Skip to content

Modernist poetics.


Let observation with extensive view
Survey mankind from China to Peru.

SO WROTE JOHNSON, rendering into English the gist of Juvenal’s tenth satire. Coleridge ordered those lines out of their party frock and then re-rendered them thus:

Let observation with extensive observation survey mankind extensively.

Put your money where your mouth is, and let’s see how much your words are actually worth – that is the modernist ethos.

Coleridge had called the earlier poet’s bluff. Periphrasis and repetition are not a display of poetic development; merely an accretion of ‘poetic diction’. As Coleridge called Johnson’s bluff, modernist poetics effectively calls tradition’s bluff. Off with the metrical outfit, it says, and kindly leave all poetic diction at the door. Put your money where your mouth is, and let’s see how much your words are actually worth – that is the modernist ethos. Its vigorous programme of ‘making it new’ aimed at two things: inclusivity and dynamism. All that was of any worth in the past would have to be included in the present’s text, perhaps in severely abbreviated form, but never merely as pastiche. And anything of any relevance in the present had to be included too, interleaved with the past’s textuality, including the current language of the street, uttered with full demotic urgency. The sought-for dynamic effect would then be a dialectic between tradition and modernity, as it struggled to find its shifting register in modern usage and modern form.

How is the past rendered modern?

Eliot’s criticism of Le Sacre du Printemps, which he watched with great interest, was that the ritual content remained entirely in the past. As he wrote in the Dial: ‘The Vegetation Rite upon which the ballet is founded remained, in spite of the music, a pageant of primitive culture.’1 Only the music and choreography were meaningfully of the present. In this, it was unlike Eliot’s own use of myth and ritual in The Waste Land. Tiresias is not back there then, when he appears in the poem; he is here right now. He watches the mechanical seduction in the bedsit, present in the present moment, just as he once watched the same goings-on in Thebes nearly three millennia before. Unless the present can be brought into full contact with the past in such an interactive and interpretative manner, then the past is little more than a sequence of antiquarian addenda, whether rendered through pastiche or burlesque. Tiresias must leave Thebes and travel through the intervening years, until he arrives in London at the time of the poem’s action. This, Eliot felt, was very much what was not happening in Stravinsky’s ballet. The virgin dancing herself to death to renew the seasons’ fecundity was safe in the museum of her own remoteness. The ritual was unlikely to trouble anyone having breakfast at the Savoy the following morning.

And the same applies to the use of traditional devices, whether poetic or dramaturgical. In Sweeney Agonistes Eliot was struggling to find a way of recreating the chorus for modern times. When Wauchope, Horsfall, Klipstein and Krumpacker chant their lines at the end, the past and the present are equally present:

When you’re alone in the middle of the night and
you wake in a sweat and a hell of a fright
When you’re alone in the middle of the bed and
you wake like someone hit you in the head
You’ve had a cream of a nightmare dream and
you’ve got the hoo-ha’s coming to you.
Hoo hoo hoo.2

Here the furies have convincingly travelled from ancient Greece and taken a modern form. The Oresteia has discovered a modern way of uttering its terrors and mysteries. Here we see Eliot negotiating the demands of modernity in his verse. A few years later he will begin his long withdrawal from this challenge; he will instead accept the conventions of a dramaturgy, and the decorous versifying to accompany it, that was pre-modernist in both genre and tone. In Murder in the Cathedral written seven years later, we read this:

It is not we alone, it is not the house, it is not the city that is defiled,
But the world that is wholly foul.

This is the Chorus, made up we are told of ‘Women of Canterbury’. No women of Canterbury ever spoke thus, except on Eliot’s Canterbury stage, while performing this particular play. No such utterances have ever been heard on Canterbury’s actual streets. They have a cathedral there, certainly, but not everyone speaks so ex-cathedratically. This language has moved away fatally from current usage, the authentic sound of people speaking which Eliot had caught so astutely in The Waste Land. Sweeney, who had made a brief appearance in that poem, now seems to be dead and buried. There was no further place for that personification of transcendent disruption in Eliot’s imagination. And the extraordinary vividness of ‘When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said –/ I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself…’  has now been abandoned once and for all. Something has gone that will not be returning. And one way of describing what has departed from Eliot’s practice is modernist poetics. He has retreated from the front line, where modernism had been fighting its battles. However compelling some of the writing in Four Quartets might be, it will never again translate the classics into the language of the street. And this must be registered as a loss, for what we saw in the Chorus in Sweeney Agonistes was modernist poetics thinking itself through (the same was the case with Brecht’s contemporary Choruses); the Chorus in Murder in the Cathedral is a capitulation to the conventions of full-dress theatre, and the proprieties of versifying that accompany them. These common women, these women of the street, realise that they are now in the theatre, and have thought it better to watch their p’s and q’s.


The past and the present in modernist poetics are like wave and particle in quantum physics: to try to split them is to try split the coin into obverse and reverse. What you are left with is no longer valid currency.

IT IS NOT at all a question of the presence or absence of the past. The past, the modernists say in unison, is simply unavoidable. The question is this: will you permit it to dictate stylistic terms, in which case you will be producing a pastiche, however refined and however convincing, or will you engage in a dialectical engagement with the past, translating it constantly through the language of the present, in order to ‘make it new’? David Jones was obsessed all his life by the Arthurian legends; he even translated their ethos and narratives to the trenches in the Great War, where he served as an infantryman and was wounded. He could not abide the Idylls of the King. He felt that Tennyson had done there what Eliot felt Stravinsky had done in Le Sacre du Printemps: left the present in order to occupy the cynosure of the past. This is always an illusory manoeuvre, since the past can only be entered through the present; and – speaking stylistically – the same is true the other way around. It is never either/or; it must always be both/and. The past and the present in modernist poetics are like wave and particle in quantum physics: to try to split them is to try split the coin into obverse and reverse. What you are left with is no longer valid currency.

So we have the opening of The Cantos. We do seem to be involved in something close to a pastiche, though an astonishingly vigorous one, vigorous enough in fact for George Steiner to gloss it in his anthology Homer in English: ‘Clearly one of the very high moments in any anthology of the “Homeric” in the language.’3 But Pound breaks the surface of his seemingly unproblematic re-entry into the versifying mode of the past:

Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.4

He is working from a Latin version of the Greek, produced by Andreas Divus. He therefore must acknowledge this. The mode of transmission of the past cannot be ignored in the workings of the modern, since that would amount to a form of illusionism. Had there ever been an equivalent fracture in the surface of Idylls of the King, we would have been reading an entirely different poem; one that had entered into a dialectical engagement with Tennyson’s present. Any negotiation with the past which merely translates backwards is an evasion, according to modernist poetics. It is Tennyson’s evasion of the present which produces lines like this: ‘Far liefer had I gird his harness on him.’5 They did not speak thus then; nor do they speak thus now. The women of Canterbury are beckoning, having been to their elocution lessons.


CONSTANTIN BRANCUSI, ONE of the greatest modernists of the visual arts, described the variety of techniques that preceded modernism, many of them highly sophisticated, as ‘a confusion of familiarities’.6  Realist and naturalist techniques became so compelling that, like those legendary grapes painted by Zeuxis, the birds might easily have landed on their two dimensions in search of a proteinaceous meal. And so what? asked modernism. In an age of photography and cinema, why should art only seek to generate a faultless verisimilitude? Why compete where effective competition is pointless (in fact, impossible) anyway? But what then could possibly replace the revered technical aspiration towards faultless verisimilitude? The answer to that was form. In the visual arts and literature, form became paramount. And ancient and legendary forms could now present themselves as a more effective way into modern experience than those more recently polished simulacra of the Victorians and Edwardians. Picasso’s discovery of primitive masks or Eliot’s use of Sophocles and Aeschylus, or Pound and Joyce’s borrowings from Homer – all these were not a retreat from the reality of the present, but a means of finding an accelerated surge into it. Clarity of form permitted an escape from the confusion of familiarities. Picasso visited the paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic, and simply remarked afterwards that the modern artist had created nothing: all the formal power had been present thousands of years before. Centuries of ‘realism’ had merely served to baffle it. Eliot was fascinated by these paintings too, as forebodings of what modern art was in the process of discovering. Form, it seemed, could connect the present with much earlier times. Aesthetically, it operated as a worm-hole, transcending chronology.

It had started to occur to some of the modernists that the present had a great deal in common with ancient times, not least in the scale of its unexplained brutality and confusion.

Besides, it had started to occur to some of the modernists that the present had a great deal in common with ancient times, not least in the scale of its unexplained brutality and confusion. The Oresteia, that ancient ghost lurking behind the modern text of Sweeney Agonistes, explores the dark consequences of the calamities of the Trojan War and the fall of Troy. Eliot was writing in the wake of the greatest mechanized slaughter ever perpetrated, in the trenches of the Great War, and just as Clytemnestra betrayed Agamemnon with Aegisthus, so Eliot’s wife had betrayed him with one of his closest friends, Bertrand Russell.7 If it had been dark then, it appeared to be equally dark now, even though candelabra had been replaced by gas lamps and electric bulbs. And a form must be found in order to contain and convey so much darkness. Such a form can be obtained, Eliot insisted, by employing what he called in his review of Ulysses for The Dial in 1923, ‘the mythical method’.8 Myth, Freud had decided in The Interpretation of Dreams, could supply knowledge unavailable to modern science, in the form of the occulted desires of Oedipus. Those ancient forms we had so recently patronized as bodged attempts at science might turn out, after all, to be the most astute guides to our labyrinthine modern condition. It was time, it seemed, for the more knowing anthropologists to take the boots off their feet and the smiles off their faces. As Wittgenstein furiously scribbled in the margin of his copy of J. G. Frazer: ‘This is too big to be a mistake.’ Mythic understanding offered a challenge to modern science. Its insights were unhampered by the shallow certainties of positivism.


EZRA POUND WAS the great pedagogue of literary modernism. He loved spelling things out. Gertrude Stein could evidently have done without quite so much elementary abecedary. As she explains in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: ‘She said he was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.’9 All the same, one can be grateful now for the clarity with which he expounded early modernist theory, which is to say, early modernist poetics. He was remarkably lucid in formulating precisely what was required.

What are the resources of verse? In his ABC of Reading he enumerated them thus: phanopeai, melopeia, logopeia.10 Which is to say, imagery, music, and intellectual content; or the denotative and connotative value of words. In ‘A Retrospect’, he explains that what is needed is a direct presentation of the image, whether it be objective or subjective; the avoidance of any unnecessary words – the minimum linguistic expenditure required to effect the presentation is what is always needed. And finally, the poet is to write according to the necessities of the musical phrase, not according to the dictates of a metronome.11 It was then, and is now, some of the best advice ever given in regard to the writing of poetry.

But we might note a tendency, which would come to have ever-more significance in the development of modernist poetics. What Pound desiderates tends towards a simultaneous and composite image. Such a kaleidoscopic complexity, presented in an instant, appears as a manifold, never as a sequential narrative. Hence Pound’s definition of an image as that which presents ‘an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’.12

Alphabetic writing is a form of abstraction into what Walter Benjamin called non-sensuous mimesis. In employing it, we have lost the figured traces of the original representative images.

Pound’s devotion to the ideogram, derived from his work on Ernest Fenollosa, articulates such image-construction as a visual composite. But any purely linguistic form can never render the matter so pictorially. Alphabetic writing is a form of abstraction into what Walter Benjamin called non-sensuous mimesis. In employing it, we have lost the figured traces of the original representative images. Benjamin himself was insistent that the method of his vast Arcades Project had to be visual and not linear.13 Nodal points of time would express the age through intense moments of visual concentration — whether in photography, painting, etching, architecture, or poetry — and this facilitated an entry into the age, a crashing into the surface of its representational remains, where linearity and narrative would have presented instead a chronicle. The chronicle might well have imagined it contained an aetiology, but its narrative mode was already outdated; already unsuited to the kaleidoscopic whirligig of modernity. It was more in the mode of Idylls of the King than The Waste Land. It told, slowly, where it needed instead to show with great rapidity.

In short, poetry must present itself, immediately and economically, through images which accrue, not tell the story of itself sequentially through narrative or chronicle. That had been Tennyson’s method, and that was why his Arthurian epic stepped back into its world of costume drama, not forward on to the streets of Victorian Britain, though if you made your way to the Court, then the Order of the Garter might well still offer its consolations. But that was another form of costume drama altogether. Montage was a more effective representation of modernity than any seamless narrative, but it constantly risked fragmentation.

The method of modernist poetics, then, is presentational. The metaphors tend to lean towards the visual and musical. The whole becomes a tableau. Baudelaire saw Paris as a series of tableaux, which flipped effortlessly from the present to the past. In ‘Le Cygne’ he walks through a Paris half-demolished by modern developments and gazes on the widowed Andromache, bereft and inconsolable. Any chronological disjunction is overcome by emblematic congruity. Continuity had to be abandoned, in such a succession of images and image-clusters. Discontinuity now had to be celebrated and exploited, as it was in Ulysses, and in the final draft of The Waste Land. Dublin, Paris and London each became a palimpsest, an overlay of past and present moments.


MODERNISM TENDS TO open forms up. The closure offered by the minor form promises its own satisfactions but it is a retreat (whether conscious or not) from modernist poetics. A. E. Housman’s poetic formality could never be shaken and broken by the force of modernity, in the way that Eliot’s could.

Poiesis tries to construct a whole world. Where this is impossible in the present, the past might well present itself as an option. Pound was acutely aware of this temptation. As he wrote to Joyce, he found himself asking whether he was not ‘perhaps better at digging up corpses of Li Po, or more lately, Sextus Propertius, than in preserving this bitched mess of modernity.’14 This bitched mess of modernity was hard, if not impossible, to fit into any coherent whole. Coleridge invented the word ‘esemplastic’ to convey the way in which the imagination finds homologies and analogies, and engages in ceaseless pattern-recognition, in order to shape a whole out of such an array of disparate experiences. His neologism has never caught on, but the perception it expressed is true. It is hard for the shaping imagination to acknowledge that some of the material presented to it is, frankly, unshapable into any meaningful whole. Part of the great achievement of modernist poetics was to acknowledge, in the irregular form of its texts, a heterogeneity too speedy to be choreographed into an entirely coherent shaped whole. The form itself must somehow remain open, fissiparous, and therefore vulnerable to contingency; willingly vulnerable. Should the form retreat to the comfort of closure, it will have to renounce modernist poetics, and engage instead in a poiesis which is to that degree nostalgic. The form will in effect become a formalism, and the poiesis will be to some degree exclusivist. It will retreat to that half of art which Baudelaire in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ thought of as the beautiful, the traditional, even the antique; but leave out the other half Baudelaire believed to be equally essential: the modern, the chaotic, the ugly, the speedily inchoate.15 Poiesis in modernist poetics is trying to find a way to negotiate those elements which resist most strongly the unifying forces of poiesis. The Doctrine of Signatures once saw in every element of nature the emblematic forms of a universally expressible meaning. Baudelaire is trying to restore this way of reading the world in his poem ‘Les Correspondances’. And it is this grand symbology which Stephen Dedalus in the Proteus episode of Ulysses is attempting to conjure for himself when he muses: ‘Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.’16

Modern science has disenchanted our world of those ceaseless interconnections. It has operated as an anonymous disintegrationist, and so has left the imagination with a world in pieces, like Haussmann’s Paris as Baudelaire walked through it at dawn. A world more speedily altering than had ever been previously known. (The new science that calls itself dromology points out that ours is the only civilisation that has ever posited a speed as its absolute.17)

It is this incoherence which the text of The Waste Land acknowledges:

Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

One of the later modernist poets, George Oppen, acknowledges these same irreconcilable multiplicities, but finds in them a tentative principle of hope:

Obsessed, bewildered

By the shipwreck
Of the singular

We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.18

That last quotation is from the 1968 sequence poem Of Being Numerous, which points out that since we refer to Robinson Crusoe as being ‘rescued’, we have chosen, and what we have chosen are collective not singular meanings. Such heterogeneities of significance can never be entirely harmonised. Discontinuity is the condition of their survival.


To be modernist is simply to acknowledge the time in which you live; it is to relinquish the comforts of that which expresses itself as stylistic historicism.

IN NEW BEARINGS in English Poetry,19 published in 1930, F. R. Leavis never uses the word ‘modernist’ once, though Laura Riding and Robert Graves had published A Survey of Modernist Poetry20 three years before. Theirs seems to have been the first use of modernist by writers themselves. Eliot never spoke of modernism, at least not in literary terms. When he used the word, it was in relation to theology.21 Ezra Pound spoke of ‘the movement, of our modern experiment, since 1900’,22 and said that its prize exhibit was The Waste Land. The term had been one of polemics for a long time. Swift uses it in A Tale of a Tub, to signify those ingrates against the classical tradition who so irritated the writer and his patron Temple, in imagining that modern knowledge could ever (or would ever) equal the wisdom of the ancients. Ruskin appears to use it almost always ironically, to signify the latest thinkers, in opposition as always to their immediate forebears. The Roman Catholic Church came to see modernism as a philosophical emblem of all that was most reprehensible in modern thought. It was, effectively, Higher Criticism translating itself into vividly immoral acts, debunking and demythologizing as it went. Such a mode of analytical enquiry was determined to insist that whatever had been held sacred was not in fact sacred. W. Sanday in Divine Overruling in 1920 issued the most convincing reply to this: ‘I do not disclaim the name of Modernist. The name describes justly what I aim at being. I aim at thinking the thoughts and speaking the language of my own day, and yet at the same time keeping all that is essential in the religion of the past.’23 As in religion, so in verse. Here, to be modernist is simply to acknowledge the time in which you live; it is to relinquish the comforts of that temporal illusion which expresses itself as stylistic historicism: ‘Far liefer had I gird his harness on him.’ Indeed.


These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

SO WROTE ELIOT at the end of The Waste Land. Perceptible modernity presents itself in fragments. This is the condition of a world of universal speed and complexity. It is a world which, in aesthetic terms, must try to hold the past and the present in some kind of synchronous balance; that was the writerly endeavour which Eliot was describing in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’.24

Montage, superimposition, sequences of images presented with maximum linguistic force, employing Pound’s three areas of resource: phanopeia, melopeia, logopeia. This is the form most suited to the representation of modernity. It was the form employed by Eliot when he was at his most compelling as a poet, in The Waste Land, ‘Gerontius’ and Sweeney Agonistes. What happens in the later plays and in Four Quartets is that the self-containment, the symmetric self-composure, of the pre-existing genre usurp the perilous modernist poetics that had preceded them. The borders of the writing cease to be porous. There is not a single section of Four Quartets which risks the open-ended vulnerabilities of Eliot’s earlier verse. Frequently we can see the tell-tale sign of the poetic hortus conclusus of versifying: when the last line dictates all that precedes it, so the rest of the poem ends up merely functioning as a preface:

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood –
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

One can see Eliot striving for the startling personification effects of Donne in his later religious verse, but Donne was being shockingly modern in his time; here the verse feels too exhausted to do anything but rehearse its own routines. Four Quartets comes to life most convincingly in the passage where the familiar compound ghost speaks in ‘Little Gidding’. That ghost utters its imprecations in sub-Dantescan tercets, the most flexible of verse forms for a poet’s manoeuvres.

Yeats is a fascinating case because he starts his career as a pre-modernist, goes through a modernist phase culminating in The Tower, and edges in and out of modernist poetics throughout the 1930s.25 One can see him retreating to the comforts of earlier predictable forms in poems like ‘Three Marching Songs’ or ‘John Kinsella’s Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore’, but he still keeps venturing to the edges of contingency in ‘Man and the Echo’, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ and ‘The Statues’. The form is held but we sense the poet’s awareness of the threatening forces surrounding it, eroding its edges. Modernist poetics always writes out of a state of crisis. It never recollects itself in tranquillity.

In our dromological world of speed and fragmentation, the construction of closed poetic forms, which are unthreatened by the surrounding chaos, feels parenthetical, a species of retreat. Throughout his editorship of The Criterion Eliot described the aim of the journal as the pursuit of, and the elucidation of, ‘the European mind’, though he never owned up to the fact that the European mind was here a desideration rather than an intellectual anchor. However platonic the concept, it could not escape the processes of fragmentation that it deprecated. On the title page of The Anathemata, David Jones describes the work as ‘fragments of an attempted writing’. His book The Sleeping Lord is subtitled ‘and other fragments’. The first book of The Cantos was called (and remained called) ‘A Draft of XXX Cantos’, and its last book was entitled ‘Drafts and Fragments’. Dynamic form here can only occur at isolated moments; it cannot command the whole structure, which remains provisional, sometimes to the point of raggedness. The ‘bitched mess of modernity’ can never be entirely formalized.


WORDSWORTH’S PROBLEM WITH ‘poetic diction’ seems simple enough: he had grown exasperated with neo-classical periphrases, poets who talked of Selene’s chariot when they meant the moon. So he insisted that poetic diction should be the ordinary language of humanity, heightened in intensity through the act of composition. However problematical this notion might turn out to be, the poetic language of Lyrical Ballads was exhilaratingly unpretentious and to the point. It had dispensed with the party frock of poesy. And when Pound worked with Yeats on ‘modernizing’ the older poet’s verse, the struggle was to make the diction and imagery harder, crisper, tougher, less inclined to grow misty and blurred. Words like dim and dove-grey simply had to go.

Modernist poetics constantly risks lexical impropriety in its vivid portrayal of modernity.

In taking his blue pencil to Eliot’s Waste Land typescript, Pound was also seeking the right way for modernist poetics to express itself in a poem he believed great, but at that point still inchoate, in style as much as anything else. So in the original typescript we have Eliot struggling with the line ‘When Lil’s husband was coming back out of the Transport Corps…’ Pound knew the word that was needed, and he inserted it: ‘demobbed’.26 Now this is a tribute to Pound’s astuteness. The OED lists the first recorded use of ‘demobbed’ as 1919. Pound had kept his ear to the ground. Modernist poetics constantly risks lexical impropriety in its vivid portrayal of modernity. The word ‘gashouse’ also appears in the poem, its first listed usage in poetry in the OED. One meaning of modernist poetics could be defined thus: a ceaseless questioning of linguistic and poetic proprieties, a constant opening-up of poetic form to the language of the day.

It was Roman Jakobson who described what he called the ‘poetic function’.27 The poetic function permits the play of language, the foregrounding of its devices, in effective separation from any immediate referential function. If one were to demand of all poetic functions that they translate themselves into referential discourse, they would soon cease. The answer to ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ would have to be ‘What would be the point of that?’ And the poetic function always to some degree commands what we call poetic diction. This is not necessarily in terms of lexis. The shift can occur in syntax and grammar, often in relation to prosody, stanzaic form and rhyme. The poetic function is constantly putting questions to itself, to which it does not always receive an answer. For example, Jacques in his famous speech in As You Like It says:

All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances…

The world of referential discourse is entitled to ask how precisely you can have an exit before you have had an entrance. You can’t, of course. So why the reversal? We do not possess any of Shakespeare’s foul papers, but if we did it is plausible to suppose we might find the line first written as ‘They have their entrances and their exits…’ and one sees the problem immediately. The pentameter has had its back broken, and an unwanted caesura has suddenly appeared after the word ‘entrances’; the iambic metre goes into reverse and the last two feet of the line are now unwanted trochees. No actor would want to deliver that line, so this actor-writer simply reverses the order of the words, and we have ‘their exits and their entrances’. The pentameter has now regained its backbone and become entirely regular, but at the price of a certain oddity of usage. Poetic function, in the form of the metre, has won out over normal linguistic usage. And something similar happens with Yeats’s ‘The Cold Heaven’:

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this

We are being carried along almost too quickly to notice that the phrase in English is not ‘that and this’, but ‘this and that’. Unfortunately, that would not have provided Yeats with the half-rhyme he needed for ‘ice’, and so once again the poetic function wins out over normal usage, this time for the sake of maintaining a rhyme. And the same happens when Gerard Manley Hopkins writes in ‘The Windhover’ of ‘the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.’29 Here we expect achieve to be verbal but it has become instead a substantive, so the poetic function once again defeats normal usage; this time in terms of grammar. The same will happen when Hopkins turns the noun ‘easter’ into a verb. This was a Shakespearian manoeuvre, and the poet had learnt it well.

When we look at the verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins, we see a radical adaptation of linguistic usage to suit the needs of the poetic function. Poetic diction, including syntactic innovation, forces the quality of the language to the foreground. In referential discourse this would seem merely perverse or arcane; in poetry it is renewing. Here apparent archaisms serve the purpose of modernist poetics, by defamiliarizing the language, by cutting through the confusion of familiarities.


CUBISM COULD BE described as the most realistic visual mode of the twentieth century in the arts. If we prefer more convenient realisms, which are not so demanding in their compositional truthfulness, that might be the equivalent of retreating to enclosed forms in poetry, or the return to the unproblematical narratives of pre-modernist novels. Walter Benjamin might well have insisted that montage rather than linearity should command the order of representations in modernity, but montage as a technique can be very demanding. Even Picasso gave it up, in favour of the elegiac heroism of his neo-classical style, although Braque remained faithful to the difficult and uncompromising principle.

The ancient could bring you closer to the realities of the present than the accustomed modes of the immediate past…The past exists as long as the present carries it forward…

Myth functioned for the modernists as a formal simplification, an avoidance of Brancusi’s ‘confusion of familiarities’. Myth could bring you closer to the present and its horrors and barbarities than the accustomed techniques of naturalism; it was in the widest possible sense, more realistic. The ancient could bring you closer to the realities of the present than the accustomed modes of the immediate past. But such employments were valid only if the ritualistic, the mythic, the legendary, interacted dynamically with the present; only if the past could be made to acknowledge that it only existed at all within the present. The past exists as long as the present carries it forward in time. That is the meaning of the word ‘relevance’ in terms of art. And, in poetry, this transporting of the ancient could only happen through language. If Tiresias is to make a convincing appearance in the poem, then the word to describe Lil’s husband needs to be ‘demobbed’. Its demotic urgency is essential. The apparently analeptic manoeuvre of recovering Tiresias had to be matched by a complete modernity of language.30 The past can only be effectively recovered through forms that are resoundingly modern.

Poiesis can only be made out of an existing world; we have to deal with what we are given. Carl Sagan used to say: ‘If you want to make an apple pie, first create a universe.’ And David Jones wrote: ‘For men can but proceed from what they know, nor is it for the mind of this flesh to practise poiesis, ex nihilo.’31 If modernity is what we are presented with, then literary forms that preceded modernity are unlikely to be up to the job, without substantial modification. Like Yeats in 1912, they were in need of modernization. Eliot understood this well enough, in principle:

We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.

But he did follow an antique drum (i.e. poetics) when he wrote ‘The wounded surgeon plies the steel’. Gerard Manley Hopkins is rightly regarded as one of the great precursors of modernism in verse because, while inhabiting the sonnet form, he entirely re-fashioned it.32 He did not force the dynamics of current language into a pre-existing form, but instead drilled through the prior expectations of the form to find radical possibilities for the living language inside it. The form after him can never be the same as the form which he inherited. In the best traditions of modernism, he had made it new.

LandC150aAlan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, and a second collection, of his Fortnightly essays on Walter Benjamin, is in preparation. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

→ See also in The Fortnightly: May Sinclair’s comments on the poetry of H.D.


  1. Quoted in Ronald Schuchard, Eliot’s Dark Angel (Oxford: OUP, 1999), p. 113.
  2. T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), pp.125-126. All further references will be given in the body of the text.
  3. Homer in English, ed. George Steiner (London: Penguin, 1996), p.238.
  4. Ibid, p. 240.
  5. Tennyson: A Selected Edition, ed. Christopher Ricks (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007), p. 739.
  6. See Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things, ed. Carmen Giménez and Matthew Gale (London: Tate Publishing, 2004); see also my earlier comments in The Fortnightly under ‘Demotic Ritual‘.
  7. See Ronald Schuchard, Eliot’s Dark Angel, already quoted.
  8. Ulysses, Order and Myth’, Dial, lxxv (November, 1923). Quoted in James Joyce, The Critical Heritage, Vol 1, 1907-27, ed. Robert H. Deming (London: Routledge, 1970), pp. 268-271.
  9. Quoted in Humphrey Carpenter, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), p.400.
  10. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (London: Faber and Faber, 1963).
  11. Ezra Pound, Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), pp. 3-14.
  12. Ibid, p. 4.
  13. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (London: Harvard University Press, 1999).
  14. Quoted in Humphrey Carpenter, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, p.338.
  15. Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1964), p. 13.
  16. James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Walter Gabler (London: The Bodley Head, 1986), p. 31.
  17. The word dromology, meaning the science of speed, has not yet made its entry into the OED. It is associated with the name of Paul Virilio.
  18. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), p. 166.
  19. F. R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry (London: Penguin, 1963).
  20. Laura Riding and Robert Graves, A Survey of Modernist Poetry and A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (Manchester: Carcanet, 2002).
  21. Alan Marshall in ‘England and nowhere’ in The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, ed. A. David Moody (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), p. 102, is quite wrong here. He talks of Eliot’s use of the word in the Commentaries he wrote for The Criterion as though he were talking of literature, when he was clearly speaking of recent battles in the church. Modernism was not a term he ever used in regard to literature.
  22. The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, ed. D. D. Paige (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), p. 248.
  23. Quoted under the headword Modernist in the OED.
  24. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1932), p.13.
  25. This is disputed by C. K. Stead in his fascinating Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement (London: Macmillan, 1986). Stead argues that Yeats became a modern poet, but never a modernist one. This essay sees the greatest poems of Yeats between 1912 and 1939 as modernist in the senses suggested above. Yeats might have clung more firmly to traditional forms than the other great modernists, but he still permitted them to be challenged and invaded by the contingencies of modern life. And in that sense he can be described as a modernist, even if only intermittently. The borders of his verse became porous, under the pressure of modernity, in a way that Housman’s never were.
  26. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, ed. Valerie Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), p. 13.
  27. See ‘Linguistics and Poetics’ in Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 62-94. See also Linda R. Waugh, ‘The Poetic Function and the Nature of Language’, in Roman Jakobson, Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), pp.143-168.
  28. W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 140.
  29. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems, ed. Robert Bridges and W. H. Gardner (Oxford: OUP, 1949), p. 73.
  30. We might find a parallel in the world of architecture. In his home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (subsequently to become the museum named after him), Sir John Soane fixed corbel stones from Westminster Hall to the façade of the building. Although they originate in the fourteenth century, these stones are set into a Portland Stone loggia where Soane’s great innovation –- incised lines to indicate columns and pilasters – are clearly visible. The modern innovation thus incorporates the past. The two co-exist in radical and visible discontinuity. The past holds the modern in place; the modern does the same for the past.
  31. David Jones, The Anathemata (London: Faber and Faber, 1952), p. 79.
  32. In the case of ‘That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection’ (Hopkins, p. 111) this thrice-caudated sonnet has effectively ceased to be a sonnet at all. Here the poet has not so much explored the form as exploded it. Great writing often starts with exploration, even imitation, only to end with transcendence.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *