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Four Modernist Poets: W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

"Persistence of Memory"

"Persistence of Memory"

What is Modernism?

The Modernist era holds sway from the end of World War I with the publication of T. S. Eliot's tragicomedic poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" until it is replaced with Postmodernism during the late 1950s with Allen Ginsberg's lengthy, obscene screed, "Howl."

The chief Modernist poets are W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden. Modernist poets sought to write a poetry that distinguishes itself from the traditional poetry of the past. They began to eschew rime; they began to portray life as a vast spiritual desert.

Many of the Modernists had simply drunk too deeply from the well of notions that led to lack of comprehension of the achievements of science in the modern era. They began to suspect that human beings had more in common with the animals than with children of God.

Thus, they began to question the value and purpose of religion. Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" is often considered the prototypical melancholy that grasped the Modernists, who sensed that religious faith had failed humankind and thus mistakenly opined that only art could take its place.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Drawing of William Butler Yeats

Drawing of William Butler Yeats

Yeats reading his own verse

W. B. Yeats 1865-1939

William Butler Yeats' major claim to the Modernist label results from his attempt to create his own mythology. Considered one of the greatest poets of the modern era, he did live a very productive life, guiding the zeitgeist of the Irish Literary Revival as well as founding Ireland’s national theater, the Abbey Theatre. He served as a senator in the newly formed Irish government established in 1922 after liberation from England.

Although Yeats studied Irish mythology and fables, he followed his own idiosyncratic line of thinking which he attempted to outline in his tract called A Vision. This work is a delicious dissonance of disingenuous drivel. Yeats' reputation was saved by the fact that he did condescend to write a substantial number of genuine poems.

The poet’s major shortcoming was his misunderstanding of Eastern philosophical and religious thought. And while he could register correct meanings that correspond closely with Christian thought—such as humankind being created in the "image of God," exemplified so well in his poem, "The Indian Upon God"—still he missed the point by a long shot in many of his other attempts to explain the nature of Eastern thought.

Yeats claimed that he disliked the mysticism of Rabindranath Tagore and Tagore’s use of the word, "God." Yeats proclivity regarding "mysticism" demonstrates that he was relying on "imagination" unlike Tagore who relied on "intuition." "Imagination" merely speculates on truth, while "intuition" perceives truth directly.

Yeats as a Modernist remains a useful example if one focuses solely on his poetry and plays but ignores his attempts to explain concepts that he clearly did not understand. His tract, A Vision, may be profitably considered a cruel joke but may also be enjoyed for a good laugh.

Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound

Pound reading "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley

Ezra Pound 1885-1972

Most credit for the founding of the movement known as Modernism is widely bestowed on Ezra Pound. His main Modernist offering, however, is imagism, which is in actuality a thoroughly traditional phenomenon:

As leader of the Imagist movement of 1912–14, successor of the “school of images,” he drew up the first Imagist manifesto, with its emphasis on direct and sparse language and precise images in poetry, and he edited the first Imagist anthology, Des Imagistes (1914).

Pound’s insistence that poets should "compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome," heralded the proliferation of "free verse," a thoroughly Modernist phenomenon.

T. S. Eliot reading THE WASTE LAND

T. S. Eliot 1888-1965

T. S. Eliot's poetry reflects the spiritual dryness that gripped poets between the two World Wars. His pathetic yet comical character, J. Alfred Prufrock, demonstrates the paradox of contemporary man during this period. Eliot’s importance to modern literature is introduced in the Poetry Foundation’s life sketch of the poet. The following excerpt offers several important nuggets from the rich life of T. S. Eliot:

T. S. Eliot, the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is one of the giants of modern literature, highly distinguished as a poet, literary critic, dramatist, and editor and publisher. In 1910 and 1911, while still a college student, he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and other poems that are landmarks in the history of literature.

Eliot’s The Waste Land is a virtual manifesto of the Modernist creed of fragmentation accompanied with the usual spiritual degeneration; although, at the end, the speaker does leave open the possibility of hope. Despite the usual emphasis on the agnosticism and atheism that seized many poets, T. S. Eliot did not lose religious faith. He became a devoted member of the Church of England.

Auden reading "The Unknown Citizen"

W. H. Auden 1907-1973

The following introduction to the life of W. H. Auden from the Academy of American Poets offers a useful set of facts directing the reader to the influences upon Auden as a poet:

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England, on February 21, 1907. He moved to Birmingham during childhood and was educated at Christ Church, Oxford. As a young man he was influenced by the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, as well as William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Old English verse. At Oxford his precocity as a poet was immediately apparent, and he formed lifelong friendships with two fellow writers, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood.

Of this group of so-called Modernists, Auden is the least Modernist. It may be noted that he is also the youngest: 42 years younger than Yeats, 22 years younger than Pound, and 19 years younger than Eliot. If there were a different classification between Modernism and Postmodernism, that is where Auden would possibly be.

Nevertheless, at least in some of his work, Auden does reveal a few peccadilloes in common with the Modernists—he often concentrates on negativity: "You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart," from "As I Walked Out One Evening," "About suffering, they were never wrong, / The Old Masters," from "Museé des Beaux Arts," and "We cannot choose what we are free to love," from "Canzone."

However, notice at the same time, all three of those poems are rimed and/or patterned, and they do broach the subject of love. Auden's "Unknown Citizen" certainly offers a Modernist outlook, but again it is rimed, and it attempts to offer a call to action, instead of merely bemoaning events.


Composition III, Wassily Kandinsky

Composition III, Wassily Kandinsky

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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