Modernism in English Poetry or 20th Century Poetry

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      "When the twentieth century opened" writes A.C. Warel "Tennyson had been dead nine years, and there was a wide spread impression that English poetry had died with him." The apprehension of the critics on modern poetry were baseless. Modern poetry has given a rich harvest of poetic thought in the style and diction in a peculiar manner. In modern age there "has been no dearth of great poets or great poems that will stand the test of time and become a part of the imperishable literacy heritage of England."

"When the twentieth century opened" writes A.C. Warel "Tennyson had been dead nine years, and there was a wide spread impression that English poetry had died with him." The apprehension of the critics on modern poetry were baseless. Modern poetry has given a rich harvest of poetic thought in the style and diction in a peculiar manner. In modern age there "has been no dearth of great poets or great poems that will stand the test of time and become a part of the imperishable literacy heritage of England."
W. H. Auden

      Modernist poetry refers to poetry written, mainly in Europe and North America, between 1890 and 1950 in the tradition of modernist literature, but the dates of the term depend upon a number of factors, including the nation of origin, the particular school in question, and the biases of the critic setting the dates. Modernist poems are attempted for ‘making it new’ ones. The questions of impersonality and objectivity seem to be crucial to modernist poetry. Modernism developed out of a tradition of lyrical expression, emphasizing the personal imagination, culture, emotions and memories of the poet. For the modernists, it was essential to move away from the merely personal towards an intellectual statement that poetry could make about the world. Even when they reverted to the personal, like T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets and Ezra Pound in The Cantos, they distilled the personal into a poetic texture that claimed universal human significance. According to Herbert Read, “The modern poet has no essential alliance with regular schemes of any sorts. He reserves the right to adapt his rhythm to his mood, to modulate his meter as he progresses. Far from seeking freedom and irresponsibility he seeks a stricter discipline of exact concord of thought and feeling.”

      Modernist poetry is characterized by themes of disillusionment, fragmentation and alienation from society. These characteristics are widely believed to be feelings brought on by the Industrial Revolution and the many social, political and economic changes that accompanied it. This multinational cultural movement began in the late 19th century and maintained its prevalence in art throughout World War I and the immediately subsequent years. Many modernist poems have speakers that seem to be struggling with their own definition of self and placement in society.

      The rapid rise of cities in the late 19th century was brought on by the shift from a largely agricultural economy to a largely industrial one. Massive waves of immigrants from Europe seeking economic opportunities flocked to major cities. This left many artists and poets feeling alone and isolated in the midst of busy, populated cities. The poetry of the period reflects feelings of disenchantment, anxiety and hopelessness, especially in the work following the devastation of World War I. Modernist poets are also noted for their rejection of Romantic ideas and artistic styles preferring to approach language with more suspicion, resulting in fragmented sentence structure. Notable modernist poets include Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. After World War II, a new generation of poets sought to revoke the effort of their predecessors towards impersonality and objectivity. In the English language modernism ends with the turn towards confessional poetry in the work of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, among others.

Main Tendencies in Modern English Poetry

      In modern age, poetry can be written on almost any topic, the modern poet is inspired by trains, tramcars, telephone, the snake charmer and things of commonplace interest. Modern poets do not belong to a single recognisable group. "Mr Bridges is the poet of nine o'clock in the morning, Mr Hardy of midnight. The truth is there has never been a greater. The variety of moods among poets than during the past two generations". Following are the main tendencies of 20th century poetry.

(1) Realism in the Twentieth century:

      The poetry of the Twentieth century is characterised by a note of realism. The modern poet portrays life and paints it as it is with all its wants and ugliness. Homantics ot the preceding century were not giving the sordid realities of life. Hence their poetic vision becomes unrealistic. Robert Frost in The Gum Gatherer, Edmund Blunden in The Poor Man's Pig, W.W. Gibson in The Stone and John Masefield in Cargoes, Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover strike the note of realism. Robert Frost, Edmund Blunden, W.W. Gibson, John Masefield are the poets of realism in modern poetry. The best expression of realism in modern poetry is to be found among the war poets, Owen, Graves, Season, who have described vividly and realistically the horrors of war in a language that sometimes shocks poetic sensibility. Season in the poem Counter Attack "set out to present in brutal verse the realities of war without gloss or evasion."

(2) Democratic and Humanitarian Note in the 20th Century Poetry:

      Modern poetry is characterised by a note of humanitarian and democratic sentiments and feelings. The modern poets meditate over the daily struggles of the people, the same potentialities of a spiritual conflict that the older poets found in those of exalted rank. Consecration' by Masefield is a representative-poem bringing out the modern poet's concern with the life of the common people - The poet says:

      Others may sing of the wine and the wealth and the mirth, The portly presence of potentates goodly in girth, Mine be the dirt and the dross, the dust and scum of the earth.

      The common man and his sufferings is of main interest to Masefield, Gibson and Galsworthy. Their miserable lot, grim annals and dark horrors have been expressed in their poetry.

      The modern poet is not only interested in the lives of the poor people, but is equally inspired to treat sympathetically the lot of the animals. Stupidity Street of Galsworthy pleads far greater sympathy for birds. Hodgson invokes sympathy for tames, and shabby tigers and dancing dogs and bears in The Bells of Heaven.

(3) Note of Pessimism in Modern Poetry:

      The pettiness, suffering and tragedy of human life was deeply felt by modern poets. So while writing about the downtrodden people a gloominess is always present in his poetry. So a pessimistic note prevailed the poetry of the modern poets. Housman, Hardy, Huxley, TS. Eliot are the poets of pessimism and disillusionment in modern poetry. These poets are dissatisfied with God and the naked dance of chance and materialism in the modern world, and their poetry is the target of modern society in a pessimistic strain: The following lines by TS. Eliot give a deep note on pessimism:

What are the roots that clutch,
What branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, far you know only,
A heat of broken images, where the sun beats
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief.

(4) The Spirit of Romanticism in Modern Poetry:

      The works of Walter De La Mare, James Elroy Flecker, W.B. Yeats, John Masefield and Edward Thomas prove the fact that the spirit of romance is as old as life itself. Inspite of the note of crude reality in the modern poetry a tone of romanticism prevailed the works of these poets. The true romantic spirit bordered with supernaturalism is saturated in the poetry of Walter De La Mare. With this poet the old world of ghosts and fairies have come into their own in the 20th century. The dim moon light of romance and chivalry hovers over the early poems of Gibson. A note of true romanticism is heard in the following lines -

I sang of Lovers and she praised my song,
The while the king looked on her with cold eyes.

(5) Complexity and psychology in modern poetry:

      Psychological complexity and difficult imagery make the modern poem quite difficult. The complexity in modern poetry has been accentuated by the New Metaphysicals like T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis and Louis Mac Neice. These new metaphysicals "were often as crabbed and tortuous in expression as the least luminous of their long-ago predecessors such as Donne. Some of the poems written by T.S: Eliot and Ezra Pound are very difficult to understand because of their psychological complexity and difficult imagery. G.S. Fraser says in The Modern Writer and His World: "We feel that much modern poetry is very difficult and that it does not always repay the labour involved in working it out. In the last hundred years complexity has been more and more heavily borne in all of us, and a false or affected simplicity is a detestable thing".

(6) Love in Modern Poetry:

      Love forms the subject of many modern lyrics. Robert Bridges has produced fine sonnets of love in The Growth of Love. His poems Awake My Heart to be Loved, Awake, Awake and I will not let thee go are fine lyrics of love. W.B. Yeats's When you are old is a fine poem of love. Arthur Symon's The Broken Tryset deals with disappointment in love. The lover feels despair because the tryst' is broken.

And then a woman passed. The hour Rang heavily along the air
I had no hope, I had no power
To think-for thought was but despair

      John Masefield finds a feeling of dejection in love. The beauty of the beloved reminds him at once of the decay of physical charms. His mind never seems to forget that:

Death has a lodge in lips as red as cherry
Death has a mansion in the Yew-tree berries.

(7) Religion and Mysticism in Modern Poetry:

      A note of Religion and Mysticism is present in Modern poetry. Though the modern age is the age of science but there are so many poems written on the subjects of religion and mysticism. Francis Thompson, Robert Graves, G.K. Chesterton, Belloe, Charlotte Mew, W.B. Yeats, George, Russel are the great poets who have kept alive the flame of religion and mysticism in their poetry. Thompson's Hounds of Heaven and In Strange Land are great poems of religion in modern poetry. Rubert Graves In the Wilderness, Mrs Meynell in I Am the Way present the omnipotence and omniscience of God. Chesterton in the Ballad of White House, The House of Christmas evokes the feelings of religion. Noyes was a christian by faith, and in joyous verse he sang, "The Lord of Life is risen again; and Love is Love of All".

(8) Longingness in Modern Poetry:

      Modern poets express longingness of all kinds in their poetry. It is quite obvious that longingness is at the root of all poetry whether ancient or modern. Rupert Brooke's Old Vicarage, Granchester is not merely a wail, it is also a cry of homesickness. John Masefield's Seekers is the best Example of the longing of man for God and the eternal city of light.

Friends and loves we have none, nor wealth nor blessed abode
But the hope of the city of God at the other end of the road.
Not for us are content and quiet, and peace of mind
For we go seeking a city that we shall never find.

(9) Nature in Modern Poetry:

      Modern poet is elated and exalted at the sight of nature's loveliness. He does not find any spiritual meaning in Nature, he is not a mystic. He gives an exquisite picture of birds, clouds, landscapes, countryside and the sea in his poetry. The name of the poets like Masefield, Robert Bridges, Edmund Bhunden can be mentioned as the great poets of Nature in modern poetry. The beauty of nature and the creatures those belong to it are appreciated and depicted in ther poems.

(10) Diction and Style in Modern Poetry:

      There is a touch of simplicity and directness in the modern poetry. The words and usage selected for the poetry are not old or archaic; rather they are expressive. The old or archaic words and usages are no longer in, vogue. Words are chosen for their association and only those words are employed which convey the meaning.

      In the use of metre also modern poets have chosen to be free. They have followed Vers Libre i.e. freedom from trammels of verse. Their experiments in verification induced them to replace verse rhythm by sense rhythm. So, in modern poetry there is free verse movement.

      Modern poetry has also been influenced by the techniques of music, sculpture, painting and other fine arts. The modern poet freely uses the vocabulary and techniques of the other arts. The Sitwells, for example care more for the sound than the meaning of their words. The variations and repetitions in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land are like the movements of a symphony so much so that I.A. Richards calls his poetry, "the music of ideas". Like a musician's phrases, his ideas are arranged, not that they may tell us something, but that their effects in us may combine into a coherent whole of feeling and attitude.

      Impressionism, Imagism and Surrealism are some other innovations of twentieth century poetry. The imprisonments seek to convey the vague, fleeting sensations passing through their minds by the use of a novel imagery and metaphor. The imagists, headed by Ezra Pound, aim at clarity of expression through the use of hard, accurate and definite images to convey their intellectual and emotional complexes. The surrealists try to express whatever passes in the subconscious, or even the unconscious, without any control or reflection by the conscious. These innovations have influenced the art of Eliot in various ways. All this increases the complexity, of modern poetry, and the confusion of the reader.

(11) The Romantic Impact on Symbolism:

      Although the twentieth century poetry is satirical, yet there was a vein of romanticism in modern poetry. Pre-raphaelite movement is highly romantic which is in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The decadence of the nineties have influenced the modern poets. Hence Masefield and Yeats have the romantic longing for a more perfect world. They wish to seek refuge into a fairy-land. Love, the key-note of romantic poetry of the nineteenth century has not. been completely wiped out. Robert Bridges' love lyrics are unforgettable; W.B. Yeats has been considered the distinguished love poet of the twentieth century. In the French literature this note of romance is deeply saturated.

      The French symbolists namely Laforgure, Verlaine, Mellarme are highly romantic. Under the influence of French symbolists, poets like Yeats and Pliot, make extensive use of symbolism to communicate their visions and sensations often too complex and intricate to be conveyed in any other way. Auden's landscapes, persons and places are symbolic. Such use of symbolism often results in ambiguity and obscurity.

(12) Impact of 17th Century Metaphysical Poetry:

      There had been a revival of dance school of metaphysical poetry. Grierson's anthology of dance poem was published in 1912 which was immensely read by the modern poets. Thus English poetry has displayed more and more the intellectual traits of Donne's poetry. Among the modern poets, T.S. Eliot has brought about this metaphysical revival. Much of Auden's imagery reminds us of the metaphysical poets. Hence in the modern poetry we find the same use of startling, far-fetched imagery, the same bringing together of opposite, the same urge to startle and surprise. The metaphysical style immediately draws the attention of the reader.

(13) Revival of Mysticism and Religious Faith:

      The twentieth century is the age of science and rationalism. Thee people are sceptical about God. For example Hardy Mocks at heavenly forces sarcastically and ironically. Housman calls the Almighty father a "lecture or a blackguard."

      But still the religion has far-reaching influence on the new poetry. Most of the poems of T.S. Eliot and Francis Thopmson are a revival of christian mysticism. Masefield, the well known modern poet has expressed his heavenly views in his poem, The Everlasting Mercy.

      His devotional lyrics are highly commendable. Hence most of the modern poets adopted the traditions of Blake and Wordsworth in respect of religion and mysticism in their works. D.H. Lawrence's poetry is admired because of his mystical attitude. Auden became an orthodox christian by 1940; W.B. Yeats is a mystic visionary in whose poetry the gods and fairies of celtic mythology are a dominating feature.

(14) Development of Poetry in the Thirties:

      The poets of the thirties had profound admiration to earlier writers who earned great reputation in the established modern poetry. But they i.e. Auden, Empson, John Betjeman, Dylan Thoman, Anne Kidler, George Barker had confusion on the new trends and ideas. They had no vivid and clear vision in their poems. Hence the people of the period were not visualising any specific school of poetry. Most of the poets were lamenting the age. They were not giving the specific idea of the society

(15) Age of Reviews and Anthology: Their Significant Role:

      The literary climate of the thirties was largely established by the flury of magazines and anthologies which not only presented new poems, stories and plays but which encouraged personal attack and retorts in an atmosphere of literary gureilla warfare. Michael Roberts was responsible for New Signature (1932), the fiercely propagandist collection New country (1933) and the The Faleer Book of Modern Verse (1936). Other avant garde journals were Contemporary poetry and prose, with its insistent political stress, Julian Symon's Zwentieth Century Verse, and perhaps the most influential, New Verse edited by Geoffrey Grigson, rather different in tone was F.R. Leavis's Scrutiny which praised and castigated writers with dry, donnish phrases. Although New Verse's favourite target was Edith Sitwell, who was pictured as aristocratic, eccentric and conceited, it also kept a close watch on its favoured sons. Auden was criticised for accepting the King's Medan, Ponnel, Eliot and Herbert Read for sympathy with social Credit theories, and C. Day Lewis for acting as selector for the Book Society. Grigson's pungent comments on this black sliding by one of the most vocal anti-bourgeois give us a glimpse of the intensity of the literary-political life of the times: The book society is a Limited Company pimping to the mass bourgeois mind and employing distinguised members of the literary underworld, adopters of literature as a profession.

(16) The Difficulty of Modern Poetry:

      Such an emphasis on the evolution of new forms had obvious dangers, chief among them a lack of proportion which elevated from above substance, and a glorification of eccentricity for its own sake. The freedom of vers libre encouraged licence, and the pursuit of novelty increased the obscurity which came from the attempt to communicate complex states of mind. Much of the poetry of the period is admittedly difficult, and poetry was in danger of becoming an art for the initiated few. This trend was emphasized by the popularity of the metaphysical conceit, which accompanied the rebirth of interest in Donne and his fellows, the growing use of symbolism under the influence of Yeats and the French symbolists, and the imitation of the allusiveness of the early Eliot. On the question of difficulty, Eliot himself wrote: "We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilisation, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilisation comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning."


      Poetry is a criticism of life. It must maintain its contact with life. Modern poetry is the reflection of modern life. It is realistic in tone and expresses the spirit of the age. It cannot be denounced as petty, wayward and puerile. It can safely take its place of pride in the kingdom of poetry produced from the times of chaveer to the modern times.

      The poets of today are sincere in their vocation. There is the stamp of honesty in modern poetry. "The poetry of the twentieth century is less vague, less verbose, less eloquent than most poetry of the victorian period. It has set before itself an ideal of absolute simplicity and sincerity - an ideal which implies an individual, and unstereotyped diction and an individual and unstereotyped rhythms".

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