nnnAmy Lowell first declared her alliance
to the Imagist movement in January 1913. Having read several poems by Hilda
Doolittle (signed for her by Ezra Pound as "H.D., 'Imagiste'")
in that month's issue of Poetry, Lowell proclaimed, "Why, I,
too, am an Imagiste!" (Gregory 81). For several years afterward,
Lowell would align herself with the Imagists, publishing three volumes of
Imagist poetry and lecturing widely on the Imagist movement. Though she
embraced the movement which taught her to focus on relevant detail and sensory,
nondiscursive language, closer study of Lowell's work shows a much more
profound influence: Impressionism. The visual influence of Impressionism
can be seen in poems from Lowell's "Imagist" period such as "The
Taxi," "The Bath," and "An Aquarium." In her choice
of subject matter, her use of color and her objective/subjective renderings
of light and atmosphere, Lowell demonstrated an alignment with the painters
of the Impressionist school.
nnnLowell was already a published poet when
she discovered Imagism in 1913, but her one volume of poetry, 1912's A
Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, could in no way be described as Imagiste.
A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass reveals Lowell as a self-taught poet
heavily influenced by the works of John Keats. In these poems, Lowell shows
a poetic sensibility obviously influenced by the English Romantic poets
- the title of the volume itself was appropriated from Percy Bysshe Shelly's
Adonis: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion,
etc. An entire section of the volume is set aside for 28 sonnets. Undoubtedly,
the works of Keats were a tremendous influence on Lowell: in a poem entitled
"To John Keats," Lowell refers to him as "Great master! Boyish,
sympathetic man ... Crumpled before thy majesty we bow." "Unfortunately,"
says F. Cudworth Flint, "Miss Lowell's studies were too largely grounded
on a model that was nearly 80 years out of date" (13-14).
nnn"The Poet," from A Dome
of Many-Coloured Glass, is typical of the shorter works in that volume
and is of particular interest for its glimpse into Lowell's own vision of
the poet as artist:
What instinct forces man to journey on,
Urged by a longing blind but dominant!
Nothing he sees can hold him, nothing daunt
His never failing eagerness. The sun
Setting in splendour every night has won
His vassalage; those towers flamboyant
Of airy cloudland palaces now haunt
His daylight wanderings. Forever done
With simple joys and quiet happiness
He guards the vision of the sunset sky;
Though faint with weariness he must possess
Some fragment of the sunset's majesty;
He spurns life's human friendships to profess
Life's loneliness of dreaming ecstasy.
"The Poet" is constructed in sonnet form and relies on abstract
and archaic language ("daunt," "vassalage") and syntactic
inversions ("towers flamboyant") which Pound in his letters would
refer to as "book words" and "hindside-beforedness."
Indeed, the strict attention to iambic pentameter would have violated Pound's
Imagiste decree to "compose in the sequence of the musical phrase,
not in the sequence of the metronome" (Ellman & O'Clair 376). Visually,
Lowell's poem could be said to describe not only the Romantic poet but the
Romantic painter, whose "vassalage" has been won by "the
sun / Setting in splendour every night" and who "guards the vision
of the sunset sky." The sunset was a staple of Romantic painting, often
depicted in wildly bright color behind an expansive, dark landscape which
dwarfed any human figure.
What little visual description exists in the poem comes from vague generalities
like "airy cloudland palaces" - generalities Lowell would later
decry in the Imagist creed she and her fellow poets set into print in the
1915 volume Some Imagist Poets:
...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. (Flint 18)
nnnLowell was so inspired by the words of
Pound and H.D. in the January 1913 issue of Poetry that she traveled
that summer to London in search of Pound and his circle (Gould 115). Her
early works in the Imagist style were obviously tolerated, if not fully
accepted, by Pound, who solicited Lowell's "In a Garden" for his
upcoming anthology, Des Imagistes (Gould 127). Much has been
written about the feud which later arose between Lowell and Pound, who considered
himself a purist and would rather leave the Imagiste circle than
share it with Lowell. Still, there can be no doubt that Lowell's commitment
to Imagism was sincere - she would go on to sponsor three issues of the
anthology Some Imagist Poets, in 1915, 1916 and 1917, and to speak
before the Poetry Society of America on Imagism and the "New Poetry."
If Lowell's stylistic appropriation of Imagisme was not comprehensive,
her economic and social appropriation certainly was.
nnnPublished in 1914, Sword Blades and Poppy
Seed demonstrates Lowell's attempt to incorporate Imagism into her poetry.
The poem "In Answer to a Request," for example, alludes to Lowell's
abandonment of her poetic past. Ironically written in 15-line sonnet form,
Lowell explains: "You ask me for a sonnet. Ah, my Dear,/ Can clocks
tick back to yesterday at noon?" Lowell's speedy adaptation to the
Imagist style is more readily apparent in the volume's few spare, tightly-focused
poems like "The Taxi," published only two years after A Dome
of Many-Coloured Glass. Several times a year, Lowell's companion, Ada
Dwyer Russell, would leave Lowell's home, Sevenels, for weeks at a time
to visit her family. This poem, one of Lowell's early imagist/love poems,
keenly illustrates the despair Lowell felt at these partings:
- When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars
And shout into the ridges of the wind.
Streets coming fast,
One after the other,
Wedge you away from me,
And the lamps of the city prick my eyes
So that I can no longer see your face.
Why should I leave you,
To wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?
Paris, the Boulevard Montmartre at Night - Camille Pissarro,
Lowell had clearly left behind the stylistic trappings of Romanticism.
"The Taxi" is written in free verse, with lines ranging from four
to thirteen syllables. Lowell's choice of words is concrete and the language
common. Read aloud, the work could be interpreted as a snippet of eloquent
conversation. The mystical view of nature seen in "The Poet" ("the
sunset's majesty," a favorite subject of the Romantic painters) has
been replaced by common objects which are now infused with the emotions
of the speaker ("the lamps of the city prick my eyes"). Whether
Lowell could truly be called an Imagist with works like "The Taxi,"
however, is not entirely clear. "The Taxi," though displaying
an attempt to conform to Pound's "direct treatment of 'the thing.'"
still lacks the sort of central unifying image so prevalent in H.D.'s works;
rather, it shows Lowell straddling the objectivity of the Imagist and the
emotional self-indulgence of the Romantic. Horace Gregory writes that Sword
Blades and Poppy Seed:
party explains what had become an essential point of difference between
Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound. Although it was true that some of the shorter
verses in the book fell under a general definition of Imagism, they were
too long-winded and contained too many words....[Lowell's] verses expressed
her observations and opinions which were often forthright....(118)
nnn"The Taxi," like many of Lowell's
works from this period, suggests the influence of Impressionism rather than
Imagism. "Whereas the typical Imagist poem arrests sight at a particular
moment," writes Flint, Lowell's poems tended instead to "record
Imagistic details in sequences that produce a cinematic effect" (29).
Where Imagism concerns itself with the timeless, Impressionism is concerned
with the passage of individual moments. "The Taxi" shows Lowell
becoming aware of light and time. The speaker in "The Taxi," for
example, forgoes any description of the street in favor of the sensation
of being driven. With the lines "Streets coming fast / One after the
other," Lowell makes it clear that the image here is not as important
as the physical and emotional sensations of the speaker. The stars are "jutted"
because the speaker perceives them that way. That the street lamps prick
her eyes is not a function of the lamps but the reaction of the speaker
to an indifferent object and an unwelcome light. This focus on the sensation
rather than the object places Lowell in line with the impressionist painters:
The mode of perception, of vision, was of greater consequence to the impressionist...than
the view seen or the image presented.... The concept of "impressionism"
that motivated Monet, Cezanne, and others centers on a particular kind of
experience - at once objective and subjective, simultaneously physical,
sensory, and emotional. (Shiff 67).
nnnThough stripped to a skeleton of spare,
simple words, "The Taxi" barely begins to approach the practiced
Spartan economy of Imagiste works like H.D.'s "Oread:"
Whirl up, sea -
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.
In "Oread," as in many of H.D.'s works, the speaker exists only
in the service of the image. Lowell's speaker, however, is clearly the center
of "The Taxi." Rather than present one concrete image, Lowell
chooses to present the suggestion of several images, each fleeting, all
combining to give the impression of the speaker and her emotional state.
The emotional presence of the poet was lauded by Lowell's friend D.H. Lawrence,
who cautioned her against artifice:
Why do you take a pose? It causes you always to shirk your issues, and find
a banal resolution at the end....When you are full of your own strong gusto
of things...then I like you very much....I hate to see you posturing, when
there is thereby a real person betrayed in you. (Gregory 120-21).
nnnLowell's Imagist poems continued to reflect
the influence of Impressionism evident in "The Taxi." Lowell was,
by her own admission, no expert critic of the visual arts, but always attempted
to stay at the forefront of all artistic movements. After the famous International
Art Exhibit traveled to Boston in 1913, Lowell attended but later admitted
in a letter that she had "a faint idea of what the idiom of cubism
might be, but...could get no clue to the other schools" (Gould 115).
By this time, of course, the great European exhibits of the Impressionists
had come and gone - the last had taken place in Paris in 1886. However,
the influence of Impressionism was being felt strongly in the United States
through retrospectives and traveling exhibits like the International Art
Exhibit (perhaps best known as the Armory Show, from the New York venue
at which it premiered).
nnnLowell's own ties to American Impressionism
were perhaps stronger than she knew. Mary Cassatt, an American and one of
the recognized masters of Impressionism, was a good friend of Harriet Monroe,
the editor of Poetry, who had published three of Lowell's poems in
1912. Monroe herself had worked as an art critic for a time and, with Cassatt,
had encouraged the collection of modern French paintings for the Chicago
Art Institute - an attempt on her part to "bring the remarkable 'new'
art to American culture" (Gould 111). How much of the "new"
art of Impressionism Monroe saw in those first poems from Lowell is not
certain. The parallels between Lowell's later works and the new visual arts
are very clear, however, from subject matter to use of light and color.
nnnThe Impressionist in Lowell can be seen
most clearly when the poet violates her own rules of Imagism. Written by
Richard Aldington, revised by Lowell and published in the 1915 edition of
Some Imagist Poets, the new Imagist credo directed the Imagist poet:
1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact
2. To create new rhythms.... We do not insist upon free verse as the only
method of writing poetry. We fight for it as a principle of liberty....
3. To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject....
4. To present an image [hence the name Imagist]....
5. To produce a poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.
6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is the very essence of
poetry. (Gould 176)
The influence of Imagism did lead Lowell to prune the ornate language
of A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass. Still, some of her most rewarding
poems are those which explore sensations which are "blurred and indefinite."
nnnA case in point is Lowell's poem "The
Bath." This poem is particularly significant, for it is the poem Lowell
herself chose to read before the Poetry Society of America at their March
1915 meeting, to which she had been invited to give a five-minute talk on
Imagism. Promoting her forthcoming anthology, Lowell spoke about Imagism
and then offered "The Bath" as a concrete example of this new
The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus
in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water
in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the
water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance,
and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my
finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot, and the planes of light
in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water,
the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright
to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie
here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots.
The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff
of tulips and narcissus in the air.
|| Lowell's reception was by all accounts harsh, with the conservatives
of the Poetry Society objecting even to the subject matter, which they considered
inappropriate for serious poetry (Benvenuto 18-19). The bath was standard
fare among the Impressionist painters, however, having provided subject
matter for Cassatt (The Bath), Renoir (Bather, Blond Bather, Two
Bathers), and Degas (The Tub, The Morning Bath, After the Bath).|
The Bath - Mary Cassatt
nnnWhile "The Bath" approaches the
spare, conservative style of Hilda Doolittle's "Oread," it is
by no means "hard and clear," nor exact. While Lowell has restrained
herself to the image of a woman (we assume) in a bathtub, her words attempt
to describe the play of the light upon the bathwater - hardly a phenomenon
which lends itself to description by "the exact word." In a search
for words to describe the color of the water, Lowell is inexact, employing
the adjectives "greenish-white," "green-white," "sun-flawed
beryl" [a greenish mineral], and just plain "green." The
light pours, bores, cleaves, cracks, lies, dances, jars and flows. Lowell's
fascination with the sunlight and atmosphere is typical of Impressionist
painting, where "light becomes the absolute...and all material forms
take their cue from that, being revealed, dissolved or translated"
Impression, Sunrise - Claude Monét
nnnWhile with "The Bath" Lowell
has knowingly or not abandoned the insistence on the exact word, she has
created a dynamic picture of a quickly and continuously shifting natural
image. It was this very challenge, to capture the sensation of light on
water, which led Claude Monet to paint Impression, Sunrise, the work
from which the Impressionist movement would take its name. "In this
special world [of Monet's] where "frail forms" come and go in
"an envelope of light, we are back once more to the vision of Zen of
which Impressionism may be seen as a close relative and Imagism a direct
descendant" (Ruihley 94-95).
nnnLowell's "The Bath" offers
more than merely a description of light on water, however. Rather than surrender
the poem to an objective view of a single image, Lowell employs a smattering
of images which surround a central speaker and a central emotional presence.
Though subtle, the speaker's presence in the poem imposes an emotional viewpoint
on the images presented. For example, the reflections on the ceiling wobble
"deliciously," and the day is "almost too bright to bear."
This introduces subjectivity to the experience, leading the focus of the
poem away from the visual and into the mind of the speaker.
nnnThe presence of tulips and narcissus
in the poem, notes Jean Gould, also lends further personal - and even Romantic
- depth to the poem:
Amy Lowell knew her legends too well not to realize the significance of
narcissus and the water. The self-hate she expressed in her diary and in
devious ways in her poems is the other side of the coin of self-love, often
born of it.... Amy's background had given her a generous portion of self-love
which overpowered the self-hate much of the time, and this poem is an example
of it. (175)
nnnThis intrusion of subjectivity into an otherwise
objective description of light and atmosphere places Lowell firmly in the
company of the Impressionist painters, whose works sparked debate about
the presence of the artist in the work of art. "They are impressionists
in the sense that they render not the landscape, but the sensation produced
by the landscape," wrote Jules Antoine Castagnary after viewing the
First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris. The impressionist painter worked
quickly to capture the immediacy of the visual impression - Monet, for example,
was known to work for only 15 minutes before subtle changes in ambient light
forced him to abandon his subject. While the Impressionists were often charged
with exhibiting "unfinished" works, this spontaneity, according
to artist Paul Cézanne, was necessary to arrive at the truth of the
|| ...this is precisely the final aim of the principal Impressionists,
namely, to free the mind of all memory, of all visual culture, of all preconceived
knowledge of nature in order to seize the latter merely as a play of spots
floating in space. The artist is merely a receptacle of sensations, a brain,
a registering device....Why, of course, a good device, fragile, complicated
chiefly in relation to others. But if it intervenes, if this puny thing
dares to meddle deliberately with what it must express, politeness infiltrates.
The work is inferior. (Clay 91).|
The Bathers (detail) - Cézanne
nnnHowever, that immediate impression depicted
in the final painting was necessarily that of the artist himself. Upon presenting
a street scene at the 1874 exhibition, Monet was asked, "do I look
like that when I walk along the Boulevard des Capucines?" by a man
who described the figures as "black tongue-lickings." (Ash 13).
In this sense the Impressionist encompassed both objectivity and subjectivity
in his art:
While the impressionist's ideal varied with the individual personality,
his representation of nature - the effect - paradoxically assumed a universal
validity. In this sense, impressionist art, during the period of its currency,
was interpreted as both subjective and objective. The truth of the
ideal depended (so it seemed) on the artist's intangible sincerity, whereas
the truth of the effect depended on his science. (Shiff 80)
nnnWhile Cézanne likened nature to "a
play of spots floating in space," the painter's primary tools for depicting
those spots were tone and color. Armand Silvestre, an art critic and friend
of Monet, wrote in 1873 an essay which attempted to provide a link among
the works of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley:
That which immediately strikes one...is the immediate caress which the
eye receives - it is harmonious above all. What finally distinguishes [these
paintings] is the simplicity of means in achieving this harmony.... the
secret is based completely on a very fine and very exact observation of
one tone to another. (Champa 98)
nnnLowell proves herself an impressionist by
her use of color. One of the best examples of Lowell's keen observation
of tone is the poem "The Captured Goddess" (from Sword Blades
and Poppy Seed):
Over the housetops,
Above the rotating chimney-pots,
I have seen a shiver of amethyst,
And blue and cinnamon have flickered
At the far end of a dusty street.
Through sheeted rain
Has come a lustre of crimson,
And I have watched moonbeams
Hushed by a film of palest green....
nnnThe presence of "I" in "The
Captured Goddess" demonstrates the subjectivity of color, another hallmark
of the Impressionists. That the sky could be both cinnamon and blue challenged
"a fundamental concept of the classical studios...[that] every object
had a constant hue" (Clay 146). This subjectivity of color evoked criticism
from conservative art critics. Ironically, while the Impressionist attempted
through strict attention to color and tone to faithfully render the interaction
of light and atmosphere, the paintings looked less and less "real"
to the classically-trained critic. Albert Wolff, writing about Renoir's
Nude in the Sunlight, asked someone to
|| try to explain to M. Renoir that a woman's torso is not a mass of
flesh in the process of decomposition with green and violet spots which
denote the state of complete putrefaction of a corpse! (Ash 109).|
Nude in the Sunlight - Renoir
Despite the criticism, the Impressionists had "discovered that color
was a feast for the eye and soul, a sensual reality, valid in itself, without
reference to any aesthetic or intellectual system" (Clay 146).
Lowell's pursuit of objectivity through impression is most apparent in the
poem, "An Aquarium" (from Men, Women, and Ghosts). Lowell's
depiction of the tanks full of fish is based almost entirely on color and
Streaks of gold and yellow iridescence,
Rings veering out of rings,
Silver -- gold --
Grey-green opaqueness sliding down,
With sharp white bubbles
Shooting and dancing,
Flinging quickly outward.
Nosing the bubbles,
nnnLowell's experiments with color followed
along the same lines as those of the Impressionist painters. In "An
Aquarium" Lowell even employs the terms of the painter: she refers
to the tank of fish as "a constant modulation of values" - values
referring not to morals and beliefs but rather to objective measurements
of light and color. An Aquarium most likely arose from Lowell's experiments
with the "unrelated method," an idea devised by her and the poet
John Gould Fletcher. The unrelated method was an attempt
to reproduce in the reader the sensory impression of objects, as experienced
by the poet, but without the intrusion of the poet's personality - the objects
themselves, unrelated to the human mind. It delights in color, in pictoral
effects, and in word sounds for their own sake. Like imagism, the unrelated
presentation stresses clarity and precision. (Benvenuto 40)
Lowell likened the "externality," or objectivity, of An Aquarium
to the detachment of the scientist in his search for truth. Like the Impressionist
painter, Lowell saw objectivity as the goal of depicting the spontaneous
impression of light and form:
As the universal principle of their style, light was the element of reality
chosen expressly to reveal no more of reality than the shifting flux of
appearances, in other words, the immediate, virgin form taken by sensations
before they can be acted upon by will, reason or the passions. (Leymarie
The poet, said Lowell, "records; he does not moralize. He holds no
brief for or against, he merely portrays" (Benvenuto 41). Lowell's
words echo Cézanne's claim that "the artist is merely a receptacle
of sensations, a brain, a registering device." In "An Aquarium,"
however, Lowell approaches abstraction - much as the second and third generations
of Impressionist painters did as Impressionism gave way to Expressionism.
In fact, until the 11th line of the poem, there is no certain way to know
exactly what Lowell is attempting to depict. D.H. Lawrence observed in a
letter to Lowell that
...you...have gone beyond tragedy and emotion, even beyond irony, and have
come to the pure mechanical stage of physical apprehension....You can't
get any further than
...Streaks of gold and yellow iridescence,
Rings veering out of rings,
Silver -- gold --
Grey-green opaqueness sliding down,'
You see it is uttering pure sensation without concepts, which is
what this futuristic art tries to do. One step further and it passes into
mere noises...or mere jags and zig zags, as the futuristic paintings.
nnnIt is hardly surprising here that Lawrence
draws a parallel between Lowell's poetry and contemporary painting. The
opening line of Lowell's poem "The Congressional Library" declares
simply that "The earth is a colored thing." Says Horace Gregory,
"had she been a painter there is little doubt that she would have been
able to dash off fifty water colors between lunch time and a friendly cup
of tea at four in the afternoon" (143). From her beginnings as a Romantic
poet behind her time, Lowell (like Pound) appropriated any number of styles
and movements, including Imagism and Impressionism. When measured against
any of these movements, Lowell's work as a whole suffers. Wrote Louis Untermeyer
Amy too often wrote to fit a theory, to mold her work in the fashion
of the moment; she cast herself in the role of public poet....She sacrificed
a slow searching for quick brilliance, and exchanged a broad understanding
for narrow contemporaneousness" (Benvenuto 141).
nnnStill, if Lowell's reputation has dimmed
since her death, the promise of Imagism has dimmed as well, having been
absorbed into the greater catch-all of "Modernism," while Impressionism,
on the other hand, has proved a viable movement which lives on in the visual
arts and in music. Russell Ash
calls Impressionism "one of the most important liberating forces in
the history of art" and notes that without the Impressionists "free
use of bright primary colours," future artists could not have made
"the gigantic leap across across the divide between nineteenth-century
academic painting and modern art" (45).
nnnDespite critical indifference (at best)
and derision (at worst), Lowell's poems have value as a snapshot of the
converging styles (both literary and visual) of the early twentieth century.
The Romantic notions which filled A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass reflected
the very material against which the Imagists and the Impressionists would
rebel. That rebellion would lead Lowell into Impressionism, seeing her paring
down and solidifying her images while at the same time infusing them with
her own highly personal and highly visual impressions. Like the French painters
of the late 19th century, Lowell would struggle in her works to portray
the play of light and color over time, while at the same time using the
imagery to illuminate the emotions of her speakers. Says Jean Gould, perhaps
the foremost champion of Lowell's work:
...had it not been for Amy's initial campaign, modern freedom of expression
in poetry, whatever its form or lack of it, might have taken much longer
to evolve....Contemporary poetry, like contemporary music and painting,
can take any turn its creator pleases. (355)
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