Friday, June 29, 2018

Modern British Poetry | English Literature


The origins of modern British poetry are not unexpectedly to be found in the poetic cross-currents and developments towards the end of the nineteenth century. Although the reigning Victorian poetic fashions and standards were challenged from diverse directions, many modern poets were indebted to Browning, Hopkins, Hardy and the late Victorian, poets. When modem poetry broke with the past, the rebellion became particularly visible in the rejection of conventionally bejewelled and smooth poetic diction which could no longer articulate the raw, disturbing experience already handled in the avant-garde novel of Lawrence and Joyce. The debt of Eliot's The Waste Land to Joyce's Ulysses is well known.

Origin of Modern British Poetry

The point of affinity between Browning and modern poetry is in his obscurity and irregularity of diction. While this initially may have sprung from a mind prone to rambling parentheses and therefore often became a vice, it carried Browning's imagination through a rapid succession of associations. For Eliot and the modems, he thus linked the past, the 'Metaphysical' poets, with a poet like Hopkins. Browning's ability to create the natural articulation of a voice, which necessitated syntactical obscurity, remains a, permanent legacy to modern poetry.
The contrast that the modern British poetry of Hardy and Hopkins offered to contemporary models lies in their use of ambiguity and shifting tonalities, their adoption of an ironic mode in short. At times, Hardy's poetry seems to be boldly experimental, characterized by frequent flashes of daring imagination. His experiments orchestrate the use of dialect words, abbreviations, archaisms, and 'kennings' (or verbal riddles in the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry), some of which would be found barbaric according to orthodox aesthetics. Nevertheless, Hardy functions largely within the traditional forms, presenting the drama of unresolved contradictions: he has himself described his poems as unadjusted impressions. If he tended to relate the local and individual to cosmic pessimism, he was characteristically tentative, holding his judgment in suspense. Ultimately his vision is ironic, involving the rapid and unsettling juxtaposition of images and counter-perceptions that anticipates modernist techniques. Both Robert Bridges and Hopkins experiment with prosody.

The former's attempts stem from Greek and Latin prosody, resulting in much charm and delicacy at the cost of poetic concentration and intensity. For these qualities we must go to Hopkins whose 'sprung rhythm,' borrowed from Anglo-Saxon prosody, was reinforced by fresh imagery and compact structure. By keeping the number of stressed syllables fixed and varying the number of unstressed syllables, Hopkins was able to revive the 'Metaphysical' mode linking it to modern poetry. This mode, submerged through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was characterized, as we all know, by ingenious analogy-the extended or cryptic 'conceit -the yoking of contraries and irregular rhythm and diction. Such a sensibility was sharply different from the Romantic and Victorian, banishing the bogey of 'high seriousness' from the concept of poetry and locating the poem's value not in ideas or autobiography but in the psychological process of creation in the poet's mind. In this sense, the modem movement amounts to a rejection of expressivist categories in favour of the Aristotelian theory of mimetic representation, although the former were never suppressed. The modem poet's unconscious was a storehouse of heterogeneity stirring him obscurely, prompting him, as it were, to get rid of excessively accumulated experience. The disparateness and breadth of the cultural tradition made for impersonality of expression. The 'metaphysical' poet brought together dissimilars-secular and divine love, for instance so that the discord plunged him deep into the theme, the greater awareness of the conflict demanding greater poetic technique.
Romanticism : Literary Theory
Such are the larger implications of Hopkins's achievement of forging a style capable of conveying the discords and conflicts in his mind. Apart from the contrapuntal play of regular metrical form and irregular speech rhythms, the intermeshing of 'inscape' and 'instress' anticipates the techniques adopted in much modem poetry. If 'inscape' is a variation on the principle of individuation (as defined by Coleridge), a focus on quidditas or haeccitas-the thisness and whatness of things-'instress' is the force and, energy holding together the 'inscape.' In Hopkins's concern with the outer reflection of a thing as a thing, we encounter the modem mind's awareness of objects in their essential particularity and its simultaneous search in and through artistic form, that is, the poem itself, of the universal. 
In the 1880s and 1890s the interrelated and overlapping tendencies of aestheticism, impressionism, and symbolism contributed to the rejection of Victorian priggish moralism and scientific materialism. Aestheticism or the movement known as I’art pour I’art (art for art's sake) stressed impersonal craftsmanship and a stylized rhetoric of passion. These new elements later became the basis for the ironic and somewhat cold detachment so distinctive of modernist poetry.

Stylization of Modern British Poetry

Stylization was closely related to decadence, that is, the desire to understand the deeper and darker resources of the psyche guided in turn by a sense of overwrought aestheticism. The symbolist movement often aimed at suggesting an inner richness and mystery, and was thus part of the pervasive reaction against the positivist attitudes bred by technological smugness: it fell back upon symbols in order to capture the life above or below pragmatic reality. In France, symbolist suggestiveness was contested by the The Modernists Parnassian School of poetry with its emphasis on precise and economical description, of clinical self-observation. The drive towards hard precision and clarity which represents perhaps the most decisive break with traditional poetic diction found expression above all in Imagism just before World War I. Accuracy, concreteness, and unadorned economy characterized the direct prgsentation of the objective world without discursive reflection. To this project an evocative dimension was added not only by symbolism but also by impressionism which loosened or dissolved an object into a group of impressions. The modern poet was thereby able to render the passage and dissolution of impressions so distinctive to the new, unsettling experience of the modem megalopolis, of rootless and heterogeneous cosmopolitan culture. Juxtaposing impressions or images apparently disconnected, the poet learnt from the arrangement of multiple planes in sculpture or movements in music the fundamental technique of discontinuous composition. This is how modernism held up a faithful mirror to fragmented reality and in doing so, produced an open gestalt or transformed, indeterminate structure of coherence. The Waste Land may be a mimesis of the heap of broken images that modem European civilization has been reduced to but the final effect, that is, the poem, remains a mastery of fragmentation

Modern British Poetry, English Literature Theory, Literary theory, My exam solution


In the modern British poetry, the colloquial accents and unsentimental economy of Eliot and the later Yeats were, as we have already seen, anticipated at the turn of the century. These features are discernible even along the more conservative Georgian poets at the time of the First World War, although the excesses and exoticisms of decadence as well as the discontinuities of impressionism are absent. These poets include Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas. Brooke was the most popular and typically Georgian who, somewhat ironically, began as a rebel against Victorian gentility with its fondness for vapid sweetness. But like many of his contemporaries, he could not break out of the orderly bounds of liberal humanism. Edward Thomas's strength lay in nature poetry, which he started to write on the encouragement of Robert Frost. Somewhat like Frost, Thomas meditates on a natural scene and using a plain and direct idiom, creates the effect of a questioning honesty resisting all temptations to abstract conceptual finality. Such a modernity of temperament was reinforced by a certain casual and homely intonation. The American Robert Frost's public image of a Yankee farmer-poet is not entirely unjustified: he turned against the Romantic tradition by choosing the localized authenticity of rural New England.
Literary Theory: Deconstruction 
Although the reader may miss in his or Thomas's work the impact of modem psychology, science, and politics, their use of the spoken language has been rightly admired for its unmistakable modernity.' Frost in particular was eminently successful in creating and modulating a fictional speaking voice. The trauma of the First World War was first expressed by poets in the trenches challenging patriotic and military humbug; it then colored the sensibility of an entire age.
In Sassoon, war encouraged a direct, colloquial vigor to reinforce the gruesome imagery, anger, and ridicule. Both Sassoon and Owen used realism in order to shock readers out of their complacency and expose. The naked reality of dehumanized violence. After the war, Sassoon's poetry acquired an ironic quality through an unsettled juxtaposition of viewpoints. Owen, despite his unparalleled mastery of realistic detail, achieved a truly complex, sometimes visionary detachment and distancing. Isaac Rosenberg also attempted this imaginative distancing and often used a rapid succession=of images. Thus we can see that war poetry prepared the ground for the Modernist poetry of the 1920s.

IMAGISM in Modern British poetry

Modern American poetry was more innovative than British. While free verse did not last as a vogue, the technique of impressionistic juxtaposition without the links of smooth transition had a much longer life in Ezra Pound, and above all, in T.S. Eliot. Support came not only from the new insights of psychology and psychoanalysis but from the larger mood of a disintegrating civilization. The technique of discontinuous composition was highlighted in Imagism, particularly under the aegis of Pound who no doubt took his cue from T.E. Hulme and Ford Madox Ford. Hulme, in his Speculations, not only set out a philosophical basis for rejection of Romantic sentimental meliorism but appended some imagistic fragments as aesthetic equivalents of a new, austere classicism. A threefold Imagistic manifesto was announced in the magazine Poetry in March 191 3: (i) direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective (ii) scrupulous avoidance of any word that did not contribute to the presentation  (iii) Rhythmical composition in order to the musical phrase, not of a metronome.

Among the poets originally grouped as Imagist were Pound himself, Amy Lowell, H.D. Richard Aldington, and John Gould Fletcher. Soon divisions surfaced, especially between Pound and Amy Lowell; in any case, the anthologies often included poets like D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce. In the ultimate analysis, Imagism had a historical importance; it survives, variously modified, in the bloodstream of modem poetry, in the search for a hard precision and economy. Lawrence never really fitted the Imagist bill, despite his animal and flower poems, because although he valued accuracy and rhythmic freedom, he rebelled against what he perceived as the cerebral, somewhat academic impersonality of Imagist poetry. His eroticism and intensity authenticated immediate experience-the unceasing fecundity of life unharnessed of teleology-in the tradition of Walt Whitman.


The Irish situation was different particularly because of the largely agrarian society and the complex history of Irish nationalism. The struggle against British colonialism not only produced political verse but extended to a search for identity through Irish history, mythology, folklore and peasant culture. The so-called 'Celtic Twilight' (actually the name of a collection of stories or sketches Yeats published in 1873) brought together poets like George Russell (AE) and Lionel Johnson along with Yeats. Its primitivism was, however, somewhat sentimental and nostalgic, and its opposition to scientific, rationalistic dogma was largely a Romantic survival. Although the poets turned away from the sunny, Southern European or Alpine landscape celebrated in Romantic poetry to authentically Celtic mists and overcast skies, the general mood was one of world-weariness and disillusionment prompting ultimately escapist journeys into a land of heart's desire, away from the joyless squalor of modem urban life. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Irish literature consciously moved away from dreaminess to a genuine historical awareness, a passionate vigor and coarseness of experience. This reaction was the hall-mark of the Irish Dramatic Movement. Some Irish writers like John Millington Synge went to peasant life for fresh sources of poetry. George Russell's criticism of Yeats's shadowy insubstantiality was vigorously endorsed by the latter himself when he broke decisively with his earlier poetic style in The Green Helmet (1910) and Responsibilities’ (1914).
The poetic life of W.B. Yeats of modern British poetry, falls into two phases, earlier and later, opposed to each other and yet linked by the same longing for escape from this world. If in his early poetry, Yeats wishes to escape to a dreamy fairyland, in the later poetry the nostalgia is of the spirit, for a world of pure ideas. The poetic influence of the Pre-Raphaelites as well as his early interest in the occult fortified his opposition to mechanistic conceptions of the universe, an opposition that remains a common link among modem writers otherwise widely different from each other. Yeats's early poetry is characterized by somnolent rhythms, symbolist evocativeness and obscure mystic calls. What gave this mixture credibility was his peculiarly ambivalent Anglo-Irish identity: as a member of the Protestant Anglo-Norman Ascendancy, Yeats was passionately involved in Irish politics and yet distrustful of its nationalist zeal. He was no doubt drawn into politics by his unrequited love for Maud Gonne; at the same time, he remained aloof discovering a mythically resonant, tragic heroism in the futile Easter Rebellion.

The quest for identity led Yeats to resolve his own self into a dialectic, into the antithetical categories of self and soul. Socially he tried to locate himself the declining aristocracy among the big houses and estates, ideologically bound to the peasant, the servant or the tramp against the emerging threat of a bourgeoisie that was relatively new to Ireland. Failure in love, practical experience, especially of running the Abbey Theatre and contempt for the nouveau riche brought in a sturdier note into his poetry chastened by bitterness and disillusionment. The discovery in himself of double selves was aided by the knowledge received at seances supposedly through the 'medium' of his wife; this knowledge grew into Yeats's philosophical system A Vision. Here, as elsewhere, we encounter the central symbolism of interpenetrating gyres or cones aid the phases of the moon. Along with the doctrine of the Mask, these metaphors enabled Yeats to impose a certain pattern or order on the history of Western civilization somewhat in the manner of Spengler.

Yeats's Ideas

Yeats's pursuit of a world of pure ideas, a Byzantine abstraction-monuments of unageing intellect-was anchored in the concrete vitality of the imagination. Thus his poetry dramatizes the fundamental dichotomy of the flesh and the spirit on different levels: as a result, a dispassionately cold style unleashes passionate intensity by virtue of its magisterial control. From The Tower (1928) onwards, Yeats's system of opposed personae or split selves is largely unburdened of its occult trappings: it is as though in his last poems Yeats rises above his system to the existential conflict between affirmation and renunciation, art and nature, passion and conquest, old age and the disturbing promptings of the flesh.


The High Modernist mode popular in British and American poetry from the early 1920s to the 1950s was of course dominated by Pound and Eliot. Modernist poetry was characterized by a prodigious appetite for assimilating the disparate and fragmentary experiences of a complex and heterogeneous civilization. Fin-de-siecle formalism and aestheticism, impressionism, symbolism and imagism all combined to produce the modernist mode. While we have to wait till the thirties for the poetry of political commitment, the impact of discoveries in psychology and anthropology are clearly discernible. Poetry attempted to explore the new territory of the irrational and associative surge of consciousness, neurosis, dream, and the Collective Unconscious with its storehouse of myth and archetype. This is why the poets adopted what has been described above as the technique of discontinuous composition. Pound's wide and disparate reading extended the range of modem poetry, especially in his intertextual use of literary traditions. Poetry, as he believed, must be as well written as prose.
History of Literary Theory & Criticism
By 1911, Yeats’s poetic idiom was relatively stripped of 'poetic diction': his syntax became more direct and natural. Apart from compression and excision, Pound concentrated on images against the uninspired abstractness of language. His Vorticism, as a movement, was a continuation of Imagism and its dynamic interplay of images. He moved to a non-mimetic model of the Image, a form produced by an emotional energy, a cluster, an arrangement of planes as in sculpture. After the War and the economic difficulties he went through, in Homage to Sextus Propertius(1934) Pound uses, over and above the concentrated economy, an ironic persona whose mental ability and emotional variety introduced a shifting point of view.
There is even the pose of foppery and tone of self-deprecation associated with Jules Laforgue and Eliot. By the time of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and the first seven Cantos (1915-20), the extraordinarily compressed, oblique, learned, elliptical, and allusive style had been well established. In these two works Pound uses the masks of two poets in order to produce a critique of contemporary European civilization. In comparison to the pictorial and musical avant-garde, however, he remained a little backward-looking and modishly archaic. Pound's contributions to the modem movement derived more from his editorial and talent-scouting abilities. Real stylistic innovation came from T.S. Eliot even before he had come in contact with the former. In Eliot at last we encounter the fracturing and re-fashioning of received idiom that had been achieved in music and the visual arts. Largely on the basis of his reading of Baudelaire, Laforgue, and Jacobean drama, Eliot quite independently forged a style that not only surpassed Imagist practice but seamlessly incorporated the self-examining, self-deprecating persona timidly withdrawing from traditions of passionate immersion and confession. Such a persona or attitude was no doubt the legacy of Jules Laforgue. If discontinuous composition is the hall-mark of modernist poetry, then Eliot remains its finest practitioner. Moreover, what gives coherence to the so-called heap of broken images is an essentially musical structure of relationship between part and whole. Apart from music (or for that matter, sculpture), Eliot's use of an organized whole, a web of relationships, seems to have been inspired by the notion of gestalt in contemporary psychology. The gestalt psychologists believed that a random collection of marks or dots on a page would reveal a certain pattern or design to the observing spectator. If these marks were re-distributed continuously, the effect would never be that of disorder but of constantly renewed configurations. Thus Eliot's poetry the genesis of a form that is harmonious without being closed or rigid, characterized, rather, by its appetite for inclusiveness. Such a form is no doubt exemplified by The Waste Land (1922) But it is discernible even in the earliest poetry of Eliot as it was for him the aesthetic equivalent of fragmentation, rootlessness, and lack of belief in modem European civilization.


From this viewpoint of Modern British poetry, not only is The Waste Land anticipated by 'Gerontion' or 'The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' but even the germ of Four Quartets (1943) contained within the early verse. In 'Prufrock' or 'The Portrait of a Lady,' sardonic self-deprecating attitudes located within a context of drab boredom, timidity, seediness, and sexual unease are juxtaposed with glimpses of horror and glory. This sets the tone for Eliot's masterly use of squalor and beauty in the Sweeney poems. The need for unremitting self-observation, for introspective distrust found its proper outlet in a withdrawal from passion related to the loss of faith and certitude in modern civilization. Thus, in 'Gerontion' an accurate, authentic cosmopolitan setting dramatizes the shrivelled-up life of reminiscence produced by spiritual atrophy. We have in this poem a central pattern in Eliot's poetry: fear of the full-blooded, spontaneous urgency of life with its structure of desire, wish, and expectation leading to an astringent, ascetic renunciation prompted by the history of tainted, destructive ' passions that European civilization offers. Even as modernist British poet,  Eliot veered towards conservative values and preoccupation with religious dogma through Hollow Men (1925) and Ash Wednesday (1930), stylistically he remained as innovative as ever.

 After his fairly successful experiments in verse drama, Eliot moved to the more contemplative, somewhat philosophical Four . Quartets with its intertwined themes of time, experience, memory, communication and the possibilities of reconciliation. 'Burnt Norton,' the first quartet, seems to begin the polyphonic stricture with abstract speculation and memories in a rose-garden. 'East Coker' is the name of the Somerset village from which Eliot's ancestors had emigrated to America, and the-quartet thus takes us to the past. In 'The Dry Salvages' (a group of rocky islands off the coast of Massachusetts) Eliot's own lived past in America is recaptured. Finally, in 'Little Gidding,' war-time England is related to the past of the village which had held a religious community in the seventeenth century and had its church destroyed by Oliver Cromwell's troops. The poem Four Quartets continues effectively to use the technique of discontinuous composition, the structure of music, and a subtly permeated self-reflexivity, We recognize through the moving drama of faith the old dry, ironic, detached persona, the unremitting self-observation and preoccupation with language, communication, and poetic form.
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