Modernist Fiction as Romantic Poetry

Screen Shot 2020-05-10 at 9.06.54 AMA literary-historical question: Did the modernist revolution in literature have opposite consequences for fiction and poetry when it comes to beauty?

The modernist poet-theorists, after all, derogated both ornament and emotion. Pound redefined beauty in medieval and neoclassical terms as “fitness to purpose” and eulogized rough, edgy Browning among the Victorians, whereas melodious Tennyson was the favorite Victorian whipping-boy of the modernists. Eliot and Pound had harsh words for Shakespeare (Pound preferred Chaucer; Eliot pronounced Hamlet an artistic failure), along with Milton, the Romantics, and their 19th-century successors (the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetes). Pound and Eliot elevated instead colder, more organized, and more conceptual figures from the western tradition: Dante* and Donne most famously. Forget the messy subjectivism and musical passion of the Romantics (including the proto- and the post-) from Shakespeare to Wilde, they counseled—the modernist watchword in poetry is Classicism.

But the modernist novelists present a different picture. Woolf revered Shakespeare, Shelley, and Pater; Fitzgerald was legendary for his love of Keats; Faulkner read (baggy, subjectivist, proto-Romantic) Don Quixote once a year; Lawrence looked to the American Romantics and Forster to the German; and Nabokov, of course, had Pushkin.

Even the more severe Joyce and Beckett never shook their youthful Shelleyan influence. Joyce’s two least attractive features may derive from Dante—the excessive systematizing and the vindictive obsession with local politics—but he allowed that he would take Shakespeare over Dante to the proverbial desert island. (Even here, though, the renegade Irish Catholic couldn’t resist a Swiftian barb against the capitalist Bard of the empire: “the Englishman is richer,” he mischievously explained of Shakespeare’s superiority to Dante.)

Accordingly, isn’t it the case that fictional prose becomes conspicuously beautiful as its focus moved inward in the 20th century? By “beautiful,” I mean deliberately rhythmic and patterned, full of sound devices like alliteration, consonance, assonance, and various forms of pleasing repetition, as well as marked by holistic imaginative devices like metaphor and simile. Modernist poetry, on the other hand, goes in the opposite direction, toward the austerities pioneered by Imagism or the rigorously anti-affective maneuvers of the avant-garde, which latter continues into the present in such schools as Flarf and conceptual poetry. Are there any passages of 19th-century fictional prose as beloved for their sheer linguistic beauty as the conclusions to “The Dead” or The Great Gatsby or The Unnameable, the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse, the opening of Humbert’s narration in Lolita? This trend continues to the end of the 20th century, in the work of older writers at least: read just the final paragraphs of Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Toni Morrison’s Paradise for prose-poetry comparable to the best of the 1920s.

Earlier fictional prose was not so concerned with beauty; if language-conscious, I would suspect it tended toward the suasive gestures of rhetoric rather than any sort of lyricism, as when Dickens exhorts the reader or George Eliot ventures philosophy. The major exceptions that leap to mind—Melville with his Shakespearean and Miltonic thunder that anticipates Faulkner and his successors; Flaubert with his precise imagery and flowing sentences that inspired writers as varied as Joyce and Cather, Hemingway and Nabokov—were more valued in the 20th century than in their own time.

We can further say that modernist novelists were in a role analogous to the Romantic poets themselves in the history of their respective art forms. That is, as the Romantics rebelled against the Enlightenment period of Newton’s sleep and Voltaire’s mockery by sweeping the overly social, overly satirical, and overly objective out of poetry to clear a space for emotion and metaphysics and lyricism, so too did the modernists confront the “materialism” (as Woolf called it) of late-Victorian and Edwardian naturalists, who, like Enlightenment figures before them, were too narrowly focused on society as such and too naively hopeful about rational solutions. Rather than looking to Dante and Donne to re-animate Classicism with those modernist poets who were revolting precisely against Romanticism, the modernist novelists followed Shakespeare and Keats in combining psychology with lyricism, in setting subjectivity to prose music: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Mrs Dalloway, The Sound and the Fury.

I should avoid any comparison with our own period, but, if you’ll permit me to generalize, it seems to me that we’re in a rationalist and satirical cultural desert, choked by glib sarcasm, ephemeral political commentary, and mindless technocracy. Much of our fiction and criticism shows the damage: it’s overly rhetorical, “funny” in a forced way, militantly anti-metaphysical, and boringly sociological. Some kind of neo-Romanticism is in order, and will, I think, arrive in due course. History is not teleological, as both progressivists and declinists like to believe, but cyclical.


*Dante, too large a figure to be captured by these categories, is obviously susceptible to both Classical and Romantic interpretation. In general, the Classicist would emphasize his imagistic objectivity, pattern-making intelligence, and conceptual order, while the Romantic would praise his visionary intensity, his musical terza rima, and the passion of his poetic personae. See Wilde’s The Critic as Artist for a Romantic Dante.