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

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

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

  4. Poetry and Politics 101: Contemporary Contexts

Poetry and Politics 101: Pre-First World War Poetry

It is undeniable that the First World War (1914-1918) altered the course of history. With this cataclysmic shift, came an irrefutable shift in art, literature, and general culture. As significant and important as the study of the First World War is, the after-effect of its colossal literary impact is the neglect of those poets of the pre-war years. This article will examine Modernist poetry of the pre-war years to shine a new light on the poetics of the early 20th century.


Modernism is a well-known literary movement, heralded for its attention to complexity, experimental verse, speed, individuality, and consciousness. The emergence of modernism marked a distinctive break from the past, encouraging a new era of experimentalism and change, offering itself as a self-conscious juxtaposition to the strict and confined literary culture that preceded the movement. Infatuated with the “accelerated pace of urban life” (Whitworth, 2010, p. 19), modernist poetry responded directly to the social and political modernity of their times, that with the advances of the industrial revolution and imperialism, was felt to be thrust upon them. Attempting to navigate a modern world that had no literary response, the modernists sought to make sense of their fast-paced, ever-changing reality. The shift in print culture certainly encouraged this trend. As Robin Schulze (2017) attests, “the ten years between 1910 and 1920 witnessed the founding […] of periodicals and presses starting specifically to print experimental work” (p. 177). The published validity of the experiment caused a boom in “schools” of art associated with the modernist period, such as cubism, imagism and futurism, which sought to challenge preconceived notions and ideas and bring modernism to the forefront of the literary imagination.

This shift in literary preoccupation began in the early years of the 20th century. As Schulze (2017) discusses, in 1904 the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin “gave a lecture entitled The Growing Distaste for the Higher Kinds of Poetry”, which expressed the sentiment that “the world was going to hell” and “people no longer had patience for serious, ennobling elevations of verse” (p. 177). This was, for Austin, an example of “putrid social decay” (p. 177). Such a lecture, however bitterly it responds to the literary climate of the turn of the century, reveals just how much, and how quickly, poetry was changing. Interestingly, Austin’s speech sparked a great discussion of poetry, what it means, what it serves, and what place it holds in an ever-evolving society. Schulze (2017) attests to a public opinion that sought poetry not as the issue, but the genre of poetry as the root of the social decay to which Austin so detested. There came a call for a new genre of poetry, for something refreshing and new that could mirror the chaos, uncertainty, and modernity of the time.

Figure 1: From left: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso (Associated Press; Corbis; Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis).

Peter Childs (2016) speaks of the defining characteristic of modernist poetry as its “break from iambic pentameter as the basic unit of verse, to introduce vers libre” (p. 3), and its dedication to the representation of subjectivity. In this way, one can see the movement’s defining feature as its commitment to alteration, a turn towards introspection and freedom that allowed them to fully “express the new sensibilities of their time” (p. 4). Though readers and critics alike have contended the modernists’ dedication to difficulty as pompous or overdone, reading the modernist verse as a reflection of their epoch reveals their true intentions. As Childs (2016) evokes, the modernists were responding directly to the conditions of their time, writing amidst the:

compressed, condensed, complex literature of the city, of industry and technology, war, machinery and speed, mass markets and communication [and] of internationalism (p. 4).

Though modernism certainly transcends one coherent or decisive definition, it is apparent that the early modernists sought to bring light to the rapidness and complexity of their time and reflect that honestly within their poetry. Dedicated to a true depiction of consciousness and reality, modernists often “plunged” their readers into a mental landscape, neglecting the familiarising preambles characteristic of 19th-century realist writers such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens (Childs, 2016, p. 5). Accepting hardships as a condition of their time, the modernists embraced complexity and sought to throw their readers into the deep end of the mind, to create a landscape, though not easily understood, was thoroughly reflective of their age.

Figure 2: Queens Borough, New York City (Unknown, 1910-1920).

Ezra Pound, a predominant figure of the modernist movement, found in pre-20th-century poetry the sentiment that there was nothing new under the sun. For the poet, “poetry had become nothing but a rote recitation of all-too-familiar thoughts and feelings” (Schulze, 2017, p. 180). It had become, for Pound, a regurgitation of recurring imagery, sentiments, abstractions and meanings. The time had come for change. Pound found himself wandering Europe in the search “for a new language that could arrest an […] audience” (p. 181). As Rebecca Beasley (2007) suggests, modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot, T. E. Hulme, and Ezra Pound were dedicated to the revolution of poetry, “arguing that traditional poetic forms and themes could no longer encapsulate the experience of the modern world” (p. 1).

Modernism, then, though a multi-faceted movement and not easily defined, can be overarchingly described as a literary endeavour for change for a new kind of poetry that would suitably represent the modern mind, world, and condition, in a way that previous literature was no longer adequate to do so.

Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound is perhaps one of the most well-known modernist poets, existing as a kind of figurehead for the modernist movement. The critical attention to his verse reached astounding levels in both contemporary and modern times. Michael Alexander (2022) speaks of the “vitality of Pound’s contribution” (p. 15) and the “redirection he gave to poetry” (p. 15), accounting for Pound’s dedicated efforts to the modernist poetic cause throughout his life.

One of Pound’s most well-known poems, In a Station of the Metro (1913) is notoriously short, with only two lines, encapsulating the modernist commitment to change and subversion.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals on a wet, black bough.

Figure 3: Ezra Pound (Coburn, 1913).

This poem encapsulates the modernist sentiment of breaking from the past, refusing to conform to the conventions of long, epic-like poems of vast stories, tangents, and imagery. Instead, Pound evokes the fleeting nature of urban life in a poem well suited to its meaning: a poem that is over before it has even begun. If we were to imagine a poem written by Shelley, or Keats, intense and long-winded imagery would subsume the clear-cut “apparitions” (line 1) Pound recalls. But, for Pound, the meaning comes as much from the structure he creates as from the imagery of the poem itself. Commenting on his poem, Pound recalls:

I got out of a metro train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another […] and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find words for what this had meant to me (Espey, 1952, p. 59).

As such, Pound’s poetry encapsulates the modernist dedication to self-conscious reflection. If Pound could not find the words, his poem would reflect this, and he gave all the words he could offer. In a strikingly modernist way, Pound’s short poem intended to say more of the subject than his predecessors could have. Though the poem may be distinct in its brevity, it does not lack meaning. Pound accumulates social and political meaning into two lines, to create a meaning that is difficult and complex. The choice of “apparition” (line 1), with its ghostly and unsettling connotations, serves in one instance to create an image of unknowing and unease. It gives way to a modernist impression of uncertainty in changing times and of unease towards novel urban settings such as the metro. The rapid nature of the industrial revolution led to rapid, unprecedented alterations to everyday life which, for many inhabitants of the urban city, was an unsettling progression. As Atsuko Ichijo (2015) attests, the ”sociocultural integration” of society was essentially “shattered by […] rapid industrialisation” (p. 12). As such, Pound’s choice of the apparition as a descriptive of passers-by encapsulates the modernist reaction to the new era of social exchange predetermined by rapid industrialisation. Gone was the age of intimacy, connection and knowing. Now passers-by, for Pound, are uneasy reminders of the extent of the urban reality. People became fleeting entities, unknown, representative of the loneliness of industrial urbanisation.

Figure 4: The Pavilion entrance at Bastille Metro Station (Shosany, n.d.).

The evocation of “petals” (p. 2) seems a strange inclusion to a poem of coldness, separation, and detachment. In reality, the inclusion of petals within a seemingly dark poem serves to create modernist difficulty, confusing the meaning. As Steve Ellis (1988) argues, the poem’s “extreme condensation gives it a sense of being analysis-resistant” (p. 201). Against the ghostly connotations of the apparition, petals serve to place the blame for the coldness and distance of the city not on the urban inhabitants, but on the reality of urban structures that encourage estrangement and separation. The juxtaposition of the fertile image of the flower with the “wet, black bough” (line 2), a symbol of infertility and destitution, roots the blame for Pound’s isolation in physical structures as opposed to inherent social weakness. In a political turn, Pound’s poetic difficulty serves to reflect the flaws of the city’s structures, which serve to encourage individualism and seclusion.

This poem follows the Imagist tradition. Imagism was an early 20th-century art movement that relied on concrete imagery to draw meaning, as a reaction against the over-elaboration of Romantic and Victorian poetry. Pound’s dedication to quick, evocative imagery highlights his imagist tendencies and reveals his commitment to reflecting the speed and intensity of urban life that, like the passers-by of the poem, felt fleeting and uncapturable. As such, Pound’s short poem encapsulates the modernist commitment to poetry as a form that reflects the chaos, uncertainty, fragmentation, and speed of the times.

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot is another foundational figure of modernist poetry. Most famous for his complex poem The Waste Land (1922), which fuses mythical narratives with the chaos and sterility of the present, Eliot represented the Modernist tradition of poetry as a reflection of the age.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is second to The Waste Land in its popularity. Written in 1911 as a dramatic monologue, the poem epitomises the modernist struggle of chaos and uncertainty in the speaker’s inability to act. The poem is far denser than Pound’s In a Station of Metro (1913), yet both serve to represent modernist endeavours, highlighting the multi-faceted nature of the movement.

Figure 5: T. S. Eliot (Morrell, n.d.).

Let us go then, you and I When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question... Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit. (Eliot, 1915, lines 1-12)

The poem begins with unsettling urban imagery that mirrors Pound’s poem. The opening romantic sentiment is quickly overturned and confused by the imagery of a dead patient and of an isolated city environment. Like the sterility of the wet, black bough, Eliot’s urban environment is a scene of desolation and isolation. Dismissing the romantic imagery of the first lines, the poem turns to critique urban structures, such as the “one-night cheap hotels” that promote disillusionment, isolation, and restlessness. The repetition of the imagery of the street echoes the strangeness of the city, which is “half-deserted” (Eliot, 1915, line 4), carrying “insidious intent” (line 9). By the third stanza, the insidiousness of the city intensifies, manifesting in the personified “yellow fog” and “yellow smoke” (lines 15-16) that casts an ominous shadow on the meaning of the poem. As the poem continues, Eliot calls into question the progressiveness of the urbanising city. The anaphora of “there will be time” is not a comforting promise of the possibilities of the urban future. Instead, the monotone repetition of the phrase serves to unsettle the reader, trivialising progression and providing yet another ominous sentiment to the poem.

Figure 6: "Prufrock, and other observations" (The Egoist, 1917).

The failure of apparent progressiveness is epitomised by the speaker’s inability to act. Throughout the poem, the unsettling city is framed by the speaker’s fear to interact with the questions the city raises. “Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” (line 11) the speaker begs, later frantically questioning “Do I dare? And, Do I dare?”. By combining the impersonality of the city with such introspection, Eliot seeks to root what poet Alfred Austin referred to as “putrid social decay” in the chaos of the urban city that leaves the individual fragmented, lost, and unable to act. As Donald Childs (1988) suggests, the speaker “struggles helplessly in an eternal hell of self-estrangement and moral indecision” (p. 687). The modernist expression of self-reflection is then epitomised by Eliot in this poem, who creates the difficulty of meaning within the poem to reflect the difficulty and chaos of his speaker’s own struggle to make sense of the world. The franticness of the speaker reflects the franticness of the age and the speed and intensity of the city which raises questions that cannot be answered.

Indeed, the poem does not attempt to resolve or dissect the speaker’s queries. Rather, the poem favours introspection, in a resolve to not answer the questions the new age raises, but reflect society’s reaction to them. Much as Pound’s poem reflects his inability to find the words for his emotions, Eliot’s verse reflects the speaker’s inability to make sense of his interpretations of the city. As such, “the overwhelming question” (Eliot, 1915, line 10) of the poem remains wholly unanswered, indicating the modernist desire for poetry to serve as a reflection of the age, but not to necessarily provide an answer to its political and social queries.


Pre-war modernist poetry, then, addresses the political in a far less direct manner than can be seen throughout the history of poetry. For modernists, the subject was the self, and the interest of poetry was always crucially endowed with a representation of the individual. As such, whilst the politics of urbanisation and industrialisation serve as a crucial forefront to the poet’s aims, it must be considered that modernist poetry sought to represent the ways in which the chaos, uncertainty, and desolation of the urbanising world were interpreted within the self. This subjectivity, which led to experimental forms of verse and subversive representations of meaning, heralded a new era of poetry, away from its conservative and direct predecessors, towards a muddled, chaotic, and complex form of poetry that became the only adequate expression for a confusing and ever-changing age.

Bibliographical References

Beasley, R. (2007). Theorists of Modernist Poetry: T.S. Eliot, T.E. Hulme, Ezra Pound (1st ed.). Routledge.

Childs, D. J. (1988). Knowledge and Experience in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. ELH, 55(3), 685–699.

Childs, P. (2016). Modernism (3rd ed.). Routledge.

Eliot, T. S. (1915). The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Poetry.

Ellis, S. (1988). The Punctuation of “In a Station of the Metro”. Paideuma, 17(2/3), 201–207.

Espey, J. (1952). Pound, In a Station of the Metro. Explicator, vol. 11.

Ichijo, A. (2015). Introduction. Modernism. Routledge Press.

Pound, E. (1913). In a Station of the Metro. Poetry.

Schulze, R. G. (2017). Modernist Poetry: Or, The Growing Taste for the Lower Kinds of Poetry. In M. W. Van Wienen (Ed.), American Literature in Transition, 1910–1920 (pp. 177–190). chapter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whitworth, J. (2010). The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry. Cambridge University Press.

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