Modernism Poetry: Auden Group of Poets

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      With the opening of the fourth decade of 20th century there was again a brilliant out-burst of English poetry; the 3rd decade being a comparative lull. It was mostly the poetry of and for the rising generation. The elder poets were still there in the field. The older Yeats still remained a living force, admired by the new poets of all schools. Kipling produced new poems in a prophetic vein, pointing to the coming disaster. Sassoon, "the angry satirist of war and materialism" was still active. Masefield, the Poet-Laureate, still wrote poetry in his traditional manner.

But by far the most important poets of the Modernism who gave the poetry of the decade its peculiar flavour are a new group that include Auden, the leader of the group, Cecil Day Lewis, William Empson, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood and Leuis MacNiece.
Modernism Poetry

      But by far the most important poets of the Modernism who gave the poetry of the decade its peculiar flavour are a new group that include Auden, the leader of the group, Cecil Day Lewis, William Empson, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood and Leuis MacNiece. The poets are bound together by common affinities and formed a natural group. They were educated at Oxford and Cambridge. They were upper and middle class intellectuals. They were young, read one another's work, compared ideas and developed a natural understanding of the principles of poetry which were to guide them. "They encouraged one another in the contempt of the 'bourgeois' and for social standards based on wealth, snobbishness, intellectual indolence and effect ethical standards. They had read the war books which came out in the twenties, and blamed a civilization which could produce wars and tolerate disorganisation, exploitation and stupid frivolity.

      They despised a literature which appeared to acquiesce in the situation or seek escape in the past and in sentimentalism and was content with a language and metrical forms belonging to an obsolete order and the ideas irrelevant to the present crisis". (Scott-James). Thus this group had a revolutionary creed. They meant poetry to speak in a new language and rhythm. Its imagery should draw on modern life and its vocabulary on contemporary speech, and its rhythm too should be nearer to that of natural speech. They meant their poetry to make a call on the intellect than on the emotions of the readers.

      All modern knowledge should be at their disposal. In most of these things their master was Eliot. But their attitude to life was no Eliot's. They held that it was the duty of the poets to take sides in politics and to use poetry to that end. In politics they stood on the left, upholding the cause of the 'proletariat.' "They found the contemporary scene dark enough with its grave financial crisis, unemployment problem and threats of another European War. Though it was a Waste Land in their eyes, they did not despair, but were determined to beat the sick society by their poetry. They adopted Communism as their faith and their general attitude was strongly inspired by their reading of Karl Marx and it gave a positive vital force to their poetry" (Collins).

      W. H. Auden (1907-1973) the leader of the group, is a richly-endowed poet and his influence on the contemporaries is deep. As Scarfe has observed: "Auden has been a liberating influence which gave the younger writers a self-confidence which they might otherwise have had a fight dearly.... He enlarged for the younger writers the vocabulary, syntax, rhythm and imagery of poetry His poetic development followed a clear upward curve. His first notable volume, Poems of 1930 shows the consciousness of the old effete social, political and economic set-up of the world and of the need of revolution if we want to live, 'we'd better start to die'. The disease is at once psychological and economic and Freud and Marx are called in for doctoring it. The tragedy of the Spanish War wiped away the ironic smile from his lips and the poem Spain was written in a deadly earnest tone. Look, Stranger which came in 1936 is a collection of beautiful lyrics, which remind us ot Elizabethan lyrics in expression of emotions. With the outbreak of the Second World War he went to America and became a naturalised citizen there (his wife a German, the daughter of the famous German writer Thomas Mann). It is interesting that Auden has recently returned to England and as a fitting recognition of his poetic genius the office of the Poet-Laureate was offered to him but he refused it. His earlier style was full of mannerisms but in the latter volumes it developed on the proper lines and attained a grace and dignity of its own.

      Cecil Day Lewis, (1904-1972) (more widely known as Nicholas Blake, the pseudonym under which he wrote famous detective fictions) as a poet is different from Auden in spite of close literary association. He is a more human poet than Auden and has a great love for the fresh open-air nature, for the wind and the bird song which inspired his poetry. His The Magnetic Mountain comes nearer to the spirit of early Auden, begin pre-occupied with the sickness of the world and yet a hope for the world. Its language is firm and clear. The Spanish Civil War ended with the victory of Franco and growing menace of Fascism lowering darker and darker over Europe had overcast his hope. The result was his Overtures' to Death (1938), which strikes a tragic note, indignant and ominous, though not despairing. He of all the poets of his group had the most satisfying fulfilment in the forties and had the highest acceptance.

      While anger and scorn mark Auden's denunciation of the Waste Land, Stephen Spender (1909-1977) has a more delicate awareness and compassion which, if he were born in another age, would have made him a romantic poet. Emotion, gentleness and pity break through his Criticism of the status quo. His compassion for the workless men who idle in the streets and the children of the slum school move him into genuine poetry. His Still Centre, published in 1939, is a characteristic volume. Its subjects are politics, war and his own personal emotions. The group of poems on the last are beautiful lyrics in which emotions and reflections mingle and reach poignancy and beauty. He has real poetic sensibility, a goad ear and strong lyric impulse. He is more of a poet than a partisan.

      Louis MacNice (1907-1963) "the ablest, certainly the robustest, of them all" a fine scholar, is a master alike of the old manner and the new. He is a friend of Auden, but he does not share Auden's communism; on the contrary he is a rugged individualist, who views the contemporary scene with ironic detachment. He came from Ireland and has the Irishman's strains of melancholy, romantic sentiment and self-pity and also a sense of humour. He was an idealist and humanist. He loved the old world of his classical education (he became a University lecturer in classics), but he saw in it isolation, and weakness; yet he could not whole heartedly accept the new. It is in his short lyrics that he is at his best. He has a perfect mastery of the musical qualities of the language and "he writes with a control, finish, lightness of touch and a structural sense who are often lacking in the poets of his group". His Poems, The Earth Compels and Autumn Journal appeared by 1939. He also wrote some poetic drama, The Dark Tower and other for broadcasting.

      Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) edited Wheels: An annual Anthology of Modern Verse which appeared between 1916 and 1921 and revolted against the popular Georgian poetry. Like all the poets who achieved eminence in this period she was deeply conscious of the unhappiness and spiritual emptiness of the Inter-war years. But she sought escape into the world of childhood and art. She shared with her brothers (Osbert Sitwell and Sir Sacheverell Sitwell) a nostalgic regret for the culture which has disappeared with great verbal dexterity, wit and brilliance of poetic imagery, her early poetry including Clowns' Houses (1918), The Wooden Pegasus (1920), and Bucolic Comedies (1923) creates a wholly artificial world from the dreams of childhood. She is essentially an artist, exploiting to the full the magic of language, ceaselessly experimenting with verse forms and patterns. Her technical virtuosity is prominent in Facade (1922). In a single word or phrase, she can achieve a striking effect. She is particularly fond of describing the perceptions of one sense in terms of another (e.g. Pig-shouted breeze). In her later poems, her verse lost much of its earlier brittleness. But her humanity became apparent. Her other publications include The Sleeping Beauty (1924), Troy Park (1925), Street Songs (1942), The Song of the Cold (1945). Edith Sitwell's criticism of the contemporary scene and the strangeness and experiment in her technique are major aspects of her poetry. She laid too much emphasis on the patterns and technical skills of poetry as though verbal artistry were all-important. However, her sensitive appreciation of the poetry of Pope in Alexander Pope (1930) did much to provoke a revaluation of the poetry of Pope.

      Christopher Isherwood was a novelist and dramatist who collaborated h Auden in writing three sociological plays The God Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F. 6. (1936) and On the Frontier (1938).

      Outside this group there numerous other poets who wrote in this decade. Much of the works of these poets belong to coterie and the poets have their own manifesto of the nature and purpose of poetry which was translated-into their works. This provoked Eliot's ironical saying: "Everyone talks of poetry but no one gives us a poem." Dylan Thomas, George Barker and Sachervell Sitwell however stand out prominently because of the great qualities of their poetic works.

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