Imagism was a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents and participants were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language. Rather than a broad swath of writers from around the world transitioning into a new way of writing, the imagist movement was small and only included a few writers who were dealing with important principles that would set out of the groundwork for the next decades of development.
The basic principles of the movement were developed by T.E. Hulme, an English philosopher and poet. He was interested, for years before the movement was recognized, in poetic language that was completely accurate in its depiction of a subject. He rejected the use of flowery and extraneous lines or details. It was not until 1912 that the man who is considered the founder of the movement, Ezra Pound, took Hulme’s ideas and merged them with his own. It was in November of that year that Pound first used the term, in reference to himself (he’d previously associated it with Hilda Doolittle’s work) with the publication of Hulme’s Complete Poetical Works.
What did imagist poets care about?
Aside using language that was more to the point, imagists rejected the sentimental themes and traditional styles of Romantic and Georgian poets. Instead, they made use of free verse. This is a kind of poetic writing that does not utilize a pattern of rhyme or rhythm. But, that doesn’t mean the poems are without the use of figurative language.
In March of 1913, after the beginning of the movement, Pound defined the boundaries and rules of imagism in A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste. They were as follows:
- Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
- To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
- As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.
Take a look at this example from Ezra Pound called ‘In a Station of the Metro’. It is considered by some to be the most famous imagist poem ever written. The poem is only two lines and fourteen words long but every word is quite powerful. As his tenants stated, nothing is extraneous and the poet directly addresses the subject he’s interested in.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
While Pound strove to move beyond that rules of traditional verse, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t interested in poetic sounding, or feeling, language. In this case, he cut out verbs entirely. The two sentence fragments are connected together, with subjects, but without action. He chose to craft this poem in order to capture a very specific moment. He speaks to the appearance and disappearance of faces in a crowd and how they are similar to petals on the branches of a tree. They are small, fleeting, and liable to fall off at any moment.
Why is imagism important?
The movement has been described as one of, if not the, most influential in English poetry since the Pre-Raphaelites. Additionally, imagism kicked off the start of modernism in general. It is due to the monumental change made by imagist writers that modernism came to be as influential as it was. As modernism developed into a series of varying interconnected movements, imagism is thought of as a group of creative thinkers and moments. These came together for a period of time and learned from, and developed off of, one another.
Who were the most important writers of this literary movement?
By far, the most famous writer to come out of the imagist period was Ezra Pound. His writings, and those of his contemporaries in the imagist movement, were characterized by precise images, brevity and free verse. These features can be seen in his work, ‘The Return’.
When Pound was first collecting the ideas that came to be considered “imagistic” he met with Hilda Doolittle, who wrote under her initials “H.D.”
In 1914 Pound published Des Imagistes: An Anthology in The Glebe. Some of the writers included in the book were H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), James Joyce, Amy Lowell and William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound as well as six others.
By 1915, Amy Lowell, after falling out with Pound, assumed leadership of the group. From 1915 to 1917 she published three anthologies, all of which were called Some Imagist Poets. In the later part of 1917 the movement began to dissolve as it was incorporated into the larger branch of modernism.
Here are a few more examples from the leaders of imagism:
- The Return by Ezra Pound
- ‘Helen’ by Helen Doolittle
- ‘A Lady’ by Amy Lowell
- ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ by William Carlos Williams
- ‘I Hear An Army Charging Upon the Land’ by James Joyce