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John Gould Fletcher’s City Aesthetic: London Excursion

Bryony Randall

Of all the various models of the modernist city available to the twenty-first century literary critic, Eliot’s vision of post-World War One London still looms largest; in undergraduate courses on modernism, the class on the city is still more likely than not to feature The Waste Land as central text. Michael Long went so far as to say in 1985 that The Waste Land has been ‘adopted as English Modernism’s definitive report on the city’ (Long 148). Yet the critical ground has changed since Long’s observation in 1985; indeed, it is anthologies such as that from which his statement is taken that have served to broaden the points of reference beyond the familiar Baudelaire/Benjamin/Eliot matrix. Deborah L. Parsons book Streetwalking the Metropolis is only one of the more recent contributions to this extension and complexification of, as it were, the map of the modernist city, here in terms of how gender inflects the city and its ambulatory inhabitants. Despite the enduring and undeniable significance of Eliot’s vision, work such as Parsons indicates the ways in which our conception of the modernist city, which is in some ways definitive of modernity itself (as Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwarz have contended, ‘[m]odernity cannot be conceived outside the context of the city’(3)) remains available to be filled out, bolstered and challenged, and also indicates the variety of modernist representations of the city which may still remain neglected.

Among such neglected representations is the work of the American poet John Gould Fletcher. Fletcher, like Ezra Pound before and H.D. and T. S. Eliot after him, settled in London with a view to establishing himself as a poet. After arriving in 1909 he met with little initial success, and paid to have his first five books of poetry published. However, his style underwent a dramatic modernisation in the experimental, free-form Irradiations of 1913. Fletcher’s luck then also began to change; after meeting Fletcher in Paris in 1913, Ezra Pound published an encouraging review of Fletcher’s early volumes in the vanguard American magazine Poetry, and Fletcher subsequently became involved with the financing of Pound’s new mouthpiece The New Freewoman, to become The Egoist in 1914. However, he and Pound quickly discovered their aesthetic differences, and his split with Pound was confirmed with Fletcher’s agreement to appear in the 1915 Some Imagist Poets anthology, published by Amy Lowell without Pound’s approval, and indeed in both subsequent Imagist anthologies and the 1930 retrospective. Although one of the ‘names’ in poetry of the period, Fletcher’s name has fallen out of circulation in critical writing on modernism, and he is now referred to more often as a sometime acolyte of Ezra Pound, or as Amy Lowell’s protégé; a solitary figure never quite fitting in with the Zeitgeist.

I want to go some way toward rescuing Fletcher from this peripheral position by arguing that his London poetry at least places him firmly in the centre of this modernist aesthetic. In particular, I want to show how Fletcher’s work draws attention to some specific qualities of urban experience that are potentially obscured by orthodox critical models of the city-subject. By focussing on how the kinds of figures we commonly associate with the modernist city aesthetic appear in Fletcher’s work (figures of isolation, of the city as machine, of temporal dislocation, and so on), I want to explore the ways in which Fletcher’s representations of London during the years leading up to World War One, particularly in the work published in the three Some Imagist Poets anthologies of 1915-1917, resemble and differ from the urban environments and subjects which are central to the modernist city aesthetic.

Fletcher’s series of nine poems entitled London Excursion, written in June 1914 and published in the 1915 Some Imagist Poets anthology, will provide my central text (Some Imagist Poets 39 – 49)[1]. In 1913 Fletcher told Amy Lowell in 1913 of his intention to ‘write about a modern city by recording its various moods; he would present it not didactically as he had done in an apprentice effort [presumably The Dominant City], or in relation to himself, but as a series of pictures’ (de Chasca 41). We can infer that the result of this intention was London Excursion. The extent to which this so-called ‘unrelated method’ really produces the effect of omitting the observer is questionable; as Edmund de Chasca suggests, the poems that make up London Excursion ‘tell us as much about the observer about the scenes they represent’ (194). I will argue that a relation between the city and the subject, albeit not Fletcher ‘himself’, is central to the poem. However, that this ‘unrelated method’ was identified by Fletcher as an innovation invites us to pay particular attention to the kind of poems it produced.

The extent of London Excursion’s congruence with critically approved models of the modernist cityscape and city text is enough to encourage a critical reconsideration of the series, and a useful place from which to begin. Fletcher’s London is initially presented with a strong sense of the city’s psycho-spatial boundaries. The first poem in the sequence, ‘’Bus’, sets up a distance, a confrontation, between poet and city. The first lines of the poem, ‘Great walls of green,/ City that is afar’ (39), on one level simply establish that the city is being approached from a distance, but also (and in accordance with Fletcher’s own principle of taking ‘the mental perspective, not the ocular’) insist on the psychological distance between the subject and the city (de Chasca 171). The ‘great walls’ impose and confront, the city ‘is afar’ as it might be large, or ancient. As well as being an effect of the initial perspective as we approach the city, ‘being afar’ is one permanent characteristic of the city, elusive and impervious, as the poem will go on to suggest. This sense of alienation is readily recognisable as characteristic of the standard relationship between modernist poet and modern city.

The distance between poet and city is sustained throughout the first stanzas of Fletcher’s series: ‘Roads open about us,/ Housetops kept at a distance.’ (39) Yet this unfolding, recoiling, of the city from the ‘alert and penetrating’ subject, is succeeded by its opposite, as the city enfolds the penetrating poet: ‘It is the city that takes us to itself’ (39); ‘The passengers shrink together,/ I enter indelicately into all their souls’ (40), and finally the ‘long hot bar’ (41) of the bus seat back, a physical reality (visually reinforced by the long dash) ‘pierces the small of my back’ (41), like a hypodermic needle in a science-fiction dystopia. This tension, between the city that is both permanently at odds with, utterly distant from and alien to, the poet who searches to understand it, but that has also penetrated the poet to the core, automating his movements and his perceptions, persists throughout the series, manifesting itself in an ongoing dynamic of penetration, struggle, and resistance.

One of the dualisms in and across which London Excursion operates, and again one which locates it firmly within the standard critical model of the modernist cityscape, is that of man versus machine, or perhaps more subtly man-as-nature struggling with man-as-machine. The proliferation of verbs such as ‘jolt’, ‘vibrate’, ‘project’, ‘penetrate’, when describing not only the poet’s own movements but his observations of the way the city moves around him, contributes to this sense of the mechanistic metropolis. The constant energy running through the city is expressed in ‘Ripples of impulse run through them/ Flattering resistance’ (42), from ‘Arrival’. That ‘flattering’ also forms part of a vocabulary of desire which echoes the libidinous aspects of Fletcher’s earlier cityscapes (‘London Evening’ in The Dominant City, for example), and resonates through London Excursion, suggesting that the city’s seductive energy invites, encourages, resistance. The proliferation of mechanical and electrical devices over the turn of the century and their increasing incorporation into the everyday life of the city dweller in particular is here evoked; the city not only contains ‘hesitating, clanking pistons and wheels’ (40), but itself operates as one large machine. It is as if the city has set up a dynamic which not only puts it in conflict with its inhabitants, but in conflict with itself (which might amount to the same thing) constantly drawing the visitor in and then rejecting him, feeding on this oscillation. In particular, the growth of transport systems is seen reflected throughout London Excursion –- the term ‘excursion’ itself suggesting a pleasure ride, rather than pedestrian journey. I will go on to suggest that this emphasis on the relations into which the human subject is placed by his use of public transport (and in this case, as I will go on to discuss, the subject is clearly male) is a particularly noteworthy and distinctive aspect of the series.

The dual meaning of the term ‘projecting’, as it appears in different ways in London Excursion, exemplifies the replicating and mutating tensions that appear in the sequence, and also gestures towards various other contemporary discourses commonly appearing in the modernist city text. The term evokes not only a sense of propulsion, of extruding oneself into an environment –- ‘Projecting my body/ Across a street, in the face of all its traffic’ (45) –- but also invokes the technology of the cinema, in ‘Projecting the angular city, in shadows, at our feet’ (39). As with early cinema which very often aimed at showing the movement of a street scene rather than describing a narrative, the roles of observed and observer are constantly inverted, as the audience in a movie theatre watches itself as a crowd of passers-by in the street. The city is shown itself, projected ‘at our feet’. The rules of cause and effect, roles of agent and object, are disrupted, particularly in corporeal terms -– for where is the poet ‘projecting my body’ from, if not from inside that body? The paradox of corporeality, where the agent acts on an object that is himself, is foregrounded. Similarly, in ‘Mid-Flight’, the ‘throng’ is described as ‘Motes scattered/ By the arc’s rays’ (47), suggesting that light actually creates, releases, the dust that science will insist it only reveals. The moment of crisis in the poem ‘Transposition’ comes when the poet looks ‘with eyes suddenly altered’ (45) -– recalling medieval theories of sight which hypothesised that it was the eyes themselves which projected the objects viewed, rather than receiving impressions from the external world. Cause and effect, means and ends, those standards of nineteenth century scientific thought, are supplanted by a dynamic that catches each up in an ongoing exchange of energies.

Certain poems by Fletcher in both the 1916 and 1917 anthologies seem to pick up and develop elements and themes from London Excursion. For example, ‘The Unquiet Street’ (42) and ‘In The Theatre’ (43), from the 1916 anthology, read rather like depersonalised vignettes taken from the experiences described in the long poem sequence.[2] ‘Dawn’ (49), from 1917 anthology, is even more closely related to London Excursion, with its Eliotic fog-like sleep oozing out of the nooks and crannies, the secret places, of the city. These poems collectively form a distinctive city aesthetic running through Fletcher’s contributions to the anthologies, alongside the Oriental, nationalist, and mystic strands of Fletcher’s work that have hitherto been given most critical attention.

However, the most important feature of London Excursion when compared to Fletcher’s other fragments of city poetry, apart from its length, is its perspective. Where ‘Dawn’ takes an expansive view of the city, Fletcher’s London Excursion stays within the confined perception of an individual –- explicitly, I will argue, a poet –- very much at odds with the city, yearning throughout for a return to his ‘green’. And whereas in ‘Dawn’ the poem allows for a liminal space, ‘the edge’ (50), the city in London Excursion is rigorously separated from its outside, to the extent that moving from one space to another actually forms a rupture in the subject’s capacity for perception: ‘We know we have left something behind/ We shall not see again’ (10). Indeed, the final poem in the series, ‘Station’, confirms that, though returning to the country ‘outside’, the poet’s perceptions of that landscape and his relation to it are irreparably altered by his passage through the city; its final stanzas read:

One grey wall
Windowed, unlit.
Heavily, night
Crushes the face of it.

I go on.
My memories freeze
Like birds’ cry
In hollow trees.

I go on.
Up and outright
To the hostility
Of night. (48-49)

There is a return to a traditional rhyme-scheme, but it is half-hearted, as only lines b and d in each four line stanza rhyme; the metre is dominated by monosyllables and excessively deliberate constructions, such as ‘Heavily, night/ Crushes the face of it’, with the awkwardness of that final ‘of it’ drawing attention to its rhyme, ‘unlit’. The monosyllables and full stop of the repeated ‘I go on’ enact the effort and tedium of this outward journey. The simile ‘Like birds’ cry/ In hollow trees’ is a mutilated version of Romantic poetry, recalling the destruction of poetic cliché described in the line ‘My roses are battered into pulp’, from the second poem. Not only are the trees hollow, not only is the possessive apostrophe awkward and halting (compare ‘Like the cry of birds’), but the subjects of the simile are frozen memories, cold, lifeless, and yet therefore permanent, immovable.

Fletcher’s later association with the Fugitive movement, a school ‘aware above all of an immense debt to the past’ (Gray 108), indicates what might have been a temperamental inclination in Fletcher to the acknowledgement of historical influences. The influence of Romantic poetry, for example, is recognised in Fletcher’s work more often than in most of his Imagist contemporaries, and, as Raymond Williams insists, it is important to recognise the continuity as well as disjuncture between literary and cultural periods, if the aesthetic of the modernist metropolis in particular is not to fall into precisely the error of which it accuses its ancestors, namely of internalising and thereby universalising its localised and context-specific principles (Williams 47). Having contended that the city aesthetic is a characteristically modernist preoccupation, it is nevertheless important to heed Williams’s reminder of ‘how relatively old some of these apparently modern themes are’ (39). Williams uses some examples from Wordsworth to break down the borders involved in the periodisation of literary history, indicating how the themes readily associated with the modernist city (the crowd of strangers, the isolated individual, together with the converse possibility for unity and progress) can be found in pre-modernist writing. Indeed, Fletcher’s own insistence on the ‘green’ outside the city for which the poet yearns recalls Wordsworth’s ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’; Fletcher’s London is also ‘Open unto the fields, and to the sky’. Like the Romantic poet, Fletcher explicitly locates his city in the context of its environs, the ‘green’.

There are, however, ways in which Fletcher’s ‘green’ is not only specifically modernist, but specifically his own. Fletcher’s description of ‘a set of “London Excursions” which were intended to commemorate my journeying to and fro, between the domestic half of my existence at Sydenham and the literary half in London’ shows that the ‘green’ Fletcher had in mind was not so much the rural idyll of the countryside, but the altogether more ambivalent environment of the suburbs (Life is my Song, 133). We can assume that Fletcher’s attitude to this environment was made all the more ambivalent by the fact that Fletcher was living in Sydenham with another man’s wife and children; a domestic situation that, as well as itself being less than idyllic in personal terms, distinguished him from other of his contemporaries such as Pound, Eliot and Aldington, all dwellers in the metropolis. Thus while the poet’s yearning to ‘sing amid my green’ would conventionally evoke the rural, and poetic, idyll which the city opposes, the deployment of ‘green’ elsewhere in the series indeed reflects an acute ambivalence around this term. The very first line, ‘Great walls of green’, leaves us unsure as to whether we are to follow the implications of ‘great walls’ and read this as part of the city, or follow through the traditional poetic signification of ‘green’, read as metonymy, and see this as the countryside through which the poet is passing. A few stanzas into the first poem, greenness reappears:

A second arch is a wall
To separate our souls from rotted cables
Of stale greenness. (40)

The ‘greenness’ is again deeply ambivalent –- the vocabulary of decay encourages a negative reading of this greenness, from which the city’s second arch is then mercifully separating the passengers. Or is it that the cables –- which have, after all, been attached to ‘souls’, and therefore imply some spiritual or psychic grounding, like an anchor’s cable –- have been rotted away by the malignant air of the city? Or is this ‘greenness’ not an organic greenness at all, but the chemical greenness of pollution? Although the boundaries of the city are clearly delineated as the poet passes through walls and arches, the extent to which the poet can avoid contamination across these borders is limited. If Fletcher has the suburbs in particular in mind, then this greenness is one of a countryside already contaminated by incontinent nineteenth-century sprawl. And yet, the poem does insist on the city within walls, and borders are most themselves when they are breached; boundary and rupture reinforce each other oppositionally. Following the establishment of a topography of the city within boundaries, with something outside, this ambivalent ‘greenness’ draws attention to its disruption of those boundaries, and thereby also reinforces their existence. Rather, then, than being presented with the city-subject’s perspective as the only valid perspective on contemporary life, we are made aware that the city is not everywhere, that it has walls, however penetrable they may be, walls outside of which subjectivity might be imagined otherwise.

That the city ‘has given me a duty to perform’ indicates the reluctant, perhaps recalcitrant, yet enforced, relation of poet to city. Yet the ‘duty’ assigned in ‘Walk’ is already an elusive one; it is an apparent paradox that this duty appears to be improvised, even devious: ‘I pass along nonchalantly/ Insinuating myself into self-baffling movements.’ (43) Michel de Certeau’s reading of the act of walking around a city sheds light on this paradoxical juxtaposition of aim, intent, and improvisation. ‘The act of walking,’ says de Certeau, ‘is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered’; it ‘affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects etc., the trajectories it speaks’ (97, 99). Fletcher’s ‘Insinuating myself into self-baffling movements’ is one way of articulating what de Certeau seems to be suggesting: the reflexive verb and personal pronoun create syntactic loops; the internal rhymes and repetitions of ‘s’s and ‘f’s make the line a challenge to enunciate, as well as strikingly sibilant, enacting the sinuous, evasive movements of the pedestrian.

While the flâneur (and indeed now flâneuse) has been a prominent focus of much work on the modernist city aesthetic, what is striking about Fletcher’s series is that the poet rides as much as he walks, and these prescribed routes (‘direct distances’) are as vital a part of his city experience as the individual, transgressive, improvised movements of the pedestrian. Fellow passengers share a trajectory, a direction, but have divergent motives and aims, different beginnings and endings; theirs is a pseudo-communal experience. Appropriately, then, ‘’Bus-Top’ (43-44), viewed in its place in the series, seems to mark a moment of suspension, where some distance is achieved from the city; the physical distance, aloofness, created by viewing the city from a bus-top is reflected in a mental distance, lack of engagement. The early sociologist and theorist of the city, Georg Simmel, makes an explicit link between public transport and new kinds of interaction, in particular ‘a marked preponderance of the activity of the eye over the ear. … Before the development of buses, railroads, and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in a position of having to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another’ (qtd in Benjamin 37). Sitting still yet moving at high speed, intimately watched and being watched yet with no verbal communication, the city passenger is in a uniquely liminal position, poised between movement and stasis, intimacy and distance, noise and silence.

‘Bus-Top’ forms a plateau in the series, describing and implying the humming suspension between opposites involved in a London bus ride. Further, in terms of the series as a whole, it is sandwiched between ‘Walk’, where a duty is accepted and resistance to the city recedes, and ‘Transposition’, where the poet’s complete submission to the forces of the city (‘I am blown like a leaf/Hither and thither’ (44)) draws him to an abrupt moment of individual contact, and we reach the climax and turning point of the series –- as the title of this sixth poem suggests. Throughout the poems preceding ‘Transposition’, individuals other than the poet have appeared either as fellow passengers, as part of a generalised ‘we’ with whom the poet identifies himself as in ‘’Bus’ and ‘’Bus-Top’, or as the familiar amorphous masses of the modernist city: ‘The passengers’, ‘Passers-by’, ‘many voices’, ‘These people’ (40, 43, 44, 45). Hence, the moment of individual contact in ‘Transposition’ radically disrupts the poet’s sense of equilibrium, resignation, developed in the preceding poems, even in the onomatopoeically alliterative first line of this particular stanza:

Lazily I lounge through labyrinthine corridors,
And with eyes suddenly altered,
I peer into an office I do not know,
And wonder at a startled face that penetrates my own. (45)

Within the space of one stanza, the poet has completely reoriented himself to the city. Though the poet has ‘entered indelicately’ into the souls of his fellow passengers in ‘’Bus’, there it was indiscriminate, and also unidirectional; here, there is a moment of interpenetration whose disruptive effects are indicated by the symptomatic staccato rhythms of the next stanza (‘Roses –– pavement –– … People –– uproar –– the pavement jostling and flickering –– ’(45)), and the poet’s immediate desire to leave –- ‘I will take all this city away with me’ (45).

Simmel’s ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ of 1903 focuses on the paradox of the city as both thoroughly impersonal and deeply subjective. He comments that the preponderance of the ‘objective spirit’ in city life means that man ‘has to exaggerate his personal element in order to remain audible even to himself’ (183-4). Simmel’s view of the early twentieth century city resonates strongly alongside London Excursion. The individual’s need to assert his individuality, being in perpetual conflict with the mechanical tyranny of ‘black coarse-squared shapes’, ‘walls’, ‘shadows’, ‘red yokes of steel’, can seem jarringly overstated in London Excursion (as in the explicit conflict with poetic tradition expressed in ‘Approach’) – indeed, one contemporary reviewer of the 1915 anthology criticised the egoism of the Imagists in general and London Excursion in particular, claiming that ‘John Gould Fletcher writes about a city and it becomes as small as a place bestrid by a Colossus.’ (Colum) Yet, and leaving aside the argument that London Excursion is characterised precisely by a circumscribed, human perspective, this criticism may be turned around in the light of Simmel’s observations, to suggest that an ‘exaggera[tion] of the personal element’ is part of the successful evocation of the individual’s experience of the city.

Simmel’s analysis of the effect of city life on the individual subject rests to a great extent on the contrast between the country and the city, or perhaps more rigorously the metropolitan and the provincial. As Edward Timms has noted, ‘The poet who sought to come to terms with the city was often a young man from the country, or indeed from another country’ (3). Fletcher was both, and explicitly states that in London Excursion ‘I chose to regard myself as a foreigner visiting London for the first time’ (Life is my Song 144). Simmel contrasts the ‘mutual strangeness’ that characterises human interaction in the city with the ‘centripetal unity’ of ‘very young associations [i.e. small, “primitive” communities]’ (‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ 179, 180); Simmel’s vocabulary is felicitously resonant with the ‘centrifugal folly’ of Fletchers ‘Peripeteia’, displaying how the metaphorically suggestive vocabulary of the machine permeated contemporary texts. Without suggesting that the young Fletcher’s extremely privileged and circumscribed upbringing can be easily identified with the kind of small town interaction to which Simmel refers in ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, it is nonetheless striking, when resonances are found between the city poetry of Fletcher and Eliot, or indeed Fletcher and Federico Garcia Lorca, that these poets all come from a background alien to the urban environment with which they engage.[3]

Simmel’s description of the particular tension between nearness and remoteness in the relationship between ‘The Stranger’ and their new environment is particularly suggestive for readings of works by the modernist expatriate. Simmel describes a tension between the nearness felt as a result of sharing certain characteristics, even if they are only ‘of general human nature’, and the remoteness felt ‘insofar as these similarities extend beyond him and us, and connect us only because they connect a great many people’ (‘The Stranger’ 147). The nearness/remoteness tension can certainly be detected in Fletcher’s simultaneous sense of interpenetration of the city and rejection by it; in the subject’s inclusion in an amorphous mass, and his sudden mutual interaction with another individual human being, particularly in the ambiguous spaces created by public transport. Indeed, ‘The Stranger’ and ‘London Excursion’ might interestingly be read alongside each other as texts of the modernist city, particularly in view of their opposed standpoints: Simmel writes from the comfortable position of the privileged ‘us’ whose space the stranger invades; Fletcher is himself that stranger.

The experience of the stranger in the city, then, is characterised by an oscillation between impertinent contact with its other subjects, brought about as he travels around the city on foot and on public transport, and a sense of distance from his surroundings. We assume, incidentally, that the protagonist of London Excursion is male since there seems to be such a strong identification of the speaker with the poet (and there is external as well as internal evidence for this); the implications for a woman travelling on an omnibus, as many a London New Woman did, might be even more disruptive, though also liberating. In addition, however, to the new kinds of interpersonal interaction which the technologised city makes possible or indeed requires, the variable speed with which the human subject is transported around this city is explored in Fletcher’s text, growing perhaps out of the stops and starts of the ’bus whose incessant movement (always vibrating when not actually travelling) seems to prompt a ‘sudden desire for something changeless’ (42).

The first lines of ‘Arrival’ explicitly encapsulate the contrast between the city and its environs in a metaphor of speed: ‘Here is too swift a movement,/ The rest is too still.’ (42) We note, however, that though one is too static, the other too dynamic, both are yet excessive; neither are comfortable, adequate. As in his use of ‘green’, discussed above, ambivalence is built in to Fletcher’s construction. ‘Mid-flight’, the penultimate poem, contains the most explicit expressions of intempestivity, as the city itself tries to eject this guest who has overstayed his welcome: ‘The city hurls its cobbled streets after us,/ To drive us faster.’ (47), ‘A clock with quivering hands/ Leaps to the trajectory-angle of our departure’(48), ‘We are already cast forth/ The signal of our departure/ Jerks down before we have learned we are to go.’ (48) The poet is always too late for the city; the city has rejected him before he knows he is leaving. The impression given is of the poet unable to find a speed, a rhythm, which will fit with his surroundings –- flinging himself along at high speed, or ‘pass[ing] along nonchalantly’ (43) ; fighting the city’s demands ‘Yet I revolt: I bend, I twist myself’ (41), or acquiescing, ‘I am blown like a leaf’ (44). At no point does he find himself in time with the city, in time for the city, in the time of the city. Simultaneity, contact, and the comprehension it might bring forth, cannot, or will not, be reached; relieved at being unable to assume the burden of integration with this ‘People–uproar–’ (45) the poet retreats back into his ‘green’.

Unlike The Waste Land, London Excursion is clearly structured as an arrival at, interaction with and departure from the city, beginning as day dawns and ending as night returns; the series was ‘written during a single day’, and Fletcher clearly chose to reflect this in its structure (Life is my Song 144). London Excursion’s structure, then, enacts the containment for which it strives; there is an attempt to contain the disruptions of the city within its ‘walls’. In this sense, Fletcher’s London might appear more closely related to the classical polis than the modern metropolis: Simmel, in describing the ways in which the modern city, in its commercial and technological interaction with physically distant locales, states that ‘The most significant characteristic of the metropolis is this functional extension beyond its physical boundaries’ (‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ 182). That the poet does not in fact emerge unchanged by the city has been addressed in the discussion of the rhythmic disruptions of the final poem, ‘Station’ (48-49), above; the city is not just a place but a state of mind. Yet the urgency created by the explicit yearning to physically remove oneself from the city creates, toward the end of the poem, a focus on the ways in which the city is out-of-time with a, still distinguishable, human time.

London Excursion expresses the possibility of failing to be in simultaneous contact with one’s surroundings even in their existence in the present moment; the subject’s own internal present is perpetually out-of-time with the city. The structure of the series reinforces the sense of this intempestivity as a particularly urban phenomenon, containing it within walls of green. Where Eliot’s spiritual wasteland seems to suggest humanity’s irredeemable degeneration, Fletcher’s urban aesthetic locates its anxieties very firmly in their specific locale, the city, and its particular qualities. London Excursion provides an early example of the now-familiar figure of the alien subject in a mechanised environment, yearning for release from the importunate city. Further, through its delimited topography and subject-position, it focuses closely on the experience of the subject in the city, in particular through the ambivalent relationship of proximity and distance created by urban transportation, and the specific temporality of the urban. However, the poem’s attempts rigorously to sustain boundaries between the city and its outside are tempered by the ambivalence inherent in any attempts to delimit experience. Indeed, as Garry Leonard has argued, what uniquely defines the experience of living in the metropolis, and indeed ‘why it gives rise to modernism — is that it demands delimitation’. In particular, Fletcher’s suburban ‘greenness’ is a liminal space around the modernist city, a physical hybridisation of urban and rural, disrupting the poet’s traditional nostalgia for a psychic green space. John Gould Fletcher is always likely to hover on the borders of the literary critical landscape; London Excursion’s negotiations express the importance of how we imagine the border and the boundary, and the question of in what they might consist.


[1] For ease of reference, London Excursion will be italicised throughout, and the titles of the individual poems within the series given in inverted commas. Line numbers are not given in the published version of the poem sequence, therefore references are to page numbers.

[2] All three Some Imagist Poets anthologies are reprinted in the 1969 edition. The page numbering is not, however, continuous, therefore page numbers are repeated. I have indicated in the text which anthology the poems to which I refer are taken from, which should provide sufficient guidance for the reader.

[3] There are striking analogues to be found between London Excursion and Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York; not only do both poems posit the poet as stranger in the city, but in particular both work around an ambivalent intermingling and mutual contamination of the organic with the mechanical.

Works Cited

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Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. London: Verso, 1997.

Charney, Leo, and Vanessa Schwartz, eds. Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.

Colum, Padraic. New Republic, November 20 1915.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

De Chasca, Edmund. John Gould Fletcher and Imagism. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1978.

Fletcher, John Gould. Irradiations: Sand and Spray. London: Constable and Co. Ltd, 1915.

—-. Life is My Song. New York and Toronto: Farrar and Rhinehart, 1937.

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Simmel, Georg ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in Simmel on Culture, ed David Frisby and Mike Featherstone (London: Sage, 1997), 174-185.

—-. ‘The Stranger’ in On Individuality and Social Forms, ed. Donald N. Levine, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 143-49.

Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology. New York: Kraus Reprint Co, 1969.

Timms, Edward, and David Kelley, eds. Unreal City: Urban Experience in modern European literature and art. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1985.

Timms, Edward. ‘Introduction’. Timms and Kelley, 1-12.

Williams, Raymond. ‘Metropolitan Perceptions and the Emergence of Modernism’, in The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. London: Verso, 1989.

To Cite This Article:

Bryony Randall, ‘John Gould Fletcher’s City Aesthetic: London Excursion’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 1 (March 2006). Online at Accessed on [date of access].