The Twentieth Century in Poetry by Michael Hulse & Simon Rae (ed) - review by Jeremy Noel–Tod

Jeremy Noel–Tod

Dating Games

The Twentieth Century in Poetry


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In his 1908 ‘Lecture on Modern Poetry’, the modernist agitator, T E Hulme, described the relationship between poetry and prose as the origin of cliché: ‘One might say that images are born in poetry. They are used in prose, and finally die a long, lingering death in journalists’ English.’ The Twentieth Century in Poetry illustrates the process starkly. The first poem of the book, Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ (dated ‘31 December 1900’), is a lament for the nineteenth century which anticipates the strangeness of the twentieth through bleakly vivid imagery (‘The tangled bine-stems scored the sky/Like strings of broken lyres’). Compare the melancholy poise of Hardy’s ‘good-night air’, though, with the breezy prose of his latest anthologisers:

[In 1901] Queen Victoria had died … bringing to an end the age to which she gave her name … as the more than middle-aged Prince of Wales mounted the throne after his marathon wait to succeed, his subjects hoped for a breath of fresh air. The great glacier of Victorian social attitudes had been showing cracks for some years.

And so it goes on, summarising a Whig interpretation of history since 1900 that veers unconsciously close to the regurgitated schoolboy causalities of 1066 and All That (‘Edward VII was quite old when he came to the throne, but this was only on account of Queen Victoria’). Worse still, poets

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