Modern Verse in English, 1900-1950

By David Cecil; Allen Tate | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION TO BRITISH POETRY, 1900-1950

THIS ANTHOLOGY covers the years 1900-1950. It is not a period of which it is easy to give an ordered survey. For one thing, it is so close to us that it is difficult to see it in perspective; and for another, it is less a complete period than part of a phase of English letters which began more than a hundred and fifty years ago. Unromantic though we may feel, the romantic age is not over yet. The poets of today are still in what may be called the romantic situation.

The romantic situation is the result of that disintegration of orthodoxy which took place towards the end of the eighteenth century. During that century the standards of belief and taste, of which Augustan poetry was the expression, had begun to crumble. The consequence was that poets felt at sea in a way that the poets of previous ages had not done. They were conscious of a compelling urge to write poetry and of an instinctive feeling that in so doing they were fulfilling an important human function. But there was no one whom they trusted to tell them what that function was and what their poetry should be like. Each poet had to decide these things for himself. This was the romantic situation.

The fact they were in it made the first romantic poets turn to their own private experience to discover an answer to their questions. This affected their work in various ways. First of all it made it much more deliberately and avowedly individualistic than that of older writers had been. Each built up a theory of life and art founded on those elements in his own personal experience which he felt most precious and significant: Wordsworth's was founded on his mystical apprehension of an indwelling spirit in nature, Keats's on his response to the beautiful, and so on. Their styles too, created as they were to suit the particular subject-matter of each author, were more consciously idiosyncratic and experimental than the styles of the previous generation. The idea of the "correct" went out to be replaced by the idea of the "original".

Poetry, too, tended to become more subjective than before,

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