Modern Sensibility: Concept & The Meaning

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Modern Sensibility: Meaning and Concept With Special Reference to the Poetry of Today

By – Dr. Tarit Agrawal, Vo.II, Issue.XXII, November 2016

Introduction to the Author:

At present, working as assistant professor in English in Govt. Degree College, Pulwara, Bar, Jhansi, U.P., Dr. Tarit Agrawal has written many articles in international peer reviewed journals, presented papers in National seminars. A social activist, pedantic scholar and poet at heart, he is a good human being who always pines for broadening the horizon of knowledge through new researches and novel thoughts.



Modern Poetry is the real mirror of twentieth-century life. It analyses our politics, our ideology and economic system and so on and so forth. The poetry of today is not the poetry of sun-set, or of twilight, or of clouds; it is a bitter and faithful expression of day-to-day actions and experiences of man living in a society which seems to have absolutely no integration of values, no immediate relief from pains one continually suffers from and no hiding place from the chaos, frustration and confusion of everyday life; it is the poetry of man’s struggles, his labour, is misfortunes. It would not be wrong to comment that Modern Poetry is no longer a Utopian contemplation of the region of dream and idealism. It has a distinct program for the regeneration of dwindled humanity. It seldom takes into consideration the glamour of old romance though in very rare cases, we do come across the streaks of moon-light and shadowy figures of knights. Dream of Romance is shattered by the grim realities of life. The modern poet is a rebel and he revolts against the present artificial social structure of the world, against the unequal and unjust economic system that makes a few chosen persons enjoy and roll in wealth, while under it, hundreds of millions of workers and labourers live semi-naked, half-fed and unsheltered. As a matter of fact, modern sensibility does not allow to go into the realm of the past or to peep into future. It inevitably presents the present with a true representation of what actually happens and what it actually means. Briefly speaking, the meaning of sensibility has been understood differently during different volumes of time, but modern sensibility, with reference to modern poetry, is what helps us the most to understand the true picture of the twentieth-century world we live in.

Key-Words: Modern Poetry, Modern Sensibility, Ideology, Dwindled Humanity, Utopian.


Sensibility may be described as a juxtaposition of a man’s experience and the nature of his responsiveness towards it or in other words, man’s sensibility may be described as the outcome of his positive or negative attitude towards whatever experiences he has in his practical or theoretical life. Man is a social creature meaning that he is bound to live in this social atmosphere, no matter to what extent he likes it and to what measure he dislikes it. He has many experiences from such a society and through the reasoning faculty of his mind, he makes a show of his response towards those experiences and the result that comes out of it may be described as his sensibility. Thus, sensibility is something which is definitely related to his practical life but at the same time, apart from his practical life, he has a number of imaginative experiences or the experiences which are related to his own inner self and if a man uses his scruples to know whether he is permitted by his reason to justify such experiences or not, and through this, if he comes to any conclusion, the same can be described as his sensibility and surely such a sensibility is something which is related to his theoretical or speculative life.

It would not be appropriate to relate sensibility to the capacity for having the feelings and experiences only for oneself but the term refers to a capacity of identifying with and responding to the feeling and experiences of others too, and to respond to the beautiful. In this sense, the meaning of the term sensibility seems to be paradoxical to the theory propounded by Hobbes(A) – a famous exponent of the seventeenth-century stoicism that man is self-centered and always activated by his own self-interests. The sermons and philosophical writings of the early eighteenth century give the confirmation for the inappropriateness of Hobbes’ theory by claiming that man is a replica of philanthropy and thereby, always wishes the success and good luck of others. In this respect, we can obviously mention that the term sensibility refers to a tendency of feeling the miseries and catastrophes of others with inward pain. During the eighteenth century literary atmosphere, sensibility declined into sentimentality. It became “a pejorative term applied, in a general sense, to an excess of emotion to an occasion, or in a more limited sense, to overindulgence in the ‘tender’ emotions of pathos and sympathy”.[1] In other words, the term sensibility seems to exhibit a propensity for the luxury of grief. In this respect, the following lines deserve to be quoted:

“The term (sensibility) became popular in the eighteenth century when it acquired the meaning of ‘susceptibility of tender feelings’; thus, a capacity not for feeling sorry for oneself so much as being able to identify with and respond to the sorrows of others – and to respond to the beautiful. This quality of empathy was probably a reaction against seventeenth-century stoicism and Hobbes’ theory that a man is innately selfish and motivated by self-interest and the power drive. In sermons, essays, fiction and philosophical writings (in the early eighteenth C.), it was averred on the contrary that man was innately benevolent and thus wished others well. The Earl of Shaftsbury”s Characteristics (1711) proclaimed this view. In the periodical The Prompter (1735), a writer defended the human attitude that is not content merely with good-natured action but feel the misery of others with inward pain’. This was deservedly termed ‘sensibility. By mid-century, such feelings were an accepted part of social ethics and public morality. It was a sign of good breeding and good manners to shed a sympathetic tear, as indeed in Grey’s “Elegy” (1750), Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1770) and Cowper’s The Task (1785), not to mention the various odes to sensibility from the 1760s onwards. To other relevant works in the history of this attitude were Stern’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) and Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771). ‘Dear sensibility!’ writes Stern (in an almost ode-like tone), ‘source unexhausted of all that’s precious in our joys or costly in our sorrows.’ In The Man of Feeling, sensibility became self-indulged. It declined into sentimentalism and showed a propensity for the luxury of grief’…”[2]

The above-mentioned lines give a clear concept about the meaning of sensibility as considered during the eighteenth century that the term included an extraordinary emotional and sentimental response towards the joys and sorrows of others. Thus, it came to be believed during this period that it is this ‘sensibility’ of a man which obviously confirms his benevolence and sympathetic nature. In order to have a better understanding, we can mention the following lines:

“For most of the eighteenth century, a man of sensibility, a quality, supposed to be characterized of all persons of virtue and breeding, was one who possessed a sympathetic heart, a quick responsiveness to the joys and sorrows of others, and a propensity towards the shedding of compassionate tears. The doctrine of sensibility, a reaction against the seventeenth century, emphasizes on reason and the Hobbesian theory of the innate selfishness of man was found on the concept of man as inherently benevolent and sympathetic”.[3]

The term sensibility in the modern age seems to cover the entire literary area because the term from the modern perspective, suggests a highly developed emotional and intellectual capacity for literary creativity. It came to be believed in the twentieth century that it is sensibility which describes the temperament of a poet towards different experiences, towards his emotional and intellectual apprehension and towards aestheticism which altogether become the source for his literary creation. From this perspective, it must be noted that while reading poetry, the reader basically tries to make out what is the sensibility of the poet towards his literary creation and it is nothing but the sensibility of the reader through which he becomes able to evaluate or appreciate that literary creation. In other words, it is poet’s sensibility which attracts him towards the aesthetic and thereby enables him for literary creation and it is the reader’s sensibility which enables him to first get at the poet’s sensibility behind that literary creation and then to judge and evaluate, to which rank of literature, the work should be placed. This act of making out the sensibility of the poet on the part of a reader through his own sensibility has been described in the modern age as the ‘Phenomenological Criticism’(B) which states that “the real is a closely woven fabric. It does not await our judgment before incorporating the most surprising phenomena, or before rejecting the most plausible figments of our imagination. Perception is not a science of the world, it is not even an act, a deliberate taking up of a position; it is the background from which all acts stand out and is presupposed by them.”[4]

In this way, the Phenomenological criticism lays emphasis on the apprehension of only the sensibility of the genetic force i.e. of the poet by the sensibility of the reader. And the act of ‘judging a literary work on the part of a reader through his own sensibility’ has been described in the twentieth century as the ‘Reader Respond Criticism’(C) which states that “the definition of what literature is, i.e. not an object but an experience obliterates the traditional separation between reader and text and makes the responses of the reader rather than the contents of the work, the focus of critical attention”.[5] Thus the term ‘sensibility’ may be described as the cardinal factor for the literary creation, literary apprehension and literary evaluation. Constantly, the term has a special appeal for the “New Critics”(D) as they are concerned with the factors that contribute to the literary creation and apprehension and with the tools with which to approach literature. “Today, the term sensibility suggests a highly developed emotional and intellectual apprehension and particularly a kind of responsiveness to aesthetic phenomena. With varying shades of meaning, this word has been used by a number of the ‘New Critics’ to describe qualities of the temperaments which produce or appreciate poetry”.[6] In order to have better understanding, it is necessary to understand what is meant by the term ‘modernism’(E). In fact, modernism is one of those terms that have constantly eluded proper definition. What does the term ‘modernity’ exactly connote in the context in which the term is being used? First of all, let us have it clear in our minds that contemporaneity does not ensure modernity. The fact that if all the significant works of a poet are published in the twentieth century and he is a contemporary of such towering poets like Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Auden and Ezra Pound, this does not automatically grant his modernity. Some writers of the past appear to be breathing just behind our backs much nearer to us in spirit and thought than many of the contemporary poets. To elucidate the point, a few lines of John Lucas are worth quoting:

“Attempts to define modernism are necessarily contentious. Should we try to bracket it within certain dates, pin it down to place, identify it by formal and stylistic concerns, or link it to particular ideological positions? It is an extension of earlier movements, such as Romanticism or a repudiation of them? Merely to put the question is to indicate that a short essay cannot hope to deal satisfactorily with the many issues they raise. Such questions do, however, make clear that the blanket term ‘modern Poetry’ inevitably covers a number of widely divergent poets and poetic enterprise. Like the modernism of which it is a part, it is far less homogenous than has sometimes been assumed. And as it is almost certainly better to speak of ‘modernisms’ rather than the abstractive ‘modernism’ so the all-inclusive phrase ‘modern poetry’ is probably less satisfactory than the more cumbersome but also more enabling term ‘modern poetries’.”

There is though one generalization which does less harm than most, it is that modernism was born at the stroke of a pen with mass commodity culture. The usefulness of this statement, when applied to poetry, is that it signals the determination of a number of writers to try to resist the incorporation of their poetry into a culture which would treat it as merely consumable matter. This is not to say that they succeeded. There is virtually nothing that cannot end up on the coffee-table. Nevertheless, the works I have in mind, and which may be said to constitute the canon of modern poetry is made as inassimilable as possible. Hence, the difficulty of such poetry. Hence, too, the accepted split between the popular and the good. This split was eloquently traced by Henry James, in an essay of ‘The Art of Fiction’ (1884). Disputing what he saw to be a growing orthodoxy, one which took for granted that fiction ‘should either be instructive or amusing’; James insisted that the writer’s ultimate responsibility must be to his art and not to its consumers. His impassioned resourceful defence of the right of the novelist to consider only the needs of his work became one of the central dogmas of modern poets, especially Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Like James, the two poets were American émigrés. Both of them were intense admirers of James’ art and theoretical writings. Neither, however, saw anything to admire in the poetry of pre-great war England, which was the poetry they were introduced to as soon as they arrived here, Pound in 1908, Eliot six years later. This is not to be wondered at. English poetry at that time was for the most part dull, often technically incompetent, and the poets who produced it exuded a deep complacency which was bound to be anathema to Pound and Eliot.”[7]

It is interesting to observe that when we describe a work of literature as ‘modern’, we do not merely mean that it has been published in the last year or two, or since the beginning of the twentieth century, perhaps, since the Renaissance, or perhaps, since the decline of the Roman Empire and the earliest poems and chronicles written in a vernacular European tongue. For modern times might be thought to being, for some points of view with the Christian era itself. Now, when we describe a work as ‘modern’, we are ascribing certain intrinsic qualities to it though we may be vague in our minds about what these qualities are. Thus the question of date needs not rise at all. In order to understand ‘modernism’ in form of a movement a few lines of Peter Barry are worth mentioning:

“‘Modernism’ is the name given to the movement which dominated the arts and culture of the first half of the twentieth century. Modernism was that earthquake in the arts which brought down much of the structure of pre-twentieth century practice in music, paining, literature and architecture. One of the major epicentres of this earthquake seems to have been Vienna, during the period of 1890-1910, but the effects were felt in France, Germany, and Italy and eventually even in Britain, in art movements like Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism. Its after-shocks are still being felt today and many of the structures it toppled have never been rebuilt. Without an understanding of modernism then it is impossible to understand twentieth century culture.”

In all the arts touched by modernism what had been the most fundamental elements of practice were challenged and rejected: thus, melody and harmony were put aside in music; perspective and direct pictorial representation were abandoned in painting in favour of degrees of abstraction in architecture traditional forms and materials (Pitched roofs, domes and columns, wood, stone and bricks) were rejected in favour of plain geometrical forms, often executed in new materials like plate glass and concrete. In literature, finally, there was a rejection of traditional realism (chronological plots, continuous narratives relayed by omniscient narrators, closed endings etc.) in favour of experimental forms of various kinds.

The period of high modernism was the twenty years from 1910 to 1930 and some of the literary ‘high priests’ of the movement (writing in English) were T.S. Eliot(F), James Joyce(G), Ezra Pound(H), Windham Lewis(I), Virginia Woolf(J), Wallace Stevens(K) and Gertrude Stern(L) and (writing in French or German), Marcel Proust(M), Stephane Mallarme(N), Andre Gide(O), Franz Kafka(P), and Rainer Maria Rilke(Q)

The overall result of these shifts is to produce a literature which seems dedicated to experimentation and innovation. After its high point, modernism seemed to retreat considerably in the 1930s, partly, no doubt because of the tensions generated in a decade of political and economic crisis but a resurgence took place in the 1960s (a decade which has interesting points of similarity with the 1920s when modernism was at its height). However, modernism never regained the pre-eminence i9t had enjoyed in the earlier period.”[8]

Apart from all this, it should be acknowledged here that the outbreak of the First World War produced a tremendous change in the tendency of the English poets. The trumpets of the national war stirred many younger soldiers to poetry. The finest exhilaration of war gave rise to much exaltation of spirit and patriotic fervour, but the horrors and waste of the war brought only disillusionment and cynicism. Robert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Gibson and many others reflected the earlier facile idealism as well as the indignant pity to which the fact of war had moved them.

The period between the two wars 1919-1939 witnessed a great change in the poet’s attitude to life. Heroics no longer interested them and they settled down to a resigned acceptance of fate. From the sorrow and despair that had reared their emotion, they turned to explore their own mind. They approached the task by first rejecting all traditional valued and beliefs. These were held to be responsible for man’s failure to conquer his environment with the help of science.

The Second World War has produced a deep effect on English poetry and as a matter of fact, it has made English poetry the finest poetic art in the realm of world literature. While the First World War had brought about a Spiritual Idealism in the mind of mankind, the Second World War has given to mankind something Higher-Spiritual Realism. Purification of Soul – not through idealistic imagination but through concrete realism has been the main aim of the modern poets after the horrible war created a terrible and formidable havoc in the sea and in the air.

It is interesting to observe that poetry today can be written on almost any subject. The modern poet finds inspiration from railway trains, tram-cars, telephone, the snake charmer and things of common place interest. Modern poets have not accepted the theory of great subjects for poetic composition. The whole universe is the modern poet’s experience. He writes on themes of real life and also makes excursion in the world of religion, mysticism and fairy land.

In the final analysis, it should be stated that poetry is a criticism of life. It must maintain its contact with life. Modern poetry is the reflection of modern life with its modern sensibility. It is realistic in tone and expresses the spirit of the age. It cannot be denounced as petty, wayward and puerile. It can safely take its place of pride in the kingdom of poetry produced from the times of Chaucer to the modern times.

[1] A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams, Prizm Publication, p. 284, 1999.

[2] A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, edited by J.A. Cuddon, 1989.pp.346-347.

[3] A Reader Guide to Literary Terms, edited by Karl Beckson and Arthus Gan, 1982, pp. 278-79.

[4] Phenomenology of Perception, M.Merleau Ponty, Translated from French by Collin Smith 1982.pp.X-XI.

[5] Reader-Respond Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, Edited by Jane P. Tompkins, 1978,p.xvii.

[6] A Reader’s Guide to Literary Terms, by Karl Beckson and Arthur Gan, 1982, p. 298.

[7] Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism, Edited by Martin Coyle, Peter Garside, Malcoem Kelsall and John Peck – Chapter 21 – “Modern Poetry” by John Lucas. First Printed – 1990. pp. 303-309.

[8] Beginning Theory – An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by Peter Barry, Manchester University press – Chapter 4 – ‘Postmodernism’ – First Printed – 1995, pp. 81-83.

Select Reading

  1. Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson, ed., The Modern Tradition: Backgrounds of Modern Literature. 1965.
  2. Robert M. Adams, Nil: Episodes in the Literary Conquest of Void during the Nineteenth Century. 1966
  3. Irving Howe, ed., The Idea of the Modern in literature and the Arts. 1967
  4. Lionel Trilling, Beyond Culture. 1968
  5. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations. 1969
  6. Paul de Man, “Literary History and Literary Modernity,” in Blindness and Insight. 1971.
  7. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era. 1971.
  8. David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode. 1976.
  9. Ihab Hassan, The Dismemberment of Orpheus. (2d. ed.,) 1982.
  10. Sanford Schwartz, The Matrix of Modernism. 1985.
  11. Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. 1986.
  12. Austin Quigley, The Modern Stage and Other Worlds. 1985.


End Notes

A: Thomas Hobbes was an English Philosopher, best known today for his work on Political philosophy. His 1651 book Leviathan established social contract theory, the foundation of most of later Western political philosophy.

B: Phenomenology is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. As a philosophical movement it was founded in the early years of the 20the century by Edmund Husserl and was later expanded upon by a circle of his followers at the universities of Gottingen and Munich in Germany. It then spread to France, the United States, and elsewhere, often in contexts far removed from Husserl’s early work. Phenomenology is primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness.

C: Reader-response criticism is a school of literary theory that focuses on the reader and their experience with a literary work, in contrast to othe4r schools and theories that focus attention primarily of the author or the content and form of the work. Although literary theory has long paid some attention to the reader’s role in creating the meaning and experience of a literary work, modern reader-response criticism began in the 1960s and ’70s, particularly in the US and Germany, in work by Norman Holland, Stanley Fish, Wolfgang Iser, Hans-Robert Jauss, Roland Barthes, and others.

D: New Criticism was a formalist movement in literary theory that dominated American literary criticism in the middle decades of the 20th century. It emphasized close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object. The movement derived its name from John Crowe Ransom’s 1941 book The New Criticism. The work of English scholar I. A. Richards, especially his Practical Criticism and The Meaning of Meaning, which offered what was claimed to be an empirical scientific approach, were important to the development of New Critical methodology.

E: Modernism is a philosophical movement that, along with cultural trends and changes, arose from wide-scale and far-reaching transformations in Western society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among the factors that shaped modernism were the development of modern industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities, followed then by the horror of World War I.

F: T. S. Eliot was a British essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic, and one of the twentieth century’s major poets. He moved from his native United States to England in 1914 at the age of 25, settling, working and marrying there. He was eventually naturalized as a British subject in 1927 at the age of 39, renouncing his American citizenship.

G: James Joyce was an Irish novelist and poet. He contributed to the modernist avant-garde and is regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century.

H: Ezra Pound was an expatriate American poet and critic, and a major-figure in the early modernist movement. His contribution to poetry began with his development of Imagism, a movement derived from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, stressing clarity, precision and economy of language.

I: Windham Lewis was an English painter and author. He was a co-founder of the Vorticist movement in art, and edited the literary magazine of the Vorticist, Blast.

J: Virginia Woolf was an English writer and one of the foremost modernists of the twentieth century. During the interwar period, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a central figure in the influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals.

K: Wallace Stevens was an American Modernist poet. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, educated at Harvard and then New York Law School, and he spent most of his life working as an executive for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems in 1955.

L: Gertrude Stern was an American author, journalist, and essayist. She also wrote under the pen names of Leah Morton, Eleanor Morton, and E. G. Stern.

M: Marcel Proust was a French novelist, critic, and essayist, best known for his monumental novel A la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost time), published n seven parts between 1913 and 1927. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest French authors of his time.

N: Stephane Mallarme was a French poet and critic. He was a major French symbolist poet, and his work anticipated and inspired several revolutionary artistic schools of the early 20th century, such as Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism.

O: Andre Gide was a French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947 for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight. Gide’s career ranged from its beginnings in the symbolist movement, to the advent of anti-colonialism between the two World Wars.

P: Franz Kafka was a German-language writer of novels and short stories who is widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th century literature. His work, which fuses elements of realism and the fantastic, typically features isolated protagonists faced by bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible social bureaucratic powers, and has been interpreted as exploring themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity.

Q: Rainer Maria Rilke was a Bohemian Austrian poet and novelist, widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German language poets, writing in both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke’s works as inherently mystical.


Explore More in: Academic Research Paper

Read More Articles: