By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘In a Station of the Metro’, written by Ezra Pound in 1913, is the Imagist poem par excellence. In just two lines, Pound distils the entire manifesto for Imagism into a vivid piece of poetry, what T. E. Hulme had earlier called ‘dry, hard, classical verse’.
But what does the poem mean, precisely? You can read ‘In a Station of the Metro’ here. Below, we offer a few words of analysis on this striking poem, which is one of Ezra Pound’s most famous pieces of writing.
About Ezra Pound
First, here’s a short introduction to the poet who wrote ‘In a Station of the Metro’.
Ezra Pound was the founder (and namer) of the imagists, as well as a noted modernist poet in his own right. His work ranges from the very small to the very large: arguably his two most famous poems are a two-line imagist piece called ‘In a Station of the Metro’, and a vast, 800-page epic called The Cantos, which Pound worked on for over fifty years.
He had an eye for the very small, for concrete details rather than abstract ideas, and yet had a kind of universal view that was on a large scale, politically as well as artistically.
Born in Idaho in 1885, he was an American who ‘found himself’ artistically only when he emigrated to England. Like his friend T. S. Eliot, he was a prolific critic as well as a poet. Like Eliot, he was fascinated by the poetry of Dante.
But unlike Eliot, he dressed ostentatiously – almost a caricature of a poet, not the normal man in a suit that Eliot appeared. Unlike Eliot, he was possessed of a swaggering confidence from an early age: he was apparently bad at playing the piano (and had little musical talent in general) but would do so nevertheless, a sign of his overwhelming self-belief.
He liked to play tennis, even though his friend Ford Madox Ford describes him playing like ‘an inebriated kangaroo’. When he taught at Wabash College in Indiana, he did so with his feet on the desk, and became known for his flouting of college rules (he smoked in public even though smoking was banned; he made a show of mixing rum with his tea).
Yet Pound was a solitary figure who read widely, in Italian, French, English, and American verse, and also in Chinese and Japanese poetry, theatre, and philosophy. He channelled all of this learning into his poetry – including ‘In a Station of the Metro’. But what is this poem about?
‘In a Station of the Metro’: summary
The poem can be summarised in one sentence.
The speaker, in a station at the Paris Metro underground system, observes that the faces of the crowds of people are like the petals hanging on the ‘wet, black bough’ of a tree.
Yet this paraphrase already adds too much to Pound’s poem, or rather subtracts too much from it.
‘In a Station of the Metro’: analysis
Start with that image. The central image of the faces as petals is clear and simple, and can instantly be visualized. It draws together the urban world of the Paris Metro with the natural world, the world of leaves and tree boughs.
Pound was influenced here by the Japanese haiku form, which utilises images from nature to connect the momentary with the timeless, the miniature with the transcendent. The idea of people’s faces being like ‘petals’ suggests their fragility and the brevity of life.
In formal terms, this couplet doesn’t snap shut like one of Alexander Pope’s:
Words are like Leaves; and where they most abound,
Much Fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.
Nor is the verse as metrically regular as Pope’s leafy rhyming couplet. But as with T. E. Hulme’s ground-breaking modernist poems, there are assonantal echoes which help to give the poem a kind of loose unity: ‘apparition’ picks up the ‘Station’ from the title, while the ‘ow’ sounds of ‘crowd’ and ‘bough’ move towards each other without fully rhyming.
Here it is worth bearing in mind (despite our describing the poem a moment ago as a ‘two-liner’) that that the poem is arguably not a two-line verse at all, since the title, ‘In a Station of the Metro’, forms an integral part of the poem’s meaning and message.
The modern urban setting of the couplet is lost if the title is not granted its rightful place as originating line of a poem for which the altogether more rural image of the ‘wet, black bough’ acts as a terminus.
As with Hulme’s most famous poems, such as ‘The Embankment’, a chain of sound-associations forms a link between the images of the poem, and the urban and the rural find themselves juxtaposed.
But the poem stays in the memory partly because of the frailty of the image which is being suggested: petals on a bough will not be there forever, just as the faces in the Metro a hundred years from now will not belong to the same people.
Like Hulme’s poems, and like much imagist verse, the poem is a memento mori, a reminder of the inevitability of death: its brevity is closely linked with its theme, which is partly the brevity of life. (One of T. E. Hulme’s fragments read simply: ‘Old houses were scaffolding once / and workmen whistling’.)
The other thing worth highlighting about Pound’s use of images is the relation he draws between them: here there is no straightforward simile (the faces aren’t described as like the petals on the bough), nor is there metaphor (e.g. ‘the faces are petals’): instead, punctuation is used to bring the two images together with as few words as possible. Such a technique is less about juxtaposing, or placing side by side, the two images, and more about superposition, that is, placing one on top of the other.
Obviously this is impossible in poetry where we move from one line to the next in a linear fashion; but Pound’s clever use of punctuation and typography helps to convey the immediacy of the analogy, as it would strike the observer who thought it up. (If you’re in the Metro or Underground and think that the faces of your fellow commuters look like petals, this is instant, and not something that conventional poetic language can reflect with complete accuracy.)
In short, ‘In a Station of the Metro’ briefly encapsulates the main driving idea behind the Imagist movement. Ezra Pound once defined an image as ‘an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’, and this is exactly what this poem offers. Yet it cries out for analysis and discussion, since its striking style and form suggest much in just a few words. The brevity of life, the brevity of the Imagist poem. Short, and bittersweet.
Imagism: a brief introduction
‘Imagisme’ (the final ‘e’ was Pound’s attempt to give the word a French sound, after Symbolisme; it was quickly, and quietly, dropped) began in the British Museum tea-room in 1912, when Ezra Pound declared to his ex-girlfriend Hilda Doolittle and her new boyfriend Richard Aldington that they were both ‘Imagist poets’, and the co-founders of a new poetic movement. (Pound also suggested Doolittle sign her poems simply as ‘H. D.’.)
By 1913, when Pound wrote his unofficial manifesto for the movement, ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’, Imagism had made a splash in literary circles, and Pound wrote this short essay (or manifesto) largely to address and correct certain misconceptions surrounding the movement, which H. D., Aldington, F. S. Flint, and Pound himself were coming to exemplify.
In ‘A Few Don’ts’, Pound offers three ‘tenets’ of Imagism. These three tenets or commandments can be boiled down to: 1) direct treatment of the ‘thing’, whether subjective or objective; 2) use no word that does not contribute to the presentation; and 3) in terms of rhythm, don’t write in regular metre (which is like the beating of a metronome) but in irregular rhythms (as in music).
In short: be direct, stick to the point, and write in free verse. We can see how he followed these three commandments (of sorts) in his two-line masterpiece, ‘In a Station of the Metro’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.