Modernists Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The English-language poets of the first forty years of the twentieth century who called themselves modernists developed their movement in response to a number of discoveries, disappointments, and disillusions in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

In the nineteenth century, scientific discoveries led to the development of photography, which made the mimetic value of painting and sculpture less important. Artists, thus liberated, developed Impressionism, stressing the effects of light and color at a moment in time, and post-Impressionism, asserting that significant rendering eludes mere representation. In the realm of poetry, this trend can be seen in the dramatic monologue, which came to prominence in the mid-nineteenth century. This poetic form rendered the world through the distorted vision of driven people, as in “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning (1812-1889), in which the duke matter-of-factly reveals that he ordered his wife murdered because she was gracious to people. The Romantic William Wordsworth (1770-1850) recounted the moral wisdom of nature, and John Keats (1795-1821) declared with magnificent grace that truth and beauty are mysteriously one; but in the dramatic monologue, the poet no longer mines objective truth or prophetically conveys higher values. The duke’s story reveals a perverse aspect of human character. Punctuated in such a manner as to render the rhymed couplets almost invisible, it is true, ugly and extraordinary,...

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Influences and precursors

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The veneration of individuals and individualism, represented by Romanticism in the arts, capitalism economically, and democracy politically; of the Christian God; and of conventional scientific wisdom were all challenged in the nineteenth century. Disappointment and disillusionment were the order of the day. Among those trying to deal with the fallout were poets in England, the United States, and on the continent.

In the United States, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the poet of democracy, anticipated the modernists by developing expansive free verse that he thought suited to the great American experiment in freedom. Not far north of New York, Whitman’s base, the cloistered New England poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) developed an equally distinct voice. Using dashes instead of punctuation, she closeted away terse, insightful poems in ballad form, filled with telling ironies, often underscored by off (or slant) rhymes and words that almost rhymed, producing dissonances that reinforced the troubling thoughts they conveyed.

In France, inspired by the scandalously sexual poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and his translations of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), the avant-garde Symbolists, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), and Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) wrote shockingly challenging poetry. Trusting imagination more than the mundane world, seeking correspondences to the transcendent, and abandoning direct description in...

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The beginnings

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Modernist poets, who wrote in English, were influenced by and responded to the events and movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They committed themselves to the present, often reacting to or agreeing with continental writers, and also sought inspiration from earlier literature, such as the poetry of ancient Greece, medieval Italy and France, and seventeenth century England. They also examined the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), a heretofore little published Jesuit who was conservative in content and challengingly innovative in images and sprung rhythm, and the tightly ordered poetry of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), despite his religious leanings, which accepted the Darwinian idea that chance was the organizing principle of the universe.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In 1912, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) marked up a poem by H. D., signed it “H. D. Imagiste,” and submitted it to Poetry magazine, thereby founding the Imagist movement. Imagist poetry is characterized by subjective or objective presentation rather than description of the poem’s material, a parsimonious use of language, and rhythms determined by musical phrase rather than metrical considerations. Pound edited an anthology of Imagist poetry, Des Imagistes: An Anthology (1914) and wrote the essay “Imagisme” (1914), which was published in Poetry magazine and served as an Imagist manifesto. Because of his interest in presentation, Pound was intrigued to learn that each Chinese word is an ideogram, a stylized visual presentation of its meaning. Pound turned the literal translations of Chinese poetry made by Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) into splendid translations in Cathay: Translations by Ezra Pound for the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihaku, from the Notes of the Late Ernest Fenollosa and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga (1915). Pound would later abandon Imagism, and Amy Lowell (1874-1925), a member of a distinguished American family of poets, became the new leader and voice of the movement. She wrote some of the most distinguished free verse of the period.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was once approached by Pound, who told him that although he was the greatest living poet writing in English, he did not write concretely. Yeats, always intrigued by new ideas and helpful to youths who admired him as well as those who attacked him, asked Pound what he meant. Pound pointed out abstract words in Yeats’s published verse, and Yeats amended his writing and made a commitment to reworking his poetry that...

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The American modernists

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

American modernists Robert Frost (1874-1963), Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) and Marianne Moore (1887-1972) were more balanced than Eliot. Though Frost wrote metrically and compared free verse to playing tennis without a net, his first book, A Boy’s Will (1913) was positively reviewed by Pound. Frost’s graceful style and the attractive rural settings of his poems played off against the profound insights into human loss, pain, and error that he shared with the less accessible modernists. Stevens, an insurance executive, replaced traditional values and the God of the past with an engagement in life and an appreciation of objects such as the sun, which provided an image of what gods ought to be. Williams, a dedicated physician, celebrated simple things in short free-verse lines of powerful rhythmic value. He claimed to deplore iambic pentameter, but if one strings together the initial lines of his famous tribute to the wheelbarrow, one finds a wonderfully musical iambic pentameter line that ends acceptably in an unstressed syllable. Moore, who conceived of poetry as imaginary gardens containing real toads, was the acting editor of The Dial from 1925 to 1929. She wrote crisp, witty poems, often in syllabic verse, counting the number of syllables per line but not stress or syllable length.

High modernism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The 1920’s was the period of high modernism, followed by a socially responsible group of younger modernists led by W. H. Auden (1907-1973), who, under Eliot’s influence, early on wrote in blank verse and then, following Yeats, turned to brilliantly controlled regular forms devoted to political and moral issues and love. Auden then famously expressed the wish that if unequal love was his destiny, then he wanted to be the one who loved more. Moving in the opposite direction from Eliot, Auden renounced British citizenship and adopted the United States, where the moral and socially conscious Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) and E. E. Cummings (1894-1962) had taken up the modernist tradition. MacLeish, in “Ars Poetica,” declared that the poem does not mean but is, and Cummings further extended the relation of form to content, sometimes adding appearance to sound, placing elevated words higher and words that fall lower down on the page than the rest of their lines.

The end of modernism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Despite the grim events occurring in the world, the modernists did not abandon hope. They shared a thirst for meaning, order, and commitment in a world that had lost them. Pound, Eliot, and Yeats moved to the right in search of it. Pound embraced fascism, supported the Axis during World War II, and was tried for treason. Declared insane, he was incarcerated at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he continued to work on his Cantos (1925-1972). He was awarded the first Bollingen Prize in 1949 for The Pisan Cantos (1948). With the intercession of fellow modernists, Pound was released in 1958. The once bellicose advocate of radical artistic and political movements fell silent, expressing fragments of regret in verse about his anti-Semitism.

Modernists lived on and continued to write after World War II, but their movement had reached an end: They had declared themselves modern. The new generation saw itself as postmodern. The quest to respond to discoveries and confront disappointments, disillusionments, and disasters by embracing them or transcending them through unique visions or engagement with the past, to make things new with concrete images and shocking subject matter or forms, was over. What had been shocking had become everyday matters in the world that emerged after World War II. A great period of twentieth century poetry had ended.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane, eds. Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930. 1976. Reprint. London: Penguin Books, 1991. A comprehensive survey of which only the preface is new in the second printing.

Chefdor, Monique, Ricardo Quinnones, and Albert Wachtel, eds. Modernism: Challenges and Perspectives. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Contains essays by major critics, moving from pre- to postmodernism.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. A magisterial study, centered on Pound, of pattern-seeking explorations of the period.

Lewis, Pericles. The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. A general introduction to modernism.

Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890’s to the High Modernist Mode. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. Surveys the variety of forms in the period through the study of more than one hundred poets.