "out of step with the decade" and "detached from his contemporaries." We might ask why he feels so detached, and Pound says that there's no room for M. Verog in modern times "Because of his reveries." A reverie is like a dream. So basically, M. Verog is out of place in the modern world because he's a dreamer, just like Pound and Mauberley.
- This sympathy for Verog actually changes our earlier reading of all the people Verog has talked about so far. Instead of thinking that Downson, Johnson, and Newman were hypocrites, we're supposed to celebrate them for being dreamers and for staying connected to their sexual passion. It's really easy to get Pound confused with his buddy T.S. Eliot sometimes. But when it comes to sex, the two were totally different. Pound wants to celebrate sex and passion, not scold us for it. If anything, he thinks the modern world has lost its connection to true passion, which belongs in the mind of romantics and dreamers.