The Age

Modern Poetry:
Two of the most remarkable poets of the modern period combined tradition and experiment in their work. The Irish writer William Butler Yeats was the most traditional. In his romantic poetry, written before the turn of the century, he exploited ancient Irish traditions and then gradually developed a powerfully honest, profound, and rich poetic idiom, at its maturity in The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stir (1933). The younger poet, T.S. Eliot, born in the United States, achieved more immediate acclaim with The Waste Land (1922), the most famous poem of the early part of the century. Through a mass of symbolic associations with legendary and historical events, Eliot expresses his despair over the sterility of modern life. His movement toward religious faith displayed itself in Four Quartets (1943). His surprising combination of colloquial and literary diction, his fusing of antithetical moods, and his startling, complex metaphorical juxtapositions relate him, among English poets, to John Donne. Eliot's style was intimately influenced by his study of such French poets as Jules Laforgue and Saint-John Perse. Eliot's essays, promulgating a style of poetry in which sound and sense are associated, were probably the most influential work in literary criticism in the first half of the century.

Both Yeats and Eliot exercised enormous influence on modern poets. A third influence was that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Victorian poet whose work was not introduced to the world until 1918. The conflict between his Roman Catholicism and his sense of the beauty of this world, and his complicated experiments in metrics and vocabulary have attracted much attention.

Of the many poets stimulated to indignant verse by World War I, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves rank among the most lastingly important. Graves's ability to produce pure and classically perfect poetry kept his reputation strong long after World War II. His historical novels, such as I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both 1934), also helped to maintain his popularity. The verse of Dame Edith Sitwell, who communicated her disdain of commonplace propriety as much by the aristocratic individualism of her personal attitudes as by her poetry, was first published during World War I; her experimentalism had little directly to do, however, with social problems. Extravagantly imaginative metaphors after the manner of the metaphysical poets, and conscious distortion of sense impressions, somewhat as in modern painting, were among her poetic devices. After World War II she wrote more compassionate and moving poetry, as in The Canticle of the Sun (1949) and The Outcasts (1962).

The succeeding generation of poets, identified in the popular consciousness with the depression and social upheaval of the 1930s, made use at first of so much private or esoteric symbolism as to render the poetry barely intelligible to any but a small coterie of readers. The best know of these- W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and C. Day Lewis-filled their earlier poetry with political and ideological discussion and with expressions of horror at bourgeois society and nascent totalitarianism. After such verse plays as The Ascent of F-6, written in 1936 in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood, Auden's poetry became more reflective in The Double Man (1941) and, later, City Without Walls (1969). So, too, Day Lewis moved from The Magnetic Mountain (1935) to a more personal lyricism in World Above All (1943). His Poetic Image (1947) was a prose exposition of the modern poetic ideal. The position of poet laureate, held by Day Lewis from 1968 to 1972, subsequently passed to Sir John Betjeman, popular for his nostalgic humor.

Experimentalism continued in the exuberantly metaphorical poetry of the Welsh writer Dylan Thomas, whose almost mystical love of life and understanding of death were expressed in some of the most beautiful verse of the middle of the century. After Thomas's death in 1953, a new generation of British poets emerged, some influenced by him and some reacting against his influence. Among the leading poets of that generation were D.J. Enright, Philip Larkin, John Wain, Thom Gunn, and Ted Hughes. Although they had different styles, these poets constituted what became known as The Movement and sought to appeal to the common reader with a non sentimental poetry of the everyday, written in colloquial language. Larkin (Collected Poems, 1988) often wrote of deprivation and absence. Hughes, whose poetry is noted for its depiction of the savagery of life, became one of England's most significant poets and was made poet laureate in 1984 after the death of Betjeman. Poet and critic Andrew Motion was named poet aureate in 1999, following Hughes's death.

Prominent British poets of the late 20th century included Craig Raine, Wendy Cope, James Fenton, and Seamus Heaney. Raine's early collection, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979), brings a fresh viewpoint to many topics. Wendy Cope's witty insights appear in Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986). Fenton's collection Out of Danger (1994) covers love, war, and the political violence he encountered as a war correspondent in southeast Asia. Heaney, from Northern Ireland, won the 1995 Nobel Prize in literature. Although his poetry appears simple in its language and flow, it structure and references are often complex.