Ezra Pound Poems
Fading Margins: Adventure and Transience in “Ulysses” and “The Seafarer”
Both Lord Alfred Tennyson’s dramatic monologue, “Ulysses,” and Ezra Pound’s 1912 translation of the Old English dramatic monologue “The Seafarer” depict a man’s musings about seaward journeys. Tennyson wrote “Ulysses” in the wake of his best friend Arthur Henry Hallam’s death. “The Seafarer” has traditionally been recognised for its overtly elegiac overtones. One may assume that their similarity in setting and style would thus render thematic parallels. In fact, as this paper will attempt to demonstrate by analysing sound elements and syntactic components, the poems’ thematic interests are similar, but in intentional stance, incommensurable. The former poem looks optimistically—even idealistically— to the human capacity to embrace change and adventure, while the latter reflects mournfully on the transience and loss inherent to human existence.
Ulysses’ active voice, rich in direct syntax, can sustain long sentences while maintaining a powerful, regal tone befitting a king. Like “The Seafarer,” the speaker muses upon his surroundings rather than himself: “By this still hearth, among these barren crags, / matched with an aged wife,” (2-3) but reveals himself through this process: “I am a part of all that I have met,” (18). This is apparent in syntactic arrangement as well. Like “The Seafarer,” some of the basic transitive sentences of “Ulysses” invert the normal subject/verb/object word order. “Much have I seen and known,” (13) means I have seen and known much; but the poet emphasizes the priority of sight and visual images before knowledge. In “Ulysses,” it is arguable that the form of dramatic monologue is more direct than in “The Seafarer”. Besides including far fewer inverted sentences, the former poem produces the impression of one or more audiences who actively listen to the speech. Line 33’s direct object pronoun, “This is my son,” and other prepositions which initiate new sections of his speech, indicate specific contextual placement. These indications, as well as present tense speech and the natural flow of his blank verse situate Ulysses in a present, specific moment. These formal conventions would meet the standards of the dramatic monologue more fully than “The Seafarer”, if not for the former speaker’s explicit intention to interact with his memories.
Consider the Seafarer’s first lines: “May I for my own self song’s truth reckon, / journey’s jargon,” (1-2). They offer layers of dense repetition in which to enter the reflective monologue. Between the subject, “I”, and the deferred predicate compliment “song’s truth” is a densely reflective subordinate clause. In it is another possessive arrangement –“my own”— which the reader may open, only to find another inside, like Russian dolls. “Reckon,” being a verb, is the most active and direct part of the sentence, denotes contemplation and reflection. Finally, “journey’s jargon” confirms more explicitly what the sentence structure had implied— and implies that the jargon in which he speaks is itself a journey. This repetitive syntax communicates both the speaker’s intention to reflect, but also conveys the effect of reflection in the line’s arrangement. The conspicuously folded form of the lines lends itself to displaying inner recesses of progressively more symbolic meaning.
Like “Ulyesses,” syntax within sentences is often rearranged in the latter poem. Predicate consistently, almost formally, appears before subject within phrases. On a larger scale, too, entire phrases are presented as noun phrases, connected passively by punctuation alone: “Coldly afflicted, / my feet were by frost benumbed. / Chill its chains are…” (8-10). In longer sentences, successions these images cause the reader to form his own connotative connections between them. Often only the pronoun “I” or “my” connects the images, letting the reader fill in a portrayal of the speaker himself. The effect is not only a speaker illustrated and depicted by his own listed images, but also resounding metaphors formed by the repetition of the motifs of these images.
In line 21, “sea fowls’ loudness was for me laughter,” the sound-image of raucous ocean birds appears before the metaphor is assigned. Two lines later, with “the mew’s singing all my mead-drink,” (23) a repetition of denotation in this same form progresses the personification to a deeper level of connotation. To the speaker, birds are not only good company but their companionship is his sustenance. A third time, during an icy storm when “the eagle screamed,” (12) a pattern has been established, and so the reader may follow the sound-image to his own connotation. At this point, however, the sound-image is so enmeshed with the sensory motif of ice, winter, hail and cold, through a listed repetition, that the eagle’s scream does not symbolize a jubilant cry of freedom. That is, patterns of motif established into symbolism limit the reader’s subjective interpretation.
Without apology or florid language Ulysses proclaims: “I cannot rest from travel,” (6). The sentence is plain and unadorned. But, like “The Seafarer,” the speaker expounds upon this thesis, with each repetition adding new meanings. Though images are sometimes given priority syntactically, most sentences are basic transitive ones. It is continual movement, he claims, that drives our knowledge. He declares that to remain in stasis is to rust what could have shined, (23). If we do not literally broaden our horizons through travel, the consequence is worse than restless boredom: it is oblivion, or “that eternal silence,” (27). The three lines which visualize this interrupt the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter by containing spondees to draw the reader’s attention. “Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move,” (19-21). In these emphasized lines, experience is drawn spatially; it is bound geographically and thus may be explored physically and visually. The infinite may always be present precisely because it can never be within reach. Imagine parallel lines which regress to the horizon, at which point their parallel seems to end because they appear to meet. In order to prod the boundaries of that finitude, one must continually move towards the horizon point, banishing the horizon point, the end, ever further— “to sail beyond the sunset,” (60).
In “The Seafarer,” evolving repetition is prevalent in sound elements before it is made explicit thematically. Formally maintained alliteration such as “hew my heart round and hunger begot” (11) not only reinforces the poem’s internal rhythm, but also uses the periphrastic nature of Old English’s grammar to enhance this repetition. Like the effect of thunder and lightening—but reversed—this line’s heaving passion impinges on the reader before the phrase’s full meaning is established. Thus when the image does appear in its completion, this presentation is already a repetition. Developments of alliteration, such as the onomatopoeia of line 6’s “sea-surge” further bind imagery to the poem’s sound qualities, giving the speaker rhetorical momentum. The combined consonance and assonance of “narrow nightwatch nigh” (7) enrich visual and sound elements by showcasing their formal interplay.
In “Ulysses,” clauses of sentences consistently do not end with the end of a line. “The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep / moans round with many voices,” (55-6). This enjambment works to convey Ulysses’ dissatisfaction with the finite bounds of human mortality. He wishes to break through these limits; go beyond the finitude of old age and death. Enjambment is conspicuous in sentences regarding this motif; those which mention death and dying suspiciously lack enjambment.
Both diction and syntax function to emphasize key thematic elements in “The Seafarer”. In several instances throughout the poem, kenning expresses a metaphorical name for a noun; such as “lone-flyer” for cuckoo, (62) “whale-path” for ocean, (63) and “sword-hate” for war (70). These phrases each present a vivid thematic portrayal through symbolism. Being a dramatic monologue, it is through these conventions that the speaker’s own solitude, need for seaward journey, and resignation from world of men is implicitly revealed.
This tension is then universalized. Pound interrupts his established visual pattern by isolating single lines: “hardship endured oft,” (3) “Deprived of my kinsmen,” (16) and “Daring ado,” (76) are the three prominent examples. The latter is a sad understatement depicting the meagre consequence of so many brave and virtuous deeds. Each of these epigrammatic lines conveys a direct thematic revelation, rather than the subtler, more indirect revealing of kenning. These statements are broader in scope, more objective and assignable to an attitude or philosophy about the nature of the world. Because of this fundamental suffering and loss in human life, the dramatic monologue is able to assume an elegiac mood even while the speaker lives. “Days little durable,” (81) ends a section, while the next begins on line 86’s “Drear all this excellence, delights undurable!” This essential mutability and transience of all worldly things is made explicit only near the end of Pound’s translation, but pervades the poem through the speaker’s personal experience of suffering. Though the icy cold, storms, loneliness and restlessness seem to be experienced differently, at the root of the speaker’s experience of each of these forms of suffering is a fundamental lack of permanence in the world.
When Odysseus looks at the fading margins of the horizon, he too seeks a basic transience. This mutability, however, is a buoyant salvation. The forever-changing nature of knowledge is Odysseus’ bastion against the oblivion of stasis. Odysseus embraces the impermanence of knowledge as a salvation, or at least rebellion, against mortality. Infinity is real precisely because it is never attainable, forever just beyond our horizon, real in the possibilities of adventure. The primordial transience of “The Seafarer,” however, is a great source of the speaker’s suffering. As the poem subtly reveals, it is the source of all suffering. It enables the speaker’s paradoxical affliction in land and at sea, with solitude and in society. Only loss, pain and isolation can be made real in a world where all things lack permanence. Pound cuts his translation short before the poem may end as a prayer: “Lord without end, to all eternity,”.
The Sargasso Sea Femme
In “Portrait D’une Femme”, Ezra Pound contrasts the female inclination towards fragmentation, inertia and subservience with the corresponding male characteristics of spontaneity, wholeness, and dominance in an effort to underscore the threat posed by women who seek to drag the “man’s world” down into the depths of a cultural Sargasso Sea. However, Pound also recognizes that women are, ultimately, their own individual entities, and uses the shifting female figure to reveal the emptiness of the chaos that characterizes the metropolitan “new” world.Unlike Eliot, who considers both sexes to be “hollow”, Pound sees women as binary opposites of men. The sexes are the “differing light and deep” (27), the “nothing” and the “whole” (28), the “dimmed wares” and the “brighter stuff” (5, 26). Unlike his spontaneous, emotionally fulfilled man, Pound’s woman is a stationary, empty being, incapable of progress because there is no trajectory point inside her vacant frame. She is Galatea to Pygmalion, a “wonderful old work” (22), an “idol” preserved with ambergris (23), unable to move, breathe, or think independently of man’s influence. Her place is among an exotic collection of “oddments” and “trophies” (4, 16); a static, lifeless work of art from a musty museum that “never…shows use” (20), “that might prove useful and yet never proves” (19), whose internal state is guided by her external possessions. Pound’s woman is his man’s opposite: she is enclosed by culture, random material things, and “strange spars of knowledge” (5). Men, in contrast, are spontaneous: searching, moving, sailing the world in “bright ships” (3) while women are caught in the sterile backwaters, cemented at the ports like toll-booths richly paid in fees, collecting men’s knowledge in a sedentary “sea-hoard” (25). The femme can see the rapid currents of an evolving society “swept about [her]”, but can or will not participate (2). She is composed of men’s detritus, an apathetic Athena born of Zeus’s head, a goddess who is jadedly immortal. This lady of Shalott, working her “loom of days”, is trapped in a tower with a mirror that reflects the physical artifacts of her worth, weaving a tapestry that shows men’s exploits (21).Pound claims that this passivity, this negation of action is what women “preferred…to the usual thing” (8). Woman takes up man’s relics because they fulfill a barrenness within her that she is unwilling to face. She accumulates fragments of other lives, straining to create a unified wholeness out of the parts. Totally organized by her environment, she creates temporary identities from the intellect of whomever stops by, so that ultimately, “nothing is quite [her] own” (29). Because she is an immortal figure with a transitory soul, she is in a race against time to siphon off some of man’s permanent wholeness. Pound describes this relationship in terms of wood: the wooden, rooted femme hoards man’s growing, “deciduous things”, and after taking her due, returns the “strange woods half sodden” (25-6). She fills her mind with sparkling, superficial “new brighter stuff” and “ideas, old gossip” to distract her from looking into her ambiguous inner self (26, 4). The lady shatters any hope of a cohesive identity because she is unsatisfied with singularity, but too impatient to find out what makes her singular; she refuses “one dull man” because she needs exciting stories and things to stay a “person of some interest” in order to encourage the next “great minds [to] seek [her]”. By doing so, she can again sap their enduring spirit and “take strange gain away” (9, 14, 6, 15). It is a time trap that promotes her misguided association between knowledge and personal significance. She sits “patient…[for] hours, where something might have floated up” (11-2), a spider in her web; Odysseus’s Siren; an alluring Sphinx offering threatening but irresistible riddles.Pound’s woman is so fleeting yet so consuming that it is only appropriate that she is able to take on so many faces from so many stories and so many cultures. She is not stable enough to fit into an archetype, as man can, and she can’t muscle her way into acceptance, because she “never fits a corner” (20). As an incomplete being, always “half sodden” (26), only of “some interest” (14), filled with a vague “something else” (18), she becomes subservient to men only so that she will have a foundation to base her identity on, an “other” by choice. Despite “her riches, her great store” (24), she is internally impoverished, unavoidably there but “lead[ing] nowhere” (17), reaching for a tangible, material man to fill the void. Pound uses the rhetoric of absence, togetherness, ownership, and fulfillment to illustrate the woman’s path to ‘satisfaction’. Men want her when “lacking someone else” (6); she is a last priority addendum, an Adam’s rib who cannot become a complete being without first completing someone else. Once attached, the story suddenly becomes a “tale for two”, in which the lady has a partner to whom she can be “second always” (7), and “richly pay” for her love with “your mind and you” (13, 1). In a way, it is a cold, symbiotic business transaction: she’s a modern Colossus of Rhodes, allowing men into her personal cityscape by letting them under her skirts, taking fees in the form of random ideas. Interestingly, her fulfillment from these affairs is a pregnancy with screaming mandrakes, her only voice in her mute, stationary hibernation amidst her cultural bric-a-brac.For Pound, women are secondary, stagnant, and emotionally disjointed. They need to be pushed, compelled and compiled by men, but once they are expected to “prove useful” (19) they become distracted by insignificant baubles that in turn distract men. Pound uses the binary opposition between the sexes as a conflict between man’s flexibility in making lasting, resolute decisions, and woman’s weakness of will and action. These two forces are unable to balance out because woman’s negative energy dims and dulls man’s brightness, and, as a result, jolts the order-maintaining equilibrium in Pound’s rapidly expanding world.Despite being a hodgepodge of other people’s characteristics, Pound concedes that his femme is a complete, separate entity: “this is you” (30). However, because he has created this particular woman much like artists shape sculptures, he continues to view his subject as a passive receptacle who accepts whatever identity he gives her: equally the London sprawl, the Sargasso Sea, or a possessive hag. Here, she becomes the site for Pound’s discussion of the 20th-century “new world”, and her faults mirror those of the chaotic global metropolis.Pound sees the close of WWI as the starting line for a new era in which the European cultural and social landscape begins to transform itself at escalating speeds. The world is always moving between uneven grounds, bordering chaos, and must be controlled and stabilized before it implodes into the “slow float” apocalypse that “leads nowhere”; in other words, Eliot’s “Wasteland”. Pound paints this shifting, rushing reality as “London swept about you” (2), where humanity, innovation, and connections swirl in an accelerating vortex surrounding the stunned, motionless individual. Pound makes his femme out to be an artistic ornament partly to express the sensation of lifeless stillness in the calm of a maelstrom, watching in bewilderment as everything picks up and leaves her behind still fixed to her pedestal, her private problems so petty in comparison to the cataclysmic shifts of society. Like a painting, she epitomizes Pound’s poetic goal of complex feeling and thought condensed into a single, passing frame; she thinks in slides and “strange spars” (5). In the contradiction of modernity, as life moves out onto different things, we are still trying to “find [our] hour upon the loom of days” (21), wondering if we are merely a blink on the timeline between bright novelty and recently “tarnished” antiquity (22). We become laborious, backlogged, being “patient… hours”, as if hoping the world will pause for us, to allow us a moment to catch up (11-2).To remain at our relatively sluggish pace, we would have to pick and choose from life’s slideshow of minute snapshots breezing by. Pound worries that his femme, not wanting to miss out on anything, tries to keep pace and ends up neglecting what is meaningful about her existence. The new world is empty and trivial, in part because fast communication turns the event of meeting new people into a mere hobby. The value of interaction drops when people compete to pack so many new personalities into their consciousness that they hollow out their own characters. Like Pound’s lady, modern people become shells housing a collection of social and intellectual curios and little else. By throwing together so many “trophies…idols…riches” (16, 23-4), their initial brightness is dulled, and they become “dimmed wares of price…gaudy” (5, 22), masking an inner emptiness tarred by the residue of a material world. The femme shows that seeking a respite from emotional mediocrity through pretty things instead of worthwhile thoughts takes a heavy toll, leading all roads to Rome and true spiritual fulfillment to be blocked by barriers of commerce and gain.Once again, in the ongoing effort to “make it new” Pound arrives at the question of identity and individuality. In a world that operates outside of time, poetry is sparse and Pound’s blank verse is free from the tradition of rhyme, free to be a series of discontinuous impressions and images without a binding narrative. The femme’s free-floating, fragmented sense of self reflects the individual’s struggle to break from the crushing domination of the modern throngs, and the pressure to constantly reinvent oneself to stay separate and unique. Pound accepts the crowded, cosmopolitan, universal world: his femme is the essence of a global citizen; she is named in French but resides in London. She fraternizes with “great minds” and owns exotic rarities, but is not impervious to the abyss of identity crisis. By refusing to settle for “one dull man” in order to gain approval from the rest, she ironically becomes the most overwhelmed and forlorn of all. She often falls short, making “curious suggestions…that lead nowhere” (16-7), trying to “prove useful and yet never proves” (19). Like other new-world “mutts” grasping for scraps to complete themselves, she finds nothing in the whole of the expanding Western civilization that she can completely call her own.Pound was an outspoken proponent of the sophisticated cultural references that came with his artistic elitism. In a way, he is himself the Sargasso Sea Femme, sampling “great minds” like Eliot and Williams, acting as impartial gatekeeper to the voice of a generation. His poetry also reflects the intoxicating effect of the 20th-century notion of fleeting intimacy induced by speed; the ghostly, lingering perfume of a flower of faces from “In a Station of the Metro”; the “caressing air” of the government official in “The Social Order” meeting so many young ladies; a romantic, perpetual blur. But somewhere in the artifact pileup of “Portrait D’une Femme”, Pound slows down. In this unusually long poem, there is rhythm in the way he opens his lines with “One dull man…/One average mind” (9-10), “that might prove useful/…that never fits” (19-20), and “No! there is nothing!…/nothing…” (28-9). He tries to maintain some balance in his description of an unfulfilled woman, repeating words like “dull”, “bright” and “riches” to stabilize her. Perhaps Pound himself was threatened by the shifting world, in which one’s identity was always changing, with no time to form a foundation or to establish a connection, because it was so tempting to sample everything that was flashing past.
Ezra Pound’s Material Girl
In “Portrait d’une Femme,” Ezra Pound examines the fragmented nature of the modern woman; cluttered with culture and accumulated intellect, her character exhibits mere parts of a whole that is both inscrutable and alluringly fascinating. Contrasting one feminine archetype, the radiant goddess, the mystifying siren, Pound’s urban lady struggles to configure her identity within the swirling exoticism of art, beauty, knowledge, and elegance. Through brilliant use of extended metaphor, Pound presents the reader with the lady’s ephemeral character; as his femme figuratively embodies the intellectual bric-a-brac of civilization, she thus personifies a static basin for the social currents of the modern world. Pound’s poem thematically sustains one conclusive identification of this modern woman as “our Sargasso Sea” (Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, page 16 [line 1]). The author taints conventional imagery; in an ironic contrast to the ocean’s typical life-giving symbolism, this female’s stationary lifelessness parallels a select depository of the North Atlantic. Dense with floating, brown seaweed, she is a sterile collection of life’s acquisitions.Pound openly defines his leading lady as a person made of parts; at the onset, he points to the disparity between the woman’s intellect and her individuality: “Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea” (1). As the speaker addresses the lady primarily with regard to her supposed intelligence, the opening line introduces the thematic impenetrability of the woman whose inner self remains ambiguous beneath the superficial luster of her mind’s assorted possessions. Ironically, Pound subsequently lessens the status of both the lady’s knowledge and her internal character, as each remains sedentary in a fast-paced, evolving environment. Pound’s setting relegates his femme to inertia, as her urban surroundings display actions typically associated with nature: “London has swept about you this score years” (2). She, with a full mind, remains nonetheless inactive, embodying the still backwaters of civilization. A lifeless “Sargasso Sea,” she becomes the dense residue of the commercial world: “And bright ships left you this or that in fee” (3). In totality, the lady’s only visible unity lies in her tangible and intangible acquisitions; she reflects plainly “ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things” (4). “Strange spars of knowledge” (5) are only fleetingly articulated and Pound’s femme leads a life lacking profundity, in perpetual debt to the “fees” of a fragmented existence.Pound’s vignette of the cultured woman presents her uncertain existence in its entirety, diagnosing the inevitability of her incomplete and secondary significance. The murky waters of the woman’s mind glimmer temporarily as society’s “bright ships” come and go, yet her dim reality deeply entrenches itself in her bleak subservience to greater and lesser minds. The speaker puts forth, “Great minds have sought you lacking someone else. / You have been second always” (6-7). Despite her sophisticated alliances, the lady is nevertheless unfulfilled. However, a certain aspect of her intrinsic subordination is resolved: “Tragical? / No” (7-8). Although Pound’s femme falls short of intellectual glory, the fragments of her life make up her saving grace from “the usual thing” (8); as Pound’s modern setting guarantees no spiritual fulfillment for its inhabitants, this cultured environment of art and sensibilities offers a makeshift escape from the dullness of mediocrity. The femme fears a man not only “dulling” (9) but “average…with one thought less each year” (10), such that Pound foreshadows his lady’s own deterioration through her misdirected association between intellect and worth. While the woman castigates the average man’s deficient thought, her own accumulation provides nothing for her sense of self. Not only does she “richly pay” (13) for her external acquisitions, but what endures are merely dregs of her identity, “strange woods half sodden” (26).As sweeping oceans and “bright ships” on the horizon invite the modern notion of travel and commerce, so does the author invite the reader to examine the resulting lifestyle beyond its foremost material gains. Strewn with “dimmed wares of price” (5), the lady remains perpetually lacking, for one interest gained “takes strange gain away” (15). Pound’s woman floats at the surface of “a sea-hoard of deciduous things” (25), with fleeting thoughts leaving her head just as new thoughts form. Her internal composition is so utterly varying and overly complex that she “never fits a corner or shows use” (20). In full, her world is “the slow float of differing light and deep” (27). The temporary promise of “new brighter stuff” (26) serves the lady no lasting purpose, nor gives her any interior momentum with which to live. The lady’s attraction to “strange spars of knowledge” parallels her own admittedly alluring qualities to onlookers and those expectedly participating in her way of life; the material and intellectual acquisitions of Pound’s femme may be “tarnished” (22) and “gaudy” (22), but prove to be consistently intriguing to human nature in their rarity.Pound’s satirical choice to title his depiction of the Londoner in French implies the seemingly cosmopolitan nature of the femme herself. The social benefit of her “great store” (24) of riches is the alluring faade it provides. While internally impoverished in the eyes of Pound’s speaker, the lady still possesses the glitter of “trophies fished up” (16) and all are drawn to the “wonderful old work” (22) that she appears to be. Yet this meager advantage proves to be another “fact that leads nowhere” (17), and her breadth of knowledge and sophistication leave her no trajectory from murky containment in the “Sargasso Sea.” London sweeps about this femme; ships come and go, leaving her behind. Her gaudy findings and imported material goods suggest her internal deficiencies, for her refined modernity masks an individual lacking the fulfillment of experience. No current moves Pound’s lady, and this femme is doomed to a stagnant existence amidst flickering surface lights, in a “slow float” above uncharted depth.With a portrait of one woman, Pound presents a paradox of modern society: with the quickening pace of urbanization, his femme remains bogged down “upon the loom of days” (21), stalemate between the strangeness of new innovations and the “tarnished” remnants of an antiquated time. Thirsty for a sense of belonging in a shifting world, she waits “hours, where something might have floated up” (12), and yet obtains “nothing that’s quite [her] own” (29). Pound characterizes the woman as a projection of modern society; just as the time has passed for a poem’s female to encompass purity and grace, Pound’s leading lady simultaneously seeks to extricate her meaning between the luster of the imminent age and the quaint memory of a simpler time. The extended metaphor of the “Sargasso Sea” in “Portrait d’une Femme” wholly unifies Pound’s overarching examination of the changing world. His lady’s association with the lethargic waters of the Sargasso Sea is but a point of comparison for the contemporary situation. Beneath the transitory flashes of “differing light,” Pound cautions the common person to look before he leaps into the deep abyss of individuality: “No! there is nothing! In the whole and all, / Nothing that’s quite your own. / Yet this is you” (28-30). Pound’s poetic assessment of one muddled female spirit fully evades misogyny in that his deliberate stray from literary archetypes expands his message to all modern individuals. As this femme strains to determine her position in the world, so do all who suffer ennui, anxiety, and identity crises inside the fragile framework of today’s chaotic acceleration. Nevertheless, as Pound’s lady moves to construct her identity with collective tidbits of new and old, the speaker directs her away from fleeting acquisitions and focuses on an instinctively ignored truth: “Yet this is you.”