Imagism was a short-lived but influential movement in English and American poetry that flourished during the years 1912 to 1917. Self-consciously modernist in their aesthetic outlook, the Imagists sought to dislodge the diction, sentimentality, moralizing tone, and conventional forms of Victorian poetry, and instead to concentrate on the precise rendering of images in free verse. Influenced by the ideas of the poet and philosopher T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound and F. S. Flint first documented the theory of Imagism in London early in the second decade of the twentieth century. Their ideals for the new movement appeared in Flint's "Imagisme," printed in the periodical Poetry in March of 1913, which became the manifesto of the fledgling group. Together Flint and Pound devised the three primary precepts of Imagism, calling for conciseness, musical rhythm, and "the direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective." These theories were soon after put into practice in the first Imagist anthology, edited by Pound and entitled Des Imagistes (1914). The collection featured poems by Pound, Richard Aldington, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)—all members of the coterie—as well as verse by several young poets whose writing bore affinities to that of the Imagists, including Amy Lowell, John Gould Fletcher, James Joyce, and William Carlos Williams.
Tensions led to Pound's break with the Imagists less than a year after the publication of Des Imagistes to form a related movement called Vorticism. Meanwhile, the American Amy Lowell had arrived in England and become the group's de facto head after Pound's departure. She successfully endeavored to bring more poets into the fold—including D. H. Lawrence—and to popularize Imagism across the Atlantic. Each year between 1915 and 1917 Lowell edited a volume of the anthology Some Imagist Poets. After a period of considerable interest, the Imagist movement, as such, had run its course by 1917. Many members of the group, however, continued to write in accordance with Imagist precepts. A final Imagist Anthology, edited by Aldington, appeared in 1930, and despite its tardiness attests to certain enduring qualities among the writings of these early modernists. In the ensuing decades, critics have attempted to assess the overall impact of the Imagists and see in their typically spare poems a pre-figuring of the high modernist verse of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Pound's Cantos, as well as an influence on the poetry of William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, and others.
Images (poetry) 1915
Images of Desire (poetry) 1919
Images of War (poetry) 1919
War and Love (poetry) 1919
Exile, and Other Poems (poetry) 1923
A Fool i' the Forest (poetry) 1925
The Love of Myrrhine and Konallis, followed by Nineteen Prose Poems (poetry) 1926
Collected Poems (poetry) 1928
The Eaten Heart (poetry) 1929
A Dream in the Luxembourg [also published as Love and the Luxembourg] (poetry) 1930
Sea Garden (poetry) 1916
Hymen (poetry) 1921
Helidora, and Other Poems (poetry) 1924
Collected Poems (poetry) 1925
Hippolytus Temporizes (drama) 1927
John Gould Fletcher
The Book of Nature (poetry) 1913
The Dominant City (poetry) 1913
Fire and Wine (poetry) 1913
Fool's Gold (poetry) 1913
Visions of the Evening (poetry) 1913
Irradiations—Sand and Spray (poetry) 1915
Goblins and Pagodas (poetry) 1916
Japanese Prints (poetry) 1918
The Tree of Life (poetry) 1918
Breakers and Granite (poetry) 1921
Preludes and Symphonies (poetry) 1922
Parables (poetry) 1925
Branches of Adam (poetry) 1926
The Black Rock (poetry) 1928
F. S. Flint
In the Net of the Stars (poetry) 1909
Cadences (poetry) 1915
Otherworld: Cadences (poetry) 1920
D. H. Lawrence
Love Poems, and Others (poetry) 1913
Amores (poetry) 1916
Look! We Have Come Through! (poetry) 1917
New Poems (poetry) 1918
Bay: A Book of Poems (poetry) 1919
Tortoises (poetry) 1921
Birds, Beasts, and Flowers (poetry) 1923
Collected Poems (poetry) 1928
Pansies (poetry) 1929
Nettles (poetry) 1930
A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (poetry) 1912
Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (poetry) 1914
Some Imagist Poets [editor] (poetry) 1915
Men, Women, and Ghosts (poetry) 1916
Some Imagist Poets, 1916 [editor] (poetry) 1916
Some Imagist Poets, 1917 [editor] (poetry) 1917
Can Grande's Castle (poetry) 1918
Pictures of the Floating World (poetry) 1919
Legends (poetry) 1921
What's O'Clock? (poetry) 1925
East Wind (poetry) 1926
Ballads for Sale (poetry) 1927
Selected Poems (poetry) 1928
A Lume Spento (poetry) 1908
A Quinzaine for This Yule (poetry) 1908
Exultations (poetry) 1909
Personœ (poetry) 1909
Provenga (poetry) 1910
Canzoni (poetry) 1911
Ripostes (poetry) 1912
Des Imagistes: An Anthology [editor] (poetry) 1914
Lustra (poetry) 1916
Quia Pauper Amavi (poetry) 1919
Umbra: The Early Poems of Ezra Pound (poetry) 1920
Poems 1918-21 (poetry) 1921
A Draft of XVI Cantos of Ezra Pound for the Beginning of a Poem of Some Length (poetry) 1925
Personœ: The Collected Poems of Ezra Pound (poetry) 1926
A Draft of the Cantos XVII to XXVII of Ezra Pound (poetry) 1928
Selected Poems of Ezra Pound (poetry) 1928
History And Development
Richard Aldington and Amy Lowell
[In the following essay, Aldington and Lowell outline the central tenets of Imagism.]
SOURCE: Preface to Some Imagist Poets, 1915: An Anthology, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915, pp. v-viii.
In March, 1914, a volume appeared entitled Des Imagistes. It was a collection of the work of various young poets, presented together as a school. This school has been widely discussed by those interested in new movements in the arts, and has already become a household word. Differences of taste and judgment, however, have arisen among the contributors to that book; growing tendencies are forcing them along different paths. Those of us whose work appears in this volume have therefore decided to publish our collection under a new title, and we have been joined by two or three poets who did not contribute to the first volume, our wider scope making this possible.
In this new book we have followed a slightly different arrangement to that of the former Anthology. Instead of an arbitrary selection by an editor, each poet has been permitted to represent himself by the work he considers his best, the only stipulation being that it should not yet have appeared in book form. A sort of informal committee—consisting of more than half the authors here represented—have arranged the book and decided what should be printed and what omitted, but, as a general rule, the poets have been allowed absolute freedom in this direction, limitations of space only being imposed upon them. Also, to avoid any appearance of precedence, they have been put in alphabetical order.
As it has been suggested that much of the misunderstanding of the former volume was due to the fact that we did not explain ourselves in a preface, we have thought it wise to tell the public what our aims are, and why we are banded together between one set of covers.
The poets in this volume do not represent a clique. Several of them are personally unknown to the others, but they are united by certain common principles, arrived at independently. These principles are not new; they have fallen into desuetude. They are the essentials of all great poetry, indeed of all great literature, and they are simply these:—
- To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.
- To create new rhythms—as the expression of new moods—and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon "free-verse" as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.
- To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. It is not good art to write badly about aeroplanes and automobiles; nor is it necessarily bad art to write well about the past. We believe passionately in the artistic value of modern life, but we wish to point out that there is nothing so uninspiring nor so old-fashioned as an aeroplane of the year 1911.
- To present an image ( e the name: "Imagist"). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.
- To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.
- Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.
The subject of free-verse is too complicated to be discussed here. We may say briefly, that we attach the term to all that increasing amount of writing whose cadence is more marked, more definite, and closer knit than that of prose, but which is not so violently nor so obviously accented as the so-called "regular verse." We refer those interested in the question to the Greek Melic poets, and to the many excellent French studies on the subject by such distinguished and well-equipped authors as Remy de Gourmont, Gustave Kahn, Georges Duhamel, Charles Vildrac, Henri Ghéon, Robert de Souza, André Spire, etc.
We wish it to be clearly understood that we do not represent an exclusive artistic sect; we publish our work together because of mutual artistic sympathy, and we propose to bring out our coóperative volume each year for a short term of years, until we have made a place for ourselves and our principles such as we desire.
[In the following essay, Lowell identifies Imagism as a descendant of French Symbolism and clarifies the aims of Imagist poetry.]
SOURCE: Preface to Some Imagist Poets, 1916: An Annual Anthology, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916, pp. v-xii.
In bringing the second volume of Some Imagist Poets before the public, the authors wish to express their gratitude for the interest which the 1915 volume aroused. The discussion of it was widespread, and even those critics out of sympathy with Imagist tenets accorded it much space. In the Preface to that book, we endeavoured to present those tenets in a succinct form. But the very brevity we employed has lead to a great deal of misunderstanding. We have decided, therefore, to explain the laws which govern us a little more fully. A few people may understand, and the rest can merely misunderstand again, a result to which we are quite accustomed.
In the first place "Imagism" does not mean merely the presentation of pictures. "Imagism" refers to the manner of representation, not to the subject. It means a clear presentation of whatever the author wishes to convey. Now he may wish to convey a mood of indecision, in which case the poem should be indecisive; he may wish to bring before his reader the constantly shifting and changing lights over a landscape, or the varying attitudes of mind of a person under strong emotion, then his poem must shift and change to present this clearly. The "exact" word does not mean the word which exactly describes the object in itself, it means the "exact" word which brings the effect of that object before the reader as it presented itself to the poet's mind at the time of writing the poem. Imagists deal but little with similes, although much of their poetry is metaphorical. The reason for this is that while acknowledging the figure to be an integral part of all poetry, they feel that the constant imposing of one figure upon another in the same poem blurs the central effect.
The great French critic, Remy de Gourmont, wrote last Summer in La France that the Imagists were the descendants of the French Symbolistes. In the Preface to his Livre des Masques, M. de Gourmont has thus described Symbolisme: "Individualism in literature, liberty of art, abandonment of existing forms … The sole excuse which a man can have for writing is to write down himself, to unveil for others the sort of world which mirrors itself in his individual glass … He should create his own aesthetics—and we should admit as many aesthetics as there are original minds, and judge them for what they are and not what they are not." In this sense the Imagists are descendants of the Symbolistes; they are Individualists.
The only reason that Imagism has seemed so anarchaic and strange to English and American reviewers is that their minds do not easily and quickly suggest the steps by which modern art has arrived at its present position. Its immediate prototype cannot be found in English or American literature, we must turn to Europe for it. With Debussy and Stravinsky in music, and Gauguin and Matisse in painting, it should have been evident to every one that art was entering upon an era of change. But music and painting are universal languages, so we have become accustomed to new idioms in them, while we still find it hard to recognize a changed idiom in literature.
The crux of the situation is just here. It is in the idiom employed. Imagism asks to be judged by different standards from those employed in Nineteenth-Century art. It is small wonder that Imagist poetry should be incomprehensible to men whose sole touchstone for art is the literature of one country for a period of four centuries. And it is an illuminating fact that among poets and men conversant with many poetic idioms, Imagism is rarely misconceived. They may not agree with us, but they do not misunderstand us.
This must not be misconstrued into the desire to belittle our forerunners. On the contrary, the Imagists have the greatest admiration for the past, and humility towards it. But they have been caught in the throes of a new birth. The exterior world is changing, and with it men's feelings, and every age must express its feelings in its own individual way. No art is any more "egoistic" than another; all art is an attempt to express the feelings of the artist, whether it be couched in narrative form or employ a more personal expression.
It is not what Imagists write about which makes them hard of comprehension; it is the way they write it. All nations have laws of prosody, which undergo changes from time to time. The laws of English metrical prosody are well known to every one concerned with the subject. But that is only one form of prosody. Other nations have had different ones: Anglo-Saxon poetry was founded upon alliteration, Greek and Roman was built upon quantity, the Oriental was formed out of repetition, and the Japanese Hokku got its effects by an exact and never-to-be-added-to series of single syllables. So it is evident that poetry can be written in many modes. That the Imagists base much of their poetry upon cadence and not upon metre makes them neither good nor bad. And no one realizes more than they that no theories nor rules make poetry. They claim for their work only that it is sincere.
It is this very fact of "cadence" which has misled so many reviewers, until some have been betrayed into saying that the Imagists discard rhythm, when rhythm is the most important quality in their technique. The definition of vers libre is—a verse-form based upon cadence. Now cadence in music is one thing, cadence in poetry quite another, since we are not dealing with tone but with rhythm. It is the sense of perfect balance of flow and rhythm. Not only must the syllables so fall as to increase and continue the movement, but the whole poem must be as rounded and recurring as the circular swing of a balanced pendulum. It can be fast or slow, it may even jerk, but this perfect swing it must have, even its jerks must follow the central movement. To illustrate: Suppose a person were given the task of walking, or running, round a large circle, with two minutes given to do it in. Two minutes which he would just consume if he walked round the circle quietly. But in order to make the task easier for him, or harder, as the case might be, he was required to complete each half of the circle in exactly a minute. No other restrictions were placed upon him. He might dawdle in the beginning, and run madly to reach the half-circle mark on time, and then complete his task by walking steadily round the second half to goal. Or he might leap, and run, and skip, and linger in all sorts of ways, making up for slow going by fast, and for extra haste by pauses, and varying these movements on either lap of the circle as the humour seized him, only so that he were just one minute in traversing the first half-circle, and just one minute in traversing the second. Another illustration which may be employed is that of a Japanese wood-carving where a toad in one corner is balanced by a spray of blown flowers in the opposite upper one. The flowers are not the same shape as the toad, neither are they the same size, but the balance is preserved.
The unit in vers libre is not the foot, the number of the syllables, the quantity, or the line. The unit is the strophe, which may be the whole poem, or may be only a part. Each strophe is a complete circle: in fact, the meaning of the Greek word "strophe" is simply that part of the poem which was recited while the chorus were making a turn round the altar set up in the centre of the theatre. The simile of the circle is more than a simile, therefore; it is a fact. Of course the circle need not always be the same size, nor need the times allowed to negotiate it be always the same. There is room here for an infinite number of variations. Also, circles can be added to circles, movement upon movement, to the poem, provided each movement completes itself, and ramifies naturally into the next. But one thing must be borne in mind: a cadenced poem is written to be read aloud, in this way only will its rhythm be felt. Poetry is a spoken and not a written art.
The vers libristes are often accused of declaring that they have discovered a new thing. Where such an idea started, it is impossible to say, certainly none of the better vers libristes was ever guilty of so ridiculous a statement. The name vers libre is new, the thing, most emphatically, is not. Not new in English poetry, at any rate. You will find something very much like it in Dryden's Threnodia Augustalis; a great deal of Milton's Samson Agonistes is written in it; and Matthew Arnold's Philomela is a shining example of it. Practically all of Henley's London Voluntaries are written in it, and (so potent are names) until it was christened vers libre, no one thought of objecting to it. But the oldest reference to vers libre is to be found in Chaucer's House of Fame, where the Eagle addresses the Poet in these words:
And nevertheless hast set thy wyt
Although that in thy heed full lyte is
To make bookes, songes, or dytees
In rhyme or elles in cadence.
Commentators have wasted reams of paper in an endeavour to determine what Chaucer meant by this. But is it not possible that he meant a verse based upon rhythm, but which did not follow the strict metrical prosody of his usual practice?
One of the charges frequently brought against the Imagists is that they write, not poetry, but "shredded prose." This misconception springs from the almost complete ignorance of the public in regard to the laws of cadenced verse. But, in fact, what is prose and what is poetry? Is it merely a matter of typographical arrangement? Must everything which is printed in equal lines, with rhymes at the ends, be called poetry, and everything which is printed in a block be called prose? Aristotle, who certainly knew more about this subject than any one else, declares in his Rhetoric that prose is rhythmical without being metrical (that is to say, without insistence on any single rhythm), and then goes on to state the feet that are employed in prose, making, incidentally, the remark that the iambic prevailed in ordinary conversation. The fact is, that there is no hard and fast dividing line between prose and poetry. As a French poet of distinction, Paul Fort, has said: "Prose and poetry are but one instrument, graduated." It is not a question of typography; it is not even a question of rules and forms. Poetry is the vision in a man's soul which he translates as best he can with the means at his disposal.
We are young, we are experimentalists, but we ask to be judged by our own standards, not by those which have governed other men at other times.
P. E. Firchow
[In the following essay, Firchow locates the poetics of Imagism as advanced by Ezra Pound within the classical tradition in poetry.]
SOURCE: "Ezra Pound's Imagism and the Tradition," in Comparative Literature Studies, XVIII, September, 1981, pp. 379-85.
Only from about the year 1926 did the features of the post-war world begin clearly to emerge—and not only in the sphere of politics. From about that date one began slowly to realize that the intellectual and artistic output of the previous seven years had been rather the last efforts of an old world, than the struggles of a new."
—T. S. Eliot, "Last Words" (1939)
In some ways, I ca n think of no one whom he resembled more than Irving Babbitt—a comparison neither man would have relished. Perhaps the backgrounds were not unlike; perhaps if Pound had stopped at home, and become, as he might have become, a professor of comparative literature, the resemblance might have been closer still.
—T. S. Eliot, "Ezra Pound" (1946)
Of all major English or American poets of the early decades of this century, Ezra Pound is the one who most closely approximates the conventional model of the "revolutionary" avant-garde poet—a poet like Apollinaire, for instance, or Marinetti or Vicente Huidobro. Pound's urgent appeal to his contemporaries to "make it new" has a definite and by no means accidentally futurist ring about it, as does his continual denigration of those who fail to keep up with the times, especially Americans. Of his alterego, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, he writes that "he had been born/In a half-savage country, out of date;" and in the same poem he denounces as "an old bitch gone in the teeth" the civilization which has sent a myriad of its best citizens to their deaths in Flanders fields "for two gross of broken statues,/For a few thousand battered books."1 As the literary histories never tire of telling us, it was Ezra Pound who transformed Yeats into a modern poet and who assisted substantially (despite his own dis-avowal) in a similar transformation of T. S. Eliot. He made them, as it were, "new."
It would seem reasonable to conclude from all this that Pound had little sympathy for the preservation of honored traditions or for the veneration of great literary monuments of the past. This is reasonable certainly, but it is also dead wrong. For with Pound the making of the new always consists of a remaking of the old. He remakes or modernizes, for instance, not merely Yeats the poet of the nineties—or describes the remaking of himself in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley"—but he also remakes Sextus Propertius, along with a "myriad" of Provençal, Greek, Italian, Chinese and Anglo-Saxon poets. History for Pound is never bunk, though some of his remakings of history, both literary and political, have struck academic commentators as bunk. The individual collections of Pound's poetry are often deliberately marked with "old" elements: A Lume Spento (1908), his first book; or Personae (1909), his second; or later ones like Ripostes (1912), Lustra (1915), or even A Draft of XVI Cantos (1925). Hence it should not be surprising that in late 1912 Pound was asked by Edward March to join the Georgians, a group he later affected to despise; or that in the same year Arthur Quiller-Couch approached him with the request to include two of his poems in the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse. Pound agreed, observing that "this is no small honour—at least I count it a recognition."2 As J. B. Harmer writes in his study of the Imagist movement, "when 1912 opened Pound was a more reactionary poet than H.D. or even Aldington; a less accurate scholar than Flint, and a man curiously unaware of much that was happening in European literature."3 He read Flaubert, for instance, for the first time in 1912—that very same author who was later to become Mauberley's "true Penelope."4
Both before and after 1912, the virtual signature of a Pound poem was the transformation/translation of old and traditional materials (European or Oriental) into a new work of art. This is true even of poems like "Les Millwin" or "The Temperaments" (both from Lustra) which are full of contemporary colloquialism, a trick that originates in Pound's compounding Juvenal with Whitman. It is true of the sort of Romantic braggadoccio with which "Tenzone" (also from Lustra) concludes:
I mate with my free kind upon the crags;
the hidden recesses
Have heard the echo of my heels,
in the cool light,
in the darkness (91).
It is especially true of the Cantos, from which the broken statues and the few thousand battered books are never far distant.
It is also true of the literary movement with which Pound is most often and identified: Imagism.5 Imagism, despite its revolutionary trappings and publicity and trappings despite as a movement of the Anglo-British avant-garde, is old-fashioned in a number of basic respects. H.D., the poet who was seen by Pound as most characteristic of Imagism, writes lyrical poems on conventional themes like flowers and Greek mythology. Indeed, her first appearance in print—in Poetry (Chicago)—was under the rubric of "Verses, Translations and Reflections from 'The Anthology'" (that is, the classical Greek Anthology). There is very little new about her poems except for their medium: free verse.6 And even in this respect, as Pound was well aware, it was not revolutionary. The Psalms had used free verse long before the Imagists, as had Milton, Whitman, and Rimbaud.
More than any other feature of Pound's supposed revolution in modern poetry, it was the emphasis on free verse that attracted attention. It seemed as if Pound meant to break the chains with which the muse had always been bound. That is what may have happened, but if so, it was not a result of Pound's intention. Writing on "The Tradition" in 1913, Pound adduced the example of Euripedes as a great writer of free verse, and associated free verse with the Melic poets who "composed to the feel of the thing, to the cadence, as have all good poets since."7 And René Taupin, in his classic study of the influence of French symbolist poetry on modernist American poetry, maintains that all of Pound's experiments aimed at "unretour à la poésie soit quantitative, soit musicale, et le vers libre luimême n'est pour lui que 'the sense of quantity reasserting itself in poetry.'"8 Pound, in other words, was seeking not so much a revolution as a renewal, a revivification of an old tradition; or, to use his own word, he was seeking a rennaissance, an American renaissance. The constituent elements for such a renaissance, according to Pound's series, "America: Chances and Remedies" (May-June 1913), were the very traditional as well as non-literary ones of "an indiscriminate enthusiasm" and "a propaganda."9
Pound's Imagism was born in 1912 and was directly based on H.D.'s early poems, though the name Pound chose for his movement clearly indicates that he also had in mind T. E. Hulme's imagist cénacle, as well as French symbolism. Its principles, Pound wrote in a note accompanying Hulme's "Complete Poetical Works" in Ripostes, might not be as interesting as those of the "inherent dynamists," or Les Unanimistes, but they were sounder than those of the Impressionists or post-Impressionists. In another note—this one attached to Aldington's and Imagism's first appearance in Poetry—Pound described the group as consisting of ardent Hellenists who were also vers libristes and who were seeking to attain subtle cadences in their poetry similar to those of "Mallarmé and his followers."10
The French influence is made even more explicit in Pound's first relatively detailed account of the new school in Poetry (January 1913), where he pronounces that "the important work of the last twenty-five years has been done in Paris." In this essay he also makes clear that he is no rigid dogmatist or revolutionary: "To belong to a school does not in the least mean that one writes poetry to a theory. One writes poetry when, where, because, and as one feels like writing it. A school exists when two or three young men [sic] agree, more or less, to call certain things good; when they prefer such of their verses as have certain qualities to such of their verses as do not have them."11 This pragmatic aspect of Pound's imagism makes it quite different from its more programmatic Hulmean predecessor, as Pound was quite aware when he wrote to F. S. Flint in 1915: ".… when on a certain evening in, I think 1912, I coined the word Imagisme, I certainly intended it to mean something which was the poetry of H.D. and most emphatically NOT the poetry of friend [Edward] Storer" who had been (along with Pound) a member of the Hulme circle.12
In the essay on Imagism that Flint "wrote"—he actually rewrote a draft by Pound—for the March 1913 issue of Poetry, the Imagistes are explicitly described as "not a revolutionary school" whose "only endeavour was to write in accordance with the best tradition, as they found it in the best writers of all time,—in Sappho, Catullus, Villon." Even this tradition, Pound was later to argue in another contribution to Poetry, was not sacred, but merely "a beauty which we preserve and not a set of fetters to bind us." The Imagists had rules, to be sure, but as Pound warned us in his follow-up essay ("A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste"), "consider the rules recorded by Mr. Flint, not as dogma—never consider anything dogma—but as the result of long contemplation, which … may be worth consideration." These rules were: "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 of a metronome."13 Except possibly for the last rule enjoining free verse, this program contains nothing revolutionary and little that might be called new. It could have been subscribed to by almost any one of the Georgian poets, and in fact was by at least one—who was also to become a famous Imagist/Amygist—D. H. Lawrence. Not surprisingly, therefore, Harold Monro—the first nonimagist poet to discuss the new movement in detail—noted as early as 1915 that imagism was really not new. Coleridge, he said, "mentions the points emphasized in the Imagist principles." And if this was the case, then the rather puzzled Monro felt safe in concluding that "it has never become very clear in what particular respects they [the Imagists] may be considered innovators."14
It is clear then—or should be—that Pound and the first Imagists were not writing in conformity with, or in illustration of, a fixed program. They were writing the kind of poetry they liked to write; and they recognized that this poetry had certain affinities that might—more for practical reasons than anything else—be advertised as a kind of school. This is precisely why Pound objected to Amy Lowell's edging him out of the movement, as appears from a letter to her in August 1914: ".… that would deprive me of my machinery for gathering stray good poems and presenting them to the public in more or less permanent form and of discovering new talent … or poems which could not be presented to the public in other ways, poems that would be lost in the magazines."15 It was this machinery of Pound's that, for instance, had also gathered Joyce's poem, "I Hear an Army," into the Imagist fold, at a time (December 1913) when Pound knew nothing of Joyce except what little Yeats had told him.16 And this is how Allen Upward reacted poetically to the Poundean machine:
After many years I sent them [his poems] to
Chicago, and they were printed
by Harriet Monroe. (They also were printed in
Thereupon Ezra Pound the generous rose up and
called me an Imagist. (I had no idea what he
And he included me in an anthology of Imagists.
And thou unborn literary historian (if you ever
mention my name)
Write me down as an imitator of Po Li and
As well as of Edward Storer and T. E. Hulme."71
The anthology to which Upward refers here was the oddly named Des Imagistes (1914), an inspired but highly eclectic collection of poems put together by Pound's machine. It was to become one of the most important and influential collections in the history of modern English and American poetry; but influential, I think, more for what it seemed to be—and for the poets it gathered under one cover—than for what it was. Of the thirty-seven poems in Des Imagistes, fully eighteen (or nearly half) were either translations or imitations of classical models, and often marked by archaic language or style: e.g., "Hermes/who awaiteth" (H.D., "Hermes of the Ways"); "πότια, πότια, / Thou hearest me not" (Aldington, "To a Greek Marble"); "O prayers in the dark! / O incense to Poseidon!" (Williams, "Postlude"); "The shadowy flowers of Orcus / Remember Thee" (Pound, "Δώρια").18 Here was a group of ardent Hellenists indeed; and not only ardent Hellenists, but also ardent Sinologists. At least five of the poems are recognizable translations or pastiches of classical Chinese poems. Echoes of the French symbolists are also frequent—as, for instance, in F. S. Flint's "The Swan"—though, surprisingly, only one poem (by Aldington) is written in direct imitation of them. Even the "English" poems are often marked either by non-modern subject matter—for instance, Ford Madox Hueffer's "In the Little Old Market-Place"—or by definitely ninety-ish tone and diction, as in Skipwith Cannell's fifth "Nocturne":
I am weary with love, and thy lips
Are night-born poppies.
Give me therefore thy lips
That I may know sleep.19
Virtually the only really "new" poems in the collection are the three so-called "Documents" at the end of the volume. But these are highly personal, in-groupish and discursive—hardly Imagist, in other words. Hueffer's "Fragments," for example, is an English poem transliterated into Greek, which refers, among other things, to Ezra's whiskers and which anticipates The Waste Land with its ironically scholarly footnotes. This is just the sort of thing the young Auden was to pick up a decade and a half later.
What then is the specifically Imagist significance of Des Imagistes? Undoubtedly, in the first place, its commitment to free verse. Secondly, the attention it gave and attracted to H.D.'s work. Thirdly, as a piece of propaganda, which led readers to other, more genuinely Imagist poems, such as Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." And finally as a work which prepared the ground for understanding poets like T. S. Eliot—or the later Pound himself—who would incorporate Imagist principles and techniques into poems that went beyond those principles.
To make larger claims for Imagism, as Graham Hough does in Reflections on a Literary Revolution, in which he argues that Imagism is to be equated with modernism generally, is to claim too much.20 Imagism is an un-doubted and essential part of the modernist movement in Britain and America, but it is only a part. And a part, moreover, with strong links to the past. The Imagist image, Frank Kermode is surely right in saying, is merely a subspecies of the Romantic Image.21 Or as Pound was to remark in "A Retrospect" (1918), Imagism and vers libre had been forces for the good but not overwhelming forces: "Perhaps a few good poems have come from the new method, and if so it is justified."22 T. S. Eliot summed it up some thirty years later: "Imagism produced a few good poems—notably those of H.D.—but it was quickly absorbed into more comprehensive influences, including Pound's."23
1 Ezra Pound, Collected Shorter Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1952), p. 108. All further references to this collection will be contained in the text, by page number enclosed in parentheses.
2 Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound (New York: Pantheon, 1970), pp. 123-24.
3 J. B. Harmer, Victory in Limbo: Imagism, 1908-1917 (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1975), p. 76.
4 Stock, Life, p. 119.
5 Aside from works cited elsewhere in this essay, useful discussions of the Imagist movement include: Luigi Berti, Imagismo (Padua: Cedam, 1944); Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1937); Stanley K. Coffman, Imagism (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951); Glenn Hughes, Imagism and the Imagists: A Study in Modern Poetry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1931); Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).
6 For a more extended treatment of H.D. as an imagist poet, see my essay on her in American Writers, Supplement I, ed. Leonard Unger (New York: Scribner's, 1979).
7 Ezra Pound, "The Tradition," in Literary Essays, ed. T. S. Eliot (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1954), pp. 92-93.
8 René Taupin, L'Influence du symbolisme francais sur la poésie américaine de 1910 à 1920 (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1929), p. 135.
9 Quoted in Stock, Life, p. 115.
10Poetry (Chicago), I (November 1912), 65.
11Ibid., I (Jan. 1913), 123-25.
12 Quoted in Harmer, Victory, p. 45.
13 F. S. Flint, "Imagisme," Poetry (Chicago), I (March 1913), 199; and Ezra Pound, "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste," Poetry (Chicago), I (March 1913), 201.
14 Harold Monro, "The Imagists Discussed," The Egoist, V (May 1, 1915), 77-78.
15 Ezra Pound, Letters, ed. D. D. Paige (London: Faber & Faber, 1961), p. 77.
16 A little later, when Pound entered on his "vorticist" phase, he even claimed Dante for imagism. Writing in the Fortnightly Review in 1914, Pound asserted that "Dante's Paradiso is the most wonderful image. By that I do not mean that it is a perseveringly imagistic performance. The permanent part is Imagisme, the rest, the discourses with the calendar of saints and the discussions about the nature of the moon, are philology." Reprinted in Ezra Pound, A Critical Anthology, edited by J. P. Sullivan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 51.
17 Allen Upward, "The Discarded Imagist," Poetry (Chicago), VI (September 1915), 318.
18Des Imagistes, An Anthology (New York: Boni, 1914), p. 21; p. 10; p. 39; p. 41.
19Ibid., p. 37.
20 Graham Hough, Reflections on a Literary Revolution (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1960), p. 10.
21 Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), p. 136.
22 Ezra Pound, "A Retrospect," in Literary Essays, p. 3.
23 T. S. Eliot, "Ezra Pound," in Ezra Pound, A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 20. This essay was originally published in Poetry (Chicago) in 1946.
[In the following essay, Perkins discusses the development of the Imagist movement, offers examples of poetry embodying Imagist principles, and discusses the works of Richard Aldington, H.D., John Gould Fletcher, Amy Lowell, and Herbert Read in relation to Imagism.]
SOURCE: "Imagism," in A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode, The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1976, pp. 329-47.
Imagism has been described as the grammar school of modern poetry, the instruction and drill in basic principles. The metaphor greatly exaggerates—neither Yeats nor Eliot were ever Imagists, for example, though both were occasionally claimed for the group—but among the several modern movements in English and American poetry just before World War I, the Imagists probably had a more distinct impact than any other group on the style of American poets. The reasons for this were partly the shrewdness with which first Pound and then Amy Lowell promoted the movement, partly the clear doctrine and practical tips offered by the Imagist manifestos and other bulletins, and partly because the Imagist program merged with other, already influential tendencies: Impressionist exact notation; interest in Chinese and Japanese poetry, in which poets now remarked a spare, suggestive, visual imagery in terse forms such as haiku; the orientation of poetry in the 1890s to painting, sculpture, and other "spatial" arts; the special attention symbolist poetry directed to imagery; Hulme's plea that poetry must be precisely phrased and that the essential means to precision is metaphor; the development of free verse; the rejection of poetic diction and "rhetoric"; the cultivation of the idiomatic and the colloquial. Imagist poems were not difficult to read, and after 1914, when Pound could no longer impose his standards on the movement, they were not very difficult to write. Like Georgian poetry in England or the "realism" of Masters and Sandburg in America, Imagism became a relatively accessible way to be in on the "new" and the "modern."
THE IMAGIST MOVEMENT
Imagism was conceived in the spring of 1912 in a tea shop in Kensington, where, over buns, Pound informed two young poets, H.D. and Richard Aldington, that they were Imagistes. What the term then meant to him can only be guessed, but by October he was spreading the news—half-seriously and half as a publicity stunt—of a school of Imagisme. "Isms" were in the air. The August 1912 Poetry Review included an article by F. S. Flint on "Contemporary French Poetry," in which one could read up on Unanisme, Impulsionnisme, Paroxysme, and so forth. Marinetti had long since caused a stir with Futurism, and before Marinetti there had been the "symbolist movement" of Yeats and Symons. England had its home-grown movement in the Georgian poets.
In October, Pound's Ripostes appeared, including as an appendix "The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme," five short poems. There was also a prefatory note by Pound. "Les Imagistes," he said (typically he used French for literary movements), have the future "in their keeping." They descended from the forgotten "School of Images" of 1909. (He was thinking of the small group of poets who used to meet with T. E. Hulme at The Eiffel Tower restaurant in Soho.) At about the same time Pound used the new term in letters to Harriet Monroe, who mentioned the new school in her November 1912 issue of Poetry. The January 1913 issue printed five poems by H.D., which were signed (at Pound's insistence) "H.D. Imagiste." There was also a note by Pound: "The youngest school" in London "is that of the Imagistes … one of their watchwords is Precision." In March 1913 Poetry printed the famous brief statement of Imagiste principles and the list of tips Pound had originally composed as a rejection slip for Poetry. With these statements, and with Imagiste poems by H.D. and Aldington to serve as examples, the "movement" was successfully planted in America.
Pound decided to put together an Imagiste anthology. By the summer of 1913 he had selected poems by Aldington, H.D., Flint, and himself to make up the bulk of the book and had also accepted for it one poem each from Skipwith Cannell, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Joyce, Hueffer, Allen Upward, and John Cournos. This collection was sent to Alfred Kreymborg in New York and published as Des Imagistes: An Anthology (1914).
Meanwhile, in Boston, Amy Lowell was intrigued. As Harriet Monroe tells it, Miss Lowell read in the January 1913 issue of Poetry, "some poems signed 'H.D. Imagiste' ; and suddenly it came over her: 'Why, I too am an Imagiste!'" She sailed for London that June armed with a letter of introduction from Miss Monroe. Pound corrected her poetry ("He could make you write," she later conceded), and found her "ALL RIGHT." The next summer she returned to London, but her state of mind was less docile and more self-confident. For the April issue of Poetry had started off with eight of her poems (mostly in free verse) and her second volume, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, was in proof. She thought the success of the Georgian anthologies might be emulated and proposed to the Imagistes that iheir anthology be brought out annually for five years. She promised to pay for publication if that proved necessary. But she was miffed that the first anthology bad included only one of her poems. Subsequent anthologies, she said, should be "democratic": they should allow each contributor approximately the same amount of space. To Pound the notion was absurd. The arts were not a "democratic beer-garden." Miss Lowell's suggestion was very welcome to the other Imagistes, however, and in 1915 Some Imagist Poets (the term now Anglicized—or Americanized) appeared, containing poems of Aldington, H.D., Flint, Amy Lowell, John Gould Fletcher, and D. H. Lawrence. (Pound had formally seceded from the movement.)
Even though Miss Lowell had gone ahead with her "democratic" anthology, she and Pound had managed to part cordially at the end of the summer. But poisons were working. She knew Pound thought her lacking in standards and she was critical of him. During the fall Macmillan's advertised her Sword Blades and Poppy Seed by explaining that, "Of the poets who to-day are doing the interesting and original work, there is no more striking and unique figure than Amy Lowell. The foremost member of the 'Imagists'—a group of poets that includes William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Hueffer.… " Such "charlatanism" was too much for Pound. His letter of protest was firm; he advised her to "cease referring to yourself as an Imagiste." Miss Lowell made light of the advertisement: "The names," she replied, "were simply put in to boom the book, a thing that is constantly done over here." ("Your knowledge of how to 'get yourself over,'" she later wrote him, "is nil.") As time passed, Pound felt that the poetry of the Imagists (he now called them "Amygists") was becoming undisciplined, sloppy, and diluted. In Miss Lowell's opinion there were now "bitterest enmities" between herself and Pound. As for Pound, he thought her verse "putrid" but liked her personally—at least until 1922, when she refused to contribute to his scheme of financial support for Eliot. "Aw shucks! dearie," he then wrote her, "ain't you the hell-roarer, ain't you the kuss." In 1928, in a letter to Taupin, he summed up the Imagists as a "bunch of goups."
After 1914 the Imagist movement was captained by Miss Lowell. Richard Aldington, as editor of The Egoist, provided auxiliary aid in the form of an Imagist number (May 1, 1915). In the same year Miss Lowell praised the new school at a meeting of the conservative Poetry Society in New York, and was henceforth embattled. She held readings, gave lectures, and cultivated editors, reviewers, and anthologists. Hostile articles on Imagism in the New Republic, Chicago Evening Post, Nation, and Atlantic Monthly raised her blood pressure, but were not otherwise unwelcome. "Well?—Clap or hiss," Miss Lowell used to tell audiences at her readings, "I don't care which; but do something!" Critical attack provoked defense, and the Imagists were more widely heard of than any movement since. Imagist anthologies were issued in 1916 and 1917; thereafter there were no more. But whenever critics discussed modern poetry, the school continued to be noticed as an important phase or tendency. Poems of the Imagist kind continued to be written, though it became increasingly difficult to say precisely what this kind was.
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:
- Direct treatment of the "thing," whether subjective or objective.
- To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.
- 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 Hulme, Hueffer, Yeats, and others…) about "HOW TO WRITE" since coming to London in 1908. He was in the habit of scribbling such recipes. In 1916, for example, "the whole art" of poetry was divided (with no reference to Imagisme) into:
- concision, or style, or saying what you mean in the fewest and clearest words.
- the actual necessity for creating or constructing something; of presenting an image, or enough images of concrete things arranged to stir the reader.
The historical importance of Imagism, in other words, does not lie in the formulation of a poetic doctrine, for Pound had developed his ideas with no reference to Imagism and continued to hold them after he disowned the movement. The importance was, rather, the extent to which the name, movement, and attendant controversies caused these values to be effectively disseminated.
So far as Pound endowed Imagism with a program distinct from his principles of effective writing in general, it must be sought in the special role assigned to the "image." Pound defined his key term only vaguely. An image is, he said in the same issue of Poetry, "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.… It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works." Whatever else the "doctrine of the image" might include was not to be published, readers were told, for "it does not concern the public and would provoke useless discussion."
The March 1913 issue contained further admonishments from Pound, "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste," which helped interpret the program: for example, "Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something"; "Go in fear of abstractions"; "Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement"; "Don't be 'viewy—leave that to the writers of pretty little philosophic essays"; "Don't chop your stuff into separate iambs." Such tips were admirably practical, and the offhand phrasing enhanced their authority.
In June 1914 in The Egoist Aldington again explained what Imagism was, but the most influential single statement produced in the whole course of the movement was his Preface to the Imagist anthology for 1915. It listed six points, "the essentials of all great poetry, indeed of all great literature":
- To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly exact, nor the merely decorative word.
- To create new rhythms—as the expression of new moods—and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon "free-verse" as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.
- To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. It is not good art to write badly about aeroplanes and automobiles; nor is it necessarily bad art to write about the past. We believe passionately in the artistic value of modern life, but we wish to point out that there is nothing so uninspiring nor so old-fashioned as an aeroplane of the year 1911.
- To present an image (hence the name: "Imagist"). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.
- To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.
- Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.
The statement was directed against undemanding techniques and against conventional, though not necessarily conservative attitudes. Instead of many adjectives and statements, there would be an image rendered in concentrated, exact, idiomatic speech. Instead, for example, of the looseness of Masefield's "The West Wind"—
It's a warm wind, the west wind, full of bird's
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown
And April's in the west wind, and daffodils—
there would be Aldington's "New Love":
She has new leaves
After her dead flowers,
Like the little almond-tree
Which the frost hurt.
As opposed to frequent demands at this time for a specifically contemporary subject matter, Aldington implicitly defended the "Hellenism" of himself and H.D. by invoking the poet's right to "absolute freedom in the choice of subject," a principle to which all would-be Modernists subscribed. Against the expectation that poetry would be metrical, he adopted a point of view that legitimized free verse without decrying meters. Whether verse was traditional or free, there should be "new rhythms" as the expression of "new" and individual moods.
Against the poets and poetic habits Aldington implicitly criticized, his points were effectively made. On the other hand, though this Preface was so strongly influenced by Pound that it seemed mainly a restatement of his views, one finds, if one compares it with Pound's earlier statement, that a vulgarization has set in. "Concentration," the "exact word," and "hard and clear" style do not impose quite so severe a standard as Pound's second article, "To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation"Concentration," the "exact word," and "hard and clear" style do not impose quite so severe a standard as Pound's second article, "To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation" (and this was the essential article in Pound's opinion). Moreover, although Pound was probably not quite sure what he meant by an "Image," he thought of it as a "complex" concretely presented. In Aldington's Preface the concept of the Image is wavering toward a much simpler notion, that of a clear, quick rendering of particulars without commentary. Imagist poems of this kind would of course be much easier to write.
The attacks on Imagism that followed in 1915 raised only two important issues. The controversy over free verse— is it poetry?—was discussed in Chapter 14. Secondly, it was immediately pointed out that Imagist successes could only be small-scale. As Conrad Aiken put it, the Imagists
give us frail pictures—whiffs of windy beaches, marshes, meadows, city streets, disheveled leaves; pictures pleasant and suggestive enough. But seldom is any of them more than a nice description, coolly sensuous, a rustle to the ear, a ripple to the eye. Of organic movement there is practically none.
One could not write a long Imagist poem. Quite apart from particular issues, however, controversy gradually caused the doctrine of Imagism to become less definite. For the battle on behalf of Imagism was fought by Amy Lowell. Since her temperament was not ideological but political, she compromised doctrine, like many another politician, in order to prevail in the field. In Tendencies in Modern American Poetry she characterized the Imagist principles as "Simplicity and directness of speech; subtlety and beauty of rhythms; individualistic freedom of idea; clearness and vividness of presentation; and concentration." With such generalities no one could quarrel, but neither could anyone be arrested by them, as poets had been by Pound's statement in Poetry four years before.
THE IMAGIST POEM
Once the Imagist poem was established as a type, it was written occasionally by many poets who were not members of the original Imagist group. Familiar instances are Sandburg's "Fog" and Williams' "El Hombre." Many other poets, such as Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings, and Archibald MacLeish, were strongly influenced by Imagist principles and style, even though they did not write specifically Imagist poems. Because the poems of T. E. Hulme were the first examples of Imagism offered to the world (by Pound in October 1912), his "Autumn" may be used to exemplify the mode:
A touch of cold in the Autumn night—
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
The poem was probably written in conscious contrast with Shelley's famous "To the Moon," for Shelley's poem also contrasts the moon to the stars and thinks about companionability or the lack of it:
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven, and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth,—
And ever-changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
Whether or not Hulme recalled Shelley, his verses are anti-Romantic. Within the Romantic tradition to view the cold and starry heavens in autumn would predictably evoke feelings of melancholy, loneliness, and death. If such feelings are present here, it is only in a complex, indirect, and controlled way. Hulme's "red-faced farmer," unlike Shelley's pale moon, seems well fed, healthy, comfortable, and neighborly, and is humorously regarded. What is conveyed by the poem is not, as with Shelley, a comparison that projects the poet's "moan" (as Hulme would have put it) into the moon but a comparison in altogether unexpected terms. If we ask what is communicated in Shelley's poem, "the poet's feeling of loneliness" would be an inadequate, though not incorrect generalization. In the case of Hulme's poem, the "meaning" cannot be conveyed by a generalization.
Another modal poem, often cited, was H.D.'s "Oread":
Whirl up, sea—
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.
The perception of the sea as a pine and fir forest is fresh and apt; the cadenced lines enact an emotional transition; the effect is complex, immediate, and made wholly by concrete means; the poet avoids discursive or generalizing comment. As a final example we may turn to MacLeish's "Ars Poetica," which illustrates much that the Imagist movement taught other poets. A poem, MacLeish writes, should be "palpable and mute"; it should not tell a "history of grief at length but should evoke it through concrete particulars:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf
The leaning grasses and two lights above the
A poem should not mean
SOME IMAGIST POETS
None of the poets published in the Imagist anthologies remained an Imagist in later life, and some from the outset were Imagists only occasionally. We may here touch on the careers of five poets—Aldington, H.D., Fletcher, Amy Lowell, and Herbert Read—who were closely identified with the Imagist movement. Pound was, of course, the most important of the Imagists, but his Imagist phase is described in Chapter 20. D. H. Lawrence was included in the anthologies mainly for reasons of good fellowship; he wrote no poems of the Imagist kind, and is discussed in Chapter 19. Of the poets to be taken up here, Aldington, H.D., Fletcher, and Lowell were prominent in the Imagist anthologies; Herbert Read came to the movement slightly later, was strongly influenced by it, and continued there-after to be a spokesman for the Imagist ideals. In fact, after the mid-1920s he was their most important contemporary spokesman.
Poems by Richard Aldington (1892-1962) were first published in 1909. Labeled "Imagiste" and trumpeted by Pound, the eighteen-year-old Aldington attended Yeats's Monday evenings, knew Hulme, Ford, Lawrence, Amy Lowell, married H.D., became literary editor of Egoist, and was in the thick of literary goings-on in avant-garde London. The poems he wrote at this time were often mythopoeic, evoking a Mediterranean landscape. They were composed in free verse and presented "images"—mostly sensuously appealing ones. Aldington's poems were often said to be "hellenic," though their attitudes and scenery descended more immediately from Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites. During and after World War I he departed steadily further from the Imagist style; in Exile and Other Poems (1923) he wrote the directly personal and talky type of poem that in the nineteenth century was often called an "effusion." "I abandon, cast off, utterly deny the virtue of 'extreme compression and essential significance of every word,'" he wrote Herbert Read in 1924. "I say that is the narrow path that leadeth to sterility.… Pound, Flint, both went down on mat; I saw them go; and I shall live to see you and Tom [Eliot] go the same way." After A Fool V the Forest (1925) he published mostly prose. His chief success was with his novel of the war, Death of a Hero (1929).
According to his occasional private explanations, Pound invented the Imagist movement to obtain attention for the work of Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), who published under her initials "H.D." She grew up in Philadelphia, where she was acquainted with Pound and William Carlos Williams. She went to Europe in 1911 and spent the rest of her life there. She and Richard Aldington were married in 1912; they separated after the war. Pound, Amy Lowell, Louis Untermeyer, and others frequently mentioned her poems as the purest examples of Imagism. Her phrasing was usually idiomatic and economical. The units of syntax were short and there were few subordinate clauses. Abstract generalizations were infrequent. The poems were made of simple statements juxtaposed, as in "The Pool":
Are you alive?
I touch you.
You quiver like a sea-fish.
I cover you with my net.
What are you—banded one?
Such writing struck many readers as clear, swift, and uncluttered.
H.D. translated from classical Greek—Euripides, Sappho, Homer, the Greek anthology. Her original verses also brought Greece to mind, for the light, color, and landscape might be Mediterranean and she usually alluded to Greek myth or re-created it in the poem. Because her landscape, subject, and sensibility seemed "Greek," so did her style. Richard Eberhart summarized a common opinion when he said in 1958, she "gives us the best glimpse we have today of classic poetry, an English poetry … nearly Greek in concept and execution … crystal-bright, hard and pure, clean and fine." Those more deeply versed in English and Greek poetry recognized that her "Greece" was typically Romantic and literary, a Hellenic world distilled from Shelley, Keats, Byron, Arnold, Swinburne, and many another English poet of the nineteenth century. To such readers her Imagist "hardness" of style was not impressively "Greek," neither was it especially "modern," for except that the diction was idiosyncratic and the verse was free, it recalled the familiar "sculpture of rhyme" of the 1890s. It was obvious that her art, like that of the aesthetes, had limited itself by retreating from the world of actual experience. Moreover, the feelings it expressed were often strained and unreal, as when the speaker in the much-admired "Orchard" falls prostrate before a pear,
you have flayed us
with your blossoms,
spare us the beauty
Like other Imagists, H.D. gradually abandoned the mode. The Walls Do Not Fall (1944) inaugurated a remarkable poetic self-renewal. This sequence of poems is meditative and also mythical and archetypal, showing the influence of both Freud (whose patient she was) and Jung. The symbols are taken from diverse traditions—Christian, Egyptian, cabalistic, astrological—for she assumed that these different symbolisms evoked the same underlying realities. The poem was written in London during World War II and was followed by two long sequences of a similar kind, Tribute to the Angels (1945) and The Flowering of the Rod (1946).
John Gould Fletcher (1886-1950) was only occasionally an Imagist, but because he was one of the six poets in Miss Lowell's Imagist anthologies, he was, throughout most of his life, presumed to be an Imagist by a literary public that could hardly have been paying close attention to his works. In fact, he began as an aggressively experimentalist, Modernist poet and ended as a regional one. In 1908 (one year later than Pound) he sailed for Italy, for, as he later explained, he was disgusted with the "mediocrity, the optimism, the worldliness" of the United States, and regarded Europe as the place to "acquire an...
(The entire section is 26004 words.)
Cyrena N. Pondrom
[In the following essay, Pondrom discusses the contributions of H.D. to the theory and practice of Imagism.]
SOURCE: "H.D. and the Origins of Imagism," in Sagetrieb: A Journal Devoted to Poets, Vol. 4, Spring, 1985, pp. 73-97.
At the conclusion of his book, Noel Stock, the biographer of Ezra Pound, summarized: "With Yeats, Joyce, Lewis and Eliot dead he was the last survivor among the leading men of the formative years of the 'modern movement' in English literature—the movement in which he himself had played an important part, not only as innovator and renewer of language, but as impresario and publicity-agent, fund-raiser...
(The entire section is 58773 words.)
Sources And Influences
[In the following essay, Martin locates sources of lmagist aesthetics in theories of philosophy and psychology that were current in the early twentieth century.]
SOURCE: "The Sources of the Imagist Aesthetic," in PMLA, Vol. 84, No. 2, March, 1970, pp. 196-204.
When subjected to scholarly scrutiny, literary revolutions usually prove less novel than they appear to be. We now know that the twentieth-century reaction against Romanticism was largely based on Romantic principles, and a number of writers have argued that Aestheticism, Symbolism, Imagism, and Surrealism are essentially extensions of the literary revolution that began in...
(The entire section is 40780 words.)
Imagism And Other Movements
[In the following essay, Skaff focuses on the importance of metaphor and the unconscious in the poetic theories advanced by Ezra Pound and the Surrealists.]
SOURCE: "Pound's Imagism and the Surreal," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 12, July, 1985, pp. 185-210.
In an essay of 1937, "D'Artagnan Twenty Years After," in which Ezra Pound reminisces of the few years when Imagism came to maturity, soon to be subsumed by Vorticism, two topics continually recur: Surrealism and metaphor. Since Blast, 1914, and in particular, The Little Review, 1917/19, Pound finds "very little news intervening...
(The entire section is 30177 words.)
Influence And Legacy
[In the following essay, Whalen identifies Imagist qualities in the poetry of Philip Larkin.]
SOURCE: "Philip Larkin's Imagist Bias: His Poetry of Observation," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 29-46.
Larkin's use of traditional poetic forms and his openly expressed contempt for Modernism have gained for him a reputation as a relatively provincial poet. Many see his admiration for such minor poets as John Betjeman, for instance, as being in step with the narrow taste he exhibits in the selections which make up his edition of The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse (1973). Evaluating the technical...
(The entire section is 20501 words.)
Aldington, Richard, ed. Imagist Anthology, 1930. London: Chatto & Windus, 1930, 154 p.
Contains poems by Pound, Lowell, Flint, Hulme, and others associated with the Imagist movement.
Jones, Peter, ed. Imagist Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972, 188 p.
Includes an introduction outlining the development of Imagism.
Pratt, William, ed. The Imagist Poem: Modern Poetry in Miniature. New York: Dutton, 1963, 128 p.
Includes an introduction surveying the major writers and themes of the Imagist movement.
(The entire section is 956 words.)