The early 20th century was a period of profound change. In a sense the years up until 1914 and the outbreak of World War One belonged to the 19th century: they were peaceful and a time of increasing wealth. The Concert of Europe had seen a virtually uninterrupted period of growth and an absence of conflict. New technologies promised lives of increasing comfort and convenience. Politics and philosophy were not especially active in every day life—their practical consequences did not especially exist outside of the salons and cafes where they were discussed by ardent but content young men. This idyll, however, would not last: it would soon prove to be a period of false illusions.
In 1914, Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo sparking World War One. All of the ideologies and technologies that had seemed so beneficial and speculative were brought into force: the result was massive destruction and death. The promise that had begun the 20th century was by 1918 beyond exhausted. The war had revealed, in the words of the poet Ezra Pound, “a botched civilization.” The war had been without meaning, without a cause, spurred on by byzantine alliances and obscure cultures: so many young men had died, in the words of Pound, “For two gross of broken statues,/For a few thousand battered books.” The War would be the great touchstone and impetus of modernism, bringing to fruition many ideas and strands that had been bandied about in the previous decades, seeking an event or crisis in which to gel.
Many of the modernist artists are now entrenched in the cultural firmament. But two in the world of letters especially stand out not only because of their technical innovation but for what they had to say about a changing, disorienting world: especially about its religion, politics, and sense of self. Both T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats would forever change literature, but they would also describe a world made wholly new not only be changing mores but by an increasing cultural alienation not only from the past, but from the possibilities of the future. Gone was the classicisim and utopianism of the pre-War years, replaced instead by a critical questioning of all received wisdom and a kind of dread about what the future, devoid of utopia, could hold for humankind.
Modernism was perhaps best characterized by a loss of traditional meaning. This loss of meaning—not merely a loss of political idealism, but a larger and deeper spiritual crisis—is written all over Eliot’s poetry. In both “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land,” we see figures who yearn for meaning, who are bent beneath an “overwhelming question,” to which there is no real answer, and no real respite from. We can say of these poems and their religious yearnings, that they represent a bridge between the classical, even semi-romantic past and what was shaping up to be the totally secular, material, and often Marxist modernism of the 1930 and 1940s (breeding into existentialism).
As Murray Roston writes, the next generation of writers influenced by Eliot came to a discomfiting realization that [Eliot’s poems’] religious subtheme[s] were at discord with their own intellectual predispositions. They recognized that his verse marked a stylistic break with past poetic modes, they found in it a manifesto of their own loss of values, but, together with those qualities, the poem as a whole seemed patently at variance with the atheism, agnosticism, socialist fervor and dialectical materialism that had become the dominant philosophical tendencies…
Political and Religious Allegory in “Waste Land”
They were getting ahead of themselves in a way and were only really half-way correct. Eliot was able to fuse a socialist fervor into his religious and spiritual emptiness. For example, the famous stanza at the end of part one of the “Waste Land” is both a political and religious allegory about people trapped in capitalistic lives, on their way to work, enslaved to production, unable to individuate themselves, already dead.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street…
Nevertheless, the image of the harrowing of hell on judgment is what first comes to mind. Throughout the poem, Eliot speaks of a world distorted, made opposite, wherein “April is the cruelest month,”—where spring reminds us of everything that died last year, not everything that will come. He ends this spectacular poem, a kind of quest for the Holy Grail, not with a Christian liturgy, but an Eastern one. In his desperation to hold onto meaning, to “shore fragments against ruin,” he prays for peace, a peace that passeth all understanding.
The Collapse of Civilization in “The Second Coming”
Yeats is not so easily comforted. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” also speaks about the collapse of civilization in a way similar to Eliot’s “Wasteland.” War had pitted nation against nation, it had ended any possibility of universal harmony; the break up had begun; old traditions were dying out and were replaced with new strange ones. In the “Second Coming,” religion has been turned on its head. It offers no consolation; indeed it has been inverted:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In Christian thought, Christ is a sort of perfect mixture of human and divine. As the critic Jewel Brooker writes, in Yeats poem, the figure “slouching towards Bethlehem” is a combination of the bestial and human, a monster with the head (intelligence) of a man and the body (passions, instincts) of a lion. In this ultimate nightmare, Yeats sees a god with a blank gaze and slowly moving thighs, a god who is the antithesis of love…[it] will be morally neutral and radically democratic.”
Both men yearn for a return to a sensible world infused with religion, which is now inescapably beyond their grasp and will presage a catastrophe in world civilization.
Allegorism of Scene of Rape in the Poem “The Waste Land”
Modernism also saw huge shifts in traditional class structures. The middle class was growing, but its place in the culture was uneasy. The war had also shifted and destroyed traditions which had once indicated social status. On top of all of this, the Russian Revolution of 1917 had shown the world the possibility of a different path than that taken by the liberal states of Western Europe and the United States. The threat of violence and conflict on the streets were very real. Many questioned the current system. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” can be read as a critique of modern England—an urging to embrace a myth, a force that will lead people forward and out of their doldrums. Capitalism is leading the people nowhere. Women and the masses, suggests Michael Tratner, are ruined by it.
In the central scene of rape [in the poem “The Waste Land”], the scene of typist and the carbuncular young man, Eliot describes the rapist as acting like a capitalist—like a “Bradford millionaire,” a man whose money came from industry. The scene is full of metaphors of machinery, implying that the system is in effect “raping” both men and women by turning the culture into a machine and transforming relationships between genders into the merging of cogs.
There is no passion or heart in human life in a modernist world—only confusion. This in a way provides a bridge between romanticism and the death-like existentialism to come.
Yeats too is a bridge between early and late modernism. Once a romantic Irish nationalist, he is forced to give up these feelings and fall into a kind of pessimism. We can see in his great poem “Easter 1916,” about the hanging of Irish nationalists by the British, a kind of analogous feeling to that found in Eliot’s “Wasteland.” The development and description of an older world, a kind of world before the fall:
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words…
For the poet himself there is no plain category in which to place people any longer: some he thought were bad, some good, but he was sometimes mistaken. Gone is the certainty of the past. The poem tells the story of individuals who will effectively be put into the meat grinder of history. As the critic Michael Tratner writes, “The mass death of these people destroys the importance of their distinct characters, their vivid faces . . . leading to a “terrible beauty” that effaces individuals, inspires mass movements, and alters the flow of history.”The new thing coming will be totalizing and horrifying.
The modernist era gave birth and cause to dozens of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists. The period was one of drastic change, distortion, and conflict. Many artists were feeling their way through a dark room unsure of what they were doing or what the future held. Many held fast to Ezra Pound’s dictum: “Make it new.” Two of the most famous to do so were Eliot and Yeats, who came from different backgrounds, but made huge contributions to the way the modern world saw the new shape of politics, religion, and indeed human identity.