Modernism in English Literature — A Beginning

Modernism can be broadly defined as the multinational cultural movement that took hold in the late 19th century and reached its empyrean on the eve of World War I. Turning away from British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson’s elegiac mode and the habit of revelling in self-pity, there was a shift to a kind of intellectual and complex poetry of John Donne, the “unified sensibility” of metaphysical poets which had been remiss in English Literature since seventeenth century. In the early 20th century, novelists such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf experimented with shifts in time and narrative points of view. The most striking feature of 20th century English literary history was the revolution of poetic taste and practice rejecting the view of poetry proffered by Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, in favour of one which saw poetry become more symbolist and cerebral.

T.S. Eliot who had just settled in England prior to the First World War (and would later give up his American citizenship for a British residence) and Ezra Pound, the literary gadfly, whose presence ruffled quite a few literary feathers in 1912, were the major proponents of Modernism. The bulk of theoretical ammunition came from T.E. Hulme who remarked:

“I object to the sloppiness that doesn’t consider that a poem is a poem unless it is moaning or whining about something or the other.”

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1888. In 1909, Eliot graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University. At Harvard, he was greatly influenced by professors renowned in poetry, philosophy and literary criticism, all of which would shape him in the years to come. When in France, Eliot began a lifelong friendship with Ezra Pound, who immediately recognized his poetic genius.

Eliot published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, in Poetry (1915). His anthology, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) contained his finest dramatic monologues, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady”. In 1920, Poems appeared and it comprised of “Gerontion” , his longest poem. This poem was a blank verse interior monologue and unlike anything that had previously been seen. The work picturizes Europe after World War I through the eyes of an elderly man who has lived a majority of his life in the 19th century. The poem interprets the theme of Christianity from the viewpoint of the Modernist individual with various references to the incarnation and salvation.

“The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness.”

In 1922, ‘The Waste Land”, created ripples, almost immediately developing a cult-like following from all literary corners. With its colossal and complex examination of post-war disillusionment, ‘The Waste Land” is often considered the most influential poetic work of the 20th century. “The Hollow Men” too surfaced in 1925. The poet also edited the literary journal The Criterion spanning 1922-1939. He also shepherded several young poets at the publishing house Faber & Faber.

Eliot’s major later poems include “Ash Wednesday” (1930) and “Four Quartets” (1943). During this period he also wrote The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), After Strange Gods (1934) and Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1940). For his mammoth influence in poetry, criticism and drama, T.S. Eliot received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

Critics are known to say that Eliot’s poetry lacks scope and sympathy. He is impatient with imperfection. Eliot furnished a new style for English poetry, somewhat inspired by the Imagist movement. His rhythm was freed from the artificial demands of metrical regularity and he collated symbols, images and fragments to give rise to rich patterns of meaning. Eliot set out to show the repudiation of conventionally “poetic” images, the organizing of symbolic images, incidents, fragments of conversation, or of memory without any explanatory links, the arresting of attention by imagistic shock or emotional anti-climax as well as the complete suppression of the poet’s own personality and his appearance only through the persona of his invented character. All of these added up to a new poetic style for English poetry.

Picture Courtesy- Irish Times

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