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Poetry and Politics 101: Post-First World War Poetry


This series encounters poetry from the last two centuries to consider a fundamental question: what role does poetry play in political society? Poetry’s societal duty is a study that has often been neglected in favour of poetry’s relationship to language and emotion. Poetry and Politics 101 seeks to revitalise poetry in order to engage with its capacity to act as an agent of social and political change. Can poetry affect change? Can it influence people’s opinions? Can it offer a form of guidance in uncertain political times? It will also consider how poetry’s role has changed over time. Once possessing the title of the most widely read form of literature, circulated in newspapers and periodicals, and existing as a dominant feature of cultural response and reaction, poetry’s role in society started to dwindle as new forms of media began to dominate in the late 20th century. This series will work chronologically through significant time periods to consider the evolution of poetry’s role in politics and society over time.

This series will be divided into seven chapters:

  1. Poetry and Politics 101: Romantic Poetry

  2. Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry I - The Female Voice

  3. Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry II - The Male Voice and the Vote

  4. Poetry and Politics 101: Pre-First World War Poetry

  5. Poetry and Politics 101: Post-First World War Poetry

  6. Poetry and Politics 101: Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance

  7. Poetry and Politics 101: Contemporary Contexts

Disillusioned Literature

Perhaps the best term to describe the poetry emerging in the aftermath of the First World War is disillusionment. Following the First World War (1914 – 1918) in history, which left echoes of devastation, death and futility in its wake, it is no surprise that the poetry written in its fallout spoke to these very themes. In the previous article of this series, it was concluded that the insistence within the modernist movement to respond to the rapidness, speed, and detachment of the pre-war industrial society was the defining feat of the poetry of the period.

This article will explore how the First World War augmented pre-existing modernist disillusionment with society, the nature of poetry, and the rapidity of change, creating poetry that was often difficult and bleakly pessimistic. The common perception of the modernists as poets dedicated to “reflect[ing] and refract[ing] the climate of the new century” (Davis & Jenkins, 2015, p. 1) supports this claim. Modernism’s dedication to creating reflective and introspective poetry explains its multifaceted and ever-shifting nature. The ever-changing pace of the city necessitated that the poets would continuously make themselves and their poetry feel new, so as to effectively act as a mirror of their disjointed times.

Figure 1: Crowds in London celebrate the Armistice at the end of the first world war, November 1918 (Coster, 1918).

Heinz Kosok (2007) refers to the “deep feeling of disillusionment that followed the initial optimism after having won the war” (p. 71), and to this sense of disenchantment which was rooted in the exacerbating effect of the First World War on pre-existing societal issues. He writes: “the immediate post-war world was experienced as not reconstructed, as the politicians had promised, not a land fit for heroes to live in, but a jumble of the same old problems, made worse by the war” (p. 183). In this way, it is unsurprising that modernist poetry treated the same subject matter with new and even more depressing consideration. The catastrophic effects of the war on public mentality and outlook are expressed by Venugopala (2014), who considers the period between the two world wars as “the sharpest possible contrast to the serenity and complacency of the Victorian Era” (p. 11), serving as an intense shock to the population. Venugopala (2014) quotes Eliot’s notes on The Waste Land (1922), as evidence for the effect of the “brutality of the extensive devastation of life and values” (p. 11), which led to:

“a sense of desolation, uncertainty, futility, the groundless of aspiration of vanity of endeavour and a thirst for a life giving water which seems suddenly have failed” (Eliot, Qtd in Venugopala, 2014, p. 11).

The modernist poets of the 1920s and 1930s sought to reflect the condition of their devastating reality to create poetry that was demanded by a generation who, for the modernist poet Ezra Pound, needed an “image” of society’s “accelerated grimace” (1920, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, lines 20-22). Building upon the faithlessness seen in pre-war poetry, those poets writing in the post-war era identified catastrophic societal cracks in the war, and could only utilise their ability to expose these wounds to provide a cathartic expression for those experiencing the devastation, with no clear answer to heal them. Poetry, for the modernists, had stripped itself of its grand, mythologising qualities, and now served as a mirror for a disillusioned generation to articulate their grievances.

This article will explore the post-war poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to expose the political hopelessness and poetic desolation expressed by modernist poets responding to the condition of a broken and sterile post-war society.

Figure 2: Machine Gun Set up in a Railroad Shop (1918).

T. S. Eliot: The Hollow Men

The Hollow Men treats the matter of hopelessness and futility with almost blunt nonchalance. For Eliot, the fate of the hollow men holds no optimism or question but acts as an indisputable fact of reality that must be honestly depicted to the reader. The fact that the men in the poem are half-dead, or headed to their certain demise, is not the central concern of the poem. Rather, the poem denies hope for the revival of the men, considering instead a Dantesque vision of purgatory. The souls of Eliot’s poem are already “lost” (Eliot, 1925, line 15). Yet, the lamentation falls not in the death of their earthly bodies, but rather for the fact that these hollow men did not cross “to death’s other Kingdom” (line 14) so easily as those with “direct eyes” (line 14). As Tory Urquhart (2010) suggests, “the speaker’s quest is hindered by his inability to reconcile this existence with […] his idea of the afterlife” (p. 199). In this way, the pessimistic tone of the poem is cemented in Eliot’s anxious visions of the afterlife, as opposed to concern for the revival of their hollowness in this existence.

The effect of this is a dark and bleak reflection of the state of post-war society. This outlook on the futility of the post-war condition is reflected in Eliot’s notes in The Waste Land, in which he writes of a “thirst for a life-giving water which seems suddenly have failed” (Venugopala, 2014, p. 11). Eliot’s outlook on life has irrefutably turned bleak in the years following the brutality and devastation of the war. After four years of knowing only death, hardship, and turmoil, it is unsurprising that the only possible source of salvation for humanity is rooted in the afterlife. Eliot seeks to emphasise the death that haunts the corners of the post-war city, where men are “paralysed” (line 12), and incapable of anything over than “meaningless” whispers (line 7). Such immobilism serves as an expression of the immobility and stasis of the derelict post-war world. A world that leaves no hope in this life, and little for the next.

Figure 3: T. S. Eliot (Morrell, 1934).

The symbol of eyes in The Hollow Men furthers the underlying pessimism of the poem. For Eliot, the eyes are not allusions to wisdom or knowledge, or for the hope of future regeneration, but yet another image of desolation, sterility, and hopelessness. The Hollow Men is often considered a continuation of Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land, published in 1925. Eliot’s earlier poem evokes the same images of sterility, desolation, and hopeless visions. In The Waste Land, Tiresias is widely critically accepted as the central character of the poem. A famous prophet, who, despite his blindness, could foresee the poet, Tiresias unites all the characters of the poem and can be understood as “a set of different personas stored within the same self” (Cechinel, 2005, p. 1). Despite his mythical power within the poem, Tiresias’ visions cannot prevent the wounds of the society he foresees. He overlooks the rape of the typist, witnesses the failure of young lovers in a hyacinth garden, and becomes representative of the inaction of the post-war city the Waste Land serves to represent.

Sightless, unless The eyes reappear As the perpetual star Multifoliate rose Of death's twilight kingdom The hope only Of empty men (Eliot, 1925, lines 61-65).

Figure 4: Cloth Hall at Ypres (c. 1916 – 1918).

With this in consideration, one can see Eliot’s dedication to the neglect of hopeful vision within his poetry. In The Hollow Men, vision is excluded entirely from Eliot’s perception of the post-war condition. Unlike in The Waste Land, where the imagery of the eye is present, yet fails, in his later poem, the eyes are entirely absent. In IV, the speaker declares “the eyes are not here/there are no eyes here” (lines 52-53). The positioning of this absence within “this valley of dying stars/in this hollow valley” (lines 54-55), highlights the death of hopeful vision, leaving only hollow and desolate reality. Alongside vision, all senses crumble entirely. Speech is a hopeless, avoided endeavour, the jaw is “broken” (line 56), and the men are “sightless” (line 61). In a complete breakdown of the defining aspects of humanity, the society Eliot depicts is a broken shadow of functional human interaction and existence. Following the disintegration of the senses, Eliot teases a declaration of hope, “unless” (line 61) denied throughout the poem. Yet, this declaration is as hollow as the men that populate the poem. As with the opening stanzas of the poem, Eliot denies salvation within this life. Only in death, and even this is contingent upon the reappearance of the human sense, can hope be found.

Ultimately, Eliot's bleak and hopeless poem reflects the disillusionment of a post-war society that, in the wake of a period of war characterised by unprecedented brutality, hardship, and loss, found little source of hope.

Ezra Pound: Hugh Selwyn Mauberley

Pound accompanies Eliot as one of the defining figures of the modernist movement. His poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley explores a different aspect of the desolation of post-war society to Eliot, the meaning of poetry, and what political and social effect poetry can possess in such a time of hardship and stasis.

Figure 5: Make It New, essays by Ezra Pound (British Library, 1935).

It is significant to bring to attention Ronald Bush’s (1990) claim that Hugh Selwyn Mauberley was constructed as Pound’s A Farewell To London (p. 57), a send-off to the city he had once imagined as his “ideal home” (p. 57), that left him disappointed and disillusioned. Like many citizens of post-war London, for Pound, the city no longer held the promise its industrial spurt had encouraged. Moving to London to expand his career as a writer, it is no surprise that the poem written in his departure focuses upon the failings and pessimism of modern poetry.

The poem opens with disjunction, a disparity that suggests a longing for a past that can no longer be attained. Pound writes of being ”out of key with his time” (line 1), alluding to the disillusion of the present that leaves the speaker with an intense longing for a better, more hopeful time. He speaks assumedly in the third person, of ”striv[ing] to resuscitate the dead art” (line 2), building on the modernist anxiety of the purpose of poetry that was only exacerbated by the horror and devastation of the war. ”What can poetry do for such a dying and desolate time?” the poem immediately asks. This direct relation of poetry to the political climate is supported by Bush (1990), who argues that in Pound’s ”act of writing” we can see the ”emerging suspicions that poetry was itself implicated in the conditions of cultural and economic life” (p. 57). As such, we can see the political climate of post-war society directly affecting anxieties surrounding verse. After all, what can poetry really do for a ”half-savage country” (line 4), as Pound asks.

Figure 6: Ezra Pound. Carl Mydans. n.d.

Pound’s insistence on the past as a haven is a common trope of the modernist endeavour. It was seen in Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), in his use of fables and myths as parallels to the modern wasteland, and is further explored by Pound in his elevation of historical literary figures. He writes of the “true Penelope” as “Flaubert” (line 13) and finds grand beauty in the “elegance of Circe’s hair” (line 15). This emphasises the desolation of the condition of modern poetry, which possesses no competition with the grandeur of the poetry of the past. In his modernist attempt to make it new, Pound finds himself stuck in the past. He alludes to a pessimistic conclusion that the heyday of poetry has passed, and there is little hope for its revival.

The war surfaces directly in Pound’s disillusioned poem. Drawing on the imagery of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est, Pound writes of the “old lie” (line 75) that the men of war return to after walking “eye-deep in hell” (line 71). The hell of war continues into the post-war society, where men are left deceived, disillusioned, and disappointed. As Frederick Hoffman (1949) writes:

“The war is a major symbol of the destructive change in cultural attitudes” (p. 56).

Figure 7: U.S. Signal Corps (National Archives, n.d).

Again, Pound returns to a longing lament of the past, speaking of “disillusions never told in the old days” (line 83), a heralded time that vastly differs from the “botched civilization” (line 89) of the present. Pound’s continual obsession with the sanctity of the past reveals a key modernist tendency. David Moody (1994) writes of the modernist obsession with “the present moment of the past” (xiii); a kind of living past that haunts the present and reveals the desolation of the modern condition. In this way, the modernist attempt to make it new can be seen as directly interacting with the conditions of the past, as an attempt to figure and work through the terrible and harrowing state of the present. It is a contradictory endeavour and explains the critical tendency to identify the complex nature of modernist poetry, with critics such as Hoffman (1949) characterising Hugh Selwyn Mauberley as a “complex range of ironic statements” (p. 56).

The reviving feature of the poem, that brings life back into the death of Pound’s view of poetry, is the act of writing itself. That Pound writes the poem, despite his lamentation for the lost grandeur of the past and its poetry, draws an element of hope into an otherwise pessimistic poem. In the face of the “botched civilisation” (line 89), Pound appears to give his attempt to make it new one last shot, to revive something dead and reimagine poetry’s significance in a derelict world. The poem, despite its self-deprecating nature, is a truly modern example of art striving to justify itself, existing as “a commentary on, a vision of, the fragmentation of contemporary civilization” (Fraser, 1960, p. 62). Unlike Eliot’s bleak and hopeless vision of the post-war reality, then, Pound sources some optimism within his poem, despite its hopeless surface. In his act of commentary that defies his original dissatisfaction with the political and social purpose of poetry, Pound finds a spark in the ashes. Whilst he cannot be certain of the potential of poetry, nor of its restoration to its former glory, Pound seeks a new meaning for poetry: a raw and reflexive commentary on the bleak condition of a derelict and botched world.

Bibliographical References

Bush, R. (1990). It Draws One to Consider Time Wasted: Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. American Literary History, 2(1), 56–78.

Cechinel, A. (2005). Tiresias in 'The Waste Land'. Mafua.

Eliot, T. S. (1925). The Hollow Men. Oxford University Press, published 1951.

Fraser, G. (1960). Ezra Pound. Grove, pp. 52- 59.

Hoffman, F. (1949). The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade. Viking/ Crowell – Collier, pp. 56-7.

Kosok, H. (2007). The Theatre of War: The First World War in British and Irish Drama. Palgrave Macmillan.

Moody, D. (1994). The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot. Cambridge University Press.

Pound, E. (1920). Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Il Saggiatore, published in 1982.

Urquhart, T. (2010). Eliot's The Hollow Men. The Explicator, pp. 199-201.

Venugopala, B.N. (2014). Post-War Disillusionment and English Poetry. International Journal of Language & Linguistics, pp. 11-14.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Coster, A. R. (1918). Crowds in London celebrate the Armistice at the end of the first world war, November 1918 [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Figure 2: Unknown. (1918). Machine Gun Set up in a Railroad Shop [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Figure 3: Morrell, O. (1934). T. S. Eliot [Photgraph]. Retrieved from

Figure 4: Unknown. (c. 1916-1918). Cloth Hall at Ypres [Photgraph]. Retrieved from

Figure 5: British Library. (1935). Make it New / Essays by Ezra Pound [Photgraph]. Retrieved from

Figure 6: Mydans, C. (n.d.). Ezra Pound [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Figure 7: National Archives (n.d.). U.S. Signal Corps [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Author Photo

Ella Fincken

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