ANALYZING THE IMAGIST POEM

analyzing the imagist poemOverview

We analyze a passage from one of Pound's early Cantos, and apply its Imagist techniques to a poem set in Venice.

Canto VII

Canto VII is dense with quotation and allusion, but this section (lines 19 to 47) is fairly straightforward: {1}

 

The Cantos

The old men's voices, beneath the columns of false marble,
The modish and darkish walls,
Discreeter gilding and the panelled wood
Suggested, for the leasehold is
Touched with an imprecision. . . about three squares;
The house too thick, the paintings
a shade too oiled.
And the great domed head, con gli occhi onesti e tardi
Moves before me, phantom with weighted motion,
Grave incessu, drinking the tone of things,
And the old voice lifts itself
              weaving an endless sentence.

We also made ghostly visits, and the stair
That knew us, found us again on the turn of it,
Knocking at empty rooms, seeking for buried beauty;
But the sun-tanned, gracious and well-formed fingers
Lift no latch of bent bronze, no Empire handle
Twists for the knocker's fall; no voice to answer.

From Canto VII by Ezra Pound

Content

Canto VII is one of the more difficult of the early Cantos, where Pound weaves in echoes of the classical and Renaissance world, contrasting in this section their forceful vigour with the fin de siècle languor, from which he took refuge in eclectic reading and (less happily) residence in Mussolini's Italy. Pound wanders round empty rooms thinking of Henry James, who acts as a Virgilian guide. We have a description of the man (great domed head, and quotations from Dante {2}) and a reference to his manner of talking — weaving an endless sentence, which Pound is also doing.

Many of James's characters were attracted to the sunlit vitality of Italy, and here Pound is noting how overdone is the decor of the world left behind, with its heavy panelling, dark oil paintings and false columns. The section has some excellent touches (old men's voices, a shade too oiled, drinking the tone of things, found us again), and some that are less so (Touched with an imprecision, buried beauty). Overall, a falling tone, with repetitions and a tired emptiness in surroundings and what lay beyond.

Rhythmic Analysis

How is this achieved rhythmically? We first note the stress/syllable counts for the line segments, and show the pauses simplistically as | (short) and || (longer):

1. The old men's voices | beneath the columns | of false marble || 3/5 2/5 2/4
2. The modish and darkish walls | 3/7
3. Discreeter gilding | and the panelled wood 2/5 2/5
4. Suggested | for the leasehold is | 1/3 1/5
5. Touched with an imprecision || about three squares || 3/7 3/4
6. The house too thick | the paintings || 2/4 1/3
7. a shade too oiled || 2/4
8. And the great domed head | con gli occhi onesti e tardi 3/5 4/10
9. Moves before me | phantom with weighted motion | 2/4 3/6
10. Grave incessu | drinking the tone of things | 2/5 3/6
11. And the old voice lifts itself || 4/7
12.            weaving an endless sentence || 3/7

13. We also made ghostly visits || and the stair 4/8
14. That knew us | found us again | on the turn of it | 1/3 2/4 2/5
15. Knocking at empty rooms | seeking for buried beauty | 3/7 3/6
16. But the suntanned, gracious | and well-formed fingers | 3/6 3/5
17. Lift no latch of bent bronze | no Empire handle 4/6 2/4
18. Twists for the knocker's fall | no voice to answer 3/6 2/5

The rhythms are similar to those Pound developed for Homage to Sextus Propertius, though quieter and more fragmentary. As in that poem:

1. Beneath most lines is conventional metre, predominantly iambic in lines 4, 6, 7, 9, 13, 14, and 16, and trochaic in lines 2, 3, 10, 12, 15 and 18. Other lines are more mixed or indeterminate. If we attend to the underlying metre, then the structure approximates to: {3}

1. hexameter: molossus of old men's voices
2. tercet
3. pentameter
4. tetrameter
5. pentameter: molossus of about three squares
6. tercet
7. duplet
8. hexameter: molossus of great domed head
9. pentameter
10. pentameter
11. tercet: molossus of old voice lifts
12. tercet
13. pentameter
14. hexameter
15. hexameter
16. pentameter: molossus of well-formed fingers
17. pentameter
18. pentameter

And becomes even more regular by regarding lines 3 and 4 as a segmented pentameter, and lines 11 and 12 as a hexameter.

2. Many of the irregular lines are not irregular at all, but have their own patterns.

The old men's voices | beneath the columns | of false marble ||

And the old voice lifts itself ||  weaving an endless sentence ||

That knew us | found us again | on the turn of it |

Knocking at empty rooms | seeking for buried beauty |

Imagist Techniques

The passage would benefit from extended rhythmic analysis, but our main concern here is the Imagist technique of having image serve as content.

We can distinguish four interwoven themes: a disembodied reference to old men's voices, which leads to memories of Henry James, passages of description associated with old men's voices, and a description of Pound's visit.

1. The old men's voices, beneath the columns of false marble,
2. The modish and darkish walls,
3. Discreeter gilding and the panelled wood
4. Suggested, for the leasehold is
5. Touched with an imprecision. . . about three squares;
6. The house too thick, the paintings
7. a shade too oiled.

8. And the great domed head, con gli occhi onesti e tardi
9. Moves before me, phantom with weighted motion,
10. Grave incessu, drinking the tone of things,

11. And the old voice lifts itself
12.              Weaving an endless sentence.


13. We also made ghostly visits, and the stair
14. That knew us, found us again on the turn of it,
15. Knocking at empty rooms, seeking for buried beauty;
16. But the suntanned, gracious and well-formed fingers
17. Lift no latch of bent bronze
, no Empire handle
18. Twists for the knocker's fall; no voice to answer.

By combining these simple themes, Pound makes his reflections part of the larger fabric of American expatriate life. We are given old men's voices that drift from the heavy setting (France or England, possibly Flaubert's Paris), which reminds us/Pound of William James (who loved Italy, spending extended periods in Venice). Aspects of James give way to his/an old voice weaving an endless sentence. We/Pound have also made our ghostly visits to empty rooms, and these remind us of James and what he appreciated of Italy. Not a difficult set of associations, and successfully handled. In what sense is it Imagist?

Pound has the scene 'speak' by presenting specific images, and intensifying a sense of objective reality through the immediacy of those images. Rhythm is 'composed by the musical phrase rather than the metronome' — naturally so, as Pound wants those rhythms to be part of the characterization. Compare the quiet first section with the energy ushered in with We also made ghostly visits.

The technique is a novelist's, but the sequences marking the turn in and out of flashback have been removed, conflating past and present, and making historical personages a mouthpiece for Pound's views. The dangers are acute — unsupported opinion on one side, and obscurity on the other — but in this passage Pound is successful.

And very probably neither the classicism of Tennyson nor the pastorals of Arnold would have served Pound's aims. Browning would have created characters speaking pages at a time, but there was little demand for verse novels by the 1920s. Even less did the public wish to be preached at with Augustan didactic verse. Pound was not being willfully difficult, but simply developing the opportunities suggested by Homage to Sextus Propertius.

Pros and Cons

To sum up, the advantages of the Imagist approach are:

1. freedom to experiment, evading the traditional restrictions of verse.

2. avoiding the 'unproductive': anything not contributing to the overall effect could be omitted.

3. images could be precise or otherwise: zoomed into for telling detail, or blurred for mood and vague association.

4. quotations could be extended, one calling on another, far more than Eliot achieved in The Waste Land.

5. passages rhythmically beautiful could stay independent of an overall metre or line structure.

The drawbacks are:

1. randomness: anything can be included, however pretentious, irrelevant or obscure.

2. accountability: much has to be taken on trust, dangerous in a poet of Pound's egotism, where all historical characters can become spokesmen for his views.

3. open-ended nature: constraints of plot and character ensure that novelists check their work for honesty and consistency, but material in the Imagist approach does not have to cohere: meaning emerges out of the play of images.

Venice

No one wants another set of Cantos, commonly regarded as a magnificent failure, but can some the techniques be used to create a more intelligible poem? The material I collected in a short stay in Venice a few years ago is far too rough and voluminous to be worth reproducing here, but I will set out the stages of the composition (here completed).

1. Notebook Jottings

First came some hundred odd lines or phrases, written over a two-week period. They started with: How hard the stone is here, which was jotted down in the small church of San Sebastian, famous for its Veronese paintings but a cold sepulchre of a place for long periods of the day. From these few words came passages on the history of Venice, the life of Veronese, Renaissance painting workshops, descriptions of the canals and palaces, the skies over the lagoon, and the surrounding countryside — everything the tourist remembers of this extraordinary city.

2. Identifying the Themes

Grouping the jottings suggested several themes:

1. how a simple craft brought Veronese worldly success
           I lived, when young, with miracles, and lodged
           Their schooling in my mind. When daylight bloomed
           However late, dilatory, monastic even
           On my whitewashed walls, I'd rise and sketch


2. a painter's credo of service to State and Church
          And I have belief
          As I kneel now and light a candle, sensing
          A fitted silence in the weight of things.

          I am a man bound by indentures, agreements.
          All things dilate
          On the glory of empires, the prelates' zeal,
          The Saviour's great goodness in all His forms.
  
       
3. distractions of the flesh versus God's purposes
           The figures sumptuous as they stood, life-proud,
           Imperiously contained within their forms.
           Of course, now, being older, I am appalled
           At such buffoonery. I would repaint

          Scraped back the acres of that sumptuous flame
          In damask and velvet and satin braids,


4. Venice as a bulwark of Christianity, and Veronese's role in this
            Awed at what I'd done. God's work, it's true,

            The citadel that is God's giving and His grace

5. Responsibilities to family and society.
           In this plain stone and brickwork
           I pray for quietness and a stiller peace.
           I am an old man growing rested in God's work,

          In swathes the fish are lifted in their bristling silver.

3. Finding a Structure

To work in all these themes I considered a life of Veronese in eight 'chapters'. For all the opulence of his painting, Veronese was a devout man, serving Church and State in the face of the growing Turkish threat.

1. Looking back in 1587
2. Youth: how I started
3. Visit to Mantu and Italian politics
4. First Commission 1553
5. Success: visit to Rome 1560
6. Inquisition 1573
7. Redecorating the Doges' Palace 1585
8. Looking forward to burial at San Sebastiano

Then there were the historical events that would enter into any narrative of the period:

Turks attack Corfu 1537
Council of Trent 1545-64
Famine 1557
Siege of Malta 1565
Fall of Cyprus 1570
Lepanto 1571 Don John retires: treaty with Turks.
1572 Henry III of Frances visits Venice 1574
Veronese paints triumphal arch with Tintoretto
Plague 1576-7: tens of thousands die, including Titian
Fire damages Doges' Palace 1577.
Death of Bianca Cappello 1587

4. Devising a Style

The first attempts were in unrhymed verse, as the jottings above indicate. Trouble came in assembling them:

The puffed-up embassies of clouds I watched
Throughout my loose and shirt-hung days. They rose
In wind-constructed palaces, sumptuous,
High-spun porticoes of make-believe,
Drifting white canvases of nothing, or in-
Between, remote and ever-moving and thus
To me then beautiful, our Saviour's light, and manifest
In wondrous spectacles upon the earth.
I read my scriptures, and I know our course
Leads but to enfeeblement and to confined light,
To carcasses, adulations, mere emptinesses
Beside that one and everlasting bliss
Reserved for saints and martyrs. And yet I am,
As I say, acquainted with much voyaging,
With need for drink and colour, with celebration

The cloud descriptions kept saying different things. Some variations in these rough drafts:

The sumptuous embassies of clouds that drifted

Those high-spun, sumptuous argosies of cream
And white slow-driven in the winds which built
And steered them,

I could watch that tortured light
Soar or blaze into a thousand threnodies
Of empty water vapour. Such is our world,
Shot through with mummery and with make-believe

Day-long and heavy-laden, thence dissolving
Tumultuously into blue. I'd note
A thousand passages of pearl on white
Mirrored in the water, more than it
Is possible to name or match. Surely
Those who look upon such wonders see
God's ineffable goodness,
His delight In a world which He has made

5. Composing by the Phrase

Could the Imagist technique be applied to these descriptions — i.e. instead of fitting them into a narrative, could aspects of the clouds (and other images) stand independently, taking on new shapes as the need arose? For example, if we take a section of the first assembly:

The puffed-up embassies of clouds I watched
Throughout my loose and shirt-hung days. They rose
In wind-constructed palaces, sumptuous,
High-spun porticoes of make-believe,
Drifting white canvases of nothing, or in-
Between, remote and ever-moving and thus
To me then beautiful, our Saviour's light, and manifest
In wondrous spectacles upon the earth.

And isolate:

And manifest in wondrous spectacles upon the earth.

We can change what was a seven-stress line into a rough hexameter:

And man| i fest | in won| drous spec| ta cles | on earth |

Which we probably read as a tetrameter (or pentameter if stressing fest).

And man| i fest | in won| drous spec| tacles | on earth |

But still a long line, with an air of finality. We need something to lead up to this statement:

To me the ever-beautiful
Of God's good grace, our Saviour's light
Manifest in wondrous spectacles on earth

Which frees us to work on some passage of cloud description:

I watched the wind-constructed palaces
Of clouds: to me tumultuous
and ever-beautiful, our Saviour's light
Manifest in wondrous spectacles on earth

And then rearrange the lines:

1. I watched the wind-constructed palaces
Of clouds: ever tumultuous and beautiful,
Our Saviour's light
Manifest in wondrous spectacles on earth

Or

2. I watched the wind-constructed
Palaces of clouds: ever tumultuous
And beautiful, our Saviour's light
Manifest in wondrous spectacles on earth

Which is best, in these or other arrangements we can so easily make?

3. I watched the wind-constructed
Palaces of clouds:
Ever tumultuous and beautiful, our
Saviour's light manifest
In wondrous spectacles on earth

It depends on what we are trying for. Version 1 moves smoothly through two lines, emphasizes light, and then wraps up the matter in the last line. Version 2 lacks these divisions, and the last line is not so final. Version 3 emphasizes clouds, makes more play of light manifest, and asks to be continued. Three very different effects using the same words in the same order.

Nonetheless, to anyone with an ear for verse, all three drafts are unsettling. Blank verse, and even more rhymed stanzas, continually return the reader to a central body of expectations, which are echoed in the metrical structure of the piece. Here that centralizing influence is missing. We imagine Palaces of clouds and then their motion: ever tumultuous and beautiful. But we also ask: so what? why are we being told this? My guess is that Pound also sensed that something more was needed for his approach, and therefore added his notorious allusions, making them difficult so as to impede the centrifugal passage of thought. Even someone familiar with The Divine Comedy will take a second or two to recall con gli occhi onesti e tardi, and those few seconds slow down the reading and bring us back to the succeeding words with a different perspective.

Allusions do seem a necessary ingredient of this sort of poetry. Early Imagist poems were banal in the extreme, and none of our three drafts is sufficiently interesting to stand unassisted. The question is: what to add? Private reference is the answer of Modernist or Postmodernist poets, but these devices fail if they simply make the poetry look 'contemporary'. The need is for some balancing or regulatory feature, and one avenue is to extend the cloud imagery towards 1. Veronese's rich palette and 2. his devout sense of God manifested in the visible world. In replacing Pound's obscure reference with matters that are well-known to any intelligent tourist we might recreate a Renaissance city with its splendours and pressing concerns.

Taking version 3, we interpose earlier jottings:

Throughout my shirt-hung days
I watched the airy matter of our palaces,
          those vast evolvings of our clouds
                    to white and cream but changing always
                                 How does my lord the Doge fare with his thoughts? Will
                                 he accede to what is due to us, accept our estimates,
                                 in this ledger faithfully drawn up?

to daylight surging
through an inner room. It
bears no answer to our thoughts. Such,
though, is our
world shot through with mummery and make-believe
but to me tumultuous, most beautiful
                                     I am a plain man but know
in our Saviour's light here manifest
                                     that all paths lead but to our enfeeblement
in wondrous spectacles on earth.
                                    without the faith of martyrs, or the praise
                                    of our Lord's meek and perpetual majesty.

I live by daily sight
of miracles. By
          sunlight sparkling on the distant waters,
          in the wind-tossed osiers twinkling grey and green,
          the sweep and pomp of waves that inward curled
          and poured as melted lead along the dark canals. 
On light as stilts that would waver,
          the resting posts
          in this our sovereign city, Serenissima, the quieter
          of troubles, light on the dark, Turk-enveloped Adriatic.
The gondolas
          bob and bob as driftwood on the backward eddy of events.
Our galleys ride and we are received
          favourably at the Sublime Porte with many promises,
          though they plot, both Doge and Sultan;
          all things depend on empire and the prelate's zeal.

We are God's creatures, whom He forgives
with gladness and His grace. I scrape back the
          silk, the velvet and the damask to a whiteness
          on which God writes His name and our true natures.

That's forty odd lines, in a style easy to handle, but tending to the same obscurity as Pound's efforts, though for different reasons. I suspect much reworking would be needed for success — along un-Modernist lines, to extract and integrate the themes further — but the exercise may have shown the possibilities and problems of writing with the Imagist approach.

A start at the reworking is shown here. The completed poem is here.

References

1. Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (Faber and Faber, 1964), 28-9.
2. "Henry James, first as Sordello in Purgatory, then as Penelope putting off the suitors! And I guess he is Virgil also ("Moves before me"). Carrol Cox. Mar. 2002. http://squawk.ca/lbo-talk/0203/0112.html NNA.
3. Prosody is a vexing subject, and this treatment is extremely simple. I have taken molossus from Saintsbury, though many authors deny its existence, e.g. Lewis Turco in his useful The Book of Forms (Univ. Press of New England, 2000). But my primary concern is to show some patterning, into whatever terms we analyze it.

 

Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.