As he recalled it,
I got out of a train at, I think, La Concorde and in the jostle I saw a beautiful face, and then, turning suddenly, another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful face. All that day I tried to find words for what this made me feel. That night as I went home along the rue Raynouard I was still trying. I could get nothing but spots of colour. I remember thinking that if I had been a painter I might have started a wholly new school of painting. . . . Only the other night, wondering how I should tell the adventure, it struck me that in Japan, where a work of art is not estimated by its acreage and where sixteen syllables are counted enough for a poem if you arrange and punctuate them properly, one might make a very little poem which would be translated about as follows:—
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough.”
—“How I Began,” T.P.’s Weekly, June 6, 1913
Early in March 1911, Ezra Pound arrived in Paris. By late May he had moved on. The specters in the Métro obviously haunted him. The lines were finished by fall the following year, when he sent Poetry a batch of poems that, he hoped, would “help to break the surface of convention.” When these “Contemporania” were published at the head of the April 1913 issue, the poem appeared in this fashion:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough .
The first thing striking about the couplet is the subject—beauty discovered underground. In the previous century, Turner in Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway (1844) and Monet in his views of Gare Saint-Lazare (1877) had brought the railroad to painting, but it would be hard to call the results traditional. Turner’s oil is a little terrifying—a rabbit flushed from cover dashes ahead of the locomotive—while Monet’s frontal portraits of ironclad leviathans are steamy visions. The works resemble fever dreams, suggesting how difficult it is for the artist to venture outside the approved list of salon subjects. To do so is to court rejection—but not to do so lets art fossilize the taste of the past.
The material culture of poetry often lags a generation behind the world outside. The shock of modernity in Pound’s couplet has faded, but it’s jarring to compare what he was writing before that fateful encounter in the Métro. In Ripostes (1912): “When I behold how black, immortal ink/ Drips from my deathless pen—ah, well-away!” and “Golden rose the house, in the portal I saw/ thee, a marvel, carven in subtle stuff.” A smattering of modern diction seeps in elsewhere, but Pound’s imagination had been steeped in Victorian vagaries, with a weakness for the long-baked poeticisms of “ ’twould” and “ ’twas,” of “hath” and “ ’neath” and “ye” and “thou,” the language of Nineveh reconstructed from torn-up pages of the King James Version. Pound’s English resembles the appalling translations of Gilbert Murray, which should have killed off interest in Greek tragedy forever.
The most dramatic poem in the book is Pound’s faux-barbarian version of “The Seafarer”—rough-hewn, archaisms for once used to effect, the weatherbeaten rhythms of alliterative Anglo-Saxon smuggled into a pre-modern English that never existed. The poem looks forward to Pound’s experiments with Chinese translation in Cathay (1914), which inaugurated the idiom in which he did his best work—no longer burdened by nineteenth-century haberdashery, he found a verse line adequate to his rough inflections.
It was at the end of Ripostes, in his prefatory note to “The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme,” that Pound coined the term Les Imagistes. Innocent readers may have thought Hulme just as much a figment of imagination as Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, Pound’s later alter ego. We probably owe to the Englishman (and not just to his example of plain speech, carved image) Pound’s interest in Japanese and Chinese verse. The spring after the American arrived in London in 1908, he joined the Poets’ Club—Hulme, the secretary, reminded Pound of a Yorkshire farmer. F. S. Flint later remembered that members had written “dozens” of haiku “as an amusement. . . . In all this Hulme was ringleader.” Hulme, who died in the war, helped bring the American’s medievalism up short. (Ford Madox Ford was another bluff influence. On reading Pound’s Canzoni , he rolled about the floor, presumably howling the while at the preposterously stilted English.) Pound was sometimes slow to change—after 1920, there was an increasing refusal to change—but during a crucial decade he could be goaded into brilliance.
From such accidents and oddments, such stray collisions as his repeated perusal in 1912 and 1913 of ukiyo-e prints in the British Museum, Pound manufactured his new style. Only the month before “In a Station of the Metro” appeared, his fellow traveler Flint had contributed the article “Imagisme” to Poetry, a manifesto for the new poetry Pound was promoting:
1. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
Pound added dicta of his own, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” which elaborated the orders of battle, among them:
Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.
Don’t use such an expression as “dim lands of peace.” It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.
Go in fear of abstractions. Don’t retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.
Use either no ornament or good ornament.
The minor vogue and rapid extinction of Imagism, a movement whose influence we still feel, has been hashed over by literary critics for a century. Its rehearsal here is merely to bring the poem into focus within the slow progress toward the densities of language, the images like copperplate engraving, that made Pound Pound.
When you read Pound’s early poems book by book, his transformation is the more remarkable. In Personae (1926), which collected poems published before The Cantos, he pared his apprentice work of many of its embarrassments, almost a hundred of them. The poems absent are rarely as good as those he chose to keep, though the latter have the young Pound’s same brash overreaching; the varnished diction (“Holy Odd’s bodykins!” “a fool that mocketh his drue’s disdeign”); the curious tone with contrary modes of sap-headed ardor and bristling hostility; and the contempt for modern life, cast into antique dialect (no other modern poet started as a contemporary of Chaucer). The worst of the discarded are deaf to their own high comedy: “Lord God of heaven that with mercy dight/ Th’ alternate prayer wheel of the night and light,” and “Yea sometimes in a bustling man-filled place/ Me seemeth some-wise thy hair wandereth/ Across my eyes.” It took a long while for Pound to practice his preaching—he saw the direction for English poetry before he could follow it. Though he never entirely shook off the archaic trappings and the high romance of the troubadours, Imagism taught him to focus on image and let it whisper meanings he’d been shouting, Sturm und Drang style, with a bushel of exclamation marks attached.
The mechanics for change were in place; then came the occasion, the letter from Harriet Monroe, editor of the newly launched Poetry (“I strongly hope that you may be interested in this project for a magazine of verse and that you may be willing to send us a group of poems”). Pound initially gave her a couple of poems lying on the desk, but the opportunity was too tempting to squander. Monroe was a dreadful poet and a conventional editor, but Pound saw the advantage of becoming the magazine’s house cat—he had immediately granted her exclusive rights to his verse and agreed to become Poetry’s foreign correspondent. Monroe gave him a toehold among American literary magazines; he in turn provided access to the avant-garde abroad. The literary cities of the day were still Boston and New York. A magazine devoted only to poetry and founded in the uncultured heartlands not far from the Great American Desert was a novelty.
The best things in Poetry’s first years were the poems by Pound, Eliot, Frost, and Yeats, as well as Pound’s hammer-and-tongs prose—Pound brought the others into the fold. In the fall of 1912, only a couple of months after the letter, he offered Monroe the job lot of “Contemporania.” (That he briefly considered calling the series “March Hare” suggests his intentions both whimsical and provocative.) In March came the articles on Imagism, the theory. Then at last, the next month, “Contemporania.”
“In a Station of the Metro” is the rare instance of a poem whose drafts, had they survived, might retain the fossil traces of a complete change of manner, from gaslit poeticism to the world of electric lighting and underground rail. “Contemporania” showed Pound’s first acquaintance with the modern age, with the deft gliding of registers, the slither between centuries of diction, that made virtue of vice: “Dawn enters with little feet/ like a gilded Pavlova,” “Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall/ She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,” “Go to the bourgeoise who is dying of her ennuis,/ Go to the women in suburbs.” (In American poetry, it has never hurt to knock the suburbs.) His embrace of the modern is not a rupture with the past (there is antiquarian fussiness enough), but an acknowledgment that the past underlies the present, that present and past live in sharp and troubled relation. “In a Station of the Metro” is the final poem of the group.
At the beginning of his most productive years (roughly 1912–1930), Pound might as well have been a medieval troubadour yanked into the modern world. When he describes the woman in Kensington Gardens, he remarks, “Round about there is a rabble/ Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor”—it’s not clear whether this judgment betrays her prejudice or his Swiftian realism (or not so real, since infants of the poor died in droves). Already a slight embarrassment clings to the earlier poems. Addressing them, he admits, “I was twenty years behind the times/ so you found an audience ready.”
Pound’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter called “Contemporania” a “blast to announce the appearance of a new circus-act,” the poems “written in a hurry and to fill a gap.” Pound himself referred to their “ultra-modern, ultra-effete tenuity”—and these “modern” poems, as he called them elsewhere, were quickly parodied by Richard Aldington, among others. Pound must have thought better of them, because he included a few in his Catholic Anthology (1915) and all but one in Lustra (1916). It would hardly have been the first time a writer, lashing out against his contemporaries, found the way forward. Pound’s genius, when he was young, was as restless as Picasso’s. Ambition is gasoline.
“In a Station of the Metro”
A title is not usually the first line of a poem. It may exist in tenuous or digressive proximity to what follows, at times merely the equivalent of an easel card propped to one side of the stage, or the placard flourished by a bikini-clad model between rounds of a fight. The title may tell us merely where we are, or how far along. Here it flows seamlessly into the first line, but its status, like so many features of the poem, remains ambiguous. “In a Station of the Metro” was, as a title, a challenge to an aesthetic that would not have seen as poetry a poem set in such unromantic surrounds. The history of poetry has repeatedly been the march of the unpoetic into the poetic.
After the title, the first presence is almost an absence—apparitions are neither here nor there but halfway between two worlds, between seen and unseen, appearance and disappearance. The link to the supernatural is as old as the word—it first described a ghost, employing a term used in Latin of servants, whose presence could be summoned. The degrees of meaning spread from the reappearance of a star after occultation to the appearance of the infant Christ to the Magi, also called the Epiphany. These faces call up the shades of the Odyssey, where the dead Elpenor is referred to by the Greek word “eidolon,” a specter or phantasm. The dead live in darkness, and if you attempt to hold them they fade from your hands, insubstantial, “like a shadow/ or a dream” (Lattimore translation, XI, 207–8).
Pound’s recollection of the Métro would have been more or less vivid when recorded for T.P.’s Weekly in June, 1913. Setting down that moment a year later for the Fortnightly Review, he added new details:
I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work “of second intensity.” Six months later I made a poem half that length ; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence :—
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals, on a wet, black bough.”
Pound was enough of a classicist, and a showman, to know the advantage of arriving in medias res—indeed, there is scarcely another way to start when the end is almost the beginning. Those passengers drifting by are not revenants, but they rise from the gloom of the underground station. The old-fashioned spaces before semi-colons and colons affect the text of the poem. (Such spaces have elsewhere been removed where Pound’s prose is quoted.) Note the introduction after “petals” of a comma soon to vanish again.
The Métro had opened scarcely a decade before, during the Paris World Fair in the summer of 1900. The trains ran on electric motors, and the electric lighting on the platforms provided artificial daylight. London’s underground stations had been choked by the steam and sulphurous coal-smoke of engines that scattered cinders on the waiting crowds. One man remarked on the “smell of smoke, the oily, humid atmosphere of coal gas, the single jet of fog-dimmed light in the roof of the railway carriage, which causes the half-illumined passengers to look like wax figures in a ‘Chamber of Horrors.’ ” An American, aghast at the “sulphurous smoke” that left the London stations “filled with noxious fumes,” reported that doctors treated passengers afflicted with “headache and nausea.” Those wax figures give us an idea of what Pound saw.
Paris was lighter and cleaner. Still, standard bulbs were weaker then, and houses brightly lit compared to the days of candlelight and gas jets would seem a miasma now. Early photographs of Métro stations show a shadowy realm barely interrupted by the glow of ceiling fixtures (the exposures perhaps required would have made the scene lighter than ordinary). There is a witness. In September 1911, a few months after Pound’s visitation, another traveler came to Paris and recorded in his diary that “in spite of the electric lights you can definitely see the changing light of day in the stations; you notice it immediately after you’ve walked down, the afternoon light particularly, just before it gets dark.” This was Franz Kafka. Had the day been rainy, the station would have been even darker.
A crowd is the city’s signature, especially for those from the country. Recall Wordsworth on London, a century before:
How oft, amid those overflowing streets,
Have I gone forward with the crowd, and said
Unto myself, “The face of every one
That passes by me is a mystery!”
Prelude (1850), VII, 626–9
This is nearly the experience of “In a Station of the Metro”—but recall, too, Eliot’s Dantesque London a few years later: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many.” Pound’s vision occured in a “jostle,” he says, but the poem is all stillness, a freeze frame as static as haiku.
Gare de Lyon station in 1900, showing the dim single bulbs and general darkness, though here made lighter by the photographer’s flash, RATP Collection.
The interiors of most early stations, including La Concorde, were lined with chamfered white tiles, highly glazed—these scattered the light and in photographs give the interior a watery look. Pound’s poem depends on the daylight above the darkness below, not least because a visit to the underworld is a visit to the dead. Readers would have known the journey of Odysseus in Odyssey XI (the Nekuia), or of Aeneas in Aeneid VI. The ritual slaughter of sheep, whose blood drew the dead to Odysseus, must already have been ancient when Homer composed his verses.
Richelieu-Drouot station, 1930’s, showing the watery effect of the light on the station ceiling. Pi?cture Agence Mondial, Stan Laferrière ?Collection.
The comparison to petals is stark, but the gists and hints go deeper, as well as the sense of loss. The classic haiku demands a reference to season taken from a time-honored list—perhaps Pound knew that much. (How well he knew Japanese verse is moot, since he apparently believed haiku required, recall, sixteen syllables and punctuation.) However the scene occurred in the lost longer drafts of the poem, through the pair of striking images he may have come to this brief form. Pound’s construction of the series was fluid and contingent, but on one point he told Monroe he was adamant: “There’s got to be a certain amount of pictures to ballance [sic] the orations, and there’s got to be enough actual print to establish the tonality.”
The intention of the image is plain—beyond the scatter of blossom lies transience. In his second reminiscence, Pound says he “saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman.” The beauty of petals—roughly oval, like faces—lasts but a week; the faces in the Métro are like those of the dead, the lives however long too short in retrospect. Indeed, the dead never age. In the underworld, young women remain beautiful; children, children.
Despite the faint tincture of the classics, Pound’s petals seem immediately present. In the Paris spring, these might have been the palest pink of cherry blossoms or the rouge-tinted white of plum. Cherry trees may have been blooming in the Jardin des Tuileries above the station. “A wet, black bough”: bough here, therefore probably a tree, though “boughs of roses” is not unknown. In a minor poem from Exultations (1909), “Laudantes Decem Pulchritudinis Johannae Templi,” Pound praised the “perfect faces which I see at times/ When my eyes are closed—/ Faces fragile, pale, yet flushed a little, like petals of roses.” The image was in the warehouse.
Pound would have left the Métro in sight of the giant red-granite obelisk erected in the long octagonal square by King Louis-Philippe in 1829, less than forty years after it had served as the site of the guillotine. There Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and Danton met their deaths. Known as Place de la Révolution during the Terror, the square was afterward renamed, not without the luxury of irony.
Blossoms wither and fade, lives wither and fade. Those visions in the Métro, so casually encountered, might have been at the peak of a beauty that death, like art, would arrest, had arrested. The poem depends on the electric shock of seeing the bloom of such faces in the murk underground. That’s the point. Beauty rises here from the sordid darkness, a motif familiar from Aristotle’s notion that life emerged spontaneously from rotting flesh. The poem works that ground between nature and civilization, country and city, pastoral and metropolitan. The dunghill vs. harmony. The Georgics vs. the Aeneid. Pound built the image out of the clash of prejudices. Paris of course had its own underground city of the dead—the Catacombs, whose entrance lay on what had been known as Hell Street (Rue d’Enfer). The poet stayed at a pension no great distance away when he arrived in Paris in 1911.
Pound noted in “A Few Don’ts” that “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. . . . It is the presentation of such a ‘complex’ instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” Pound was unusual in being able to examine, almost with calipers, what he was doing—and what he intended to do. The poem here is theory writ small, or theory is the poem writ large.
The juxtaposition of images binds the worlds together as much as it holds them apart. This is Pound’s phanopoeia at its most basic. The beauty exists in eternal confrontation with the squalid, but it is beautiful in part because of that squalor. After Pound, there was not a poet who could requisition the power of such images until Geoffrey Hill. Pound’s crucial critical idea of the period, applied directly to translation, was the distinction between melopoeia, “words . . . charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property”; phanopoeia, a “casting of images upon the visual imagination”; and logopoeia, the “ ‘dance of the intellect among words.’ ” He used the term melopoeia at least as early as 1921.
The image, however exact physically, trembles with ambiguity. Do the faces look wet in the liquid light of the Métro? Was it raining above, the passengers having rushed into the darkened station from a shower? (That Pound mentions only women and a child among the faces suggests that this might be late afternoon, the women having spent the day in the gardens above, perhaps driven into the subway by the rains.) Are the petals from blossoms torn apart by spring rain, stuck to the wet bough, to fall when the sun returns? Or are they blossoms freshly opened in clusters along a branch? Pound’s familiarity with ukiyo-e prints might indicate sprays of cherry or plum blossom (Hokusai and Hiroshige contributed important examples), but seeing one face after another suggests solitary petals. Pound likely had a single thought in mind, not two—such minor puzzles the reader must hold at bay. Some of the disconcerting play embedded in the poem lies between the static and dynamic terms of the image: petals pasted in stillness or clusters buffeted by a breeze. If the exact date mattered, as it does not, amid the usual showers of early spring in 1911 Paris had two prolonged periods of heavy rain, March 12–18 and April 27–29. It’s merely idle speculation, but idle speculation is not the worst way to attack a poem, so long as it is no more than that.
What of the black bough? Perhaps the gloom suggested it. (The thicker the crowd, the fainter the light.) The atmosphere, dark enough already, would have been filled with the smoke of men indulging in pipes or cigarettes. Yet the original Métro cars had been made of dark varnished wood. Though some still ran on other lines, those no longer passed through La Concorde. The new metal-clad cars, however, had been painted brown (later deep green) in imitation of the wooden models; it’s not clear if Pound could have seen the difference in the Stygian darkness of the station. (Kafka: “The dark color of the steel sides of the cars predominated.”) That might have been enough, had Pound seen the faces against the dark backdrop of the wooden cars, or what he recollected as wood.
The newer metal-sided Metro cars (ca. 1909), RATP Collection.
Aeneas’s descent into the Underworld through the wide-mouthed cavern of Avernus might also lie behind the image of Pound’s half-lit station. The art-deco entrances built for the Métro, of which many examples remain, feature two tall curving posts like spindly flower stalks, each topped by a small red lamp. Mark Ovenden remarks in Paris Underground that these lamps “were said to look like the Devil’s eyes at night; the steps of Hades down his throat leading to the belly of the beast!” Unfortunately, Ovenden cannot recall the source; and the most knowledgeable historian of the Métro, Julian Pepinster, does not think the comparison was ever made. It is suggestive but, alas, likely unhistorical.
Entrance to La Concorde beneath the Tuileries (1917), Ph. Branger, Roger-Viollet collection.
The entrance to La Concorde did not possess these spiry posts. (Pound would have entered elsewhere.) It was scarcely less gloomy, however. In a photograph of 1914, the entrance appears as a shadowy arched mouth cut into a stone facade along the border of the Tuileries, the sign METROPOLITAIN capped by five small bulbs, probably red, to cast light upon it through the dark. There, if we take him at his word, Pound would have emerged from the underworld.
The poet, given his turn of mind, might have recalled another passage in the Aeneid—where Aeneas rode Charon’s ferry across the Styx. The trains come and go, as endlessly as the ferry of the dead. Perhaps Pound recalled the sulphurous atmosphere of the London Underground, not completely electrified even then. Until bridges and subways were built, the ferry remained the common carriage across water in all cities of water—London, Paris, New York. If we take the journey of the dead further, the pale-faced figures would be the newly dead rushing to board—Pound saw them pressing toward him in the crowd. Other myths muscle in, especially the eternal return of Persephone (invoked in Pound’s Canto I, a reworking of the Nekuia episode). Surely, had the Métro traveler a tutelary goddess, it would be she.
Pound’s tone is nondescript, almost clerical, a notation of image complex in demand and reservation. There’s something of the awe beauty disposes, or leaves in its wake—his hypnotic transfixion has been transferred to the petals. The anonymous flâneur explains nothing (he gives no motive for his appearance, because the moment does not require motive)—if you didn’t sense the ghostly quality of these presences (ghostly, not ghastly), his remark would not be far removed from forensic. He’s merely the medium of impression, the words that give voice to image. One of the poem’s quiet gestures is that it lets the title establish the surrounds. Pound’s longer recollection registered the stir and arrest of this accidental scene: “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.” Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative, which bears a filial relation, was not mentioned until his essay “Hamlet and His Problems” in 1919.
The neutrality of voice perhaps owes something to Pound’s stray reading of Oriental translation, though his deeper interest in Chinese poetry came only in the fall of 1913, after he met the widow of the scholar Ernest Fenollosa, who gave the poet his papers. Still, Pound had arrived in Europe toward the end of half a century of Japonisme ushered in by Commodore Perry’s expedition of 1853–1854. That the poet spent time looking at ukiyo-e prints was no odder than his taste for painters like Whistler, that chronic bohemian, on whom the Japanese influence was marked.
Translation accounted for the simplicity and directness of Imagism. The poet had in effect thought in an alien language, a tongue he did not know, and translated back to English.
In the Fortnightly Review memoir, after remarks similar to those on “spots of colour,” Pound added: “It was just that—a ‘pattern,’ or hardly a pattern, if by ‘pattern’ you mean something with a ‘repeat’ in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour.” He was not referring to rhythm here, but his thoughts on rhythm align in rudimentary form with this moment. (Melopoeia, as he says in ABC of Reading , is where “language charged with meaning” succeeds in “inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech.”) He continues, in the expanded reminiscence, “I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colours, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.” There he rejects the relevance of Baudelairean synaesthesia.
Pound certainly had rhythm in mind when he typed out the poem for Harriet Monroe.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough .
These spaces might be called phrasal pauses, except the last, which provides emphasis or suspense after “black.” Monroe must have questioned Pound about rhythm, because he replied with a salvo: “I’m deluded enough to think there is a rhythmic system in the d[amned] stuff, and I believe I was careful to type it as I wanted it written, i.e., as to line ends and breaking and capitals.” Recall the odd comma after “petals” in the version Pound published in Fortnightly Review in 1914. The phrasal pauses are gone, but he couldn’t quite let go—that comma is the last remnant of a missing space.
The spaces before colon and period might be thought similar to pauses in reading at the end of a line or a sentence (you cannot hear punctuation, not accurately, with perhaps one exception, the question mark). These spaces, however, had no significance—they are simply a mistake, or perhaps better an artifact. Pound was following an old typographer’s convention throughout the manuscripts and typescripts of “Contemporania.” The convention had not entirely vanished in print—you see spaces before all major stops except the period in the original edition of Gaudier-Brzeska, as in the Fortnightly Review article that preceded it.
Such rhythms would have been more difficult to enforce before the invention of the typewriter—the typewriter was Pound’s piano. He liked to think of himself as a composer, though his work in that line was not a success—he had a tin ear, and a tin voice. His longest composition, the one-act opera Le Testament, is an agony of droning. Pound added, in his salvo, “In the ‘Metro’ hokku, I was careful, I think, to indicate spaces between the rhythmic units, and I want them observed.”
Pound’s colored “pattern” has only a sidelong reference to music. Still, there he came as close as anyone to a definition of free verse: free-verse rhythm, too, is not a “pattern,” not something with a “repeat.” (A pattern without a repeat, Pound might have said, meant that poetry should not look like wallpaper.) We are returned to Flint’s notes on Imagism: “As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” Pound’s disruptive idea of rhythm almost demanded that he break the phrasing after “black”—he could not require this without spacing, but when he printed the poem in Catholic Anthology he gave up trying to bully the reader. That he had such a rhythm in mind tells us about the poem; that he was willing to abandon the notation tells us about Pound.
The analysis of rhythm does not often consider the length of words or the shift in parts of speech. To chart these things and superimpose them must be clumsy, but if we include the title the map might run:
x x N-N x x N-N
x N-N-N-N x x N-N x x N
N-N x x A A N
where x = articles, prepositions, pronouns, demonstrative adjectives; A = adjectives; and N = nouns. (Polysyllables are hyphenated, metrical stress italicized.) What can we learn from the lines’ DNA? That most nouns appear in the strong positions at the beginning and end of lines, their force amplified by the string of monosyllables at line end, like a series of drum taps. The monosyllabic nouns are more dramatic, and more dramatically placed, than those longer. The rhythm of meter is augmented by the rhythm of syllables. (It should be noted that the meter of the final line mirrors but truncates the meter of the title.)
In Lustra (1916), the poet replaced colon with semi-colon. (That even here a space precedes the punctuation at the end of the first line of “In a Station” should not be taken as a sign that Pound cared. It was not lost in Personae until the revised edition of 1990.) The colon surrenders the pale faces to the petals; the semi-colon juxtaposes them in equal and trembling rapport. The colon is a compass direction; the semi-colon a long rest, a musical notation. Pound considered the images superimposed (“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.”) Call it a jump cut at its sharpest, at its gentlest a dissolve, that technique so beloved of early cinema—Pound’s era. He was thinking of film in that later reminiscence: “The logical end of impressionist art is the cinematograph,” that is, the motion-picture camera.
As Pound says about the moment of discovery, in the Fortnightly Review memoir, “I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour.” He must have felt in the early version of the poem that he had to direct the reader’s eye from one thing to the other. Later, he was satisfied to nestle the images side by side. The lack of a verb leaves the tenor and ratio of comparison to the reader, as in haiku. The virtue of the sentence fragment is the unease produced when the verb is denied—however this seems to those fluent in Japanese, in English the verb is the absent guest longing to appear. Elijah.
To think of the petals as notes, lined up along the musical staff of a bough, takes the metaphor beyond its bounds, but, had the words scattered along the line struck Pound as a series of notes, the spaced phrases completed the rhythm of notation. The spacing perhaps prevents the reader from realizing that both lines are iambic, an alexandrine followed by acephalic tetrameter. The tension between iambic rhythm and the rhythm of phrasing gives the poem its motive tension. (The device was frequently used by Frost.) The iambics continue, the phrasings interrupt and stutter. When the poem appeared last in the series of “Contemporania,” the pauses at line end must have seemed more emphatic, lingering, final.
The stamp or impression of “In a Station” would not remain so vivid without indirection. The best of Pound’s early work lies not in medieval ventriloquism or harangue, but in his new taste for implication. The best example of the method comes from Cathay in “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance,” his translation of a poem by Li Po (now usually Li Bai):
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
Working from the scholar Ernest Fenollosa’s notes, Pound called the poet Rihaku, as he was known in Japan. (Fenollosa had studied the Chinese poems with Japanese teachers.) The poem seems slight, but, as he did for no other poem in the short pamphlet, Pound added an instruction manual.
Note.—Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.
The cunning is worthy of Sherlock Holmes. (Even Pound felt so—when he analyzed the poem in “Chinese Poetry,” he remarked, “You can play Conan Doyle if you like.”) The original poem is not in code, but it depends on knowledge of Chinese poetry, including, as Wai-lim Yip notes in Ezra Pound’s “Cathay,” the genre of court poetry it imitated. (If Pound, as Yip argues, did not recognize the genre, he made inspired guesses. Holmes, again.) The inductive method, placing the necessities of interpretation entirely upon the reader, had been crucial to “In a Station of the Metro.” This is undoubtedly part of what Pound meant by logopoeia—the “dance of the intellect among words.”
The claims of implication, of mysteries deciphered, were developed in even scrappier fashion in “Papyrus,” Pound’s interpretation of a bit of parchment containing fragmentary remains of a poem by Sappho. Pound used only the beginning three lines:
Spring . . . . . . .
Too long . . . . . .
Gongula . . . . . .
Gongula (more accurately, Gongyla) is a woman’s name. The Romantic idea of the fragment, the partial whole, found purchase here (recall “Kubla Khan”), though Pound’s translation of the first two fragmentary lines has been sharply disputed. The question is not, is this a love poem, but does a love poem require more?
There remains the mystery of what provoked Pound, bedeviled by the scene in the Métro, to the comparison. In “Piccadilly” (1909), he’d written of “beautiful, tragical faces” and “delicate, wistful faces”—he was drawn to beauty like a pre-Raphaelite dauber. More than a little of the pre-Raphaelite survives in Lustra. Consider, among many examples, the “eyes of the very beautiful/ Normande cocotte” in “Pagani’s, November 8”—another louche charmer, another chance encounter.
Was there any shade who might have haunted him during the long revision of the poem? Perhaps. On an earlier visit to Paris in 1910, he had met Margaret Cravens, the American bohemian who became his patron. She killed herself with a revolver in June 1912. Her death long troubled her friends, and some mistakenly believed that she had been in love with Pound. He wrote an elegy for her (later titled “Post Mortem Conspectu”) that was intended for the group of “Contemporania,” though he withdrew it and published it elsewhere.
The incident in the Métro occurred over a year before Cravens’s suicide, but we know from his accounts that Pound revised a long while before his revelation that the inciting moment in all its affliction could be compressed to two images. (The “hokku-like sentence” occurred to him as early as the spring before her suicide, or in the months after.) This Parisian ghost might have stalked Pound while he was whittling away the original version. Like Ajax turning from Odysseus in the Underworld, nursing his old grievance, the figures in the Métro do not say a word: “ ‘So I spoke. He gave no answer, but went off after/ the other souls of the perished dead men, into the darkness’” (Odyssey XI, 563–4, Lattimore translation). Kafka remarked, “Métro system does away with speech; you don’t have to speak either when you pay or when you get in and out.”
Years later, Cravens’s death is recalled in Canto 77 (“O Margaret of the seven griefs/ who hast entered the lotus”), where Pound invoked the land of the dead, later mentioning the lotus again, the flower associated with her in his elegy. Then: “we who have passed over Lethe.” There was much to forget. It might be tempting to recall the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice—another journey to the underworld to rescue someone dear, and a failure. That presses the possibilities too far. The archeology of image is difficult, and the critic can do little more than scatter a few suggestions relevant to the poet’s state of mind, insofar as such a transient thing can be explored at all. The poem does not need Cravens to conjure up the passage through the underworld. If the ghostly faces are the faces of the dead, they steal a little beauty from the petals. If they are the faces of the living, they borrow transience. As apparitions they may be both.
There could have been a more lingering cause for Pound to be thinking of the dead. One evening in 1903, a fire caused by a train’s short-circuited motor filled the tunnels and Couronnes station with smoke. The lights were extinguished; passengers wandered in darkness, dying along the platform and at a neighboring station. Eighty-four were killed. Pound had visited Paris in 1906, when memory of the fire would still have been fresh. Perhaps he had heard of it. The pale faces crowded along the platform may be an eerie reminder of those who had died underground.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.