Review of Cecil Day Lewis, The Poetic Image.

[“The Poetic Image.” Review article on Cecil Day Lewis, The Poetic Image. Queen's Quarterly 54 (1947): 486-97.]


“At one time I was inclined to take the extreme position”, wrote T. S. Eliot in 1923, “that the only critics worth reading were the critics who practised, and practised well, the art of which they wrote.  But I had to stretch this frame to make some important inclusions…  And the most important qualification which I have been able to find, which accounts for the peculiar importance of the criticism of practitioners, is that a critic must have a very highly developed sense of fact.”  The facts upon which an understanding of the nature and operation of the creative imagination can be based are still very scanty; and all, or nearly all, of them are to be found in poets’ accounts of their own experience of poetry.  One therefore takes up each new critical utterance of a poet with something of excitement, to see what fresh facts he has added to that slender store upon which any acute criticism must be based and to which the careful critic constantly returns in his attempt to grasp the complex processes behind every effort to “turn blood into ink”.

Further, a poet’s critical reflections upon his own art carry unique authority because he is often able to transfer to criticism that special faculty of the artist which Herbert Read calls “the innocent eye”: the direct non-professorial perception which is at once naïve and highly cultivated.  Mr. Lewis is not prepared to sacrifice that prerogative of the poet as critic when he enters that “very curious country… [where] the butterflies are pinned upon the flowers, and every flower is labeled; [where the poets] are now for ever being made to stand on weighing-machines, or to pound all over the landscape in schools, with the purposeful gait of hikers, clouds of footnotes swirling at their heels.”  His book is not a wholesale tirade against academic critics, or it would be much less charming and provocative than it is.  But he does imply an axiom which cannot be too often repeated: that the criticism of poetry is concerned with poems, and with poems as living, organic manifestations of profound human experience.

Mr. Lewis chose the poetic image as his theme in order to “throw light upon the poetry of our own time”, and to show this poetry (as he believes modern criticism has failed to do) “in perspective with the great vistas of the English poetic tradition.”  We are familiar enough with the critics who “inflate a pet theory to superhuman proportions and walk into the room behind it” and with those others who indulge the nervous habit of quibbling over external minutiae.  Mr. Lewis’s theme, however, is directed towards that central critical problem of assessing the vitality and wholeness of single poems by some single principle of judgement.  Starting from the premise that “the image is the constant in all poetry, and every poem is itself an image”, his book suggests a basis upon which the whole scope of English poetry can be seen in perspective, without, for the sake of a theory, raising the value of one group or age by depressing another.

In the first three chapters the poetic image is discussed in general terms under the titles ‘The Nature of the Image’, ‘The Field of Imagery’, and ‘The Pattern of Images’.  “The poetic image is the human mind claiming kinship with everything that lives or has lived, and making good that claim.”  Recognizing the inadequacy of any merely verbal definition of the term ‘image’, Mr. Lewis sketches out his comprehensive meaning by illustrative quotations drawn from English poetry down to the early nineteenth century.  He finds that “if there is any essential in imagery, it is not boldness, or intensity, but congruity – that the image should be congruous with the passionate argument and also with the form of the poem.”  He then examines the imagination, “the faculty which creates or transmits poetic images”.  A study of image-patterns suggests to him that the poetic truth is “struck out by the collision rather than the collusion of images” – a point later amplified in considering Dylan Thomas’s own account of his method of composition.

Having thus cleared the ground, Mr. Lewis, in his fourth chapter, examines the question of specifically modern imagery.  The contemporary poet’s preoccupation with images is a sign of the “effort to elucidate and control the modern scene, the modern situation.  Metaphor is the natural language of tension, of excitement, because it enables a man by a compressed violence of expression to rise to the level of the violent situation which provokes it.”  The last two chapters examine the aims and limitations of contemporary poetry; and the book closes with an impassioned address to future poets.  In these chapters we find also a detailed scrutiny of Dylan Thomas’s After the Funeral, of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Harry Ploughman, and of a surrealist poem by George Barker – valuable illustrations of the scope and sensitiveness of the ‘image-critique’.  The three introspective accounts of poetic composition, written by Stephen Spender, Dylan Thomas, and Mr. Lewis himself, though published before, will be new to many readers.  In this highly compressed book a number of cognate topics are touched upon, the whole enlivened by an extensive reading of modern criticism.  The style is clear and forceful, epigrammatic without arrogance.  Using a vocabulary from which he has “tried to weed out every piece of that critical jargon which, whether it springs from mental indolence or is a subtle form of egotism, does so much to deter the intelligent reader”, he handles his theme with engaging freshness.

If there is one point at which one would quarrel with Mr. Lewis it is with regard to the very limited meaning he attaches to the word ‘symbol’.  “An intense image is the opposite of a symbol”, he writes.  “A symbol is denotive; it stands for one thing only, as the figure 1 represents one unit.  Images in poetry are seldom purely symbolic, for they are affected by the emotional vibrations of their context o that each reader’s response to them is apt to be modified by his personal experience.”  But what do symbols do in poetry?  Are not words symbols?  Or are words symbols in prose and images in poetry, as Hulme suggests?  Mr. Lewis does not pose any of these questions; and when he later discusses the difference between private images and private symbols the distinction is not quite clear.  There is no reason why the word ‘symbol’ should not be given a precise meaning for his critical purpose; but the word has already accumulated a complicated (vague, if you like) connotation which can be stripped away only by careful definition.  Any Pythagorean, or a singer of Green Grow the Rushes O, knows that even numerals are not purely denotive symbols.  There is indeed, as Mr. Lewis shows, a wide gap between the purely arbitrary private symbol and the most esoteric image; but that is not the only meaning of the word ‘symbol’.  An elementary confusion occurs when on the one hand Mr. Lewis elevates the image at the expense of the symbol, and on the other cites the Symbolists as striking exponents of the modern use of image.  In one place he uses Rylands’ phrase “consecrated images”, for the images of the few great fundamental objects to which a rich and immediate response can be expected from every reader – words like moon, rose, hills, West.  It is a meaning of this sort that one would wish to attach to the word ‘symbol’; using if possible a separate word for the private symbol.  A symbol, one might say, is representative, whereas an image is evocative.  But the etymology of the word ‘symbol’ suggests that a symbol is the focus of a complex of abstract meanings.  If we consider the symbols of fertility, immortality, suffering, in the whole range of religion, we see that none of them is denotive, implying one meaning and no other.  The force of these symbols lies in their power to evoke richly.  The symbol, in that sense, is ‘consecrated’, not by its religious context only, but by its recurrence in the general consciousness, in that residual storehouse of human memory laid up through the whole history of man.  Compared with symbols of this kind, the poetic image in general is unspecialised, and not ‘consecrated’ unless it approach the force of the great symbols that have grown up in the ‘archetypal patterns’ of human experience.  This is not the place to consider the symbol-image distinction in detail.  The absence of such a distinction in his book does not damage Mr. Lewis’s argument.  Still, it is a regrettable simplification, but for which he might have considered the possibility of a symbol-image counterpoint in addition to the image-counterpoint he notes in Dylan Thomas’s poems, and the interplay of independent rhetorical and musical rhythms which Herbert Read has noticed in the poetry of Donne.

Mr. Lewis’s view that poetry recreates the patterns of reality, that it is essentially man-centred, bearing “the mould and stamp of human need, human circumstance, human virtue”, prevents him from defending at large the presence in some contemporary verse of thoughtlessness, incoherence, or the quasi-photographic method of surrealism.  For the poet merely to mirror some aspect of experience in its chaotic primordial state is not to give a picture of the reality; for man is at the centre of reality, and whatever fails to rouse response from the human desire for wholeness, for a single unified conception, is, humanly speaking, not real.  The task of the poet, the child of solitude and haunter of the crowded places of life, is to rip the rind of life’s inscrutability.  He explores the reality underlying and transcending human experience by presenting to experience a white consciousness, the integrated sensibility; the sensibility and emotions concentrated and delicately attuned, the intellect and emotions linked to inform each other.

From this view of contemporary poetry Mr. Lewis explains the persistent metaphysical vein in modern poetry.  Although social forces have tended to drive contemporary poetry back into the hedgehog of ‘pure poetry’, bringing upon it attenuation and rarefaction, poetry can fulfil a valuable function in society.  But if the poet in practising his art does not provide nostrums to palliate the world’s ills, that is because in the act of composition “the consciousness of also being responsible for the solution of a major modern problem would be altogether too discouraging”.  A poem is a feat of momentary integration, not capable of specific or political exploitation.  It exerts its power through individuals, integrating and revivifying (perhaps only momentarily) the reader who can tap the vitality of the poem.  Whether or not poets will continue to satisfy this function in society is, in Mr. Lewis’s view, uncertain, because of the decay of the power of response in the public and the limits imposed on the poet by the impoverishment of the general imagination.  The very forces of social change which make the spread of poetry a most urgent need, have also driven a wedge between the poet and his reader.  The poets, the antennae of society, may be able to heal the schism; but not by any conscious or studious effort to do so.  Modern poetry is a much more limited mode than the earlier tradition of English poetry; but the requirements of a poet are the same: integrity, concentration, and infinite patience.  “Look inward then, but outward too no less steadily”, Mr. Lewis advises the poets unborn; “for the virtues which unite mankind in families and societies are themselves variations of that single theme which also unifies your disjointed memories and warring moods to make a poem.”

It remains to consider what help Mr. Lewis’s book gives us in solving the practical problems of criticising and reading poetry.

From the nature of the case criticism has always been preponderantly subjective, but it has always yearned for an objectivity based upon fact.  Two broad attempts to achieve objectivity have produced unhappy, even deleterious, results.  They fail because they are directed upon analytically distinguished elements, and because these elements are too far removed from the root of the matter.  Source-criticism, from whose prudish influence we are only now emerging, had determined for itself no clear notion of the nature and limitations of literary influence, and was referred to no adequate account of the creative imagination.  The older and more persistent method, of dividing poetry into categories and judging individual poems (or more often poets) by their conformity to some category or other, worked with a spurious pretence of scientific technique.  In delineating the categories, however, the data are usually mangled and truncated to fit the theory; and the method breaks down because poets capriciously refuse to confirm to academic notions of consistency.  This method is especially pernicious because, being endemic in the nature of prose-language and rational thought, it seems axiomatic.  The critic must go behind this almost impenetrable crust of rational projection to determine what are real categories and what are not.  That leads to nothing less than a decision upon the nature of reality before the critic can consider the relation between poetry and reality and the way in which poetry can ‘recreate reality’.

Professor I. A. Richards’ work of nearly twenty-five years ago, bringing the resources of modern psychology to bear upon the problems of criticism, has cleared the air.  But behind all the scientific paraphernalia and the repulsive jargon (for which he himself apologizes) the basis of judgement was still largely subjective.  Many indeed suspected that he had done little more than substitute the word ‘integrated’ for the obsolescent word ‘good’.  But his method, of assessing a poem by the reader’s whole response, of judging a poem at its roots according to vitality and not by marginal standards, has clarified the purpose of criticism.  In the end, the philosophy of value will probably make a greater contribution to literary criticism than clinical psychology can.  The critics of the first quarter of this century, whether using the psychologist’s approach or not, introduced into criticism, and firmly established there, the Bergsonian non-mechanistic conception of reality and insisted upon the existence of what Hulme called ‘intensive manifolds’, which can be known only by intuition.  Poet-critics had tended to adopt such a view long before; but it remained for Bergson to show the philosophical basis of it.

It would be interesting to know why the word ‘imagination’ seldom evokes the word ‘image’.  What imagination is, whether a special faculty of the mind or some complex coördination of all the higher faculties; what association is and how it functions – these are questions of first importance in understanding the nature of poetry.  At present we are a long way from answering any of these questions otherwise than tentatively.  But whatever imagination is, and whatever else it may do, it is the mainspring of poetry.  Common-sense suggests that, if we are to do more than drone peripheral irrelevancies, we must judge poetry at its source, as an expression of imagination, and base our criticism upon an examination of the images in which ‘the shaping Spirit of Imagination’ embodies itself.  “Imagination”, writes Mr. Lewis, “is the instrument with which the poet explores the patterns of reality, and the images in his poetry are high lights by which he reveals to us these patterns.”  Taken with the premise that “the image is the constant in all poetry, and every poem is itself an image”, we seem to have here a coherent scheme of criticism, simple and solid, carrying with it the prospect of dealing with demonstrable facts.  But the matter is still not very straightforward; for images are metaphorical, and reality is not scientifically demonstrable or it would be no concern of poetry; and in any case the link between image and historical experience is indirect – “our ability to imagine is our ability to remember what we have already once experienced and to apply it to some different situation.”[1]

The scientific method of logic and analysis can never fully satisfy the needs of criticism.  The hope of distinguishing certain elements in poetry as objective criteria is chimerical.[2]  English criticism has never confined itself to rational limitations – that is one of its glories, and that is why the poet can make unique contributions to criticism.  But the brilliant intuitive flashes of insight which are the high-lights of English criticism are not parts of a coherent and cumulative scheme: each is to be judged in its own context and is peculiarly isolated.  These detached feats of penetration are what they are because they have gathered up and transcended the rational process: any attempt to relate them fails, by falling back upon the principle which they transcend.

Analysis usually kills the specimen under the microscope: and even though it be followed by an act of synthesis,[3] the facts gained in analysis are, strictly speaking, inapplicable in the second phase.  In any case, the microscope, even a metaphorical microscope, is no proper instrument for examining poetry; since a poem is not an atomic structure, its secrets are not contained in its smallest elements.  Biologists have had to evolve means of examining living organisms without killing them.  Their problem is comparatively easy.  If literary criticism is to sound the depths of poetry and bring back other than subjective evidence, it too will have to evolve a more comprehensive and sensitive method than has hitherto been used; and it is reasonable to expect that poets will discover such a method.  It is not fantastic to suppose that in time to come we shall develop a different mode of thinking, a non-analytical logic of polarity, a tension-philosophy capable of the precise exposition of organic non-mechanistic entities and processes, perhaps using paradox as a controlled unit of thought and striking out conclusions “by collision rather than collusion”.  The need for such a mode of thought has so far been satisfied by poetry.  By the time there has been developed a non-analytical mode of thought which is logic and not poetry, poetry will be the expression of an even more highly developed logic – if poetry is written at all.

Poetic logic, Mr. Lewis is quick to point out, is not an excuse for wilful illogicality.  “The rational is not the basis of poetic reason; yet we must believe poetic reason to be incomplete without it, if we look upon the imagination as a power which can unite thought and feeling within a poetic whole greater than the sum of its parts.”  The basic unit of rational thought is the syllogism: defining, delimiting, specific.  The corresponding unit in poetic logic is the image: capable of being at once precise and evocative, particular and universal, a matter of intellect and of emotion, cumulatively an instrument for the indirect statement of truths of such magnitude that they cannot be uttered directly in the mode of science.  Whereas the rational unfolds by analysis to make diagrams, treating all phenomena as atomic, the imagination reveals, synthesises.  The problem is to transfer the method of poetic reason from poetry to the criticism of poetry, in such a way that it combines the force of metaphor with the precision of rational logic.  We cannot, however, expect an early transfer of this kind, for in so many cases the poet, even when working within his own medium, uses “means which he does not fully understand and of which he is only partially the master”.[4]  Paul Valéry’s Charmes foreshadows such a method applied to an autobiographical account of poetic composition; but his solution cannot be widely applied, and could easily deteriorate into an uncontrolled private impressionism.

Even though criticism will be irrelevant unless rooted in an adequate metaphysics, it is not itself metaphysics.  It would be more accurate to say that poetry is a species of metaphysics, and that the salient phases of poetry reflect changing views of the nature of reality.  Criticism, however, is concerned to test and compare single poems in terms of value.  It would prefer to do so upon some unequivocal non-subjective basis.  If it is true that the imagination embodies itself in images, and if images are a constant in all poetry, the poetic image will repay close scrutiny.  Mr. Lewis’s book makes no claim for a comprehensive scheme of criticism.  In fact my suggestion that the poetic image may be the focal point for the criticism of all poetry is an over-simplification.  There are other important constants in poetry.  I believe that the rhythms of a poem are one of the clearest indications of the vitality of the poem, of the depth and breadth of consciousness from which the poem springs.  But this criterion can never be reduced, by classification, into critical equations or practical formulae.

A purely rational criticism will always miss the central facts of poetry; in the same way that a scientific psychology, applying the technique proper to the study of energy-systems, fails to tell us much of importance about that unique non-energy system, the mind.  Until an intuitive method with the precision of logic has been evolved we must be content with an unsystematic criticism whose most brilliant discoveries are largely unrelated and unrelatable.  Meanwhile we are grateful for any scrap of solid ground beneath our feet.  Mr. Lewis’s synthesis of recent views upon one central feature of poetry, and his own contribution to that theme, give an appearance of solidity to an otherwise nebulous subject.  A poet himself, he never loses sight of the poem as a complex organism.  His conception of the nature of the poetic image is subtle and comprehensive.  His examples of the ‘image-critique’ show that the method is valuable; but that it is worthless unless applied with sensitive poetic penetration.  We have not yet entered upon the age when a critical technician can apply a formula and produce an irreproachably correct answer.

[1] Coventry Patmore, quoted by Lewis.

[2] I am sure that Herbert Read would no longer endorse the assertion made in one of his earliest books (Phases of English Poetry, p. 127) that “the individual elements of poetry (sound, sense, and suggestion) all admit of objective analysis.”

[3] A true synthesis is an initiative and imaginative act – a complement to, and not a part of, a process of analytical thinking.  The putting together of analytical elements produces a static diagram, not an organic synthesis.

[4] C. M. Bowra: The Heritage of Symbolism.