The Imagism movement, although short-lived and complicated by some basic contradictions and controversies, definitely left its mark on the literature of its time as well as on many works that would follow. Included in the contradictions was the dictate from the movement’s founders to break the chains of tradition, while two of its most loyal poets wrote their imagist poems with allusions to classical Latin and Greek poetry. Another contradiction was the call for freedom in writing, and yet the leaders of the movement sat down and wrote an imagist manifesto, delineating rules for anyone who would write imagist poems. Added to the contradictions was the confusion that many readers (and critics) experienced as they tried to understand free verse, which to them read more like prose than poetry. And, finally, even though the basic tenet of this group of poets was that the image was the poem, no one was able to offer a definitive explanation of what the word image meant to them, despite the fact that, quite obviously, the most influential element of this movement was just that—the concept of the focused image. However, despite this latter problem, the imagists did discover a model upon which they could build their images, and that was the Japanese poetic form referred to as haiku.
It was in the form of the haiku, or, if not the exact form, at least in the general concept of it, that many of the tenets of the imagist manifesto were best expressed. The manifesto, in short, expected imagist writers to use common speech, words from daily dialogue. The language should be precise and concrete. Rhythm should be free, and rhyming was not only unnecessary, it was practically discouraged. The poem should be concentrated and definite; and, most important, the poem should present an image. Matching this explanation of Imagism are the descriptions of the Japanese poem, which state that haiku should be true to reality and written as if it represented a first impression of subjects taken from daily life or as seen with fresh eyes. The language should be simple, and the focus should be on one image. In both the haiku and the imagist poem, two images are often juxtaposed and the meaning of the poem is understated.
Despite the fact that critics argue that the imagists never truly mastered the haiku form, the influence of the Japanese haiku is very evident in many of their poems. Pound, being the initial leader of the movement, tried his hand at the haiku with his often quoted poem “In a Station of the Metro,” taken here from Harmer’s book:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals, on a wet black bough.
Compare Pound’s poem to one from Japan’s more famous haiku masters, Yosa Buson (1715–1783), and the similarities are easy to see. Buson’s poem is also taken from Harmer.
Alone in a room
In both poems, the wording is sparse. The language is simple. There are two very clear images woven together by a subtle reading, that is left to the reader to decipher. In Pound’s poem, the image of the petals of a flower that have been momentarily pasted to the limb of a tree after a rainfall is something that almost all readers could relate to no matter where they lived, what culture they were brought up in, or what language they spoke. By using this image, Pound gives the reader a hint of his feelings, as the speaker stands, possibly leaning against some far wall, watching the crowd of temporary faces pass by him. Just as the petals of the flower are temporarily pasted against the wet limb, the people who are passing are only momentarily fixed in the speaker’s mind. He juxtaposes the crowded station with a beautiful, understated scene from nature—a few wet petals.
Japanese art, whether a painting or a flower arrangement, is an expression as much of what is not there as of what is presented. A single flower placed with an interestingly formed stick allows space around its images, thus encouraging the imagination to fill in the emptiness. The beauty is in the simplicity. Pound senses this and even plays with it as he first takes his readers to a crowded and busy center of transportation in some unnamed city, then suddenly plants them in a quiet place where they can meditate on a single bough. Buson makes a similar surprising movement. He first implants the feelings of loneliness. The reader is made to believe that a person is sitting in a room by himor herself, although the reader does not know for sure why. The next line adds the emotion. The loneliness gives way to the more incredible feeling of abandonment and neglect. Then Buson adds nature, and the image softens; it becomes pristine and beautiful in its aloneness. It is in the starkness of the single peony that an image of art is created. The lone flower in a vase is turned into a pure, focused image, because there is nothing else in the room to distract the eye.
One more example from the Japanese is the following, also taken from Harmer, and credited to Moritake:
A fallen petal
Flies back to its branch:
Ah! A butterfly!
In comparison to this haiku is one written by Amy Lowell. Although Lowell’s is not as humorous, she wrote a poem that contains a very similar rhythm. This poem is taken from Hughes’s book:...
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Lexicon of beautiful is elastic, but
walla-walla not yet poetically possible.
—T. E. Hulme, “Notes onLanguage and Style”
For a long time, supported both by Eliot’s remark that the Imagists were the point de repère of modern poetry and by anthologists of Imagist verse, literary historians took the “modernism” of that English school as given. William Pratt, anthologizing Imagist poems in 1963, adopted Eliot’s line: they wrote, he said, “the first ‘modern’ poems in English.” Peter Jones, presenting them anew for Penguin ten years later, said that their ideas “still lie at the centre of our poetic practice.” The Imagists themselves, of course, made “modernism” a key element in their platform, and they defined it largely as reaction. T. E. Hulme dismissed virtually the whole of the last century when he named Henley as the single English poet who was “perhaps” a worthwhile model for what he wanted to do, and Richard Aldington voiced a common view with uncommon frankness when he said that “the majority of the poetry of the last century had nothing to do with life and very little to do with poetry . . . except for Browning and a little of Swinburne there was no energy which was not bombast, no rendering of life without an Anglican moral, no aesthetic without aesthetic cant” and when he acknowledged that he was “out to destroy . . . to a certain extent” the reputations of Shelley and Tennyson.
The outpost the Imagists established, however, was nothing like so securely held as historians were for so long willing to believe. Like Murry and Mansfield in Rhythm, or the Sitwells and Huxley in Wheels, the Imagists named their “modernism” before they knew what it was. Their poetics gather borrowed materials into uneasy equilibrium, and if, as Peter Jones says, we are sometimes struck by the differences between their theories and their practice, that is partly because the materials they borrowed were not always compatible with one another. They did not, however, merely “rummage among a variety of sources,” and they were not merely “muddled.” They articulated precisely, in both their theories and their poetry, the central conflicts of modern verse. In their theories, they attempted to recover the nineteenth-century synthesis, the accommodating double emphasis of “The School of Giorgione”; in their poetry, they struggled for sincerity, as Hulme defined it: “Each age must have its own special form of expression,” he wrote, “and any period that deliberately goes out of it is an age of insincerity.” On most important matters, however, the Imagists looked resolutely in two clearly defined and opposed directions: they began by imitating the very models they thought they should reject; they constructed a theory that is based on mutually hostile positions; they cultivated influences that pushed their poetry toward antithetical ideals. These conflicts do not make Imagism any less significant a workshop for modernism—on the contrary, they demonstrate the difficulty of the enterprise and underline the significance of what was achieved—but they do account for the Imagists’ failure to accomplish at a stroke what they took to be their chief task, “the reform of poetic style and, above all . . . the assimilation by poetry of modern thought and the complex modern mind.” When the Imagists confronted what they came to see as their most important subject matter, the life of great cities, they were paralyzed by their selfcontradictions. Aldington’s “Xenophilometropolitania,” which appeared in the Egoist in January, 1914, cover the conflicts with parody, but the “Strange Love,” the “foreign” objects of this oddly amorous poetry, emerged as a central problem for the Imagist poets. Aldington’s assertion that his “Metropolitania” were “penultimate poetry” was not entirely whimsical.
In all of this, Baudelaire is deeply implicated. He is an aspect of each of the Imagist antitheses— a part of their parentage, an affiliate of their theoretical dilemmas, a model for their precisely defined “modernism.” In their work it is possible to observe both the process of his modernizing in England and some of its causes. Moreover, in an account of Baudelaire’s shifting English identity, the Imagists are crucial: they redid some of the critical work of Swinburne and Pater, importing massively from modern French writers and so reversing once again the notion that the French could be ignored; they devised a literary classicism which turned the attention of English writers back beyond Mallarmé and Verlaine to the originating double visage of Baudelaire, who carried, as Valéry was to write some time later, his own critic within him; and they articulated a problem for “modernism” that made him seem, inevitably, “the greatest exemplar in modern poetry in any language,” as Eliot would put it years later, when all of this Imagist activity had subsided into history.
The Imagists’ transactions with French poetry in general and with Baudelaire in particular reflect their characteristic self-contradiction. On the one hand, they placed the French at the heart of their reforming modernism, and for them poets from Villon to Remy de Gourmont represented escape from what they saw as all of that English staleness. But, on the other hand, in rejecting the English mainstream, the Imagists drew heavily on the countertradition: their approach to the French was shaped precisely by their English predecessors, and what they sought from their French models was often what had already been domesticated. Although in their later work the Baudelaire who is recognizable as a contributing voice is also recognizably the figure who speaks in The Waste Land, in their earlier work he echoes from the ’nineties.
There were powerful reasons for the Imagists’ imitations of their predecessors, of course. The poets of the later nineteenth century had neatly prefigured the Imagists’ major concerns, proffering the lyric as a corrective to the long Victorian narrative, seeking to purge the language, focussing on “intense” moments, and emphasizing sensation and individuality. Symons’s concern for a “revolt from ready-made impressions and conclusions, a revolt from the ready-made of language, from the bondage of traditional form, of a form become rigid,” for instance, could settle with smooth consistency into Hulme’s “Notes on Language and Style.” After the noise of Imagism’s opening battles had stilled, its blood relation to the later nineteenth century became clear to some of its members. Pound wrote in 1928 of the “Rapports fr. > eng. via Arthur Symons etc. 1890 Baudelaire, Verlaine, etc.” and John Gould Fletcher confessed in 1937 that he and Amy Lowell had agreed from the beginning that there
was nothing . . . particularly new about imagism. It was but a more lyrical, a saner and more intelligible, development of the aesthetic theories of the English Pre-Raphaelite poets, the Parnassians and the symbolists in France.
There was something new in Imagism, however, and Harold Monro more accurately described its relationship to the nineteenth century: “We in the twentieth century,” he wrote, “are on the treetops of the poetic growths represented by the Pre- Raphaelites and the ’Nineties.”
T. E. Hulme, who so immoderately dismissed almost all of his English predecessors, was by no means oblivious to complexity and contradiction in the process of literary reform. He said that he had “no reverence for tradition” and that he “started from a standpoint of extreme modernism,” but, like Pater, he was fascinated by this fact of transition itself. “Wonder,” he said in the conclusion of his essay on “Romanticism and Classicism,” “can only be the attitude of a man passing from one stage to another.” Like a belated Gautier, delivering a luxurious account of the decomposed language of Les Fleurs du Mal, Hulme adopts a violent figure of decay (adding to it the brass knuckles of his misogyny) to represent the present stage in the history of poetic form: “The carcass is dead,” he writes, “and all the flies are upon it. Imitative poetry springs up like weeds, and women whimper and whine of you and I alas, and roses, roses all the way. It becomes the expression of sentimentality rather than of virile thought.” But Hulme insisted at the same time on the limitations imposed by inheritance: “Just as physically you are not born that abstract entity, man,” he wrote, “but the child of particular parents, so you are in matters of literary judgment.” He observed a similar lag in the development of poetic expression: it was one thing to be in revolt, he suggested, and quite another to produce a new order:
What happens, I take it, is something of this kind: a certain change of direction takes place which begins negatively with a feeling of dissatisfaction with and reaction against existing art. But the new tendency, admitting that it exists, cannot at once find its own appropriate expression. But although the artist feels that he must have done with contemporary means of...
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The Imagist Doctrine
The first public statement of Imagist principles was that printed by Poetry in March 1913. Written by Pound, the statement was signed by Flint, who said he had obtained the three-fold program by interviewing an Imagiste:
1. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
The list illustrates that so far as doctrine was concerned, Imagisme, as Pound conceived it, was not so much a special type of poetry as a name for whatever he had learned (from...
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