The Doctrine of the Image the Metropolis and Gender

The most commonly recognized moment of modernist poetry's arrival was the publication of three poems by 'H. D. Imagiste' (so named by Pound) in Poetry in January 1913. The key Imagist principles of economy, direct treatment and the use of musical or spoken rhythms were set out in a combined statement by F. S. Flint and Pound in the March number of that year, and the first collection Des Imagistes, edited by Pound and retaining his Frenchified label, followed in spring 1914. The dates seem definite enough, but like modernism as a whole Imagism proved a retrospective construction which in different accounts credited T. E. Hulme, Pound himself or H. D. as founding or exemplary figures. The term had first appeared in print in Pound's introduction to 'The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme', presented as a product of 'the "School of Images"' of 1909 in an appendix to Pound's Ripostes (1912), but its acknowledged models, in further evidence of the discovery cum invention of precursors, were Sappho, Catullus and Villon, certain contemporary French poets, and also for Pound, Dante, Cavalcanti, Lui Ch'e and Li Po (Rihaku) (Pound, 1960, pp. 7, 11, 27; 1970, pp. 82-3).

In these terms it made sense for Pound to praise H. D.'s classicism as the defining aspect of its modernism: 'It's straight talk, straight as the Greek!' he exclaimed to Harriet Monroe (Paige, 1971, p. 11). Pound's Hellenism was not necessarily H. D.'s however. Talk of 'straight talk', of the sculptural 'hardness' and 'crystalline' clarity of the Image confirmed the masculinist discourse of Pound's modernism. As Rachel Blau du Plessis (1986) has argued, H. D.'s Imagism had its roots in Sappho. Her poetry therefore reclaimed a female precursor whose work significantly survived only in fragments and whose erotic writing and associations with the island of Lesbos make her a force in undermining the cultural silence concerning female sexuality and lesbianism. For critics such as du Plessis — concerned at a later moment in literary and cultural history to reclaim H. D. herself — she is the premier Imagist and belongs at the centre of modernist poetry.

This gendered construction of events combined with more general socio-historical conditions to produce Imagist verse. As a social grouping, the Imagists were based in London, with outlets in the United States and occasional forays to Paris, and London as a burgeoning metropolis was experiencing 'the intensification of emotional life' which the sociologist Georg Simmel had attributed to 'the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli' in the city. The telescoping of images, sharp differences 'grasped at a single glance' and 'violent stimuli' were consuming new amounts of energy, Simmel argued, as 'with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life', the city was transforming 'the sensory foundations of mental life' (Kolocotroni, Goldman and Taxidou, 1998, p. 52).

One can see how such conditions fed into Pound's formulations of the Image and the Vortex (he spoke of 'new masses of unexplored facts and facts pouring into the vortex of London'; Pound, 1970, p. 117). His most famous Imagist poem, 'In a Station of the Metro' (importing Japanese Haiku into this complex), for example, seeks to capture precisely one such 'single glance' when a series of beautiful faces ascends from the Paris Metro. However, Simmel's reflections on the effects of the rush of stimuli in the metropolis present a further strand in the network of ideas contributing to modernism's cult of impersonality. The 'metropolitan type' reacts to this climate of overstimulation, says Simmel, by adopting a 'blasé outlook'. This 'psychic mood'

entails 'an indifference toward the distinction between things' equivalent to the 'colourless and indifferent quality' of a money economy and comes in social relations to imply 'a slight aversion, a mutual strangeness and repulsion' (Kolocotroni, Goldman and Taxidou, 1998, p. 55). There are echoes here of Walter Benjamin's interest in the figure of the flâneur (and thus, once more, of Baudelaire and Poe) and of the related perception Benjamin discovers in Simmel of the heightened visuality of modern culture, including a markedly 'greater emphasis on the use of the eyes' in interpersonal relationships (Benjamin, 1973, p. 193).

Some of these threads are pulled together in Andrew Thacker's (1993) account, 'Imagist Travels in Modernist Space'. Thacker draws on Simmel and Benjamin, as well as on recent work in cultural geography, to consider 'early twentieth-century visual relations as experienced on transport' in relation to a set of Imagist poems concerned directly with the experience of the Underground system (ibid., p. 224). Thacker reminds us that 'In considering space we must also consider theories of the gaze, and of the gendered nature of the spatial relations of looking' (ibid., p. 225). He refers in this connection to what he calls 'the great flâneur debate' and the interventions especially of feminist critics on the issue of 'the availability or unavailability of city space for women from the nineteenth century onwards' (ibid., pp. 227—8). Elizabeth Wilson's argument is especially suggestive in relation to our discussion of Pound's 'The Garden' above. She sees the flâneur as 'actually a fiction':

an embodiment of the special blend of excitement, tedium and horror aroused by many in the new metropolis, and the disintegrative effect of this on the masculine identity. . . . He is a . . . shifting projection of angst rather than a solid embodiment of male bourgeois power. (Thacker, 1993, p.228)

As Thacker comments, 'The "male gaze" of the flâneur is an anxious response to the presence, rather than the absence, of women in the modern city' (ibid.). Ultimately, this gaze represents the instability of the masculine in the new sexual, social and spatial relations of the modern metropolis. Pound's 'The Garden' registers exactly these sexual, social and urban spatial relations, even as it negotiates the influence of the decadent 1890s. The woman is 'objectified' much as Richard Aldington, sometime Imagist and in these years H. D.'s husband, had described in an article 'Modern Poetry and the Imagists' in The Egoist in 1914: 'we present that woman, we make an "image" of her' (Thacker, 1993, p. 238). Such a depiction and such a poem would possess 'hardness, as of cut stone', with 'No slop, no sentimentality'; Woman and Image alike might be 'nicely carved marble' (ibid., p. 238).

What did this reification which so evidently replicates the 'impersonality' of the new metropolis mean not only for the observed woman in the London street or park but for the woman Imagist poet? H. D.'s poem 'Helen' written just under a decade after Aldington's article seems to engage directly with such issues. The Helen of its title is the classical 'femme fatale' whose famed beauty has long been presented as the cause of the Trojan war. And yet the poem elects not to give a voice to Helen to speak a counter-history. Instead it takes the temperature of the nation's hatred for this woman who 'All Greece hates', 'all Greece reviles' (H. D. 1984, p. 154). The final stanza completes a macabre transformation: the mounting whiteness of Helen's skin signalling 'her death as a woman and her birth as a statue, a symbol of beauty' (Friedman, 1987, p. 235). Only as such a symbol of safe and lifeless beauty ('nicely carved marble') can Greece love Helen. What Friedman describes as a 'hate filled gaze' turns Helen to stone — even while the poem's sexualized rhyme of 'maid' and 'laid' undermines the final stanza's opening assertion that 'Greece sees, unmoved'. As in Pound's 'The Garden', and in the broader modernist aesthetic and metropolitan mentality it encodes, detachment emerges as a thinly disguised cocktail of desire, fear and disdain.

And yet, however modern, at base such a cocktail serves up the persistent Victorian image of woman: one part virgin or angel, one part whore or monster. Nicholls speculates that 'If the feminine seems a suitable surrogate for social relations in general it is because the illusion of some absolute otherness is required to protect the poet's self from the full recognition of identity with other people' (Nicholls, 1995, p. 4). He asks whether 'this grounding of the aesthetic in an objectification of the other' can be thought to 'constitute the recurring problem of the later modernisms?' (ibid., p. 4). The present survey of the intertextual, gendered and social relations marking the emergence of a dominant Anglo-American modernist poetic goes some way to confirm precisely how problematic this objectification of the other was. Partly, we have to conclude, because the attempt to make 'hard', 'exact' and scientific was an attempt to distance the other — effeminate decadence, impressionist sensation, softness, immaturity, 'excess' — which was so patently a formative part of the modernist self.


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