The Valiant Past vs. the Banal Present in Modernist Poetry
The modernism movement has paved way for the present and future of writing in a lot of ways. After World War I had ended, life had changed drastically in contrast to before it had begun. After society had been exposed to the horrific realities of war, as well as technological advances and industrial expansion, there had been a radical change socially and culturally which in turn inevitably altered the way of writing in regards to form, structure and content. Modernism involves experimentation, innovation, an emphasis on inner streams of consciousness and rejection of chronological form. It is a reaction to the events of the time and a new way for artists to express without confining to the conventional. Modernists would write on ordinary, everyday life to display significant contrasts to the past. After reading and analyzing several modernist writers it is certainly apparent of the different perspectives in regards to the past and present. Specifically, both T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats, portrayed through their writing, yearn for the heroic past and traditions while juxtaposing it with the banal present. Their pessimistic view on the modern world as a spiritual and social rupture and their longing for the past is displayed continuously through their poetry. Both poets believe the modern world is disconnected immensely from the past and that far more has been lost than what was gained.
William Butler Yeats a poet from Dublin, Ireland, writing in the 1880’s and 1890’s fought to modernize himself on his own. Yeats was interested in using symbols from ordinary life and family traditions reflecting Irish civilization. Yeats uses emotion and passion while often demonstrating it alongside nature and myth due to his belief that emotions are very powerful and they should be perceived like Gods. Yeats also believes there had been a true loss of meaning in the world, and consequently, a loss of civilization. He uses these two notable beliefs in order to portray his ultimate yearning for the past. In Yeats’ poem September 1913 his fundamental juxtaposition is the romantic, simple Ireland, with the capitalistic petty greed and pursuit of money. Shown through the line, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave” (Yeats 2179) he describes his cynical perspective on modern humanity. In this poem he speaks of love and nationalism in terms of the brave soldiers going to war. He mentions this bravery as “delirium” (Yeats 2179) due to the fact that true love and courage merely lies behind politics. However, Yeats emphasizes that whether it is mistaken and delirious bravery, the past was still valiant. He stresses that the capitalistic, modern ways of society have led this heroic past and the romanticism of Ireland to the grave. He continues to stress that the past is significantly better than the “greasy till” (Yeats 2179) that he suggests the contemporary world has become. Elaborating further on this notion, author Elizabeth Cullingford writes “Yeats thought that the great movement of his time was the movement against modern civilization … His own nationalism became inextricably entwined with anti-capitalism and economic egalitarianism, for he believed that economic inequality produces cultural stagnation” (Cullingford 10). This drives home the point that Yeats was seriously concerned with the capitalistic direction the modern world was moving toward and as a patriot longed for the return of a romanticized, traditional society.
The Wild Swans at Coole, a later poem by Yeats offers a serene nature scene expressing his feelings. Upon analysis, it is evident that Yeats is suggesting more than just nature and attraction. Here he beautifully describes the unchanged, remaining state of swans and nature in which he witnesses every autumn and contrasts it with his ever-changing human life. He finds solace in nature as he ponders upon his own decline in the world, realizing that it truly does only go down from here. He interprets the swans not as individuals but as embodiments of life forces, mating and living as they have forever. He recognizes that nature’s scenes like this one has only given him an abundance of creativity throughout the years and he fears not only the literal departure of the swans when he writes “when I awake some day To find they have flown away?” (Yeats 2180) but fears the departure of his own creative power. This poem highlights his fear of nature’s demise due to the modern world, which in turn suggests fear of his own demise of writing since he relies heavily on the influence of nature for inspiration. Swans are a symbol for passion, and he refers to them as a vessel of life forces just as writers, like him, are a vessel for ideas to be expressed. Before anything even happens he is afraid of what the world is becoming, and insinuates nostalgia of the past. The contrast can also be exhibited through structure and form of this poem. In the second stanza, there is experience, a vitality of life and we can see and hear the swan scene. Yeats writes, “scatter wheeling in great broken rings Upon their clamorous wings” (Yeats 2180) provoking sound and a sense of energy and life. Moving to the third stanza, Yeats suggests an intense pain in beauty, “I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, And now my heart is sore” (Yeats 2180) and looking back vividly through his time. These energetic life forces who move through nature untouched is what he longs for, an endless flood of ideas and creativity, which the modern world cannot give to him.
Yeats’ 1919 poem The Second Coming is a poem of additional evidence establishing how he contrasts past with present. The Second Coming is a poem not of Christ’s second coming but a fictional type of anti-Christ that brings an end of days with no heaven or solace. Written a year after the first World War, Yeats is describing the bleak, and uninviting future that the world seems to have in store. He elucidates the fall of civilization as a whole, through his poem when he writes, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (2183). His inability to regain hope or optimism is discernible. Recognizing the atrocities of the war, he indicates that the anarchy and chaos that has just occurred only lead to a “blood-dimmed tide” (2183). Using the religious belief of the Second Coming depicts irony as well as a criticism on the loss of the religion on the modern world. This pessimistic view of the future of the nation is quite evident as Yeats visualizes essentially the end of days completely. Ultimately, William Butler Yeats continuously indicates the significant losses the modern world has brought upon and contrasts the romantic, beautiful, heroic past with the undesirable, capitalistic, lustful modern present of his time through nature, and war.
Furthermore, T.S. Eliot, another incredibly influential modernist writer in the early 1900s, also demonstrates a substantial comparison between past and present in his poetry. Like Yeats, Eliot is one who reminisces of the past traditions, strongly believing that we have completely lost touch with history and religious customs. Unlike Yeats, Eliot is not a romanticist and uses detached and ruthless language to criticize the mundane present. Eliot has an unconventional poetic style, writing with an absence expression of feeling or passion and leaves out his personal introspection. Eliot has a very anti-progressive view of western culture and believes that the middle ages was a time of ideal community. One major characteristic that Eliot believes the modern world has robbed humanity of is confidence. Demonstrated through his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the narrator continuously and irrationally questions himself with anxiety. The narrator asks things such as “Do I dare?” and repeats “how should I presume” (Eliot 2289) several times, displaying this lack of confidence. Eliot’s narrator is crippled by inhibition by his neurotic cognitions. This poem is Eliot’s critique on what he believes the people of modern society have become. Lost, floating in time and space trying to make decisions with no tradition or knowledge of history. He stresses that we do not know who we are ourselves without connections to the past, thus the endless state of anxiety, hesitant and indecisiveness that the narrator expresses.
Moreover, Eliot experiments with streams of consciousness, specifically in his poem “The Waste Land”. The structure of the poem has no concrete chronological order and is told from several different perspectives. He leaves his personal experiences out of his writing and embodies creative fictional characters to comment on real world issues that he deems important. When reading and analyzing this poem it is very difficult at first due to the copious amount of allusions that an average reader may be unfamiliar with. Eliot strongly believes that there has been an immense loss of shared knowledge in education today and that were cut off from our own human history. Because of this, Eliot uses a wide range of allusions, to create a challenge while reading, evoking this sense of loss within the readers. He believes all writers should be doing this to remind us what the modern world has stripped from contemporary society. Found in the introduction of “The Waste Land” in The Longman Anthology of British Literature, a quote from Eliot himself, speaking on metaphysical poets, says, “We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results” (Eliot 2297). He pushes contemporaries to follow the same intelligent, allusive path he has paved. Eliot uses these allusions in a significant way to juxtapose the past with the present. In part two “Game of Chess” of the poem, Eliot uses heroic language to describe banal figures of the present. He alludes to the myth of “Cupidon” and the story of Antony and Cleopatra (Eliot 2300) to describe the gallant past of true and meaningful love; a love that does not exist in the modern world, for now it is merely lust and habit. Additionally, Eliot continues on in the poem alluding to the story of Philomela to portray suffering in regards to the past and present (Eliot 2301). Suffering is central to human life and he sees the suffering in this story as meaningful and important. When contrasted with his view on the modern world, he sees suffering as without purpose or value. There is solely only boredom and meaningless interactions in contemporary culture where nothing is done for any significant cause. As mentioned before, Eliot believes there has been a loss of confidence, and along with this deficiency comes a loss of value. Characters are always searching for purpose in his poetry, when he writes “What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do?” (Eliot 2302) illustrating this desperate search to find something purposeful in their modern lives. Confidence, suffering and tradition has all negatively redefined itself in Eliot’s modern world.
History tells us who we are, and connects us to our roots as a way of defining community. The modern world has become an individualistic society, and more self-determined. Eliot suggests in “The Waste Land” that civilization has become the living dead. In the fourth stanza he describes a scene of people flowing over the bridge and to their daily job. The line “I had not thought death had undone so many” (Eliot 2300) is describing how the once lively London bridge, filled with markets and commotion have become purely a simple path leading to their meaningless, capitalistic jobs. It is an image representation of the destruction of society, the people unnaturally flowing up the hill are trailing a path that leads them nowhere but death. These people are the ones Eliot is referring to as the modern world; they medically alive but spiritually dead, killed from any sense of meaning and purpose. Civilization has purely become a place for capitalism destroying any spiritual or cultural meaning. Lastly, the title itself is a comment by Eliot on how he sees the modern world; a literal waste land where life cannot flourish, or be reborn. He sees modernity as damaged and corrupt, and feels that it needs to return to its roots of religion and traditions in order to restore any community or hope for humanity.
Ultimately, both William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot, as writers in the modernism movement, are concerned with the significant losses that contemporary civilization has initiated. Immense losses of tradition, spirituality, and most importantly purpose and value in everyday life are displayed throughout their poetry using symbols and allusions. Their despairing perspective on the mundane present is made abundantly apparent through their precise use of juxtapositions with the valiant past.
Cullingford, Elizabeth. Yeats, Ireland and Fascism. London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1981. Print.
Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, vol 2C, pp. 2287-2291. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.
Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, vol 2C, pp. 2298- 2310. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.
Yeats, William Butler. “September 1913”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, vol 2C, pp. 2179-2180. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, vol 2C, pp. 2183. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Wild Swans at Coole”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, vol 2C, pp. 2180. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.
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