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Reference group
Imagists (act. 1912–1917) were a group of American and British poets working mainly in London in the early twentieth century. The name—originally imagistes—was applied in 1912 by Ezra Pound to himself, his former fiancée, Hilda Doolittle (who published as ‘H. D.’), and Richard Aldington, who was to marry H. D. the following year. Imagism is seen as a crucial movement in the development of modernism. T. S. Eliot said it was ‘conveniently taken as the starting-point of modern poetry’ (J. Brooker, 46). It defined itself against Victorian, decadent, and Georgian verse, advocating clarity and directness (the sparse and the concrete instead of nineteenth-century poeticisms) and rejecting regular stanzaic forms in favour of vers libre. The imagist poems by the founding trio are generally intensely visual and emotional rather than narrative or discursive. Their imagery is primarily taken from the natural rather than the human world. The settings or themes tend to the exotic: the Hellenic south (as in H. D.'s and Aldington's work) or the ancient Far East (as in Pound's Cathay poems, 1915). H. D.'s ‘Oread’ (1915) is typically minimalist, using the image of pine trees to visualize the colour and forms of breaking waves:
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.
The conjunction of pines and rocks and sea suggests the setting is probably Mediterranean. The apostrophe to the sea, by a voice identifying itself with the rocks, suggests a classical world of gods, nymphs (an oread is a mountain nymph), and metamorphoses. It conjures a sense of awe at the otherness of sea and land, animate and inanimate, the human and the natural, or the human and the divine—though it may of course merely refer to bathers. The movement and energy of the waves (which suggest emotional release, or the need for it) are evoked, but also held still by the delicacy of the visual precision.

When imagist poems represent the human world they tend to do so in terms of the non-human. Ezra Pound's celebrated haiku-style miniature ‘In a Station of the Metro’ is a thousand miles from the metropolitan mechanization that provoked it:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pound explained that ‘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’ (Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska, 103). Imagism, that is, works antithetically to a Romanticism conceived as trapped in the pathetic fallacy. Where a Romantic poet wants to express an emotion, and projects it onto the external world, the imagist finds images in the external world which can be internalized so as to give a form and a reality to an emotion.

As the foreign editor for Harriet Monroe's Chicago-based Poetry magazine, Pound submitted poems by H. D. and Aldington, labelled as imagiste. Three by Aldington—‘Choricos’, ‘To a Greek Marble’, and ‘Au Vieux Jardin’—appeared in the November 1912 issue of Poetry; and three by H. D.—‘Hermes of the Ways’, ‘Orchard’, and ‘Epigram’—in January 1913. The note accompanying Aldington's work described the imagistes as ‘a group of ardent Hellenists who are pursuing interesting experiments in vers libre; trying to attain in English certain subtleties of cadence of the kind that Mallarmé and his followers have studied in French’ (Jones, 18). Pound's strategy was to persuade Monroe that H. D.'s work was ‘the sort of American stuff’ that he could present in London or Paris ‘without its being ridiculed’, and went on to describe it as ‘Objective—no slither; direct—no excessive use of adjectives, no metaphors that won't permit examination. It's straight talk, straight as the Greek!’ (Selected Letters, 11).

Pound had also announced the launch of the movement, if mysteriously, in a ‘prefatory note’ to a gathering of five short poems by his friend T. E. Hulme entitled parodically ‘The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme’, which he published within his own volume of poems, Ripostes, in 1912. (That year Hulme had already published them under this title in A. R. Orage's magazine The New Age, for which he wrote as a critic.) ‘As for the future,’ wrote Pound, ‘Les Imagistes, the descendants of the forgotten school of 1909, have that in their keeping.’ The ‘forgotten school of 1909’ has been identified as Hulme's Secession Club that met for a few months in the Café Tour d'Eiffel; but it might equally refer to the poets Ford Madox Ford (then Hueffer) published in the English Review, which he founded in December of that year: these included Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, and Pound himself, as well as writers who would later figure in imagist collections, such as D. H. Lawrence and F. S. Flint.

If Hulme was not himself an imagiste—he was probably too pugnacious to countenance being co-opted into someone else's club; and anyway, he was primarily a philosopher and a critic—he certainly contributed to the movement's conception. He had heard Henri Bergson lecture on ‘the image’ at a philosophical congress in Bologna in 1911. Hulme was a significant precursor for Pound because of his disciplined brevity, setting ‘an enviable example to many of his contemporaries who have had less to say’ (Collected Shorter Poems, 251). Pound also admired Hulme as a theorist; his arguments against Romanticism, and his analysis of poetic language, were crucial to imagism. Imagism itself, like so many avant-garde movements, was as important for its manifestos as for the works for which they supplied the theories.

The first statements of imagist principles appeared in Poetry in March 1913. One took the form of an interview Flint conducted with Pound. Three celebrated ‘rules’ were announced:
(1) Direct treatment of the ‘thing’, whether subjective or objective.
(2) To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
(3) As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.
‘They held also a certain “Doctrine of the Image”’, said Flint, adding mysteriously that they had not committed it to writing because ‘it did not concern the public, and would provoke useless discussion’. Pound did attempt to elaborate the doctrine, however, supplementing these rules with ‘A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste’ (published in the same issue) advising ‘Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something’ and ‘Go in fear of abstractions’, as well as giving detailed advice about rhyme and rhythm.

The elaboration, continued as a series of anthologies, kept the movement visible. Des Imagistes was edited by Pound in 1914, and included thirty-seven poems, more than half of which were from the founding trio: ten by Aldington, seven by H. D., and six by Pound. Besides Ford and Flint, the volume also included work by writers who would prove key modernists—James Joyce and the American author William Carlos Williams—as well as poems by Allen Upward (1863–1926), and three more Americans, Skipwith Cannell, John Cournos, and Amy Lowell.

Pound's dynamism, aggression, and genius for publicity ensured that imagism was rapidly caught up in the fissile politics of the avant-garde. When Flint published an article on ‘The history of imagism’ in The Egoist in 1915, claiming that the term was introduced by Hulme's Poets' Club in 1908, he caused a schism with Pound, who detached himself from the group, and founded a new movement, vorticism [see Vorticists], with the writer and artist Wyndham Lewis. Pound was also defining himself against Ford's ‘impressionism’ at this time, arguing that impressionism was too much concerned with the visual [see Literary impressionists]. Vorticism, by contrast, celebrating energy, motion, and machismo, was more like an Anglo-Saxon version of Italian futurism—though Pound also criticized futurism—as merely ‘accelerated impressionism’ (Jones, 21).

Amy Lowell assumed the leadership of the group from this time. The French e was dropped, and they now called themselves imagists. She published three annual anthologies all called Some Imagist Poets (1915, 1916, and 1917). The first was mainly edited by Aldington and H. D., but after Aldington joined the army in 1916 Lowell oversaw the other two volumes. Mostly the same poets were included, except Pound, who failed to persuade Lowell to stop using the banner ‘imagist’, after which he bitterly derided the movement as ‘Amygism’. In fact she had tried to re-label the movement as the quintessentials, but the publisher Houghton Mifflin preferred retaining a name that it thought was already recognizable. Lowell introduced a more democratic approach to the editing, asking poets to select the best of their own unpublished work.

Aldington's first volume of poems, appearing in 1915, announced itself as an imagist collection: Images 1910–1915. His and H. D.'s later poetry continued to develop the mode. But as with many of his generation Aldington felt the war also demanded literary treatment. In his 1919 volume War and Love imagism provided reveries of past beauty and happiness, contrasted with a more narrative, realistic treatment of the horror of the western front. In addition the publication in 1917 of T. S. Eliot's first volume, Prufrock and Other Observations, and then the post-war bombshell of The Waste Land, signalled that the moment of imagism had passed.

Yet Aldington was later persuaded to produce an Imagist Anthology in 1930, helped by Ford and H. D. This included work by most of the poets of the earlier anthologies, except Lowell, who had died in 1925; Cannell, who could not be traced; and Pound, whom Ford jokingly referred to in his foreword as ‘the late Mr Pound’, adding a postscript explaining that he had just heard that Pound was not dead, but that it was ‘only because of his dilatoriness in sending in his contribution that he can be styled “the late”’. A prefatory note, anonymous, but presumably by Aldington, insists that the volume wasn't ‘an attempt to revive Imagism as an avant-garde movement’, but was intended to ‘give specimens’ of the ‘recent work’ of the authors, who still ‘feel friendly’ towards each other. As a collection Imagist Anthology lacks coherence. Much of it fails the earlier definitions of imagism: Joyce contributed a passage from the ‘Work in Progress’ that was to become Finnegans Wake, while Ford's poems were in traditional ballad forms. But that it could gather such major modernist writers as Joyce, Ford, H. D., Lawrence, Aldington, and Williams together as contributors to imagism's history shows the influence of the movement on subsequent modernism. That influence has been detected in the work of many successors of Pound and Williams, especially Marianne Moore; the objectivist group, which included Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Charles Reznikoff; as well as the Black Mountain poets, such as Charles Olson; and in Britain, Basil Bunting.

Max Saunders


R. Aldington, Life for life's sake (1941) · R. B. Duplessis, H. D.: the career of that struggle (1986) · J. Brooker, Mastery and escape: T. S. Eliot and the dialectic of modernism (1996) · P. Brooker, A student's guide to the selected poems of Ezra Pound (1979) · S. K. Coffman, Imagism: a chapter for the history of modern poetry (1951) · E. de Chasca, ‘John Gould Fletcher and imagism’, American Literature, 50/3 (Nov 1978), 501–2 · J. Frank, The idea of spatial form (1991) · J. Fuller, ‘A modest movement: imagism’, Encounter, 45/1 (July 1975), 72–6 · J. Gage, In the arresting eye: the rhetoric of imagism (1981) · B. Guest, Herself defined: the poet H. D. and her world (1985) · C. Hamilton, ‘Toward a cognitive rhetoric of imagism’, Style (Dec 2004) · I. Hamilton, ed., The Oxford companion to twentieth-century poetry in English (1994) · T. E. Hulme, Selected writings, ed. P. McGuinness (1998) · Imagist anthology (1930) · P. Jones, ed., Imagist poetry (1972) · H. Kenner, The Pound era (1975) · V. Kolocotroni, J. Goldman, and O. Taxidou, Modernism: an anthology of sources and documents (1998) · E. Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska (1916) · E. Pound, Selected letters, ed. D. D. Paige (1971) · E. Pound, Collected shorter poems (1984) · J. Sullivan, Ezra Pound: a critical anthology (1970)