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Courtney Peloso English 467 Dr.

Rosenfeld May 15, 2007 Fixing the Fractured World: Poetry in Modernity “Modernism is a reaction against the modern.” This quote from the article T.S. Eliot and Modernity by Louis Menand, captures the essence of modern poetry. Poets of the modern set, such as T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves, all wrote of the exhausted, modern world. These poets struggle to find meaning and purpose in a world that has been forever altered by war and technological change. The challenge for poets like these comes within their chosen literary form itself – how is a poet to write in this new, changed world? The poet’s relationship to the very language they use in their work in something they have struggled with since the beginning of writing poetry. Poets like Thomas Hardy and A.E. Housman dealt with the problem of finding a way to use language to adequately express their inner feelings. The poets of the slightly later, modern set, specifically Eliot and Graves, dealt with the problem of finding a way to use language to express and make sense of the changed world. The key struggle of modernism is the desire to make sense of the present world through experimentation with language. These poets strive to use their skill with language to create a literary form that applies and fits well with their contemporary times. This desire to use language to find their poetic place has a different outcome for each poet. T.S. Eliot and Robert Graves both attempted to use language, through their poetry, to capture the essence of the modern world. Dealing with the sense of loss that

thrived in their times, they struggled to use their poetry to retrieve what had been lost or to create something new in replacement. In writing poetry, both Eliot and Graves desired to make sense of the world outside themselves. They wished to make sense of the world in its larger context, to both unify the world and find their own place within it. The modern world in which Eliot and Graves wrote was a problematic time. World War One had a deep impact on society at all levels, but especially in the sense of loss it had created. The wholeness of the past had now become the fractured existence of the present. The technology of the modern world had changed the sense of time from a natural, cyclical measurement, in which time is measured as the seasons change, to a measurement of progress where things are always moving forward. This change in time also contributed to the gap felt between the individual and the world. The sublime that was an integral part of romantic poetry and life no longer had the same effect and impact on people of the modern world. Modernism was characterized by the sense that the deep connection with nature was lost in the current world. The importance of the sublime nature, just out of reach, was no longer as important because in the new world, it seemed as if it could no longer exist. This world obviously inspired a different, necessary type of poetry. Modernist poets like Eliot, Graves, Auden, and Lawrence were forced to “react,” as Louis Menand puts it, to the world in which they lived. Because the sublime in nature had lost its appeal and importance, poets looked for the sublime within poetry itself. This new world, where consciousness, rather than the romantic imagination, was now the mediator between the individual and the world, required a changed vocabulary with the appropriate imagery and words to capture the essence of the times.

This is what Eliot and Graves desired to find – a language to use in their poetry that was appropriate in the new world and could recapture the wholeness that had been lost because of the war and technology. However, this desire afforded a different outcome for each poet. For T.S. Eliot, using language in the form of poetry to eradicate the sense of loss in the modern world was a futile effort; the world could not be made whole again, despite the best efforts of poets. For Robert Graves on the other hand, poetry held the magic needed to fix the broken world. Graves believed language can create and unify in order to help in grasping the solid ground that both he and Eliot searched for in the new world. Eliot, however, did not believe poetry could create that magic anymore. For him, the changed world had caused the irrevocable loss of that very magical language. Eliot believed that the wholeness of the world itself could never again return and the language poets use to try to make it whole could no longer succeed. Graves, however, believed Eliot was wrong and that there certainly was a way for the magical language to fix this fragmented world. Graves believed that he himself could find the way. In order to see how Graves was able to succeed in fixing the brokenness of the world through his poetry, it is necessary to first look at the futile attempts of his contemporary, T.S. Eliot. Through an analysis of Eliot’s The Waste Land, one can see his approach to unifying the world once more and how he believed it was utterly impossible for poetry to accomplish such a feat. The lengthy, jumbled poem The Waste Land is, in its writing, evidence of Eliot’s attempt to piece together and unify a world that has been broken in modernity. The fragmented parts that Eliot brings together to create something whole, the poem itself,

show his attempt at bringing back together what is left in the world. His struggle of discovering how a poet should write in this new world leads him to reach back into the past and pull elements together to create his poem, The Waste Land. The true meaning of this poem is found not in the countless symbols within it, but rather in the impossibility of the poem itself. The confusion that permeates the lines of the poem creates the sense of disquiet that parallels what Eliot himself feels living in the modern world. The words and language of the poem come to no visible or clear solution by the conclusion, but Eliot still succeeds in revealing the lens through which he sees the world. Eliot sees the world as irreversibly changed, and in that change, broken. The very chaotic structure, or lack thereof, of The Waste Land shows this. Though he could not succeed in using language to bring the world together in a coherent manner, he can use language to do, for him, the only thing it can – reveal the fractured existence he sees and feels in the modern world. To show this, he uses many different speakers in The Waste Land. This is very much unlike the style of William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, and A.E. Housman, who use a single lyrical voice to express the wholeness of feeling and the direct experience of emotion. Eliot believes that the lyrical voice is fragmented in the modern world, which he effectively portrays in his abrupt switches from one speaker to the next. This, along with his patchwork piecing together of elements of the historical and literary past, creates the sense of the unfixable fractured existence of modernity. The basic symbol Eliot uses, which is alluded to in the title of the poem itself, is the waste land. According to critic Cleanth Brooks, the same theme that is encompassed

in Eliot’s idea that the modern world is a waste land is developed and runs throughout the poem. The fact that Eliot calls the world a waste land reveals that he believes the world is dead, with only fragments of the past left. In modernity, there is nothing but waste, as all the wholeness and goodness has been forever lost. As Brooks says, the theme of death in life in the waste land begins with the first part of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead.” “The Burial of the Dead” creates “the general abstract statement of the situation” (Brooks). Here, the reader can see that the existence of the people in the waste land is more of a death than a life. Using contrasts and fragments of past stories, Eliot creates the situation of the world he feels now exists. The beauty and life of the past no longer exist. As Eliot says, “April is the cruelest month.” A time of year seen as beautiful and life-giving in the past is seen by Eliot, through his modernist lens, as cruel because it mixes “Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.” This seasonal change causes the people to desire what has been lost, but this is a torment because it can never again be found. In the second section of The Waste Land, called “A Game of Chess,” more concretely establishes the atmosphere and lives led by people in the waste land. Here, the reader can more fully see that, to Eliot, lives in the waste land, or modernity are not really lives at all. In this section, Eliot shows the contrasting scenes of high and low class life but brings them together in the idea that no matter the magnificence of the life you live, it has no real meaning in the modern waste land. This idea that, in modernity, life is more like death, with a lost meaning and purpose, is specifically shown in how the woman says to the man in Line 126, “Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your

head?” As Cleanth Brooks says, “These people, as people living in the waste land, know nothing, see nothing, do not even live.” The people of Eliot’s poem live lives that are unreal and meaningless in a world that is broken without the possibility of repair. The repetition of verses such as “Hurry Up Please Its Time,” shows that, for Eliot, there is nothing new or meaningful in the modern world. The technological progress is new, but in terms of the life of an individual, no meaning or purpose can or will be found in the modern world. The third section of The Waste Land, called “The Fire Sermon,” is wrought with symbolism that supports Eliot’s theme that modern life is dead and meaningless because the world has been broken beyond repair. He contrasts the lonely river of modernity with another river of the literary past, showing that even the serene beauty of the river is broken in the modern world. The waste land is sterile, with no new life rising from it, as shown in the line,” Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.” For Eliot, year after year, the “bones cast in a little low dry garret,” will never be disturbed by new life. The image of the rat being the only disturbance flows with the idea that the new world is sterile and not full of real, vibrant life. Also in this section, Eliot repeats his use of “Unreal City,” which is first found in the first section, to reiterate the idea that modern lives are no lives at all in a world that is no longer real itself. The fourth section is called “Death by Water.” The contrast between fire and water symbolizes the fire of trying to find a meaning of life put out by water, or surrender, in realizing that the effort is wasted because no meaning will be found. This section relates to Eliot’s giving up on trying to recreate and unify the modern world. He realizes that he cannot grasp the solid ground or find meaning here and it is a waste to

try. This is specifically shown in, “As he rose and fell/ He passed the stages of his age and youth/ Entering the whirlpool.” Here, Eliot is showing that the search for what has been lost, or the desire to create a replacement, is futile. He rises to try, but falls, realizing that he has already, and will still, waste his life trying. The search is like a whirlpool, going around and around, with no solid ground to grasp and no end in sight. What has been lost will remain lost. The short fourth section is followed by the rather long fifth and final section called “What the Thunder Said.” In this section, Eliot uses a lot of vivid, descriptive language, such as “torchlight red on sweaty faces,” to build up the horror and negativity of the waste land. This section is filled with imagery of ruins, such as “mudcracked houses” and “Falling towers,” to show the mess that the modern world is. Even the “flash of lightning” and the rain cannot create a meaningful life. The rain is supposed to be life-giving, but in Eliot’s modern waste land, even it no longer has power. Eliot uses many quotations in the final section of The Waste Land, again symbolizing his efforts to use elements of the past to recapture the wholeness. The Waste Land in its entirety is the product of a ruined man desperately grasping at the straws of the past in an attempt to make sense of the modern world. In the final stanza of the poem, Eliot says, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Here, Eliot is saying that in this poem he has tried to piece together the fragments left from the past and fashion a wall to protect himself from the modern world. He has not succeeded in putting them together in the correct order, however, and therefore still feels the utter meaninglessness and “death-in-life” of the modern world (Brooks). He has already been ruined by modernity and the past offers no solace or

protection for him. The very disorder and chaos of the poem reveals Eliot’s feelings of modernity. Through the poem, The Waste Land, the reader can see that Eliot believes there is no way to succeed in fixing the fractured world. Robert Graves, on the other hand, believes it is entirely possible to use language to create something new and meaningful in the modern world. Graves responds to modernity by writing aesthetic and ordered poetry. He believes that language has the mystical power to unify and create when use correctly. For Graves, the correct way to capture and use the magic of language is to return to the feminine unity of the romantics rather than the masculine competition of cleverness that poetry has become. He focuses on creating a new mythological system to explain everything and unify the fractured world. Unlike William Butler Yeats, who focuses on creating a new myth for just the Irish, Graves desire to create a new universal myth. He tries to put back the universal consciousness that was broken by the war. Again like Yeats, he has an appreciation for aesthetics in the creation of this myth, but he develops more orderly, structured poetry. The mythological system that Graves develops focuses on the White Goddess. Working in service of the White Goddess of poetry, the poet can experience the intensified life. For Graves, this is the sublime- striving to reach the unreachable in service of the Goddess. Graves creates these new myths for the new age to use his command of language to make the harsh modern world better. Graves believes, as critic Douglas Day says, “Excellence in poetry it appears, entails a certain amount of hard labor.” Even though Graves believes poetry is developed through “the magical inspiration … at the roots of the creative process,” he knows that writing good poetry requires devotion to the craft, and thus the White Goddess. He believes that the poetry

he writes is “true poetry,” and can therefore fix the broken modern world and make it whole once again. To see how Graves uses language to redeem the modern world, unlike Eliot who could not find a way to do so, it is necessary to analyze his actual poetry. Two good examples of the poetry of Robert Graves are The Cool Web and To Juan at the Winter Solstice. The Cool Web by Robert Graves is a poem about speech and language itself. The reader can see in this poem the structure and order Graves believes is necessary. He begins by saying, “Children are dumb to say how hot the day is.” Here, as well as in the following three lines, Graves is describing how not to use language. To Graves, it is childish to use the beautiful gift of language to simply state something obvious. He believes we must use language to reveal deeper things than such. When used correctly, speech can “chill the angry day,” and even “spell away the soldiers and the fright” of war. Here, the reader can see that Graves is saying language holds the power to fix the problems of the modern world. Graves believes that “the cool web of language” that exists within us can be used to help us find the balance and moderation needed in the modern world. It can help us grasp the solid ground. The final stanza of The Cool Web serves as a warning to those of us who use speech and language. Graves warns us not to “let our tongues lose self-possession” – to take responsibility and pride in the language we use. This is because to Graves, language holds sacred, magical powers to fix and create. The Cool Web was written as a direction for readers in how to use language to effectively serve the White Goddess.

A poem that reveals even more of Graves’ emphasis on serving the White Goddess is To Juan at the Winter Solstice. This poem, written to his son, who was born on the winter solstice, is another poem of direction. In this poem, Graves is telling his son how to live the intensified life. He is preaching that this can only be accomplished by committing oneself to serving the White Goddess. He begins with, “There is one story and one story only / That will prove worth your telling,” showing his son, and the reader as well, that the only way to use language in the modern world is to write of the White Goddess. To Graves, the only way to write poetry in the new age is the way he does. He talks of “strange beasts,” “silver beauty,” and royalty, all elements in keeping with his focus on the mythological as the direction for poetry in the modern world. “The undying snake from chaos hatched” symbolizes the very poetry of Robert Graves and those who choose to follow his lead. Born out of the chaos of modernity, evident in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Graves’ poetry is undying because it serves the White Goddess. Like the snake which the Goddess created, the poetry that Graves creates will live on in a modern world where everything else seems to be broken and dying, which Eliot writes of in The Waste Land. Graves tells his son and his readers to “Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling.” Here, he tells us that we should devote ourselves to writing about the White Goddess that is poetry itself, using her majesty as material. To Juan at the Winter Solstice ends with the line “But nothing promised that is not performed.” Here, Graves warns that we must not fail in our promise to serve her and write her story. In this poem, Graves succeeds in “memorably and dramatically embody[ing] the myth,” contrary to the belief of Patrick J. Keane. Keane believes that Graves “most ambitious work falls short of its promise” to do so. However, the ordered

structure, aesthetic language, and devotion Graves expresses in the poem very effectively accomplishes his goals of being memorable and dramatic. In conclusion, T.S. Eliot and Robert Graves both wrote their poetry in response to the fractured modern world. They desired to find the right way to write their poetry in this new age and to fix what had been broken. For Eliot, however, poetry and language cannot accomplish this task, as shown through his fragmented poetry, whose chaos does not lead to a conclusion in the end. Eliot sees no way to alleviate the harshness of the modern world through poetry; all his poetry can do is reveal exactly that – the rough fragments of a broken world. Unlike Eliot, for Graves, this is fixable. Graves believes that he can succeed in fixing what has been broken by using the correct language. A devotion to the White Goddess of poetry and the romantic femininity can help one to recapture the wholeness that was lost in the modern age. Overall, both Eliot and Graves respond to their time period, but with different opinions as to what power language has in fixing it.