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A Brief Overview of Four Modernist Poets

Updated on May 15, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Composition III, Wassily Kandinsky


A Word about Modernism

The Modernist era holds sway from the end of World War I with the publication of T. S. Eliot's " The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" until the onslaught of Postmodernism during the late 1950s with Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."

The chief Modernist poets are W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden. Modernist poets sought to write a poetry that distinguishes itself from the traditional poetry of the past.

They began to eschew rime; they began to portray life as a vast spiritual desert. Many had drunk too deeply from the well of notions that led to lack of comprehension of the achievements of science in the modern era. They began to suspect that human beings had more in common with the animals than with children of God.

Thus, they began to question the value and purpose of religion. Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" is often considered the prototypical melancholy that grasped the Modernists, who felt that religious faith had failed mankind and only art could take its place.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

William Butler Yeats


W. B. Yeats 1865-1939

Yeats' major claim to the Modernist label results from his attempt to create his own mythology; although he studied Irish mythology and fables, he followed his own idiosyncratic line of thinking that he attempted to outline in his tract called A Vision.

This work is a delicious dissonance of disingenuous drivel. Yeats' reputation was saved by the fact that he did condescend to write a substantial number of genuine poems.

Yeats reading his own verse

Ezra Pound


Ezra Pound 1885-1972

Most credit for the founding of the movement known as Modernism is widely bestowed on Ezra Pound.

Pound's main Modernist offering, however, is imagism, which is in actuality a thoroughly traditional phenomenon, but his insistence that poets should "compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome," heralded the proliferation of "free verse," a thoroughly Modernist phenomenon.

Pound reading "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley

T. S. Eliot


T. S. Eliot 1888-1965

T. S. Eliot's poetry reflects the spiritual dryness that gripped poets between the two World Wars. His pathetic yet comical character, J. Alfred Prufrock, demonstrates the paradox of contemporary man during this period.

And The Waste Land is a virtual manifesto of the Modernist creed of fragmentation accompanied with the usual spiritual degeneration; although, at the end, the speaker does leave open the possibility of hope.

Despite the usual emphasis on the agnosticism and atheism that seized many poets, T. S. Eliot did not lose religious faith. He became a devoted member of the Church of England.

T. S. Eliot reading THE WASTE LAND

W. H. Auden


W. H. Auden 1907-1973

Of this group of so-called Modernists, Auden is the least Modernist. It may be noted that he is also the youngest: 42 years younger than Yeats, 22 years younger than Pound, and 19 years younger than Eliot. If there were a different classification between Modernism and Postmodernism, that is where Auden would possibly be.

Nevertheless, at least in some of his work, Auden does reveal a few peccadilloes in common with the Modernists—he often concentrates on negativity: "You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart," from "As I Walked Out One Evening," "About suffering, they were never wrong, / The Old Masters," from "Museé des Beaux Arts," and "We cannot choose what we are free to love," from "Canzone."

However, notice at the same time, all three of those poems are rimed and/or patterned, and they do broach the subject of love. Auden's "Unknown Citizen" certainly offers a Modernist outlook, but again it is rimed, and it attempts to offer a call to action, instead of merely bemoaning events.

Auden reading "The Unknown Citizen"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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