American Literature Imagism
Charles Molesworth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0042


In London in 1908, T. E. Hulme was elected secretary of the newly founded Poets’ Club, where he soon met Ezra Pound, who had recently arrived from America. Together with the poet F. S. Flint, they started a “School of Images.” Hulme contributed two poems to an anthology sponsored by the club, and they are considered the first Imagist poems. This apparently orderly beginning soon became rather like a battleground. Pound, driven by considerable ambition and egotism, virtually usurped command of the movement and, in 1913, set about issuing a tersely worded manifesto, the three chief rules of which were as follows: to present direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective; to use no word that does not contribute to the presentation; and to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome. Behind these revolutionary pronouncements were two rather traditional impulses: the first was to “make it new,” as poets had striven to do periodically throughout literary history; the second was to eliminate what Pound felt was a stultifying late-Victorian bias in favor of “poesy”—that is, artificial language and forced sentiments. Pound relied on the theories of Hulme and added ideas drawn from the Sinologist Ernest Fenollosa, but many felt the key ingredient was the American’s brash self-confidence. Because of his aggressive publicizing of the movement, and partly in reaction against it, other poets were soon taking on various roles. Amy Lowell, descendent of a famous Boston family, was especially enthusiastic, and so too was John Gould Fletcher, driven by a commitment to Eastern esthetics. Together they edited the three annual anthologies meant to capture an audience. One of Pound’s close friends, Hilda Doolittle, whom he rechristened as H.D., contributed poems and hours of work to practical duties. Though Pound and Lowell would take part in an infamous feud over the term “imagist,” the poets generally held close to the principles Pound had spelled out. Beyond these four Americans—Pound, H.D., Lowell, and Fletcher—there were three main English Imagists: Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint, and D. H. Lawrence, though their contributions are not as salient as those of the Americans. Meanwhile, Pound himself was developing an interest in another movement, Vorticism, founded by his friend, the contentious painter and writer Wyndham Lewis. Having drawn, tangentially, on other movements, such as surrealism, Futurism, and Aestheticism, Imagism soon became more influential and, at the same time, less well defined. Beyond its most intense period—from 1909 to 1917—its effects can be felt in later poets such as Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, as well as George Oppen, who preferred the term Objectivism. By midcentury, Imagist principles were taken for granted by many American and English poets, and the academic study of poetry began diligently to examine the roots, the splits, and the consequences of this prototypically modernist movement.

General Overviews

Imagism relied to some extent on philosophical assumptions and, as such, involved cultural values, historical disputes and developments, and poetic theories. Diverse critical approaches tend to stress one of these three fields and are accordingly grouped under their respective headings: Cultural Background, Literary History, and Poetics.

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