The Modernist movement in literature is identifiable by a strong and intentional break with tradition. This break includes a strong reaction against established religious, political, and social views. Common themes include the idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that there is only relative truth and as such the world occupied is creating by our being, that is, it is what we say it is. By acting against previous traditions and breaking with established views a trend of the works becomes one of loss, despair and alienation rejecting the Victorian optimism, which in turn leads to a celebration of the individual and what lies within each person. Similarly, Modernist work is identifiable by its preoccupation with introspection, that is, to look within rather than out.
While the dates for the movement vary upon source, one of the commonly agreed catalysts for such change is the First World War (1914-1918). Most of the Modernist authors felt betrayed by the powers that be by the war whom they felt had led the civilized world into a bloody and unnecessary conflict. As such, faith in the institutions as a way to understand life diminished and they began to look within themselves for the answers to their questions. Such can be seen in T.S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ which is a scything indictment of the emptiness of industrialism and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ which warns against where society was perceived to be heading.
Modernist writers such as Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Franz Kafka amongst others rejected the aesthetic burden of realism as a novel form and used other methods such as ‘the radical disruption of linear flow of narrative; the frustration of conventional expectations concerning unity and coherence of plot and character and the cause and effect development thereof; the deployment of ironic and ambiguous juxtapositions to call into question the moral and philosophical meaning of literary action; the adoption of a tone of epistemological self-mockery aimed at naive pretensions of bourgeois rationality; the opposition of inward consciousness to rational, public, objective discourse; and an inclination to subjective distortion to point up the evanescence of the social world of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie.’ (Barth, “The Literature of Replenishment” 68)
A prime example of this would be T.S Eliot and his poem ‘The Waste Land.’ While an American, like most of the Modernist movement, he eventually moved to London. Eliot’s work can be seen as a continuation of the Imagist movement with some of his own particular traits. ‘The Waste Land’ is his primary contribution to the Modernist movement and is a highly intellectual, allusive poem. It is a complex narrative broken into five different parts, each with a different speaker or speakers. Its notable disjointed structure places it firmly in the realms of modernism but there are indications of a taste for seventeenth century metaphysical poets without holding any nostalgia or romanticism for the past.
Another of the distinguishing characteristics of Eliot’s work is the manner in which he seamlessly moves from very high, formal verse into a more conversational and easy style. Yet even when the poetic voice of one section sounds very colloquial, there is a current underneath, which hides secondary meanings. It is this layering of meanings and contrasting of styles that mark Modernist work in general and T. S. Eliot in particular.
In ‘The Waste Land’ Eliot charges the reader with verse designs reminiscent of the bible, almost conversational breaks in the poem and classical references that are aimed to challenge. This leads to a poem that often resembles more prose than poetry. At the same time, Eliot displays all the conventions mentioned previously which one finds in Modernist Literature. There is the occupation with the self and introspection, the loss of traditional structures to support the self against horrifying realities, and more flexible route to truth and knowledge.
One of the key elements of Modernism is the break with tradition. This was not always met with eagerness but often with sorrow. This can be seen in ‘The Waste Land’ where Eliot uses
There is a distance, an alienation throughout Modernist works. While ‘The Waste Land’ is a deeply personal poem for Eliot, he also tries to distance himself from the piece, making himself a catalyst for the reader to experience what is ‘ethereal’ as the man himself describes in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent.’
“When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”
The dedication impersonality was linked to Eliot’s claim his work was in a “classical” style and not “romantic” by which it was more concerned with form and balance than with emotion or rather, the expression of emotion. Eliot did not avoid emotion in ‘The Waste Land’ but rather the emotion in the poem is displayed by the various speakers throughout. The different voices and tones convey emotion of differing levels, a consequence of which, by not identifying with any particular one of the speakers, Eliot achieves his personalisation.
Returning to tradition, Pericles Lewis notes in his book ‘Cambridge Introduction to Modernism’ that “A brief survey of the allusions in the first section of The Waste Land shows some of Eliot’s techniques for incorporating fragments of tradition into his own work. Aided by Eliot’s own notes and comments, scholars have identified allusions in this first section of 76 lines to: the Book of Common Prayer, Geoffrey Chaucer, Rupert Brooke, Walt Whitman, Théophile Gautier, Charles-Louis Philippe, James Thomson, Guillaume Apollinaire, Countess Marie Larisch, Wyndham Lewis, nine books of the Bible, John Donne, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Richard Wagner, Sappho, Catullus, Lord Byron, Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, J. G. Frazer, Jessie L. Weston, W. B. Yeats, Shakespeare, Walter Pater, Charles Baudelaire, Dante, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and John Webster—about one allusion every two lines.”
While quite a few of these allusions are weighted towards more recent works, being Eliot’s immediate predecessors in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he also clearly notes a few ancient, medieval and Renaissance writers. This establishes a tradition of looking back to look forward but also serves another purpose. Lewis explains that “Eliot’s technique of allusion serves various functions: to give symbolic weight to the poem’s contemporary material, to encourage a sort of free association in the mind of the reader, and to establish a tone of pastiche, seeming to collect all the bric-a-brac of an exhausted civilization into one giant, foul rag and bone shop.”
Within the first lines of ‘The Waste Land’ there is a rejection but also a knowing nod to the tradition of the English language.
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.”
“April is the cruellest month” is an allusion to Chaucer and his Canterbury tales which opens with a line professing a description of April’s “sweet showers” which make the flower of spring grow. Whereas Chaucer sees this cycle of birth and rebirth appealing, to Eliot’s speaker it is mournful as birth reminds him of the inevitability of death. This is not an indictment of Chaucer but as Eliot says in ‘Tradition and The Individual Talent’ that “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists…. The existing monuments [of art] form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention [sic] of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered… the past [is] altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”
It is worth noting again the relation to the First World War that Modernism shares. Modernist writers like Pound, Joyce and Eliot use ‘the current moment’ as a time of crisis, preparing or recovering from a break with history. This radical break creating Modernism certainly has something to do with the first world war, but it is also an aspect of the modernists’ eschatological view of the world, that is their fascination with the problem of destiny and the last judgment which can be seen in the biblical nature of some of ‘The Waste Land’. Kurtz’s famous last words (“The horror! The horror!”) in ‘Heart of Darkness’ ring through so much of later modernism. Eliot originally intended to use them as the epigraph for ‘The Waste Land.’ As Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, says, “he had summed up—he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate.”
This is something that runs through most Modernist works. The desire and ability to judge civilization as a whole. This could not sustain a movement. The cynicism and alienation of the Modernist literature could not persist. By 1939 and the outbreak of the Second World War there was already a backlash to the pretentions of the Modernist writers. A newer generation of writers chased a more pluralistic mode for their work and with the advent of a booming society commercialism and the popular audience were embraced rather than shunned in favour of a cryptic work like ‘The Waste Land’ which can be inaccessible to someone uneducated in classical works.
Alienation as a theme was no longer the done thing. That being said, the influence of Modernist literature continues to affect right up to the present day. Modernist poet-critics changed the way people think about artists and creative activities while the Modernist novelists changed the way many people perceive truth and reality. Writers such as Samuel Beckett were referred to as ‘Late Modernists’ and continued to develop some of the themes of early Modernism in their ‘Theatre of the Absurd’
Modernism was, in summary, a response to the world around the writers where the ways of thinking and writing no longer fit the society they found themselves in. No longer able to rely on the previously impermeable organisations as bastions of truth, the only response available was to look within and discover that truth was intrinsic to the reader, an idea that still persists to this day.
Bibliography and References
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Barth, J (1984). The Literature of Replenishment. 2nd Ed. New York: Putnam Pub Group. 1-60.
Eliot, T.S (1941). The Waste Land and Other Poems. 2nd ed. London: Faber and Faber. 25-44.
Lewis, P (2007). Cambridge Introduction to Modernism. London: Cambridge UP. 129-151.
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