This poem is actually made up of eighteen short poems and grouped into two sections. The first is, in essence, Pound's autobiography from the perspective of his third-person alter ego. It details his struggles to re-emphasize the importance of aesthetics and poetry in society. He pays particular attention to the classical Greek myths to illustrate his point, celebrating their classic beauty and intense passion. He describes America as a "half-savage land" where his art could not flourish. However, when he first arrived in London, he found that Britain was absorbed in commodities.
Later in section one, Pound goes on to criticize artists and publishers for caring only about sales instead of the craft. He does this by creating a fictional conversation between his alter ego and a bestselling novelist who cares only about the reviews of his work. This encompasses one of the main messages of Pound's poem: mass culture will never be able to produce great art because of corrupt motivations.
In the second section of the poem, Pound introduces the title character, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, who is still interchangeable with Pound himself. Mauberley is a minor poet struggling to perfect his work, but unfortunately, society deems him irrelevant. Mauberley fails at romance - he can observe beauty but cannot act in time to seize it, and he eventually retires to the Pacific islands, which is where he dies.
Pound ends the collection with "Medallion," a farewell poem that celebrates beauty. In "Medallion," Pound once again alludes to classical mythology by using Venus as a symbol of beauty. Once again, Pound reminds his reader to celebrate beauty, aesthetics, and poetry because he feels that these values have started to recede from society's collective consciousness.
Many critics and scholars regard "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" as the turning point in Ezra Pound's career. Pound meant this poem to be a strong statement, because he describes the first stage of his career when his primary concerns were aesthetics, literary traditions, and criticizing post-World War I society. Pound's concern with aestheticism decreased drastically after he moved from London to Paris and then to Italy, where he became more concerned with politics and economics (particularly fascism).
Pound combined a bit of classical poetic organization with some more contemporary styles when he was designing the form and meter of this poem. He uses traditional four-line stanzas (quatrains) and employs an ABAB rhyme scheme, but there is no meter within the lines. Each line has a different number of syllables, making it difficult to find a steady rhythm when reading. This choice fits with Pound's views on poetry; he believed it should sound musical, like the way people talk, rather than like a beating drum. Pound's decision to combine old and new styles of poetic form and meter fits with the theme of the poem itself, which addresses the clash between old and new visions of literature and art.
Pound utilizes a lot of allusion in this eighteen-poem collection, particularly when he refers to classical mythology. He alludes to Venus, the Goddess of Love, as a representation of beauty and art. The lines "The tea-rose, tea-gown, etc./supplants the mousseline of Cos" point to the Greek island of Cos, which was famous for the famously beautiful local muslin. In lines 33-60, there are many more references to mythology, all illustrating Pound's appreciation for the pure aesthetics of classic literature. Pound undoubtedly uses these allusions to strengthen his point; they serve as bits of evidence bolstering his assertion that commerce has corrupted contemporary expressions of art and beauty.
Pound interweaves lines in different languages throughout this poem. There are lines in ancient Greek, French, Italian, and Latin, to name a few, most of which appear at the beginning of a stanza. Pound, as an American expatriate in Europe, had a chance to experience many different cultures, and he certainly incorporated these languages to underline the universality of his message.
It is clear that the title character, Hugh, is Pound's literary alter-ego. Pound even starts the poem with his initials, E.P. However, many readers question why he chose to write the poem the a third person perspective through a character of his creation rather than simply speak of himself in the first person singular. However, Pound wanted to maximize the poem's relate-ability. Writing through a third-person character increases the chance that more readers will absorb his message.