Lowell, the descendant of a prominent New England family, famous for its achievements in both business and the arts, published her first book of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, in 1912. She had been thinking about writing poetry for nearly a decade, although even as a child she wrote poetry and beginning in her twenties lectured in Boston on literary subjects. The title of her first book, taken from Shelley’s famous poem, “Adonais” mourning the death of John Keats, reflected Lowell’s love of Romantic literature and her adherence to traditional forms of poetry. However, her first volume excited little interest among reviewers and won her a very small audience. The disappointed Lowell, perusing the pages of Poetry magazine, became excited by Pound’s extolling of Imagism. Virtually immediately, Lowell decided to jettison the writing of conventional poetry, and in the spring of 1913, she set out for London, the site, she later explained in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), of the most exciting developments in modern verse.
In London, Lowell met with Pound, who introduced her to his Imagist colleagues: Aldington, H. D., Flint, and Fletcher. Lowell would also meet other remarkable writers in Pound’s circle as well as D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), with whom she would correspond to the end of her life. Lowell quickly ascertained that many of these poets resented Pound’s high-handed methods. They were also dismayed that their new poetry had so little impact on Anglo-American readers. To Pound’s outrage, Lowell set about corralling this disaffected group, promising to put them into print in the United States and in general furthering the Imagist cause. She had both the promotional know-how and the financial resources to make her a creditable alternative to Pound.
Lowell lacked only bona fides as an Imagist poet herself. Industrious and an avid learner, she was producing Imagist poems before she returned to the United States in the fall of 1913. By 1915, Lowell had produced the first of three Imagist anthologies, featuring her work and that of Aldington, H. D., Flint, Lawrence, and Fletcher. Pound excluded himself, deeply resenting Lowell’s takeover of a movement he believed belonged to him.
The work of these six poets in the Imagist anthologies is broadly representative of the modern poetry that Pound was promulgating. However, Lowell, a keen publicist, made sure that her three volumes contained prefaces that set out the Imagist program, thus linking the efforts of individual poets to a grand vision of the way modern poetry, especially free verse, was making literary history. Unlike Pound, Lowell made no effort to dictate to her colleagues. Thus, each Imagist anthology was composed of poems that each poet deemed worthy of inclusion. Pound scorned this democratic, Imagist confederation, calling it “Amygism,” by which he meant not only to criticize Lowell’s outsize ego but also to express his disapproval of what he deemed her crass popularizing of poetry, which, in his view, diluted the power and ultimately the quality of the poems presented as examples of Imagism.
As the Imagist anthologies demonstrate, however, the poetry was of exceptional quality. Not every poem met Pound’s highest standards, but to Lowell that seemed less important than her efforts to make poetry a vital part of life. She wanted not only to energize contemporary poetry, but also to increase the numbers of readers and institutions that could support the careers of poets and make poetry itself count for more in the lives of her fellow Americans.
A consideration of the individual poets who published in the Imagist anthologies provides the best way to comprehend the experiments, achievements, and ambitions of the Imagist movement.
The youngest of the Imagist poets, Richard Aldington sought a way back to the Greeks. He admired the austerity of Greek art, and as an Imagist, he sought to write unadorned verse, the opposite of the opulent, flowing lines associated with Victorian poets such as Tennyson. Similarly, Aldington wanted to avoid the self-referential qualities of Romantic poetry, in which the poet becomes the hero of his own work.
Some of Aldington’s best poetry was the result of his service in World War I. He brought to his description of that war a stark, brutal, and precise power of observation. Although Imagists eschewed the open expression of their feelings, their poetry could still be intense and the product of personal emotion and experience. Tor example, in “Soliloquy-I,” Aldington describes the horrors of war: “Dead men should be so still, austere,/ And beautiful,/ Not wobbling carrion roped upon a cart.” Aldington’s avidity for Greek art is suggested in his desire to see the dead in repose like figures in classical sculpture. The full shock of war is reflected in choosing the word “carrion,” the word for the rotting flesh of animals, including human beings. Although the poet is disgusted with this scene of horror, he does not, in fact, make his aversion explicit, allowing, in true Imagist fashion, the wording of the understated line to carry the weight of his emotions. The poet wishes to aestheticize the world, to make it beautiful, Aldington implies....