In the twenties the English poetic scene was dominated by the Modernists like T.S. Eliot and Pound. The traditionalist Georgians represented only a pleasant diversion as compared to the central current of Modernism. After the twenties, all the new forces and trends defined themselves in relation to that central current alone. They were either for or against, or partly this and partly that. The most important of these new forces, trends, or movements were three, and in the following chronological order:
(i) The Oxford poets or left-wing intellectuals
(ii) Poets of the Apocalypse
(i) Movement poets
The Oxford Poets:
Let us consider these three one by one. The group of Oxford poets comprises the following:
(i) W.H. Auden (1907-73)
(ii) Stephen Spender(1909-
(iii) Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-72)
(ii) Louis MacNeice (1907-63)
All of them were connected with Oxford University and” were more or less committed leftists and propagators of Communist ideology. For them poetry was not a pastime but a serious commitment to the realization of political aims. In its most didactic shape, poetry in their hands becomes political action, a contribution to the proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie and the ruling elite. That the Oxford poets were inclined to action rather than merely reflection and aesthetic creation is shown by the fact that at least two of them, viz. Auden and Spender, were involved in the Spanish Civil War with which England had no direct concern. This active involvement with the problems of the day gives the poetry of this group a special vitality and authenticity, but at the same time it makes it a little dated. A.C. Ward rightly observes: “The poetry of the nineteen-thirties was saturated in bloody sweat of that decade. This fact gives it a documentary importance which may seem, as time passes, to outweigh its poetic merit The poet turned politician may serve his age as politician, but he may in so doing abrogate his more important function as visionary. While no poet can be unaware of temporalities, he is poet only in so far as he is in constant touch also with the eternities, applying to policy the measure of Truth.”
Considered from the point of view of poetic technique, the Oxford poets were decidedly Modernist. They show a strong influence of T.S. Eliot (who patronized them) and the Imagists as also Hopkins and the French Symbolists. Excessive compression, bizarre similes and metaphors (which are often surrealistic), arid Metaphysical juxtapositions are some of the chief characteristics of their poetry. Interestingly, though they were champions of the masses as against the elite, they cannot really be called poets of the masses. Their work is too difficult, too intellectually demanding for the common people to be their cup of tea.
Now let us briefly consider these poets individually.
W.H. Auden is the guru of the Oxford group. Now, when only three years intervene between the twentieth century and the next, it can be confidently said that next to Eliot, Auden is the most important poet of the twentieth century. When he went up to Oxford University at the age of eighteen, he twice became editor of the journal Oxford Poetry. In 1956 he became Professor of Poetry at Oxford. But before that he emigrated to America in 1939 and acquired American citizenship in 1946.
In the thirties Auden was the voice of his generation. Linda Williams observes: “His verse is full of topical reference to the social, ‘and international crises of the time; it gives direct expression to the anxieties of the contemporary intelligentia as perhaps no other writing has done.” R.G. Cox points out “the immediate sensitiveness with which he has registered the changing moods and opinions 6f his time.” With the passage of time Auden lost much of his leftist ideological sharpness-sp much so that after 1940 he became committed to Anglo-Catholicism.
Spender was a passionately political poet. In his poetry he also propagated the cause of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. For some time he remained a member of the Communist Party but in 1950 he contributed to The God that Failed, a collection of anti-Communist essays edited by R.H.S. Grossman. Unlike Auden, Spender does not flinch from expressing his deeper personal emotions. With all his political hardness, he has something of the romantic in him.
The early poetry of Day-Lewis was overtly propagandist and he also supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. However, with the passage of time he became more versatile, and more and more personal and pastoral putting one in mind of the Georgians and Hardy. In 1968 he became the Poet Laureate.
An Irishman by birth, MacNeice associated himself with Auden, Spender, and Day-Lewis because he too had socialistic leaning. But unlike others he was not a committed leftist. Linda Williams observes: “He excelled in witty, sensuous verse of rhythmical versatility and with a strong element of caustic pessimism.”
Poets of the Apocalypse:
The Greek root of the word “apocalypse” signifies disclosure. In literature apocalypse means a visionary composition, Such as the Book of Revelation (the last Book of the New Testament). Among English poets Blake and Yeats are well known for their apocalyptic poetry which tends to intimate truths and visions inaccessible to rational thinking.
In the history of twentieth-century poetry “New Apocalypse” was the most powerful movement of the forties. It was started by Dylan Thomas (1914-53) and carried on into the fifties by his disciple W.S. Graham (1918-86) and some others much less significant. The New Apocalypse was essentially a neo-Romantic movement and like the earlier Romantic Movement of Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc. was both a revolt and a revival. It revolted against both the Classicist impersonality and conciseness of Eliot and Pound as well as the propagandist concern of the school of Auden. Passion and emotion were to be restored to poetry and dry rationality and excessive concern for form and linguistic precision were to be shown the door.
Dylan Thomas has indeed been a great poet of the twentieth century. He can be very whimsical and exasperatingly obscure, but he is very forceful and genuine. There is often an incantatory element in his poetry which casts a spell on the reader despite all its obscurity. Consider, for example, his well-known poem “Altarwise by Owl-Light.” a sequence often sonnets. What exactly this poem is about is yet to be agreed upon by critics. Some say it is about Jesus, others that it is about Hercules, and still some others that it is about Thomas himself. Thomas himself said: “Those sonnets are only the writings of a boily boy in love with shapes and shadows on his pillow They would be of interest to another boily boy. Or a boily girl. Boily-girly.” Splendid muddle, but interesting.
Graham’s poetry is remarkably vigorous. It is mostly about problems of personal identity. He is often named with David Cascoyne and George Barker as well as Dylan Thomas as a reviver of the Romantic spirit in the twentieth century.
It was but natural that the Romantic excesses of the New Apocalypse should be challenged by new forces which disapproved of irrationality, indiscipline, whimsicality, mysticism, and looseness. This inevitable challenge came in the fifties from what are called “New Lines”or “Movement”‘ poets. New Lines (1956) was the title of the anthology of post-war poetry edited by Robert Conquest. The contributors to this volume came to be known as the “Movement poets.” They were, chiefly:
Kingsley Amis (1922-)
D.J. Enright (1920-)
Roy Fuller (1912- ) ,
Donald Davie (1922- )
Philip Larkin (1922-85)
D.J. Enright (1920-)
Roy Fuller (1912- ) ,
Donald Davie (1922- )
Philip Larkin (1922-85)
Rejecting the neo-Romanticism of the New Apocalypse, the Movement poets went back to their Classicist predecessors like Eliot and Pound and even farther back to the English Augustans like Dryden, Pope, and Jonson and some even went back to Hardy and the Georgians. In Linda Williams’ words, the work of the Movement poets “is characterized by thoughtfulness, irony, self-doubt, humility, and the search for completely honest feeling. These qualities are in accord with the imaginative temper of Thomas Hardy’s poetry.”
Amis is better known as a novelist than as a poet. He was an “angry young man” of the fifties who also became a Movement poet. Both as poet and novelist he has a middle-brow ethos. Enright is a novelist and critic as well as a poet. His poetry is markedly anti-Romantic and humanistic. About Fuller, Linda Williams observes: “He began writing in the 1930s, and published two volumes of poetry whilst he was in the Royal Navy during World War II: The Middle of a War (1942) and A Last Season (1944) (his first volume appeared in 1939). Subsequent text have shown certain attributes of Movement irony, but with a broader technical and emotional scope, as well as a tendency to experiment with versification.” Davie is well known for his critical book Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952) which has been called “the Bible of the Movement.” According to Linda Williams, his “rational, cool and technically pure poetry perhaps epitomizes the verse of the Movement.”
Philip Larkin is as distinguished a member of the Movement as Auden was of the group of left-wing intellectuals or Thomas of the New Apocalypse. Larkin is apolitical conservative. Eschewing political radicalism, he shows concern for the humour and pathos, comedy and tragedy of everyday experiences of common men. He combines Modernism and Classicism. In one important respect, however, Larkin is against Modernism-its emphasis on catholicity and internationalism. In Linda Williams’ words “Philip Larkin exemplifies Movement poetry, in his deflationary, perfectly formed phrases, in his almost xenophonic stance against other cultures and cultural forms.” This makes him a somewhat parochial poet. But this parochialism is in perfect conformity with his general attitude of humility which makes him fond of safety, order, self-discipline, and even a bit of banality and boredom.