Modern Poetry

Rabindranath Tagore

Writing about modern English poets is by no means an easy task, for who defines the limit of the modern age in terms of the almanac? It is not so much a question of time as of spirit.

After flowing straight for a while, most rivers take a sudden turn. Likewise, literature does not always follow the straight path; when it takes a turn, that turn must be called modern. We call it adhunik in Bengali. This modernity depends not upon time but upon temperament.

The poetry to which I was introduced in my boyhood might have been classed as modern in those days. Poetry had taken a new turn, beginning from Robert Burns, and the same movement brought forth many other great poets, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats.

The manners and customs of a society are shown in social usage. In countries where these social customs suppress all freedom and individual taste, man becomes a puppet, and his conduct conforms meticulously to social etiquette. Society appreciates this traditional and habitual way of life. Sometimes literature remains in this groove for long periods of time, and whosoever wears the sacred marks of perfect literary style is looked upon as a saintly person. During the age of English poetry that followed Burns, the barriers of style were broken down, and temperament made its debut. ``The lake adorned with lotus and the lily'' became a lake seen through the special view of official blinkers fashioned in the classic workshop. When a daring writer removes those blinkers and catch phrases, and looks upon the lake with open eyes, he also opens up a view through which the lake assumes different aspects and various fancies. But classic judgement cries ``fie for shame'' on him.

When we began to read English poetry, this unconventionally individualistic mood had already been acknowledge in literature, and the clamor raised by the Edinburgh Review had died down. Even so, that period of our life was a new era in modernism.

In those days, the sign of modernism in poetry was an individual's measure of delight. Wordsworth expressed in his own style the spirit of delight that he realized in nature. Shelley's was a Platonic contemplation, accompanied by a spirit of revolt against every kind of obstacle, political, religious or otherwise. Keat's poetry was wrought out of the meditation and creation of beauty. In that age, the stream of poetry took a turn from outwardness to inwardness.

A poet's deepest feelings strive for immortality by assuming a form in language. Love adorns itself; it seeks to prove inward joy by outward beauty. There was a time when humanity in its moments of leisure sought to beautify that portion of the universe with which it came into contact, and this outer adornment was the expression of its inner love, and with this love, there could be no indifference. In those days, in the exuberance of his sense of beauty man began to decorate the common articles of daily use; his inspiration lent creative power to his fingers. In every land and village, household utensils and the adornment of the home and person bound man, in color and form, to these outward insignia of life. Many ceremonies were evolved for adding zest to social life, many new melodies, arts and crafts in wood and metal, clay and stone, silk, wool and cotton. In those days, the husband called his wife: ``beloved disciple in the fine arts.'' The bank balance did not constitute the principal asset of the married couple in the work of setting up house; the arts were a more necessary item. Flower garlands were woven, the art of dancing was taught, accompanied by lessons in the vina, the flute and singing, and young women knew how to paint the ends of their saris of China silk. Then, there was beauty in human relationships.

The English poets with whom we came into contact in my early youth saw the universe with their own eyes; it had become their personal property. Not only did their own imaginations, opinions and tastes humanize and intellectualize the universe, but they molded it according to their individual desires. The universe of Wordsworth was specially ``Wordsworthian,'' of Shelley, ``Shelleyan,'' of Byron, ``Byronic.'' By creative magic it also became the reader's universe. The joy that we felt in a poet's world was the joy of enjoying the delight of a particular world aroma. The flower sent its invitation to the bee through a distinctive smell and color, and the note of invitation was sweet. The poet's invitation possessed a spontaneous charm. In the days when the chief bond between man and universe was individuality, the personal touch in the invitation had to be fostered with care, a sort of competition had to be set up in dress and ornament and manners, in order to show oneself off to the best advantage.

Thus, we find that in the beginning of the nineteenth century the tradition which held priority in the English poetry of the previous age had given place to self-expression. This was called modernism.

But now that modernism is dubbed mid-Victorian senility and made to recline on an easy chair in the next room. Now is the day of the modernism of lopped skirts and lopped hair. Powder is applied to the cheeks and rouge to the lips, and it is proclaimed that the days of illusion are over. But there is always illusion at every step of the creation, and it is only the variety of that illusions which plays so many tunes in so many forms. Science has throughly examined every pulse beat, and declares that at the root of things there is no illusion; there is carbon and nitrogen, there is physiology and psychology. We old-fashioned poets thought the illusion was the main thing and carbon and physiology the by-products. Therefore, we must confess that we had striven to compete with the Creator in spreading the snare of illusion through rhyme and rhythm, language and style. In our metaphors and nuances there was some hide-and-seek; we were unable to lift aside that veil of modesty which adorns but does not contradict truth. In the colored light that filtered through the haze, the dawns and evenings appeared in a beauty as tender as a new bride. The modern, Duhshashsan, engaged in publicly disrobing Draupadi is a sight we are not accustomed to. Is it merely habit that makes us uncomfortable; is there no truth in this sense of shame; does not Beauty become bankrupt when divested of the veil which reveals rather than conceals?

But the modern age is in a hurry, and livelihood is more important. Man races through his work and rushes through his pleasure in a crowd of accelerating machines. The human being who used to create his own intimate world at leisure now delegates his duties to factory and rigs up some sort of provisional affair to suit his needs according to some official standard. Feasts are out of fashion; only meals remain. There is no desire to consider whether life is in harmony with the intellect, for the mind of man is also engaged in pulling the rope of the huge car of livelihood. Instead of music, we hear hoarse shouts of ``Push, boys, push!'' He has to spend most of his time with the crowed, not in the company of his friends; his mentality is the mentality of the hustler. In the midst of all this bustle he has no will power to bypass unadorned ugliness.

Which path must poetry now follow, then, and what is her destination? It is not possible these days to follow one's own taste, to select, to arrange. Science does not select, it accepts whatever is; it does not appraise by the standard of personal taste nor embellish with the eagerness of personal involvement. The chief delight of the scientific mind consists in curiosity, not in forming ties of relationship. It does not regard what ``I'' want as the main consideration, but rather what the thing in itself exactly is, leaving ``me'' out of the question; and without ``me,'' the preparation of illusion is unnecessary.

Therefore, in the process of economizing that is being carried out in the poetry of this scientific age, it is adornment that has suffered the biggest loss. A fastidious selectivity in the matter of rhyme, rhythm and words has become almost obsolete. The change is not taking place smoothly, but in order to break the spell of the past, it has become the fashion to repudiate it aggressively, like trying to arrange bits of broken glass in an ugly manner, lest the selective faculty should enter the house by jumping over the garden wall. A poet writes, ``I am the greatest laugher of all, greater than the sun, than the oak tree, than the frog and Apollo.'' ``Than the frog and Apollo'' is where the bits of broken glass come in, out of fear that someone will think that the poet is arranging his words sweetly and prettily. If the word ``sea'' were used instead of ``frog,'' the modernists might object to it as regular poetizing. That may be so, but mentioning the frog is a more regular poetizing of the opposite kind. That is to say, it is not introduced naturally, but is like intentionally walking on your toes; that would be modern.

But the fact of the matter is, the days are gone for the frog to be admitted into poetry with the same respect as other creatures. In the category of reality, the frog now belongs to a higher class than Apollo. I do not wish to regard the frog with contempt; rather, in an appropriate context, the croaking laugh of the frog might be juxtaposed with the laugh of the poet's beloved, even if she objected. But even according to the most ultra-scientific theory of equality, the laugh of the sun, of the oak tree, of Apollo, is not that of the frog. It has been dragged in by force in order to destroy the illusion.

Today. this veil of illusion must be removed and the thing must be seen exactly as it is. The illusion which colored the nineteenth century has now faded, and the mere suggestion of sweetness is not enough to satisfy one's hunger - something tangible is required. When we say that smelling is half the eating, we exaggerate by nearly three quarters. Let me quote a few lines from a poem addressed to a beauty of bygone days.

You are beautiful and faded Like an old opera tune
Played upon a harpsichord;
Or like the sun-flooded silks
Of an eighteenth-century boudoir.
In your eyes
Smoulder the fallen roses of outlived minutes,
And the perfume of your soul Is vague and suffusing,
With the pungence of sealed spice-jars.
Your half-tones delight me,
And I grow mad with gazing
At your blent colors.

My vigor is a new-minted penny,
Which I cast at your feet.
Gather it up from the dust,
That its sparkle may amuse you.

This kind of modern coinage is cheaper but stronger, and very definite; it clearly sounds the modern note. Old-fashioned charm had an intoxicating effect, but this poem has insolence; and there is nothing misty about it.

The subject matter of modern poetry odes not seek to attract the mind by its charm. Its strength consists in firm self-reliance, that which is called ``character'' in English. It calls out: Ho there! behold me, here am I. The same poetess, whose name is Amy Lowell, has written a poem on a shop of red slippers. The theme is that in the evening the snowflakes are whirling outside in the wind; inside, behind polished glass windows, rows of red slippers hang like garlands, ``like stalactites of blood, flooding the eyes of passers-by with dripping color, jamming their crimson reflections against the windows of cabs and tram-cars, screaming their claret and salmon into the teeth of the street, plopping their little round maroon lights upon the tops of umbrellas. The row of white, sparkling shop-fronts is gashed and bleeding, it bleeds red slippers.'' The whole poem deals with slippers.

This is called impersonal. There is no ground for being particularly attached to these garlands of slippers, either as a buyer or a seller, but one has to stop and look; as soon as the character of the picture as a whole becomes apparent, it no longer remains trifling. Those concerned with meaning will ask, ``What does it all mean, sir? Why so much bother about slippers, even if they are red?'' To which one replies - ``Just look at them yourself.'' But the questioner asks, ``What's the good of looking?'' To which there is no reply.

Let us take another example. There is a poem by Ezra Pound called ``A Study in Aesthetics,'' in which a girl walks along the street, and a boy in patched clothes cries out in uncontrollable excitement, ``Oh! look, look, how beautiful!'' Three years later, the poet meets the boy again during a great haul of sardines. The father and uncles box the fish in order to send them to the market at Breschia. The boy jumps about, handling the fish, and his elders scold him to be quiet. The boy strokes the neatly-arranged fish, and mutters to himself in a tone of satisfaction ``How beautiful!'' On hearing this the poet says, ``I was mildly abashed.''

The pretty girl and the sardines elicit the same comment, "How beautiful!" This observation is impersonal, pure and simple; even the slipper-shop is not outside its purview.

In the nineteenth century poetry was subjective in character; in the twentieth it is objective. Hence, emphasis is now laid on the realism of the subject-matter, not on its adornment; for adornment expresses individual taste, whereas the power of reality consists in expressing the subject itself.

Before making its appearance in literature, this modernism exposed itself in painting. By creating disturbances, it sought to contradict the idea that painting was one of the fine arts. The function of art is not to charm but to conquer the mind, it argued; its sign is not beauty but truth. It did not acknowledge the illusion of form but rather the advertisement of the whole. This form has no other introduction to offer; it only wants to proclaim the fact that it is worth observing. This strong case for being observed is not made by appeals of gesture and posture, nor by copying nature, but by its own inherent truth, which is neither religious, moral, nor ideal - it is natural. That is to say, it must be acknowledged simply because it exists, just as we acknowledge the peacock and the vulture, just as we cannot deny the existence of the the pig or the deer.

Some are beautiful, others are ugly; some are useful, others harmful; but there is no possible pretext for discarding any from the sphere of creation. It is the same with literature and art. If any beauty has been created, it needs no apology; but if it possesses no innate strength of being, only sweetness, then it must be rejected.

Hence, present day literature that has accepted the creed of modernity, scorns to keep caste by carefully adjusting itself to bygone standards of aristocracy; it does not pick and choose. Eliot's poetry is modern in this sense, but not Bridges'. Eliot writes:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways,
Six o'clock.
The burnt out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of whithered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots.
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
Then comes a description of a muddy morning filled with the smell of stale beer. On such a morning, the following words are addressed to a girl:
You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;

And this is the account given of the man:

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

In the midst of this smoky, this muddy, this altogether dingy morning and evening, full of many stale odors, and waste papers, the opposite picture is evoked in the poet's mind. He says:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Here the link between Apollo and the frog is broken. Here the croaking of the frog in the well hurts the laughter of Apollo. It is clearly evident that the poet is not absolutely and scientifically impersonal. His loathing for this tawdry world is expressed through the very description he gives of it. Hence the bitter words with which he ends the poem:

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

The poet's distaste for this gathering world is evident. The difference from the past consists in there being no desire to delude oneself with an imaginary world of rosy dreams. The poet makes his poetry trudge through this mire regardless of his laundered clothes; not because he is fond of mud, but because in this muddy world one must look at mud with open eyes, and accept it. If Apollo's laugh reaches one's ears in the mud, well and good; if not, then one need not despise the loud, leaping laughter of the frog. One can look at it for a moment in the context of the universe; there is something to be said for this. The frog will seem out of place in the cultured language of the drawing-room; but then most of the world lies outside the drawing-room....

But if modernism has any philosophy, and if that philosophy is to be called impersonal, then one must admit that this attitude of aggressive disbelief and calumny toward the universe, is also a personal mental aberration owing to the sudden revolution. This also is an illusion, in which there is no serious attempt to accept reality naturally in a calm and dispassionate frame of mind. Many people think that this aggressiveness, this wantonly destructive challenging is what is called modernity.

I myself don't think so. Even though thousands of people are attacked by influenza today, I shall not say that influenza is the natural condition of the body in modern times. The natural bodily state exists behind influenza.

Pure modernism, then, consists in looking upon the universe, not in a personal and self-regarding manner, but in an impersonal and matter-of-fact manner. This point of view is bright and pure, and there is real delight in this unclouded vision. In the same dispassionate way that modern science analyzes reality, modern poetry looks upon the universe as a whole; this is what is eternally modern.

But, actually, it is nonsense to call this modern. The joy of a natural and detached way of looking at things belongs to no particular age; it belongs to everyone whose eyes know how to wander over the naked earth. It is over a thousand years since the Chinese poet Li Po wrote his verses, but he was a modern; he looked upon the universe with freshly-opened eyes. In a verse of four lines he writes simply:

Why do I live among the mountains?
I laugh and answer not, my soul is serene;
It dwells in another heaven and earth belonging to no man,
The peach trees are in flower, and the water flows on....

Another picture:

Blue water ... a clear moon ...
In the moonlight the white herons are flying.
Listen! Do you hear the girls who gather water-chestnuts?
They are going home in the night, singing.
Naked I lie in the green forest of summer...
Too lazy to wave my white-feathered fan.
I hang my cap on a crag,
And bare my head to the wind that comes
Blowing through the pine trees.
A river merchant's wife writes:
I would play, plucking flowers by the gate;
My hair scarcely covered my forehead, then.
You would come, riding on your bamboo horse,
And loiter about the bench with green plums for toys.
So we both dwelt in Chang-kan town,
We were two children, suspecting nothing.

At fourteen I became your wife,
And so bashful I could never bare my face,
But hung my head, and turned to the dark wall;
You would call me a thousand times,
But I could not look back even once.

At fifteen I was able to compose my eyebrows,
And beg you to love me till we were dust and ashes.

I was sixteen when you went on a long journey.
Traveling beyond the Ken-Tang gorge,
Where the giant rocks heap up the swift river,
And the rapids are not passable in May.
Did you hear the monkeys wailing
Up on the skyey height of the crags?

Do you know your footmarks by our gate are old,
And each and every one is filled up with green moss?
The mosses are too deep for me to sweep away;
And already in the autumn wind the leaves are falling.

The yellow butterflies of October
Flutter in pairs over the grass of the west garden
My heart aches at seeing them ...
I sit sorrowing alone, and alas!
The vermillion of my face is fading.

Some day when you return down the river,
If you will write me a letter beforehand,
I will come to meet you - the way is not long -
I will come as far as the Long Wind Bench instantly.

In this poem the sentiment is neither maudlin nor ridiculous. The subject is familiar, and there is feeling. If the tone were sarcastic and there was ridicule, then the poem would be modern, because the moderns scorn to acknowledge in poetry that which everybody acknowledges naturally. Most probably a modern poet would have added at the end of this poem that the husband went his way after wiping his eyes and looking back repeatedly, and the girl at once set about frying dried prawn fish-balls. For whom? In reply there are a line-and-a-half of asterisks. The old-fashioned reader would ask, ``What does this mean?'' The modern poet would answer ``Things happen like this.'' The reader would say, ``But they also happen otherwise.'' And the modern would answer, ``Yes, they do, but that is too respectable. Unless it sheds its refinement, it does not become modern....''

Edwin Arlington Robinson has described an aristocrat thus:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home a put a bullet through his head.

There is no modern sarcasm or loud laughter in this poem; on the contrary, there is pathos, which consists in the fact that there may be some fatal disease lurking inside the apparently healthy and beautiful.

He whom we consider rich has a hidden personality. The anchorites spoke in the same way. They remind the living that one day they would go to the burning-ground slung on bamboo poles. European monks have described how the decomposed body beneath the soil is eaten by worms. In dissertations on morality we have seen attempts to destroy our illusion by reminding us that the body which seems beautiful is a repulsive compound of bones and flesh and blood and fluids. The best way of cultivating detachment is repeatedly to instil into our minds a contempt for the reality which we perceive. But the poet is not a disciple of detachment, he has come to cultivate attachment. Is the modern age so very degenerate that even the poet is infected with the atmosphere of cremation, that he begins to take pleasure in saying that which we consider great is decayed, that which we admire as beautiful is untouchable at the core? ...

The mid-Victorian age felt a respect for reality and wished to accord it a place of honor; the modern age thinks it part of its program to insult reality and tear aside all the veils of decency.

If you call a reverence for universal things sentimentalism, then you must also call your rebellion against them by the same name. If the mind becomes bitter, for whatever reason, the vision can never be natural. Hence, if the mid-Victorian age is to be ridiculed as being the leader of ultra-respectability, then the Edwardian age must also be ridiculed with the opposite adjectives. The thing is not natural and therefore not perennial. As for science, so for art, the detached mind is the best vehicle. Europe has gained that mind in science, but not in literature.