Although it was a short-lived literary movement, imagism left a long legacy on poetry. Between 1914 and 1917, four annual anthologies of imagist poems appeared, beginning with Des Imagistes, edited by the movement’s founder, Ezra Pound.
Pound had come up with the name ‘imagism’ while sitting in the British Museum tea rooms in London, with Hilda Doolittle (his former girlfriend, and a fellow American) and Richard Aldington, a young British poet who was Doolittle’s new boyfriend (shortly to become her husband). At the bottom of one of Doolittle’s poems, Pound wrote ‘H. D. Imagiste’ (the extra ‘e’ was to give the movement a bit of French glamour, after ‘Symbolisme’).
Thereafter, Doolittle – later described as ‘the perfect imagist’ – published her poems under the name H. D., and the imagists became an important literary movement in Britain and the United States. Let’s take a closer look at the movement by way of five representative imagist poems.
1. Ezra Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’.
One of the first imagist poems to be written, ‘In a Station of the Metro’ bears out what Pound himself urged should be the main tenets of imagism: direct treatment of the thing, to use no word that does not contribute to the presentation, and to avoid overly regular rhythms that remind one of the monotony of a metronome.
This poem is just two lines long, and was inspired by Pound’s own experience in the Paris Metro (opened 1900), where he saw one beautiful face, then another, and then another, standing out to him among the large mass of crowds. His poem, which puts us in mind of the Japanese haiku, was originally some thirty lines long but Pound gradually cut away all of the extraneous lines until he was left with just this: the poem’s central image.
We discuss this brief but momentous poem in more detail in a separate post.
2. H. D., ‘Oread’.
Of all the imagist poets, the one who has been taken the most seriously – as an imagist – is Hilda Doolittle (H. D.). Indeed, she was almost taken too seriously as an imagist, since the label would follow her around, long after the movement had ended and she had moved on to new, more ambitious projects.
In a letter, Pound praised H. D.’s crystalline style as ‘straight talk – straight as the Greek’. Her fellow imagist F. S. Flint talked of the ‘accurate mystery’ at the heart of her poems: her work is clear and yet opaque, the images easy to visualise, but their ultimate meaning left tantalisingly ambiguous.
This is in evidence in this short poem by H. D., in which an oread, or mountain nymph, addresses the sea and calls for it to splash over the mountain rocks. Alternatively, the oread is addressing the green pine trees at the foot of the mountain, calling for it to cover the rocks like the waves of the sea. (We explore this aspect in more detail in our analysis of the poem.)
The poem is a fine example of what Pound himself called ‘superposition’: the placing of one image on top of another, so that the two are inextricably linked. Here, the sea and the rocks become one (or the trees and the rocks, depending on how we respond to the poem’s use of metaphor).
3. Richard Aldington, ‘Insouciance’.
When H. D.’s husband Richard Aldington (1892-1962) went off to fight in the First World War in 1916, he took imagism with him into the trenches. He had already written several civilian poems about the Great War, such as ‘Sunsets’, but in ‘Insouciance’ he takes us right into the theatre of conflict.
The image of little poems as doves (symbolising peace, but the image is brought down to the earth by the fact that rock doves, otherwise known as pigeons, were used in the trenches to deliver messages) symbolises the poet’s determination to transcend his squalid surroundings through his art. However, where those poems are going, we don’t know. Will they arrive at their destination, or simply float off into the sky?
4. F. S. Flint, ‘Tube’.
Often known as ‘the fourth imagist’ after Pound, H. D., and Aldington, the English poet F. S. Flint (1885-1960) retained a more romantic strain than his contemporaries: even Aldington, who remained a Romantic at heart, was more classically restrained (and more pessimistic about human nature) than Flint.
Both Flint and Aldington wrote poems about the Tube or London Underground, and in this fine short poem, Flint captures the dead-eyed expressions, and inherent unsociability, of those who travel on the underground train in the capital.
Flint uses the small space of the imagist poem to pack several meanings into the scene he sketches out: look at how the repeated word ‘mass’ gestures towards the sacramental and numinous, but is also loaded with connotations of the ‘masses’, those crowds packed into the Tube carriage.
5. Amy Lowell, ‘Middle Age’.
Like black ice
Scrolled over with unintelligible patterns
by an ignorant skater
Is the dulled surface of my heart.
Ezra Pound rapidly grew tired of imagism and abandoned it for Vorticism, a new artistic movement he established with Wyndham Lewis. The American Amy Lowell (1874-1925) took over as the leader of the imagists and oversaw the publication of three more anthologies of imagist poetry.
Her style was very different from Pound’s, as this poem demonstrates. Lowell’s work is in the public domain so we can reproduce the poem in full above. As you can see, she has more time for the traditional subject-matter of the poet (that loaded reference to the speaker’s ‘heart’ in the poem’s closing line), but her work is still, at its best at least, brief and tightly compressed. We have shared more of her poems here.