Literature

The Best Poems of the 1930s

The 1930s was a decade when poetry became more political, in the hands of left-wing poets like W. H. Auden; when modernist poetry went into new directions, thanks to Americans like William Carlos Williams; and when poetry became more technological, as the ‘Pylon Poets’ attest. Below, we introduce some of the very best 1930s poems, including some of the most illustrative examples of poems from the thirties. For a good anthology of 1930s poems, we recommend Poetry of the Thirties (Penguin Modern Classics).

Stephen Spender, ‘The Pylons’. Here’s a quiz question for you. How many poems can you name which have spawned the name of a whole poetic movement? A famous movement, too. One poem readily springs to mind: Stephen Spender’s ‘The Pylons’, whose title inspired the name of the ‘Pylon Poets’, 1930s British poets whose work deals with technological modernity. But ‘The Pylons’, from 1933, is a mysterious poem: its legacy is more famous than the poem itself.

William Empson, ‘Missing Dates’. Empson (1906-84) was one of the most important literary critics of the twentieth century, publishing his landmark study of poetry, Seven Types of Ambiguity, in 1930 while he was still in his mid-twenties. His poetry shows his debt to the metaphysical poets, especially John Donne, and there’s a wry irony and academic fondness for riddles and puzzles at work in his poems, as ‘Missing Dates’ demonstrates. Is this a poem about missed opportunities? Are the ‘dates’ torn out of the diary a frustrated writer’s expression of his failure to write what he hoped to write? Perhaps we should hold off offering any reductive readings of the poem and just revel in its suggestive imagery and masterly use of the villanelle form.

John Betjeman, ‘Slough’. Betjeman was born – and would die – in the same year as Empson, although his poetry is far more accessible, and became much more popular, than Empson’s. In this famous poem, Betjeman mischievously calls for ‘friendly bombs’ to fall on the English town of Slough, which ‘isn’t fit for humans’ any more thanks to industrialisation and modernity. The poem was published in 1937 and anticipates the outbreak of the Second World War, when Slough would be subjected to German air-raids, by two years.

Anne Ridler, ‘At Parting’. In the Penguin anthology of poetry of the thirties mentioned at the start of this article, most of the poets included are men, but a notable exception is the wonderful Anne Ridler (1912-2001), who worked at Faber and Faber alongside T. S. Eliot (who mentored her) and published her first poetry collection in 1939. Sadly, very few of her poems are online, and none of her early ones from the 1930s, so instead we’ve linked to a poem from the early 1940s, which Ridler wrote for her husband when he went away to war. If that whets your appetite for more, Ridler’s Collected Poems are available from Carcanet.

Louis MacNeice, ‘London Rain’. The Belfast-born poet Louis MacNeice (1907-63) was another key ‘Poet of the Thirties’. His poem ‘London Rain’, written against the backdrop of impending war (shortly before the outbreak of WWII in 1939), might be considered that conflict’s response to Edward Thomas’s ‘Rain’, written during the First World War. Like Thomas, MacNeice uses the rain pouring down outside as a springboard for meditations about life, death, war, and the numinous and religious.

W. H. Auden, ‘September 1, 1939’. If MacNeice was writing against the backdrop of impending war, Auden was writing literally on the eve of it: he wrote this poem on the day that Hitler invaded Poland, the act that led to the outbreak of the Second World War. Auden later disowned this poem, written shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War (though uncannily anticipating events in another dark September, in 2001), arguing that the rhetoric won out over truth (‘We must love one another or die’ should, he reasoned, strictly be ‘We must love one another and die’). As a result, you won’t find it in the Faber Collected Poems; but you can read it by following the link in the title above. Auden was the leading poet of the 1930s, and this is arguably his most defining poem of that ‘low, dishonest decade’, as he calls it in his opening stanza here.

W. B. Yeats, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’. Of course, the best 1930s poems weren’t limited to those written by the group known as the ‘Poets of the Thirties’. The Irish poet and dramatist W. B. Yeats had been writing since the 1880s, and would die at the end of the decade (Auden wrote an elegy for him following his death in January 1939). ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ is arguably Yeats’s last great poem, and it is partly about poetic inspiration and the drive to write. In the first section, Yeats tells us that ‘I sought a theme and sought for it in vain’. This is a poet in search of something to write about, who throughout his life – until old age arrived – never had to look too far to find something to write about. His imagination was crowded with images and ideas, like the animals in a circus.

Wallace Stevens, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’. And just as Yeats continued to write in the 1930s, so there were developments going on elsewhere in the world – and American modernists like Stevens continued to build on their earlier work in that decade. A complex poem written in blank verse, it is set on the Florida island of Key West and explores the gulf between reality and perception, as in much of Stevens’s (and indeed, in much modernist) poetry.

William Carlos Williams, ‘This Is Just to Say’. One of the most famous examples of free verse in Anglophone literature, written by one of the greatest American modernist poets, ‘This Is Just to Say’ sometimes infuriates or baffles readers: it is, after all, a note left by a man for his wife apologising (but also, not apologising) for greedily munching on all of the plums that she’d been saving in the fridge. Published in 1934, it was written by an American modernist who was a contemporary of Stevens.

Dylan Thomas, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’. Written in 1933 while Thomas was still a teenager, and in response to a challenge issued by a friend, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ is a poem about immortality. It’s fair to say it’s one of Dylan Thomas’s best-loved poems, and although Thomas wasn’t part of the ‘Auden circle’, he emerged in the mid-1930s as one of the rising stars of the poetry world. As such, it seems fitting to conclude our pick of the best 1930s poems with an early Dylan Thomas poem.

For more great 1930s poems, we recommend the brilliant anthology Poetry of the Thirties (Penguin Modern Classics).

2 Comments

  1. “Poetry of the Thirties – Penguin Books – edited by Robin Skelton”
    This is my favourite book of the modern poets, and it has W.H. Auden’s, “September 1, 1939”.
    You mention how political many of the poetry was; like W.H. Auden’s “A Communist to Other.”

    I do like the humour of Louis MacNeice in “Bagpipe Music”,
    and the enigmatic lines in his poem, “Meeting Point”.

    • Absolutely brilliant anthology – and full of some rare gems like Roy Fuller’s ‘Centaurs’ and Francis Scarfe’s parodies of Eliot. I’m currently revisiting MacNiece’s Autumn Journal, which chimes with the events of 2019 all too closely in some ways!

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