Modern Poetry

    Virginia Woolf has said that the duty of the lecturer is to give the audience, at the end of an hour’s talk, a nugget of pure truth which they can wrap up in a piece of notepaper, take home, and put away quietly on the mantelpiece. If this is so I am afraid I am appearing before you under false presences, for I really have not yet made up my mind about the absolute value of much modern poetry. I comfort my conscience, however, with the reflection that there is probably no such thing as pure truth about poetry anyway, any more than there is about any other of the arts. Shakespeare wrote superlatively well, it seems true to any; yet several poets in the eighteenth century, including no less a person than Dryden, attempted to rewrite him because they considered his language to be rude and unpolished. I suppose you would all agree, if the question were put to you, that Keats was a great poet; yet his poems were so savagely attacked by the critics of his day that Shelley tells us his death was hastened in consequence. Time, of course, helps us to sift truth from error in matters of art; but even time is not an infallible guide. And in dealing with modern poetry we have not even got time to help us. We are too close to these modernist writers to be able to give a final judgement upon their work. The nugget of truth is one which I am still searching for myself. So instead of pretending to lecture to you this afternoon I will ask you to make a short voyage of exploration and discovery with me into the strange — sometimes the wasteland — of modernist verse. I will show you certain parts of that country which have interested me; I will introduce you to it, and you must decide for yourselves whether what you find is true poetry. Let me warn you at the outset that although the first part of the journey will be through a familiar, or at least an intelligible landscape, I propose to abandon you at the end of my talk, in the very depths of the wilderness. There you will find a somewhat curious world, I fear, where the light of the sun makes an audible creaking noise as it falls to earth, where the subconscious mind assumes a greater importance than the conscious, and where the words which you have always thought you have understood suddenly appear to have taken on a host of new meanings.

      Before we enter this delightful realm, however, I must ask you to carry your minds back some little distance in the history of English poetry. I said a moment ago that time was of no assistance to us in estimating the worth of modernist verse; that is only part of the truth. Time, as a test of survival, we have not got, but time in the shape of the historical development leading up to the moderns we have got. We cannot hope to understand what the new poets are attempting to do if we do not take the trouble to discover what has preceded them in English verse. A revolt is always largely conditioned and determined by the thing revolted from. Let us glance then for a few minutes at the poetic antecedents of the modernists.

    If we take the eighteenth century as a convenient starting point — and I must ask you to go back as far as that — what do we find to be the nature of the poetry of the time? These are the days, remember, of Pope and Dryden; the Augustan or Classical age of English poetry. Stateliness, intellectuality, wit; logical thought, carefully polished lines, exact rhymes — these are the principal characteristic of this type of verse. It has a deliberate, well-ordered beauty; it resembles a Greek temple set down in an English landscape. Great poetry was written in this age and in this manner, but only so long as the minds of Englishmen were attuned to that particular form of literary aristocracy. With the upheaval caused by the industrial revolution and the French revolution there came a great change. The new ideas about society propagated by revolutionaries and the new social customs necessitated by industrial changes affected and enlivened poetry as well as politics. There took place what we call the Romantic Revival. Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats had something so new to say, something at times so simple, at times so vehement and passionate, that they refused to be restrained by formal measures which had satisfied Pope and Dryden. They burst the shell of classicism and produced a variety of new types of verse to suit their altered mood. They were the modernist poets of their day, and they met the same violent criticism at the hands of the older school as has been directed against the present modernists by critics who are fixed in their ways and unable to adapt themselves to change. Were I back a century in time I would not need to change the title of this lecture — I should simply discuss with you different personalities — poets who are now bound in rich leather and given as prizes to school children. This fact should be borne in mind by those who criticize modern poets because they do not happen to write in the usual manner.

     The Romantic Revival cleared a new path for English poetry — a path which became a smooth and hardened highway under the careful labours of the eminent Victorians. Down this highway poured the whole stream of 19th century literary traffic; Tennyson, Browning, Arnold and a host of lesser vehicles. For a full hundred years this new road, this new manner of writing, was adequate to the demands which were put upon it. The poets drove happily along, content with the pleasant view, and mightily encouraged by the developments of science, the growth of the empire and the prosperity of the upper and middle classes. A firm belief that God was in his heaven and that all was right with the world pervades their work. No one doubts that much Victorian literature is great; but it remains true to say that the poets grew more restricted as the century progressed. They never thought of leaving the broad highway to see if some new territory might not be worth exploring. And so the romantic movement continued unchanged, until the inevitable happened. What were merely the manners and modes of a certain kind of poetry solidified into hard and fast rules which all poets were supposed to follow blindly. The strength and passion of the early romanticists petered out into sentimentality. The ideas which had at first inspired them to glorious utterance found expression so often in their followers that they became insipid and threadbare. What is worse, the poet grew terribly respectable. Gloved, frock-coated and silk-hatted, he could safely be invited to any dinner party. Neither his language nor his ideas would have caused the smallest concern even in the best of families. I am not one of those who believe that a poet must break all the conventions to be great, but I am quite certain that it is bad for him to be too respectable and too revered, at any rate until he is over sixty. Let the poet beware when all men praise him. If Shelley were alive today I feel quite certain he would do something to startle us — probably he would write a magnificent ode in praise of Soviet Russia. Be that as it may, English poetry toward the latter part of the 19th century had lost touch with reality; it had become too narrowly bourgeois, too arty, too refined. The road which started from our Greek temple arrived at the Albert Memorial. Something like a revolution was bound to happen.

     Something did happen, but it was not at first a revolution. An attack was made upon the Victorian treatment of sex. Swinburne undoubtedly contributed to it; he chose his subjects without regard to the sensitivities of his readers, and wrote so gloriously that people had to read him even if they were shocked. The story is told of Swinburne that one night after dinner he wee reading aloud to a mixed group of guests at the house of a friend, one of the party being the then Archbishop of York. He had chosen his long and realistic poem “Les Noyades”,  whether deliberately or simply inconsiderately we are not told. As the reading progressed the listeners grew visibly distressed, but Swinburne ran steadily on. At last, just when it seemed that the Archbishop was about to protest, the door was suddenly flung open, and the butler, like an avenging angel, announced “Prayers, my Lord”.  The scene typifies the first attack upon the Victorian poetic order. The subjects which had been taboo for so long, and which can never be excluded from art, came back with a vengeance. The nineties arrived, and proved to be yellow. But the fin de siècle poets — Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symonds and others — who made a valiant attempt to be new, for the most part only succeeded in being naughty. They caused a disturbance, and that is always a good thing; they brought back to poetry a sensitivity and a subtlety of feeling which the Victorians had lacked; under French influence they came close to writing pure poetry — poetry, that is, of pure music and image rather than ideas. But they had really no new concept of poetry to offer; they left their contribution to our literature, but once their attack had spent itself the coarse of orthodox romanticism ran smooth. As Humbert Wolfe says of them, they were not looking forward eargerly but backward contemptuously. They left the form of English poetry much as they had found it.

     So we see that even as recently as the beginning of this century (if any thing which occurred before the war may be described as recent) the Romantic movement was still predominant. The essential characteristics of English verse were the same as they had been since the early romantic poets overthrew 18th century classicism and brought in a new philosophy and a new mode of expression. The same verse forms, the same sorts of metre and rhyme were being used. A hundred years had passed since the new road had been first taken. Great alterations in man’s social life and in his outlook upon the world had been wrought in that time. But as yet poetry gave no sign of any change of heart.

     Important developments, however, were already at hand. In the British Isles two schools of poets arose who were to have much influence upon the modernist movement. The first of these was the Irish school under the leadership of W.B. Yeats and A.E. (George Russell). Speaking of the aims of this group Mr. Yeats has said, “We were weary of the art of Tennyson and his imitators. We wanted to get rid not only of rhetoric but of poetic diction. We tried to strip away everything that was artificial, to get a style like speech, as simple as the simplest prose, like a cry of the heart”.  This was a much more serious challenge to the established order than that flung by the “fleshly school” of the ’90s. Here were poets who did not merely revolt by selecting startling subjects, but who tried to write poetry in a new manner. They never succeeded in cutting themselves entirely adrift from their contemporaries; the Irish school belongs to the romantic tradition. But they did shed a lot of poetical verbiage, and they did achieve a simplicity and immediacy of expression which make their poetry stand out from that of its period. The English poets, curiously enough, were not much influenced by this school; it was in America that it found the most willing soil for its ideas, and through its influence upon the American revival of 1912 it contributed greatly to the modern movement.

     I now come to the second of the movements which immediately preceded and to some extent caused the modernist revival. This was the movement started by the poets whom we now call the Georgian school — the group that includes Masefield, Rupert Brooke, De la Mare, J.E. Flecker, Ralph Hodgson and a host of others. The period was ushered in by the publication in 1912 of Masefield’s “The Everlasting Mercy”,  a poem which created a veritable storm on the moment of its publication. By that one blow, it has been said, Masefield flung wide the door of public interest. Poetry seemed to shake off the weight of years and the solemnity and respectability which had imposed upon her the voice and opinions of the middle-aged. Suddenly everyone burst out singing, and the songs were joyous, youthful and vigorous. There is a wide variety of style and subject matter to be found amongst the Georgians; Masefield’s grim narratives, his stern realism, consort ill with the delicate fancies of De la Mare or the oriental splendours of Flecker. But the Georgians belong to a single group in that they caught up the dying romantic tradition and instilled into it a fresh, creative spirit out of which further beauty could be wrought.

     To many people the Georgian poets represent modern poetry. While there are touches of what I call modernism to be found amongst them, and while the stimulus they gave to poetry contributed to the development of the modernist movement, I do not think the term modern can properly be applied to them as a group. There is a small anthology still being sold in large numbers called Poems of Today, which some of you may know. It contains a wide selection of verses from various Georgian and Irish poets. It is a good selection, one well worth possessing, but it contains hardly a single example of modernist poetry, with the exception of “The Assault” by Robert Nichols. If you take the trouble to compare a few of its poems with, for instance, the 19th century poems of the Oxford Book of English Verse, what differences will you find? Of differences in form, none. The Georgians have advanced not a bit in the development of fomm. The same metrical structure, the same rhymes are being used. There is too the same logical sequence of thought in every poem. And very little difference has been made in the language used. A number of words which formed the stock-in-trade of the orthodox poet, like methinks, meseems, forsooth, etc., are gone. There is more simplicity and directness. But little else has changed; the words are used in their ordinary connotations. It is the duty of the poet to disclose new meanings in words, to create his language and mould it to his purposes. The Georgian group does not do this to any great extent because the language which they found ready made for them was adequate to express all they had to say. Though they wrote well, they came with no new gospel. They belong, indeed, to the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century. They do not start a new epoch so much as provide a rather fine epilogue for an old one.

     The failure of the Georgian poets to break away from the century-old traditions of romanticism has caused the modernist poets to be somewhat sarcastic at their expense. Roy Campbell, the clever young South African poet, says that in order to have your poems accepted by a Georgian anthology you must first ask yourself such questions as these:

1. Have you ever been on a walking tour?
2. Do you suffer from Elephantiasis of the soul?
3. Do you make friends easily with dogs, poultry, cats, etc?
4. Are you easily exalted by natural objects?
6. Do you live in one place and yearn to be in another place?
7. Can you write in rhyme and metre?

Admission to the anthology will be secured if you answer in the affirmative the last question and any one other. That this criticism strikes home will I think be readily appreciated by anyone who cares to analyse the topics about which most Georgian poetry is written. Miss Edith Sitwell is more precise in her attack. “In the verse of that time”,  she writes in Tradition and Experiment, “as in much of this, the praise of worthy home life alternated with swollen inflated boomings and roarings about the Soul of Man. These reigned triumphant, together with healthy, manly, but rather raucous shouts for beer, and advertisements of certain rustic parts of England, to the accompaniment of a general clumsy clod-hopping with hob-nailed boots.” (That last shaft, I take it, is directed at Edmund Blunden.)

     It was the war which finally outmoded the Georgian school. Not first, however, at first it enormously enhanced their reputations because immediately on its outbreak they gave beautiful expression to the then accepted illusions about the honour and glory of dying for ones country. Unfortunately for their poetic reputations, in so doing they were but reflecting the mass mind of their time. The figure of Rupert Brooke best illustrates this. The magnificent language and the popular sentiment of his war sonnets, coupled with his prompt enlistment and early death, brought him at once to the peak of popularity. He typified the willing self-sacrifice of youth upon the altar of patriotism. And yet how is a generation which demands war to be treated as in All Quiet on the Western Front ever going to take Brooke’s war sonnets seriously? “Now God be praised who hath matched us with this hour” he writes. But why? the youth of today may well ask. Assuming for a moment that God and not man is responsible, is it the sort of hour for which we should be thankful? Or consider the line which likens the soldiers to “swimmers into cleanness leaping”.  Is that an accurate description of the spiritual experience of the young man who starts in to learn the grim business of modern warfare — how to use a bayonet, for instance; to say nothing of Flanders mud. No, fate dealt unkindly with Brooke, killing him before he had time to shake off his illusions and develop his undoubtedly great gift. The world has at least learnt one lesson from the war, and that patriotism, like all forms of love, is blind. Such poets as lived to the end saw the truth; compare with Brookes galahadism Siegfried Sassoon’s lines

O martyred youth and manhood overthrown
The burden of your wrongs is on my head.

and Wilfrid Owen’s

What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

It only needed the failure of the beatific visions of the reconstruction period, coming on top of the revision of beliefs caused directly by the horrors of the war, to bring about a period of profound scepticism and disillusionment. Of this period enough has already been written; it is sufficient to note that orthodoxies of every sort were in consequence subjected to a stricter examination than they had met at any time since the disturbances which ended the Augustan age and gave rise to the romantic revival. The war was not the only cause of the uneasiness, remember. The socialist and communist alternatives to the present order of society had made intelligent people turn a critical eye on the community about them. Einstein, to solve a scientific problem, produced a formula which caused philosophers to stand and stare. Particularly upsetting, perhaps, were the discoveries of the new psychology, with its rather startling revelations regarding the springs of mental activity. The temple of the mind, on a closer approach, was found to contain a few badly choked drains. All these factors worked upon the minds of the newer poets, and forced them to do some very serious thinking. It was but natural that to express their experience of life as seen from these new points of view some changes in the form of poetry would be required. What the 19th century did to the 18th, the 20th, which really only begins after the war, was to do to the 19th.

     The new verse forms which the modernist poets were destined to use were to come mostly from America. To complete our historical survey, we must look briefly at the achievement of the poets of the American revival. During the 19th century American poetry had followed tamely along in the wake of the romantic movement. The tools of the poetic trade had all been imported from England, and no matter how deftly they were wielded they could only produce an article that was something of an alien. The great American experiment found but one prophet, Whitman, and he awoke no echoes amongst his contemporaries. His influence, as a matter of fact, was felt more strongly in France, where he was translated and widely read by the symbolists and other experimental poets of the last quarter of the century. These in their turn were later read and copied in the United States, so that Whitman was, so to speak, introduced from abroad. It was the symbolists, Whitman and the Irish school who were being read by the younger Americans in the early days of this century, and these stimulating influences were seen in the work of the great figures of the revival which began in 1912. In that year (the same year as witnessed the Georgian revival in England) the publication began in Chicago of a magazine called Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, which was to be the organ of the new writers. The names of those who belong to this American school, which is undoubtedly the most important in the history of American poetry, are now well known. Vachell Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost, E.A. Robinson, Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the Imagist group like Ezra Pound and H.D. These poets rejected the worn and polished diction of orthodox verse to a far greater extent than did the Georgians, and are consequently that much nearer modernist verse — indeed much of the work of Masters, Frost, Sandburg, and the Imagists is included in any treatment of modernist poetry. These writers took for their themes not the threadbare subjects of romance, but all the various aspects of life as it was being lived about them. What is more important from the point of view of the modernists, they experimented with new forms. They appropriated the French vers libre, developed it, called it free verse and thus added a valuable verse-form to English poetry. They introduced the hokku, a short 3 line poem, from Japan; they translated from the Chinese and discovered an intellectual and sophisticated type of writing which seemed particularly suited to the spirit of this present age. In a word, they wrote exactly as the spirit moved them; and how else can poetry be written?

     So much, then, for the recent developments in English and American poetry. Our ally, time, has now brought us down to our own days, and having deposited us upon the threshold of the future he takes his leave. Given such a history as we have just heard about, we are to some extent prepared, I think, to meet the moderns. We can go even further, and can make a pretty shrewd guess as to the manner in which the moderns will probably write. We might reasonably expect, for instance, a great deal of experiment in form. It has been said that after Swinburne there was no possibility of inventing any more regular stanzas or rhyme schemes — he had tried them all. The moderns will obviously have to employ irregular verses and imperfect rhymes if they are dissatisfied with regular ones. This of course is what has happened, although much truly modern poetry is written in the old verse forms. Free verse, even though it may be as old as the 23rd psalm, is a modernist contribution to poetic form, and one which will undoubtedly remain; so too the half rhyme and the consonantal rhyme have been tried and found valuable for certain effects. Similarly it would be only natural for the moderns to experiment with language and imagery as well as with form. Certain words had become “poetical”,  it was almost imperative for the poet to use them. Certain images about moons, roses and gardens and so on had been put so often through the mill that every bit of freshness had been destroyed in them. These are difficulties which the moderns have set themselves to overcome. Then we should expect to find modern poetry to be intellectual rather than emotional because the 19th century gave us all the emotionalism we wanted, and huge quantities of sentimentality — which is only an uncontrolled emotionalism — which we didn’t want. That characteristic — intellectuality — is strongly marked in much modernist verse. Subjects are dealt with often in a dispassionate, almost a cold manner; beliefs are questioned; morality and immorality are generally not kept in separate compartments with the label good attached to one and the label bad to the other, but are regarded, as a scientist would regard them, as alternative forms of action which the poet records without comment. This is particularly true of the modern treatment of sex, and gives rise to the mistaken notion prevalent in some quarters that the moderns are depraved. The modernist shows in his poems evidence of wide literary and scientific reading; he is apt to make rather obscure allusions to other authors and events, which he expects the reader to know about. This poetry, in a word, is not popular, and is not likely to be unless our educational process becomes very much better than it is now. All these characteristics are indications of the fact that the modern poet relies on his intellect more than the romantic poet did. Again, we should expect the moderns to prefer the concrete to the abstract, because the Victorians dealt so largely in abstractions, and in illusions, the children of abstractions. The great abstract realities of Truth, Beauty, Justice, Righteousness, and so on are doubtless as important as they used to be, but today we are less sure that we know exactly what they mean. Consequently the modernist tends to avoid these subjects, and to write about things he is more sure of; or else, like Edith Sitwell, he creates a new world of his own altogether. He has given up writing hymns to beauty. One result of this reaction against the abstract and ideal world has been a revival of interest in the trivial, the commonplace; or rather I should say that the poet today is learning that the qualities of triviality and commonplaceness do not reside in the external object but in our way of looking at the object. Looked at from a new angle, the familiar becomes significant. Mr. Jean Cocteau puts the matter very well. He asks: “Have you ever experienced the surprise of being brought face to face with an object with your ears and eyes undulled by long familiarity?. . . All of a sudden we see a dog, a cab, a house, for the first time. We are overpowered by the unique, the crazy, the ridiculous, the beautiful features of each object. The next moment habit, with its eraser, has rubbed out this vivid picture. We stroke the dog, hail the cab and live in the house. We do not see them any more.” This is the role which all true poetry fulfills, and which the moderns are reviving. Poetry unveils, in the fullest sense of the word, and shows man the significance and beauty of things which he looks at every day with unseeing eyes. Much verse today is considered unimportant merely because it is about some apparently trivial subject. Readers of poetry have become accustomed to hearing the poet talk about love and death and beauty in a rhetorical and overdone manner, and feel lost without those immensities and that ground treatment. They forget that the way in which a woman turns on a stairway to say good bye to a friend may mean much more to a poet than the battle of the Marne or the pact of Locarno.

     Another quality which we can understand in the moderns is the vein of satire and cynicism which runs through so much of their work. So many of them were disillusioned by the advance of thought and by the war that they turned rather savagely against the old and also the present order of society, laughing or sneering at its follies and weaknesses. Behind this criticism there often lies a deep-hidden idealism; many modern poets have not lost faith in their ideals, but they have lost faith in their fellowmen and condemn them in consequence. That is true, I think, even of so apparent a cynic as T.S. Eliot; in his verse nothing appears sacred to him, and yet if we look closer at his work we perceive that he is disgusted with the existing state of affairs. And behind his descriptions of present-day evil there is stern disapproval. On the other hand some moderns are content with pure cynicism. This attitude, which seems to arise in all ageing civilizations, is to be found in the work of many of the Chinese poets who have recently been made accessible to us in the translations of Arthur Waley and others. Let me read you one poem as an example of what I mean.

(By Su Tung-P’o, 1036-1101)

Families, when a child is born,
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister

The feeling behind that 900 year old poem is distinctly modern.

    Now that we have summarized the results of our historical investigations, and now that we have decided — at least I hope you have decided — that the modernists have some justification in writing differently from the romantic poets who have hitherto dominated the literary horizon, let us examine a few specimens of modern poetry. I have selected some poems that represent the principle tendencies of the newer writers and which will help to explain more clearly than I can do myself just what their aims are. Of course I have had to be rigorously exclusive. I have not time to deal with such members of the Georgian group as showed signs of modernism — men like D.H. Lawrence and James Stephens, for instance. So too I am omitting many of the recent American poets who might be included in the modernist movement, particularly H.D. and the others of the Imagist school, who have taught us much about the writing of poetry. Instead of dealing with a large number of authors I propose to confine myself to a few, and merely warn you that I do not pretend by any means that I have dealt exhaustively with my subject.


(The list of poets and poems read on the occasion of the delivery of this paper, pencilled in on the bottom of page 15 is difficult to decipher even in the original, but I think is as follows):

Read Emily Dickenson

Cummings XLI
Is 5     1926
(I do not know which poems I read
from these two books.)

E. Sitwell
Troy Park. Revival
1925     Two Dogs

J.C. Ransome
Little Boy Blue
Two Gentlemen in Bonds 1927

Immortal Helix
End of the World


I also seem to remember that I read the poem of Hopkins about there being no way to hold back beauty. . . . but of this I cannot be sure. Later, I am sure of this now (January 1979) and the poem is called The Leaden Echo.

F.R.S. 26-8-78