The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Modernist poetry

BEFORE

1861–65 In Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson privately writes her many masterpieces: short, unconventional poems of religious doubt, anticipating the visionary originality of Ezra Pound and T S Eliot.

1915–62 Ezra Pound’s Cantos, a poetic epic, is akin to The Waste Land in its erudite, magpie complexity and direct, unsentimental language.

1915 Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the monologue of a disillusioned man, is a milestone on the way to full poetic Modernism.

AFTER

1923 Harmonium, a collection by the US poet Wallace Stevens, brings a vivid yet philosophical imagination to Modernism, spinning poems of elusive beauty.

Modernist poetry in early 20th-century Europe and the USA embodied a feeling that the prevailing poetic ethos, with its firm attachment to Romantic subjectivity and traditional forms, was ill suited to a modern cosmopolitan culture of revolutionized science, technology, and social values. The Modernist poets moved away from making personal statements towards a more intellectual objectivity, and gave up any attempt to imagine a pastoral idyll or turn away from the complexities of the city.

Rhythmical grumbling

T S Eliot (1888–1965) described his Modernist masterpiece The Waste Land as “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling”. An American who transformed himself, in London, into an English man of letters, he wrote much of it while recuperating from a breakdown. But contemporaries such as the US poet Ezra Pound saw its pessimism, its fragmented forms, its unmarked quotations in several languages, and its shifting voices as a brilliant reflection of the disorders of the post-war world and its metaphorical barrenness. The critic Clive Bell, brother-in-law of Virginia Woolf, saw the influence of the Jazz movement in the poem, calling it a “ragtime literature which flouts traditional rhythms”.

The title of the poem refers to the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King – a king tasked with looking after the Holy Grail, whose impotence affects not just his ability to father children, but the fertility of his entire kingdom, which becomes an arid wasteland. Water and thirst, and death implied within growth, are major themes of Eliot’s poem: from its very beginning, even the coming of spring holds no promise.

The poem creates the effect of looking through a rapidly turned kaleidoscope of spiritual (and psychological and social) anxiety. Both lyricism and magnificence feature in the quotations and pastiches – but only as ironic counterpoints to desolation.

See also: Les Fleurs du mal • Ulysses • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man