Economic, Political & Social Scenario of 20th Century Poetry

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Importance of the Age

      Auden’s poetry cannot be understood without understanding his age. Like the eminent writer T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden has expressed the very spirit of the times in his poetry. Hence a study of the dominant literary and social trends in the thirties and forties of the present century—the period in which Auden matured and produced his best work—is essential in the present chapter we shall study the social context of the poetry of Auden.

New Psychology: its Impact

      Freud and his followers have shown conclusively that repressed sex instincts are at the root of much neurosis and other signs of abnormality. The atmosphere of twentieth century is full of perplexity, confusion and anxiety. Freud emphasized the power of the unconscious to a feet conduct. Intellectual convictions, were rationalizations of emotional needs. Human beings are not so rational as they are supposed to be; their conduct is not guided and controlled by the conscious, rather it is at the mercy of the forces lying buried deep within the unconscious. The abnormal is no longer regarded as a sign of degeneracy. It has now been admitted that, even the normal, are abnormal and neurotic to some extent. This had, had a profound influence on twentieth-century moral attitudes, specially in matters of sex. Freud’s theory of The Oedipus Complex has caused a sensation and it is being freely exploited by twentieth-century writers. Feelings and intuition are regarded as the means of true and real understanding instead of intellect.

Science: Rationalism

      According to Freud, man is a biological phenomenon, a creature of instincts and impulses, whereas to the Marxist he is an outcome of economic and social forces. Philosophy and metaphysics instead of concerning themselves with the nature of God, show a keen interest in the study of the nature of man. Nationalism is no longer regarded as enough and imperialism has come in for a great deal of criticism. The Empire instead of being a matter of pride, as in the days of Kipling and Tennyson, is looked down upon with a sense of guilt. Thus Forster in his Passage to India advocates relationships between nations, as well as between individuals, based on equality and feeling of heart.

Changed Attitude Toward Sex and Authority

      With the advent of the teaching of modern psychology, man is no longer regarded as self-responsible or rational in his behavior. The theory of Oedipus Complex has had a profound impact on private and family relationships. Victorian ideas on sex are no longer operative. With the modem psychology, the assessment of the relative roles of the sexes has changed; woman has come to her own, and the notion of male superiority has suffered a serious blow. Eliot’s Waste Land reveals a harrowing consciousness of this phenomenon of twentieth-century city life.

      Tension and frustrations were further increased as a result of the First World War. The reaction of the post-war world has been to suspect all manifestations of authority. It may be called an era of revolt against authority Cynicism, general disillusionment, religious skepticism have become the order of the day. Interest of the human being has shifted from the ‘extrovert’ to the ‘introvert’: Neuroris and spiritual gloom are widespread. Economic depression, acute shortage, over-population, unemployment have increased the hardship of life and caused stress and strains and nervous breakdowns. “The hero in the inter-war novel is a person to whom things happen; he is an ‘anti-hero’ a neurotic, a ‘cripple’ emotionally, if not physically. There is an atmosphere of moral unease and uncertainty, a collapse of faith in the accepted pattern of social relationships and a search for new patterns.”

The Scene: Political

      After a brief post-war boom, inflation followed, with strikes and threatened strikes—in 1919 a police strike, in 1920, a Railway strike, and in this same year the London dockers refused to load munitions on to the Jolly George, destined for the interventionist armies against Bolshevism in Russia. The 1921 slumps, when 2,170,000 were unemployed brought in the ‘dole’ system, but the basic economic problems, manifested to the general public in high prices and the acute housing shortage, were not solved. In 1926 came the General Strike, which lasted nine days and in 1929 the Wall Street Crash. In 1920 there was civil war in Ireland; in 1922 Gandhi was sentenced to six years’ jail and a decade of riots and strikes followed in India.

Disintegration and Conventional Patterns: Search for New Techniques

      Marxism has provided many with the vision of a New Society which will replace the present one in the not-too-distant future. As Arthur Koestler emphasizes, “every period has its own dominant religion and hope, and Marxist Socialism has become the hope of the early twentieth century. On Social organization Marxism had a great impact. The aristocracy has lost practically all power and prestige with the turn of the twentieth century. There has been an immense increase in social mobility. Prestige has started to go with merit and education and not with birth. Attention has been focussed on social and economic problems and a planned development was preferred so that there may not be extreme poverty side by side with great wealth — Consequently, the search for a ‘system’ or ‘pattern’ has resulted in the emergence of Marxism and the concept of economic planning.

The Thirties: Increase in Tension

      In 1932 the British Union of Fascists was formed. In March 1936 Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland; in July 1937 Japan began an undeclared war on China; in March 1938 Hitler’s troops occupied Vienna; A few months later, in September 1939 the Second World War began. So the thirties saw an increase in tension. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 heralded the Great World Depression of 1929-32. The General Strike of 1926 had demonstrated that Socialism could not be achieved merely by a spectacular act of workers’ solidarity. A few months later, in September 1939, the Second World War started. Life in the Twenties and Thirties became easier and more varied for most sections of the population because of technological advances and mass production. Here lies the paradox of the Twenties and thirties. At the same time the class bitterness grew intense due to the fundamental economic crisis which led to a permanent pool of unemployment.

Fall in Literary Standards

      As a result of the change in all the spheres—social and economic the modem age has witnessed a phenomenal rise in literacy. The cinema, the radio, the popular literature, full of crime or love stories have exploited the people for commercial purposes. There has been an increase in brutality, coarseness and vulgarity; human relationships have been coarsened and cheapened; man has become incapable of finer and subtle emotional responses. Further, the cinema, the television, and the cheap novel have fostered a kind of day-dreaming and a proportionately weakened grasp of reality This lowering of tastes has had an adverse effect on art and literature. The exploitation of youth for commercial purposes accentuated the antagonism of the old and the young. The old culture of the people expressed in folk-song, dance, rustic craft, etc. has been destroyed. The mass media like cinema, radio, the popular literature have exploited the people for commercial purposes. What was the result? The answer is “Many people live fantasy existence derived from the shadow lives of the screen”.


      It is quite natural for a writer to represent his social milieu in his works. The modern writers also were not exceptional to it. They all were very much conscious to reflect the age in their works. As the 20th century has undergone different change in social, economic and political scenarios so also the literary works of this era were the reflection of all these changes, which no doubt provided something new in the artistic creations.

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