Trends in Modern 20th Century Poetry

After 1900 the English scene becomes terribly chaotic. In the field of poetry-as also in other fields of literature-we find a tremendous activity. Thousands of poems are written, and thousands published, every day. The sales are indeed limited, but almost every poet, however “minor-” does find some audience.

The chaos in the field of poetry is due to the fact that in modern times no 1 iterary tradition is respected aF all, and, on the contrary, all emphasis is made to fall on individualism, for whatever it may be worth. When every man navigates his poetic craft by the light of his own individuality and his personal sense of direction, the voyage becomes adventurous and therefore, interesting; but ship-wrecks are many. That is why in the modern age we are familiar all too well with the jetsam and flotsam of literature.

The Decline: Tradition and Innovation :
Many have sincerely felt that in the twentieth century no great poetry was written and none is being written now. As a critic has put it, there have been many poetic persons in the twentieth century, but no poets. It is said that as civilisation advances poetry declines. Poetry indeed has declined, though it is somewhat debatable if civilisation has advanced. At the beginning of the new century at least, there was no poet of any stature. Thus A. C. Ward in Twentieth Century Literature avers: “When the twentieth century opened Tennyson had been dead nine years, and there was a widespread impression that English poetry had died with him.” He further says: “The poetry of the period shows a general decline, not in general level of execution but in genius and breadth of range.” But, he admits finally: “There has been no dearth of great poets or great poems that will stand the test of time and become a part of the imperishable literary heritage of England.”
As in modern painting, we find a lot of experimentation and innovation in modern poetry. Most of the poets have broken away from tradition completely, as they feel that poetry should change with the changing times. Many movements, schools, and groups have appeared and disappeared over the years. Imagism, Surrealism, and the so called “Apocalypse” school have had their day. Some poets, mostly belonging to the early years of the century, remained, on the other hand, sticking to the traditions of Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, etc. Among these poets may be mentioned Robert Bridges, William Watson, and sir Henry Newbolt. Still many more combined tradition with innovation: A. E. Housman, for instance, poured his most withering and oppressive pessimism (which appears to be “modern”) into the mould of the ballad-one of the oldest of literary forms. Even T. S. Eliot-who with Hulme, Hopkins, and Ezra Pound has been a tremendous shaping influence on modern poetry-looks too often to Donne and the fellow metaphysicals. Thus, in a word, even innovators are influenced, little or much, by the poets before them.
Modern Themes:
Modern poetry exercises a great freedom in the choice of themes. Gone are days when it was believed that the job of the poet was only to create “beauty.” T. S. Eliot offers a representative view: “The essential advantage of a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness: to see the boredom and the horror and the glory.” He is free to write poems on themes ranging from kings to cabbages and from the cosmos to a pin’s head. Some poems have been written on pretty unpromising subjects which are peculiar to our machine age. Consider, for instance, such poems as Richard Aldington’s Machine Guns, Kenneth Ashley’s Goods Train at Night, Sheila Smith’s The Ballad of a Motor Bus, and Sir Edmund Gosse’s The Charcoal Burner.:
Unflinching Realism:
This thematic revolution is indicative of the unflinching realism of the poets of the .twentieth century. Pastoralism, romanticism and suchlike tendencies are things of the irretrievable past. Gone are the days of piping shepherds “piping down the valleys green”, the knights cantering on moonlit heaths, and damsels with dulcimers. As Ronald Bottrall wistfully observes,
Nightingales, sunset or the meanest flower
Were formerly the potentialities of poetry,
But now what have they to do with one another,
With Dionysus or with me?
The searching realism of modern poets often brings them face to face with repulsive facts which would have scandalised a goody-goody Victorian. But our poets handle them most daringly. Prostitution, war, slum-dwellers, and other such “unpoetic” themes find adequate treatment in modern poetry. Our century has witnessed two terrible holocausts in the two global wars. The terror, ugliness, and brutality of war became a major theme in the poetry of “the war poets” like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen who themselves fought as soldiers. Bitter satire permeates the former’s poems like “Counter-Attack” (“set out to present in brutal verse the realities of war without gloss or evasion”) and “Suicide in Trenches.” In the latter he refers to the suicide of a young soldier:
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With cramps and lice and lack of rum
He put a bullet through his brain,
No one spoke of him again…
Sneak home and pray you ‘II never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Some war poets, such as Rupert Brooke, however, seem to have loved war as a test of their valiance and patriotism, and they treated it in their poetry accordingly.
The two wars and impending danger of a third (and perhaps the last) have cast a gloomy shadow on much of the poetry of the twentieth century Well has the modern age been called “the age of anxiety.” In spite of our material prosperity we are full of tensions and anxieties which are almost an inseparable feature of modern living. Add to them the disappearance of religious faith. A note of disillusionment and i autumnal gloom is, then, natural in our poetry. This note can be heard in the poetry of many major poets like Housman, Hardy, Huxley, and T. S. Eliot. “God’s in his heaven” type of optimism is a thing of the past. Housman refers to the Supreme Power in this most blasphemous phrase: “Whatever brute or blackguard made the world.” Hardy in his greatest work The Dynasts also expresses his disbelief in God and his concept of determinism. Huxley was manifestly and professedly an agnostic. T. S. Eliot was quite religious but his attitude towaras life as we find itjn such poems as The Waste Land and 7he HoUowMen. is far from optimistic. To quote a few lines from the latter:
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.
The pessimism of twentieth-century poets is-not of the nature-of the somewhat stylised melancholy of Shelley or what David Daiches describes as “the Tennysonian elegiac mode with its lingering enjoyment of self-pity.” It is more intellectual and more impersonal.
This pessimistic realisation of sad realities of Ij’fe is partly responsible for the note of fellow-feeling and humanitarFanism which is to be heard in the work of some modern poets. The” realisation-of human suffering spurs them to align them selves with the suffering. Even in the Victorian age there were poets like Thomson, Hood, and Mrs. Browning who demanded justice for the down-trodderw- The twentieth-century poets like Galsworthy, Gibson, and Masefield also voiced their indignation against social repressfon. In Gibson’s “.Farm Holiday” we notice the grim struggle for existence waged endlessly by workers living from hand to mouth:
All life moving to one measure:
Daily bread, daily bread–
Bread of life and bread of labour
Bread of bitterness and bread of sorrow
Hand-to-mouth and no tomorrow
Death for housemate, death for neighbour.
Masefield in “consecration” thus unveils the stark realities of life:
Others may sing of wine and wealth and the mirth,
The portly presence of potentates goodly in girth,
Mine be the dirt and the dross, the dust and scum of
. the earth.
Galsworthy in “Stupidity Street” strikes a note of sympathy for even birds:
I saw with open eyes
Singing-birds sweet
Sold in the shops
For people to eat Sold in the shops
Of Stupidity Street
In their solicitousness for the working classes, some modern English poets have gone over to the side of radical socialism, and even communism.
Romantic Tendency:
Such prosaic social concern is basically inimical to all romantic tendency Most modern poets, as we have said earlier, scorn all romanticism-even the subdued kind of romanticism as in Tennyson. Hulm’e, a major influence on’Eliot and others, asserted in his essay “Romanticism and Classicism” in the few Age: “I object to the sloppiness which doesn,t consider that a poem is a poem unless it is moaning or whining about something or other.” Others have also freely tilted against the traditional romanticism. Still, a few modern poets manifest unmistakable romantic tendencies. Among these poets may be mentioned Walter de la Mare, W. B. Yeats, John Masefield, James Elroy Flecker, and Edward Thomas. Yeats’s imagery is often redolent ofmythical splendour. Flecker in his poetic drama Hassan tries to evoke the Oriental splendour-though “in a style stripped of romantic excess and a mood purged of romantic subjectivity.” However, the most important romantic poet of all is de la Mare who is pre-eminently a poet of childhood and supernaturalism. To quote Chew, some of his poems ‘”where ghosts and demons walk beneath a waning moon, are morbid, terrible, and dreadful’ But some others* in which the world of nonsense intermingles with the world of dreams, are quite delightful-especially to children.
Another “romantic tendency to be found in some modern poets is interest in nature. Nature fascinates some poets because she offers such a wonderful contrast with the hubbub and ugliness of an industrialised and over-sophisticated age. “In the face of modern industrialism,”‘ says A. C. Ward, “they [modern poets] solace their souls by retiring to the country and celebrating the beauties of unspoiled Nature.” Such poets as Masefield, Robert Bridges, W. E. Davies, and Edmund Blunden may not find any mystic significance in mature, but they are, all the same, charmed by her unsophisticated beauty. Masefield in “Sea-Fever” expresses a strong desire to run away from the dreary life into “the lonely sea and the sky.” Edmund Blunden points his finger lovingly at the little-noticed things of nature. Davies poetry has the feature of childlike curiosity in the natural objects everybody finds around himself.
Religion and Mysticism:
Religion and mysticism also find a place in the work of some poets of the twentieth century. Coventry Patmore and Francis Thompson, who wrote religious poetry towards the end of the preceding century, seem to have inspired a number of poets in this century. The name of Mrs. Alice Meynell deserves to be mentioned. In the poetry of the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, too, we have something religious now and then. Ralph Hodgson’s The Song of Honour is a notable poem pulsating with religious feelings. Even in the poetry of such poets as Yeats there are mystical strains.
Complexity and Psychological Profundity:
Complexity and psychological profundity are some other qualities of the more representative poetry of today. The reaction against the earlier naivete of poetry was initiated by Eliot and Ezra Pound in the second decade of the present century. The publication of Hopkins’s work in 1918 was also a force in the new direction. Daiches observes: “Complex, allusive, using,abrupt contrasts and shifting counter-suggestion to help to unfold the meaning, eliminating all conjunctive phrases or overt statements that might indicate the relation of one scene or situation to another, depending entirely oh ‘the music of ideas’, on the pattern of symbolic suggestion set up as the poem moves, Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land (1922)…was the first major example of the new poetry, and it remains a watershed in both English and American literary history.”
Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Hilda Doolittle-all Americans and Richard Aldington-an Englishman-were the pioneers of Imagism in poetry. Visual images before they were matured by intellect were sought to be expressed by them without any respect for conventional phraseology. Moody and Lovett observe: “The Imagists defined poetry as the presentation of a visual situation in the fewest possible concrete words, lightened of the burden of conventional adjectival padding, and unhampered by general ideas or philosophical ormoral speculations.” Form and substance were to be identical. As an instance of the Imagist poetry consider the following lines from Hilda Doolittle’s “Garden” :
O wind, rend open the heat,
Cut apart the heat
Rend it to tatters;
Fruit cannot drop
Through this thick air;
Fruit cannot fall into heat
That presses up and blunts
The point of pears.
And rounds the grapes.
Many of the major poets of the century have shown the influence of the Imagist doctrines in their work.
Diction and Metre:
This movement has also revolutionalised the concept of poetic diction and metre. Traditional “poetic diction” saccharine poeticisms. and even regular metre have been discarded almost completely. As Moody and Lovett point out, “Imagism did modern poetry a tremendous service by pointing the way to a renovation of the vocabulary of poetry and the necessity of ridding poetic technique of vague and empty verbiage and dishonest and windy generalities.” Though rhyme has almost completely gone, yet as Daiches puts it, “rhythm freed from the artificial demands of metrical regularity” is still used. A language with the flow and turns of common speech is mostly employed. Verse libre (free verse) is the most usual mode of all serious poetry of today. In the twentieth century many experiments have been made on the technique and diction of poetry. Doughty, for example, as Grierson and Smith put it, “manhandled” English. The American poet Cummings refused to start every line of his poetry with a capital letter, and so on. Many of such experiments have been interesting-but interesting only.

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