Poetry in Modern English literature is immensely influenced by the remarkable happenings in England and abroad. Modern poetry has seen a profound amalgamation of a number of factors including political upsurge, social injustice, economic depression, scientific advancement, popular democracy, war, and so on. The variety of subjects found in modern English poetry is really amazing to study and explore. Its effects are also diverse on different poets. As English poetry embraced all of these factors, each of them has its own significant role in shaping the trend of modern poetry in the language.
Modern vs. mid-modern poetry Modern poetry is considered to have emerged in the early years of the 20th century. With the emergence of the Imagists such as Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Richard Aldington and Hulme, there was a new beginning of a tradition in war poetry. Eliot, after the publication of his The Waste Land became a major influence on other English poets. Shelley’s Frankenstein states, “The tall rock, the mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood, their colors and their forms, were then to me an appetite; a feeling and a love, that had no need of a remoter charm.
” (Shelley 130) However, mid-modern poetry demonstrates somewhat different features than those of the modern poetry or poetry of the early decades of Modern English literature. World War I had its strong impact on the poets of the early decades of the modernist movement. The most discernible factor in modern poetry was the significance of Imagism. Imagists favored classical values in terms of directness of language with the use of clear and sharp imagery, and non-traditional verse techniques. They rejected the sentiments typical to the Romanticists as well as the Victorians.
Mid-modern poetry from the 1930s onwards witnessed a new generation of war poets. Post-war poetry was focused more towards the social, economic and political turmoil. The 1940s saw the formation of a new Romantic group, who started responding to the war poetic tradition in a different way as against classicism. Significant war poets of this period are – Dylan Thomas, George Barker, W. S. Graham, Kathleen Raine, Henry Treece and J. F. Hendry. The 1950s showed the arrival of extremism while 1960s and 1970s encountered the issue of nuclear war as a new form of threat to social order.
The mid-modern English poetry has witnessed many frequent changes that even modern period did not experience. The factor of scientific advancement has imbued a sense of blind pessimism in the poetry of today. The transition from a good-old world to a new uncertain reality is what makes the poetic thoughts somewhat gloomy. There is hardly any note on human hope or happiness in the new-age poetry. Darkness empowers human values. In this context, Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein represents the perfect example of character transition from a naive, well-meaning human to a more sensational, dehumanized corrupt character.
What makes human justify his activities (good or bad) is the situation that controls him. In the case of Frankenstein, it is abandonment and revenge for a neglected love. Shelley remarks in Frankenstein, “All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator [the monster], detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind.
If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends. ” (Shelley 4) Development of English poetry The earliest period of English poetry penned religious poems that celebrated the existence of God. These poems used different sources and themes from the Bible. Some of the Old English religious poems depicting the divine presence with Biblical paraphrases are – Caedmon’s Hymn, Cynewulf, The Dream of the Rood, Deor, etc.
The Old English poetry developed religious verses explaining the differences between good and evil in terms of narrative stories and allusions from ancient classical tradition and the Bible. This further made way for semi-religious poems that talk about lives of people, duality of human existence (world vs. spirituality), life after death, apocalyptic view of the world, spiritual isolation and transience or shortness of human life. Heroism in English poetry dates back as early as the period of Old English literature.
With the Epic of Beowulf (6th-8th century), narrative poems started articulating the notes of heroic sensibilities in the light of the age-old struggle between good or light and evil or darkness, between humanity and other destructive forces. The profound qualities of an ideal hero were depicted with elan in the narrative verses – the theme of a good king and how he should behave, and his take on revenge, courage and loyalty. The constant battling against evil forces was the one factor that kept humans realizing the need for goodness.
This was described in poems through the images of good and evil, Pagan lawlessness against the impact of Christianity. Poetry was considered a public and communal art that was designed for public repetition, recitation and improvisation. With the Norman Conquest in 1066, English poetry started expanding its horizon with various new genres. The period also witnessed some crucial linguistic development in terms of the coexistence of two languages – Old English (the majority) and the Anglo-Norman French dialect (10%).
With the disappearance of the Old English from 12th century onwards, a hybrid combination of Old English Germanic roots and the French-Latin grammar developed the Middle English language. The period also started practicing a number of studies including grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music. Allegorical representation of chivalry, loyalty and courtly love (Arthurian romance) was accepted as the central poetic device during this phase. This was prominent in Shelley’s Frankenstein also.
“The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers…have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. ” (Shelley 30) With the Norman Conquest, Latin language became the medium of high aristocracy while a number of important works illustrated the development of the English language. Around the turn of 13th century, Layamon’s Brut was compiled that bears the recognition of the Middle English language.
During this period, literary works were preserved as popular entertainment which included a variety of romances and lyrics. During 14th century, the English literature started again to witness major literary works. Among them was The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, the most highly regarded English poet of the Middle Ages. Besides, Langland’s political and religious allegory Piers Plowman and John Gower’s Confessio Amantis are other remarkable poetic works of the time. Post-Chaucer, 15th century indicated the arrival of a group of remarkable Scottish writers including William Dunbar, Robert Henryson and Gavin Douglas.
The later two poets introduced savage satires, attributing to the early monuments of Renaissance literary humanism in English literature. Frankenstein echoes this savagery, “I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me. ” (Shelley 57) Early Renaissance did not see much change in English poetry.
However, new learning was introduced along with the ideas of Aristotle and the writings of European Renaissance pioneers like Dante. The works of Chaucer and Gower were still popular as they helped establish the idea of a native poetic tradition similar to that of the European Renaissance poets. The most significant poet of this period was Thomas Wyatt, who was among the first sonneteers in English. The Elizabethan Age welcomed the emergence of courtly poetry along with the growth of verse-based drama in English literature.
This new tradition with an idealized setup of the courtly world was popularized further by Edmund Spenser and Philip Sydney. Whereas the explorations of love was found mainly in the sonnets of William Shakespeare, the greatest poet and playwright in the language. The use of alchemical imagery in poetry started flourishing in the English literature right from the end of 16th century onwards and got expanded by the 17th century. It is remarkable that many scholars took profound interest in studying alchemy and thus assimilating scientific imagery in their literary works.
One of the writers using such imagery is John Donne whose love poetry draws on the concept of the ‘alchemical wedding’ (Ball 85). The purpose of alchemical imagery was the profound expression of romantic love blended with a bit of sexuality. Shakespeare’s love sonnets also make several references to alchemical principles. Some of the most infamous alchemical representations in English literature are the alchemical charlatan Subtle in The Alchemist by Ben Johnson, and Marlowe’s Faust in Dr Faustus. Another tragic proto-scientist of the Romantic Age is Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein.
A predominate theme of creation along with the idea of a creator is what follows the literary work, “…examining and analyzing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon [him] – a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrate, [he] was surprised that among so many men of genius who had directed their inquires towards the same science, that [he] alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing secret.
” (Shelley 39) John Milton’s Paradise Lost came after Restoration while the 18th century saw the emergence of the new genre of satire. The major poets of this period were Samuel Butler, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift, who wrote satirical verses. Most of the satires were written in response to the social atrocities perpetrated by the government. Pope’s The Dunciad is a remarkable example of socio-political satires.
Another significant characteristic of the period is the emergence of a number of women poets during the Restoration. The last quarter of 18th century is the period of the birth of English Romanticism, which conceived the frontrunners of Romanticism – William Blake, Coleridge, Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats and, of course, the greatest of them, William Wordsworth. The Victorian era saw political, social and economic change. Its major poets were Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and Robert Browning. The dramatic monologue was introduced by Browning.
Arnold’s Dover Beach reflects the early notes of modernist revolution. The Victorian period continued till the early years of the 20th century, where the gap of the old and new poetic era was bridged by the representative poets Yeats and Thomas Hardy. The modernist movement started with these poets and continued through the works of Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Auden, etc. Conclusion The variety of subjects along with its recurrent change is what makes modern English poetry an interesting topic of research.
Its impact on different poets resulted in myriad effects including revolutionary optimism, fanciful escapism, romantic imagism, or psychological abstraction. Modern poetry takes keen interest in the beauty of the external world of nature, but it suffers substantially from morbidity and cynicism. This is what formulates the melancholy notes of modern poetry. Frankenstein ponders, “The path of my departure was free, and there was none to lament my annihilation.
My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? ” (Shelley 104)
Ball, Philip. “Alchemical culture and poetry in early modern England”. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 31. 1 (2006): 77-92. “English Poetry”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 19 November 2008. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/English_poetry “Modern English Poetry”. Live7n. com. 16 September 2008. http://www. live7n. com/modern-english-poetry/