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What is Imagism?

PhD, Media Arts and English Literature (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Date Published: 12.07.2023,

Last Updated: 01.02.2024

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Definition and origins of Imagism

Imagism was a literary movement instigated by a small group of American and British writers in the early twentieth-century, where it coalesced and clashed with many other ‘isms’—Dadaism, Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism—that are all woven into the much larger tangled tapestry of modernism. Starting around 1910, Imagism rejected Romanticism and late Victorian poetry as excessive and sentimental. Imagism emerged as a sharp, ascetic, and precise poetic technique. In Modernism (2016), Peter Childs discusses how Imagism embraced a “hard classicism,” and also how it invariably drew on, borrowed, and appropriated ancient Greek poetry and techniques from China and Japan. As Sean Latham and Gayle Rogers write in Modernism: Evolution of an Idea, Imagism signalled the moment that “[h]ard angles, jagged and unexpected juxtapositions, and the collision of past and present would govern free verse,” (2015) where the shape and form of anglophone poetic experimentation was fundamentally altered. Imagism argued for the use of clear, precise, and exact language in poetry. This contrasted Romantic poetry, like work by John Keats or Lord Byron, and instead—as the 1915 Imagist anthology sets out in its preface—Imagist poets “believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry” (Lowell, Some Imagist Poets, 1915).

Imagism is thus a crucial thread within the broader story of modernity and modernist studies. T. S. Eliot retrospectively referred to Imagism as “the starting-point of modern poetry” (cited in Rebecca Beasley, Theorists of Modernist Poetry, 2007). The movement carries, as Will Montgomery notes in Short Form American Poetry, a “foundational status in the modernist line of anglophone poetry” (2020), where its influence can be seen throughout avant-garde experiments of the twentieth century. Indeed, the rejection of formal meter (like iambic pentameter) and a turn towards a more organic and ‘free’ style of verse (what the French symbolist poets called vers libre) that Imagism championed can be seen as one of the principal features of modernist poetics. Although Imagism as a movement lasted only until 1917, its legacy—or “fulfilment”, as Mick Imlah suggests (The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, 2014)—can be seen in later works by H.D., Eliot, and Pound. Indeed, Imagism’s precision and Hellenistic motifs can be seen in the larger structure Trilogy (1944), and in the mythic threading of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), and The Cantos (1925), demonstrating Imagism’s influence.

Despite its lingering legacy, Peter Nicholls reminds us that Imagism was more of a moment than a movement (Modernisms, 2017), taking shape in 1912 after the American poet Ezra Pound gave it its name. However, much about Imagism’s ‘moment’ is contested. It was galvanised by a grouping that—as Montgomery writes—was “as confected and irregular as any in the long history of the twentieth-century avant-gardes” (2020). Helen Carr observes that even the fact of Pound giving Imagism its name

is one of the few elements in the contentious and hotly disputed story of the imagist movement on which there is general agreement. Where it came from, whose ideas it represented, what indeed imagism meant, who was or was not an imagist were all fiercely debated questions for most of the movement’s existence, as they have been in literary history since (The Verse Revolutionaries, 2009).

Pre-Imagism: The Poet’s Club and the School of Images

Imagism first began as a loose grouping between T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, and Ezra Pound. In 1908, Hulme was involved in setting up the Poets’ Club in London, where he was interested in the influence of the French Symbolists and vers libre, which rejected traditional meter patterns, rhyme, and structure. Hulme produced several booklets for the club, the first of which was For Christmas in January 1909, which included his poems “Autumn” and “A City Sunset”, which—although the word was not in use at this point—Peter Jones positions as the first prototypical Imagist poems (Imagist Poetry, 2001). These poems abandon formal ideas of metre, rhythm, rhyme and present stark images of sunsets and autumnal evenings where a “ruddy moon” is presented as “a red-faced farmer” and stars peek out of the sky “[w]ith white faces like town children” (“Autumn”, 1909). Flint, too, was an advocate for vers libre, and met with Hulme, to discuss the future of modern poetry and how it could be invigorated by the forms like the Japanese tanka and haiku, and the work of the French Symbolists (Imlah, 2013). Moving from America, Pound arrived in London where he met Hulme and Flint in April 1909 (Jones, 2001). Together they formed the ‘School of Images’. 

The idea of the image is crucial here. As Childs writes, the image “summed up the Imagists’ preference for concision and compression” (2016). Pound defined the image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (Pound, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”, 1913). Expanding on how Imagists conceived of the image or visual metaphor within poetry, Beasley writes, 

The major point to emphasize is that, according to these poets, language cannot be understood as a transparent window through which one sees reality; it is a medium that is more likely to obscure reality. Their poetry will attempt to get behind language, as it were, by highlighting the mismatch between what we feel and what we can say. (2007)

Theorists of Modernist Poetry book cover
Theorists of Modernist Poetry

Rebecca Beasley

The major point to emphasize is that, according to these poets, language cannot be understood as a transparent window through which one sees reality; it is a medium that is more likely to obscure reality. Their poetry will attempt to get behind language, as it were, by highlighting the mismatch between what we feel and what we can say. (2007)

Pound saw the image as a way to do exactly this. Through the conversations that propelled the Poet’s Club and its splintered iteration, the School of Images; Pound, Hulme and Flint imagined a sort of poetry which acted as the image itself, which paved the way for Imagism. 

The “birth” of Imagism 

Stories of Imagism locate its “birth” in a London teashop, where Pound famously read some poems by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Richard Aldington in the early Fall of 1912 (Nadel, Ezra Pound, 2004). He used the term—“Imagiste”, with its French spelling—to describe them and their work. 

The American writer H.D. had arrived in London in 1911, where Pound introduced her to his circle of writers and friends. She had met Pound in 1901 in America, becoming close and, at one point, were engaged to be wed. In London, she met the British poet Aldington (who she would later marry), where the two shared a fascination with Hellenistic poetry (McCabe, H. D. & Bryher, 2021). 1911 was also the year that Pound was appointed the foreign representative of the little magazine Poetry, which was launched by Harriet Monroe in Chicago, and he was on the hunt for material to send back to her. Pound, H.D., and Aldington met regularly to discuss poetry. At one of these meetings, Pound called them Imagist poets. H.D. remembers how, when Pound read and edited one of her poems “Hermes of the Ways,” he extolled, “this is poetry” and promptly “scrawled ‘H.D. Imagiste’ at the bottom the page” (H.D., End to Torment, 1958). Aldington remembers the story a little differently: instead of the tea room at the British Museum, he remembers it taking place in the Fuller tea-shop in Kensington, where Pound told them they were both Imagistes (Carr, 2009). According to Pound, the term came to him alone one night to describe H.D.’s poetic technique, where he wrote to Flint, recalling “when on a certain evening in, I think in 1912, I coined the word Imagisme, I certainly intended it to mean something which was the poetry of H.D.” (quoted in Firchow, “Ezra Pound’s Imagism and the Tradition”, 1981).

Although it is unclear where exactly the meeting took place, what is certain is that Pound sent six poems to Monroe to publish in Poetry after this meeting. These were: H.D.’s “Hermes of the Ways”, “Priapus” and “Epigram”, and Aldington’s “Choricos”, “To a Greek Marble” and “Au Vieux Jardin”. Writing to Monroe, Pound proclaimed, 

This is the sort of American stuff that I can show here and in Paris without its being ridiculed. Objective – no slither; direct – no excessive use of adjectives, no metaphors that won’t permit examination. It’s straight talk, straight as the Greek! (cited in Paige, Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, 1950)

 Monroe published Aldington’s poems in November 1912, and H.D.’s work in January 1913, both with biographical notes declaring them “Imagistes”, and part of 

a school is that of the Imagistes. One of their watchwords is Precision, and they are in opposition to the numerous and unassembled writers who busy themselves with dull and interminable effusions… (quoted in Jones, 2001)

Imagism forged itself in opposition to Romanticism’s verbose introspection, and poets like John Keats, Percy Shelley or Lord Bryon. Instead, H.D.’s “Hermes of the Ways”, distils epic Greek myths into a precise, sharp, short and crystalline structure. The first stanza demonstrates the economy of language that Imagism celebrated: 

The hard sand breaks,
And the grains of it
Are clear as wine. (H.D., 1913)

H.D. layers image upon image, where metaphor constructs meaning without explanation. Pound extolled this ‘super-position’ of images, which can be seen in his “In the Station of a Metro” (1913), where he combines the images of “faces in the crowd” and “petals on a wet, black bough” to describe Paris Metro’s Concorde Station.

Although Imagism’s origin is often bound up with the famous moment in a London tearoom, Montgomery reminds us that the movement was as “confected and irregular as any in the long history of the twentieth-century avant-gardes” (2020). The first recorded use of the word “Imagisme” was actually in Pound’s appendix, “The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme”, which was tucked away at the end of one of his poetry collections, which he would have been working on in late April 1912. It included the note: “As for the future, Les Imagistes, the descendents of the forgotten school of 1909 [the School of Images], have that in their keeping” (Pound, Canzoni & Ripostes, 1913, [2012]). 

The Imagist anthologies, Pound’s departure, and Amy Lowell’s entry 

Following the flickers of “Imagisme” across appendixes and introductory notes, two brief articles emerged in Poetry’s March 1913 issue which clarified the movement’s core tenets. These were “Imagisme” (1913), which bore Flint’s byline, and “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” (1913), by Pound, although many have noted that they were both penned by Pound (Cuddy-Keane, Modernism, 2014), or at least jointly composed (Sherry, “Imagism”, 2010). 

“Imagisme” set out some crucial rules:

Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective. 

To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation. 

As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome. 

(Flint, “Imagisme”, 1913)

Pound’s “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” was actually drafted as a rejection slip for Poetry’s editors, which Vincent Sherry explains may have encouraged “a misunderstanding of the principles of Imagism as an editorial cleansing action” (Sherry, 2010). It propounded instructions such as “Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something”, and “Go in fear of abstractions” (Pound, 1913).

In March 1914, the first Imagist anthology was published. Edited by Pound, Des Imagistes included poems by Pound himself, H.D., Aldington, Flint, Skipwith Cannell, John Cournos, Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford), James Joyce, Amy Lowell, Allen Upward, and William Carlos Williams. Among these were the original six poems by H.D. and Aldington that had been published in Poetry. However, there was already a slippage forming around the term “Imagism”, where not all the poems that were included in the anthology adhered to the strict Imagist doctrine that Pound proffered (Imlah, 2014). 

Next, Pound penned an article, “Vorticism”, for the Fortnightly Review in September 1914, which discussed further aspects of Imagism, delineating it from symbolism’s “mushy technique” (1914). This article also signalled Pound’s predilection with Vorticism, which Jones describes as a “stricter form” of Imagism (2001), and would eventually contribute to Pound’s departure from Imagism. Founded by Wyndym Lewis, Vorticism was an art movement interested in sculpture, painting, hard abstraction and geometric angles; while Imagism was invested in poetic verse. Vorticism distilled Imagism’s concept of the image into the “VORTEX”, which Pound described as “every kind of whirlwind of force and emotion” (Paige, 1950). As Pound turned to Vorticism, Imagism’s original set began to splinter. Further fracture lines soon appeared: Flint published a short “The History of Imagism” in The Egoist in May 1915, which centered the Eiffel Tower Poets and Edward Storer’s poetry, which Pound vehemently disputed, writing to Flint that Imagism was coined to capture H.D.’s poetic technique and “most emphatically NOT the poetry of friend [Edward] Storer” (quoted in Firchow, 1981).

In July 1914, the Bostonian socialite and writer Amy Lowell arrived in London, eager to promote her work and Imagism more broadly. She organised a dinner to belatedly celebrate the publication of Des Imagistes, which had included her poem “In a Garden”. The dinner took place in London on 17 July 1914, where Lowell was joined by Pound, Lowell, H.D., Aldington, Flint, Upward, and Ford. It was—in Ira Nadel’s words—“a disaster” (2004). Sherry calls it “The Last Supper of Imagists”: a “parabolic fable” of literary history, where Lowell and Pound argued about the identity of the Imagist initiative (2010). 

Carr sees the divisive dinner as the marker of “the second major stage in the history of imagism” (2009). While Pound shifted his interests to Vorticism and Lewis’s magazine Blast!, Lowell edited the second Imagist anthology, Some Imagist Poets (1915). This collection included many familiar Imagist names from the first anthology, with work from H.D., Aldington, Lowell, and Flint, but its approach was decidedly different: its formation was democratic. As Lowell sets out in the preface: 

Instead of an arbitrary selection by an editor, each poet has been permitted to represent himself by the work he considers his best, the only stipulation being that it should not yet have appeared in book form. A sort of informal committee—consisting of more than half the authors here represented—have arranged the book and decided what should be printed and what omitted, but, as a general rule, the poets have been allowed absolute freedom in this direction, limitations of space only being imposed upon them. (1915)

Some Imagist Poets book cover
Some Imagist Poets

Edited by Richard Aldington, H.D., John Gould Fletcher, F.S. Flint, D.H. Lawrence & Amy Lowell

Instead of an arbitrary selection by an editor, each poet has been permitted to represent himself by the work he considers his best, the only stipulation being that it should not yet have appeared in book form. A sort of informal committee—consisting of more than half the authors here represented—have arranged the book and decided what should be printed and what omitted, but, as a general rule, the poets have been allowed absolute freedom in this direction, limitations of space only being imposed upon them. (1915)

This announcement was accompanied by some further definitions of Imagist poetry, including intentions such as: “To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite” (1915). The collection also saw poems by John Gould Fletcher and D. H. Lawrence included, with a notable omission of any poems from Pound, who refused to contribute. 

Two more anthologies followed Some Imagist Poetsin 1916 and 1917—all organised by Lowell and the Imagist collective. Pound lamented her approach, insisting that her “Amy-gism” had diluted the original term, where he demanded that she remove the word “Imagist” from the title (Carr, 2009). H.D., Susan McCabe writes, tried to bridge the divide diplomatically, writing to Lowell to suggest alternative names to appease Pound, putting forward the Pre-Raphaelite inspired title “THE SIX” (McCabe, 2021), which Lowell and her publishers dismissed in favour of the original “Imagist Poets”. 

Imagism and the “little magazine”

The role of little magazines and journals played a crucial role. As well as publishing articles and essays like “Imagisme”, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”, “Vorticism” and “The History of Imagism”, magazines like Poetry, The New Freewoman (which was renamed The Egoist), The Glebe, The Little Review, and The New Age all disseminated Imagist writing and poetry. Indeed, Beasley calls The Egoist the “major organ of Imagism in Britain (as Poetry was in the United States)” (2014). As Childs (2016) details, The Egoist’s trajectory was fundamental to Imagism: it was launched by Harriet Shaw Weaver and Dora Marsden in June 1913 as The Freewoman, where they entrusted Pound with soliciting literary contributions. He selected work by H.D., Aldington, Lewis, Robert Frost, Williams, and Lowell, among others. From 1914, it was refashioned into The Egoist, with Aldington joining the editorial board, which welcomed H.D. in 1916. 

After Imagism 

The anthologies halted in 1917, with the impact of the First World War, and movement dispersed, having “felt to have served its purpose” (Imlah, 2013). Aldington was fighting on the front; H.D. met her partner Bryher and turned to cinema and prose, although she continued writing poetry; Lowell wrote poetry, published novels, and passed away in 1925; and Pound departed to Vorticism, The Cantos and, later, to fascism. 

In 1930, a nostalgic Imagist anthology was produced. Aldington edited the fifth and final Imagist collection, Imagist Anthology 1930 alongside H.D. and Ford, which included work from all the original contributors from the anthologies except the deceased Lowell; Cannell, who they could not locate; and Pound, who declined. 

Imagism’s critical legacy

From the discussion in 1930 arising from Aldington’s reflection on Imagism, to contemporary discussions about “The New Modernist Studies” (Mao and Walkowitz, 2008), Imagism’s legacy has been a topic of great critical interest and conjecture. Hugh Kenner published The Pound Era in 1975, which enshrined Pound—and, by proxy, Imagism—as central to anglophone modernism, and contributed to the formation of a narrow modernist canon built around “the men of 1914”—Pound, Joyce, Eliot and Lewis—while other modernists were lost, as they fell out of print and were forgotten. 

Susan Stanford Friedman wrote in 1975, “Who Buried H.D.?”, where feminist scholars worked to recover H.D.’s work since the 1980s, which included her contribution to Imagism, in a lively critical discussion that is still ongoing today. Similarly, there has been a renewed interest in Lowell’s role in Imagism, where Paul Bradley Bellew has called for the reevaluation of the idea of her as the “woman who stole control of the quintessential school of modern poetry from the movement’s famed founder” but, rather, someone who was asking crucial questions about “who had the authority to edit modernism, the scale of its audience” and “whether it should be a narrow, elite audience or a broad popular audience” (“At the Mercy of Editorial Selection”: Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, and the Imagist Anthologies”, 2017).

Imagism existed as a critical nexus of poetic theory, where various poets came together around Pound’s term. It holds an influential place within the history of modernist cultures: it tells us a great deal about the ways in which avant-garde movements form, flourish, and fracture; and also about the ways that the stories of modernism are told.

Further Imagism reading & resources on Perlego 

Barnsley, S. (2013) Mary Barnard, American Imagist. State University of New York Press. Available at: 

Bradshaw, M. (2016) Amy Lowell, Diva Poet. Taylor and Francis. Available at: 

Debo, A. (2012) The American H.D. University of Iowa Press. Available at: 

Dowthwaite, J. (2019) Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language. Taylor and Francis. Available at: 

Duncan, R. (2011) The H.D. Book. University of California Press. Available at: 

Whitworth, M. (2010) Reading Modernist Poetry. Wiley. Available at: 

Xie, Ming. (2015) Ezra Pound and the Appropriation of Chinese Poetry. Taylor and Francis. Available at:

External Imagism resources 

Arrowsmith, R. (2011) “The Transcultural Roots of Modernism: Imagist Poetry, Japanese Visual Culture, and the Western Museum System”, Modernism/modernity. 

18(1), pp. 27-42.

Coats, J. (2009) "Part of the War Waste": Pound, Imagism, and Rhetorical Excess”, Twentieth Century Literature. 55(1), pp. 80-113.

Rainey, L. (1994) “The Creation of the Avant-Garde: F. T. Marinetti and Ezra Pound”, Modernism/modernity. 1(3), pp. 195-220.

Ramsey, W. (1967) “Uses of the Visible: American Imagism, French Symbolism”, Comparative Literature Studies. 4(1/2), pp. pp. 177-191.

Thacker, A. (2011) The Imagist Poets. Liverpool University Press. 

Imagism FAQs


Beasley, R. (2007) Theorists of Modernist Poetry. Taylor and Francis. Available at:

Beasley, R. (2014) “Ezra Pound”, in A Companion to Modernist Poetry. Ed. by Chinitz, D. and McDonald, G. Wiley. Available at: 

Bellew, P. B. (2017) “‘At the Mercy of Editorial Selection’: Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, and the Imagist Anthologies”, Journal of Modern Literature. 40(2)

Carr, H. (2009) The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and The Imagists. Jonathan Cape.

Childs, P. (2016) Modernism. 3rd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: 

Cuddy-Keane, M., Hammond, A. and Peat, A. (2014) Modernism: Keywords. Wiley. Available at: 

Eliot, T. S., “American Literature and the American Language”, quoted in Jones, P. (2001) Imagist Poetry, ed. by Peter Jones. Penguin. 

Eliot, T. S. (1998 [1925]) The Waste Land. Perlego. Available at: 

Diepeveen, L. (2014) “The Visual Arts”, in A Companion to Modernist Poetry. Ed. by   Chinitz, D. and McDonald, G. Wiley. Available at: 

Firchow, P. E. (1981). “Ezra Pound’s Imagism and the Tradition”, Comparative Literature Studies, 18(3), pp. 379-385. Available at: 

Flint, F. S. (1913) “Imagisme”, in Poetry. 1.6. Available at:

Flint, F. S. (1915). “The History of Imagism”, in The Egoist.Friedman, S. (1975) “Who Buried H.D.? A Poet, Her Critics, and Her Place in ‘The Literary Tradition’”, College English. 36(7).

H.D. (1913) “Hermes of the Ways”, Poetry, 1(4). Available at: 

H.D. (1944) Trilogy. New Directions. Available at: 

Hulme, T. E. [1909] “A City Sunset”. All Poetry. Available at: 

Hulme, T. E. [1909] “Autumn”. Poetry Foundation. Available at: 

Imlah, M. (2014) “Imagism” in The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, ed. by Hamilton, I. and Noel-Tod, J., 2nd edn. Oxford University Press. 

Jones, P. (2001) Imagist Poetry. Penguin. 

Kenner, H. (1973) The Pound Era. University of California Press.

Latham, S. and Rogers, G. (2015) Modernism: Evolution of an Idea. Bloomsbury. Available at: 

Lowell, A. (1915) Some Imagist Poets. Houghton Mifflin. Available at: 

Lowell, A. (1916) Some Imagist Poets. Houghton Mifflin. Available at: 

Mao, D. and Walkowitz, R. (2009) “The New Modernist Studies”, PMLA. 123(3). Available at: 

McCabe, S. (2021) H.D. and Bryher: An Untold Story of Modernism. Oxford University Press. 

Montgomery, W. (2020) Short Form American Poetry: The Modernist Tradition. Edinburgh University Press. 

Nadel, I. (2004) Ezra Pound: A Literary Life. Palgrave Macmillan UK. Available at:  

Nicholls, P. (2017) Modernisms. 2nd edn. Bloomsbury. Available at: 

Paige, D. D. (1950) The Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907-1941. Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Pound, E. (1913) “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”, Poetry. 1(6). Available at: 

Pound. E. (1913) “In a Station of the Metro”, Poetry, 2(1). Available at: 

Pound, E. (1914) “Vorticism”, Fortnightly Review. no. 96. Available at: 

Pound, E. (eds) (1914) Des Imagistes. Albert and Charles Boni. Available at: 

Pound, E. (2012) Canzoni & Ripostes. Elkin Mathews. Available at: 

Pound, E. (2015) Posthumous Cantos. Carcanet. Available at: 

PhD, Media Arts and English Literature (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Polly Hember is a researcher, writer, and visiting tutor working on modernism and queer networks. She holds a PhD in Media Arts and English Literature from Royal Holloway, University of London, where her doctoral thesis attended to the neglected literary works of “the POOL group”. Her research interests include twentieth-century literature, queer theory, affect studies, technology, and visual cultures. She has published in Modernist Cultures and Hotel Modernisms (Routledge, 2023), and currently co-hosts the Modernist Conversations podcast.