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Today, English is one of the most widely spoken ‌and functional languages in the world. The reason is its simplicity. So, what is the modern period in English literature? Here, in this post, we will try to understand it further.

English literature consists of written works produced in the English language by inhabitants of the British Isles, including Ireland, from the 7th century to the present day. It is divided into the following periods, marked by similar themes and contexts:

  • The Old English period,
  • The Early Middle English period,
  • The later Middle English and early Renaissance periods
  • The Renaissance period
  • The Restoration
  • The 18th Century
  • The Romantic Period
  • The Victorian Era
  • The Modern Period
  • The Post-Modern Period

Modernism in literature represents a rebellion against traditional norms. Writers refused to conform to established rules, seeking new ways to convey ideas and express themselves. They believed old methods couldn’t reflect the rapid social changes and the new generation emerging from them.

Today, let’s take a deep dive into modernist work. What is modernism in literature? What are the key characteristics that set it apart from other literary movements? What examples of modernism in literature reflect the movement’s qualities the best? And who can represent modernism in literature? So, let us discuss the what, when, how, and who of the modern period in English literature.

What is Modernism?

Modernism in literature began in the early 1900s and lasted until the early 1940s. Modernist writers generally rejected the straightforward storytelling and predictable poetry of the 19th century. Instead, they wrote fragmented stories, mirroring the broken state of society during and after World War I.

Many modernists used free verse and included influences from different countries and cultures in their poems. Some wrote from multiple points of view or used a “stream-of-consciousness” style. These writing techniques show how the chaotic state of society influenced their work.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are considered the mothers and fathers of modernism because they directly influenced early modernist writers.

Also, the 20th century saw huge advancements in both the natural and social sciences, with greater material wealth accumulation. However, the rise of capitalism changed the situation. Economic conditions were affected by conflicts between social and private ownership. World Wars I and II caused further chaos in society and literature. The modern period in English literature often expresses anti-war views and reflects on science and psychology, highlighting the impact of colonialism.

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Themes of Modern English Literature

These themes are the underlying characteristics and context that are common to the entire period.

  • Anxiety

The early 20th century was a period of uncertainty, chaos, and unease. The other frontiers were nonetheless marked by constant changes as well.

  • Art No Longer for Art’s Sake

In this period of literature, the idea of “art for art’s sake” was rejected in favour of “art for life’s sake.” This shifted the importance to realism, focusing on real-life issues. The contributions of writers like Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Kipling were particularly significant and memorable during this era.

  • Rise of the Working Class

Like all over the world, this period placed importance on the hitherto neglected working class. It was reflected in ‌literature as well; after all, what else is literature if not the mirror of society? The conditions of the lives of the middle class and their psychologies are very well documented, along with sharp contractions in society.

  • Psychological Undertones

New psychological research has greatly influenced modern literature. During this period, the rational view of sex relations was explored. This new era also described the rationalisation of emotional needs and sexual behaviour.

  • Reflections on Socio-Economic Changes Taking Place

The modern age of literature reflects the influence of social and economic changes. In the 20th century, modern literature highlights how rapid industrial development affected social conditions. It also explores the role of money in human relationships. Writers raised their voices against poverty and depicted the influence of Marxism on literature.

  • World Wars in the Background

The modern age of literature shows the impact of the two world wars. After the wars, depression and unemployment became widespread. This led to the creation of many anti-war books that reflected the emptiness and futility of war.

Let us now understand modern literature in detail.

The Years Between 1900-1945

The Edwardians

“If we don’t end war, war will end us.”

  • H.G. Wells

The 20th century began with both hope and apprehension, as people anticipated a new millennium. Many believed humanity was entering an unprecedented era. H.G. Wells captured this optimism in his works “Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought” (1901) and “A Modern Utopia” (1905), which expressed a belief that science and technology would transform the world. To achieve this transformation, old institutions and ideals needed to be replaced with ones that fostered human growth and liberation. The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the rise of Edward VII symbolised the start of a more open and less inhibited era.

Many Edwardian writers drew on the realistic and naturalistic traditions of the 19th century, influenced by figures like Ibsen in drama and Balzac, Turgenev, Flaubert, Zola, Eliot, and Dickens in fiction.

The most significant writing of this period, whether traditionalist or modern, was driven not by hope or apprehension but by a sense of impending doom, reflecting fears that the new century would see the collapse of an entire civilisation. As the 20th century began, Great Britain was involved in the South African War (the Boer War; 1899–1902), leading some to believe that the British Empire was destined to fall, much like the Roman Empire.

In his poems about the South African War, Thomas Hardy (whose 20th-century poetry rivalled his 19th-century novels) questioned the human cost of empire-building with a simple and sardonic tone. This style influenced many British poets throughout the century. Rudyard Kipling, who had once inspired pride in the empire, began to write about the burdens and troubles it brought in his verse and short stories.

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The Modernist revolution

“This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.”

― T.S. Eliot

From 1908 to 1914, novelists and poets entered a productive period of innovation. They tried to challenge ‌literary conventions not just of the recent past but of the entire post-Romantic era.

The spirit of Modernism—a radical and utopian movement influenced by new ideas in anthropology, psychology, philosophy, political theory, and psychoanalysis—was everywhere. This spirit was somewhat muted in the work of often anti-modern Georgian poets (1912–22), but it was more authentically expressed by the English and American poets of the Imagist Movement.

The aim was to refine the language of poetry to evoke precise descriptions and moods. To achieve this, they experimented with free or irregular verse and emphasised the image as their principal tool. Unlike ‌leisurely Georgians, the writers of this time focused on brief and economical forms.

On the other hand, the poet and playwright T.S. Eliot explored the sickness of modern civilisation in his innovative works “Prufrock and Other Observations” (1917) and “The Waste Land” (1922). He argued that modern civilisation as evidenced by the war, preferred death or a state of death-in-life to actual living. Eliot connected this to the spiritual emptiness and rootlessness of modern existence.

From World War I

“If I should die, think only this of me”

This famous, haunting line is the first line of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, which is the final sonnet in a collection entitled 1914. It continues: “That there’s some corner of a foreign field / that is forever England.” The “England” theme continues throughout the poem; it’s mentioned six times in the poem’s fourteen lines and it’s portrayed as so idyllic that the poem ends with the idea of an “English heaven,” implying that God was on the British side, not that of the opposition.

The impact of World War I on Anglo-American Modernists is well-documented. Traditionalist writers, mainly poets who had experienced the war firsthand, responded in varied ways. Rupert Brooke captured the idealism of the war’s early months (and died in service); Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney expressed the growing anger and sense of waste as the war dragged on. Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, and Edmund Blunden, among the most original war poets, conveyed the camaraderie of the trenches and addressed the broader moral issues raised by the war (with Rosenberg and Owen both killed in action).

This poetry did not gain wide recognition until the 1930s. In the aftermath of the war, a dominant tone of cynicism was set by Aldous Huxley’s satirical novel “Crome Yellow” (1921). Drawing on Lawrence and Eliot, Huxley’s novels of ideas—”Antic Hay” (1923), “Those Barren Leaves” (1925), and “Point Counter Point” (1928)—explored the fate of the individual in rootless modernity.

Virginia Woolf’s fiction—delicate and lyrically powerful—explored the limitations and transcendence of the self. Her novels “To the Lighthouse” (1927), “The Waves” (1931), and “Between the Acts” (1941) are among the most daring works of fiction of the 20th century. Woolf’s viewpoint, articulated in “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), opposed the destructive egotism of the masculine mind and promoted an alternative that she believed was not uniquely female but essential for human understanding. Her works, along with those of other female modernist writers like Katherine Mansfield and Dorothy Richardson, highlighted the importance of subjectivity, time, and history in fiction.

Late 20th-century rereadings of Modernism have recognised the central role of women writers in British Modernism. Authors like May Sinclair, Mary Butts, Rebecca West, Jean Rhys, and the American poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) made significant contributions.

“For most of ‌history, anonymous was a woman.” – Virginia Woolf.

1930s – Era of Pessimism 

“War is peace.

Freedom is slavery.

Ignorance is strength.”

  • George Orwell (1984)

World War I created a profound sense of crisis in English culture, further enhanced by the worldwide economic collapse of the late 1920s and early 1930s and the rise of fascism. Consequently, much of the writing of the 1930s was bleak and pessimistic. Even Evelyn Waugh’s sharp and amusing satire on contemporary England, “Vile Bodies” (1930), concluded with the prospect of another disastrous war.

This era saw literature struggling with the disillusionment and fragmentation brought about by these global upheavals. The tone of the period was often one of cynicism and despair, reflecting ‌widespread societal anxieties. Writers like George Orwell and W.H. Auden addressed these issues head-on, often exploring themes of totalitarianism, social injustice, and the individual’s struggle within an oppressive society.

Orwell’s works, including “Animal Farm” (1945) and “1984” (1949), although published later, were deeply influenced by the turbulent 1930s, capturing the pervasive fear of oppressive regimes. Auden’s poetry, marked by political and social commentary, similarly engaged with the crises of the time. His poem “Spain 1937” was a poignant reflection on the Spanish Civil War and its broader implications for Europe.

This period saw the intersection of literature and politics, with many writers taking clear stances on the pressing issues of their time.

To World War II – End of Era of Intellectual Creativity

The outbreak of war in 1939 marked the end of a period characterised by vibrant intellectual and creative energy, much like the onset of World War I in 1914. The war disrupted normal life: individuals were scattered, paper rationing affected the production of magazines and books, and literary expression shifted towards forms like poetry and short stories, which were more manageable for those involved in military service. It was not a time conducive to new literary beginnings, although a movement called the New Apocalypse emerged, producing anthologies (1940–45) that reflected a Neoromantic anarchist spirit.

Despite the constraints, established writers produced some of the most notable fiction of the wartime era. Works such as Evelyn Waugh’s “Put Out More Flags” (1942), Henry Green’s “Caught” (1943), James Hanley’s “No Directions” (1943), Patrick Hamilton’s “The Slaves of Solitude” (1947), and Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Heat of the Day” (1949) captured the essence of life during wartime with depth and poignancy.

In poetry, only a few new voices emerged, and tragically, all three promising poets—Alun Lewis, Sidney Keyes, and Keith Douglas—died while on active duty. Keith Douglas, renowned for his stark and detached accounts of the battlefield, was particularly noted for his potential for greatness. Alun Lewis, known for his haunting short stories depicting the lives of soldiers, also demonstrated significant literary talent.

What Next?

After World War II, literature saw a notable rise in religious themes, especially among established authors. W.H. Auden shifted from Marxist politics to embrace Christianity, evident in poems blending classical form with a relaxed vernacular. T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry infused their verse plays with Christian beliefs, reflecting a broader trend towards spiritual exploration in post-war writing.

Was it the end?

Not all critics agree that the modernist era has ended or is even nearing its conclusion. There’s no consensus that all art following modernism is post-modern. Also, post-modern work is not universally seen as distinct from modernism, with many critics viewing it as simply another phase in modern art or a form of late modernism.

Final thought

From the above details, we understand modernism is a period in literary history that began around the early 1900s and continued until the early 1940s. Modernist writers generally rebelled against clear-cut storytelling and the formulaic verse of the 19th century.

The English literature of the modern period characterised‌developments that included the rise of nation-states, the growth of science and technology, the spread of democracy and human rights, and the development of global trade and communication. One of the most significant advancements of the modern era was the Enlightenment.

So, why is modern literature important? Studying literature enhances our understanding of communication and shapes our identities and understanding of the world, both in the present and the past.

For students and educators of English literature, it is essential to understand how circumstances influence writing styles and how literature plays a vital role in bringing about a transformation in the world. The history of English literature is essential for students of English literature to understand it better, no matter which period it is‌ in. So if you really want to have a better grip on your subject, you will have to read and understand it. Therefore, for English assignment help and other English literature study help, you can always reach out to us for comprehension guidance.