Before Imagism: "Genteel" Poetry

In America in 1912, the most common and popular poetry was called genteel because it was very well-behaved. Since they were "genteel," these poems avoided controversial and realistic subject matter like sex or industrialization. Instead, genteel poetry tended to consist of short, inoffensive, traditional verse about inward feelings, written in a deliberately purified, rather vague, "poetic" language. Take for example, Richard Watson Gilder's The Woods that Bring the Sunset Near

The wind from out of the west is blowing
The homeward-wandering cows are lowing,
Dark grow the pine woods, dark and drear, —
The woods that bring the sunset near.

When o'er wide seas the sun declines,
Far off its fading glory shines,
Far off, sublime, and full of fear —
The pine woods bring the sunset near.

This house that looks to east, to west,
This dear one, is our home, our rest;
Yonder the stormy sea, and here
The woods that bring the sunset near.

The speaker depicts his home as a rather hazy, comfortable haven from the natural world outside, which, although he says it is "sublime, and full of fear," seems quite peaceful and non-threatening. The images presented are generic and comforting (lowing cows, pine woods, "our home") rather than specific, but not too substantial. Like the house in the poem, this kind of poetry is safe, restful, sentimental, and removed from the difficulties of life and the outside world. It's also pretty darn dull. Such poetry represents a kind of regression from the plain language of Romanticism back to the polished diction and noble sentiments of a poet like Thomas Gray.


Around 1912 in London, some British and American poets led by Ezra Pound started a poetic movement called imagism. These poets reacted against genteel poetry, which they saw as sentimental, soft-edged, and emotionally dishonest. Instead, they advised, in Ezra Pound's formulation, "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 the metronome" (Pound 3). In 1913, Pound published the following advice for aspiring imagist poets: An 'Image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. . . .

It is the presentation of such a 'complex' instantaneously which gives the sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the greatest works of art.

It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works. . . .

Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.

Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands 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.

Go in fear of abstractions. Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. (Pound 4-5)

But imagism for Pound did not necessarily mean description: Don't be descriptive; remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know a good deal more about it.

When Shakespeare talks of the 'Dawn in russet mantle clad' he presents something which the painter does not present. There is in the line nothing which can be called description; he presents. (Pound 5)

Finally, imagist poems were influenced by Japanese haiku, poems of 17 syllables which usually present only two juxtaposed images. This poetry strives to suggests more than its literal meaning, yet avoids overt figurative devices like allegory and even metaphor.

Here is perhaps the most famous imagist poem, one clearly influenced by haiku, Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." Pound said of the composition of this work: "I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work 'of second intensity.' Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence:—

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.
("Vorticism" 89)
As one can tell by Pound's use of the word hokku, he clearly had haiku in mind when writing the poem. However, according to the modernist principle of "making it new," Pound does not simply copy haiku, but adapts it to the modern world of subway stations and anonymous faces in the crowd. The form of Pound's poem differs also from classical haiku: it has only two lines and more than 17 syllables. However, like many haiku, it does juxtapose two different images. Other ancient short forms were "made new" by the imagists, most notably the four-line Chinese lyric and the short poems and fragments from ancient Greece collected in the Greek Anthology.

Perhaps because Pound began to see imagism as a "stylistic movement, a movement of criticism rather than creation"("Vorticism" 82), he soon moved beyond imagism to a new poetic movement he called vorticism. While the rules and "don'ts" of imagism were designed to improve poetic writing but not necessarily to produce complete poems, vorticism was designed as a movement whose principles would apply to all the arts and be capable of producing complete works of art. Pound also wanted to add to the image further movement, dynamism, and intensity:

Vorticism is an intensive art. I mean by this, that one is concerned with the relative intensity, or relative significance, of different sorts of expression. One desires the most intense, for certain forms of expression are "more intense" than others. They are more dynamic. I do not mean that they are more emphatic or yelled louder. ("Vorticism" 90) To the single image, "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time," Pound adds rushing dynamism of form and emotion: The image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing. ("Vorticism" 92) If this seems quite vague, perhaps it is because Pound had yet to figure out what a vorticist poem would look like. This definition does not even say whose ideas, the poet's or the reader's, are rushing from, through, and into this "cluster." How these ideas rush is also not clear. The strange collision of images and ideas that are The Cantos may be Pound's answer to what a vorticist poem might look like, but scholars are quite divided when it comes to assessing the success of the juxtaposition procedures of this long poem.

Works Cited

Imagism Questions

1. In what ways can mere images suggest more in these poems? What do you think might be the point(s) of such a poetry?

2. Remember Pound's definition of an image as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." Try to figure out in what ways the images presented by these poems are "a complex" (in the psychological sense) of emotion and intellect. What complex emotions and thoughts does the image present?

Al Filreis' William Carlos Williams links
Al Filreis on Imagism
Al Filreis' "the rise of imagism"
Amy Lowell's Notes "On Imagism"
Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology (1915)
American Modernist Writers and the Orient
Ezra Pound:
"A Retrospect" (Pound's imagist theories)
MAPS Pound page
Cyber-version of Canto LXXXI
SUNY Buffalo Pound page
Academy of American Poets Pound page
Pound's Collected Poetry Recordings (Penn Sound)

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