Modern Verse in English, 1900-1950

By David Cecil; Allen Tate | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION TO AMERICAN POETRY, 1900-1950

THE RANGE of this anthology, 1900-1950, may well strike the reader as arbitrary, or worse; for when he is warned that he will not find the verse of any poet who had not published a book after 1900 or before the end of 1950, he may also think it wilful. I can only suggest (I do not speak for my collaborator) that although a neat envelope of a half-century may look irrelevant, any other beginning, such as 1917, the year of Prufrock and Other Observations, or even 1913, when Robert Frost's first book appeared, would satisfy only a minority. There is also Edwin Arlington Robinson, four-fifths of whose verse was written after 1900 but whose first book was published in 1897.

A round half-century has allowed us a freedom that we should have lost had we decided to represent schools and tendencies. I could not, for example, have included Trumbull Stickney, a fine poet who has no relation to modernist verse; but his work was published in 1904, after his death; and so he is here. The inclusion of Dickinson and Hopkins has, from an American point of view, its obvious explanations and defence.

There is still another reason, I think, for the round numbers with which we have enclosed the period. Presently I shall notice a particular phase of our obsession with contemporary literary history. Besides 1913 and 1917, there was a time, some thirty-five years ago, when to many persons on both sides of the Atlantic 1911 seemed to have witnessed a revolution in poetry: for in that year John Masefield shocked the Anglo-American literary world with The Everlasting Mercy, a poem of plain people in plain language. It prompted, I believe it was Sir William Watson, to remark that the "language of Shakespeare was good enough" for him. But yet another revolution had already begun. Pound's first verse had been published in 1908 (very quietly in Venice); Eliot's came out only a little later. This poetic revolution, which has dominated poetry in English for almost a half-century, and which has sharpened our critical scrutiny of poets like Robinson and Frost, who were outside it, was brought about by two young men who were

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