British Poetry in the Age of Modernism

By Diepeveen, Leonard | Style, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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British Poetry in the Age of Modernism


Diepeveen, Leonard, Style


Peter Howarth. British Poetry in the Age of Modernism. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP, 2005. $80.00

Peter Howarth's British Poetry in the Age of Modernism begins with an historical trajectory, asserting that the apparent dichotomy of British poetry today has its roots in the early twentieth century, a time when poetic culture was less dichotomized than it would become. In Howarth's view, the dichotomies that followed after the war were based more on justifications for particular poetic practices than on the practices themselves. Howarth argues that the intellectual grounding for what would become a split lies in romanticism, particularly Coleridgean aesthetics. Noting that the "struggle against rhetoric" (which he defines as "the presence of words and forms externally influencing the poem's heart") united Georgian and Imagist poets, Howarth demonstrates that both groups insisted that a great poem was "the expression of a singular or unified consciousness" (7, 59, 25). The standard way of expressing this unified consciousness, one that the high moderns subscribed to, lay in Coleridgean ideas of organicism, an identity of content and form, an aesthetic which "rejects the subordination of any part as a means to an overall end, and hence any poem where the form is conspicuously determining the content" (22).

Organicism, for Howarth, became twentieth-century poetry's fault line: the moderns accepted and developed organicist poetics, while the "non-modernists" (his term) did not. In this reading, it's modernists who are most closely tied to romanticism, while the poets under study - Edward Thomas, Walter de la Mare, W.H. Davies, Thomas Hardy and Wilfred Owen - all exploit an unresolved struggle between the poem's speaker and a form that is externally imposed. Contrary to Modernist aesthetics, with these writers this slippage - between what the poet attempts to say and the slightly askew form he cannot escape - is not a sign of failure, but is aesthetically productive. The slightly askew form, with its use of cliché or a rigid metrical system knocking against an awkward use of language, may violate Modernist aesthetics, but these poets found a way to make such a form aesthetically productive.

Howarth attempts not only to show that there is a slippage, but that the slippage is not haphazard, that it is in some ways systematic. It has political connotations as well; Howarth argues that the slippage between form and content "allows for a dynamic between them which is somewhere between autonomous and compulsory, and hence suggests a more nuanced account of social agency than the Romantic binaries of either organic or mechanical, interior or exterior, would allow" (62). Well, this certainly makes these poets more interesting, and to my mind Howarth's is the best possible argument for these writers' merits. It also makes Howarth's initially not very promising premise, about the meaning of poetic form in these writers, highly interesting.

What have been seen as infelicities, then, are still, in Howarth's reading, infelicities. But they are productive and knowing infelicities. In The Everlasting Mercy John Masefield, for example, presents "his character in the act of being simple, not actually being simple" (49). This self-awareness, level of distance, drives Howarth's thesis. To my mind, this strategy has uneven applicability, as one might expect. It doesn't work as convincingly for W.H. Davies as it does for Hardy and Owen-but that may be because the latter two more nearly approximate modernist ideas of quality, and so lounge more securely within my aesthetic comfort zone. As well, Howarth' s canon-building argument, which mounts a really good case for these writers, does not address a central high modern claim. While Howarth shows that non-moderns created a body of poetry that is related to its age, he does not address how and if this poetry develops from (not necessarily improves on) the writing that preceded it.

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