At the beginning of his little book, Art, Clive Bell says, “It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that.” He is right, and the rest of his book is clearly an attempt to remedy the deficiency. There are few topics in aesthetics that yield such a rich a harvest of buncombe as image, metaphor, and symbol. On the internet—always a perilous place—one English department’s introduction to the subject begins: “What is an image? This is a question that philosophers and poets have asked themselves for thousands of years and have yet to definitively answer.” Hmm . . . sounds really serious! In his venerable book, How Does a Poem Mean, John Ciardi retails such inanities as, “words . . . are images at root” and “thoughts are made of pictures.” He suggests that we can “think” an experience. Of course, we also have Jung: “the primordial image or archetype is a figure, whether it be a daemon, man, or process, that repeats itself in the course of history, wherever creative phantasy is freely manifested.” (This is pseudo-psychology, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, neo-Platonism, or an uncritical mix of them all.) In his Cambridge lectures, C. Day Lewis talks about the “exhilaration” he feels on reading a metaphor—because it is a metaphor—and flirts with the idea of an “aesthetic emotion” triggered by such an experience. Etc. Etc. Etc.
So, what is an image? The root idea is that it is the representation of something’s form—that it is a likeness or picture. (For poets, images are “likenesses” expressed by “painting” a picture in words, and this notion is enlarged to include “likenesses” of sounds, smells, and other sense impressions.) The real difficulties begin when this idea is used figuratively. The first step is simile, which is what we have if we say that one thing is like another [simile/similar]; for example, “John is like a gorilla.” To keep things simple, we will take the image to be “gorilla.” The problems increase with the next step, metaphor, in which we say that one thing is another: “John is a gorilla.” (A metaphor is an implicit comparison, a simile is an explicit comparison.)
“Metaphor” comes from the Greek metapherein (meta-over or across; pherein-to carry), and as the etymology suggests, meaning is carried across from one word to another. The image is still “gorilla” but it has in some peculiar way been fused with “John,” and it is this “peculiar way” that interests us. If we were to see John in a bar, pushing people rudely out of his way and ignoring their reactions, and if I were to use a metaphor, saying, “John is a gorilla,” you would recognize that I was referring primarily to his “bestial” behavior, not his appearance. On the other hand, if we were to see John shambling down the street and I were to use a simile, saying, “John is like a gorilla,” you would probably note his size, his stoop, and his bandy-legged walk and agree—that would be all there is to it.
The problems are compounded when we look at metonymy, synecdoche, and other related figures, which brings us to the idea of symbolism. A symbol is something that stands for something else: it is not merely compared with it. The letters of the alphabet stand for sounds, and plus and minus stand for mathematical operations. In the metaphor we looked at, “Gorilla” doesn’t stand for “John,” but it does stand for bestiality, so we can say that “gorilla” symbolizes bestiality. (We aren’t talking about natural history here, but popular culture—the way that gorillas have been represented in many books, movies, and television shows.)
Metonymy is the figure of speech in which one thing represents or suggests something else that is related to it. Thus, we may say that the “White House” responded to someone’s criticism of American foreign policy when we mean that the American government did so. Again, we have an image, but it stands by itself without an implicit or explicit comparison; thus, it is obviously symbolic. Synecdoche is the figure of speech in which a part of a thing is used to represent the whole thing. “Give me a hand” is a common example: we don’t want just a “hand” but the help of the whole person. An image, “hand,” is present, but it stands by itself and is obviously a symbol.
The term “metaphor” is often used—confusingly—as a general term for all such figures of speech, and expressions like “the White House said” and “Give me a hand” are sometimes called “dead metaphors.” (They are “dead” because they are so frequently used that we are no longer aware we are speaking “poetically” when we use them.) I recommend that you always use “figures of speech” as the general term, and “metaphor” only for implicit comparison as defined above.
Let’s look at a lovely little poem that depends largely on images for its effect, but in a very simple way, “Adlestrop,” by Edward Thomas (1878-1917). (You should know that the English do not make “shire” rhyme with “fire” when it occurs in their ancient place names: it is more like “shrr.” They are also famous for swallowing up the syllables in them, so “Gloucestershire “ is three syllables and not four: “Glos-tr-shrr.” We do the same thing with our names, but they have had a lot more practice at it.)
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Some one cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herbs, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and around him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
The first two quatrains (groups of four lines) present a picture: late June, summer heat, a train stop, hissing steam, someone clearing his throat, a bare platform, no-one getting on or off, nothing to see there but the sign—Adlestrop. This is a complex of images (or a complex image—take your pick), and through the power of this imagery, we can imagine the heat, pehaps the dusty smell of the platform, the sound of the hissing steam, the emptiness. We are not entitled to imagine anything else: this is not an exercise in free-association.
The third quatrain broadens the view, and it is very important to note that there is no punctuation to separate it from the preceding one: that is important because it connects the name, Adlestrop, with the natural world surrounding the station—and this, of course, is why the voice in the poem remembers it. Moreover, this quatrain has a different rhythm from the two that came before it. They are broken up by periods and by the line endings: note how “the name,” “unwontedly,” “on the bare platform,” and “was Adlestrop” are isolated by their position and punctuation. This creates a telegraphic quality as the various details are accumulated–like items on a list.
But in the third quatrain, we have images drawn together by the conjunction “and.” These are images of nature, and the plant names chosen have a caressing sound: “and willows, willow-herb, and grass, and meadowsweet . . . .” This “caressing” sound is one aspect of what is called euphony [eu-good, phony-sound] and it may be contrasted with the relative cacophony [caco-bad, phony-sound] of the first two quatrains. There is an explicit comparison (but not quite a simile) between these plants and the high clouds, which are also still, lonely, and fair. All of this is described without periods or dashes.
And then, in the last quatrain, we have auditory images of a very different kind from those in the second. (Notice the parallel structure of the two groups of quatrains, throughout.) We don’t have hissing steam, or someone clearing his throat: the stillness is broken by a blackbird calling, and then a chorus of birdsongs that seem to come from all around. Those further away are said to be “mistier,” and this is interesting because it is synesthesia, the use of a word that involves one sense in the context of a different sense. “Mistier,” which refers to a less distinct appearance, is used to mean “fainter” in sound.
The contrast of the first impression—the bare little platform—with the wider view of a world of natural beauty is wonderfully realized, and we know that we, too, would have remembered the place if we had shared the experience. The images make the scene come alive for us, but they are not symbols. The birds don’t represent nature; they are a part of it. The steam hissing is just steam hissing. The bare platform is just a bare platform. These things don’t represent “civilization” or some such thing, and no contrast between “man” and “nature” or other tendentious, pseudo-philosophical point is being developed. (The poem contains material that might lead to such nonsense being paraded, but nothing in the stance of the poem invites it, and that is critical.) This is actually one of the reasons the poem works so well in doing what it does—the images are not overburdened with meaning.
One poetry website looks at the date this was published (1917—during the First World War), fixes on the empty platform, and finds something “sinister” in it—everybody is gone, they are at war, some dying or dead . . . blah, blah, blah. You should always resist the temptation to play these games. It is a small, country train stop (it closed in 1966); the train is an express train, and it’s visit is quite unexpected (“unwontedly”), and there is no reason to expect to find anyone there at all. Moreover, the experience that is recounted may well have occurred many years before: “Yes, I remember . . . “ is not something one is likely to say about an event that occurred last week or last year. The poet is trying to stress the idea of remembering and that justifies the line. Moreover, the scene could be entirely imaginary. (By the way, none of this kind of talk has much to do with the poem.)
Of course, images are sometimes freighted with meaning, as in Blake’s poem, “London.”
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
and mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
You don’t have to guess that these images mean more than they are telling on the surface: it is abundantly clear that they do. In fact, the poem leaves many questions if they don’t, and to understand it you must also have some knowledge of the period. It was written before 1794, and was published in Songs of Experience, the same collection that includes “The Tyger.” That collection stands in opposition to Songs of Innocence, the collection that includes “The Lamb.” (The titles of the collections are meaningful!) Blake was a radical who was horrified by the failures of British society: war, greed, poverty, disease, the absence of a safety net for those in need, and all of the other social ills—vices that were unchanged when Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in 1837, and are still prevalent today. Plus ça change . . . . This is not the comfortable, romantic world of Elizabeth Bennet, but the world into which Darcy descends to find Wickham.
The first stanza places us in the slums near the docks of the Thames. “Chartered” is primarily a reference to the establishment of legal rights and restrictions, the creation of boroughs and companies, etc. Its use here is more akin to a transferred epithet than to a metaphor or symbol. The Thames, for example, is not, itself, chartered, though the docks and businesses might be. The word is transferred from the one to the other. Punning is used throughout the poem. “Mark” is used in two different senses in the first stanza. “Ban” is a pun, as well, for its principal meaning is edict, summons, or proclamation (including the proclamation of a marriage, now spelled “banns”), but it also means prohibition, and even curse. We hear the “mind-forged manacles” in ban’s principal sense—that of edict. This is an interesting image with a hint of synesthesia. The manacles (which are heard, not seen as we might expect) are the product of our own minds (mind-forged). He is saying that we create the chains that bind us and subject us to social injustice, and they are manifested in proclamations and edicts, which are a part of the “charter’d” world. “Curse” is later picked up in connection with the Harlot in the last stanza, and marriage banns are appropriate there as well.
The cries in which we hear the consequences of the “mind-forged manacles” continue to dominate the poem. In the third stanza, the voice in the poem hears the cry of the chimney-sweep. Small boys were lowered down chimneys to clean them, and the soot impregnated their skins and infiltrated their lungs, bringing about an early death. “Cry” is a pun, for it is both the call the sweeps made to advertise their service and a cry of woe. (It shouldn’t surprise you that puns are important figures of speech.) This cry appalls the blackening Church (which is connected to the sweeps by “blackness”). The principal meaning of appall is “to dismay.” The “blackening” here is moral opprobrium, infamy—not merely the accumulation of soot from the air-pollution of a coal-burning city—and it symbolizes the guilt of the church which fails to protect the weak and innocent. “Church” is an example of metonymy, the substitution of the building for the institution. The next image, the sigh of the hapless soldier running in blood down palace walls, functions in the same way. The blood is symbolic of the government’s reckless policies, and “palace walls” is also metonymical, the building being substituted for the monarchy. “Church” and “Palace” provide an easily visualized concrete shorthand for the abstract notions.
The last stanza has the voice in the poem hearing how a curse blasts the tear of the new-born infant, blighting the “marriage hearse” with plagues. We expect to find “ear” instead of “tear,” but it is “tear” that makes the point. The syphilis epidemic was a curse of the times (in another sense of the word) leading to miscarriages, birth defects, and blindness in the children—and ultimately death. This is why it is “marriage hearse,” and why the “harlot”—the prostitute who transmitted it to the husband—is the one projecting the curse. “Marriage hearse” is a figure of speech called a paradox, which is to say that the combination of words is contrary to common sense on the surface, even though it is deeply meaningful here.
Everything that I have mentioned is clearly in the poem, the product of poetic genius: it isn’t something concocted by a cherry-picking critic. We know these meanings are really in the poem because it is nearly inscrutable without them; moreover, they are not the result of rooting around in dictionaries and encyclopedias, looking for possibilities. Readers in Blake’s time knew what “chartered” meant, knew what the plight of chimney sweepers was, and knew what the effects of syphilis were. Modern readers familiar with the social and cultural history of the time don’t need footnotes to tell them these things, either. But for them to actually work in the poem, readers need one more thing: they must know how to read poetry, and in no small part this means to know how the images function. If readers possess all of this equipment, the poem speaks directly to them without analysis. (When you know how the figures work, you won’t need to remember their names if you are reading for your own pleasure.)
“Adlestrop” and “London” are poles apart in their use of imagery, but both depend upon it for their effect. In “Adlestrop” the images are presented to make an experience live for us, but the poem doesn’t advance an argument for any philosophical position or social cause. In “London” the images are presented to enrich an argument. It is a condemnation of the British social order and its rule—both explicit and implicit: the vehemence and passion needed to make that case come largely from the images. Symbolism gives force and compression to the poem, extending the reach of the imagery. None of that is necessary or wanted in “Adlestrop,” which is not a worse poem because it is simple. It, too, functions beautifully.
As a poetic movement, Imagism had its inception in 1912, and a statement of the Imagist credo was published in Poetry in 1913: such poetry should deal directly with the “thing,” which might be objective or subjective; it should use no word that didn’t further this goal; and it should be written in musical phrases without metronomic regularity. Only the first of these has much to do with “imagism,” per se. After all, no reasonable critic has ever thought that good writing was compatible with verbosity. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), for example, said that good style was the use of the proper word in the proper place. Moreover, no reasonable critic has ever suggested that metronomic regularity was a desirable feature in poetry.
I will take just one poem to represent Imagism, “Wind and Silver” by Amy Lowell (1874-1925). Although she was a late-comer, she became the principal spokesperson for the movement, which was actually created by Pound. Despite the fact that he coined the term, he was never really a “member” of the movement, which he soon abandoned and even parodied, calling Lowell’s followers “Amygists”. Nonetheless, it became enormously influential, even though most of its strict adherents fell away after a few years.
The Autumn moon floats in the thin sky;
And the fish-ponds shake their backs and flash their dragon scales
As she passes over them.
Here we have a concise image, the moon (perhaps full, for it is “greatly shining”) in a clear sky, passing over the fish-ponds, and the surface of the water is ruffled by the wind. (The title, “Wind and Silver,” tells us how to read the image). The “dragon scales” suggests the appearance of the surface covered with small ripples, each reflecting the moon’s silver light (and they may also hint at the fish). I like this, but I think that it is a very small thing. One might well read it in a paragraph like this:
Greatly shining, the Autumn moon floats in the thin sky, and the fish-ponds shake their backs and flash their dragon scales as she passes over them.
Presented in this way, isn’t it clear that it is just “poetic” prose? It is easy to imagine it as a descriptive passage in a novel, and we are led to ask, “was it really something other than this when it was printed as it was originally?” These are meaningful questions but they have little to do with imagery and will be discussed elsewhere.
“Adlestrop” gains power from its contrast of the plants and bird songs with the bare platform; from the pensive memory of the place; and from the gradual development of the reasons for persistence of this memory. It also gains strength from the poetic form, and from the fact that this is interrupted by punctuation in the first two stanzas and becomes fluid in the last two. We have already looked at that, so I won’t go any further—but I hope I’ve made my point. “Adlestrop” does much more than “Wind and Silver,” because it is more broadly conceived and it makes effective use of the poetic form. The idea of Imagist poetry, itself, doesn’t allow “Wind and Silver” to be much longer or to do much more than it does.
Note Imagism was invented by Ezra Pound, who told Hilda Doolittle (HD) and Richard Aldington that they were Imagistes as they were sitting together in a tea shop in 1912. He then began to talk up this “new school” of Imagisme. In 1912 he planted a note about Les Imagistes in Ripostes, a volume of poetry. He planted a note about them in the journal, Poetry, in 1913, and he insisted that the poems of HD that were printed there should have Imagiste appended to her signature. He wrote the credo mentioned above and had it published with F.S. Flint’s signature in 1913. And he had an anthology, Des Imagistes, published in 1914. These kinds of pretentious attention-seeking maneuvers are typical of art-isms, and that should raise questions in the minds of critically aware readers. In 1916, Witter Bynner decided to perpetrate a hoax by inventing a bogus school of poetry, “Spectrism.” He got his friend Arthur Davison Ficke to help him, and later—when the hoax was launched—they got Marjorie Allen Seifert to join them. They took for themselves the names Emanuel Morgan, Anne Knish, and Elijah Hay. Their first effort was a collection called Spectra, which Bynner and Ficke wrote while well-primed with whiskey. They promoted the hoax by circulating a manifesto, submitting poems to journals, giving public lectures, talking about the Spectrists in letters to poets and scholars, etc. It wasn’t unmasked until 1918. There is an eerie similarity in these two accounts, and the success of the Spectrists—-their poems were published in well-known journals—-tells us a great deal about the intellectual environment in which these art-isms flourish. But there is more to come. Bynner and Ficke came to believe that the hoax poems had some poetic merit, and even that the freedom they had enjoyed while being as outrageous as possible (within the limits of plausibility) had liberated their poetry. This sort of response is not uncommon, but it doesn’t mean that the bogus work is actually any good. In the late 60’s, Dan Noble, Executive Vice President of Motorola, began to create abstract paintings to show that such things were nonsense—and ended up liking what he had done. The Phoenix art establishment ended up liking it too (but I doubt that they would have been so very enthusiastic if the paintings had been made by a struggling student at ASU. After all, Motorola was then the largest private employer in Arizona, with at least four facilities in the Phoenix area alone.) There is a wonderful short story by André Maurois published in 1919 entitled Naissance d’un Maître. In it, a novelist helps a talented, traditional painter—who has been struggling to become successful—-by telling him that he must found a school to gain attention. He suggests Ideo-abstractionism as a name, and tells the painter exactly what it should be like; his own part in the scheme will be to puff it in some well-placed articles. When they have succeeded, they will reveal the hoax and thereby get back at the art-establishment phonies. Some months later, a private showing of the new paintings is a success, and when everyone has left the studio the journalist is overjoyed at how they have pulled the wool over the eyes of the crowd. The artist becomes incensed and calls him an idiot—-because he thinks, now, that there really is something to these paintings! Is it conceivable that poems as effective as “Adlestrop” or “London” could be written by abandoning all restraint, becoming as free as posible? This really means “by discarding traditional notions of form and craftsmanship.” Robert Frost is said to have said that he would as soon play tennis with the net down as write free verse. This isn’t simply a flip remark, for the significance of any game or craft comes from the presence of, and the character and nature of, the rules: these are the restraints that make choices creative. Great guitar music originates in the capabilities—-and in the limitations-—of that particular instrument, and the latter are what give it its unique character. The same thing can be said about any art or craft.