Modernists’ Perception of the Past

Modernists’ Perception of the Past

The New. The Gherkin Building, 30 St Mary Axe, London. 2007.

The Old. The Parthenon in Athens. Photograph by Marco ed Emanuela. 2005.

One of the contradictions of modernism is its
simultaneous rejection and invocation of the past. While modernists apotheosized the creative geniuses of the past, they also rejected old poetic forms. The experimental literature of the 1910s and 1920s was not born out of disdain, although many modernists certainly found Victorian norms unsatisfactory, but out of a demand for progress. During these years, the familiar literary landmarks evaporated in proportion to the increase of interest in expressing life in the new century.

One can view much of high modernism, the typifying years of the interwar period, as an embrace of Ezra Pound’s mantra and modernist slogan, “Make it new.” The orthodoxy of iambic pentameter and four line stanzas saw its last great users in the nineteenth century with Tennyson. Writing became reflective of a society becoming disillusioned by the pace of technological and urban growth, a experiencing a decline in religiosity, and awakening to the new field of psychology. There was a conscious shift in technique away from the conventional, and a thematic shift into the realm of consciousness. For cosmopolitan writers such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who were entrenched in the work of their predecessors, they were not making better art, just different art. Monumental works such as Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Pound’s Cantos hearkened back to ancient epic poems for their prodigious length and panoramic scope. The poems themselves are filled with not only allusions to the past, but observations of twentieth-century culture and society: a blending of the old and new. Poetry, for Eliot, needed to be appreciated from the perspective of the past, but the greatness of the poem shouldn’t be judged side by side with Shakespeare or Dante. Rather, a successful poet must be aware of his place in the literary time line; he must have a deep respect and knowledge of writers who came before him. On the contingency of the new on the old, Eliot wrote:

  • The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. (Eliot 2640)

Modernists were aware of their debt to the past and repaid it by assimilating canonical works into their own. These new works were disjointed, despairing, and psychologically candid. In attempting to portray the human mind and express their uncertainty about the world, writers frequently used classical allusions, which began to take on new meanings and connotations.

By classifying allusions into two types categories, their role in modernist literature may become clearer. We can broadly identify an allusion as either being woven into writing or as composing the structure of a piece. The former refers to a passing reference to a well-known story that adds depth and historical resonance to a poetic idea, and the latter refers to an instance in which an entire work is inseparable from an allusion, such as in the case of a retelling. When a writer weaves a classical idea into his work he presumably believes the ancient author already wrote what he wanted to say and wrote it better than he could. There is an implicit deference in the use of allusion. These sort of allusions are by definition fleeting, lasting at the most a few lines. Such an instance occurs in line 4 of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (just to demonstrate that weaving in allusions is by no means exclusive to the modernists): “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,/ Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains/ One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk” (Keats 1845). If the line mentioning Lethe, the amnesiac river of the underworld, were missing, we would still understand that the narrator is in a stupor, but the allusion, those five letters, “Lethe,”

“Icarus and Daedalus” (1799) by Charles Paul Landon.

immediately brings to mind forgetfulness and, even more, conjures images of the underworld. It skillfully links the lines with centuries of poetic tradition, a force more powerful than any the poet could conjure on his own. This is the kind of allusion that the modernists still use, but begin to turn away from and instead became attracted to writing a retelling of myths to suit their own purposes. Structuring a poem around a Greek myth is also nothing new. It was done by the Victorians, for example with Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and the Romantics, for example with Shelley’s “Adonis.” Even Chaucer retold a myth with his Troilus and Criseyde. Several of the greatest works of modernism, however, use classical myths as their superstructure for their uniquely 20th-century preoccupations: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “Leda and the Swan,” and The Waste Land.

One of modernism’s earliest works, one that challenges perception of what a novel is capable of, was James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Published in book form for the first time in 1916, this was Joyce’s second attempt at writing a full novel after he gave up on Portrait’s older twin story, Stephen Hero. It is somewhat of a departure from his short story collection, Dubliners, but still not as revolutionary and more accessible than his later magnum opus, Ulysses. The novel is a coming-of-age tale of a young artist named Stephen Dedalus who bears many similarities to Joyce. The novel commences with Stephen as a child and ends with him on the cusp of artistic maturation. What makes the novel typical of the modernist period is that Joyce favored portraying Stephen’s thoughts above his objective experiences. Attention is given to the beauty of a sound, image, or symbol rather than the plot. This technique of recording the traffic of the human mind became known as stream-of-consciousness, referring to the appearance of unfiltered, spontaneous thoughts on the page: a term synonymous with modernism. Portrait is also more particularly a work of Irish modernism for its preoccupation with nationality, politics, and identity. The controversy over the Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell, religious and familial disillusionment, and the travails of a younger generation to develop a state of nationhood are candidly viewed from Stephen’s perspective, and each contributes to his development in some way. Joyce invokes a classical myth to express these themes of artistic development and the search for identity: that of Icarus and Daedalus. For Stephen, his mythological eponym become a symbol of his new identity: a divine creator. Emer Nolan observes, “This ideal forerunner and begetter represents a “metafather” who replaces the actual and inadequate paternal figures—Simon Dedalus, priests, teachers, and professors—represented in the text” (282). By identifying himself as heir to Daedalus, Stephen amputates himself from his father and homeland, creating a new life with no preexisting limitations. The Daedalus myth is the internal structure not for the plot of Portrait, but for its protagonist.

“Leda and the Swan” (1530) Reproduction of a lost painting by Michaelangelo. Source: National Gallery, London.

“Leda and the Swan” is a deceptively simple poem that, like A Portrait, uses a classical myth as its superstructure. The myth, for Yeats, becomes a vessel to conceptualize his mystical beliefs. The poem is based on the story of Leda, who is visited and raped by Zeus in the guise of a swan. While “Leda and the Swan” is ostensibly about violence and the interactions of god and nature, Yeats also uses the poem to stage the theory of history he expounds in his 1925 book A Vision. Yeats’s system of history, which draws heavily from mysticism, mythology, and religion, describes history as a pattern of 2,000-year-long gyres, expansions and contractions in the prosperity of man, that begin and end at watershed moments in time, such as the birth of Jesus, which led to the emergence of Christianity, and the birth of Helen, which resulted in the Trojan War. Zeus, according to the legend, impregnated Leda, who then laid an egg nine months later from which was born Helen. Helen, in turn, in kidnapped by Paris, sparking the Trojan War and cementing the ancient Greeks in the annals of Western history and literature. Yeats leaves several clues of the reminiscent of A Vision in the poem. He calls the swan’s webbed feet “dark webs,” an image he will also use in A Vision to describe the machinations of history. In the middle of the poem, he foresees, “the broken wall, the burning roof and tower/ and Agamemnon dead” (Yeats ll. 20-21). Just as the rape of Leda was a portent of war and times of darkness, Yeats felt that a new gyre would begin sometime in his or shortly after his lifetime, which is the theme of another of his most famous poems, “The Second Coming.” Like many of his contemporaries, Yeats uses the language of the past to express his fears of his own era.

The most profound and enduring poem to be born from modernism is one that is impossible to separate from poets of the past, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. First published in the fall of 1922, Eliot’s five part, 432-line poem is a modernist amalgamation of epic poetry and Arthurian romance. Rather, than consisting of a linear plot like most epics, the poem traverses the consciousness of several protagonists and contains countless literary allusions. The poem is infamously difficult to follow precisely because of the abrupt shifts in narration and the large degree of cultural knowledge needed to catch all his references. This, however, was Eliot’s purpose. By creating a poem whose story morphed so unapologetically from a young girl sledding, to a clairvoyant, to an arguing couple, to a drowning sailor, and so on, he was representing an attitude of dislocation he felt characterized life in the new century. Each character leaves the reader with a sense of decay and impotence. “What shall I do now? What shall I do?”/ I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street/ “With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?/ “What shall we ever do?” Lil, a dysfunctional and unsatisfied wife, asks her husband Albert, in Part Two (Eliot ll. 131-134). By Part Four, however, the poem is no longer in present day England but now at the bottom at sea where Phlebas, a Phoenician sailor, decayed after the sea “Picked his bones in whispers” (l. 316). Although these characters are separated by vast stretches of time and place, they share the theme of death and dissatisfaction. One of the first readers of the newly published The Waste Land wrote of the work,

  • At all events it is the most significant in that it gives voice to the universal despair or resignation arising from the spiritual and economic consequences of the war, the cross purposes of modern civilization, the cul-de-sac into which both science and philosophy seem to have got themselves and the breakdown of all great directive purposes which give joy and zest to the business of living. (Rainy 32)

The state society suffered more than just World War I shell-shock, although that was certainly an enormous part of the angst. Eliot sensed a spiritual malaise that permeated all realms of society and culture. The disjointed narrative and allusions are a reflection of this feeling.

Although some the most exemplifying works of the modernist period borrow generously from classical literature, they always do so to embody modernist angst. Allusions can sometimes nostalgically evoke a contrasting image or a period preferred to the present or complement and strengthen a criticism of twentieth-century life. The allusions, however, were changed with the literature. For Joyce, a myth became a representation of identity in his first novel. For Yeats, it becomes a vehicle for expression or his own mystical beliefs. For Eliot, disconnected allusions mirrored the disconnected consciousness of twentieth-century man. Ancient analogies could enrich texts by connecting them with thousands of years of history. A reference to a certain mythological figure not only adds artistic depth and showed an author’s learnedness, but shows the author’s respect for the literature that came before him.

For a more specific and detailed discussion on the way T.S. Eliot and James Joyce make use of classical allusion in their work, follow these links:

Allusions in Eliot

The Aesthetics of Stephen Dedalus


Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2006. Print.

Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. Ed. Michael North. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. Print.

“The Gherkin.”

“Icarus and Daedalus.”

Keats, John. “Ode to a Nightingale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2006. 1845. Print.

“Leda and the Swan.”

Nolan, Emer. “Portrait of an Aesthete.” James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A Casebook. Ed. Mark A. Wollaeger. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

“The Parthenon.”

Rainey, Lawrence. The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. New Haven : Yale University Press, 2005. Print.

Yeats, William Butler. “Leda and the Swan.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2006. 2405. Print.

Created by Greg LaLuna

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