Estrangement in W B Yeats and Thomas Hardy

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“A recurring characteristic of Modernism is the estrangement of the individual from his/her world: the outside world becomes unreal, uncanny, a place in which the individual can no longer feel at home.” What evidence do you find of such estrangement in the writing of the period?

The late 19th century and early 20th century were times of great spiritual and social upheaval. It was an era in which many external values of the previous century were being challenged; faith in the government was in question, as were social class and the Christian belief system. The testing of these ideals (which had hitherto been cornerstones of society, and even given many lives purpose), left people in a previously inexperienced state of cynicism and subjectivity. As the zeitgeist moved from confidence to speculation, so did the literary works being produced. Modernism was a movement the sought a new centre of order for the now chaotic world, as old aesthetics and beliefs simply did not seem to fit anymore. This sense of aloneness and being unstuck from reality is a quintessential trait of early 20th century texts. By examining the work of Thomas Hardy and William Butler Yeats (two contemporary poets of the time), a real sense of the estrangement experienced comes across. Many social and political crises around the turn of the century aided the development of Modernism (approximately 1890 onwards). Europe was in a state of pandemonium. Considering the massive loss of life due to WWI (1914–18), and the religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland, Western consciousness was in turmoil. With such a breakdown civilisation, the idea of progress and reason seemed all but abandoned, resulting in the questioning of nationality and political authority. The gap between the proletariat and bourgeoisie was addressed by Marxism, and the theories of ‘Ideology’ and ‘False Consciousness’ was hypothesised, leading people to question the way in which the perceived life, and even religion. Karl Marx (1818–83) told us that beliefs are imposed by a higher power, and that morality serves a purpose. The evolution of the perception of morality, coupled with scientific advancement, lead to the collapse of Christianity as it was known. With concepts which had until now bound the individual to the rest of their world, one’s perceived place in the universe is in jeopardy. This feeling of being unhomed is a fundamental characteristic of Modernist literature (Price, 2011a). It is crucial to look at Modernism in an historical context, whilst considering the aesthetic and intellectual advancements made in the period. To fit this new age of thought there needed to be a new approach to art, i.e. the expression of consciousness. Picasso’s Cubism movement (1907 onwards) endeavoured analytically to give the full experience of the object, by looking at all aspects at once. From Ezra Pound’s piece on Modernism, ‘Make it New’ (1934), the title became a kind of mantra for Modernists, because as society continually changes, ideas should be renewed to fit accordingly (Price, 2011a). The works which will be discussed in this essay are prime examples of how displaced from certainty people who lived through this cultural shift were. Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was particularly sensitive to this cultural change. Hardy was brought up in the Dorset countryside, and wrote in an unpretentious, straightforward style. His register reflects clearly on his upbringing in a stable farming community, completely outside of academia. Because of his upbringing, Hardy did not value the elevated language of literary tradition, as to him, it lacked ‘Gothic’ integrity. Hardy suggested that irregularities gave virtue in texture, and as art is incapable of perfection it should reflect humanity. As we can see, Hardy had a strong sense of the world he grew up in, and didn’t leave the county of his childhood until 1862, when he moved to London. As industrialisation increased, Hardy became increasingly...
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