The Twentieth Century in Poetry


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Private and Public: Yeats and Lowell. Poetry of Two World Wars. Auden and Co. Lawrence and Ted Hughes. Regional, National and Post-Colonial I. Back Matter Pages About this book Introduction This critical survey of modern poetry from Thomas Hardy to Seamus Heaney considers both the self-consciously revolutionary innovations of Modernism and more traditional developments, taking fully into account the extent to which 'English' can no longer be equated solely with England. But we have no one poet who constantly or characteristically preserves any such poise, and the first rough distinction one might make among the poets to-day is between those who attend too much to the crude facts of experience, and those who attend exclusively to the meaning of life without much regard to the facts.

In both the naturalistic and the metaphysical schools individual writers have encouraged certain new ideals of rhythm and metre, evolved out of the twentieth century deliberate search for naturalness. This ideal is of a complete unity between the subject and the form; it suggests that any idea completely grasped will furnish inevitably the proper form of its expression.

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Most innovations to-day in rhythm, in stanza form or in diction, rest upon this doctrine, so that the most scrupulous artists are reassured by the consciousness of their own sincerity, and those artists who seem to be less scrupulous have a warrant ready to hand for their vagaries. When we have therefore divided poetry to-day into the intensely naturalistic or the intensely metaphysical groups, we may add at once a third class, who with qualities in either of these schools are yet chiefly remarkable for the freedom of their verse forms and for the confidence in their own innovations.

There are also, of course, a group of poets, if one may call them a group, who try to follow the old sanity, who try to see life steadily and whole, and who are yet willing to experiment as good craftsmen with any developments, in the technique of their art.

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The naturalistic school, if the term may be applied to those who have emphasized the crude facts of life, of course begins with Whitman in modern poetry. Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian, offers the readiest illustration. His artistic life seems to have been governed by the ambition to give his country a place in poetry; and his successive attempts to discover the soul of Belgium, first in its paintings, then in its monasteries, then in its history, and finally in its centers of industry, are all evidence of a philosophy rather than of a spontaneous poetizing of life.

It is true that in his various attempts to render the life of Belgium he strove as Whitman did to base his interpretation first on fact, often on unnecessarily crude fact; but the total impression of his very beautiful work is that though a naturalist by intent, he was in native gifts a mystic; and the only historical representation his poetry gives us of the life of our own time is in that central determination of his to write naturalistic poetry. The attempt to render London life or to render aspects of suffering with utter vitality is in both these men an artistic tendency pursued somewhat at the expense of their natural instincts.

The result is often a forced note of brutality which one learns to correct by the finer passages in the rest of their work. John Davidson in particular illustrates this sacrifice of a native disposition in the interest of realism. The character who speaks in this fine poem is a curious mixture of sentiment, reflection, and brutal matter-of-fact. It might well have been thought that the portrait was dramatic, peculiar to the circumstances of this poem, if Mr.

Masefield in his later work had not returned to the wistfulness of the portrait, often without any suggestion of its hardness. In America Walt Whitman has been much more profoundly appreciated than his enthusiastic admirers sometimes will admit. It is customary among them to cite him as another illustration of the rejected poet in the commercial atmosphere.

The understanding of Whitman and the increasing appreciation of him has been as remarkable in the United States as elsewhere. It is true, nevertheless, that the naturalistic vogue which sprang up in the nineties in England and at the same time or earlier on the Continent, has reached American poetry only recently. These poems of Mr.

It fell to Edgar Lee Masters, however, to practice the naturalistic method with sufficient energy to catch the popular attention. The bitterness of the volume, the hardness of its implied outlook on life, suggested at once that Mr. Masters was probably a sentimentalist at heart, since it is the sentimental poet usually who is most grim when he tries to be real; and Mr. He applies it to only one subject matter, the life of remote country districts, and his central interest seems to be less in the subject matter than in the cadence of his versification.

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He is so far at least illustrating his own theories of poetry; whether or not he will write poetry for its own sake remains to be seen. In contrast with the naturalistic school, certain poets have been mentioned who choose to stress the spiritual meaning of life somewhat to the exclusion of the ordinary facts of experience. Many of these poets have a special interest in religion, and as a whole they seem to carry on, so far as English literature is concerned, the tradition of Christina Rossetti.

In all of these cases the poet is so spontaneous in his emotions that it seems hard not to call his writing and his ideals natural in every sense; yet though he is at home in his religion, his religion is hardly at home in the modern world. The marks of this school are a very delightful familiarity with sacred and religious ideas, a certain elevation and intimacy of spirit, and at the same time a lack of contact with life as it is.

In this tendency to retreat from life, to use poetry as an escape rather than as a flowering out of experience, these particular writers show their affinity with others of the school who are not primarily interested in religion. The larger group to which they belong turns its back upon the modern world, and indeed upon any phase of life except inner experiences, which they choose to represent not as the product of an outer world, but as a world in themselves.

The attractiveness of this school lies in the charm which spiritual elevation always has for the sensitive and the serious. The danger of it is that wherever it has appeared before in literature, its tendency, starting from a surrender of life, has been in the direction of a speedy decline in truth and in power.

In Germany such a poet as Stefan George represents the reaction from the naturalistic lyric of Detlev von Liliencron.

The 20th century

In England it has been rather surprising to find a similar tendency, especially in the impact of the war, to turn aside from a frank facing of experience to a traditional meditation upon disembodied ideas. In his preface Mr. In this particular case the emphasis upon the note of surrender is due probably to the war; yet in all Mr.

Twentieth Century: Major Writers and Works

Akin in subject matter to either of these schools, are the writers who have paid what seems to be special attention to style. The modern followers of this ideal have not, like Wordsworth, allowed themselves to be persuaded that some selection is useful even in ordinary talk. When the attention to style has not taken this specific direction of simplified speech, it has attempted to simplify rhythms and to throw over traditional versification.

The impulse toward this reform has also come from a faith in naturalness, a faith that the rhythms of ordinary speech, like the diction, could be transferred with slight change to poetic uses. In the matter of rhythm, however, the tendency to be radical has not flourished to excess outside of the United States. In this little book, with great wit and much insight into the principles of rhythm, these young poets proclaimed an attack upon the verse traditions in their language which they thought too rigid.

But it is one thing, obviously, to advise a more than romantic liberation of the French alexandrine, and quite another thing to go to the excess of flatness practiced by some free-verse writers in America. The principles of the school, thus deriving from France through England, came to America in through a report of English imagism which a correspondent sent to Poetry, the Chicago magazine already mentioned. The imagists for at least a year published their work chiefly in this journal. They were noted at first for a preference for classical or other remote subjects, for liberation from ordinary standards of metre, for absence of rhyme, and for a fortunate brevity.

The school has had a second lease of life, however, under the leadership of Miss Amy Lowell, herself an accomplished verse writer, but more distinguished as the exponent of this propaganda. Many of the critical dicta of Miss Lowell and her associates need not be taken too seriously, and it is significant that in her recent statements of poetic faith, as in the paragraphs she contributed to Mr.

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Next after her skillful efforts to call attention to this school, imagism has owed its vogue probably to the great reputation of Mr. Strictly speaking, however, Mr. Masters is not an imagist, nor is his free verse different from the irregular lines of Wilfrid Gibson in England, who seems to be accommodating the free rhythms of Whitman to the dramatic exigencies of monologue and dialogue. The discovery of rhymes and rhythms embedded in what looked to be prose, affords the reader, until he is accustomed to it, a certain piquant shock.

In America this device of the hidden rhyme has been employed by newspaper poets for purposes of humor. In America an experiment in rhythm quite out of tune with imagism, indeed diametrically opposed to it, has been carried on by Mr. Vachel Lindsay, who attempts to turn to the purposes of art the ecstatic declamation and the fantastic accompaniment of the camp meeting, the minstrel show, and other wells of spasmodic eloquence.

The power of his poem on General Booth entering Heaven, or of his poem on the Congo, lies in the adaptability of his work for recitation.

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He supplies stage directions, as it were, for the reading; and before many American audiences his own interesting rendering of his work has demonstrated the possibilities of his verse as vehicle for recitation. Whether these possibilities are capable of any great development, remains to be seen. The subject matter of his work, it is not unfair to say, is of slight importance in comparison with its external qualities. He is an admirer of Whitman, and he writes the best prose poems of these times, in rhythms indescribably subtle, yet highly individual.

Indeed, the reader of his poems might be tempted at first to class him with those metaphysicians already glanced at, whose genius is for the renunciation of this world; but a closer study suggests that it may be only the Western world that he renounces. What the influence of his gentle philosophy may be, or to what extent the West will accept him as a sage, remains to be seen.

There can hardly be question, however, of his literary skill, especially in the realm of pure style. Alfred Austin, laureate of England from till his death in , is a good illustration of the persistence of traditional verse writing, on a level somewhat over the mediocre, more or less untouched by contemporary experiments in verse. He is a poet of very genuine lyrical gifts, who has combined scholarly interest and interest in art with an interest in the modern world. The present laureate, Robert Bridges, by far the most scholarly poet writing in English to-day, comes under the general condemnation, if one so chooses, of all academic poets.

He also illustrates the virtues of the academic mind. His own poems have a small but loyal audience among those who appreciate subtlety, meditation, and sensitiveness to the more spiritual aspects of life, but he illustrates at times, as has already been suggested, the tendency to retreat altogether from life into this world of scholarly tradition. Samain, who died young, made a quite secure place for himself as a practicer of the most artistic tradition of French verse.

His merits are those of the artist essentially, and to the foreigner he will seem perhaps a French artist rather than a universal singer; but the perfection of his work has conferred upon him already some of the glamour that belongs to the immortals, even to the minor immortals. Angellier was a figure of much greater importance, not only to France but to the world. His early studies in English literature, especially his life of Burns, , distinguished him as a scholar in the cosmopolitan sense, but his large equipment in scholarship is but slight in comparison with his immense poetic genius.


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It illustrates the variety of his lyric gift, the freedom with which he finds his subjects in contemporary life, and the mastery with which he renders them in the best traditions of art. Though other poets writing in French, such as Verhaeren or Cammaerts, for the moment hold more of the attention of the literary world, it may well be thought that Angellier has won for himself a more permanent place in world literature. In the United States the older traditions of poetic art have been maintained by a number of writers who are recognized for their openness to new ideas and to new phases of society in modern times, but who nevertheless practice the technique of the masters.

Woodberry has often been described as carrying on the tradition of the New England poets, and as being the successor in American criticism of his friend and guide, James Russell Lowell; but the fact is that Mr. Woodberry owes far more to such romantic poets as Shelley and to such philosophers as Plato, and to such critics as Walter Pater, than he owes to any American writer. His cosmopolitan love of books, especially his love of the Roman tradition in literature from Virgil to the writers of modern Italy, has set him apart in his own country as a peculiarly cultured and expert singer.

In criticism he has supplemented his writing in verse by a single-hearted expounding of the great poets, and by a reluctance, unfortunately too rare, to write on trivial or ignoble subjects. His fame in contemporary American literature seems to be a reputation of esteem rather than a vigorous popularity, and certainly in a day which has been fascinated by the advertising caprices of the various mushroom schools his quiet and self-contained art must expect to abide its time.

But the sum of his work is large enough to make him a memorable figure in his day, and his influence upon studious and thoughtful people is far beyond what the amount of his work would seem to guarantee.

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