Poetic Modes in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century

In America in 1912, the most common and popular poetry was called genteel because it was very well-behaved. Since they were "genteel," these poems avoided controversial and realistic subject matter like sex or industrialization. Instead, genteel poetry tended to consist of short, inoffensive, traditional verse about inward feelings, written in a deliberately purified, rather vague, "poetic" language. Take for example, Richard Watson Gilder's The Woods that Bring the Sunset Near

The wind from out of the west is blowing
The homeward-wandering cows are lowing,
Dark grow the pine woods, dark and drear, --
The woods that bring the sunset near.

When o'er wide seas the sun declines,
Far off its fading glory shines,
Far off, sublime, and full of fear --
The pine woods bring the sunset near.

This house that looks to east, to west,
This dear one, is our home, our rest;
Yonder the stormy sea, and here
The woods that bring the sunset near.

The speaker depicts his home as a rather hazy, comfortable haven from the natural world outside, which, although he says it is "sublime, and full of fear," seems quite peaceful and non-threatening. The images presented are generic (lowing cows, pine woods, "our home") rather than specific, and they are comforting, but not too substantial. Like the house in the poem, this kind of poetry is safe, restful, sentimental, empty-headed, removed from the difficulties of life and the outside world, and pretty darn dull. Robert Frost's poems about the hard work, difficulty, and uncertainty of country life are the opposite of this sort of genteel poetry: they are written in common, not "poetic" language; they present specific, thought-provoking images; they are unsentimental and not usually comforting.

In France, a group of poets known as the symbolists was also writing a poetry that was removed from the world, but it had more intellectual substance than the usual products of the genteel school. Though by 1912 the movement was running out of steam, symbolism had been a powerful literary movement that dominated French poetry in the second half of the 19th century. Symbolism was the poetry of disgusted and sometimes disillusioned idealists, who sought in poetry an escape from the ugliness, hypocrisy, and rapacity of 19th century industrialized society. To these poets, the newly triumphant bourgeois class lacked culture and taste and seemed to care only for useful inventions, facts, or material products and wealth. In contrast to this materialist, utilitarian, and practical view of the world, symbolist poetry emphasized an ideal world beyond the material, and sought an ideal language to express that world (see Ellmann 883-884). This attitude is expressed metaphorically by poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) in his prose-poem, "Anywhere Out of this World," where he writes, "life is a hospital where each patient is possessed by the desire to switch beds. One would like to suffer in front of the stove, while another thinks he would get better by the window." If the world is a hospital, then there's only one escape from suffering; Baudelaire concludes this prose-poem by declaring that it doesn't matter where one lives, as long as it "is out of this world."

The ultimate exponent of a pure poetry, removed in its own ideal world, was Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). For him, the poet's task was to purify language, to "Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu" ("To give a purer sense to the words of the tribe [51-2]"). This purified and difficult language would try to express the inexpressible, the absent, the symbol, and not the thing. The poet's task would culminate in an impossible and paradoxical project, the Book: "all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book" (Mallarmé 80). An early poem of Mallarmé's called "Les fenêtres" (The Windows") depicts a patient in a hospital who longs for escape out the window, into the blue sky. The speaker of the poem looks out the window:
Je me mire et me vois ange! et je meurs, et j'aime 
—Que la vitre soit l'art, soit la mysticité—
A renaître, portant mon rêve en diadème, 
Au ciel antérieur où fleurit la Beauté! (10) 
I look and see myself angelic! I die and love
—Let the window be art, mysticism,—
To be reborn, wearing my dream as a crown,
In that previous sky where Beauty flowered! 

Unfortunately, the speaker finds that he cannot escape the ugliness of the real world:
Mais hélas! Ici-bas est maître : sa hantise 
Vient m'écourer parfois jusqu'en cet abri sûr, 
Et le vomissement impur de la Bêtise
Me force à me boucher le nez devant l'azur.
But alas, here below is master: its spell
Nauseates me even unto this safe haven,
And the impure vomiting of Stupidity
Forces me to hold my nose before the blue. 

The "blue" in the last line quoted refers both to the blue sky outside the window and to the blue sheets common in French hospitals. Notice how the impurity of "Stupidity" contrasts with the poet's task of purifying "the dialect of the tribe." Despite the difficulties of living in the ideal, Mallarmé continued to write a poetry that refers more to the world of art and thought than to the outside world. Critic René Wellek notes that "in symbolist poetry the image becomes 'thing.' The relation of tenor and vehicle in the metaphor is reversed. The utterance is divorced, we might add, from the situation: time and place, history and society are played down" (113).

In England, the symbolists were often called decadents. They, too, disdained the bourgeois worship of money and utility and worshipped instead the "useless" world of art. Their poetry was not as rigorously conceived as that of the symbolists in France, but it was thought to be just as removed from the actualities of daily life. In London in the 1890's, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was a member of the Rhymer's Club, a group often called "decadent" by their detractors. Throughout his long career, Yeats searched for a symbolic system for his poetry. (See Ellmann 67-68.) Early on, he was attracted to the occult symbology of the Rosicrucians and Theosophists, which he combined with stories and symbols from Irish folk tales and myths and with a romantic attitude of disdain for the modern world:

Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Gray Truth is now her painted toy (Ellmann 70)

Only art and symbols could be trusted: the same poem declares, "Words alone are certain good." By 1912, Yeats was searching for ways to bring his "dreaming" to the world of gray truth. For years, he had been writing and producing dramas on Irish mythological and nationalist themes; now he sought to write more simply and forcefully, "to enlarge his means and scenes, to present himself in his poems with robustness rather than slenderness" (Ellmann 68). His new way of writing and using symbols "should allow for the whole person thinking and feeling, rather than for a pilgrim amorist ecstatically languishing: (Ellmann 884). The later Yeats is a great poet at least partly because of his uncanny and masterful ability to mingle spirit and flesh, symbol and reality, word and world. Despite his occasional claims to the contrary (see "A Coat"), Yeats did not give up symbolism; his symbol system evolved and changed, becoming more and more a system for commenting on the outside world ("The Second Coming") rather than on inward dreams.

The Georgians (Ellmann 887) were a group of British poets who wrote in traditional meters about solitary insights gathered in the English countryside. The Georgians appeared on the scene in 1912 as something of a middle-of-the-road school: they avoided the decadents' private symbolism and idealistic disdain for the modern world, but they also avoided the public imperialist rhetoric of poets like Rudyard Kipling. They would not write of the complexities of the modern world, but of the subtleties of the private individual meditating on the world of nature. They wanted to write of "actual personal experience in language close to common speech" ("Georgianism" 461), yet they clung to traditional verse forms. The advent of the more modern-looking free-verse of the imagists and of the mechanized horrors of World War I made the Georgians seem outdated, yet many later poets like Robert Graves, D. H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen adapted the Georgian manner to more modern, more realistic subjects. In America, Robert Frost wrote of rural subjects in common language and traditional meters, but he was a greater, more complex poet than any of the Georgians.

Imagism was a poetic movement started around 1910 in London by Ezra Pound and some British poets. These poets disliked the "genteel" poets and thought the Georgians too timid. They advised, "1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective. 2. To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation. 3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome" (Jones 129). In 1913, their chief theorist, Ezra Pound, published this advice for aspiring imagist poets: An 'Image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. . . .

It is the presentation of such a 'complex' instantaneously which gives the sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the greatest works of art.

It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works. . .

Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.

Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands of peace.' It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.

Go in fear of abstractions. Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. (Pound 4-5)

The imagists wanted to get away from the fuzzy language about "the ideal" seen in much symbolist poetry. But imagism for Pound did not necessarily mean description: Don't be descriptive; remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know a good deal more about it.

When Shakespeare talks of the 'Dawn in russet mantle clad' he presents something which the painter does not present. There is in the line nothing which can be called description; he presents. (Pound 6).

Finally, imagist poems were influenced by Japanese haiku, poems of 17 syllables which usually present only two juxtaposed images. This poetry suggests more than its literal meaning, yet avoids overt figurative devices like allegory and even metaphor.

In what ways can images suggest more in these poems? What do you think might be the point(s) of such a poetry?

For more on this topic, see Al Filreis' definition of Imagism.

Modernism / modernity

Modernism is a term designating much of the literature written from 1910 to 1940, while modernity is a term designating the time period in which the modern democratic state, science, and an industrial economy developed. This period is variously defined by different scholars. (Historians call 1400-1650 the early modern period, for example, while most literary scholars would define modernity as starting sometime around 1800.) The term modernism is applied to both prose and poetry, while the term imagism denotes only a poetic movement within the larger movement of modernism.

Modernist poetry:

emphasizes the individuality of the author, while at the same time the author often hides behind a persona, or "mask of the self"; stresses interior modes of consciousness while exhibiting "a concern to objectify the subjective" (Bradbury 48--think of imagism). Poems often allude to past cultures and avoid the formulaic and generic (e.g., Richard Watson Gilder). Sometimes one poem will feature many voices or personae (e.g., The Waste Land) from various time periods and social classes.

• often works by juxtaposing discontinuous fragments of poetry, fact, image, or description, expressing a momentary illumination or beauty, the fragmentary chaos of modern life, a denial of historical or psychological continuity, or a "unity between time and the timeless" (Bradbury 49). Examples:

Poetry = "a momentary stay against confusion" (Robert Frost).

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins" (T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land).

"The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace" (Pound, Mauberley 22-23).

makes it new by renewing tradition; translates many elite cultures of the past into the present. Uses mythical themes as a structural principle and/or as a source of religious-poetic insight.

• often contrasts the ceremonious, subtle, and unified sensibility of past cultures with the fragmentary, crass, venal, and disunited chaos of the present one. These poems often lament what they see as the utilitarian mindlessness of historical modernity and technical and economic progress, which E. E. Cummings called "that comfortable disease" ("pity this" 2). Many disdain big business and cheap mass production as well: "The 'age demanded' chiefly a mould in plaster, / Made with no loss of time, / A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster / Or the 'sculpture of rhyme" (Ezra Pound, Mauberley, 29-32). In short, the poems tend to juxtapose the timeless dream of art to the chaotic reality of history.

Works Cited

Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane, eds. Modernism: 1890-1930. New York: Penguin, 1976.

"Georgianism" The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Preminger, Alex, et. al. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.

Jones, Peter, ed. Imagist Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Mary Ann Caws. New York: New Directions, 1982.

Pound, Ezra. "A Retrospect" Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New Directions, 1968.

Wellek, René. "The Term and Concept of Symbolism in Literary History." Discriminations: Further Concepts of Criticism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1970. 90- 121.

Generic Questions for Modernist Poetry

1. If the poem presents images, then what emotion(s) do you feel (get) from those images?

2. If the poem is fragmented in some way(s), then what ideas and emotions do you think that fragmentation expresses? [Some candidates: it could express a momentary illumination or beauty, the fragmentary chaos of modern life, fragmented or hesitant thought, a jumble of historical fragments which deny continuity with the past, or a "unity between time and the timeless" (Bradbury 49).] Name some reasons these poets might have for writing in brief fragmented images.

3. How does speaking through a persona or "mask" enlarge the possiblities of poetic statement or theme? In what ways could speaking in ancient or esoteric voices (making them new) be seen as a snub of the modern world (modernity)? What do you think speaking in various voices or fragments tells us about the author's idea of the function of art in the modern world?

Questions to Answer on Modernism / Modernity

1. In 1931 Edmund Wilson wrote that the literary history of his time was "to a great extent that of the development of Symbolism and of its fusion or conflict with Naturalism" (25). Choosing from our readings, give some examples of the truth of this statement. In what what ways do you think the readings do not fit this statement?

2. In what ways can you connect the poetic theory of imagism with Joyce's idea of epiphany?

3. In what ways is my description of modernist poetry similar to or different from the modernist prose we have been reading?

4. What effects, ideas, and emotions do you think authors achieve or express by using various fragmentation devices? (Cite examples from various texts we've read.) [Some possibilities: fragmentation could express a momentary illumination or beauty, the fragmentary chaos of modern life, fragmented or hesitant thought, a jumble of historical fragments which deny continuity with the past, or a "unity between time and the timeless" (Bradbury 49).] Why do you think these authors employ various fragmentation devices?

5. How do devices like interior monologue, stream of consciousness, and "objective" or limited narration enlarge or limit the possibilities of prose fiction? In what ways could the extensive use of symbolism, interior monologue, and limited, fragmented, or "voiced" narrators be seen as characteristic of or a snub to the utilitarian world of modernity? What do you think speaking in various voices or fragments tells us about the author's idea of the function of art in the modern world?

6. In what ways do the authors we've studied exemplify modernism and modernity?

7. In what ways was World War I the first modern war? What effects do you think it had on the generation of 1914?
searches for truth
 searches for scientific fact
author as "objective"
 author as "scientist"
people depicted as social personalities
 man as animal that reacts, survives
depicts ethical decisions in social contexts
 depicts people as prey to urges
conflict: social values; real vs. ideal 
conflict: man vs. uncaring nature or society

Avant-garde, Autonomy, the Institution of Art, and Life

The word avant-garde was originally a French term for an advance scouting party in warfare, a "fore-guard" of the regular army marching behind. In the mid-19th century in France, the term came to be applied as a metaphor for those artists and intellectuals who expressed "a self-consciously advanced position in politics, literature and art, religion, etc." (Calinescu 97). As the name implies, these artists and intellectuals were thought to be somehow ahead of their time. We can see this notion appear clearly in Shelley's "Defence of Poetry," (1821) in which he seeks to counter T. L. Peacock's view that the poet was a useless anachronism in the modern world, "a semi-barbarian in a civilized community" (quoted in Kemp 341) with the opposite view that poets are seers or prophets, "mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present . . . unacknowledged legislators of the World" (765). Indeed, poetry is a "herald" which can awaken "a great people to work a beneficial change in institution or opinion" (765). [Note also the confidence with which he says, "the greatest poets have been men of the most spotless virtue" (763).]

Only 14 years after Shelley wrote his essay, the first stirrings of the art for art's sake movement were heard in Théophile Gautier's preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), where he says, "Only that which cannot be used for anything can be called truly beautiful; all that is useful is ugly." Matei Calinescu notes that "art for art" was not at first a theory but "a rallying cry for artists . . . who felt the need to express their hatred of bourgeois mercantilism and vulgar utilitarianism" (45). (Bentham's comments on the utility of push-pin would qualify as one example of "vulgar utilitarianism.") [Note: the detached heralds of art (avant-garde) are cut off (autonomous) from the main body and ]

Symbolist poets believed, then, in the autonomy of poetry and art. Art occurs in a separate sphere, apart from the main business of society, which as Calvin Coolidge said, "is business." Indeed, artists in the 19th and 20th centuries have often saw themselves ahead of their times, distinguished from ordinary bourgeois folks by their superior taste and refined sensibilities. Art (Beauty) is also seen as the useless opposite of the workaday world of useful getting and spending.

The German theorist Peter Bürger declares that this situation of autonomy is the institution of art in modern times. In other words, art and artists cannot help but be autonomous, members of "an institution that is unassociated with the life praxis of men" (49). ("Praxis" is a term that means "practice," or everday living.) Reasons for this autonomy are mainly social: the rise of a mercantile and democratic society based on individual transactions rather than the collective societies of religion or class; patronage passing from the church or nobility to the "public"; the separation of "fine arts" from crafts. Economic changes brought about changes in how people found meaning and identity: instead of being members of a larger collective endeavor (religion, society), people became individuals who could not find fulfillment or meaning in the dominant social values of utility and making money. Bürger writes: "The citizen who, in everyday life has been reduced to a partial function (means-ends activity) can be discovered in art as a 'human being.' Here, one can unfold the abundance of one's talents, though with the proviso that this sphere remain strictly separate from the praxis of life" (48-49).

Bürger uses his insights into the autonomy of art to arrive at a new definition of avant-garde. By the end of the 19th century, aestheticism, or art-for-art's sake was a dominant trend in the arts. The high priest of aesthetic poets, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), proclaimed that "all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book" (80). The ideal work of art was to be infinitely suggestive, and words were to liberated from ordinary contexts by an allusive vocabulary, tenorless metaphors, and a complex syntax that avoided direct statement. Poetry would be "purified," approaching the abstract condition of music: "Poetry, accompanied by the Idea, is perfect Music, and cannot be anything else" (Mallarmé 83). [Note how art can be most purely itself, or beautiful form, if it is abstract. For the aesthetic poet, words have the uncomfortable and rather disreputable habit or referring to sordid, "useful" reality.] According to Mallarmé, the poet's job was to "Give a purer sense to the words of the tribe" (51). Bürger comments, "In Aestheticism . . . apartness from the praxis of life, which had always been the condition that characterized the way art functioned in bourgeois society, now becomes its content" (48).

Such an extreme position was bound to provoke a reaction. It came in the form of the European anti-art movements of futurism, dadaism, and surrealism. These movements were characterized by such extreme forms as performance art, deliberate provocation of the public, the blanket denial of the worth of the past, chance forms of poetry and painting, poems made of nonsense syllables, poems which abandon any sort of grammar, and various sorts of automatic writing. F. T. Marinetti (1876-1944), the founder of the futurist movement, proclaimed, "Every day we must spit on the Altar of Art" (89). For Bürger, the avant-garde was not a loosely-defined group of "advanced" artists, but rather only those artists who belonged to the European anti-art movements and tried to overthrow the autonomy of art:

The European avant-garde movements can be defined as an attack on the status of art in bourgeois society. What is negated is not an earlier form of art (a style) but art as an institution that is unassociated with the life-praxis of men. (49) The avant-gardists agree with "the aestheticists' rejection of the world and its means-ends rationality." But instead of retreating into an art-beauty world, they "attempt to organize a new life praxis from a basis in art" (49). Instead of turning the world into a book, they want to turn the book back into the world by exploding its formal boundaries.

Works Cited

Büger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Calinescu, Matei. Faces of Modernity. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Mary Ann Caws. New York: New Directions, 1982.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. Selected Writings. Ed. R. W. Flint. Trans. R. W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.