Pounds Hugh Selwyn Mauberley

Once admired for their sense of order and intellectual toughness, Eliot's quatrain poems are less appealing to critical taste today: 'the aridity and frigidity that he praised he found', remarks one critic succinctly (Levenson 1984: 161). Conversely, the product of Pound's study of the quatrain form is one of his major works. 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley' tells the story of two failed poets, 'E.P.', who apart from being dead bears a striking similarity to Pound himself, and the Hugh Selwyn Mauberley of the title. Pound portrays both poets as out of touch with modern life, and the major question posed by the poem is: how should one write in the twentieth century? This question is not resolved. In the first poem of the sequence, we encounter E.P. trying 'to resuscitate the dead art / Of poetry; to maintain "the sublime" / In the old sense', but his audience is uninterested and he fails to respond to 'the march of events'. He dies a failed poet, 'No adjunct to the Muses' diadem' (1990: 187). The rest of the first section of the poem elaborates on the reasons for E.P.'s irrelevance by reviewing recent literary history: Pound tracks the rise of mass culture and the fate of the artists who will not or cannot respond to the new conditions and new audiences it has created. In the second section, Mauberley makes his entrance. He is a Prufrockian aesthete as out of place as E.P. His technical precision, 'his sense of graduations', is 'Quite out of place amid / Resistance to current exacerbations' (1990: 201).

The poem is filled with references to Gautier's Émaux et Camées. Like Eliot, Pound finds Gautier's quatrain form a useful method of creating sharp contrasts, such as those of the third poem where the beauty of the past is compared to the degradation of the present. But his most important allusion is to Gautier's comparison of the poet with the sculptor, which is used as a major conceit in 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley'. In his poem 'L'Art' ('Art'), Gautier tells the poet, sculptor and painter alike to 'Sculpte, lime, cisèle; / Que ton rêve flottant / Se scelle / Dans le bloc resistant!' ('Carve, file, chisel, / So that your floating dream / Is sealed / In the resistant block!') (Gautier 1981: 150). Language, here, is figured as a hard substance, 'resistant' to the touch. Shaping it will require labour and technical skill, but the reward is that one's most fleeting idea, one's 'floating dream', will be made permanent. The second poem of 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley' uses this metaphor to illustrate how far E.P. is out of step with the modern age:

The 'age demanded' chiefly a mould in plaster, Made with no loss of time, A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster Or the 'sculpture' of rhyme.

The modern age prefers the mass-produced art of the cinema, compared with a plaster mould, to the labour-intensive poetry, compared with alabaster sculpture. The carving metaphor is carried over to the second section of the poem, too: Mauberley's 'tool [was] / The engraver's', and both 'L'Envoi' and 'Medallion', usually understood as examples of E.P.'s and Mauberley's poetry respectively, identify the beauty they aspire to with hardness and permanence: 'roses [. . .] in magic amber laid', and 'a basket-work of braids which seem as if they were / Spun in King Minos' hall / From metal, or intractable amber' (1990: 197, 204).

In the use of Gautier's metaphor we can discern aspects of Pound's individualism: not only is the plaster mould quick to produce and sell, it is a copy of something else, rather than the original product of an individual artist. It can therefore present no new data about human nature, to use the language of 'The Serious Artist'. Pound associates hardness with precision: 'Gautier is intent on being "hard"; is intent on conveying a certain verity of feeling', he writes in 'The Hard and Soft in French Poetry' (1918) (1960: 285). The modern age's lack of interest in 'hard' poetry, then, is suggestive of a general degeneration — another product of which is, the third poem suggests, the rise of democracy (1990: 189).

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