Literary modernism is difficult to define as it encompasses a wide variety of movements and as many writers who are termed as modernists were not affiliated with these movements. Broadly, modernist literature is characterized by a radical break with traditional ways of writing in favor of new forms of expression. Ezra Pound captured the essence of Modernism with his famous dictum, “Make it new!“ The dates of the modernist movement in poetry are difficult to determine. It is usually said to have began with Charles Baudelaire and the French Symbolist movement. The First World War is critical to modernist literature and it is the point around which it evolved while World War II is considered by many as the end of the movement. Modernist poets experimented with form; moved away from the personal towards the intellectual; and pointed out the ills of society and the alienation of the individual in the modern world. Here are the 10 most famous modernist poets and their best known works. We have excluded several renowned poets whose status as a modernist writer is questioned like W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and others.
#10 Wallace Stevens
Lifespan: October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955
For most of his adult life, Stevens pursued contrasting careers as an executive for an insurance company and a poet. His first major publication was written at the age of 35 and he was not widely read or recognized as a major poet till very late in his life. However, after his death, he has been regarded as one of the most significant American poets of the 20th century and as a prominent figure in Modernist poetry. Much of Stevens’ work is meditative and philosophical; and he is regarded primarily as a poet of ideas. In his work, “imagination” is not equivalent to consciousness nor is “reality” equivalent to the world as it exists outside our minds. Instead, reality is the product of the imagination as it shapes the world. His precise abstractions exerted substantial influence on future generation poets. In 1955, the year of his death, Wallace Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems.
Sunday Morning (1923)
The Snow Man (1921)
The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1922)
#9 William Carlos Williams
Lifespan: September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963
Imagism was an early 20th-century movement in poetry which was derived from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry; and stressed on clarity, precision and economy of language. It is considered to be the first organized Modernist literary movement in the English language. William Carlos Williams is the most prominent figure of the Imagist movement after Ezra Pound. His poetic work is distinctly American as he sought to invent a uniquely American form of poetry centered on the everyday circumstances of the lives of Americans. Also, his poems contain language from America’s cultural and social heterogeneity while rejecting the worn-out language of British and European culture. William Carlos Williams was a revolutionary figure in American modernist poetry. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1962 poetry collection Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems.
The Red Wheelbarrow (1923)
This Is Just to Say (1934)
Spring and All (1923)
#8 W. H. Auden
Lifespan: February 21, 1907 – September 29, 1973
Wystan Hugh Auden is considered as the last great poet who had complete mastery of form. Like other modernist writers, he produced poetry that abandoned many of the conventions that existed in poetry of the 19th century, such as strict meter and rhyme patterns. However, this didn’t prevent him from uniquely using traditional aesthetics and old poetic forms as well. Also, he explored a wide variety of topics that span from ancient religion and science to politics and psychology. The poetry of Auden is known for its stylistic and technical achievement; its engagement with politics, morals, love and religion; and its variety in tone, form and content. Along with Yeats and Eliot, W. H. Auden is usually ranked among the three greatest 20th century British and Irish poets. His legacy as one of the most important poets of Modernism is indisputable and he continues to have an influence on English writers to this day.
Funeral Blues (1938)
Musee des Beaux Arts (1939)
September 1, 1939 (1939)
#7 Rainer Maria Rilke
Lifespan: December 4, 1875 – December 29, 1926
Rainer Maria Rilke is best known for his contributions to German literature and is widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets. He was unique in his efforts to expand the realm of poetry through new uses of syntax and imagery. Rilke expressed ideas with “physical rather than intellectual symbols”. He; more than any other modernist poet; gave ironic, tender and sometimes despairing expression to the tumult between modern men and women. In 1923, his works Duino Elegies (Duineser Elegien) and Sonnets to Orpheus (Die Sonette an Orpheus) were published. These two poetry collections are considered his masterpieces and the highest expressions of his talent. Rilke remains a prominent figure in popular culture. He is frequently quoted or referenced in television, film, music and other works which discuss the subject of love or angels, the prominent themes in his poems.
The Panther (1902)
Herbsttag (Autumn Day, 1902)
Archaic Torso of Apollo (1908)
#6 Ezra Pound
Lifespan: October 30, 1885 – November 1, 1972
Ezra Weston Loomis Pound was the most influential and prominent figure of the influential Imagist movement. In his poetry, he intentionally used confusing juxtapositions, yet led the reader to an intended conclusion. He rejected Victorian and Edwardian grammar and structure; and instead created a unique form of speech, employing odd words and jargon. Pound also famously used a literary technique called parataxis, in which phrases and clauses are placed one after another independently, without coordinating or subordinating them through the use of conjunctions. Ezra Pound is credited with single–handedly crafting the tradition of Modernist literature as he was primarily responsible for discovering, advancing and shaping the work of several major writers associated with the movement including William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Marianne Moore and E.E. Cummings.
In a Station of the Metro (1913)
The Cantos (1925)
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920)
#5 Fernando Pessoa
Lifespan: June 13, 1888 – November 30, 1935
Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa was part of a group of poets who introduced modernist literature to Portugal. His first book of poetry in English was published in 1918 while his first book in Portuguese was not published till 1934. He died the next year without achieving fame in his lifetime. The extraordinarily imaginative poems of Pessoa first attracted attention in both Portugal and Brazil in the 1940s; and soon he was internationally renowned. His works are remarkable for the innovation of the literary concept of heteronym, which refers to imaginary characters created by a writer who write in different styles. Pessoa’s heteronyms; around 75 in number; were presented as distinct authors, each of whom differed from the others in terms of poetic style, aesthetic, philosophy, personality, and even gender and language. Fernando Pessoa is considered as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language.
Poema em Linha Reta (Poem in a Straight Line)
Mar Portugues (Portuguese Sea, 1934)
#4 Arthur Rimbaud
Lifespan: October 20, 1854 – November 10, 1891
Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud was a prodigious student who abandoned his formal education in his teenage years; ran away from home; produced the bulk of his literary output in his late adolescence and early adulthood; completely stopped writing at the age of 21; then traveled extensively on three continents as a merchant; and unfortunately died from cancer at the age of just 37. Inspired by the work of Charles Baudelaire, Rimbaud created a Symbolist style of poetry. His poetry also influenced the Dadaists and the Surrealists. Later writers adopted not only some of his themes but also his inventive use of form and language. His extended poem in prose Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) is considered a hugely influential work in modernist literature. Arthur Rimbaud is among the most renowned French poets and he had a major impact on modern literature and arts, especially on Surrealsm.
Le Bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat, 1871)
Le Dormeur du Val (The Sleeper of the Valley, 1888)
Voyelles (Vowels, 1883)
#3 E. E. Cummings
Lifespan: October 14, 1894 – September 3, 1962
Also a novelist, playwright and painter; Edward Estlin Cummings is most famous for his poems which were radical for their use of unconventional punctuation and phrasing. Most of his verse is in lowercase and he capitalizes words only when it is relevant to the work. The structure and use of compound words in his poems is of significance to the verse and not arbitrary. Also, satire is pervasive in his works. A typical Cummings poem is spare and precise, employing a few eccentrically placed key words. E. E. Cummings was not a very renowned poet for a large part of his career but was able to gain widespread fame and recognition by the 1950s. One of the most innovative poets of his time, he is now regarded as a towering figure in literary modernism. Cummings remains one of the most famous figures in English poetry with his poems on love and nature, and his erotic poetry being extremely popular.
i carry your heart with me (1952)
in Just- (1923)
Buffalo Bill’s (1920)
#2 Charles Baudelaire
Lifespan: April 9, 1821 – August 31, 1867
Baudelaire is regarded as the first author in the Symbolist tradition and he, more than anyone else, moved the literary world from the Romantic poetry of statement and emotion to the modern poetry of symbol and suggestion. His greatest originality was perhaps his ability to “represent powerfully and essentially modern man” in all his physical, psychological and moral complexity. Baudelaire was far ahead of the point of view in his time and explored various controversial themes. His most famous work Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) was published in 1857 and it caused a sensation. It is considered by many as the most important and influential poetry collection published in Europe in the 19th century. Charles Baudelaire had an enormous influence on not only modernism but on European literature and thought in general. He is considered as one of the greatest poets of the 19th century.
L’Albatros (The Albatross, 1861)
À une passante (To a Passerby, 1855)
Le Cygne (The Swan, 1857)
#1 T. S. Eliot
Lifespan: September 26, 1888 – January 4, 1965
Thomas Stearns Eliot is known for infusing poetry with high intellectualism and is regarded by many as the most erudite poet of his time. Born in the United States, he converted to Anglicanism in 1927 and took British citizenship the same year. His conversion marked a change of poetic style with his works becoming less ironic and focusing more on spiritual matters. Eliot was a highly influential poet whose works played a key role in the literary transition from 19th-century Romantic poetry to 20th-century Modernist poetry. His poetic cunning, fine craftsmanship and original accent have led to many regarding him as synonymous with Modernism; and his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is seen as a masterpiece of the movement. In 1948, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry”. Regarded as one of the greatest figures in English literature, T. S. Eliot is the most famous Modernist poet.
The Waste Land (1922)
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915)
The Hollow Men (1925)