The poetry of Modern period poets contains a proliferation of feelings of isolation and alienation. Among such poets as William Carlos Williams, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Amy Lowell, isolation and alienation are experienced as failed love, unrequited love, or love that never surpasses the sexual or imaginative stage. In their work appears the subtle delineation between society’s fascination with community and self following World War I. In short, Modern poetry indicates the decline of the romantics and the advent of unwilling self-involvement, even narcissism.
Essentially, Modernism implies the inauguration of failed human relationships. Each poem relates the inability of the individual to achieve connections beyond the physical. In fact, connection are more imaginative than substantive, sought after than accomplished. Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Eros Turannos” relates a woman’s love for a figment of her imagination. The title translates from Greek as “Love, the Tyrant” and suggests one of two possibilities: either the woman comes to realize she loves a tyrant and that her love is necessarily false, or she realizes that love is a tyrant, drawing her into an unwilling association.
Robinson’s diction suggests such ambiguity, describing to readers, a love made purposely blind. The first stanza of “Eros Turannos” introduces a woman so fearful of dying an old maid that she convinces herself of bing in love: “She fear him… will always ask/ what fated her to choose him… all reasons to refuse him;/but what she meets and what she fears/ are less than are the downward years… ” (Lines 1- 6). In Arlington’s poem, a connection occurs between two people by reason of fear. Fear that the poem’s heroine will never achieve, at least the appearance of a close, personal relationship.
And the relationship described in this poem is an illusion. Arlington describes his heroine’s self denial or “blurred sagacity”, her determination to keep her lover from being “the Judas that she found him (Line 12). Perhaps, the poem’s hero becomes a Judas by reason of failing to meet the heroine’s standards – a Judas because he acknowledges his shortcomings, cognizant the heroine has little choice but to accept him. In any event, she makes do as satisfaction wins over fulfillment of a dream, choosing to view an “engaging mask” as her “prejudice delays and fades and she secures him.
” Arlington signifies an inherent unnaturalness in choosing to love as opposed to falling in love. In keeping with the decline of the Romantic period’s idealistic fancy, Arlington compares the lack of sentiment with a “falling leaf”, dying nature or a cessation of the nature tendency towards the creation of life. This fall, really a growing cynicism and human weariness of forming attachments to others continues in the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her poem entitled “The Spring and the Fall” goes further than Robinson’s “Eros Turannos” to advance the idea of love as natural and life-affirming.
Like Robinson, Millay describes the actual formation of love but one-sided as her heroine entertains the notion of love, holds out for it only to find it as elusive. She falls in love during the spring and by the fall of the year knows it will remain unrequited. To love, Millay seem to indicate, comes naturally as the seasons. Her overall message that similar creatures unable to connect exist outside the natural order. The first line of each stanza in “The Spring and the Fall” have the sound of forced jauntiness, wearing thin by the poem’s conclusion: In the spring of the year, in the spring of the year…
In the fall of the year, in the fall of the year… Year be springing, or year be falling… Less and less does the poem’s heroine seek to disclose her feelings, as first her lover “broke [her] a bough of blossoming peach… and [then] broke [her] heart. ” It is worth noting that her heart, as symbolized by “the blossoming peach… was out of the way and hard to reach… ” Millay describes a being isolated from its natural instincts: for humans, a need to make oneself available for connection. There is also a sense that the poems events happen in spite of the heroine not to her.
For example, the disconnection from her lover occurs gradually and so completely that she states, as though from the periphery, some place of emotional detachment: “Tis not love’s going hurts my days, /but that it went in little ways. ” Surely, a more profound and true love disappears with one cathartic event or not all. Perhaps Millay describes the love found in Amy Lowell’s “Patterns” where it is shrouded in sexual feelings and imagination. Lowell’s heroine seeks the distinction of becoming Lady to a Lord Hartwell, a colonel killed in battle. The relationship between the two seems insubstantial, based solely on her passion, her perspective.
She consistently refers to her suitor in the future tense: “ he would, till he, we would. ” In fact, the very nature of their relationship is one of a pattern rather than an actual series of occurrences. And she seems inordinately objective with her statements of “I should like to; I would be; I would choose; I shall go; I should see; or I shall walk. ” Clearly there are few definitives in her connection to the Colonel and even upon his death she remains unable to connect to others, stating, “And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace… For the man who shall loose me is dead” (Lines 103-05).
Lowell’s description of this ephemeral love is also quite sexual, the heroine seemingly more desirous of release than possession. Sexual imagery pervades the poem. Her reference to herself as a plate proceeds a description of her dress’ train as “a pink and silver stain on the gravel. ” Following the Romantic tradition of comparing a woman’s chastity to porcelain dishes, she exists in a virginal state and a rather uncomfortable one based on the imagery. Lowell’s heroine is also constantly depicted amidst nature but not part of it, admitting. in a telling statement, that there is “not a softness anywhere about me…
For my passion/ wars against [my dresses] stiff brocade… ” She goes on to state that “the daffodils and squills/ Flutter in the breeze as they please… ” The implication being that she cannot. And unable to connect with nature, with her sexual feelings she projects them upon images surrounding her. Flowers, indicative of female sexuality, fall upon her chest. She sees “the plashing of waterdrops in the marble fountain”, which symbolizes the female womb, an image she cultivates for the reader as she imagines a “woman’s softeness” bathed in the fountains marble basin.
A mass of contradictions and ambiguity the heroine is clothed in warm, girlish pink and the uninviting, coldness of silver. The brocade texture of her gown invites the touch of an observer but its thickness repels sensation from the wearer. Lowell clearly captures the modern disinclination to rejoice, as did the Romantics, in a desire to love or feel loved. It is a sentiment echoed in the poetry of Lowell’s fellow Modernist, William Carlos Williams. His poem “Portrait of a Lady” invokes a strong sexual recognition in the reader of love’s physical expression.
Paradoxically, the reader sense the narrator of the poem is left untouched by such feelings. How else could the narrator so capably articulate his feeling without a certain detachment from them? As though mocking the Romantic period, Williams deliberately appeals to certain Rococo aesthetics. And in so doing invokes two very popular painters of the French Rococo period: Watteu and Fragonard. Given that the above painters belonged to a period intent upon heralding the joys of simple pleasure, it seems worth noting that Williams somehow manages to complicate love.
He state’s his lady’s thighs touch the sky but will only describe it as that one “where Watteau hung a lady’s slipper… ” Such vivid imagery of the sexual act is lost in the author’s hesitant manner, an ambiguity furthered with question marks and dashes which seemingly connect ideas but actually conveys detachment. He cannot decide if his lady’s “knees are a southern breeze – or a gust of snow. ” In essence his disconnection from her leaves him unable to decide her sexual compliance or resistance. It is a confusion that reappears in his poem “The Rose. ” Ever a symbol of the Romantic period, William considers the rose “obsolete.
” Its soft, velvety texture, from Williams’ Modernist perspective, “renews itself in metal or porcelain. ” He compares the effort love requires to doing geometry and finds it more cutting than a broken plate. If “the rose carried [the] weight of love” Williams postulate, “[then] love is at an end… ” And when he says “the fragility of the flower, unbruised penetrates space” Williams elevates love to the level of the sublime. Unlike the Romantics, he seems intent upon proving Modern humans incapable of achieving love, connection, or true transcendence from one’s self-containment.
Clearly feelings of isolation and alienation pervade modern life. And if art imitates life then William Carlos Williams, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Amy Lowell accurately recreate that feeling of disconnection in their poetry. Their ability to capture Modern individual’s unwilling self-involvement indicates the decline of Romantic ideals. In short, the concern for betterment of others which fueled the Enlightenment, French and American Revolutions gave way to a self-protective form of narcissism. As a result the poetic form, often associated with protestations of love, came to convey disillusionment with the emotion.
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