Modern poetry, of which T. S. Eliot is the chief representative, has followed entirely a different tradition from the Romantic and Victorian tradition of poetry. Every age has certain ideas about poetry, especially regarding the essentially poetical subjects, the poetical materials and the poetical modes.
These preconceptions about poetry during the nineteenth century were mainly those which were established by great Romantic poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats. According to them the sublime and the pathetic were the two chief nerves of all genuine poetry. That is why Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton were given a higher place as poets than Dryden and Pope, who were merely men of wit and good sense, and had nothing of the transcendentally sublime or pathetic in them. During the Victorian Age, Matthew Arnold, summing up these very assumptions about poetry stated:
Though they may write in verse, though they may in a certain sense be masters of the art of versification, Dryden and Pope are not classics of our poetry, they are classics of our prose.
The difference between genuine poetry and the poetry of Dryden and Pope and all their school is briefly this; their poetry is conceived and composed in their wits; genuine poetry is conceived and composed in the soul.
Arnold shared with the age the prejudice in favour of poetry which in Milton’s phrase was “simple, sensuous and passionate.” It was generally assumed that poetry must be the direct expression of the simple, tender, exalted, poignant and sympathetic emotions. Wit, play of intellect and verbal jugglery were considered as hinderances which prevented the readers from being “moved”.
Besides these preconceptions, a study of the nineteenth century poetry reveals the fact that its main characteristic was preoccupation with a dream world, as we find in Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott and Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel. O’ Shaughnessy’s following lines express the popular conception of the poet during the nineteenth century:
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers
On whom the pale moon shines.
Such conceptions of the poet and his art prevailed during the Victorian period not because they were right, but because they suited the age, and moreover they had the prestige of the Romantic achievement behind them. But they could not find favour with the poets and critics of the twentieth century on account of the radical changes that had taken place. Under the stress and strain of new conditions they could not take the dream habit seriously. Though during the Victorian period Tennyson was aware of the new problems which were creeping in on account of scientific and technical discoveries, yet under the impact of the popular conception of poetry, and also because of his own lack of intellectual vigour, he expressed in his poems more of a spirit of withdrawal and escape, rather than of facing squarely the problems confronting his age. This is illustrated by his The Palace of Art. The explicit moral of the poem is that an escape from worldly problem is of no avail; but instead of effectively conveying this moral, the poem stands for withdrawal and escape. In the songs of Swinburne about Liberty and Revolution we do not find the preciseness and genuineness of Shelley’s ideals.
The Victorian poetry was obviously other-worldly. Its cause was stated by Arnold when he referred to:
………this strange disease of modern life
With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
Its heads o’ertaxed, its palsied hearts……
(A Summer Night)
But in spite of the fact that Arnold among all the Victorian poets was the most frank in his expression of the ‘disease’ of his age, his response to it was not fundamentally unlike that of the other poets of his age. For him the past was out of date, the future was not yet born, and not much could be done. He studied Wordsworth and the Greek poets mainly with the purpose of escaping to the freshness of the early world. In his own poems like A Summer Night, where he refers to the disease of modern life, he slips away from ‘this uncongenial place, this human life’ into the beautiful moon-lit region, and forgets the iron time in the midst of melodious sentiments.
Arnold, therefore, was not qualified to give a new direction to poetry. Browning on the other hand, though a greater poet, was unaware of the disharmonies of his time. He was too optimistic to face the realities of life and new problems which had crept in. He was a poet of simple emotions and sentiments, and though he could understand psychologically the past ages, he had no aptitude to understand the complexities of modern life. He was also, therefore, not in a position to provide the impulse to bring back poetry to the proper and adequate grappling with the new problems which had arisen.
William Morris, though a practical socialist, reserved poetry for his day-dreams. Moreover, some of the distinguished authors like Meredith and Hardy turned to the novel, and during the early part of the twentieth century it was left to the minor poets like Houseman and Rupert Brooke to write in the poetic medium. Thus there was the greatest need for some great poets to make poetry adequate to modern life, and escape from the atmosphere which the established habits had created. For generations owing to the reaction of aesthetes against the new scientific, industrial and largely materialistic world, the people in England had become accustomed to the idea that certain things are ‘not poetical,’ that a poet can mention a rose and not the steam engine, that poetry is an escape from life and not an attack on life, and that a poet is sensitive to only certain beautiful aspects of life, and not the whole life. So the twentieth century needed poets who were fully alive to what was happening around them, and who had the courage and technique to express it.
The great poetical problem in the beginning of the twentieth century was, therefore, to invent technique that would be adequate to the ways of feeling, or modes of experience of the modern adult sensitive mind. The importance of T. S. Eliot lies in the fact that, gifted with a mind of rare distinction, he has solved his own problem as a poet. Moreover, being a poet as well as a critic his poetical theories are re-inforced by his own poetry, and thus he has exerted a tremendous influence on modern poetry. It is mainly due to him that all serious modern poets and critics have realised that English poetry must develop along some other line than that running from the Romantics to Tennyson, Swinburne and Rupert Brooke.
Of the other important poets of the twentieth century Robert Bridges belonged to the transitional period. He was an expert literary technician, and it was his “inexhaustible satisfaction of form” which led him to poetry. His metrical innovations were directed to the breaking down of the domination of the syllabic system of versification, overruling it by a stress prosody wherein natural speech rhythms should find their proper values. He was convinced that it was only through the revival of the principle of quantitative stress that any advances in English versification could be expected. A. E. Houseman a classical scholar like Robert Bridges, rejected the ecstasles of romantic poetry, and in his expression of the mood of philosophic despair, used a style characterised by Purity, Simplicity, restraint and absence of all ornamentation. W. B. Yeats, the founder of the Celtic movement in poetry and drama, a phase of romanticism which had not been much exploited hitherto, gave expression to the intellectual mood of his age.
The twentieth century poets who were in revolt against Victorianism and especially against the didactic tendency of poets like Tennyson, Browning, Arnold and even Swinburne and Meredith, felt that the poet’s business was to be uniquely himself, and to project his personality through the medium of his art. Poetry to them was not a medium for philosophy and other extraneous matters; nor was it singing for its own sake. It was a method first of discovering one’s self, and then a means of projecting this discovery. Thus the problem before each of them was how to arrive at a completely individual expression of oneself in poetry. Naturally it could not be solved by using the common or universally accepted language of poetry. On account of the change in the conceptions of the function of poetry, it was essential that a new technique of communicating meaning be discovered. It was this necessity which brought about the movements known as imagism and symbolism in modern poetry.
Symbolism was first started in France in the nineteenth century. The business of the symbolist poet is to express his individual sensations and perceptions in language which seems best adapted to convey his essential quality without caring for the conventional metres and sentence structures. He aims at inducing certain states of mind in the reader rather than communicating logical meaning. The imagists, on the other hand, aim at clarity of expression through hard, accurate, and definite images. They believe that it is not the elaborate similes of Milton or extended metaphors of Shakespeare which can express the soul of poetry. This purpose of poetry can be best served by images which by their rapid impingement on the consciousness, set up in the mind fleeting complexes of thought and feeling. In poetry which is capable of capturing such instantaneous state of mind, there is no scope for Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. In it suggestion plays the paramount part and there is no room for patient, objective descriptions.
The symbolist poetry in England came into prominence with the appearance of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. But it had actually started right during the Victorian Age, which is evident from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89), a Jesuit priest whose poems were published thirty years after his death. It was the poetry of Hopkins and T. S. Eliot which exerted the greatest influence on English poetry between the two wars.
The technique of the symbolist is impressionistic and not representational. In order to prevent any obstruction in the way of emotive suggestion by any direct statement of experience, he gives a covering of obscurity to his meaning. There is also in symbolist poetry a strong element of charm or incantation woven by the music of words. Repetition is often resorted to by the symbolist poets as we find in Tennyson’s The Marriage of Geraint:
Forgetful of his promise to the king
Forgetful of the falcon and the hunt,
Forgetful of the tilt and tournament,
Forgetful of his glory and his name
Forgetful of the princedom and its cares.
But the repetitive rhythms which the symbolists use have in them a hypnotic quality. They also recall the texture of dreams of the subconscious states of mind, and because of absence of punctuation they can express the continuous “stream of consciousness”.
The symbolists also give more importance to the subjective vision of an object or situation rather than the object or the situation itself. Moreover, unlike the Romantics who create beauty out of things which are conventionally beautiful, like natural objects, works of art etc., the symbolists find beauty in every detail of normal day-to-day life. Naturally to accomplish that and create beauty out of such prosaic material requires a higher quality of art and a more sensitive approach to life. Moreover, besides including all sorts of objects and situations in the poetical fold, the symbolist has broken fresh grounds in language also. He considers that every word in the language has a potentiality for being used in poetry as well in prose. For him the language of poetry is not different from that of prose. As he uses all sorts of words which were never used in poetry by the Romantics, the symbolist has to invent a new prosody to accommodate such words as were banned previously from the domain of poetry. Thus the symbolist does not consider any particular topic, diction or rhythm specially privileged to be used in poetry.