Thursday, 19 January 2017

Ezra Pound - Slates his Critics in his Poem "E.P. Ode"


"E.P. Ode Pour L'Election de Son Sepulchre" (E.P. Ode on the Choice of His Tomb) is the first poem in the series of eighteen poems comprising Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, first published in June 1920.

Pound's Contempt for his Critics

Unfortunately, the poems were frequently misconstrued by Pound's readers, who admired the persona of Mauberley and missed the point that Pound used the mask of Mauberley as representative of the critics of the period, who discredited him. Jo Brantley Berryman says, in the "Preface" to Circe's Craft"The voice of Mauberley echoes many of the prevalent attitudes and judgements that frustrated and antagonized Pound"  Pound's motivation, therefore, is to express his contempt of those critics.

Challenges for the Pound Scholar

Donald Davie questions: "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a mask that continually slips... What is the mask for, if, as often as not, the poet throws it off and speak vulnerably as and from himself?"
Berryman blames the confusion between Pound and Mauberley on Pound's own ironic wit. "For more than six decades, Pound has been, in critical commentary, the victim of his own irony."

What is an "Epode"?

"E.P. Ode Pour L'Election de Son Sepulchre" contains a pun in the poem's title, which begins: "E.P. Ode." "The term "Epode" in classical literature is a lyric metre or after-song of sombre character following a strophe and anti-strophe," says Peter Brooker. (An epode is a form of lyric poem written in couplets, each of a long line followed by a shorter one, while a "strophe" is a section of this.)
The poem is described by Pound as a farewell to London, which ties up with "epode" in its sense of departure, of being an "after-song." This London is symbolic of a declining, decaying empire and against this, Pound contrasts the beauty and Ariel-like spirit of ancient Greece: 
"Christ follows Dionysus, / Phallic and ambrosial / Made way for macerations. / Caliban casts out Ariel." In the allusion to The Tempest in the last line, Pound is complaining that delightful Ariel is banished by the careless cruelty of sloppy, formless Caliban (the id), symbolic of a declining, uncaring England.

Pound - the Dreamer of Dreams

"Like the "dreamer of dreams" Pound relies on his "murmuring rhyme" to "suffice," and on the reader to read his meaning. It is inevitable he will be disappointed, for even the first line: "For three years out of key with his time," suggests uncertainty of meaning. We must ask: "In what way is Pound out of key?" Berryman says: "Mauberley... suggests that E.P. has been born out of his proper time because he was "born / In a half-savage country."
However, Berryman explains, at no time does Ezra Pound consider himself behind the times or out-of-fashion. On the contrary, he is a forward-thinker, ahead of his time, and any instability in communication between poet and reader/critic is, in his view, the responsibility of that reader/critic.

Art is Always in Advance of the General Consciousness

Pound, born in Idaho, left for New York before he was two years old and he takes issue with the uninformed opinion associating him with the roughness of the American frontier. Pound responds to the critics of Mauberley as follows: "The worst muddle they make is in failing to see that Mauberley buries E.P. in the first poem; gets rid of all his troublesome energies."
Even allowing for the poet's occasional arrogance and indignation at being misconstrued, he is correct in recognising that art is always in advance of the general consciousness and is of little use to contemporary culture. This lagging behind of the general consciousness is a way in which meaning is deferred. It is deferred, simply, until readers are ready for it - and this must have been a blow to Pound's ego.
Berryman explains that the years 1914-1917 were Pound's Vorticist years, a time when he produced work which he regarded as his most important. Pound says, in his essay on Vorticism: "In the "search for oneself," in the search for "sincere self-expression" one gropes, one finds some seeming verity. One says, "I am" this, that or the other, and with the words scarcely uttered, one ceases to be that thing."

Ambiguity in Pound's Poetic Persona 

In establishing who is speaking, one might ask: "Who most admires elegance, Pound or Mauberley?" A passage from Donald Davie's Ezra Pound may help clarify this: "Too much of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is attitudinizing." Davie explains that Pound elaborately attempts to be urbane, but as he is naturally shy in social situations, his persona fails. "Accordingly, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a mask that continually slips," says Davie. It seems that in this initial poem, Ezra Pound is trying to be the fictional character Mauberley, but failing, and that the lines about the elegance of Circe's hair may be a point at which the slippage is particularly revealing.

Pound includes classical allusions from Greek mythology to Shakespearean tragedy, and his use of other languages, including Greek, sometimes blur meaning.
Certainly, the 
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley poems present a challenge to the Pound scholar who, having unpacked the meaning of language, then questions which opinions belong to Pound and which to the persona of Mauberley. 

Note: Pound sometimes named, and sometimes numbered his poems. Verses numbered II to V are separate poems, and not part of the "E.P. Ode."

Sources:Circe's Craft, Jo Brantley Berryman, UMI Research Press, Michigan, 1983.
Ezra Pound, Donald Davie, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1975.
A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, Peter Brooker, Faber & Faber, London, 1979.
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Selected Poems, 1908-1969, Ezra Pound, Faber & Faber, London, 1977.

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