Yeats – Literary Movement?

What Literary Movement most influenced Yates?




Romanticism was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution. In part, it was a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature.

The movement validated strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities, both new aesthetic categories.

It elevated folk art and ancient custom to something noble, made of spontaneity a desirable character, and argued for a “natural” epistemology of human activities as conditioned by nature in the form of language and customary usage.

Romanticism reached beyond the rational and Classicist ideal models to elevate a revived medievalism and elements of art and narrative perceived to be authentically medieval, in an attempt to escape the confines of population growth, urban sprawl, and industrialism, and it also attempted to embrace the exotic, unfamiliar, and distant, harnessing the power of the imagination to envision and to escape.

The modern sense of a romantic character may be expressed in Byronic ideals of a gifted, perhaps misunderstood loner, creatively following the dictates of his inspiration rather than the standard ways of contemporary society.

Romanticism was in part an escape from modern realities; indeed, in the second half of the 19th century, “Realism” was offered as a polarized opposite to Romanticism.

Romanticism elevated the achievements of what it perceived as heroic individualists and artists, whose pioneering examples would elevate society. It also legitimized the individual imagination as a critical authority, which permitted freedom from classical notions of form in art. There was a strong recourse to historical and natural inevitability, a zeitgeist, in the representation of its ideas.

In a basic sense, the term “Romanticism” has been used to refer to certain artists, poets, writers, musicians, as well as political, philosophical and social thinkers of the late 18th and early to mid 19th centuries. It has equally been used to refer to various artistic, intellectual, and social trends of that era. Despite this general usage of the term, a precise characterization and specific definition of Romanticism have been the subject of debate in the fields of intellectual history and literary history throughout the 20th century, without any great measure of consensus emerging.

Many intellectual historians have seen Romanticism as a key movement in the Counter-Enlightenment, a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment. Whereas the thinkers of the Enlightenment emphasized the primacy of reason, Romanticism emphasized intuition, imagination, and feeling, to a point that has led to some Romantic thinkers being accused of irrationalism

Romanticism focuses on Nature: a place free from society’s judgement and restrictions. Romanticism blossomed after the age of Rationalism, a time that focused on hardwork and scientific reasoning.

The Romantic movement developed the idea of the absolute originality and artistic inspiration by the individual genius, which performs a “creation from nothingness;” this is the so-called Romantic ideology of literary authorship, which created the notion of plagiarism and the guilt of a derivativeness. This idea is often called “romantic originality.”

This idea was in contrast with the preceding artistic tradition, in which copying has been seen as a fundamental practice of the creative process; and has been especially challenged since the beginning of the 20th century, with the boom of the modernist and postmodern movements.

In literature, Romanticism found recurrent themes in the evocation or criticism of the past, the cult of “sensibility” with its emphasis on women and children, the heroic isolation of the artist or narrator, and respect for a new, wilder, untrammeled and “pure” nature. Furthermore, several romantic authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, based their writings on the supernatural/occult and human psychology.

An early German influence came from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther had young men throughout Europe emulating its protagonist, a young artist with a very sensitive and passionate temperament.

“Racine, Moliere, Congreve and Swift ask us to be interested in what they have made, Musset, Byron and Wordsworth ask us to be interested in themselves. And they ask us to be interested in themselves by virtue of the intrinsic value of the individual: they vindicate the rights of the individual against the claims of society as a whole – against government, morals, conventions, academy or church. The Romantic is nearly always a rebel.”

Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle – 1931

“…naturalism was simply a temporary swing in the opposite direction, back to neo-classicism and its interest in society and its belief in scientific objectivity. That only led, of course, to another swing of the pendulum and another romantic rebellion – or the movement that is usually called symbolism. However… this second rebellion was quite distinct from the first. While the Romantics rebelled by going out into the world and trying to discover something other than the middle-class society they had rejected, the symbolists simply shut their doors and pretended it did not exist.”
Michael Faherty – The Poetry of W B Yeats 2005

“Symbolism corresponds to Romanticism, and is in fact an outgrowth from it. But whereas it was characteristic of the Romantics to seek experience for its own sake – love, travel, politics – to try the possibilities of life; the Symbolists, though they also hate formulas, though they also discard conventions, carry on their experimentations in the field of literature alone; and thought they, too, are essentially explorers, explore only the possibilities of imagination and thought. And whereas the Romantic, in his individualism, has usually revolted against or defied that society with which he felt himself at odds, the Symbolist has detached himself from society and schools himself in indifference to it: he will cultivate his unique personal sensibility even beyond the point to which the Romantics did, but he will not assert his individual will – he will end by shifting the field of literature altogether… from an objective to a subjective world, from an experience shared with society to an experience savoured in solitude.”

Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle – 1931

“Romantic poets like Coleridge saw middle-class society as their enemy and attacked but, for symbolist poets like Yeats, that battle had been lost years ago. The poet no longer had a place in the modern industrial world so he simply withdrew from it, not fighting it or moaning about it but simply ignoring it as best he could.”
Michael Faherty – The Poetry of W B Yeats 2005



Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century style of French, Russian and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts.

Symbolism was largely a reaction against naturalism and realism, anti-idealistic styles which were attempts to represent reality, and to use humble and ordinary themes rather than ideal or heroic themes. These styles were a reaction in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams.

The symbolist poets have a more complex relationship with Parnassianism, a French literary style that immediately preceded it.

The Parnassians were influenced by Théophile Gautier and his doctrine of “art for art’s sake“. As a reaction to the less disciplined types of romantic poetry, and what they considered the excessive sentimentality and undue social and political activism of Romantic works, the Parnassians strove for exact and faultless workmanship, selecting exotic and classical subjects which they treated with rigidity of form and emotional detachment.

While being influenced by hermeticism, allowing freer versification, and rejecting Parnassian clarity and objectivity, it retained Parnassianism’s love of word play and concern for the musical qualities of verse.

The symbolists continued to admire Théophile Gautier‘s motto of “art for art’s sake“, and retained — and modified — Parnassianism’s mood of ironic detachment.

The Symbolist Manifesto: Symbolists believed that art should represent absolute truths which could only be described indirectly. Thus, they wrote in a very metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning. Jean Moréas published the Symbolist Manifesto (“Le Symbolisme”) in Le Figaro on 18 September 1886 (see 1886 in poetry). Moréas announced that symbolism was hostile to “plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description”, and that its goal instead was to “clothe the Ideal in a perceptible form” whose “goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the Ideal”:

“In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.”

The symbolist poets wished to liberate techniques of versification in order to allow greater room for “fluidity”, and as such were sympathetic with the trend toward free verse, as evident by the poems of Gustave Kahn and Ezra Pound.

Symbolist poems were attempts to evoke, rather than primarily to describe; symbolic imagery was used to signify the state of the poet’s soul. T.S. Eliot was one of these poets, although it has also been said that ‘Imagism’ was the style to which both Pound and Eliot subscribed.

The earlier Romanticism of poetry used symbols, but these symbols were unique and privileged objects. The symbolists were more extreme, investing all things, even vowels and perfumes, with potential symbolic value. “The physical universe, then, is a kind of language that invites a privileged spectator to decipher it, although this does not yield a single message so much as a superior network of associations.”

Symbolist symbols are not allegories, intended to represent; they are instead intended to evoke particular states of mind. The nominal subject of Mallarmé’s “Le cygne” (“The Swan“) is of a swan trapped in a frozen lake. Significantly, in French, cygne is a homophone of signe, a sign. The overall effect is of overwhelming whiteness; and the presentation of the narrative elements of the description is quite indirect

Schopenhauer’s aesthetics represented shared concerns with the symbolist programme; they both tended to consider Art as a contemplative refuge from the world of strife and Will. As a result of this desire for an artistic refuge, the symbolists used characteristic themes of mysticism and otherworldliness, a keen sense of mortality, and a sense of the malign power of sexuality, which Albert Samain termed a “fruit of death upon the tree of life.

“Symbolic poetry, the enemy of “instruction, declamation, false sensibility, and objective description,” seeks to clothe the Idea in a tangible form which will not be that poetry’s object but which, while serving to express the Idea, will remain subordinate. Nor must the Idea itself be seen stripped of the sumptuous robes of external analogy; for the essential characteristic of symbolic art is never to go so far as the conception of the Idea in itself. Thus, in this art, neither scenes from nature nor human actions nor any other physical phenomena can be present in themselves: what we have instead is perceptible appearances designed to represent their esoteric affinities with primordial Ideas.”

Jean Moreas – Symbolist Manifesto 1886


Imagism was a movement in early 20th-century Anglo-American poetry that favoured precision of imagery and clear, sharp language. The Imagists rejected the sentiment and discursiveness typical of much Romantic and Victorian poetry. This was in contrast to their contemporaries, the Georgian poets, who were by and large content to work within that tradition.

Imagism is significant historically as the first organised Modernist English language literary movement or group. In the words of T. S. Eliot: “The point de repère usually and conveniently taken as the starting-point of modern poetry is the group denominated ‘imagists’ in London about 1910.”

At the time Imagism emerged, Longfellow and Tennyson were considered the paragons of poetry, and the public valued the sometimes moralising tone of their writings. In contrast, Imagism called for a return to what were seen as more Classical values, such as directness of presentation and economy of language, as well as a willingness to experiment with non-traditional verse forms.

The focus on the “thing” as “thing” (an attempt at isolating a single image to reveal its essence) also mirrors contemporary developments in avant-garde art, especially Cubism. Although Imagism isolates objects through the use of what Ezra Pound called “luminous details”, Pound’s Ideogrammic Method of juxtaposing concrete instances to express an abstraction is similar to Cubism’s manner of synthesizing multiple perspectives into a single image.

Well-known poets of the Edwardian era of the 1890s, such as Alfred Austin, Stephen Phillips, and William Watson, had been working very much in the shadow of Tennyson, producing weak imitations of the poetry of the Victorian era. They continued to work in this vein into the early years of the 20th century

The origins of Imagism are to be found in two poems, Autumn and A City Sunset by T. E. Hulme. These were published in January 1909 by the Poets’ Club in London. Hulme & the poet and critic F. S. Flint (a champion of free verse and modern French poetry) planned to reform contemporary poetry through free verse and the tanka and haiku and the removal of all unnecessary verbiage from poems.

The American poet Ezra Pound was introduced to the group in April 1909 and found that their ideas were close to his own. In particular, Pound’s studies of Romantic literature had led him to an admiration of the condensed, direct expression that he detected in the writings of Arnaut Daniel, Dante, and Guido Cavalcanti. The criteria of directness, clarity and lack of rhetoric were to be amongst the defining qualities of Imagist poetry.

In a 1928 letter to the French critic and translator René Taupin, Pound was keen to emphasise another ancestry for Imagism, pointing out that Hulme was, in many ways, indebted to a Symbolist tradition, linking back via William Butler Yeats, Arthur Symons and the Rhymers’ Club generation of British poets to Mallarmé.

The March issue of Poetry contained A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste and the essay entitled Imagisme both written by Pound, with the latter being attributed to Flint. The latter contained this succinct statement of the group’s position:

Direct treatment of the “thing”, whether subjective or objective.

To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

Pound’s note opened with a definition of an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”. Pound goes on to state that “It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works”. His list of “don’ts” reinforced his three statements in “Imagism”, while warning that they should not be considered as dogma but as the “result of long contemplation”. Taken together, these two texts comprised the Imagist programme for a return to what they saw as the best poetic practice of the past.


It was part of the anti-19th century reaction and had post-Romantic origins, and as such anticipates modernism. It was a feature of the late 19th century from about 1868 to about 1900.

The British decadent writers were much influenced by the Oxford professor Walter Pater and his essays published during 1867–68, in which he stated that life had to be lived intensely, with an ideal of beauty. His text Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) was very well regarded by art-oriented young men of the late 19th century.

Decadent writers used the slogan “Art for Art’s Sake” (L’art pour l’art), the origin of which is debated.

The artists and writers of Aesthetic style tended to profess that the Arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages. As a consequence, they did not accept John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold‘s utilitarian conception of art as something moral or useful. Instead, they believed that Art did not have any didactic purpose; it need only be beautiful.

The Aesthetes developed a cult of beauty, which they considered the basic factor of art. Life should copy Art, they asserted. They considered nature as crude and lacking in design when compared to art. The main characteristics of the style were: suggestion rather than statement, sensuality, great use of symbols, and synaesthetic effects – that is, correspondence between words, colours and music. Music was used to establish mood.


Modernistic literature revolves around the themes of individualism, the randomness of life, mistrust of institutions (government, religion) and the disbelief in any absolute truths, and to involve a literary structure that departs from conventionality and realism.

Modernism as a literary movement reached its height in Europe between 1900 and the middle 1920s. Modernist literature addressed aesthetic problems similar to those examined in non-literary forms of contemporaneous Modernist art, such as Modernist painting.

The Modernist emphasis on a radical individualism: “The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve and protect the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life.”

Modernist literature attempted to move from the bonds of Realist literature and to introduce concepts such as disjointed timelines. In the wake of Modernism, and post-enlightenment, metanarratives tended to be emancipatory, whereas beforehand this was not a consistent characteristic.

Modernist literature can be viewed largely in terms of its formal, stylistic and semantic movement away from Romanticism, examining subject matter that is traditionally mundane–a prime example being The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot.

Modernist literature often features a marked pessimism, a clear rejection of the optimism apparent in Victorian literature. But the questioning spirit of modernism could also be seen, less elegiacally, as part of a necessary search for ways to make sense of a broken world.

Many Modernist works like Eliot’s The Waste Land are marked by the absence of a central, unifying figure. In rejecting the solipsism of Romantics like Shelley and Byron, such works also reject the association of the subject with Cartesian dualism, collapsing narrative and narrator into a collection of disjointed fragments and overlapping voices.

Modernist literature often moves beyond the limitations of the Realist novel with a concern for larger factors such as social or historical change. These themes are prominent in “stream of consciousness” writing, notably in Ulysses by James Joyce, whose novel has been called “a demonstration and summation of the entire [Modernist] movement

Modernism as a literary movement is seen, in large part, as a reaction to the emergence of city life as a central force in society. Furthermore, an early attention to the object as freestanding became in later Modernism a preoccupation with form. The dyadic collapse of the distance between subject and object represented a movement from means to is.

Where Romanticism stressed the subjectivity of experience, Modernist writers were more acutely conscious of the objectivity of their surroundings. In Modernism the object is; the language doesn’t mean it is. This is a shift from an epistemological aesthetic to an ontological aesthetic or, in simpler terms, a shift from a knowledge-based aesthetic to a being-based aesthetic. This shift is central to Modernism.

Modernism is a literary style that emerged after the First World War. At this point, people began to doubt everything they were supposed to believe in surrounding ideas associated with the government, politics, religion, and everyday societal norms. Trust in higher powers and authority figures began to falter, and the inability to sort through the chaos of these mixed emotions left people disheartened, confused, and angry. This feeling of betrayal and uncertainty towards tradition influenced the writing of British authors between 1914-1919 both stylistically and in form.

Juxtaposition, irony, comparisons, and satire are elements found in modernist writing. The most obvious stylistic tool of the modernist writer is that it is often written in first person. Rather than a traditional story having a beginning, middle and end, modernist writing typically reads as a rant. This can leave the reader slightly confused as to what they are supposed to take away from the work.

For the first-time reader, modernist writing can seem frustrating to understand because of the fragmentation and lack of conciseness of the writing. The plot, characters and themes of the text are not always linear. The goal of modernist literature is not heavily focused on catering to one particular audience in a formal way.

The breaking down of social norms, rejection of standard social ideas and traditional thoughts and expectations, objection to religion and anger towards the effects of the world wars, and the rejection of the truth are topics widely seen in this literary era. A rejection of history, social systems, and a sense of loneliness are also common themes.

…he called for “objectivity and again objectivity, and expression; no hind-side-beforeness, no straddled adjectives, no Tennysonianess of speech: nothing that you couldn’t in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say. Every literaryism, every book word, fritters away a scrap of the reader’s patience, a scrap of his sense of your sincerity.”             Ezra Pound

“…this solitary mortal endowed with an active imagination, always roaming the great desert of men… is looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call “modernity”, for want of a better term to express the idea in question. The aim for him is to extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distil the eternal from the transitory… Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it I one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable… You have no right to despise this transitory fleeting element, the metamorphoses of which are so frequent, nor to dispense with it. If you do, you inevitably fall into the emptiness of an abstract and indefinable beauty.”

Baudelaire – “The Painter of Modern Life” 1864

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