Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 September 2020
This chapter explores how the work of three of the ‘major’ modernist authors – T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats – might be considered to be invested in the ‘Decadent’ sensibility. The chapter begins by tracing the emergence of this Decadent sensibility in the late age of revolutionary romanticism, and in particular in Shelley’s claim that ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.’ If poets are, in 1821, legislators, it suggests they are no longer revolutionaries. Post-romantic poetry is then written in an age of failed, exhausted revolution and is often characterized by reactionary, backward-looking politics. In this narrative late modernism marks the culmination of this increasingly dispirited view of the world, so that Eliot, by the 1930s, invests in absolutist authority rather than in poetic possibility. As the chapter suggests, this view of the failure of poetic possibility was one which with the Decadent writers of the 1890s began to grapple. Try as they might, modernist authors found themselves caught in a Decadent paradox in which poetry could no longer transform the world, and so they turned to totalizing, even totalitarian politics.