The term “modernism”
refers to a movement which commenced in the late 1800s, coalesced immediately after World War I, and remained influential
past World War II into the late 1940s, when postmodernism began to take hold (TheCriticalPoet). The modernist movement encompassed poetry, fiction, drama, painting, music and architecture in particular
(TheCriticalPoet). As with any movement, its evolution and decline of
influence is gradual and hard to pinpoint in time (TheCriticalPoet). In
any case, the true birth of modernism in poetry is frequently dated to the publication of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock" in 1917 (TheCriticalPoet).
In many ways, modernism
is a reaction to the atrocities of the World Wars as well as to the Victorian ideals that preceded them (TheCriticalPoet). In the widespread suffering and chaos that followed the wars, the older ideals seemed
questionable, as did many moral precepts (TheCriticalPoet). Modernist
poets were therefore concerned with breaking established rules, traditions and conventions, and finding a distinctly contemporary
mode of expression, through countless experiments in form and style (TheCriticalPoet). The
chief concern was the intricacies of language and how to use them, as well as with writing as an end in itself (TheCriticalPoet). The world seemed to be breaking apart, the meaning of everything was being questioned,
and modernism grappled with the fragmentation and complexity brought about by such a state (TheCriticalPoet). The modern
poet had a different world from the Victorian poets to contemplate, and thus employed new forms and styles as fitting this
new disillusioned world view.
As the earliest Modernist,
Eliot had a central role in determining certain broad dictates of the movement. With
fellow Modernist poet Ezra Pound, for example, he decided that “The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing
and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to from a
new compound are present together” (T. S. Eliot). By this, he almost
certainly meant that true poetry is not only a creative expression of a poet’s worldview, but that such expression had
to be scientifically derived—another of his beliefs (T. S. Eliot). He
contended that poetry was the highest form of science and the one most necessary to the generation that came after science
had destroyed so many cities.
With these ideas in
mind, Eliot and many other Modernist poets, such as Pound, William Carlos Williams, Dylan Thomas, and William Butler Yeats
attempted to describe the world they saw before them in poetry, rather than transport their readers to a false world (TheCriticalPoet). Though they saw themselves as harshly realistic, their work might also be interpreted
as incoherent or unnecessarily dark (T. S. Eliot). Eliot, like the others,
attributed the former to the incoherence of the times and the latter to the misconceptions of his critics (T. S. Eliot). He described his mission as follows:
“What we have
to do is to bring poetry into the world in which the audience lives and to which it returns when it leaves the theatre; not
to transport the audience into some imaginary world totally unlike their own, an unreal world in which poetry can be spoken.
What I should hope might achieved, by a generation of dramatists having the benefit of our experience, is that the audience
should find, at the moment of awareness that it is hearing poetry, that it is saying to itself: "I could talk in poetry too!"
Then we should not be transported into an artificial world; on the contrary, out own sordid, dreary, daily world would be
suddenly illuminated and transfigured.” (from Poetry and Drama, 1951) (quoted in T. S. Eliot)
TheCriticalPoet - Featured Movement - Modernism. Ed. Elizabeth Spinks. 9 Feb. 2000. TheCriticalPoet. 1 Mar. 2005 <http://thecriticalpoet.tripod.com/modernism.html>.
T. S. Eliot. 2000.
Books and Writers. 1 Mar. 2005 <http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/tseliot.htm>.