Thomas Dineen: Pound's Represented Women

Ezra Pound used images of women throughout his career for different ends—to love, to make love to, to revile. One of his most compelling poetic techniques was to interweave feminine depictions with aesthetic concerns, linking images of the female mind, anatomy, and sexual response to the acts of creating poetry and living the intellectual life. In three early poems—“The Garden” (1913), “Portrait d’une Femme” (1912), and Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919)—Pound manipulated representations of women to express his artistic predilections.

Though the title may suggest color and fertility, nothing can grow in the scene of “The Garden”; desolation and speciousness abound. The epigraph, from a fin de siècle poem by Samain, both foreshadows the imagery to come and hints at the poetic purpose underlying its rendering: “Mon ame est une infant en robe de parade.” Pound considered Samain “more a poet of evocation than definition," [1] suggesting that he will adopt this approach in his own poem.

The female subject immediately appears passive and marginalized. She moves like a tangled ball of silk buffeted by the wind, subject to its capricious force, and skittering along the base of a wall. Though in a public setting, she is pushed to its peripheries and needs support. She seems, for example, to totter by the “railing,” ready to grab it at any moment. She is determined by her location and permeated by it, exerting little will of her own. The revelation that this tawdry specter is about to expire comes dryly, with a neutral “And” conjunction. Already fragmented, she is dying in fragments (“piece-meal”) as well, her disease described vaguely (“sort of”) as a lack of spiritual blood. Although Pound may have had a real woman in mind, her malady likely symbolizes the enervation he found in poetry of recent decades—perhaps the refined dissipation of 1890s poets he later criticized overtly in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920).

In the second stanza we move, by way of another uninflected “And,” to a description of the seething mass surrounding the woman. This is dynamic, aggressive corruption. The creatures are “very poor,” yet “sturdy”—perhaps representing the “rabble” of spiritually destitute yet prolific artists now gathered “round about” poetry, causing her “anaemia.” The woman is isolated and confined by them. In the longest sentence of the poem (5–6), the list of the infants’ qualities is punctuated by two juxtaposed, identically accented contrasts (“filthy, sturdy”). This list ends with “unkillable,” a word whose harshness and accentual distinctness stresses its finality.

The verses grow less enjambed and more end-stopped from this point, as the abrupt line endings drive home the speaker’s assertions as decisive cadences do some music. The next verse alludes to the line in the Gospel of Matthew about the “meek inheriting the earth.” Pound implies that while the “rabble” has destructive potential and is heir to the artistic establishment—perhaps the world—it remains reluctant to engage the woman.

We move to the final stanza without transition, increasing the mood of obliquity. “Breeding” links the woman to the “unkillable infants” of the previous stanza, implying that she bore them. The word also has overtones of aesthetic polish, as in “good breeding." [2] As a symbol of poetry, she is too often the matrix of an over-refined product; as a represented woman, she is objectified—uninvolved, yet spoken through as a passive medium. The neutrality of the verb “is” stresses her objectification: she does not contain, but “is” a place of breeding; she is not exquisitely bored—her boredom “is exquisite.”  She not only reflects artistic decadence, but also appears bored by it, wanting another voice to “speak to her” or stimulate her (9–10). Commensurate with the outlook of effete poets, however, those who would engage her, such as Pound, are seen not as innovators, but rather as aesthetic clods committing “indiscretion[s]”. He suggests, however, that such overbred ladies “would like”—perhaps relish—such “indiscretion” by avant-garde poets, who strive to revitalize a poetic milieu they find disenchanting.

Many verses in “The Garden” invite interpretation of the woman as symbol, as Pound employs images of the female body and the effect of surroundings on it. In “Portrait d’une Femme,” he shifts to the terrain of the female mind. Whereas “The Garden” begins with an image of woman as buffeted tangle, in “Portrait” she is a metaphorical Sargasso Sea. Her mind is as clogged with “deciduous things” as the Sargasso is with seaweed. Her presence in her salon is merely what artists (“bright ships”) float into on occasion. By dividing her (“Your mind and you”), Pound distinguishes what constitutes her mind (artistic matters) from her purpose to artists (they “have sought you—lacking someone else”). She is thus composed of fragments to be used, as is the subject of “The Garden.”

While the woman in “The Garden” is corrupted through deprivation, this one is made ridiculous by her variety. The poem includes much apparently offhand categorizing that levels the value of her mind’s contents, juxtaposing the valuable with the worthless: for example, “Ideas” placed by “old gossip” and “oddments of all things” (4). Incapable of distinguishing the sublime from the mundane, she shallowly values anything the “Great minds” dish out.

Given Pound’s contempt for usury, it is no surprise that he compares this empty interaction to commerce. The artists leave her “dimmed wares of price”—their conversation—“in fee” for having them. The “Sea” that composes her mind is rhymed with the “fee” that is left her, suggesting that while she is a “person of some interest,” what accrues is of little worth—the dirty Sargasso. Thus, whereas a “rabble” of bad artists surrounds and sterilizes the woman in “The Garden,” here she emerges as pathetically dull by subsisting on and repeating their table talk. She is a repository of their potpourri merely because she is available—sought out because the artists lack “someone else” with whom they might have a meaningful exchange. But just as she is “second always” if a more stimulating companion is available to artists, she appears to be using them, as well—to avoid the boredom of domestic life (“One dull man, dulling and uxorious”).

When a narrator addresses a character in the second person, it tends to humanize and de- objectify; the cold third-person interaction in “The Garden,” by contrast, increases a sense of distance. In “Portrait,” however, the second-person treatment underscores the dependence of the female character. The narrator presents questions to her hypothetically then cuts off her responses, for he has already determined her answers: “Tragical/No. You preferred it…” As the narrator describes her sitting passively, listening to the artists who surround her when “something might have floated up” from her mind—an original thought, perhaps—she now sits submissively by the narrator and is not only silent, but also spoken for.

Whereas Pound uses the transition “And” until this point as a loose, matter-of-fact linker of disparate thoughts, it arrives as a jolt at line 13. We are cut off by an abrupt period after the revelation that the woman may indeed become active…that she may “richly pay.”

But she is merely a trafficker in others’ goods, which are taken and used by others. As in the “Sea”/“fee” coupling in the first verses, “pay” is rhymed with “away,” again implying the impersonal exchange of materials, not the intimate interplay of thought. The “Trophies” her mind contains are not her own, and must be “fished up” by her interlocutor; her “tales” are insidious in content (“Pregnant with mandrakes”), as well. And while her musing may “prove useful” to those with whom she talks, it lacks coherence and appropriateness (“never fits a corner or shows use”).

So while “The Garden” shows a woman whose “boredom is exquisite” because she is not stimulated by others, this woman is little more than a “tarnished” reflection of others’ thoughts—a murky sea where “rare inlays” emerge occasionally from putrid whale intestines. She is also faddish—always eager for “new brighter stuff”—and probably as ready to blather about the latest aesthetic theory as the woman in “The Garden” is enervated by a bad one. In “Portrait,” the languorous, parenthetical narrative voice catalogues these “deciduous things” as casually as the woman would likely toss them into a conversation, making a metaphor of every tidbit she relates. This further objectifies her. The narrator at last compares her to a bank: little more than the sum of what is deposited in her, she has nothing “quite [her] own” but the dubious “interest” gained from intellectual depositors.

In Section IV of Homage to Sextus Propertius, Pound presents an even more troubled woman…one at the farthest “remove” from readers: Propertius’ mistress Cynthia speaks to his slave Lygdamus, who relates what is said to his master, who describes this in writing, all of which is finally translated, very freely, into English by Pound. The liberties he takes with the original Latin enhance this chilling portrait with techniques seen in the two earlier poems.

First, though Propertius asks Lygdamus to describe Cynthia, he waits for no response; as in “Portrait d’une Femme,” the speaker is eager to extrapolate what he believes (or would like to believe) she said and did. The narrator again speaks for the woman. Pound goes on to render a verse that might be translated literally as “Didst thou see no mirror, Lygdamus, on her couch?”[3] as simply, “it was no glimpse in a mirror.” This implies that, as in “Portrait,” Cynthia is estranged from those who represent her. Further, Pound changes the Latin “toilet casks”[4] to “escritoires” (writing desks), which lie “shut by her bed-feet.” This recalls the inert creativity of the woman in “The Garden.”

Cynthia is mired in her setting and seems alternately abused and abusive. Her attendants are “desolated” when she tells them her dreams. She weeps “into uncombed hair” as handkerchiefs “are stuffed into her undryable eyes” by an unidentified person, while in the literal Latin she wipes her own tears. [5] She then lashes out and “binds [the speaker] with ravvles of shrouds” as “Black spiders spin in her bed.” As in “Portrait,” Pound conjures these and other grotesque “oddments” through her, yet here the female subject can inflict pain: “She has caught me with herbaceous poison… / She stews puffed frogs, snake’s bones, the moulted / feathers of screech owls.” While in the original Latin, Cynthia describes the cruelties she thinks Propertius will suffer from other women, Pound’s translation turns Cynthia herself into an aggressor eager to make others as miserable as she is. For this, the narrator wishes her the worst: “Let her lovers snore at her in the morning! / May the gout cramp up her feet!”

All this yields the least flattering portrait of Pound’s represented women. While the subject of “The Garden” is a projection of a degenerate aesthetic, she has a chance of—indeed wants—renewal and resuscitation. The woman in “Portrait d’une Femme” may be a banal mélange of others’ intellects, but the poet still imbues her with a sad charm. Cynthia, however, emerges as no less than sadomasochistic, as Pound seems to compensate for empowering a female subject by presenting her as unhinged and furiously vindictive.

 

1.  K. K. Ruthven, A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Personae (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 75.

2. Ibid., 76.

3. Ibid., 101.

4. Ibid.

5 Ibid.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Thomas Dineen: Pound's Represented Women Type of Content Biographical
Criticism Author Thomas Dineen Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Oct 2015
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags aesthetics, women, women as symbols

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