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02 Oct

The City in the Modernist Framework

The City in the Modernist Framework

The best representative poem of the modernist movement, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) famously articulated the modern cities as being “Unreal”. The urban life was the most significant site of the issues and concerns of the modernist age. Modernism and urban locale are closely intertwined and each has been instrumental in shaping the other. For Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the modern metropolis is the seat of physical degradations and ideological manipulations. In The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) Engels has made some pertinent observation of the urban masses.

The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. (69)

In “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), sociologist Georg Simmel identifies the modern city’s devastating effects on its inhabitants, both individuals and communities. He asserts that metropolitan psychology is marked by “the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli”. Simmel warns that the city dweller must protect himself from the “threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him”. In the urban society human relations are debased, as opposed to the social structure of town and rural life. This notion of the city’s increasing corruptibility is evident in the literature of the modernist period. Reflected and embodied in the art and literature of this period is the struggle to come to terms with the drastic changes brought by industrial and urban growth.

The city took further symbolic associations, as modernism adopted the modes of French symbolism and turned to mythology and non-western cultural traditions. The symbolist influences on modernism are many, but the most important figure is Charles Baudelaire, whose aestheticism exerted a deep influence on many Anglo-American modernist writers including W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. His figure of the flâneur embodies a passionate involvement with the fleeting beauty and distinct cruelty of the city —an involvement essential to Baudelaire in making art modern. Baudelaire’s obsession with Paris thus anticipates the city’s pivotal position within modernism.

 Baudelaire took his themes from city life and introduced many of the preoccupations of modernism. He equates the modern with the artificial, even decadent, and shocked his contemporaries with his views of the loneliness, immorality and heartlessness of the modern city. Baudelaire’s preoccupation with the City and the Modern is also evident in his celebrated essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863) where he exalts the work of Constantine Guys. In his opinion, Monsieur G as an artist and “a passionate lover of crowds” observes and admires all forms of beauty like a true artist or like how the flâneur observes the cityscape. He finds the aesthetic beauty in all inhabitants of a city: in the Dandy, the military man, and the woman. As an artist he portrays the beauty of the city by capturing the beauty of the people—the diverse and circumstantial beauty of the people. This is because, all citizens of the city, (be it Paris, London or New York) create the aesthetic of the city—like the machine, the individual performs a function, and each is necessary for the city to function.     

In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire was experiencing the first stage of the urbanisation effect. His Paris still has a high degree of intimacy and individuality, yet by reason of its complexity and size it can act as a potent drug on the dulled mind, both stimulating and refreshing. Later as his Paris changes, he finds it harder to manage the shadows and the miseries. The human wreckage: the human disaster, the submergence of the individual, the repetition of beings within roles, all become more apparent as Baudelaire’s perspective darkens. He himself detests progress and industry, though he regards individual work sacred.

The city for Baudelaire is an ocean of isolation, another place where relationship fails. Paris reveals all the facets of the modern Capitalist citadel. The city is a marketplace where the individual is commoditised, and that is a key aspect of Baudelaire’s “Hell”.

In The Painter of Modern Life Baudelaire celebrates the impassioned observer, the anonymous spectator at home in the world, entering into the masses, ‘a huge reservoir of electrical energy’. The street is a dwelling-place, the crowd is of endless passion. He writes of the woman who passes by, the sexual opportunity, that like a flash of lightning arrives and vanishes, fugitive beauty, forever loved and forever unknown. The crowd, its anonymity, offers here the perfect realisation of the Ideal, that which can be seen, which enters into the lonely soul, but like a figure in a painting, or a character in a novel, can never be compromised by new and extraneous knowledge.

Monroe K. Spears’s comments on the “unreal” modern city-vision in Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry,

The City is both massive fact and universally recognizable symbol of modernity, and it both constitutes and symbolizes the modern predicament: the mass man, anonymous and rootless, cut off from his past and from the nexus of human relations in which he formerly existed, anxious and insecure, enslaved by the mass media but left by the disappearance of God with a dreadful freedom of spiritual choice, is the typical citizen of Megalopolis, where he enjoys lethal and paralyzing traffic, physical decay and political corruption, racial and economic tension, crime, rioting, and police brutality...It is no wonder that, for the great modern writers, the line between literal and symbolic City is similarly tenuous. (74)       

In The Wasteland, Eliot’s use of the powerful, devaluing label “Unreal City” is notably an allusion to Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1857). The Wasteland’s portrayal of the city, the principle site of the predations of the modern, is as contemporary culture obscured in an aesthetic vision of chaos.

Eliot's invocation of the "Unreal City" in The Wasteland proceeds in two phases. The first presents the urban landscape as one of meaningless surface flow in order that the second might offer, a dialectic of visionary death and ascension. The "Unreal City" is first declaimed following Madame Sosostris' warning, "Fear death by water":

Unreal City, 

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, 

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, 

I had not thought that death had undone so many. 

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, 

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. 

Flowed up hill and down King William Street, 

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours 

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

(The Waste Land, ll. 60-69).

Eliot deftly weaves urban images and concerns in the above stanza. This is accomplished by marking time, the superficiality of the crowd, and the dreary flow of working men over London Bridge. Cleanth Brooks posits a unity within The Wasteland’s complex array of juxtapositions. He underscores how the poem’s indirect and paradoxical affirmation of the Christian ideal of sacrifice works to redeem the “modern waste land,” which Brooks characterizes, tellingly, “as a realm in which people do not even exist” (136).

For Raymond Williams, as for others, the city as symbol of “the new anguished consciousness” now dominates.

 Struggle, indifference, loss of purpose, loss of meaning—features of nineteenth-century social experience and of a common interpretation of the new scientific world-view—have found, in the City, a habitation and a name. For the city is not only, in this vision, a form of modern life; it is the physical embodiment of a decisive modern consciousness. (The Country and the City, 239)

According to Michael Long The Wasteland has been adopted as English modernism’s “definitive report on the city”(1985). The Waste Land, with its characteristic disintegrated structure is essentially, a "heap of broken images" of the modern urban world. The Wasteland follows the modernist imagination of the city's flowing life as dead structure. The Unreal City--its sterility, its aridity, its very unreality--is founded upon a distanced vision, a vision which cannot follow the meaning dispersed in the twentieth-century city's activities. The Waste Land conveys the arid, hopeless urban condition, that of cultural erosion and spiritual aridity in tropes of “root and branch, burial and resurrection”. The poem’s London crowd allusively becomes both the Dantean damned and the spectral Baudelairean passers-by, and social reality, is replaced by a frighteningly disorienting vision of the modern as hell; as Raymond Williams puts it, “This is the city of death in life” (The Country 239). Of course Eliot himself emphasized the striking complex of urban imagery that speaks to the poem’s vision of the city as hell. In his notes to The Waste Land he makes reference to the “Fourmillante cité” of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) and also to Dante’s Inferno.

As the stanza continues Eliot makes a hint of possible poetic ascension:

There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: "Stetson! 

You who were with me in the ships at Mylae! 

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year? 

Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed? 

Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men, 

Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!” 

You! hypocrite lecteur!-mon semblable,-mon frère!

                                                                               (The Waste Land, ll. 69-75).

Here Eliot's tropes abruptly turn, leaving behind the images of flowing London. The dominant mode of representation is no longer one of here and there, but of presence and absence, blindness and insight. Instead of descriptive details, ironies proliferate throughout The Waste Land and the claim to poetic omniscience falters time and again. This claim is recapitulated when the Unreal City is next invoked to introduce Tiresias who, "throbbing between two lives," "can see at the violet hour." Like Tiresias, Eliot does not promise transcendence. But his poet figures are visionary and place the blame upon the peculiar flows and soils, upon the twentieth-century surface, of the "Unreal City": "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? (The Wasteland, I 18-19)

The Waste Land is a universally recognised model of the modernist literary mode where fragmented and chaotic texts strive to reflect a fragmented and chaotic environment. The techniques and forms employed by the literary innovators of the twentieth century reflect the variety of spaces and variations in experience that attend the modern, the diverse set of dwelling practices taking place within its “multiple worlds.”

A poem like Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1916) voices it poignantly.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough. (381)

As Raymond Williams illustrates in The Country and the City (1973) urban experience comes to be marked not by signs of the richly varied collectivity seemingly fundamental to the city’s constitution, but rather by the “oppressive and utilitarian uniformity” of its masses; by “an absence of common feeling, an excessive subjectivity” (223, 215). Williams prompts a questioning stance toward the nature of modernism’s relation to the “unfamiliar” city, the “City of Strangers.” In his discussion of the relationship between the city and modernism, the major emphasis falls, on the conditions associated with urban angst and unhealthy sociality.

One perceives the fleeting urban encounter in William Carlos Williams’s “The Great

Figure” (1921)

Among the rain

and lights

I saw the figure 5

in gold

on a red





to gong clangs

siren howls

and wheels rumbling

through the dark city. (317-18)

There is the alarming energy and velocity of the urban scene, embodied in the “tense” movement of the truck, the “clangs” and “howls” of its siren, and its “wheels rumbling” urgently toward the emergency of the fire, which itself further suggests the dangers of city life. The poem’s goal may be in part to highlight and denounce acclimatization to routine human disaster. It appears that Williams strives to draw attention to the menacing urban spectacle.

It would be useful to analyze the poetry of a not so canonical poet, for tendencies to mix the urban and the modern. John Gould Fletcher (1886-1950) was a modernist poet whose works present modernism as essentially linked with urbanity. The kinds of figures we commonly relate to the modernist city aesthetic appear distinctly in Fletcher’s work. These include figures of isolation, temporal dislocation and the mechanistic urban experience.

Fletcher’s London is initially presented with a strong sense of the city’s psycho-spatial boundaries. The first poem in the London Excursion sequence, "Bus”, sets up a distance, a confrontation, between poet and city. The first lines of this poem, ‘Great walls of green,/ City that is afar’ , on one level simply establish that the city is being approached from a distance, insisting on the psychological distance between the subject and the city. The ‘great walls’ impose and confront, the city ‘is afar’ as it might be large, or ancient. As well as being an effect of the initial perspective as we approach the city, ‘being afar’ is one permanent characteristic of the city, elusive and impervious, as the poem will go on to suggest. This sense of alienation is readily recognisable as characteristic of the standard relationship between modernist poet and modern city.

Georg Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life”(1903) focuses on the paradox of the city as both thoroughly impersonal and deeply subjective. He comments that the preponderance of the “objective spirit” in city life means that man “has to exaggerate his personal element in order to remain audible even to himself”(183). Simmel’s view of the early twentieth century city resonates strongly alongside Fletcher’s London Excursion. The individual’s need to assert his individuality, being in perpetual conflict with the mechanical tyranny of ‘black coarse-squared shapes’, ‘walls’, ‘shadows’, ‘red yokes of steel’, can seem jarringly overstated in London Excursion.

Baudelaire’s the flâneur has been a prominent focus of much work on the modernist city aesthetic. As decades passed and technology improved, the city dweller found himself more a passenger in the newer public transport, than a transgressive pedestrian. It is to be noted that fellow passengers share a trajectory, a direction, but have divergent motives and aims, different beginnings and endings; theirs is a pseudo-communal experience. John Fletcher’s “Bus-Top” (43-44), viewed in its place in the series, seems to mark a moment of suspension, where some distance is achieved from the city. The physical distance, the aloofness, created by viewing the city from a bus-top is reflected in a mental distance, in a certain lack of engagement.

            Georg Simmel adds on to Walter Benjamin’s observation about urban life and makes an explicit link between public transport and new kinds of interaction, in particular “a marked preponderance of the activity of the eye over the ear. ... Before the development of buses, railroads, and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in a position of having to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another” ( Benjamin, 37). Sitting still yet moving at high speed, intimately watched and being watched yet with no verbal communication, the city passenger is in a uniquely liminal position, poised between movement and stasis, intimacy and distance, noise and silence.

Lazily I lounge through labyrinthine corridors, 

And with eyes suddenly altered, 

I peer into an office I do not know,

And wonder at a startled face that penetrates my own.

                                                                                    (Bus-Top, 45)

For the Modernists, the failure of communication is one element in the fragmentation of communities that the city encourages. Inherent in their notion of the city is a "view of life as irretrievably isolated." This alienation of the conscious individual among the unthinking masses is seen as responsible for the sordid loneliness of city life, as is the breakdown of family relationships, religion and morality.

Thus we see how modernism as a literary movement is seen, in large part, as a reaction to the emergence of city life as a central force in society. The Modernist view of the city leaned towards a pessimistic sense of urban failure, and a feeling of mixed fascination and revulsion is discernible in their writings. The modernist poets shared an ambivalence towards city life, and were using the city in a literary experiment designed to find new forms of expression for the modern age.


Baudelaire, Charles. “The Painter of Modern Life.” 1863. The Painter of Modern Life. Trans. Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon, 2006. 1-41.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Flâneur.” Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. London: Verso, 1997. 36.

Brooks, Cleanth. “The Waste Land: An Analysis.” Southern Review 3 (Summer 1937):106-136.

Davis, Alex, and Lee M. Jenkins. The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry.Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

De Chasca, Edmund. John Gould Fletcher and Imagism. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978.

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems: 1909-1962. London: Faber, 1963. Print.

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. 1845. New York: Penguin, 1987. Web.

Fletcher, John Gould. Irradiations: Sand and Spray. London: Constable and Co. Ltd, 1915.

Long, Michael. "Eliot, Pound, Joyce: “unreal City"?" Unreal City: Urban Experience in Modern European Literature and Art. Ed Edward Timms and David Kelley. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1985.144-157.

Pound, Ezra. “In a Station of the Metro.” 1916. Ellmann and O’Clair. 381. Web

Rainey, Lawrence S. Modernism: an Anthology. Malden: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

Spears, Monroe K. Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-century Poetry. London: Oxford UP, 1971. Print. 74.

Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life” in Simmel on Culture, ed David Frisby and Mike Featherstone. London: Sage, 1997. 174-185.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Great Figure.” 1921. Ellmann and O’Clair 317-18.

 Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford Univ., 1975.

Williams, Raymond. ‘Metropolitan Perceptions and the Emergence of Modernism’, in The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. London: Verso, 1989.

"Some Imagist Poets 1915 -- John Gould Fletcher." Bob Blair. Web. 26 June 2011. <>


Copyright @ Neethu Tessa Baby

Assistant Professor, Department of English, Assumption College Changanassery


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