Imagists Analysis


By the end of the nineteenth century, poets in Great Britain and the United States were seeking a new, modern way to write verse. In Britain, the reigning movements in poetry and the arts—Romanticism and Victorianism—seemed to have run their course. Romantic lyric poetry as exemplified by Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, for example, had degenerated (many poets believed) into self-indulgence, so that poets seemed so preoccupied with their own subjectivity that the greater world was largely ignored. The result was a poetry that was precious and clichéd. In other words, poets relied on stock words and phrases such as “thee” and “thou” and “the orb of heaven” that tended to remove poetry from reality, from the day-to-day experience of most people. Poets were, in effect, just repeating what other poets had to say. Victorian poets had made matters worse by writing with sentimentality and decorum, thus eschewing the raw, robust radicalism that poets of Lord Byron’s generation had cultivated.

In the United States, poetry as an art was in a kind of limbo. The two greatest American poets of the nineteenth century—Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson—had largely been ignored by their contemporaries, and the full extent of their contributions to American poetry were discounted in the 1880’s and 1890’s by what came to be termed the “genteel tradition,” one that like the Victorians used poetry to express acceptable sentiments and...

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The influence of Pound

ph_0111215254-Lowell_A.jpg Amy Lowell Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Pound used London as his poetry laboratory. He quickly made friends with promising young writers such as Richard Aldington (1892-1962), H. D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961), John Gould Fletcher (1886-1950), and F. S. Flint (1885-1960)—all of whom would become part of the Imagist movement. Pound also met a British philosopher, T. E. Hulme (1883-1917), who believed in the revival of classicism, which emphasized not the personality of the writer but the form of the work. The structure of works of art ought to be the poet’s concern in an age of science, Hulme argued, and not the poet’s feelings per se.

From his talks with Hulme, Pound formulated the cardinal principles of Imagism: direct treatment of subject matter (in practice, this would mean an almost photographic portrayal of objects and scenes) and elimination of any word or phrase that did not absolutely contribute to the presentation of the poem. Another tenet of Imagism was mainly technical advice to poets: Write in musical phrases rather than in rigid meter. Pound was certainly not opposed to traditional forms of poetry such as the sonnet, but the emphasis of his program led to experiments with free verse—lines that did not have end rhymes and that could be of varying lengths and numbers of syllables.

Pound was also one of the first Anglo-American poets to experiment with translations of Japanese poetry and to introduce into Western verse the terse, image-dominated lines of...

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The beginnings

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.

Richard Aldington

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....

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The end

Lowell felt that by 1920, after the publication of three Imagist anthologies, the work of Imagism per se had been accomplished. In other words, the principles and practices of the Imagist poet had become a part of modern poetry and the need for a separate movement no longer seemed urgent or even necessary. H. D. and the other Imagists would continue to write poems that exemplified the movement, but these poets ranged far from a strict adherence to the program Pound initially established—as did Pound himself. No account of modern poetry can ignore the pervasive influence of Imagism while at the same time acknowledging that the movement had limited aims and in the end had to supersede itself by having it poets engage in producing...

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Aldington, Richard. Life for Life’s Sake. New York: Viking, 1941. Chapter 9 discusses Aldington’s involvement with the Imagists.

Fletcher, John Gould. Life Is My Song. New York: Rinehart & Winston, 1937. Describes Fletcher’s relationship with Lowell, the development of his Imagist poetry, and its influence on her work.

Hughes, Glenn. Imagism and the Imagists: A Study in Modern Poetry. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1924. Still one of the standard studies. Hughes interviewed the Imagists and wrote separate chapters on the movement and on individual poets. His work is a deft...

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