Poetry of the Thirties


by José Goris, M.A.


Shortly after World War I a number of young British and American poets wrote works that were very different from what had ever been written before: modernist poems. Until then poetry had had to conform to set rules as to rhyme, rhythm, metre and contents. Modernist poems brought about a revolution in the literary world. Their poetry has a number of characteristics:

  1. Freedom of form. Modern poets do not use stanzas, rhyme, metre or other limitations.
  2. Modern poetry appeals to the intellect rather than to the emotions, as was the case with the romantic poets.
  3. Modern poets often write in the stream of consciousness mode; they let their subconscious play an important part. There is often little or no logical connection between thoughts and feelings; being understood by the reader has no priority.
  4. The theme of modern poetry often is: present-day life in the big cities. Most modern poets dislike modern society and express concern and aversion.

Two important writers of modern poetry in England are W.B.Yeats and T.S.Eliot. Yeats began his literary career by writing romantic poems, but when he was about fifty he became more down to earth. Several of his modern poems are pessimistic; they express the fear that in our century culture and moral values will die and that the world will become filled with selfishness, violence and meaninglessness.

T.S. Eliot is seen by many people as the most important literary figure of the 20th century. He was one of the first modern poets and practically all poets of the 1920s were influenced by him and partly followed him. Apart form poetry he wrote literary essays and plays. In most of his works Eliot writes about the boredom, the loneliness and the emptiness of 20th century life in the big cities. He is one of the disillusioned and cynical writers that lived after World War I, who had very pessimistic ideas about the future. His most famous poem is 'The Waste Land'. It shows the conviction that in this modern world people cannot really and fully live: modern man is spiritually dead. His body is alive, but the soul has gone; he experiences death in life. When he was older T.S.Eliot became a member of the Anglican Church and became convinced that religion gave the answers to most of the problems of modern shortcomings; his later poems show deep religious feelings.

In Britain in the 1930s, but also later, many poems were written by people that identified with the proletariat: they either belonged to this class themselves or had strong left wing sympathies. These writers - the 'social' poets - used their poems to reveal their political feelings and express their desire for a socialist society, and sometimes elaborated on the theme of Eliot's 'The Waste Land'. Among them are four poets of middle-class background that came to the foreground with the opening of this decade: Cecil Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden; young university men, born shortly before the war. They represent the rising generation and have attracted considerable attention.

At the time there were frequent contacts between British and Anglo-American writers. Anglo-American poetic modernism took the form of what is known as imagism. Imagist poetry allows an even greater freedom of form and use of language; it often flows from one line to the next and does not stop. It makes use of images and different kinds of rhythms and subjects. Ezra Pound, an American writer who settled in Europe, was one of the great innovators and a leading figure in the Imagists' Movement. His influence on British and American literary society was enormous. Together with two other prominent poets, T.E. Hulme and F.S. Flint, he formed the core of the Imagist Group, later joined by W.C.Williams and the Imagist Women Hilda Doolittle and Marianne Moore. In London he met other modernist writers, among them T.S. Eliot, whom he greatly influenced. Pound wrote of the image as 'an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time'. He went back to the great writers of the past, not only in ancient Greek and Rome but also in Chinese and other cultures.

To top

Famous poets and their works

Cecil Day Lewis (1904-'72)

Cecil Day Lewis British poet and, as 'Nicholas Blake' writer of detective fiction, born in Ballintogher, near Sligo, Ireland. He was educated at Sherborne School and Wadham College, Oxford. The son of a clergyman, he lived in England from 1905. At Oxford his literary associates included Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden. He was a member of the Communist Party from 1935 to 1938 and with Auden, Spender and MacNeice, contributed to various leftwing journals. From 1951 to 1956 he was Oxford Professor of Poetry, and he succeeded Masefield as Poet Laureate in 1968. The next poem has a political message and announces the 'entrance of a new theme'.

You That Love England (1933)

You that love England, who have an ear for her music,
The slow movement of clouds in benediction,
Clear arias of light thrilling over her uplands,
Over the chords of summer sustained peacefully;
Ceaseless the leaves' counterpoint in a west wind lively,
Blossom and river rippling loveliest allegro,
And the storms of wood strings brass at year's finale:
Listen. Can you not hear the entrance of a new theme?

You who go out alone, on tandem or on pillion,
Down arterial roads riding in April,
Or sad besides lakes where hill-slopes are reflected
Making fires of leaves, your high hopes fallen:
Cyclists and hikers in company, day excursionists,
Refugees from cursed towns and devastated areas;
Know you seek a new world, a saviour to establish
Long-lost kinship and restore the blood's fulfilment.

You who like peace, good sticks, happy in a small way
Watching birds or playing cricket with schoolboys,
Who pay for drinks all round, whom disaster chose not;
Yet passing derelict mills and barns roof-rent
Where despair has burnt itself out - hearts at a standstill,
Who suffer loss, aware of lowered vitality;
We can tell you a secret, offer a tonic; only
Submit to the visiting angel, the strange new healer.

You above all who have come to the far end, victims
Of a run-down machine, who can bear it no longer;
Whether in easy chairs chafing at impotence
Or against hunger, bullies and spies preserving
The nerve for action, the spark of indignation-
Need fight in the dark no more, you know your enemies.
You shall be leaders when zero hour is signalled,
Wielders of power and welders of a new world.

Day Lewis was a nature poet, and also had a deep love for England. Above all a poet of the wind and the bird song, which shared and inspired his own nervous vitality. In that respect he could have been a romantic poet. But he had a revolutionary poetic belief: he wanted poetry to speak in a new contemporary language. There is no rhyme or metre; the rhythm is nearer to that of natural speech, as in many of Eliot's works. In poetic technique and use of symbolism Eliot was the poet's master, but as to attitude to life he is nearer to Owen, who thought it the duty of poets to take sides in politics and to use poetry to that end.

In the first stanza Day Lewis uses imagery of nature's beauty: 'the slow movement of clouds in benediction', 'clear areas of light thrilling over her uplands', 'the chords of summer', the leaves, the blossoms. After the first stanza there is a change of mood: the entrance of a new theme. Its imagery changes to the wrongs of modern life: 'refugees from cursed towns and devastated areas'; 'victims of a run-down machine'; 'derelict mills'; despair, loss, lowered vitality, hunger: much was wrong in British society. The economic depression had begun and millions became unemployed; the 19th century industrial centres were in ruins.

A similar situation in Europe was giving birth to unrest there and saw the rise of Nazism - as yet only a threat, but one the young revolutionary poets - Auden, MacNeice, Spender and Day Lewis - detected. It was of these things they began to write, in an attempt to wake up sleepy minds in Britain and make ordinary people more socially and politically conscious. The poet wants to 'heal the Waste Land': 'seek a new world, a saviour to establish long-lost kinship'; 'restore the blood's fulfillment'; 'welders of a new world'. In the last stanza he draws on feelings of rebellion: 'you who have come to the far end'; 'who can bear it no longer'; 'in easy chairs chafing at impotence'; 'the nerve for action'; 'You shall be leaders when zero hour is signalled'.

To top

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)

Louis MacNeice British poet, born in Belfast, educated at Merton College, Oxford, where he began friendships with W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender. After lecturing at the University of Birmingham and London University he was a writer and producer with the BBC. He produced many plays for radio, some of which his own works. His first volume of poetry appeared in 1929. Although the social concern in his verse of the 1930s is apparent, it lacks the political tone occasionally encountered in the work of Day Lewis. MacNeice's style is more lyrical:


Sunday Morning (1936)

Down the road someone is practising scales,
The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails,
Man's heart expand to tinker with his car
For this is Sunday morning, Fate's great bazaar,
Regard these means as ends, concentrate on this Now,
And you may grow to music or drive beyond Hindhead anyhow,

Take corners on two wheels until you go so fast
That you can clutch a fringe or two of the windy past,
That you can abstract this day and make it to the week of time
A small eternity, a sonnet self-contained in rhyme.
But listen, up the road, something gulps, the church spire
Open its eight bells out, skulls' mouths which will not tire
To tell how there is no music or movement which secures
Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.

The theme of the poem is: the threat of danger. The people in the poem are enjoying their Sunday rest in apparent but not real peace. Someone - probably a child doing his or her homework for a music lesson - is practising scales on a musical instrument, while the father spends time working on the car, which gives him the excuse to be out of the house and to take a joy ride. These simple familiar routines seem to last forever: a small eternity, a sonnet self-contained in rhyme. People are taking things for granted, and turn a blind eye to the state of affairs of their country, but they will not get away with it. As in a sonnet, there is a change of mood after the break: in the last four lines we notice that something is definitely wrong. From the church yard skulls mouths tell us that this Sunday morning may look very pleasant with its music and odd jobs, but getting away from an unpleasant reality is an illusion. Britain is in trouble: the economic depression will not solve itself unnoticed.

Bagpipe Music (1937)

It's no go the merry-go-round, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crêpe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with heads of bison.
John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whisky,
Kept its bones for dumb-bells to use when he was fifty.
It's no go the Yogi-Man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It's no go your maidenheads, it's no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop Tyre and the devil mend the puncture.
The Lairdo'Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife 'Take it away; I'm through with overproduction'.
It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the ceilidh,
All we want is a mother's help and a sugar -stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.
It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.
It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.

A similar theme is found in 'Bagpipe Music': social sickness and the threat of war. I t is another example of political poetry, focussed on Scotland, the bagpipe being a symbol of Scottish culture. The Scottish economy is in a depressed state; on Marxist lines - the revolutionary poets had socialist sympathies - the origin of the ills in the world lie in the system of economics and politics. The people in MacNeice's poem are tricked by the 'opiates' of the capitalist system: the blessings of raising a large family, hard work, religion, fake social benefit instead of good working conditions, status quo elections. They are getting amusement parks, various religions and other sops in return.

The poet does not try to educate people or convert their unassertiveness. He expresses merely - by means of satirical observations of clichés and their users - their longing for the simple pleasures of life, of spontaneous living: a bit of money, romance, help with their work and the raising of a family. They are not satisfied with the government's bribes: no go the merry-go-round, no go the Bible, elections or the country farm with a pot of geraniums. The symbol of democracy, elections, merely offers tokenism: the electorate can 'break the glass' - of the falling barometer, symbolic for the economic depression - but this will not stop the cause or reverse it: 'but if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather'. The people have no real influence.

To top

Stephen Spender (1909-'95)

Sir Stephen Spender Sir Stephen Spender, British poet and critic, born in London, was educated at University College in Oxford. He was knighted in 1983. As a student he began his lasting friendship with W.H.Auden, whose poems were first collected in an edition of thirty copies handprinted by Spender in 1928. After graduating in 1929, he travelled in Germany with Christopher Isherwood. He was a member of the Communist Party in 1936 and 1937; in the thirties he writes about the poor in industrial society:

In Railway Halls (1939)

In railway halls, on pavements near the traffic,
They beg, their eyes made big by empty staring
Railway Hall And only measuring Time, like the blank clock.
No, I shall weave no tracery of pen-ornament
To make them birds upon my singing -tree:
Time merely drives these lives which do not live
As tides push rotten stuff along the shore.

There is no consolation, no, none
In the curving beauty of that line
Railway workers Traced on our graphs through history, where the oppressor
Starves and deprives the poor.
Paint here no draped despairs, no saddening clouds
Where the soul rests, proclaims eternity.
But let the wrong cry out as raw as wounds
This Time forgets and never heals, far less transcends.

The poem is about the poor in British industrial society after World War I. The imagery reminds of the scene in a railway station in one of our big cities: 'eyes made big by empty staring'; in the 1930s probably by hunger, today mostly because of drugs. Some people are inclined to regard this type of poverty as something drug users inflict upon themselves, and not as the act of 'the oppressor that starves and deprives the poor' but the result is the same: 'time merely drives these lives which do not live'. Our outcasts' 'wrong cry' is not heard loud enough in this society bent on luxury, wealth and profit, no more than the cry of the hungry in the 1930s. Their cry is caused by material poverty, our cry by material affluence. Society has not managed, in 60 years' time, to solve the problem of the poor.

To top

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-'73)

Wystan Hugh Auden Wystan Hugh Auden, British poet, born in York, was educated at Christ Church, Oxford. Having worked as a schoolteacher in Germany from 1929, Auden moved to London in 1935 and worked briefly with the GPO Film Unit. A trip to Iceland with MacNeice in 1936 produced a collection of prose and verse by both authors. He went to Spain in 1937 to broadcast propaganda for the Republican cause and emigrated to the USA in 1939. Here he met Chester Kallman, who became his lover and remained his companion for the rest of his life. He wrote 'Five Songs' while he was in Germany in 1931. The next poem is the second song; it has a psychological approach to the defects of society.

Five Songs

That night when joy began
Our narrowest veins to flush,
We waited for the flash
Of morning's levelled gun.

But morning let us pass,
And day by day relief
Outgrows his nervous laugh,
Grown credulous of peace,

As mile by mile is seen
No trespasser's reproach,
And love's best glasses reach
No fields but are his own.

The theme of the poem is: recovering from a trauma. All over Europe soldiers in World War I had returned disillusioned and traumatized from the trenches, where they had witnessed the death of many of their friends and relatives. Back home, they had to pick up their normal life again. The persona in the poem is an ex-soldier, who, with a cautious heart, begins to enjoy life again but does not dare to believe this can really be lasting and true. He is happy with his lover at night, but expects this to end again in the morning. Much to his relief, nothing is wrong in the morning, nor in the next days: 'morning let us pass', 'day by day relief'. Peace has been so far away in everyday life that a feeling of security has to be recovered, mile by mile, till love can reach him again in 'fields of his own.'

As to the structure the poem has off-rhyme, which produces a jarring effect in for instance 'flash/flush'; 'began/gun'; 'pass/peace'; 'reproach/reach'. This is a modernist feature. On the other hand, the strict metre of the poem is that of a song: more traditional. There are six syllables to a line with a fixed pattern of unstressed/stressed. The contents are emotional, but the fixed form creates a rational impression, just like many Renaissance sonnets.

The next poem is written as an elegy on Yeats. He had lived long, from 1865 to 1939, and his poetry mirrored much of the changing spirit of the years. He was admired by his contemporaries and inspired them. Auden presents a vivid picture in lyric of various aspects of his life and death.

In Memory of W.B. Yeats.(1940)

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
William Butler Yeats The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed: he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections;
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of tomorrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom;

A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.


Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
Yeats'grave in Drumcliffe, County Sligo Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Rest in Peace Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

There are three parts, entirely different in point of view, structure, and contents. This may be seen as symbolizing the various stages of Yeats's work - he started as a romanticist and ended a realist - but also the variety of meanings of a person's death. When someone dies, this has an impact on the outside world. He is no longer part of it, as is described in the first part: 'he disappeared in the dead of winter', and those left behind have a story to tell on how it happened: he was ill, 'the provinces of his body revolted, the squares of his mind were empty'. What is left of his spirit is in the memory of the living: 'he became his admirers'. They give meaning to the poetry he has left behind: 'the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living'. Yeats himself can no longer explain the meaning of his writings. Readers will give their own interpretations, and this is in fact the long-term meaning of a poet's work: what it contributes to society after his death. He himself will be hardly remembered: 'a few thousand will think of this day / when one did something slightly unusual'.

The second part has an entirely different point of view: Auden speaks to Yeats; a man-to-man, poet-to-poet talk about what it means to be a poet. It is both silly and a way of expressing one's feelings: 'mad Ireland hurt you into poetry'. The meaning of poetry is that it outlives the poet.

The last part is the kind of speech made at the actual funeral, at the graveyard. It is an elegy in honour of the deceased: 'Earth, receive an honoured guest'. His personality and work are praised, his sins and flaws - his flirtations with fascism - are forgiven. The living pity him - 'the seas of pity lie locked and frozen in each eye', but in fact his state is to be preferred to earthly life, where people are 'sequestered in hate', caught in 'the prison of the free man's days'.

To top

John Betjeman (1906-'84)

Sir John Betjeman Sir John Betjeman, a British poet was born in Highgate, London. He was educated at Highgate Junior School, where T.S. Eliot was among his teachers, at Marlborough College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford. Here he became acquainted with W.H. Auden, whom he impressed with his 'extraordinary originality' as a wittily accomplished poet and independently minded aesthete and bon viveur. Having left Oxford without a degree, he was briefly engaged as a schoolmaster, before he began writing poetry. He became a widely popular poet; his poetry displays a technical virtuosity and an emotional, intellectual, and imaginative cohesion which argue for his stature as a major talent. In 1972 he succeeded Cecil Day Lewis as Poet Laureate.

The next poem called 'Slough' reflects his concern for the effect of industrialization on everyday living conditions. It is from his bundle 'Continual Dew' (1937).


Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town-
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years.

And get that man with double chin
Who'll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women's tears


And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It's not their fault that they are mad,
They've tasted Hell.

It's not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It's not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sport and makes of cars
In various bogus-Tudor bars
And daren't look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care
Flowers Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

Slough is a town west of London; in the poem it is depicted as a place where people do not want to live. He may have used the 'bombs' in anticipation as symbols of destruction, adding 'friendly' to make the metaphor less provocative. Still, the first line draws attention; inviting bombs to fall on a town is an unusual way to begin a poem.

The rhyme is unusual; the first three lines of each couplet rhyme, and the last line matches the last line of the next couplet. The scheme is:

  1. aaab
  2. cccb
  3. ddde
  4. fffe
There are several instances of alliteration: grass / graze, bombs / blow, mess / mess.

Imagery used for the superficial ways of modern life in an industrial town is:

  1. line 3: there isn't grass to graze a cow: the meadows have been sacrificed for buildings
  2. the tinned fruit, meat, etc: far away from fresh and healthy food; tinned minds, tinned breath: people are getting estranged from natural living conditions.
  3. lines 13-20: that man with double chin / women's tears: family life is being disrupted, too, by the corruption of commerce
  4. stanza 6: the bald young clerks that should be spared represent social commentary on the class system; the working class that has made promotion, but still has no choice and cannot afford to rebel. Instead, the men seek solace in visiting pubs and talking about cars while the women are tarting up at home.

To top

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

William Carlos Williams American poet, born in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he practised as a paediatrician after studying at the university of Pennsylvania and Leipzig. As a student he began a long friendship with Pound, whose innovative ideas had a profound effect on his development as a poet. Together with Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle and Marianne Moore he formed the core of the imagist poets. His poems often arise from observation of everyday events, mostly in the course of his medical work. The next poem is from his bundle 'Collected Poems':

The Term (1934)

A rumpled sheet 
brown bag of brown paper
about the length
and apparent bulk
of a man was
rolling with the
wind slowly over
brown bag and over in
the street as
a car drove down
upon it and
crushed it to
the ground. Unlike
a man it rose
again rolling
with the wind over
and over to be as
it was before.

This poem demonstrates imagist freedom. There is no rhyme or metre; lines do not begin or end in a fixed pattern. The rhythm must be improvised. The poem's imagery has a strong impact: the comparison between a sheet of paper and a human being is not the most obvious one. It is not romantic: imagists were mostly unromantic. They appeal to the intellect: the length and bulk of the paper matches that of a man, hence they can be compared. It is very compact: written in prose form there are only two sentences, yet its imagery tells the story of a lifetime. 'The street' is the image of the path of life, 'the rolling paper' that of a human being moving along life's ups and downs. One of the latter is 'the car', which 'crushes the paper to the ground': there may be overwhelming disasters in a person's life. He can 'rise again', of course, like the piece of paper, but he will never be 'as before'; material things remain unmoved, human beings don't.

Because of its short lines, the poem has a dramatic effect. It carefully draws attention to what happens to the paper, the lines beginning with 'wind', 'the street', 'a car', 'the ground'; thus getting more emphasis. Gradually the contrast between the paper that can be restored and the human being that cannot becomes apparent.

To top

Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961)

Hilda Doolittle American poet - who wrote as 'H.D.'- , the daughter of a professor of mathematics, born in Pennsylvania and educated at Bryn Mawr College. As a student she was closely associated with Marianne Moore, W.C. Williams and Ezra Pound, to whom she was briefly engaged. While holidaying in Europe in 1911 she met Pound in London, and together with him, Flint and Aldington she formed the core of the Imagist Group. She married Aldington in 1913 and they maintained a relationship till 1938. Her first collection of poems, 'Sea Garden' (1916), is notable for the precision and clarity of its imagery, often derived from maritime settings. Later works contained poems still identifiable as imagist, while initiating the engagement with classical mythology.

Helen (1934)

All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre of the olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.

Greece sees unmoved,
God's daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funeral cypresses.

The 'Helen' in the poem is Helen of Troy; she provides a very strong image as she is a well-known phenomenon in literature. According to a Greek saga she was the beautiful wife of King Menelaos of Sparta. She eloped with Paris, the son of the Trojan King, and this incident is alleged to have caused the outbreak of the Trojan War. After a ten years' siege the Greek managed to capture Troy, thanks to Odysseus's cunning. The Trojans themselves had dragged the Trojan horse, which housed a number of the cleverest Greek soldiers in its interior, into the city walls. The image of Helen as a symbol of superior beauty is also used in later literary works.

In the Renaissance for instance, when interest in the classics revives, she features in the play 'Doctor Faustus. Here she is credited with the capacity to make Faustus immortal with a kiss. In the play, however, she is only a fraud. Moreover, in those days female roles were played by males, which does not leave much of her feminine attraction intact. In the 20th century Yeats refers to her in his poem 'No Second Troy', when he pictures his beloved Maud Gonne as a second Helen. Not as a symbol of beauty this time, though he undoubtedly admired her, but as the cause of revolution. Where Helen had caused the Trojan War, Maud had stirred the fire for the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916. Yeats has no regard for revolutionary women; he thinks them one-track minded.

The literary critic and author of biographies Janice Robinson, who has studied the life of Hilda Doolittle, writes in her book 'H.D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet': "The tension between Aldington's essentially Roman (or Trojan) view of the world and H.D.'s decidedly Greek vision of the real was the tension that finally led to 'the fall of Troy', that is, 'the end of their marriage'." She explains that Aldington was a professional writer and thought poetry was just one of the many styles of writing. On the other hand, H.D. looked at poetry as a way of life. Robinson also writes that Troy stands for Europe during the Great War.

Just like the poem 'Helen', the next poem 'Eurydice' also reflects H.D.'s interest in Greek mythology. D.H.Lawrence Eurydice was the wife of Orpheus; she was killed by a serpent's bite. She was rescued by Orpheus, but later killed again. Janice Robinson gives some insight into this poem. She argues: "Life's trials and tribulations shape every aspect of a person's being. Poetry is a release of one's inner being. It is a picture of what is going on inside one's soul. We can have a better insight of a poet when we have an understanding of what molded that person's life." She explains that H.D. writes of D.H.Lawrence's arrogance and ruthlessness in this poem: the bite of the serpent. She had a romantic affair with Lawrence, who wanted her marriage to Aldington to end.

Eurydice (1926)

Why did you turn back,
that hell should be reinhabited
of myself thus
swept into nothingness?
Why did you turn?
why did you glance back?

So you have swept me back-
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth.
I who could have slept among the live flowers
at last.

so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders among moss of ash.

What was it that crossed my face
with the light from yours
and your glance?
What was it you saw in my face-
the light of your own face,
the fire of your own presence?

Hilda Doolittle led a rather unconventional life. Throughout her lifetime she was romantically linked with many famous men. Among them were Ezra Pound and Dr. Sigmund Freud. She met Pound at the age of 15 and a lifelong connection was formed. They became engaged and maintained a friendship until Hilda's death in 1961. Richard Aldington was the man she married; they were a married couple for about 3 years. They maintained a quasi-relationship from 1913 till 1938.

From 1914 till 1919 D.H. Lawrence became an item and many rumours abounded about the two. Numerous steamy letters were shared and confidences made for several years. Then there was Cecil Gray, a young musician with whom H.D. spent a significant amount of time. Hilda had a child by him, which her friend and novelist Annie Bryher helped her raise. Annie was a lesbian who had a marriage of convenience, and soon she and H.D. had a lesbian affair. Her relationship with Freud started in 1933. H.D. refers to herself as his pupil rather than his patient.

To top

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

Marianne Moore Marianne Moore was also an imagist woman. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and educated at Bryn Mawr College, just like Hilda, with whom she became friends. She grew up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and worked as a teacher, a secretary and a librarian. Her specialization in biology informs the many poems based on her observation of animals; she also loves the sea. The next poem is another example of imagist freedom: in addition to the absence of rhyme and metre, the shape is most unusual:

A Grave

Man looking 					into  the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to you have yourself,
it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing,
but you cannot stand in the middle of this;
the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.
The firs stand in a procession, each with an emerald turkey-
foot at the top,
reserved as their contours, saying nothing;
Lucitania repression, however, is not the most obvious characteristic of
the sea;
the sea is a collector, quick to return a rapacious look.
There are others besides you who have worn that look-
whose expression is no longer a protest; the fish no longer
investigate them
for their bones have not lasted:
men lower nets, unconscious of the fact that they are
desecrating a grave,
and row quickly away-the blades of the oars
moving together like the feet of water-spiders as if there were
no such thing as death.
The wrinkles progress among themselves in a phalanx-
beautiful under networks of foam, and fade breathlessly
while the sea rustles in and out of the
the birds swim through the air at top speed, emitting cat-calls
as heretofore-
the tortoise-shell scourges about the feet of the cliffs, in motion
beneath them;
and the ocean, under the pulstion of lighthouses and noise of
advances as usual, looking as if it were not that ocean in which
dropped things are bound to sink-
in which if they turn and twist, it is neither with volition nor

The theme of the poem is: the sea is both beautiful and dangerous. 'A Grave' was written in memory of the cruise ship 'Lucitania'. Early in WW1, the German government placed an add in the New York Times, reminding the US that a state of war existed between England and Germany and that the Lucitania was at risk of being sunk. The captain, Cunard Lines, risked the threat, and set sail for England. The ship was torpedoed at a loss of all passengers just off the coast of Ireland; it was one of the greatest sea disasters. The ship exploded and sank in just minutes, leading investigators and historians to suspect that she was indeed filled with munitions.

At the time the poem was written, the poet's brother Warner had joined the Navy as a captain and was out at sea. The sea was one of Moore's favourite topics, but she was also very much aware of the sea as a grave; it was both beautiful and deadly: 'the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave'. Once, when she and her mother were standing together admiring the sea, a man came and stood in front of them. Moore's mother remarked about how people seem to feel the need to stand in the middle of things instead of stepping back to get the full picture, and this incident became part of the poem.

The shape of the poem is highly unconventional. Many open spaces, lines wide apart, of uneven length; they are a bit like the waves of the sea: unpredictable. The sea as a grave: a powerful image.

To top

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

Dylan Thomas Welsh poet, born in Swansea, Glamorgan, educated at Swansea Grammar School. Much of his verse originates in a series of notebooks dating from his schooldays, which have been published as 'Poet in the Making: The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas'. In the early thirties two volumes of poems were published: '18 Poems' (1934) and '25 Poems' (1936). The latter established his reputation as a poet of importance. Thomas's poetry arises from deeper levels of consciousness; it is not deliberately intellectual and has no political purpose. A poet like Dylan Thomas has no such aim as 'healing the Waste Land'.

Thomas is one of the poets who gets close to surrealism, which, if practised ideally, means the release of whatever wells up from within, without any conscious control or selection. This idea is related to Freudian psychoanalysis, with its notions of free association, dreams, intuition, the psyche's irrational expressions. As Stephen Spender expresses later: "It is the voice, not of the doctor, but of the patient that is heard. The poet no longer stands outside the Waste Land: he is the flower." From the Welsh chapel of his boyhood Thomas absorbed the Bible, and came to know Freud. Biblical and sexual imagery are wonderfully intertwined in his poetry.

Vision and Prayer (1939)


Are you

Who is born

In the next room

So loud to my own

That I can hear the womb

Opening and the dark run

Over the ghost and the dropped son

Behind the wall thin as a wren's bone?

In the birth bloody room unknown

To the burn and turn of time

And the heart print of man

Bows no baptism

But dark alone

Blessing on

The wild


His early verse explores the themes of birth, sex and death through imagery he describes as 'derived....from the cosmic significance of the human body' .The language is highly symbolic: 'I can hear the womb opening'; 'the dropped son'; 'the birth bloody room'. It has an almost hypnotic power, enhanced by the poet's command over sound and rhythm, as shown in this poem by the shape. Louis MacNeice compares his near-surrealism to the speech of a drunken man, remarking of a passage in one of Thomas's poems: 'I is the almost automatic collocation of a number of emotional - primarily sexual - symbols, thrown up as a drunk man throws up phrases'. This may be illustrated in the next poem:

All that I Owe the Fellows of the Grave (1933)

All that I owe the fellows of the grave
And all the dead bequeathed from pale estates
Lies in the fortuned bone, the flask of blood,
Like senna stirs along the ravaged roots.
O all I owe is all the flesh inherits,
My father's loves that pull upon my nerves,
My sister's tears that sing upon my head
My brother's blood that salts my open wounds
Heir to the scalding veins that hold love's drop,
My fallen filled, that had the hint of death,

Heir to the telling senses that alone
Acquaint the flesh with a remembered itch,
I round this heritage as rounds the sun
His winy sky, and, as the candles moon,
Cast light upon my weather. I am heir
To women who have twisted their last smile,
To children who were suckled on a plague,
To young adorers dying on a kiss.
All such disease I doctor in my blood,
And all such love's a shrub sown in the breath.

Then look, my eyes, upon this bonehead fortune
And browse upon the postures of the dead;
All night and day I eye the ragged globe
Through periscopes rightsighted from the grave;
All night and day I wander in these same
Wax clothes that wax upon the ageing ribs;
All night my fortune slumbers in its sheet.
Then look, my heart upon the scarlet trove,
And look, my grain, upon the falling wheat;
All night my fortune slumbers in its sheet.

Thomas's influence was considerable during the later 1930s, most notably upon the poets of the New Apocalypse. This is a group of writers, mostly poets, who came together after the appearance in 1939 of 'The New Apocalypse: An Anthology of Criticism, Poems and Stories'. Thomas was their principal exemplar in poetry. They had radical critique of cultural and religious orthodoxy, and relied on the deep creative resources of the individual psyche. Freudian and Marxist thought strongly informed the group's philosophy.

To top
Read more: famous poetry online

The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English
English Literature of the 20th Century- A.S. Collins
Introducing English Literature /The Twentieth Century- James Brockway
Some Basic Ideas about English Literature- Arthur Cliften
The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse

World Wide Web:
Indexes to Poems /Bartleby Verse
Poet Links
Poets' Corner - Bookshelf
Twentieth-century Poetry in English