Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) is a long, quasi-autobiographical poem consisting of 18 parts. The first part is reprinted below with some annotations. Written in the aftermath of the First World War, it is one of Pound’s most accessible and compelling creations, evoking the anguish of the war and the disillusionment that followed–the social and intellectual crucible from which Fascism and National Socialism were to emerge. The version below follows the recording of Pound’s reading, in which he made two small changes from the original printed version.
E.P. ODE POUR L’ELECTION DE SON SEPULCHRE
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—
No, hardly, but seeing he had been born
In a half savage country, out of date;
Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn;
Capaneus; trout for factitious bait;
“Ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ’, ὅσ ‘ένι Τροίη”
Caught in the unstopped ear;
Giving the rocks small lee-way
The chopped seas held him, therefore, that year.
His true Penelope was Flaubert,
He fished by obstinate isles;
Observed the elegance of Circe’s hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.
Unaffected by “the march of events,”
He passed from men’s memory in l’an trentuniesme
De son eage; the case presents
No adjunct to the Muses’ diadem.
The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;
Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Than the classics in paraphrase!
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 tea-rose tea-gown, etc.
Supplants the mousseline of Cos,
the pianola “replaces”
Christ follows Dionysus,
Phallic and ambrosial
Made way for macerations;
Caliban casts out Ariel.
All things are a flowing,
Sage Heracleitus says;
But a tawdry cheapness
Shall outlast our days.
Even the Christian beauty
We see to kalon
Decreed in the market place.
Faun’s flesh is not to us,
Nor the saint’s vision.
We have the press for wafer;
Franchise for circumcision.
All men, in law, are equals.
Free of Peisistratus,
We choose a knave or an eunuch
To rule over us.
O bright Apollo,
tin andra, tin heroa, tina theon,
What god, man, or hero
Shall I place a tin wreath upon!
These fought in any case,
and some believing, pro domo, in any case . . .
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 . . .
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some, pro patria, non dulce non et decor . . .
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.
Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
fair cheeks, and fine bodies;
fortitude as never before
frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.
There died a myriad,
and of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.
1. E. P. = Ezra Pound, “Ode for the Selection of His Tomb”
2. Capaneus: One of seven against Thebes struck down by lightning for his hubris.
3. From the sirens’ song, Odyssey XII, 189: “We know all the things that belong to Troy.”
4. Mottoes on sundials tend to speak of the shortness of life and the swiftness of time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sundial_mottos
5. “In the thirty-first year of his life”; cf. the opening of Francois Villon’s Le Testament.
6. Mousseline of Cos: in Greco-Roman antiquity, a fine, light fabric from the Island of Cos.
7. Barbitos: a 7-stringed lyre-like instrument
8. Peisistratus: Athenian tyrant of the 6th century BCE.
9. “To kalon,” Greek for “the fine,” adopted as a brand name for soap.
10. Riffing on “What god, what hero, aye, what man shall we loudly praise!” from Pindar, Olympian Odes II, 2.
11. “For the house”
12. “For the fatherland, neither sweetly nor gloriously.” Inverting Horace, Odes III, ii, 13: “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (it is sweet and glorious to die for one’s fatherland).