Ralph Bevilaqua: On "In a Station of the Metro"

Recent critics, commenting on Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro," have invariably referred to the connotative power of the word apparition in the first line of that poem. Accordingly, one critic has called it "the single word which lifts the couplet from bald statement to poetry." Many have commented upon the various connotations of the word. It has been stated that the word suggests "the supernatural or the immaterial and a sudden unexpected experience"; that it "first establishes the sensation of unreality and the lack of precision which is then reinforced by the metaphor, and which, therefore permeates the mood of the poem," and that through its use Pound seems to suggest that life "can be made to seem bearable only by the metaphor of an 'apparition,' a ghost of the bright beauty of things that grow freely in the sunlight." All of these remarks direct our attention to that fortunate lack of precision inherent in the word apparition which results in its particular richness within the poem. While I agree that in the context of the poem several connotations of the word apparition are possible, I should like to suggest the probability of Pound's having a particular and very specific idea in mind that he wished to convey by the use of this word. Once this meaning is made evident, furthermore, it should become apparent that the poem is a clear example, in verse, of Pound's own conception of the manner in which the Image poem operates, which he later defined in a prose essay for Poetry magazine.

That Ezra Pound has a sophisticated knowledge of several European languages, especially French and Italian, is a well-established fact. Accordingly, it should be assumed that he is well aware of the subtleties and nuances in the vocabularies of those languages. Of major concern to us here is a particular nuance of the French word apparition, which is one of a large group of words known technically as a false cognate, a word the orthography of which in one language is the same as that in another, but which carries a different meaning from that similarly-spelled word. In French apparition can and often does carry the special meaning of the way something appears to a viewer at the precise moment it is perceived (italics mine). It is my contention that this French word, in addition to its false cognate in English, was in Pound's thoughts as he composed the poem. That Pound knew French well and that the poem was written in France about a French subway station make this contention all the more plausible. Furthermore, not only does this particular sense of the word suit what seems to be the intention of the first line (to suggest the unique way in which the faces appeared to the viewer at the precise moment of their being perceived), but it also enhances with its notion of suddenness that stimulus-response transferral suggested as objects perceived are metamorphosed by the creative imagination into their metaphorical counterparts. If we accept this sense of the word, then the poem seems to exemplify perfectly Pound's notion of the Image (stated in Poetry, March 1913) of an "emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time." Equally significant is Pound's own discussion of the genesis of the poem in question in which he placed substantial emphasis on the precise moment when the objects that moved him dashed before his eyes:

Three years ago [1911] in Paris I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. . . . [Italics mine. ]

Later in the same essay Pound speaks of the Image in terms that are significant to an understanding of his conception of this type of poem :

The "one-image poem" is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion.

I wrote a thirty-line poem and destroyed it because it was what we call work of the second intensity. Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later [1912] I made the following hokku-like sentence:

"The apparition of these faces in the crowd;          Petals, on a wet, black bough."

I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective. [Italics mine.]

What could be more illustrative of the effect Pound speaks of than the function of the word apparition with its connotations of suddenness and first perception? In addition, the word enriches the quality and effectiveness of the entire metaphor illustrating, to be sure, Pound's understanding of what Elizabeth Sewell speaks of as the "good metaphor," that which "from its very fittingness and precision should emanate in the mind a divining impetus which communicates to the organism receiving it, hints, unformulable yet convincing, of future interpretative power." It was Aristotle who declared that the faculty for analogical invention and thought was the hallmark of the poet. Surely "In a Station of the Metro" evinces Pound's mastery of this faculty and suggests that Eliot was not without justification in calling him il migilior fabbro.

From "Pound's 'In A Station of the Metro': A Textual Note." English Language Notes 8.4 (June 1971).

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Ralph Bevilaqua: On "In a Station of the Metro" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ralph Bevilaqua Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

Item Type Criticism
Average Rating 0/100
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media