By the end of the nineteenth century, poets in Great Britain and the United States were seeking a new, modern way to write verse. In Britain, the reigning movements in poetry and the arts—Romanticism and Victorianism—seemed to have run their course. Romantic lyric poetry as exemplified by Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, for example, had degenerated (many poets believed) into self-indulgence, so that poets seemed so preoccupied with their own subjectivity that the greater world was largely ignored. The result was a poetry that was precious and clichéd. In other words, poets relied on stock words and phrases such as “thee” and “thou” and “the orb of heaven” that tended to remove poetry from reality, from the day-to-day experience of most people. Poets were, in effect, just repeating what other poets had to say. Victorian poets had made matters worse by writing with sentimentality and decorum, thus eschewing the raw, robust radicalism that poets of Lord Byron’s generation had cultivated.
In the United States, poetry as an art was in a kind of limbo. The two greatest American poets of the nineteenth century—Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson—had largely been ignored by their contemporaries, and the full extent of their contributions to American poetry were discounted in the 1880’s and 1890’s by what came to be termed the “genteel tradition,” one that like the Victorians used poetry to express acceptable sentiments and...
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