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Critical Essay by Vincent Miller
SOURCE: "Mauberley and His Critics," in ELH: English Literary History, Vol. 57, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 961-76.
In the following essay, Miller offers a reexamination of critical dispute surrounding Hugh Selwyn Mauberley from its publication to the present. "Once Pound's greatest success," writes Miller, "it is today perhaps his least respected poem."
Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is, one must hasten to say, an overconsidered poem. Disagreed about for half a century, interpreted in contradictory fashions, whoever speaks of it has to begin by explaining how he reads it. Once Pound's greatest success, it is today perhaps his least respected poem. [T. S.] Eliot, one recalls, thought whatever else he was sure of, he was sure of Mauberley; Donald Davie, himself very intelligent, tells us that it only appeals to "thin and constricted and rancorously distrustful sensibilities." There's a difference of opinion to think about.
Such disagreements do have a way of working themselves out. Twenty-five years ago, in Essays in Criticism, A. L. French published a perceptive and now famous essay, damning Mauberley and all the upstart modernist literature it seemed to him to represent. It is obvious enough today that French's intelligence and his dislike of what seemed to him chaos come again were getting in each other's way. That gives one hope. For Mauberley criticism had its origin among critics caught up, as French was, in a battle of pro-modernists versus anti-modernists, pro-Poundians versus anti-Poundians, which skewed perceptions and created mindsets still with us. It is time to write the story up, see it clearly, and escape its limitations. For Mauberley is not only one of Pound's major poems, essential to his development and to that of modernist literature, it is still, as Hugh Kenner pointed out forty years ago, "at its deepest levels … unread."
A few basic things everyone is agreed about, and one of them must be mentioned at the outset, however familiar: that Mauberley is one of two kinds of artist Pound had spent several years differentiating—a kind characterized by what he called "Epicurean receptivity, a certain aloofness, an observation of contacts and auditions." Poets of this type are, Pound held, aesthetes withdrawn from action and given to the passive "perception of beauty," which makes them easily distinguished, at least in theory, from those who have what Pound called "the Propertian attitude": poets inspired by passionate love and able to create new worlds out of their "kinship to the vital universe." Pound's critics agree that Mauberley is a beauty-loving aesthete and that he fails as a result to change what he finds a crass and vulgar world.
And that is about all they agree upon. Serious differences surface as soon as any attempt is made to determine what Mauberley's aestheticism and failure, described in the poem's second section, have to do with the scathing attack upon his civilization that makes up the first, or with that section's beautiful concluding love lyric, "Envoi." The story begins with F. R. Leavis, who in 1931 responded to the poem's many aestheticisms by concluding that it should be read as Mauberley's poem, Mauberley being a mask through which Pound was not only brilliantly condemning modern commercial vulgarity and writing a lovely lyric, but also confessing his own ineffectual aestheticism. Widely accepted, the view set up a "Pound is (or isn't) Mauberley" argument that has dogged the poem ever since. It remained dominant—with individual critics disagreeing how completely Pound should be identified with Mauberley—until Kenner, in his ground-breaking study of Pound's works in 1950, claimed that Pound was not in Mauberley confessing his own weaknesses through a persona, creating a poem readers liked because it sounded like a familiar Eliotic "introspection," but instead writing with Flaubertian objectivity about England and the poetic voice represented by Mauberley. In 1955 in his detailed and still invaluable study of the poem, John Espey agreed, making Pound a virile, passionate, Propertian poet condemning an ineffectual, unvirile aesthete and his crassly commercial world. The stage was now set for all that was to follow, for subsequent critics found attempts to read the entire poem as the creation of a Propertian Pound difficult if not unworkable.
A few examples will suffice. In 1956 Thomas Connolly argued that all of the poem's first section had to be read as Mauberley's. In 1961 Davie agreed that would be best, though he felt individual poems in the first section could just as easily be read as Pound's because Pound and Mauberley had not been "sufficiently differentiated." In 1963 George Dekker agreed they were not, and suggested that this was because Pound was criticizing Mauberley while at the same time trying to purge himself of his own Mauberley-like tendencies. In 1965 William Spanos found Mauberley's voice so nearly omnipresent that he argued that Mauberley must be thought of as speaking all of the poem except "Envoi." Recently Ronald Bush has made another suggestion: that Mauberley speaks the poem's first section in tonalities which Pound deliberately echoes in speaking the second. And to cite but two more conclusions, both recent, Massimo Bacigalupo has now returned to Leavis's original view that the poem is autobiographical throughout, while Jo Brantley Berryman has argued that Pound himself disagreed with almost everything said in its first section and was therefore clearly not writing autobiographically.
This is a brief sample—though only a sample—of the tangle of different readings that have resulted from imposing on the poem the question of Pound's relation to Mauberley. Looking back, one wonders how that particular question ever got as entrenched as it now is, and must conclude that it became the standard way of considering the poem not just because of critics convinced and sometimes anxious to prove that Pound was as much, or nearly as much, an aesthete as Mauberley, but also because of those convinced and anxious to prove that he wasn't. For their main defense was to put Pound into the poem and argue that he was criticizing in his own Propertian voice both modern culture and one of its typical aesthetes. This made it absolutely necessary to distinguish Pound's way of writing from Mauberley's within the poem. And when that, as we have seen, proved impossible to do in any way that could be agreed upon, it left Mauberley criticism in its present state, distorting in the process both what Pound thought of Propertius's kind of writing and what he thought of the aesthetic. Pound had run into similar attempts to save him by making him into a virile and passionate Propertian as early as 1913.
Oh my fellow sufferers, songs of my youth,
A lot of asses praise you because you are 'virile',
We, you, I! We are 'Red Bloods'!
Imagine it, my fellow sufferers—
Our maleness lifts us out of the ruck
Who'd have foreseen it?
Pound had—as any careful re-reading of his prose shows—much more respect for the aesthetic kind of writing than his critics have had; and we are, as a result, much better off assuming that he at least initially began Mauberley, just as he suggested he had to John Drummond, intending to use the aesthetic voice of a very British Hugh Selwyn Mauberley to communicate his scorn of recent British culture to a "blockheadcd epoch," an epoch he had found incapable of understanding the Homage to Sextus Propertius's emphasis on sex and its seemingly flippant, sex-oriented condemnation of bourgeois crassness, imperialism, and war.
He had, as we know, been using a similar voice—"effete and overcivilized," he called it—for somewhat similar purposes, writing a series of "Imaginary Letters" for the Little Review under the name of Walter Villerant, knowing it a voice to which English audiences were trained to respond. (Mauberley was Pound's first and only marked English success.) It was not a mode he despised in any of its manifestations, of which Mauberley is but one. Instead it was one of two kinds of writing—the first receptive, diagnostic, sensitive, and beauty-loving; the second passion-born and creative—which, starting in 1912 in his "Psychology and Troubadours," he had by the time he began Mauberley spent almost a decade differentiating. Both of these at their best he admired, and both can be found in his work from beginning to end.
While he was writing Mauberley, he was, in fact, learning at least as much from Henry James, whom he thought an aesthete, as from Remy de Gourmont, whom he found Propertian. For he was finding in James not only hints for the overcivilized Mauberley—as Espey thoroughly proved—but, as Bush has made clear, techniques essential to the advances he was at the time beginning to make in "Cantos 4-7." What Bush finds so important here is that it was in these cantos that Pound found the narrative voice that would enable him to write his epic, a voice that, he wrote John Quinn, came from the middle of himself and not from some mask. If the Jamesian aesthetic mode played an integral part in that achievement, it cannot be seen as something he was in 1919 doing anything but learning how to use.
All of which suggests that Pound set out in Mauberley neither to condemn aestheticism in general, nor to confess his own aesthetic failures, nor to differentiate himself from an aesthete named Mauberley; rather, he set out to make use of the nineties' version of the aesthetic mode to communicate what he had failed to communicate in the Homage—seeing, at the same time, how far he could within its limits develop its possibilities. No reading of Mauberley which tries to see in it a Propertian Pound differentiating himself from a minor aesthete (or trying to), or that has less respect for the aesthetic mode than Leavis, who found the poem a significant achievement, can evaluate that attempt—or even see its existence.
The place to begin any serious reconsideration of Mauberley criticism is with its concluding poem, "Envoi"—for even those who think Mauberley's first section is Mauberley's poem see "Envoi" as something beyond his reach. "Envoi" is, they point out, written in the great English lyric tradition that stretches back to Shakespeare and beyond. It cannot, they are sure, be confused with anything an aesthete might write. Famous as the poem is, let me start by quoting it. It is the pivot point about which Mauberley turns and merits being looked at still another time.
Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were the cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy on me lie,
And build her glories their longevity.
Tell her that sheds
Such treasure in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour
Tell her that goes
With song upon her lips
But sings not out the song, nor knows
The maker of it, some other mouth,
May be as fair as hers,
Might, in new ages, gain her worshippers,
When our two dusts with Waller's shall be laid,
Siftings on siftings in oblivion,
Till change hath broken down
All things save Beauty alone.
Rereading this lovely lyric, with its echoes of Edmund Waller's "Go, Lovely Rose," of Shakespeare, and of a hundred Elizabethan songs and sonnets, one can understand why so many critics have felt that Pound was in it writing of passion as the kind of "intellectual instigation" he claimed it to be in Propertius and the troubadours. But he wasn't. It is true that "Go, Lovely Rose," which "Envoi" so brilliantly echoes, is a carpe diem poem that urges its hearer to consider youth's brevity and accept physical passion. Thus the song which the girl in "Envoi" sings to the poet—and sings specifically to him, so he tells us, "recking naught else but that her graces give / Life to the moment"—does have a Propertian import. But the most significant thing about the poet's reply is not that it echoes Waller's song but that it echoes it only to move in exactly the opposite direction from that song's meaning. For what it seeks is not a passionate acceptance of life and love, but an escape from human mutability into the frozen permanence of an art world where the girl's beauty can be preserved like "roses in magic amber laid, / Red overwrought with orange and all made / One substance and one colour / Braving time." This is a beautifully refurbished Elizabethan poetic cliché, but it is not about love in any Propertian sense. It is about Beauty, its loss in this world, and its preservation in art.
Its relation to the rest of Mauberley is, as a result, dramatically different from the relation of Propertius's passion for Cynthia to the poems of Pound's Homage. Propertius's passion is central to all he speaks of, present in every poem, conditioning all he thinks and feels. The "Envoi" poet's concern for the singing girl is, in contrast, neither passionate nor related to Mauberley's other concerns. It is, of course, only in part two of Mauberley that we are told of Mauberley's response to a girl's beauty that "he made no immediate application / Of this to relation of the state." But it is that very lack of relationship that accounts for the placement of "Envoi" as an envoi—an afterword, a postscript—to the social criticism of Mauberley's first section. And what is differentiated thereby is the order of passionate love basic to the entire Homage from the love of beauty that animates all of Mauberley, "Envoi" included.
It is at this point that Pound's opinion of Waller's poetry takes on significance. Pound thought Waller "a tiresome fellow" whose talent was "fathoms below Rochester's," a poet whose merit was the result of his being fortunate enough to write in the "'style of a period'" whose "musical criteria … were of prime order." This is significant because Pound believed, as he put it in his essay on Cavalcanti, that the Elizabethan modes of song and sonnet writing which had established those criteria had done so at a price—that of losing the very qualities he pictures his aesthete Mauberley as also lacking: "masculinity," "fervor," "intensity." This conclusion he reached in deciding that the poetic techniques of the best Elizabethan lyricists would not allow him to translate into contemporary English these three essential qualities of Cavalcanti's sonnets.
"But by taking these Italian sonnets," he finally concluded, "by sacrificing, or losing, or simply not feeling and understanding their cogency, their sobriety, and by seeking simply that far from quickly or so-easily-as-it-looks attainable thing, the perfect melody … you find yourself in the English seicento song-books." And there you find, "quite often," he said, "a Mozartian perfection of melody" accompanied by a "wisdom, almost perhaps an ultimate wisdom, deplorably lacking in guts." And this because in them, escaping life's sobering realities, "death has become melodious; sorrow is as serious as the nightingale's, tombstones are shelves for the reception of rose leaves." One has at this point only to recall the "Envoi" poet's "when our two dusts with Waller's shall be laid, / Siftings on siftings in oblivion," or his lines about roses "in magic amber laid," to see that Pound was not uncritical of the poetic tradition "Envoi"'s verbal beauty renews.
Given these facts, we are pushed toward two conclusions. First, Pound intended "Envoi" to be read as Mauberley's work; and second, he intended it to be an example of the kind of poem the beauty-loving aesthete, continuing a long tradition, wanted to write—or was able to write—in 1919, the date of "Envoi." For Mauberley does change. The dates here are important. Pound stressed them by dating neither the rest of the poem's first section, nor the poem as a whole—only "Envoi" and the immediately following second section, dated 1920. In 1919 the "Envoi" poet responds to a beautiful girl's song about love by telling her that what that song arouses in him is not a Propertian desire for her love, but a desire to write a death-defying song preserving for future generations the memory of her evanescent loveliness. In 1920 Mauberley comes to realize-—"a year late" we are reminded—that his devotion to beauty rather than to passionate living has had a price:
Mouths biting the empty air
The still stone dogs,
Caught in metamorphosis, were
Left him as epilogues.
In 1957 Pound changed the title of his poem from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Life and Contacts) to Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Contacts and Life) and wanted the fact noticed: "Note inversion in sub-title of Mauberley, NOT Life and Contacts, but the actual order of the subject matter." This seems to suggest that the actual order of his poem about Mauberley makes its first section an account of Mauberley's contacts—and not, as many critics were concluding, Pound's own—just as it makes the second section what almost everyone was granting and still grants, an account of Mauberley's life.
But what makes this so important? The contacts are obviously Pound's. He did, however, at the time he began Mauberley, have a problem. As Bush has made us aware, he had come to believe—influenced by what he saw as Laforgue's advance over Flaubert—that "ideas," in Pound's words, have "little value apart from the modality of the mind which receives them." That is, all a writer actually manages to convey is his "façon de voir," his "modality of apperception." Pound's problem in 1919 was that he had not as yet been able to create a language in which he could express all that made up his own "modality of apperception." And until he solved that problem—which he began to do that year with "Canto 4"—he was consciously confined to exploring those partial aspects of his own vision for which, up to that time, he had found the language. Since 1916 he had explored one such aspect in what he called the "archaic language" of his Provençal poems; still another in the contrastingly "realistic" moeurs contemporaines poems; and still another in the Propertian and Laforgian Homage to Sextus Propertius. These poems he published together in 1921, along with the aesthete-oriented Mauberley, and "Cantos 4-7." And it was of this volume that he wrote Quinn, telling him that in contrast to the other poems the four new cantos "come out of the middle of me and are not a mask, are what I have to say…." This makes Mauberley, all of it, including the first section and its "Envoi," spoken through a mask.
But can't the mask be that of a Pound who, still developing, is not yet fully able to express himself, an "E.P."—as he is referred to in the poem—who embodies an aspect of Pound but not all of him? This would get us out of some of our problems; and it echoes a suggestion K. K. Ruthven made in 1969. But since it gives us Pound using the mask of a partial self to write about what we have to conclude is another Pound mask, the argument becomes more involuted than we would like, and ends up entangled in the same old side-issue, as it tries to differentiate the Pound-Propertian mask from the Mauberley-aesthetic one.
The battle between Poundians and anti-Poundians, modernists and anti-modernists may not be entirely over—may only have assumed another form—but it seems time to conclude that Pound wrote the first section of Mauberley in Mauberley's voice, using him, warts and all, as a "surface" that allowed him to "condense the James novel." Nothing in Mauberley's first section, "Envoi" included, grows from passion in any Propertian sense. The section echoes Gautier in almost every one of its individual poems, as Espey has shown us, and of Gautier's aestheticism there can be no question. And it has what Pound thought a Jamesian subject, moeurs contemporaines, treated from an English aesthete's disdainful, culture-soaked, beauty-loving point of view. To conclude that Pound had deserted his practice of speaking through masks and was writing in his own voice—when it seems clear he had not yet found that voice—and that he was doing so by imitating an aesthete's poems and metrics, is but one more of those strangely involuted conclusions which critics of the poem's first section, seeking to put Pound into the poem, have offered us.
If Mauberley's second section must, like the first and for the same reasons, be read as an expression of Mauberley's "façon de voir," it must be read as Leavis read it, as a turn inward toward self-analysis. It is important, then, to place its composition in Mauberley's life.
In the poem's second section, we are told that during a three-year period Mauberley "drank ambrosia" and had some relationship with a girl "among whose phantasmagoria" he "moved." In 1919, toward the end of that relationship, he wrote "Envoi." Shortly after writing it but before 1920, the date of the poem's second section, the relationship collapsed: "came end to that Arcadia." Bewildered, adrift, Mauberley found himself "unable in the supervening blankness / To sift TO AGATHON from the chaff" until he found a new way of registering realities: "until he found his sieve … / Ultimately his seismograph."
Having found that seismograph, Mauberley charts his own failure in relation to his world's. And given the precise and beautiful finality of the analysis, it is not enough to say of the section as Bush very perceptively has—leading us in exactly the right direction, toward a single evolving consciousness—that it is written in a less "youthfully vigorous version of the restless, abstracted voice" of the first. What Bush's view does not give enough weight is a perception of aestheticism's viable future, one which, born in the first section under the influence of Gautier, has in both sections, as a result of what Pound found or thought he found in Laforgue, been deepened and put to new uses.
That Pound sought in Mauberley to bring into English poetry what Gautier had achieved in French is another thing all the poem's critics agree upon. Evaluating the work of what he called "the men of 'the nineties,'" Pound had decided by the time he wrote Mauberley that the nineties poets had accomplished in English what Gautier had accomplished in France by 1830, but had failed to go on to emulate the "hardness" and "clearness" of his later Émaux et Camées. What he found in Laforgue that makes Laforgue important to Mauberley was another advance to catch up with; "the next phase after Gautier in French poetry."
Laforgue was, as Leo Weinstein has pointed out, a poet different from the aesthetes before him because he didn't react as they did with dissoluteness, rebellion, and hashish. As Weinstein goes on to say, he "understood and admired his predecessors" but—like Mauberley—"was also aware of how puerile certain aspects of … [their] revolts were and to what extent they were a pose." Out of that awareness, a part of the tradition he criticized, he developed, Weinstein says, a "less spectacular" attitude which "turning inward … produced works of … urbane irony (often self-irony, the anti-dote for self-pity) and wit."
What we can find in Mauberley, in both its sections, are exactly the ironic Laforgian characteristics of language and attitude that Weinstein defines. And Pound himself singled them out. What Pound saw in Laforgue was, he said, an artist "nine-tenths … critic" who took "literary poses and clichés … as his subject matter" and wrote about them, "not [in] the popular language of any country but [in] an international tongue common to the excessively cultivated". This is, of course, just what Mauberley does, with exactly the attitude Weinstein defines and in exactly the language Pound describes. He writes of the literary poses and clichés of the English aesthetes of the nineties and their late-Victorian world as well as those that typify his own England, and, finally, "turning inward" with "self-irony" and "wit," his own "Olympian apathein" and its inevitable consequences.
And when we come to Mauberley's deepest feelings about himself and his world, another aspect of Laforgue's poetry takes on significance. For Pound thought it was perhaps Laforgue's greatest merit that he was able to present his criticisms in such a way as to use them as "a vehicle for the expression of his own personal emotions." Mauberley's "personal emotions" become more than an aesthete's stereotypical dandyism as soon as we realize that Pound's study of Laforgue paid dividends here also. To that we can now turn.
Perceiving that aestheticism and science come to share, at a certain point in their development, a similar stance and a similar strategy, Laforgue had, as Pound pointed out, "dipped his wings in the dye of scientific terminology." Hence, in Laforgue's case, such phrases as the one Pound quotes, which describes the beardless Pierrot as having "un air d'hydrocephale asperge" [an air of a hydrocephalic asparagus stalk]. And hence also one aspect of Mauberley's second section, imbued as it is with a carefully poised analytic objectivity not at all unlike that with which an internist, in the highly technical language of his art, charts the course of some terminal disease; let us, to keep the parallel, even assume it his own. The similarity here is obvious. A language that informs us that "for three years, diabolus in the scale, he drank ambrosia … came end to that Arcadia" shares characteristics with the one a doctor would use if he wrote of his own state that his melanoma was resected but had in fact already metastasized. Both the doctor and the aesthete have, that is to say, substituted for what Yeats in "Byzantium" called "the mire of human veins," a world of carefully distanced intellectual precisions that screen and structure and give new emotional weight to a messy reality from which they must remain, as a condition of their art, detached.
What Laforgue was mocking and exploiting with his "scientific terminology" was, then, a methodology and an attitude coming into prominence all about him. At their worst they created the slant of mind for which Flaubert's Homais, without intelligence or character, won his Legion of Honor. At their best they animate the objectively distanced concern and skill Flaubert finds in the heroic Dr. Larivière, and perfects in himself so he can write Madame Bovary, ("Emma Bovary, c'est moi!") To any understanding of that attitude and its enabling techniques Homais is a key. For what Homais has appropriated, and so delightfully caricatures, is just what he thought it: a most promising method of dealing in Olympian detachment with the petty, the vulgar, and the painful. He dines with Dr. Larivière hoping to enjoy a learned discussion of Emma's death agony. ("'Saccharum, doctor?' said he, offering the sugar") What is involved in Mauberley's poetic experiments is, then, much more than an aesthete's lack of Propertian drive. It is the evolving nature of dominant western attitudes.
Much of what is accomplished in Mauberley's first section has been clear for decades—however miscredited to Propertian virility. Something of what is accomplished in its second becomes obvious as soon as one stops trying to impose a Pound versus Mauberley question on the poem and compares the two sections' final lyrics, noting how different they are in their similarity.
Luini in porcelain!
The grand piano
Utters a profane
Protest with her clear soprano.
The sleek head emerges
From the gold-yellow frock
As Anodyomene in the opening
Pages of Reinach.
Honey-red, closing the face-oval,
A basket-work of braids which seem as if they were
Spun in King Minos' hall
From metal, or intractable amber;
The face-oval beneath the glaze,
Bright in its suave bounding-line, as,
Beneath half-watt rays,
The eyes turn topaz.
The author of this poem, writing a new tribute to the singing girl, does seek, like the author of "Envoi," the comfort of life's aesthetic surfaces to escape its painful depths. He too loves the permanence of amber and the lasting beauty of art. But his love of art and artifice is not, like that in "Envoi," an Elizabethan echo.
And that it is not, and that it arouses as a consequence no favorable reflexes, tells us something important about the conditioning influence Elizabethan lyric poetry has had upon English poetic expectations down even into the twentieth century. For it is not too much to say that Elizabethan lyricists were, like the author of "Envoi" more than three hundred years later, obsessed with mutability, that they too yearned for worlds of artificial permanence that would outlast their animal flesh: marble, or the gilded monuments of princes, or this powerful rhyme. What is important here is that the Elizabethan songs and sonnets which satisfied that yearning contained, Pound felt, a wisdom, almost perhaps an ultimate wisdom, lacking, he concluded, in guts.
It is a conclusion that seems at first surprising but isn't. For it is one that had sooner or later to surface in a post-Elizabethan world which had come to think of art as a total and honest expression of—rather than, as the Elizabethan lyricists did, a carefully and beautifully wrought complement to—life's realities. And when the change was finally complete, what was needed was not of necessity what we find in Yeats's Byzantium poems: some passionately intense expression within the poem itself of the agonizing difference between art and life. A different solution—Mauberley's kind of solution, Laforgue's kind—would merely include within the poem quietly and with deflating irony the knowledge Elizabethan poets felt needed no acknowledgment at all: that any work of art is a created counterpoint to, not a substitute for, the breathing human life whose existence it replaces only at a cost.
In some ways the two approaches—Mauberley's and Yeats's—have like results. In their love of beauty and artifice and their awareness that art is not a living thing, both poets create worlds that are critical of and ambivalent about their own points of view. Bodies of hammered gold are as insistently artificial and life-denying as braids spun from metal or intractable amber; and the young in one another's arms are as vivid a definition of a breathing world lost as Mauberley's still stone dogs biting the empty air. But, from the point of view that creates Mauberley's final lyric, to pretend with great intensity that the artificial is better than the living, as Yeats can seem to do, while at the same time complaining passionately that it isn't, as Yeats can also seem to do, is to lack—what Yeats would scorn to have—"sobriety." There is, however, something to be said for sobriety. One can, in some moods, find seas that are mackerel-crowded, dolphin-torn, and gong-tormented a little much. Despite his genius, Yeats remained, as Eliot remarked, "perhaps a little too much the weather-worn Triton among the streams." One cannot conceive of the poet who wrote "Medallion" yearning to be an artificial bird.
Putting "Medallion" by Yeats's Byzantium poems and at the same lime by any of the sonnets Shakespeare mocked in "My mistress' eyes"—sonnets praising, not hair like braids spun from metal or amber, but lips of coral, breasts like snow or ivory—does therefore reveal something about it. We need only assume that the voice of "Medallion" is as aware of the nature of the tradition he is working in as Shakespeare was, and as Pound certainly was—and as critic after critic reading "Medallion" has suddenly become without fully realizing it. When we do, "Medallion" becomes at once a more significant attempt to explore the continuing possibilities of an English poetic tradition than "Envoi," and as significant an attempt as "Sailing to Byzantium." And what is most important, of course, is that it becomes so at exactly the points most often criticized as effete failures, those points that unfold a world of carefully defined aesthetic surfaces insistently what they are and nothing more: a world where "beneath half-watt rays, / The eyes turn topaz," or a girl's head "emerges" from a "gold-yellow frock / As Anadyomene in the opening / Pages of Reinach." In its insistence upon what art worlds are and aren't, this world differs markedly from the verbally intoxicating, reality-defying one of roses "in magic amber laid" of "Envoi," whose merit, after all, is that it is not a modern poem at all but a beautifully crafted poetic echo.
The resulting emotions, being new and significant, are, as Kenner noted almost forty years ago, complexly fused and not readily definable. ("Beauty? Irony? Geometrical and optical fact?" Kenner asked of "Medallion" in 1950.) One might add that they are also, as in event proved, not readily apprehensible—either in "Medallion" or in the second section as a whole, where they occur in a variety of ways. But it is their presence that makes Mauberley's entire second half an even more interesting accomplishment than its first, whose achievements are more readily responded to—though they are finally of the same order.
All of which makes the entire poem just what Pound suggested that it was—its author's "farewell" to London and to an indigenous and beloved English poetic tradition that had come down to him through the nineties. This tradition, he believed, had from the start sought to escape from life's mutabilities, and had now before it in a new age—so far as he could see—only the delicately poised, brilliantly diagnostic, and finally ineffectual dead ends his poem defined.
One may note, however, in a final concession to those who condemn Mauberley for lacking what they see as sexual drive and all that Pound thought could grow from passion, that they are in their way right. There are indeed definite limitations to the approach taken in Mauberley: those Pound felt limited Laforgue's acceptance. "The red-blood," Pound noted, "has turned away [from Laforgue]…. Delicate irony, the citadel of the intelligent, has," he pointed out, "a curious effect on these people." "They wish always to be exhorted, at all times … to do those things which almost anyone will and does do whenever suitable opportunity is presented." Despite which, the brilliance of at least some of the poems in Mauberley's first section, the precision and the carefully distanced pathos of its second, and even—as Berryman has pointed out—the severe, clear, metallic beauty of "Medallion," have impressed critic after critic who has read the poem, yearning all the time, as the new century was, as in fact Ezra Pound himself was, for something more red-blooded, something less delicately ironic.
This section contains 5,655 words
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