Des Imagistes



by Elyse Graham

Des Imagistes: An Anthologie,
by Ezra Pound,
First published in 1914

When Ezra Pound arrived in London in 1909, he began arranging introductions to all the literary people he could manage. The most felicitous was to the novelist Olivia Shakespear; not only did she connect Pound with her lover, W.B. Yeats, but Pound eventually married her daughter, Dorothy. By late 1910 he had found a room in Kensington, produced two slim books of verse, which earned neither money nor renown, and published a more successful survey of Romance literature, The Spirit of Romance.

During his early months of networking, Pound joined a poetry club that met at a restaurant in Soho. The club had been founded a month earlier by T.E. Hulme, a philosopher and translator of Henri Bergson. Another intellectual bulldog, Hulme had established himself as a brilliant student at Cambridge before being sent down for rowdiness; he enrolled at another university but continued to attend philosophy lectures at Cambridge. From Bergson he took the conviction that mental life should be a flow of raw, intuitive perception, unblocked by received ideas.[1] (He also took a number of ideas from Wilhelm Worringer.) He began mingling in poetry circles, and in 1908 he started his own circle, where he led discussions of how poetry might imitate this raw flow of consciousness by casting off meter and familiar imagery. This is where he met Pound. Of all the literary theorists in the salons Pound had been wandering through, it was Hulme whose ideas most attracted him, for they seemed to rhyme with what Pound had been working on in his juvenile verse. To Pound’s insistence on breaking out of meter and convention Hulme added the principle that poetic language should proceed in solid visual images “which would hand over sensations bodily.”[2]

Pound remade the circle into the Imagists. Although Hulme soon stopped writing poetry himself, Pound honored his contribution to art by printing in Ripostes “The Complete Poetical Works of T.E. Hulme” (an affectionate and ironic title—the works totaled five short pieces).

Two years later, the Imagists found themselves struggling amid the power plays made inevitable when people as powerless as artists unite. Starting in 1913, they had been publishing poems and manifestoes in little magazines; the movement at this point centered on three: Pound, Richard Adlington, and H.D., plus F.S. Flint and whoever else they might co-opt for a special collection. Then Amy Lowell, a woman bulwarked by great wealth and a formidable personality, decided that she was another Imagist, a judgment with which Pound disagreed. She sailed to London, where the group was already pulling apart over Pound’s insistence on an artistic platform that only he liked. Eventually it was Pound who left the group, which instead flocked around Lowell, who underwrote their next three anthologies. In Some Imagist Poets (1915) they announced that they had formed a democratic board that gave every member a part in defining their common principles. Pound, who understood the swipe, grumbled about “Amygism,” convinced that the church had abandoned the faith.[3] Soon after leaving, he had published almost unchanged an article he’d already written about his critical theories, altering the title to “Vorticism.”[4] In 1917 the anthology contract with Houghton, Mifflin and Company ran out and the Imagist movement fell apart.

Des Imagistes (1914) is their first anthology, which Pound assembled while he was still a member. The diversity and the far-flung influences of the group’s verse are readily apparent—the tweedy Hellenisms of Aldington, Pound’s imitations of Chinese verse, Lowell’s humid sensuality, the queer and gem-like verses of H.D., and the heavy symbolism of Flint, not to mention the contributions of non-Imagists, which suggest by their points of resemblance to the others the genes that bring this family together. (No list of principles appears.) Influences from the French Symbolists are apparent, as are the polytheism and fragmentary texture of classical poetry and the compact verse forms of China and Japan. Many of these works were first written before the Imagists came together, but they were selected and edited under its banner, and with the object of declaring a revolt.

The cruelty of beauty—the idea that beauty is not just an aesthetic perception, but a wound of the soul—is a theme that pervades the volume. Richard Aldington is typical; he deals with the agony of desire, whether felt by a viewer in the presence of art, a modern in touch with the past, or a lover regarding his beloved. In every case, the mortality of flesh cuts off the possibility of perfect union.

To A Greek Marble
I have whispered thee in thy solitudes
Of our loves in Phrygia,
The far ecstasy of burning noons
When the fragile pipes
Ceased in the cypress shade….

And thou hearest me not…

The archetypal Imagist, in terms of technique, is H.D. The opening image of her poem “Hermes of the Ways” is in a sense the style’s dream about itself, an emblem for writing.

Hermes of the Ways
The hard sand breaks,
and the grains of it
are as clear as wine.

Far off over the leagues of it,
the wind,
playing on the wide shore,
piles little ridges
and the great waves
break over it.

But more than the many-foamed ways
of the sea,
I know him
of the triple-path ways,
who awaits….

Her speaker stands at the sea-edge, a margin between land, sea, and sky. This is a recurrent landscape in her poetry, suggestive of the inner life of those who, like Hermes, move between worlds. These were years for women of liberation, vulnerability, disorder. Later in the poem, the sea becomes more violent, intensifying its aspect as sexual metaphor.

Two poems, one each from Ford Madox Hueffer and James Joyce , use rhyme and meter—an inconsistency with Imagist principles, but Pound admired their potent imagery and musical irregularity. Allen Upward contributed a set of prose poems inspired by his readings of Chinese poetry in translation:

The Bitter Purple Willows
Meditating on the glory of illustrious lineage I lifted
up my eyes and beheld the bitter purple willows grow-
ing round the tombs of the exalted Mings.

In the final section, titled “Documents,” a set of parodies offers a glimpse of running themes and engagements within the Soho group, including affectionate ribbings between Aldington and Ford, and a spoof on Robert Burns that acknowledges the cliché of being an impoverished artist. A bibliography of other books by the contributors closes the volume.

Piece originally published at TheModernism Lab | Creative Commons License


[1] David A. Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet, vol. 1 (Oxford, 2007), p. 96.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Moody, pp. 222-23.

[4] Letter from Ezra Pound to Harriet Monroe, 7 August 1914. Quoted in Ming Hsieh and Ming Xie, Ezra Pound and the Appropriation of Chinese Poetry: Cathay, Translation, and Imagism (Garland Pub., 1999), p. 42n.