The Poet's Place: Individuality and Collectivity in Modern American Poetry, 1910-1940

William Q. Malcuit, Loyola University Chicago


This dissertation examines how modern American poets such as H.D., T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and others created new modes of lyricism, ones based not on privacy and the celebration of an individual self but on community, collectivity, and chorality. In examining the development of these new modes of lyricism, the dissertation compares the writings of early twentieth century poets to those of nineteenth century American poets like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. The dissertation further posits that the movement of modernist writers away from the conventional lyricism of the nineteenth century was bound up with a rejection of nineteenth century liberalism and American nationalism. This dissertation therefore presents a new understanding of the anti-liberal turn - both to the right and to the left - by modernist writers such as Eliot, Hughes, Ezra Pound, and Claude McKay. Chapters on H.D., Eliot, Hughes, and McKay demonstrate the many inconsistencies present in the rhetoric of Romanticism and nineteenth century liberalism, and why poets felt these ideologies represented a dead end; while a chapter on William Carlos Williams shows how some modernist writers, instead of trying to move beyond nineteenth century lyricism and liberalism, attempted to revise them and retain them in a contemporary setting. Despite Williams's atavism, however, the ultimate argument of this dissertation is that the primary feature of the new poetry of the twentieth century was a search for a meaningful and ethical social poetry that could provide answers to communities instead of to individualized and privatized seekers and speakers.