The First World War And The Long Poem

Eliot's The Waste Land and Pound's The Cantos are not only major modernist poems; they have largely defined what we mean by modernist poetry. If they appear to be the definitive products of 'a new era of high aesthetic self-consciousness and non-representationalism, in which art turns from realism and humanistic representation towards style, technique and spatial form in pursuit of a deeper penetration of life' (Bradbury and McFarlane 1976: 25), as the modernist period has been described, it is not because they conform to an already-existing modernist template, but rather because the template itself was created from these works. These poems, therefore, should be understood less as representative of early twentieth-century poetry, than polemical and highly successful arguments about what poetry should be.

This chapter frames The Waste Land and The Cantos as war poems that present two specific challenges to their authors. First, they required the creation of a new form adequate to the immensely ambitious task of analysing the history of civilization; second, they required the invention of a new method of relating history that could avoid propaganda and maintain the integrity of the individual voice. The solution to the first lay in versions of what Eliot called in an essay on Joyce's Ulysses 'the mythical method', and the solution to the second was found in the study of drama and dramatic poetry.

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