The treatment of the theme of Urban Life in Twentieth Century Poetry

Write an essay about the treatment of the period of one of the following: patriotism, innocence, violence, rural life, urban life or sentimentality.

Choice of topic: Urban Life.

Paul Catherall

The theme of urban life reoccurs in the works of poets throughout the Twentieth Century, but the concern of urban living has long preoccupied poets, writers and social theoreticians alike for many hundreds of years.
In the pre-industrial age, the town was the administrative base of the provinces, and the larger cities, the administrative and political capitals of nations. For many writers writing before the widespread urban expansion that characterised the Industrial Revolution (began during the 1760s), the city was a cultural phenomenon on the fringes of both experience and the imagination. In accord with the predominately idyllic, epic and eulogist poetry of the nineteenth century, the city represented an ideal, as the progenitor and defender of civilisation in the tradition of ancient Rome, and of the Christian faith in the tradition of the holy city of Jerusalem. The city also represented a bastion of modern culture and technological achievement in the renaissance and humanist tradition. Additionally, through nationalism and imperialism, the city became a national status symbol. Nineteenth century London became a powerful commercial and political entity, but also the ethical, cultural and spiritual nexus of a vast empire spanning half the world.
The idealistic view of cities and urban life is reflected in the patriotic works of Victorian poets, such as Robert Bridges (1844-1930), his view of London in ‘ London snow’ is typical of late Victorian patriotic poetry:
When now already, the sun in bright display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of day… (1.)

The issue of poor living and working conditions amongst the urban poor seldom surfaces in Victorian poetry, but the plight of the urban poor did not go unvoiced. A few voices frequently spoke out, although with greater success in prose rather than poetry, as seen in the works of Silas Marner (1837-1912), whose main concern was for the appalling living conditions in the northern cities, and in the novels and periodicals of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), whose works struck upper-class Victorian conscience with his tragic tales of innocent lives blighted by the oppressive urban environment of modern Britain.
In the world of poetry, perhaps the earliest and most vociferous critic of industrialisation and the exploitation of common humanity, was William Blake (1857-1827), whose vision of human society largely concerned the return of urban man to a pastoral existence. Blake’s central argument claimed that contemporary hierarchical social order and the industrial system inevitably deprived society of innate human virtues, epitomised by Blake in the ‘divine image’ of ‘mercy. pity, peace and love.’ Blake claimed that modern humanity had succumbed to a state of ‘experience, ‘ becoming a selfish, destructive entity, entirely out of sympathy with the natural world, and his own, inner spiritual being. Blake’s poems, such as ‘The Chimney Sweep’ and ‘The Little Vagabond’ often concern the plight of common humanity, oppressed by the ethical and hierarchical authority of the state and by the exploitation of the industrial towns. Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ is an antithesis to an industrial Britain being created within his lifetime – satirising the belief of the establishment in Britain as a great and beneficent power:
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?’ (2.)
Blake’s works, spanning the first two decades of the nineteenth century were radical, in their revolutionary outlook on the state of British society and the increasing problems of urbanisation in the industrial towns. Blake influenced the later generation of Romantics, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who often voiced the same kinds of social concerns as Blake.
The Nineteenth Century, however was a period of frustration and disappointment for the advocates of social reform. The rise of nationalism and entrenchment of conservatism resulted in the censorship and alienation of reformist writers. The Romantics, despite their earlier radical outlook retreated from the overt questioning of social and political issues, and withdrew into a personal spiritual aesthetic, with an emphasis on the unity of man ‘s soul with nature. This later conservative outlook of Wordsworth and Coleridge – essentially in the lyrical and narrative tradition, influenced later lyrical poets such as Tennyson and Browning. The withdrawal of the radical voice of nineteenth century verse, and abandonment of the question of urban oppression is summed up in Wordsworth’s ‘London’:
Meanwhile the roar continues, till at length,
Escaped as from an enemy, we turn
Abruptly into some sequested nook,
Still as a sheltered place when winds blow loud!’ (3.)

As a result of the swing to conservatism and nationalism, late nineteenth century Britain still lay in the grip of Industrialisation and urban misery. Social and political reform as championed by the Prime Ministers W. E. Gladstone (1809-1898) and Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), produced some changes to the lot of Britain’s urban poor, but there was still a lack of adequate compulsory education and social service. In addition, the Labour movement, champion of the working classes was periodically made helpless by the frequent repeal of the Trades-Union act, and by the restriction of the franchise (voting rights) to property-owning men.
For a few, dissatisfied writers of the closing years of the century, Britain represented both European hierarchical inequality, and the injustice of imperialism. The demonstrations throughout Ireland in the 1880s had brought Irish independence, and the ethical validity of Imperialism itself, to the forefront of politics. Perhaps the most staggering and innovative literature of this period were the prose works of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), whose lucid criticism of Imperialism ‘The Heart Of Darkness’ (1897-1907) seriously questions the status quo in contemporary Britain. Interestingly, Conrad is concerned with the city of London, not as an ideal representation of civilisation and imperial superiority, but as the child of historical processes, which lie in human selfishness and greed. In this radical treatment of the city as myth, he anticipates the Twentieth Century Structuralists and New-Historicism:
‘And this also, said Marlow, suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.’ (4.)

The city is a sterile and forbidding environment for Conrad, a place where the capitalist economy, dominated by degenerate, selfish individuals exploit and govern the lives of millions:
‘…there was something ominous in the atmosphere. It was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy.’ (5.)

Conrad’s (partially autobiographical,) focus on the reality of civilisation, not just as an ideal concept, but in all it’s suffering and vicissitudes, is reflected in the poetical works of the first great modernist poet, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Like Conrad, Hardy attempts to expose the injustice, indifference and suffering that exists within a supposedly well-run and hierarchically ordered society. I n ‘The Harbour Bridge,’ written sometime between 1906-’09, the natural and urban environment are both indifferent entities, oblivious to the suffering of individuals, like later surrealist and psychological poets, Hardy describes man’s urban environment in highly subjective, pessimistic terms:
From here, the quay, one looks above to mark
the bridge above the harbour hanging dark. (6.)

Hardy ‘s works represent a transition from the traditional representation of human society, using the static, traditional lyric-based verse of the Victorians, to a new, critical and structurally innovative poetic form, similar in many ways to the psychological realism and critical style of Conrad’s fiction:
‘It is such figures as Hardy, Doughty, Blunt… who most clearly represent the passage of the English tradition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century…’ (7.)

Both Hardy and Conrad, like many contemporary writers and thinkers, were highly influenced by the theoretical debate and scientific discoveries of the latter nineteenth century. In particular, they were influenced by the works of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) who disproved the Biblical creation story, and replaced it with the theory of ‘Selective evolution.’ The concept that man could be descended from lower primates sent shockwaves throughout the British establishment for years to come, and is particularly evident in the pre-Freudian novels of Conrad, which discuss the primitive in man, and the falsity of divine social order.
Similarly, developments in literary theory and in philosophy markedly influenced the development of the early twentieth century poets, influencing their assumptions about the role of literature and the nature of society.
Particularly prominent in the analysis of the modern age, and the phenomenon of technological man, were the works of Fredrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who predicted, in a series of chilling allegorical works, such as ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ (1885) that man’s quest for knowledge is an inherently destructive force, and may lead to his extinction. Nietzsche also warned against the passivity of religious faith, urging humanity to achieve success in the physical world, rather than rely on fictitious spiritual goals promised by Christianity. Like Darwin, Nietzsche believed in the evolution of both man and civilisation.
Nietzsche prophetic works greatly influenced writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, and represented a fundamental questioning of established truths, in European society and religion.
The other hugely influential philosopher and psychologist of the early twentieth century was Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) – who postulated that all our actions are explained by internal drives within the unconscious. Sexual motives define behaviour within society, and it is due to the repression of sexual instinct caused through restrictive social conventions that human psychological abnormalities occur.
For writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, Freud’s work questioned the normalcy of social convention, and the injustice of social conditioning within society.
For early twentieth century writers, theoretical and philosophical influences must have been overshadowed by the dramatic social change, the threat of world conflict and ultimately a sense of fragility and fragmentation following the twilight of the Victorian age and all the old certainties that had accompanied it.
The impact of mass industrialisation throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century, and the trauma of the bloody, and incompetently fought 1914-19 war were all factors which shook the establishment. The rise of the Trades Union and Labour movements under Keir Hardie in the first decade of the century, all precipitated the fear of social revolution amongst the upper and middle classes, coming to a peak in 1917, when the Russian October Revolution swept away the ancien regime of feudal Russia, establishing a poactive socialist state in its place. Perhaps the single most obvious single influence on early twentieth century poetry was simply the violence and instability of a revolutionary age:
‘An experience of violence, of which two word wars was merely the symptom, has been central to the period… The antithesis in style which we find in twentieth century poetry is not merely a literary – historical one, to be explained in terms of a shift in sensibility, still less a conflict between traditionalism and modernism… It is really the contrast of innocence and experience.’ (8)

In The New Poetic, C. K. Stead suggests that poetry may be represented as a triangle, with three aspects: the poet, his audience, and reality. He argues that the twentieth century, due to the violence of war and social tension, has produced writes more aware of reality and the necessity for realism than those of the previous century. In terms of the triangle-structure, nineteenth century verse focused too much on the relationship between poet and audience, sometimes ignoring the social reality altogether, whereas twentieth century verse in the tradition of Hardy and Conrad, has restored, or re-evaluated the link between realism, poet and audience:
‘Between these points run lines of tension, and depending on the time, the place, the poet, and the audience, these lines will lengthen or shorten. At one point we may find the audience and the poet close together, and reality a great distance from them… (9.)

Thomas Hardy’s poems are essentially of this kind, compositions attempting to relate the world of reality to the reader, whilst engaging in the meaningful presentation of poetic art. Whilst much of Hardy’s poetry concerns a pessimistic outlook on cosmic order, partly influenced by the loss of religious faith resulting form the Victorian scientific revolution, his works do suggest an allegiance to realism for the purpose of social improvement:
Pessimism is, in truth, only such questionings in the exploration of reality, and is the first step to the soul’s betterment, and the body’s also.’ (10.)

In the Harbour Bridge, Hardy uses a quay setting to reflect the indifference of a capitalist, self-seeking society to the suffering of man. We have the impression of claustrophobia, since this is an essentially artificial environment, dominated by the dense architecture of a town. The harbour is shrouded in darkness by the bridge, suggesting the dominance of the urban landscape on the natural environment and on the lives of individuals:
“From here, the quay, one looks above to mark,
The bridge across the harbour, hanging dark… (11.)

The setting is the close of day, the receding light suggests human morality and the nocturnal sterility of the natural world. The bridge is shadowed against the light, appearing almost skeletal. Boat rigging also seems to disrupt the contours of the landscape:
It draws its skeleton where the sun has set…
On which mild glow, too, lines of rope and spar
Trace themselves black as char.’ (12.)

Boats, the crafts of men are rocked in the harbour by the force of the tide. The insipid movement of the tide seems both remorseless and incidental. The poet can find no harmony or spiritual affinity with the natural world, and describes it in the context of an oppressive and disturbingly indifferent entity:
“down here in shade we hear the painters shift…
As moved by the incoming stealthy tide.” (13.)

The mercantile nature of the quay, is reflected in the burghers, affluent tradespeople, who are seen on the bridge. These people reflect the indifference of human nature to human suffering in their mercantile and predatory occupations.
Hardy uses surrealist imagery to emphasise the oppressive nature of society and human environment, the “sharp edged lips” of the burghers suggest the lies and deception of a consumer-based society. The fact that the burghers appear as shillouettes, suggests their affinity with nineteenth century culture and society, when the policies of self-help or utilitarianism contributed to the exploitation of the urban poor. The shillouettes suggest the inherent deception of traditional nineteenth century representational art, reflecting the dual identity of the industrialist, who profited from the exploitation of the poor, but who sought to be remembered for public works as the benefactor of society.
High up across the bridge, the burghers glide
As cut black paper portraits hastening on…
Their sharp-edged lips move quickly word for word
To speech that is not heard. (14.)

Hardy reveals the reality behind the facade of Victorian society. The Victorian lady is described as a “practical woman,” her existence is tied to the Victorian mercantile world:
There presses the practical woman to the shops..” (15.)

The breakdown of the man and woman’s relationship suggests discord in the natural world, and a degeneration into a chaotic and predatory state in urban society. Ties of loyalty and religion are replaced with motives based on instinctual drives of lust and selfishness:
You should have talked like that in former days,
When I was last home..” They go their separate ways.” (16)

The spread of the urban world seems to accompany a loss of religious faith for Hardy, the west, traditional abode of God in Gnostic teachings, dims with the close of day, and the stark reality of social indifference is impressed by the emotionless glare of lamplight. The appearance of the stars in the vast heavens also suggests the inconsequential nature of human life, and scepticism in cosmic order:
“And the west dims, and yellow lamplight’s shine…”
White stars ghost forth, that care not for men’s wives,
or any other lives.” (17.)

Hardy’s realist influence is seen in the works of Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and the Imagist movement, (begun in 1914 with the anthology of imagist poems ‘Des Imagiste’.) Pound considered, like Hardy, that poetry should convey truth to experience, or realism:
‘The author must use his image because he sees and feels it, not because he thinks he can use it to back up some creed or system of ethics.’ – Ezra Pound. (18.)
The Imagists deliberately chose to consider the problems of their times in through poetic form, this is reflected in their innovative use of ‘vers libre’ to convey the fragmentation and tension of the early twentieth century. The Imagists particularly chose to confront the phenomenon of urbanisation and social change in the tradition of Hardy:
These new circumstances rarely left the politics, and by extension the literature, of the United kingdom untouched. A sense of fragmentation, which was as much geographical as historical as it was cultural and psychological, haunted the experimental texts of the 1920s. (19.)

The Imagists felt, like Hardy and the romantics, that their poetry would be more widely read if they used more colloquial and everyday language, rather than archaic neologisms or classical reference. Their concern with addressing a wide audience, possibly the proletariat, and concern with real contemporary issues, rather than the lyric, is reflected in their links with liberal politics and the Liberal administrations of the 1920s:
“…to allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. It is not good art to writer badly about aeroplanes and automobiles; nor is it necessarily bad art to write bad art about the past. We believe passionately in the artistic value of modern life.’ – Ezra Pound. (20.)

In Pound’s In A Station at the Metro,’ we are presented with the indifference and anonymity of urban life. By using simple, precise language, Pound discards the use of symbolism, and instead focuses upon the impressions felt by the poet for the subject. The poem is short and the structure simple, so that the poet generates a feeling of immediacy and sincerity:
The apparition of these faces in the crows;
petals on a wet, black bough.” (21)

The fragility of urban man is suggested in the use of the petal image. The theories of Freud on the social repression of the subconscious, and the fragility of the social psyche may have influenced Pound’s attitudes on society and urban life.
The apparitions, ‘ are disquieting and lack the vitality of living people. The anonymity of the travellers, disjointed and transitory, is suggested in their presentation as simply “faces.”
Natural imagery heightens the contrast between people and the Metro – emphasising the artificiality of the urban environment. There is a deliberate attempt to break with the literary tradition of the late 19th Century, with the spiritually-based “pathetic fallacy’ of Wordsworth, and with the Beatific idealism of Tennyson.

T. E. Hulme’s (1883-1917) poem, Above the Dock,’ concerns man’s industrial environment, and its domination of the natural world, this is seen in the entanglement of the moon in the ship’s mast:
Above the quiet dock in midnight,
Tangled in the tall mast’s corded height,
Hangs the moon…” (22.)

Rather than describe the moon as a mythological symbol – of Artemis, Diana etc. it represents the cold, scientific understanding of a previously unexplained phenomenon.
The poem seems to focus on the changing nature of human civilisation, and the prospect of new understandings of the physical world. The tone is objective, and adds an empirical feel to the poet’s description of the environment. The darkness of night heightens the reality of the urban environment, in which the old certainties are vanishing, and, as predicted by Nietzsche, mankind is presented with the choices that technology and an enhanced understanding of the physical world offer:
What seemed so far away
Is but a child’s balloon, forgotten after play. (23.)

Similarly, in Humle’s “The embankment” urban setting is used to suggest the loss of traditional certainties about the world which the Victorians had revered, despite the scientific revolutions heralded by Darwin.
In the introductory sentence, we are told the poem concerns a fallen gentleman, suggesting the changing attitudes and realisations of the social hierarchy.
The rhythm of music is merely an illusion:
Once in a finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy..” (24.)

Poesy’, or Elizabethan art-verse, is associated with the warmth’ of the internal rhythm of life. The poet’s understanding of rhythm and the psychology of music may be derived from Freud:
Now, I see, that warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.” (25.)

The poet makes references to contemporary astronomy with the plea to God to make small’ the universe. Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the outer galaxies during the first two decades of the twentieth century, suddenly increased the size of the universe dramatically to incredible proportions:
Oh God, make small
the old star-eaten blanket of the sky…’ (26.)

The Georgians were both precursors and rivals of the Imagists, they are often described in terms of the lyrical and romantic tradition – a stubborn rejection of the modern age. They were highly influenced by the rural landscape of Edwardian Britain, and this staunch retreat into the pastoral is itself evidence of a reaction against urbanisation and the rapid decline of the rural community:
“Thus the poetry we find established in 1909 is a poetry of political retrenchment committed to conservative political and social ideals an institutions bound to collapse.’
the new poetic (26.)

The Georgian obsession with country life rarely mentions the social reality of contemporary urban Britain, but Edward Thomas ( 1878-1917), a poet disillusioned by both the insanity of war and the decline of rural life, addresses the destructive effect of industrialisation in his poem The Aspens, (1916):
The outbreak of war forced Thomas to relocate the landscape described in his verse… the events of the natural world can no longer be viewed without reference to the human world. (27.)

Like the imagists, Thomas uses colloquial easily understood language, but uses extensive symbolism. The aspens represent the enduring voice of reason and the rhythm of the living world, these trees must endure the rain as men endure suffering.
Thomas describes the tragedy of human frailty and morality in the disappearance of the hamlet, suggesting that the natural world is more enduring than man because it exists in harmony with itself – suggested in the rhythmic movement of the aspens, and the way they appear to converse communally. The community of the old hamlet was similarly in harmony, reflecting traditional ways of life amongst humanity, but the modern age has dispelled this harmony within society, so that the old ways of life have been replaced by soulless industrialisation and urban living:
a silent smithy, a silent inn…”
all day and night, save winter, every weather,
above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
the aspens at the cross roads talk together…” (28.)

The hamlet reflects traditional ways of life:
Of hammer, shoe, and anvil…
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.” (29.)

The internal harmony of community life, as seen in the aspens is rejected by contemporary society, this is the rhythm of nature and living things which Thomas suggests is the message of his poem – ultimately, a return to the peaceful certainties of the past.:
Over all sorts of weather, men and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.”(30.)

The works of W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) perhaps epitomise the struggle of the twentieth century modernists to realistically portray and interpret their times.
Yeats was highly influenced by the Romantic poets of the previous century. Yeat’s early work is dominated by lyrical, but highly original narrative poems, which celebrate the Celtic mythologies of Ireland; later works, however demonstrate a deep social concern, borne out of Yeat’s political views and involvement in the debate over Home rule for the island:
In all these writings, reality is the key word; it is the state which the poet wishes to attain, and, in another sense, the state which he must interpret.” (31.)

In The Lake of Innisfree,’ a poem characteristic of his ‘Celtc twilight’ phase, there are very clear echoes of a concern with the changing nature of society and the rapid urbanisation of the Irish people:
I will arise and go now to Inisfree
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made…
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow… (32.)

The use of lyrical verse form and pastoral imagery strangely contrast with the metre and structure of the poem, and is reminiscent of the vers libre of the Imagists. the fragmentation of the metrical structure, and irregularity of the line lengths suggests the disruption and fragmentation present in contemporary society. The poet reveals that he in truth inhabits an urban environment, but in his culture and consciousness, he still feels close to the rhythms of the natural world as expressed in his poetry:
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore:
while I stand in the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core – (33.)

Yeat’s social consciousness is revealed in his desire to bring the new, independent Irish culture he has helped create to the Irish people. The City of Byzantium suggests the old concept of the eternal city, the new-Jerusalem of classical and renaissance tradition. Byzantium is both an image of perfection and the transitory nature of beauty, it was overrun by the Ottomans in 1453. This poem is from Yeat’s final period, when he returned partially to the spiritual and mythological themes of his first Celtic phase. Yeats leaves the uncultured society of Ireland, aspiring to a state of aesthetic perfection:
“The unpurged images of day recede…” (34.)

The perfection of a dome’s proportions contrast with the wild, emotional nature of man. Yeats scorns the ignorance and cultural backwardness of his fellow countrymen, and human society generally:
A starlit or moonlit dome disdains
All that man is…
The fury and the mire of human veins” (35.)

Yeats is disenchanted with political idealism, he mocks the shade’ of nationalism and strife:
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death in life and life in death” (36.)

Yeats pleads with society to accept the cultural solution he offers Ireland, he begs for an awareness of art and for cultural dynamism, seen in his satire of the changeless metal of society:
In glory of changeless metal…
And all complexities of mire and blood… (37.)

Yeats rejects the use of violence for cultural and social change, he blames the martyrdom of those slain in conflict – as the source of yet more violence:
those images that yet
Fresh images beget.. (38.)

The challenge of confronting the social and political reality of contemporary Ireland is clearly met in the poem by Yeats, and is expressed through the metaphor of the city, as a symbol of the cultural state sought after by the poet. In particular, the poem is a deliberate antithesis of the horrors of street warfare seen in the urban centres of Ireland during the 1916 Easter rising.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) also attempted to confront the reality of the twentieth century reality, rather than evade it. His works, influenced by the Imagists, and particularly Ezra Pound, reveal a deep cynicism with contemporary social and spiritual attitudes. The often vague imagery of Eliot can often be traced to the disjointed and fragmented state of society during the nineteen thirties, and particularly to the threat of the new aggressive superpower of Germany. The fragmented, irregular free verse found in The Waste Land (1922) echoes the poet’s sense of social and civil decline in an uncertain and rapidly changing world. The threat of war, and ultimately of personal extinction is seen in the macabre image of the Tarrot fortune teller, Madam Sosostris, and in the frequent use of German phrases:
The Waste Land ends with the truth of the human situation as the religious mind conceives it: the beginning of wisdom is fear.” (39.)

The Waste Land seems to epitomise the unknown – the terror of a child’s sled-ride reflects the fascination and horror of sudden fear. The sudden emergence of plant life is also a vital, but shocking event:
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee… (40.)

Eliot satirises the complacency of modern society, he parodies the prophet’s Isiah’s assertion that the faithful man has nothing to fear form the world. The city from ‘The burial of the dead’ is however no protection for modern man. The rock of Isiah becomes dust:
“Come in under the shadow of this red rock…
I will show you fear in a handful of dust….” (41.)

The fragility of the modern psyche is also seen in the monotony of city life:
Unreal city,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crown flowed over London bridge, so many…”(42)

In The Fire Sermon, vermin are seen by the poet as a symbol of pestilence and degeneration of urban man, the rat symbolises the oncoming doom, seen in the threat of war:
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank…” (43.)

The Poet adopts the persona of Tiresias from Antigone’s plays – he can see the decline of others and the terror that pursues them, but they are blind to their own impending doom. This image is analogous to the passive fall of society beneath the dislocation and uncertainties of the poet’s times:
I Tiresias, old man…
Perceived the scene and foretold the rest…” (44.)

In What the thunder said, Eliot considers the threat of annihilation – the city is destroyed, and anarchy reigns amongst the ruins:
‘Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth (45.)

The social and political reality of the thirties is ignored by contemporary civilisation, the city remains the focus of the idealists, the perfect bastion of learning and culture – the gleaming emblem of civilisation’s triumph:
Vienna, London
TS Eliot – Collected poems (46.)

The society of the Waste Land still has the appearance of conventional decorum, but beneath the thin facade of social appearance, the individuals exhibit primitive, Freudian natures, perhaps as a result of the tension and uncertainties of the age:
..he explores at once;
exploring hands encounter no defence…’ (47.)

Ultimately, the poem explores the changing nature of both urban life and society as a whole, mainly giving voice to the tensions of a generation in the years immediately preceding the Spanish civil war (1935-38), the rise of fascism and the Second World War:
The Waste Land is a poem of disintegration. The disintegration is of those values – of human culture, love, religion – which, ideally, the city was stabilised to safeguard… sterility and lust take the place of human love, while mysteries and sorceries of divination replace religion.’ (47.)

W. H. Auden (1907-73) continued the tradition of Eliot in the use of modern poetic form and retained an emphasis on realism and the social role of the poet.
Auden’s works during the forties and fifties were influenced by Marxism and the new philosophy of Existentialism (defined by Sartre), concerning the role and involvement of the induvidual in determining the course of his/ her own life. Auden was particularly interested in Jean Paul Sartre’s (1905-80) theories on the herd’ and in the relationship between the individual and self, society and the family.
In Auden’s poem The Capital,’ the urban reality of modern man has erased the seasons, and thereby effaced the presence of time:
You with your charm and your apparatus have abolished
the strictness of winter and the spring’s compulsion” (48.)

The urban environment imposes a facade of modern meritocracy and social mobility, but citizens are mere slaves of a civic system of laws and ethics ingrained into the subconscious psyche of the common man:
The dullness of mere obedience here is apparent.” (49.)

The ideal image of the city conceals the reality of city life and the abject poverty experienced by millions; the people produced in the city are like products themselves:
In unlighted streets you hide away the appalling;
factories where lives are made for a temporary use…” (50)

The increasing urbanisation and exploitation of the common people is exposed by Auden:
Night after night to the farmer’s children you beckon.’ (51.)

In The Unknown Citizen (1959), Auden gives a chilling, Orwellian account of contemporary social reality. The poem is an elegy for the ideal citizen, a man without an identity or character. The memorial reflects the countless young men sacrificed in war for the sake of nationalistic greed:
(To JS/07/M/378
This marble monument
Is erected by the state) (52.)

Central to the poem is the Freudian and Nietzschian concept of social conditioning; the citizens of this environment are cultural stereotypes, behaving in an ingrained and socially approved manner:
And our social psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.” (53)

The domination of information and education is an issue relevant to the thirties and forties, before the introduction of compulsory secondary education. The poet satirises a supposedly free Britain where education is not provided for citizens:
The press are convinced that he bought a paper every day..”
And his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.” (54)

The controversial science of genetic breeding, known as eugenics is satirised by Auden:
…added five children to the population,
Which our eugenist says was the right number..” (55)

Like George Orwell’s 1984, subjective concepts have been erased, replaced instead by totalitarian certainties; individual freedom as perceived by Sartre has been quashed by the state:
was he free? was he happy? The question is absurd…” (56.)

Auden’s overtly political verse therefore displays overt disenchantment with the social condition of the urban working classes during the nineteen forties:
One reason why Auden could not rest content as a political Marxist lay in his complete rejection of the propagandist or class-interested view of truth…” (57.)

The works of T.S. Eliot and Auden proved highly influential amongst the post-war and latter poets of the twentieth century. The trauma of the new century did not entirely, abate, and old tensions were replaced with new ones. The rise of America and the U.S.S.R as superpowers contending for dominance in the balance of world power, and the subsequent nuclear threat, all had an impact on Post-modern poetry. Perhaps most importantly to the theme of urban poetry, was the dramatic social evolution of traditional class orientated society in Britain. Unprecedented social mobility, which ultimately led to the temporary fall of socialism during the eighties, can clearly be seen in the works of less mainstream writers, such as Adrian Henri and the Liverpool poets.

Sylvia Plath’s (1932-63) poem, Landowners’ written in 1956, epitomises the working class disillusionment with the traditional social structure of Britain. Plath is looking at London society from the perspective of an outsider (an American), and as such adds an objective tone to the poem
from my rented attic with no earth
To call my own except the air motes,
I malign the leaden perspective…” (58)

The glaring colours of the houses suggest the artificiality of urban life:
Orange roof tiles, orange chimney pots, (59)

The uniformity and lack of character of working class homes is reflected in Plath’s presentation of the hoses as mirror-images:
See that the first house, as if between
Mirrors, engendering a spectral
Corridor of inane replicas, (60.)

The landowners of Britain are not obliged to inhabit the claustrophobic towns, their world is a spacious environment, with a wide view of the stars:
But landowners
Own their cabbage roots, a space of stars,
Indigenous peace.. (61.)

Plath’s eyeful’ of the rural environment is so small it relegates her both to the fringes of experience and society:
Such substance makes
My eyeful of reflections a ghost’s
Eyeful, which envious, would define
Death as striking root on one land-trac… (62.)

Bernard Spencer’s (1909-63) poem Night Time: Starting to Write (1965)
presents a psychological landscape, similar in its use of subjective imagery to the poem by Sylvia Plath. Spencer’s poem mirrors experience, and presents truth to perception through use of precise concrete imagery:
Over the mountains a plane bumbles in”(63)

The reality and seemingly ordinary aspects of urban life conceal the nocturnal, inner nature of man.
Down in the city a watchman’s iron-topped stick
bounces and rings off the pavement. Late returners
must be waiting now by me unseen” (64.)

The watchman is the appears to epitomise the vigil of a secure society, but the disquieting presence of unseen returners and the bark of the dog suggests that the city does not sleep at night, but becomes the setting for awakening of the nocturnal energy of man. The burning lamp suggests the fiery energy of the night, as if there is a high amount of oxygen present:
But then I catch
my lamp burn fiercer like a thing bewitched… (65.)

A kind of montage effect is attained through juxtaposition of images. The plane contrasts with the watchman, suggesting the insignificance of the man against the backgound of technologocal civilisation. Similarly, the domestic scene of the house is juxtapose dwith the image of the unknown deamon, this suggests the inner psyche of man as envisioned by Freud, the id:
Table and chairs, expectant like a play:
And – if that Unknown, Demon, what you will
Stalks on the scene…” (66.)

The dreams of sleeping humanity rage in the city – man’s primitive, instinctual self is revealed in the exposure of his full, unrestrained psyche- through the act of love and in his dreams:
Be damned the call to sleep, the needs of the day,
Love a dark city then… (67.)

John Betjeman’s (1906-84) poem Devonshire St W.1 describes a man who has consulted a doctor and has found that he has a terminal illness, this theme reflects Benjamin’s concern with contemporary issues, and particularly with the silent majority:
There are an exceptional gentleness and good nature in his affection for ordinary, marginal people.” (68)

Betjamin exposes the flaws in our society, describing the indifference of urban life to the forthcoming death of an individual:
No hope. And the X-ray photographs under his arm
Confirm the message…” (69.)

The brick house to which the couple return seems desolate, uniform and soulless, psychological realism is conveyed though the subjective imagery:
And the iron knob of this palisade
So cold to the touch, is luckier now than he… (70.)

The couple’s tragedy looses it’s meaning, they submerge themselves beneath the uniformity of the city, loosing both their suffering and their identities:
Its cheaper to take the tube to Piccadilly
And then we can catch a nineteen or twenty-two. (71.)

Philip Larkin’s (born 1922) poems often concern the transitory nature of the rural countryside and way of life for older generations. In ‘Church Going’ , the poet bemoans the spread of the urban landscape and its pollution by modern society. Larkin identifies the problem of restrained human energies, suggesting that rural life could allow the free expression of these energies:
“There would always be fields and farms, where the village louts could climb..” (72.)

The insularity of town life is seen in Larkin’s reference to the rise of the car as the predominant form of transport, outranking even walking. He identifies our desire to be clinically separate from the filth of cities:
We can always escape in the car. (73.)

Betjamin blames the domination of business on the running of the country:
Your works to the unspoilt dales… (74.)

Finally, Larkin reflects on the chaotic nature of man and society:
Most things are never meant
this won’t be most likely… (75.)

The phenomenon of urban life is central to the works of Douglas Dunn (born 1942) His anthology of poems, Terry Street published 1968 exposes the urban monotony and industrial subjugation of the working classes. In Men of Terry Street, the poet expresses a sense of isolation from the working classes as a writer, their culture and way of life is alien to his:
They come in at night, leave in the early morning…
Somehow, I am either in bed, or the curtains are drawn.” (76.)

The working classes are oppressed by the social status, but are free form the intellectual dilemmas that face the intellectual poet, they are driven by primitive and simple needs, and by vital, nurturing instincts:
They quicken their step to the smell of cooking,
They hold up their children and sing to them.” (77.)

The poetry of D. M. Black (born 1945) uses highly surreal imagery to tell allegorical stories often concerning social issues. The contemporary social, and indeed urban question of educational correctness is the main emphasis of his poem The Educators, written in 1960.
The educators represent the traditional public-school model education, they epitomise decorum, rigidity and didactic learning. They also represent, through their association with wealth and formality, the hierarchical social order establishment, and the middle-class domination of the professions. The disjointed, fragmented structure of the verse slows the poem’s rhythm, emphasising the slow, methodical process of education::
in their limousines the teachers come by
hundreds. O the
square is
blackened with dark suits…” (78)

Black questions the predominantly male, patriarchal structure of society, perhaps an influence of feminist theory:
These are the
educators, the
father-figures. O you could
warm with love for the firm lips… (79)

Black questions the repression of the child’s self expression, and queries the limited and conformist nature of information, education, and power in society. The dwarf symbolises humanity as an innocent child, whose individuality and creativity is quashed by conventional attitudes and ethics. Although not an overtly urban- poem, it does concern modern society in an urban, and highly structured environment, perhaps owing something to new historicism:

bell rings. They turn. On the
wide steps my
dwarf is standing, both hands raised. he
cackles with laughter. welcome he cries… (80)

The poem’s irregular, fragmented rhythm slows the reading of the poem down, emphasising the methodicism of the educational butchery taking place:
With a single grab they have him up by the shoulders. They
dismantle him. Limbs, O
Limbs and delicate organs, lips and
guts, eyes, the tongue, the lobes of the brain…
pass from hand to hand in their serious hands… (81)

Adrian Henri (born 1932) is primarily a musician, associated with the Liverpool movement known as the Liverpool Scene, his poetry has a direct social dimension, since he advocates and practices performance readings. His poetry also seeks to expose the lies and deceptions that modern society uses to manipulate the individual:
“I am exited by new uses of language in the mass media, lie TV commercials or pop songs…” (82)

In Tonight at Noon (1969) we are presented with a parody of normality in urban life, exposing the hypocrisies and injustices of modern society and living:
Tonight at noon…
Children from happy families will be sent to live in a home…
America will declare peace on Russia
World war I generals will sell poppies in the streets… (83.)

Humour is central to poem – and emphasises the hypocrisy of contemporary society and convention::
“…and Nelson will not only get his arm back, but his eye as well.” (84.)

Human rights are central to the poem, the parody of the American race problem is a poignant reminder of the fundamental injustice and obstacle of racism:
White Americans will demonstrate for equal rights…(85)

In The Entry Of Christ into Liverpool (1970), Henri exposes the covert means by which the public are manipulated by society, religion and conventional morality. The poem is based on surrealist poem James Ensor (1860-1949) “The entry of Christ into Brussels’.
We are initially led to believe that the Liverpool scene is one of normality:
round the corner into Myrtle St. Saturday morning shoppers
headscarves, shopping baskets. dogs…”(86)

Henri uses text like a graphic image, as seen in media advertising, through this he attracts our attention, and paradoxically adds both a sense of artificiality and officialdom to the poem:

down the hill
cheering and shouting in the distance
children running… (87.)

Henri parodies the modern dependency on sub-culture, cults, and political allegiances:
hideous masked Breughel faces of old ladies in the crows
yellow masks of girls in curlers and headscarves
smelling of factories
Masks Masks Masks

crushing surging carrying me along… (88.)

The motifs and insignias of movements and organisations in the poem all catch the attention of the viewer. The poet’s use of layout emphasises the artificiality of the modern world. Henri exposes the ways in which we are manipulated by faceless organisations and by ethical and religious propaganda:
Down the hill past the Phillamonic the Labour exchange
exited feet crushing the geraniums in St. Luke’s gardens
placards banners posters
Keep Britain white
End the war in Vietnam
God bless our pope
Billboard hoardings drawings on the pavements
words painted on the road

Even religion is satirised – the surreal entry of Christ into the town is juxtaposed against the advertisement for Coleman’s mustard:
gleaming salads
J. Ensor, Fabriqueur de Masques
Straining forward to catch a glimpse through the crows…

The existentialist emphasis of Henri is a warning and critique of urban man, to beware the mind-controlling forces that exist within the social and economic order.

Finally, the psychological landscapes of Roy Fisher (Born 1930) provide a intensely pessimistic outlook on urban life, using concentrated language and psychological landscape to convey the trauma of the condition of modern man in the urban environment. The use of powerful psychological imagery is reminiscent of the confessional works of A. Alvarez, John Berryman and Sylvia Plath.
Images and motifs are closely related, creating a complex symbolic structure which unifies the poem, and suggests a central focus and meaning.

In The hospital in winter, (1968), Fisher presents us with a hospital during early morning. The amber light of dawn suggests danger; the bell is symbolises the funerary bell, and the day of judgement:
A dark bell leaders the hour,
the three-o-clock
light falls amber across a tower… (91.)

The urban environment is predatory and indifferent to the sufferings of mankind, seen in the coral brick of the hospital, suggesting the destructive powers of the ocean and sea. The hospital is integral to a constrictive urban society, it belongs to the borough:
Below, green rail within a wall
of coral brick,
stretches the borough hospital (92.)

The hospital is a symbol of urban oppression rather than healing, it merely prolongs suffering. The smells of disinfectant are sterile reminders that this is a place of death. The fragility of medical instruments suggest the corresponding frailty of humanity:
monstrous with smells that cover death,
white gauze tongues,
cold water pipes of pain, glass breath… (93.)

The trucks are pitted with rust; the corrosive effect of water reminds us of human blood, and the indifference and chaotic forces within nature:
far off beyond the engine sheds,
motionless trucks
grow ponderous, their rotting reads
deepening toward night (94.)

In conclusion, all the poetry with a basis in urban life seems to embrace the modernist appraisal of the city as a concept in traditional culture and literature. Poets of the modern tradition have consistently undertaken a critique of the concept of urban life, emphasising the sense of desolation and social fragmentation that accompanied the traumatic and violent events of the twentieth century. For them, the city became a symbol of government, the establishment, reactionary politics and attitudes to society:
‘The poetry of experience, in this century, is dominated by the City. (95.)

The theme of urban life is seems a good issue by which to evaluate the development of individual poets and poetic movements across the twentieth century. Hardy and his successors the Imagists, were concerned with the same kind of empirical interest as the humanist writers, such as Defoe and Swift, and wrote with an emphasis on contemporary issues and concerns.
Other poets, however, were less willing to confront contemporary issues, such as the problems of urban living; their works seek the security of past assumptions, conditions and forms of poetic expression; in particular we find the Georgian poets, of the twenties and thirties, rejecting contemporary concerns, and instead harkening back to the idyllic poetry of the previous century. Similarly, the Movement poets, of the fifties and sixties, such as Philip Larkin also sought poetic entrenchment in the older, less industrial Britain of the Edwardian age.
Recently, the successors to the critical tradition in the appraisal of urban life became The Group, with its strong social concerns, and whose principal member, Peter Porter (born 1929), has strong links with the Labour Party.
Ultimately, the critical tradition of Auden and Eliot have their successors in more recent poets, such as Tom Paulin, James Fenton and Jefforey Wainwright.