Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
by Ezra Pound
Part Two, "The Age Demanded" Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
For this agility chance found
Him of all men, unfit
As the red-beaked steeds of
The Cytheraean for a chain bit.
- The title here suggests that Pound is going to come back to the topic of what the modern age demands from writers. And based on what Pound's said so far, we can probably assume that the age isn't going to demand anything worthwhile.
- We've heard about how Mauberley was able to change and wrap his head around what was actually beautiful in life. But unfortunately all of his changing or his "agility" seemed to make him "unfit" to bring beauty into the world, the way a person would pull a chariot. You're probably wondering where we got chariot out of all this, so here is goes: the "red-beaked steeds" in line 299 refer to the mythical Greek doves that pulled the chariot belonging to the goddess Aphrodite (also known as the Cytheraean).
- So yeah, those little white birds are able to pull the chariot for the beautiful goddess Aphrodite. But Mauberley still doesn't quite make the cut. You can imagine how frustrating it would be to finally find true beauty in your life, only to realize that you can't do anything to pull it into the modern world.
The glow of porcelain
Brought no reforming sense
To his perception
Of the social inconsequence.
- So now we're hearing about porcelain, and how it wasn't able to bring Mauberley some sort of reforming sense. What Pound means by porcelain is that Mauberley found out that true beauty was something hard, but also delicate (kind of like porcelain).
- But all of this knowledge didn't seem to give him any "reforming sense" of the "social inconsequence" of true beauty. But what could this mean? What does it mean that his knowledge of beauty didn't change his ideas about beauty's social inconsequence?
- Well, basically Pound is saying here that seeing beauty is one thing and bringing it into the modern world is another. Mauberley was able to see beauty for what it was, but he continued to think that beauty had no meaning for people in the modern world.
- He knew beauty, in other words, but was cynical about whether anyone else would ever care. That means he got stuck in the idea that beauty had no consequence or significance for modern society.
Thus, if her colour
Came against his gaze,
Tempered as if
It were through a perfect glaze
He made no immediate application
Of this to relation of the state
To the individual, the mouth was more temperate
Because this beauty had been.
- In lines 305-308, you can see that if the color of beauty ever even came into Mauberley's vision, he "made no immediate application," or wasn't able to connect this beauty to the relationship between modern nations (states) and individuals. So now it seems like Pound is caught up in talking about how Mauberley failed to do good by beauty once he'd realized what it was.
- What Pound is getting at here is something he'd spend more time talking about in his later life. But he's basically saying that modern countries should be treated as if they were works of art, with every individual contributing to make the country beautiful. This belief would eventually lead Pound to endorse fascism in Italy. But for the time being, he's basically saying that even though Mauberley was able to find beauty in everyday life, he failed to think about how human society could be made more beautiful. And that's something Pound wants the modern world to start thinking about.
The coral isle, the lion-coloured sand
Burst in upon the porcelain revery:
Of his imagery.
- Now we've got a break in the action, and Pound seems to be talking about Mauberley having some sort of trouble with his dreams of beauty. So far, the fragile whiteness of porcelain has symbolized Mauberley's experience of beauty. But now there's some vision of a coral island busting in on all of his daydreams. Maybe Mauberley got sick of dreaming about Greek statues and decided, like the rest of us, that maybe a tropical vacation on a beach would be more beautiful than looking at old art.
- Maybe Mauberley just wants to get away from it all…
Mildness, amid the neo-Neitzschean clatter,
His sense of graduations,
Quite out of place amid
Resistance to current exacerbations,
- Guess which philosopher was pretty popular during Pound's time? You got it: Friedrich Nietzsche, the dude who's famous for saying "God is dead." Well as you can imagine, a philosopher like Nietzsche was pretty heavy-handed about the stuff he talked about. But it sounds like Mauberley tended more toward "Mildness" amid all those shouting Nietzsche types.
- Unlike philosophers who saw things as being black and white, Mauberley had a sense of "graduations," meaning that he thought of things subtly, which was totally out of place when people wanted to tear down one another's arguments. In this sense, his gentleness was a type of resistance to the love of conflict or "exacerbations" that were common in his time.
Invitation, mere invitation to perceptivity
Gradually led him to the isolation
Which these presents place
Under a more tolerant, perhaps, examination.
- So what does Pound mean when he says that Mauberley thought it was best to make a "mere invitation to perceptivity." Well if you think about it, an invitation is the opposite of a demand. Pound has spent that last few lines talking about modern thinkers trying to force other people to agree with them, so Pound is probably saying that there's a nicer, more civil way to talk about things with people. It's always nicer to invite someone to be more perceptive than it is to call them stupid and demand that they change.
- Unfortunately, all of his gentleness looks like it led Mauberley "to the isolation." Mauberley probably got isolated by the modern world because he couldn't keep up with the conflict-loving modern times. But when Pound says that "these presents place" Mauberley "Under a more tolerant examination," he might be saying that it's easier to sympathize with Mauberley if you look at him in retrospect.
By constant elimination
The manifest universe
Yielded an armour
Against utter consternation,
- These lines talk about Mauberley getting some sort of "armour" against total despair or "utter consternation." But what does Pound mean when he says that this armour was offered to Mauberley "By constant elimination"? Well, maybe Mauberley's constant rejection from social life eventually made him tougher. Maybe getting punished for his gentleness eventually made Mauberley fed up, and dude grew a thick skin.
A Minoan undulation,
Seen, we admit, amid ambrosial circumstances
Strengthened him against
The discouraging doctrine of chances,
- And so we plod onward. Pound talks about a Minoan undulation in line 329, with Minoan being an adjective connected to King Minos, the most famous ancient king of the Greek island of Crete (big surprise there). And the word undulations basically means to go up and down (i.e., the streets of San Francisco have many undulations). So we're talking about a feeling of going up and down, and that somehow being connected to King Minos of ancient Crete. We're waiting for an explanation, Ezra…
- And it turns out that Mauberley witnesses this Minoan undulation "amid ambrosial circumstances." As we've already discussed ambrosia is the wine of the gods, so ambrosial circumstances probably means some sort of intoxication or drunkenness for Mauberley.
- And now we hear that this experience strengthened Mauberley against "The discouraging doctrine of chance." So here's what we can put together. Mauberley has to fight against the despair that comes with thinking the whole world is random and meaningless, just a matter of pure chance (we're looking at you, Thomas Hardy). But after realizing that even a great man like King Minos saw his share of ups and downs, Mauberley can get some inspiration and feel like there's some grander purpose to any hardships or ups and downs he experiences in his own life.
- Whew. Had to sweat for that one.
And his desire for survival,
Faint in the most strenuous moods,
Became an Olympian apathein
In the presence of selected perceptions.
- So now it's time to talk about how much Mauberley wants to go on living, or his "desire for survival." It seems that even when things are at their most intense or strenuous, Mauberley's desire to live is "Faint." But Pound says this faint desire to live became an "Olympian apathein/ In the presence of selected perceptions." The word Olympian basically means godlike, being a reference to Mount Olympus, which is where the gods hung out in Greek myth. Apathein, on the other hand, is a Greek word connected to the English "apathy," meaning that you totally don't care one way or the other about something.
- So we move from Mauberley just barely wanting to live to him having an Olympic or god-like indifference whenever he encounters "selected perceptions." So in other words, when Mauberley faces certain things in life, his weak desire to live gets transformed into something else. He still doesn't care that much, but now his indifference seems like a sign of power instead of weakness. It looks like Mauberley was able to take a negative (weak desire to live) and turn it into something we might admire (Olympic indifference).
A pale gold, in the aforesaid pattern,
The unexpected palms
Destroying, certainly, the artist's urge,
Left him delighted with the imaginary
Audition of the phantasmal sea-surge,
- So what's all this about pale gold, now? Are we talking about something glorious? If so, then why use a weak adjective like "pale" to describe the gold?
- This gold also seems to be molded in some sort of pattern that Pound says he's mentioned before (aforesaid), but it's unclear what he means here. And if that weren't hard to understand, he talks about some "unexpected palms" destroying an artist's urge. Now if this passage means palms as in the surface of hands, it doesn't seem to make much sense. But if we think of palms as being tropical trees, this stanza might be pointing back to the "coral isle" that Mauberley dreams about in lines 313-316.
- Now it looks like the palms are "unexpected" because they appear to Mauberley in sudden daydreams. Visions of palm trees would explain why Mauberley's artistic urge would be destroyed, since the island represents a wonderful escape from all the trials and tribulations of a poor artist's life.
- And finally, the image of palm trees goes nicely with Mauberley's "imaginary/ Audition of the phantasmal sea-surge."
- Imaginary audition here just means that Mauberley is hearing the noise of the sea, but only in his imagination. So yeah, it definitely seems like the poor guy is fantasizing about how awesome life would be if being an artist didn't make him so poor.
- He's basically feeling tempted to give up his quest to create beautiful art.
Incapable of the least utterance or composition,
Emendation, conservation of the 'better tradition'
Refinement of medium, elimination of superfluities,
August attraction or concentration.
- So if Mauberley is not capable of the "least utterance or composition," he's probably not producing all that much art (composition here would mean writing a song or a poem). He's not even capable of "Emendation," which means taking a piece of art that already exists and fixing it up.
- The list of things that Mauberley can't do continues: he can't do anything to conserve the "better tradition." Or in other words, he can't do anything to promote the kinds of old artworks that Pound would like us to celebrate. The dude can't do anything to refine the kind of art (or "medium") that he works with. He can't even edit out unnecessary material ("superfluities") from his works, which is supposed to be one of the artist's lighter jobs. Mauberley can't do anything for his art while he's still dreaming about coral islands.
Nothing, in brief, but maudlin confession
Irresponse to human aggression,
Amid the precipitation, down-float
Of insubstantial manna,
Lifting the faint susurrus
Of his subjective hosanna.
- Nope, it looks like Mauberley can do "Nothing" at all. All he can give us is "maudlin confession." Now maudlin here basically means sad in a sort of weak way. The confession part might mean that Mauberley can't really say anything these days other than sorry, since he's starting to look like a bit of a quitter.
- But that's not all. It looks like Mauberley can't respond ("Irresponse") to human aggression. Or in other words, he doesn't even fight back when people are aggressive toward him. Maybe they even call him names. But he doesn't even have the strength to fight back.
- Nope, it seems like the poor guy is just caught out in the rain (or precipitation) with a sad look on his face, floating down a river (down-float) that's filled with meaningless "manna." But what the heck is manna, anyway? Well according to the Bible, manna is the food that was magically given to the Jewish people to help them survive in the wilderness for forty years.
- So if Mauberley's manna is "insubstantial," that might mean that his spirit doesn't have enough food to get by on. Poor Mauberley's soul sounds like it's dying, and there's nothing the world can give to make it strong again.
- Now to get these last two lines, it's important to know that "susurrus" means whisper in Latin, and that "hosanna" is the word Christians use to ask God to save them. So basically, all that Mauberley has left is just enough strength to whisper "save me" to God. The fact that his hosanna is "subjective," though, means that Mauberley might not even believe in what he's saying.
- Praying to god might not be something he objectively believes in, but just subjectively blurts out without any hope of being saved.
Ultimate affronts to human redundancies;
Non-esteem of self-styled 'his betters'
Leading, as he well knew,
To his final
Exclusion from the world of letters.
- So somebody is committing ultimate affronts, or insults, to what Pound calls "human redundancies." Well we know what human means, and redundancy means something that's repetitive in an unnecessary way. So it seems that Mauberley has acted in an insulting way to anyone who thinks that modern art has been able to achieve something new.
- But how is it that Mauberley has offended so much? Well Pound is happy to use quotation marks in saying 'his betters," meaning people who probably have more power in the art and publishing world than a young Mauberley does. The fact that his betters are even "self-styled" suggests that these people only think they're better than Mauberley, though they're wrong.
- But no matter what Mauberley might think, he knows exactly where all of his disagreement is going to get him. It's going to lead to "his final/ Exclusion from the world of letters." In other words, it looks like the publishing industry has had just about enough of this young upstart named Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.