Amidst the development of modernist writing, upheaval of traditional expression, and societal divergences taking place in the early twentieth century writing, the division of women’s writing stubbornly remained, isolated for no other reason than gender, and unable to move beyond the outmoded limitations of the confessional, sentimental, and unoriginal despite women’s advancement in other social and intellectual realms. And although many female poets embraced the early modernist movement, the separation of the sexes still exists as a subject of contention among theorists and literary scholars. One of the many disservices of this separation is the gap in understanding left by reading female modernists without affirming their use of and contributions to the modernist aesthetic and poetic creeds.
As feminist literary theory and criticism continues to advance and diversify, the idea of the personal voice as a principle feature of women’s writing still lingers, a relic of the literary tradition of emotionally-driven, autobiographical, and seemingly less reputable or serious female writers (Watts, 72-74). This segregation of male and female, serious and sentimental, or impersonal and personal, pays little attention to the modernists’ authorial intent. Impersonality, one of the major tenants of imagism, served as a liberation for female authors from the emotional and into the universal, and was widely embraced by dozens of female novelists and poets as a new method and outlet for writing (78). With further examination of impersonality in terms of concurrent literary and linguistic theories, the different methods with which male and female poets understand and represent impersonality expands readers’ understanding of imagism and its relation to gender issues as they both developed.
Female modernist writers harnessed the idea of impersonality differently from their male contemporaries to challenge the validity and long-standing conventions of gendered writing. This differentiation of method, best exemplified in works by Hilda Dolittle (H.D.) and Ezra Pound, illustrates how the same tenant of modernism can both create and reflect subjectivity.
Beginning on this supposition, an established definition of modernist impersonality from canonical poets must be detailed before delving into the linguistic and theoretical interpretations of impersonality and specific poetical examples.
In terms of impersonality, modernist poets emphasized universality over subjectivity. Despite the constant tension between selfhood and individual insignificance, imagist writers relied on impersonality for a reassessment of aesthetic and literary hierarchies, as detailed most succinctly in T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (Rives, 4). This reassessment helped to shape the natural speech, Pound’s “direct treatment of the ‘thing,’” and mythic proportions that are now hallmarks of modernist poetry (Pound). T.S. Eliot endorsed the idea “that the mind of Europe—the mind of [his] own country [is] much more important than [his] own private mind” and that the true poet must “escape from personality” to write successfully (Eliot, 39, 43). Here, the author is secondary, and the poetry speaks for itself and for the general readers living in the modern age.
But with the seemingly forthright nature of such explanatory texts, impersonality has long been considered simply as “a crusade against Romantic individualism in society,” as detailed often and without embellishment (Ellmann, 26). Most notably in The Poetics of Impersonality: T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (1987), Ellmann’s groundbreaking text, imagism is a symptom of impersonality rather than the cure. While true in part, this understanding does nothing to account for the different ‘crusades’ of the two sexes (that is, their methodologies) used differently to approach modern poetry. When explored without the backdrop of past Romantic concepts, imagism acts more as a societal mirror than cleansing fire, and contributes to societal gender norms while deconstructing them.
More recently, Sharon Cameron’s Impersonality: Seven Essays (2013) expanded Ellmann’s thinking to include, “the extinction of personality that defines the artist…[that] is not a negation of the person, but rather a penetration through… of the human in particular,” and one “in which impersonality and personality do not stand in binary relation” (Cameron, 7-8, 149). Here, rather than impersonality merely snuffing out individualism, it encompasses the greater idea of non-conventional personality without physical or societal boundaries, through what Cameron calls the “disintegration” of poetry. This understanding of individuality, taken with an approach from linguistic theory, brings together female and male imagists’ understanding and uses of impersonality to break down both conventions of writing and of gender.
Written in the same period as the poems of Pound, H.D., and their peers, the linguistic and literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin presents a complementary concept that bridges the gap between modernist essays and its criticisms, while supporting an extension of this argument for the differing language of impersonality between the sexes. Based in the separation of poems and novels, Bakhtin successfully details the differences in modernist works between genders. In short, Bakhtin’s “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse” argues for two differentiations coexisting in the language of the novel and literature: “heteroglossia,” which amplifies the number of voices of the author, and “monoglossia,” which eliminates them. This extends from the novel, to older and more “complete” genres (Raja). These two models of impersonality account for the different modes of universality and impersonality used by male and female imagists.
In choral poems such as The Waste Land, Cino, and The Return, the many-voiced heteroglossic language is used to create a tone of impersonality, while women’s poems focus more on voicelessness—that is, an unrecognized or impersonal, nondescript speaker. Put succinctly, for men, impersonality meant writing “like someone else”, while for women, it meant writing “like no one else” (Black, 125-26). Women were free to find a bodiless voice that was neither female nor male—instead universal, while male authors wrote in multiple voices of different sexes in different situations to create a sense of continuity and unity. With this backdrop, women’s grasp of imagism becomes an escape from the autobiographical and sentimental and a different strategy for innovative language, exploring genderlessness, and embracing universality, while men’s heteroglossic imagism takes on both forms of men’s and women’s writings in an effort to expand their scope of societal embodiment.
Taking these criticisms and theories together, two different poetic intentions arise from one concept of Modernism. The first is one without differentiation, in which authors use monoglossic methods rather than differentiating different poetic voices, while the second (heteroglossia) creates many voices from one. Although each model produces the desired impersonality of modernism, the single-voiced poems identified with female imagists are often misidentified as autobiographical rather than impersonal, and perceived somehow as less artistic, nuanced, or authentic. Despite this misinterpretation, the monoglossic method remains the more widely acknowledged modernist device, used most notably in The Waste Land and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, two epically formatted poems with a strong chorus of voices. These two methods, while achieving similar ends, highlight the gender clash taking place in the larger range of the early twentieth century. This clash of methods is best personified by H.D. and Ezra Pound and their overlapping but very different themes in their individual poetry.
Despite their complicated history together, H.D. and Pound transformed a romantic relationship into an artistic dialogue from which the Imagist movement arose. And throughout their years together, their influence as more minor poets grew with the modernist movement. Still, reading the short, early poems of both poets, a divergence appears between them, although both remain true to Pound’s tenants for imagism: those of direct treatment, concision, and rhythm (Pound). True, both H.D. and Pound each spend their early years rewriting the same form to perfection—or, arguably, redundancy–but they each experiment with diction, symbolism, rhythm and syntax in new formations to arrive at their own unique styles, and methods of impersonality. In order to best dissect these poets’ different approaches to impersonality, the similar subject matter in H.D.’s “Hermes of the Ways” and Pound’s “The Return” provide an ideal example of the practical applications of impersonality between genders in the modernist movement.
Beginning with Dolittle, “Hermes of the Ways” is an ideal example of Pound’s thoughts in “A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’ts” that have been put into action. The poem is precise, has no excessive descriptions, and the rhythm of the poem is punctuated by a series of vivid images without any excess. Primarily, Dolittle focuses on images that are grouped in terms of different directions: there are the horizontal waves and shore, and vertical images of trees, Hermes, and a ship’s mast. Travelers are “shelter[ed] from the west,/from the east/weathers sea-wind;”…”where sea-grass tangles with/shore-grass (H.D.,14-15). In opposition, Dolittle mingles sea and land, relying on fixed meanings in strange juxtapositions rather than a cluttered artistic form or overpowering narration to call attention to the contrast–The sand is hard, the sea is an orchard, and the ocean’s salt water is uncharacteristically sweet. H.D. opposes the traditional symbolic system and seems to travel in each of the “many-foamed ways/…of the triple path-ways” in Hermes’ domain (14). And throughout these contradictions and complements, there still remains a voicelessness to the depiction, with reliance on just the images themselves, as the speaker remains passive, mute, and detached. This method of impersonality suggests an encompassing and eternal tone, a timelessness that emerges from the lack of personal context or cultural identity.
Dolittle’s free verse is tempered by obscurity and an absence of narrative order. Throughout the series laid out in “Hermes of the Ways,” the actions are free of commentary, with no context placing the events except nature’s ceaseless repetition. The wind “piles little ridges, /and the great waves/break over it. (14)” in an eternal present-tense. These actions remain constant, while the speaker has no bearing on the events taking place. These objects, in conjunction with Hermes, range from ancient Greece to the early twentieth century, and transcend beyond personal experience to the universal. The speaker cannot be identified by a personal or social attribute or position, and thus emerges Bakhtin’s monoglossic voice; the poem’s speaker is no one or everyone, the sea, or a person on the sea: anyone. This impersonal, universal observer communicates the occasion to the reader without impinging on it.
In turn, Ezra Pound’s “The Return” provides a clearly implied listener, and employs several voices throughout his poem. As the poem begins, Pound is already addressing the reader: “See, they, return; ah, see (Baechler, Litz, Pound, 69).” Further, the diction of the poem creates a personal conversation between the speaker and the reader, with questioned asked and left for the reader to answer. This dialogue humanizes the narrator, and gives personality to the descriptions.
“The Return” is littered with exclamations, sighs, and personal insertions by the speaker, humanizing him and his subject. Along these lines, Pound also cites several personalities throughout the poem. The “keen-scented,” “half-awakened” men are given thought, action, and identity. And though Hermes, too is mentioned here, it is in juxtaposition of modernity rather than in H.D.’s timelessness. The trundling men, “Wing’d-with-Awe,” could easily be interpreted as Pound’s contemporaries, who had lost the scent of poetic progress as they rail against their return (70). Already, Pound has involved the poem’s speaker, Hermes, the poem’s reader/participant, and the returning men among his cast of characters. Thus identified, the poem is deliberately placed in the midst of the modern age.
As in the epic choruses of Hermes’ Grecian poets or Pound’s contemporaries, the chorus of “The Return” reflects back to the reader a universally understood message through multiple voices and reinforces that message multiple times as Pound places himself within poetry’s historical tradition, rather than throughout it as H.D. does.
H.D. and Pound set a precedent for their contemporaries as they continued to develop and adapt to the modern world. But while modernism tested the limits of selfhood and progress in and beyond literary works, men and women responded to the new modern aesthetic differently. Individual gender characteristics and the unfolding events of the early twentieth century molded each gender’s ideas of impersonality, universality, and tradition. While male poets used these changing circumstances to escape the isolation of individuality and to seek connection and universal thought, female poets sought refuge from their culturally assumed emotionality and inherent connectivity as women. With imagism and its impersonality, female authors were able to write beyond autobiography and experiment with the new form of poetry to subvert traditional interpretations of female texts and write beyond their own experiences.
This differentiation and recognition of methods between men and women, expanded into the canon beyond H.D.’s and Pound’s poems to their peers and those poets who followed, represents a value of this tenant of modernism beyond a pre-war cultural context. When analyzed as part of the legacies of imagism and modernism, these methods open a discourse for how post-modern subjectivity, impersonality, and universality are changing in an increasingly non-traditional, gender-neutral community of poets, writers, and scholars. These continued discussions, delineated almost a century ago, attest to the task before those still grounding these differentiations in solely in gender: to secure a voice within multiple realms of scholarship while still unifying the canon.