Modern poetry is exemplified by many things: feelings of despair or isolation, a fear of death, a sense of the loss of a happier or simpler time, and a feeling that the world is ending are all very common themes in the poetry of this era. “The Hollow Men”, by T.S. Eliot, “Do not go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, and “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats. All three of these poems explore these themes of fear of death, despair, and loss in different and startling ways, and all three of them are archetypal of modern poetry.
A WORLD COMING UNDONE: W.B. YEATS AND “THE SECOND COMING”
When describing the world around him in his rather chilling poem, “The Second Coming”, Yeats laments that “things fall apart; the center does not hold” (Greenblatt, 892), and captures brilliantly the apocalyptic feelings experienced by many in his generation. The poem was written in 1920, after the horrors of World War I led many to believe that the world, as they knew it at least, was indeed coming to an end. The anxiety over the loss of old norms, old mores, old ways of doing things is evident in the next line “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (892): the mourning for the changes brought about in the modern world, and a sense of a coming to an end, is clearly evident in this poem, and it is this feeling of loss and ending that makes it such a significant representative of modern poetry.
THE STRUGGLE AGAINST DEATH: DYLAN THOMAS AND “DO NOT GO GENTLY INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT”
Thomas begins his dirge with the stunning lines “Do not go Gently into that Good Night/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day” (Greenblatt 912) and in the following lines, he is exploring death on both a literal and metaphorical level. On the literal level, he is exemplifying modern poetry by its hallmark fear of death and dying, often partly a result of the loss of faith which typifies the modern age: because modern humanity lacks a consistent belief about the afterlife, death is something to be feared and avoided at all costs. This could explain why most people nowadays die in some sort of facility, whereas it was common before to die at home; death is seen as ugly in the modern, sanitized age, and this poem shows the anger and fear that the living feel towards death and sometimes towards the dying. The final stanza of the poem, addressed to his dying father, is not only about his father’s literal death, but about the death of security and old ways that his father could represent. This fear of death and this sense of the old ways being lost is another hallmark of modern poetry and Dylan Thomas captures this beautifully.
ISOLATION IN THE CROWD: T.S. ELIOT AND “THE HOLLOW MEN”
Perhaps of all three of these poems, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” might capture the feeling of the modern age the best: it seems to be both overcrowded and isolated, and that overwhelmingly the feeling is one of despair. It is best captured in the following lines: “In this last of meeting places/ we grope together/and avoid speech/gathered at the tumid river” (Greenblatt 935). This image conveys a feeling of a crowd which nonetheless avoids talking to one another and stands around in their individual isolation as they await their end. There is also a feeling, in this apocalyptic poem, of an anticlimax: there is no great finale to the end of the world; it will end “not with a bang but with a whimper” (935). The themes of isolation and, again, of an ending of the world, makes this poem very much a product of its time.
What we see in all three of these poems are common themes that exemplify modern poetry. Among the most important of these are the sense of apocalyptic loss, a feeling of isolation and despair, and the belief that death is ugly and to be fought against. All of these themes are dealt with by Yeats, Eliot, and Thomas in concise and beautiful ways.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2. New York and London: 2000