Twentieth Century Literature Was Influenced By Eliot, Joyce And Pound.

Twentieth century literature was influenced by Eliot, Joyce and Pound. Understand the early twentieth century social background and you will understand these artis' works.

Nowadays it is accepted that Modernist writers James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot had a great influence on 20th century literature, yet in 1922, when T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" first appeared, respected critics dismissed it as a hoax. By the 1930s it had been accepted as a mirror of post-war society even by academics. Very often, the "controversial" work of yesterday becomes the "classic" of today. (Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" is a perfect earlier example of this phenomena).

Why was Modernist writing looked upon with such distrust when it first was published and why do many people still find it difficult to understand? To understand the Modernists it is necessary first of all to look at the times in which they lived.


In the early 19th century life and society seemed to have been turned upside down. Mass production had made the future uncertain for many people, there were monetary collapses in Central Europe and there were amazing advances in technology. Sound could be recorded and pictures could now be reproduced in vast amounts.

Experiments in film technique were taking place amongst the great Russian film makers following Griffith's initial example. Sergei Eisenstein's montage editing involved jarring transitions from cut to cut - the juxtaposition of images which were intended to emphasise the tensions between one shot and the next.

There were global wars and chaotic revolutions in Eastern Europe and weapons were more advanced and deadly than ever before. Soldiers could not see who they were trying to kill or who was trying to kill them. There was incredible suffering and people were now questioning the "glory" of war and distrusting their leaders.

Religious beliefs and the sense of individuality had been threatened by Darwin's Theory of Evolution and there was a sense of having been abandoned spiritually. Civilization as it had been in the 19th century was gone forever and there was an air of insecurity and distrust. Europe was like a wasteland and the Modernists attempted to express the Zeitgeist (spirit of the times) in their works.


Modernism incorporated some of the ethics of the "Imagist" and "Vorticist" movements. Pound was involved in "Imagism" from about 1912 and Eliot was very much influenced by the principles of the movement, which advocated clarity of expression through the use of very precise visual images.

The "Vorticist" movement, founded in 1914, was made up of artists, sculptors and writers who believed in "energeia" - the Aristotlian term for making one's hearers see things by using expressions that represent things in a state of activity and in simplifying forms into a machine - like angularity. They were committed to order and authority and also believed that Western civilization was in a state of collapse. Their symbol was the whirlpool and they had their own newspaper called "Blast" which Pound wrote for.

The Vorticists wanted to "Blast" the old world into fragments and rebuild it in a new order!


Pound and Eliot shared the belief that poetry should become more cosmopolitan and saw Europe as the cultural entity. Both worked in England although Pound left for France as his relationship with England became stormy and bitter although Eliot stayed on to become the centre of the cultural establishment. The literary scene in England was a unified cultural world where writers mingled with aristocracy and politicians. (The established figure at the time was Arnold Bennett). Poets aimed to please their audience, many of whom were only interested in "fashionable" poetry.

Pound and Eliot were more interested in their own struggle to catch experience in words than the audience's approval.

The French Literary scene was more sympathetic to creative and artistic inspiration. It was the real centre of English and American writing. A vital cluster of talent was there at this time.


Juxtaposition; omission of links; psycological images; mytholological references; disruption of syntax; technical radicalism in details or in general pattern and the mingling of bits of other languages were all techniques used by the Modernists. Each of these three works: - Eliot's "The Waste Land"; Joyce's "Ulysses" and Pound's "Cantos": - employs these techniques which were radical and perhaps even seemed to be revolutionary innovations to their readers and critics in the early 1920s.


Wlile reviewing James Joyce's "Ulysses" in the Dial in 1922, T .S. Eliot described it as "the most important expression which the present age has found". Calling Joyces' method of shaping and ordering his material the "mythical method" he urged other writers to pursue this method of projecting fragmented (and seemingly unconnected) material onto a framework. In the case of "Ulysses", Joyce used Homer's "Odyssey" as a sketchy framework, inside which he depicted what he intended to be a complete picture of the city of Dublin, from which if the city were to disappear, it could have been reconstituted out of his book.

"Ulysses" is divided into 18 parts, each titled for the particular chapter of the "Odyssey", with a linking chapter in the middle; "The Wandering Rocks" (which is a miniature of the whole). There are also three separate stories like the "Odyssey". From 1-3 - The Quest of Telemachus: from 4-15 - The Wanderings of Odysseus: and from 16-18 - The return of Vengeance. Joyce's Ulysses is the story of the common man and is best appreciated as a slice of life in the lives of everyday Dubliners. The changing styles in which it is written and the word play sometimes can become iritating also there are little private jokes of Joyces not apparent to the casual reader. There is something for everyone in "Ulysses" however, and the book is best appreciated by the reader deciding on his or her own interpretation.

Eliot most likely had his own work "The Waste Land" in mind as he reviewed "Ulysses" in "The Dial". "The Waste Land", like "Ulysses", is based on a mythical quest, in this case the quest of the knight who must travel to the Chapel Perilous to find the Holy Grail which will restore the impotent Fisher King to his former virility thereby curing the drought in his lands. The main theme, therefore, is a mythical quest through a barren land - barren because humanity therein lacks spiritual faith or a purpose for living, just as the dry, drought-ridden desert lacks water.

The water symbol has three purposes in this poem; first of all it's lack denotes the spititual drought, secondly it engulfs and drowns and lastly, it cleanses and redeems. It is significant that it was Ezra Pound who insisted on Eliot keeping in the "Plebas the Phoenician" poem which Eliot was going to leave out. The whirlpool in the poem is reminiscent of the symbol of the Vorticist movement.

In the poem, past, present and future are present in true Modernist fashion, in the same manner as all the characters in Eliot's poem are one person. All of the narrators merge into the blind seer Tiresias who visualises the substance of the poem.

"The Waste Land" is situated in the nightmare regions of the mind and the quest for water or spiritual enlightenment leads the seeker through a labyrinth of past, present and future images. These are presented by juxtapositioning one image upon another. For example, the opulent picture of the lady in "A Game of Chess" with it's overtone of wealthy, world weariness and nervous hysteria is contrasted with the poverty, practicality and earthiness of the women in the pub section.

Although "The Waste Land" is difficult (as Eliot believed poetry should be) and is not necessarily designed to please, there are some very beautiful images in the poem and the poetry does please even if the reader knows very little about the classical or mythological references or intended connections.

Ezra Pound (who Eliot considered the better craftsman) once told Eliot that he let him (Pound) throw the bricks at the window and then Eliot would go in the back door and carry off the swag. It is true that Pound's provocative writing and strong opinions attracted attention and shocked many people but the structure of Elioit's poem owes much to Pound's editing skills.

When Pound began his "Cantos" he wrote to W.B. Yeats that he intended to write 100 Cantos modelled on a Bach fugue, with no plot, chronicle of events, or discourse. He planned two themes: the descent into Hades from Homer and a "Metamorphosis" from Ovid, with bits of medieval or modern history intermingled. He intended the "Cantos" to be ongoing but could not have foreseen future events such as imprisonment and illness. His work shows great perception but often appears incoherent due to the omission of links.

He uses the Odyssean journey, an ascent through the Inferno and Purgatory towards the light of Paradiso, modelled on Dante's "Divine Comedy" and also magic moments from Ovid's "Metamorphosis". Sometimes it seems easier to read a "Canto" at the beginning and move to the end, as all the little snippets of other languages and cross references let you explore different directions. It is as if Pound is providing different paths through his works.

Difficulty in understanding or not having read the classics should not put anyone off reading the Modernists as they intended the reader to take his/her own interpretation out of their works. There is no story line to understand; no plot to unravel. You are provided with images, slices of life and you can interpret them as you wish.

The Modernists sometimes have been derided for their Narcissistic approach and accused of over indulging in playing about with language, but had they not experimented with language, literary techniques, fragmentation and structure, our literature would have stagnated. Pound, Joyce and Eliot revolutionised 20th Century Literature.

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