Upon completion of the unit, the learner will be able to:
We come across the word ‘modern’, often. Have you ever seen this word used in relation to literature? How can an abstract thing like literature become modern? The answer lies in a series of historical and social changes that happened in the western world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These transformations caused a sea-change in the existing styles, themes and approaches of literature. Let’s see what these events are and how they might have influenced the age.
In the last part of the 19th century, a series of works challenged traditional beliefs and customs. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) contested existing religious theories. Das Kapital (1864) written by Karl Marx changed perspectives about class structure and economy. This was followed by The Interpretation of Dreams (1901) by Sigmund Freud which argued that the human mind has an unconscious part that controls behaviour and thought. Thus, religion, social structure, and self-identity, which were the foundations of the ‘individual’, suddenly became unstable.
The events that shaped the course of the modern age were the First World War (1914-18) and Second World War (1944-48). The death and destruction of the world wars further weakened people’s belief in religion, monarchy and other social institutions. Increasingly, they began to view scientific progress as a danger, too. The collapse of the economy led to great suffering everywhere. Women had to enter the workforce since able-bodied men were sent off to war. In 1918, they gained the right to vote in the-general elections.
Once the wars had ended, British supremacy declined. Many of its colonies were revolting against English imperial rule, and some succeeded in declaring their independence. Anti-royalism was also on the rise. As such, this period witnessed great social and political turbulence. All these aspects had their influence on English literature, creating new kinds of writings that reflected the concerns of the age.
Modernism, 1922, Literary Features, Novel, Poetry, Drama
The Modern age in English literature spans the early parts of the twentieth century. It emerged in reaction to the general attitudes and manners of Victorian writers. The chief mood of modern literature could be classified as ‘rebellious’.
There was a questioning of everything that was sacred or certain. Deviating from earlier ages, the modern period deliberately broke with sources of authority and order. So the age saw a rupture with tradition.
The spirit of contestation took on extra importance in the face of two World Wars. Traditional values started to fail. All that was considered vital to society in Victorian England was challenged. As such, there was a ‘loss of faith’ in religion, family, marriage, rituals and social customs. The wars made clear the human capacity for evil, particularly during WWII. This led to an emphasis on feelings of alienation, loss and despair in the writings of the age.
Unlike the focus on nature and society in the previous eras, the modern age showed a preoccupation with machinery. It becomes a symbol for the modern experience of life. The materialism, boredom and repetitiveness of modern social life were highlighted in the ‘mechanical’. Factors, such as feelings or impulse, were often irrelevant in this sense. Thus, modern life could not be explained in the existing formats of literature.
As with other literary ages, here too, we may find some sense of overlapping. The writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walt Whitman and Henry James depict early elements of modernism.
However, it was in the year 1922 that the movement truly peaked. It witnessed the publication of three important works – The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, Ulysses by James Joyce and Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf. All of them were experimental works that captured the essence of the modern age using new styles and techniques. Therefore, the year is often considered as crucial in the emergence of the modernist movement.
There were many features that set the literature of the modern period apart from any of the preceding ages. Some of the most significant of these are:
- Strong and intentional break from tradition
Modernism highlighted a movement away from traditional and accepted literary styles and themes.
- A new emphasis on subjectivity
The focus of modern literature was on how we see things as opposed to what we see. There was also a concern with the psychological life of individuals.
- Rejection of objectivity
Modern literature moved away from objective positions or the idea of an absolute truth.
- Blurring of boundaries between genres
Established literary rules and classifications were broken. For instance, novels may be written in a lyrical style or poems may take on a prose-form in modernist writings.
- Fragmented Forms
Modern literature used broken or fragmented styles of writing to convey the disturbing experience of modern life. Narratives were often non-linear or discontinuous, with unstable or untruthful narrators.
Modern works of literature often commented on their own nature as a poem, play or fiction.
The literature of the period encouraged experimentation in themes, writing style and form.
The literary genre that effectively carried the mark of these different features was the novel. It surpassed poetry as the dominant literary form during this age. Further, the period also saw the rebirth of drama. It is interesting to note that while fiction and drama were revitalised due to substantial experimentation in form and style, poetry did not attract radical experiments in form. However, it did trans-form in terms of theme and language.
Modernism also lay closely connected with various art movements. The different styles of painting also found an equivalent in literary techniques. For instance, impressionism is an artistic style that uses perception or viewpoint as the basis for reality. Many modern writers believed the same, and the writings of the age present individual perceptions instead of an objective picture.
Symbolism is a movement that tried to express individual emotions using symbols, whether in art or literature. In literature, this was seen in the works of French poets Baudelaire and Mallarme who inspired modernist writers in English.
Imagism is a movement that included English and American poets who believed in using the ‘exact word’ to describe the subject of their poetry. They would present the subject directly and would not use any word that did not contribute to their description. The poems did not follow any rhyme or metre.
‘Stream of Consciousness’ is a narrative technique in which the individual’s point of view is portrayed. This is usually done either as an internal monologue or as a description of the character’s internal state. The subject’s thought-processes are revealed as they are overheard in that person’s mind or addressed to themselves.
Even though the modern period moves away from objectivity, it kept some elements of realism. The literature of the age contains frank depictions of the world, even at its worst. Elements that are traditionally considered improper or shocking for literature are often used in modernist works. This creates an effect of shock which is part of the philosophy of modern literature.
These characteristic features and literary techniques could be seen across the fiction, poetry, and drama of the time-period. Reacting to the various historical events and social sentiments of the age, the literature also developed its own peculiarities within genres. The most popular and most experimented-upon form of modernism was the novel.
The modern novel revisited the experience of reality. Following perspectivism and impressionism, it captured the viewpoints of individuals. It no longer followed the linear narrative. Instead, the story was fragmented just as an individual’s memory and perception are fragmented.
Further, the endings were often non-conclusive or open, with no concrete conclusion. Several common themes, such as reality of experience, search for meaning, loss of religious faith, lack of values and hopelessness could be seen in the modern novel.
There were several dominant novelists in the period who represented various aspects of modern fiction. The works of Henry James (1843-1916) could be seen as an early indicator of modernism. He uses techniques that convey the internal life of his characters. A realist writer of great skill, he serialised his novels in many popular magazines of the time.
His themes revolve around high society, sexual repression, class, and the individual. His output includes Watch and Ward, The Ambassadors, The Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady, The Europeans, and Daisy Miller. He has also composed various short-stories, plays and critical essays that were influential to the age.
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) is a Polish-born novelist and short-story writer. His works have been crucial in establishing psychological realism in the modern novel. The techniques used in his writings reveal the depths of his character’s consciousness and perceptions. Conrad’s narratives often placed his characters in adventurous settings. Their innermost thoughts and processes would be the subject of his novels.
The most significant of his works include Almayer’s Folly, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and The Rescue. He has also com-posed a memoir titled A Personal Record. His writing style influenced numerous novelists in the ages to come.
D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) is one of the most influential writers of the modern age. He has produced over 40 novels, short-stories, poetry, plays, treatises and essays. His fame rests chiefly on his novels which were frank treatments of human relationships and sex. At the time, his works were thought of as obscene and shocking. His novels, such as The Rainbow, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover depict subtle portraits of individuals and their emotional lives. In Lawrence’s work, we find a love for the natural combined with the hatred of mechanical life. He considered love and sex to be vital human experiences that needed to be discussed and understood. His uninhibited language and deeply emotional style of writing added to the canvas of modernism.
The novels of James Joyce (1882-1941) mark a shift in the novel genre. His experimental use of language and writing techniques are typical of modernist fiction. In particular, he used the interior monologue or ‘stream of consciousness’ to great effect.
His main subject is human relations, particularly the individual’s relation to society. He represents the dark side of human life with frankness. Joyce’s exploration of sex and desire is also an important aspect of his works.
To enrich this experience, he also used symbolisms and allusions from mythology, history and literature. The most representative of his works include Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce’s portrayals were deep studies of the human mind and consciousness that were unparalleled in subtlety and expression.
Another prominent novelist of the period was Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) whose works represented a shift in structure and style. She was a member of the literary and social circle known as the Bloomsbury group. Her experimental writing techniques reviewed the language and form of the novel.
She has produced several acclaimed works, such as The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Night and Day, Jacob’s Room, Mrs Dalloway, and Orlando. Woolf also made huge contributions to the women’s movement through her work, A Room of One’s Own. Her use of the stream-of-consciousness technique and subtle characterisation reveal the most internal psychological realities.
|The Bloomsbury group was a set of writers, artists, and philosophers that frequently met in the houses of Virginia Woolf, and Vanessa and Clive Bell. Their meeting points were located in the Bloomsbury district of London, near the British Museum (and hence, the name). They discussed questions of literature and philosophy and questioned accepted ideas. Along with Woolf (novelist) and Bell (Art critic), the most important writers of this group were E.M. Forster and Leonard Bell (novelists), Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (artists), and John May-nard Keynes (Economist). Frequently, prominent figures such as T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell and Alduous Huxley would join them.|
E.M. Forster (1879-1970) wrote several significant novels such as Maurice, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room With a View, and Howard’s End. He worked as a secretary for the Maharajah of Dewas State Senior. This experience resulted in the composition of his most famous novel, A Passage to India.
Using relatively simple language, he realistically captured the character of the English people. He was situated within the upper-middle class, but was removed enough to criticise their hypocritical ways and manners. He emphasises the importance of personal connections in the disconnected modern world.
There were several other novelists whose names deserve mention in the context of modernist fiction. Writers, such as Sir Hugh Walpole, William Somerset Maugham, and J.B. Priestley continued the ‘traditionalist’ style of the English novel.
Others like Dorothy Richardson, Wyndham Lewis, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Katherine Mansfield produced works that explored human psychology. With these writers, the modern novel took on a wide range of subjects, attitudes and experiments, rising in popular and critical interest.
Modern poetry would do away with many of the pre-conceptions of the earlier eras such as those seen in Romantic and Victorian traditions. Those established ideas and styles could not convey the essence of modern life. Rather, most modernist poets felt the need for creating a new language and structure for the genre that would portray changed elements of their life. Naturally, this meant that there was no uniform language in the poetry of the twentieth century. We find different lines of poetic works across the ages.
Poets such as Robert Bridges (1840-1930) arrived in the transitional period between Victorian and Modern ages. His poetry is noted for its metrical innovations. His work contains beautiful descriptions of nature and an obsession with the old world of the classics. The lyricism of his works including “The Testament of Beauty”, “A Passer-By, London Snow”, “The Downs”, and “The Growth of Love” were considered note-worthy.
More than Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) has displayed modernist characteristics. His experiments with metre and language have made his poetry unique in English literature. Despite the peculiar nature of his language, symbolism and poetic meter, his subject matter is traditional. He wrote about god, nature and humankind in various works like “The Wreck of Deutschland”. His theories about poetry have exerted great influence on modern poets.
Alongside these names, there emerged specific groups of poets such as the Georgian poets or the Trench poets. The first group wrote under the reign of George V (1911-1936) and did not respond to any contemporary issues in their writings. This included poets, such as Walter De La Mare (1873- 1957) and John Masefield (1878 – 1967) who composed poetry on nature, animals, life and so on.
The second group known as Trench poets were more influential. They were poets of war, relating experiences of WWI. Specifically, they mentioned the horrors of war and its impact on their selfhood. Though they followed the characteristics of the Georgian poets, their writing engaged with profound issues. Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) and Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) were prominent among this group.
The most outstanding poets of the modern era emerged post-1910s. One of the most important names among these was William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). An Irish poet, he used symbolism from Irish settings to great effect. His poems followed a lyrical and romantic style. Most of them focused on themes of love, longing and loss. They contained elements of Irish folklore and mythology.
Yeats’s interest in the occult and supernatural made him a stranger in a world dominated by science and rationalism. The internal conflicts in Ireland as well as the World Wars influenced his poetry. This alienation and loneliness is seen throughout his poems. His poetic output includes The Wanderings of Oisin, The Wind Among the Reeds, The Wild Swan at Coole, The Tower, and The Winding Stair. His influence on English poetry is vast and considerable.
Few poets have characterised an age as T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) has characterised the mod-ern age. With a combination of opposing characteristics, he has incorporated both tradition and innovation in his poetry. His style of poetry is both realist and visionary. He considered order to be of primary importance in the poetic genre. Yet, he continued to innovate in form and theme. This was due to the idea that the existing language of poetry cannot meet the demands of the modern age.
Eliot’s poetic language used words from common speech that were regarded as inappropriate in literature. He borrowed freely from classical literature. In his poems, we may find both colloquial speech as well as ancient lines from the classics.
The most significant of his works are “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, “The Hollow Men”, and the Four Quartets, consisting of “Burnt Norton”, “East Coker”, “The Dry Salvages”, and “Little Gidding”. Of course, it was the publication of his poem The Waste Land in 1922 that marked the peak of modernism. He has a serious role in conveying the dangers and despair of modern civilisation. This makes him one of the most representative poets of the period.
The 1930s was dominated by a group of poets who had left-wing beliefs. They were known as ‘Pylon Poets’. They were known for utilising industrial and modern imagery in their poems. One of the most prominent of these poets was W.H. Auden (1907-1977). Much of his poetry was concerned with moral issues. He had an analytical style of writing that called for ‘objectivity’. The most important of his works include Poems, Nones, The Age of Anxiety and New Year Letter.
The poetry of Stephen Spender (1909-1995), another member of this group, showed aware-ness of human suffering. He argued that writers should stay in touch with the urgent political issues of their times. He produced insightful collections of poetry, such as Vienna, The Still Centre, Ruins and Visions and Collected Poems.
Other Pylon poets included Louis Macneice and John Betjeman, both of whom dealt with the problems of modern society. Along with Auden and Spender, their poetry employed images of machines, factories, modes of transport and power.
Another significant poet of the age was Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), who used symbolism to great effect in her works. She has explored the use of sound as an element in poetry. Her writings reflected on the human condition, and had a philosophical quality. Her most renowned works were Facade, The Wooden Pegasus and Bucolic Comedies.
Dame Edith Sitwell’s poetry was highly experimental. Her poetic language challenged conventional ideas about poetry. She took up the editorship of Wheels, an annual poetry anthology, and published modernist poetry in it. Soon, she became one of the most significant literary figures of her age.
Explore her life and poetry
In the 1940s, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) dominated British poetry. His output was very different from the modernists and the Pylon poets. He has often been termed a ‘neo-romantic’ poet because of his emphasis on emotion, imagination and spontaneity. His works were full of nature imagery, often connecting the workings of the universe with the life of humans. Some of his significant contributions include 18 Poems, Under Milk Wood, and In Country Sleep: And Other Poems. His poetry belonged to the New Apocalypse style.
The 1950s saw the emergence of ‘Movement Poetry’. These were a group of poets who rejected the literary customs of the time. They reflected the pain, sufferings, anger and frustration of common people in their works. It was literature, not of the upper class, but of the middle classes of society.
The significant Movement Poets were Robert Conquest, Philip Larkin, Thomas Gunn, Elizabeth Jennings and George Macbeth, though many others were involved in the group. Their poetry highlighted realism, typically rejecting romantic styles of writing.
The most prominent writer in this group was Philip Larkin (1922-1985). His works include The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows. They display an awareness of life’s limitations, often taking on a melancholic tone. His themes revolve around death and human solitude. Larkin’s poetry used under-stated, subtle emotion to great effect.
Ted Hughes (1930-1998) composed poetry that was different from the traditionalism of the Movement poets. Most of his works focused on nature, but typically revealed the violent and savage side of animal life. There is a lack of sentimentality in his poems. His significant contributions include The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal.
While poetry took on a specific direction,-modern drama developed new features as well. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) incorporated humour and satire in his plays in order to invite attention to the social and political issues of the time. His plays were anti-romantic, often deliberately portraying icons or influential figures in a comic manner. This attitude is referred to as ‘iconoclasm’. Often, his dramas revolve around a conflict of differing ideas which brings out new social insights.
The most significant of his works are Widower’s House, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Arms and the Man, Caesar and Cleopatra, Major Barbara and Pygmalion. Apart from his influence as a dramatist, Shaw was also a member of the Fabian Society. His concern about the hypocrisy and class prejudices of his age were visible in his dramas. His contributions lie in the way he changed the language and themes of modern English theatre.
The plays of Shaw, John Galsworthy, Harley Granville Barker and W. Somerset Maugham followed the trajectory of realism. Their works appealed to socially and politically conscious audiences and were committed to bringing forth reform.
A significant development in modern drama is the establishment of the Irish Literary Theatre by W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge. They aimed to produce works that were rooted in the culture, myths and traditions of Ireland. This came to be referred to as the Celtic revival in theatre, and included playwrights such as Sean O’Casey, J.M. Synge, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn.
A significant presence in this movement was John Millington Synge (1871-1909). His dramatic productions revived Irish theatre. His plays are a reaction against the dominant realist style of the earlier era. Instead, he focused on Irish mythology and folklore, creating a new world in the drama of the age. His writing shows excellent insight into human nature, and characterisation. He does not take a moral or educational approach with his subjects.
The most significant of his works are In the Shadow of the Glen, Riders to the Sea, The Well of the Saints, The Playboy of the Western World, The Tinker’s Wedding, and Deirdre of the Sorrows. His plays have seen a fair share of controversy in the light of the Irish independence movement.
Other contributions of the Celtic revival in drama include O’Casey’s plays which revolved around the slums of Dublin, such as The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock. W.B. Yeats composed the poetic drama titled The Countess Cathleen. Though his plays were well-crafted, they were highly difficult to stage.
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) conceived of ‘Epic Theatre’ as a form of didactic drama. It presents loosely connected scenes and actions to break the dramatic form. Often the play is interrupted and the audience is directly addressed. Often, they are presented with arguments and analyses.
The influence of Marxism on Epic Theatre is clear in the way that moral and social problems are engaged through such plays. Brecht’s dramas, such as Mother Courage and her Children, The Life of Galileo, The Good Person of Setzuan, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle are examples of the same.
Apart from these dramatic genres, the modern era also saw the rise of avantgarde theatre. Playwrights of this movement produced experimental dramas that opposed mainstream cultural values, and rejected the traditional aesthetics of the stage. Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) contributed immensely to the development of this genre. Though he started his career writing short stories and novels, he soon shifted to crafting modernist plays.
His reputation rests on experimental plays such as Waiting for Godot, Act Without Words I and II, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Happy Days. His emphasis is on the absurdity or meaninglessness of human experience. He highlighted the same through meaningless dialogue, purposeless situations, lack of logical plot development and tiresome repetition of actions and lines.
Another leading name in this context is Eu-gene Ionesco (1909-1994), whose dramas highlight the absurdity of human existence. His works move away from the conventions of traditional theatre, and often present parodies of life. The settings for his plays combine the atmosphere of a dream or nightmare with strange humour. Some of his most well-known dramas are The Bald Soprano, The Chairs, and Rhinoceros, all of which raise serious questions about the direction of humanity.
Harold Pinter (1930-2008) achieved fame as one of the most complex dramatists of his time. His plays use small talk, hesitation, and silence to signify deep meanings. His characters’ dialogues are often ‘colloquial’. Their speech is disjointed and confusing, and sometimes filled with silent pauses. The difficulty of communicating in an alienating world is one of his key themes. His most well-known works are The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and The Homecoming.
Martin Esslin, a theatre critic, coined the term ‘Theatre of the Absurd ’ to describe the plays of the kind that Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter were producing. Along with Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov and Tom Stoppard, these playwrights dealt with the meaninglessness of human existence. Many of their works were labelled as ‘anti-plays’ because they rejected or did away with logical characterisation, plot, action and dialogues.
|Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett explores the meaninglessness of human existence through repetitive and absurd dialogues. The play opens with its two protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting under a tree for someone named Godot. The play progresses through their conversation with each other, and other characters that pass by. Vladimir and Estragon are not sure if they have waited for Godot before, or if they have been in the same place before. There is uncertainty about their motives and actions throughout the play. Finally, a man comes by and lets them know that Godot will not be coming that night. They then make the decision to leave but remain in the same spot even as the curtains go down. This ‘anti-play’ is best de-scribed by Estragon’s famous dialogue: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, no-body goes, it’s awful!”|
In the modern era, prose literature and essays continued to enjoy popularity. G.K. Chesterton (1874-1932) was a critic, essayist and short story writer. A prominent figure in society, he produced deep social and literary criticism in numerous essays. He has published his works in collected volumes, such as The Defendant, Twelve Types and The Victorian Age in Literature. As a writer of short stories, he is most famous for his Father Brown series which follows a priest who solves mysteries.
A member of the Bloomsbury Group, Giles Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) dominated the prose-scene of the 1920s. He is most known for Eminent Victorians, a collection of short biographical sketches of famous personalities of the Victorian age. The modern style of the biography was established through this work. In it, he captured the imperfections and failures of his subjects, all the while keeping an irreverent style. His other important contributions include Queen Victoria and Portraits in Miniature.
A.A. Milne composed many popular articles and essays such as Not That It Matters and If I May. Another essayist of the age was J. B. Priestley, who wrote I for One, Open House, Apes and Angels and Self-Selected Essays.
Virginia Woolf contributed with social and literary criticism, and produced works such as The Death of the Moth and The Moment. Aldous Huxley, too, has written many prominent essays that were published in collections such as Along the Road, Essays New and Old, Do What You Will and Music at Night.
We have now taken a brief survey of the modern age in English literature. It is evident that modernism represents a break from all that was conventional or established in the various literary genres. It responded to the horrors of the World Wars and the fragmented experience of twentieth century life. In doing so, modern literature opened out new forms and philosophies that would exert their influence on the coming ages.