(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This excellent introductory study of the poetry of Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot began in 1983 with an editor’s request for Frank Lentricchia to write an entry on modern American poetry for the Cambridge History of American Literature (1994). This beginning helps explain Lentricchia’s audacity in trying to encapsulate the careers of these poets whose works have spawned hundreds of critical volumes (he sidesteps this anxiety of influence by largely not citing earlier scholarship). His close juxtaposition of four major poets helps the reader understand the complex movement called modernism, which was able to encompass such a wide variety of aesthetics. While the four poets pursued very different careers, they all grew up in the same cultural milieu of early twentieth century America. Lentricchia shows how their aesthetics formed in reaction to the genteel, ladylike poetry found in the little magazines of the late nineteenth century, the Fireside school of poetry, the commodity culture, and the corrupt publishing interests—all factors that made up the literary status quo of their youth.

Lentricchia comes to this topic fully qualified. He has already written books on Stevens and Frost, which he draws upon for this study. His After the New Criticism (1980) discusses poststructuralism, deconstruction, feminism, and other late twentieth century critical movements and their debt to the New Criticism. In Modernist Quartet, Lentricchia writes a blend of gender, class, economic, aesthetic, and philosophical criticism that contextualizes each poet’s world without diminishing his talents and idiosyncrasies. Unlike other critics, Lentricchia does not try to turn each writer into a creature of his historical scene or class or gender. He adopts critical modes when they are useful and then moves on. His study wavers between an introductory survey of modernist poetry and something more ambitious, a complete reassessment of the place of the moderns in present-day criticism.

Lentricchia brings to the reader’s attention some useful and unexplored cultural and historical backgrounds before he evaluates the work of each poet in turn. His preface concerns the poetic regime that the high modernists revolted against, the Fireside poets (William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell), who abruptly died out in the early 1900’s, and the genteel poets (R. H. Stoddard, Bayard Taylor, Richard Gilder) who followed them at the turn of the century in America. The Fireside poets left a legacy of safe, iambic, homiletic poetry meant to be read aloud to the whole family. The genteel poets, armed with an immense publishing empire, extended this trend into the twentieth century. Their poetry was moral, vague, full of lofty sentiments, aesthetically at odds with the burgeoning realistic novel, and feminine in the sense that upper-class wives were dictating the poetry’s tastes by buying it. In addition, Palgrave’sGolden Treasury (c. 1861), a bestseller for decades, set the standard for public consumption of poetry intended for people who wanted a bit of culture between work hours. Palgrave’s anthology was an immense financial success, and it helped determine the commercial path of poetry of the time: Lyrics should be short, dissociated from contemporary problems or social changes (unlike realistic novels), restricted to accepted poetical topics and forms, and packaged for mass consumption. Thus, as Pound found out to his horror, economics in America determined aesthetics. The lyric had become another impersonal commodity.

By the turn of the century, poetry had deliberately become out of touch, disengaged, antique, a cultural dinosaur. Something needed to be done, or the novel was going to overtake poetry altogether as a viable art form. In a way, one could scarcely think of a more opportune moment in history for the modernists to appear. They had only to call attention to the weakness, irrelevance, and corruption of the prevailing aesthetics in poetry, and the field was wide open for any innovation. As Eliot pointed out, not one living poet writing in English was available for leading a young poet in search of a new idiom. Eliot had to cross languages to the French Symbolists to find his direction as a writer. While Pound researched Italian, Chinese, and other world literatures for hints of a modern voice, Frost looked to the working-class vernacular of his native New England. All four poets had to start from scratch to reinvent poetry and find their own traditions.

Lentricchia then introduces three Harvard philosophers, George Santayana, William James, and Josiah Royce, who supplied the intellectual groundwork for the modernist revolt through their teachings and books. Santayana’s theories on aesthetics were a major influence on Wallace Stevens, who was Santayana’s student and wrote “To an Old Philosopher in Rome” (1952) in his honor. Royce’s search for an ideal intellectual community found its champion in the later T. S. Eliot, who sought both a tradition and a society in such works as The Idea of a Christian Society(1939). Frost taught William James to his students and shared many of James’s Emersonian...

(The entire section is 2130 words.)