Steve Ellis: On "In a Station of the Metro"

In spite of its celebrated succinctness, the most famous of Imagist poems yields a surprising variety of readings whilst opening up interesting questions about the reading process itself. These readings are influenced to an extent by the frequent changes Pound made to the punctuation of the poem in the early years of its existence, though this topic has received surprisingly little attention from Pound’s commentators. Indeed, "In a Station of the Metro" is quoted widely in modern criticism with very little distinction being made between its various stages, as if the differently-punctuated early versions are interchangeable. It is true that the changes Pound made to the poem are small, but they remain far from unimportant, as I hope to show.

[….]

[A]ssessments of Pound’s poem have a good deal to do with the relationship that is being assumed between line one (with the title) and line two; and that the readings looked at above have tended to assert a predominance of the first line of the poem over the second or vice versa. An attention to this relationship has also figured in much critical writing on the poem; thus Earl Miner’s well-known expositions describe it in terms of Pound’s use of a "super-pository method": "There is a discordia concors, a metaphor which is all the more pleasurable because of the gap which must be imaginatively leaped between the statement [of line one] and the vivid metaphor [of line two]." But here we come on to Pound’s punctuation, Miner having neglected to consider the care that Pound himself took to indicate to the reader how that gap should be "imaginatively leaped." The earliest printing of "In a Station" in the April 1913 issue of Poetry was spaced and punctuated thus:

The apparition     of these faces     in the crowd

Petals     on a wet, black     bough .

The same version of the poem then appeared in the New Freewoman on 15 August 1913. In the meantime however, Pound had published an account of the genesis of the poem in T.P.’s Weekly, on 6 June 1913, where the poem is quoted as follows:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

In other words, the poem has now assumed the format it has in each of its appearances in book, as opposed to periodical, form, from the Elkin Mathews edition of Lustra (1916) onwards, with the exception of the colon as opposed to semi-colon at the end of the first line. That this version was still regarded by Pound as provisional, however, is indicated by his reversal to the earlier spacing and punctuation for the poem’s appearance in the August New Freewoman, two months after his piece in T.P.’s Weekly. It seems likely that the latter publication’s lay-out of three narrow columns to the page meant that the spacing of "In a Station" had to be closed up and regularized, whether or not this was Pound’s intention at the time; the New Freewornan version would indicate, in fact, that it wasn’t.

In 1914 however, Pound seems to have decisively rejected the Poetry/New Freewoman format: his article on "Vorticism" in the September 1 issue of the Fortnightly Review follows closely the account of the genesis of "In a Station" given in T.P.’s Weekly, reproducing the same version of the poem with the addition, however, of a comma after "Petals" (p. 467). Although a tiny detail, this is not without significance; the comma represents Pound’s wish to retain the suggestion of the prominence of the word "Petals" which the original spacing, by isolating the word, had given to it. Given that several students, as I mentioned above, see the poem as evincing an idea of urban bleakness, with the word ‘Petals" being subsumed too readily perhaps into the supposedly negative connotations of the words "wet" and "black," then we can infer that Pound’s care with punctuation was a reasonable one. In the final version of the poem, however, from Lustra onwards, the comma has once more disappeared; indeed, it is missing from the next independent printing of the poem in the Catholic Anthology: 1914-1915, published in November 1915, where Pound has reverted to the version given in T.P.’s Weekly. Presumably Pound felt (as do many of his subsequent readers) that the poem’s final line contains a consistent rather than contradictory image of the beauty of his Parisian experience, and that there is no need to "safeguard" "Petals" through increasing the distance between it and the following adjectives.

For the April 1916 publication of Gaudier-Brzeska Pound simply reprints the article "Vorticism" with the version of "In a Station" as it was there given, but by September of the same year the poem has assumed its familiar form in the first edition of Lustra:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

The final and most important change Pound had made to the punctuation was the substitution of semi-colon for colon at the end of line one. It seems to me that this alteration makes the relationship between the two lines appreciably more subtle and suggestive than was previously the case: the colon tended to subordinate the first line to the second by indicating that by itself line one was incomplete, its function being primarily that of introducing the "Image" in line two which the colon informs us is necessary to complete the first line’s meaning. With the semi-colon the first line is, so to speak, less definitely a "prologue" to the second, the linkage between the two lines being insisted on less emphatically. The relationship between them can be said to be not only more subtle but even more equivocal, and the cost of not foregrounding the "Image" is the possibility, as some of my sample readings indicate, that the semi-colon assists the first line in overturning its subordinate position and becoming foregrounded itself.

From "The Punctuation of ‘In A Station of the Metro’" in Paidenma 17: 2-3 (Fall/Winter 1988). © National Poetry Foundation.

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Criticism Overview
Title Steve Ellis: On "In a Station of the Metro" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Steve Ellis Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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