Talking about poems just for the pleasure of it

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ezra Pound, "The Garden"

En robe de parade

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens.
And she is dying piecemeal
              of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble 
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
              will commit that indiscretion.  

Although I haven't researched it, I feel sure that Pound based this poem on a real  woman he must have seen in London, surrounded by poor children-- the scene just rings true.  As he does for those famous "faces in the crowd," he finds the perfect image for the way she looks:  "like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall."  She is delicate, out of her element, and the more beautiful for that vulnerable state.  Alongside this admiration, though, he expresses contempt when he diagnoses her condition:  "a sort of emotional anemia."

He feels ambivalent, too, about the children playing around her.  Their sturdiness commands respect, but when he quotes scripture and prophesies that "they shall inherit the earth," we are not sure he finds the prospect a happy one.  They are not beautiful, but "filthy."  This "rabble" represents the future.

"In her is the end of breeding"-- there's a nice double meaning here.  "The end of breeding" because she lacks the vitality to produce another generation, and so her class of people will die out--  but also because she shows the result of over-refinement.  Good breeding, fine manners, the very best in education, have gone too far in her.  Finishing school, shall we say, has finished her.  She is a virginal figure, shrinking from a possible encounter with a man-- but she remains virginal through "boredom," not devotion.

It's hard not to see the implicit observation, and maybe even warning, about the possibilities for civilization here-- but what's especially beautiful about this poem is the way it keeps that warning implicit.  It does not allow commentary to take over, but stays faithful to its image.  In the last lines Pound is still wrapped up in his gaze at this woman.  For all the decadence she represents, he still finds her powerfully attractive.



  1. Never came across this one before. Thanks for introducing me to it. The image in the first line is really quite perfect.

    I found a third meaning in "the end of breeding" -- end as in telos. Which would suggest that the speaker doesn't think much of the idea of breeding in general, if this is where it leads. On the other hand he isn't terribly fond of the filthy little kiddoes either.

  2. "Skein of loose silk blown against a wall". That image suggests something fragile, yes, but also shattered and without control. And I don't get the feeling of contempt you pick up in his "emotional anemia" reference.

    I do like the contrasts expressed in the second stanza. Filthy, sturdy, unkillable--these words set her off even more. "They shall inherit the world". Clearly, she is not going to be repopulating the earth. But, once again, I do not see the ambivalence you do. Instead, I feel that he sees a sort of "reality of the people" here.

    I like your commentary on the third stanza, and agree that Pound does well not to try to bring out a conclusion here, but merely leaves us with the images he sees.

    Your website is new to me, and I hope I have not been too forward in some disagreement with your views. I'll be bookmarking the site, as I love what you are doing.

  3. Not too forward at all, Judy! I'm happy to have you for a reader. Well, maybe "contempt" is too strong a word for his attitude towards the lady in the garden, but wouldn't it seem like something of an insult to be called emotionally anemic? Certainly not praise.

    Yes, "reality of the people" is a good way to describe his sense about those kids. Maybe he doesn't hate them, but he is entirely unsentimental about them.

    I appreciate your encouragement for what I'm trying to do. I've had a chance to look briefly at your beautiful blog, and will be back.

  4. J.P., yes, I think you are right to read "end" as "telos" and this would imply that we are looking not at an excess of "breeding," but at the natural unfolding of it. So the question is what he means by "breeding." I think maybe he means a kind of education or upbringing that is focused so much on propriety and avoiding "indiscretion" that it forgets what is really worthy of cultivation. It results in maybe a kind of delicacy for its own sake, which is lifeless. It seems he is pointing out one of the mistaken paths civilization can take.

  5. Sarah, it's likely that my response to his image of her as "dying piecemeal / of a sort of emotional anemia" is coloured by the fact that I have a relative just diagnosed with anemia. It's not his fault that he is affected by a lack of enough iron in his diet. It makes him exhausted, though, like the strands of "loose silk blown against the wall". And I suppose I see her "emotional anemia" as a lack of something she should have been given by her family, or perhaps by a suitor. It's something she is suffering from. I don't see his mention of it as an insult.

    Well, forget about my current anemia reference. Years ago when I first encountered this poem, I saw her as a sufferer then too.

    In the third stanza, though, I think Pound IS being critical of her. And one thing we haven't mentioned is how, at the very end, Pound manages to turn our attention to himself, his presence in Kensington Gardens, clearly staring at this woman in a way that causes an arrow of feeling to pass between the two of them. What a marvellous small poem!

    And thanks for having a look at my blog!

  6. I agree with you that such a woman is suffering and we should feel compassion for her. The question, I think, is whether that compassion is present in the poem. You make a good argument that it may in fact be there, or at least something approaching it. His attitude is probably more mixed than I realized. I may have been reading into the poem the impression I have of Pound as being coldly aristocratic in his view of humanity-- you know, giving people respect or contempt based on their strengths or weaknesses, regardless of the causes or origins of those strengths and weaknesses. But I shouldn't have been reading anything from outside the poem into the poem, because generally, each poem should be allowed to stand on its own.

  7. Absolutely! And I gave the wrong impression--not that we should feel compassion, but that it is not necessary to assume that by speaking of her as emotionally anemic, Pound was being negative. I was thinking about this today while getting my hair cut, and thought perhaps in your time or place, calling someone anemic was meant to be derogatory. That wasn't so around me, and we don't know if, in Pound's time and place, the reference would have been seen as derogatory.

    And when I said that I saw her as a sufferer, I meant *in terms of the poem*, or perhaps, within the poem.

    I seem to remember Pound as a Socialist, and it was within that frame that I saw his reference to the children of the poor, and, in general, his reaction to the well-bred woman.

    This has been very engaging for me! I've enjoyed having this poem on my mind for days. Thank you! How often does one get the chance to discuss a poem so thoroughly?

  8. Glad you've enjoyed it! This is the kind of thing I was hoping for. Stop by any time.

  9. Does anyone know what "dying piecemeal" means?