The Imagist movement was spearheaded by British and American poets in the early 20th century. The poets, led by Ezra Pound, called for clear and precise language in poetry, opposing the flowery semantics of Romantic and Victorian poetry. Large numbers of Modernist and female poets joined the cause. The Georgian poets, who wrote during the same era, did not embrace Imagist philosophy.
The Imagists rejected the baroque language style and the moralistic tones of earlier poets, such as Longfellow and Tennyson. Imagism rallied for classical values, such as the direct presentation of ideas and the sparing use of words. Innovatively, the movement experimented with new, nontraditional forms of verse. The changes reflected the avant garde wave of thinking about art at the time, especially Cubism.
Several ideas were key to the Imagists' philosophy:
• Using the exact word instead of decorative words
• Using the language of common speech
• Creating new rhythms that express new moods
• Using free verse, when called for, to express the individuality of a poet
• Allowing complete freedom in the poet's choice of subject
• Passionately believing in the artistic values of modern life
• Presenting an image. Poetry should depict particulars instead of vague generalities
• Producing clear, instead of blurred and indefinite, poetry
• Believing that concentration is the essence of poetry
These tenets created unprecedented excitement; a storm of argument and vilification followed their pronouncement. Critics were infuriated by the Imagists' attack on traditions of the past. The Imagists, for their part, believed that they were simply renewing old principles that had fallen into disuse. They did not consider their beliefs revolutionary.
Critics who went beyond the shock of overturning tradition analyzed the actual work produced by the Imagists. Some complained that the Imagist poets oversimplified their writing, as if their poems were graphic art. They would make one isolated image shine, ignoring the larger design. In their attempts to create atmosphere, they seemed to imitate painting with a flash of color or a line of movement, ignoring the development of the poem as a whole.
Philosophically, Imagism is associated with the idea that thinking consists of operating in mental images. The concept does not describe thinking about abstract ideas, which cannot be seen in mental images. Philosophers have argued about the essence of thought, with some dismissing images as irrelevant distractions in the thought process. The Imagists were overly generous toward pictures, giving images center stage in the thought process.
One of the chief Imagist poets was Richard Aldington. He wrote critically about hypocrisy in modern industrialized society. His contribution to literature is considered uneven. His long poems, "A Dream in the Luxembourg" (1930) and "A Fool i' the Forest" (1925) used bittersweet romanticism to rail against the mechanization of modern man.
Hilda Doolitle, who used the pen name H.D., was considered the perfect Imagist. She used free verse and stream-of-consciousness narrative. H.D. was an American poet whose first volume of poetry, Sea Garden (1916), expressed radical imagist views. She composed several other volumes, including Red Roses for Bronze (1931) and a trilogy of three books written from 1944 to 1946. Through the years, her spare style became richly mystical and mythological. H.D.'s interest with the human interior journey guided her use of myth to describe women.
Another Imagist writer, John Gould Fletcher, was a pictorialist and mystic. He was an American poet who wrote poetry that attempted to arouse strong emotion through the sound of his words instead of their meanings. His poems were intended to force readers to confront their society, which was corrupted by industrialism and politics. He broke with other modernists such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, who maintained that poetry should avoid current events. Fletcher was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Selected Poems (1938).
D.H. Lawrence was a British novelist and poet who evoked the natural world in his stark writing style. Many of his poems concern plant and animal life while others express his outrage at the puritanism of modern society. He considered sex and nature the cures to industrialized society. His views were considered radical, and his works were censored. Pansies, his 1929 poetry collection, was banned in England.
Ezra Pound is recognized as the poet who defined and promoted Imagism in Europe and the United States. He advanced the work of his contemporaries, such as Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. His epic poem "The Cantos" used a musical composition that reflected in all his later works.