In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
I used to think the speaker of this poem was on a subway car in the Metro, flying by Metro stops and seeing the crowd beside the car. The movement would cause a blur where the clothed parts of their bodies might resemble a dark branch, and their faces, while indistinct, would be a bright and smaller part of that impression, like the petals on the flowers of certain trees.
I think the safer way to interpret this poem, though, is to say our speaker sees a crowd in the Metro station, and not care whether he is moving or at rest. There is a distance between him and the crowd, as the word “apparition” testifies. Apparition, while it has ghostly and spiritual overtones, is more closely connected with the Latin verb which means “to appear.” Our speaker knows the faces in the crowd through their appearance, not their actuality or totality in being.
With that in mind, we know there is some separation between our speaker and the crowd, even if the separation is not that of a motion/rest distinction. The major question can now be addressed: petals on a wet, black bough?
Aeneas needs a golden bough to take to the Underworld, and the golden bough is from a tree that is black as charcoal and lifeless in itself. Further, the bough isn’t totally golden; it has a dark underside to it that is of the tree it came from. Roughly, the metaphor invoked is that of how soul and body might relate: it could be that soul is this divine, precious, amazing thing, grafted onto this lifeless, decaying, common lump of flesh.
Now it is possible for this bough, without gold, to have been considered a noble image of the crowd. For Pound could have written “petals on a bough,” and we might have thought that he was invoking how individual faces, in their uniqueness, constitute the flowering of the human family (all from the tree image). But Pound chooses to give us the adjectives “wet” and “black” to describe the bough.
“Black” evokes death and I will leave it at that. “Wet” is the key to the poem. Water should be that which grants life, but here, it has soaked the tree, presumably making the flowers and the branch sog, weighted down with that which is its lifeblood. If the image of man presented in the bough is that of man as a bodily animal only, and if those in the Metro are a crowd going to work (why else does the Metro exist), then the wetness of the bough is evocative of how we weigh ourselves down by our overemphasis on survival, and how we truly are born free in a noble sense – we are part of Nature’s beauty – but have indeed put ourselves in chains.