Literary Modernism is a term which is almost self-explanatory. After the completion of the First World War, the whole of the European Continent along with America observed a few notable changes in the realm of literature. In 1922, T. S Eliot composed The Waste Land being befuddled by the abrupt shock which the devastations of the War had brought forth.
Liberty, novelty and avant-garde were the watchwords of that Literary Modernism. The way in which this Modernism worked was somewhat new—the new changes in forms and contents were incorporated quite spontaneously. Even the alterations seemed to have fitted suitably into the varied compass of the literary creations! Thus, Literary Modernism breathed a gush of new, fresh air into the stale, dull ambience of literature!
If we analyze a few literary works it will be immediately clear how Literary Modernism affected and influenced the-then literary scene. In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman in full-throated ease can sing at the top of his voice, breaking all established norms of Introduction formally done in a poem, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” In this somewhat long poem, Whitman goes on setting all conventional poetical forms at naught and sings of camaraderie that stretches from one nook to the other of America.
We hear America singing through him, with him. The lines are composed in verse libre mode. Free verse is the right carrier of the right thought. He claims to sing for all and sundry, for the “accepted victors” as well as for “the conquered and slain persons.” Whitman caters philosophical ideas to the readers equally adeptly, “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul/ The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me/….I am the poet of the woman the same as the man/….And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.” He talks of oppression, inequality, freedom, Time and Space and multifarious issues in one breath.
This variety of facets in the length of a poem chosen freely by the poet itself speaks volumes for Modernism. Only Whitman can say in this vein, “Endless unfolding of words of ages!/And mine a word of the modern, the word En-Masse!” He sounds too modern to declare in the last line, “I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
T.S.Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is again a documentary poem of the turbulent times of the First World War when Modernism as a literary notion was taking its final shape. The elements of literary modernism lie in the image of split self, man’s living in more than a single level of consciousness, self-disgust, ennui, pain of inaction in turbulent ,meaningless times, desire for an escape , the hiatus between the desired existence and the habitual one .
As a modern poem, Prufrock throws a series of solutions to the problems that modern man with divided aims face: “There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet/….And time yet for a hundred indecisions.” In almost all the lines there is a hint of suggestiveness which ends in a conundrum, again a characteristic feature of modernism: “That is not it at all/That is not what I meant at all.”
In Robert Frost’s Mending Wall , there is sharp pointer to the need of a partition-wall in this war-torn world where ‘good fences make good neighbors.’ What was to be walled in and walled out again left many questions unanswered. A sense of separatism, unrest, and friendlessness go on recurring in the lines of this poem.
In Emily Dickinson’s poem Much Madness is the Divinest Sense , we find a clue in construing the ways of a topsy-turvy modern world where positive sometimes implies the negative and vice-versa. Madness is taken to be the most divine sense while the sane thoughts are sometimes pooh-poohed .Why so? It is because, literary modernism supports the rise of the abstruse and absurd in a disturbed world with jaundiced viewpoints . Assent and demurring too are interpreted accordingly. Geometric patterns of Picasso’s art can be the best yardstick to measure and finally explain all the meanings of sanity and genuine insanity!
Langston Hughes’s I,Too portrays the modern world in rather clear terms unlike the previous poems. Here with Harlem Renaissance looming large in the background, the poet stages a protest against the discriminations the Black community of America falls victim to. Naturally, the boy brooking all humiliations, goes to the kitchen, gobbles , gets strong and next time faces the opponent as an equal and dazzles his eyes with his handsome looks. Here, the modern-day separatism tantrums are spoken of in clearest possible terms.
Modern-day American litterateurs harp upon a theme: Alienation. This theme has various forms of treatment in different works of literature. Naturally, if a thesis statement has to emerge out of close readings of these works , it must have a direct connection with modern society ,to be precise. Man is nothing but a small island in ocean of modern day world.
In Stephen Crane’s short story The Open Boat, the shipwreck has different connotations to the four survivors: Billie, the oiler, the Captain, the Cook and the unnamed Correspondent. All of them believe that they are to be rescued and again they begin to ponder over the situation in their own way. The cook is chatty, while the oiler and the Correspondent are more cogitative ones. This schism is there in the modern world and the alienated thoughts portrayed by Crane in the four characters are befitting to the modern day multilayered existence. They are alienated though stay cooped together in the open boat.
In William Carlos Williams’s poem Danse Russe , the present day alienation is pictured in simple possible terms. The poet stealthily sneaks into his north room when the sun shines softly over the trees and his wife and child are fast asleep. He takes off his shirt and starts dancing madly in front of the mirror crooning all by himself, “I am lonely, lonely/I was born to be lonely/I am best so.” Unlike Coleridge’s ancient mariner, he enjoys this self-created alienation issuing out of loneliness and he feels himself to be ‘a happy genius of his household.’ This is peculiar characteristic of the modern era. Self-centered feelings lead on to alienation which in turn intoxicates human beings.
The same happy preoccupation with oneself is seen in Walt Whitman’s poem “I saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing”. The poet is out to define ‘manly love’ in these trying times. He is astonished to find a solitary Oak tree proliferating “joyous leaves of dark green” even when his lover or friend is not there in proximity. How is it possible? –thinks the poet. For him, it would have been next to impossible! But to his utter dismay he notices that modern man as Erich Fromm the sociologist claims in his book “The Sane Society” is most productive when he is alienated or friendless.
Robert Frosts’s Mending Wall, talks about “gaps that are made between two.” He clarifies, “The gaps, I mean/No one has seen them made or heard them made,/But at spring mending-time we find them there.” What are these gaps? These are, no doubt, the chinks of alienation which stand tall between men, which keep two men to unite , to exchange ideas and views , which prevents two men from being friends. At what point of time can a man say to another man, “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!” Without having any clear notions of “walling in” and “walling out”, two neighbors begin to think, “Good fences make good neighbors.” It is because modern men love alienation.
T.S. Eliot in his The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock emphasizes the theme of alienation .In the previous poems, this theme is surprisingly shown to have a few positive implications. A separate “face” is to put up to “meet the faces that you meet.” No better example of alienation can be put forward! These days the modern alienated man rightly thinks, “Do I dare/Disturb the universe?” A big why stares on the readers . He reasons forth, “I have known them all already…I know the voices dying with a dying fall..”
The over-familiarity with the known universe makes him sick and tired of it and he naturally gets alienated. Lastly, he dies for a change of ambience. This monotony of modern day existence is again a reason behind such alienation. The line “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each,” is gravid with meaning. Alienation has several facets—sometimes it is positive in effect, sometimes just the opposite. Again, the society is in flux. Alienation is a natural unavoidable outcome. It has to be accepted and stride along .