Views On The Conception Of Past And Present In Modernist Poetry: T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound

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When dealing with the past and the present, it is important to outline the significance of traditional values and their influence on cultural changes, which determines economic development and, overall, its continual change as we head into the ‘modern’. In order to re-establish a “tradition” in T. S. Eliot’s point of view, it must first be analysed through its beginnings. Eliot suggests in his essay the idea that to be traditional is to allude to one’s predecessors and their own cultural grounding in understanding the historical complexities of the ‘temporal, timeless [ness] and temporal together’. Eliot exemplifies the importance of fusing the past and the present whilst attaining a realisation of the sense of a present temporality, in which a poet must embody ‘the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer’, in order to recognise not only early experimental shifts in poetry but their restructuring throughout history.

Modernist authors’ and poets’ views on the relationship between the past and present stems from a ‘desire to evade “modern materialism and determinism”…[leading] them to look for spiritual and political bases for their return to a past era of “enlightenment”’ to reshape literary forms by finding an equilibrium. Pound wrote in his collective essays Make It New that one should ‘be influenced by as many great artists as you can’ , suggesting a break with the past to create something wholly new, which implicitly brings into question the validity and importance of caring about the literary traditions of the past. However, there is a clearer directive to how the literature of the past encompasses present ‘modern’ values in order to relate to more of what was active in various past historical periods. This highlights an important perception of how our historical roots create new values, as in the case of Eliot, when he fuses his own ideas, with those of historical authors, in order to ‘glorify the past’. This essay will analyse specific aspects of Pound, Eliot and other critics’ views on the conception of the past and the present. It will also explore how culture and tradition influenced the contemporary development of an inchoate Modernist aesthetic.

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Eliot employs the literary technique of alluding to specific historical events, and mixed them with his own ideas, in order to draw upon past and present values. The Waste Land draws heavily upon the Aeneid and many other classical works, including an understanding of the Punic wars and Greek civilisation, thus grounding his work with historical referents while valorising the understanding of classicism and its value to modernist poetry. The concept of using classicism to approach modernist ideas was first established through figures such as Goethe. As an early European writer, Goethe – alongside contemporaries such as Wilhelm von Humbolt – became ‘determinants in the formation of the current meaning of a classic as a concept from the beginning of the 19th century, setting the framework through German conservative thinking in the re-establishing of a conscious appreciation of past values. The idea that a literary work can become a ‘classic’ implies that there is some inherent value that is worthy of preservation.

Eliot can, arguably, be considered as a conservative writer, despite his alignment with a modernist movement that wishes to ‘break with the past’. His essay What is a Classic outlines the idea of a classic only being able to form once the civilisation itself, its literature and its language, reaches a mature state; it is ‘the mind of the individual poet, which gives the universality’. For Eliot, the versatility of modernist poetry enabled poets to gain an appreciation of the past and embed this within a modernist setting. This presented itself to Eliot as evidence that his own research and study of the past should structure his writing in ways which comment on the degradation of tradition and culture and its loss in modern meaning in relating to a collective feeling felt by all those in contemporary society. To Eliot, the idea of culture stemmed from a unification of primitive societies which, over time, developed and expanded to branch out into different sections that fabricated the formulation of all what is considered to be ‘culture’, and in that, a ‘mature civilisation’. Perhaps then, Eliot looks to not pertain to antiquarianism but in fact to utilize tradition as a teaching method; one that not only may improve the present but, at length, the future itself.

In regard to the modern poet, Eliot spoke about their ‘dislocation: uprooted from place, living in a culture that spurns the past, locked in his own self-consciousness’, reminding us that some past form of consciousness cannot be regained once we enter a new stage of equilibrium, one that does not look back to the past but at its current stage in development. The Waste Land, especially Part V, introduces a didactic framework to which Eliot’s allusions seek to establish imperative links between both the past and the present. This could formally be a way of ‘illuminating’ what exactly the future holds for man and the ways in which it may change. The allusions here are more subtle, as with Dante’s Inferno, (‘I have heard the key’), and other references, such as the story of Philomela and Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Interestingly, the final three words, ‘Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.’, – meaning ‘give’, ‘passion’ and ‘control’ – are taken directly from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which are ancient philosophical texts taken from both Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts. Eliot may be demonstrating that, through these texts, the idea of hope – suggestive of a hope that will come – is teaching the individual important ethical responsibilities that can permeate one’s own development, growth and strength to achieve a perfect social reconstructing. Eliot ends on this in the hope that the reader will gain a new understanding of their human purpose; they serve as pillars of commitment for the individual. Eliot’s inclusion of Virgil’s text serves as a prominent ‘example from antiquity’ in its consolidation of a future where modernist poetry should mould civilisation; showing how it has been ‘subject to continuous transmission and interpretation in Europe’. This links with Eliot’s suggestion that poets should embody the literature of Europe since Homer; to Eliot, Virgil is not only an important figurehead in the Christian world, but also an author whose works grounded a world (Virgil’s ‘world’) as a place where all things – ethics, order, and honour – made sense.

Unlike Eliot, Ezra Pound saw both the past and the present as ‘fragmented’ as each other, and so used ‘powerful forces of the imagination to make and unmake the past into patterns useful in the present’. Pound describes a restructuring of the imagination in order to bring about some order to both the past and the present. For Pound, Modernism should, rather, be emphasised through its exclusionary approach to history, which ostensibly allows the poet the opportunity to construct an unbiased projection of the future for modern man. Eliot uses Virgil to exert his own Christian experiences in describing a past that – in his eyes – was, and is, far simpler than the present. Eliot proclaims this critical need of authors and poets to find grounding in the past to make way for a better future, but his Anglo-Catholic beliefs may alter the way in which Modernism, defined by a subtraction away from ‘belief’, is perceived for better or for worse by other critics. Woelfel argues that ‘“secularization,” and thus modernization, is defined by the loss of belief’, and that for those who ‘self-identify as modern, rational intellectuals […] a religious turn is a turn away from being modern [and] scholarly.’ He highlights how religion in modern society is continuously broken down through new social-economic factors like Neoliberalism and urbanization, which opens new schools of thought for us as humans to have better knowledge in the present in paving a more positive future for society, whilst inevitably leaving the individual in an unbelieving state of mind. Modernist poetry’s inclusion of traditional religion spans back to ancient times, perhaps to better educate the reader that the inclusion of epics, such as Homer’s Odyssey, were seen as ‘teachings’ of the current social circumstances of the time. The texts are composed of different historical periods reflected many interconnected conditions of the time, we see a historical development through the ages. This element is explored in modernist poetry to find cultural roots in which we can retrace and rebuild into a more organically collective society.

Modernist poetry is inextricable to the advent of Modernism as a literary movement, which, due to its versatility in having many different ‘Modernism(s)’ in different historical periods in time, has become increasingly difficult to define. Modernism, then, has become quite abstract in itself due to historical conditions shaping the way it can be perceived. Whilst these layered modern factors affect the way in which Modernism can be viewed and defined, Walter Pater saw it as a ‘train of reflexion which must end in defiance of form, of all that is outward, in exaggerated idealism’. He reflects on the idea of Greek thought being uncorrupted by the entire world around them, and hence, the best way to perceive all things cultural as primarily idealistic, which may hint at modernist poetry’s allusion to an ‘idyllic worldview’ in building interpretations of what society should become: uncorrupted by new modernist thought. He also describes ‘their relation to the world generally, were ever in the happiest readiness to be transformed into objects for the senses’. He could be drawing upon past cultural tradition as the conduit for what should be a condensed and quickly formed attitude of the conscious present, built in conjunction and in relation to a continuity of form and structure that we as readers relate to – historically as much as presently. This could be what Pater indicates to subconsciously consume whilst we accelerate into future civilisation; the historic past and the immediate future should absorb all its effects and motives into one concrete ideal in order to preserve ourselves. However, Pound, in collaboration with Yeats, experienced difficulty in the handling of early literary techniques, especially that of temporal structure. Pound was, at the time, ‘pondering the possibility of “a long imagiste or vorticist poem”’, which led to his interest in Japanese Noh plays. He pursued ‘the truly modern by the circuitous route of early Japanese theatre’, observing how they created a physical representation of the past and the present in one image, something that was becoming more prominent in a lot of Pound’s work. Pound and Yeats both shared a great interest with the Noh, Pound more so because it ‘related to the new aesthetics of Imagism and Vorticism’ which caused him to explore history and culture with a more critical outlook in order to attach significance to ‘an image’; that which he wishes to capture in his poetic works, from his discovery of the Noh’s technique of ‘unity [laying] in the image’. Where Pound draws on the fusing of the past and present, Noh demonstrates a re-enactment of the past to which the present can ultimately move forward. This was to show that natural progression, which embodies past and present, opens the possibility of the past being capable of restructuring to fit new societal values, thus wholly incorporating an artistic creation of the idyllic future.

It seems clear, then, that the past acts as the unfiltered framework in which poets and authors alike draw from to find new grounding in each new historical period of Modernism. In order to evaluate the present, it is apparent that the past must be intertwined to find an answer for what we as a society seek to recognise as the inevitable progression into an uncertain future. There seems to be a need to relate to simpler times to better understand present complex reformations of ideas, but the individual should not shy away from the obvious fact that the future can be inevitably versatile and adaptable to its socio-economic parameters. Figures, like Eliot and Pound, collaborate in the construction of hopeful imagery that is taken from simpler times to evoke positive thoughts from their readers – to digress from current socio-economic issues – and thereby rebuild a conscious mind-set of the possibility of a superior society in the future.


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