F. R. Leavis began his epoch-defining book, New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), with the confident assertion that 'poetry matters little to the modern world'. Even allowing for Leavis's deliberate provocativeness and the subtlety of his subsequent argument this would seem, on the face of it, a little overstated. For Leavis was writing at a time in which poetry was experiencing a popularity that it will probably never exceed. The reasons for this popularity can be traced back to the First World War and to the needs of an educated, literate population, exposed to a print (though not yet a broadcast) mass media, for a language adequate to the unprecedented experiences of modern war. The sheer bulk of the outpourings of verse that appeared in newspapers, popular songs, and in the memorial volumes of the work of soldier poets, on commemorative cards and war memorials, that was spoken and sung in remembrance ceremonials, testifies to a widespread belief in the ritual and consolatory powers of poetry. To read the elegies of soldier poets like Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves for dead comrades, or the poems in Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth (1933), or those collected by Catherine Reilly in Scars Upon My Heart: Women's Poetry and Verse of the First World War (1981), is to experience and be moved not just by the poetry itself but by a recognition that poetry is the most appropriate and direct medium for the articulation of deep human feeling.
Virginia Woolf had her narrator in To the Lighthouse (1925) remark that, 'the war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry', and this can be seen in the sales of poetry books in the years after the war. Samuel Hynes has estimated that during the war some 3,000 volumes of poetry were published by 2,225 poets (Hynes, 1990, p. 29). Between the wars the first two Georgian anthologies would sell 34,000 copies, a figure topped by John Masefield's Collected Poems (1923) which would reportedly go on to sell some 200,000 copies (Ross, 1967, p. 128). But even these sales were put into the shade by Rupert Brooke, whose work had, in Britain alone, sold by 1923 some 300,000 volumes (Hassall, 1964, p. 528). Anthologies, too, continued to be popular: wartime anthologies like those of the Georgians and the Imagists, and the
Sitwells' Wheels, were followed after the war by J. C. Squire's two volumes of Selections from Modern Poets and Frank Sidgwick's Poems of Today, prompting Robert Graves and Laura Riding to issue a blast against the trend in their pamphlet Against Anthologies in 1928.
What Leavis was signalling, then, was not that there weren't enough people reading and writing poetry, but rather that there weren't enough people reading and writing the right kind of poetry. The existence of a large number of people for whom poetry mattered didn't in itself matter to Leavis because his project was an academic one in which quality was to be carefully isolated from quantity. The modernism (though he didn't use the word) that Leavis was asserting, and which the academy would broadly accept, was a literature that tended to articulate the experience of modernity not of the mass who were formed by it and who moved freely within it, but the singular individual who worked in despite of, and often in direct contradiction to that mass. For Leavis, it was not enough for modern poetry simply to move people, or otherwise engage a primarily emotional response; poetry must rather bring into play what he called the 'cerebral muscles' and integrate emotion with an undissociated play of poetic wit and intelligence. Leavis's thinking here can be seen retrospectively to form part of an identifiable modernist project, coming as it does out of T. S. Eliot's essays in The Sacred Wood (1920) and anticipating what Wallace Stevens in his poem 'Of Modern Poetry' (1942) would call 'the poem of the act of mind'. The experimental freedom licensed by this conception of modern poetry has, incontrovertibly, led to some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century. But it is not to criticize the project of modernism, or Leavis's impassioned advocacy of several of its practitioners, to notice what it left out; to see that it closed some doors as it opened others and that its strictures would lead to a critical neglect of poets and types of poetry that had a very good claim to think themselves modern.
The writers that will be discussed here were, for the most part, born at around the same time as the modernists — from the late 1870s to the early 1890s — and as a generation they shared with them, often very closely, a common diagnosis of contemporary poetry's ills. They perhaps showed more tolerance towards Housman, Hardy and Bridges, but otherwise shared with the modernists a recognition that English poetry had, in the late-Victorian and Edwardian years, turned into a rather overgrown and lush cul-de-sac. The Poet Laureate during their formative years was the dire Alfred Austin, arguably the least competent holder of that much maligned post. His poem 'Why England is Conservative' sums up in its title much that younger poets found disagreeable in his work and in the work of established poets like Henry Newbolt, Alfred Noyes, Stephen Phillips and William Watson, who seemed content to make poetry a conservative celebration of Imperial values. Here, for example, is William Watson praising an American poet for the directness and purity of his style:
And so, though all the fops of style misuse
Our great brave language - tricking out with beads
Help still to save, while Time around him strews Old shards of empire, and much dust of creeds, The honour and the glory of the muse. ('To an American Poet', 1907)
Most poets coming of age in the first two decades of the twentieth century would agree on the redundancy of his kind of verse, with its wearying generalizations about empires and creeds and honour and glory, its periphrases, its free use of personification and obvious metaphors, and its chronic ignorance of the ironies it generates in making such a baroque production out of a hymn to plainness.
For modernism, there were two complementary ways out of this: to strip poetry of what Richard Aldington called 'the cult of the decorated adjective', restoring to it a cadence and a vocabulary better suited to a direct presentation of its objects; and to re-examine the tradition creatively in an attempt to uncover poetic roots older and stronger than Victorian Romanticism onto which a modern poetry might be grafted. The first tendency is most clear in Imagism, in Pound's desire for a poetry that is 'austere, direct, free from emotional slither' and in T. E. Hulme's call for 'a period of dry, hard, classical verse'. The second is apparent in the researches of Eliot and Pound into, among others, Dante, the Metaphysicals, the Troubadours, and Eastern poetry that prompted Stephen Spender to categorize them as 'revolutionary traditionalists' (Spender, 1965, p. 222). The result of these complementary emphases, worked into forms that experiment boldly with rhyme, rhythm and the juxtaposition of images, is a poetry that offers a calculated challenge to the assumptions of Romanticism, and which is characterized by irony, precision, allusiveness and self-reflexiveness. These are the qualities that modernist writing foregrounds and which for Leavis are the markers of intelligence and modernity. But an examination of the work of a selection of non-modernist writers from this period suggests two things: that there are types of worthwhile modern poetry for which these qualities are only marginally appropriate; and that the qualities of irony, precision, allusiveness and reflexiveness which the modernists foreground can be found operating as subtly (if not always in the same combinations) in the work of their less celebrated peers.
John Masefield, to take the first example, is a poet who tends to be viewed as more of a relic of Edwardianism than a poetic modernizer. It may seem strange, then, that in the early years of the twentieth century Masefield (born the year before Wallace Stevens) was considered a disturbing radical for his advocacy of a new poetic realism. The editors of The English Review, the first publishers of his highly popular narrative poem The Everlasting Mercy (1911), declared themselves 'terrified' of the poem and saw in its 'oaths and curses, language to shock every drawing-room and literary salon . Lord Alfred Douglas described it as 'nine-tenths sheer filth' and a terrible example of 'wicked licentiousness' (Spark, 1992, pp. 4-5). In view of the poem's rather mild evocations of rural debauchery and its ultimate affirmation of evangelical Christianity, this criticism might be seen as an example of that prim English insularity that was, contemporaneously, being so outraged by Nietzsche, Ibsen and almost anything
French. But to accept this wholly is to overlook the very real innovations that Masefield was attempting in presenting unconventional poetic subjects in a realistic manner. Without challenging metrical or rhyming forms, he was trying to produce a dramatically charged narrative poetry which relied for the most part on what might pass for real speech. His particular skill was in being able to accommodate this speech in what was for the most part a regular verse scheme. An early section of the poem, in which the protagonist, Saul Kane, confronts another poacher in a territorial dispute, shows how far Masefield was prepared to push his experiment:
He tells me 'Get to hell from there.
This field is mine,' he says, 'by right;
If you poach here, there'll be a fight.
Out now,' he says, 'and leave your wire;
'You closhy put.'
'You bloody liar.'
This verse, with its direct speech and frequent caesuras, might easily be re-transcribed from its octosyllables into prose with little loss. It employs a metrical regularity, but is successful at least as much for its dramatic and narrative qualities — a combination that allows Masefield to discipline his poetry with the precision of novelistic reportage. His experiments here can certainly be said to stand up well against Eliot's similar attempts to incorporate direct speech into a poem like The Waste Land and in his attempts to domesticate blank verse in his later plays.
One of the earliest strictures of modernism was that its poetry should work hard to emulate the precision of prose: Ford Madox Ford famously called for a poetry that 'should be at least as well-written as prose', an axiom taken to heart by Ezra Pound who prescribed, in addition, 'no book words, no periphrases, no inversions' (Jones, 1972, p. 141). At his best, Masefield came close to this, in putting popular poetry back in touch with vernacular speech and applying a novelistic observation and structure to his narrative verse. The resulting directness can be seen in a stanza from the long sea poem Dauber (1913):
They stood there by the rail while the swift ship Tore on out of the tropics, straining her sheets,
Whitening her trackway to a milky strip, Dim with green bubbles and twisted water-meets, Her clacking tackle tugged at pins and cleats, Her great sails bellied stiff, her great masts leaned: They watched how the seas struck and burst and greened.
This has all the exhilaration that one might hope for in narrative verse, and it is technically accomplished. Masefield adopts the rhyme-royal stanza of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (later taken up by Auden in Letter to Lord Byron) and without giving up on its music still writes a poetry that carries the best qualities of descriptive prose. There is little of Watson's redundancy here, as even the most apparently poetic elements like the 'milky strip' offers, in conjunction with the descriptions of bubbles and turbulent water-meets, a precise and detailed description of the complex wake created by a ship under way. Similarly, Masefield observes closely the actual processes of sailing, the fact that masts lean under sail and that the sails themselves belly out stiffly rather than softly, and thus reinvigorates from observation what might otherwise be tired poetic metaphor.
Masefield would never be able to match Eliot's fine discrimination and psychological complexity, nor would he ever have anything like Stevens's exquisiteness. But, by way of compensation, poems like Dauber and Reynard the Fox (1919) have a capacity to grip and exhilarate the reader, to offer a persuasive account of physical action and thrill that is almost entirely absent in modernism. And where modernism tends to assert in form and content a deracinated individualism at odds with its social and political contexts, Masefield's poetry maintains a tolerant Chaucerian awareness of and integration in those contexts, making itself in its accessibility and its openness ultimately answerable to them. He was, as many commentators have noted, an uneven poet, writing too much and proving too susceptible to the importunate rhyme. But at its best his poetry offers a realism in subject matter and colloquialism in diction that, in its vitality and concern with social value, suggests that he is less conservative, and much more modern, than he is often portrayed.
This combination of social conscience and a realist technique was one that similarly concerned Rupert Brooke and the Georgians. Like many of the other contributors to the Georgian Poetry anthologies, Brooke was encouraged by the popular success of Masefield's realism, and by the continuing example of the poetry of Housman and Hardy, to attempt to put a little grit into the oyster of English poetry. The result was sometimes challenging and bold, in sonnets like 'Lust' or 'A Channel Passage', which combined a graphic descriptive style with an updated metaphysical playfulness reminiscent of Donne:
The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew I must think hard of something or be sick; And could think hard of only one thing - you
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain and dole.
Now there's a choice - heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!
Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last year's woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. 'Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose 'twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.
It could be argued that there are elements of an undergraduate prankishness here in the clever heartlessness of the piece. The realism might perhaps be little more than a shock tactic. But to view it in a more positive light, there might also be said to be a very modern self-consciousness in, for example, the deliberate incongruity of the juxtaposition of the poeticisms of 'woe' and 'sobs' with the more mundane 'slimy' and 'slobber' within a single short sentence. Equally, the final couplet which in another context might be viewed as simply bad, can perhaps rather be seen to be knowingly self-reflexive — playing with an acknowledged sense of its own weakness that can be compared to the earlier forced rhymes of Don Juan or to the later playful and thoroughly modern sophistication of Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart.
The use of an intelligent irony is a typical, though sometimes unrecognized characteristic of Brooke's verse. Those readers, for example, who celebrate the patriotic rusticism of 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester' tend to forget that Brooke's original title for the poem was the much more equivocal 'The Sentimental Exile'. While this kind of irony is not a modernist quality as such, it is worth noting how much it contributes to the perceived modernism of a writer like Eliot. Eliot is frequently praised for reintroducing a quality of metaphysical intelligence, characteristic of Donne, in which wit and sensuality are playfully combined. But it is worth noting the extent to which Brooke pre-empted Eliot, both in his taking of Donne as a source and in recognizing the techniques by which a writer like Webster created a personal style. Brooke's 1916 work John Webster and the Elizabethan Drama showed the extent to which he appreciated 'the heaping-up of images and phrases', the agglutination of 'external fragments', by which Webster constructed a synthetic creative persona 'encrusted with a thousand orts and chips and fragments from the world around' (Lehmann, 1981, p. 74). Brooke had obviously come some way to grasping the principles of bricolage and montage that would serve Eliot and Pound so well. In choosing not to employ them, then, he made, we must believe, a conscious choice. He was not ignorant of modernism, but made an informed decision as to the suitable vehicle for his modern, ironic English voice. This is worth noting, if only because there are times when the modernist Eliot, exercising his ironic or dramatic faculties, sounds rather like the Georgian Brooke. Brooke's 'Heaven' and the poem Eliot adapted from Gautier, 'The Hippopotamus', might, for example, be seen to share a similar sensibility. Both poems use an anthropomorphized animal to guy organized Christianity, both enjoy wittily rhyming off incongruous pairs of words - Brooke's 'good' and 'mud' and Eliot's 'mud' and 'blood' - and both take a delight in introducing awkward, unpoetic words and grotesque images into their mock-solemn measures: Brooke's 'squamous, omnipotent, and kind' fish God feeding on 'paradisal grubs'; Eliot's hippo, who 'Betrays inflexions harsh and odd' as it rejoices 'at being one with God'.
Like Eliot, Brooke employs a sophisticated irony and a levity, derived in part from Metaphysical poetry, that offers an implicit challenge to Edwardian poetic convention. But where Eliot exhibits an outsider's willingness to think outside that box, to offer a radical alternative to meliorative Edwardian poetry, Brooke shows a characteristically Georgian reticence about taking his challenge too far. This is most obvious in the formal qualities of Georgian verse, and in particular its unwillingness to deviate far from accepted metrical and rhyming forms in its lyric poetry and from blank verse in its dramatic poetry. This is not, of course, in itself necessarily a bad thing, and there are some notably bold and successful experiments within conventional forms -in, for example, Walter de la Mare's presentation of chaotic direct speech in 'The Feckless Dinner Party' or the way in which in 'The Dove' he creates the effect of 'the languageless note of a dove' through the use of repeated long vowel sounds - but the principal impression that Georgianism tends to leave is that its acceptance of the formal straitjacket is a token of its acceptance of a larger poetic decorousness. The one Georgian contributor who can perhaps be absolved of this is D. H. Lawrence, but the way his indecorous vers libre sticks out as an exception only reinforces the general impression. For all that Brooke and Wilfrid Wilson Gibson might try to incorporate a political edge and a unsettling realism into their poetry, qualities that Gordon Bottomley and Lascelles Abercrombie extended into the occasional brutality of Georgian verse dramas like 'King Lear's Wife' and 'The End of the World', their writing as a group never seems to suggest that it is anything other than the work of 'advanced' but thoroughly decent chaps - of what John Middleton Murry called 'a fundamental right-mindedness' (Rogers, 1977, p. 233). What Kenneth Hopkins said of Walter de la Mare might be taken as a more general truth about Georgianism: that here are poets 'working within a conventional tradition whose genius is not for flamboyant disregard for the rules, but for triumphant conformity with them' (Hopkins, 1957, p. 31).
Abercrombie had, in the opening work of the first Georgian anthology, 'The Sale of St Thomas', had his St Thomas condemned and sold into slavery for the weakness not of fearfulness, but prudence: 'prudence is the deadly sin' he is told as he is taken into servitude. But it is prudence that too often mars Georgianism. What Aber-crombie called the Georgians' 'determination to undertake new duties in the old style' (Rogers, 1977, p. 62), meant that they were, too often, lacking the ambition to attempt radical experiment, and thereby challenge an aesthetic of poetry, a sense of its beauty and music, that they still shared with Victorian Romanticism. Compare, for example, the prudence and tact of de la Mare's 'Miss Loo' or Gibson's 'Geraniums' with the probing boldness of Eliot's 'Portrait of a Lady' and 'Preludes': poems that deal with the ostensibly similar subjects of a young speaker-poet's relationship with an older woman and with the urban poor respectively. In these instances the Georgian poetic voice seems sentimental and evasive, introducing us to speakers who are less complex and less credible because they seem complacently free of the barbs of self-consciousness on which the speakers of Eliot's poems continually snag themselves. The Georgian speakers appear to be forced by the forms they employ into a polite reticence about their subjects that leaves those subjects both distanced and idealized, whereas Eliot's less decorous freedom with line-length and rhyme seems to allow his speaker to engage in a more trenchant examination, both of his subjects and his own motives in attempting to aestheticize them. De la Mare's Miss Loo remains obscure because the poet, perhaps out of tender respect, refuses to scrutinize her:
And I am sitting, dull and shy, And she with gaze of vacancy, And large hands folded on the tray, Musing the afternoon away; Her satin bosom heaving slow With sighs that softly ebb and flow, And plain face in such dismay, It seems unkind to look her way.
Eliot spares his lady and his speaker no such delicacy. Both are brought to a complex and vivid life by the animating emotion of the speaker's self-mistrust. The scrutiny under which he puts his own mixed motives in cultivating this older, genteel woman is applied in an equally unsparing way to her own harmless self-dramatizations:
Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her finger while she talks.
'Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands';
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
'You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no more remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.'
I smile, of course,
This is the kind of flexing of cerebral muscles of which Leavis approved: the construction of psychological depth through the employment of an ironic, experimentally inclined poetic intelligence; the example of an intelligence wedded to a poetic sensibility that can devour all kinds of experience, and not just those susceptible to what the modernist would see as the orotund heartiness of the Edwardians or the empirical timidity of the Georgians. But while there might be general agreement with Leavis in this particular instance, there are other writers who bypassed Georgian limitations in other ways and proved able to create a viable modern, but not necessarily modernist, poetry: among these are Robert Frost, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Edna St Vincent Millay.
Frost (like Pound) came close to being included in one of the Georgian anthologies. In the case of Frost it's perhaps easier to see why this might be, for his work shares with Georgianism a preoccupation with rural life and ordinary speech. The Georgians, as we have seen, strained hard to create an effect of everyday speech within the patterns of rhyme and metre that they seemed contented to accept. Rather like their elder contemporary, Masefield, they had difficulty in avoiding occasional poeti-cisms of diction and form, which tended to give their countryside a slightly inau-thentic air, making it seem a kind of slightly soiled weekender's pastoral. Frost's poetry avoided this: partly because he had experience as a working farmer, partly because the American tradition from which he sprang tended to make fewer assumptions about nature's beneficence than the English tradition, but more especially because he had consciously developed a technique which enabled a direct and forceful diction. This technique began in his belief that it was the sentence that ought to be taken as the basic measure of poetry. 'The living part of a poem', he wrote, 'is the intonation entangled somehow in the syntax idiom and meaning of a sentence' (Thompson, 1965, p. 107). It is this basic unit of the sentence, couched in the rhythm of normal speech that Frost called the 'sound of sense' and then stretched over the frame of a basic iambic verse, that gives Frost's poetry its characteristic sense of discursive range and freedom. It is not quite the freedom of vers libre — which Frost would later compare to playing tennis with the net down - but is rather a play that comes from the tension between the rhythm of the sentence and the metre of the poetic line. It is, as Frost put it, the getting of 'cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the metre' (ibid., p. 80). The uses to which this can be put might be seen in lines from 'Birches':
He always kept his poise To the top branches, climbing carefully With the same pains you use to fill a cup Up to the brim, and even above the brim. Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, Kicking his way down through the air to the ground. So was I once myself a swinger of birches. And so I dream of going back to be.
This is fascinating for its playful assonance and inventive central metaphor alone, but if we look at the verse form we can see the way the idiomatic syntax complements the blank verse. In the fourth line here, the additional syllable ('above' rather than a monosyllable like 'past') reinforces the idea of a brimming over, and in the next line the use of two spondees (two spread feet) to mimic the attitude of the boy jumping are flashes of crafted wit. Frost might easily have rendered the next two lines more regularly, too, but imagine what would be lost by having the sixth line read 'Kicking his way through the air to the ground' or the line after read 'So was I once a swinger of birches.' In the first instance, the additional word 'down' alters the cadence of the line and gives the effect of making the jump appear longer, and hints at that momentary illusion of suspension in space during a fall. It also reminds us, in the assonance of 'down' and 'ground', of the paradoxical relationship on which the poem insists between the tip of the tree and the earth down to which it will grow after it is bent by the jump. Similarly, in the following line the apparently idiomatic tautology of 'I once myself' alters the cadence of the line to create a swinging between sibilants in a triple metre that gives a new vigour to the image of a boy swinging on the birches.
It is this cadence that perhaps makes Frost's work seem less pat than the poetry of the Georgians, and therefore a more apt medium for the colloquial and meditative voice. The result is a poetry that artfully manages at once to be both formally sophisticated and apparently unliterary. The sophistication can be found in both the form and the content, for when he wants to be Frost can be as allusive as Eliot or Pound. However, when he alludes, say, to Dante's selva or stella in his New England woods and stars, or when he is recreating Virgilian eclogues in the contemporary Yankee pastoral of North of Boston, he is careful to ensure that these sources are fully digested: they are not employed to draw attention to the brittle self-consciousness of a cultured speaker but are rather the means by which a rich, textured voice is given to a persisting modern culture embedded in its natural environment.
This quality of voice is one that Frost shares with the writer whom he helped encourage into poetry, Edward Thomas. Thomas followed the example of Frost's freedom with blank verse, writing a poetry that seems to be governed more by the cadence of its phrasing, its hesitations and qualifications, than the measured march of iambic feet. But where Frost's speakers, troubled though they sometimes are, tend ultimately to be reconciled with the folk or cultural wisdom they articulate, Thomas's speakers characteristically express a more equivocal relationship between the individual and his rural and cultural context. A flavour of this can be found in the final two stanzas of 'Old Man', in which the speaker describes the effect on him of the herb commonly called by that name:
As for myself, Where first I met the bitter scent is lost. I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds, Sniff them and think again and sniff again and try Once more to think what it is I am remembering, Always in vain. I cannot like the scent, Yet I would rather give up others more sweet, With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray And think of nothing; I see and hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait For what I should, yet never can, remember: No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush Of Lad's-love, or Old Man, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
As well as seeing the freedom with the iambic line here, it is worth noting the tacit repudiation of Wordsworthian romanticism. Wordsworth, one thinks, would never express in this way the loss of the childhood key to the sensation engendered by the Old Man (the first two lines of the second stanza might rather, perhaps, be mistaken for the Eliot of The Waste Land). More especially, though, where Thomas parts with Wordsworth, and perhaps comes much closer to Eliot, is in the sense his poetry gives of what Andrew Motion has called 'a mind actually engaged in the act of thinking, rather than offering its concluded thoughts' (Motion, 1980, p. 82). Whereas a Wordsworthian poetry - and within this can be included much of Georgianism -gains a consistency and a satisfying unity from its sense of the tranquil recollection of emotion, Thomas's poetry looks edgy and equivocal because of what would appear to be this unresolved tension between its phrasing and its poetic form, and its emphasis on the processes of thought rather than its final forms. It is this sense of irresolution, this lack of formal and thematic closure and the ability to turn romantic and conventional poetic tropes reflexively back upon themselves, that makes Thomas's poetry seem so subtly disturbing and so modern.
This is perhaps similar to the kind of corrupted romanticism that can be found in Wilfred Owen's poetry. In 'Strange Meeting' Owen reworks a romantic situation and diction (in this case the models are Canto V of Shelley's 'The Revolt of Islam' and the beginning of Keats's 'Hyperion') in order to create (using the terms he employed in his unpublished prefatory statement) a poetry of pity but not consolation. Owen makes a qualified refusal of several of the consolations of romanticism - most notably trust in the natural - and signals this formally in his corresponding refusal of the satisfaction of full, rounded rhymes. The half-rhymes he employs chime, but they chime uneasily, throwing a discord into the formal Georgian harmony. In 'Strange Meeting' this is especially pertinent, as the half-rhymes reinforce the uneasy symmetry of the relationship between the speaker and the dead enemy with whom he shares a dialogue: the man he has killed as the other but whom he now begins to identify obscurely as a brother:
'Strange friend,' I said, 'here is no cause to mourn.' 'None,' said the other, 'save the undone years, The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also; I went hunting wild After the wildest beauty in the world, Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair, But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here. For by my glee might many men have laughed, And of my weeping something had been left, Which must die now. I mean the truth untold, The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
The sense that Owen's work gives of a poetic form bending, but not breaking, in order to accommodate a discomforting modernity is one that is shared by two other interesting modern poets who have evaded the modernist categorization. The work of the first, Isaac Rosenberg, exhibits in its experiments with free verse in a poem like 'Louse Hunting' or with the sprung rhythm of the variably stressed lines of 'Dead Man's Dump' another way in which the directness is achieved for which the Georgians strove and from which their formal tentativeness held them back. A stanza from 'Dead Man's Dump' shows the freedom in diction that this allows:
A man's brains splattered on A stretcher-bearer's face: His shook shoulders slipped their load, But when they bent to look again The drowning soul was sunk too deep For human tenderness.
While this might in itself be calculated to shock, Rosenberg's poetry like Owen's does more than simply assert an attitude or an anger about the absurdity of war — something that is characteristic of the more limited Sassoon. Rather, these two poets balance in an even, discursive tone a compassionate romantic lyricism against a horror that is overt and realistically portrayed, and in so doing present a complex human solidarity of which the fragmenting solipsism of modernism characteristically despairs.
This way of reinvigorating romantic modes by applying a complex irony is subtly different from most Georgianism. It is not merely to put modern wine into antique bottles, but is rather a way of modernizing romantic impulses and forms while at the same time acknowledging the difficulty of doing this in the present: adding a crucial element of formal self-consciousness to the Georgian mix. It is analogous to the ironic reworking of conventional forms through which Edna St Vincent Millay expressed a forceful and original modernity. Millay's occasional ventures into vers libre allowed her a great freedom with metaphor, as when in 'Spring' she tells us 'April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers'. Her most consistent achievement, though, is in her reworking of the sonnet. This doesn't so much involve formal innovation as a play against the conventional expectations created by the form. What Millay particularly excels at is stripping away the conventional language of romance to reveal the pragmatic sexual opportunism and the occasional desperation that underlie it. This is not in itself new, as the sonnet has always entertained an element of this self-consciousness about the uses to which it puts its artifice. What is particularly modern is that the underlying cynicism comes from the traditional object of the sonnet, the woman. In particular, we see in Millay's speakers a kind of precursor of the strong modern female of cinematic screwball comedy: by turns shrewd and tender, but well able to play and beat the men at their own game. This character can be seen in sonnets like 'I, being born a woman and distressed', or 'I shall forget you presently', in which she puts a characteristically modern spin on the carpe diem theme:
I shall forget you presently, my dear, So make the most of this, your little day, Your little month, your little half a year, Ere I forget, or die, or move away, And we are done forever; by and by I shall forget you, as I said, but now, If you entreat me with your loveliest lie I will protest you with my favourite vow.
This is typical in the way that it contrasts the traditional hyperbole of the theme with a deflating colloquialism - 'your little half a year', 'my favourite vow'. Millay can be allusive too, but her allusions are often wittily revaluative in ways that can make more orthodox modernism seem ponderous. In the short poem 'Daphne', for example, she turns the conventional relationship between Daphne and Apollo on its head, making Daphne a modern woman fully in control of her predicament. Daphne opens the poem by querulously demanding of Apollo (and perhaps the reader) 'Why do you follow me?' when, as she points out, 'Any moment I can be / Nothing but a laurel-tree'. However, if her chastened god is content to continue in his folly, she shows willing to lead him in it: 'Yet if over hill and hollow / Still it is your will to follow, / I am off; - to heel, Apollo!' The revaluative irreverence is especially remarkable if it is compared to the use Eliot makes of another tale from Ovid, the rape of Philomela, in The Waste Land or the use to which Yeats puts the Leda myth in 'Leda and the Swan'. These two poets are content to repeat and unreflexively exploit an aggressive male fantasy, while Millay spiritedly makes it new with a recognizably modern attitude.
Leavis was undoubtedly right to suggest that modernist poets like Eliot and Pound offered a remedy for the debilitations of Edwardian poetry. But it is to take too narrow a view of the period of modernism to see the modernist experiment as the only cure. The poets discussed here tended to prefer evolution to revolution, but that is not to say they were less radical or somehow less true to modernity. In conceiving of Poetry as a single discipline desperately in need of modernizing, Leavis was willingly pursuing a modernist polemic. It was the means by which Eliot and Pound, as much in their prose as their poetry, effected an astonishingly swift change in the cultural reception of poetry. But for all its power in the shaping of poetic taste and academic opinion, this singular idea of Poetry should perhaps itself be revalued. We might then be better able to appreciate the range of practices, the poetries rather than the Poetry, in which early twentieth-century writers sought to explore the conditions of their modern world.
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