Cite as: Gardner, Traci. "Pound's 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.'" The Explicator 44:3 (Spring 1986): 46-48.
...but seeing he had been born
In a half savage country, out of date;
Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn. . . .
In the first section of Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," the speaker, Mauberley, reveals the reasons E. P. fails to heighten poetry by describing his efforts to write poem which his society will find as beautiful as he finds classical works --to, as Mauberley states, "resuscitate the dead art of poetry." Mauberley describes E. P.'s search for this acceptable poetic form by comparison to Ulysses' search for his Greek homeland. For three years, E. P. has tried to write poetry his
country will appreciate, but he has been unsuccessful just as Ulysses was unsuccessful in his long search for Penelope. He is as determined to create acceptable poetry as Ulysses was to return home, and, thus, he tries to write poetry for a country "bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn."
Pound's "lilies from the acorn" metaphor is usually interpreted in terms of his comments in two prose works, "The Serious Artist" and "Patria Mia," which link the "acorn" image with Pound's definition of the artist's role. In "Patria Mia," Pound states:
The artistic statement of man is not his statement of the detached and theoretic part of himself, but of his will and of his emotions. As touching 'art for art's sake'; the oak does not grow for the purpose or with the intention of being built into ships and tables, yet a wise nation will take care to preserve the forests. It is the oak's business to grow good oak. (57)
Yet, E. P. must spend his effort "wringing lilies from the acorns," for his society will not accept good oaks. Ian F. A. Bell suggests that E. P.'s failure parallels Pound's "youthful contact with literary London [which] was a real attempt to wring 'lilies from the acorn' in that it was a search for an idealism not encouraged by 'a half savage country, out of date'" (95). E. P., then, seems to be writing for a country which is not satisfied with oaks; his country wants only lilies from his efforts -- lilies t hat he is unable to create.
Pound's "The Serious Artist," though pertaining to prose, expresses a similar idea.
Prose, the works and their sense must be such as fit the emotion. Or, from the other side, ideas, or fragments of ideas, the emotion and concomitant emotions of this "Intellectual and Emotional Complex" (for we have come to the intellectual and emotional complex) must be in harmony, they must form an organism, they must be an oak sprung from an acorn. (51)
Art here seems formed from the growth of the oak from the acorn. Unless the harmonious growth springs from the acorn to the oak, Pound implies that the creation simply cannot exist as art. The endeavor will fall short. Jo Brantley Berryman notes that Pound created this poetic metaphor knowing that his readers would not see the uselessness of E. P.'s act though he knew that it was "precisely what he [Pound] wished not to do. He has no desire to wring lilies from the acorn -- rather, he wants to leave lilies as lilies, and acorns as acorns" (11).
Our interpretation of the "lilies from the acorn" metaphor can become even clearer, however, if we consider the relationship of Ulysses' journey to the lily and the acorn. E. P.'s stay on the "obstinate isles" -- presumably Great Britain -- is likened to Ulysses' adventure with Circe. His attempt to create art, which society will appreciate, parallels Ulysses' attempt to free men from Circe's isle.
The men sent by Ulysses to explore Circe's isle are welcomed and feasted by the sorceress, but, then, are magically changed to swine, and fed acorns and other appropriate foods. When Ulysses goes to find his entrapped men, he is stopped by
Mercury who gives him a magical herb, Moly, which will enable him to overcome Circe's magic. The OED defines Moly as a species of lily. Ulysses, thus, can end Circe's enchantment and rescue his men, now swine, only by replacing the acorns with the lily Moly. Ulysses, like E. P., must produce a lily to end the disillusionment. E. P. is, by analogy to Ulysses, "bent resolutely" on releasing society by creating an image of art which will end their disillusionment: he must create a lily to free the "savage," obstinate society which feeds only on acorns.
With this goal, E. P. cannot reach the poetic goal that Pound defines in his essays--he cannot "leave the lilies as lilies and the acorns as acorns." To be successful in a "half savage country," E. P.'s poems must be more than acorns which grow into oaks. He must expand his poems, his acorns, into artistic lilies if he is to free his society. E. P.'s poetic effort is, therefore, debased by society's image of art. He cannot express himself fully and still be true to the images which the world perceives as beautiful, so he is unable to "resuscitate the dead art of poetry." His audience wants only lilies from their acorns, and E. P.'s attempt fails to fulfill their desire for art or his desire to create.
Berryman, Jo Brantley. Circe's Craft. Mich: UMI Research, 1983.
Bell, Ian F. A. "Mauberley's Barrier of Style." Ezra Pound--The London Years: 1908-1920. Ed. Philip Grover. NY: AMS Press, 1978, pp. 89-115.
Pound, Ezra. "The Serious Artist." Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. NY: New Directions, 1935, pp. 41-57.
Pound, Ezra. Patria Mia and The Treatise on Harmony. London: Peter Owen Ltd., 1962.
Pound, Ezra. Selected Poems NY: New Directions, 1957.