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Louis Untermeyer, ed. (1885–1977). Modern British Poetry. 1920.


The New Influences and Tendencies

MERE statistics are untrustworthy; dates are even less dependable. But, to avoid hairsplitting, what we call “modern” English literature may be said to date from about 1885. A few writers who are decidedly “of the period” are, as a matter of strict chronology, somewhat earlier. But the chief tendencies may be divided into seven periods. They are (1) The decay of Victorianism and the growth of a purely decorative art, (2) The rise and decline of the Æsthetic Philosophy, (3) The muscular influence of Henley, (4) The Celtic revival in Ireland, (5) Rudyard Kipling and the ascendency of mechanism in art, (6) John Masefield and the return of the rhymed narrative, (7) The war and the appearance of “The Georgians.” It may be interesting to trace these developments in somewhat greater detail.


The age commonly called Victorian came to an end about 1885. It was an age distinguished by many true idealists and many false ideals. It was, in spite of its notable artists, on an entirely different level from the epoch which had preceded it. Its poetry was, in the main, not universal but parochial; its romanticism was gilt and tinsel; its realism was as cheap as its showy glass pendants, red plush, parlor chromos and antimacassars. The period was full of a pessimistic resignation (the note popularized by Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyám) and a kind of cowardice or at least a negation which, refusing to see any glamour in the actual world, turned to the Middle Ages, King Arthur, the legend of Troy—to the suave surroundings of a dream-world instead of the hard contours of actual experience.

At its worst, it was a period of smugness, of placid and pious sentimentality—epitomized by the rhymed sermons of Martin Farquhar Tupper, whose Proverbial Philosophy was devoured with all its cloying and indigestible sweetmeats by thousands. The same tendency is apparent, though far less objectionably, in the moralizing lays of Lord Thomas Macaulay, in the theatrically emotionalized verses of Robert Buchanan, Edwin Arnold and Sir Lewis Morris—even in the lesser later work of Alfred Tennyson.

And, without Tupper’s emptiness or absurdities, the outworn platitudes again find their constant lover in Alfred Austin, Tennyson’s successor as poet laureate. Austin brought the laureateship, which had been held by poets like Ben Jonson, Dryden, Southey and Wordsworth, to an incredibly low level; he took the thinning stream of garrulous poetic conventionality, reduced it to the merest trickle—and diluted it.

The poets of a generation before this time were fired with such ideas as freedom, a deep and burning awe of nature, an insatiable hunger for truth in all its forms and manifestations. The characteristic poets of the Victorian Era, says Max Plowman, “wrote under the dominance of churchliness, of ‘sweetness and light,’ and a thousand lesser theories that have not truth but comfort for their end.”

The revolt against this and the tawdriness of the period had already begun; the best of Victorianism can be found not in men who were typically Victorian, but in pioneers like Browning and writers like Swinburne, Rossetti, William Morris, who were completely out of sympathy with their time.

But it was Oscar Wilde who led the men of the now famous ’nineties toward an æsthetic freedom, to champion a beauty whose existence was its “own excuse for being.” Wilde’s was, in the most outspoken manner, the first use of æstheticism as a slogan; the battle-cry of the group was actually the now outworn but then revolutionary “Art for Art’s sake”! And, so sick were people of the shoddy ornaments and drab ugliness of the immediate past, that the slogan won. At least, temporarily.


The Yellow Book, the organ of a group of young writers and artists, appeared (1894–97), representing a reasoned and intellectual reaction, mainly suggested and influenced by the French. The group of contributors was a peculiarly mixed one with only one thing in common. And that was a conscious effort to repudiate the sugary airs and prim romantics of the Victorian Era.

Almost the first act of the “new” men was to rouse and outrage their immediate predecessors. This end-of-the-century desire to shock, which was so strong and natural an impulse, still has a place of its own—especially as an antidote, a harsh corrective. Mid-Victorian propriety and self-satisfaction crumbled under the swift and energetic audacities of the sensational younger authors and artists; the old walls fell; the public, once so apathetic to belles lettres, was more than attentive to every phase of literary experimentation. The last decade of the nineteenth century was so tolerant of novelty in art and ideas, that it would seem, says Holbrook Jackson in his penetrative summary, The Eighteen-Nineties, “as though the declining century wished to make amends for several decades of artistic monotony. It may indeed be something more than a coincidence that placed this decade at the close of a century, and fin de siècle may have been at once a swan song and a death-bed repentance.”

But later on, the movement (if such it may be called), surfeited with its own excesses, fell into the mere poses of revolt; it degenerated into a half-hearted defense of artificialities.

It scarcely needed W. S. Gilbert (in Patience) or Robert Hichens (in The Green Carnation) to satirize its distorted attitudinizing. It strained itself to death; it became its own burlesque of the bizarre, an extravaganza of extravagance. “The period” (I am again quoting Holbrook Jackson) “was as certainly a period of decadence as it was a period of renaissance. The decadence was to be seen in a perverse and finicking glorification of the fine arts and mere artistic virtuosity on the one hand, and a militant commercial movement on the other.… The eroticism which became so prevalent in the verse of many of the younger poets was minor because it was little more than a pose—not because it was erotic.… It was a passing mood which gave the poetry of the hour a hothouse fragrance; a perfume faint yet unmistakable and strange.”

But most of the elegant and disillusioned young men overshot their mark. Mere health reasserted itself; an inherent repressed vitality sought new channels. Arthur Symons deserted his hectic Muse, Richard Le Gallienne abandoned his preciosity, and the group began to disintegrate. The æsthetic philosophy was wearing thin; it had already begun to fray and reveal its essential shabbiness. Wilde himself possessed the three things which he said the English would never forgive—youth, power and enthusiasm. But in trying to make an exclusive cult of beauty, Wilde had also tried to make it evade actuality; he urged that art should not, in any sense, be a part of life but an escape from it. “The proper school to learn art in is not Life—but Art.” And in the same essay (“The Decay of Lying”) he wrote, “All bad Art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals.” Elsewhere he said, “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has discovered.”

Such a cynical and decadent philosophy could not go unchallenged. Its artistocratic blue-bloodedness was bound to arouse the red blood of common reality. This negative attitude received its answer in the work of that yea-sayer, W. E. Henley.


Henley repudiated this languid æstheticism; he scorned a negative art which was out of touch with the world. His was a large and sweeping affirmation. He felt that mere existence was glorious; life was coarse, difficult, often dangerous and dirty, but splendid at the heart. Art, he knew, could not be separated from the dreams and hungers of man; it could not flourish only on its own essences or technical accomplishments. To live, poetry would have to share the fears, angers, hopes and struggles of the prosaic world. And so Henley came like a swift salt breeze blowing through a perfumed and heavily-screened studio. He sang loudly (sometimes even too loudly) of the joy of living and the courage of the “unconquerable soul.” He was a powerful influence not only as a poet but as a critic and editor. In the latter capacity he gathered about him such men as Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, W. B. Yeats, T. E. Brown, J. M. Barrie. None of these men were his disciples, but none of them came into contact with him without being influenced in some way by his sharp and positive personality. A pioneer and something of a prophet, he was one of the first to champion the paintings of Whistler and to proclaim the genius of the sculptor Rodin.

If at times Henley’s verse is imperialistic, over-muscular and strident, his noisy moments are redeemed not only by his delicate lyrics but by his passionate enthusiasm for nobility in whatever cause it was joined. He never disdained the actual world in any of its moods—bus-drivers, hospital interiors, scrubwomen, a panting train, the squalor of London’s alleys, all found a voice in his lines—and his later work contains more than a hint of the delight in science and machinery which was later to be sounded more fully in the work of Rudyard Kipling.


In 1889, William Butler Yeats published his Wanderings of Oisin; in the same year Douglas Hyde, the scholar and folk-lorist, brought out his Book of Gaelic Stories.

The revival of Gaelic and the renascence of Irish literature may be said to date from the publication of those two books. The fundamental idea of both men and their followers was the same. It was to create a literature which would express the national consciousness of Ireland through a purely national art. They began to reflect the strange background of dreams, politics, suffering and heroism that is immortally Irish. This community of fellowship and aims is to be found in the varied but allied work of William Butler Yeats, “A. E.” (George W. Russell), Moira O’Neill, Lionel Johnson, Katharine Tynan, Padraic Colum and others. The first fervor gone, a short period of dullness set in. After reanimating the old myths, surcharging the legendary heroes with a new significance, it seemed for a while that the movement would lose itself in a literary mysticism. But an increasing concern with the peasant, the migratory laborer, the tramp, followed; an interest that was something of a reaction against the influence of Yeats and his mystic other-worldliness. And, in 1904, the Celtic Revival reached its height with John Millington Synge, who was not only the greatest dramatist of the Irish Theatre, but (to quote such contrary critics as George Moore and Harold Williams) “one of the greatest dramatists who has written in English.” Synge’s poetry, brusque and all too small in quantity, was a minor occupation with him and yet the quality and power of it is unmistakable. Its content is never great but the raw vigor in it was to serve as a bold banner—a sort of a brilliant Jolly Roger—for the younger men of the following period. It was not only this dramatist’s brief verses and his intensely musical prose but his sharp prefaces that were to exercise such an influence.

In the notable introduction to the Playboy of the Western World, Synge declared, “When I was writing The Shadow of the Glen some years ago, I got more aid than any learning could have given me from a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen. This matter is, I think, of some importance; for in countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words—and at the same time to give the reality which is at the root of all poetry, in a natural and comprehensive form.” This quotation explains his idiom, possibly the sharpest-flavored and most vivid in modern literature.

As to Synge’s poetic power, it is unquestionably greatest in his plays. In The Well of the Saints, The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea there are more poignance, beauty of form and richness of language than in any piece of dramatic writing since Elizabethan times. Yeats, when he first heard Synge’s early one-act play, The Shadow of the Glen, is said to have exclaimed “Euripides.” A half year later when Synge read him Riders to the Sea, Yeats again confined his enthusiasm to a single word:—“Æschylus!” Years have shown that Yeats’s appreciation was not as exaggerated as many might suppose.

But although Synge’s poetry was not his major concern, numbering only twenty-four original pieces and eighteen translations, it had a surprising effect upon his followers. It marked a point of departure, a reaction against both the too-polished and over-rhetorical verse of his immediate predecessors and the dehumanized mysticism of many of his associates. In that memorable preface to his Poems he wrote what was a slogan, a manifesto and at the same time a classic credo for all that we call the “new” poetry. “I have often thought,” it begins, “that at the side of poetic diction, which everyone condemns, modern verse contains a great deal of poetic material, using ‘poetic’ in the same special sense. The poetry of exaltation will be always the highest; but when men lose their poetic feeling for ordinary life and cannot write poetry of ordinary things, their exalted poetry is likely to lose its strength of exaltation in the way that men cease to build beautiful churches when they have lost happiness in building shops.… Even if we grant that exalted poetry can be kept successfully by itself, the strong things of life are needed in poetry also, to show that what is exalted or tender is not made by feeble blood.”


New tendencies are contagious. But they also disclose themselves simultaneously in places and people where there has been no point of contact. Even before Synge published his proofs of the keen poetry in everyday life, Kipling was illuminating, in a totally different manner, the wealth of poetic material in things hitherto regarded as too commonplace for poetry. Before literary England had quite recovered from its surfeit of Victorian priggishness and pre-Raphaelite delicacy, Kipling came along with high spirits and a great tide of life, sweeping all before him. An obscure Anglo-Indian journalist, the publication of his Barrack-room Ballads in 1892 brought him sudden notice. By 1895 he was internationally famous. Brushing over the pallid attempts to revive a pallid past, he rode triumphantly on a wave of buoyant and sometimes brutal joy in the present. Kipling gloried in the material world; he did more—he glorified it. He pierced the coarse exteriors of seemingly prosaic things—things like machinery, bridge-building, cockney soldiers, slang, steam, the dirty by-products of science (witness “M’Andrews Hymn” and “The Bell Buoy”)—and uncovered their hidden glamour. “Romance is gone,” sighed most of his contemporaries,
  • “…and all unseen
  • Romance brought up the nine-fifteen.”
  • That sentence (from his poem “The King”) contains the key to the manner in which the author of The Five Nations helped to rejuvenate English verse.

    Kipling, with his perception of ordinary people in terms of ordinary life, was one of the strongest links between the Wordsworth–Browning era and the latest apostles of vigor, beginning with Masefield. There are occasional and serious defects in Kipling’s work—particularly in his more facile poetry; he falls into a journalistic ease that tends to turn into jingle; he is fond of a militaristic drum-banging that is as blatant as the insularity he condemns. But a burning, if sometimes too simple faith, shines through his achievements. His best work reveals an intensity that crystallizes into beauty what was originally tawdry, that lifts the vulgar and incidental to the place of the universal.


    All art is a twofold revivifying—a recreation of subject and a reanimating of form. And poetry becomes perennially “new” by returning to the old—with a different consciousness, a greater awareness. In 1911, when art was again searching for novelty, John Masefield created something startling and new by going back to 1385 and The Canterbury Pilgrims. Employing both the Chaucerian model and a form similar to the practically forgotten Byronic stanza, Masefield wrote in rapid succession, The Everlasting Mercy (1911), The Widow in the Bye Street (1912), Dauber (1912), The Daffodil Fields (1913)—four astonishing rhymed narratives and four of the most remarkable poems of our generation. Expressive of every rugged phase of life, these poems, uniting old and new manners, responded to Synge’s proclamation that “the strong things of life are needed in poetry also … and it may almost be said that before verse can be human again it must be brutal.”

    Masefield brought back to poetry that mixture of beauty and brutality which is its most human and enduring quality. He brought back that rich and almost vulgar vividness which is the very life-blood of Chaucer, of Shakespeare, of Burns, of Villon, of Heine—and of all those who were not only great artists but great humanists. As a purely descriptive poet, he can take his place with the masters of sea and landscape. As an imaginative realist, he showed those who were stumbling from one wild eccentricity to another to thrill them, that they themselves were wilder, stranger, far more thrilling than anything in the world—or out of it. Few things in contemporary poetry are as powerful as the regeneration of Saul Kane (in The Everlasting Mercy) or the story of Dauber, the tale of a tragic sea-voyage and a dreaming youth who wanted to be a painter. The vigorous description of rounding Cape Horn in the latter poem is superbly done, a masterpiece in itself. Masefield’s later volumes are quieter in tone, more measured in technique; there is an almost religious ring to many of his Shakespearian sonnets. But the swinging surge is there, a passionate strength that leaps through all his work from Salt Water Ballads (1902) to Reynard the Fox (1919).


    There is no sharp statistical line of demarcation between Masefield and the younger men. Although several of them owe much to him, most of the younger poets speak in accents of their own. W. W. Gibson had already reinforced the “return to actuality” by turning from his first preoccupation with shining knights, faultless queens, ladies in distress and all the paraphernalia of hackneyed mediæval romances, to write about ferrymen, berry-pickers, stone-cutters, farmers, printers, circus-men, carpenters—dramatizing (though sometimes theatricalizing) the primitive emotions of uncultured and ordinary people in Livelihood, Daily Bread and Fires. This intensity had been asking new questions. It found its answers in the war; repressed emotionalism discovered a new outlet. One hears its echoes in the younger poets like Siegfried Sassoon, with his poignant and unsparing poems of conflict; in Robert Graves, who reflects it in a lighter and more fantastic vein; in James Stephens, whose wild ingenuities are redolent of the soil. And it finds its corresponding opposite in the limpid and unperturbed loveliness of Ralph Hodgson; in the ghostly magic and the nursery-rhyme whimsicality of Walter de la Mare; in the quiet and delicate lyrics of W. H. Davies. Among the others, the brilliant G. K. Chesterton, the facile Alfred Noyes, the romantic Rupert Brooke (who owes less to Masefield and his immediate predecessors than he does to the passionately intellectual Donne), the introspective D. H. Lawrence and the versatile J. C. Squire, are perhaps best known to American readers.

    All of the poets mentioned in the foregoing paragraph (with the exception of Noyes) have formed themselves in a loose group called “The Georgians,” and an anthology of their best work has appeared every two years since 1913. Masefield, Lascelles Abercrombie and John Drinkwater are also listed among the Georgian poets. When their first collection appeared in March, 1913, Henry Newbolt, a critic as well as poet, wrote: “These younger poets have no temptation to be false. They are not for making something ‘pretty,’ something up to the standard of professional patterns.… They write as grown men walk, each with his own unconscious stride and gesture.… In short, they express themselves and seem to steer without an effort between the dangers of innovation and reminiscence.” The secret of this success, and for that matter, the success of the greater portion of English poetry, is not an exclusive discovery of the Georgian poets. It is their inheritance, derived from those predecessors who, “from Wordsworth and Coleridge onward, have worked for the assimilation of verse to the manner and accent of natural speech.” In its adaptability no less than in its vigor, modern English poetry is true to its period—and its past.

    This collection is obviously a companion volume to Modern American Poetry, which, in its restricted compass, attempted to act as an introduction to recent native verse. Modern British Poetry covers the same period (from about 1870 to 1920), follows the same chronological scheme, but it is more amplified and goes into far greater detail than its predecessor.

    The two volumes, considered together, furnish interesting contrasts; they reveal certain similarities and certain strange differences. Broadly speaking, modern American verse is sharp, vigorously experimental; full of youth and its occasional—and natural—crudities. English verse is smoother, more matured and, molded by centuries of literature, richer in associations and surer in artistry. Where the American output is often rude, extremely varied and uncoördinated (being the expression of partly indigenous, partly naturalized and largely unassimilated ideas, emotions and races), the English product is formulated, precise and, in spite of its fluctuations, true to its past. It goes back to traditions as old as Chaucer (witness the narratives of Masefield and Gibson) or tendencies as classic as Drayton, Herrick and Blake—as in the frank lyrics of A. E. Housman, the artless lyricism of Ralph Hodgson, the naïf wonder of W. H. Davies. And if English poetry may be compared to a broad and luxuriating river (while American poetry might be described as a sudden rush of unconnected mountain torrents, valley streams and city sluices), it will be inspiring to observe how its course has been temporarily deflected in the last forty years; how it has swung away from one tendency toward another; and how, for all its bends and twists, it has lost neither its strength nor its nobility.

    L. U.
    New York City,
    January, 1920.