Modernist poetry

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Modernist poetry refers to poetry written, mainly in Europe and North America, between 1890 and 1950 in the tradition of modernist literature, but the dates of the term depend upon a number of factors, including the nation of origin, the particular school in question, and the biases of the critic setting the dates.[1] The critic/poet C. H. Sisson observing in his essay Poetry and Sincerity 'Modernity has been going on for a long time. Not within living memory has there ever been a day when young writers were not coming up, in a threat of iconoclasm[2] Evidence of the truth of Sisson's comment is Arthur Hallam's 'On Some of the Characteristics of Modern poetry, published in 1830 in Moxon's English Magazine[3]


Notwithstanding it is usually said to have begun with the French Symbolist movement and it artificially ends with the Second World War,[citation needed] the beginning and ending of the modernist period are of course arbitrary. Poets like W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) started in a post-Romantic, Symbolist vein and modernised their poetic idiom after being affected by political and literary developments.[citation needed] Imagism proved radical and important, marking a new point of departure for poetry.[4] Some consider 'it began in the works of Hardy and Pound, Eliot and Yeats, Williams and Stevens.[5] English language poets, like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Basil Bunting ( 'a born modernist'),[5] Wallace Stevens and E.E. Cummings also went on to produce work after World War II.

Nature of Modernism

Modernism emerged with its insistent breaks with the immediate past, its different inventions, 'making it new' with elements from cultures remote in time and space.[4] The questions of impersonality and objectivity seem to be crucial to Modernist poetry[citation needed] . Modernism developed out of a tradition of lyrical expression, emphasising the personal imagination, culture, emotions and memories of the poet[citation needed] . For the modernists, it was essential to move away from the merely personal towards an intellectual statement that poetry could make about the world[citation needed] . Even when they reverted to the personal, like T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets and Ezra Pound in The Cantos, they distilled the personal into a poetic texture that claimed universal human significance[citation needed] . Herbert Read said of it, "The modern poet has no essential alliance with regular schemes of any sorts. He reserves the right to adapt his rhythm to his mood, to modulate his metre as he progresses. Far from seeking freedom and irresponsibility (implied by the unfortunate term free verse) he seeks a stricter discipline of exact concord of thought and feeling."[6]

After World War II, a new generation of poets sought to revoke the effort of their predecessors towards impersonality and objectivity[citation needed] . In the English language modernism ends with the turn towards confessional poetry in the work of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath,[citation needed] among others.


  1. J. A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms(London: Penguin Books, 1999), p.515.
  2. Press Ltd , Manchester, 1990 ISBN 0856358770
  3. Hallam, Arthur “On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry, and on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson”. 1830 Read online
  4. 4.0 4.1 Schmidt , Michael, (ed) The Great Modern Poets, Quercus Poetry 2012 ISBN 9780857382467
  5. 5.0 5.1 Schmidt, Michael , Lives of the Poets Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1998
  6. Read, Herbert, Collected Essays in Literary Criticism (1938)

Further reading

  • Wesling, Donald,The Chances of Rhyme: Devices and Modernity - UC Press E-Books 1988
  • Perkins, David, A History of Modern Poetry: modernism and after Harvard Press, New Haven 1987 ISBN 978-0-674-39946-4
  • Scully, James (ed) Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, Fontana 1970 ISBN 978-0-00-632432-4
  • Steele, Timothy, Missing Measures: modern poetry and the revolt against metre, University of Arlansas, 1990 ISBN 978-1-55728-126-5

See also