The Modernist movement was a response to the horrors that occurred during WWI by artists and philosophers who chased meaning after the senseless and horrible violence. The war reshaped how people perceived religion, literature, history, culture, and even their own identities. Modernist poetry was an attempt to reclaim a sense of meaning that seemed absent following the war by exploring what it means to be human, and ultimately trying to grasp something meaningful in a time where there seemed to be little sense in the world. Many individuals hung on to the nostalgia of the past as a point of reference for meaning, sensing that some echo of meaning lingered in the pre-war past. Others saw the erasure of the past as an omen for the unstable future. American citizens had to acknowledge their own mortality, both because of the horror of war, and the lack of meaning that prevailed during this time. The tough search to find meaning resulted in new artistic movements, including Modernist poetry. This theme of confronting death is apparent in two important poems written by Modernist poets: “Buffalo Bill’s” by e.e. cummings and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. Both of these poems explore not only a shaky attachment to the past, but also a venture into the unknown, mortal future.
“Buffalo Bill’s” is an important Modernist poem written in 1920 criticizing the jingoist history of America. Buffalo Bill was the nickname of William Cody, who was an American Buffalo hunter and popular cowboy. In addition to shooting buffalo, he also shot and killed Native Americans to spread white nationalism and to make room for more American settlements in the West. He eventually became a popular novelty celebrity and went from becoming a symbol for the “Wild West” to shooting pigeons at gun shows. The ideology of the patriotic and proud American hero was incredibly popular, but by the time this poem was published, the ideology had lost its original meaning and purpose. In the poem, cummings contrasts these two identities of Buffalo Bill—two identities of an American icon—by separating the typography between “who used to / ride a watersmooth-silver / stallion / and “and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat.” The first part uses a beautiful and vivid adjective, “watersmooth,” to describe the impressiveness of Buffalo Bill’s actions, where the second part, separated by a line break, demonstrates the quickness and hastiness of Buffalo Bill’s “wasted” talent by combining the words together. The typography of the piece is not only representative of the speed at which Buffalo Bill shoots the pigeons, but it is also functional in that it is shaped like a gun: the ultimate weapon of war, Buffalo Bill’s tool for his success, and the cause of the deaths of many people, including thousands of Americans. Additionally, the break from conventional poetry tradition with the typography and the enjambment of the lines seems reminiscent of Dadaism, an artistic movement that occurred around the same time as World War I. Dadaist artists communicated their search for meaning by creating strange and avant-garde works of art that seems to suggest the meaningless of the era, including “sculptures” that were simple toilets, and other abnormal images. This poem, which deviated from the standard poetry practices of the time with its typography, enjambment, and subject, is asserting that the traditions of the past are no longer reliable or even present. Buffalo Bill, who essentially became a sideshow novelty, represents America: he is no longer functional (or “defunct”), in that he became a fake gun-shooting figure instead of a “hero” representing the empirical ideals of America and Manifest Destiny. At the end of the poem, cummings asks the question: “how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death.” By describing Buffalo Bill as a “blueeyed boy,” cummings is not only insinuating that Buffalo Bill is childlike, but also, by the mention of the color of his eyes, that Buffalo Bill represents the ideology of white Americans—those responsible for the deaths of the Native Americans as well as the enslavement and torture of people of color. Since cummings is asking “Mister Death,” cummings is stating that Buffalo Bill, the important patriotic figure, is dead and no longer filled with meaning, marking the end of America’s patriotic and nationalist attitude after World War I. “Buffalo Bill’s” represents the end of an ideology that many Americans held on to. To confront the end of the American ideals of Manifest Destiny, Americans would also have to accept that that incredibly strong belief has now died, and they must search for meaning elsewhere. The death of Buffalo Bill as an iconic figure then also symbolizes the death of the American dream, and thus, the death of the dreams of the American public. Americans, after the death of this iconic figure, had to search for new meaning and ideologies to follow.
“Buffalo Bill’s” was not the only poem important to the Modernist movement. “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, written in 1923, is an almost comforting poem detailing the hesitation of a man walking the line between the village nearby and the mysterious forest. The horse in the poem “[asks] if there is some mistake,” since it is odd that they are stopping without a village nearby. In this way, the horse represents the will of the man to go back to the village. The woods are “dark and deep,” and the apprehension of the horse signals to the reader that the woods are dangerous, and perhaps even deadly. The woods seem tantalizing to the man, who also describes it as “lovely,” and who ultimately chooses not to go because he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go before [he sleeps],” which is another signal that the woods, while tantalizing, would also mean death for the man. Ultimately, the man is debating whether to go back to the familiar village or to go into the mysterious and unknown woods, even though it may mean death for him. From a Modernist perspective, the man in the poem is searching for a meaning outside of his familiar village, which is no longer appealing to him, and wants to go into the mysterious woods in order to find meaning. In doing this, he is acknowledging his own death—he will go into the woods someday, but he has “promises to keep,” and won’t go yet. Even so, he is accepting that he will die, and knows that the meaning he is chasing is within the deadly woods. This conflict is additionally similar to the relocation following war—families are torn apart and forced to relocate, and a homeland that once seemed profitable and prosperous has lost its glory. Ultimately, the man is moving from the civilized past of the village, which is no longer an advantageous existence, and acknowledging the unknown future, that he will inevitably move towards. The village, or civilization and tradition, has become “defunct” (to use a word from “Buffalo Bill’s”), and without that tradition the man, or symbolically, American citizens, are feeling lost and without meaning. I believe Frost is proposing a solution to the meaningless of the period; that is, he is suggesting that those who are impacted by the war and the loss of prosperity during this time should acknowledge that death is a natural part of life: death is inevitable. Frost is suggesting that in order to cope with the harsh reality of war and a decaying economy, even though death may seem close, people should find meaning in that they are alive.
These two poems provide important context into the Modernist period. Because of the constant search for meaning in the past, people during this time also looked warily into the future. Often, this led people to confront their sense of mortality—as they just witnessed the deaths of millions of people, including thousands of American lives. This search for meaning often led people to believe that their lives or their function in society was meaningless, promoting a nihilistic worldview that led to feelings of loss, mortality, and hopelessness. Confronting death, then, was a natural next step to recognizing feelings of meaninglessness. Both “Buffalo Bill’s” and “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” display this search for meaning through death. The first presents a strong iconic pre-war American figure, and makes that figure “defunct,” forcing people to search for new meaning, new ideologies, and ultimately, new goals. The second creates a vivid image of a man straddling a line between the past and the future, the civilized and the uncivilized, and ultimately, the man’s old life and his new, unknown and dangerous future. The man then finds meaning in his continuing to persevere through the hardship of the time, acknowledging that his death cannot be avoided, but it does not have to be imminent. Frost is letting readers know that ideologies shift and change from something once powerful into something inconsequential, and that meaningful images and icons die over time. This may leave the reader feeling negative about the immediacy of death, but by making Buffalo Bill a “blueeyed child” at the end, cummings suggests rebirth and the starting over of a cycle of meaning. Old ideologies then, are easily replaced with new ones that can provide hope and meaning. Frost posits that although readers may feel futility in the current state of the world, readers during this time should ultimately acknowledge that death, while inevitable, is not immediate, and we should find meaning in creating our own meaning before we eventually succumb to the deep, dark woods.