Imagism in Poetry

Imagism is a term associated with an eclectic group of English and American poets working between 1912 and 1917, among them some of the most important writers in English of the first half of the 20th century: Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), D. H. Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford, and Richard Aldington. Never a wholly American movement, imagism nevertheless had a dramatic effect on several subsequent generations of self-consciously American writers and poets, perhaps most directly on those associated with the Objectivist and Black Mountain Schools of poetry. Even poets not formally associated with imagism, such as T. S. ELIOT, Conrad Aiken, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens, or overtly hostile to aspects of imagist aesthetics, such as Robert Frost, benefited indirectly from the imagist school’s formal experimentation and widespread critical success.

The history of imagism has two relatively distinct phases. The first is associated with Pound, who led the movement from 1912 until 1914, when he essentially abandoned it to devote himself to championing vorticism, an English version of Italian futurism, centering on the work of the artist and poet Wyndham Lewis and the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Imagism’s second phase, which Pound labeled “Amygism” in resentment over his loss of control of the movement, is associated with Amy Lowell and spans roughly the years 1915 to 1917. After 1917 most imagist principles were so widely dispersed and accepted (and badly imitated) within the Anglo-American literary community that the movement, never very cohesive to begin with, made way for more radical avant-garde practices.


Ezra Pound

Imagism emerged from Pound’s involvement in London with a Poets’ Club that began meeting formally under T. E. Hulme in 1908. By 1909 the club had been reconstituted as the “second” Poets’ Club by Hulme and F. S. Flint, and it included Pound as well as Ford Madox Ford. Although the first reference in print to “Les Imagistes” occurred in 1912 in Ripostes, a collection of Pound’s poems, the term actually refers to what Pound calls “a forgotten school of 1909,” or the second Poets’ Club, which he explicitly identifies as “a school of Images” (59).

This imagist school owed much philosophically to Hulme, who is today best remembered as a neoclassical aesthetician, disciple, and translator of the French philosopher and Nobel Laureate Henri Bergson. Hulme railed against what he understood to be a prevailing cultural romanticism, which in social philosophy encouraged sentimental optimism concerning the ultimate perfectibility of humankind and which led, in turn, to art that was soft and weakly expressive. In its place he advocated poetry built around the “hard, dry image,” along with a view of human beings as finite, fallible, and corrupt. This view would later strike a chord in members of the post–World War I Lost Generation, and it can be seen in the interwar themes of such major novelists as F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos.

Following Hulme, the imagists aimed to strip away poetry’s tendency toward dense wordiness and sentimentality and to crystallize poetic meaning in clear, neatly juxtaposed images. This crystallization is nicely exemplified by Hulme’s poem “Autumn” (1909, published 1915) in which the Moon, the stars, and the images of different faces attached to them become vehicles for questioning the value of modern, urban life:

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.

Given its subject matter, the poem remains, in typical imagist fashion, notably free from the kind of tone and rhythmic constraints characteristic of related works by, say, A. E. Housman, an English poet whom Pound would later satirize in his poem “Song in the Manner of Housman” (1911).

The connections in Hulme’s poem and elsewhere to William Wordsworth and especially to William Blake are obvious and remain somewhat ironic, given the depth of Hulme’s hostility toward romanticism more generally. However, as John Gage has noted in his study of imagist poetics, the imagists maintained links “not only with romantics such as [Percy Bysshe] Shelley or even Blake, but also with the more conservative aestheticists of the Victorian generation, against whom they were in ostensible revolt” (17). Other early and more radical influences on the imagists included the symbolist poets, classical Greek and Roman poetry, and Chinese and Japanese verse forms, in particular the haiku, or hokku.

The “image,” of course, remained central to imagist theory and practice throughout the existence of the movement and developed principally, though partially, from Hulme’s reading of Bergson’s metaphysics. In Hulme’s translation of Bergson’s Introduction to Metaphysics, Bergson proposes that the convergence of images allows one to peer behind the veil of language and thus to experience things as they really are. Bergson’s and Hulme’s ideas helped Pound refine his understanding of the image in poetry. In his celebrated essay “A Few Don’ts by an Imagist” (1913), Pound somewhat abstractly defines the image in almost photographic terms as

that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. . . . It is the presentation of such a “complex” instantaneously which 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.

Perhaps nowhere is this sense of freedom more perfectly realized than in Pound’s own work “In a Station of the Metro,” a poem which the critic J. T. Barbarese has termed imagism’s “enabling text” (307).

The compactness and immediacy of Pound’s poem recall the three imagist principles agreed to by Pound, H. D., and Richard Aldington in 1912:

1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome. (Pound “A Retrospect” 4)

This last principle draws attention to the fact that “In a Station of the Metro,” and indeed nearly all of the works produced by poets who thought of themselves as imagists, were written in “vers libre,” or free verse: poetry in which rhyme may or may not be present but in which cadence is valued more highly than meter. The commitment of the imagists to free verse followed from their desire to escape from more metrically formal modes of French versification attempted by symbolist poets, such as Arthur Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue.

Pound used his role as foreign correspondent for Harriet Monroe’s literary magazine Poetry to advance the imagist cause. Monroe herself initially supported Pound’s ambitions and proved willing to make available to her readers the very best work of this new school, along with relevant explanatory criticism, with a view to expanding the tastes of America’s literary establishment and introducing them to European developments in the poetic and other arts. Monroe published work by many of the imagists Pound brought to her attention, perhaps most notably H. D., whose “Three Poems” can be found in Poetry’s January 1913 issue and are attributed somewhat grandly to “H. D., Imagiste,” an appellation created by Pound.

It was in the pages of Poetry that Lowell first became acquainted with imagism, and the experience of reading H. D.’s poems profoundly altered the way in which she understood herself. In Jean Gould’s words, “the revelation of Amy’s own identity came over her in a great surge: She was an Imagiste, too! This was the sort of poetry she had been unknowingly striving to write. It was startlingly clear to her that she was born Imagiste” (113). The realization of this affinity with imagism drove Lowell to make contact first with Monroe, whom she persuaded to publish some of her work, then later with Pound in London.

Both strong personalities, Pound and Lowell initially found much in common in their approach to poetry, although differences between them soon became clear. Lowell particularly objected to Pound’s relatively weak commitment to imagism per se, to his tendency to champion serially one avant-garde movement after another, rather than consolidating and then evolving as an artist within a single movement over time. During her visit to England in 1914, Lowell found Pound surprisingly detached from imagism and so immersed in vorticism that her questions about the former were met variously with rudeness and indifference.

Taking the initiative, Lowell decided to publish an anthology of imagist verse, one that would extend the movement beyond what she perceived as the rather introductory point it had reached with Pound’s edited volume Des Imagistes (1914). The result of Lowell’s efforts was the first of a series of three collections of verse, each entitled Some Imagist Poets, which brought together a heterogenous group of writers and which appeared, respectively, in 1915, 1916, and 1917. In the 1915 collection, Lowell was careful to distance herself from Pound, who, she implied, had distorted imagism by making it too much in his own image.

What is striking in Lowell’s presentation of imagism is her determined anglicization of the movement. Gone from the imagist lexicon are such francophone terms as imagisme and vers libre, and in their place rest their English- language equivalents: Imagism, free verse, and unrhymed cadence. Gone too is Pound’s emphasis on concision, for, as several critics, have noted of Lowell, “although Imagism was congenial to her penchant for noticing her surroundings, the Imagist stress on conciseness was quite antipathetic to her temperament. Whatever Miss Lowell’s virtues, succinctness, except sometimes in repartee, was not among them” (Flint 25). Indeed Lowell’s regular failure to adhere to the second of Pound’s 1912 strictures noticeably marks (some would say mars) her contributions to 1915’s Some Imagist Poets and is most striking in her contributions “The Travelling Bear” and “The Letter.” Pound read these works as indicative of Lowell’s lack of discipline as a poet and, consequently, of her failure as an imagist.

Pound ultimately had very little at stake in his bickering with Lowell, although he launched a series of attacks on her and her publisher just prior to the publication of her first imagist anthology. He, and indeed poetry more generally, had moved on. Imagism would remain a viable “project” throughout the war years, and a touchstone for poets for some time after that, but by 1930 the movement was unequivocally dead. In 1930 the house Chatto and Windus published the retrospective Imagist Anthology 1930, edited by Glenn Hughes and Ford Madox Ford, which again brought together the work of Aldington, H. D., Fletcher, Flint, James Joyce, Lawrence, and Williams. The anthology was an anachronism, and Pound attacked it violently, referring to it in a letter as “Aldington’s Imagist mortology 1930” and dismissing it as “20 ans apres.” But Pound’s attack cannot mask imagism’s profound importance. It proved to be one of the most deeply transformative literary movements of the early 20th century, and without it so much of what we now take for granted as poetry would be, quite literally, unimaginable.

Barbarese, J. T. “Ezra Pound’s Imagist Aesthetics.” In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Hay Parini and Brett C. Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 284–318.
Bergson, Henri. An Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by T. E. Hulme. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912.
Flint, F. Cudworth. Amy Lowell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.
Gage, John. In the Arresting Eye: The Rhetoric of Imagism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Gould, Jean. Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement. New York: Dodd Mead, 1975.
Grieve, Tom. “Imagism Revisited.” West-Coast-Line 27:3 (winter 1993–94): 110–130.
Hulme, T. E. “Autumn.” Ripostes, edited by Ezra Pound. London: Elkin Mathews, 1915, p. 60.
Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1951.
———. The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.
Pound, Ezra. “A Few Don’ts By An Imagist.” Poetry 1.6 (March 1913): 198–206. Reprint, “A Retrospect.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968, pp. 3–14.
———. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968.
———. “A Retrospect.” Pavannes and Divisions. New York: Knopf, 1918. Reprint, Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968, pp. 3–14.
Pratt, William, and Robert Richardson, eds. Homage to Imagism. New York: AMS, 1992.

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