Critical Overview

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In the chapter “Critical Reaction,” Hughes makes the statement that “few comments on the [imagist] movement have appeared in English periodicals. The effect is that of a conspiracy of silent scorn.” Hughes wrote this in 1931, but his book remains today, one of the standard studies of the imagist movement, so his seventy-year-old opinion seems to be still standing. Hughes claims that the critics who did write about Imagism were usually either the imagist poets themselves or else their friends.

The only comments that were made were either brief sarcastic remarks or “mutual backscratching,” Hughes concludes. Of the sarcastic remarks, he mentions Harold Monro, who wrote an article in the Egoist, a largely imagist publication. Monro writes, “the imagists seem to have been struck partially blind at the first sight of their new world; and they are still blinking.”

Ford Maddox Ford (using his German last name, Hueffer, for this article) is quoted by Hughes as commending Doolittle and Flint for their writing, praising them as the only two poets in the movement who wrote well enough to be called imagists. Ford then continues: “Mr. John Gould Fletcher, Mr. Aldington, and Miss Lowell are all too preoccupied with themselves and their emotions to be really called Imagists.” Ford concludes by stating that the imagist movement is the only thing that was happening in literature during that time.

Hughes then goes on to discuss the critical response that the imagists received in America. He begins with a statement from a reviewer writing for the Chicago Tribune. The writer concluded the review by stating that Imagism should be established as a constitutional amendment and that anyone who writes anything other than in the imagist mode should be imprisoned. Later, after the pub- lication of Some Imagist Poets (1915), Conrad Aiken, an American poet himself and friend of Pound, wrote a poem for the imagists and had it published in the Boston Transcript. The poem was not at all flattering, and as presented in Hughes’s book, Aiken ended each stanza with the question: “Where in a score years will you be,” making an allusion to the fact that he thought Imagism was but a mere fad.

Aiken later wrote an article for the New Republic, in which he praised Fletcher at the other imagist poets’ expense, stating that only Fletcher was able to express enough emotion to move the reader. W. S. Braithwaite, in response to Aiken’s attacks, also published an article in the New Republic. His opinion of the imagists was more generous, praising the poets for their courage to break out of the old poetry molds. As quoted in Hughes’s book, Braithwaite writes, “The final test of poetry is not that it stirs one . . . but that it haunts one.”

In 1915, William Ellery Leonard, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, took upon himself the task of critiquing the imagists. His analysis was not very favorable. Hughes describes Leonard’s remarks as “the most scholarly, sarcastic, and seriously- considered attempt at the annihilation of imagism yet recorded.” Leonard disliked the imagists’ allusions to Japanese poetry, although Hughes points out that at the time of the criticism none of the imagists had yet written any poetry that was influenced by haiku. Leonard also criticized their use of classical Greek and Latin poets, assuming (wrongly) that none of the poets had a real understanding of the classics. Hughes sums up his views about the Leonard attacks on the imagists by stating that Leonard was correct in pointing out some of the weak points of some of...

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the poets but that to condemn the whole movement without mentioning any of their strengths was a “cheap trick.”

Other critics did not like the egoism that the imagist poets appeared to flaunt. Some felt that the imagist poet made him- or herself more important than the poem. Hughes then writes that Lewis Worthington Smith, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, believed that the imagists were only pretending to revolt from all literary forms but were, actually, “doing nothing of the kind: they are minor poets who cannot stand the strain of the sophisticated and complex world in which they find themselves.” Smith concludes that Imagism is merely a “freakish and barren cult” and a sign that Romanticism will bounce back with a much “fuller and more vital poetry.”

These were the early reviews. Later, Hughes writes, the critics were “more favorable, owing to the continuous propaganda of the imagists themselves and to the natural decline of prejudice toward something new.”


Essays and Criticism