The sound of this poem is pretty interesting. On the one hand, you have clusters of four lines with a straightforward rhyme. But on the other hand, the poem doesn't have any clear meter, and Pound likes to throw out a lot of million-dollar words that don't really fit into the poem all that smoothly. A case in point:
Christ follows Dionysus
Phallic and ambrosial
Made way for macerations;
Caliban casts out Ariel. (37-40)
Now there's a good rhyme in there ("ambrosial" and "Ariel"), and that's just great. But it doesn't change the fact that you sound like you're teaching a college seminar if you read this thing out loud.
Pound's constant ellipses (…) and section breaks also make the poem feel like it's always starting and stopping, never settling into a rhythm. Classical poetry, you see, always tended to have a tight and intricate structure, and you'd never catch one of the old poets dead using an ellipsis or leaving a thought unfinished. Pound also would have known that all of that structure and organization was supposed to reflect the fact that the universe was an orderly thing that was structured by the greatest poet of them all (God).
But Pound also knows that the modern world can't rely on the same sorts of meanings and structures that the old world did. Sure, he's happy to stick his poetry into quatrains. But you're never going to feel like this poem settles into a comfortable rhythm. Just when things seem nice and calm, he'll jam in a word like "resuscitate" or end a line with an ellipsis. This gives the sound of the poem a lack of closure, which for Pound is exactly what the modern world gives us: total lack of closure. And that can take its toll on our poor souls, which still secretly yearn for beauty and a sense of order.
Well for starters, if you try to tell someone what poem you've been reading, you'll always have to repeat yourself. No one ever understands the title of this poem the first time you say it out loud, and hardly anyone can even recognize that it's a person's name. But that's exactly what it is.
Now where does the name Hugh Selwyn Mauberley come from? Well your guess is as good as ours. The one thing we can say is that the name "Selwyn" might be a tribute to the English poet Selwyn Image, who Pound actually pegs as one of the "good guys" of modern literature in line 131 of this poem.
In writing "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," Pound is doing something really similar to what T.S. Eliot did with "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." He's creating a fictional character (who's sort of just Pound in disguise) and using his life and the people he meets to illustrate just how terrible the modern world is.
The setting of this one is pretty much all over the place. In lines 61 to 93, we're watching young men die on a bloody field. But on lines 357 to 381, we're suddenly chilling out on a tropical island. So what gives? Well, to figure out what's happening in this poem, you really need to know that all these "places" in the poem are actually places inside the mind of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. The fields of World War I don't just come from personal memories; they're a symbolic setting for the meaninglessness of dying for the "botched civilization" of Europe (89).
The tropical island toward the end of the poem also isn't so much a real place as a symbol of the temptation Mauberley feels to stop struggling as an artist and to just give in to life's simple pleasures, "Washed in the cobalt of oblivions" (365). Mauberley may or may not have an actual island he wants to run away to, but the island itself is more like a mental space that represents the calm Huey could feel if he just gave up on his artistic quest for beauty. So basically, it's always good to treat every part of this poem's setting not so much as a physical place, but a symbolic space inside Mauberley's imagination.
The speaker of this poem seems omniscient at times, since it travels across different times and places. But overall, the speaker is most likely Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, who is a sort of stand-in for the poet, Ezra Pound. It's kind of easy to make this comparison because certain versions of the poem actually start with "E.P.: An Ode on the Selection of his Tomb," where E.P. stands for Ezra Pound.
Apart from that, though, it's safe to say that this poem is spoken by the same dude, whether you want to call him Mauberley or Pound. The voice and imagery might change here and there, but it remains pretty clear that this is a poem about Ezra Pound saying what's wrong with the modern world, just as J. Alfred Prufrock was a mouthpiece for T.S. Eliot to talk about the same subject.
When the opening of the poem talks about Mauberley being born in a "half savage" country, you can draw a direct connection to Pound and say that the poem is talking about the United States. The fact that Pound connects the speaker to his own background so early in the poem suggests that we can assume that this connection is there for the rest of the poem.
But why wouldn't Pound just go ahead and use his own name, if he's going to go to the trouble of sticking his initials in there? Well, here's the thing: Pound wants his own experience and his own thoughts to serve as a model for what he'd like other people to start thinking. If he'd used his own name, people would be quicker to write off everything in the poem as the opinions of just one dude. By using Mauberley as a third-person symbolic character, Pound makes his message a little more universal.
This is a toughie, no doubt about it. Some could even argue that this poem is tougher than Eliot's "The Waste Land." It uses just as many obscure references, but it's also longer by more than a hundred lines. On top of all that, Pound doesn't really have as much poetic control as Eliot does. His thinking is pretty all over the place, and even when you know all of his references and the words he's using, it's still really tough to put together what he's thinking.
But have no fear; Shmoop is here to help. You might want to spend some time with the line-by-line summary section of this learning guide to help you up that mountain.
Allusions, allusions, and just for the fun of it, a dozen more allusions. There are times when Pound makes "The Waste Land" look like a walk in the park when it comes to classic art trivia. Worse yet, it's pretty hard to even figure out why Pound is referencing what he does half the time.
For example, it can take a really long time to figure out what he's getting at in lines 244 to 247 when he writes, "Turned from the 'eau-forte/ Par Jacquemart'/ To the strait head/ Of Messalina." Here, he's mashing together a reference to an obscure drawing by an obscure French artist (J.F. Jacquemart) to Messalina, who was wife to a Roman emperor 2000 years ago. When you finally put it all together, you realize that Pound is talking about a modern-day Mauberley turning from more recent art to the art of classic Greece in search of beauty. But even after you understand his references, it's not easy to come up with this meaning.
When it comes to the form and meter of this poem, Pound is very clever at walking a tightrope between the old and new. On the one hand, he's happy to use classical four-line stanzas, or quatrains, and he also uses a traditional ABAB rhyme scheme (where each letter represents the end rhyme sound for that line), like the kind you see in his opening stanza:
For three years, out of key with his time,
He strove to resuscitate the dead art
Of poetry; to maintain 'the sublime'
In the old sense. Wrong from the start—
But for all of this homage to classic poetry, Pound has no time for any sort of meter in each line of his poem. This makes sense, since the guy would go on to say that poetry should be written "in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome." In other words, Pound wasn't a fan of lines that go, "I went outside and watched the bird," like a beating drum. He wanted his lines to be written the way people actually talk, like you get with, "For three years, out of key with his time,/ He strove to resuscitate the dead art." But he still wanted to give props to classic art with his rhyme scheme and four-line stanzas.
You can definitely see Pound's use of form as an homage to the past, and his meter as a way of injecting something modern into something old. It's almost like sucking the jelly out of a classic donut and refilling the thing with something modern like… uh… Jello pudding. You get the idea: tasty, yet comforting.
The expression "sea-green eyes" only comes up once in the poem, and it's in French ("Yeux Glaucques). But the fact that Pound returns to this image in the final line of the poem (topaz eyes) definitely suggests that it's something we're supposed to pay attention to. So why are sea-green eyes so important? Well when Pound mentions them at first, he connects them with a woman named Elizabeth Siddal, a female model who posed for a 19th-century painting called King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid.
Pound holds up Elizabeth as a great example of classic beauty, and pays special attention to her eyes. More importantly, though, he admires how the painting of her has managed to "preserv[e] her eyes," even after Elizabeth has grown old and died. For Pound, then, these green eyes stand as a symbol of how great art can preserve something beautiful for hundreds or even thousands of years. The fact that Pound returns to this image in the poem's final line suggests that he wants modern art to take up his call and do its best to reconnect with timeless beauty.
Pound's references to Dionysus are pretty much the main thing that distinguish him from a more starchy, puritan type like T.S. Eliot. While Eliot's "The Waste Land" might rant and rave about the loose sexual morals of the modern world, Pound actually accuses the world of not being sexual enough. That's why Poundy spends a lot of "Mauberley" criticizing all the stuffy Victorian writers (who wrote in 1850-1900) for being way too uptight and never showing any real passion for… well… anything.
Pound's main way of showing passion to us is to talk about Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, sex, and good times. He first mentions Dionysus by name in line 37 of the poem, saying that "Christ follows Dionysus." Or in other words, he's talking about how ancient Greeks worshiped a god of love and sex, while modern people worship Christ, a god of fasting, discipline, and sacrifice. For Pound, it's not a great trade off, either for civilization or the human soul. For the rest of the poem, Dionysus and his followers are stand-ins for the passion and beauty that modern people have forgotten about because they're too busy trying to be cool. One of the reasons people have forgotten these things is because they're too obsessed with more superficial concerns, like money and reputation. For Pound, the modern world would be better if people just learned to let loose a little more.
Every time the character of Ulysses (protagonist of Homer's Odyssey) comes up in modernist literature, he's pretty much always a stand-in for a heroic man trying to find his way toward some symbolic "home" or loyal wife. And in Pound's poem, he means the same thing.
Ulysses busts onto the scene in lines 9-12, where Pound uses the symbol of the Sirens to show how Ulysses (or Hugh Selwyn Mauberley) was really tempted to stray from his life's mission and to pursue superficial stuff instead of true beauty. That's why Mauberley spent a whole year on "chopped seas," not really knowing what he wanted or where he was going.
Next, Pound makes a comparison to Ulysses' loyal wife, Penelope. Then he compares Penelope to Flaubert, which means that the French writer Flaubert was the true mark of unchanging beauty for Hugh Mauberley. All of this basically goes to say that Pound thinks of Mauberley as a modern-day journeyman, someone searching for beauty in a world that'll do everything it can to stop him from succeeding.
Jeez, Ezra. Don't start having any delusions of grandeur or anything like that.
With all the talk of World War I and a bunch of modern phonies, hearing about a nice "coral island" on lines 313-316 might strike us as a nice break from Pound's gloominess. But don't be fooled. This is just the kind of easy pleasure that Pound talks about in his earlier references to Ulysses and the Sirens.
The tropical island comes to stand for the road of easy pleasures that Mauberley is tempted to take. After all, the life of an artist is really tough, especially when no one appreciates beauty anymore. From line 313 on, this island will keep coming back as a temptation for Pound's hero. But in the end, the dude is able to resist.
The reason Mauberley is able to resist the temptations of an easy life is because he reads a symbolic message that's washed up on the sands of the tropical island. The message reads, "I was/ And I no more exist/ Here drifted/ A hedonist." The message basically says, "Hey, I'm a guy who got a lot of pleasure in life, but now I'm dead and I've left nothing behind except this image." For Pound, though, the point of life is to create something beautiful that can live on after you die.
In the tenth poem of "Mauberley" (lines 170-181), Pound describes the living conditions of the poor "stylist." Now we might think the word stylist refers to some superficial person who prefers style over substance. But Pound's actually talking about an artist who appreciates true style or true beauty in an age that doesn't care anymore.
This poor stylist has to live beneath a sagging roof (maybe metaphorically, maybe literally) because the modern world won't shell out any money for beauty. This person lives away from all the posers of the world, with their "sophistications and contentions." And symbolically speaking, this dude can nourish your soul with the "succulent cooking" of his artwork. But in the end, his house has a sagging roof and a creaky door, and he's totally poor just because he decided to dedicate himself to making good art. Serves him right for sticking up for what he believes in.
So amber is hardened tree sap, and it's really, really good at preserving stuff. Throughout this poem, Pound looks for different images to convey art's power to preserve beauty over hundreds or even thousands of years. So it's natural that amber would be one of those images, as Pound writes in line 230, "As roses might, in magic amber laid." So he's talking about something beautiful (a rose) being put in amber so its beauty can last forever.
Amber is pretty incredible stuff, after all. Just look at what it can preserve. Those bugs aren't going anywhere, and they'll stay in perfect condition for thousands, maybe millions of years. For Pound, beauty is something that's definitely worth preserving, and the image of amber does a good job of symbolizing the power of art to preserve beauty.
Pound might spend more than a few lines celebrating the god of wine and sex (Dionysus), but he never really mentions sex directly in the poem. If anything, he spends most of his time talking about a type of classical beauty that isn't connected to sex at all. He likes to talk about the beauty of nude paintings, sure; but there's really nothing in this poem that could be considered sexual or steamy. Nope, if a reader's looking for steam, they'll have to read a different poem.