I have recently been reading about symbolism and imagism and they seem to me to be connected in that they were in some ways the opposite of each other, one being the movement to add greater symbolic meaning to poetry and the other being a movement to add greater precision in imagery, which is not necessarily non-symbolic. I see ways in which they are both the same and different, but I may be interpreting these wrong. So, what is the distinction between Imagism and Symbolism? How are they related?


Symbolism was largely a European movement in the late 19th century, associated with such poets as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Verlaine. They believed that artistic truth could not be depicted through naturalist or realist means. Instead, they sought to use images as symbols, i.e., as weighted with a meaning beyond the naturalistic. Jean Moréas, in the 1886 manifesto "Le Symbolisme", wrote:

Ennemie de l'enseignement, la déclamation, la fausse sensibilité, la description objective, la poésie symbolique cherche à vêtir l’Idée d'une forme sensible qui, néanmoins, ne serait pas son but à elle-même, mais qui, tout en servant à exprimer l'Idée, demeurerait sujette. L'Idée, à son tour, ne doit point se laisser voir privée des somptueuses simarres des analogies extérieures ; car le caractère essentiel de l'art symbolique consiste à ne jamais aller jusqu'à la concentration de l'Idée en soi. Ainsi, dans cet art, les tableaux de la nature, les actions des humains, tous les phénomènes concrets ne sauraient se manifester eux-mêmes ; ce sont là des apparences sensibles destinées à représenter leurs affinités ésotériques avec des Idées primordiales.

C. Liszt translates this as:

Enemy of education, declamation, wrong feelings, objective description, symbolist poetry tries to dress the Idea in a sensitive form which, however, would not be its sole purpose, but furthermore that, while serving to express the Idea in itself, would remain subjective. The Idea, in its turn, should not be allowed to be seen deprived of the sumptuous lounge robes of exteranous analogies; because the essential character of symbolic art consists in never approaching the concentrated kernel of the Idea in itself. So, in this art, the pictures of nature, the actions of human beings, all concrete phenomena would not themselves know how to manifest themselves; these are presented as the sensitive appearance destined to represent their esoteric affinity with primordial Ideas.

The line tous les phénomènes concrets ne sauraient se manifester eux-mêmes is somewhat awkwardly translated as all concrete phenomena would not themselves know how to manifest themselves. It means, roughly, that concrete entities would not exist in Symbolist art merely as themselves; they are the sense-phenomena (des apparences sensibles) that represent platonic Ideas. This is a clear break with the naturalist and realist conventions of the earlier 19th century.

Imagism was a later Anglo-American movement that, like Symbolism, was a reaction to the prevailing conventions of literature. Imagist poets like Hulme, Pound, and H.D. decried the romantic and sentimentalist excesses of Georgian poetry. They sought instead to be hard-edged and concrete, and to present images as precisely as possible. In the March 1913 issue of Poetry, Pound published "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste". He defined an image as that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time, and advised aspiring imagists as follows:

Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.

Don’t use such an expression as “dim lands of peace.” It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.

Like the Symbolists, the Imagists sought to see natural objects as symbols. Pound's insistence on using the fancy French spelling Imagiste was meant to underscore the connection between the Anglo-American movement he was spearheading and its Continental forebears.

Nevertheless, there were clear differences between Symbolism and Imagism. Pound himself remarked on the difference in a September 1914 article for the Fortnightly Review:

IMAGISME IS NOT symbolism. The symbolists dealt in “association,” that is, in a sort of allusion, almost of allegory. They degraded the symbol to the status of a word. They made it a form of metonomy. One can be grossly “symbolic,” for example, by using the term “cross” to mean “trial.” The symbolist’s symbols have a fixed value, like numbers in arithmetic, like 1, 2, and 7. The imagiste’s images have a variable significance, like the signs a, b, and x in algebra.

Moreover, one does not want to be called a symbolist, because symbolism has usually been associated with mushy technique.

As opposed to the allegorical meaning of images in Symbolism, images in Imagism were literal: they described objects as exactly as possible. Any figurative or symbolic meaning arose from the juxtaposition of these concrete images with each other, or by the metaphoric application of the image to a situation. Pound's famous (and famously brief) "In a Station of the Metro" is an example:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

The metaphoric or symbolic force of the poem arises simply from the juxtaposition of the "faces in the crowd" with the "petals" on the branch described with great economy and precision. The Imagists emphasized such precise economy of technique. Unlike the dreamy allegories of the Symbolists, Imagists focused on describing real objects with fidelity and inventiveness, focusing on well-chosen, superbly evocative details.

A useful pair of poems to contrast in this regard is Mallarmé's "L'après-midi d'un faune" and H.D.'s "Oread". Both deal with mythological creatures: a faun is a woodland spirit, an oread a mountain nymph. Mallarmé's poem is generally taken to be an allegorical meditation on the creative process:

One of the two nymphs in the poem, which is far more complex and obscure than its popularity would suggest, seems to represent the world of the senses ... while the purer of the two may well symbolize the world of the intellect.... Since the faun or satyr of the title is able to master neither of them, one might hazard the conclusion that Mallarmé is again presenting his own predicament of a poet moving away from the material world but having not yet reached the immaterial world, and who is consequently incapable of dealing satisfactorily with either.

The discursive languors of Mallarmé are worlds apart from the brevity and economy of H.D. In its entirety, "Oread" runs to six lines:

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.

The surface of Mallarmé's poem is indeed about a faun in the afternoon (duh), but why is H.D.'s poem called "Oread"? Furthermore, the image of turbulent sea-waves crashing against rocks, metaphorically represented as pine trees being forcibly hurled on mountains, is magnificent; but what does it mean?

As this contrast shows, Imagist poems are much more concise than Symbolist ones, yet extremely powerful in their concision. Unlike Symbolist poems, they are hard to discuss in terms of what they "mean"; they simply are. They give us an arresting image that captures our imagination, and then leave us to decide what to make of them. Pound's battle cry "Make it new!" seems apt: certainly after reading H.D.'s poem, I've never been able to see waves crashing into rocks in quite the same way.

  • Wow this is a great answer, but I am going to give it more time before I accept it. – Benjamin Jan 29 '17 at 12:23
  • What a delightful answer. – KittenWithAWhip Jul 25 '17 at 13:10
  • Or, as Archibald Macleish explained in his poem Ars Poetica, writing about Imagist poetry: "A poem should not mean but be." – Peter Shor Mar 13 at 10:26

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