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  • (Re) Reading Bergson:Frost, Pound and the Legacy of Modern Poetry
  • Robert Bernard Hass (bio)

One of the most conspicuous and troubling features of high modernism is that it never coalesced into the major literary movement its early practitioners hoped for. Despite the myriad manifestos and self-conscious efforts on behalf of the period's leading figures to fashion an aesthetic equal to modern experience, high modernism expired by 1939 and could not be resuscitated (Clausen 94–96, Gelpi 166). Why this happened is one of the most vexing problems in twentieth-century criticism—a problem all the more disquieting because poets and critics alike recognized, almost from the beginning, that something had gone terribly wrong with the modernist experiment. As early as 1927, Laura Riding and Robert Graves had grown critical of the new regime and attributed the decline of the movement to the failure of its practitioners to renounce the "wrongly-conceived habits and tactics of the past" (Riding and Graves 262–263, qtd. in Clausen 87). In other words, what Riding and Graves quickly discerned was that modernism was predicated on an apparent paradox—that in order to express modernity successfully, one had to leap beyond the recent past and revive the poetic resources of dead traditions. The modernist conflation of the particular and universal, the real and mythical, the present and past, the objective surface and its conditioning substrata indicated to them that the poetic "independence" they had hoped for had never been, nor never would be, fully realized. Paradoxically, as radical technique grew more and more sophisticated, the burden of the past grew heavier and heavier and the modernists had stumbled under its weight.

Recent explanations of modernism, obviously benefiting from the distance of eighty years, attribute the movement's brevity to a wide variety of eroding agents. Revising their early attacks on the movement as elitist and [End Page 55] politically irresponsible, Marxists blamed the period's decline on the stifling encroachment of a pervasive, consumption-oriented, commodity-driven culture. Focusing on the contrasts between "high" art and mass culture, between anti-bourgeois avant-gardism and its subsequent integration into international capitalism, Peter Bürger and Andreas Huyssen successfully exposed the ideological forces that forced the split between the historical avant-garde and mainstream modernism (Bürger 22, Huyssen 9–11). Defending the legacy of Romanticism, Albert Gelpi attributed modernism's collapse to the tension generated by conflicting aesthetics. In his impressive A Coherent Splendor (1991), Gelpi argued that the problems within modernist poetry originated as a conflict between "Symbolist and Imagist strains," which extended and then reconstituted "the aesthetic issues that defined and then undermined Romanticism" (2). Approaching the problem from a postructuralist framework, Marianne DeKoven, appropriating Derrida's notion of sous-rature, suggested the central problem of modernism was that "modernist form . . . continually [put] itself, including its own self-consciousness, under erasure" and thus created an irresolvable set of textual contradictions that ultimately deconstructed themselves (23). Marjorie Perloff, in a moment of uncharacteristic hyperbole, has recently attributed decline to an entire century of political disasters, suggesting that modernism's "utopian aspirations" were "cut off" by the catastrophes of World War I and II, the rise of totalitarianism, and the Cold War (3). With so many critical discussions of modernism contingent upon highly selective critical frameworks, one might be tempted to indict their authors of myopia. Yet, as this brief overview of scholarship indicates, "modernism" is a slippery term, and one not so easily defined by a single meta-narrative.

While each of these explanations has certainly enriched our understanding of modernism's intrinsic problems and contradictions, one topic that has not been explored as a cause of the movement's rise and fall is a critical examination of the period's epistemology. To my mind, one of the most important forces behind the decline of "high modernism" was the modernists' inability to reconcile the epistemological tensions between positivism and vitalism. As the relations between these two important traditions became strained to the point of rupture, modern poets felt compelled to choose between an aesthetic that reflected the ethos of scientific humanism, then the dominant intellectual tradition in Europe, or one that liberated...


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