Modernism in English Literature: Rise,Development and the Main Features of Literary Modernism in English Literature

Modernity is a period in human history, roughly from the enlightenment (late 18th century and early 19th century) marked by the division of the religious and the secular, the increasing mechanization of the world, the rise of industrial capitalism, the increased role of the state, the increased regulation of time and space, and the discourses of emancipation of women, working classes etc. 

It may be taken to refer to a Euro- American trend in literature of 1920‘s with the works of James Joyce, T.S.Eliot, Hilda Doolittle, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound. The literature of the time was influenced by a number of movements and theories such as: Expressionism, Impressionism, Imagism, Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism or Vorticism. Expressionism first came into prominence around German artists under the influence of Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Munch. It believes in using violent colours and dynamic movements to capture moods. Modern dramatist Bertolt Brecht was influenced by expressionism.
Wyndham Lewis adapted its methods in Britain and created a new movement called Vorticism or Futurism which emphasized on ―vibrant energy. It exults aggressive action, a feverish insomnia the racer‟s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap….. the beauty of speed.” Ezra Pound wrote: “the image is a vortex through which ideas rush through.” The movement used modernism‘s fascination with technology and energy. The term Impressionism might have been derived from Claude Monet‘s painting Impression. The emphasis of this movement was on the impression of the object rather the object itself. For this purpose, the artists used light very effectively. 

Imagism emphasized that the poet remove himself and herself from the object and to deliver it  as objectively as possible. The images should capture emotions and events in “an instant of time”. Ezra Pound, T.E. Hume, E.A. Robinson, Ford, Amy Lowell, Hilda Doolittle and F.S. Flint were the poets who formulated this aesthetic. Surrealism was popularized by Salvador Dali which attempted to capture the mind‘s deepest and most unconscious aspect in painting. In literature, automatic writing and stream of
consciousness came closest to being influenced by this kind of approach. The surrealists saw the unconscious as source of creative energy. Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, David Gascoyne, George Barker, William Borough and Martin Amis were influenced by Surrealism. The interplay of theories and movements has brought in complexities into modern literature.
The Modern age in literature is grounded in achievement, amazing in their potential both for emancipation and destruction: atomic energy, space exploration, genetic and biomedical engineering and telecommunications. Technological advances in these areas can either save mankind and the universe or destroy it. The rapid urbanization has created the environmental problems. The race to colonize space, the discovery of DNA standing at par with the discovery of the radio waves, the theory of relativity have shattered the old certainties and have posed threats to the new ideas. The economic depression of 1930s proved to be a huge blow to the already suffering poor. The lack of job and the devaluation of money made life exceptionally tough. Many large business houses went bankrupt with the stock exchange crashes.

Wars significantly altered political and social relations. They brought out the truth that man is perfectly capable of destroying what he has built, that cruelty is an integral feature of human psychology, that war brings in suffering whatever the reason might be, and that war may be about heroism as has been shown by W. B. Yeats in his An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. The literature of the two World-Wars was an attempt to negotiate the trauma of such extensive suffering and the theme of power and cruelty. The Wars also revealed the fragile nature of human existence. T. S. Eliot refers to the very limited knowledge of human beings and the fragmented nature of human memory, identity, desire and existence itself in his The Wasteland: “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.

Twentieth century literature is the literature of hopelessness, and the fallibility of mankind in the face of war. Poets and artists sought to escape the harsh realities of suffering, destruction and cruelty by retreating into the self which is evident in the stream of consciousness technique of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. George Orwell‘s socialist sympathies made him deeply suspicious of capitalist modernity which he showcased by his non fictional works. His Animal Firm is an allegory on socialism. His 1984 is a bleaker picture of society in which the popular slogans of the political part are: ―War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength”. 

James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a kind of epiphany (revelation) of the consciousness. His Ulysses is a tale about identity, aesthetics and faith. The Campus Novels of Kingsley Amis, Tom Sharpe and David Lodge deal with university life; it‘s the question of research, funding, politics of contemporary literary theory and feminism. The Popular Novels of the twentieth century are thrillers, airport or train readings and plain entertainment that generated profits, celebrities and social criticism. Fashion, shopping and consumerism, tourism and travel, partying and socializing, crime and horror are the commonest themes of these novels.

The devastating consequences of the World-Wars carried in the themes like trenches, wounds and death. The volume of modern poetry is: What a Lovely War! British Soldier‟s Songs (1990). Sassoon Satirizes hypocrisy of the authority:

―The Bishop tells us: When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they‘ll have fought
‗In a just cause; they led the last attack
‗On anti-Christ; their comrades‘ blood has bought
‗New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged death and dared him face to face;
‗We‘re none of us the same‘ the boys reply.
For George lost both his legs; and Bill‘s stone blind;
‗Poor Jim‘s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‗And Bert‘s gone syphilitic: you‘ll not find;

‗A chap who‘s served that hasn‘t found some change.
‗And the Bishop said: ―The ways of God are strange!‖
(Siegfried Sassoon)
Ezra Pound nurtured several poets- one of them is T.S. Eliot. Pound edited Eliot‘s The Wasteland and was at the fore front of major literary movements and development like Vorticism and Imagism. He was also associated with Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Hilda Doolittle first in London and then in Paris. He has an obsession with accurate language, minimalism and sharp imagery:
―See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
(Personae, 1909)
He assimilated the ancients and the non-European cultures in English poetry, Eliot recognized this and described him as being both “objectionably modern” and “objectionably antiquarian”. He was an advocate of spare imagery and free verse:

―The apparitions of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.
                                          (In a Station of the Metro)
W.B.Yeats is surely Ireland‘s great poet who was influenced by the French symbolists and adapted from Celtic mythology and various mystic traditions. He was a deeply political poet and was engaged with Ireland‘s struggle with England. His love poetry has been far more popular. The mystic vision fuses present and past and suggests a harmony and unity that is truly organic:
―O chestnut trees! Great-rooted blossomer
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?‖
(Among School Children)

T.S.Eliot, the most complex poet of the twentieth century selected the city as the 'topos‘ or the setting of his The Love song Alfred Prufrock” where there is the sense of ennui as the city, its people and the very character seem to be in coma. There is a breakdown of communication between people. Meanings of words and language are being constantly questioned. The characters of the poem are together and yet they are separate which conveys the modernist theme of urban alienation. The man in the poem wants to convey something to the woman in the poem but she does not seem to understand. Time is non-linear and space is surreal in the poem. Characters like Prufrock are many in Eliot poems such as Gerontion, Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday. The characters are portraits of failure. The Wasteland is an unparalleled work in modern poetry in the form of fragments, and is meant to indicate how human knowledge is limited and incomplete:
―Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images,
The poem explores the collapse of contemporary civilizations. Sexuality is meaningless, religion has failed, technology and science are used in wars to kill people. In a sense the poem is an apocalypse- as civilization fall, cities corrupt and ghost wail. There is, however, a hope for the future, symbolized in the prophecy of rain in the poem.
George Barnard Shaw, the first major playwright of the modern period published his Quintessence of Ibsenism in 1891and popularized Ibsen in England. His Arms and the Man (1894) focused on war as a theme, Candida looked at marriage and love, Major Barbara (1905) is an exploration of ethics in Christianity, Pygmalion (1914) is a story of the English language and The Apple Cart (1929) is a play that surveys the multiple political philosophies of the time.
T.S. Eliot‘s verse play Murder in the Cathedral (1935) invokes the past to comment on the present, a play about the slow erosion of Christian ideas and ideals by fascism and Nazism. Christopher Fry‘s period piece The Lady‟s Not For goers with its very contemporary characters including a war-weary soldier, Thomas Mendip who is tired of life and situation. J.M. Synge‘s Playboy of the Western World created a riot on its opening night in Dublin in 1907. Sean O‘Casey showcases the Unionism and nationalism that was his enduring theme in The Shadow of a Gunman (1923). He also writes a play glorifying socialism, The Star Turns Red (1940). 

The Angry Young Men were the writers from the working class who were unhappy at the cultural and class-bound elitism of England, the social inequalities and what they perceived as the injustice of the state. The group includes dramatists like John Osborne and Harold Pinter, poets like Philip Larkin and John Wain, and novelists like Kingsley Amis, John Wain, John Braine and Allan Sillitoe. As a consequence of all these factors, literature in modern times has become a complex world filled with tension, anxiety and doubt. Doubt, Question, and Protest, have become the watch-words of the modern period.