In a Station of the Metro is an imagist poem by Ezra Pound published in 1913. The poem displays precise technical execution, like a finely tuned machine. But the elements are difficult to see at first, hidden behind a superficially simple structure. In this analysis, I want to focus mostly on the technical execution of the poem, and its use of expertly deployed acoustic effects to achieve the intended effect on the reader.
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The poem has an unmistakably somber tone, even though we may not, at a first pass, be able to say precisely why. The content of the poem seems to be just the description of a moment in a subway station, when the people appear to look (somehow) like petals stuck to a branch.
By comparing human beings to petals, Pound is suggesting something about the brevity of human life. This moment in the subway station is not just an observation about visual similarities (if it is even that); It is an existential moment that occurs in the subway station: a realization of the transitory nature of life. Pound’s poem works to enact the depth of that existential realization.
Brevity of experience is one of the key features of this poem. The entirety of the poem’s structure works to enact this momentariness, and the fleeting nature of experience. Pound deploys rhythmical, grammatical, semantic, and acoustic effects to freeze time at this exact moment in the subway. He builds a static moment in the mind of the reader.
Denotation, connotation, symbolism, etc.
I won’t spend too much time on connotation, symbolism, or etymological association. But I would like to point out a few things. “Apparition” is an odd word here. One of its senses is “spirit” or “ghost”, a meaning which imbues the poem with a sort of spiritual sentiment, and invokes the idea of death. It also means the appearance of something. But it feels also insubstantial and ephemeral; to call it an “apparition” suggests also that it could vanish at any moment.
The color “black” connotes death and darkness. The image of petals that have fallen similarly connotes death or the fleeting nature of life -the change of seasons, and in human terms, life and death. So the images all work together to suggest a feeling of life’s brevity.
All of the faces are equated with the petals, just as the petals are shown to have fallen from the tree, only to be stuck, for a moment, on a wet branch. The petals, being stuck to a wet branch, are understood to have adhered because of the moisture -a necessarily impermanent and fragile state. This again complements the momentariness of the experience.
As the petals are in the process of falling; we are in the process of dying. The comparison between ourselves and the petals invites us to reflect on our existence as transitory.
The poem is about a subway station. A subway is a fitting image for the transitory nature of life, representing, as it does, going from one place to another. The subway stop is a pause in the transition, as the petals on a tree branch are paused in transition. These images work in concert to support the same central theme of the poem: a brief pause in a transitory experience. All of the technical elements of the poem enact that theme.
The poem has no verb. This complements the feeling of momentariness. To use a verb is to imply an action occurring over time, which would, in the mind of the reader, create the effect of passing time. Pound avoids the impression of passing time by removing all verbs.
Control of the reader’s focus in this poem is achieved largely by rhythmical effects. Pound has built an accentual-syllabic rhythm that freezes time just as the poem comes to a close. In order to feel the effects of rhythmical variation, the reader must first sense the established rhythm. This poem begins by establishing a fast rhythm, and then moving to a rhythm that grinds to a halt.
We can use scansion to analyze the rhythm. The rhythm of the first line scans like this:
It is firmly established in the mind of the reader. And it is fast. When it slows down, we will really feel the contrast.
The rhythm of the second line scans like this:
The break in rhythm draws attention to “petals”, making that word pop from the line. Over the next three syllables, we are eagerly awaiting the rhythm to be re-established. It comes, when expected, on “wet”. But the following two stressed syllables massively disrupt our rhythmic expectations.
The rhythm has ground to a halt, just as the syntax comes to a close with a period; there is a rhythmic freezing of the whole moment just as the meaning is established semantically. This effect on the reader could not have been achieved without perfect concert between syntactic arrangement and rhythmic arrangement.
Rhyme, assonance, consonance
Pound uses acoustic effects to similarly project the reader’s attention towards the close of the poem, where time freezes.
There is the rhyme on crowd/bough. There is the alliteration on black/bough. There is the consonance of the /k/ on crowd/black. All of these effects draw the reader’s ear towards the close of the poem, making us feel even more strongly the freezing of time that occurs at this moment.
There are also acoustic effects deployed to make the faces disappear into the crowd. The stressed syllables in the line occur within the words “apparition”, “faces”, and “crowd”. The soft fricatives and approximant of the first two stressed syllables create a subtle correspondence between “face” and “apparition”, whereas the dual plosives of “crowd” make that word emerge from the line. We subconsciously lose sight of the individual faces in place of the crowd, which takes our focus.
An internal rhyme is used to assist rhythm in the second line. Petals/wet provides a subtle boost to the rhythm, pushing us forwards into the final three syllables, and allowing us to feel the slowing of rhythm more acutely.
Tone is complemented subconsciously with a descending pitch-profile in both lines. In the first line, the pitch-profile is comprised of the vowels /ɪ/, /ei/, /aʊ/, creating a subtly-depressed tone on the first line, with a peak in the middle. The second line begins at a slightly lower tone than the first, and again creates a depressed-tone by way of a descending pitch-profile, with no peaks: /ɛ/, /ɛ/, /æ/, /aʊ/.
Both lines have descending pitch-profiles, creating an unmistakably somber tone, though we feel it more strongly in the second line, because of the clustered stresses. As with the rest of the technical elements of this poem, the pitch-profile is structured to point towards the end of the poem, reaching its lowest point on “bough”.
In a Station of the Metro is a masterpiece of precise technical execution that deploys rhythmic, syntactic, acoustic, and semantic effects to create the impression of a transitory moment frozen in time. The petals on the branch, and the subway stop itself, are both symbolic of the transitory nature of our lives. The poem enacts momentariness with its formal elements.