“On Impressionism”

by Anthony Domestico

As Ford Madox Ford wrote in an introduction to The Good Soldier, this 1914 novel was his initial attempt “to extend [himself], to use a phrase of horse-race training.”[1] Ford explains that The Good Soldier was his first bid to put his theoretical concerns about the novel into fictional, fleshly life.  He refers to his previous “exhaustive studies into how words should be handled and novels constructed.”[2] We can read “On Impressionism,” Ford’s 1913 essay published in Poetry and Drama, as just such a study.

In a fashion that is familiar to us from the manifestos of Ezra Pound and other modernists, Ford opens “On Impressionism” by disclaiming any true affiliation with such a school: “I do not know why I should have been especially asked to write about Impressionism…I don’t know; I write books, and if someone attaches a label to me I do not much mind.”[3] After this caveat, Ford encapsulates the thesis of the essay in a single sentence: “Probably this school differs from other schools, principally, in that it recognizes, frankly, that all art must be the expression of an ego, and that if Impressionism is to do anything, it must, as the phrase is, go the whole hog” (260-261).  Ford couches his statement with qualifications (“probably,” “principally,” “frankly”), but he goes on to reiterate its main point, claiming that the Impressionist “gives you his own views” (261), that the true critic writes so that “any intelligent person will know at once the sort of chap that he is dealing with” (262), and, summarily, that “Impressionism is a frank expression of personality.”  There is a focus, indeed a celebration, of the ego, the subjectivity, of the writer; in Ford’s aesthetic, the goal of the writer is to represent experiential reality accurately, to express how a person truly experiences events.  This is a difficult task, since experience is “altogether momentary” (266), a “passing” (268) notion.  But, as Ford writes, “it is the business of an artist to take trouble” (270), and the mapping of impressions becomes the most challenging but most ennobling task available to the modern writer.

Ford’s contention that true objectivity is impossible, that all perception is indelibly marked with the impress of the perceiving consciousness, has strong connections to the stream of consciousness method that soon flourished after this essay.  In May Sinclair’s 1918 review of Dorothy Richardson, Sinclair applies the term “stream of consciousness” to fictional technique and writes that in this method the “intense rapidity of the seizure [of the mind] defies you to distinguish between what is objective and what is subjective.”[4] In her 1919 essay “Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf, herself one of the subtlest practitioners of the stream of consciousness method, writes that on any given day “The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpest of steel”; it is the job of the writer, Woolf claims, to give fictive life to such subjective impressions.[5] Pound, one of Ford’s closest friends, reiterated these sentiments, writing that an “‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” and that it is the poet’s job “to render the image as we have perceived or conceived it.”[6] It is no surprise that one of the little magazines that published early stream of consciousness work, and the publication in which Sinclair’s essay appeared, was called the Egoist.  In describing this collapse of the distinction between subjective and objective experience, Ford was both putting his finger on the pulse of a number of contemporary intellectual trends, from the impressionistic fiction of his friend and mentor Joseph Conrad to the British idealism of J.M.E. McTaggert and others, and presaging this idea’s fictional exploration in the most avant-garde writing of the succeeding years.

Beyond its relation to broader intellectual and artistic trends, Ford’s essay merits interest due to its direct treatment of technical issues of writing, the nuts and bolts of fictional creation.  Ford claims that he is an apt choice to write an essay on Impressionism because he is “a perfectly self-conscious writer” (260), an artist both capable of reflecting upon his own craft and willing to demystify the artistic process as such.  Ford’s essay is striking in its free unveiling of Ford’s own methods of composition.  He claims, for instance, “that the first speech of a character you are introducing should always be a generalisation” (265); that authors must rely upon suspense and plot twists because “the first business of Impressionism is to produce an impression, and the only way in literature to produce an impression is to awaken interest.  And… you can only keep interest awakened by keeping alive, by whatever means you have at your disposal, the surprise of your reader” (273); and that a writer should not appeal to an enclave of privileged, cultured readers but to “the cabmen round the corner” (275) because these men “have least listened to accepted ideas” (277) about art and literature and thus can regard fictional experience immanently and not “back up to preconceived dogmas” (278).  Ford’s deflation of writerly grandeur reaches its peak towards the end of the essay.  Addressing the would-be writer, Ford suggests that “you will give passages of dullness, so that your bright effects may seem more bright,” that “you will seek to exasperate so that you may the better enchant” (279): “You will, in short, employ all the devices of a prostitute.”

This emphasis on the technical, non-transcendent aspects of writing hearkens back to the writing of one of Ford’s past masters, Henry James (Ford’s 1913 Henry James: A Critical Study reflects their shared interests).  James, along with Conrad in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, reflected a growing interest in the actual craft of writing.  Again, titles are telling: Percy Lubbock, a close friend of James, wrote the 1921 book The Craft of Fiction in which he examined technical issues of narrative theory and point of view.  In 1918, Pound published “A Retrospect” in which he similarly engaged with the minutiae of technique, warning, “Don’t imagine that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose” (255), advising, “Don’t be ‘viewy’ – leave that to the writers of pretty little philosophic essays.”  Although at times opaque, Pound does appear to echo Ford both in his demystified view of artistic production and his predilection for slangy, loose diction (see Ford’s “go the whole hog,” “sort of chap,” “vulgar sort of bloke” (277), etc.).  This is not to say that Ford is incapable of elegance: his analogy of Impressionism’s ability to render the multilayered, omnitemporal nature of reality to “so many views seen through bright glass – through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a face of a person behind you” (267) is surely one of modernism’s most beautiful, incisive self-descriptions.  However, what one most remembers about Ford’s essay is its ability to describe an influential movement’s aesthetic concerns in a tone that is both penetrating and self-ironizing, deadly serious and refreshingly playful.

  1. ↑ Ford Madox Ford, “Introduction” to The Good Soldier, ed. Kenneth Womack and William Baker (Ontario: Broadview, 2003), 29.
  2. ↑ Ford, “Introduction,” 30.
  3. ↑ Ford Madox Ford, “On Impressionism,” in The Good Soldier, ed. Kenneth Womack and William Baker (Ontario: Broadview, 2003), 260. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
  4. ↑ May Sinclair, “The Novels of Dorothy Richardson,” The Egoist 5 (April 1918): 59.
  5. ↑ Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” in Collected Essays, Volume 2, ed. Leonard Woolf (London: Hogarth, 1966), 105.
  6. ↑ Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect,” in Early Writings: Poems and Prose (New York: Penguin, 2005), 253. All subsequent references will be made in the body of th text. Pound, “Vorticism,” in Early Writings: Poems and Prose, 283.