Imagism and Modernism and Beyond


Imagism, Modernism, and Postmodernism



Imagism was a sub-genre of Modernism concerned with creating clear imagery with sharp language. The essential idea was to re-create the physical experience of an object through words. As with all of Modernism, Imagism implicitly rejected Victorian poetry, which tended toward narrative. In this way, Imagist poetry is similar to the Japanese Haiku; they are brief renderings of some sort of poetic scene.

Pound argued that the appearance of the characters for “man,” “tree,” and “sun” each reflected their meaning.

Ezra Pound, an American-born cosmopolitan poet, was a towering figure of Modernism and a great propagator of Imagism. Pound defined an image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” An Imagist poem encapsulates a poetic impulse in the most time-and-space-efficient way possible; it is a kernel of poetry. Pound himself was influenced by Chinese poetry thanks to Ernest Fenollosa’s Essay on the Chinese Written Character. Fenollosa observed that certain Chinese characters looked like the idea they expressed (Pound 19). For Pound, likewise, the words of the poet should evoke the very physical object his was writing
about. In an interview in Poetry magazine published in 1913, Pound delineated the following principles of Imagism:

  • Direct treatment of “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
  • To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  • As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome. (qtd. in Hamilton)

He later expanded on these principles in the preface to Des Imagistes (an anthology of Imagist poetry) listing what he called “essentials” of Imagism:

(1) To use the language of common speech, but always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, not the merely decorative word.
(2) To create new rhythms–as the expression of new moods–and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon “free-verse” as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.
(3) To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. It is not good art to write badly about aeroplanes and automobiles; nor is it necessarily bad art to write well about the past. We believe passionately in the artistic value of modern life, but we wish to point out that there is nothing so uninspiring nor so old-fashioned as an aeroplane of the year 1911.
(4) To present an image (hence the name: “Imagist”). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.
(5) To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.
(6) Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry. (qtd. in Hamilton)

"Pedals on a wet, black bough"
“Pedals on a wet, black bough”

An often-anthologized example of a short Imagist poem is Pound’s “In the Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Pedals on a wet, black bough.

Through these fleeting two lines, the poet creates the image in the reader’s mind of myriad travelers in a Metro station. He then juxtaposes the faces of these travelers with delicate pedals on a black surface. Pound melds a frenetic urban center with a serene floral image, which both inspires a longing to escape busy city life and recognizes natural beauty in one of the most industrialized of places.


Although Queen Victoria died in 1901, Modernism can be said to have been born from contrarian attitudes of the previous centuries. Novels like Tristram Shandy (1759), which lacks a clear plot and in which the protagonists narrates his own birth, and Jude the Obscure (1895), a bleak novel that savagely critiqued Victorian customs, can be seem as forerunners to a period that extolled the divergent and experimental. The most exemplified phase of Modernism, referred to as “High Modernism,” occurred during the inter-war years (1918-1939). This was the time when writers synonymous with Modernism, such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence, thrived. While Victorians typically concerned themselves with rendering reality as they understood it into fiction, Modernists recognized that reality was subjective, and instead strove to represent human psychology in fiction. This is evidenced in the stream-of-consciousness narrative of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Hans Hofmann: The Gate. Archetypical Moderist Art

Modernism is further characterized by a systematic rejection of social and literary norm. In light of the widespread human suffering of the early 20th century, modernists oppose all major ideals and conventions with unrelenting pessimism directly contradicting the social optimism of the Victorian Era. Modernists claim that past movements and ideologies are disconnected from the reality of the human condition. Through abundant literary experimentation, modernists attempt to convey the complexity of a world apparently on the brink of deflagragation. Accordingly, modernists, by their copious experimentation with literary form and style, risk literary incoherence to express the perceived fragmentation and incoherence of the modern world–a feeling rooted in the cosmopolitan origins of the majority of modernist literature. The emergence of a hectic city life coupled with the sense of human decay drove modernists to seek a unifying philosophy. Thus, culture became politically important since it was perceived as the only universal source of identity and social reference (Modernism).

In successful modernist literature, the result of these characteristics is a more complex and nuanced analysis of the world than anything ever produced. Archetypes are rarely reinforced, and no clear interpretation of a subject is commonly found. Not only is the structure of both writing and the world analyzed, but the meaning of words, patterns, and occurrences is subjected to the literary lens with the express intent of avoiding oversimplification. Disorder is observed. As a result, an unprecedented level of literary criticism emerges. In fact, notable modernist writers such as T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats were also accomplished literary critics (Modernism).

Some of the resulting structural and formal characteristics of modernism include:

  • Open Form
  • Free Verse
  • Discontinuous Narrative
  • Intertextuality
  • Classical Allusions
  • Fragmentation
  • Multiple Narrative points of view (parallax)
  • Meta-narrative
  • Unconventional use of metaphor
  • Borrowings from cultures and languages
  • Juxtaposition of incongruent objects, themes, narratives, etc…

Analogous thematic characteristics of the movement include (Modernism):

  • Breakdown of social norms and cultural sureties
  • Freudian dissection of human consciousness
  • Dislocation of meaning and sense from its normal context
  • Valorization of the despairing individual in the face of an unmanageable future
  • Disillusionment
  • Rejection of history and the substitution of a mythical past, borrowed without chronology
  • Product of the metropolis, of cities and urban scapes
  • Stream of consciousness: Presentation of the raw, unprocessed human psyche of interest to Freudian analysis
  • Overwhelming technological changes of the 20th Century
  • Lack of power and loss of faith in democracy and freedom



Post-modernism is perhaps the most nebulous of all the literary movements. It spans from the end of modernism, with writers such as Samuel Beckett, to present-day authors such as Salman Rushdie. Scholars argue about whether or not we are still in the post-modern era, let alone what its components are. In fact, it’s usually safer to refer to a work containing postmodern thought, rather than being a part of postmodernism. Contentious as the period is, it’s still fairly easy to recognize post-modern writers and trends, and one of the easiest ways to define it is in relation to Modernism. Whereas Modernism can be said to be, in part, a reaction to World War I, Post-Modernism came about after World War II. Unlike Modernists, who generally took themselves and their art seriously, postmodernists treat their subjects ironically or satirically through parody and pastiche, the blending together of seemingly contradictory literary genres or motifs.

While there are many ways in which Post-Modernism differs from its preceding movement, it retained and even amplified Modernism’s pessimism and avant-garde predilection. Like the Modernist works The Waste Land and Finnegans Wake, Postmodernism often eschews or inverts traditional narration, possibly even breaking the fourth wall. Postmodernists commonly discards one-dimensions paradigms and insist that every, or no, way of viewing nature is the correct way. The laws of nature, science, religion, and politics are often deconstructed to reveal the flaws and contradictions of civilization.

British Postmodernism is probably best known for its drama. Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, is probably one of the most famous examples of the theater of the absurd and epitomizes the Postmodern combination of comedy and pessimistic philosophy. Tom Stoppard‘s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a Postmodern reworking of Hamlet centered around two minor characters, and Harold Pinter‘s The Breakfast Party and No Man’s Land are also exemplary works.


Chandler, Daniel. “Intertextuality.” Semiotics for Beginners. 04 10 2003 . 19 Nov 2007

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. “The Twentieth Century and After.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature Eighth Edition Volume 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc,, 2006. 1827-1850.

Hamilton, Craig A. “Toward a cognitive rhetoric of Imagism. ” Style. 38.4 (Winter 2004): 468(23). General OneFile. Gale. University of Delaware Library. 2 Dec. 2007

Lye, John. “Some Attributes of Postmodernist Literature.” 30 Nov 2007 <>.
“Modernism.” The Critical Poet 17 November 2007

“Postmodernism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 30 Nov. 2007 <>.

Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. Berkshire: Faber and Faber, 1991. Print.

Sender, Ayala. “Pedals on a wet, black bough.” 2008.

Greg LaLuna

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