INTRODUCTION TO MODERNISM AND MODERNIST POETRY

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

Artists in many places around the world (but especially in Western Europe and North America) responded to the sense that the world was undergoing dramatic changes in the early twentieth century by attempting to produce a new kind of art that would be relevant to this changing world. This project eventually became to be referred to collectively as modernism, though artists who would come to be known as modernists varied widely in their styles and ideologies. Perhaps the one characteristic that all modernist artists shared was this sense of needing to do something new, as is encompassed in the exhortation that the American expatriate poet Ezra Pound (1885–1972), a central modernist figure, gave to his contemporary artists: “Make it new!”

This drive to achieve newness can perhaps most easily be seen in modernist architecture, which produced a wave of buildings that looked distinctively different from nineteenth-century architecture, emphasizing clean, practical designs, as opposed to the ornate flourishes that were typical of the Victorian era.

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Typical example of Victorian architecture.
The modernist Sea Lane House, West Sussex, England, 1937.

One of the most important movements in modernist architecture was the so-called Bauhaus (literally German for “building house”) movement, which was active in Germany between 1919 and 1933. Their own most important location, the Bauhaus Building in Dessau, designed by Walter Gropius, is representative of the straight lines, right angles, and flat roofs that are typical of this influential school of architecture. Ultimately, though, the most important modernist innovation in architecture (heavily influenced by Bauhaus) was the development of skyscrapers, which again featured straight lines and right angles, but soared into the skies thanks to new building technologies that made it possible to build taller buildings than ever before. This kind of skyscraper originated in New York City, but soon spread across the world; indeed, the style of these skyscrapers came to be known as the “international style.” Building such skyscrapers, of course, takes time and money, so it is not surprising that this style of architecture would develop more slowly and last longer than most forms of modernist art, remaining dominant in cities around the world at least into the 1970s.

Bauhaus Building, Dessau Germany, 1925.

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Seagram Building in New York City (1958)

As opposed to the simplicity of modernist architecture, modernism in the other arts tended to be more complex than its nineteenth-century predecessors. Modernist painters, for example, moved away from the realistic representation that was dominant in Victorian art and toward various experimental forms that sought to renew our perception of reality, rather than simply reinforce it. For example, the cubist paintings of Spain’s Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) broke apart components of reality and reassembled them in new ways that were designed to make us look at reality with fresh eyes, overcoming old habits and assumptions. And surrealist painters, such as Spain’s Salvador Dalí (1908–1989), emphasized the irrational and the unconscious, producing works that attempted to see reality from that point of view, rather than from the rationalist point of view of the Enlightenment.

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Picasso, “Three Musicians,” 1921.
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Dalí, “The Persistence of Memory,”1931.

However, it was in the realm of literature that modernism had its most memorable impact, partly because revisions in the Western literary canon undertaken in the 1950s pushed modernist literature to the forefront of the canon, identifying modernist works such as Ulysses and The Waste Land as the epitome of aesthetic achievement in literature. This revision of the canon was led by the so-called New Critics, who valued complexity and ambiguity, both of which were hallmarks of modernist literature. In addition, this revision of the canon was undertaken at the height of the Cold War and was driven largely by a desire to be able to argue that Western literature was superior to Soviet literature, which was dominated by a very straightforward form of realism. In contrast to realism, the works of Western literary modernists seemed complex and sophisticated, making modernist literature the perfect tool for the Cold War argument that Soviet literature was so simplistic that it did not even really qualify as literature, even though Soviet novelists in fact produced some of the greatest works of twentieth-century literature, such as the various novels of Maxim Gorky, or Mikhail Sholokhov’s magisterial historical novel Quiet Flows the Don (1928).

The label “modernist” encompasses a wide variety of literary works in all genres, but there are certain fundamental properties that are shared by almost all modernist works. These include:

(1) A sense of intense social, political, and cultural crisis, triggered by the sense that the world was changing rapidly and that old ways of living were becoming obsolete.

(2) A complex relation to the literary tradition, in which modernist writers had an intense sense of the large volume of literature that had been produced before them, but also felt that the works of the literary tradition were unable to address adequately the new world of the twentieth century. As a result, modernist literature employed an unprecedented level of allusions to previous works of literature, but often treated those earlier works with irony, or even derision.

(3) A rejection of realism as outmoded and as based on a bourgeois notion of reality that was rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and unable to describe the experience of living in the twentieth century.

(4) Formal complexity and experimentalism (including intense self-consciousness and focus on art as the subject of art). Modernist artists were continually seeking new ways to try to capture in literature the texture of life in the modern world.

(5) Exploration of the nature of the human mind and of human psychology, inspired in important ways by the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud. This exploration also led to an unprecedented emphasis on frank representation of sexuality as a crucial aspect of human experience.

In addition to these general characteristics, modernist literature tended to focus on certain basic topics and themes that modernist writers saw as central to the experience of living in the modern world. These included:

  • Art and the special role of the artist.
  • Alienation and the loss of shared values in a society rapidly growing too complex for anyone truly to understand.
  • Quickened pace of life and the regimentation of time.
  • Urban experience. Joyce’s paralyzed Dublin, Eliot’s unreal London, Alfred Döblin’s chaotic Berlin, and the changing Paris of Marcel Proust all emerged almost as characters in their own right.
  • Probing psychological depth. Modernist literature explores the inner lives of its characters far more than had any previous literature, as when Flaubert’s indirect free style was extended to “stream-of-consciousness” techniques in an attempt to capture the texture of the actual flow of thoughts.
  • New frankness and detail in dealing with sexuality, as well as unprecedented explorations of gender, especially on the part of women writers such as Virginia Woolf, who represented the experience of women from a strongly feminist point of view.

Some Sample Modernist Poems

“Archaic Torso of Apollo,” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) was a German-language poet born in Prague, which was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During his adult life, he traveled about Europe a great deal, living in Paris from 1902 to 1910, during which he wrote a number of important poems that marked him as a sort of transitional figure between traditional and modernist poetry. Probably his best-known poem from this period is “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (1908), which nicely captures this transitional quality. Formally, the poem is a fairly conventional rhymed sonnet, though English translations have generally dropped the rhyme scheme as too difficult to capture without sacrificing meaning. The content, though, is much more modernist. Like Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” the poem is inspired by a meditation on a broken ancient statue, though in this case the statue is of the Greek god Apollo, who (among other things) was the god of poetry. So, in a sense, this poem is about poetry itself and one can see it as a statement by a poet who is confronting the past of poetry, ultimately realizing that the modern world calls for a new and different kind of poetry. Let’s look at the poem:

Archaic Torso of Apollo (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

In the first two four-line stanzas, the speaker confronts the statue, which is obviously missing its head. He expresses a great deal of admiration for the power and beauty of the statue, which can be taken as an expression of respect for the art and poetry of the past. Most of the poem is simply dedicated to a (very poetic) description of the remainder of the statue, which, for the speaker still seems magnificent, despite its broken condition. Indeed, much of the point of this description is to provide support for the speaker’s conclusion that the head must have been “legendary,” though this translation does not well capture the sense of the original German adjective unerhörtes, which carries with it suggestions of “unprecedented,” “unequaled,” or “incredible.” Other available translations of the poem render this word as “fantastic,” “fabulous,” or “terrific,” but no one English word can quite substitute for the German. In any case, the word, in context, implies something that is so impressive as to be far beyond what anyone might expect to encounter in daily life.

The conclusion that the head must have been impressive involves a fairly Romantic conclusion about the “organic” quality of artworks, suggesting that all of the different parts of a work of art must work smoothly together an be appropriate to each other, contributing to a seamless overall effect. Much fully modernist poetry would challenge this notion, however. For example, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), often considered to be the paradigmatic modernist poem, suggests that, amid the chaos of the modern world, it is impossible to produce an authentic poem that has this kind of organic wholeness. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which we will read soon, also contains similar, if less overt suggestions. In the case of Rilke, 12 ½ lines of this 14-line poem seem to be a relatively Romantic meditation on this particular statue, which surely can be taken as standing in for art as a whole, or for poetry in particular. And, indeed, these 12 ½ lines have an organic wholeness of their own, every image contributing to the production of a single impression and feeling.

It is in the final 1 ½ lines of Rilke’s poem that this organic wholeness falls apart and the poem veers off in an entirely new direction. The translation here is quite straightforward and clearly cannot be blamed for this startling move. It is, however, worth noting that the original uses the familiar du for “you,” rather than the formal Sie, suggesting that the “you” being addressed here is someone that the speaker knows well, though it is absolutely impossible to identify this “you” from the context of the poem. It is conventional—except in the case of poems that are addressed to a specific person (such as a love poem addressed to a loved one)—to think of short lyric poems such as this one as being spoken by an imaginary speaker (often a persona of the poet) to the reader of the poem. If that is the case here, then the last 1 ½ lines suggest that the reader, inspired (and perhaps chastened) by the magnificence of this statue (or by art or poetry in general), should change their life.

Read in this way, the poem, at the most obvious level, reflects the “beautiful” aspect of art by providing an attractive model for the reader to emulate. In this way, the poem suggests that the reader should strive to attain the kind of organic unity that can be observed in the statue. At the same time, we should also recall that this is a statue of a god, and it is clear from the description of the aesthetic power of the statue that it goes beyond anything that a mere human might be able to achieve. In this sense, the poem conveys the “sublime” aspect of art, as envisioned in Romantic aesthetics.

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Torso of Apollo.

However, what prevents this poem from simply being a late example of Romantic poetry is that sudden change of direction in the thirteenth line (breaking the unity of the poem), as well the ultimate uncertainty about the identity of the “you” who is being addressed at the end. For example, it is also possible to interpret the end of the poem such that the speaker is the “you,” and that they are imagining that the statue is exhorting them to change their life, perhaps to keep up with the dramatic changes that were underway in the world at the time. At the same time, it is also possible to reverse this rhetorical situation and to interpret the final lines such that the speaker throughout the poem is still the speaker, but that they are now addressing the statue directly, which can also be taken as an address to art and poetry as a whole. Read in this way, the ending of the poem suggests that the art of the past, no matter how beautiful for sublime, is no longer sufficient to meet the needs of a fast-changing modern world, but must instead find new modes of aesthetic expression in order to stay relevant.

This last interpretation would be the most modernist of all, and perhaps it seems a stretch, though it should be noted that the poem was initially published in a volume of Rilke’s poetry called New Poems, the title of which was clearly meant to suggest that these were not simply new poems from Rilke, but a new kind of poetry altogether. This reading is also supported by the fact that the statue is now in a ruined condition, and that the perception of the statue as magnificent clearly requires a great deal of imaginative work on the part of the speaker, who must imagine past glories that the statue no longer really has.

“The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats

When William Butler Yeats won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, he became the first Irish writer to be so honored. And it was an honor well-deserved. Not only had Yeats by this time established himself as one of the world’s greatest poets (though much of his greatest poetry had yet to be written), but much of his poetry was overtly political, written in support of the cause of Irish independence or other related causes. Beginning with his early phase that drew upon Irish mythology to romanticize the Irish past and rural Ireland as a whole, Yeats had by this time already moved into a more modern, urban phase that demonstrated his tremendous range as a poet. Thus, like Rilke, he was something of a transitional figure, though his transition was spread over decades.

Ultimately, Yeats would emerge as a crucial modernist poet. Indeed, his well-known poem “The Second Coming” (1920) is one the most powerful expressions of the sense of crisis that drives so much modernist art and literature. It is also a powerful work of verbal art and has become one of the most quoted poems of the last hundred years. In many ways, this poem simply expresses a typical modernist sense that human history, in the wake of World War I, might have been approaching a crucial turning point, the current order on the brink of collapse and a new (possibly ominous) order about to begin. In an Irish context, it is worth remembering that the poem, though published in 1920, was written in 1919, at a time when the Irish War of Independence was just underway, so that this sense of crisis was particularly tangible. At the same time, both the feel of this poem and some of its imagery draw upon Yeats’s particular interest in mysticism and the occult, studies that had led him to conclude that human history unwinds in cycles of about two thousand years each, one of which (that began with the birth of Christ) was coming to an end. However, “The Second Coming” is not a Christian poem and does not in any way imply the literal second coming of Christ. Instead, Yeats expresses a great deal of uncertainty concerning the actual nature of the new cycle that is about to begin, or even whether its coming will be a good thing or a bad thing. Here’s the poem:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

“The Second Coming” consists of two stanzas, the first of which is an image of chaos, loss of control, and the breakdown of the old order, beginning with its opening image of a trained falcon that is now beyond the control of the falconer who trained him. One of its key statements of the modernist sense of crisis, “things fall apart,” provided the title for the novel by Chinua Achebe that we will be reading later this semester and refers there to the destruction of traditional African societies by European colonization.

The second stanza of “The Second Coming” then addresses the new world that is to come, expressing uncertainty and anxiety by metaphorically describing this new world as being initiated by a strange beast of unknown nature (imaged in the poem by a vision of the Egyptian Sphinx stirring and coming to life) that is about to be unloosed on the world. The prevailing tone is one of anxiety, even terror, but the note of uncertainty is strong enough that it leaves open the possibility that the upcoming change will actually be a good one. Yeats, like many other modernist artists, hoped that he, through his poetry, could help to bring about this better outcome.

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The Sphinx at Giza, Egypt.