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Cultural Legacies of Three Eras in Poetry Cultural Legacies of Three Eras in Poetry

As advances are made in a society, the way in which the individual is perceived changes also. In the three periods covering 1700 to the present, we see leaps made in science, philosophy and in art. As these changes take place, the perception of the individual as portrayed by the poets changes drastically with a shift from rationality to emotion to total chaos. The styles and forms in which they write and the language that they use experience radical shifts from era to era. Through the changing forms and shifts, the poets of the three ages have produced a legacy of their culture, a timeline of shifting worlds and mores for people of all eras to understand.

In the Enlightenment period, the focus was on reason. As is seen in Alexander Pope’s “Essay on a Man”, emotion was something that caused trouble and only reason could save a person. Pope says, “What can we reason, but from what we know? Of Man, what see we but his station here, From which to reason, or to which refer?” (Pope 511). It was important to this period, and to Pope, that convention be followed for the preservation of the societal unit. Pope admonishes, “...if each system in gradation roll Alike essential to the amazing Whole, The least confusion but in one, not all That system only, but the Whole must fall” (Pope 516). Pope implies unity in a system that has its place in the Great Chain of Being and when there is confusion in one part of that system, the whole system “must fall”.

While Pope’s culture views society as the center of all good, the Romantic poets strove to gather in a much wider audience by contemplating the life of the individual as the center. In this period we see a turn from the society as the center of the world to the individual as the center. The poets of this period find fascination in the imagination, and emotion becomes the defining influence towards understanding the self and the world. The discourses of the Romantic poets reflect a liberation of the self from society. Whereas Pope’s work pointed towards a formalist aestheticism, poets such as William Blake, displayed a narrative that illuminated the inner workings of the individual.

In Blake’s poem, “The Chimney Sweeper”, the narrator is not the impersonal author of the Enlightenment Age. We find in this poem a narrator who personifies the wounded and neglected dregs of society. Blake’s language draws a picture of a child that the reader can see and hear. The child narrator says, “And my father sold me while yet my tongue Could scarcely cry ‘weep!’ ‘weep!’ ‘weep!’.” (Blake 785). In this line we hear the child’s lisp trying to say ‘sweep!’. The lisp reflects not only the words of a child but also the sadness, “weep!,” of a child forced to work at such a young age.

Further, the Romantic poets often concentrated on the morbidity of life; madness, death, and chaos are frequent themes. In Blake’s poem the reader sees the reality of the life of the child chimney sweeper. “Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;...And he opened the coffins & set them all free;” (Blake 785). The suffering of an individual is seen in the Romantics poetry, in contrast to the suffering of a unit. This period of times fascination with the individual as separate from society was captured by the Romantic poets. This idea of the individual as central and the preoccupation with darkness, death, and madness carries over to the next era of poetry with a few changes.

The contemporary poets see language as a means of reaching the inner self and the emotion that is difficult to give voice to. The twentieth century ushered in many new discoveries, most importantly the discovery of psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud. The advent of psychoanalysis gave people the means of accessing the individuals inner self. Modern poets sought to explore the inner workings of the individual as a human being, giving a concrete language to emotion.

One of the most recognized poets of this time, T.S. Eliot, brought to the world of poetry an aesthetic form that was full of complex twists and turns, fragmented language, and a sense of alienation and loss. The Modern poets viewed their art as more than a venue to affect change in society and the individual, they began to focus on language itself and how it relates to the individuals perception of the world. As the world rapidly changed around them, poets like Eliot sought to capture the sense of chaos and fragmentation with the written word.

In his most famous poem, “The Wasteland”, Eliot manages to lament (and celebrate) the chaos of modern culture. The poem is chaotic and fragmented, embodying the very nature of modern society. As the world careened out of control around the individual with the advent of World War, fractured societies, and multiple religions, Eliot’s poem whirls through time and space, capturing the insanity and loss in the very language he uses. The Wasteland encompasses a myriad of characters undergoing extreme stress and anxiety, “Speak to me. /who do you never speak. Speak. What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? I never know what you are thinking. Think”. Eliot 2082). These characters personify the complex ideologies of the time period.

While the poets of each age perceive the individual differently, each age concentrates on conveying a connective message to its readers. Poetry seeks to give life to words, words to emotions, and each age of poets takes the mores that are inherent in their belief systems and gives them voice. The Enlightenment’s reason, the Romantic’s rebellion, and the Modernists alienation and fragmentation lead readers of all ages to a clearer understanding of that particular time period. The poets have created history in their poetry.

Works Cited

Blake, William. “The Chimney Sweeper.” Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd Edition, Vol. E. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 785.

Eliot, T.S. “The Wasteland.” Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd Edition, Vol. F. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 2079-2091.

Gordon, Linda. “Comparison Chart” LITR 2032-6W1. 2002. 14 December 2002 .

Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Man, Epistle 1.” Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd Edition, Vol. D. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 510-517.

December 2002



K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2006


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