From “A Retrospect” (1918)
There has been so much scribbling about a new fashion in poetry, that I may perhaps be pardoned this brief recapitulation and retrospect.
In the spring or early summer of 1912, ‘H.D.’, Richard Aldington and myself decided that we were agreed upon the three principles following:
1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
Upon many points of taste and of predilection we differed, but agreeing upon these three positions we thought we had as much right to the group name, at least much right, as a number of French “schools” proclaimed by Mr Flint in the August number of Harold Monro’s magazine for 1911.
This school has since been “joined” or “followed” by numerous people who, whatever their merits, do not show any signs of agreeing with the second specification. Indeed vers libre has become as prolix and as verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it. It has brought faults of its own. The actual language and phrasing is often as bad as that of our elders without even the excuse that the words are shoveled in to fill a metric pattern or to complete the noise of a rhyme-sound. Whether or no the phrases followed by the followers are musical must be left to the reader’s decision. At times I can find a marked metre in “vers libres”, as stale and hackneyed as any pseudo-Swinburnian, at times the writers seem to follow no musical structure whatever. But it is, on the whole, good that the field should be ploughed. Perhaps a few good poems have come from the new method, and if so it is justified.
Criticism is not a circumscription or a set of prohibitions. It provides fixed points of departure. It may startle a dull reader into alertness. That little of it which is good is mostly in stray phrases; or if it be an older artist helping a younger it is in great measure but rules of thumb, cautions gained by experience.
I set together a few phrases on practical working about the time the first remarks on imagisme were published. The first use of the word ‘Imagiste’ was in my note to T.E. Hulme’s five poems, printed at the end of my ‘Repostes’ in the autumn of 1912. I reprint my cautions from Poetry for March, 1913.
A FEW DON’TS
An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. I use the term ‘complex’ rather in the technical sense employed by the newer psychologists, such as Hart, though we might not agree absolutely in our application.
It is the presentation of such a ‘complex’ instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.
It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.
All this, however, some may consider open to debate. The immediate necessity is to tabulate A LIST OF DON”TS for those beginning to write verses. I can not put all of them into Mosaic negative.
To begin with, consider the three propositions (demanding direct treatment, economy of words, and the sequence of the musical phrase), not as dogma – never consider anything as dogma – but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration.
Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work. Consider the discrepancies between the actual writing of the Greek poets and dramatists, and the theories of the Graeco-Roman grammarians, concocted to explain their metres.
Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.
Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace’. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.
Go in fear of abstractions. Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.
What the expert is tired of today the public will be tired of tomorrow.
Don’t imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music.
Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright , or to try to conceal it.
Don’t allow “influence” to mean merely that you mop up the particular decorative vocabulary of some one or two poets whom you happen to admire. A Turkish war correspondent was recently caught red-handed babbling in his dispatches of ‘dove-grey’ hills, or else it was ‘peale-pale’, I cannot remember.
Use either no ornament or good ornament.
RHYTHM AND RHYME
Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language, so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement; e.g., Saxon charms, Hebridean Folk songs, the verse of Dante, and the lyrics of Shakespeare – if he can dissociate the vocabulary from the cadence. Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.
It is not necessary that a poem should rely on its music, but if it does rely on music that music must be such as will delight the expert.
Let the neophyte know assonance and alliteration, rhyme immediate and delayed, simple and polyphonic, as a musician would expect to know harmony and counterpoint and all the minutiae of his craft. No time is too great to give to these matters or to any one of them, even if the artist seldom have need of them.
Don’t imagine that a thing will “go” in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.
Don’t be “viewy” – leave that to the writers of pretty little philosophic essays. Don’t be descriptive; remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know deal more about it.
When Shakespeare talks of the ‘Dawn in russet mantle clad’ he presents something which the painter does not present. There is in this line of his nothing that one can call description; he presents.
Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.
The scientist does not expect to be acclaimed as a great scientist until he has discovered something. He begins by learning what has been discovered already. He goes from that point onward. He does not bank on being a charming fellow personally. He does not expect his friends to applaud his results of his freshman class work. Freshmen in poetry are unfortunately not confined to a definite and recognisable class room. They are ‘all over the shop’. Is it any wonder ‘the public is indifferent to poetry?’
Don’t chop your stuff into separate iambs. Don’t make each line stop dead at the end, and then begin every next line with a heave. Let the beginning of the next line catch the rise of the rhythm wave, unless you want a definite longish pause.
In short, behave as a musician, a good musician, when dealing with that phase of your art which has exact parallels in music. The same laws govern, and you are bound by no others.
Naturally, your rhythmic structure should not destroy the shape of your words, or their natural sound, or their meaning. It is improbable that, at the start, you will be able to get a rhythm-structure strong enough to effect them very much, though you may fall a victim to all sorts of false stopping due to line ends and caesurae.
The musician can relay on pitch and the volume of the orchestra. You can not. The term harmony is misapplied in poetry; it refers to simultaneous sounds of different pitch. There is, however, in the best verse a sort of residue of sound which remains in the ear of the hearer and acts more or less as an organ-base.
A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure; it need not be bizarre or curious, but it must be well used if used at all.
Vide further Vildrac and Duhamel’s notes on rhyme in ‘Technique Poetique’.
That part of your poetry which strikes upon the imaginative eye of the reader will lose nothing by translation into a foreign tongue; that which appeals to the ear can reach only those who take it in the original.
Consider the definiteness of Dante’s presentation, as compared with Milton’s rhetoric. Read as much of Wordsworth as does not seem too unutterably dull.
If you want the gist of the matter go to Sappho, Catullus, Villon, Heine when he is in the vein, Gautier when he not too frigid; or, if you not the tongues, seek out the leisurely Chauser. Good prose will to you no harm, and there is good discipline to be had by trying to write it.
Translation is likewise good training, if you find that your original matter “wobbles” when you try to rewrite it. The meaning of the poem to be translated can not “wobble”.
If you are using a symmetrical form, don’t put in what you want to say and then fill up the remaining vacuums with slush.
Don’t mess up the perception of one sense by trying to define it in terms of another. This is usually only the result of being too lazy to find the exact word. To this clause there are possibly exceptions.
The first three simple prescriptions will throw out nine-tenths of all the bad poetry now accepted as standard and classic; and will prevent you from many a crime of production.
‘….. Mais d’abord il faut etre un poete,’ as MM. Duhamel and Vildrac
have said at the end of their little book, ‘Notes sur la Technique Poetique’.
Since March 1913, Ford Madox Hueffer has pointed out that Wordsworth was so intent on the ordinary or plain word that he never thought of hunting for le mot juste.
John Butler Yeats has handled or man-handled Wordsworth and the Victorians, and his criticism, contained in letters to his son, is now printed and available.
I do not like writing about art, my first, at least I think it was my first essay on the subject, was a protest against it. [….]
Rhythm. – I believe in an “absolute rhythm”, a rhythm, that is, in poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed. A man’s rhythm must be interpretative, it will be, therefore, in the end, his own, uncounterfeiting, uncounterfeitable.
Symbols. – I believe that the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object, that if a man uses “symbols” he must so use them that their symbolic function does not obtrude; so that a sense, and the poetic quality of the passage, is not lost to those who do not understand the symbol as such, to whom, for instance, a hawk is a hawk.
Technique. – I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity; in law it is ascertainable; in the trampling down of every convention that impedes or obscures the determination of the law, or the precise rendering of the impulse.
Form. – I think there is a “fluid” as well as a “solid” content, that some poems may have form as a tree has form, some water poured into a vase. That most symmetrical forms have certain uses. That a vast number of subjects cannot be precisely, and therefore not properly rendered in symmetrical forms.
‘Thinking that alone worthy wherein the whole art is employed.’ I think the artist should master all known forms and systems of metric, and I have with some persistence set about doing this, searching particularly into those periods wherein the systems came to birth or attained their maturity. It has been complained, with some justice, that I dump my note-books on the public. I think that only after a long struggle will poetry attain such a degree of development, or, if you will, modernity, that it will vitally concern people who are accustomed, in prose, to Henry James and Anatole France, in music to Debussy. I am constantly contending that it took two centuries of Provence and one of Tuscany to develop the media of Dante’s masterwork, that it took the Latinists of the Renaissance, and the Pleiade, and his own age of painted speech to prepare Shakespeare his tools. It is tremendously important that great poetry be written, it makes no jot of difference who writes it. The experimental demonstrations of one man may save the time of many – hence my furore over Arnaut Daniel – if a man’s experiments try out one new rime, or dispense conclusively with one iota of currently accepted nonsense, he is merely playing fair with his colleagues when he chalks up his result.
No man ever writes very much poetry that “matters”. In bulk, that is, no one produces much that is final, and when a man is not doing this greatest thing, this saying the thing once for all and perfectly; when he is not matching ‘Immortal Aphrodite, on your patterned throne’ or ‘Hist – said Kate the Queen’, he had much better be making the sorts of experiment which may be of use to him in his later work, or to his successors.
‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.’ It is a foolish thing for a man to begin his work on a too narrow foundation, it is a disgraceful thing for a man’s work not to show steady growth and increasing fineness from first to last.
As for “adaptations”; one finds that all the old masters of painting recommend to their pupils that they begin by copying master-work, and proceed to their own composition.
As for ‘Every man his own poet’, the more every man knows about poetry the better. I believe in every one writing poetry who wants to; most do. I believe in every man knowing enough of music to play ‘God bless our home’ on the harmonium, but I do not believe in every man giving concerts and printing his sin.
The mastery of any art is the work of a lifetime. I should not discriminate between the “amateur” and the “professional”. Or rather I should discriminate quite often in favour of the amateur, but I should discriminate between the amateur and the expert. It is certain that the present chaos will endure until the Art of poetry has been preached down the amateur gullet, until there is such a general understanding of the fact that poetry is an art and not a pastime; such a knowledge of technique; of technique of surface and technique of content, that the amateurs will cease to try to drown out the masters.
If a certain thing was said once for all in Atlantis or Arcadia, in 450 Before Christ or in 1290 after, it is not for us moderns to go saying it over, or to go obscuring the memory of the dead by saying the same thing with less skill and less conviction.
My pawing over the ancients and semi-ancients has been one struggle to find out what has been done, once for all, better than it can ever be done again, and to find out what remains for us to do, and plenty does remain, for if we still feel the same emotions as those which launched the thousand ships, it is quite certain that we have come on these feelings differently, through different nuances, by different intellectual gradations. Each age has its own abounding gifts yet only some ages transmute them into matter of duration. No good poetry is ever written in a manner 20 years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, convention, and cliché, and not from life, yet a man feeling the divorce of life and his art may naturally try to resurrect a forgotten mode if he finds in that mode some leaven, or if he think he sees in it some element lacking in contemporary art which might unite that art again to its sustenance, life.
In the art of Daniel and Cavalcanti, I have seen that precision which I miss in the Victorians, that explicit rendering, be it of external nature, or of emotion. Their testimony is of the eyewitness, their symptoms are first hand.
As for the 19th century, with all respect to its achievements, I think we shall look back upon it as a rather blurry, messy sort of a period, a rather sentimentalistic, mannerish sort of period. I say this without any self-righteousness, with no self-satisfaction.
As for being a “movement” or my being of it, the conception of poetry as a “pure art” in the sense in which I use the term, revived with Swinburne. From the puritanical revolt to Swinburne, poetry had been merely the vehicle – yes, definitely, Arthur Symon’s scruples and feelings about the word not withholding – the ox-cart and post-chaise for transmitting thoughts poetic or otherwise. And perhaps the “great Victorians”, though it is doubtful, and assuredly the “nineties” continued the development of the art, confining their improvements, however, chiefly to sound and to refinements of manner.
Mr Yeats has once and for all stripped English poetry of its perdamnable
rhetoric. He has boiled away all that is not poetic – and a good deal that
is. He has become a classic in his own lifetime and nel mezzo del cammin.
He has made our poetic idiom a thing pliable, a speech without inversions.