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c. 1909

Imagism flourished in Britain and in the United States for a brief period that is generally considered to be somewhere between 1909 and 1917. As part of the modernist movement, away from the sentimentality and moralizing tone of nineteenth-century Victorian poetry, imagist poets looked to many sources to help them create a new poetic expression.

For contemporary influences, the imagists studied the French symbolists, who were experimenting with free verse (vers libre), a form that used a cadence that mimicked natural speech rather than the accustomed rhythm of metrical feet or lines. Rules of rhyming were also considered nonessential. The ancient form of Japanese haiku poetry influenced the imagists to focus on one simple image. Greek and Roman classical poetry inspired some of the imagists to strive for a high quality of writing that would endure.

T. E. Hulme is credited with creating the philosophy that would give birth to Imagism. Although he wrote very little, his ideas inspired Ezra Pound to organize the new movement. Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" is often cited as one of the purest of his imagist poems. Amy Lowell took over the leadership role of the imagists when Pound moved on to other modernist modes. Her most anthologized poems include "Lilacs" and "Patterns."

Other important imagist poets include Hilda Doolittle, whose poem "Sea Poppies" reflects the Japanese influence on her writing, and whose "Oread" is often referred to as the most perfect imagist poem; Richard Aldington, who was one of the first poets to be recognized as an imagist and whose collection Images of War is considered to contain some of the most intense depictions of World War I; F. S. Flint, who dedicated his last collection of imagist poems, Otherworld: Cadences to Aldington; and John Gould Fletcher, whose collection Goblins and Pagodas is his most representative imagistic work.


Richard Aldington (1892-1962)

Richard Aldington was born on July 8, 1892, in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, to Jesse May and Albert Edward Aldington. He attended University College in London but did not complete his degree, due to the loss of family funds.

In 1912, Aldington met Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle, and from this meeting, the Imagism movement was born. In the same year, Aldington published his first imagist poems in Poetry.

The following year, Aldington traveled to Paris and Italy with Doolittle, and on October 18, 1913, they were married. Shortly after, Aldington became the editor of the imagist publication Egoist, a position he would hold until 1917. His poems appeared in Des Imagistes (1914) as well as the second imagist anthology, Some Imagist Poets (1915). He completed his first book, Images (1910-1915), also in 1915.

Aldington enlisted in the army in 1916. His most reflective responses to this experience are included in his collection of poems Images of War (1919) and his novel, Death of a Hero (1929). During the remainder of his writing career, Aldington published a wide variety of books, including biographies, translations, novels, and short stories. In 1941, he published his memoirs, Life for Life's Sake.

Aldington was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his The Duke (1943). He also received the Prix de Gratitude Mistralienne for his Introduction to Mistral (1956). He died on July 27, 1962, in Lere, France.

Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961)

Hilda Doolittle (who published under the initials H. D.) was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on September 10, 1886, to Helen (Wolle) and Charles Doolittle. She attended Bryn Mawr College for one year.

When she was twenty-five years old, Doolittle went abroad, during which time she renewed her relationship with Ezra Pound, through whom she met Aldington. Pound encouraged Doolittle's writing and sent her poems to the magazine Poetry, identifying them with the initials "H. D.," a signature that Doolittle embraced.

After the dissolution of her marriage to Aldington, Doolittle became pregnant from a brief love affair with another man and gave birth to a daughter in 1919. She named her Perdita. After her daughter's birth, Doolittle became seriously ill and was nursed back to health by Annie Winifred Ellerman, a writer who went by the name Bryher and who would become Doolittle's longtime companion throughout the remaining years of her life. It was Bryher who arranged for Doolittle to be psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud during 1933 and 1934. Doolittle's "Tribute to Freud" refers to this period.

Doolittle's early collections of poems include Sea Garden (1916), Hymen (1921), and Heliodora and Other Poems (1924). In 1927, Doolittle published a complete play in verse, Hippolytus Temporizes, her attempt to approximate her favorite Greek dramatist/poets. One of her most often quoted imagist poems is "Oread."

In 1960, Doolittle was the first woman to receive the Award of Merit Medal for poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. On September 27, 1961, Doolittle died of a heart attack in Zurich, Switzerland. Her body was buried in her family's cemetery plot in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

John Gould Fletcher (1886-1950)

John Gould Fletcher was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, on January 3, 1886. He was the son of John Gould (a banker and broker) and Adolphine (Kraus) Fletcher. He attended Harvard University, but he left without obtaining a degree.

Having inherited his father's estate early in life, Fletcher did not have to worry about earning money. Instead, he devoted himself to the study of literature. He eventually traveled to England, where he met Ezra Pound and the other imagist poets.

Shortly after meeting Pound, Fletcher became alienated from him due to Pound's criticism of his poetry. At the same time, Amy Lowell took an interest in Fletcher's work, encouraging him and helping him to find publishers. In exchange, Fletcher introduced Lowell to his theory of the free verse of French poets. According to Glenn Hughes, in his Imagism and the Imagists,"Lowell was greatly impressed by both the theory and its results," and she began to use Fletcher's ideas in her own poetry. After learning that Fletcher could not find an English publisher for his Irradiations: Sand and Spray (1915), Lowell took Fletcher's manuscript and found a publisher in the States, where it was well received.

Fletcher produced many more collections. Goblins and Pagodas (1916) reflects his return to the United States, during which time he revisited his childhood home and then Boston, where he became enthralled with Japanese art and produced his Japanese Prints (1918). This work was his attempt to write poems likened to Japanese haiku, a form that influenced many of the imagist poets. After his Breakers and Granite (1921), in which he takes a fresh look at the United States after many years of living in Europe, critics classified Fletcher's work as post-imagist. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems (1938). On May 10, 1950, Fletcher drowned himself in a pool near his childhood home.

F. S. Flint (1885-1960)

Frank Stuart Flint was born on December 19, 1885, in Islington, England. His family was poor, and by the age of thirteen, he had to drop out of school and go to work. A few years later, he was able to afford night classes, during which he gained an interest in the French poets and the use of free verse, which would influence his writing. Flint made the acquaintance of T. E. Hulme, a poet and philosopher, and together they planted the theoretic seeds for the movement that would eventually be called Imagism.

Flint's first collection of poems, In the Net of the Stars (1909), did not embody the full characteristics of imagist poetry, but they did reflect more realistic images and were written in a more natural, contemporary voice than those of his contemporaries. Flint's poetry went through a drastic change over the years, as reflected in his next collection, Cadences (1915), which included only imagist poetry. His most ambitious collection was Otherworld: Cadences (1920), his last collection of poems. Ford Maddox Ford states (in J. B. Harmer's Victory in Limbo: Imagism 1908-1917) that of the imagist poets, only Doolittle and Flint "have the really exquisite sense of words . . . and insight that justify a writer in assuming the rather proud title of imagist." Flint died on February 28, 1960, in Berkshire, England.

Amy Lowell (1874-1925)

Amy Lowell was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on February 9, 1874, to Katherine (Bigelow), an accomplished musician and linguist, and Augustus Lowell, a businessman and horticulturist. From both sides of her family, Lowell enjoyed the benefits of the leisurely life of a Boston aristocrat. Not known for her academic accomplishments during her private school education, she nonetheless continued to pursue knowledge through self-education after graduating from high school in 1891.

In 1910, when she was thirty-four years old, Lowell had four of her sonnets published in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1912, she funded the publication of her first volume of poetry, ADomeofMany-Coloured Glass, which some critics felt relied too heavily on the nineteenth-century romantic tradition, an unpopular form at that time.

During this same year, Lowell met Ada Dwyer Russell, an actress with whom she would share the rest of her life. The poem "A Decade" focuses on Lowell and Russell's relationship, written to celebrate their tenth anniversary together.

During the summer of 1913, after having read Doolittle's poems in the magazine Poetry, Lowell went to London to meet Doolittle in person. It was through her association with Doolittle and the other imagist poets that Lowell transformed her own poetry, changing her tight nineteenth-century format to one in favor of technical experimentation and innovation. She eventually became a major sponsor for the imagist movement. Lowell's interests in the movement eventually clashed with Ezra Pound, then considered the leader of the imagists, and Pound left. Afterward, Pound began referring to Imagism as "Amygism."

Lowell's more popular collections of poetry include Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), Men, Woman and Ghosts (1916), Can Grande's Castle (1918), Legends (1921), Fir-Flower Tablets (1921), and A Critical Fable (1922). After Lowell's death from a stroke on May 12, 1925, Russell edited several of Lowell's unpublished poems and collected them under What's O'clock. The collection won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry that year.

Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

Ezra Pound was born on October 30, 1885, in Hailey, Idaho, to Isabel (Weston) and Homer Loomis Pound, a mine inspector. After receiving a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he left the United States and traveled throughout Europe.

After meeting with Hulme, considered the strongest philosophical influence on the imagist movement, Pound modernized his poetic style. One of Pound's first publications in London, Personae (1909) caused a critical sensation. His next publication, Exultations, published in the same year, marked what Glenn Hughes, writing in his Imagism and the Imagists, called the beginning of "the modern vogue of erudite poetry."

Although Pound is credited with creating, supporting, and educating the imagist poets, he moved quickly through this period and on to other modern forms of poetry. While forming the imagists, Pound wrote "In a Station of the Metro," a poem he considered to embrace the tenets of the movement. Pound's collection Ripostes (1912) represents the beginning of his involvement with imagist poetry. Pound created the first anthology of imagist poetry, Des Imagistes (1914).

Pound won the Dial Award for distinguished service to American letters (1922), the Bollingen Library of Congress Award (1949), and the Academy of American Poets fellowship (1963). He died in Venice, Italy on November 1, 1972.

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

William Carlos Williams was born September 17, 1883, in Rutherford, New Jersey. Williams studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania where he met fellow poet and imagist, Ezra Pound. Encouraged and influenced by Pound, Williams published his poetry, essays, plays, novels, and translations while working as a pediatrician. Williams was associated with the Imagism movement in early anthologies by Pound and Lowell but later came to disagree with Pound's emphasis on the superiority of European over American culture. Williams worked to establish an American identity in poetry, spending time moving in artistic circles in nearby New York City and mentoring young poets. Williams chose to write about everyday subjects instead of following the allusion-heavy classical work of Eliot and Pound that was so popular in the early twentieth century. In the late 1940s, Williams suffered a heart attack and several strokes. Although his health was poor, he continued to write up until his death on March 3, 1963. Williams has since been recognized as one of the most influential American poets of the twentieth century.



Although a prominent definer and great promoter of Imagism, Ezra Pound was not a great practitioner of poetry with an imagist bent. The closest he came to incorporating purely imagist tenets in his poetry is a collection titled Cathay (1915), which includes poems translated from the eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po (also


  • Ezra Pound Reads is an audio tape that contains Pound reading several of his "Cantos," as well as his poems "The Gypsy" and "The Exile's Letter." The tape is available from Harper Audio.
  • There are several Web sites that contain biographical information, as well as some of the poems, of imagist poets. These include: with poems by Doolittle; with an explanation of some of Pound's works; with some of Pound's poems; with background information on Amy Lowell.
  • William Carlos Williams reads his own work on the audiobook, Voice of the Poet: William Carlos Williams (2005), available on compact disc from Random House Audio Voices. Commentary by critic and poet J. D. McClatchy is included.

referred to as Rihaku). By working with these translations, Pound displays the interest and the influence that classical Japanese and Chinese poetry had for the imagist.

Critics agree that this collection is one of Pound's finest, at least of his earlier publications. The collection significantly marks not only Pound's connection to Imagism but also the beginning of the Western world's appreciation of Asian poetry. Not fully understanding the Chinese language, Pound worked with previously translated poems completed by Ernest Fenollosa. Being unfamiliar with the language gave Pound the freedom of arranging words and creating rhythms and sounds according to his own understanding and knowledge of poetry rather than being heavily influenced by the original poet's intent.

The wording of Pound's interpretations is clear and direct. Each line presents a spare image, and the emotions are expressed in under-statement. These are hallmark descriptions of Imagism. Pound would go on to study Chinese more seriously after completing these poems. He later incorporated what he had learned about this ideographic language into some of his subsequent poems. Studying the Chinese characters, or ideograms—abstract pictures used to convey meaning rather than individual letters in an alphabet—inspired Pound to create new poetic forms.

Goblins and Pagodas

John Gould Fletcher published his Goblins and Pagodas in 1916, after a visit to his childhood home in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then to Boston, where he had previously attended school. His Goblins and Pagodas collection is divided into two parts: "The Ghosts of an Old House," which presents several poems that reflect on the large home in which he lived in Arkansas, as well as on family members who influenced his development during those early years. The second part of his collection is called "The Symphonies," which, according to Hughes, "represents an ambitious attempt to arrange the intellectual and emotional life of an artist in eleven separate movements, each movement being dominated by a color-harmony." In other words, Fletcher created poems that intertwined poetry, music, and art in an attempt to use the aesthetics of each form to express his understanding of his emotions.

The poems in the first section, reminiscences of Fletcher's youth, are, according to Hughes, "not a great performance," although Hughes does later recant this position by stating that taking the first section as a whole, rather than evaluating the poems individually, produces a more powerful "mosaic."

Many critics believe the second section of this collection shows most clearly the influence of the imagist style. Hughes describes this section of poems as reflecting "beauty and mastery of form, and several are consistently excellent." These poems are longer and more complicated than the ones in the first section, and Fletcher works with concepts for which there was little precedent. In these poems, he combines poetry, music, and art by giving colors different emotional values. Some of his attempts lean toward the conventional, such as using blue to express sadness, but other emotional values that he conveys are completely his own, as in his presenting the color orange as the color of war. Of the poems in this section, "Green Symphony" and "Blue Symphony" are the most often anthologized.

Images of War

One of the strongest influences in Richard Aldington's life was his time spent in World War I. The experience made him bitter and cynical. His Images of War (1919) is a collection of poems that he wrote both during the war and afterward. He spent fifteen months on the front lines, and from that came what some critics refer to as some of the most beautiful war poems ever written. The beauty comes from the poems' intensity and Aldington's ability to make readers feel something akin to the poet's emotions.

The poems transport readers to the trenches and allow them the privilege of hearing Aldington's thoughts on life and death, love and pain, fear and loneliness. Ironically, the poems that Aldington wrote during the war are less cynical than the ones that he wrote several years later. The time between the end of the war and Aldington's writing the later poems allowed him to reflect more on the overall picture of war: the reasons behind war and the consequences of such action. While in the trenches, Aldington thought of survival and wrote personal emotional accounts. After active duty, however, he suffered from having survived, and he brooded on why nations choose such destructive paths. In this time his poetry was bitter. This collection marks the end of Aldington's purest use of Imagism. From this point on, his writing took on other aspects and influences.

Otherworld: Cadences

F. S. Flint published his last collection of poems, Otherworld: Cadences, in 1920. Most of the poems in this collection center on the effects of war, and thus he dedicates this volume to his fellow imagist poet Aldington, whose own writing was greatly influenced by his experience in World War I.

Not all of the poems in this collection were writtenwithaspecific referencetoWorld War I. Some poems stress a more personal war, such as in the title piece, "Otherworld." In this poem, Flint reflects on the battle that he encounters on a daily basis, having to wake up to a world that demands that much of his attention be focused on material details. In contrast, he would much rather sit in his garden and meditate on the beauty of the world, the love of his family, and the goodness of his compatriots. Hughes writes of this poem: "The poem continues, and pictures the deadening routine of the day and the return of the worker at night to his home, weak and disheartened."

Hughes states that some of the poetry in this collection is "soft poetry. It is much softer than most poems written by the imagists. But it is absolutely human." Hughes concludes that even though Flint also writes poems with more edge, he is unlike his fellow imagist poets in that he "finds it impossible to conceal his tenderness."

Flint published two collections of poems with similar titles: each has the word cadence in it. An important element for Flint, he believed that cadence was one of the most important marks of imagist poetry. In the preface to Other-world: Cadence, Flint proposes that unrhymed cadence truly marks the difference between traditional and modern poetry.

"The Red Wheelbarrow"

Williams's most famous poem "The Red Wheel-barrow" is an excellent example of Imagism in the United States, as conceived by Williams in response to the European, classically based imagistic work of Pound and Eliot. In his writing, Williams focuses on everyday objects and events. The central image in this poem is a red wheelbarrow wet after a rain. The wheelbarrow contrasts with white chickens nearby. The power of this poem is the clarity of the image drawn in bold strokes of words carefully chosen and arranged. He was inspired to write this poem after seeing this very scene in the yard of one of his patients. "The Red Wheelbarrow" was originally published in Spring and All, a 1923 volume of poetry and prose.

Sea Garden

Hilda Doolittle's first collection of twenty-eight imagist poems, Sea Garden (1916), has been referred to by J. B. Harmer in his Victory in Limbo: Imagism 1908-1917 as representative of one of two of "the chief memorial[s] of the Imagiste group." The poems in Doolittle's first collection are the most influenced by the imagist movement, and according to Harmer, after publication of this book, Doolittle "began to retreat" into more traditional poetic form. Thus, this collection marks both her entry into the movement and her exit.

Susan Stanford Friedman, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Poets, 1880-1945, compares many of the poems in this collection to Georgia O'Keeffe's flower paintings, stating that like O'Keeffe, "H. D.'s flowers indirectly suggest an intense eroticism, whose power comes precisely from its elusive, nonhuman expression." Friedman also states that it is through these poems that Doolittle expresses traits of her personality, such as her "pride in her difference, and her separation from the conventional."

This pride is best witnessed in the poem "Sheltered Garden," in which Doolittle writes about being tired of the pampered, neat garden and longing for a fruit tree upon which the fruit is allowed to remain until it naturally whithers and dies.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, writing in H. D.: The Career of That Struggle, mentions that in her poems about flowers, Doolittle rebels against convention by depicting the flowers in harsh environments, praising them for their wounds: "These flowers of the sea gardens are of a harsh surprising beauty, slashed, torn, dashed yet still triumphant and powerful." Such is the case with the poem "Sea Rose," in which Doolittle does not praise the flower for its delicacy but rather for its ability to stand against the winds. She repeats this theme in her poem "Sea Poppies," in which she describes the roots of the flower as being caught among the rocks and broken shells and praises the flower for its endurance.

Sword Blades and Poppy Seed

Amy Lowell spent several years in London, meeting imagist poets and eventually taking over the promotion, education, and organization of this movement. When she returned to the United States in 1914, she published her own collection of imagist poetry, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. The poems in this collection reflect many theories and philosophies that had been espoused by the imagists, as well as by the French symbolist poets who greatly influenced the Imagism movement. In the preface of this collection Lowell discusses her interpretation of free verse and what she refers to as polyphonic prose, two concepts that were used by some poets in the imagist movement.

Although Lowell was to become a popular poet, she was often criticized for her lack of originality. In her first collection, the influences of Pound, Doolittle, and Fletcher are apparent. Lowell was mostly known and praised for her business sense, especially in promoting the movement and finding ways to have the other poets published. However, her use polyphonic prose, one of the major aspects of this collection, impressed many of the other poets. Aldington, in fact, was so impressed with Lowell's ability to use this technique that he wrote an essay in which he recommended that all young poets study this collection of hers.

Polyphonic prose is a type of free verse that uses alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds), assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), as well as other poetic devices to create a poem that is appears like prose, but that reads or sounds like poetry. Although Lowell did not invent polyphonic prose, she is given credit for popularizing it, and it is in this collection that she best displays her ability to use this form.



Several of the imagist poets used war as a theme of their poems and sometimes of their entire collections. One example is Aldington's Images


  • The controversy over what constitutes a poem remains unsolved. Research the topic of free verse (or vers libre) and write an essay on it. Consider including a historical perspective, the differences in various definitions and proposed applications of this style, as well as aspects of the controversy of the prose poem.
  • Both Amy Lowell and Hilda Doolittle were involved in lesbian relationships. Study their poetry and compare how they handled this subject in their writing. You might also want to read some of their prose. For a more complex paper, you could include information on the social implications of lesbianism during the time of their relationships. You might also want to read some thoughts on the subject by Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, two other writers around the same time period who also dealt with issues stemming from homosexuality.
  • The Greek poet Sappho greatly influenced Hilda Doolittle's writing. Develop a biography of Sappho from the limited information available. Research her poetry and see if you can discover how Doolittle's writing was influenced by it; then compare two poems, one by each poet.
  • Japanese haiku was a major influence on imagist poetry. Read some of the poetry of Matsuo Basho then try to write some of your own haiku. Include up to five of your haiku in a paper that explores Basho's life and works.
  • F. S. Flint wrote war poetry. Study other poets and authors who described their war experiences. You may want to choose a writer for each major war, such as World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or even a war from ancient times. Compare their experiences and their writings.
  • Imagism marked the beginning of the modernist movement in literature and in other art forms. How did Modernism affect other arts such as painting, sculpture, architecture, and music? What were the drastic changes from the Romantic or Victorian age to Modernism? Or you might want to switch perspectives and show how Modernism and the postmodern world of art stand in contrast.

of War, in which the poet draws upon his personal experiences in the trenches of World War I. This collection also includes poems that he wrote after the war, poems in which he uses a cynical tone to mark his disgust of societies that allow war to occur in the first place. The poem "The Lover," which first appeared in this volume, is a fitting example. It brings together an interesting mix of his fears and suggests the sexual desires that he experienced during the war.

Pound's Cathay also employs the theme of war. Although Pound wrote these poems from translations of Li Po, an eighth-century poet from China, the original poems focused on war, a timely concern of Pound's, as the effects of World War I were much in his thoughts.

Male poets were not the only ones affected by the war. Many of Doolittle's poems in her collection Sea Garden engage images of pain, suffering, and desolation. Some critics relate these images to the ravages of war felt by the entire population, including those who were left at home. Doolittle was married to Aldington at the time he served on the front lines and thus felt the full impact not only of her personal fears and sense of loss but also of Aldington's suffering. Many of the poems in Flint's Otherworld: Cadences also portray the devastation of World War I. In fact, he dedicated this work to his fellow poet Aldington because he was well aware of the effect that the war was having on his friend.

Sense of Place

Flint, who lived all of his life in or near London, has many times been referred to as the poet of London. He grew up in the streets of this city and knew the sounds, smells, and colors so well that they permeated his poetry. His love of the city was not always an easy one, however, as espoused in some of his writings, such as his poem "Courage," in which he awakens every day and hopes for the strength to face the city one more time without whining. On a lighter note is his "To a Young Lady Who Moved Shyly among Men of Reputed Worth," written quickly at a dinner party in London. The original version of this poem did not meet the tenets of Imagism, so Flint rewrote it and titled it "London." In this version, it became one of Flint's most admired poems.

John Gould Fletcher returned to his childhood home in Little Rock, Arkansas, and there he wrote poems that would be collected in the book Ghosts and Pagodas. He eventually returned to Europe and then came back to the United States again. During his second return, he traveled across the Continent and looked at his homeland with fresh eyes. The result was his Breakers and Granite (1921), a sort of salutation to America. This collection demonstrates Fletcher's experiments with free verse and polyphonic prose, demonstrating the imagist influence on his work. The poems describe such diverse subjects as the Grand Canyon, the farmlands in New England, the small towns along the Mississippi River, elements of southern culture, and life on Indian reservations.


Doolittle's Sea Garden is filled with images of nature: flowers, bushes, oceans, beaches, and more. Doolittle used nature in this collection to reflect on a variety of emotions, her sense of isolation, and suffering. Fletcher also employed nature in his poetry, beginning with his first collection Irradiations, in which he often refers to such natural elements as gardens, forests, and rain. Under the influence of Japanese haiku, which often portrays details in nature, Fletcher's poem "Blue Symphony" intertwines colors and images of trees in mists of blue to suggest seasonal changes.

Lowell also reflected on nature in her experiments with polyphonic prose, such as in her "Patterns," in which she envisions herself walking through a garden, as well as in "The Overgrown Pasture." In her poem "November," she describes many different types of bushes and trees as they are affected by the cold of approaching winter.

One of Flint's earliest poems, "The Swan," follows the imagist practice of conciseness and suggestiveness. The poem consists of several short lines, written in concrete terms that describe the movements of a swan through dark waters. The poem is filled with the colors found in nature, painting a precise image with words. The image of the swan gives way at the end to a symbol of the poet's sorrow.

Greek Poets

Both Aldington and Doolittle were avid students of Greek literature and mythology. They both looked to the classical poets to find a model of excellence for their writing. Doolittle was perhaps most inspired by Greek poets, often alluding to Sappho in her works. Her poems that incorporate classical references are some of the most original.

Only one poem by Sappho survived to modern times in its complete state. The rest of Sappho's poetry exists only in fragments. It is upon these fragments that Doolittle built some of her most fascinating poetry. Doolittle has been credited, by Greek scholars such as Henry Rushton Fairclough (as quoted in Hughes's book), for becoming so completely "suffused with the Greek spirit that only the use of the vernacular will often remind the cultivated reader that he is not reading a Greek poet." Fairclough particularly refers to Doolittle's poem "Hymen" as exemplifying the influence of Greek poetry on her craft.


The subject of lesbianism occurs in many of Lowell's poems. She does not name it as such, but her poems depict the love she felt for women, in particular, one woman. In her poem "Decade," she celebrates the tenth anniversary of her relationship with her longtime companion, Ada Dwyer Russell. In her poems "A Lady" and "The Blue Scarf," she alludes to her love of an unnamed woman.


Polyphonic Prose

Amy Lowell was the imagist poet most heavily influenced by the practice of polyphonic prose, a term coined by Fletcher (who also enjoyed using this technique), but a practice that Lowell learned from the French poet Paul Fort (1872- 1960). Lowell understood this form to be similar to free verse but only freer. She called it the most elastic form of poetic expression, as it uses all the poetic "voices" such as meter, cadence, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance. Written in this form, a poem appears like prose on the page, but the sound of the poem reveals its poetic character.

Lowell described this technique in her essay "A Consideration of Modern Poetry," which she wrote for the North American Review (January 1917). She employed this technique for the first time in her collection Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), about which Aldington wrote an article in the Egoist commending the collection and suggesting that all young poets should read Lowell's poems to learn the technique. Aldington writes (as quoted in Hughes's book), "I am not a bit ashamed to confess that I have myself imitated Miss Lowell in this, and produced a couple of works in the same style."

Although Lowell's poetry was often criticized for lack of depth, many critics praised her use of language, especially her proficiency in using polyphonic prose.

Free Verse

Pound was responsible for creating six tenets designed to help poets understand what Imagism is and how it differed from other forms of poetry. Of these six, one was about free verse, which, according to the manifesto, would best express the individuality of the poet. The exact wording of this tenet is quoted in David Perkins's book, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode: "We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea." Free verse was one manner of escaping the need to rhyme. Pound thought that releasing poets from the need to rhyme would them to focus better on the image.

Pound was not original in this idea, as various forms of free verse had been used in classical Greek literature, in Old English literature (such as Beowulf), as well as in French, American, and German poetry. However, Pound and the other imagist poets took the meaning of free verse to new ground. They believed that rhythm expressed emotion, and the imagists understood, according to Perkins, that "for every emotional state there is the one particular rhythm that expresses it." Therefore, limiting rhythm to the fixed stanzas, meters, and other rhythmic standards of conventional poetry disallowed a full rendering of those emotions. In other words, the individuality of the poet's emotions would be thwarted by following traditional rules, and thus the overall effect of the poem would become inauthentic or insincere. Thus, the imagists were encouraged to let go of the old standards and open up their emotions to the flow of words that was allowed in free verse. Of the imagist poets, the Americans, more so than their British cohorts, readily took advantage of free verse. The traditional rules of poetry had been created in Europe and therefore had a European character. Through the use of free verse, the American imagists felt that they could compose more individualistic poetry that spoke in an American voice.

There was controversy around this form, as many critics had trouble distinguishing the differences between so-called free verse and actual prose. So the question arose: What makes a poem a poem? Poetry, most critics argued, required form. Aldington defined his use of free verse as poetry in this way: "The prose-poem is poetic content expressed in prose form" (quoted from Hughes). Whereas Fletcher took a more visual and more general approach in attempting to express his understanding of the difference between prose and poetry, believing that all well-written literature could be referred to as poetry, so that it did not matter if poems were written according to very traditional rules or in free verse. In Hughes's book, Fletcher is quoted as saying: "The difference between poetry and prose is . . . a difference between a general roundness and a general squareness of outline."

Common and Precise Language

Another tenet in the imagist manifesto dealt with the specific use of language. Imagist poets were told to use the language of common speech, more like the language one would hear in conversation rather than the formal or decorative language often used in traditional poetry. Imagists were also told to be spare in their use of words, to practice using only the words that were needed to describe an image. They should be concrete in their language, to stay away from abstraction.


Pound's definition of what an image was in terms of imagist poetry is rather vague. He stressed that the language should be precise and concentrated in expressing this image, but he never quite defined what the image of the imagist movement was. One of the tenets of the imagist manifesto was the freedom of the poet to choose any subject that he or she wanted. So image was not related to subject matter. However, it is stated that one of the main purposes of poetry is "To present an image" (quoted from Hughes). This image should not beanabstraction. Ifanabstraction,suchas an emotion, is to be expressed, indeed, it should be told, through an image.

Aldington, as stated by Hughes, tried to be a little more specific in his definition of an image by stating that poets should try to create "clear, quick rendering[s] of particulars without commentary." William Carlos Williams, who wrote an occasional imagist poem, may have defined the image best. Ideas are best expressed through things, Williams believed, and there was no better way to express things that contained ideas than through images. The imagists' intent to focus on one image led them to embrace the poetry of Japan, especially haiku, which presents a single image in each poem.

Japanese Haiku

Japanese haiku is an ancient form of poetry, originating about 1300 AD Haiku is a precise poetic form, consisting typically of seventeen syllables in three lines. Japanese, which is syllabic rather than based on individual letters of an alphabet, is better suited to this form than is English. Therefore, even though the imagist poets became enamored of this form, they technically never wrote an authentic haiku. However, haiku greatly influenced their work. Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is one of Japan's best-known haiku poets. His most famous poem of this type is a good example:

    An old pond . . .
    A frog jumps in—
    The sound of water.

In comparison is Doolittle's "Oread" (also taken from Harmer's book), which demonstrates the imagist attempt to practice haiku by writing simply and focusing on one image:

    Whirl up, sea—
    whirl your pointed pines,
    splash your great pines
    on our rocks,
    hurl your green over us,
    cover us with your pools of fir.


European versus American Imagism

Of the seven major imagist poets, five of them (Lowell, Doolittle, Pound, Williams, and Fletcher) were born in the United States. All but Williams, upon deciding to dedicate their lives to writing, and more specifically to poetry, traveled throughout Europe. There was a void, as far as poetry is concerned, in the United States at that time, and those who had a passion for creating poetry felt that they needed to go abroad to find out more about it. The American poetry that did exist in the early part of the twentieth century, according to Pound, was mediocre. As quoted in Perkins, Pound states: "Only the mediocrity of a given time can drive intelligent men of that time to 'break with tradition."' Thus, the American poets, tired and frustrated by the conventional poets of the previous century, traveled to Europe and helped to open the gates of the modernist period, influencing it with their own credo of Imagism.

Interestingly, once these American poets became involved in creating the imagist movement, some of them (mostly Lowell and Fletcher) tended to veer in different directions from their British contemporaries in their attempts to give the language of their poetry a more American slant.

Williams stood apart from the other American imagists because he did not believe in the superiority of European styles. He immersed himself in the artistic community of New York City, befriending Dadaist artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray and modernist poets Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore, among others. He mentored young poets, emphasizing the importance of images from everyday life over allusions to classical literature.

Objectivist Poetry

Objectivist poetry manifested in the 1930s, an outgrowth of Imagism and a subset f Modernism. William Carlos Williams inspired the objectivist poets with the primacy he gave to images and his rejection of classical sources. They did not see themselves as a cohesive group, but the poets most associated with objectivist poetry include George Oppen, Basil Bunting, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, and Lorine Niedecker. The February 1931 issue of Poetry was a special edition that focused on objectivist poetry and was edited by Zukofsky. Its reception was mixed and, while objectivist poets continued to publish, the movement was mostly over by the end of the decade. In 1978, Oppen's wife Mary published a memoir, Meaning a Life, which includes a recollection of the objectivist movement.



The transition from the Romanticism and Victorianism to Modernism was one of the major shifts in the history of poetry, and some critics credit the imagists with beginning this great change. Romantic poetry was marked by its idealism and embellished language, while the imagists proclaimed that they were realists who would write in the vernacular about concrete subjects. The romantics were behind the times, the imagists believed. The older poetic form appealed to audiences that were usually made up of the upper social classes. The modernists wanted to communicate with the masses.

"Imagism has been described as the grammar school of modern poetry," writes Perkins. The imagist poets were responsible for creating some of the basic instructions for Modernism, which included clear and precise language and suggestive and visual imagery. Craig Hamilton points out that Imagism is important because it is an immediate precursor to Modernism, if for no other reason. Modernists would also experiment with ways in which to relate poetry to the other arts.

Modernism implied that the population was tired of the past and wanted to see things as they really are in the present or to think about how they might be in the future. The past was gone, and the ancient casts should be broken and discarded. Modernists wanted to create something new. Experimentation and exploration were the new focus. There was a breaking away from patterned responses and predictable forms. One modernist theme was alienation: individuals had difficulty placing themselves in the changing present context. Modernists also explored the inner self, life as experienced subjectively in large urban centers, and the effects of materialism and industrialization.

World War I

World War I was a traumatic event for Europe and the United States. Previous wars had involved the upper social classes more so than the general population. World War I was also the first war to involve gas warfare and heavy artillery. The physically and emotionally wounded soldiers were brought home, many of them suffering from shell-shock, most of them filled with bitterness. They found themselves alienated from their previously optimistic views of the machine age. European and American authors writing during and after the war spoke about the horror of war and its attendant disillusions more than any generation had before them. Their styles became more introspective, less idealistic, and more cynical. In an attempt to heal their inner wounds, they tried to explain the effects that the war had upon them and to analyze and criticize the society that had sent them there.

Women's Rights

In 1903, the women's suffrage movement in Britain took a turn toward the militant under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. Tired of being silenced, they were determined to grab headlines with their acts of arson, destruction, and general mayhem in the streets. Many of the leaders of this group were often imprisoned, at which time they would then go on hunger strikes. After World War I, limited suffrage was granted to them. In 1928, eight years after their American sisters, British women were granted the right to vote.

With political awareness of their rights, women also gained the courage to speak out not only for public freedoms but also for independence in their personal lives. Everything from clothing to sexual relations was undergoing close examination as women began defining their lives in terms of what they needed and wanted rather than what the male-dominated society dictated for them. This can be seen in Lowell's mannerisms, in particular. She liked to wear men's clothes and often smoked cigars. Like Doolittle, she had a longterm lesbian relationship. Doolittle was also very free in determining her relationships with men. While married to Aldington, she had affairs with other men, one


  • Early Twentieth Century: Wome win the right to vote after a long period of political activism in both Britain and in the United States.

    Middle Twentieth Century: Gloria Steinman, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan join forces to establish the National Women's Political Caucus, encouraging women to use their political power to gain equal rights.

    Today: Although written in the 1920s and passed in Congress in the 1970s, the Equal Rights Amendment fails to be ratified by the states before the 1982 deadline.

  • Early Twentieth Century: China and Japan open their cultural doors to the West, influencing Western literature with various forms of classical Asian poetry.

    Middle Twentieth Century: After the musical group the Beatles are influenced by the Eastern practice of meditation, Asian spiritual practices and belies such as Buddhism spread across the United States.

    Late Twentieth Century: The Japanese economy reaches its highest point as Japanese cars and electronic devices flood the U.S. markets.

  • Early Twentieth Century: Over 57,000 American troops are killed in World War I.

    Middle Twentieth Century: Over 55,000 American troops are killed in World War II; over 33,000 troops are killed in Korea; over 58,000 are killed in Vietnam.

    Today: The United States wages war with Iraq, in which over 4,000 Americans die, and perhaps as many as 100,000 Iraqis are killed.

of them resulting in her getting pregnant. Although both these women were courageous enough to demand their rights, Doolittle often suffered mentally from the emotional impact of her actions. She was well ahead of her time in terms of women's liberation and often sought the care 'of psychiatrists, including Sigmund Freud, to help her come to terms with her emotional needs and the social confines of the early era of women's rights.


In the chapter "Critical Reaction," Hughes makes the statement that "few comments on the [imagist] movement have appeared in English periodicals. The effect is that of a conspiracy of silent scorn." Hughes wrote this in 1931, but his book remains one of the standard studies of the imagist movement, so his seventy-year-old opinion seems to be still relevant. Hughes claims that the critics who did write about Imagism were usually either the imagist poets themselves or else their friends.

The only comments that were made were either brief sarcastic remarks or "mutual back-scratching," Hughes concludes. Of the sarcastic remarks, he mentions Harold Monro, who wrote an article in the Egoist, a largely imagist publication. Monro writes, "the imagists seem to have been struck partially blind at the first sight of their new world; and they are still blinking."

Ford Maddox Ford (using his German last name, Hueffer, for this article) is quoted by Hughes as commending Doolittle and Flint for their writing, praising them as the only two poets in the movement who wrote well enough to be called imagists. Ford then continues: "Mr. John Gould Fletcher, Mr. Aldington, and Miss Lowell are all too preoccupied with themselves and their emotions to be really called Imagists." Ford concludes by stating that the imagist movement is the only thing that was happening in literature during that time.

Hughes then goes on to discuss the critical response that the imagists received in America. He begins with a statement from a reviewer writing for the Chicago Tribune. The writer concluded the review by stating that Imagism should be established as a constitutional amendment and that anyone who writes anything other than in the imagist mode should be imprisoned. Later, after the publication of Some Imagist Poets (1915), Conrad Aiken, an American poet himself and friend of Pound, wrote a poem for the imagists and had it published in the Boston Transcript. The poem was not at all flattering, and as presented in Hughes's book, Aiken ended each stanza with the question: "Where in a score [of] years will you be," making an allusion to the fact that he thought Imagism was but a mere fad.

Aiken later wrote an article for the New Republic, in which he praised Fletcher at the other imagist poets' expense, stating that only Fletcher was able to express enough emotion to move the reader. W. S. Braithwaite, in response to Aiken's attacks, also published an article in the New Republic. His opinion of the imagists was more generous, praising the poets for their courage to break out of the old poetry molds. As quoted in Hughes's book, Braithwaite writes, "The final test of poetry is not that it stirs one . . . but that it haunts one."

In 1915, William Ellery Leonard, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, took upon himself the task of critiquing the imagists. His analysis was not very favorable. Hughes describes Leonard's remarks as "the most scholarly, sarcastic, and seriously-considered attempt at the annihilation of imagism yet recorded." Leonard disliked the imagists' allusions to Japanese poetry, although Hughes points out that at the time of the criticism none of the imagists had yet written any poetry that was influenced by haiku. Leonard also criticized their use of classical Greek and Latin poets, assuming (wrongly) that none of the poets had a real understanding of the classics. Hughes sums up his views about the Leonard attacks on the imagists by stating that Leonard was correct in pointing out some of the weak points of some of the poets but that to condemn the whole movement without mentioning any of their strengths was a "cheap trick."

Other critics did not like the egoism that the imagist poets appeared to flaunt. Some felt that the imagist poet made him- or herself more important than the poem. Hughes then writes that Lewis Worthington Smith, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, believed that the imagists were only pretending to revolt from all literary forms but were, actually, "doing nothing of the kind: they are minor poets who cannot stand the strain of the sophisticated and complex world in which they find themselves." Smith concludes that Imagism is merely a "freakish and barren cult" and a sign that Romanticism will bounce back with a much "fuller and more vital poetry."

These were the early reviews. Later, Hughes writes, the critics were "more favorable, owing to the continuous propaganda of the imagists themselves and to the natural decline of prejudice toward something new."


Joyce Hart

Hart has degrees in English literature with a minor in Asian studies and focuses her writing on literary topics. In this essay, Hart considers the influence of the Japanese poetic form of haiku on imagist poetry.


  • Imagist Poem, edited by William Pratt and revised in 2001, is an expanded anthology of imagist poetry first published in the 1960s. This collection is a good place to start for getting to know and understand imagist poetry.
  • A comprehensive collection of Japanese haiku from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century can be found in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (1995), edited by Robert Hass. Basho, Buson, and Issa are the most proficient poets of haiku. This anthology contains three hundred of their poems.
  • The Women's Movements in the United States and Britain from the 1790s to the 1920s (1993), by Christine Bolt, offers an extensive historical perspective of the women's rights movement seen through the more modern vision of feminism. This book offers a good understanding of the environment in which the men and women of Imagism were writing.
  • Marjorie Perloff, a professor of comparative literature, has spent her professional career fighting for inclusion of a broader range of literary works in the list of books that are usually taught on college campuses. In her Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, she discusses poems by authors who have often been ignored. In this book, she includes Doolittle and Fletcher, as well as the more well-known poets associated with Imagism, such as Ezra Pound and D. H. Lawrence.
  • TheLostVoicesofWorldWarI:AnInternational Anthology of Writers, Poets, and Playwrights (1989), edited by Tim Cross, includes the poems of T. E. Hulme, the man most responsible for creating the philosophical foundation of Imagism. Hulme, who wrote very few poems in his lifetime, died in World War I, as did most of the authors included in this collection.
  • British Poets of the Great War (1988), by Fred D. Crawford, contains a chapter on the imagists. Crawford offers a literary background for the movement and discusses the imagist poets and their poems.

The Imagism movement, although short-lived and complicated by some basic contradictions and controversies, definitely left its mark on the literature of its time as well as on many works that would follow. Included in the contradictions was the dictate from the movement's founders to break the chains of tradition, while two of its most loyal poets wrote their imagist poems with allusions to classical Latin and Greek poetry. Another contradiction was the call for freedom in writing, and yet the leaders of the movement sat down and wrote an imagist manifesto, delineating rules for anyone who would write imagist poems. Added to the contradictions was the confusion that many readers (and critics) experienced as they tried to understand free verse, whichtothem readmorelikeprose than poetry. And, finally, even though the basic tenet of this group of poets was that the image was the poem, no one was able to offer a definitive explanation of what the word image meant to them, despite the fact that, quite obviously, the most influential element of this movement was just that-the concept of the focused image. However, despite this latter problem, the imagists did discover a model upon which they could build their images, and that was the Japanese poetic form referred to as haiku.

It was in the form of the haiku, or, if not the exact form, at least in the general concept of it, that many of the tenets of the imagist manifesto were best expressed. The manifesto, in short,


expected imagist writers to use common speech, words from daily dialogue. The language should be precise and concrete. Rhythm should be free, and rhyming was not only unnecessary, it was practically discouraged. The poem should be concentrated and definite; and, most important, the poem should present an image. Matching this explanation of Imagism are the descriptions of the Japanese poem, which state that haiku should be true to reality and written as if it represented a first impression of subjects taken from daily life or as seen with fresh eyes. The language should be simple, and the focus should be on one image. In both the haiku and the imagist poem, two images are often juxtaposed and the meaning of the poem is understated.

Despite the fact that critics argue that the imagists never truly mastered the haiku form, the influence of the Japanese haiku is very evident in many of their poems. Pound, being the initial leader of the movement, tried his hand at the haiku with his often quoted poem "In a Station of the Metro," taken here from Harmer's book:

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals, on a wet black bough.

Compare Pound's poem to one from Japan's more famous haiku masters, Yosa Buson (1715- 1783), and the similarities are easy to see. Buson's poem is also taken from Harmer.

    Alone in a room
    A peony.

In both poems, the wording is sparse. The language is simple. There are two very clear images woven together by a subtle reading, that is left to the reader to decipher. In Pound's poem, the image of the petals of a flower that have been momentarily pasted to the limb of a tree after a rainfall is something that almost all readers could relate to no matter where they lived, what culture they were brought up in, or what language they spoke. By using this image, Pound gives the reader a hint of his feelings, as the speaker stands, possibly leaning against some far wall, watching the crowd of temporary faces pass by him. Just as the petals of the flower are temporarily pasted against the wet limb, the people who are passing are only momentarily fixed in the speaker's mind. He juxtaposes the crowded station with a beautiful, understated scene from nature—a few wet petals.

Japanese art, whether a painting or a flower arrangement, is an expression as much of what is not there as of what is presented. A single flower placed with an interestingly formed stick allows space around its images, thus encouraging the imagination to fill in the emptiness. The beauty is in the simplicity. Pound senses this and even plays with it as he first takes his readers to a crowded and busy center of transportation in some unnamed city, then suddenly plants them in a quiet place where they can meditate on a single bough. Buson makes a similar surprising movement. He first implants the feelings of loneliness. The reader is made to believe that a person is sitting in a room by him- or herself, although the reader does not know for sure why. The next line adds the emotion. The loneliness gives way to the more incredible feeling of abandonment and neglect. Then Buson adds nature, and the image softens; it becomes pristine and beautiful in its aloneness. It is in the starkness of the single peony that an image of art is created. The lone flower in a vase is turned into a pure, focused image, because there is nothing else in the room to distract the eye.

One more example from the Japanese is the following, also taken from Harmer, and credited to Moritake:

    A fallen petal
    Flies back to its branch:
    Ah! A butterfly!

In comparison to this haiku is one written by Amy Lowell. Although Lowell's is not as humorous, she wrote a poem that contains a very similar rhythm. This poem is taken from Hughes's book:

    My thoughts
    Chink against my ribs
    And roll about like silver hailstones

In Moritake's poem, there is surprise in the last line, as there is in Lowell's. The surprise in Moritake's is more evident. The reader feels the jolt, just as the poet must have experienced it, watching one image turn into quite another, from a dead, falling petal to a live and beautiful butterfly. Lowell's surprise is more subtle. The image of thoughts hitting, albeit lightly, against the speakers ribs is somewhat uncomfortable. The concept makes the speaker appear agitated and possibly hungry, if not for food, then for a solution of some kind. Then she adds the final line, having the thoughts roll now, a much more comforting feeling, and they are also turned into silver—smooth and shiny. Instead of being bothersome, they now appear somewhat precious.

There are many examples of the influence of haiku upon the imagists, as all of them tried their hand at the Japanese form, some of them more successfully than others. Even T. E. Hulme, who wrote very few poems and was not directly considered an imagist poet, even though it was his philosophy of poetry that began the movement, was able to create a type of haiku. In his poem "Autumn," taken from Hughes's book, Hulme writes a somewhat longer version, but the rhythm and the form are still there:

    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.

In this stanza of his poem, Hulme juxtaposes images of nature with the figure of a person. There is a similar surprise in Hulme's poem, as there is in Moritake's, in which the petal suddenly turns into a butterfly. With Hulme, the moon suddenly turns into the face of a farmer. The picture in the poem jumps from one image to the other, as Hulme superimposes the moon and the farmer in such a quick motion that the reader witnesses the blending of the two images into one.

One of the best examples of haiku poetry from Richard Aldington comes from his collection Images of Desire. It is quoted here from Hughes's book:

    Like a dark princess whose beauty
    Many have sung, you wear me,
    The one jewel that is warmed by your breast.

Here Aldington focuses on one image, that of a beautiful princess, bejeweled. What is interesting in this poem is that Aldington embeds the speaker in that "one jewel," creating a double image in one object. The attention remains on the princess and her beauty, while the speaker sneaks in and prevails over the throngs of men who clamor for her attention. This is a clever oem, whose image changes the more it is thought about. The picture first appears as a solitary figure, then slowly grows more complex as more people crowd into the image, first the other admirers, then the jewel that takes on the personification of the speaker.

John Gould Fletcher wholly engaged Japanese art in many of its forms, and in the following two lines, taken again from Hughes, he captures a beautiful Japanese image in very few words:

    Uneven tinkling, the lazy rain
    Dripping from the eaves.

This short poem not only provides an image, it adds music. Raindrops splashing down on the roof, "tinkling" like the sounds of tiny bells or like a wind chime. Then he slows down the rhythm, as he describes the rain as lazy, and the reader can again see the sluggish drops leisurely slithering down from the eaves. This is imagist poetry imitating haiku at its best, with several of the senses drawn in, with such spare and simple words, to create one exquisite image.

Fletcher is successful again in one of his poems taken from his collection Ghosts and Pagodas. This one comes from the first section, "The Ghosts of an Old House," and as quoted from Hughes, it reads in part:

    The windows rattle as if someone were in
    them wishing to get out
    and ride upon the wind.

Knowing the context of this poem gives it more meaning. Fletcher has gone back to his family home, after having been away for a long time. His family is gone. All that remains for him are the memories of having once lived there. When the wind rattles the windows, he imagines the ghosts of his memories, trying to release themselves from his mind. Fletcher builds the image by bringing in various senses. Not only can the reader envision what this might look like, or feel like, but the sound of the wind and the rattling of the window are also very easy to imagine. The surprise element is also present. The normal impression might be that if there were ghosts inside the window, and they were trying to get out, that the ghosts would then come after the speaker of the poem. Instead, Fletcher has them wanting to ride the wind, to fly away from him, to return to nature. He has captured the essence of the haiku in his own way, imbuing the image with past emotions conjured in the present moment, all illustrated realistically and concretely.

Closing this essay is a poem from William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), who was not considered one of the major imagist poets, but he is often referred to as one of the major poets of that time who was affected by the Imagism movement. His poem "Red Wheelbarrow" is often used as a classic representation of both the perfect imagist poem as well as one that demonstrates the influence of the haiku. The image of the red wheelbarrow, on which, as the poem reads, "so much depends" visually, is so vivid that it could almost be framed and hung on the wall as a painting. The rhythm is slightly less Japanese, but the picture that is created is very much in line with haiku.

This poem is so visual that the reader feels as if standing in a museum, staring at an oil painting. The first line focuses on the brightest color, the red of the wheelbarrow. Added to this image is the simply stated observation that the wheel-barrow is "glazed with rain," a concise detail that further elaborates the scene with so few words that it seems understated. (Note the painting terminology in the word glazed, thus reinforcing the impression of this poem as a painted image.) Finally, the lustrous, red wheelbarrow is situated near white chickens, which were at first unseen but now stand out, their whiteness exaggerated in contrast to the color red. What, if any, meaning Williams intended in this poem is practically unimportant. However, as a poem of meditation, which is one of the reasons that the Japanese haiku is written, this poem has excelled. When read for purely imagist terms, this poem is still a prizewinner. Who could read this poem and not take with them an extremely vivid, focused image impressed upon their minds?

The imagist manifesto wanted the poets to create images rather than to moralize or preach as many of their poetic Victorian predecessors had done. It also wanted poets to minimize their language. It is no wonder that they were attracted to and influenced by the Japanese haiku, which had been perfected many hundreds of years before them. The Imagism movement was short, and most of the poets who were involved in the movement quickly passed either into obscurity or moved on to create different forms of poetry. However, despite the brevity of their involvement, they left an indelible mark on poetry of the English language by introducing the form and facility of haiku to American and British audiences.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Imagism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Craig A. Hamilton

In this essay, Hamilton analyzes how language was used by Imagist poets to serve the ideals of imagism.


"What was Imagism?" is not an easy question to answer. For example, Ezra Pound called Stanley Coffman's 1951 book, Imagism: A Chapter for the History of Modern Poetry, "nuts" several times (Cole 248), and Pound would no doubt take issue with most histories of Imagism. Even so, this has not prevented critics from trying to understand Imagism. For John Fuller, although "Imagism seems absurdly provincial, its aims were at the centre of the whole modernist programme in poetry." Likewise, David Perkins calls Imagism "the grammar school of modern poetry," while Jacob Korg sees Imagism as a "corrective" to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century poetry. For his part, Joseph Frank


claims Imagism "opened the way for later developments by its clean break with sentimental Victorian verbiage." Because Imagism succeeds Symbolism yet precedes Surrealism, it is situated at the dawn of "classical" literary modernism (Zach 229), which is why teleological literary histories regard Imagism as "the beginning of modern literature in English" (Pratt 75). If such claims are true, then clearly Imagism mattered regardless of whatever else might be said about the movement.

Most of the poets involved with Imagism were based in London between 1912 and 1918. Three British poets (Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint, and D. H. Lawrence) and four American poets (Pound, H. D., Amy Lowell, and John Gould Fletcher) were more or less core group members (Jones 13). T. E. Hulme, a British writer who died in 1917 in World War I, was an influential figure for the Imagists before 1914. The word "Imagist" itself might have been used publicly for the first time in 1912, when Pound wrote "HD, Imagiste" at the bottom of "Hermes of the Ways" before sending H. D.'s poem to Harriet Monroe at Poetry in Chicago. In 1915 F. S. Flint claimed, however, that Hulme had actually used the term fast at his Poet's Club meetings before 1912 (de Chasca 75), so the origin of the term remains in dispute. What we do know for sure is that four Imagist anthologies were published between 1914 and 1918. Pound edited the March 1914 anthology, Des Imagistes, while Lowell edited the remaining three anthologies, all titled Some Imagist Poets, which appeared in April 1915, May 1916, and April 1917, respectively. Although the Imagists nearly became known as the "Quintessentials" in early 1915 when Lowell was negotiating with Ferris Greenslet, Houghton Mifflin's poetry editor, Greenslet rejected the name change due to his sense that "'Imagism' had a certain mercantile value" (de Chasca 75). This may be why some see Imagism as little more than publicity stunt even if it was more than that.

To keep my terms clear for the purposes of this article, by "Imagist" I mean a poet whose poetry appeared in one of the four original Imagist anthologies. Between Pound's collection (which had eleven contributors) and Lowell's three collections (which each had the same six contributors), "we have a total of thirteen writers who may possibly be considered bona fide Imagists" (Imagist 24). There were 35 poems in the 1914 anthology, 37 poems in the 1915 anthology, 32 poems in the 1916 anthology, and 26 poems in the 1917 anthology. Thus, there were 130 Imagist poems written by thirteen "bona fide" Imagist poets. That excludes Imagist poems the Imagists published elsewhere as well as the thirty new poems published in the Imagist Anthology 1930. These tallies remind us that the number of Imagist poems and the number of Imagist poets are rather limited ones. Why, then, should such a small movement receive so much attention over the years?

One answer comes from literary history: Imagism, a "campaign for free verse" (Roberts, "Lawrence"), included some major twentieth-century writers. In his "Foreword" to the Imagist Anthology 1930, Glenn Hughes argued that many Imagists became well-known "world figures" after Imagism, which is one reason why Imagism has not been forgotten. Another reason literary history has not forgotten Imagist poetry is Imagist theory. Imagism, "a theory of poetics" according to Daniel Tiffany, was as much about poetic theory or poetic criticism as it was about writing poetry. That is to say, Imagism entailed writing both poems as well as critical explanations of those(andother) poems.Granted,inhis In the Arresting Eye: The Rhetoric of Imagism, John Gage raises many questions about the sincerity of Imagist rhetoric, especially with regard to the criticism and theoretical exposés written by the Imagists. However, it is hard to separate theory from practice in an attempt to understand what Imagism was. For this reason, it is helpful to be reminded of key components in Imagist theory.

The famous principles of Imagism, which were first set down in Flint's "interview" of Pound for Poetry in March 1913, were the following:

  1. Direct treatment of "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 the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.

(qtd. in Jones)

Korg, who recently paraphrased these three principles as (1) the use of concrete imagery, (2) "a rigorous economy of language," and (3) "the use of vers libre," reminds us that these principles were "subjects of thoughtful consideration" rather than strict "dogma" for Pound. Even so, Pound's three "thoughtful" principles would become six "essentials" a year later in the unsigned preface to the 1915 Imagist anthology:

  1. To use the language of common speech, but always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, not the merely decorative word.
  2. To create new rhythms—as the expression of new moods-and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon "free—verse" as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.
  3. To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. It is not good art to write badly about aeroplanes and automobiles; nor is it necessarily bad art to write well about the past. We believe passionately in the artistic value of modern life, but we wish to point out that there is nothing so uninspiring nor so old-fashioned as an aeroplane of the year 1911.
  4. To present an image (hence the name: "Imagist"). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.
  5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.
  6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.

These principles or essentials may seem somewhat redundant at times. For instance, Keith Waldrop claims that in their writings about Imagism the Imagists really only cared about "the use of images and the use of free verse." However, because principle number 2 in March 1913 had become essential number 1 by April 1915, Waldrop is wrong to overlook the Imagist emphasis on verbal economy. Indeed, the Imagists went out of their way in the preface to their 1916 anthology to clarify once again essential number 1: "The 'exact' word does not mean the word which exactly describes the object in itself, it means the 'exact' word which brings the effect of that object before the reader as it presented itself to the poet's mind at the time of writing the poem" (Some 1916 vi). Moreover, because Pound in 1951 "still considered the principle paramount" to understanding Imagism (Cole 249), the verbal economy principle cannot be sidelined for the sake of convenience when telling the story of Imagism.

While the principles and essentials may seem like rules to follow for writing an Imagist poem, many Imagist poems in fact violate at least one principle or essential. That is why Korg reminds us that they are not dogma, and it is also why the unsigned preface to 1916 Imagist anthology informs us that the Imagists knew that "no theories nor rules [alone] make poetry." Thus, because many Imagist poems do not follow all the rules all the time, an Imagist poem cannot be defined simply as a poem that adheres strictly to every principle or essential. This is especially true when we see that essential number 1 conflates the poetic concern for verbal economy in principle number 2 with a sociolinguistic concern for using the "language of common speech" in poetic diction. Ironically, despite their apparent revolt against nineteenth-century English poetry, the Imagists' praise for the "language of common speech" harks back to Wordsworth's infamous preference (in the 1805 preface to the Lyrical Ballads) for "the very language of men." As Piers Gray has argued, swearing is the real language of men, but there is little of that in either Romanticism or Imagism. Of course, Pound would call European civilization "an old bitch gone in the teeth" in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" in 1920, but that long poem was written after Imagism had run its course for Pound. Even so, the example shows us that vivid figurative language was highly valued by the Imagists.


The history of rhetoric reminds us that stylistics (broadly defined as the study of literary style) originated in rhetoric, and that figurative language (for the last few centuries at least) has become a focal point of that study. Given this state of affairs on the one hand, and the rhetorical nature of Imagism on the other, figurative language can be discussed in terms of cognitive rhetoric and Imagist style can be studied through examples of figurative language. And yet, a cognitive rhetorical study of literature is not a rhetorical study per se. In the past, rhetorical criticism often consisted of simply locating and identifying rhetorical figures (e.g., chiasmus) in a text, and resistance to rhetorical criticism may have been partly due to the belief that it only required naming figures in texts. Sitting with a text in one hand, and a handbook of rhetorical terms in the other meant such identification exercises could easily seem pointless. Why? Figure identification is not figure explanation. Moreover, the belief that figures are "in" texts is simply an illusion. According to Dan Sperber, "la figure n'est pas dans le texte [ ...]. Elle est dans la représentation conceptuelle du texte," and this goes to the heart of cognitive rhetoric. To focus on conceptual representations is to move away from the linguistic realm of rhetoric and toward the conceptual realm of cognitive rhetoric. After all, "Meanings are [...] in people's minds, not in words on the page" (Lakoff and Turner 109), so figures "on the page" are but pathways to the mind as far as the cognitive rhetorician is concerned. While classical rhetoricians excelled at identifying figures and creating taxonomies for them, they sometimes confused figures of thought with figures of speech. For the cognitive rhetorician, figures of thought are conceptualizations that give rise to figures of speech, which are verbal manifestations of those mental conceptualizations.

Since the 1970s, the term "cognitive rhetoric" has been used differently in pragmatics (Sperber), literary theory (Turner, "Cognitive," Reading), and English composition studies (Flower, "Context," 'Inquiry," "Writer-Based"). Although Sperber, Mark Turner, and Linda Flower each uses the term distinctly, given the fact that they work in different fields, Flower's emphasis on "constructing meaning" is no doubt something both Sperber and Turner would agree is key to any definition of "cognitive rhetoric." Generally, cognitive rhetoric can be thought of as the study of the production of discourse, the construction of meaning, and the interpretation of the potentially persuasive aspects of discourse. Specifically, cognitive rhetoric can be thought of as the interdisciplinary study of discourse. Semiotics, poetics, rhetorical theory, and cognitive sciences such as linguistics and psychology are locations where cognitive rhetorical research already occurs. That is why cognitive rhetoric is interdisciplinary—no single field has a monopoly on its object of study. "Discourse" is a polysemous term, but I use it to mean the language of Imagism for the purposes of this article. Moreover, verbal "production," within a literary context, may refer to the object of study in genetic criticism. However, because this article does not treat genetic criticism, Imagism's figurative language is what I explore here.

To discuss Imagist poetry in terms of rhetoric may, I admit, seem strange. For the Imagists, "rhetoric was at odds with the practice of poetry" (Gage 5); and for Pound rhetoric meant "the art of dressing up some unimportant matter so as to fool the audience for the time being" (qtd. in Jones 21) or "discursive language [...] that only obstructs meaning" (Lewis 195). Given this view of rhetoric, Pound felt he was paying T. S. Eliot a compliment when saying "there is no rhetoric" in Eliot's poetry—even though Eliot knew "rhetoric" was a term often used imprecisely (Gage 32). And yet, the Imagists probably knew that rhetoric and poetics were reconcilable. As Jonathan Culler has stated, "Poetry is related to rhetoric: it is language that makes abundant use of figures of speech and language that aims to be powerfully persuasive." Poetry (even Imagist poetry) is in fact rhetorical, which is why classical rhetoricians categorized it as a form of epideictic rhetoric. Moreover, if critical writings (even those by the Imagists themselves) are also rhetorical, then it is fitting to study Imagism in terms of cognitive rhetoric.


The presence of figurative language in Imagist poetry might seem perplexing because of the Imagist belief in verbal precision. After all, if one of the classic arguments against figurative language is that it seems imprecise or misleading, then praising so-called scientific or objective prose on the one hand (which the Imagists did) while using figures on the other (which they also did) would appear to be disingenuous. Pound often dismissed as "rhetoric" poetic diction that seemed too emotional or overwrought, but the Imagists did try to strike a balance between their use of figurative language in their own poems and their criticism of the figurative language of others. This balance was necessary because the Imagists probably sensed that figurative language was crucial to their short poems and therefore could not be purged outright from their works.

Although Imagists sometimes saw similes as "superfluous" (Pondrom 78) and metaphors as "extravagances" (Hatlen 119), their poetry nevertheless is comprised of these figures. For cognitive linguists and psychologists (Gibbs; Lakoff and Johnson), this is just what would be expected, since metaphor is anything but "superfluous" to thought and language in general. If a metaphor "is a systematic conceptual mapping involving two domains" and not "just an expression from a source domain" (Lakoff and Turner 128), then an Imagist's explicit evocations of source domains are only one part of the equation. The target domains we implicitly construe via those source domains is the other part of the metaphor equation.

As Pound once stated, "The gulf between evocation and description [...] is the unbridgeable difference between genius and talent" (qtd. in Jones 31), and Imagism is a poetics of evocation rooted firmly in figurative language. If "conceptual projection from a source to a target is not arbitrary" (Turner, Literary 31), and if "the source domain is more concrete than the target domain in a wide range of conventional metaphors" (Shen 46), then we can see why the Imagists put great emphasis on depicting concrete objects in their poems. While Turner and Yeshayahu Shen highlight two tenets of cognitive metaphor theory, the Imagists seemed to have understood these tenets many decades ago. By merely priming source domains in the minds of their readers, Imagists could count on readers to complete the task and carry out the meaning-making procedures of mapping, inference, and interpretation.

With this in mind, let us consider Fletcher's poem, "Clouds Across the Canyon":

    Shadows of clouds
    March across the canyon,
    Shadows of blue hands passing
    Over a curtain of flame.
    Clutching, staggering, upstriking,
    Darting in blue-black fury,
    To where pinnacles, green and orange
    The winds are battling and stirring to break them:
    Thin lightnings spit and flicker,
    The peaks seem a dance of scarlet demons Flitting amid the shadows.
    Grey rain-curtains wave afar off,
    Wisp of vapour curl and vanish,
    The sun throws soft shades of golden light
    Over rose-buttressed palisades.
    Now the clouds
    Are a lazy procession;
    Blue balloons bobbing
    solemnly Over black-dappled walls,
    Where rise sharp-fretted golden-roofed cathedrals
    Exultantly, and split the sky with light.

Clouds, wind, lightning, mountaintops, rain, and sun are all personified in the poem's first four stanzas. Markers of personification, in terms of the EVENTS ARE ACTIONS conceptual metaphor (Lakoff and Turner 70-75), include action verbs such as "march," "clutching," and "battling," as well as "hands" that are "passing" before the sun. From a human source domain of volition and self-locomotion, we conceptually map the human capacity to carry out such actions onto the target domains here, which is to say the natural objects described in the poem. Mapping is how we metaphorically personify Fletcher's objects as we read, thereby bringing the metaphors to life in our imaginations. By the final stanza, an image metaphor appears when the "sharp-fretted" canyon peaks are called "golden-roofed cathedrals." To convey the idea that natural canyons are holy cathedrals, which is one of Fletcher's arguments, Fletcher uses figurative language to represent the scene. But how is the rhetoric of Fletcher's poem cognitive?

Consider the verbs used in the last two lines of the poem. Fictively attributing motion to immobile objects—canyon peaks that "rise" or cathedral spires that "split the sky"—is commonplace for the human conceptual system, and this is known as "fictive motion" in cognitive linguistics (Talmy). A famous example of fictive motion as a type of metaphor comes from Leonard Talmy: "The mountain range goes from Canada to Mexico." The mountains do not move anywhere literally, but the verb "goes" and the prepositions "from" and "to" all imply that they do when "the mountain range" is imagined as an agent moving from one location to another. With regard to Talmy's example, Jim Swan writes: "[T]he sentence is a model for the way cognition implements [in Talmy's words] 'veridically unequal discrepant representations of the same object,' without committing to one representation being objectively real and the other not" (Swan 462). To return to Fletcher's depiction of the stormy scene, the fictive motion apparent in the last lines is certainly metaphorical, and we can say this without entailing that this representation of the scene is false simply because it is not literal. Persuasiveness in poetry often depends on plausible uses of figurative language, and this is the case with Fletcher's poem. If the scene proved to be hard to grasp rather than easy to understand, then the first place to look for problems would probably be Fletcher's choice of metaphor.

But Imagists like Fletcher seemed to have sensed that persuasion was very much an issue of comprehension. It would be hard for a poet to convince a reader that the poet's depiction of a scene was honest or credible if the figurative language the poet used in that depiction was incomprehensible and implausible. For a plausible use of metaphor, examples of it can be found in "Bus-Top," a poem from Fletcher's 1915 sequence, "London Excursion":

    Black shapes bending,
    Taxicabs crush in the crowd.
    The tops are each a shining square
    Shuttles that steadily press through woolly fabric
    Dropping blossom,
    Gas-standards over
    Spray out jingling tumult
    Of white-hot rays.
    Monotonous domes of bowler-hats
    Vibrate in the heat.
    Silently, easily we sway through braying traffic,
    Down the crowded street.
    The tumult crouches over us,
    Or suddenly drifts to one side.

The first two stanzas present London's taxis as "Shuttles" and traffic as "woolly fabric." In almost Cubist fashion, the taxis are verbally reduced to "Black shapes" and "shining square[s]." Gas lamps near the street are "Dropping blossom[s]" in the form of "white-hot rays" of light (perhaps "the heat" of stanza four). Then round shapes appear in the form of the "domes of bowler-hats" before the "tumult" of buildings and traffic and people either "crouches over" the persona and his fellow passengers, in a narrow street, "Or suddenly drifts to one side" whenever the bus turns a corner. In sum, this is one way to paraphrase the action in the poem.

However, such a paraphrase tells us little about the poem's figurative language and whether or not Fletcher's language seems plausible. In the poem, traffic metaphorically becomes "woolly fabric" that vehicles "press through" since shuttles weaving through a loom to create a fabric are the source domain of the metaphor here for vehicles driving in traffic. Exactly what kind of traffic Fletcher refers to here is clear in the final stanza. Although the bus moves "Silently, easily," the "crowded street" contains "braying traffic." As the word "tumult" is used twice in the poem, the scene seems noisy even though it contrasts with the easy movement of the bus. While this makes Fletcher's choice of adverbs ("Silently, easily") questionable, my concern is with the metaphorical phrase, "braying traffic."

The OED will tell us that "bray" was used as a verb in the past to refer mainly to the sound made by a general range of animals. However, the OED also mentions the fact that by the twentieth century "bray" began to refer most commonly to the sound made specifically by the donkey, the mule, or the ass. In this sense, then, "braying traffic" is both "noisy" traffic and stubborn traffic. But where does the inference of stubbornness come from? According to the OED, "the mule is proverbially regarded as the epitome of obstinacy," so at some point in our cultural history the human personality trait known as stubbornness became attributed to mules. Associating obstinacy with mules reveals what Gilles Fauconnier and Turner call a "conceptual blend" in which a personality trait from the human domain has been projected onto the animal domain. The blend may have taken years to become entrenched culturally, but it arose when a human personality trait (i.e., obstinacy) became projected onto the mule as the animal's prototypical personality trait. This blend is evident in everyday similes ("stubborn as a mule") and novel poetic metaphors ("braying traffic"). Fletcher's choice of "braying" puts the culturally entrenched blend of obstinate mules into a new context: London's traffic. While the blend of obstinacy and mules is not novel, Fletcher's appropriation of it to depict London's traffic certainly seems so.

If "braying" demonstrates the Imagist preference for using "the exact word, not the nearly-exact" word because of the rich meanings evoked by le mot juste, it also puts into practice a theoretical idea espoused by Hulme. Great poetry, Hulme argued,

always endeavours to arrest you, and to make you continuously see a physical thing, to prevent you from 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. A poet says a ship "coursed the seas" to get a physical image, instead of the counter word "sailed."

What Hulme calls "the counter word" refers to the literal alternative of a figurative expression. Had Fletcher written "we sway through traffic making the noises of mules," or "we sway through traffic that is as stubborn as a mule," this would seem less effective than the more concise expression, "we sway through braying traffic." As Hulme would say, since the literal "counter words" do not "prevent us from gliding through" the poem, figurative language is needed to stop us in our tracks as we read the poem. This is precisely what figurative language can do for two simple reasons.

First, recent psycholinguistic data suggest that it takes longer to read sentences containing figurative language than it does to read their more literal equivalents. As psycholinguist Ira Noveck and his colleagues have found, "Universally longer reading times for sentences containing unanticipated metaphoric references is one piece of evidence revealing of [the cognitive] costs" of metaphor. If readers of Fletcher's poem do not anticipate the appearance of the word "braying," then it will take them several hundred milliseconds longer to read the sentence because of the added cognitive costs entailed by the metaphor. While a delay of several hundred milliseconds might not seem like being stopped in one's tracks, clearly contemporary cognitive science offers empirical evidence to support Hulme's original belief. Second, at 400 milliseconds post-onset in an experiment measuring brain activity via event related potentials (ERPs), a negative moving wave appears after exposure to and processing of items such as semantic anomalies or metaphors (Coulson 100-01). Known as an "N400 spike" (for negative moving wave at 400 milliseconds after stimulus presentation) in psycholinguistics, this empirically demonstrated phenomenon predicts that unexpected novelties such as figurative expressions will take subjects longer to process and thus comprehend. I assume "braying traffic" would produce just such an N400 effect although that is an empirical question. As Fletcher explained to Lowell in the summer of 1913, he wanted "to write about a modern city by recording its various moods," perhaps as "a series of pictures," which was why "he had been walking about London, staring intently at scenes and objects and setting down his reactions" in poems that would become part of his 1915 volume, Irradiations (de Chasca 41). "'Bus-Top" probably was a result of this method, and "braying traffic" puts into practice both Pound's insistence on selecting exact words and Hulme's preference for creative metaphors that disrupt reading. In other words, concentration and creativity are aspects of many Imagist metaphors (for another discussion of Imagist metaphor, see Crisp).


Along with metaphor, Imagists also used similes, although they openly preferred metaphors. This is apparent when, in a review, Ford Madox Ford complained that Lawrence was "a fine poet" who nevertheless "employs similes" (qtd. in Jones 26). Ford and Lawrence were both Imagists, and Ford liked adhering to principles, such as "never state a negative" (qtd. in Kimbrough), but "never use a simile" was not an Imagist principle. Of course, the following claim is made in the 1916 anthology's preface: "Imagists deal but little with similes, although much of their work is metaphorical. The reason for this is that while acknowledging the figure to be an integral part of all poetry, they feel that the constant imposing of one figure upon another in the same poem blurs the central effect." This suggests that while figures may be used, they should only be used sparingly. It also relates to Pound's claim that the "'one image poem' [like his Metro haiku] is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another" (qtd. in Alfrey 33). Setting one idea "on top of another" is acceptable for an Imagist, but setting ten ideas upon one another is not. Less is more would be one way to sum up the Imagist aesthetic even though the production of more from less puts more emphasis rather than less emphasis upon a poet's figurative language.

Despite the expressed preference for metaphor over simile, Imagists frequently used similes. Although the Imagists openly praised Aristotle, ever since Aristotle claimed "[t]he simile is also a metaphor, the difference is but slight" in Rhetoric (1406b), the similarities and differences between similes and metaphors have been a source of endless commentary. Today, psycholinguists like Sam Glucksberg and Boaz Keysar maintain, rather categorically, that "[s]imiles can always be intensified by putting them in metaphor form, whereas the reverse does not hold." This would seem to account for the intuitive difference we sense between similes and metaphors, although intuition alone is inadequate empirical evidence for supporting such a robust claim. According to cognitive linguist Michael Israel and his colleagues, similes "reflect similarities between conventionally unrelated items or domains" whereas metaphors "create" similarities. Or, as the psycholinguist Albert Katz has recently stated, "A good metaphor emphasizes similarity relations and deemphasizes the dissimilarities," which is something a simile may also do.

The intuition that metaphors are more intense than similes may stem from the difference between reflection and creation, or between a target that is already similar to a source rather than a target constructed solely via an unfamiliar or dissimilar source. To consider the truth of the proposition that similes reflect similarities, rather than create them, let us consider "The Fisherman's Wife," a poem from Lowell's 1917 sequence, "Lacquer Prints":

    When I am alone,
    The wind in the pine trees
    Is like the shuffling of waves
    Upon the wooden sides of a boat.

Here the fisherman's wife tries to counter her feeling of loneliness by equating it with her husband's. She does this in two ways. First, wood metonymically links the "pine trees" and the "wooden sides of a boat," thus allowing persona and reader to make the two separate scenes cohere. Second, the wind that results in the sound heard in the trees is also "shuffling" the waves against the hull of the fisherman's boat. The two sounds can thus seem congruent because the simile reflects similarities between the sound the wind makes in the pine trees and the sound the waves make against the boat. Lowell's simile conceptually prompts us to recognize those similarities. Lowell's persona imagines that the loneliness she feels is also felt by her husband, despite the distance between them, through two natural items (wood and wind) that both the wife's scene and the husband's scene have in common. At the end of his long poem, "Horae Canonicae," Auden referred to a similar feeling with the refrain: "In solitude, for company." For the fisherman's wife, in "solitude" there is "company" when she imagines that she and her husband simultaneously share their solitude thanks to the wind and the wood that are present to each one at the same time.

"From China," the next poem in Lowell's "Lacquer Prints" sequence, also reveals a Far Eastern influence upon Imagism where the simile is concerned. In this case, the simile becomes the climax of the poem, with each line building up to the simile at the end of the poem:

    I thought:—
    The moon,
    Shining upon the many steps of the palace before me,
    Shines also upon the chequered rice-fields Of my native land.
    And my tears fell
    Like white rice grains
    At my feet.

What Pound called "super-position" might be evident with "steps of the palace" being visualized as "chequered rice-fields" by the persona. But that parallelism is neither a metaphor nor a simile overtly. The overt simile appears at the end, where "tears" are understood as "white rice grains." We have to wait until line six of the poem before the target is introduced overtly, and then the next two lines of the poem provide the source domain through which we understand the tears, how they fall, and (as Israel and his colleagues would maintain) how the tears in the target domain are a priori similar to the rice grains in the source domain. In contrast to Lowell, Aldington formally reverses the climax in poem 4 of "Images" by opening with the source domain of the simile and ending with the target domain:

    As a young beech-tree on the edge of the forest
    Stands still in the evening,
    Then shudders through all its leaves in the light air
    And seems to fear the stars—
    So are you still and so tremble.
    (Jones 55)

Here the persona's addressee, "you," is imagined in terms of a beech tree. The beech tree is the source of the simile, while the addressee is the target of the simile. Aldington, unlike Lowell, begins with the source rather than the target, thereby creating a different sort of climax. In Aldington's case, because he begins with the source ("As a") we expect a target to follow ("So are you").

The same source-then-target form of simile appears in "The Gold Fish," a poem in Allen Upward's sequence, "Scented Leaves from a Chinese Jar":

    Like a breath from hoarded musk,
    Like the golden fins that move
    Where the tank's green shadows part—
    Living flames out of the dusk—
    Are the lightning throbs of love
    In the passionate lover's heart.

Whereas Lowell used a target-then-source simile, Upward (like Aldington) uses a source-then-target simile. Upward's simile, if transposed into the target-then-source form, would read: "the lightning throbs" are "like [ . . . ]." What the source-then-target form used by Aldington and Upward creates is a sense of expectation whereby readers anticipate a target will follow and that a pattern is to be completed (see Rumelhart et al. on the cognitive process of pattern completion). But readers of Lowell's "From China" might not know a simile is coming at the end of the poem because of her choice to use a target-then-source form of simile in just the last three lines of the poem. Although both forms of simile are effective, the source-then-target form raises a reader's expectations in ways the target-then-source form does not. That the Imagists would use such similes is not surprising given the influence Far Eastern poetry had upon their own. In a Japanese hokku for example, "the tenor [target] can follow the vehicle [source]" (Lewis 202), which may explain why we see the similes we see in the poems by Aldington and Upward (ironically, the source-then-target form of simile is also found in Milton's epic similes in Paradise Lost).

If similes can either be of the source-then-target type, or the target-then-source type, then the implicit simile in Pound's famous haiku from September 1914, "In a Station of the Metro," seems to embody both types at once. The haiku, which ironically does not appear in any of the four anthologies, is widely recognized as one of the premier Imagist poems:

    In a Station of the Metro
    The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet black bough.     (Jones 95)

In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner recognized the demands that Imagist poetry makes on readers, readers whose minds are provoked—by minimal cues like these—into forging rich associations between ideas. This recognition was based on his consideration of Pound's famous haiku:

The mind that found "petals on a wet, black bough" had been active (and for more than a year on that poem, off and on). The "plot" of the poem is that mind's activity, fetching some new thing into the field of consciousness. The action passing through any Imagist poem is a mind's invisible action discovering what will come next that may sustain the presentation—what image, what rhythm, what allusion, what word—to the end that the poem shall be "lord over fact," not the transcript of one encounter but the Gestalt of many, from the Metro traveller's to that of Koré in the underworld.

(Kenner 186)

The mind of the Imagist poet and the mind of the reader of Imagist poetry engage in an "invisible action" of meaning-making for Kenner. The poems are visible, but their effects and how they are achieved are not. That is why it is necessary to examine the poem's figurative language even if identifying the poem's main rhetorical figure has proven to be surprisingly difficult.

While Christopher Butler calls this figure the prime example of the Imagist "metaphor without copula," Kenner argues the poem contains an implicit simile, which is "a simile with 'like' suppressed." Gage also finds an implicit simile here (with faces as the target) since the semicolon (later a colon) after the word "crowd" seemingly replaces the words "are like." As for the poem's function of "presenting a juxtaposition of images" (Lamarque and Olsen 414), Brian Caraher says the juxtaposition "puts human faces and natural flowers, underground platform and darkened tree limb, into co-active perceptual exchange." Caraher maintains that what makes Pound's figure unique is that it reverses the conventional trope of understanding a human element (target) in terms of a natural element (source) because he feels that the natural (petals) is understood in terms of the human (faces) here. But then Caraher contradicts his claim by saying (like Butler) that the figure is indeed a metaphor with "faces" as source and "petals" as target. Ethan Lewis seems likewise confused, since he argues that neither the faces nor the petals are metaphorically "construed 'in terms of' the other." Lewis says this in order to offer the poem up as an example of the so-called figure of super-position, in which neither term is strictly identifiable as source and target. Lewis's superposition position, although indebted to Pound, is (as I see it) an attempt to take up a third position somewhere between the implicit simile side of the debate (e.g., Kenner and Gage) and the metaphor side of the debate (e.g., Caraher and Butler). However, although it may seem that "no principle of decision for any of the questions raised is given by the poem itself" (Rodway 101-02), there are two good reasons to say Pound's implicit simile invites us to picture faces in terms of petals.

First, because "dynamic events, not single, isolated occurrences, are the basic unit of perception" (Gibbs and Colston 362), Pound's haiku reveals something vital about the mind. The "apparition" Pound depicts is a dynamic event, a fundamental "unit of perception." If similes "reflect similarities" (Israel et al.), then how does the implicit simile provoke a reflection of similarities between petals and faces? The cognitive-linguistic notion of image schema offers an answer. Image schemas are highly abstract, physiologically-based mental images used in cognitive functioning (Turner, Reading 57), and they may be thought of as "gestalt structures" (Johnson). Pound's implicit simile (faces are like petals) reveals is a LINK image schema: both faces and petals are smaller objects linked to objects (human bodies and tree boughs) that are larger in size, respectively. According to Mark Johnson, "The simple LINK schema makes possible our perception of similarity. Two or more objects are similar because they share some feature or features. Those shared features are their cognitive links in our understanding." While Johnson admits "we have a highly abstract notion of linkage" here, two features shared by faces and petals in Pound's implicit simile are (1.) their relatively small size in relation to the objects that (2.) they are linked to. Because these features of size and linkage are shared equally and in similar ways by both "faces" and "petals," this might explain the ease with which critics have been able to view either term as source and target.

Second, apart from the LINK schema, the size and position of the simile's terms can be examined from a cognitive perspective. Gage thus took a step in the right direction with his reference to the gestalt psychology of figure/ ground relations in his discussion of this poem. The juxtaposition and relative size of the two different objects in the poem relate directly to a figure/ground relation. This can be seen in what the cognitive grammarian Ronald Langacker has called a "relational profile" between a figure and ground (conceptually) and between a trajector and landmark (linguistically). Just as faces are profiled against the bodies they are attached to in the poem, so too are petals profiled against the bough they are attached to. In this sense, faces are figures while bodies are grounds, and petals are figures while the bough is the ground. And yet, while petals are profiled against the ground of the bough, the faces are explicitly profiled against a "crowd" (i.e., a ground that is larger than any single human body to which a face would be attached). Indeed, there is a mismatch in profiles because of the different prepositions, "in" and "on," that Pound uses here. The prepositions "in" and "on" semantically encode different profiles between figures and grounds at the conceptual level, and trajectors and landmarks at the linguistic level. For example, in ESL textbooks it is common to teach students the meaning of "in" and "on" with reference to pictures, say, of a ball "in" or "on" a cube. For Langacker, such visual, image-schematic information is encoded in the verbal prepositions themselves with their unique profiles. So while "faces" are profiled against the (back)ground of the "crowd" linguistically, in Pound's poem the faces are imagined as "in" a bounded space (the crowd on the subway platform) conceptually.

This is different from "petals" that are "on" the tree's "bough" since the petals are linguistically profiled against the (back)ground of the bough as opposed to the larger object (tree) to which the bough is presumably attached. In other words, in one line we have faces/bodies/crowd, while in the other we have petals/bough/tree. There are profiles between three levels in the two lines, but the profiles are mismatched. Pound and his readers profile the first-level term against the third-level term in the top line, while profiling the first-level term against the second-level term in the bottom line. Thus, there are four juxtapositions here rather than two: faces on bodies, petals on a bough, faces in a crowd, and faces as petals. We can find similarity between faces and petals due to the presence of a LINK schema although we can find a difference in the profiles marked by the prepositions in the poem. But similes reflect similarities, which is what Pound's figure also does, so Kenner and Gage seem right to feel that there is an implicit simile in the poem.


Don't use such an expression as "dim land of peace. " It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol. —Ezra Pound

(qtd. in Jones 131)

Pound's preference for the concrete over the abstract helps account for the presence of many natural objects that appear in Imagist poems, but Pound's true reasons for dismissing examples like "dim land of peace" could be made explicit by analyzing such analogically compressed terms as "Noun Phrase-of-Noun Phrase" compounds (Turner, "Figure" 54). And yet, although Pound dislikes "mixing" the abstract with the concrete, this is in fact how poetic symbols are conceptually created. "No particular objects are intrinsically [ . . . ] symbols. They are interpreted to be so," according to biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon, so "when we say something is a 'symbol,' we mean there is some social convention, tacit agreement, or explicit code which establishes the relationship that links one thing to another." The conceptual process that "establishes the relationship that links one thing to another" is an analogical process involving dissimilar elements. In general, an analogy, which "puts pressure on conventional category structures" (Turner, Literary 93), is "not constructed between very like concepts" (Turner, Reading 135). However, when analogies prompt us to combine two distinct elements, then poetic symbols can be the result.

In the case of Imagism, one of those elements is often a natural object, but that concrete object only obtains its symbolic significance when analogically associated with something abstract. To understand analogy as a process for creating Imagist symbols, let us consider two poems. The first is "The Swan" by F. S. Flint:

    Under the lily shadow
    and the gold
    and the blue and mauve
    that the whin and the lilac
    pour down on the water,
    the fishes quiver.
    Over the green cold leaves
    and the rippled silver
    and the tarnished copper
    of its neck and beak,
    toward the deep black water
    beneath the arches,
    the swan floats slowly.
    Into the dark of the arch the swan floats
    and into the black depth of my sorrow
    it bears a white rose of flame.

Flint, who probably knew more about the French Symbolism than any other Imagist in 1913, seems to have written a poem that is equally Imagist and Symbolist. If a "Symbolist poem was necessarily short, evocative, and mysterious" (McArthur, para. 1), then one might claim that Flint's poem is as much Symbolist as it is Imagist. The poem also demonstrates something Pound referred to once with respect to his metro haiku: "In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective" (qtd. in Jones 33). The exterior-to-interior transformation Pound mentions is actually the completion of an analogical process. Here, the transformation occurs in the last stanza of Flint's poem when we recognize the swan as an analogue for the persona and what the swan does as an analogue for how the persona feels.

While sorrow is abstract, the swan is concrete. Just as the emotion—"the black depth of [...] sorrow"—is depicted spatially, the swan physically moves under "the dark of the arch." Just the "black depth" and "dark" "arch" are analogues, so too are the concrete "swan" and the abstract "sorrow." Therefore, we must mix the concrete with the abstract (pace Pound) to see the swan as a symbol for the persona's sorrow. Also, the "white rose," which is itself a symbol for purity (Ferber 175), exacerbates the persona's sorrow in the form of a painful "flame." These remarks are in fact recognitions resulting from analogical processes that yield poetic symbols. Clearly, Flint's literal depiction of what the swan does is a figurative description of an emotional state. Certain critics would no doubt define the swan as an objective correlative, but the agent responsible for that correlation is the subjective human mind that correlates the swan with sorrow. As for Flint's decision to depict a swan rather than some other animal or object, Deacon's idea of "social convention" in symbol interpretation is relevant here. Since "the association of swans with poets" is an old one in literary history, and since "swans are migratory, and are frequently seen alone," they seem apt symbols to poets for emotions like sorrow (Ferber 214-15). While Flint's depiction of the swan is original, the choice of swan is conventional. But that is not to say the conventional choice is the wrong choice. In fact, the conventional choice is the right choice lest the poet be reduced to using symbols that nobody else recognizes as such.

Another apt choice of symbol can be seen in the second poem under discussion here, "Brooding Grief" by D. H. Lawrence:

    A yellow leaf from the darkness
    Hops like a frog before me—
    —Why should I start and stand still?
    I was watching the woman that bore me
    Stretched in the brindled darkness
    Of the sick-room, rigid with will
    To die—
    And the quick leaf tore me
    Back to this rainy swill
    Of leaves and lamps and traffic mingled before me.

Lawrence's choice of the leaf is symbolically apt. In classical poetry, "leaves, their mortality, and their susceptibility to wind made them perfect emblems for the dead" (Ferber 108), and much the same can be said here. Given Lawrence's argument that the world is "rainy swill" when your mother is ready to die on her deathbed, the presence of a leaf in this poem is fitting. According to Neil Roberts, "Pound's 'Go in fear of abstractions' is, of all the Imagist principles, the one that would most have appealed to Lawrence" ("D. H." 106), and this might also explain the presence of the leaf. While the persona's emotional grief is abstract, the poet's representation of the dead leaf blown by about the wind is concrete. The movement of the "yellow leaf" is first presented through a simile (the leaf "Hops like a frog"), and then "the quick leaf" becomes personified as an agent tearing the persona "Back to this rainy swill," itself a metaphor for the world. However, despite the frog simile and the personification metaphor, we might ask how the leaf (a natural object) becomes "the adequate symbol" for the persona's "Brooding Grief"?

To say the leaf is a symbol for grief is to make a simple statement about a conceptual process that is anything but simple. Simple explanations of complicated processes cannot be mistaken for the processes themselves. As F. R. Leavis once wrote, in reference to the "Water-Party" chapter in Lawrence's Women in Love, "to suggest that the rabbit and the cattle 'stand for' this and that would be to suggest much simpler ways of constructing and conveying significance and much simpler significances than we actually have." Disagreeing with Leavis today may seem like flogging a dead horse, but Leavis confuses our "ways of constructing and conveying significance" with descriptions of those "ways." The production of meaning and descriptions of the production of meaning are two different things. Just because a description seems simple, we cannot conclude that the process described is simple. The production of poetically significant symbols is an analogical process although naming that process and explaining how that process works are two different things. But in the poems by Flint and Lawrence the swan and the leaf are not irrelevant objects. They are not objects whose presence is simply gratuitous. They are objects that we relate directly to the emotions suggested by the poems. We do so by recognizing that what the objects are, and what they do, are analogues for the personae and their feelings. After all, Pound aligned "evocation" with "genius" (Jones), and I stated earlier that Imagism was a poetics of evocation because the recognition of the symbolic significance of the natural objects in Imagist poems like these is something we do implicitly rather than something the poems do explicitly. That is the art of evocation and it is the art of Imagist poetry. Although it may seem difficult to imagine today, at the time Imagist poems seemed unusual—even "antipoetic" (Tiffany)—and terms like laconic, hard, clear, straight, objective, direct, and paratactic are just some of the words that have been used over the years to describe the Imagist style. As Hulme stated (circa 1913), "I prophesy that a period of dry, hard, classical verse is coming," and that prediction was seemingly fulfilled by the arrival of Imagism and its presentations of "hard" objects of symbolic significance.


In this article, I have tried to reveal how concepts like fictive motion, image schemas, and analogical reference relate to the cognitive rhetoric of Imagism, especially figurative language in Imagism. Granted, discussing nine Imagist poems by seven Imagist poets means that some of the generalizations in this article may seem hasty. However, the cognition involved with metaphor, simile, and analogy is principled rather than arbitrary, and it operates just as effectively in literary contexts as it does in nonliterary contexts. That is why I think that some of the things I have said here are applicable not only to Imagist poetry in particular but to most poetry in general. That said, a cognitive rhetoric of Imagism will remain incomplete until the images of Imagism are analyzed. Of course, the image may be a difficult concept to come to terms with in Imagist theory. This is because, according to Tiffany, "Pound's attempts to define the Image violate the basic principles of Imagism (economy, precision, clarity). Not only is he unable to offer a literal definition of the Image, but the figurative analogies multiply with remarkable fecundity and obscurity." The infamously ill-defined "Doctrine of the Image" suggests at least as much. However, "in literary usage, imagery refers to images produced in the mind by language" (Preminger, ed.), and the imagery produced by readers of Imagist poetry is something cognitive rhetoric could analyze in the future. But what would this demand?

It could require, for example, picking up where Elaine Scarry left off in her recent study of literary imagery. Scarry's book is not about Imagism, although many of her claims are supported by evidence from cognitive psychology. However, her ideas might be extended to Imagism while drawing on Zenon Pylyshyn's more recent imagery research and Allan Paivio's "dual storage system" theory of cognitive memory and its interaction with language. In Paivio's system, "an object elicits its verbal label (or image or other objects) and a word arouses implicit verbal associates or images of objects" (qtd. in MacCormac 140-41), so the power of words and objects to evoke each other has clear ramifications for literary study. After all, "the mind thinks with pictures as well as words" (Thagard 94), so literary imagery is worth studying in more detail. In sum, I am hopeful that cognitive rhetoric's roots in cognitive science will help it overcome the "disproven linguistics" and "dubious psychology" that Norman Holland maintains has plagued literary criticism for far too long (qtd. in Wright 530).

Source: Craig A. Hamilton, "Toward a Cognitive Rhetoric of Imagism," in Style, Vol. 38, No. 4, Winter 2004, pp. 468-90.


Crawford, Fred D., British Poets of the Great War, Susquehanna University Press, 1988.

Doyle, Charles, William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1980.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, H. D.: The Career of That Struggle, Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 12-13.

Friedman, Susan Stanford, "Hilda Doolittle (H. D.)," in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 45, American Poets, 1880-1945, Gale Research, 1986, pp. 115-49.

Hamilton, Craig, "Toward a Cognitive Rhetoric of Imagism," Style, Vol. 38, No. 4, Winter 2004, p. 468.

Harmer, J. B., Victory in Limbo, Imagism 1908-1917, St. Martin's Press, 1975.

Hughes, Glenn, Imagism and the Imagists, Humanities Press, 1960.

Perkins, David, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode, Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1976.

Smith, Richard Eugene, Richard Aldington, Twayne, 1977.

"William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)," in Modern American Poetry, (accessed July 17, 2008).


Bergson, Henri, An Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by T. E. Hulme, Liberal Arts Press, 1949.

Hulme is credited with creating the initial philosophy behind the Imagism movement. His inspiration came from two sources, the symbol-ist poets in France and Bergson's metaphysics philosophy. This could be considered the book that started it all.

Carpenter, Humphrey, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

After meeting with T. E. Hulme, Pound formulated Hulme's ideas and organized the Imagism movement around them. Although Pound's poetry is not totally representative of the imagist tenets, his writing was influenced by the movement that he started. As one of the most noted American poets, the reading of his life story offers an interesting background for the study of American poetry.

De Chasca, Edmund S., John Gould Fletcher and Imagism, University of Missouri Press, 1978.

De Chasca studies Fletcher's poetry and offers his interpretations and criticisms of this American imagist poet.

Doolittle, Hilda, HERmione, Norton, 1981.

This is a semi-autobiographical novel about Doolittle's life during her twenties. At this time she was torn between old definitions of herself and her newfound world that included living in a foreign land, working with very powerful poets, and experimenting with sexuality. In this work, she discusses her relationship with Ezra Pound and her bisexuality and offers a vivid portrayal of her inner psychology.

Eliot, T. S., Aldous Huxley, and F. S. Flint, Three Critical Essays on Modern English Poetry, 1920, reprint, Folcroft Library Editions, 1974.

The word modern in the title of this book cannot be taken at face value as it was originally written in 1920. When these three exceptional and well-respected writers refer to modern poetry, they mean the beginning of the modernist period, which means that imagist poetry is discussed. Eliot offers a brief criticism of poetry in general; Huxley discusses the subject matter of poetry; and Flint writes about the art of writing, especially as affected by the tenets of imagism.

Healey, E. Claire, and Keith Cushman, eds., Letters of D. H. Lawrence and Amy Lowell, 1914-1925, Black Sparrow Press, 1985.

Lowell was the major spokesperson for the Imagism movement, and Lawrence, although not one of the major imagists, was affected by the imagist poets. Their correspondence offers the reader an inside look into their private discussions about American and British poetry at the turn of the century as well as their reflections on the movement.

Kirby-Smith, H. T., Origins of Free Verse, University of Michigan Press, 1996.

One of the major controversies both in Britain and in the United States concerning the Imagism movement was the discussion of the use of free verse. This book offers an overview of the use of this form and tries to answer some of the questions that free verse has aroused: can free verse be categorized? or what is a prose poem?

Lehman, John, America's Greatest Unknown Poet: Lorine Niedecker, Zelda Wilde, 2003.

This biography of Niedecker offers rare insight into the life of this late-comer to objectivist poetry. Lehman includes her poetry, photographs, and letters.

Quennell, Peter, Baudelaire and the Symbolists, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1954.

To better understand what Imagism was all about, it is helpful to comprehend the forces and influences that preceded this movement. Most of the imagist poets were heavily influenced by the French poets, and this book offers a historic perspective of some of the best of the nineteenth-century French poets and their Symbolism movement.


views updated May 18 2018


Imagism was the literary movement that most deeply influenced the development of modern American poetry and the one that contributed the most to the development of modernist techniques in all genres. In reacting to the late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century verse that employed images merely as decorations, it resembles the Romantic reaction against conventional eighteenth-century imagery as well as William Wordsworth's emphasis in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1802) on the poet's fidelity to personal experience. In using the term Imagisme, the imagists also invoked the revolution in the modern French symbolisme of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. In its association with vers libre, or "free verse," it represented a revolt against conventional rhythm in which the sound bore little relationship to the sense.


In 1914 D. H. Lawrence told Amy Lowell (1874–1925) that Ezra Pound's (1885–1972) imagism was "just an advertising scheme," and it indeed began that way (Gould, p. 137). Pound coined the term in 1912 to describe some poems of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886–1961) that he, as foreign editor, was sending to Poetry magazine in Chicago. In End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound (1979), Doolittle recalled Pound editing her poem "Hermes of the Ways" in London's British Museum tearoom and then adding "H.D. Imagiste" at the bottom of the page (p. 18). As Pound told Poetry's editor Harriet Monroe in 1915, the movement was started "not very seriously," chiefly to get H.D.'s poems a hearing (Parisi and Young, p. 69). Pound described H.D.'s poems to Monroe in October 1912 as written "in the laconic speech of the Imagistes" (Parisi and Young, p. 47). He first used "Imagiste" in print in describing the five poems he appended as the "Complete Poetical Works" of T. E. Hulme (1883–1927) to his volume of poetry Ripostes (1912). In "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste" (Poetry, March 1913), written with contributors to Poetry in mind, Pound defined the image as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant in time" and in so doing gives a "sense of freedom from time limits and space limits" (p. 200).

The March issue of Poetry also published an essay titled "Imagisme" written by Pound but signed (to suggest that the movement was more than a one-poet phenomenon) by F. S. Flint. Speaking of the Imagists in the past tense, the article says they were not revolutionaries but traditionalists who had only some informal rules: "1. Direct treatment of the 'thing,' whether subjective or objective. 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" (p. 199). The article also referred to imagism's "Doctrine of the Image," which it said need not interest the public (p. 199). In Poetry's April 1913 issue, Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" provided a brilliant example of imagist style. In the Fortnightly Review of 1 September 1914, Pound's essay titled "Vorticism" explained that he first tried to express his vision of beautiful faces in a Paris metro station in a thirty-line poem, six months later in half that space, and a year later in the "hokku-like sentence" of the final poem (p. 89). In 1914 Pound published an anthology titled Des Imagistes that included poems by the poets H.D., Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint, Amy Lowell, and William Carlos Williams and the two novelists Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford) and James Joyce.

Despite imagism's origin as a publicity tactic for H.D.'s poems, its tenets had been developing since 1909, soon after Pound's arrival in England from the United States. In 1912 Pound wrote of the "forgotten school of images" that formed around T. E. Hulme, who was killed in World War I (Pratt, p. 14). That early school included F. S. Flint (1885–1960), and Pound had joined the group by April 1909. Discussion included vers libre, verse forms such as the Japanese tanka and haiku, French symbolism, and the precision of French novelists such as Stendhal and Gustave Flaubert. According to Flint, Hulme insisted on accurate presentation of the object and no wasted words. Hulme's conception of language, which was influenced by the French philosopher Henri Bergson, was a crucial influence on his conception of the image. One sees what Flint must have meant by a "Doctrine of the Image" as the idea has its counterpart in Hulme's statement in his 1913 essay "Romanticism and Classicism" that "images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence of an intuitive language" (p. 135).


Ezra Pound's imagist poem "In a Station of the Metro" with the spacing Pound insisted upon.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals on a wet, black bough .

Pound, "In a Station of the Metro," p. 12.

Imagism brought publicity and debate to Poetry magazine and soon spread to other journals connected with Pound, such as the Egoist (which published a special imagist issue in 1915) and the Little Review. But its very success led to a blurring of its program, particularly after the Boston poet Amy Lowell joined the movement. When she read H.D.'s poetry in the 1913 Poetry, Lowell decided that she too was an imagist. A member of a distinguished and wealthy family that included the poet James Russell Lowell and a brother who became the president of Harvard University, she became a patron as well as a contributor of imagist verse to Poetry. When she visited England in 1913 with the principal goal of meeting Pound and the imagists, she was at first welcomed by Pound. But Pound's interest in imagism was waning, and his anthology Des Imagistes was poorly received.


Lowell proposed to reinvigorate the movement through a series of anthologies titled Some Imagist Poets. The first anthology, in 1915, was a success thanks to Lowell's advertising and book tours, and it was followed by two more editions in 1916 and 1917. Pound claimed that Lowell ignored the tenets and lowered the standards of imagism by accepting any poem as imagist if it were in free verse, and he objected to her editorial policy of letting in too many poets who then chose their own poems. The publisher's blurb for the first anthology claimed that she was the leader of the imagist movement, and her critical book Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917) eliminated Pound from her discussion of imagism. Dismissing Lowell's movement as "Amygisme," Pound thought that her poets violated the imagist tenet that prohibited no word that does not contribute to the presentation. In Lowell's anthologies the poems became long and discursive (for example, John Gould Fletcher's "The Blue Symphony" in 1915) rather than concentrated and imagistic. Although Lowell's introduction to the first volume was a useful restatement of the imagist rules for good writing, she ignored imagist concentration by expanding the three original imagist rules to six, introducing elaborations such as using common speech, creating new rhythms, and asserting freedom in choosing subject matter.

To dissociate himself from Lowell and lesser poets like Lowell's close colleague Fletcher, Pound joined with Wyndham Lewis, a painter, in founding another even shorter-lived movement, vorticism. In restating imagist principles as vortices, he clarified the original imagist tenets. Vorticism believed in using the "primary pigment" of an art: in painting, color and form (often nearly abstract); in poetry, the image. As the vorticist artist juxtaposes geometric forms, the poet juxtaposes images. Pound considered "Amygisme" scenic, static, and imitative. In his 1914 "Vorticism" essay he defined the vorticist image as a "radiant node or cluster . . . from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing" (p. 92). His earlier description of the image as a "complex" (using the word in the psychological sense of the phrase "Oedipus complex") also implied its intellectual and emotional complexity. In the vorticist magazine Blast (1914), Pound quotes from H.D.'s "Oread" to exemplify the proper use of the image. In what seems a reference to "Oread" in the "Vorticism" essay, he writes that its juxtaposed images are "not an equation of mathematics . . . having something to do with form but about sea, cliffs, night, having something to do with mood" (p. 92). The poem does not literally describe a seacoast or explicitly state that a crashing wave resembles a pine tree. Images are abstracted from the scene, acting as equations or formulas for the emotions the artist finds within it.


One of poems in the second issue of Blast (1915) showed a further development in imagist technique. T. S. Eliot's (1888–1965) "Preludes" revealed city dwellers who reflect the "sordid images" of "grimy scraps of withered leaves," "newspapers from vacant lots," and "broken blinds and chimney-pots" (Lewis, Blast no. 2, pp. 4–49). Yet the poem's reflections on the "infinitely suffering thing" that the images suggest goes beyond the confines of the imagist poem. In poems like "Preludes," "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), and The Waste Land (1922), Eliot showed how an imagistic poem could expand beyond the confines of the short lyric poem without losing what Eliot called "first intensity." Although The Waste Land communicates through what it refers to as a "heap of broken images" without discursive commentary or narrative, Eliot's poem has clearly gone beyond the conciseness of imagism. Yet it has kept its intensity. The Waste Land may be considered one highly developed image (a "radiant node or cluster") of spiritual dryness in the way that Pound claimed in his "Vorticism" essay that Dante's Divine Comedy (discounting the poem's expository passages) was a single image: "The form of sphere above sphere, the varying reaches of light, the minutiae of pearls upon foreheads, all these are parts of the Image" (p. 96).


H.D.'s imagist poem "Oread" as cited by Ezra Pound in Blast.

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In T. S. Eliot's definition of the "objective correlative" in "Hamlet and His Problems" (1919), we see the imagist principle when he states that a work of art must communicate "a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked" (p. 125). In Eliot's definition, one finds Hulme's praise of the image because it attempts to communicate sensations directly and Pound's description of H.D.'s poem as an "equation" for an emotion. Pound also faced the challenge of writing a long poem on imagist principles in his epic poem The Cantos (1925–1969). To explain a poem composed of broken images and fragmented narratives, he introduced his conception of the "ideogrammic method." According to Pound, the unit of meaning in the Chinese language, the ideogram, is composed of a cluster of details; for example, to denote "red" the ideogram combines characters for the rose, iron rust, the cherry, and the flamingo. In ideogrammic poetry, images, concepts, and quotations are juxtaposed and, theoretically, communicate their meaning as they come together in the reader's mind. As in the earlier definitions of the image, the ideogram is an intellectual and emotional "complex" or a "radiant note or cluster."

The genius of imagism was to formulate the principles of modernist writing that continued to inform twentieth-century writing long after the movement died out. In addition to the influence of the Romantics and symbolistes, the precision of Flaubert's prose, Henry James's emphasis on showing rather than telling, and the turn-of-the-century popularity of the haiku inspired imagism's principle of directness and concision. Eliot's "objective correlative," William Carlos Williams's slogan "no ideas but in things," and Archibald MacLeish's belief (expressed in the 1926 poem "Ars Poetica") that a poem "should not mean / But be" bear the mark of imagism. Imagism's emphasis on poetic form anticipated the formalist criticism of Eliot, Ivor Armstrong Richards, and Richard P. Blackmur. What Pound calls the imagist "freedom from time limits and space limits" anticipates the modernist conception of "spatial form," in which temporal narratives are unified through recurring motifs and scenes composed of vivid images. In prose the images that conclude Lawrence's novel The Rainbow (1915) or make up the interchapters of Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time (1925) demonstrate the importance of imagistic technique to modern prose. The technical and philosophical principles of imagism revolutionized modern literature.

See alsoAestheticism; Lyric Poetry; Poetry: A Magazine of Verse


Primary Works

Eliot, T. S. "Hamlet and His Problems." In Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1964.

H. D. [Hilda Doolittle]. End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1979.

H. D. "Oread," Blast no. 1 (20 June 1914): 154.

Flint, F. S. "Imagisme." Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 1 (March 1913): 198–200.

Hulme, T. E. "Romanticism and Classicism." In Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, edited by Herbert Read. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1961.

Lewis, Wyndham, ed. Blast no. 1 (20 June 1914); no. 2 (July 1915). Reprinted, Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1981.

Lowell, Amy. Tendencies in Modern American Poetry. New York: Macmillan, 1917. New York: Octagon Books, 1971.

Pound, Ezra. "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste." Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 1 (March 1913): 200–206.

Pound, Ezra. "In a Station of the Metro." Poetry 2, no. 1 (April 1913): 12. Also available at

Pound, Ezra. "Vorticism." Fortnightly Review, 1 September 1914. Reprinted in Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. New York: New Directions, 1970.

Secondary Works

Coffman, Stanley K. Imagism: A Chapter for the History of Modern Poetry. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.

Gould, Jean. Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.

Parisi, Joseph, and Stephen Young, eds. Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters, the First Fifty Years, 1912–1962. New York: Norton, 2002.

Pratt, William. The Imagist Poem: Modern Poetry in Miniature. New York: Dutton, 1963.

Timothy Materer


views updated May 21 2018

imagism Movement in poetry that flourished in the USA and England from 1912 to 1917. The imagists believed that poetry should use the language and flexible rhythms of common speech. Amy Lowell, their principal exponent, produced three anthologies called Some Imagist Poets (1915–17). Among its most distinguished contributors was Ezra Pound.