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Modernism in poetry Essay

Modernism. It is a direction of poetry, literature and art in general that uses and describes “new and distinctive features in the subjects, forms, concepts and styles of literature and the other arts in the early decades of the present century, but especially after World War I. ” (Abrams 167) More often than not “Modernism” engages in “deliberate and radical break” (Abrams 167) with more traditional foundation of art and culture, established since XIX century. Here two poets of modernist age – T. S. Elliot and H. Crane – are compared to T. Hardy and G. M. Hopkins, a pair of contemporary classical poets.

I’d like to begin the study with T. S. Elliot, the famous poet whose very name sounds like a synonym to word “modernism”. Elliot was and is the personification of modernism, and images and verses from his poems are remembered even today, and integrated in today works of literature and fiction. One can remember Steven King’s “Dark Tower” saga where images of Elliot’s works resurface frequently – in fact, one of King’s volumes of that saga is called “The Waste Lands”, obviously inspired by Elliot’s .

For example, Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” had brought us a vision of a man whose world had split in and around himself, a lost person in search of love which can only be destructive and formidable for him. Since he is confined in the abyss of his own consciousness, reality is merely some kind of emotional experience for him. He can still observe the world around him, but psychologically he is alone, in the waste lands of unfertility and spiritual emptiness. Prufrock (the epitome of Elliot himself, or the reader) lets his thoughts and sentiments drift off incoherently.

The external world around him, to which he is so sardonic, reflects his inner world, deprived of spiritual serenity. As he cannot get involved in a dialogue with the external world, only through the dramatic monologue can Prufrock whisper his intention : “Let us go then, you and I” (Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 242). Elliot wanted his hero (and the reader) to compare himself with a character of Dante’s “Inferno”. But while they are alike, their fates are different: While Guido has at least the courage to open up to Dante, Prufrock is too complacent and too inert to make that effort.

His only confident can be his alter ego – a distorted reflection of himself in the mirror of outside world. He sees this person, and begs to him for unification – as if there can be an answer different from the one he gives himself… Prufrock’s wisdom of the ages he seems to feel returns to him as cruel mockery. What, indeed, could be the meaning of “life, universe and everything” (D. Adams), if .. one, settling a pillow, or throwing off a shawl, And turning toward the window, should say: “That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all.

” (Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 245). That Prufrock’s mawkish and evasive nature is shattered is delineated in the last ten lines of the poem. As the recurrent images of and references to the sea (“silent seas”, “mermaids”, “seagirls”) crop up more and more, Prufrock’s self-evasion becomes more marked. His psychic para1yis culminates when he realizes that even the mermaids will not do him a favor by singing to him; thus, all his source of possible inspiration fades away. (Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 245).

He has never rea1ly been a religious man: he cannot, thus, expect Christ to restore him to a potent life, as was Lazarus restored to his. It is no wonder that while Prufrock is felt to be an epitome to all society of his times – so brilliant and so exquisitely empty inside. In modern times, his words had been referenced to in mockery by one of the most horrible machines the human mind had ever invented, Blaine the Mono: “In the rooms the people come and go. But I doubt that any of them is talking of Michelangelo” (King).

Elliot’s other masterpiece, Gerontion, depicts a dream of memory. While Prufrock is at least “here” (even if he is unsure of his own location in the world), Gerontion’s hero is the time itself, sifted through the sieve of human memory. The observer is neither here not there, but the remains of memory, the dregs of time are spread before him – an enchanting display, but meaningless essentially. Elliot seems to ask – would the dregs of our own memory, if spread before some stranger, mean as little to him as these remains of one’s time mean to us now?

All Elliot’s images are dark, broody and disturbing. They imply to ask – is it all? Can there be anything else around us, or are we lost eternally in the world which wasn’t mean for us? And, as Elliot hadn’t answered that questions himself, each reader must substitute his own answers and test their validity on Elliot’s words of man, world and time. Hart Crane is other example of modernist poets, his images are less brooding than Elliot’s and more defined, but the power they wield over us is intensified by their hidden meanings, unseen at first glance.

Crane’s “Black Tambourine“ reflects on author’s own experience of time spent with some negro workers in a cellar. But the cellar expands in author’s view to the size of the whole world, and its closed door becomes the famous wall of the three Biblical judgments – MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN: “numbered, weighed and found wanting”. All universe seems to be contained between “here and now” – the dark cellar with tambourine on the wall – and mystical “somewhere”, where all human hopes end as “carcass, quick with flies” (Black Tambourine).

“At Melville’s Tomb” brings dark and melancholy beneath which a memory of forces lingers that were bright and vicious once before – before the Death took its toll, equaling the furious Ahab and unnamed sailor. The image of the sea is indefinite and vague too, for it can be perceived as deep grave, or Death itself, or Sea of Time which will eventually give endless calm to every living being. In all modernist poetry, the concept of such multipart images and veiled references was honed and detailed up to its perfection.

Now this is an instrument which is frequently used in literature and other spheres of life, such as advertising, but in times of T. S. Elliot and H. Crane it was a powerful innovation with which readers were stunned literarily. To compare with modernist poetry of Elliot and Crane, classical works by T. Hardy and G. M. Hopkins are selected. The classical English poetry of Thomas Hardy is more structured both in rhythm and meaning than modernist examples of Elliot and Crane.

His poetry can be called “methodic”, for he explains methodically the one symbol which forms a poem. He explains it, details it, brings it before our eyes in maddeningly realistic manner, until the reader not simply understands it, but is enthralled by its vision. “Neutral tones” brings us a vision of lost love which turned into deadliness – the blank neutrality which opposes love and joy and happiness of life. The feelings deepen further with each stanza – from tranquility to blankness, to melancholy, and finally to utter despair.

The concluding stanza forms the moral of the poem, adding to the finality of the sentence – what is lost in time, can never be found again. “The Darkling Thrush” is an example of more hopeful vision. Dedicated to the coming century, it is full with dark images of definite meaning: the gate as the gate of a new age (or a new Century), frost and Winter as Death itself that comes to all, and the land becomes a body which dies together with Century, for its time has passed. But the mere voice of the thrush changes the picture, illuminating it with some inner light of “blessed Hope”.

And, while the reader (as the man who stands at the gates) is yet unaware of a definite knowledge of that Good Sign that only the bird has, he still accepts the bird’s song as a sign that there is hope for the future. Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is yet another example of what classics had to offer then. His images are as definite as Hardy’s, if somewhat more fluent, and the moral is present too in his poems. “Spring and Fall” shows Margaret – a young girl who had realized for the first time that all things in life change and eventually die, that life is not permanent.

A child’s mind can grasp concepts at levels they are not aware of, and understand something without ever having it explained. It is simple because of the innocent way the child absorbs the life itself. As an adult, one can see a subject or idea in a completely different way by viewing it through the eyes of a child. In the poem, Margaret looks at death and understands it symbolically, through the death of leaves to her own imminent demise. “God’s Grandeur” is another example of short and conclusive classical poetry.

The tension in scenes of man-made destruction, pictured with vivid detail, is intensified by alliteration. Disturbing images of oozing oil and ever-repeating trod of countless generations result in deep, uncontrolled fear. But the conclusion opposes all said before by references to never-ending nature and God as its creator and protector. It states to us that God will as surely brings life after death and resurrection after destruction, as each day he brings the morning light after the dark of night. From fear of Man to hope in God – that is the meaning of the poem in general.

To conclude the work, one should remind that modernist poets had learned to use their images from classical poetry. But, taking the basic elements and images from their predecessors, their works had transcended from single pictures (or contented stories explained to reader part by part) to grandiose intertwined canvases, full of elements and colors, or bottomless abysses of veiled hints and allusions. Certainly, the works of classics had formed the foundation for these magnificent creations of modernist poets, and without them the whole modernism in English literature would not be able to exist or progress.

Works Cited Abrams M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1941 Hardy, Thomas. Wessex poems and other verses. New York: Harper, 1898. Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918. King, Stephen. The Waste Lands. Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc, 1991. Simon, Marc. The Complete Poems of Hart Crane. New York: Liveright, 1986. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. New York and London:W. W. Norton & Company, 1988


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