The Modernist: Fusing the Past and the Future

The experimentalism of the early 1900s was met with different degrees of creativity in all of the arts and all over the world. Painters like Salvador Dali in his 1931 oil painting entitled “The Persistence of Memory” purposefully explored the abstract and played with constructs of reality by painting melting clocks and odd-shaped, beached sea creatures. However, the images were juxtaposed in front of a serene ocean and classically rendered golden cliffs that perhaps were a nostalgic nod to works by neo-classical artists like William August Bouguereau. Dali was, like many of the noteworthy modernist, at once taken with the romance of the classical and renaissance period, and furthermore inspired by the risk-taking artistic heroes of the past. The modernists went forth into uncharted territory with an image of “Sappho” over their fireplace and a copy of “Julius Caesar” on their nightstand. They did not snub their predecessors, indeed they found a way to take what they had done and turn it into something reactionary and/ or responsive.

Many people will say that modernism developed as an artistic movement specifically aimed to break with the old customs in art and literature, but there is far too many literary allusions embedded into the modernists’s work like that of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” for it to be an accident. Other modern pieces, like Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and H.D.’s “Sheltered Garden” were also influenced by the old, traditional poetry but sought to find new ways to express that. These imagists could no more avoid being influenced by the beauty and grandeur of those centuries of art and writing than we can today. Perhaps a great deal of the work of the modernism period is both a response to classical and renaissance from the bourgeoisie as much as it is a reaction to the changing landscape.

As Western philosophy traveled away from the traditional yokes of religion the general public started to do the same. Writers like Eliot started to experiment with the written word and began to express the sense of separation felt by the society in which they lived by using elements and references to the literature of the past and combining it with fresh modern ideas. For instance, in line 42 of “The Waste Land” Eliot quotes the shepherd from Libretti: Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner who says, “Oed’ und leer das meer” which means “Desolate and void the sea.” He seems to be implying that in this new landscape, the Shepherds voice is worthy of quoting, but also a voice that mirrors much of the contemporary world view that the canvas was blank and in need of filling in. He alludes to magical, dark, pagan forces as well and in line 55 of “The Waste Land” the Tarot card he chooses to include is that of The Hanged Man, a card that traditionally points the receiver to overturn custom and start fresh. The poem in part is Eliot’s answer to the post World War I landscape that while virtually unrecognizable is still built upon what once was at least familiar ground. Eliot uses the physical and metaphysical changes in his environment as inspiration for the internal form of the poem. He upholds the traditions of the literature of the past by meticulously applying classical and obscure references from works that many people would have been familiar with in a form and function that people would not have been accustomed to.

While T.S. Eliot referenced classical literature within “The Waste Land” by inserting lines that were symbolic, Ezra Pound, in his groundbreaking poem, “In a Station of the Metro” utilized the former literary traditions by incorporating the strictness that was customary to Shakespearian and Petrarchan sonnets. For instance, the two lined poem is fourteen words long, which mirrors the line count of a sonnet. The other remarkable and purposeful thing Pound did with the poem is to mirror the traditional octet-sestet of the Italian or Petrachan poem by distributing eight of the words in the first line and six in the second. In this way Pound is showing his appreciation to the old masters of poetry, but systematically changing it to reflect his modern views of the world. Certainly with this poem Pound is epitomizing the modernists values of freezing a mundane instant into an image of beauty. The word “apparition” is used to describe the haunting feeling of being alone in a strange place, by comparing people to ghosts, Pound is commenting on the nature of life itself, how fleeting it is. He then takes it a step further and compares those apparitions to petals which are ephemeral in nature. And unquestionably the time of year in the poem is spring, a season that most everyone can agree is a time for renewal, so in this short poem, Pound fuses the classical notions of the past in terms of not only specific lines and words and syllables but also in terms of using customary references symbolically embedded in between the lines. The average reader would know that petals are something found in nature in the springtime so Pound makes a decision based on the economy of language to leave it at that. A typical response to the audience of the modernist was that they were savvy to such things, in many ways the average modernist in this way assumed that his or her audience was aware of and studied the Petrachan translations of Sir Thomas Wyatt and the like and would therefore appreciate the allusions to that work by the careful choice of the number of words and word placement. With “A Station in the Metro” there is a clever balance struck between the old world that was fading but still very much a compelling influence on the bourgeoisie and the new world that the bourgeoisie in turn felt compelled to influence.

In H.D.’s poem, “Sheltered Garden” the speaker comes right out and says in the second to last line that they are looking to “blot out this garden / to forget, to find a new beauty.” In many ways it is a direct response to the view that modernist writers and artists had of the world. There was some need to pay homage to the past but because the world was so different there was a frustration in finding a way to artistically capture it differently. H.D. wanted to create a new type of poetry that was representative of these two conflicting notions. In lines 24-25 “Why not let the pears cling /to the empty branch?” seems to be not only imploring a question, but also making a suggestion. Why not let them or if you do not let them, why do you not let them? In a way it is challenging, again symbolically, this notion that literature could do something other than what it had been doing and there was this freedom in that realization. The only limitation that H.D. could see in “Sheltered Garden” was the self or societal imposed limitations of what could and could not be done and really looking at the wisdom behind continuing to do things the way it has always been done, even though the landscape itself had a desire to do things differently. Also she is saying in “Sheltered Garden” that there is not a forthcoming and obvious reason why things should remain status quo, indeed she says “All your coaxing [to remain unchanging] “will only make / a bitter fruit” (26-27). Again, much like Pound does in “A Station in the Metro,” H.D. leaves much to be read between the lines and it is quite obvious that she expects the average reader to get at the multiple meanings and layers of symbolism to really understand the deeper levels of what it is she is saying in her poem.

After World War I, the Western world had in many ways experienced an umbilical severing from the traditions of philosophy, religion, art and literature. The experience was a guttural and visceral one. Consequently, the contemporary modernists came to the stage and instinctually began to apply a new medium to the old canvas. With this new world view it was no longer appropriate to adhere to the rigidity and rules that had always been the norm during the classical and renaissance periods. Feudalism was gone in the Western world, many of the old powers had long been defeated. H.D. came right out and asked in poems like “Sheltered Garden” if it was not the nature of nature itself to change. Pound turned a sentence into poetry, he took a photograph of language, he created image worth a thousand words and his work was in many ways the very epitome of the modern era. It was condensed and dense, to the point, but multi-layered and symbolic, it assumed a certain level of education inherent in the average reader, but pushed that average reader beyond anything he or she had experienced in literature. Eliot impressed with intoxicating, dreamy lines of poetry that referenced the richness of the literary past and took for granted the established luxury of learning that was intrinsic in the bourgeoisie of the modern era. This group of writers known as the modernists were every bit as shocking as they were reverent they were able to create a new world on an old landscape, and they were the utopian engineers of a society that remembered its past in order to dream its future.

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