Modernist Beauty

There can be little doubt that standards of modernist beauty are the most abstract of any hitherto discussed, primarily because the word itself was irrevocably tainted by the two world wars. ‘Modernism, among other things, reflects a crisis of faith in language’,[1] as

the years that followed the armistice were a period of aestheticism […] there was, however, from the outset, an opposition to this point of view on the part of writers who, although unable to accept the claims of religion, put no trust in any aesthetic solution.[2]

This ‘crisis of faith’ and mistrust of conventional beauty in poetry was understandable, as many poets of the day were contemplating the place and future of aestheticism, asking the question ‘can there be poetry after Auschwitz?’[3] A sharp move away from the indulgences and aesthetic triviality of the past three centuries prompted a bitter, reactionary attitude to poetry evidenced, for example, in The Waste Land and Loy’s ‘Der Blinde Junge’. Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and particularly ‘Envoi’, consider the aesthetic with a more sentimental and mournful approach, with the former being considered ‘a moving elegy for the world of artistic and social possibility that the war seemed to obliterate’,[4] and the latter as an effort to ‘resuscitate the dead art / Of poetry’.[5] Pound, then, considered poetry itself as a casualty of war. However, within this setting, beauty can find its place as a redemptive force. The very purpose of catharsis, a rebirth, renewal, is most needed at times of great crisis. And perhaps this is beauty’s most profoundly important place within poetry, to act as a pervasive presence, evidencing the best of the human spirit when faith in the concept of goodness may be waning.

The radical changes of the early twentieth century were unprecedented, and naturally had a profound impact on poetic expression, particularly in terms of aesthetic perception. The world was suddenly populated, indeed pervaded, by the strange and new: mass communication revolutionised language, which became condensed and instantaneous. The rapidity of thought and experience were reflected in the brevity of many Modernist compositions or their elements, whether in Pound’s two-line poems or Williams’s two-line stanzas. Communism, the dismantling of empires, mass immigration and the resultant blending and integration of a plethora of cultures within countries and cities, set within the maturation of American culture, and colliding with its establishment as a unique, diverse, and productive force in the literary world, all contributed to the chaotic state of politics and culture in the height of the twentieth century. This disorienting culmination of paradigm shifts shattered the Whig-Liberal concept of slow societal progress. Essentially a reaction to the fascist regimes that oversaw the wholesale destruction of the civilised and cultivated artistic societies in the west, and whose artistic policies were exhibited at the Munich Exhibition of 1937, Modernism sought to redefine art in a way that rebelled against the ideals of the aforementioned totalitarian governments, who in their own way undertook the task of reviving the, by then, waning and forgotten principles of classical art and architecture. Despite Pound’s drift toward Fascism in the 1930s, and Yeats’s late flirtations with Fascist ideas, the ideals of Fascism and Modernism were often mainly at odds. In addition, for the first time as modern readers, we have access to the abundance of historical information kept on poets of the twentieth-century as a direct result of the technological advances of that age. This, insofar as it remains pertinent to poetry, affords us a far greater comprehension of the personal lives of these poets, and thus creates another issue to navigate in terms of aesthetic comprehension. Knowing that Eliot is an anti-Semite, that Williams is anti-democratic, and that Pound is a fascist, do we consider their work suddenly less meritorious, less beautiful, or less deserving of its place in the canon? Modernist works, to a large extent, begin to necessitate a split from the personal and the poetic, the biographical, contextual details of composition from the finished verse.

Perhaps the most profoundly effective shift of modernism was the blurring and destruction of genres, mostly problematising our perception of aesthetic form in the years immediately following the armistice and well into the mid-20th century. Not only was free verse considered the greatest reaction to the neo-formalist tendencies of the fascist regimes that had reaped so much chaos on the world, but other boundaries and conventions, to the modernists, were simply aching to be transcended. Poetic prose is the surreal blend of the language, metaphor and esotericism of high verse with narrative prose that was responsible for producing the fever dream of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. T.S. Eliot was famously opposed to the concept, evidencing the fragmentary and uneasy nature of the modernist canon. The ‘opposed traditions’[6] of Eliot and Pound, two of the most established and influential figures of modernism, despite their initially close personal connection, grew estranged in their verse, with their divergent beliefs eventually culminating in Eliot standing for ‘the meditative lyricism and metrical order of Four Quartets’, and Pound standing for ‘the perceptual precision of imagism and the open form of The Cantos’.[7] This kind of separation, often characterised as the great individualism of the modernist age is what makes the idea of defining a canonical perception of modernist beauty so difficult.

Discussing Modernism in the critical vocabulary employed hitherto soon becomes problematic, as it was, in point of fact, the explicit intention of many Modernist poets to quite deliberately problematise form and structure, and so to discard preceding generic conventions. This conscious desire to avoid the label of a genre gave rise to the form, or lack thereof, that characterises Modernism. Free verse, simply put, arose from ‘a sense of the inadequacy of established poetic idiom’,[8] which in turn brought about ‘the supersession of an aristocratic, semi-feudal, humanistic and agrarian order by one middle-class, democratic, mechanistic and urban’. This new order of poetry was disorder, the very freedom that it has come to personify.

Free verse is just that – free of all expectations of compositional circumspection, precision, structure, rhyme, metaphor, and notions of what is ‘literary’, and indeed what is ‘beautiful’. Williams’s free verse in ‘The Locust Tree in Flower’, for example, evidences the extremity of the form, taking the property of efficiency as discussed earlier, and wildly exaggerating its expressive abilities:






Three-word stanzas, although a novelty, become jarring and rhythmically frustrating. Lending perspective, there are as many words in the entire poem as there are in little over a line of Shakespeare or Marlowe. There is very little to distinguish the piece from a sequence of random words. The absence of connectives, alongside the evident desire to employ traditionally poetic words (e.g. ‘bright’, ‘sweet’), make the verse perpetually confusing. Indeed, to many, this would be little more than a list of words, and without the context provided by its title, it is very likely that very few would be able to discern its subject. As Bradford observes, ‘we can agree to designate […] free verse only because [it] persistently evade[s] the abstract patterns of regular verse’.[9]

Pound, the most paradoxical of modernists, a poet who ‘became the most exaggeratedly romantic poet of his generation’,[10] was writing the Cantos ‘out of an aesthetic that stresses condensation, concrete expression, and lyric intensity but which attempts simultaneously to forge a mythopoeic “multiverse” as expansive and idiosyncratic as Blake’s’.[11] The sibilance in ‘Envoi’, ‘Tell her that sheds / such treasure in the air’ (l. 8-9), a mechanism previously used throughout the previous centuries as a poetical device aligned with the creation of aesthetic pleasure, is counteracted by the free verse of Canto 81, which, though not as awkward in its phrasing as Williams’s, is nonetheless a fragmented, disjointed reading experience. Ostensibly, the following passage appears poetic:


hot wind came from the marshes

and death-chill from the mountains.

And later Bowers wrote: “but such hatred,

I have never conceived such”

(Canto LXXXI, ll. 20-24) [12]

The stanza makes use of what Dr Johnson would consider ‘poetic diction’; expressions such as ‘hot wind’ and ‘death-chill’ are set within the frame of the ‘marshes’ and the ‘mountains’, two extraordinary settings that would appear to recall the Gothic tendencies of the Romantics. The rhythm is irregular, but contains three lines of seven syllables intercepted by a decasyllabic flourish in the third line, and despite there being no explicit rhyme, there are phonetic motifs such as ‘marshes’ and ‘mountains’, as well as the clumsy translation from Spanish resulting in a repetition of ‘such’. Compared with previous centuries’ structure, however, free verse objectively begins to blur the boundaries between nonsense and poetry. In this stanza, however, there are at least fleeting moments in which we can catch glimmers of poetic convention. The first passage of the same Canto is far more disorderly:


Zeus lies in Ceres’ bosom

Taishan is attended of loves

under Cythera, before sunrise

and he said: “Hay aquí mucho catolicismo – (sounded


y muy poco reliHion.”

and he said: “Yo creo que los reyes desparecen”

(Kings will, I think, disappear)

This was Padre José Elizondo

(ll. 1-9)


Alongside Williams, Pound began to establish what we now know as the visual notion of poetry. Experimenting with indentations and line-lengths to create a visual sensation as well as a linguistic one, the two writers, Williams in particular, characterised their verse by simply making it ‘look like a poem’. It is important to note that in spite of all Modernist reservations about engaging with the conventions of the aesthetic, Johnson’s notion of ‘poetic diction’ is pervasive. The lexical habits of poets are passed down, and live on even through the world wars. Pound’s inclusion of the Classical Zeus, Taishan and Cythera would be equally at home in a Renaissance sonnet or Romantic narrative poem, and the discourse of ‘loves’, ‘sunrise’, and ‘Kings’ could indeed be placed within the poetry of any of the literary ages discussed. Throughout the advent of Modernism, ‘the traditional lyric, as the most rigorous aesthetic negation of bourgeois convention, has by that very token been tied to bourgeois society’,[13] and in an effort to rebel further from all established ideals, the imagist movement became popular among modernist poets, giving rise to their succinct manifesto:

  1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.


These characteristics would appear to be not too dissimilar to Aquinas’s. The superficially ontological musings surrounding the ‘treatment of the “thing” ’ would fulfil the third attribute, while the second item would correspond with Aquinas’s expectation of clarity or efficiency in the poetic language. These three characteristics taken together often form the basis for some of the most beautiful modernist poetry. Take, for example, Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’:


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.


This exhibits several facets of ‘beautiful’ poetry: brevity, clarity, and integrity. Despite its highly compact expression, we can extract from the few words a reflection of a moment in time, rendered in dynamic and vivid fashion, owing fundamentally to its use of a poetic lexical mood; one inherited from previous ages. Words such as ‘apparition’, as well as ‘bough’, not being at home in everyday language, constitute poetic expression under Johnson’s criteria. In addition, the absence of rhythm, metre and clear rhyme emphasise the lexical decisions to the extent that, in this instance, they define poetry. These expressions and phrases, when set within a frame this concentrated and ambiguous, divide poetry from a simple sentence, the two being of equal length.

To Loy, ‘Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea’,[14] and the modernist audience, upon a ‘superficial first reading’, often ‘overlooked the beauty’ of what she calls ‘unprecedented verse’.[15] The unprecedented qualities of her free verse, however, were ill-defined in the contemporary literary climate in which her compositions were published. The skepticism with which Modernist poets composed their work was met with the more potent skepticism of the reading public, whose suspicion of the aesthetic was tied to their suspicion of poetry as an art and as a form of expression. In his introduction to the collection New Signatures (1932), Michael Roberts says that modernist poets had ‘become aloof from ordinary affairs’, producing ‘esoteric work which was frivolously decorative or elaborately erudite’.[16] Modernism being to many ‘a response to the failure of the enlightenment’,[17] Loy’s ‘Der Blinde Junge’ adopts a dark tack to present a harsher enlightening of the naïve consumer.

this slow blind face


its virginal nonentity

against the light

(ll. 10-13) [18]


In this harrowing stanza, Loy gives us the truth of youthful sacrifice in war. Every word seems anathema to notions of trivial aesthetic pleasure, as the disturbing image of the ‘nonentity’ of the young man’s face works ‘against the light’, operating as an extended metaphor for modernist poetry working against the exhausted ideals of the enlightenment and the spiritual good. There is, quite deliberately, nothing beautiful about this verse. It is mournful, and no less powerful, but not beautiful, as we understand it through aesthetic comprehension.

We arrive at the place of beauty in contemporary poetry, with its attitude to a wearied and confused notion of aesthetic brilliance being expressed in ‘Attempt at a Beautiful Poem’ by Clare Pollard:

I so wanted to give you a poem that was beautiful,

but somehow I know that promises of

  licking you calm

as a sleep-deep ocean, and sap-sticky kisses in forests,

and fists full of stars

are not going to work this time

(ll. 24-29) [19]


Pollard, in her ‘attempt’ at achieving beauty, acknowledges the sibilance that finds its genesis in the Renaissance, ‘sap-sticky kisses’, the ambiguous sylvan setting of a ‘forest’ characteristic of the Romantics, and the ‘fists full of stars’ that seem reminiscent of Marlowe’s ‘thousand stars’ of beauty as being attributes of this post-modernist ideal of beauty. However, in the thematically bourdon note of the last line, she negates these principles, rendering them useless, in many ways reflecting the attitude of the poetic discourse to what has now become understood as ‘traditional’ beauty – a hybrid term encompassing the chief elements of the past several hundred years of aesthetic appeal. To many now, the idea of beauty has become a cliché. Beauty in the age of modernism was no longer a beauty under threat, as it had been for the past several hundred years. It was beauty destroyed, being reborn from its ashes like a Phoenix, the image being reminiscent of the final lines of Pound’s ‘Envoi’.

When our two dusts with Waller’s shall be laid,

Siftings on siftings in oblivion,

Till change hath broken down

All things save Beauty alone.

(ll. 22-26)

 – T. Colebrooke, 2016.




[1] Terry Eagleton, How to Read a Poem (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007), p. 44.

[2] John M. Cohen, Poetry of This Age (London: Hutchinson, 1960), p. 117.

[3] Isobel Armstrong, paraphrasing Theodor Adorno in The Radical Aesthetic, p. 56.

[4] Longenbach, p. 116

[5] Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Part 1

[6] Rebecca Beasley, Theorists of Modernist Poetry (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 118.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Richard Sheppard, ‘The Crisis of Language’ in Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930 ed. by Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 323.

[9] Bradford, p. 155.

[10] James Longenbach, ‘Modern Poetry’ in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, ed. by Michael Levenson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 116

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (London: Faber, 1975), p. 517. Italics in original.

[13] Theodor Adorno, Notes to Literature translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 46.

[14] Mina Loy, ‘Modern Poetry’ in Modernism/Postmodernism, ed. by Peter Brooker (London: Longman, 1992), p. 437.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Beasley, p. 116.

[17] Tim Armstrong, Modernism (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), p. 64.

[18] Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy ed. by Roger L. Conover (New York: Carcanet, 1997), p. 83.

[19] Clare Pollard, ‘Attempt at a Beautiful Poem’ in The Heavy-Petting Zoo (Hexham: Bloodaxe, 1998), p. 22.


Copyright (C) The Composite Review 2016.

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