While some still count T. S. Eliot among the group known as "Imagists", he actually took the tenets of Imagism and carried them further, taking them from obscure to concrete. The Imagist manifesto included six tenets, which taken literally produced a poetry that had several faults. One problem with strict Imagism, as laid out by its founder, Ezra Pound, was the tendency "to lead its disciples too often into a barren aestheticism which was, and is, empty of content." (J. G. Fletcher) As stated in a lecture by Ian Johnston, "They've got the bridle and the bit all right/ But where's the bloody horse?". Eliot remedied those faults and ushered in a new poetic form which is what we now call "Modern Poetry". This new aestheticism infused the rules of Imagism with an energy that was previously not there.
The six tenet’s of the Imagist Manifesto are as follows:
1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.
2. 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. Absolute freedom in the choice of subject.
4. To present an image. 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 a 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.(Filreis)
To illustrate how Eliot was influenced by these tenets I will explore the poem "The Hollow Men" and point out each tenet within it.
The first tenet of Imagism demands "the language of common speech", (Filreis) "the exact word". There are few adjectives in The Hollow Men. In Stanza IV, Eliot states "The eyes are not here" (line 52 Norton 1444). He doesn’t say the ‘blue eyes’ or the ‘sad eyes’, he doesn’t want to impart a particular pair of eyes, the exact word "eyes" suggests many forms of ‘eyes’ - your eyes, God’s eyes, the hollow man’s eyes, every man’s eyes - it is for the reader to decide - this is Eliot’s invention, what he termed ‘the objective correlative’. The poet does not wish his views to become the readers, he wishes to present the reader with an emotion, an image, that the reader can interpret on his own.
Secondly, the Imagists believed that poetry was best expressed through new forms, one of which became known as free-verse. Free-verse does away the traditional structure and rhyme of the poetry that went before the Modern Period. This ‘free’ form consists of fragmentation, mixed diction, and a definite non-rhyme scheme.
"For Thine is
For Thine is the" (line 92-94 Norton 1446)
These three lines stand alone, ‘free’ from all the tradition that went before it.
Thirdly, the poet must have "absolute freedom in the choice of subject." (Filreis) Written in 1925, The Hollow Men aims directly at the heart of religion. A topic utilized frequently by poets and writers of the time, but nonetheless, a topic of extraordinary controversy.
"For Thine is the Kingdom" (line 77 Norton 1445)
"Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless"(lines 5-7 Norton 1443)
Eliot speaks of the gathering of people to worship what isn’t there, what cannot be proven, therefore their voices are ‘meaningless’. Another interpretation is that the ‘whispers’ are empty and ‘hollow’.
Fourthly, the Imagist is directed to present an image that renders "particulars exactly not vague generalities." (Filreis). Eliot’s Hollow Men departs from the style of Imagism on this point. He believed that poetry needed more than to just present an image, it had to offer the reader a revelation, no matter how minute.
"In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
The hope only
Of empty men." (lines 58-60, 66-67 Norton 1445)
The image evokes the hopelessness we feel as we approach death, the sheer terror we experience as we face the end cloaked with nothing save our faith. Eliot reveals to us that even that faith won’t help us because it has been empty.
In the fifth tenet of Imagism the poet is directed to " produce a poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite." (Filreis)
"This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised,.." (lines 39-42 Norton 1444)
In this stanza we find the image of a ‘dead’ place where "stone images" are worshipped. How do we know worshipping is taking place and who is being worshipped? Eliot tells us in the next lines,
...here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star." (lines 42-44 Norton 1444)
These words allude directly to Jesus Christ, the ‘dead man’ who was born under the Star of David that faded away. The words are exact, the images are ‘hard and clear’, there is nothing indefinite about the image presented.
Lastly, the sixth tenet says that "concentration is of the very essence of poetry." (Filreis) The lines in this poem convey a concentrated emotion, a "significant emotion" as Eliot calls it. The hopelessness, the emptiness, the hollowness of man’s faith.
"Between the emotion
And the response-
Falls the Shadow" (lines 80-83 Norton 1445)
While the Imagist manifesto calls for a concentration in the present, Eliot takes a step further and calls for a concentration of "not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, not of what is dead, but of what is already living."(Eliot)
T.S. Eliot is perhaps the poet who embodies what Imagism was trying to accomplish. The tenets of Imagism sought to create a poetry that dealt with the exact thing, an aesthetic strategy that was revolutionary and much needed. Much of the early Imagist poetry falls curiously flat on its face, it is laborious to read because it adheres so strictly to its own tenets. T.S. Eliot saved Imagism from a quick death by unifying the fragments of Imagism into a cohesive whole. Eliots work, influenced heavily by Imagism, liberated the poets that followed after him.
Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Sixth Edition, Vol. D, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Johnston, Ian. Lecture on T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and The Waste Land. 1997. public domain, released June 1999. http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/introser/eliot.htm
Filreis, Alan. "Imagism Defined". University of Pennsylvania. 1996. http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/imagism-def.html
Eliot, T.S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent". The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. 1922.
K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2002, 2006