English Poetry between the Two Wars

The years between the two world wars (1919-1939) witnessed prolific poetic activity. It was a period when tradition and innovation went side by side. In the direction of innovation we can find such groups as the Imagists, Symbolists, and Surrealists working, whereas we also find some traditionalists fighting a last-ditch battle against the forces of change.

However, most of the poets of the age combined tradition and innovation; and even the most daring inovators did not, or could not, cut at the root of the essential continuity of English poetry. In general the changes which came upon poetry may be aptly summed up in the words of Samuel C. Chew: “Poetry became obscure, experimental, irregular, antagonistic to didacticism, indifferent to any social value, the private language of small coteries, with much dependence upon verbal subtleties and patterns of association so complex, unstable, and fleeting as sometimes to become presently incomprehensible to the writers themselves.” Poetry did become considerably unpopular. Chew remarks: “It is a question whether poetry became esoteric because the public had abandoned it or whether the public abandoned it because it had become esoteric.”

But in spite of all this experimentation, many old and some new poets of the period were broadly traditional in thqir craft.-When the First World. War ended in 19:18, Hardy, Bridges, and Yeats were yet active. According to Grierson and~Srmth”, the most important poetic works of the first decade of the period under review are Hardy’s Late Lyrics, Yeafs Tower, Bridges’ Testament of Beauty, and Laurence  Binyon’s “greatest poems” The Sirens and The Idols. Strangely enough, these critics do not mention Eliot’s The Waste Land which appeared fn 1922 and which was as potent an influence on the current of English poetry as had been, say, Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.
Anyway, let us first consider these works before proceeding further.
Hardy, Bridges, Binyon, and Yeats:
A year or two of elation followed the termination of hostilities in 1918, before the period of depression arrived. But Hardy remained as depressed as ever-come war, come peace. All his poems are full of the spirit of atheistic pessimism, though there are passages lit by his childlike interest in the elemental simplicities of nature.
Robert Bridges (1844-1930) was the Poet Laureate. His Testament of Beauty came in 1929 when he was eighty-five. But even at this ripe age he displays a wonderful alacrity of perception which enlivens his mature philosophical speculation. “It,” says Legouis, “is a philosophical poem of remarkable vitality and energy, and is interspersed with beautiful passages of natural description and human wisdom.” Bridges employs a hitherto untried poetic measure which he calls “loose Alexandrines.”
Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) who succeeded T. S. Eliot in the Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard (1933-34), published his two above-mentioned poems as also Collected Poems in the first decade of the interregnum under review. Binyon called each of these two poems “an age,” though they are altogether alien to any English age. What are they, then? “They,” observe Grierson and Smith, “are symphonies in verse, each developing a theme in successive movements in different measures.” The Sirens was suggested by the first transatlantic flight. The theme is man’s power over nature, which goes on increasing day by day. Man is really great,
And where light is, he enters unafraid.
The Idols is directed against the terrors and superstitions which are man’s own creation and which hold him captive. Binyon makes a plea for the demolition of these false gods.
Yeats started his writing career as a poet in the nineteenth century. The period between the two wars brings us to consider his later poetry as we find it in his Tower. His later poetry is very different from his early poetry. Grierson and Smith point out the difference in these words: “The difference between Yeats’s early and later poetry reminds one of the early and later poetry of Donne, but he has changed in the opposite direction, from the ideal to the real, the.spiritual to the sensuous. Some of his later poems are almost definitely bawdy.” In ‘the later part of his career Yeats came under the modernistic, Imagist influence of Ezra Pound. Consequently, his later poems are full of concrete but delicate images and particulars redolent of ancient myths. But the appearance of, what Samuel C. Chew calls, “a most unexpected sensuality” in his poetry is quite baffling indeed. Another feature of his later poetry is its recurring expression of passionate regret at the passing of youth. This regret conditions much of the symbolism employed by him. Chew observes: “The gyre, the spiral, and the winding stair are constantly recurring symbols of the cyclic philosophy which he had evolved from reading and from life.”
The Georgians:
Before we consider some important modernistic movements which came between the wars, let us dispose of some important “Georgians” who were writing before the First World War and who continued writing between the Wars too. The most important of these poets are Walter de la Mare, Masefield, and Gibson.
De la Mare was a poet of childhood and the supernatural, before the first World War. However, after the War, at least for once, he became a realist of the grimmest kind. Inhis”77ze VeiF (1921) he focused his attention, to quote Grierson and Smith, “on the dreadful figures of the criminal in the dock, the drug addict,the suicide. However, his “indulgence” in realism did not continue long, for in The Fleeting (1926) he returned to the hocus-pocus of supernatural and dream poetry for which he always had a strong predilection. In some poems his religious feelings also find a good expression. He was a congenital, incorrigible dreamer and the last of his Collected Poems is, in fact, an argument for a life of dreams:
And conscience less my mind indicts
For idle days than dreamless nights.
But not to speak of nights, even his days were seldom without dreams.
About Masefield’s poetry between the Wars, Grierson and Smith maintain: “Mr. Masefield celebrated the return of peace to England with a long poem on fox-hunting, the typical sport of the England he loves. Reynard the Fox is modelled on Chaucer’s Prologue; the meet gives Mr. Masefield the same opportunity to bring English people of different ranks together as the Canterbury pilgrimage gave Chaucer. Mr. Masefield has not Chaucer’s witty touch, nor his.universality: his characters are more Trollopian than Chaucerian, recognisable contemporary English types, not the lineaments of universal human life. But as contemporary types they are very well done and as a whole Reynard the Fox is the best sustained and evenest in execution of all Mr. Masefield’s long poems. In Right Royal he applied similar methods, not quite so successfully, to the other typical English sport of horse-racing. The verse he has written since then has not added much to his fame as a poet.” One drawback of Reynard the Fox may be pointed out here: it is that the weight of the Prologue is not well borne out by the story which follows, unlike what we have in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Wilfred Wilson Gibson, one of the leaders of the Georgian School of poets who opposed post-Tennysonian prettiness, continued writing poems and plays beyond the First World War. His poems on the War are instinct with bitterness, stark realism, and a controlled but devastating irony. He was, from first to last, a poet of the “people”-peasants and workers who were victims of social and economic inequalities. In his unflinching realism and unadorned style he often reminds one of Crabbe; but whereas Crabbe was diffuse and detailed, Gibson often secures his effects through telling condensation. Gibson did not mind using in his poetry some elements of the dialect of Northumberland to which he belonged. To the technique of poetry his contribution is minimal.
Let us now cast a hurried glance on the rest of the poets who were not appreciably influenced by the modernistic movements. Ronald Macfie in his long ode War expressed the point of view of the pacifist when he described the impact of the War on civilian life. The poem ends on a strong note of optimism where Macfie envisions an age of love:
The love that sighs in every wind
And breathes in every flower.
John Freeman, by profession a businessman, wrote good poems on the themes of nature and childhood. Edmund Blunden, an editor of Clare, shows the same painstaking fidelity to his paintings of nature as Clare does. He, quip Grierson and Smith, is “so solid that some readers find him stodgy.”
The Imagists:
The Imagist Movement in English poetry was a product of the War years, but it did considerably influence the poetry between the two Wars. Hulme, Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, Aldington, and F. S. Flint were the protagonists of this movement. The Imagists in Some Imagist Poets (1915) enunciated some clear principles which John M. Manly and Edith Rickert sum up as follows in Contemporary British Literature:-
1.         to use the language of common speech butto employ the exact word;
2.         to create new rhythms for-the expression of new moods;
3.         to allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject;        
4.         to present an image, not vague generalities;
5.                    to produce poetry that is hard and clear;
6.                    to aim at concentration, since concentration is the
very essence and poetry.”
Apart from the poets mentioned above D. H. Lawrence also came under the influence of the Imagist Movement, though this influence was not to continue for long. As the critics just quoted above observe: “though Lawrence never succumbed to technical conservatism, he was too mystical, too passionately and destructively critical a nature to content himself with the limitations of an essentially sensational medium, and his later work, rough and fragmentary as much of it is, is a more direct expression of his prophetic denunciations and visions than his purely imagist work.”
T. S. Eliot and the Innovators:
T. S. Eliot, the greatest of the modern poets, started his career as a poet during the course of the War with his Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) but his greater and more characteristic works come later-r/ie Waste Land (1922), The Hollow Men (1925), Ash Wednesday (1930), and the rest. Eliot was the founder of the modernistic school of poetry which even today is quite flourishing. He himself as a poet came under the influence of numerous schools and writers. The Imagist Movement, the views of Hulme, the Symbolist Movement of France, the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins which was first published in 1918 many years after his death, Freud’s ideas, and the poetry of Donne may be mentioned among them: Donne’s “unified sensibility” was with Eliot something worthy of the most assiduous imitation. In his attempts Eliot produces even more jolts than his master. His poetry is very heavy readings as it is thick with recondite allusions and quick transitions from mood to mood which simply baffle even a; sound and painstaking Hreader. Ambivalence and paradox are the rule rather than the exception.
Most critics of today consider The Waste Land to be the greatest poem of the twentieth century. It is an image of the modern restlessness, anxiety, and despair. Though at the end the thunder promises the arrival of the life-giving rain, no rain falls. The framework’of the poem is provided by the legend of the Holy Grail. Fertility will not come to the earth till the Holy Vessel has been found. The treatment of this simple theme is the most abstruse, so much so that Eliot had to take upon himself the work of annotating his own poem.
The Hollow Men sketches the spiritual emptiness and purposelessness of modern men.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw, alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together,
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rat’s feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar          
In Ash Wednesday, however, we meet with a note of spiritual assurance which is essentially inimical to despair.
Miss Edith Sitwell and her brothers, Osbert and Sachverell Sitwell, made some robust experiments. Edith used bold and artistic imagery, and her peculiarity was her constant utilisation of the effects of synaesthesia-that is, interchanging senses. Osbert struck an astringently satirical note and enjoyed taking pot-shots at dowdiness and tawdiness. Sacheverell was very learned but was quite satisfied indulging in the baroque.
Some poets like Herbert Reade and Robert Graves came under the influence of the psychoanalytic studies of Freud, Jung, and Adler. Graves, for some time, saw nothing but sexual symbols in everything. Reade wrote “surrealistic” poetry which is expressive of the unconscious and has to be read most carefully to get at something. These experiments, as is known, paved the way for the stream-of-consciousness novel.
The Irish Poets:
Between the Wars there was a tremendous resurgence of literary activity in Ireland. The chief moving ‘force was Yeats himself. The oaier notable Irish poets of the period were G. W. Russell (“AE”) and J. M. Synge. Russell, according to Grierson and Smith, “was a much less versatile and melodious poet than Yeats, but a purer mystic, never; astray by that will-o’-the-wisp, that hpcus-ppcus of evocation and incantation which had such an attraction for Yeats. “Synge was chiefly  matist whose very few poems have the same qualities as his plays.
The Young Poets of Eliot Tradition:
The most important poets of the second decade of the period between the Wars are Cecil Day Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Stephen Spender. All of them are followers of Eliot, and they have tried to establish a neo-metaphysical tradition. But there is a difference-their interest in social reform and their communistic leaning. Auden is learned but his technique is unpredictable. “He,” observe Moody and Lovett, “ranges freely from the most cryptic and condensed utterance to a patody of music hall rhythms, folk-ballads, and nursery rhymes.” He is indeed a clever poet. Cecil Day Lewis is the most manifest of revolutionaries. Spender is a poet less of revolution than of compassion. His communism is conditioned by his strong liberal convictions. His heart bleeds when he finds the jobless poor loitering in the streets and turning.
Their empty pockets out,
he cynical gesture of the poor.

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