1. Robert Bridges (1840-1930)
Robert Bridges, though a twentieth century poet, may be considered as the last of the Great Victorians as he carried on the Victorian tradition. He is not a poet of the modern crisis except for his metrical innovations. Belonging to the aristocracy his work is also concerned with the leisured and highly cultivated aristocratic class of society.
In his poetry we find beautiful descriptions of English landscapes, clear streams, gardens, songs of birds. The world that he depicts is haunted by memories of the classics, of music and poetry and decorous love making. He carries on the tradition of Milton, Wordsworth and Tennyson, against which the young men of his times were in open revolt. We do not find in his poetry any bold attempt to face the critical problems facing his generation. Even his greatest poem, The Testament of Beauty, does not contain any consistent treatment of deep philosophy. That is why Yeats remarked that there is emptiness everywhere in the poetry of Bridges.
The importance of Bridges in modern poetry, however, is in his metrical innovations. He was lover of old English music and many of his early lyrics are obviously influenced by the Elizabethan lyricists, especially Thomas Campion. He was a remarkable prosodist, the first English poet who had a grasp of phonetic theory. He was tireless experimenter in verse form. He himself admitted: “What led me to poetry was the inexhaustible satisfaction of form, the magic of speech, lying as it seemed to be in the masterly control of the material.” Working under the influence of his friend, Hopkins, to whom he dedicated the second book of shorter poems, Bridges wrote his poems following the rules of new prosody. The best of Bridges’ metrical experiment is the sprung rhythm, a kind of versification which is not, as usual, based on speech rhythm, but on “the hidden emotional pattern that makes poetry.” And it was a definite contribution to the development of English verse.
The lyrics of Bridges like A Passer-By, London Snow, The Downs, are marked by an Elizabethan simplicity. In the sonnets of The Growth of Love, we find the calm, the mediative strain of Victorian love poetry. A believer in Platonic love, he exalts the ethical and intellectual principle of beauty. In his greatest poem, The Testament of Beauty, he has given beautiful expression to his love for ‘the mighty abstract idea of beauty in all things’ which he received from Keats. Here he has also sought to ‘reconcile Passion with peace and show desire at rest.’ In his poetry Bridges thus transcended rather than solved the modern problems by his faith in idealism and the evolutionary spirit. He has no sympathy for the down-trodden and less fortunate members of humanity, and so whenever he deals with a simple human theme, as in the poem The Villager, he reflects the mind of the upper class which has lost touch with common humanity. Bridges is, therefore, rightly called the last Great Victorian, and his greatest poem, The Testament of Beauty, the final flower of the Victorian Spirit.
2. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
Hopkins who died in 1889, but whose poems were not issued during his lifetime, and who only became widely known after his friend Robert Bridges edited the collection in 1918, exerted a great influence on modern English poetry. The poems of Hopkins were so eccentric in style that Bridges dared not publish them till thirty years after his death. Hopkins had tried to revive the ‘sprung rhythm’, the accentual and alliterative measure of Langland and Skelton, which had dropped out of use since the sixteenth century. In this rhythm there are two currents, the undercurrent and the overcurrent, which are intertwined. This effect is produced by inducing the metre to run back on itself, sometimes making a second line reverse the movement of one before; sometimes in the same line confronting a metric foot by its opposite, for instance, an iambic followed by a trochee. As these variations produce the momentary effect of a break or split, Hopkins called this device sprung rhythm. This rhythm follows the system of beats and stresses unlike the quantitive metres where every syllable is counted. As in conversation we stress significant words and syllables with so much emphasis that accompanying syllables and words are left to take care of themselves, the ‘sprung’ rhythm is nearer to natural speech. That is why it has appealed to the modern poets who in their poetry attempt to convey the everyday experience of modern life and its multifarious problem in a most natural manner. The ‘sprung’ rhythm of Hopkins, therefore, is his greatest contribution to modern poetry. Of course he was not the first to invent it; there are examples of it in the poetry of all great poets, especially Milton. But Hopkins revived it and laid special emphasis on it, and exerted a great influence because the twentieth century needed it.
Hopkins, like Keats, was endowed with a highly sensuous temperament, but being a deeply religious man having an abiding faith in God, he refined his faculty and offered it to God. He avoided all outward and sensuous experiences, but enjoyed them in a deeply religious mood as intimations of the Divine Presence. He could perceive God in every object, and tried to find its distinctive virtue of design of pattern the inner kernel of its being, or its very soul which was expressed by its outer form. This peculiarity or the immanent quality in each thing which is the manifestation of Beauty was called by Hopkins as inscape’, a term which he borrowed from Don Scotus. For example, the inscape of the flower called ‘blue bell’, according to Hopkins, is mixed strength and grace. Thus to him not only trees, grass, flower, but each human spirit had its personal inscape, a mystic, creative force which shapes the mind. This ‘inscape Hopkisn expressed in a style also which was peculiar to himself, because he could not be satisfied with the conventional rhythms and metres which were incapable of conveying what came straight from his heart.
The poems of Hopkins are about God, Nature and Man, and all of them are pervaded with the immanence of God. His greatest poem is The Wreck of Deutschland, which is full of storm and agony revealing the mystery of God’s way to men. All his poetry is symbolic, and he means more than he says. Some of his lyrics are sublime, but the majority of his poems are obscure. It is mainly on account of his theory—sprung rhythm, and inscape, that he has exerted such a tremendous influence on modern poets.
3. A. E. Houseman (1859-1936)
Alfred Edward Houseman was a great classical scholar. He wrote much of his poetry about Shorpshrie, which like Hardy’s Wessex, is a part of England, full of historic memories and still comparatively free from the taint of materialism. Out of his memories of this place, Houseman created a dream world, a type of arcadia. His most celebrated poem, Shorpshire Lad, which is a pseudo-pastoral fancy, deals with the life of the Shorpshire lad who lives a vigorous, care-fee life.
Housemen was disgusted with the dismal picture which the modern world presented to him, but he did not possess a sufficiently acute intellect to solve its problems. However, in some of his poems he gives an effective and powerful expression to the division in the modern consciousness caused by the contrast between the development of the moral sense and the dehumanised world picture provided by scientific discoveries. In one of his poems based on his memories of Shorpshrie, he has achieved tragic dignity:
Men loved unkindness then, but lightless in the quarry
I slept and saw not; tears fell down, I did not mourn;
Sweat ran and blood sprang and I was never sorry;
Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born
Housemen also wrote a few poems expressing the horrible destruction caused by modern wars, and their utter futility and inhumanity. But he was on the whole a minor poet who could not attain the stature of T. S. Eliot or W. B. Yeats.
4. The “Georgian” Poets
Besides Bridges and Houseman, who did not belong to any group, there was in the first quarter of the twentieth century a group of poets called the “George Group:” These poets flourished in the reign of George V (1911-1936). They possessed various characteristics and were not conscious of belonging to a particular group. In reality they were imitators of the parts, who shut their eyes against the contemporary problems. But they were presumptuous enough to think of themselves as the heralds of a new age. Robert Graves who first claimed to belong to this group, and subsequently broke away with it, wrote about the Georgian poets. “The Georgians’ general recommendations were the discarding of archaistic diction such as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and ‘flower’d’ and ‘when’er’, and of poetical construction such as ‘winter clear’ and ‘host on armed host’ and of pomposities generally… In reaction to Victorianism their verse should avoid all formally religious, philosophic or improving themes; and all sad, wrecked cafe-table themes in reaction to the ninetees. Georgian poets were to be English but not aggressively imperialistic, pantheistic rather than atheistic; and as simple as a child’s reading book. Their subjects were to be Nature, love, leisure, old age, childhood, animals, sleep… unemotional subject.”
This is rather a severe account of the Georgian poets but it is not wholly unjustified. Though the quantity of work produced by the Georgian poets is great, the quality is not of a high order. The poets generally attributed to this group are roughly those whose work was published in the five volumes of Georgian Poetry, dated respectively 1911-12, 1913-15, 1916-17, 1918-19 and 1920-22. The important poets who contributed to these volumes were Lascelles Aberchrombie, Gordon Bottomley, Rupert Brooke, G. K. Chesterton, W. H. Davis; Walter De La Mare, John Masefield, J. E. Flecker, W. W. Gibson; D. H. Lawrence, John Drinkwater, Sturge Moore, Laurence Binyon, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
Among these the poets whose work has some lasting value are Walter De la Mare, W. H. Davis, Laurence Binyon and John Masefield. The greatest of them is Walter De La Mare (1873-1957) who writes in a simple, pure, lyrical style about beautiful sights and sounds of the country, about children and old people but there is always in his poetry a strange enchantment produced by the apprehension of another world existing side by with the everyday world. His poetry has the atmosphere of dreamland, as he himself says in his introduction to Behold, This Dreamer: “Every imaginative poem resembles in its onset and its effect the experience of dreaming.” He has the faculty of bridging the gulf between waking and dreaming, between reality and fantasy. Besides this he has great skill in the management of metre, and successfully welding the grotesque with the profoundly pathetic.
William Henry Davies (1871-1940) is one of the natural singers in the English language. Being immensely interested in Nature, the experiences which he describes about natural objects and scenes are authentic. His lyrics remind us of the melodies of Herrick and Blake. Though living in the twentieth century, he remained wholly unsophisticated, and composing his poems without much conscious effort, he could not give them polish and finish. But inspite of this he has left quite a number of lyrics which on account of their lively music have an enduring appeal to sensitive ears.
Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), a scholar and poet who translated Dante into English had a sense of just word and its sound. Generally he wrote about classical themes. The most notable of such poems is his Attila, a dramatic poem which is a well-constructed play. Its vehement blank verse and speed of action remind the readers of Shakespeare. The First World War stirred him to profound feelings and he wrote some very moving poems, for example, the one beginning with the unforgettable line—
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
The Second World War had a great saddening effect on him, and in his last years he wrote poems in which he contrasted old pleasures and dreams with the horrible war oppressed present. They were posthumously published in 1944 under the title The Burning of the Leaves and other Poems. Though these poems were written under the shadow of war and they deal with the transient nature of things and their tendency to decay, yet they express the hope, like Browning’s poetry, that nothing that is past is ultimately gone.
John Masefield (born 1878) who has been Poet Laureate since 1930, has been composing poems for the last forty years, but he has not attained real greatness as a poet. As a young man he was a sailor, and so most of his early poetry deals with life at sea and the various adventures that one meets there. The poems which give expression to this experience are contained in the volumes Salt Water Ballads (1902) and Ballads (1906). In 1909 he produced his best poetic tragedy—The Tragedy of Nan. After that he gave up writing on imaginative themes, and produced poems dealing with the graver aspects of modern life in a realistic manner, e.g. The Everlasting Mercy (1911), The Widow in the Bye-Street Dauber (1913), The Daffodil Fields (1913). All these poems narrate a stirring story with an excellent moral. Now he is looked upon as one of the ‘prophets’ of modern England.
5. The Imagists
The first revolt against the Victorian Romantic poetic tradition came from a group of poets called the Imagists. Their activities extended for about ten years—from 1912 to 1922. They realized that the poetry of the Georgians did not introduce any new vitality in English poetry. At its best it displayed both power and individuality, but it did not alter the fact that each of the Georgian poets was content to delimit or modify the poetic inheritance of the nineteenth century rather than abandon it in favour of a radically different approach. Neither Masefield, whose poetry is realistic in subject and vocabulary, no De la Mare, who is the last of the true romantic poets of England, pointed to the new paths in English poetry.
The poetic revolution engineered by the Imagists, which began in the years immediately preceding the First World War, and which was both produced and further encouraged by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, preferred the older tradition in English poetry to the Victorian Romantic tradition. The Romantic and the Victorian poets tried to express their personalities in their poems. For them poetry was a means of self-expression and they appealed to the cultivated sensibility of their reader. They treated of themes dealing with their personal hopes and fears and often indulged in the emotions of nostalgia and self-pity. That is why the Victorian poetry especially had a tendency of running to elegy. The Imagists believed that the function of poetry is not self-expression, but the proper fusion of meaning in language. According to them poems are works of art and not pieces of emotional autobiography or rhetorical prophecy. As the purpose of poetry is the exploration of experience, the poet must strive after a kind of poetic statement, which is both precise and passionate, profoundly felt and desperately accurate, even if it means the twisting of the language into a new shape. There must be the fusion of thought and emotion which is found among the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. The Imagists did not look upon the poet as the sweet singer whose function was to render in sweet verse and conventional imagery some personal emotions, but he was the explorer of experience. Therefore, he must use the language in order to build up rich patterns of meaning which required very close attention before they were communicated. The rebels were conscious of the fact that the poetry of their own time represented the final ebb of the Victorian Romantic tradition, and that the time was ripe to give a new direction to English poetry.
The new movement began with a revolt against every kind of sweet verbal impression and romantic egotism which persisted throughout the nineteenth century. Its originator, T. E. Hulme, who was killed in war in 1917, in an article which he wrote in 1909, declared his preference for precise and disciplined classicism to sloppy romanticism. He advocated hardness and precision of imagery “in order to get the exact curve of the thing” together with subtler and more flexible rhythms. He with the help of Ezra Pound, who had come from America, founded the movement called Imagism. Defining the Imagists, Pound wrote in 1912: “They are in opposition to the numerous and unassembled writers who busy themselves with dull and interminable effusions, and who seem to think that a man can write a good long poem before he learns to write a good short one, or even before he learns to produce a good single line.” Giving a fuller statement of the aims of the Imagist movement, F. S. Flint pointed out in 1913 that three rules the Imagists observed were—(a) “direct treatment of the “thing”, (b) “to use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation”, and (c) “to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” Pound emphasised that the Imagists should “use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something”, and that they should avoid abstraction. The Imagist movement spread in England and America, and it was helped by the seventeenth century metaphysical poetry and the nineteenth century symbolists, who contributed their techniques and attitudes to the revolution.
The leader of the Imagists was Ezra Pound. Other poets who were included in this group were F. S. Flint, Richard Aldington, F. M. Hueffer, James Joyce, Allan Upward, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Instead of imitating the English romantics like the Georgians, the Imagists attempted to reproduce the qualities of Ancient Greek and Chinese poetry. They aimed at hard, clear, brilliant effects instead of the soft, dreamy vagueness of the English nineteenth century. Their aims which were expressed in the introduction to Some Imagist Poets (1915), can be summarised as follows:
(1) To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly exact, nor the merely decorative word.
(2) To produce poetry that is hard and clear, and not deal in vague generalities, however, magnificent and sonorous.
(3) To create new rhythms and not to copy old rhythms which merely echo old ones.
The Imagists were greatly influenced by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which appeared in 1918, thirty years after the death of the poet. It was the complete absence of any sign of laxness in Hopkins’ poetry, the clear signs of words and rhythms which were perfectly controlled by the poet to produce the desired effect, with no dependence at all on the general poetic feeling, which made an immediate appeal to the new poets.
Regarding the subject matter of poetry, the Imagists, believing that there was no longer a general public of poetry lovers, concentrated on expressing the modern consciousness for their own satisfaction and that of their friends. They gave up the old pretence that humanity was steadily progressing towards a millennium. Instead they recognised that in the new dark age of barbarism and vulgarity, it is the duty of the enlightened few to protect culture and escape the spiritual degradation of a commercialised world. This attitude seems to be similar to that of the aesthetes of the last decade of the nineteenth century, but it is not so. Whereas the aesthetes hating the vulgarity of the contemporary world tried to lose themselves among beautiful fantasies by withdrawing into an ivory tower, the Imagists, on the contrary, faced the new problems and tried to create a very precise and concentrated expression, a new sort of consciousness because the traditional poetic techniques were inadequate for that purpose. Opposed to the romantic view of man as “an infinite reservoir of possibilities”, they looked upon him as a very imperfect creature “intrinsically limited but disciplined by order.” Unlike the romantics who regarded the world as a glorious place with which man was naturally in harmony, the Imagists regarded it “as landscape with occasional oasis…But mainly deserts of dirt, ash-pits of cosmos, grass on ashpits”. They did believe in the words of Hulme, in “no universal ego, but a few definite persons gradually built up”. In his essay on Romanticism and Classicism, he predicted that “a period of dry, hard, classical verse is coming” and expressed the opinion that “there is an increasing proportion of people who simply can’t stand Swinburne.”
The Imagists could not adequately tackle the contemporary problems, because they lived too much among books, were rather irresponsible in their conduct, did not possess sharp intellect, and were not in close contact with actualities. The result is that their poetry is as nerveless and artificial as the neo-romantic poetry of the Georgians. But they certainly deserve the credit of showing that English poetry needed a new technique, and that unnecessary rules and a burdensome mass of dead associations must be removed.
The poets belonging to the Imagist group did not produce great poetry on account of the reasons stated above. Ezra Pound is a poet of real originality, but his too much and rather undigested learning which he tries to introduce in his poems, makes them difficult to understand, and also gives them an air of pedantry. His greatest contribution to modern poetry is his development of an unrhymed ‘free verse’, and other metrical experiments which influenced T. S. Eliot.
The most important writer, who in spite of his being not a regular member of their group, was directly connected with the Imagists, was David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930). He contributed both to Georgian poetry and the Imagist anthologies. Most of his mature poetry deals with the theme of duel of sex, a conflict of love and hate between man and wife, and expresses an annihilation of the ego and a sort of mystical rebirth or regeneration. His most remarkable poem Manifesto ends with a beautiful description of universe where all human beings have completely realised their individualities, where
All men detach themselves and become unique;
Every human being will then be like a flower, untrammelled,
Every movement will be direct
Only to be will be such delight, we cover our faces when we think of it,
Lest our faces betray us to some untimely end.
The poems which he wrote in the last year of his life when he was dying of consumption, deal with the themes of death and eternity. Lawrence did a lot in rebuilding English poetry, and as a critic he set before the English poets the following ideal, which has greatly influenced the modern English poets.
“The essence of poetry with us in this age of stark unlovely actualities is a stark directness, without a shadow of a lie, or a shadow of deflection anywhere. Everything can go, but this stark, bare, rocky directness of statement, this alone makes poetry to-day.”
6. Trench Poets
The First World War (1914-18) gave rise to war poetry, and the poets who wrote about the war and its horrors especially in the trenches are called the War Poets, or the “Trench Poets.” The war poetry was in continuation of Georgian poetry, and displayed its major characteristics, namely, an escape from actuality. For example, E. W. Tennant describes the soldiers in Home Thoughts in Laventie, as
Dancing with a measured step from wrecked and shattered town.
Away upon the Downs.
Instead of facing squarely the horrors of war, these poets looked upon the terrible present as a mere dream and the world of imagination the only reality. Following the Georgian tradition with its fanciful revolution from the drabness of urban life and its impressionistic description of the commonplace in a low emotional tone, a number of poets who wrote about the war, described incidents of war and the ardours and pathos of simple men caught in the catastrophe. Their method was descriptive and impressionistic, and on account of lack of any intense, sincere and realistic approach, they failed to arouse the desired emotions in the readers.
Out of a number of these war poets, only two—Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – attained some poetic standard. Though Sassoon in his early period belonged to the Georgian group, his predominant mood was not lyrical but satiric, not ‘escapist’ but rebellious, because he felt that the soldier was being sacrificed for a false idealism. He looked upon him as
a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say
(A Working Party)
In his Suicide in Trenches he described the horrors of trench warfare. In Song Books of the War he dwelt on the short memory of the public who forget those who suffered and died for them during the war. Sassoon, who is still living, wrote some poems between the two great wars, in which he attacked the shallow complacency of his contemporaries, and gave voice to the disillusionment.
Wilfred Owen wrote war poems under the influence of Sassoon. He admired Sassoon because the latter expressed in a harsh manner the truth about war. Speaking about his own poetry he remarked, “Above all, I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is War and the poetry of War. The poetry is in the pity … all a poet can do today is to warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.” Though in his poems we find the mood of disillusioned irony, yet, unlike Sassoon, he does not completely lose his hope for man. His poems are free from bitterness and he rejoices in the exultation of battle as well as in the fellowship of comrades. Whereas in Sassoon’s poetry we find a mood of indignation and satire, in Owen’s poetry the mood is of reconciliation and elegy. The following remarkable lines in his poem Strange Meeting reveal Owen’s typical approach to War.
I am the enemy you killed, my fried…
Let us sleep now.
As an experimenter in metre Owen’s contribution to modern English poetry is great. Against the Georgian laxity, he introduced accumulative use of balance and parallelism. And above all, he brought a new dignity to war poetry.
7. W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939)
William Butler Yeats was one of the most important of modern poets, who exerted a great influence on his contemporaries as well as successors. He was an Irish, and could never reconcile himself to the English habits and way of thinking. By temperament he was a dreamer, a visionary, who fell under the spell of the folk-lore and the superstitions of the Irish peasantry. Like them he believed in fairies, gnomes, and demons, in the truth of dreams, and in personal immortality. Naturally with such a type of temperament, Yeats felt himself a stranger in the world dominated by science, technology and rationalism.
Being convinced that modern civilisation effaces our fundamental consciousness of ourselves, Yeats trusted in the faculty of imagination, and admired those ages when imagination reigned supreme. Thus he went deeper and farther in the range of folk-lore and mythology. He discovered the primitive and perennial throb of life in passions and beliefs of ancient times, and he wanted to revive it, because he felt that modern civilisation has tamed it by its insistence on dry logic and cold reason.
Yeats was anti-rationalist. He believed in magic, occult influences and hypnotism. He thus led the ‘revolt of the soul against the intellect’, in the hope to acquire ‘a more conscious exercise of the human faculties’. He also believed in the magic of words, the phrases and terms which appeal to common humanity. Therefore, he tried to rediscover those symbols which had a popular appeal in ancient days, and which can even now touch man’s hidden selves and awaken in him his deepest and oldest consciousness of love and death, or his impulse towards adventure and self-fulfillment. Being disillusioned by lack of harmony and strength in modern culture, he tried to revive the ancient spells and incantations to bring about unity and a spirit of integration in modern civilisation which was torn by conflicts and dissensions.
All these factors inclined Yeats towards symbolism. Believing in the existence of a universal ‘great mind’, and a ‘great memory’ which could be ‘evoked by symbols’, he came to regard that both imagery and rhythm can work as incantations to rouse universal emotions. He liked Shelley’s poetry because of the symbolism inherent in the recurrent images of leaves, boats, stars, caves, the moon. He found that Blake invented his own symbols, but his own task was easier because he could draw freely on Irish mythology for the symbols he required. Coming under the influence of French Symbolists like Verlaine, Macterlinck, he tried to substitute the wavering, meditative and organic rhythms, which are the embodiment of imagination, for those energetic rhythms as of a running man which are not suited to serious poetry.
As a symbolist poet Yeats’ aim was to evoke a complex of emotions not by a direct statement but by a multitude of indirect strokes. The result is that sometimes the symbols used by him are not clear as they have been derived from certain obscure sources. For example, the symbols used in the following lines from The Poet Pleads with the Elemental powers demand a commentary:
Do you not hear me calling white deer with no horns?
I have been changed to a hound with one red ear!
I would that the Boar without bristles had come from the west
And had rooted the sun and moon and stars out of the sky
And lay in the darkness, grunting, and turning to his rest.
In most of his poems, however, the symbols used by Yeats are obvious. One very common symbol in his poetry is ‘the moon’, which stands for life’s mystery.
Yeats, therefore, tried to reform poetry not by breaking with the Past, but with the Present. According to him, the true poet is he who tells the most ancient story in a manner which applies to the people today. His early poems, like The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), express Yeats’ deepest idealism in the simple outlines of primitive tales. The same attempt, though more effective and mature, was made in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) and The Shadowy Waters (1900). But up to this time Yeats had not found himself; he was groping in the dreamland for wisdom and illumination.
The First World War (1914-18) and the Irish disturbances during those eventful years gave to Yeats a more realistic direction. These conflicts, of course, did not completely efface his dreams, but they turned his eyes from mythology to his own soul which was divided between earthly passions and unearthly visions. Yeats realised that the highest type of poetry is produced by the fusion of both—“the synthesis of the Self and Anti-self” as he called It. The Anti-self is our soaring spirit which tries to rise above the bondage of our mental habits and associations. Yeats’ lyrics which give the most effective expression to these views are The Wild Swan at Coole (1917), The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1929). Here he gave a very satisfying presentation of the wholeness of man—his Self and Anti-self.
In his later poetry Yeats reached a maturity of vision and style which may be described as hard, athletic and having a metallic glint. Instead of serving as symbols and having certain indefinite associations, his last poems expressed ‘Cold passion’ in images which are chastened and well-defined. That is why, it is no exaggeration to say that Yeats was influenced by the Imagists, and influenced them in return. A Thought from Propertius is in every respect an Imagist poem.
In his last years Yeats retired to the solitude of his own mind, and he wrote poems dealing with his early interests—love of dreams (Presences), admiration of simple joy of youth and old civilisations, but the disintegration of modern civilisation under the impact of war pained Yeats, and he believed that a revolutionary change is in the offing. In Second Coming he describes what lies at the root of the malady;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
For about half a century Yeats exerted a tremendous influence on modern poetry on account of his utter sincerity and extraordinary personality and genius. He recognised no external law, but like a true and great artist, he was a law unto himself.
8. T. S. Eliot (1888)
Thomas Stearns Eliot is the greatest among the modern English poets, and he has influenced modern poetry more than any other poet of the twentieth century. He combines in himself strange and opposing characteristics. He is a great poet as well a great critic; he is a traditionalist rooted in classicism as well as an innovator of a new style of poetry; he is a stern realist acutely conscious of modern civilisation with its manifold problems as well as a visionary who looks at life beyond the limits of time and space.
T. S. Eliot was born in 1888 in the U.S.A. He was educated at Harvard University. After that he received education at Paris and Oxford, and settled in England which he has made his literary home. He came into prominence as a poet in the decade following the First World War i.e., between 1920 and 1930, during which period he wrote the poems for which he is best known. There was at that time in England a tendency in favour of classicism which directly influenced Eliot. Being himself a great classical scholar, and finding around him petty poets of the Georgian group, he set himself to establish principles of a sound classicism. To him classicism stands for order. It is a tradition not established by the authority of Aristotle or any other ancient critic, but by the whole body of great writers who have contributed to it in the course of centuries. He conceives of literature as a continuous process in which the present contains the past. The modern poet, according to Eliot, should carry on that process, follow the permanent spirit of that tradition, and thus create fresh literature by expressing the present on a new and modified manner. Thus Eliot is different from the neo-classicists of the eighteenth century who insisted on implicitly following the narrowly defined rules of writing. To him classicism means a sort of training for order, poise and right reason. In order to achieve that the modern writer should not defy the permanent spirit of tradition, and must have “a framework of accepted and traditional ideas.”
But the surprising thing about Eliot is that in spite of his being a professed classicist and an uncompromising upholder of tradition, he was the man who led the attack on the writing of “traditional’ poetry, and come out as the foremost innovator of modern times. He thought that the literary language which had served its purpose in the past was not suited for modern use. So he rejected it outright. According to him, the modern writer while carrying on the literary tradition of ‘poise, order and right reason’ need not follow the old and obsolete idiom of his predecessors, but should invent entirely a new medium which is capable of digesting and expressing new objects and new feelings, new ideas, and new aspects of modern life. The language used by the modern poet must be different from the language of the past because modern life dominated by science and technology is radically different from the life of the past ages characterised by slow and steady development.
In his attempt to find a new medium for poetry Eliot became interested in the experiments of Ezra Pound, the leader of the Imagists. Like Pound, Eliot also sought to extend the range of poetic language by introducing words used in common speech but commonly regarded as inappropriate in literature. But Eliot is different from Pound in this respect that having a profound knowledge of classical literature he can, whenever he likes, borrow phrases from well-known poets and thus create an astonishing effect. Thus in his poem one find colloquial words expressing precisely and exactly the meaning which he wants to convey, along with archaic and foreign words used by ancient poets, philosophers and prophets, which sound like voice far away beyond a mountain.
Eliot is acutely aware of the present and the baffling problems which face mankind in the modern times. The poems of his early period as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) express the disillusion, irony and disgust at the contemplation of the modern world which is trivial, sordid and empty. In his greatest poem, The Waste Land, the poet surveys the desolate scene of the world with a searching gaze. He relentlessly uncovers its baffling contrasts and looks in vain for a meaning where there is only
A heap of broken images, where the sun heats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
The same attitude is expressed in the Hollow Men (1925):
We are the hollow men,
We are stuffed men,
He Headpiece filled with straw.
But it is not merely the present with which Eliot is preoccupied. He is a mystic who has a profound sense of the past and he looks into the future. His aim is to look beyond the instant, pressing moment, and think of himself as belonging to what was best in the past and may be prolonged into the future. For him the spirit exists in one eternal Now, in which Past, Present and Future are blended. In order to experience it one should surrender one’s ego and relax in a mood of humble receptivity. Only then one can absorb the fleeting moment in such a way that the scheme of existence purged of all one’s personal prejudices, narrowness and resentment is felt all around one’s self. It is in this mood that his later poems published together in Four Quartets, consisting of Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941), and Little Gidding (1942) are written. In the last mentioned poem the poet lets his thoughts go free amid the ruined chapel at Little Gidding from which all recollection of conflict and effort has vanished, but where the intensity of spiritual prayer can still be left.
Burnt Norton begins with the significant lines
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
Thus T. S. Eliot who is a force in modern English literature, is a many-sided personality. He is a classicist, innovator, critic, poet, social philosopher and mystic—all combined into one. He makes the reader aware not merely of the problems of modern life but also of mankind as a whole. The soul of man finds itself in horror and loneliness in the Waste Land unless it is redeemed by courage and faith. Though a great and acute thinker, he has a spiritual approach to life, which is rare in the twentieth century dominated by science and materialism. And he has expressed his ideas and feelings in a language which is devoid of all superfluous ornamentation and is capable of conveying the bewildering and terrifying aspects of modern life. Of all the living English poets he has done most to make his age conscious of itself, and aware of the dangers inherent in modern civilisation.
9. Poets after T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot dominated the English poetic scene till 1930; after that a new school of English poets came to the forefront. It is headed by W. H. Auden, and the other leading poets of this group are Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis. They follow the example of Hopkins and make use of the technical achievements of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. These poets are conscious of the bareness of modern civilisation and strive to find a way out of the Waste Land. Their ideal is the creation of a society in which the real and living contact between man and man may again become possible.
The most original and the most poetically exciting among the modern poets is W. H. Auden who settled in America shortly before the Second World War. He also considers the Waste Land as symbolic of modern civilisation, but whereas to T. S. Eliot it is a symbol of a state of spiritual dryness, to Auden it is a symbol of the depressing physical and psychological condition in the English social life. He is greatly distressed by the upper and lower classes. It is the sense of imminent crisis which pervades his early poetry.
In his later poetry Auden has given up the psychological-economic diagnosis of the troubles of the times, and developed a more sober, contemplative and religious approach to life. But he is also capable of writing light verse full of puns and ironic overtone. But whatever he writes is full of symbols and images derived not from mythology as in the case of Yeats and Eliot, but from the multifarious of everyday life.
Stephen Spender who began writing under the influence of Auden composed lyrics in which he expressed sympathy for the working classes:
Oh young men, oh young comrades,
It is too late now to stay in those houses
Your fathers built where they built you to breed money on money.
But in his later poetry he has developed his own quiet, autobiographical style, which is unlike the style of any modern poet.
What I expected was
Long struggle with men
After continual straining
I should grow strong;
Then the rocks would shake
And I should rest long.
What I had not foreseen
Was the gradual day
Weakening the will
Leaking the brightness away,
The lack of good to touch
The fading of body and soul
Like smoke before wind
Cecil Day Lewis also wrote his early poetry under the influence of Auden. But his later poetry has become more and more reflective and reminiscent. Moreover, he has adopted the Victorian diction. On account of his profound knowledge of technique he may be called the academic poet of the present age. In his poems the imagery is primarily rural and his tone is elegiac. These characteristics associate him with the Georgians.
Other important English poets of the present age are Louis Mac Niece, Edith Sitwell, Robert Graves, Roy Campbell, Geoffrey Grigson, George Barker and Dylan Thomas. Though they do not form any definite group, yet there is a tendency among them to Romanticism in English poetry which had become metaphysical and classical under the influence of Hopkins, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and the Auden group of poets. They do not give so much importance to ‘dry, hard’ images, and being visionary rather than speculative, their presiding genius is Blake rather than Donne. Dylan Thomas who is the most popular of the young poets finds unity of man with nature, of the generations with each other, of the divine with the human, of life with death. Death does not mean destruction, but a guarantee of immortality, of perpetual life in cosmic eternity:
And death shall have no dominion
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not,
And death shall have no dominion.
But in spite of this tendency towards Romanticism in the poetry of the present age in England, Eliot, and his school of poetry which is akin to classicism, still hold the field. All modern poetry possesses intellectual toughness and there is no attempt to return to the melodious diction of Tennyson and Swinburne or to the imaginative flights of Shelley. Of course, the tension that we find in Eliot’s poetry has ceased and the trend is towards Wordsworthian quietness.