Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
by Ezra Pound
Part One, Yeux Glaucques Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Gladstone was still respected,
When John Ruskin produced
'Kings' Treasuries'; Swinburne
And Rossetti still abused.
- Pound titles this section Yeux Glaucques, which as we all know means "sea-green eyes" in French (just kidding—we had to look it up). Apparently, sea-green eyes were a favorite image for poets in the 1800s to represent classical beauty. Oh yeah, and you also might've noticed that in this section, Pound has returned to his ABAB quatrains, which might mean that he's finished commenting on the chaos and insanity of World War I. But only maybe.
- Pound starts this section by saying that "Gladstone was still respected." As with all things modernist, you gotta take out an encyclopedia to understand this line. Pound is talking about William Ewart Gladstone, who was the prime minister of Britain for ten years, and was considered a perfect example of extra-starch British respectability (sort of like this guy).
- Pound says that William Gladstone was still respected when a guy named John Ruskin put out something called "Kings' Treasuries." Another look at our encyclopedia (or Google) tells us that Ruskin was a social critic who argued that the British were a terrible society full of people who hated literature, art, beauty, and human compassion. So basically, Pound's telling us that stuffy losers like Gladstone were still respected when smart critics like Ruskin were trying to reveal the truth about British culture. In other words, the public just didn't listen to good sense.
- This lack of good sense also seems to be reflected in the fact that while Ruskin was writing, people still criticized and abused the work of passionate poets like Algernon Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. We can pretty much assume, based on the rest of this section, that Pound thought these poets deserved better.
Foetid Buchanan lifted up his voice
When that faun's head of hers
Became a pastime for
Painters and adulterers
- Here we go again. Tell us, oh tell us, Ezra. Who is Buchanan? Well, our latest Google research tells us that Pound is probably referring to Robert Buchanan, a crusty dude who wrote a book in 1871 that attacked poets like Rossetti and Swinburne. For Pound, stodgy old fools like Buchanan are just "foetid," or fedid—meaning they give off an offensive odor. So yeah, Pound likes poets like Rossetti and Swinburne, and not cranks like Buchanan.
- Apparently, Buchanan "lifted up his voice" when some woman with a faun's head "became a pastime for/ Painters and adulterers." The woman Buchanan criticized in his book was named Elizabeth Siddal, who just happened to be the wife of (duh duh duhnnnnn!) Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
- It turns out that Dante liked to use his wife Elizabeth as a model for his paintings, and that many of these paintings were nude or partially nude portraits. People like Buchanan no doubt found this sort of think morally dirty, which is why Buchanan would've thought that Elizabeth Siddal's "faun's head" was just a sexual object for immoral people like "Painters and adulterers."
- Pound, on the other hand, begs to differ. Calling Buchanan smelly is like saying that the dude is a bit of an old fart, and that he's way too stuffy to understand what real passion is.
The Burne-Jones cartons
Have preserved her eyes;
Still, at the Tate, they teach
Cophetua to rhapsodize;
- Yup, you got a whole lot more references coming your way, folks. So let's keep truckin'. What are the Burne-Jones cartons?
- Well a quick search tells us that "cartons" is just a French word for cartoons. But we're not talking about Bugs Bunny. Pound is referring to the rough drawings a painter makes before he/she creates a painting or tapestry.
- In this case, Pound is also referring to the painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, who used Elizabeth Siddal as a model for a beggar maid in his painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (check it out here).
- So Pound is telling us that this painting is important because it has preserved the green color of Elizabeth's eyes for us modern folks to enjoy. But do you think modern folks appreciate any of that beauty? Not at all. Instead, the modern people "teach Cophetua to rhapsodize." We now know that Cophetua is the king in the painting with Elizabeth Siddal (the beggar maid).
- But there's a tone of dissatisfaction here. Pound doesn't like the fact that nothing else beautiful has happened since Rossetti, who painted nearly a hundred years earlier. That's why there might be some bitterness in the word "still" when he says "Still, at the Tate." The Tate is the London art gallery where this painting hangs, and Pound might be suggesting that it's high time they found something new to hang with it.
Thin like brook-water,
With a vacant gaze,
The English Rubaiyat was still-born
In those days.
- After celebrating the beauty of Elizabeth Siddal's eyes, Pound seems to take a step back. When he says "thin like brook-water,/ With a vacant gaze," we might not know what to think at first. But it seems like Pound has taken a slightly different look at Rossetti's painting. Or maybe he's talking about the eyes of the modern gallery-goers who look at the painting. Maybe they're the ones who have vacant eyes, which suggests no emotion or passion behind them.
- The next two lines whip another reference our way in the image of the "English Rubaiyat." The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was a translation of poems that a guy named Edward Fitzgerald published in 1859. But no one paid any attention to it until Dante Rossetti (who was already famous) started promoting it.
- So when Pound says the Rubaiyat was "still-born," he compares it to a fetus that has died before birth. When he finishes with "in those days," Pound suggests that the modern world's problem aren't just a 20th-century thing. They started way back in the 1800s, when critics wouldn't give a great book like the English Rubaiyat the time of day. It's important to know that the poems in this book were translated from a Persian writer who wrote over a thousand years earlier (1048-1131 C.E.), so for Pound, it's been a while since people were able to appreciate the classics of the distant past.
The thin, clear gaze, the same
Still darts out faun-like from the half-ruined face,
Questing and passive….
"Ah, poor Jenny's case"…
- Now, the idea of the "thin, clear gaze" seems to be a positive thing once again, instead of a vacant-eyed thing. Even though Pound's annoyed that the art gallery hasn't found newer examples of beauty, he still loves the King Cophetua painting and the clear eyes that Elizabeth Siddal has in it. These eyes, he says, still "dart out" from her face, which means that they're still life-like after almost 100 years of hanging on the wall.
- The fact that Elizabeth Siddal's face is "half-ruined," though, suggests that time might have taken a bit of a toll on the painting.
- But it might also refer to the fact that Siddal was posing as a beggar maid in the picture, or a person who's experienced financial "ruin." In this case, Pound just means that Siddal is playing her part really well.
- In the final line of this quatrain, Pound quotes from the poem "Jenny" by Rossetti, which is about a prostitute, and which that old fart Robert Buchanan attacked pretty viciously in his book. Here, it's not totally clear what Pound means by the ellipsis (…). But he seems to want to leave us with the idea that after all these years, Elizabeth Siddal's eyes still have life in them.
- Pound might be using these eyes to symbolize his hope that little examples of beauty can still make it into the modern world.
Bewildered that a world
Shows no surprise
At her last maquero's
- So why do we feel sorry for "poor Jenny"? Well Pound seems to think we should feel sorry for her because she's confused that the world "Shows no surprise/ At her last maquero's/ Adulteries." Maquero comes from the French word "maquereau," which means "pimp." So it looks like Jenny the prostitute has a pimp who commits adultery, meaning that Jenny and her pimp might be in a relationship. But while she's shocked at the betrayal, no one else seems to be. "What did you expect?" someone might ask Jenny. "You're a prostitute, and he's a pimp."