The Imagist movement was initiated by a group of English and American poets led by Ezra Pound as a corrective to what they considered to be the verbose, banal and artificial manner of early twentieth-century poetry. Although it was active as a movement only between 1912 and 1917, its emphasis on economy of language and concrete imagery, and its advocacy of free verse, had a lasting influence, and these features became the hallmarks of modern poetry.
The formation of Imagism is recorded as beginning in the autumn of 1912, as Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (an American poet, who became known as 'H. D.') and Richard Aldington, an English poet, met with each other in various London tea-shops and discussed poetry. Hilda Doolittle had been a friend of Pound's in Pennsylvania, and had recently rejoined him in London. Aldington was the son of a lawyer, who had studied at University College, London. Aldington and H. D. read the Greek Anthology together at the British Museum, became lovers and eventually married, and they, together with Pound, formed the nucleus of the first Imagists. On one occasion, as Aldington described it in his memoir, Life for Life's Sake:
H. D. produced some poems which I thought excellent, and she either handed or mailed them to Ezra. Presently each of us received a ukase to attend the Kensington bun-shop. Ezra was so much worked up by these poems of H. D.'s that he removed his pince-nez and informed us that we were Imagists.
Was this the first time I had heard this Pickwickian word? I don't remember.
Hilda Doolittle's recollection of this event, or some other like it, is different, and more famous. When Pound read her poems, he immediately recognized that she had fulfilled the aspirations for the reform of poetry which he had in mind. There is no substitute for H. D.'s account of this scene:
Meeting with him alone or with others at the Museum tea room. . . . 'But Dryad,' (in the Museum tea room), 'this is poetry.' He slashed with a pencil. 'Cut this out, shorten this line. 'Hermes of the Ways' is a good title. I'll send this to Harriet Monroe of Poetry. Have you a copy? Yes? Then we can send this, or I'll type it when I get back. Will this do?' And he scrawled 'H. D. Imagiste' at the bottom of the page. (End to Torment, p. 18)
Pound adopted a French form for the name of his movement in imitation of the modernist movements he had encountered during a recent visit to France. The initials became Hilda Doolittle's permanent nom de plume, and while Pound is usually regarded as responsible for them, there is some reason to believe that H. D. herself used them first. When he submitted the poems for publication to Harriet Monroe, the editor of the Chicago magazine, Poetry, he reported that H. D. had lived with the 'laconic speech of the Imagistes' 'since childhood', and summarized the Imagist aims by describing them as: 'Objective — no slither; direct — no excessive use of adjectives, no metaphors that won't permit examination. It's straight talk, straight as the Greek!'
The style that Pound admired is illustrated by the first lines of 'Hermes of the Ways':
The hard sand breaks and the grains of it are clear as wine.
Far off over the leagues of it, the wind, playing on the wide shore, piles little ridges, and the great waves break over it.
According to Aldington, the three poems by H. D. which appeared in the January, 1913 number of Poetry were the first to be identified as 'Imagiste'. Pound declared that H. D.'s poems were the best examples of Imagist poetry, and she is generally recognized as the definitive Imagist. Writing in 1930, some years after the movement had run its course, Ford Madox Ford said of H. D., that she was 'our gracious Muse, our cynosure and the peak of our achievement'.
Pound's most famous Imagist poem, 'In a Station of the Metro', uses only two lines to illustrate the movement's principles of concentration, imagery and natural language. It was originally published with significant spacing between the phrases, as if to isolate each group of words (and the punctuation) as a separate 'image':
The apparition of these faces in the crowd : Petals on a wet, black bough .
Pound said that he had first written longer poems about a significant experience he had had, but then, after an interval of eighteen months, produced the 'hokku-like sentence' that stood as the final poem. In his account of the poem's composition, he declared: 'Since the beginning of bad writing, writers have used images as ornaments.
The image is itself the speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language' ('Vorticism', Fortnightly Review, 1 September 1914).
Imagism made its early way in a bizarre transatlantic fashion. Its initiators, Pound and H. D., were Americans who, unable to secure recognition in America, went to London, where they published Imagist poems and statements in Poetry, and volumes of their work in England. They were joined, however, by the English poets Aldington, D. H. Lawrence and F. S. Flint. Flint, a poet who was devoted to the French Symbolists, had attached himself to the Imagists early, knew much about their activities and remained a member of the group throughout its life.
The historians of Imagism agree that Pound was the publicist, rather than the inventor, of Imagist doctrines, but they disagree about the identity of the true founder. The traditional candidate is T. E. Hulme, a philosopher who had spent some time at Cambridge, had published translations of modern French philosophers, and had written a number of significant essays which remained in manuscript until after his death. Flint, in a 'History of Imagism' which appeared in the Egoist in May, 1915, recalled that Hulme had belonged to a Poet's Club that met in 1908, and after leaving it, began a second group together with Flint himself. The new group, which first met at the Tour d' Eiffel restaurant in March of 1909, favoured accurate, economical language, tried such experimental poetic ventures as vers libre and the Japanese forms tanka and haikai, and discussed 'the Image'. Pound joined it in April, met with it for about a year, and according to Flint, picked up many of his Imagist ideas there. Pound was also present at various clubs and meetings where Hulme spoke, and seems to have been indebted to him for at least some of the Imagist doctrines.
When Pound reprinted some of Hulme's poems in his 1912 volume, Ripostes, he referred to Hulme's group in a prefatory note as a ' "School of Images" which may or may not have existed' and intimated that 'the forgotten school of 1909' was a forerunner of his own Imagistes. Hulme, whose notebook essays were not published until after his death on the battlefield in 1917, and after the end of the Imagist movement, favoured a hard, objective, geometric style in art, and argued that poetry should adopt a corresponding verbal idiom, avoiding rhetoric and emotion. Poetry, he said, in his essay 'Romanticism and Classicism', is a compromise for a language of intuition which would hand over sensations bodily. It always endeavours to arrest you, and to make you continuously see a physical thing, to prevent you gliding through an abstract process. It chooses fresh epithets and fresh metaphors, not so much because they are new, and we are tired of the old, but because the old cease to convey a physical thing and become abstract counters. . . . Images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence of an intuitive language. (Hulme, 1994, p. 70)
Anticipations of the Imagist spirit are seen in such jottings from Hulme's notebook as: 'Each word must be an image seen, not a counter'; 'A man cannot write without seeing at the same time a visual signification before his eyes. It is the image which precedes the writing and makes it firm'; and 'A word to me is a board with an image or statue on it' (ibid., pp. 25, 27).
But Pound declared that the figure who had the most influence in moving him towards the principles of Imagism was Ford Madox Ford, then known as Ford Madox Hueffer. Ford, who objected to the stilted, artificial, derivative idiom of most contemporary verse, maintained that poetry should be 'modern'. In a two-part article called 'Impressions', which appeared in Poetry and clearly supported Imagist doctrine, Ford, saying that he had been repelled by the wordiness of the Victorian poets he had read in his youth, delivered a message that recalls the ideas of Wordsworth's 'Preface' to Lyrical Ballads more than a century before; he recommended that poets use natural, living language as it was spoken, direct, clear, natural and precise, resembling the language of prose. Pound, who had admired William Butler Yeats's vague, suggestive poetry, gradually came to accept Ford's views, and to reform his own early poetic style, which had been guilty of all the faults Ford mentioned. By 1913 Pound was clearly moving in Ford's direction towards what he called 'diametric opposition' to Yeats. 'I would rather talk about poetry with Ford Madox Hueffer', he wrote, 'than with any man in London.'
When Ford died in 1939, Pound published an obituary article praising him as an important critical voice, and acknowledging the crucial influence he had had on Pound himself. Pound had come to visit Ford in Germany, and had read to him from his last book, Canzoni. A famous scene then occurred, as Pound described it:
And he [Ford] felt the errors of contemporary style to the point of rolling (physically, and if you look at it as a mere superficial snob, ridiculously) on the floor of the temporary quarters in Giessen when my third volume displayed me trapped, fly-papered, gummed and strapped down in a jejune provincial effort to learn, mehercule, the stilted language that then passed for 'good English' in the arthritic milieu that held control of the respected British critical circles.
It was Ford's influence that led Pound to regard his early poems as 'stale creampuffs', and to declare that the language of Imagism must be spare, economical and direct.
Many critics believe that Imagism began with H. D., whose early poems were highly original examples of the kind of poetry the reformers were thinking of. She apparently had no theories to prove in writing them, but when Pound sent them to Poetry, he presented them as examples of the Imagist style, and said they were 'modern stuff by an American'. In later years he declared that the Imagist movement had simply been a device to get her poems (and Aldington's) published. 'The name was invented to launch H. D. and Aldington before either had enough stuff for a volume', he wrote in a 1927 letter. But he did add, 'Also to establish a critical demarcation long since knocked to hell'. The account of Imagism that followed H. D.'s poems in the March 1913 number of Poetry two months later corresponded with the style she had invented.
When Pound assumed the role of 'foreign correspondent' for Poetry in 1912, he took advantage of his position to propagandize his new movement through it. The first Imagist poems emerged in its pages late in 1912 and early 1913 as Poetry published contributions by Aldington and H. D. submitted by Pound. Aldington was introduced in the number of November 1912 as 'a young English poet, one of the "Imagistes", a group of ardent Hellenists who are pursuing interesting experiments in vers libre'. Pound soon objected vigorously to this misleading description in a letter to Alice Corbin Henderson, the associate editor of Poetry. 'Hellenism and vers libre', he wrote, 'have nothing to do with it'. He said he was unwilling to define Imagism until it had produced a large body of work, and maintained that the best poetry of the past contained Imagism.
A definition appeared in March 1913, however, when Poetry published a first, and classical explanation of the movement's principles in an article titled 'Imagisme' by Flint and Pound, who signed different portions of it. Flint claimed that he had interviewed the 'Imagists' (his informant was probably Pound) and had learned that they had drawn up three rules.
1. Direct treatment of the 'thing', whether objective or subjective.
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 first of the three rules is generally understood to encourage a reliance on concrete imagery presented without rhetoric or comment, although its inclusion of the 'subjective' seems to allow for the expression of feelings. The second, perhaps the most influential of the Imagist doctrines, enjoined a rigorous economy of language. And the third seems directed towards freeing poetry from standard meters and encouraging the use of vers libre.
Flint's portion of the article was followed by a statement by Pound called 'A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste', whose didactic style is explained by the fact that it was originally intended to serve as a rejection slip for would-be contributors to Poetry. It began with a definition which has become central in Imagist doctrine. 'An Image', Pound wrote, 'is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time'.
Pound advised his readers not to consider the three rules as 'dogma', but as subjects of thoughtful consideration. His 'Don'ts' added some further explanation, advising against the use of vague and derivative language, and commanding 'Go in fear of abstractions'. In a long passage on poetic rhythm, Pound advised close study of the sound-patterns in foreign verse, and avoidance of monotony, and told the writer of poetry that he must think of the aural part of verse as a musician would.
In the middle of this discussion of poetic sound, Pound interpolated two brief, but important injunctions on a different subject. He wrote, 'Don't be "viewy"', by which he seemed to mean that poetry was not the place for discursive comment. This sentence is followed by another restriction: 'Don't be descriptive'. The painter, he said, can describe a landscape far better than a poet can.
Buried among these crisp stylistic injunctions were a few statements suggesting that Imagism also involved something mystical or arcane. Flint reported that the Imagists had a certain 'Doctrine of the Image' which was not to be made public. And Pound, in his portion of the article, declared grandiosely that the Image 'gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art. It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works'.
In spite of such statements as this, Pound never fully clarified what was meant by Imagism, and freely applied the term to the work of other poets of the past and present. While he classified Yeats as a Symbolist, not an Imagist, he added that he had produced some 'Images', and employed a direct diction, and cited, as an example of the Imagism to be found in his poetry, some lines from 'The Magi';
Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones, And all their helms of silver hovering side by side . . .
Pound published poems of his own in Poetry in April and November 1913, terming them 'ultra-modern'. These poems do follow Ford's advice to use direct, contemporary language in contrast to the conventionally poetic diction of Pound's last book of verse, Ripostes, and they reflect Hulme's preference for short, hard-edged, unrhetori-cal verse. Most of them employ a conversational, ironic tone that has little do with Imagism, although 'In a Station of the Metro' is included as the last of the group called 'Contemporania'.
1913 was an eventful year in the history of Imagism. That summer, Pound became literary editor of a small London feminist journal, The New Freewoman, first issued on 15 June 1913, which he used as a vehicle for his work and for publicizing Imagism in England. This campaign opened with an article titled 'Imagisme' by Rebecca West in the issue of 15 August 1913, which quoted the Poetry article by Flint and Pound, and was followed by a reprinting of Pound's 'Contemporania'. Writing by Pound and his Imagist circle appeared often in the pages of The New Freewoman in its half-year of publication, and Pound continued to act as the magazine's literary editor and to contribute to it when its name was changed to the Egoist at the beginning of 1914, supplying it with many significant contributions from other writers and installing Aldington as assistant editor.
Throughout 1914 and 1915, the Egoist published frequent reviews, comment and poems by Aldington, occasional poems by H. D., and contributions by Pound and others in his group. It gave considerable attention to Imagism, with reviews of the Imagist volumes issued in 1914 and 1915. The May 1915 number was an Imagist issue, with a series of articles on the Imagist poets, most of them written by other
Imagists. For a period in 1916 and 1917, when she served as an assistant editor, a poem by H. D. appeared in nearly every number.
It was in 1913 also that the American poet, Amy Lowell, a wealthy Bostonian, entered the Imagist scene. It is said that when she read the poems by H. D. in the January 1913 number of Poetry, she declared, 'Why, I too am an Imagiste'. After seeing the Imagist manifesto in the March issue, she decided to join these new poets, and came to London in July with a letter of introduction to Pound from Harriet Monroe. Having been discouraged by the poor reception of her first volume of verse, she submitted her poetry to Pound's corrections, and by the time she returned to America in September, had revised her style to correspond with Imagist doctrines. Pound, for his part, thought she was a likely recruit, and included one of her poems, 'In the Garden', in his Imagist anthology.
The year 1913 was also when the widow of the American art historian and orientalist, Ernest Fenollosa, gave Pound her late husband's notes on his Chinese studies, and Pound entered on his long involvement with Chinese poetry and history. He felt that the precision, concreteness and objectivity of the Chinese poems in Fenollosa's manuscripts corresponded remarkably well with Imagist principles, and they inspired him to write some poems in the Imagist manner. When he published his translations from the Chinese in his 1915 volume, Cathay, the poems struck many as excellent examples of Imagism.
Pound's movement achieved a sort of climax in the early part of 1914 when he edited a volume of poems by the Imagists titled Des Imagistes: An Anthology, as the fifth number of the monthly journal called The Glebe, which was published in New York in March and in London in April. Des Imagistes contained groups of poems by Pound, H. D., Aldington and Flint (some of them reprinted from Poetry), single poems from a number of others, including Ford, Amy Lowell and Joyce, and a bibliography of books by Imagist poets. Although Pound was to insist on his authority in controlling what could be published as 'Imagiste', he showed little discrimination in editing this volume, for it contained three comic verse productions having little to do with Imagism, and a poem in Greek by Ford.
When Amy Lowell came back to London in the summer of 1914, Pound was already beginning to separate himself from the Imagist group he had founded. At a dinner she gave to celebrate the publication of the Imagist anthology, Des Imagistes, she and Pound had a falling-out, and a new Imagist group independent of Pound was started when Miss Lowell invited some of the members of Pound's circle to a second dinner and planned an annual series of Imagist anthologies in which the poets would choose their own poems and have equal representation. Pound, who insisted on maintaining editorial control over any such volume, objected to the plan and refused to participate. This was the beginning of a schism which saw Pound's Imagist collaborators turning to Amy Lowell in a new phase of Imagism.
Pound himself was losing interest in Imagism and the Imagists at this time, and moving to a new group of friends and a new movement. He joined Wyndham Lewis, an artist and writer, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a French sculptor, in the dynamic, confrontational movement called Vorticism. The most significant products of Vorti-cism were the crisp, angular graphics of Lewis, the sculptures of Gaudier-Brzeska, and two annual issues of a strident magazine named BLAST.
Pound, envisioning a literary Vorticism, attempted a few Vorticist poems and formulated Vorticist principles that exhibited some affinities with those of Imagism. The basic aim of this new movement, according to Pound, was the expression of energy through form. He described the Vortex, the defining pattern of the new movement, as a whirling cluster in which ideas came and went. Its origin, as well as the origin of the Image, was perhaps Pound's earlier formulation of the 'luminous detail', a particular which can be seen as a clue to a larger pattern of particulars. But he seems to have felt that the Image, even considered as a 'complex', was too static, and he embraced Vorticism as a programme more suited to an increasingly technical age. Nevertheless, his thinking maintained a continuity with Imagist doctrine. In his contribution to the 1914 BLAST he asserted that each art expressed feelings and ideas in its 'primary form', that the primary form of poetry was the Image, and that the Vorticist poet confined himself to this 'primary pigment'. His illustration of this discipline was H. D.'s Imagist poem 'Oread'. In a sort of farewell to his earlier movement, he seemed to link Vorticism with Imagism by writing, in a 1915 New Age article called 'As For Imagisme': 'the Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy'.
When Amy Lowell went back to America in September 1914, she took with her the manuscript of a new Imagist anthology to be titled Some Imagist Poets. (The shift from French spelling denoted the break with the earlier movement.) Imagism was now to be centred in America and led by Lowell, although the English Imagists continued to be members. Three annual volumes were published in Boston in 1915, 1916 and 1917, each with work by the same six poets: Lowell, H. D., Flint, Aldington, John Gould Fletcher and D. H. Lawrence. Fletcher, a newcomer to the movement, was an American and an intimate of Lowell's who had known Pound in London, and had moderated his own very different style and poetic principles to fit the Imagist mould. Lawrence's poetry was not written to any pattern, but Lowell admired him and welcomed his poems. The first anthology was prefaced by six principles which echoed the 'Imagisme' article in the 1913 Poetry, and, since it sold well, made the aims of the movement clear to a new public. Viewing these developments, Pound said in 1916 that he regretted that he had not declared 'the imagist movement over. He ultimately accepted the schism with equanimity, but contemptuously dubbed the work of the new group 'Amygism'.
Some Imagist Poets aroused considerable interest and controversy, and Lowell continued to forward the Imagist cause in America by lecturing on 'the new poetry', and defending vers libre or 'cadenced verse'. When the third and last volume appeared in 1917, it was felt that the series had done its work, and organized Imagist activity came to an end. It is likely that H. D.'s volume, Sea Garden, with its excellent examples of pure Imagist poetry, which was published in 1916 in both London and Boston, did as much or more to advance Imagist principles as the anthol-
ogies did. While the individual Imagists developed in different directions in succeeding years, poems labelled 'Imagist' continued to be published. A collection entitled Imagist Anthology, 1930: New Poetry by the Imagists with prefaces by Ford Madox Ford and Glenn Hughes presented the later work of a number of poets who had been affiliated with the movement. In 1963 a volume called The Imagist Poem, edited and introduced by William Pratt, reprinted a collection of Imagist and Imagist-inspired poems.
The Imagist ideas were derived from a variety of literatures, including the Greek, Latin, Chinese and Japanese, but their most immediate inspiration was French Symbolism, which had provided an example by breaking with accepted conceptions of poetry, and centring attention on imagery. The Imagists claimed a kind of universality for their principles, for, by declaring that they were 'the essentials of all great poetry, indeed of all great literature', and by claiming such varied authors as Sappho, François Villon and Théophile Gautier as their progenitors, they came close to asserting that all good writing was Imagist, wherever it might be found.
Imagism attracted little attention in England outside of its official publications. But when Some Imagist Poets was published in America there was widespread hostile reaction. The poems were criticized as trivial, precious, simplistic, feeble and fragile and vers libre met much critical resistance. A review of the 1915 volume by Conrad Aiken in the New Republic complained that the poems lacked 'emotional force', presented only 'frail pictures', and offered nothing new or significant. Nevertheless, Lowell continued to promote Imagism in her lectures and to sponsor the two additional annual volumes.
Even when they did not exert direct influence, Imagism's technical innovations may be said to have played a significant part in authorizing what was meant by 'modernism' in twentieth-century poetry, and they were not without effect in the field of the novel as well. Wallace Stevens, in a 1946 essay, 'Rubbings of Reality', on William Carlos Williams, supported Imagist claims by writing: 'Imagism ... is not something superficial. It obeys an instinct. Moreover imagism is an ancient phase of poetry. It is something permanent'. And in an address delivered in 1953, T. S. Eliot observed that Imagism was 'Thepoint de repère, usually and conveniently taken' as 'the starting-point of modern poetry'.
Stevens and Eliot are among the many poets prominent in the decades following the end of the Imagist movement whose styles corresponded in some ways to the Imagist theories. Pound and H. D. continued to produce important works that embodied Imagist techniques, contributing to the Imagist tone of modern poetry. Many of these techniques have been adopted by such poets as William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings, Archibald MacLeish, Hart Crane and a number of their contemporaries. The same might be said of the modern British poets of the pre-Second World War period: Auden, Empson, MacNeice and others, though the effects are far less clear.
Only a few of the poems by the original Imagists have entered the canon and become fixed parts of Anglo-American literature, but critical interest in the history of Imagism and its theories continues to outlast the movement itself. Among the topics that have been debated in recent years is the question of whether Ford, and his emphasis on natural language, Hulme, with his emphasis on imagery, or H. D., with her exemplary early poems, is to be considered the true originator of the movement. Imagism is widely understood to depend on the 'Image', that is, the precise presentation of an external object or sensory perception that intensifies and concentrates meaning in a non-discursive context. But it has been argued that what Pound had in mind in describing the Image as 'an emotional and intellectual complex' was a revelatory impression that was not primarily pictorial or representational.
The essence of Imagism has been located instead in the rigorous economy of language, employed with anti-rhetorical irony and wit that is illustrated in Pound's 'Con-temporania' sequence. The allusions in the 1913 manifesto to a 'secret Doctrine of the Image' not suitable for public expression and to the Image's capacity for giving 'freedom from time limits and space limits' have led to the theory that Pound thought of the Image as a visionary, transcendental insight, not merely a sense-impression.
Some critics have vigorously attacked Imagist theories and their influence. The claim to objectivity has been challenged on the ground that the selection and juxtaposition of imagery is in itself a reflection of the poet's attitudes and has a persuasive effect. There has been some doubt as to whether Imagism could sustain a long poem, and Pound's Cantos, with its many brief, discontinuous segments, might be considered an effort to write one. Imagism has been held responsible for the lack of structure in Pound's long poem, and also for the incoherence, ambiguity, eclectic styles and rootlessness of such major modern works as The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot and Joyce's Ulysses. It has also been termed a revolution without depth, offering only technical correction, and no deep-seated convictions. Whatever one may think of such criticism, it at least attests to the fact that Imagism is widely regarded as an essential beginning to the course modern English and American literature has taken throughout much of the twentieth century.
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