Modernist and Post-War Poetry

An exploration of the movements that emerged during the rapid changes of the early 20th century

Modernist poetry
Ezra Pound
Nature and human experience
Clarity and simplicity
The Age of Anxiety

Modernism and The Waste Land

T. S. Eliot’s *The Waste Land* (1922) is an example of “modernist” poetry: a cultural movement that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Divided into five sections: “The Burial of the Dead,” “A Game of Chess,” “The Fire Sermon,” “Death by Water,” and “What the Thunder Said,” the poem intermingles cultural, literary, and mythological references, creating a rich tapestry that reflects the chaos and confusion of the post-World War I era. The central theme is the search for meaning and redemption in a spiritually barren and fragmented world.


The poem shifts between multiple speakers, languages, and perspectives, creating a disjointed narrative. For example, the opening lines are filled with imagery, somber and poetic in tone:

*April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.*

The poem then abruptly moves to a colloquial voice and setting, disorienting the reader:

*And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight.*

Modernist Poetry's Use of Literary Allusion

*The Waste Land* is peppered with literary allusions. The opening lines draw a direct connection to the opening of Geoffrey Chaucer’s *The Canterbury Tales*. Similarly, in the second section, “A Game of Chess,” Eliot alludes to Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” with the lines, “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, / Glowed on the marble,” echoing Cleopatra’s account of Antony’s departure:

*The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water.*


This thicket of intertextuality is typical of modernist poetry, building layers of complexity and prompt reflection on the relationship between the modern world and history. This can also make the poems inaccessible to a broad readership.

Partly for this reason, Ezra Pound, a fellow poet and friend, persuaded Eliot to include footnotes elucidating the poem’s allusions – yet even this apparatus can be ambiguous or excessively academic, added to the sense that the poem is a confusing labyrinth of potential meaning.

The Imagist Movement

The Imagist Movement, with Ezra Pound at its forefront, emphasized precise imagery and clear language. Drawing inspiration from Japanese poetic forms like haiku, Imagism sought to capture the essence of an experience in a concise manner.


Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” exemplifies this approach through its vivid imagery and brevity. The poem reads:

*The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.*

Here, Pound creates a striking visual scene using minimal words while evoking emotions associated with urban life.

Japanese influence is evident in Imagist poetry as it shares similarities with haiku’s focus on nature and simplicity. For instance, Amy Lowell’s “Autumn” captures the season’s essence through succinct lines:

*All day I have watched the purple vine leaves
Fall into the water.*

Poetry of the Irish Literary Revival

The Poetry of the Irish Literary Revival, particularly W.B. Yeats’ work played a crucial role in shaping modern Irish identity and culture. This movement sought to revive Ireland’s rich literary heritage while addressing contemporary social and political issues.


Yeats’ poetry often explores themes of nationalism, mysticism, and the human experience. For instance, his poem “Easter 1916” commemorates the leaders of the Easter Rising while reflecting on their sacrifice for Irish independence:

*All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.*

Here, Yeats captures both admiration for their courage and sorrow over their deaths.

In contrast, his poem “The Second Coming” delves into apocalyptic imagery with lines like “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

War Poetry

War poetry, exemplified by Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” powerfully critiques the glorification of war and its devastating consequences. This poetic form emerged as a response to the horrors experienced during World War I, giving voice to soldiers’ disillusionment.


Owen’s poem vividly depicts a gas attack on soldiers in the trenches, highlighting their suffering through graphic imagery:

*If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.*

The title itself is ironic; it translates to “It is sweet and fitting” – an incomplete quote from Horace that suggests dying for one’s country is honorable.

In contrast, Owen exposes war’s brutality and challenges this notion of honor. His work serves as both a testament to those who endured unimaginable hardships and a critique of society’s romanticized view of warfare.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a vibrant cultural and artistic movement, spanning the 1920s and 1930s, which celebrated African American heritage while addressing racial inequality.

Langston Hughes’ poetry exemplifies this impact through its exploration of black identity and pride. His poem “I, Too” asserts the importance of African Americans in society despite discrimination:

*I am the darker brother…
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes.*


The poem’s speaker confidently proclaims that one day he will be recognized as an equal participant in America’s diverse tapestry.

Similarly, his work “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” connects black history with ancient civilizations along great rivers such as the Nile and Mississippi.

American Modernism

American Modernism, exemplified by the poetry of Robert Frost, in contrast to European modernists like T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, maintained traditional poetic forms such as rhyme schemes, exploring themes of greater simplicity – such as nature and the course of man’s life – in an accessible though contemplative manner.

One of Frost’s most famous poems is “The Road Not Taken,” which exemplifies his use of nature as a metaphor for human experience.


In this poem, the speaker encounters a fork in the road and must decide which path to take. The poem ends with the iconic lines:

*Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.*

The Post-War Poets: Philip Larkin

The English Post-War Poets, such as Philip Larkin (1922-1985), reacted against the complex allusions and cryptic language that characterized modernist poetry by emphasizing clarity and simplicity.


For example, in his poem “Church Going,” Larkin tells the story of a man who enters an empty church. Characteristically of Larkin it begins in a distinctly conversational, irreverent tone, describing a concrete and relatable scene from ordinary English life:

*Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;*

Again characteristically, the poem then gradually moves towards a more contemplative, elevated tone, imparting a universal statement on the role of the church in an increasingly secular society:

*A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,*

The Post War Poets: W. H Auden

W. H. Auden is considered one of the most important and influential of the British post-war poets. His poetry is characterized by a sense of isolation and disillusionment.

One of Auden’s most famous works is *The Age of Anxiety,* a long poem published in 1947 that explores the spiritual and psychological malaise of a group of people in a New York bar. The poem is structured in four parts, each one representing a different character’s inner journey through the night, in a world that seems increasingly chaotic and meaningless.


At the same time, Auden – like Larkin – injects these serious meditations with irony and wit, particularly directed at the class-based distinctions of society. For instance, in Part I of the poem, we are given a tongue-in-cheek introduction to the character of Quant:

*Quant, though a man of no breeding,
Took care to use the right fork
When supping with his betters;
His drink was always Scotch.*

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