Influence of Haiku on Imagist Poetry

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2230

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
A peony.

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:

My thoughts
Chink against my ribs
And roll about like silver hailstones

In Moritake’s poem, there is surprise in the last line, as there is in Lowell’s. The surprise in Moritake’s is more evident. The reader feels the jolt, just as the poet must have experienced it, watching one image turn into quite another, from a dead, falling petal to a live and beautiful butterfly. Lowell’s surprise is more subtle. The image of thoughts hitting, albeit lightly, against the speakers ribs is somewhat uncomfortable. The concept makes the speaker appear agitated and possibly hungry, if not for food, then for a solution of some kind. Then she adds the final line, having the thoughts roll now, a much more comforting feeling, and they are also turned into silver—smooth and shiny. Iinstead of being bothersome, they now appear somewhat precious.

There are many examples of the influence of haiku upon the imagists, as all of them tried their hand at the Japanese form, some of them more successfully than others. Even T. E. Hulme, who wrote very few poems and was not directly considered an imagist poet, even though it was his philosophy of poetry that began the movement, was able to create a type of haiku. In his poem “Autumn,” taken from Hughes’s book, Hulme writes a somewhat longer version, but the rhythm and the form are still there:

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.

In this stanza of his poem, Hulme juxtaposes images of nature with the figure of a person. There is a similar surprise in Hulme’s poem, as there is in Moritake’s, in which the petal suddenly turns into a butterfly. With Hulme, the moon suddenly turns into the face of a farmer. The picture in the poem jumps from one image to the other, as Hulme superimposes the moon and the farmer in such a quick motion that the reader witnesses the blending of the two images into one.

One of the best examples of haiku poetry from Richard Aldington comes from his collection Images of Desire. It is quoted here from Hughes’s book:

Like a dark princess whose beauty
Many have sung, you wear me,
The one jewel that is warmed by your breast.

Here Aldington focuses on one image, that of a beautiful princess, bejeweled. What is interesting in this poem is that Aldington embeds the speaker in that “one jewel,” creating a double image in one object. The attention remains on the princess and her beauty, while the speaker sneaks in and prevails over the throngs of men who clamor for her attention. This is a clever poem, whose image changes the more it is thought about. The picture first appears as a solitary figure, then slowly grows more complex as more people crowd into the image, first the other admirers, then the jewel that takes on the personification of the speaker.

John Gould Fletcher wholly engaged Japanese art in many of its forms, and in the following two lines, taken again from Hughes, he captures a beautiful Japanese image in very few words:

Uneven tinkling, the lazy rain
Dripping from the eaves.

This short poem not only provides an image, it adds music. Raindrops splashing down on the roof, “tinkling” like the sounds of tiny bells or like a wind chime. Then he slows down the rhythm, as he describes the rain as lazy, and the reader can again see the sluggish drops leisurely slithering down from the eaves. This is imagist poetry imitating haiku at its best, with several of the senses drawn in, with such spare and simple words, to create one exquisite image.

Fletcher is successful again in one of his poems taken from his collection Ghosts and Pagodas. This one comes from the first section, “The Ghosts of an Old House,” and as quoted from Hughes, it reads in part:

The windows rattle as if someone were in
them wishing to get out
and ride upon the wind.

Knowing the context of this poem gives it more meaning. Fletcher has gone back to his family home, after having been away for a long time. His family is gone. All that remains for him are the memories of having once lived there. When the wind rattles the windows, he imagines the ghosts of his memories, trying to release themselves from his mind. Fletcher builds the image by bringing in various senses. Not only can the reader envision what this might look like, or feel like, but the sound of the wind and the rattling of the window are also very easy to imagine. The surprise element is also present. The normal impression might be that if there were ghosts inside the window, and they were trying to get out, that the ghosts would then come after the speaker of the poem. Instead, Fletcher has them wanting to ride the wind, to fly away from him, to return to nature. He has captured the essence of the haiku in his own way, imbuing the image with past emotions conjured in the present moment, all illustrated realistically and concretely.

Closing this essay is a poem from William Carlos Williams (1883–1963), who was not considered one of the major imagist poets, but he is often referred to as one of the major poets of that time who was affected by the Imagism movement. His poem “Red Wheelbarrow” is often used as a classic representation of both the perfect imagist poem as well as one that demonstrates the influence of the haiku. The image of the red wheelbarrow, on which, as the poem reads, “so much depends” visually, is so vivid that it could almost be framed and hung on the wall as a painting. The rhythm is slightly less Japanese, but the picture that is created is very much in line with haiku.

This poem is so visual that the reader feels as if standing in a museum, staring at an oil painting. The first line focuses on the brightest color, the red of the wheelbarrow. Added to this image is the simply stated observation that the wheelbarrow is “glazed with rain,” a concise detail that further elaborates the scene with so few words that it seems understated. (Note the painting terminology in the word glazed, thus reinforcing the impression of this poem as a painted image.) Finally, the lustrous, red wheelbarrow is situated near white chickens, which were at first unseen but now stand out, their whiteness exaggerated in contrast to the color red. What, if any, meaning Williams intended in this poem is practically unimportant. However, as a poem of meditation, which is one of the reasons that the Japanese haiku is written, this poem has excelled. When read for purely imagist terms, this poem is still a prizewinner. Who could read this poem and not take with them an extremely vivid, focused image impressed upon their minds?

The imagist manifesto wanted the poets to create images rather than to moralize or preach as many of their poetic Victorian predecessors had done. It also wanted poets to minimize their language. It is no wonder that they were attracted to and influenced by the Japanese haiku, which had been perfected many hundreds of years before them. The Imagism movement was short, and most of the poets who were involved in the movement quickly passed either into obscurity or moved on to create different forms of poetry. However, despite the brevity of their involvement, they left an indelible mark on poetry of the English language by introducing the form and facility of haiku to American and British audiences.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Imagism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

The Imagists

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3795

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 expression, yet a new and more fitting method is not easily created. Expression is by no means a natural thing. It is an unnatural, artificial and, as it were, external thing which a man has to install himself in before he can manipulate it. . . A man has first to obtain a foothold in this, so to speak, alien and external world of material expression, at a point near to the one he is making for. He has to utilise some already existing method of expression, and work from that to the one that expresses his own personal conception more accurately and naturally.

For most of the Imagists, the point closest to the one they were making for was the poetry of the ’nineties. Most of them had, after all, grown up on the products of the Aesthetic Movement. Aldington began his career by reading Wilde, whose voice echoes frequently in his poetry, and he conceived for him in youth an admiration he never lost, even though he laced it later with resentment. He edited selections from Wilde and from Pater, and as late as 1950 he produced an anthology of writings of the Aesthetes. Pound’s modernism was similarly based, and Aldington complained about that when he reviewed his contributions to Blast: “It is not that one wants Mr. Pound to repeat his Provençal feats,” he wrote, “to echo the ‘nineties—he has done that too much already.” Although he always knew what was the last word in Paris, F. S. Flint shaped his own verse to the pattern of the recent English past; and the early work of John Gould Fletcher is devoted exclusively to what Eliot later scorned as the last fashion but one.

Fletcher was not one of the earliest Imagists, but by the time of the Egoist’s special number on Imagism, on 1 May 1915, he had established his credentials. In the special number, he reviewed the poems of Amy Lowell, praisingly of course, and his own poems in turn were reviewed by Ferris Greenslet, Amy Lowell’s publisher, who found them “in the highest degree vivid, original, and provocative.” Pound, too, reviewed Fletcher’s early poems, in The New Freewoman: he found in them promise of great talent and an admirable French influence, and he urged Harriet Monroe to publish him in Poetry. Fletcher continued for some time to enjoy the reputation of an avant-gardist: his poems appeared in The Chapbook and Coterie; Eliot printed his work in The Criterion; and the whole of The Chapbook for May 1920 was given over to his article on “Some Contemporary American Poets.” “In England,” says a summary of his life, “he was a leader of the Imagists.”

Yet, at this stage in his career, Fletcher’s “modernism” was a wholly reflected light. His early poems exemplify the inheritance that was the Imagists’ first expression and they identify some of the ways in which Baudelaire was an element in that. Glenn Hughes writes that Fletcher’s interest in “the new French poetry, particularly in its wilder manifestations,” developed after his arrival in England, but, in fact, Fletcher, like Eliot, encountered modern French poetry while he was at Harvard, as a consequence of reading the later nineteenthcentury English poets. A year after experiencing what he calls in his memoirs “the heady and passing intoxication of Swinburne, Rossetti, and the poets of the nineties,” he came upon Symons and so learned of Baudelaire and the French Symbolists, who “held me for unforgettable hours.” Baudelaire, Gautier, and Flaubert, translations of whose work he found not in the Harvard Union but in the Boston Public Library, became his models: these could be “read and reread for the sake of their perfect craftsmanship alone, their supreme aesthetic delight, rather than for their social value or for any message of importance they may speak to mankind.” In Flaubert’s Trois Contes, Gautier’s Emaux et Camées, and “in Baudelaire’s incomparable Fleurs du Mal,” Fletcher found “a world of intense aesthetic sensation.” When he came to England in 1913, three years after discovering these poets, he found himself in what now appeared to be the mainstream. “I had rushed headlong via English romanticism and French symbolism into modernity,” he remembered.

Shortly after he arrived in London, Fletcher published his first five volumes of verse. These identify his own point of departure. They are virtually handbooks of “baudelairism.” Fletcher and Squire, who were to take up opposite sides in the poetic wars of the early twentieth century, set out, though in different countries, from the same texts. Fletcher’s books—Fire and Wine Fool’s Gold, The Book of Nature, The Dominant City (1911–1912) and Visions of the Evening—are enthusiastically and openly derivative. They make his tradition their most prominent feature. Fool’s Gold is dedicated to “Mes ‘Poetes [sic] Maudits’” and The Dominant City to “The French Poets of To-Day.” Visions of the Evening, which announces that its author is “a symbol of perverse art,” opens with a poem dedicated “To The Immortal Memory of Charles Baudelaire.” It takes its imagery and themes from Swinburne:

Baudelaire, green flower that sways
Over the morass of misery
Painfully, for days on days,
Till it falls, without a sigh.

Les Fleurs du Mal are a “clarion call, / To the Judgment held on high.” The emotional temperature in these poems is elevated, and several of them—“Blasphemy,” “Sin,” “Revolt,” “Midnight Prayer,” “The Descent into Hell”—manifest their ancestry in their very titles: it was of course not Fletcher, but Baudelaire, who had become “a symbol of perverse art.” And for Fletcher, just after he arrived in London, as for Symons, until the end of his life, Baudelaire, the perverse, was the modern poet. When, in The Dominant City, Fletcher writes, “Last night I lay disgusted, sick at heart, / Beside a sodden woman of the street: / Who drowsed, oblivious of the dreadful mart, / Her outraged body and her blistered feet,” he is reviving the vocabulary and the iconography of “Une nuit que j’étais près d’une affreuse juive,” the thirty-second poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, to which the young Squire had been intensely attracted, which he had translated, and which he had subsequently rejected, in middle-aged embarrassment.

Fletcher, like Squire, withdrew his earliest volumes from circulation shortly after they had been published, and so he extended the list of English “Baudelairean” books that had retreated from the public gaze. The books, however, index a well-established convention of Baudelaire borrowings, and what is most important about them in the present context is that their precisely derivative character passed unnoticed by some of Fletcher’s most innovating contemporaries. Pound took pains to point out that Fletcher was above all not an imitator: he had faults, Pound said, but these at least were “mostly his own” and they gained him “such distinction as belongs to a man who dares to have his own faults, who prefers his own to those of anyone else.” He was, Pound insisted, a man of his time: “I do not think Mr. Fletcher is an imitator, he is influenced, if you like, as all the younger Frenchmen are influenced. If you ask south of the channel à quoi rêvent les jeunes gens? you might find that their reveries are not unlike those of Mr. Fletcher.”

A similar retrospective rebellion appears in the poems of F. S. Flint, and it is, like Fletcher’s, precisely rooted. More than any other Imagist, Flint held the French to be the touchstone of modernity; more than any other Englishman, he was in touch with the French modernists. His works commanded the highest respect of his contemporaries. The Poetry Bookshop published his Cadences and advertised his work alongside that of Aldington and Harold Monro; Amy Lowell’s Imagist anthologies gave him more space than any other poet save Aldington; The Egoist, The Anglo-French Review, The English Review, The New Age, and Poetry and Drama published his poems. May Sinclair thought that Otherworld Cadences was a landmark in the development of modern poetry; Ford Madox Hueffer found Flint’s poems more compelling than those of any other Imagist; and Harold Monro wrote that his sincerity “of thought, originality of mind, and fertility of imagination make his work important to the student of modern poetry.”

But Flint’s poems, too, like Fletcher’s, are striving to be born. “Yet still we are troubled and torn,” he might have said with Dowson, “By ennui, spleen and regret.” The world of his poems is often a “mephitic hell of dullness and stagnation,” and he frequently seeks to convey a familiar, tormenting ennui in figures of enclosure, paralysis, rain, decay, débris, and death. The stock of images comes to him from Baudelaire’s spleen poems, which document the settling in of solipsism, the imprisonment of the mind. “Silence sings all around me;” Flint writes. “My head is bound with a band; / Outside in the street, a few footsteps; / A clock strikes the hour.” The central formal feature of Flint’s poetic thought, a characteristic contrast between the deathly solitude of the isolated poet and a dreamed, paradisal escape, comes from the same source, and Flint, like Baudelaire, makes the contrast underline the bitterness of the poet’s real circumstances. But while Baudelaire uses it to expose the double nature of the imagination, which turns the poet into a “matelot ivrogne, inventeur d’Amériques / Dont le mirage rend le gouffre plus amer,” Flint makes it serve the purposes of his social protest, his anguished attack on what Robert Graves, discussing Aldington, called “the dreariness, obscenity and standardisation . . . [of] the present structure of society.” Flint’s ironically titled “Unreality,” for instance, pits his “dream” (“bloom on the bramble and the wild rose”) against the “reality” (a “dull, drab room, in a drab, noisy street”) of a degraded world; and his “Once in Autumn,” which echoes in its opening line the first stanza of “Une Charogne,” establishes a similar contrast for a similar, bitterly critical, effect.

What Richard Aldington took from his predecessors— an idea of the beautiful and an attitude toward the relationship of the poet to society—confirmed him in an idea of aesthetic isolation. He identified himself explicitly with the “aesthetes,” as he called them, and throughout his career he defended their causes. He saw Dowson as a heroic example of the “sensitive, almost over-sensitive type of artist” that society cannot tolerate; he attacked “commercial democracy” for its imperviousness to beauty; and he frequently defended poetry against the moralists. “When you find a man whole-heartedly condemning generally every one from Verlaine to Guy-Charles Cros,” he wrote, “you can bet your life that that man is an ignoramus who is concealing his ignorance under that easiest of all poses—moral indignation.” Often Aldington’s early poems show their ancestry proudly. His “Happiness,” which is dedicated to “F.S.F.,” invokes Dowson in its enumeration of the benefits especially reserved for poets, and his famous “Evening,” which is frequently cited as an example of the small perfection sought by the Imagists, borrows its central image—of the moon “With a rag of gauze about her loins”—from Wilde’s “Fuite de la Lune.” His overriding early theme is that of lost beauty, his dominant tone is lament. Both come to him, filtered through the ’nineties, from Baudelaire and Gautier. In “Beauty Thou Hast Hurt Me Overmuch,” for instance, Aldington takes up the question of “Hymne à la Beauté,” and he replies with the answer of “La Beauté” (both of which are quoted above. Aldington’s borrowings are pointed:

Where wert thou born
O thou woe
That consumest my life?
Whither comest thou?

Toothed wind of the seas,
No man knows thy beginning.
As a bird with strong claws
Thou woundest me
O beautiful sorrow.

That borrowed, cruel, Baudelairean beauty was part of Aldington’s English inheritance.

Although the Imagists may have written the first “modern” poems in English, then, the “already existing method of expression” that they “utilized,” as Hulme put it, their own point de repère, was the poetry of the ’nineties. Their beginnings constituted for them a limitation they could not ignore: what they derived from the ’nineties bound them to a paralyzing ideal of artistic isolation and an outworn convention of the beautiful.

The Imagists’ earliest sympathies comprise one element in what came to be their modernist dilemma. Their theories added another. In their attempts to gain a foothold in the “alien and external world of material expression,” they became uncommonly theoretical: they are remembered more for their “Rules” than for their verse. Their theories, however, failed in coherence. The Imagists worked earnestly in two directions: Flint was proposing an orthodox, intensely romantic symbolism, a mystical view of poetry which was compatible with the oriental and Greek influences at work in the Imagist group; at the same time, Hulme was arguing for a “classicism,” which, while it leaned heavily on French symbolism for some of its terms, was in effect a new realism, a poetic positivism fundamentally at odds with the views Flint had derived from Mallarmé. Imagist theory was the marriage of those two views: “Image from T.E.H.; ism from August, 1912, number of The Poetry Review,” Flint wrote in the margin of Eliot’s copy of René Taupin’s study of the movement. But the theory was a miracle of contradiction, and the strain of its internal conflicts shows in the poetry. Of the first Imagists, only Pound, who came down solidly on the side of “the prose tradition,” and H.D., who opted wholeheartedly for the pure poetry, were able to resolve them. In Imagist theory, the double focus of Pater dissolves into mutually excluding viewpoints: the nineteenth- century synthesis fails. But in articulating those conflicts or problems in poetry, the Imagists created a context in which Baudelaire seemed more modern, more usefully a model for modernists, than his great symbolist successors.

Source: Patricia Clements, “The Imagists,” in Baudelaire and the English Tradition, Princeton University Press, 1985, pp. 260–99.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1853

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 Hulme, Hueffer, Yeats, and others; see Chapter 20) 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:

a. concision, or style, or saying what you mean in the fewest and clearest words.

b. 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”:

1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly exact, nor the merely decorative word.

2. 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 freeverse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.

6. 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 cries;
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills,
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” (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 smallscale. 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,
Wandering companionless
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 melan- choly, 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

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

Source: David Perkins, “Imagism,” in A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode, Belknap Press, 1976, pp. 329–47.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Overview