A Study of Poetry
By Bliss Perry
Public Domain Books
THE POET’S IMAGINATION
“The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights." SAMUEL JOHNSON
“The singers do not beget, only the Poet begets." WALT WHITMAN
We must not at the outset insist too strongly upon the radical distinction between “the poet"–as we have called him for convenience–and other men. The common sense of mankind asserts that this distinction exists, yet it also asserts that all children are poets after a certain fashion, and that the vast majority of adult persons are, at some moment or other, susceptible to poetic feeling. A small girl, the other day, spoke of a telegraph wire as “that message-vine.” Her father and mother smiled at this naive renaming of the world of fact. It was a child’s instinctive “poetizing” imagination, but the father and mother, while no longer capable, perhaps, of such daring verbal magic, were conscious that they had too often played with the world of fact, and, for the instant at least, remoulded it into something nearer the heart’s desire. That is to say, they could still feel “poetically,” though their wonderful chance of making up new names for everything had gone as soon as the gates were shut upon the Paradise of childhood.
All readers of poetry agree that it originates somehow in feeling, and that if it be true poetry, it stimulates feeling in the hearer. And all readers agree likewise that feeling is transmitted from the maker of poetry to the enjoyer of poetry by means of the imagination. But the moment we pass beyond these accepted truisms, difficulties begin.
1. Feeling and Imagination What is feeling, and exactly how is it bound up with the imagination? The psychology of feeling remains obscure, even after the labors of generations of specialists; and it is obvious that the general theories about the nature of imagination have shifted greatly, even within the memory of living men. Nevertheless there are some facts, in this constantly contested territory, which now seem indisputable. One of them, and of peculiar significance to students of poetry, is this: in the stream of objects immediately present to consciousness there are no images of feeling itself. [Footnote: This point has been elaborated with great care in Professor A. H. R. Fairchild’s Making of Poetry. Putnam’s, 1912.]
“If I am asked to call up an image of a rose, of a tree, of a cloud, or of a skylark, I can readily do it; but if I am asked to feel loneliness or sorrow, to feel hatred or jealousy, or to feel joy on the return of spring, I cannot readily do it. And the reason why I cannot do it is because I can call up no image of any one of these feelings. For everything I come to know through my senses, for everything in connection with what I do or feel I can call up some kind of mental image; but for no kind of feeling itself can I ever possibly have a direct image. The only effective way of arousing any particular feeling that is more than mere bodily feeling is to call up the images that are naturally connected with that feeling." [Footnote: Fairchild, pp. 24, 25.]
If then, “the raw material of poetry,” as Professor Fairchild insists, is “the mental image,” we must try to see how these images are presented to the mind of the poet and in turn communicated to us. Instead of asserting, as our grandfathers did, that the imagination is a “faculty" of the mind, like “judgment,” or accepting the theory of our fathers that imagination “is the whole mind thrown into the process of imagining,” the present generation has been taught by psychologists like Charcot, James and Ribot that we are chiefly concerned with “imaginations,” that is, a series of visual, auditory, motor or tactile images flooding in upon the mind, and that it is safer to talk about these “imaginations” than about “the Imagination.” Literary critics will continue to use this last expression–as we are doing in the present chapter–because it is too convenient to be given up. But they mean by it something fairly definite: namely, the images swarming in the stream of consciousness, and their integration into wholes that satisfy the human desire for beauty. It is in its ultimate aim rather than in its immediate processes that the “artistic” imagination differs from the inventor’s or scientist’s or philosopher’s imagination. We no longer assert, as did Stopford Brooke some forty years ago, that “the highest scientific intellect is a joke compared with the power displayed by a Shakespeare, a Homer, a Dante.” We are inclined rather to believe that in its highest exercise of power the scientific mind is attempting much the same feat as the highest type of poetic mind, and that in both cases it is a feat of imaginative energy.
2. Creative and Artistic Imagination The reader who has hitherto allowed himself to think of a poet as a sort of freak of nature, abnormal in the very constitution of his mind, and achieving his results by methods so obscure that “inspiration” is our helpless name for indicating them, cannot do better than master such a book as Ribot’s Essay on the Creative Imagination. [Footnote: Th. Ribot, Essai sur l’Imagination créatrice. Paris, 1900. English translation by Open Court Co., Chicago, 1906.] This famous psychologist, starting with the conception that the raw material for the creative imagination is images, and that its basis lies in a motor impulse, examines first the emotional factor involved in every act of the creative imagination. Then he passes to the unconscious factor, the involuntary “coming” of the idea, that “moment of genius,” as Buffon called it, which often marks the end of an unconscious elaboration of the idea or the beginning of conscious elaboration. [Footnote: See the quotation from Sir William Rowan Hamilton, the mathematician, in the “Notes and Illustrations” for this chapter.] Ribot points out that certain organic changes, as in blood circulation– the familiar rush of blood to the head–accompany imaginative activity. Then he discusses the inventor’s and artist’s “fixed idea,” their “will that it shall be so,” “the motor tendency of images engendering the ideal.” Ribot’s distinction between the animal’s revival of images and the true creative combination of images in the mental life of children and of primitive man bears directly upon poetry, but even more suggestive to us is his diagram of the successive stages by which inventions come into being. There are two types of this process, and three stages of each: (A) the “idea,” the “discovery” or invention, and then the verification or application; or else (B) the unconscious preparation, followed by the “idea” or “inspiration,” and then by the “development” or construction. Whether a man is inventing a safety-pin or a sonnet, the series of imaginative processes seems to be much the same. There is of course a typical difference between the “plastic” imagination, dealing with clear images, objective relations, and seen at its best in the arts of form like sculpture and architecture, and that “diffluent” imagination which prefers vaguely outlined images, which is markedly subjective and emotional, and of which modern music like Debussy’s is a good example. But whatever may be the specific type of imagination involved, we find alike in inventor, scientist and artist the same general sequence of “germ, incubation, flowering and completion,” and the same fundamental motor impulse as the driving power.
Holding in mind these general characteristics of the creative imagination, as traced by Ribot, let us now test our conception of the distinctively artistic imagination. Countless are the attempts to define or describe it, and it would be unwise for the student, at this point, to rest satisfied with any single formulation of its functions. But it may be helpful to quote a paragraph from Hartley B. Alexander’s brilliant and subtle book, Poetry and the Individual: [Footnote: Putnam’s, 1906.]
“The energy of the mind or of the soul–for it welds all psychical activities–which is the agent of our world-winnings and the procreator of our growing life, we term imagination. It is distinguished from perception by its relative freedom from the dictation of sense; it is distinguished from memory by its power to acquire–memory only retains; it is distinguished from emotion in being a force rather than a motive; from the understanding in being an assimilator rather than the mere weigher of what is set before it; from the will, because the will is but the wielder of the reins–the will is but the charioteer, the imagination is the Pharaoh in command. It is distinguished from all these, yet it includes them all, for it is the full functioning of the whole mind and in the total activity drives all mental faculties to its one supreme end–the widening of the world wherein we dwell. Through beauty the world grows, and it is the business of the imagination to create the beautiful. The imagination synthesises, humanises, personalises, illumines reality with the soul’s most intimate moods, and so exalts with spiritual understandings.”
The value of such a description, presented without any context, will vary with the training of the individual reader, but its quickening power will be recognized even by those who are incapable of grasping all the intellectual distinctions involved.
3. Poetic Imagination in Particular We are now ready, after this consideration of the creative and artistic imagination, to look more closely at some of the qualities of the poetic imagination in particular. The specific formal features of that imagination lie, as we have seen, in its use of verbal imagery, and in the combination of verbal images into rhythmical patterns. But are there not functions of the poet’s mind preceding the formation of verbal images? The psychology of language is still unsettled, and whether a man can think without the use of words is often doubted. But a painter can certainly “think” in terms of color, as an architect or mathematician can “think” in terms of form and space, or a musician in terms of sound, without employing verbal symbols at all. And are there not characteristic activities of the poetic imagination which antedate the fixation and expression of images in words? Apparently there are.
The reader will find, in the “Notes and Illustrations” for this chapter, a quotation from Mr. Lascelles-Abercrombie, in which he refers to the “region where the outward radiations of man’s nature combine with the irradiations of the world.” That is to say, the inward-sweeping stream of consciousness is instantly met by an outward-moving activity of the brain which recognizes relationships between the objects proffered to the senses and the personality itself. The “I” projects itself into these objects, claims them, appropriates them as a part of its own nature. Professor Fairchild, who calls this self-projecting process by the somewhat ambiguous name of “personalizing,” rightly insists, I believe, that poets make a more distinctive use of this activity than other men. He quotes some of the classic confidences of poets themselves: Keats’s “If a sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel"; and Goethe on the sheep pictured by the artist Roos, “I always feel uneasy when I look at these beasts. Their state, so limited, dull, gaping, and dreaming, excites in me such sympathy that I fear I shall become a sheep, and almost think the artist must have been one.” I can match this Goethe story with the prayer of little Larry H., son of an eminent Harvard biologist. Larry, at the age of six, was taken by his mother to the top of a Vermont hill-pasture, where, for the first time in his life, he saw a herd of cows and was thrilled by their glorious bigness and nearness and novelty. When he said his prayers that night, he was enough of a poet to change his usual formula into this:
“Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me, Bless thy little cow to-night"–
Larry being the cow. “There was a child went forth every day,”
records Walt Whitman,
“And the first object he look’d upon that object he became.”
Professor Fairchild quotes these lines from Whitman, and a few of the many passages of the same purport from Coleridge and Wordsworth. They are all summed up in Coleridge’s heart-broken
“Oh, Lady, we receive but what we give, And in our life alone does Nature live.”
This “animism,” or identifying imagination, by means of which the child or the primitive man or the poet transfers his own life into the unorganic or organic world, is one of the oldest and surest indications of poetic faculty, and as far as we can see, it is antecedent to the use of verbal images or symbols.
Another characteristic of the poetic temperament, allied with the preceding, likewise seems to belong in the region where words are not as yet emerging above the threshold of consciousness. I mean the strange feeling, witnessed to by many poets, of the fluidity, fusibility, transparency–the infinitely changing and interchangeable aspects–of the world as it appears to the senses. It is evident that poets are not looking–at least when in this mood–at our “logical” world of hard, clear fact and law. They are gazing rather at what Whitman called “the eternal float of solution,” the “flowing of all things” of the Greeks, the “river within the river” of Emerson. This tendency is peculiarly marked, of course, in artists possessing the “diffluent" type of imagination, and Romantic poets and critics have had much to say about it. The imagination, said Wordsworth, “recoils from everything but the plastic, the pliant, the indefinite." [Footnote: Preface to 1815 edition of his Poems.] “Shakespeare, too,” says Carlye, [Footnote: Essay on Goethe’s Works.] “does not look at a thing, but into it, through it; so that he constructively comprehends it, can take it asunder and put it together again; the thing melts as it were, into light under his eye, and anew creates itself before him. That is to say, he is a Poet. For Goethe, as for Shakespeare, the world lies all translucent, all fusible we might call it, encircled with Wonder; the Natural in reality the Supernatural, for to the seer’s eyes both become one.”
In his essay on Tieck Carlyle remarks again upon this characteristic of the mind of the typical poet: “He is no mere observer and compiler; rendering back to us, with additions or subtractions, the Beauty which existing things have of themselves presented to him; but a true Maker, to whom the actual and external is but the excitement for ideal creations representing and ennobling its effects.”
Coleridge’s formula is briefer still; the imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create." [Footnote: Biographia Literaria.]
Such passages help us to understand the mystical moments which many poets have recorded, in which their feeling of “diffusion” has led them to doubt the existence of the external world. Wordsworth grasping “at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality,” and Tennyson’s “weird seizures” which he transferred from his own experience to his imaginary Prince in The Princess, are familiar examples of this type of mysticism. But the sense of the infinite fusibility and change in the objective world is deeper than that revealed in any one type of diffluent imagination. It is a profound characteristic of the poetic mind as such. Yet it should be remembered that the philosopher and the scientist likewise assert that ours is a vital, ever-flowing, onward-urging world, in the process of “becoming” rather than merely “being.” “We are far from the noon of man” sang Tennyson, in a late-Victorian and evolutionary version of St. John’s “It doth not yet appear what we shall be.” “The primary imagination,” asserted Coleridge, “is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am." [Footnote: Biographia Literaria, chap. 13.] Here, evidently, unless the “God-intoxicated” Coleridge is talking nonsense, we are in the presence of powers that do not need as yet any use of verbal symbols.
4. Verbal Images The plasticity of the world as it appears to the mind of the poet is clearly evidenced by the swarm of images which present themselves to the poet’s consciousness. In the re-presentation of these pictures to us the poet is forced, of course, to use verbal images. The precise point at which he becomes conscious of employing words no doubt varies with the individual, and depends upon the relative balance of auditory, visual or tactile images in his mind. Swinburne often impresses us as working primarily with the “stuff” of word-sounds, as Browning with the stuff of sharp-cut tactile or motor images, and Victor Hugo with the stuff of visual impressions. But in each case the poet’s sole medium of expression to us is through verbal symbols, and it is hard to get behind these into the real workshop of the brain where each poet is busily minting his own peculiar raw material into the current coin of human speech.
Nevertheless, many poets have been sufficiently conscious of what is going on within their workshop to tell us something about it. Professor Fairchild has made an interesting collection [Footnote: The Making of Poetry, pp. 78, 79.] of testimony relating to the tumultuous crowding of images, each clamoring, as it were, for recognition and crying “take me!” He instances, as other critics have done, the extraordinary succession of images by which Shelley strives to portray the spirit of the skylark. The similes actually chosen by Shelley seem to have been merely the lucky candidates selected from an infinitely greater number. In Francis Thompson’s captivating description of Shelley as a glorious child the reader is conscious of the same initial rush of images, although the medium of expression here is heightened prose instead of verse: [Footnote: Dublin Review, July, 1908.]
“Coming to Shelley’s poetry, we peep over the wild mask of revolutionary metaphysics, and we see the winsome face of the child. Perhaps none of his poems is more purely and typically Shelleian than The Cloud, and it is interesting to note how essentially it springs from the faculty of make-believe. The same thing is conspicuous, though less purely conspicuous, throughout his singing; it is the child’s faculty of make-believe raised to the nth power. He is still at play, save only that his play is such as manhood stops to watch, and his playthings are those which the gods give their children. The universe is his box of toys. He dabbles his fingers in the day-fall. He is gold-dusty with tumbling amidst the stars. He makes bright mischief with the moon. The meteors nuzzle their noses in his hand. He teases into growling the kennelled thunder, and laughs at the shaking of its fiery chain. He dances in and out of the gates of heaven: its floor is littered with his broken fancies. He runs wild over the fields of ether. He chases the rolling world. He gets between the feet of the horses of the sun. He stands in the lap of patient Nature, and twines her loosened tresses after a hundred wilful fashions, to see how she will look nicest in his song.”
5. The Selection and Control of Images It is easier, no doubt, to realize something of the swarming of images in the stream of consciousness than it is to understand how these images are selected, combined and controlled. Some principle of association, some law governing the synthesis, there must be; and English criticism has long treasured some of the clairvoyant words of Coleridge and Wordsworth upon this matter. The essential problem is suggested by Wordsworth’s phrase “the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.” Is the “excitement,” then, the chief factor in the selection and combination of images, and do the “feelings,” as if with delicate tentacles, instinctively choose and reject and integrate such images as blend with the poet’s mood?
Coleridge, with his subtle builder’s instinct, uses his favorite word “synthesis” not merely as applied to images as such, but to all the faculties of the soul:
“The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and a spirit of unity, that blends, and as it were fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power to which I would exclusively appropriate the name of Imagination.” “Synthetic and magical power,” indeed, with a Coleridge as Master of the Mysteries! But the perplexed student of poetry may well wish a more exact description of what really takes place.
An American critic, after much searching in recent psychological explanations of artistic creation, attempts to describe the genesis of a poem in these words: [Footnote: Lewis E. Gates, Studies and Appreciations, p. 215. Macmillan, 1900.]
“The poet concentrates his thought on some concrete piece of life, on some incident, character, or bit of personal experience; because of his emotional temperament, this concentration of interest stirs in him a quick play of feeling and prompts the swift concurrence of many images. Under the incitement of these feelings, and in accordance with laws of association that may at least in part be described, these images grow bright and clear, take definite shapes, fall into significant groupings, branch and ramify, and break into sparkling mimicry of the actual world of the senses–all the time delicately controlled by the poet’s conscious purpose and so growing intellectually significant, but all the time, if the work of art is to be vital, impelled also in their alert weaving of patterns by the moods of the poet, by his fine instinctive sense of the emotional expressiveness of this or that image that lurks in the background of his consciousness. For this intricate web of images, tinged with his most intimate moods, the poet through his intuitive command of words finds an apt series of sound-symbols and records them with written characters. And so a poem arises through an exquisite distillation of personal moods into imagery and into language, and is ready to offer to all future generations its undiminishing store of spiritual joy and strength.”
A better description than this we are not likely to find, although some critics would question the phrase, “all the time delicately controlled by the poet’s conscious purpose." [Footnote: “Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, ’I will compose poetry.’. . . It is not subject to the control of the active powers of the mind. ... Its birth and recurrence have no necessary connection with the consciousness or will.” Shelley, A Defense of Poetry.]
For sometimes, assuredly, the synthesis of images seems to take place without the volition of the poet. The hypnotic trance, the narcotic dream or revery, and even our experience of ordinary dreams, provide abundant examples. One dreams, for instance, of a tidal river, flowing in with a gentle full current which bends in one direction all the water-weeds and the long grasses trailing from the banks; then somehow the tide seems to change, and all the water and the weeds and grasses, even the fishes in the stream, turn slowly and flow out to sea. The current synthesizes, harmonizes, moves onward like music,–and we are aware that it is all a dream. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” composed in a deep opium slumber, moves like that, one train of images melting into another like the interwoven figures of a dance led by the “damsel with a dulcimer.” There is no “conscious purpose” whatever, and no “meaning” in the ordinary interpretation of that word. Nevertheless it is perfect integration of imagery, pure beauty to the senses. Something of this rapture in the sheer release of control must have been in Charles Lamb’s mind when he wrote to Coleridge about the “pure happiness” of being insane. “Dream not, Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of fancy till you have gone mad! All now seems to me vapid, comparatively so.” (June 10, 1796.)
If “Kubla Khan” represents one extreme, Poe’s account of how he wrote “The Raven" [Footnote: The Philosophy of Composition.] –incredible as the story appears to most of us–may serve to illustrate the other, namely, a cool, conscious, workmanlike control of every element in the selection and combination of imagery. Wordsworth’s naive explanation of the task performed by the imagination in his “Cuckoo” and “Leech-Gatherer" [Footnote: Preface to poems of 1815-1845.] occupies a middle ground. We are at least certain of his entire honesty–and incidentally of his total lack of humor!
“’Shall I call thee Bird, Or but a wandering Voice?’
“This concise interrogation characterizes the seeming ubiquity of the voice of the cuckoo, and dispossesses the creature almost of a corporeal existence; the Imagination being tempted to this exertion of her power by a consciousness in the memory that the cuckoo is almost perpetually heard throughout the season of spring, but seldom becomes an object of sight....
“’As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie Couched on the bald top of an eminence, Wonder to all who do the same espy By what means it could thither come, and whence, So that it seems a thing endued with sense, Like a sea-beast crawled forth, which on a shelf Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun himself.
Such seemed this Man; not all alive or dead. Nor all asleep, in his extreme old age. * * * * * Motionless as a cloud the old Man stood, That heareth not the loud winds when they call, And moveth altogether if it move at all.’
“In these images, the conferring, the abstracting, and the modifying powers of the Imagination, immediately and mediately acting, are all brought into conjunction. The stone is endowed with something of the power of life to approximate it to the sea-beast; and the sea-beast stripped of some of its vital qualities to assimilate it to the stone; which intermediate image is thus treated for the purpose of bringing the original image, that of the stone, to a nearer resemblance to the figure and condition of the aged man; who is divested of so much of the indications of life and motion as to bring him to the point where the two objects unite and coalesce in just comparison.”
Wordsworth’s analysis of the processes of his own imagination, like Poe’s story of the composition of “The Raven,” is an analysis made after the imagination had functioned. There can be no absolute proof of its correctness in every detail. It is evident that we have to deal with an infinite variety of normal and abnormal minds. Some of these defy classification; others fall into easily recognized types, such as “the lunatic, the lover and the poet,” as sketched by Theseus, Duke of Athens. How modern, after all, is the Duke’s little lecture on the psychology of imagination!
“The lunatic, the lover and the poet Are of imagination all compact; One sees more devils than vast hell can hold, That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic, Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt: The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name. Such tricks hath strong imagination, That, if it would but apprehend some joy, It comprehends some bringer of that joy; Or in the night, imagining some fear, How easy is a bush supposed a bear!" [Footnote: Midsummer Night’s Dream, v, i, 7-22.]
Shakspere, it will be observed, does not hesitate to use that dangerous term “the poet!” Yet as students of poetry we must constantly bring ourselves back to the recorded experience of individual men, and from these make our comparisons and generalizations. It may even happen that some readers will get a clearer conception of the selection and synthesis of images if they turn for the moment away from poetry and endeavor to realize something of the same processes as they take place in imaginative prose. In Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, for example, the dominant image, which becomes the symbol of his entire theme, is the piece of scarlet cloth which originally caught his attention. This physical object becomes, after long brooding, subtly changed into a moral symbol of sin and its concealment. It permeates the book, it is borne openly upon the breast of one sufferer, it is written terribly in the flesh of another, it flames at last in the very sky. All the lesser images and symbols of the romance are mastered by it, subordinated to it; it becomes the dominant note in the composition. The romance of The Scarlet Letter is, as we say of any great poem or drama, an “ideal synthesis"; i.e. a putting together of images in accordance with some central idea. The more significant the idea or theme or master image, the richer and fuller are the possibilities of beauty in detail. Apply this familiar law of complexity to a poet’s conscious or unconscious choice of images. In the essay which we have already quoted [Footnote: Studies and Appreciations, p. 216.] Lewis Gates remarks:
“In every artist there is a definite mental bias, a definite spiritual organization and play of instincts, which results in large measure from the common life of his day and generation, and which represents this life–makes it potent–within the individuality of the artist. This so-called ’acquired constitution of the life of the soul’–it has been described by Professor Dilthey with noteworthy acuteness and thoroughness–determines in some measure the contents of the artist’s mind, for it determines his interests, and therefore the sensations and perceptions that he captures and automatically stores up. It guides him in his judgments of worth, in his instinctive likes and dislikes as regards conduct and character, and controls in large measure the play of his imagination as he shapes the action of his drama or epic and the destinies of his heroes. Its prejudices interfiltrate throughout the molecules of his entire moral and mental life, and give to each image and idea some slight shade of attractiveness or repulsiveness, so that when the artist’s spirit is at work under the stress of feeling, weaving into the fabric of a poem the competing images and ideas in his consciousness, certain ideas and images come more readily and others lag behind, and the resulting work of art gets a colour and an emotional tone and suggestions of value that subtly reflect the genius of the age.”
6. “Imagist” Verse Such a conception of the association of images as reflecting not only this “acquired constitution of the soul” of the poet but also the genius of the age is in marked contrast to some of the theories held by contemporary “imagists.” As we have already noted, in Chapter II, they stress the individual reaction to phenomena, at some tense moment. They discard, as far as possible, the long “loop-line” of previous experience. As for diction, they have, like all true artists, a horror of the cliché–the rubber-stamp word, blurred by use. As for rhythm, they fear any conventionality of pattern. In subsequent chapters we must look more closely at these matters of diction and of rhythm, but they are both involved in any statement of the principles of Imagist verse. Richard Aldington sums up his article on “The Imagists" [Footnote: “Greenwich Village,” July 15, 1915.] in these words:
“Let me resume the cardinal points of the Imagist style: 1. Direct treatment of the subject. 2. A hardness and economy of speech. 3. Individuality of rhythm; vers libre. 4. The exact word. The Imagists would like to possess ’le mot qui fait image, l’adjectif inattendu et précis qui dessine de pied en cap et donne la senteur de la chose qu’il est chargé de rendre, la touche juste, la couleur qui chatoie et vibre.’”
In the preface to Imagist Poets (1915), and in Miss Amy Lowell’s Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917) the tenets of imagism are stated briefly and clearly. Imagism, we are told, aims to use always the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact nor the merely decorative word; to create new rhythms–as the expression of new moods–and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods; to allow absolute freedom in the choice of a subject; to present an image, rendering particulars exactly; to produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred or indefinite; to secure condensation.
It will be observed that in the special sort of picture-making which Imagist poetry achieves, the question of free verse is merely incidental. “We fight for it as a principle of liberty,” says Miss Lowell, but she does not insist upon it as the only method of writing poetry. Mr. Aldington admits frankly that about forty per cent of vers libre is prose. Mr. Lowes, as we have already remarked, has printed dozens of passages from Meredith’s novels in the typographical arrangement of free verse so as to emphasize their “imagist” character. One of the most effective is this:
“He was like a Tartar Modelled by a Greek: Supple As the Scythian’s bow, Braced As the string!”
Suppose, however, that we agree to defer for the moment the vexed question as to whether images of this kind are to be considered prose or verse. Examine simply for their vivid picture-making quality the collections entitled Imagist Poets (1915,1916,1917), or, in the Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1915, such poems as J. G. Fletcher’s “Green Symphony" or “H. D.’s” “Sea-Iris” or Miss Lowell’s “The Fruit Shop.” Read Miss Lowell’s extraordinarily brilliant volume Men, Women and Ghosts (1916), particularly the series of poems entitled “Towns in Colour.” Then read the author’s preface, in which her artistic purpose in writing “Towns in Colour” is set forth: “In these poems, I have endeavoured to give the colour, and light, and shade, of certain places and hours, stressing the purely pictorial effect, and with little or no reference to any other aspect of the places described. It is an enchanting thing to wander through a city looking for its unrelated beauty, the beauty by which it captivates the sensuous sense of seeing.” [Footnote: Italics mine.]
Nothing could be more gallantly frank than the phrase “unrelated beauty." For it serves as a touchstone to distinguish between those imagist poems which leave us satisfied and those which do not. Sometimes, assuredly, the insulated, unrelated beauty is enough. What delicate reticence there is in Richard Aldington’s “Summer”:
“A butterfly, Black and scarlet, Spotted with white, Fans its wings Over a privet flower.
“A thousand crimson foxgloves, Tall bloody pikes, Stand motionless in the gravel quarry; The wind runs over them.
“A rose film over a pale sky Fantastically cut by dark chimneys; Across an old city garden.”
The imagination asks no more.
Now read my friend Baker Brownell’s “Sunday Afternoon”:
“The wind pushes huge bundles Of itself in warm motion Through the barrack windows; It rattles a sheet of flypaper Tacked in a smear of sunshine on the sill. A voice and other voices squirt A slow path among the room’s tumbled sounds. A ukelele somewhere clanks In accidental jets Up from the room’s background.”
Here the stark truthfulness of the images does not prevent an instinctive “Well, what of it?” “And afterward, what else?” Unless we adopt the Japanese theory of “stop poems,” where the implied continuation of the mood, the suggested application of the symbol or allegory, is the sole justification of the actual words given, a great deal of imagist verse, in my opinion, serves merely to sharpen the senses without utilizing the full imaginative powers of the mind. The making of images is an essential portion of the poet’s task, but in memorably great poetry it is only a detail in a larger whole. Miss Lowell’s “Patterns” is one of the most effective of contemporary poems, but it is far more than a document of imagism. It is a triumph of structural imagination.
7. Genius and Inspiration Whatever may be the value, for students, of trying to analyse the image-making and image-combining faculty, every one admits that it is a necessary element in the production of poetry. Let Coleridge have the final statement of this mystery of his art: “The power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learnt. It is in this that Poeta nascitur non fit.” We cannot avoid the difficulties of the question by attributing the poet’s imagination to “genius.” Whether genius is a neurosis, as some think, or whether it is sanity at perfection, makes little difference here. Both a Poe and a Sophocles are equally capable of producing ideal syntheses. Nor does the old word “inspiration” help much either. Whatever we mean by inspiration–a something not ourselves, supernatural or sub-liminal–a “vision” of Blake, the “voices” of Joan of Arc, the “god” that moved within the Corybantian revelers–it is an excitement of the image-making faculty, and not that faculty itself. Disordered “genius" and inspiration undisciplined by reason are alike powerless to produce images that permanently satisfy the sense of beauty. Tolstoy’s common- sense remark is surely sound: “One’s writing is good only where the intelligence and the imagination are in equilibrium. As soon as one of them over-balances the other, it’s all up." [Footnote: Compare W. A. Neilson’s chapter on “The Balance of Qualities" in Essentials of Poetry. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912.]
8. A Summary Let us now endeavor to summarize this testimony which we have taken from poets and critics. Though they do not agree in all details, and though they often use words that are either too vague or too highly specialized, the general drift of the testimony is fairly clear. Poets and critics agree that the imagination is something different from the mere memory-image; that by a process of selection and combination and re-presentation of images something really new comes into being, and that we are therefore justified in using the term constructive, or creativeimagination. This imagination embodies, as we say, or “bodies forth,” as Duke Theseus said, “the forms of things unknown.” It ultimately becomes the poet’s task to “shape” these forms with his “pen,” that is to say, to suggest them through word-symbols, arranged in a certain fashion. The selection of these word-symbols will be discussed in Chapter IV, and their rhythmical arrangement in Chapter V. But we have tried in the present chapter to trace the functioning of the poetic imagination in those stages of its activity which precede the definite shaping of poems with the pen. If we say, with Professor Fairchild, [Footnote: Making of Poetry, p. 34.] that “the central processes or kinds of activity involved in the making of poetry are three: personalizing, combining and versifying,” it is obvious that we have been dealing with the first two. If we prefer to use the famous terms employed by Ruskin in Modern Painters, we have been considering the penetrative, associative and contemplative types of imagination. But these Ruskinian names, however brilliantly and suggestively employed by the master, are dangerous tools for the beginner in the study of poetry.
If the beginner desires to review, at this point, the chief matters brought to his attention in the present chapter, he may make a real test of their validity by opening his senses to the imagery of a few lines of poetry. Remember that poets are endeavoring to convey the “sense” of things rather than the knowledge of things. Disregard for the moment the precise words employed in the following lines, and concentrate the attention upon the images, as if the image were not made of words at all, but were mere naked sense-stimulus.
In this line the poet is trying to make us see something ("visual" image):
“The bride hath paced into the hall, Red as a rose is she.”
Can you see her?
In these lines the poet is trying to make us hear something ("auditory" image):
“A noise like of a hidden brook In the leafy month of June That to the sleeping woods all night Singeth a quiet tune.”
Do you hear the tune? Do you hear it as clearly as you can hear
’The tambourines Jing-jing-jingled in the hands of Queens”?
In these lines the poet is trying to make us feel certain bodily sensations ("tactile” image):
“I closed my lids and kept them close, And the balls like pulses beat; For the sky and the sea and the sea and the sky, Lay like a load on my weary eye, And the dead were at my feet.”
Do your eyes feel that pressure?
You are sitting quite motionless in your chair as you read these lines ("motor” image):
“I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he; I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three!”
Are you instantly on horseback? If you are, the poet has put you there by conveying from his mind to yours, through the use of verbal imagery and rhythm, his “sense” of riding, which has now become your sense of riding.
If the reader can meet this test of realizing simple images through his own body-and-mind reaction to their stimulus, the door of poetry is open to him. He can enter into its limitless enjoyments. If he wishes to analyse more closely the nature of the pleasure which poetry affords, he may select any lines he happens to like, and ask himself how the various functions of the imagination are illustrated by them. Suppose the lines are Coleridge’s description of the bridal procession, already quoted in part:
“The bride hath paced into the hall, Red as a rose is she; Nodding their heads before her goes The merry minstrelsy.”
Here surely is imagination penetrative; the selection of some one characteristic trait of the object; that trait (the “redness” or the “nodding”) re-presented to us, and emphasized by conferring, modifying or abstracting whatever elements the poet wishes to stress or to suppress. The result is a combination of imagery which forms an idealized picture, presenting the shows of things as the mind would like to see them and thus satisfying our sense of beauty. For there is no question that the mind takes a supreme satisfaction in such an idealization of reality as Coleridge’s picture of the swift tropical sunset,
“At one stride comes the dark,”
or Emerson’s picture of the slow New England sunrise,
“O tenderly the haughty day Fills his blue urn with fire.”
Little has been said about beauty in this chapter, but no one doubts that a sense of beauty guides the “shaping spirit of imagination” in that dim region through which the poet feels his way before he comes to the conscious choice of expressive words and to the ordering of those words into beautiful rhythmical designs.