Literature has evolved time and time again as individuals and societies experiment and explore different themes and techniques in writing. Modernism is a particular literary movement that follows the Romantic and Victorian eras of poetry. While its definition composes many different elements, such as the rise of pessimistic thought caused by postwar disillusionment, and the rise in appeal of the imagist movement.
Davis and Jenkins cite Peter Brooks who claims that readers have to acknowledge a “plurality of modernisms which sought to innovate on different artistic and cultural fronts” (3) while continuing to argue that “modernism is an unfinished project” (4). Lee and Jenkins also argue that modernism is a function more of place than time
Three poets forged the way for this movement in English poetry: William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas. As evidenced by these poets, modernist poetry is a mixture of many diverse elements, including pessimistic themes, disjointed time and recurring symbolic images whose understanding may depend more upon psychology than the intrinsic beauty of nature.
William Butler Yeats is the oldest of these three, but not the first to write in the modern style. As he began experiencing with the poetic transitions, he came to be known as a realist-symbolist who revealed meaning through symbol. T.S. Eliot is often credited as one of the poets that began the movement, along with Ezra Pound, and is known also for his symbols and haunting poetic images.
Dylan Thomas is also known for his highly ordered images which represented the cycling of life for humankind. All three presented themes that would have turned the poets of earlier eras, known for complimentary elegies, harmonious pastorals, and carefully ordered time, to drink.
Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land,” considered by most literary reviewers as the quintessential modernist poem, offers a spiritual yet disconnected view of society which mirrored the wasteland produced the spiritual disillusionment felt during the 1920s and the physical hardships associated with the Depression, the rise of Hitler and the threat of another war (Abrams 2137). Eliot’s poems probe into the psyche of man that could live during any time period. They leave behind the romantic and the beautiful to deal with the obscure and the dark aspects of humanity.
The first four lines of “Waste Land,” illuminate the ideas of precise images and theme. The suggestion that “April is the cruelest month” (“The Waste Land” ln. 1) runs counter to the idea that spring is a time of renewal and rebirth. The image of lilacs growing from the arid land and of roots withering from the lack of rain support the initial assertion of the first line. Throughout this lengthy poem, Eliot twists images from what the reader expects to see into something unexpected and thought-provoking.
Likewise, in Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” past history would suggest that this poem might be in praise of a Greek deity, when it actually, through its images, seems to be chronicling a rape. The first four lines suggest this image rather clearly:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By his dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast” (lns. 1-4).
Similarly, Thomas’ images of a misshapen man in the park are juxtaposed with images of animals. He “slept at night in a dog kennel”(ln.11) and was “eating bread from a newspaper” (ln. 7). None of these images are veiled in the rosy light of Romanticism and present rather sad, violent and pessimistic images of society.
In contrast with the chronological narratives of Romantic and Victorian poetry, these poets’ works are essentially nonlinear. The words are broken and fragmented, and only at the end do these seemingly unrelated bits come together, if at all. Time and structure in these poems are fragmented. F.R. Leavis in “T.S. Eliot’s Later Poetry” discusses this concept of fragmented time in depth as necessary to presenting the realism sought after by these poets. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” clearly reveals this disjointed and chaotic journey through the mind of an everyman. The poems shifts time periods and locations several times, but remain an imagistic representation of England with its nightlife, discussions of Renaissance art, and references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The action takes place entirely within the head of the speaker, who is deliberating about attending a social function. He ponders as his brain wonders chaotically from one topic to the next. ). In line 69, the speaker becomes aware of his own ramblings and muses, “And how should I begin?” Later, he queries, almost nonsensically, as if he, himself, has become the embodiment of the chaos of swiftly moving time:
“I grow old…I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (lns. 120-121). This fragmentation of time seems to lead, as it does in “The Waste Land” to disastrous results as evidenced by the last line of the poem – “and we drown” (ln. 130). The disjointedness of time and thought seems to be representative of a confused state of mind, both in individuals and in society.
“The Waste Land” begins in arid desolation, both physically and spiritually for its inhabitants. In the first stanza of Part I, the chronology moves swiftly from the present reflection of the speaker to a childhood memory, back to the reflection, and then to another incident a year in the past. This style is much like that of an interior monologue, in which the thoughts of the speaker are presented just as they flow, without any organization, to help the reader understand. Yeats presents a similar confusion in “The Second Coming.” This poem projects to the return of a god figure, but not with rejoicing. The society is described by the first four lines as fragmented and chaotic:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (lns. 1-4).
Again, the vision of fragmentation is created by the images presented in the first four lines of this poem.
A common theme among the modernist poets is that of the individual alienated from his society, a society that is generally as fragmented and dysfunctional as time. The grandeur to which Prufrock ascribes his place in the world, as exhibited by “Dare I dare/Disturb the universe?” (lns. 45-46). Prufrock, with all of his insecurities, ineptitude and physical shortcomings, and the masses of individuals he represents, will never be able to actually disturb the inner machinations of the universe. Similarly, “The Waste Land” offers no heroic figure for the readers to identify; the speaker can be anyone, but his demise is certain to occur and certain to happen alone.
Likewise, all three of these poems seem to be fascinated with death, not as the ultimate redemption as presented by earlier poets, but as a frightening, even horrible, reality that should be challenged. Eliot’s “Love Song” ends with the figurative death of not only Prufrock but of society as a whole. “The Waste Land” describes a society that is in a state of apocalypse. Yeat’s poem, “The Second Coming” describes, as discussed above, a disjointed society that fear the return of a savior, the new deity:
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” (lns. 18-22).
This example parallels Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” which adopts the persona of the Biblical magi who describe their journey as not joyful, but full of hardship. They question their dedication to the birth and actually equate it with death, seemingly contradicting the traditional Christmas story: The lines …this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death (lns. 38-43). Reveal this questioning that has resulted from the disillusionment and doubt with the classical views of religionl
Thomas actually suggests battling with death almost physically in his poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” He continually exhorts those near death to “Rage, Rage against the dying of the light” in the last line of each stanza. Instead of accepting death as a reward for a Christian life, these poets present death as a time of fear and uncertainty which could be representative of a spiritual disillusionment. Even theological elements of Christianity and life-after-death are no longer held sacred by the modern poets.
While modernism, at least as Yeats, Eliot, and Thomas present it, may be a reflection of many different eras of poetry, it deviates in its themes, symbols and chaotic presentation of time. The pessimistic themes and perplexing images they create are reflective of the societal and spiritual disillusionment prevalent in this postwar era. These poets are icons of modernist thought and poetry. Their complex works reject the focus on beauty and narration that other genres utilize and paint a picture of mankind and society as a spiritually arid and ghastly.
Abrams, M.H. Ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. 6th
Ed. New York: Norton, 1996
Eliot, T.S. “The Journey of the Magi”
—. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
—. “The Waste Land”
Jenkins, Lee M. and Alex Davis. Locations of Literary Modernism: Region and Nation in
British and American Modernist Poetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Leavis, F.R. “T.S. Eliot’s Later Poetry.” T.S. Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays. Hugh
Kenner, Ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1962.
Thomas, D. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”
— “The Hunchback in the Park”
Yeats, W.B. “The Second Coming”
—. “Leda and the Swan”