Disillusionment In 20th Century Literature

Victorian Disillusionment

During the twentieth-century, British literature started to take a turn from its traditional form.  Prevailing ideologies in society were challenged and beliefs were shattered.  Poetic concepts started to debate popular belief and question the overall validity of what was once held in high regard.  Leading poets wrote of the disillusionment that started to spread through society and captured the world for how it actually was, as opposed to a romanticized vision. 

            The horror of World War I caused a rapid change in belief.  Instead of the heroism and romanticism that poets lauded within the poetry of previous wars, the overall mindset of society had shifted drastically.  Too many British soldiers were killed for war to be viewed in a positive light, thus, war was no longer seen as something of valor, but something monstrous.                  
    Wilfred Owen wrote of society’s disillusionment within his poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” The opening line states “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” (1-2). This viewpoint compares humans in WWI to cattle, completely removing all honor and dignity by comparing them to an animal that dies for human consumption.  This is an opposition to the previous Victorian belief that to fight in war was noble and honorable.  The poem also mentions that the signifier for their death is the sound of more guns being fired.  This shows how the Victorian ideology of fighting and dying as a hero dissipated into nothing more than dying.  This is due to the better weapons that came along with WWI, which brought forth more casualties, putting less importance on the individual casualty.


            The negative view of war was also presented by Wilfred Owen again in his poem “Dulce Et Decorem Est.”  The poem captures detailed imagery of a soldier who is hit with poisonous gas and the effects that it has on him.  The images are intentionally disturbing in order to show the true side of war, rather than the previous glamour.  Owens descriptions, such as “His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin, if you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling…”(20-22) are mainly used to counter “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” (27-28). The Latin expression meant “How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country” and was a popular expression meant to show honor in war.  Owen counteracts this with his poem that displays the graphic torture caused by gasses, in order to illuminate the actual hardships that existed and dispel all belief that any pride could be taken from such a terrible thing.  By openly stating that it was not sweet or fitting to die for one’s country, Owen takes on a viewpoint that isn’t corrupted in illusion.  Society was starting to see beyond the Victorian Imperialistic belief and understand that there was no pride or honor in fighting and dying.   The massive death toll from World War I was the reason behind change in society’s view of war, and Wilfred Owen captured the voice of the people by bluntly stating that the romanticism in dying for ones country was nothing more than a lie.

            The poet Thomas Hardy also depicted an angle that opposed the previous Victorian ideology, in which he humanizes the enemy.  In his poem “The Man He Killed”, the speaker reflects on a man he killed in war during a shootout.  He explains how they both joined the war based on similar circumstances “He thought he'd 'list, perhaps, off-hand like—just as I” (13-14), and if they had met under a different situation they would drink together “You shoot a fellow down you'd treat, if met where any bar is.” (18-19). Instead of taking the Victorian nationalistic viewpoint, Hardy questions the overall motives as to why certain things happen.  Instead of viewing the enemy as nothing more than an “enemy”, Hardy thinks of what the person was like, adding a sympathizing human element to him.  The example of analyzing their similarities also is a question of fate and why things turned out the way they did.  The speaker mentions how they both shot at one another, but the other ended up dead (7-8).  Instead of attributing this circumstance to his dominant skill, he views it as a stroke of luck, and that it could have easily been the other way around.  This introspective view correlates with disillusionment; by viewing the opposite outcome, Hardy attributes everything to random chance.  Pride in the success of the shootout is completely disbanded, and the speaker’s survival is nothing at all to gloat about.

            Hardy also discusses the lack of honor in the death on the battlefield in his poem “Drummer Hodge.”  The poem discusses the death of a drummer boy in war and reflects on the lack of importance that he is given by people.  The death of a drummer boy has meaning in itself by displaying the horror of war.  Whereas previously a drummer boy would have been spared due to a specific code that war followed, the death of the drummer depicts ruthlessness and an unrelenting care.  Nothing was deemed innocent in war anymore, and the corruption of the era took hold.  Lack of concern from the drummer’s country is also displayed, as he is “Uncoffined” (2).  This aspect alone highlights the dignity that is taken away from the boy, and that even the children casualties of war are not given any respect.  Hardy goes on to discuss how nature compensates for this, by stating “His homely Northern breast and brain


Grow to some Southern tree.” (15-16). Nature somewhat redeems the drummer boy’s honor by growing a monument where nobody else had thought to put one.  Hardy breaks through the disillusionment of the honored fallen soldier to depict a depressing scenario of a meaningful death that is completely ignored in the war.

            In following the pattern of breaking free from the disillusionment of the Victorian era, W.B. Yeats exposed different aspects of society for how they truly were.  He discusses within his poem “A Coat” the negatives of poetry that romanticized society, and then mentions how realistic poetry is more effective.  The coat is metaphorical for how he wrote his verse.  Originally it was “Covered with embroideries out of old mythologies” (2-3) then after the world mimics him and tarnishes it; he decides “There's more enterprise in walking naked.” (9-10). Yeats realized that instead of romanticizing the life he wrote about, it was more beneficial to be pure and honest.  Instead of enforcing the illusions of society that the culture implemented through force-feeding beauty into his poetry, Yeats saw that the real beauty existed within the truth.  The raw nakedness of everything had much more impact and merit than the reinforcement of the illusion, and to break away from that and express everything honestly was a much better way for him to construct his poetry.

            Yeats also negates the illusion of a perfect England that had been held in Victorian society in his poem “The Lake Island of Innisfree”.  In the poem, Yeats discusses how he longs to leave his life in the city for a more natural existence in a small cabin where he knows he will “have some peace there” (5).  The peace that Yeats longs to experience is not derived from the wealth and Imperialistic power of his Western society, but the opposite.  Yeats hopes to find solace away from urban life and financial stability for life’s bare essentials, claiming he wants “Nine bean-rows” (3).  To sacrifice the modern conveniences of his era for a more natural way of life, Yeats is explaining how people do not need monetary wealth in order to achieve true happiness.  This is opposition to the disillusionment that economic gain should be the key reason to life.  Yeats could only completely get rid of the social illusion by leaving the society that built up the ideology.

            Though Yeats saw comfort and solace in the natural order of Innisfree, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” somewhat counteracts that ideology by proclaiming that there is nothing to be hopeful for.  The poem begins by stating “April is the cruelest month”(1), which sets the stage for despair.  It’s a proclamation that spring shouldn’t even be enjoyed because it will eventually be winter and miserable again.  Images of death flood the poem (“the dead tree gives no shelter” (23)) that depicts a complete desolate and negative view of the world.  This surreal dreamscape that Eliot crafts mirrors the real pains that were going on in society (brought forth by the brutality of the war), and thus shows disillusionment by being more realistic about the world in which he lived.  Due to the horror that the war brought forth, it was impossible for Eliot to romanticize the world as a positive place, because the world was not a positive place.  By viewing everything as a waste land, Eliot spoke true and discussed the problematic, corrupt world in which he lived. 

            Within Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Proofrock”, he explores the life of the educated man, who is not at the height of societies hierarchy.  The speaker of the poem expresses his view of women by treating them to “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” (6-7), which in turn opposes the popular illusion of a romanticized love.  The cheap hotel is almost passionless, which is a more actualized view of the way society was.  The speaker also obtains a negative view of himself due to his lack of importance in society “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” (73-74). By stating this, the speaker is implying that he is unknown and presumably worthless.  He ends up retracting the statement by stating he is not the titular character of the play (Hamlet), but a minor role who has some importance in the overall formula of life (111-13).  This statement adds a sense of hope, yet still takes away from the overall key importance of the individual.  Due to the speakers ego-death, it shatters the perception that everyone is of key importance in their lives.  He understands that he is just a small fabric within the entire makeup of human existence and nothing more.  This ego-death is the result of a society that no longer cared for the individual (though it pretended to).  The speaker of  Eliot’s poem voiced the plight of Hardy’s drummer boy and came to terms in accepting that because he had to.  The social construct would not allow for him to view himself as important even though it tried to profess that the individual was important.  Rather than buying into the imposed illusion, Eliot admits that the individual is not the most important.