Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry: Explained, 1915: FEBRUARY, by EZRA POUND

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

1915: FEBRUARY, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

In Ezra Pound's "1915: February," the tension between the modern world and ancient sagas unfolds against the backdrop of World War I, a conflict that shattered illusions and irrevocably changed the landscape of art, politics, and human identity. The poem captures a moment in time, where an engineer, "smeared, leather-coated, leather-greaved," walks before his "traction-engine," both rendered in grandiose, mythical terms. Yet, these mythological references serve to question, rather than affirm, the roles that modern men and their creations play in the world, particularly in the context of the war that is raging.

The engineer is likened to figures "out of the sagas," such as "Grettir" or "Skarpheddin," heroes from Old Norse literature. In doing so, Pound elevates this seemingly mundane figure to the level of ancient warriors, inviting readers to see the archetypal human struggle embodied in him. Following him is his "traction-engine," described as "some mythological beast," evoking images of Grendel from the Old English epic, "Beowulf." Yet, the poem immediately problematizes these grand comparisons. Unlike the heroes of the sagas or epics, the engineer's "ill luck will make me no sagas." This realization reflects a crisis of representation, as the war and its consequences challenge traditional forms and meanings in art.

Pound then addresses the "over-educated, over-refined literati" and the "store-bred realists," two groups of intellectuals who, he suggests, will fail to understand the essence of the engineer and, by extension, the changing human condition. These groups symbolize both the elite literary establishment and the burgeoning commercial literature scene, which Pound views as inadequate for capturing the complexities of his era. Their inability to "crack the riddle of his skull" suggests that traditional forms of understanding and expression are insufficient for the chaotic, disorienting experience of modernity and war.

The poet aligns himself with the engineer, declaring, "He is mankind and I am the arts. / We are outlaws." This proclamation encapsulates the marginalized status of both common men and artists amidst a war that serves neither. Described as "a vicious medievalism" and "a belly-fat commerce," the war represents the worst aspects of both past and present, and neither side serves the interests of humanity or art. The only constants are the "unseen country road" and "unseen twigs," metaphors perhaps for the unknown paths and latent potential that lie ahead.

"1915: February" embodies the crisis and the transition of an age. It simultaneously looks back to the mythological past for models of human dignity and forward to an uncertain future, attempting to forge new modes of understanding and expression. For Pound, both the engineer and the artist are essential parts of this endeavor, navigating a world that seems increasingly hostile to both. And so, the poem serves as a complex meditation on the role of art and humanity in a time of upheaval, questioning how both can adapt and survive when "neither side is on our side."

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