What is imagism in poetry

An introduction to Imagism


1 Introduction

2 The origins of Imagism
2.1 Imagism and Symbolism
2.2 Other Influences

3 What is imagism

4 Interpretation of "The Great Figure"

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

7 Concluding declaration

1 Introduction

In line with the seminar “The Roaring Twenties” by Anika Wassilowsky, I took a closer look at Imagism and its characteristic features and also at some of the most important Imagists, their ideals and main ideas of this literary epoch.

The first chapter deals with the origins of Imagism and describes where the Imagist got their creeds from and why they would have them. The second article is based on the master essay which was written together with Marie-Christin Miebach, Beate Steindor, Mira Rick and Beate Wrobel for the final reader of the seminar. It is picturing the characteristic features and the distinctive properties of the Imagist period. It deals with the question “What is Imagism?”, Describing the goals of a movement in poetry that flourished in Britain and the United States in the 1920s.

The last chapter attends to a short interpretation of the Imagist poem “The great figure” (1920) by the American poet William Carlos Williams. In addition to this interpretation I will dwell on the interrelation of this poem and a picture by Charles Demuth which is called “I saw the Figure Five in Gold”. This one was painted in 1928 and is obviously a work which was inspired by the poem of Williams.

A conclusion in the end will summarize all the important facts and special features of Imagism.

2 The origins of Imagism

“We are faced with the trite but startling fact

that nothing is as new as it appears at first to be. "[1]

The origins of Imagism lead us back very far into the beginnings of poetry. Like nearly all literary movements, Imagism was a response to the immediate past of poetry, in particular the poetry of England and America. There were at least two chronological sources: the modern and the ancient. The ancient literatures from Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chinese, and Japanese contributed to the ideals of Imagism just like the modern influence from France. Of course not each poet was affected by the same literatures; every poet had a specific influence and was an individual product of singular combinations of sources. In the result of these diverse origins there wasn't such a jumble as might be thought:

“It was a harmonious structure, for the simple reason that its elements were not superficial but basic, not regional but universal. Harness of outline, clarity of image, brevity, suggestiveness, freedom from metrical laws - these and other imagist ideals could be drawn from Greek as well as from Hebrew or Chinese. "[2]

2.1 Imagism and Symbolism

Imagism or Imagisme, as it would be initially called, was a successor to the earlier French Symbolism with famous poets such as Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. But whereas Symbolism had an affinity with music, Imagism sought analogy with the visual arts. Vorticism, a later kind of Imagism-for-elites-only, would still go further and identify itself with painterly terms.

Symbolism was a literary movement which arose in France during the end of the 19th century. It started around 1890 and ended round about 1920. Symbolists were especially against Naturalism and aspired room for new development. While Naturalistic poets tried to describe their social environment as accurately as possible, Symbolists were not interested in describing social truth. They didn't want to give detailed descriptions like Realists or Naturalists and they wouldn't try to change the social truth, but they wanted to create an ideal-aesthetic world within their works. In contrast to Romanticism and Impressionism, Symbolism was neither about picturing personal emotions nor about declaring subjective reactions on external circumstances. Symbolist poets tried to form a world of beauty by putting pieces in form of symbols and allegories together. Symbolists disputed objective presentability and recognizability of reality, that's why they never used direct descriptions for things or higher senses.[3]

The Imagists wanted to dissociate from cloudy language about "the ideal" seen in much Symbolist poetry. They tried to use no superfluous word, no adjective which did not contribute to the presentation. They avoided expressions as "dim lands of peace" for instance, because it would dull the image and mix abstraction with the concrete. It would come from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol. The Imagists revolted against works which were written in a specific style and had no individual aspects. A reader shouldn't be able to detect a scheme of rhythm, meter, rhyme or schemes.

“Imagist theories of verse Rhythms clearly echo those of the Symbolists; from Hulme to Amy Lowell, their theory and practice developed from models they found in contemporary French literature. "[4]

Claiming objectivity by using a precise technique, Imagists and Symbolist withdrew into the personal and subjective. Imagists used rather the image than symbols and they seemed to achieve more objectivity than any other by that. At the same time they restricted the limits of poetry more narrowly. Also obscurity, with which the Symbolists were charged, was avoided more successfully by the Imagists, but Imagism was also criticized

"[...] for the feelings and sensations of the imagists were sometimes difficult for the reader to understand. And by its accomplishment in making French theory and poetry known to English and American poets, Imagism is to a certain extent responsible for the attitude towards obscurity which has influenced the poetry that followed it. ”[5]

As you can see, Imagism and Symbolism have some constitutive things in common and even though they differ in some aspects, they are quite similar. Particularly they want to change the old Romanic styles in writing is a common ground on which these movements built up their theories and works.

2.2 Other Influences

Imagists were also influenced by foreign poetics - Greek fragments and Chinese and Japanese forms - especially the Haiku. Haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poems. The first great master of Japanese Haiku was Matsuo Basho. Normally a Haiku poem is made up of seventeen syllables prorated into three lines. It starts with five syllables in the first line which describe a situation. In the second line, consisting of seven syllables, an action is performed. The third line contains of five syllables again and pictures an impression of the result. Composed shortly after the sensation or feeling it describes, Haiku is supposed to be the literary equivalent of a photographic snapshot. Basho taught that Haiku should be the unity of poet and experience and that the poet must share in the essential nature and life of the subject. The poem has to come from the subject itself and the reader should be able to see the object the same way as the poet.


[1] Hughes 1960, p. 3

[2] Hughes 1960, p. 4th

[3] http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolismus_%28Literatur%29

[4] Coffman: Imagism. A Chapter for the History of Modern Poetry, p. 91

[5] Coffman: Imagism. A Chapter for the History of Modern Poetry, p. 102-103

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