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The 1930s English Poetry: Pen at War Essay

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Updated: Aug 28th, 2021


The 1930s decade is a period of transition for literature. The historic unrest of World War I and the imminent doom of WWII physically brought wide-spread economic depression, unemployment, death, sickness, and poverty. Western civilization strived to rebuild its foundation and renew society. Political, economic, and social transformations marked crucial ideologies perceived in society and its people. Such transformations were reflected in literature, notably in English Poetry. Poets carried with them a new found ideology that symbolizes their transition into a society with free-forms and expressionist atmosphere – otherwise known as the age of modernism.

Modernism is the era of transformation. It is an ideology that criticizes social injustice and the harsh reality that surrounds it. During this period in literature, Modernist Poets uses new ideas and forms to illustrate their ongoing battle for a better society. To capture the essence of modernism, this essay will illustrate three poems from the 1930s, namely Dylan Thomas’ “The Hand That Signed Paper”, Louise MacNeice’s “The Sunlight in the Garden”, and a sonnet from W.H. Auden’s “In Time of War, XII”.

Armed with modern thoughts and desires to aggressively elaborate the scenario of the era, Dylan Thomas in his “The Hand That Signed the Paper” (1936) combined strong words into four lines per stanza. “The Sunlight in the Garden” of Louis MacNeice used 6 lines per stanza and filled his poem with numerous rhythmic words. The used of images such as garden, sky, birds, sun and others in contrast with cold, pardon, evil, and thunder highlighted the dehumanizing effect of the War.

Meanwhile, the part of the sonnet “In Time of War, XII” (1939) of W. H. Auden used a somewhat Alexandrine form. The first two stanzas consisted of 4 lines and the remaining two used only 3 lines. Auden’s poem uses conventional structure in the form of a sonnet although the the rhymes are not as smooth and lyrical, but the substance of the poetry remains in the era of the 1930s. Forms, verse and rhymes were used randomly to juxtapose with modern ideologies and historical events in order to initiate a new way of repartee with their readers. Auden’s traditional use of structure in his poem may contradict new alternative perceptions from other poets and literary figures. However, Auden clearly distinguishes that poems are essential and relevant not because of their structure but because of the meanings they convey.

The “hand” in Thomas’s poetry signified great power or authority from notable people when he wrote, “Great is the hand that holds dominion over man by a scribbled name.” This is the same power that had led the world to subversion, suppression, destruction of properties and nation, and massive death of innocent lives during WW I and II.

MacNiece’s characterizes awakening either spiritual, mental, or psychological in the use of “sunlight”. In MacNiece, sunlight awakens the people to see the slow death of the natural entities, nation, and beliefs. Mac Niece emotionally draws a picture of a decaying society and the diminishing right to live freely in harmony. The visual catastrophe that poetry has shown was not to propagate fear and weakness but to see beyond the light of having a comrade in this battle. Thus, the sunshine in the garden would remain bright until the harmony is regained.

Auden’s portrayal of “war” in sonnet XII depicts a mental image of continued unrest and a sense of warning for the impending danger and damage that war always brings. “The vanished powers were glad/To be invisible and free/Without remorse struck down the sons who strayed their course/And ravished the daughters, and drove the fathers mad.” His play of rhymes and words like “In bed, grown idle and unhappy; they were safe… in marshes here and there no doubt…without remorse struck down the sons who strayed their course,” illustrate his principle idea that poetry should reflect and communicate with the present situation of the poet. With that idea in mind, Auden clearly demonstrates a sense of fright, loss, warning, murder, and death in time of war.

The Poets’ Pen as the Sunlight in Time of War

There is a saying “a writer should always express and not impress”. This saying applies not only today but especially to the poets of the 1930’s. Poets such as Dylan Thomas, Louise MacNeice, and W.H. Auden depict an era of expression. In their poems, particularly the three mentioned in this paper, convey their feelings and situation during a time of political and economic conflict.

As such, Virgina Woolf, a pioneer of modernism, criticizes 1930’s poets stating that they “feel compelled to preach… the creation of a society in which everyone is equal… It explains the pedagogic, the didactic, the loud-speaker strain that dominates their poetry.” (p.183).This attack on the poets was generalized by reading Louise MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. Although clearly unjustified and prejudiced with only one example from an era of productive writers, Woolf’s statement was not altogether unfounded. Woolf’s principle and perception of poetry stems from the ideology that beauty and art should always come first. Unlike poets of the 1930s, preaching and communicating shared principles and values of the present situation show unfavorable results and is detrimental to the structures of poetry.

The central contrast between Auden and Woolf is between a theory that is fundamentally communicative (‘poetry is an art of communication that flourishes best in communities with shared values’) and one that is fundamentally aestheticist (‘poetry is something beautiful the reader remembers and enjoys in solitude’). Such competing theories necessarily privilege different kinds of poetry: Auden implicitly advocates what MacNeice calls an ‘impure’ poetry (MacNeice, 1938, p.v), which is capable of taking political positions, while Woolf advocates a pure poetry, in which opinions and art are mutually incompatible. (p. 187)

As shown in the earlier part of this paper, the poets of the 1930s conformed to the traditional lyrical forms provided by the earlier conventions. Yes, a literary work should be remembered by the aesthetic of its language, forms and mythical contents. But it should also be remembered by the intensity of it contents and how it evolves with the changing generation. Hence, for Woolf to proclaim that aestheticism, bourgeoisie, and elitisms – of the forms and contents – were the most essential factors to prevent the leaning tower (as the stature of the poets of the 1930s), was not applicable in the given time.

In war, any form of propaganda that would provoke the oppressed and victims to retaliate against the existing situation is indeed crucial. If in the middle of bombings and deaths of our loved ones, a romantic poem about roses and love triangles, are the only poetry to be read, it shadows an imaginary bliss that would definitely betrays the existing situation.

The 1930s poets, through the poems of MacNiece, Auden, and Thomas, with the use of early traditional forms, served a great deal of reinventing the poetries by firing their pens to create provocative poems as sunlight, that would serve light to see evil dominions during the time of war.

Work Cited

Brown, R.D., Gupta, S. (eds) 2005, Aestheticism & Modernism: Debating 20th Century Literature 1900-1960′, The Open University.

Skelton, R. (ed.) [1964] 2000, Poetry of the Thirties, Penguin Classics, London: Penguin.

The Great World War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. Web.

20th Century Poetry and War; Part 2: The 30s. Web.

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