Modernism in English Literature — As It Happened

This is the second part of a series on the turn of modernism in English Literature. Find a link to the first part here:Modernism in English Literature — A Beginning

The Modernist movement in literature was pioneered by many, the Irish poet W.B.Yeats being one prominent figure, apart from T.S.Eliot. William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, in Dublin, Ireland. In the mid-1880s, Yeats pursued art as a student at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. After returning to London late 1880s, Yeats met writers like Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and also became acquainted with Maud Gonne, a supporter of Irish independence. This revolutionary woman served as a muse for Yeats for years. Yeats founded the Rhymers’ Club poetry group with Ernest Rhys. He also joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization that explored topics related to the occult and mysticism.

While he was fascinated with otherworldly elements, Yeats’s interest in Ireland, especially its folktales, fueled much of his output. The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) draws from the story of a mythic Irish hero. In In the Seven Woods (1904), Yeats tries to work threads from ordinary life into the texture of his poetry. To modernist subject, the questions of impersonality and objectivity seemed to be paramount. For the modernist poets like T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, it was essential to move away from the merely personal towards an intellectual statement that poetry sought to make about the world.

“Adam’s Curse” flags the beginning of a species of discursive, reminiscent kind of poetry, apparently casual in movement but actually perfectly wrought and organized. In the poem, Yeats describes the difficulty of creating something beautiful. The title alludes to the Book of Genesis evoking the fall of man and the separation of work and pleasure. Yeats serves as arbiter for his profession, condemning the view that beauty in art (and, subsequently, everywhere else) comes naturally. Yeats propounds that beauty can only come about through great mental ardour. The poet makes a subtle plea for greater understanding of the creative process for those that make it their “trade”. Pitting himself with the “martyrs,” the poet speaks through a victim’s perspective and provides evidence to support his claim. Yeats’ poem, though at times mock-serious, is a very important commentary on the constraints of composition.

The Tower (1928), Yeats’s first major collection after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1923 is a seminal work in Modernist poetry. The title refers to Ballylee Castle, a Norman tower which Yeats purchased and restored in 1917. It also includes “Sailing to Byzantium”, a metaphor for a spiritual journey. He underscores the need to be imaginative even when the heart is “fastened to a dying animal”. Yeats’s solution is to leave the country of the young and travel to Byzantium, where the sages in the city’s famous gold mosaics could become the “singing-masters” of his soul. He hopes the sages will appear in fire and take him away from his body into an existence outside time, where, like a great work of art, he could exist in “the artifice of eternity.” In the final stanza of the poem, he declares that once he is out of his body he will never again appear in the form of a natural thing; rather, he will become a golden bird, sitting on a golden tree, singing of the past (“what is past”), the present (that which is “passing”), and the future (that which is “to come”).

Yeats continued to write until his death – The Wild Swans at Coole (1917), A Vision (1925), and Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (1932). He cemented his legacy as a leading poet and playwright, one who wrote plays like At the Hawk’s Well and On Baile’s Strand. He absorbed all that his age had to offer him in a way haunting, magical, fascinating and sometimes terrible.

Other modernist writers like W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas on the other hand broke with Romantic pieties and clichés. They eliminated the very word that “did not contribute to presentation”. Eliot wrote:

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality.”

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