Hugh Selwyn Mauberley by Ezra Pound: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Rebecca Imre
In this lesson you will review the language and symbolism in Ezra Pound's long poem, 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.' By the end of this lesson, you should have an understanding of Pound's purpose in writing the poem, the poem's structure, and some significant insights into the symbols used in the poem.

Ezra Pound wrote poetry nearly 100 years ago, but his work will resonate with any modern critic of reality TV today. Pound was as disgusted then with popular literature as many people are now with bad sitcoms and reality shows. He believed that awful contemporary literature degraded the classics, which he regarded as the most beautiful works in history. Just as some people today watch The Kardashians and are horrified at the commercialization of our society, Pound felt that literature in his time had become too commercialized. He belonged to the movement known as Modernism.

Modernism was prevalent from around 1915 to 1965. An easy way to remember Modernism's important points is to think of the word BEACH, where each letter stands for an element of this school of thought:

  • Break with tradition, particularly with religious and political views of the past
  • Everything in the world is as we perceive it; we create reality by our perception of it
  • All truth is relative; there is no absolute truth
  • Champion of the individual, not society
  • History is a negative thing; only the present is important

Pound and Modernism

Like poets T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound was a Modernist who believed that modern culture was decaying and degenerate. Modernism was a literary movement that rose out of World War I. Modernists believed that the literary forms that had worked well in the 1890s were inadequate to explain reality in light of the horrors of the Great War.

Although Pound agreed with the Modernists on many points, his love for classic literature set him apart. While many Modernists felt that historical literature was of little value, Pound longed for a return to the great classics of earlier times. Pound also believed that the taste of the average man or woman was no rule for great art. In other words, he was a bit of an elitist who believed that only those with true literary insight could understand great literature. As such, he believed many pieces written for the modern age were terrible, mass-produced garbage.

Pound's long poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a treatise on the problems of modern life, seen through the eyes of the fictional man for whom the poem is named. Like T.S. Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, this poem allows readers a glimpse into Pound's frustration with what he perceives to be his own failure as a poet in the modern world. Using the imaginary Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound is able to view himself from a detached point of view. The character acts as a stand-in for Pound's own struggles with poetry.

The Structure of the Poem

The poem is made up of 18 short stanzas grouped into two large sections.

The first section is entitled E.P. Ode pour l'élection de son sépulchre, which is French for Ezra Pound: Ode for the Choice of His Grave. It is a biography of the author, where his death symbolizes his perceived inability to capture ideas in poetry. The first section of the work deals with Pound himself and his views on society, culture, and the state of the arts at the time of his writing. In this section, Pound begins by saying:

He strove to resuscitate the dead art

Of poetry; to maintain 'the sublime'

In the old sense. Wrong from the start--

Pound is doomed from the beginning to be unsuccessful, but he continues anyway. He notes the tropes or symbolic types of people of his age:

Some quick to arm,

some for adventure,

some from fear of weakness,

some from fear of censure,

some for love of slaughter, in imagination,

learning later…

The second section of the poem is written by Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, a fictional man whose writing is cold and poetically ideal. Nevertheless, Mauberley's work also deals with commonplace topics such as failure as a poet and troubles in love.

Nothing, in brief, but maudlin confession,

Irresponse to human aggression,

Amid the precipitation, down-float

Of insubstantial manna,

Lifting the faint susurrus

Of his subjective hosannah.

Ultimate affronts to human redundancies;

Non-esteem of self-styled 'his betters'

Leading, as he well knew,

To his final

Exclusion from the world of letters.

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