“1920 (Mauberley)”

by Edgar Eduardo Garcia

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, published by The Ovid Press in 1920, is commonly referred to as Ezra Pound‘s “farewell to London.”[1] He moved to Paris shortly after its publication. The circumstances of his departure, in combination with the poem’s satirical inveighing of English culture and intellectual life, prompt readings of the poem as a transitional work. An examination of the poetics of backwardness in the work, however, will result in a reading that is more skeptical about the poem as a representation of the passage from one place to another. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is not a look toward new directions, but instead a study of what occured, of what was occuring, and perhaps of what would have occured, if Pound were to have stayed in London. To emphasize the backward gaze of the poem, this wiki article will focus on the second part of the poem, “1920 (Mauberley)” and its looking back, cross-referencing, and reprocessing the first part. A wiki article on the whole poem has already been provided by Pericles Lewis.

Because I will emphasize the backward-referencing of the second part of the poem, it is necessary to demonstrate that the book was obviously divided into two segments. The segmentation is indicated in the table of contents by the placement of the “ENVOI” in the middle of the two, itself adjoined to neither. Pound’s “ENVOI” is in a strange place. Typically the envoi, as it is found in the poetry of the troubadours, was a stanza or a set of stanzas at the end of the poem, addressing either the poem some other entity. In Hugh Selwyn Mauberley the envoi is dead center. In this position it is reduced of the quality of final statement of the poem. But while it is divested of that quality, it nonetheless serves as a terminus to the first part of the poem while creating the condition of new beginning, or alternate beginning, for the second part. In other words, the second part is something other than mere continuation of the first part.

The rupture within Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is further emphasized by the dates given for “ENVOI (1919)” and “1920 (Mauberley).” Whereas “ENVOI (1919)” foregrounds a poetic form with the paranthetical year as an aside, the “1920 (Mauberley) foregrounds the year, and the historical moment it contains, while the poet, “Mauberley,” becomes a parenthetical aside. The disappearance of the poet will be discussed later in this article. Here it is worth noting the suggestion that the poetic form, the envoi, is given a kind of valorization which it no longer has by 1920. Pound’s early efforts to “resuscitate the dead art/ Of poetry… in the old sense” as he puts it in the first stanza of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, were “wrong from the start.” As he later refers to general loss of appreciation for the “”sculpture” of rhyme, the failure of poetic resuscitation could be read as Pound’s failure to implement traditional poetic forms, such as the envoi. This “dumb-born book,” as the envoi addresses it, is dumb-born because of its hopeless deployment of forms such the envoi.

The feeling of failure expressed in the poem, which inveighs an unappreciative reading public along with a poet who did not see that this public could never appreciate poetry “out of key with [its] time,” recalls another poet’s Grand Testament, which Pound likely had in mind at this time. Francois Villon’s Grand Testament is a long poem detailing the circumstances of his wasted talent, especially due to an unappreciative reading public and his own dissolute and socially dismissive nature. The hidden allusion to Villon within the “ENVOI” is perhaps the most striking of the work. Villon acrostically inserts his name in the envoi of his poem:

Vente, gresle, gelle, j’ay mon pain cuit
‘Ie suis paillart, la paillarde me suit
‘Lequel vault mieulx? Chascun bien s’entresuit
‘L’ung vault l’autre, c’est a mau rat mau chat
‘Ordure amons, ordure nous assuit
‘Nous deffuyons onneur, il nous deffuit
‘En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat.”[2]

And Pound acrostically inserts two words of concealed vituperation:

Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie

Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made…

It is impossible to determine if this ‘HATE’ is self-hate and this ‘LIAR’ is Pound’s assessment of himself for having pursued a poetic program that was not of his time. But the dismissal of the poetic program, which would have valorized a form like the envoi, corresponds with the loss of the “ENVOI” from a foregrounded position (“ENVOI (1919)”) after 1919. The old forms have failed him, or he has failed them. Either way, the resultant poet, the poet that emerges in the second part, “Mauberley,” is an aesthete without the conviction to “wring[ ] lilies from the acorn.” And his poetic project, though still absorbed in tradition and rangy allusion, is now limited to satire.

Pound’s satirical mode in the second part of the poem serves to spelunk the caverns of a poet resigned to hollow productions. His understanding of the substance and style of satire is outlined in an essay on Jules Laforgue in an issue of Poetry from 1917. He writes:

Laforgue was a purge and a critic… He is the finest wrought; he is most “verbalist.” Bad verbalism is rhetoric, or the use of cliche unconsciously, or a mere playing with phrases. But there is good verbalism, distinct from lyricism or imagism, and in this Laforgue is a master… The tyro cannot play about with such things, the game is too dangerous. Verbalism demands a set form used with irreproachable skill. Satire needs, usually, the form of cutting rhymes to drive it home.”[3]

The critic who takes cliche as the object of his critique is simultaneously a critic of an overused phrase and of the communicants who keep the overused phrase in currency by continuing to use it. Laforgue can satirize society and its less vital speech habits in a single stroke. One could easily replace Laforgue’s name in the previous quotation with Eliot’s and see why Pound saw so much of Laforgue both in Eliot’s satirical mode and his exquisite rhymes:

Je ne suis pas “ce gaillard-la!” ni le superbe!
Mais mon ame, qu’un cri un peu cru exacerbe,
Est au fond distinguee et franche comme un herbe.”

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo…”[5]

Pound’s own use of this satiric style is evident in the first lines of the second part of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

“Turned from the “eau forte
Par Jaquemart”…”

Cutting lines of rhymes, of course, do not constitute satire. The hypercritical introspection of characters like J. Alfred Prufrock and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is the main engine of the satiric mode in these poems. And, in Pound’s poem, the hypercritical introspection is communicated as poetic self-referentiality. Not only does the second part quote the first part, with “His true Penelope/ Was Flaubert,” it also explicitly cross-references a page in the first part, with the title of its third section, “”The Age Demanded” Vide Poem II. Page [ ].” The reader is referred to a previous section and indeed can only properly process “The Age Demanded” by reading it in consideration of “Poem II. Page [ ].” The retrospective inwardness of the second part’s formal features is resonant with Mauberley’s fundamental failure. Mauberley cannot look beyond himself and his fancies. His disconnect from the world is expressed with lines such as the following: “Nothing, in brief, but maudlin confession,/ Irresponse to human aggression..” Mauberley’s disconnect by self-confinement limits his aesthetic to the maudlin and renders his socialization insensitive. Pound, perhaps, by 1920 was feeling such tendencies developing in himself.

The poem ends with the forging of a medallion. “A sleek head emerges” but, as was predicted in the first section, this artist could only accomplish “an art/ In profile.” The full figure is missing. The medallion emblematizes Mauberley’s inability to apprehend and articulate depth of experience. In December of 1920 he proclaimed his departure from England and by mid 1921 he had settled in Paris. As he tells in a later Canto, he left England with “a letter of Thomas Hardy‘s.”[6] It was likely the last letter he could have received in London from Hardy, dated December 3, 1920, which was responding to Pound’s gift of a copy of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and states, “your muse asks for considerable deliberation in estimating her.”[7] The statement, at least, vindicated the poetry’s allusiveness and acknowledged its depth.

  1. ↑ Poems and Translations, ed. Richard Sieburth (New York 2003), 1216.
  2. ↑ Accessed November 11, 2009 at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12246/12246-8.txt ; Pound also alludes to Villon’s work with his “in l’an trentuniesme/ De son eage…,” which echoes the first line of Villon’s Testament, “En l’an trentiesme de mon age…” Furthermore, his first large project upon arriving in Paris was an adaptation of Villon’s Testament. Poems and Translations, ed. Richard Sieburth (New York 2003), 1217.
  3. ↑ “Irony, Laforgue, and Some Satire,” Poetry, Vol. XI, No. II, November 1917 (Chicago), 93-98.
  4. ↑ Ibid., 96.
  5. ↑ Accessed November 18, 2009, at http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html .
  6. ↑ The Cantos (New York 1970), 500.
  7. ↑ Hardy, Collected Letters, Volume 6: 1920-25 (New York 1987), 49.