Saturday, January 10, 2009

“Mœurs Contemporaines”

This week’s poem is a long one, & there’s a lot that can be said about it & the poet who wrote it; but I’ll try to keep my introductory remarks brief.

For my money there’s no more problematic 20th century English language poet than Ezra Pound. He was as responsible for shaping the modernist aesthetic as anyone; he championed writers as diverse as William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot & Robert Frost. He was, I believe, a classicist by nature, for all his love of innovation, & for all that he’s generally championed by a lot of current poets who use open forms. Sadly, this mixture of the reactionary & the revolutionary also must have been a factor in his fascination with fascism; that, combined with Pound’s elitism. I once heard Allen Ginsberg give a lecture on Pound while I was in grad school at the University of Virginia. Ginsberg made quite a heartfelt appeal for rehabilitating Pound from the taints of fascism & anti-Semitism, made all the more compelling both because Ginsberg was a man whose heart was in the right place politically, & also, frankly, because Ginsberg himself was Jewish. But my response to Pound has always been mixed & complicated; I can’t deny his poetic gifts, but I can’t deny his politics either, especially because the poetry & politics seem to resonate with each other.

“Mœurs Contemporaines” is Pound in a nutshell—an almost perfect poem in many respects, but informed by a reactionary outlook; it contrasts the “beautiful manners” of the past with a contemporary boorishness (the poem was first published 1918). Pound had an exceptional ear, & his lines (& the syntax shaping them) are remarkably lyrical, even as his imagery is always precise & vivid. You can hear Pound give a wonderful reading of this poem here—he brings out both the lyrical & the satirical elements.

More than enough from me—but I’ll provide “footnotes” at the end on the foreign expressions Pound sprinkled liberally throughout the poem.

Mœurs Contemporaines

Mr. Styrax


Mr. Hecatomb Styrax, the owner of a large estate
                                    and of large muscles,
A "blue" and a climber of mountains, has married
                                    at the age of 28,
He being at that age a virgin,
The term "virgo" being made male in mediaeval latinity;
            His ineptitudes
Having driven his wife from one religious excess to another.
She has abandoned the vicar
For he was lacking in vehemence;
She is now the high-priestess
Of a modern and ethical cult,
            And even now, Mr. Styrax
            Does not believe in aesthetics.


His brother has taken to gipsies,
But the son-in-law of Mr. H. Styrax
Objects to perfumed cigarettes.
In the parlance of Niccolo Machiavelli:
"Thus things proceed in their circle";
And thus the empire is maintained.


At sixteen she was a potential celebrity
With a distaste for caresses.
She now writes to me from a convent;
Her life is obscure and troubled;
Her second husband will not divorce her;
Her mind is, as ever, uncultivated,
And no issue presents itself.
She does not desire her children,
Or any more children.
Her ambition is vague and indefinite,
She will neither stay in, nor come out.


Upon learning that the mother wrote verses,
And that the father wrote verses,
And that the youngest son was in a publisher's office,
And that the friend of the second daughter was
                                                                        undergoing a novel,
The young American pilgrim
                                "This is a darn'd clever bunch!"

Sketch 48 b. 11

At the age of 27
Its home mail is still opened by its maternal parent
And its office mail may be opened by
                                        its parent of the opposite gender.
It is an officer,
                              and a gentleman,
                                                     and an architect.

"Nodier raconte..."


At a friend of my wife's there is a photograph,
A faded, pale brownish photograph,
Of the times when the sleeves were large,
Silk, stiff and large above the lacertus,
That is, the upper arm,
And décolleté. . . .
                                It is a lady,
She sits at a harp,

And by her left foot, in a basket,
Is an infant, aged about 14 months,
The infant beams at the parent,
The parent re-beams at its offspring.
The basket is lined with satin,
There is a satin-like bow on the harp.


And in the home of the novelist
There is a satin-like bow on an harp.

You enter and pass hall after hall,
Conservatory follows conservatory,
Lilies lift their white symbolical cups,
Whence their symbolical pollen has been excerpted,
Near them I noticed an harp
And the blue satin ribbon,
And the copy of "Hatha Yoga"
And the neat piles of unopened, unopening books,

And she spoke to me of the monarch,
And of the purity of her soul.


After years of continence
he hurled himself in a sea of six women.
Now, quenched as the brand of Meleagar,
he lies by the poluphloisboious sea-coast.

Παρα θίνα Πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλασσης


I Vecchii

They will come no more,
The old men with beautiful manners.

Il était comme un tout petit garçon
With his blouse full of apples
And sticking out all the way round;
Blagueur! "Con gli occhi onesti e tardi,"

And he said:
                      "Oh! Abelard!" as if the topic
Were much too abstruse for his comprehension,
And he talked about "the Great Mary,"
And said: "Mr. Pound is shocked at my levity."
When it turned out he meant Mrs. Ward.

And the other was rather like my bust by Gaudier,
Or like a real Texas colonel,
He said: "Why flay dead horses?
"There was once a man called Voltaire."

And he said they used to cheer Verdi.
In Rome, after the opera,
And the guards couldn't stop them,

And that was an anagram for Vittorio
Emanuele Re D' Italia,
And the guards couldn't stop them.

                      Old men with beautiful manners,
Sitting in the Row of a morning;
Walking on the Chelsea Embankment.


And she said:
                        "You remember Mr. Lowell,
"He was your ambassador here?"
And I said: "That was before I arrived."
And she said:
                        "He stomped into my bedroom....
(By that time she had got on to Browning.)
". . . stomped into my bedroom....
"And said: 'Do I,
"'I ask you, Do I
"'Care too much for society dinners?'
"And I wouldn't say that he didn't.
"Shelley used to live in this house."
She was a very old lady,
I never saw her again.

Ezra Pound
1918, 1919

Foot notes:

Mœurs Contemporaines: “Contemporary Manners”— the word "Mœurs" refers to “Manners” in a larger sense than, e.g., “table manners,” or “minding your…”—but the word “manners” in English also used to have this wider connotation.

Soirée: An evening party: it typically refers to an elegant affair. This word is in English usage as well.

lacertus: Pound defines this in the next line: “That is, the upper arm,” but I included the word just in case you missed it. Since we’re here anyway, “décolleté” is an English word (from French) which refers to a woman’s dress having a low neckline. But you knew that anyway.

Nodier raconte: Charles Nodier was a French writer of the early to mid 19th century. His work was in the “fantastic” genre of Romanticism, & he was a great influence on younger French writers, including such significant figures as Victor Hugo & Alfred de Musset . The phrase “Nodier raconte” literally means something like “Nodier recounts”… the verb raconter is connected to story-telling.

Stele: A commerative stone or pillar. This is an English word, tho it's Greek in origin.

Παρα θίνα Πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλασσης: Greek. Pronounced “Para thina poluphloisboio thalasses”; there are a couple of errors involving accent marks because of limitations in MS-Word, but I doubt many folks will notice. This is from the beginning of Homer's Iliad (1:34): “by the shore of the sounding sea.”

SISTE VIATOR: Latin: “Stop, traveler”; used on Roman roadside tombs

I Vecchii: the old men characters of the Commedia del’arté. Their role was to provide an obstacle to young lovers consummating their relationship.

Il était comme un tout petit garçon: “He was like a very small (young) boy”

Blagueur: “prankster”

“Con gli occhi onesti e tardi”: “With slow & honest eyes”—a quote from Dante’s Inferno, from the circle of the Virtuous Pagans; Pound associated this line with the novelist Henry James.

Vittorio Emanuele Re D' Italia: King of Italy from 1861-1878; Vittorio Emanuele II was the first king of a united Italy

Ritratto: a picture


  1. Masculinism was another little problem of Pound’s, existing in him as a natural and fitting aspect of fascism. Of course he did not exactly lack for company in that realm—it was the rare man of letters who was able to overcome the handicap of gender privilege in those heady days when women couldn’t vote. This is one of the reasons that the work of women from this era is so much more interesting to read. In fact, reading their work can lead inescapably to the realization that the so-called canon has never been anything more than a buttressing of race, gender, and class privilege-- and with that awareness, a whole new landscape of literature opens up, that is so compelling, so alive, and so thrilling to explore that it’s hard for me to look back to a time when figures like Pound loomed in my literary landscape. Nonetheless, I do think that men of privilege, in spite of their inevitable handicaps, did produce work that is worth looking at. I really like the part in this poem about the satin infant-basket and the satin harp-bow, the parent/child beaming and rebeaming in the photograph.

    Ginsberg is more generous than I am in a desire to even think about Pound in more than a passing fashion—and generosity is an admirable trait. On the other hand, Ginsberg is not without his own similarities to Pound, being a member of the group called the Beat-Off Poets by us girls in the heady days of 80s fem crit…

    I assume that the Mrs. Ward referred to by Pound in his poem is the writer and activist Mary Augusta Arnold (1851-1920) known as Mrs. Humphrey Ward—a rather fascinating figure who managed to anger a truly impressive variety of people. She worked ardently for women’s rights and to improve the conditions of factory women and is credited with starting the first working-class day-care programs, and was opposed to suffrage for women. Her works were runaway bestsellers— her re-interpretation of Christianity along socialist lines spoke to burning issues of the time and gained her staunch supporters as well as bitter enemies—all very vocal. Henry James praised her, Virginia Woolf disdained her, Rebecca West attacked her, Gladstone was both enthralled and horrified. She is definitely worth reading. I recommend her 1894 novel Marcella, published by the Virago Press in 1984; I pause here to heap praises on Virago Press, my all-time favorite publishers-- for releasing editions of so many out-of-print women authors in the days before the internet gave us access to the works of writers who are so curiously prone to invisibility in more hallowed halls of greatness.

  2. Hi everybody:

    Just in case anyone thinks the comment above is a sign of domestic discord, just let me assure you that Eberle & I had a rollicking & fun conversation about this post yesterday. She pointed out that in matters literary, I'm sorta the straight man & she's the gal with the punch lines; & she says both roles are crucial.

    Thanks Eberle!


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