Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
by Ezra Pound
Part Two, Section II Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
"Qu'est ce qu'ils savent de l'amour, et qu'est ce qu'ils peuvent comprendre?
S'ils ne comprennent pas la poèsie, si'ils ne sentient pas la musique, qu'est ce qu'ils peuvent comprendre de cette passion en comparaison avec laquelle la rose est grossière et le parfum des violettes un tonnerre?" -- CAID ALI
- It's translation time, and here's what this passage says in English:
- "What do they know of love, and what can they understand of it? If they do not understand poetry, if they do not feel music, what can they understand of this passion compared to which the rose is crude and the perfume of violets a thunderbolt?"
- This epigraph is also signed by someone named Caid Ali, which is just a Persian pen-name that Pound made up for himself.
- The passage seems to be a bunch of rhetorical questions about modern folks who don't appreciate true beauty anymore. He asks how these people can know beauty or love if they don't understand or read poetry or listen to music. The answer, of course, is that they can't know beauty or love. This is Pound's whole point throughout this poem.
For three years, diabolus in the scale,
He drank ambrosia,
All passes, ANANGKE prevails,
Came end, at last, to that Arcadia.
He had moved amid her phantasmagoria,
Amid her galaxies,
- If you remember way back to the start of this poem, you might recall how pound said that Mauberley was out of step with the world for three years. Well he's mentioned that three-year period again now, and recalling the idea of Mauberley being out of tune with the culture around him.
- To show this lack of connection, Pound says that Mauberley was "diablous in the scale." Here, he's comparing Mauberley to what musicians would called an "augmented fourth" in the music scale. Pound calls this note diabolus because medieval folks thought that this kind of note was connected to the devil. So Mauberley wasn't just out of step with the time he lived in. He was downright rejected by it (like the devil).
- During these three years, Mauberley had his taste of glory though (he drank ambrosia, or the wine of the gods).
- But as the poem says, "All passes," as in everything eventually goes away, and "ANANGKE," which is the Greek word for fate or destiny, always gets its way. There came an end to that Arcadia, Pound says, meaning that the good years of Mauberley's life (Arcadia = Paradise) had to end sometime.
- Line 264 tells us that Mauberley had spent some time moving amongst the "phantasmagoria" or a world of illusions of the night. The "NUKTIS AGALMA" of line 266 is Greek for "night's jewel."
- So when you put everything together, Pound is saying that Mauberley spent some really fun years not caring about what society thought of him and playing around in a world of heavy drinking and hallucinations. The hallucinations might be real or symbolic, but what they tell us is that the party had to end someday for Mauberley.
Asking time to be rid of….
Of his bewilderment; to designate
His new found orchid….
- After another dotted line break, Pound picks up on Mauberley's good times coming to an end and says that the guy "drifted" for a while, probably wondering what he was doing with his life. Mauberley also hoped that time would sober him up and help him get rid of his "bewilderment" and to show him what to do next.
- For Pound, time needed to show Mauberley come sort of "new found orchid." An orchid is a flower, but also a Greek word for testicle. So it's tough to say what Pound's getting at here. But flowers like roses have tended to pop up in this poem as symbols of beauty. So maybe Pound is saying here that Mauberley was hoping that the world would show him some new source of beauty that he could dedicate his life to. And if that sounds a little open-ended, that's because it is.
To be certain….certain….
(Amid aerial flowers).. time for arrangements—
To the final estrangement;
- We already know that Mauberley wanted time to help get rid of his confusion or bewilderment. So it makes sense that he would wish to be "certain….certain…." The ellipses here really drive home the idea that certainty was something Mauberley wished for, but couldn't quite have.
- Mauberley drifted through life for a while longer and saw a few beautiful things (aerial flowers). But he kept drifting and couldn't find one type of beauty to really hang his hat on and dedicate himself to. And so all of this drifting finally led him to a "final estrangement."
Unable in the supervening blankness
To sift TO AGATHON from the chaff
Until he found his seive. …
Ultimately, his seismograph:
- But with all that uncertainty in his life, Mauberley couldn't sift out "TO AGATHON" from the blankness and confusion all around him. To AGATHON is Greek for "the good," so this line talks about how Mauberley couldn't decide what was truly good in his life because he was so confused and adrift…
- Confused, that is, until he "found his sieve." A sieve is basically a strainer that you use to separate something solid from liquid (like cooked spaghetti). The fact that Mauberley found a sieve suggests that he found a way to separate what was hard and true from what was changing and untrue. Pound also includes the image of a "seismograph," which is an instrument that lets geologists know exactly what's going on beneath the surface of the Earth. So like the sieve, this instrument seems to represent Mauberley's growing ability to find the truth that underlies everyday things.
—Given that is his "fundamental passion"
This urge to convey the relation
Of eye-lid and cheek-bone
By verbal manifestations;
- So now Pound seems to be talking about Mauberley's "fundamental passion," which has something to do with using language (verbal manifestations) to describe to people the relation between an eye-lid and cheek-bone. To get what Pound is saying here, it's important to know that the ancient Greeks had a set of mathematical ratios that they used to define what a beautiful face was.
- These ratios were all about the distance between a person's eyelids, or the distance between the nose and cheekbones. In any case, Pound seems to be using it to describe Mauberley's desire to connect with a type of beauty that's "fundamental" to human beings and to describe it in words.
To present the series
Of curious heads in medallion—
- What's all this about a series of heads in medallion? Well just like us modern folk, the Romans used to put the heads of their rulers on their coins or medallions. But they'd also make sure to use faces that had perfect measurements and showed off their classic sense of beauty.
- So Mauberley, connecting with beauty was the same thing as studying the ancient Greeks' definition of beauty, and one of the best ways to do this would be to check out the heads that were on the old Greek coins.
He had passed, inconscient, full gaze,
The wide-banded irises
And botticellian sprays implied
In their diastasis;
- Now we're hearing all about Mauberley being "inconscient" and looking with "wide-banded irises" at "botticellian sprays." Now that's a mouthful no matter how you say it. Well, if we break it down, we realize that Mauberley spent some time being totally "unconscious" ("inconscient") or unaware of the world around him, even as it stared him in the face "full gaze." Pound uses large irises to help describe Mauberley's sense of stupor.
- Pound also refers to "botticellian sprays," which refers to Venus rising out of the ocean spray in Sandro Botticelli's famous painting, The Birth of Venus.
- The mention of "diastasis" refers to the distance between a person's eyes. Greeks believed that there was a perfect distance for eyes to be apart from one another. With all of this classic Greek imagery, Pound is definitely still harping on the fact that there's a fundamental type of beauty that modern folks have lost connection with. We (like Mauberley) are totally missing out on something great here, so we owe it to ourselves to take a look back at classical art and rediscover what's beautiful.
Which anaesthesis, noted a year late,
And weighed, revealed his great affect,
Of Eros, a retrospect.
- Eventually, Mauberley must've gotten over his blindness and realized what true beauty was. Unfortunately, it sounds like he was a "year late" in realizing how ignorant or unconscious ("anaesthesis") he'd been. But once he looked back "in retrospect," he would have considered or weighed the importance of what he'd been missing all those years. The thing he'd been missing was actually the demand (mandate) of his own romantic desires, which are connected to Eros, the Greek god of love.
- So in other words, Mauberley has spent three years chasing all the wrong things. It took him a long time to realize all the beauty and love he'd been missing out on because he was ignorant of classical art.
Mouths biting empty air,
The still stone dogs,
Caught in metamorphosis, were
Left him as epilogues.
- In later versions of this poem, Pound quotes a line from the Roman poet Ovid that reads, "He bites at empty air." The line comes from a story about a dog chasing a monster out of a city and turning to stone (along with the monster) at the moment it jumps to bite. Pound might be using the image of biting at empty air to suggest that maybe all of his ranting and raving is no use, since there's no clear monster or enemy for him to go after.
- It's one thing to talk smack about the age you live in; but when you can't put a face on your enemy, it can start to feel that you're just attacking a ghost, or biting at empty air.
- The fact that it's left to him as an epilogue suggests that this might also be Pound's final word on the subject (but don't count on it).