20th Century (Modern) Poetry in English Literature: Characteristics & Themes


The 20th century was like no time period before it. Einstein, Darwin, Freud, and Marx were just some of the thinkers who profoundly changed the Western Culture. These changes took distinct shape in the literature of the 20th century.

Modernism, a movement that was a radical break from 19th century Victorianism, led to post-modernism, which emphasized self-consciousness and pop art. While 20th-century literature is a diverse field covering a variety of genres, there are common characteristics that changed literature forever.

20th Century English Poetry Development

The 20th century English poetry emerged in the early years of the 20th century through various schools, styles, and influences:

1st Phase

The first phase of the movement, the school of imagism, the style of French symbolist poetry influence of Dome and the dominance of war poetry, these were all different manifestations of modernism in English poetry (1909-16)A.D.

2nd Phase

During the flowering of Modernist poetry between 1917 and 1929, the 2nd phase of the movement, all these initial manifestations of modernism combined to find a full nature expression in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell and later Yeats most notable of which is,Eliot’s The Waste Land, Sitwell’s Gold Coast Customs and Yeats’s Michael Robartes and the Dances

3rd Phase

The 3rd and the final phase of Modernist is largely the decade of the 30s which is marked by the Marxed (Non-Marxist) poets such as Auden, Louis McNiece, C. Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender.


Diverse Variety of Themes

Poetry today can be written on almost any subject. The modern poets find inspirations from railway trains, tramcars, telephones and things of commonplace interest. Modern poets have not accepted the theory of great subjects for poetic composition.

The whole universe is the modern poet’s composition. He writes on themes of real-life e.g. The Songs Train by John Davidson, Goods Train of Night by Ashley, Machine Guns by Richard Aldington, Listeners by Walter


The poetry of the 20th century is marked with a note of realism. Realism in modern poetry was the product of a reaction against the pseudo-romanticism of the last century over and above the influence of science.

The modern poet sees life and paints it as it is with all its wait and ugliness. He tears the veil which the romanticists had hug between life and art. Robert Frost, Edmund Blunden, and Gibson are the poets of realism in modern poetry.


Love forms the subject of many modern lyrics Robert Bridges has produced fine sonnets of love in The Growth of Love. E.g. I Will Not Let Thee Go. W.B. Yeats’ When You are Old etc.


There is a note of pessimism and disillusionment in modern poetry. The modern poet has realized the pettiness of human life and the tragedy and suffering of the poor have made him gloomy and sad.

Poetry as the expression of the feeling has become autumnal in tone T. Hardy, Huxley and T.S. Eliot are the poets of Pessimism and disillusionment in modern poetry.

Romantic Elements

In spite of the dominance of realism, in modern poetry, the spirit of romance continues to rule the minds of certain poets like Yeats, E. Thomas, Masefield etc. The works of these poets have the fact that the spirit of romance is as old as the life itself.

Walter De La Mare’s poetry is full of true romantic spirit bordering on supernaturalism. With him, the ghosts and fairies of the old world have come into their own in the 20th century.


Nature attracts the modern poet no less than the poets of the earlier ages. But for the modern poet, nature is not a mystic. He does not find any spiritual meaning in nature. He feels jolly at the sight of nature’s loveliness.

He gives a clear picture of birds, clouds landscapes, sea and countryside in his poetry. Masefield, Robert Bridges, Edmund Blunden etc are the great poets of nature in modern poetry.

Humanitarian and Democratic Note

Modern poetry is marked with a note of humanitarianism and democratic feeling. The modern poet, more than Wordsworth (read A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal), is interested in the life of labourers, workers etc.

He sees, in the daily struggles of these people the same potentialities that the older poets found in those of high rank. Masefield, Gibson, Goldsworthy are mainly interested in the common man and his sufferings.

Religion and Mysticism

The modern age is the age of science, but even in this scientific age, we have poems written on the subject of religion and mysticism. W.B. Yeats, Francis Thompson, Robert Graves etc are the great poets who have kept alive the flame of religion and mysticism in their poetry.

Diction and Style

Modern poets have a preference for simple and direct expression. Modern poets have chosen to be free in the use of the meter. They have followed freedom from the trammels of verse. Verse rhythm is replaced by sense rhythm. There is free movement in 20th-century English poetry.

Further Reading

  1. Play Quiz on Modern Poetry
  2. Questions-Answers on Modern Poetry