What is Imagism (Imagery)? Definition & Explanation

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      The poet is an artist who works with words - he doesn’t simply juggle with words, but transmutes them into the material of art. His primary problem is to communicate the incommunicable. Shakespeare stated the problem once and for all, in the sonnet beginning

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

      Ordinary language has its limitations. In spite of our best efforts, our expression sometimes falls short of the communicative target, or remains vague, colorless, fluid, amorphous or abstract.

      Language, particularly, at the hands of linguistic geniuses, re-invents itself, fashions new tools to express what may have been attempted to be expressed before but not so well, or has never been said succinctly, in so few (highly suggestive) words. When we speak of something as being good, the question that perhaps remains unspoken in our minds is: ‘How good is good?’ ‘As good as gold, we may say, using a trite, cliched expression. Nonetheless, it brings precision as well as vividness to the thought. If something is especially hot, we say ‘hot as hell’, that calls up an image, however indistinct (because of the staleness of the comparison), of the hotness of hell-fires. If someone gives off sparks of fuming anger, we say he is incandescent with rage; if some one is beside himself with joy, we say (using a term from the health science) he is delirious with joy. Are we, unknown to ourselves, speaking about similes metaphors - that is, figures of speech? Yes, make no mistake about it. Richard Abcarian and Marvin Clotz admit as much: “Imagery (then) is closely related to, perhaps inseparable from, figurative language....”

      There may be more to it, but we shall try to explore further its meaning and possibilities by and by.

      M. H. Abrams (A Glossary of Literary Terms), declaring the term ‘imagery’ to be the most ambiguous, notes three uses of it, of which the first two are: 1) as referring to all objects and qualities of sense-perception named in a poem; and 2) as referring to the descriptions of visible objects and scenes, especially if the description is vivid and particularised. These need not detain us. We pass on to the third. Abrams says these, in short, are “mental pictures “or (as he later refers to them) “mind pictures.”

      Asking the question, What do we understand, then, by the poetic image? C. S. Lewis, in his hook titled The Poetic Image, answers: In its simplest terms, the poetic image is a picture macle out of words... It could be just an epithet, or a full-fledged metaphor or simile; it could take the form of a descriptive phrase or passage...

      Shall we then define it as a picture in words touched with some sensuous quality? That is not enough, says Lewis, for even a journalist turns out sensuous word pictures. He further fine-tunes his definition, adding. “It is a more or less sensuous picture in words, to some degree metaphorical, with an undernote of some human emotion in its context, but also charged with and releasing into the reader a special poetic emotion or passion.” (All of that is to confound a simple issue). He further demands of its precision, that it come as a revelation, and so on and so forth.

      It is mainly visual, he argues, but may have an appeal to other senses as well - auditory (hearing), tactile (touch), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste) or kinaesthetic (sensations of movement).

      The authors cited above (Abcarian and Clotz) say, by way of expatriation: “The world is revealed to us through our senses - sight, sound, taste, touch and smell... Much, if not all of our knowledge, is linked to sensory experience. Imagery is the representation, in poetry, of sensory experience. Bad poetry is often bad because the imagery is stale (e.g.. golden sunset, the rolling sea, etc.)”.

      “A good poet never loses touch with the sensory world. The invisible, the intangible, the abstract are anchored to the visible, the tangible and the concrete.” (Let us recall to ourselves that one definition of poetry is that “it is a speaking picture”). They quote the following lines from Andrew Marvell’s ‘ To his Coy Mistress’:

      Caroline Spurgeon (Shakespeare’s Imagery) defines images as little word - pictures (or verbal pictures) used by a poet or prose writer to illustrate, illuminate and embellish his thought. But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near: And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast eternity. Thy beauty shall no more be found; Nor in thy marble vault, shall sound My echoing song: then worms shall try That long preserved virginity: And your quaint honor turn to dust; And into ashes all my lust. They then observe that time, eternity, honor and lust being abstractions an extraordinary sharpness and vivifying power. Time rides in a winged chariot; eternity is an endless expanse of deserts; worms shall prey upon that virginity when the body is turned into a corpse; honor becomes dust and the lover’s lust mere ashes. In the Wordsworth poem ‘The solitary Reaper’ the poet, faced with the problem of how he shall convey the effect on him of the Reaper’s song, finds an equivalent in the nightingale’s song welcoming weary bands of travelers to a shady haunt among Arabian sands; and another equivalent is the springtime song of the cuckoo wafted across the tranquil seas from the Hebrides islands.

      The imagery of the poem could be further said to be made up of (the deliberately vague) ‘old, unhappy, far-off things’ and ‘battles long ago’, words in which the subject of her melancholy song is shadowed forth.

      Even a simple poem of Wordsworth’s like ‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways’ contains such visual images as ‘a violet by a mossy stone’ and ‘fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky’

      It should be clear by now that an image is not just an ornament studded over the surface of a poem, but an integral part woven into the poem for purpose of conveying the poet’s meaning effectively and with precision. Images are often seen to be charged with emotion: e.g. consider the words in which Donne describes the remains of the dead mistress; ‘A bracelet of bright hair about the bone’

      The line has not only an auditory image but a visual one, too, where ‘bright’ and ‘bone’ represent the twin faces of life. These lines from Shakespeare’s sonnet (No. 60) present a visual image, with the auditory echo of the same commingling in it;

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore
So do our minutes hasten to their end.

      (The rhythm and the run of the first line echo the cresting, the sweep and the final crash of the sea wave.)

      What the moderns look for in imagery, suggests Lewis, is freshness (potentiality to reveal something we had not realized before), intensity (the greatest amount of significance being packed into a small space) and evocative power.

      The theme image in dramatic poetry has a close affinity with the key image out of which the pattern of an entire lyric poem is often spun. The more we see how images work in poetry, the more we come to realize that they are the matrix, rather than the clothing of poetic thought. ‘Imagism’ refers to a movement that spanned the years 1912-1917 in the history of English poetry. Though the group of poets, to whose theory and practice the Tenn refers, looked like a school, their practice varied rather widely. It is therefore more appropriate to use the term to describe a given poem as ‘imagist’ than to describe the group as a school, observes Stanley Koffinan. But one can justify the application of the tenn as referring to the technique of these poets and their attitude to the nature and function of poetry. Ezra Pound introduced to the public T.E. Huhne and other poets of the school, through an anthology called Ripostes, in 1912, as ‘the I'm agists’.

      Commenting on the school, in the January 1912 issue of Poetry, Pound said: “One of their watchwords is precision.” Discussing their aims FS. Flint reported that their principles were: Direct treatment of the ‘thing’.

      To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation. To compose in sequences of the musical phrase, rather than follow the metronome.

      In “A Few Dont’s by an Imagist,” which appeared in the Poetry issue of March 1913, Pound offered the following definition:

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 that gives that sense of liberation, from time limits and space limits, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art, says Pound. It is better, he adds, to present one image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.

     Pound’s interest veered off, around 1915, to another movement known as Vorticism, and Amy Lowell took over charge of the Imagist Movement. Two more members, viz. Richard Aldington and his wife Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) were drawn into the group now.

      There came out in 1915 and 1916 two issues of Some Imagist Poets. The preface to the first issue laid down the principles which guided the poets (It was a sort of manifesto):

      To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly exact, nor the merely denotative word. To create new rhythms.

      Though it was not insisted that free verse was the only mode of writing poetry, free verse, it was claimed, was better suited to the expression of a poet’s individuality than conventional forms.

      To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. To present an image. Poetry should not deal in vague generalities, however grand or sonorous. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite. Concentration is of the very essence of poetry.

      T. E. Ffulme has been called the first imagist; he was also the movement’s theorist (Pound was only its publicist). Two of his statements, which may help to clarify his theory- of the Image, are: “Each word must be an image seen, not counter;” and “Never, never, never a simple statement. You must always have analogies.”

      Let us examine a poem or two of Hulme’s in order to get an idea of what kind of poem he liked written. One is where he compares the far­away moon to

“a child’s balloon, forgotten after play”
(‘Above the Dock’)
Another is where he describes the sunset as follows:
Alluring, earth-seducing, with high conceits is the sunset that
Coquettes at the end of westward streets
(‘A city sunset’)
Here is an example from Pound’s poetry:
The apparition of those faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
(In a station of the metro’)

      A poem which Pound used to hold up as a perfect example of imagism, viz. the ‘Oread’ of Hilda Doolittle, has this comparison of the waves to fir trees:

Whirl up, sea -
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.

      The metaphor of fir trees, here, conveys not just a single sensation but a whole “ complex” of impressions... The comparison gives not only pictorial outline, comments Koffinan, but color, a suggestion of coolness, softness, hushed sound, and even, perhaps, of fragrance.

      From 1912 to 1918, the Imagists championed the cause of French Symbolist poetry as ardently as their own. Indeed, they showed more than enough interest to suggest that their own doctrine might have been influenced by Symbolist theory. But in spite of similarities between the Imagists and Symbolists in their conception of Art and its function, and the method of communicating the poetic vision or intuition, Pound categorically stated that “Imagism is not Symbolism.” Pound was an admirer of Gautier, who was not a symbolist. His own hard, sculptured verse, with its vivid pictorial imagery, resembles Gautier’s. (It would be well to remember in this connection Hulme’s short-order definition of Imagism as “sculpture or painting just forcing itself into words”). The Imagist by employing images rather than symbol sought to achieve greater objectivity. He also avoided the obscurity with which the Symbolists were charged.

      With the prefaces to the anthologies of 1915 & 1916, verse liter became an official adjunct to Imagism. The Imagists wrote in sequences of the musical phrase, rather than following any conventional metrical pattern. Although Pound carefully refrained from claiming Eliot as an imagist, certain of his poems reflect a close acquaintance with the movement’s theory and practice. His ‘Preludes’ and ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ satisfy in many ways the requirements of Imagism,

      The aesthetic of the Imagists even served other poets less closely associated with the movement like Williams Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. It gave them a discipline in exactness and conciseness of expression.

      In spite of their limitations, the accomplishments of the Imagists were noteworthy, in that they were precursors of the modernist movement in English poetry. The most significant of the Imagists’ contributions was the stimulus they gave to the experimental attitude to art.

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