Imagist Movement

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.

Imagist Movement: Selected full-text books and articles

Modernist Literature: An Introduction By Mary Ann Gillies; Aurelea Mahood Edinburgh University Press, 2007
Librarian’s tip: "Imagism" begins on p. 66
The Modern Movement: 1910-1940 By Chris Baldick Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the Imagist movement begins on p. 95
Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism By Paul Poplawski Greenwood Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: "Imagism" begins on p. 191
Directed to See: Visual Prompting in Imagist Poems By Gleason, Daniel W Style, Vol. 45, No. 3, Fall 2011
The Columbia History of American Poetry By Jay Parini; Brett C. Millier Columbia University Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of H.D. and Imagism begins on p. 243; "Ezra Pound's Imagist Aesthetics: Lustra to Mauberley" begins on p. 284
The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English By Brian McHale; Randall Stevenson Edinburgh University Press, 2006
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Imagism begins on p. 27
The Georgian Revolt, 1910-1922: Rise and Fall of a Poetic Ideal By Robert H. Ross Southern Illinois University Press, 1965
Librarian’s tip: "Imagism" begins on p. 46
Reflections on a Literary Revolution By Graham Goulden Hough Catholic University of America Press, 1960
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Imagism and Its Consequences," Chap. 2 "Imagist Poetry and the Tradition"
Ezra Pound and Neoplatonism By Peter Liebregts Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Imagism, Vorticism, and Neoplatonic Poetics"
Poetry and the Modern World: A Study of Poetry in England between 1900 and 1939 By David Daiches University of Chicago Press, 1940
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the Imagist movement begins on p. 73
A Linguistic History of English Poetry By Richard Bradford Routledge, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Imagism begins on p. 158
The Struggle of the Modern By Stephen Spender University of California Press, 1963
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IV "The Seminal Image"
FREE! The New Era in American Poetry By Louis Untermeyer Henry Holt, 1919
Librarian’s tip: "'H. D.' and the Imagists" begins on p. 291
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