(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 14. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1998)


The canonisation of modernist poetry in the mid-thirties

Paul Volisk

Université Paris 7


The notion of the canon is manifestly problematic because, like so many categories in literary criticism, it is at root a metaphor and moreover a metaphor from a religious tradition that is not consensual. For the non-believer the Biblical canon — the list of works accepted as divinely inspired by a constituted authority from which the notion was imported into literary criticism — is a complex, historically datable construction, whose raison d’être lies beyond or below rational discourse, whose history is fraught with variation [1], constituted by a corpus on which Christians cannot agree, and yet was and still is defended with zeal, dogmatism and excommunication by, for example, the Catholic church [2], in its struggle, amongst others, against various forms of gnosticism.


1. Books like “The Shepherd of Hermas”, for example, definitely were part of the Western canon for Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian; and are now not .
2. In this tradition are canonical those texts which are stated to be of divine inspiration and were declared to be so “cum omnibus suis partibus”, at the beginning of the fifth century in the Western Christian tradition, and were then deconstructed, notably by the Reformation. From a “humanist” point of view (for Erasmus, for example) the Biblical Canon creates hierarchies that are difficult to comprehend, where texts like the Book of Jude are, for certain Christians, intrinsically infinitely more valuable than the works of Saint Augustine. This is because they are, in the words of the Catholic Church, informed by “the Holy inspiring Spirit, witnessing decisively to itself, not in the subjective experience of individual souls, as Calvin maintained, neither in the doctrinal and spritual tenor of Holy Writ itself, according to Luther, but through the constituted organ and custodian of Its revelations the Church” (canon in Catholic Encyclopaedia. New York: R. Appleton & Co, 1908). Translated provocatively into our secular terms, the literary canon is, for the Catholic church (the University) of which we are a part, those texts informed by an “inspiring spirit” (a Muse) recognized as inspired not by individual readers (as a “Calvinist” might maintain) or by internal criteria of coherence and textual quality (as a “Lutheran” might maintain) but — to continue an instant in this vein — by the constituted organ and custodian of the revelation of aesthetic excellence, and thus real inspiration: the University we who give the nihil obstat to the placing of certain texts on our courses, we who directly and indirectly give our imprimatur to a whole publishing industry that survives thanks (and could it be only thanks?) to our canonisations.


This explains why the metaphor of the canon has to be the object of suspicion, being semantically loaded, and why every canon can be seen by its opponents as its homophone: a cannon, a weapon designed at a particular moment, and used to defend a particular group or increase the power of a group whose legitimacy is, for the non-believer, intimately linked to its abusively coercive social and political power. Every canon is, to change the military metaphor, a mine waiting to explode under the feet of the serious literary historian.

So the question arises as to whether this is a category that is worth examining, whether it is not wiser to accept a vision of literary history as an unending process of complex deconstruction and reconstruction. It is to suggest tentatively why the canon could interest us that I would like, here, to explore this metaphor, which, like every metaphor, is both partial and distorting and yet also a real cognitive device. I would also like to test the intuition that certain texts might in any event find themselves for variable but discernable reasons at the heart of a canon. A canon would thus be not unlike the category of the notion in enunciative linguistics where a word like “table” has a complex notional centre and a fuzzy outland. This structure would explain both the perennity of certain canons (like the perennity of certain notions) and their flexibility. I would thus like to suggest that the core of certain literary canons, at least as far as what I would call “movement canons” are concerned, will have a way of surviving the critical discourses that justify them (in the theological sense). This means that perhaps the sort of simple sociological conspiratorial reading of the canon that informed the end of my introduction (every canon is a cannon) is inadequate [3].


3. As examples of what I would call conspiratorial explanations of the canon could be given the following quotations by Charles Altierei, “As Frank Kermode puts it in his influential ‘Institutional Control of Interpretation’, canons are essentially strategic constructs by which societies maintain their own interests, since the canon allows control over the texts a culture takes seriously and over the methods of interpretation that establish the meaning of ‘serious’ ” (Canons and Consequences: Reflections on the Ethical Force of Imagination. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990, p. 22), or Terry Eagleton’s “Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared inherent properties does not exist or again the so-called ‘literary canon’, the unquestioned ‘great tradition’ of national literature, has to be recognized as a construct, fashioned by particular people for particular reasons at a particular time” (Literary Theory: An Introductioni. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983, p. 10-11). What is problematic about Eagleton’s statement here is precisely that certain canons do seem to be based on “certain shared inherent properties”, though whether or not one needs to value them is another question. It is his conflation of the two problems that is, to my mind, debatable. Indeed, if canons did not share properties, one wonders on what criteria the groups that select them would or could do so.


To do this, I will successively look briefly at 1) a clarification of different types of canon; 2) the nature, structure, context and aesthetic priorities of the object of my study — Michael Roberts’ anthology, the 1936 Faber Book of Modern Verse, justifiably a famous anthology, and, I would suggest, a text which founds and grounds the Modernist poetic canon, inscribing it in a form that has not been modified fundamentally in the sixty years since — a phenomenon which would be inexplicable if the canon were a purely tactical construct; 3) the problem of exclusion from the canon: here, to take a simple and obvious example, the absence of women poets in the Modernist canon as Roberts instituted it and as it has been maintained until the present; 4) and finally a “failed” Revisionist attempt to combat this canon: Yeats’ Oxford Book of Modern Verse which was a published a few months after Roberts’. This anthology, which is generally judged to be an eccentric catastrophe, nevertheless interests me as the first of a series of attempts to dialogue with the Modernist canon as Roberts enshrined it, and to try to find a poetic alternative — something that will really bear fruit only twenty years later in the fifties.

Before this, I would like, however, to say that this paper owed its inception to my being on the viva of a very well-researched, intelligent and adventurous thesis on the history of poetry anthologies in Britain by Helen Goethals: Les Anthologies de poésie en Angleterre au XXème siècle [4]. Though Dr Goethals was not directly concerned with the themes that I touch on here (Modernism and the canon), it became obvious, as I read her thesis with great interest and pleasure, that anthologies play a distinctive role in the creation of poetic (as opposed to novelistic or theatrical) canons. Her work is thus in some sense very much at the origin of this paper. Indeed much that she says about the cultural context of anthologies in Great Britain, where, for example, University Presses (Oxford) and major publishing houses (Faber) play a strategic role in authorizing contents, is linked to what I have to say, but since she has already made these points, I will leave them aside.

1. A brief clarification of different types of canon

As was suggested in the beginning of this paper the problematic nature of the canon is largely to do with its pretensions to hegemony, its exclusion of dissenting voices, its dream of a trans-historical, impregnable and undeconstructable totality. In fact, of course, historically, there has never been one canon, there have always been several. For the twentieth century I would like tentatively to distinguish between two types of canon that are probably only theoretical absolutes. On the one hand there is the canon which, certain critics claim — despite the continual riders of anthologists —, aims at something like the transcendence of the Biblical canon: a chronological series of inspired texts in the language.


4. Université Lyon II, mars 1996.


These are the “golden treasury” canons — a canon of works that readers have found edifying in one way or another [5]. This sort of canon has an avatar in the reading lists that many educational establishments distribute. Despite what critics of the canon often imply, these are often characterised by a certain oecumenical quality, an aesthetic flexibility that enables them to adapt, to be deconstructed and reconstructed extremely quickly — as we have witnessed with the rise of political correctness, a phenomenon which has manifestly modified the content of poetry anthologies [6]. However, alongside or inside this tradition, there exist micro-canons — canons which explicitly and sometimes aggressively centre on a group with special interests and of which the Modernist canon would be an example. These specialised canons attempt to map out and define groups, constituencies which are felt, in the more sophisticated versions of this discourse, to express and share in some way a particular aesthetic: working class poets, women writers, black writers, regional writers, Georgian writing... It is within this second type of canon that the object of my study, Roberts’ anthology, is, I believe — and despite its title — to be placed.

Roberts’ anthology is, I would suggest, an anthology not of Modern verse but of Modernist verse. One of the paradoxes of avant-gardist Modernism is that if art was in the state of permanent revolution that Modernist manifestoes ask for and the continuous experimental creativeness that many Modernists dream of, museums and canons would be nowhere because everywhere. Nevertheless, from the very beginning, the great poetic Modernists were very good, ruthless, totally unoecumenical canon makers (Pound’s ABC of Reading [7] or Eliot’s critical writings are good examples of this). Their own autocratic reshaping of the history of English poetry (the inclusion of Donne and the exclusion of


5. The Norton Anthology of Poetry would enshrine a canon of this sort. Indeed it is interesting to read the prefaces which are sensitive to the ideological pressures of the times and adapt the content to cope with them.
6. See Jan Gorak’s interesting study of this problem in The Making of the Modern Canon (London: Athlone, 1991) and his remark: “A glance at the huge wave of recommended reading lists which appeared between the 1880s and the Second World War reveals a wide range of relationships between the purveyors and the beneficiaries of canonical lists. These relationships dissolve at least two myths of the current debate: the myth of a single, imposed cultural canon; and the counter-myth of a radicalized anti-canon emanating from some higher, purified ideal source” (69). Though this would require verification, there are, among other things, obvious sociological reasons why the canon should be modified even while the macro-context remains stable. One is the commercial pressure of publishing houses which, in a lucrative market, have every interest in a constant reworking of the canon. This rewriting can also be one aspect of the functioning of Universities, where each generation may wish to remap the canon in order to mark its presence — a means of institutional power-seizing.
7. One need only look at his advice on “Study”: “Try to find a poem of Byron or Poe without seven serious defects” (London: Faber, 1961, p. 79).


Milton or Blake from the canon, for example) supposed and justified a systematic aesthetic, and it is this aesthetic that, I feel, helps to hold Roberts’ anthology together.

2i. the nature, structure, context and aesthetic priorities of Roberts ‘anthology of 1936

It is important to mention, if briefly, beyond the historical fact of his creating the anthology at the very end of the Modernist revolution, the central role played by Roberts himself. Roberts, like all great anthologists (Palgrave, Grierson or Matthiessen for American poetry, for example) was a remarkable reader of poetry, who, like Pound, had an extraordinarily economical sense of the necessary [8].

A second important aspect of Roberts’ work is its title: The Faber Book of Modern Verse. This is deceptive — as Roberts remarked at the beginning of the introduction: “this is not intended to be a comprehensive anthology of the best poems of our age” [9].

This caveat is important in that it touches on the difference between the Modern and the Modernist. Many highly significant and indeed canonically great contemporary poets are


8. This may seem an impressionistic description, typical of those who defend canons. I would deny this, however, and could, I think, prove the point rather laboriously by comparing the successive editions of the Faber book, where successive poets, Anne Ridler, for instance, attempted — unsuccessfully in my eyes — to “update” it. This would take too long for present purposes, so, to give a sense of what an individual achievement this was, I would compare Roberts’ anthology with Harriet Monroe’s 1923 The New Poetry: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Verse in English (New York: The Macmillan Co, 1923). This American anthology (pointed out to me by Ms. Ellen Hinsey) was organised by someone who, even more than Roberts, played a pivotal role in the development of Modernism, and appeared after the annus mirabilis of 1922 which had seen the publication of three of the seminal Modernist texts: Ulysses, “The Waste-Land” and Jacob’s Room. The introduction of Monroe’s anthology is explicitly and — with the important exception of the absence of any discussion of the notion of difficulty which will interest Roberts — constantly structured by the aesthetic priorities of the Modernist revolution: the value placed on the intensive as opposed to the Swinburnian diffuse, an Imagist fascination with the objective, a call for the use of contemporary speech patterns, a critique of the omnipresence of iambic rhythm and a consequent call for experiment with free verse, the recognition of the importance of both the French tradition that begins with Mallarmé and oriental poetry generally, and, finally, the systematic erosion of the frontier between prose and verse. If a concerned, educated sense of its aesthetic priorities guaranteed perceptive judgement of contemporary poetry this should have produced a great anthology. In fact it is very disappointing, eclectic in its choice, and hesitant in its judgement. It contains, for example, a rather dangerous 137 poets. Some of the names thus echo very dimly — if at all — even for specialists: Mark Thurbyfill, Maxwell Bodenheim, Adelaide Crapsey, Agnes Lee, Wilfred Wilson Gibson etc. More importantly, the introduction and the anthology itself hedge their bets aesthetically by praising, for example, Rabindranath Tagore, whose English-language poetry breaks virtually every one of the aesthetic priorities that the introduction defends.
9. Op cit., p. 2.


excluded from this anthology: one thinks of Frost or Hardy or Housman, poets who are in many ways more consistent than others like Peter Quennell whom Roberts has included. This exclusion is, I would argue, not arbitrary; it stems from the fact that Roberts is concerned not with the modern (the contemporary) but precisely with something very different: what has come to be known as the Modernist. The confused genesis of this opposition has yet, as far as I know, to be researched properly and the distinction is difficult to systematize partly because, for many Modernists, the two tended to be synonymous. The only good modern poetry in the period had to be Modernist, something to which I will return. Nevertheless Roberts’ distinction between “quality” of text and presence in his anthology has important consequences in that it grounds the distinction Modernist canon/ poetic canon of the “golden treasury” sort.

2ii. the content of the anthology

I do not wish to give too detailed a breakdown of the content of the anthology, mainly because the table of contents is fascinating precisely in so far as — unlike Monroe’s — it contains little to surprise us [10]. I feel that, sixty years later, we largely — with half a dozen exceptions, like the interesting importance attached to Herbert Read — accept Roberts’ choice, his particular selection from among his contemporaries and his choice of poems. Roberts himself says in the introduction that by 1936 the battle was largely over, that the priorities of the type of poetry he was anthologising had imposed themselves on the public — something which was and is not strictly true. Whatever it inevitably owes to precursors, some of whom we will return to, the anthology is decisive largely in the incredible assuredness with which it draws a map of a certain type of experimental contemporary work. One aspect of this map is the historically innovative importance attached to American poetry and American poets [11]. But even within the British tradition the map is drawn in a very particular way. The anthology begins, for example,


10. There are exceptions which raise interesting aesthetic problems, such as the importance attached to Sacheverell Sitwell. The hierarchy established by Roberts is as follows. The poets who have over ten pages are in order of decreasing presence: Eliot, Hopkins, Pound, Yeats, C. Day Lewis, W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, Laura Riding, Charles Madge, Herbert Read, Stephen Spender, Louis Macneice, Sacheverell Sitwel. The poets who have between nine and five pages are, in decreasing order, Robert Graves, Allen Tate, Marianne Moore, Wilfred Owen, D.H. Lawrence, George Barker, Hart Crane, Conrad Aiken, Isazc Rosenberg, John Crowe Ransom, James Reeves. Those that have less than five pages are, in decreasing order of presence: Harold Monro, Edith Sitwell, H.D., Wallace Stevens, e e cummings, Peter Quennell, David Gascoyne, Vachel Lindsay, Dylan Thomas, Clifford Dyment.
11. H. Goethals (op cit., p. 80) recalls that Tate, Crane, Stevens and Crowe Ransom “étaient jusqu’alors inédits en Angleterre”.


with a massive series of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins (including the complete “Wreck of the Deutschland”) and ends with the Surrealist David Gascoyne, thus encompassing the Modernist as we now understand it.

If one looks in more detail, one notices that, within the work of any particular poet, it is the most Modernist texts that are given prominence. Thus, to take two examples, the Hopkins selection is one that excludes the Victorian Hopkins (of, say, “The Habit of Perfection”), a Hopkins who has recently been the object of new critical attention as poetry informed by Victorian aesthetics becomes “readable” again. Similarly the fact that only poems published after 1910 are included means that the Symbolist Yeats (of The Wind among the Reeds, for instance) is excluded, a choice in whose shadow we still, I think, work — notably in our underestimation of the strengths of the poetry produced in the nineties. But beyond the incidence of this choice on the critical fate of a part of the work of a particular poet, this refusal of the early Yeats is symptomatic of the fact that Anglo-Saxon Modernism — unlike French — consistently refused any filiation with the fin de siècle, thus, amongst other things, creating its own myth of itself rising like Aphrodite from the waves, perfectly formed, defined precisely by its heroic self-gestation. This sense of its own genesis is analogous and related, I think, to its conviction that the text was autonomous or, as Graves has it, “Perhaps more than anything else characteristic of modernist poetry is a declaration of the independence of the poem” [12].

Modernism, in its own narrative, claims to be independent of place, independent of any imposed inheritance, independent of author.

2iii. Introduction & context

If the poem was independent, Roberts’ anthology nevertheless contained an important introduction which deserves a more detailed analysis than I have time for here. This paratext is important, as always, in that it proposes a complex critical programme for reading the works included. I would like to look here at just three aspects of this programme which I believe are theoretically significant: :firstly the centring on the medium of the art, as opposed to the message; secondly the stressing of aspects of Modernism such as humour, which we have tended to lose sight of, and lastly, emanating from the frustration one feels on reading the introduction, the sense that Roberts’ critical discourse is more historically limited and determined than his choice of poems.

Firstly then the importance of the medium. In his introduction, Roberts makes the following statement:


12. Graves, Robert & Laura Riding, A Survey of Modernist Poetry. New York: Haskell House, 1969, p. 124.


Primarily poetry is an exploration of the possibilities of language. It does not aim directly at consolation or moral exhortation, nor at the expression of exquisite moments, but an extension of significance; and it might be argued that a too self-conscious concern with ‘contemporary’ problems deflects the poet’s efforts from his true objective. [13]

This idea that the attitude towards the medium is what defines poetry and what should be the heart of the reader’s attention — and not a content or project which would be inherently poetic — was not in itself new (Hopkins had expressed the same idea and so had others in the twenties — one thinks of Robert Graves’ and Laura Riding’s priorities in their 1928 Survey of Modernist Poetry or transition’s manifesto “The Revolution of the Word” of the same year). But the statement is part of a contemporary movement that was to have immense consequences in the field of critical theory, and thus on the way the post-Modernist generations were taught to read. In more general terms, this type of critical priority is at the heart of the critical revolution that gave birth to New Criticism with its insistence on the autonomy of the literary object, on close reading, on its concentration on that distinctive aspect of Anglo-Saxon Modernism: “irony”, on the way it deconstructed the nineteenth century critical inheritance by criticising “the intentional fallacy” and the “affective fallacy”. It is worth recalling that William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity was published in 1930 and Crowe Ransom’s decisive The New Criticism in 1941. The thirties — the decade at whose heart the anthology was published — thus saw the beginnings of the rise to power of this critical school, and it is not by chance, I feel, that figures like Eliot, Empson, Ransom and Tate (or Herbert Read in other domains) should appear in Roberts’ anthology and at the same time play an increasingly central role in grounding a critical school which has probably been the most institutionally powerful in the twentieth century.

But if this dialectic of mutual reinforcement is fairly simple to analyze, what is perhaps particularly fascinating about the introduction are more surprising priorities such as the attention paid to the humour of Modernist verse. This is something we have lost sight of in our interest in intertextuality and difficulty. Roberts insists on certain key figures like e.e. cummings, and Edith Sitwell [14]. But one could extend his remarks to Auden or Beckett, to name but two. He was not alone in this. Just eight years earlier Graves and Riding had said: “It is for this reason that we find in modernist poetry so many examples of pure burlesque, not in the trapeze tradition, but in the tearless, heartless tradition of the early Italian comedy.” [15]


13. Op cit., p. 3.
14. Op cit., p. 20.
15. Op cit., p. 231.


Modernism would thus have as its emblematic comic genius Buster Keaton, post-Modernism perhaps Monty Python. But why is this question of humour important? Simply, I feel, in that it is one more example of the fact that if any movement or group — of which Modernism is here merely an example — both constitutes its own canon and establishes the contract by which it wishes to be read, that contract nevertheless does not exhaust the readings available. A reading contract can be radically rewritten by inclusion of priorities and by exclusion. This, to me, suggests that the corpus of texts (the canon) can in certain configurations remain stable, transcending the historical context which generated the discourse that acclimatizes it for a particular reading public. This implies in its turn two things. On the one hand it suggests that it is not simply the readership that creates and remodels the canon (the institutional conspirators whose dark hand is seen in the creation of the canon); on the other, and as a consequence, it would seem that something nevertheless is holding this corpus together, structuring aesthetic priorities and choices that seem to be in certain respects systematic even if we are not (but will anyone ever be?) totally masters of the system or the structure.

3) The problem of exclusion from the canon, here the absence of women poets in the Modernist canon

One of the most important sources of criticism of the existence and aesthetic status of canons historically has been feminist criticism. Feminist criticism has constantly drawn attention to the problem of the existence of canons created by male editors and made up of essentially male poets, something that should be statistically improbable, given the number of women writing in any given period. More particularly, if the presiding ancestor of Roberts’ anthology is “male” (Hopkins), where, for example, is Emily Dickinson? For when the American canon comes to be put in place by Matthiessen some fifteen years later, Emily Dickinson will play the same emblematic role as proto-Modernist as Hopkins does for the British tradition (something Harriet Monroe had already suggested in 1923) [16]. Technically it could be argued that the complex history of the publication of her work did not fit in with Roberts’ self-imposed constraint of publication after 1910. Nevertheless, in a broader perspective and accepting this explanation, how is one to interpret a sexist bias that Roberts’ anthology seems to confirm, with its ten per cent of women’s writing and only four figures: HD, Marianne Moore, Laura Riding and Edith Sitwell?


16. The canonization of Dickinson was well under way by the 1930s notably in a series of important anthologies of which: L Untermeryer’s Modern American Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1931) in the fourth revised edition of which the editor more than doubles the space allotted to Emily Dickinson (and does the same for other Modernist poets).


Here I take an aspect of gender studies which is somewhat paleolithic within the fast-moving development of feminist criticism itself: the problem of “lost voices”. One of the major axes of feminist criticism is its programmatic desire to reread the corpus to rediscover texts that male-dominated institutions have marginalised. One can only have total intellectual and aesthetic sympathy with this project. Who would not be delighted if another Dickinson were (re)discovered? Nevertheless, as with a similar attempt by Marxists for working class poetry forty years earlier, the results have been meagre, at least as far as the period I am dealing with is concerned. The Modernist Poetic Canon (unlike the Modernist Novelistic Canon) is still, at least as far as published poetry is concerned, from a feminist point of view and despite the research, typically canonical in that it is mainly made up of dead white western males. In this it corresponds to the stereotype that haunts much feminist writing and which Shari Benstock reflects when she writes: “High formalist Modernism was specifically a masculine, heterosexual phenomenon that excluded those who did not share the mores of its dominant culture.” [17]

But how does this exclusion function? Not, I would argue, in editiorial whim or — in Roberts’ case — traceable ideological prejudice. More in that women poets at the time do not — any more than Frost or Hardy — fit into the framework of the innovatively modern as Roberts understood it. If I were to take one example, it would be Edna St Vincent Millay. Here is a poet of considerable, if, like Gascoyne, irregular talent, who was and is immensely popular and whose — to my mind — greatest achievement, Fatal Interview (1931), dates precisely from the period in which the anthology was being put together. Millay was a poet whose politics were radical (she was a feminist and shared many of Roberts’ ideological commitments); yet she was feted by the establishment. Nevertheless, one may surmise that the central cause of her exclusion from Roberts’ anthology, and perhaps her inclusion in many of the standard American anthologies of the period, comes not from her sex or even the poetic quality of her achievement but from her being rooted in a late-Romantic aesthetic (something that was and still is the bedrock of much poetic popularity) [18].


17. Women of the Left Bank (Austin: Texas UP, 1986, p. 312). This analysis seems as problematic in its simplicity as Terry Eagleton’s analogous Marxist analysis: “Modernism, as Raymond Williams has argued, is among other things a running battle between a new mode of rootless, cosmopolitan consciousness and the older, more parochial national traditions from which this consciousness has defiantly broken lose” (The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford: Basil Blackwell,1990, p. 320).
18. Alan Tate wrote in New Republic in his “Miss Millay’s Sonnets: a Review of Fatal Interview”, New Republic, May 6th 1931, p. 335-6: “Miss Millay was not prepared to give her generation a philosophy in comprehensive terms; her poetry does not define the break with the nineteenth century . Taking the vocabulary of nineteenth-century poetry as pure as you will find in Christina Rossetti, and drawing upon the stock of conventional symbolism accumulated from Drayton to Patmore, she has created, out of shopworn materials, a distinguished personal idiom: she has been able to use the language of the preceding generation to convey an emotion peculiar to her own. Norman A. Brittin in his Edna St. Vincent Millay (Boston: Twayne Publishers, revised edition 1982, p. 129) remarks: “Her ‘Millay’s’ reputation became the victim of a gradual alteration of the taste brought about by the influence of the ‘New Critics’ with their anti-Romantic doctrines; the promulgation of these doctrines in the notebooks of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren and especially the domination of the poetic movement called ‘Modernism’.”


Nevertheless the question remains. Why were women who played such an important role in the Modernist novel (from Woolf to Djuna Barnes and Stein) and who, in the period, published a great deal of poetry, apparently reticent about the movement or excluded from it? It could be that the thematics and aesthetics of Modernism ran counter to the spaces in which women like Rossetti or Barrett Browning had achieved great successes in the nineteenth century (the domestic [19], the R/romantic and the religious) or used aesthetic strategies that were to be undermined in the next generation when the confessional mode (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton etc...), refused the impersonal, distancing strategies of Modernism. But then male poets had had to break with certain dominant nineteenth century thematic spaces too and there are confessional male poets. Whatever the answer to this question of the “why” of the exclusion of women — and one would need to research this area in much greater detail — it would seem that the conspiracy theory of the canon (there are good Modernist women poets who are not being given a hearing) is not adequate to the complexity of the situation. Even supposing that Poetic Modernism were gendered by the aesthetic priorities of heterosexual male editors and poets, this would not alter the internal coherence of the canon as it has been established — indeed quite the contrary.

4) Combating the Modernist canon

But if Modernism is aesthetically coherent, this does not mean that it exhausts the possibilities open to the poetically innovative. I have already suggested that Roberts’ anthology was misnamed. It is not, as he himself acknowledged, an anthology that does justice to the whole range of Modern poetry as it then existed, and of which St. Vincent Millay would be an integral part. More specifically, the introduction was sufficiently intelligent to suggest a fault line which was to permit in some sense a post-Modernist reflection on poetry. To summarize, Roberts suggested in his introduction that in the contemporary poetry production were two major traditions: one European (which I call the Modernist) and another “English”


19. Suzanne Clark in Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991, p. 69) says: “Millay does not practice the modernist anarchy of style: her poetics are founded on commonality, and sees her as possessing an unmodernist quality of [...] motherly hospitality” (70).


tradition [20]. As Roberts remarks, it is the American poets who invested the European space. For our purposes here, what is striking is the fact that Roberts has virtually nothing to say about the “English tradition” [21] as though it was not central to his project, as though his aesthetic heart really lies with the American/European tradition.

Why is this strategic? Largely because it is through a certain turning away from Europe and Modernism, a return to the English line (notably Hardy) that in the fifties a new tradition will grow. More particularly, this refusal of what Roberts calls the European tradition was to be at the heart of Yeats’ extraordinary Oxford Book of Modern Verse that was to appear only a few months later and was, it should be added, no more generous to women poets (though it gives space to certain whom Roberts ignored, like Sylvia Townsend Warner, or, more controversially, Lady Augusta Gregory or Margot Ruddock who was given as much space as Eliot). This anthology — unlike Roberts’ [22] — was received very badly despite the fact that Yeats was by 1936 a figure who, unlike Roberts, had real canonical stature. To take one example, W. Stonier in The New Statesman wrote: “What the book suffers from most is not so much bad taste as an incoherent tastelessness.” [23]

In fact I personally feel that Yeats’ choice is not incoherent, though his priorities might seem eccentric to us. Indeed Yeats is making to my mind — amongst other things — the first important anti-Modernist anthology. If this is so, Roberts’ anthology becomes paradoxically perhaps both the enshrinement and the entombment of a revolution. To make this anti-Modernist gesture (which is only, I would insist, one priority in the anthology), Yeats does a number of things. Firstly he excludes all American poets who had not been Europeanized (this means that figures like Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings or Wallace Stevens disappear); similarly he excludes the neo-Romantic thirties generation of Modernism (Dylan Thomas and David Gascoyne). Secondly he begins his anthology provocatively with Pater’s description of the Mona Lisa, which he rewrites as poetry, thus rooting the modern in the 1890s and not in Hopkins [24]. Thirdly, in the extremely provocative


20. In America this would have its analogue in a certain type of poetry that Roberts was less interested in . It would comprise poets like Sandburg, Williams, Lindsay & J effers.
21. H. Goethals draws attention to this in a slightly different theoretical perspective from mine.
22. With the exception of Leavis’s vituperative and foolish criticism in Scrutiny (June 1936/116-117), an object lesson on the failings of Leavis as a critic of contemporary poetry. H. Goethals says that the first edition sold 50,000 copies.
23. “Mr Yeats Fumbles” in New Statesman (Dec. 5th, 1936, p. 940-42; 942).

24. It is interesting that this (1890-1930) is the chronology established — in a very European perspective — by Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane in their Pelican Book: Modernism (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978) whereas Peter Faulkner in his less “continental” A Modernist Reader: Modernism in England 1910-1930 (London: Batsford, 1986) excludes the Symbolist and decadent tradition.


introduction he demolishes not only — and famously — poets like Wilfred Owen who had canonical status by the mid-thirties but also the tutelary figures of Modernism itself, Hopkins and Pound and Eliot, saying of the first that he has a perverse relationship with language, of the second that he is often reduced to stammering confusion and of the third that he is essentially a rather dull Pope. And yet — and herein lies the difficulty of a radically revisionist approach to Modernism — where Yeats had been open to the Victorian Hopkins, he exclusively concentrates, when he comes to choose his own work, on the most Modernist of his texts. This is foregrounded by the fact that the Irish poet chose a system of organisation by chronology of date of birth. Hence his own late texts are placed — equally provocatively — between lush Symons and decadent Dowson. This central choice, as well as the fact that, unlike Roberts’, Yeats’ narrative of the early part of the century has never commanded consensus any more than Larkin’s similar one did forty years later, suggests that the Modernist canon resists even heavily gunned revisionist attacks on it.

This brings me to my conclusion. I hope I have suggested that if a discussion of the canon is to move beyond rather primitive polemic it must at least envisage the idea that there is not in fact one canon but several, and that these canons (the Modernist and the late Romantic in the twenties, for example) dialogue in complex ways and can be brought together institutionally in the larger canon. It thus suggests there are canons and canons — that not all canons have the same aesthetic and, consequently, historical status. For example, judging by the instability of anthologies of women’s poetry, one feels that women’s poetry has, for the moment at least (and in itself this is not important), nowhere near the same aesthetic coherence as the Modernist canon. Most women’s anthologies are of the “golden treasury” sort. It also suggests that whatever the causes of Modernism itself, the canon seems to be structured by complex aesthetic criteria that go beyond simple ideological (sexist or capitalist) priorities. Thus monocausal or simplistic conspiracy theories do not do justice to movements. Moreover, were the notion of canon totally arbitrary, it is arguable that literary history would not be possible (in itself an arguable position). If there were not a series of constellations of texts with shared aesthetic priorities the Baroque, the Romantic, the Symbolist, the Modernist, the feminist or late capitalist art would be meaningless categories. Finally it is important to remember that the existence of a canon does not imply that one values the texts in any given canon. One can conceive of a canon of a genre for which one has no aesthetic or ideological sympathy (as one can of a religion one does not “believe” in) More particularly, it is quite conceivable that Modernism will, as the Mannerists did for three centuries or the late Romantic or High Victorian for a hundred years, gradually lose the favour of the “educated” reading public and the institutions that educate it, that the Modernist canon might be excluded from the “golden treasury” canon.


Nevertheless this does not preclude the possibility that, after three hundred years, the Modernist canon might resurface in much the same form as we know it now, with “The Waste Land” and “The Cantos” as presiding suns but in a completely different and — for us — inconceivable critical context.



(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 14. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1998)