W.W.E. Ross’ s Imagism and the Poetics of the Early Twentieth Century

by Anne Compton


In his Introduction to The Imagist Poem, William Pratt links Imagism to Impressionism, and any handbook of literature will affirm, though not explain, this connection. Remembering T.E. Hulme’s dictum that the image should be "all hard and dry," it is difficult to see the Imagist’s image as a development of either the Impressionist's scene which, at first glimpse, appears blurred and indistinct, or the Impressionist's image, a colour area radiant and reflective but without defined contours, without hard outline. Dry, the Impressionist's scene definitely is not, since water and air, in their mutual reflectivity, appear amorphous. Such differences, cursorily gathered, conceal, however (as do all distinctions decided by a glimpse), a world of likeness. Although the Imagist aesthetic has been much discussed by literary scholars, the Impressionist aesthetic has not, making it difficult to gauge the Impressionist heritage in Imagism.

James Nagel, in Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism, complains that The Literary History of the United States ignores the enormous impact of Impressionism on American literature. The Literary History of Canada similarly makes no mention of Impressionism as an influence on Canadian writers, yet Canadian critics (Leo McKendrick, Len Early) have commented upon Impressionism in the nature poems of Archibald Lampman, and certainly in prose, Frederick Philip Grove’s Over Prairie Trails relies on Impressionist techniques. To a remarkable degree, Brian Trehearne in Aestheticism and the Canadian Modernists (1989) altered the narrative of Canadian literary history, documenting the influence of European Aestheticism on modern Canadian poetry. The present essay continues his line of work, focusing specifically on Impressionism, arguing its hierarchical first-place position (and not only historically) and revealing in the work of W.W.E. Ross Impressionist features in addition to those remarked upon by Trehearne.

"[U]nless one keeps the later nineteenth century in mind," cautions David Perkins, "one cannot fully understand how and why modern poetry took the directions it did" (3), and what occurred in the avant-garde poetry of the late nineteenth century reveals the dominance of Impressionism, "the style in which both the thinking and the art of the period are expressed. The whole philosophy of the last decades of the century is dependent on it" (Hauser 210). In spite of the fact that scholars of the modernist movement trace Imagist premises and practices back to Impressionism, with the exception of Trehearne, little has been done in Canadian literary studies to illustrate the Impressionist heritage in Imagist poems. When it comes to a critical reading of the poems of the Canadian modernists, the origins of modernism in the revolutionary revisioning of the world, in Impressionism, is largely forgotten even though all techniques, all manners of execution in Impressionist art "express, in the final analysis, that feeling of stirring, dynamic, constantly changing reality . . ."(Hauser 160). One’s understanding of the brief, bright rise, and quick decline, of Imagism might be deepened through an examination of Imagism's debt to Impressionism, an exploration of some worth since Imagism, although its model poems and manifestoes ceased after two decades, contributed significantly to later twentieth-century poetry.

For reasons that will become clear in a moment, Canadian Imagism is ideal ground for exploring the subject of the Impressionist heritage in the Imagist manner. For their part, Canadian painters quickly recognized the suitability of Impressionism for the depiction of Canadian landscapes. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, artists such as Maurice Cullen and James Wilson Morrice discovered in the French painters a validation of what was, and is, the abiding preoccupation of most Canadian art: nature. The revolution in the visual arts accomplished by the French Impressionists occurred when they saw landscape not as memory, habit, or prescription told them to, but when they saw nature, as it were, for the first time. Only recently has it become clear the extent to which the paintings of the nationalist landscape school, the Group of Seven, evolved out of the artists’ earlier work in Impressionism (Joan Murray 11). "Most of the members of the Group of Seven," writes Paul Duval, "never totally shook their early debt to Impressionism" (9). In poetry, as in painting, the land has been the pre-eminent subject. Up until the 1920s ours was predominantly a poetry of nature, expressing everything from rural discontent to the immanent divine. And certainly the Canadian Imagists of the twenties and thirties—Raymond Knister, F.R. Scott, A.J.M. Smith, and W.W.E. Ross—express in their Imagist work a continuing preoccupation with nature, but theirs is a poetry which approaches nature (one thinks of Smith’s water studies, Scott’s Laurentian poems, and Ross's attention to light) not as to its size and grandeur but in terms of those elements—ice, snow, water—marked by their changeability. If one wanted to examine the evidence of Impressionism in Imagism in a Canadian poet, neither Scott nor Smith would be the first choice, however, for the simple reason that they were not pure Imagists. As D.M.R. Bentley’s work indicates, Smith wrote Imagist poems "Not of Things Only, but of Thought" (26-55) and as Smith himself remarks, Scott is not content with the image but follows out the idea which the image provokes ("F.R. Scott and Some of His Poems" 35). For neither Smith nor Scott did the image suffice; they wanted concepts. Ross’s images are the purest acts of perception, and for Ross language is perception. In Ross’s poetry, this essay argues, one finds an Impressionist with language: an Imagist. In Ross's Imagism, the Impressionist heritage is disclosed.


In Imagist theory and practice one finds the nearest poetic equivalent to Impressionism in painting. A steady regard for material reality is common to both movements. Hulme, the prominent and first theorist of Imagism, found any talk about spirit or soul in poetry entirely suspect: "I want to speak of verse in a plain way as I would of pigs" ( "A Lecture on Modern Poetry" 67), and Ezra Pound found the natural object to be the adequate symbol. "All emotion," Hulme asserted, "depends on real solid vision or sound. It is physical" ("Notes on Language and Style" 78). Consequently, "the art of literature consists exactly in this passage from the Eye to the Voice" (86). Impressionism, although it eschews a normative reality for the fragmentary and unfinished one of the fleeting impression, deals also with a material not a spiritual reality. The art of Monet and his followers, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley, and of those more loosely affiliated, Cézanne, Degas, Manet, and Morisot, had a materialistic premise. The basis of painting, they believed, was visual experience. Sufficient for art were "the optical facts of vision, light, and color" (Eitner 338). Such optical experiences were gained out of doors, in landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, or in domestic sites (gardens, cafés, picnics) where their lives occurred. They expunged from painting historical, mythological, and religious subejcts. Painting had never been as present to the moment before. Paul Valéry describes the shift: "[L]andscape came and demolished the problem of subject  .  .  .  .  The brain became nothing but retina; there could no longer be any question of trying to express in paint the feelings of a group of old men before a beautiful Susanna  .  .  . "(25).

The landscape Impresionists worked directly from the scene; they worked rapidly. They developed very particular techniques in order to hand over in as physiologically a way as possible their sensations. Their paintings were a regression from interpretation to raw data: nature for Renoir and Monet, in the eighteen-seventies, was not "an object susceptible of interpretation" (Rewald 284). The Impressionists transcribed their immediate sensuous apprehension of reality—in terms of light and colour—pre-empting the reduction of the impression to abstraction, into established categories. In fidelity to those sensations, they eschewed traditional conceptual devices such as linear definitions (which satisfy "mental expectation" [Eitner 340]), replacing the outline around objects with "oscillating transitions" of colour (Rilke 38). "To observe," Valéry concedes, "means, very largely, to imagine what one was expecting to see"(11), but one can learn, as one does from the Impressionists, "not to confuse what we think we see with what we see .  .  .  .    In general we are apt to guess or forsee more than we see; visual impressions act upon us as signals, not as unique presences .  .  ."(45). Circumventing the signal, the Impressionists aimed to reproduce the unique presence of the natural object in all its palpability, including the conditions of light and atmosphere within which the object existed. Directness, for the painters, meant seeing with the smoke, fog, sunshine, seeing with whatever governed the object in its environment. The blurry canvases of Impressionism directly, that is atmospherically, and therefore accurately, present the object. Accuracy eventuates as much in the blurred scene as in (what one takes to be accurate) a sharper visual presentation. Early critics of Impressionism, as well as the painters themselves, identified the movement as "‘realist’" (Friedrich 250) and the painters as "‘naturalists’"(249). Henry James descibed them after the second exhibition (1876) as "‘partisans of unadorned reality’" (qtd. in Friedrich 260), and Oscar Wilde, for his part, believed "the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis" (22).

The emphasis in Imagism on accuracy and directness derives, as it does in Impressionism, from the pre-eminence of the visual and from the commitment to visual truth. Real communication between human beings, according to Hulme, occurs by ways of images (Pratt 27). The poet communicates through visual presentation; the poet, like the painter, pursues the maximum of visual truth. In order to describe what was happening and what ought to happen in modern poetry, Hulme turns for his models not to recent poetry but to painting: "What has found expression in painting as Impressionism will soon find expression in poetry as free verse" ("A Lecture on Modern Poetry" 72). Rejecting traditional ideas of drawing and composition—discarding the firm outline—Impressionism no longer conceptualized an object. Poetry, too, Hulme observed, "has become definitely and finally introspective and deals with expression and communication of momentary phases in the poet's mind" (72), fixing, like painting, a fleeting impression. For both painter and poet, truth is visual, and truth is momentary. A momentary experience, the image must be seized at "‘a single blow’" (Renée Taupin qtd. in Pratt 33). Pound’s famous definition of the image emphasized the "instant of time" within which the "intellectual and emotional complex" must be grasped ("A Few Don'ts" 200). The two movements share an aesthetic of the moment. This "new visual art" (Hulme refers to poetry) "depends for its effect . . . on arresting the attention . . ." ("A Lecture on Modern Poetry" 73). Similarly, an Impressionist painting (paradoxically) arrests even as it inscribes movement and changeability. To "seize at a single blow," or to catch the fleeting impression, places enormous demands on the medium if it is to "hand over sensations bodily" ("Romanticism and Classicism" 134). The poem must relate "an actually realised visual object before him [the poet] in which he delighted" (137). The restriction in Impressionist painting of the elements of representation to the purely visual, and the corresponding elimination of all literary, anecdotal, or conceptual elements, results in what Hauser calls the "recollection by painting of its own particular means "(161). Both Pound and Hulme insist that the language of poetry—its "particular means"—must similarly recover directness: "Each word must be an image seen, not a counter" (Hulme, "Notes on Language and Style" 79), and with this language the poet must have a "terrific struggle":

There are then two things to distinguish, first the particular faculty of mind to see things as they really are, and apart from the conventional ways in which you have been trained to see them. This is itself rare enough in all consciousness. Second, the concentrated state of mind, the grip over oneself which is necessary in the actual expression of what one sees.
                                                                          ("Romanticism and Classicism" 133)

The opposition of Imagism and Impressionism in terms of objectivism and subjectivism as is usual in taxonomies of these movements evaporates like so much mist if one actually attends to Hulme’s call for an "introspective" poetry, reflecting "momentary phases in the poet’s mind," aimed at "handing over sensations bodily." Those sensations have been experienced by a subject and are reported upon by a subject. Imagism as articulated by Hulme (and he not the "publicist" Pound [Coffman 5] is its primary theorist) is a continuation not a "corrective" (Trehearne 40) of the Impressionist aesthetic. And since Imagism presents "momentary phases in the poet’s mind," it can hardly help being "a frank expression of personality," which was Ford Madox Hueffer’s definition of "the Impressionist method in literature" (169). Pound balked at Impressionism in poetry, or at least at Impressionism in Hueffer’s poems. Pound contends that "Impressionism belongs in paint, it is of the eye": "[N]o impression, however carefully articulated, can, recorded, convey that feeling of sudden light which the works of art should and must convey" ("Book of the Month" 133). Hulme thought otherwise, but then so did Pound since he explained Imagism as "'poetry wherein the feelings of painting and sculpture are predominant'" (qtd. in Zinnes xvi), spoke of his own "In a Station of the Metro" as "my experience in Paris [which] should have gone into paint" ("Vorticism" 466), and explained its making as a record of that "precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective" ("Vorticism 467; emphasis added). As John T. Gage concludes, "distinguishing the objective from the subjective in imagist poetry" is next to impossible (130), which is not surprising since Hulme, in the generative stages of Imagism, called for a poetry of maximum visual truth, but it is a truth which is apprehended introspectively.

In his challenge to traditional poetic procedures—stanzas "shaped and polished like gems" ("Lecture on Modern Poetry" 71)—Hulme’s innovation follows the economy of painting: "Say the poet is moved by a certain landscape, he selects from that certain images which, put into juxtaposition in separate lines, serve to suggest and to evoke the state he feels" (73), which sounds very much like advice Cézanne was fond of giving: "‘Marry the curves of women to the shoulders of hills,’ . . . [a] dream of the plenitude of correspondence which obsessed him [Cézanne] for twenty years" until it was realized in his final version of Les Grandes Baigneuses (1904-06) (Blunden and Blunden 188). To this new "impressionist poetry," argued Hulme, regular metre would be "cramping, jangling, meaningless, and out of place" (74). Like the Impressionists’ innovative brush stroke (flecks, dabs), the loosened cadence would ensure that a poem transcribed in image and in rhythm the poet’s experience. The renovation of poetry—concrete language, juxtaposition, vers libre—Hulme hoped, would "hand over sensations bodily": "[P]oetry is an affair of the body" ("Cinders" 242). Sensualism characterizes both Impressionism and Imagism, distinguishing them from the spiritualism of the Symbolists. Moreover, Imagism, both the doctrine and the work, delivered to the twentieth century "the last universally valid European style" (Hauser 165). That is, the premises of Impressionism were so preserved in Imagism that Pound could assert that "painting or sculpture seems as if it were just coming over into speech " ("Vorticism" 462). Sometimes the Imagists themselves did not seem to know whether their productions were Imagism or Impressionism. Richard Aldington, reviewing Des Imagistes (1914), to which he himself had contributed, speaks of F.S. Flint as an "Impressionist": "I don’t say that he isn’t . He is, and the whole theory and practice of Imagism owe a great deal to him" (203).

This "negligible" body of poetry (a common dismissal of Imagist poems) would have attracted very little attention if it were not for the doctrine associated with it (Zach 230). This is a rather parochial view—limited probably to those poems published between Pound’s Ripostes (October 1912), which contained five of Hulme’s poems, and the last anthology, Some Imagist Poets (1917)—confining Imagism to two decades and to the London-Chicago axis. But what about what Imagism became in Canada? Nor does David Perkins in his succinct listing of the differences and similarities of Impressionism and Imagism (59) have in mind Canadian Imagism. Perkins’ discrimination of the Imagists’ "single objects" from the "Impressionist scape or scene" does not hold for Smith’s Imagist poems (Poems, New and Collected) where seven of the ten poems are scenes of interactive elements. Some people go so far as to say Imagism "was conceived in Canada" (Callaghan 4), in an encounter between Hulme and the Canadian landscape. Hulme had very little to say about his eight-month stay in Canada (Jones 22), but what he does say, in "Lecture on Modern Poetry," is of significance. In predicating that "Impressionism will soon find expression in poetry," Hulme speaks of his own compelling need to put his impression into verse: "[T]he first time I ever felt the necessity or inevitableness of verse, was in the desire to reproduce the peculiar quality of feeling which is induced by the flat spaces and wide horizons of the virgin prairie of western Canada" (72). It is Hulme, and not another Imagist, who makes the Canadian connection; and it is Hulme, and not a historian of Imagism, who conceived Imagism as Impressionism in verse.

Because light and atmosphere, not boats and buildings, were the Impressionists’ real subjects, they were first and foremost painters of nature. Poetic impressionism as practised by the English Decadents of the 1890s, on the other hand, favoured the urban, the man-made, and the artificial. The incense and perfume of the Decadents superseded the en plain air Impressionism of the painters. Even the Anglo-American Imagists, with the exception of H.D., favour the urban (Pound’s "In a Station of the Metro," Aldington’s "Evening"), or nature confined within garden walls, or exotic nature. A preciousness of sensibility, responding to the exotic, militates against that visual concentration prescribed by Hulme in his "Lecture." Or, the primacy of the visual is undermined by humanist, domestic, or romantic assertions, as it is in William Carlos Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow," "To Waken an Old Lady," and "Queen Anne's Lace." To read the Canadian Imagists, following the Anglo-Americans, is to re-enter a natural landscape, a landscape often without human referents, a wilderness of rock, wind, and trees. That Canadian Imagism deals in natural objects and elements (chiefly ice, snow, water) has to do, one supposes, with climate and geography. The climatic or elemental conditions that are often the subject of Canadian Imagism draw attention to the origins of Imagism in the earlier movement. In Impressionism, the viewer is hailed by the thing in flight, in change. Imagism "inherited" the fluid universe which Impressionism posited. The precision of the image in Canadian Imagism is invested with the transitoriness of the represented. Winter, the season of fleeting effects, intensifies Impressionism. It was for this reason, the French painters worked out their techniques for their new sense of light on winter landscapes (Friedrich 246). The elements in winter daily, or momentarily, reinscribe a landscape: contours are created or eroded "making all / new, for a time," observes Ross ("First Snow" 142). Snow and ice surfaces increase reflectivity and the uniform, though changing, surface of a winter landscape charges an object with untoward distinctness. Impressionism is suited to the mutability of the winter landscape, Imagism to its heightened, momentary, clarities. The sensibility of the Canadian Imagist is habituated to the effacement of form in a climate of continuous change. This requires of him (Scott, Smith or Ross) tenacity, rigour, and delicacy if he is to wrest an image from the fleeting. Not only in winter but "in all the seasons / the northern wind / is master here" (Ross, "Island with Trees" 51), and just as the trees "hold their place / with difficulty," so, too, the Imagist in effort strains to recover an image of an object, or a place, in perpetual flight. Rigorous is the eye that can see how it is all bent out of shape, in time, and in the elements. Toughness and fragility are the features of living forms in a landscape unremittingly northern; similar qualities are required of the beholder. Not only rigour but risk, Ross implies, is the price of the visual effort. The self is subjugated "Plunging," "diving" to sight:

Plunging into
the shining water
one will feel
a shock of coldness,
sudden, striking
his body's every
part, with the coldness
of northern water.

"Northern" is a condition of Ross’s Imagism, and of Smith’s and Scott’s for that matter. In a Canadian Forum article, Ross writes that "a poet places himself, as ‘poetic figure’ in a certain ambiance or poetic habitat which he colors emotionally . . . . This localizing is done if at all by the poet’s best work, almost in spite of himself . . ." ("On National Poetry" 88). Ross entitled the first section of Laconics (1930) "North"; these poems, his earliest, derive from his experience as a surveyor in Northern Ontario in the summers of 1912 and 1913 (Ross, letter to Gustafson 18 June 1957, Whiteman n.p.; Stevens 51). Decades later, writing to Gustafson, he would speculate, "Was my best ‘work’ really nearly my earliest? Seems so!" (27 Dec. 1960, Whiteman n.p.). In examining the early poems of the Laconics period, as collected by Souster and Colombo in the 1923-1929 section of Shapes and Sounds, this essay is interested not so much in geographical place as in Ross’s place in early twentieth-century poetics. This quality of ‘northness’ has, at any rate, been the focus of the few critical remarks on Ross’s poetry: "You define Canada’s northness" (Gustafson, letter to Ross, 7 July, 1944, Whiteman, n.p.). Ross himself did not like the exclusivity of this attention to his "‘native side’" (Stevens 43). Perhaps the most important thing about "North," the first section of Laconics, is Ross’s discovery of a form appropriate to his matter. As he said in a letter to Smith (14 April 1944), "I think success in verse is due largely to getting the right form for the right content, fitting them together to produce something with a new dimension, so to speak" (Darling 82): "The laconics [two-beat] form was developed in 1925 in an attempt to find one that would be ‘native’ and yet not ‘free verse,’ one that would be unrhymed and yet definitely a ‘form’. It never ‘clicked’ so well before or since as that night in 1928" (Ross, letter to Gustafson, 23 Sept. 1956, Whiteman n.p.).

Peter Stevens, finding the Imagist label a simplification of Ross’s verse (49), explores some of the technical aspects of the poetry—the way lines elaborate on or qualify the preceding line (44), the "effort to break down the sequential nature" of a poem through the use of columns (47), weighting each word with equal value and running the sense of words from line to line (48)—all of which contribute to Ross’s "search for simultaneity" (46). These technical aspects, and others that will be explored here, while not negating the Imagist label, emphasize the Impressionism in Ross’s Imagist poetry. Although his work manifests, as Trehearne says, "some conscious adoptation of Imagist principles" (22), Ross himself spoke diminishingly of at least two adoptive parents. Influence was received, he explains to Stevens, from "‘Williams somewhat adversely, Pound quite adversely’" (qtd. in Stevens 43). Identified as an Imagist, by anthologists from Smith in 1943 to Lecker and David in 1988, by critics Philip L. Gerber and Don Precosky ("the purest example of Imagism ever written by a Canadian" [168]), the work invites, as Stevens (49) and Trehearne (60-61) urge, something other than the Imagist label. Reading early Ross as an Imagist is not, however, the problem. The problem lies with the way we read Imagism, ignoring its roots in Impressionism.


Ross explored his world as to colour, light, and plane. There are poems of great delicacy such as "Butterfly" (14), "Wild Rose" (24), and "Minoan" (31), yet "majesty," or its synonym, "stateliness," occur inevitably in his presentation of natural objects, large and small. It would be easy to argue that Ross’s delicacy arises out of his awareness of the evanescence of the passing moment and that the majestic, contrarily, manifests an Imagist inclination to record "the specific gravity of things," as urged by Pound ("Book of the Month" 133), but that would be wrong. "[M]ajesty" inheres in the delicate and emerges, according to Ross, when sufficient attentiveness— eschewing "idleness," avoiding "lapse[s]" ("Lovers" 34)—is paid to the minute and to the passing. Although machines and buildings, soldiers and cities, appear, natural objects appear more frequently. Water is the most frequent element; its refractions and reflectivity fascinate him. Following a reading of Ross’s poetry, what one remembers is water—lakes and streams, ice and snow—but it is the values of light in water, "the semi-/ light of the water" ("Fish" 63), which draw Ross to water. Bodies of water, but especially streams winding, are everywhere in his poetry. The perpetual movement of the winding stream is linked to the stream of time, and these movements, fluid and temporal, are repeated on a smaller scale in the "wandering / / course" of a butterfly (14) or in the paths of a fish "among mysterious / recesses / there in the semi- / light of the water . . ." (63). The repetition of images in the structures of nature—the silhouette of the tree repeated on the water surface, the shadow of the fish cast by the moving fish—is echoed in Ross’s poetic method of presentation and re-presentation of an object in successive stanzas. Through this strategy, one of many, Ross invests his image with the transitoriness, or fluidity, which is inherent in the object even as his poem fixes the image. The poet’s perception, because it will result in a fixed image, occurs at an intersection to all this movement. There is, as a result, an acute awareness of junctures—surface and depth, terror and beauty—as if the poet pitches forward into the movement, within which the object exists. Whether close-focused on an object or sweeping a scene, this is a poetry of stringent selectivity. Selectivity issues formally in gnomic poems of cropped lines. Arguably these features follow the Imagist practice: "Ross uses it [‘the typically shortened line of the Imagists’] religiously . . ." (Trehearne 29), but the deft short line practised by the Imagists is itself a translation of Impressionist technique (its flecks, its dabs) into poetic form. As Herbert Howarth explains, "The English poets [of the 1890s] found it hard to assimilate Impressionism because, unlike the novelists, they were over-attached to the prevailing forms . . . . Eventually two Americans, Pound and Eliot, with some help perhaps from T.E. Hulme, did what had to be done, and Impressionism produced its belated effects in English poetry" (45). That is, the Imagist form manages the Impressionist gesture. Understandably then, selectivity in Ross’s poetry results not in thinness of scene but in an aery effect, or, alternatively, in an object, though small and delicate, of commanding presence. There is a curious largeness in minuteness. Individual images have monumental presence.

In two ways in particular Ross’s Imagism manifests Impressionism. His placement of words in building an image mimics the painter’s use of brushstrokes (this accounts for the solidity which accrues to an object, making it appear monumental), and the objects which he images, the shapes and sounds, exist in light. Since the movement of water, especially as it is augmented by the play of light on water and in water, fascinated Ross, the examination of light and sight in his poetry is, also, an encounter with water. His phrasal patterning, the placement of words, will be examined after light, in the afterlight of his attention to the visual. Ross’s few poems on death (few in comparison with the quantities written by Smith on this subject) establish an equivalency between vital living and an awareness of light; the "sun" is, after all, "master of / light and of / living" ("Sun" 54). For Ross, death is a lapse in attentiveness; death, or a death-like existence, "curves / mouldering / out of the / mouths of our / idleness" ("Lovers" 34). To be a lover of "stars and the / light" is the opposite of death and of "aesthetic sloth" (Traherne 32). "Death Nearing" (41) is light diminishing, a visual dimming. Light and new life, according to Ross, lay westward; but the advice in the prescriptive "Pacific" (32):

Face to the
new and the
light, not
back to the
old and the
. . . .

adventitiously "reproduces" Cézanne’s proscription, "‘We must render the image of what we see, forgetting everything that existed before us’" (qtd. in Nochlin 95; emphasis mine). For Ross the past, the old, and the East, are fog-bound ("War" 33); light and life are west of Europe, are everywhere around him.

The specializing of vision in Ross’s attentiveness to light results in a subordination of other sensual experiences; that is, the experiences of other senses are brought into the orbit of the eye. "Hold it / in the eye" ("Sphere" 53), he enjoins, and "it will give you / back the sun." Just as sounds, in Ross’s poetry, take on shape, and odour has depth ("Pine Odour" 27), so, too, thought behaves like sight.

dangerously                              thought
peers                             into crevices
behind veils,
into the strangenesses
of the world
. . . .                               ("Thought" 43)

Intellection, as well as varieties of sensual experience, is translated into the optical.

"The Diver" is a programme for poetry. As air is the Impressionists’ element, so water is Ross’s. He would leave the "White and ordinary of the day" for

                       the green
Of the water seen from within,
A strange light
Streaming past my eyes—

"[W]ater seen from within" is the topography of an Imagist poetic. But Ross was not only an Imagist "writing from within the object," he was also an Impressionist for whom the autonomy of the visual—that absolute fidelity to things seen—opened onto terror as well as to beauty. Sight-driven thought discovers "the strangenesses / of the world" ("Thought").

The most ordinary things seem unusual, as if one were seeing through an unfamiliar medium, when presented by Ross. Ripples in Ross’s poetry break the "smooth surface" of appearance. His way of seeing, accentuated by flatness of statement, interrogates one’s customary way of seeing. Much of what he describes—scene or object—occurs at some juncture between stability and change. Describing a pre-dawn excursion with his father to the narrows in "Over the Water" he remarks:

A chill we felt
the coldness sinking
before the dawn;
it was yet dark;
then, in the twilight,
the islands, the trees,
wan, colourless,
though green by day.

A ripple in light, as eerie as the diver's element, occurs between pure dark and "green by day."

A diver forsaking the "mild air" and "comfortable shore," Ross risked "[t]hings hostile" (36) for his oblique vision. Not, one supposes, a dive one would often want to make. The trope of risk— "Things hostile; / You cannot stay here, they seem to say"— explains, perhaps, why there are so few poems. The recurrence of paired options (the shallows and the depths, surface and descent, shore and lake) suggests a psychic as well as a natural landscape as if Ross were aware of the danger of staying too long in the "strange light / Streaming past my eyes" (36). However brief his forays, he gained in that light a lucidity. He set standards.

Ross’s methodology, the presentation and re-presentation of an object in a single poem approaches the inwardness, or the inscape as Gerard Manley Hopkins would say, of an object. Openness to the sensual experience

Springing               into
bloom the flower
alarms          striking
terror into minds
having denied this
        ("The Flower" 66)

and the willingness to fully experience it involves, as "The Diver" suggests, some risk. The Cézanne-like "Flowers" (60) pulsates with colour, the whirling colours imploding, ultimately, into a single field, the "one / garden," of colour that is grasped not carefully, not sequentially, but spatially:

revolving                 in the sun
spinning                   colours
colours                      yellow
red                              and blue
and yellow

Flowers spinning in the sun
make the garden make one
garden in the sun.

upon stalks              rotating
red                               brick-coloured
blood-coloured      blue
yellow and pink

Flowers rotating in the sun
make the garden make one
garden             in the sun.

The poet is nowhere here because he is everywhere subsumed— revolving/ whirling—within what he sensually apprehends. Not by gardeners but by light is "the one garden" created, and only the "new visual art," Imagism emerging from Impressionism, as advocated by Hulme in "A Lecture on Modern Poetry," could "hand over sensations bodily" ("Romanticism and Classicism" 134). The "explosiveness" of "Flowers" and the trope of risk in "The Diver" render superfluous any appraisal of the degree of subjectivism in Ross’s Imagism since subjectivism is so obviously present, a fact remarked upon by Marianne Moore, as long ago as 1931, when she spoke of the scientific "veracity" of Laconics "enhanced by the considering conscience which feels as well as sees" (281). Gage, speaking generally of Imagist poetry, goes further, exploding entirely alleged Imagist objectivity: Imagists "seemed to want to make it [subjectivity] a ‘thing’ to be treated by poetry" (134).

Ross writes at the juncture of immobility and motion, the point where the impression is gathered. "Curving, the Moon" is a familiar Ross landscape of sky, shore, water, and reflectivity. His obsession with reflective surfaces renders the moon, of all heavenly bodies, particularly interesting to him.

Curving, the moon
over the mirror lake;
the new moon
thinly curving
over the lake.

Below, the pine
standing dark and tall,
through its black
topmost branches
the curved limb
of the new moon.

Rising, it leaps from the ground,
the dark pine
on the shore
of mirror-lake.

Is it a breeze?
No sound from the pine,
but on the water
a long shadow

The hard etched tree, a single pine, and the scimitar-like thinly curved moon of this poem are images of clarity and definition—an imagist ideal—but these are entangled in one another. In fact, a transposition occurs: the "curved limb" (unexpectedly) belongs to the moon, not to the tree, and whereas the moon is immobilized in the tangle of branches, the tree appears, in this moment of perception, to be "Rising." Fidelity to perception, if not to established fact, makes it appear so. Everything in the poem works against stasis: the participles—"Curving," "standing," "Rising"—indicate all is in motion. What is solid is not still. The pine "moon-illuminated / on the shore" and doubled in the water seems simple enough, but the stability of the scene is interrogated. In the "mirror-lake," ‘’a long shadow / ripples," but there is no wind, "No sound from the pine." Reflection does not follow fact. It is as if the reflecting world—the mirror world—generates the coastal world of lakeshore and sky above. So dubious a reality is spooky. The reality which Ross sees and presents "curves" away from what one casually "remembers" when one hears the words moon, tree, lake. The Imagist who is an Impressionist underscores, in "Curving, the Moon," the unlikelihood of ever disentangling this from that, of ever knowing anything in itself as fixed or finished. And whereas Hulme requires of the Imagist "the particular faculty of mind to see things as they really are" and "the concentrated state of mind [to express] what one sees," the Impressionist finds "things as they really are" to be oscilliating and unfixed. The site of writing then is not, as stated, the juncture of stability and change, but, rather, it is the observer's intersection with infinite changeability.

Although Ross’s is most often the close view of an object or the view from within, occasionally it is overview. On these occasions exactitude is waived for the visionary experience, and the speaker seems to be a first visitor to the hills and valleys of earth. Seen from above, "From a hill top," the view of the woods and the valley is "new foliage, glistening" and "Flames [of ‘dense-grouped dandelion’] breaking patch-wise through / / From inner suns beneath the soil" ("View" 46). Ross communicates his sense of a flowing, fluid universe, here and elsewhere, through an abundant use of participles. Not only is the sense of sight sensualized—"Meadows soft to walk upon, / Deep with fresh grass" (italics mine)—but sight, as fluid as the universe itself, penetrates the layers, or planes, of the scene, descending through foliage and meadows to "inner suns beneath the soil." When view becomes vision, the surface view of earth discloses depth. Similarly in "Night Scene" (17), as Trehearne remarks, there are "details that the viewing eye cannot provide" as Ross imagines "actions beneath the visual plane" (57).

A "View" was not published in the 1930 Laconics and one can see why; its visionary quality seems to forecast a later Ross, the spiritualist of "poems written between nineteen-thirty and the ‘fifties" (Matthews 178), the author of "Distillates," published by Ralph Gustafson in Canadian Accent (1944), the Ross interested in surrealism (Ross, letter to Gustafson, 11 Oct. 1943, Whiteman n.p.)—areas of interest, Gavin Matthews argues, established as early as 1927 (13), contemporaneous with Ross’s Laconics landscapes (210). None the less the attention to depth of view, in this poem, is consistent with Ross’s early, and persistent, interest in the shapes, not just the surfaces, of things.

Shapes and sounds,
We know them well. They are our
Companions daily marching
Along with us.

Whether he is writing about his beloved bodies of water or about city buildings, Ross apprehends things as they take in light, reflect light, exist in light—

Great surfaces
glitter and sparkle
in the light
of the setting sun,
myriads of windows
all glowing,—
fire darting
from eyes of glass
("Skyscrapers" Laconics 27)

but Ross is not interested in atmospheric effects only; his poetic procedure articulates solidity of form, the shapes of things. If one were to liken Ross to a painter, it would be to Cézanne, who although he practised the theories of colour and light that the Impressionists developed, moved on, after the third Impressionist exhibition (1877), to use colour as a means of modelling the underlying forms of visible objects. "With Cézanne colour is form . . .particles of colour create the forms of objects" (McCall 6). Cézanne, like other Impressionists, began with the petite sensation, but through his colour masses he revealed structure beneath the richly nuanced impressionist surface (Rewald 558). Looking at Cézanne’s pictures, it is best to be in Rilke’s company (Letters on Cézanne) because for Rilke, Cézanne was the "supreme example": "‘I followed his traces everywhere’" (vii). Cézanne, Rilke said, moved beyond mere representation: "[W]hatever is present is utterly and urgently present" (3) because, as Cézanne remarked, "when colour has its greatest richness then form has its plenitude" (Murray and Murray 86). Ross used words, his "particular means," as Cézanne used colour, to build the mass of an object, so that even the most fragile object—the "Butterfly," the "One Leaf," the "Flower"—expresses its "plenitude."

"[G]rowing in / stateliness," what Ross said of "Blue Flowers" (35), appropriately describes the conversion of object to image in a Ross poem. If what Ross describes are things in their evanescence— a wild rose on the brink of unbalance, the careening flight of a butterfly, a bird poised for flight—the density, which accrues to the object in presentation, contributes "stateliness." This is the paradox of the Impressionist’s act. Rendering the fleeting impression, and that is all that is possible in changeability, confers a durability which is not inherent in the object. The aesthetic object (the image) does not, however, surpass the natural; that would be decadence. Not only does Ross (paradoxically) memorialize an object, his image also monumentalizes the object. "Blue Flowers," like the absolutely simple gesture, "we / collected a / handful," is a form of homage to

Blue flowers
by the road
growing in
many together
. . . .            (35)

A strict but unspectacular language arrests the "majesty" of lights ("Grant's Tomb, N.Y." 28), the "stateliness" of flowers.


In Ross’s poetry not only is personal comment sheared away, but language itself is pared back, stretching the capacity of the individual word, where so few words are used, for exact notation. Word by word, phrase by phrase, a shape emerges. There is an economy of syntax in this poetry that accounts for the immediacy and first-time freshness of perceptions. Ross uses words not to describe but to see a world; that is because, for Ross, the word is instrumental in revealing the world. The word does not follow sensation; it enables sensation. In a poem somewhat later (1939) than the ones being examined here he wrote,

The word resumes its power
its old integrity
and I can feel and see.
                ("The Word" 111)

"The Word" echoes (unintentionally) Hulme’s "Each word must be an image seen" ("Notes on Language and Style" 79), but Ross effects a turn on Hulme’s command: Ross conflates the acts of word-finding and seeing so that words are instrumental not in an after-seeing report, but in the very act of perception. For Ross, language is perception. That being so, attention not only to his words but also to his syntax is requisite.

So slight are the snowladen branches of "Winter Scene" (25) that it hardly seems a "scene," but the poem is not about a street scene. Winter is colour and texture, and colour is not merely adjectival. The phrasal foregrounding of colour distinguishes blackness and whiteness:

Black of the
branches and
white of the
snow that is
upon them—

In the second stanza, the prosaic re-presentation of the scene positions the speaker relative to the scene and allows for a further refinement in perception:

There I see
by the street
trees with
snow on their

light, not
heavy with
liquid to

Black of the
branches but
white of the

The strategy of "There I see" establishes the transitoriness of what is seen. The slight variation between the first and the final stanza (the change from "and" to "but") is a perceptual shift. What Ross sees finally is not what he saw moments before. Temporality is inscribed. The third stanza texturalizes the snow, and the word "light," so protean in Ross’s stringent vocabulary, establishes the composition of snow "not / heavy . . . to / bending."Often in a Ross poem the object itself disappears in a rapid notation of characteristics. Stanza three focuses upon attributes: the object (the snow) emerges in a notation of characteristics. The procedure parallels the Impressionist’s rendering of an object through flecks of primary colour so that the object must be inferred from the colour area. "‘[T]he greatest difficulty,’" Pissarro said, "‘is not to give the contour in detail, but to paint what is within’" (qtd. in Friedrich 247). Snow here is a composition of what it is and is not: "New-fallen, / light, not / heavy . . . to / bending[.]" An exact sense of weight—or in this case, weightlessness—attaches to whiteness in this "Winter Scene." No matter what the momentary sensation, Ross’s evocation of it is accomplished through a deft manipulation of syntax. The weaving of equally weighted phrases in "Pine Odour" (27) creates a dense atmosphere of "rarest sense" through a crucial positioning of preposition and comparative. There is a similar density—of sound this time—in "Grant’s Tomb, N.Y." (28). The senses are nuanced to spatial depth: listening is a response to lights.

Rows of high
lights in the
night we
saw and we
felt overwhelmed

Then by the
sound, by the
roar of the

What fills the poem is the roar of lights: seeing lights, "we / felt overwhelmed" by sound. Sound, like sight, monumentally fills a poem. Sound is keyed to light. Silence is unimaginable, and even the absence of sound ("If Birds Are Silent" 58) issues in a cryptic sensual report, a synaesthesia of moving sound and audible light: "metallic clamour, / silver-clear, / along with dawn / must strike our ear."

Whereas noun plus prepositional phrase (rarely adjectives) report a world "I can feel and see"—the precise colour and texture of "Winter Scene," for example—they also create an aery effect. In "Skyscrapers, N.Y." (29) the aery/aerial effect is achieved by the placement and repetition of the phrasal structure so that the sight, twice described, is, each time, distant and mesmeric.

Lightness of
colour and
magic of
spires of the

clear in the
light of the
. . . .       (29)

The elision, in the second stanza, of the name of the object (the towers) augments the impression of the radiance which plays on the surface of towers. More importantly, the unpossessed effect—"crystalline / clear"—distinguishes the sensory effect of the object rather than the object itself. This is even more obvious in "Warm Day" (37) where the bird is "Hotness / Poised / / Upon these wings to soar." In Ross’s poetry, when the noun-name, the conceptual tag, of a thing disappears, the object is recovered from habit, sensualized and new-experienced. The bird, unnamed in the final stanza, although the stanza describes its elegant flight,

Upon these wings to soar
rising out of the heat
and the bright dust
and the silent song

is what, on a "Warm Day," awaits, in tremulous poise and silence, the "sudden . . . / wave of coolness." The "soar[ing]," "rising," and now-singing bird—an entire sensual world—comes into focus not because it is named, but because it remains unnamed. Whereas Scott would give new names to the stars ("New Names" 14), Ross would shimmy beneath the name to the thing itself, to what it is made up of. Seeing "Stars" (44) "glittering afar / each point of light," he rehearses the beautiful syllables of

Names Arabian               those old
astronomers                     saw

recognizing that the premiere act of seeing is an act of naming, but if one is to see freshly, one must subvert the habits of language: experience without names. Not only stanzas but whole poems avoid naming the object. In "Ripples" (124) the body of water is unnamed, its shape of little importance. Whatever its contours, or outline, this rippling surface is

a shining
region of
light that has
fallen from
high up,
. . . .        (124)

If the world is continually re-written by light, what is the point of fixing an object with a name? Effects, not objects, are primary in Ross’s poetry; sensational effects bring an object closer than any name could. Ross’s preference for the phrasal structure ("Lightness of colour," "black of the branches") over the adjective and his elision of the name of an object in a stanza or in an entire poem are strategies of recuperation. Colour, texture, weight are the raw materials of experience. Refusing to reproduce objects by signs, Ross, like the Impressionists, "represents them through their components, through parts of the material of which they are made up" (Hauser 161). Economy and exactitude he shares with other Imagists, but the above-named strategies are his alone. Ross is totally involved with the world he presents, although his tone is reserved and unsentimental. There is, however, a restrained sense of the miraculous, obvious, for example, in a poem such as "Wild Rose" (24), which, observes Trehearne, "unites the form ideally with the sensation he wishes to convey" (34). With no defence against its own ephemerality, the petal is a marvel of continuance since "lightest of / pressure," as, for example, the light which invests it, might "unbalance" this delicacy. Ross remarks the aptitude for change in natural phenomenon:

is the light
petal of
wild rose that
stands by the

Fragile and
lightest of
pressure will

Faintest of
touches will
start from its
base this light
petal of
wild rose

fragile and
apt to be
swept away

The miraculous is often an effect of light, as in the "glory / of the stars" ("As We Drifted" 22) and the "majesty" of lights ("Grant’s Tomb: N.Y." 28). In "Minoan" (31), a poem which allows one to examine at once his fascination with light and his phrasal strategy, it is clear that the "fantastic" is a visual experience. In this poem either Ross gazes upon a picture in which the foreground foliage frames the men and women within, or else an actual scene, a tree-enclosed garden, presents itself like a picture. In either case, "we / see with . . . foliage" the figures deeper in the scene.

Here in a
garden we
see with a

Trees and their
leaves. O how
light and

Faces of
men and of
women there
figures of

All in the
garden they
move among

Ross’s placement of the simplest words compels one to shift one’s sense of the picture with each succeeding line. Not until lines seven-eight is it clear that one sees trees with leaves of "delicate / foliage," but by then one is accustomed to seeing with a delicate foliage as if one were seeing through foliage, as one would through mist or fog or smoke. So "deft-drawn" is this garden that one sees faces because they are there, or because there is an apparition of presence? Do trees, leaved in delicate foliage appear to be, seem to be, the bodies of men and women moving? That this is a poem about seeing is clear from its structure: lines are arranged so that we move deeper and deeper into the "picture." First there are the "Faces of / men" and in a moment later, faces "of / women there / also" and then, more appreciatively still, "figures of / women." Ross’s familiar construction—faces of men, [faces] of women, figures of women— crowds the scene. In the depth of the picture there is the confederate moving of leaf and figure so that men and women have the delicacy of "delicate / foliage." Based perhaps on a drawing of the lost Minoan civilization of Crete, "Minoan" demonstrates how Ross, through his phrasal patterns, gives a depth of presence to what is fragile.

The most ordinary of objects were the angels—as Rilke uses that word—of Ross’s world. The structural columns of "Good Angels" (61) have nothing to do with ranks of seraphim or cherubim in some heavenly architecture. The poem proposes in its serried columns the awareness requisite in any viewer who is to catch the simultaneity of pause and flight, apprehend the object in its evanescence. The columns, which work together or separately, represent, says Peter Stevens, one aspect of Ross’s search for simultaneity" (47, 46).

Good                            angels
angels                          pausing
pause                           a moment
they remain              do not fly
still a                            away
moment                      away now
If they shall               perhaps
remain                        more than
a moment                  more than
If angels                     momentarily—
If they should           remain
more than                 a moment—
But no                          no
they do not                do not remain
more than                  momentarily
Good angels             pause
touch                            a moment
then pass                    pass
are gone                     are gone

In his poetry Ross struggled to bestow perenniality on objects, or angels, that "momentarily / pause" and "are gone." He ‘’[c]ompelled [them] into shapes that are lasting" ("The Metals" 16). Although John Sutherland (and after him, A.R. Kizuk, more persuasively) finds "spiritual existences" in the "living light that flows through and over the earth" in Ross’s poetry (Sutherland 163), it is not necessary to spiritualize the really rather ordinary light of Ross’s early poems just because he saw—in ways that others cannot—the objects within that light "set free from the hiding scale of habit," as Smith so aptly put it (280). Because of his uncompromising "fidelity to objects," Ross memorialized the "life in every object," which, according to Howarth, is what an Impressionist does (41). Like the Impressionist-influenced Rilke, Ross probably felt "we are here in order to say: house, / bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window "("The Ninth Elegy"), and Ross said the object not by signs but through effects.

Trehearne discriminates Imagism from Impressionism by way of the Poundian Image (metaphor by juxtaposition), in Imagism’s depiction of stasis, and in the appearance of objectivity in Imagism (46-47, 49). Approaching Ross’s poetry with these criteria, one finds no Poundian Image, but then as Trehearne concedes, "many of the Anglo-American Imagist poets developed techniques and structures that had nothing to do with Pound’s Image" (49). Stasis is not a characteristic of Ross's world, and even the "significantly few" (51) poems—"Wild Rose" and "Curving, the Moon"—which, Trehearne argues, render or "enforce" stasis (50), are, in fact, images of mobility ("Curving") and ephemerality ("Wild Rose"). In Ross, objectivity is inflected with personality, as it is in the Impressionist (Kronegger 13, 72) and as it is in the Imagist (Gage 134). Selectivity is itself subjective since, as Gage points out, it "exhibits a poet’s attitude toward the subject" (137). It is no more possible to say where Imagism begins and Impressionism ends in Ross than it is to locate an historical moment when Imagism turned away from Impressionism. A conflictual relationship between Imagism and Impressionism is as unsupported by Hulme (speaking of Impressionist painting) as it is supported by Pound (speaking of literary Impressionism), and even Pound is not always steady, let alone polemical, in maintaining the distinction. If there is little, or no, conflict, there is inheritance; and that is what we want to understand. Ross helps us.

Ross is extraordinarily perceptive about the natural world, and even the urban he naturalizes in light. He went to nature as the Impressionists did and as the Imagists less frequently did. Ross "remembers" the Impressionist heritage in Imagism more than other Imagist poets because he more than relates "an actually realized visual object before him in which he delighted" (Hulme, "Romanticism and Classicism" 273). His techniques of presentation and re-presentation, his phrasal patterning, the use of noun phrase rather than adjective or possessive case, and his erasure of the conceptual (and limiting) name of an object seem to bring the object into being, conferring, as it were, existence upon it, so that it exists as if seen for the first time, named for the first time. Summoning the sensations he feels before the object, he evokes with a first-time freshness the very inwardness of it and gives it, through these measures, perenniality. This is what distinguishes his Imagism from Smith's, who is interested in analytical relationships, and unlike both Scott and Smith, Ross does not intellectualize or interpret the image. Smith explicates "The Lonely Land": "This is the beauty / of strength / broken by strength / and still strong" (38-39), and Scott interprets "Trees in Ice": "this cruelty is a formal loveliness / on a tree's torn limbs / this glittering pain" (17). Ross remains "within the object," but as "The Diver" so succinctly illustrates that inwardness is "A strange light / Streaming past my eyes "(36). "Surely all art," Rilke observes in his second letter on Cézanne, "is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end . . . . The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes . . ." (4). Ordinary objects, in Ross’s poetry, are capable of "striking / terror into minds" (66); but all objects are extraordinary in this poetry. The new-world freshness of Ross’s poetry is a matter of sensibility not geography. Ross rid himself of concepts to see: "[A]nd suddenly one has the right eyes . . ." (Rilke 43). In identifying the kind of poetry that W.W.E. Ross wrote, one needs to affix a hyphen to "Imagist" and add "Impressionist," which implies not a contradiction but a complementarity of the kind Hulme imagined when, early in this century, he called for a poetry which would express what had already been expressed in Impressionism.


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