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Modernism

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The dominant artistic movement from about 1900 to 1940, modernism was characterized by the reexamination of existence from every possible angle. Modernist writers sought to leave the traditions of nineteenth-century literature behind in terms of form, content, and expression. They realized that a new industrial age—full of machines, buildings, and technology—had ushered out rural living forever, and the result was often a pessimistic view of what lay before humankind. Frequent themes in modernist works are loneliness and isolation (even in cities teeming with people), and a significant number of writers tried to capture that sense of solitude by engaging in stream-of-consciousness writing, which captures the thought process of a single character as it happens without interruption. Some of the most famous modernist authors include Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. 1. Open form and free verse are distinguishing characteristics of modernist poetry. Though commonplace now, this style was quite a break from nineteenth-century rules about meter and rhyme. 2. The moniker “The Lost Generation” was coined by Gertrude Stein and refers to those artists of the 1920s who had become disillusioned with America and found themselves living as ex-patriots in Europe, chiefly in France. 3. An example of stream-of-consciousness (also called “interior monologue”) from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: “She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble.” 4. One of the most famous poets and influential critics of the modernist era was T. S. Eliot, whose seminal works like The Waste Land captured the despair and angst of the new century. 5. American Modernism refers the era in literature when writers began to reject the tradition forms and values of the 19th-century's works. Though it is said that movement began "on or about December 1910" (accredited to English novelist Virginia Woolf), it actually was created in the post-World War I era. 6. In literature, the key people associated with the movement are Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, W.B. Yeats, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, e. e. cummings, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. 7. They were trying to evolve the art form of literature in this time of scientific expansion. It was during this time that technology was rapidly changing. These novelists and poets were trying to break away from the realist works. Ezra Pound was one of the most aggressive these poets, and became well known for his outcry of "Make it new!" e. e. cummings experimented with the visual aspect of poetry, writing in all lowercase. 8. In breaking free, they accumulated an array of forms and values. There are many themes that are found in the Modernism movement. One is a noticeable disturbance in the flow of ideas. Poets tend to begin on one topic and then me sidetracked. Another is an ironic tone poised at the movement itself, questioning the meanings behind the era. 9. This ties in to the time period. After the war which wiped out a generation, people were disillusioned with society. Poems of the Modernism movement reflect this line of thought, and gives the writings of the time a pessimistic feel. 10. Modernistic poets also contain a feeling of self righteousness, even to the point of narcissism. In the poetry, it is usually easy to notice the idea that the poets felt that themselves and their ideas were of importance and correctness. This idea is why Modernism is sometimes associated with fascism. 11. Eliot's seminal essay, 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' in his volume of critical prose, The Sacred Wood, opposed the Romantic poetics founded on the principles of 'spontaneity' and 'expression of personality'. Eliot declared that poetry is not 'an expression of personality', but 'an escape from personality'. The mind which creates, stands aloof from the mind which suffers. The poetic self is like the catalytic platinum wire which remains active through the chemical reaction processing sulphuric acid, but remains unchanged at the end of the reaction. 12. Eliot was influenced early in his poetic career by the mid 19th century French poet, Baudelaire, and the Symbolists. Mallarme, Laforgue, Corbiere were the major sources providing Eliot with the innovations of language and technique. Preludes, Sweeny among the Nightingales, Rhapsody on a Windy Night were some of his early Modernists experiments in poetry. Published in 1922, The Waste Land was his masterpiece: 'April is the cruellest month / Breeding lilacs out of the dead land.......' 13. Eliot's modernity(or should it be called 'Modernism'?) can be understood with reference to the following: 14. a) his theory of impersonality; 15. d) his conscious artistry of imagery and tone

W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming has been seen as an exemplar of Modernist zeitgeist literature (Hone, 1962, Bradbury, Tratner, 1995, etc) at once depicting the de-centring and internal fissure of Twentieth Century culture and elegising the parting of a classical psychosocial period.[1] Both linguistically and thematically it represents the gradual erosion of one form of social order in favour of another:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The Flacon cannot hear the falconer.” (Yeats, 1978:210)
Here Yeats invokes the image of the mandala, the circular evolution of the social that finds echoes in Joyce[2], Eliot[3] and concepts such as Nietzsche’s “eternal return”. In language that, in itself repeats and returns, the poet interweaves images of centrifugal rupture suggesting that the failure in the contemporary system is contained in, not so much the large structures (of thought, of language, of ethics etc) but the psychosocial cohesion that binds them together:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Yeats, 1978:211)
This is a point bourn out in Harold Bloom’s study:
“Yeats's poem then is about the second birth of Urizen or the Egyptian Sphinx, but in a context of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence” (Bloom, 1972:319)
As Bloom goes on to say, in its prophetic and visionary overtones, The Second Coming reflects not only Blake, through its redefinition of biblical and Christian tropes and symbols but also Shelley, through its’ affirmation of the poetic experience and its place in psychosocial change. For Shelly as for Yeats, the poet has a vital role to play in tracing the social environment and highlighting its incongruities.[4]
At it heart, I think, Yeats’ poem concerns itself with a similar poetic theme to Eliot’s The Waste Land, that Hugh Kenner refers in to in The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot, as “the death of Europe” (Kenner, 1965: 123). Both Eliot and Yeats, prompted by the Russian Revolution perhaps, or the violence and horror of the First World War, pictured a Europe that was failing, that was literally falling apart, devoid of the ontological sense of rational purpose that fuelled post-Enlightenment Europe and America. (Bradbury, 1991, Cantor, 1988, Shaffer, 1993)
In many ways, Modernism, as a literary movement saw, in itself, the notions of the de-centred discourse that has formed so much a part of post-modernism ever since (Norris, 1982, Norris, 1992, Foucault, 1992). Poems like The Waste Land and The Second Coming trace, I think, the dissolution of the “grand narratives” (Lyotard, 1999) of society, that were instigated by the thinkers of the Enlightenment like Descartes and Locke and later Kant and Marx.
This philosophical Modernity has, in Bradbury’s Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930 (1991) at least, been considered a distinct entity in itself, separate from its literary counterpart that is referred to under the sobriquet Modernism. However, and especially when considering Yeats' poem it is instructive to view both Modernity and Modernism as being merely two parts of the same ideological movement. Beginning, perhaps, with Descartes’ cogito and ending with Lyotards’ The Post-modern Condition.
The Second Coming is Yeats’ realisation that the morals and intellectual base of the Enlightenment, its faith in rationality if you will, is being slowly eroded by the absurdity of mass death and the psychosocial rupture of the unconscious prompted by Freud and Adler.
“Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!” (Yeats, 1978: 211)
Here Yeats uses the quasi-biblical language of Blake to suggest not the destruction of the world, but the failure of a world order, the image of the impassive sphinx is the concretisation of the pure temporal drive, (Bloom, 1972) moving all the time nearer civilisation. The image is at once, terrifying and beautiful reflecting that other great Yeastian poem of social change Easter 1916:
“He too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty s born.” (Yeats, 1978: 203)
Both paint portraits of a world in transition and a beauty that is, in the true Kantian sense, sublime, traversing existing notions of morality, ethics or even aesthetics, Walter E Houghton sums up Yeats’ vision concisely in his essay published in The Permanence of Yeats (Hall Martin: 1950):
“Overwhelmed by this nightmare vision, Yeats could only revolt with a "rage to end all things."” (Hall, 1950:386)
The image of the creeping apocalypse in the form of the sphinx that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” (Yeats, 1978:211) is, of course, not heralding the end of the world, or even the end of morality but the end of Modernism, the philo-literary movement centered on rationality and teleological achievement. Yeats, like Eliot and like Pound in The Cantos, senses this occurring, as gradually, what they as a movement and inheritors of an intellectual position fails and begins to lose faith in its own ability. These images, tropes and symbols litter Modernist texts but find their most literal and eloquent expression in The Waste Land and The Second Coming.

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