The primary difficulty of Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” lies in identifying the speaker in each of the respective poems in the sequence. Is Pound speaking, or is Mauberley? Precisely what is the relationship between the two? And what ideas is Pound ultimately trying to communicate? There is no consensus; conflicting interpretations, based on every possible combination and permutation of Pound and Mauberley exist.
Instead of delving into the complex and multi-layered possibilities of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” in an attempt to elucidate a speaker, this interpretation does not search for—nor require— a speaker or a persona. Indeed, the only poem that necessitates a clear speaker is “Envoi (1920).” “Envoi” alone, it will be argued, is definitively and wholly in Pound’s voice. As an individual poem, “Envoi” serves to show Pound’s meditations on poetry in the post-war period. As part of a greater poetic sequence, “Envoi” functions as the crucial rupture that disrupts the pre-Raphaelite environment in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” The relationship between “Envoi” by itself and as a greater whole is used for contrast, emphasizing the increasing divergence between Pound and the aesthete. In the end, “Envoi” is Pound’s definitive assertion and emergence of his identity and beliefs. It is the crucial moment of separation between Pound, who goes on to seek true poetic substance, and Mauberley, who continues to languish in pre-Raphaelite deadness. Ultimately, “Envoi” is Pound’s triumph in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” where he exposes and overcomes the failures of the aesthetic zeitgeist.
It is first necessary to establish that the sequence of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” deliberately eludes concrete attempts to identify a narrator, except in “Envoi.” Pound was extremely adept with the use of persona and dramatic monologue. Completely critical to the persona and the dramatic monologue is the use of the first person, the presence of the alter-ego. Yet “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” only has four poems apart from “Envoi” that use the first person: poems III, VII, IX and XII, all from Part I. Even then, these first person references are negligible. For Poem III, “What god, man or hero / Shall I place a tin wreath upon!” is a pun on the preceding lines from Pindar (III 27-28; Ruthven 132). Poems VII, IX and XII are vignettes of Verog, Nixon and Valentine respectively, and this is where the importance is placed. The “I’ in these three poems exists as an observer rather than an individual agent, relevant only in relation to Verog, Nixon and Valentine. Verog, Nixon and Valentine are synecdoches of the wider pre-Raphaelite context from the time: the forgotten Nineties poet, the sellout commercial artist and the fashionable high society elitist. Here, the “I” is being shaped by the wider context, “I await The Lady Valentine’s command” (XII 4). The identity of the “I” does not matter so much as its presence. To try to assign Part I to Pound or Mauberley is to miss the point: Part I is not about an individual, but about a context. “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace” (II 1-2). In this sense, “I” can be Pound, Mauberley, or any other person from the period who was obedient to the age’s demand. Part I paints a vivid portrait of a decaying art culture obsessed with aesthetics and commercialism. Interestingly, the original subtitle of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” “Life and Contacts,” was later changed by Pound to “Contacts and Life” to reflect this chronology. Part I is about the contacts that influenced the art scene at the time. Part II is about Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and his life as a result of these contacts.
“Envoi (1919)” separates Part I and Part II, and acts as the crucial point of rupture. “Envoi” departs from the rest of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” in many ways. Examined under a bibliographic code, the typography of “Envoi” is unique in that it is completely italicized. This suggests a break with the previous poems. Structurally, “Envoi” is a pastiche of Edmund Waller’s “Go, Lovely Rose” (Ruthven 141). For the most part, Part I was written in quatrains. Quatrains were popular among the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly after the publication of Rubaiyat (Ruthven 134). Pound, however, believed that “The English Rubaiyat was still-born / In those days” (VI 15-16). The use of quatrains in Part I functions as a meta-fictive device, exposing the depths of the artistic decay that is able to permeate into the very poem. “Envoi,” however, is firmly lyrical, suggesting an escape from the age’s accelerated grimace. “Envoi” hence frees itself from the failures and restrictions of the Contacts of Part I.
More importantly, “Envoi” marks the first active utilization of the first person: “I would bid them live / As roses might, in magic amber laid” (Envoi 12-13). Here, it can finally be argued that there is a speaker: Pound. While it could be argued that “Envoi” is spoken by Mauberley, this is extremely unlikely given Part II, where Mauberley is shown to be still docile to the Contacts. The simile of the rose holds particular significance. The rose is associated with beauty, but should also be remembered in the context of “Pierian roses” from the previous poem (XII 28). Pieria refers to the place the muses were worshipped (Ruthven 140). Roses, then, are not mere symbols of beauty, but symbols of ultimate beauty and artistic inspiration. Pound, it would seem, admired Waller’s poetry and musicality. He takes the “Rose” from Waller’s title, “Go, Lovely Rose” and incorporates it as a key recurring motif in his pastiche and poem.
“Envoi” is necessarily self-aware of its place in the sequence of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”—“Envoi” can only exist in defiance to the context presented in Part I. The first stanza establishes “Envoi” as an apostrophe, where Pound addresses the “dumb-born book” (Envoi 1). This “dumb-born book” is a self-reflexive reference, synonymous with the “still-born” quatrain poetry that is being produced in the context of Part I (VI 15). Indeed, this is the reason why Pound uses a pastiche. The lyric tradition Pound wants to revive must be approached through Waller (a poet who pre-dates the pre-Raphaelites) as the existing poetic scene has been vastly corrupted.
Pound uses the anaphora of “Tell her that,” also taken from Waller, to apostrophize to a symbolic personification of Beauty through the “dumb-born book.” It should be kept in mind that envois were traditionally used by the troubadours to address friends and patrons. “Envoi” can hence be read as an apostrophe to the personification of Beauty, who is both Pound’s companion and muse. In this sense, Lady Valentine from the preceding poem can be seen as a foil to this figure of Beauty. This contrast serves to show Pound’s increasing divergence from the Contacts. The aesthete context has been increasingly sapped by Pound’s desire to serve Beauty.
Lady Valentine is very much a product of her environment, overwhelmingly concerned with aesthetics at the cost of true substance. The struggling poet would feel inadequate because of his shabbiness, knowing that only appearance can impress or “stimulate, in her, A durable passion” (XII 5-8). This “durable passion” is particularly ironic and faintly mocking—how can a piece of cloth give any true artistic inspiration? Pound in “Envoi” sees a woman as desirable and vital. This is in clear contrast to the context found in Part I, where the primal desires have been suppressed and destroyed, “No instinct had survived in her” (XI 6).This lack of substance and intensity is one of the main criticisms that Pound levies against the London and its art scene. In comparison to the transience of Lady Valentine’s fleeting fancies, “Envoi” firmly explores the idea of lasting and significant art. This lack of fervor by Valentine (and Nixon and Verog too) is because of their emphasis on aesthetics and mass appeal. “Envoi” utilizes the complimentary musicality of the source poem, “Go, Lovely Rose” to craft a deeper interior. “That song of Lawes,” refers to the fact that Waller’s poems were set to music composed by Lawes, a quality Pound expresses desire for in the third stanza (Ruthven 140). Pound believes that this dynamic poetic form combined with artistic muse can result in true eternal Beauty: “Change hath broken down / All things save Beauty alone” (Envoi 25-26). This animation and belief gives “Envoi” its touching splendor. No aesthete, including Mauberley, would be capable of crafting, or would even seek to craft, such a poem. This is where Pound’s ultimate triumph lies. In a lifeless environment where art has become sterile and superficial, Pound is nevertheless willing and able to produce a vibrant and lasting poem.
An envoi is traditionally at the end of the poem. “Envoi (1919)” marks the end of Pound’s journey. Mauberley, on the other hand, takes a different path. Part II, titled “Mauberley 1920” is an exploration of Mauberley’s poetic endeavors, divergent from Pound’s. Interestingly, Part II acknowledges that a year has passed: Mauberley’s separation from Pound is now complete. The two can no longer inhabit the same “I.” Pound has completely discarded the Contacts while Mauberley clings on. Part II consists of four poems and “Medallion.” The four poems broadly explore Mauberley’s failures and continued submission to the pre-Raphaelite context. There contains numerous references to Part I, effectively showing the causal link between the two halves. Part I is partially responsible for Mauberley’s condition in Part II—indeed, Part II resumes the tradition of using the quatrain. This continues to emphasize Pound triumph in leaving in “Envoi” where Mauberley fails and continues to remain.
“Medallion” poses the same narrative problem that plagues “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” However, given an interpretation that does not require an identification of the speaker, “Medallion” should be seen as its content dictates: the work of an aesthete obsessed with permanence but lacking in substance. Part II offers small hints that Mauberley wishes to follow Pound in searching for true Beauty. Mauberley, “For three years, diabolus in the scale,” recalls the previous “three years, out of key with his time” (II 1; Ode 1). Where Pound was able to break through with “Envoi” after three years, Mauberley gorges himself on ambrosia, even as he corrupts the musical “scale” so crucial to Beauty. Mauberley finally realizes his mistake, but this revelation comes too late. Mauberley’s version of Pound’s “Envoi,” “Medallion” only further reiterates the increasing distance between Pound and Mauberley.
“Medallion” can be attributed to Mauberley or to Pound writing ironically as Mauberley would, but again, such a point is extraneous. What is important is that “Medallion” shares broad similarities with “Envoi,” but is ultimately unable to escape from the deadening aestheticism—indeed, “Medallion” continues to be structured in quatrains. Both poems deal with the same subject of Beauty and permanence. However, whereas “Envoi” is animated and musical, “Medallion” is dead and static. “Medallion” traps the woman, “Luini in porcelain!” (Medallion 1). Where “Envoi” is lyrically intoxicating with its musicality, “Medallion” is so forced and false that Beauty herself “Utters a profane / Protest with her clear soprano” (Medallion 3-4). Whereas Pound looked towards the eternal and transcendental beauty that would outlast “Siftings on siftings in oblivion,” “Medallion” looks towards a frozen inertia.
It is ultimately this divergence that is at the crux of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” “Envoi (1920)” functions as Pound’s explicit assertion of his ideas and identity in a hostile pre-Raphaelite environment. Mauberley, as a poet from the same origins, fails to produce anything substantial because of his reliance on aesthetics. Importantly, “Envoi” also serves as a point of comparison against which the Contacts and their context can be measured against. “Envoi” is Pound’s triumph in restoring music and Beauty to art. “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is widely seen as Pound’s farewell to London. Perhaps more specifically, it can be said that Pound only completely exits the decaying London scene in “Envoi,” never to look back.
Pound, Ezra. “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Contacts and Life).” Personae. New York: New Directions, 1990. 183-202. Print.
Ruthven, K. K. “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Personae 1936. California: University of California Press, 1983. 128-147. Print.