Discuss the origins and development of Modernism. How is it represented in 20th century British literature and culture?

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Perhaps the most important artistic movement of the twentieth century, modernism developed from some smaller movements that experimented with new forms designed to innovate, startle, and even shock.

One of these movements was imagism with its striking and descriptive words used to create images. Everyday speech, precise words, free verse rather than standard meter, stanza form, and rhyme were used to communicate its message in poetry. With imagism, the theme was suggested rather than being stated directly. Another movement was Dadaism, characterized by a fragmentation of language. Dadaists, who followed the cubists, perceived the world as a meaningless jumble. Subjects written about were often ones previously never discussed, and attention was given to new psychological insights. Influenced by the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and William James, twentieth-century writers often wrote in the stream of consciousness technique, a technique imitative of the mind that leaps from one thought to another in a series of associations in an attempt to duplicate the workings of their minds.

Modernism rejected Romanticism. However, despite this rejection, there is a strain of Romanticism that remains in the British poetry of the twentieth century. For instance, the poems about World War I that were written by Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke still reflect Romantic longings for peace and the lovely British countryside. After the war, some of the poets expressed the attitudes of "the lost generation." Foremost among these poets was T.S. Eliot, whose long monologue "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a masterpiece of stream of consciousness. The poem also stands as a what one critic calls "a monument to the bitterness and despair of the 'lost generation.'"

Later, in the 1930s and the 1940s, writers displayed a concern with political and social issues. While modernist poets did not abandon subtle symbolism and imagery, they would, at times, make direct statements of social protest. For instance, W.H. Auden wrote "September 1, 1939" as a comment upon World War I.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.

Still, some poets could not contain exuberance and wild brilliance in their poetry. The Welshman Dylan Thomas wrote poetry that was most notable for its musicality, as in poems such as "Fern Hill."

In 1922 the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses was a monumental moment for modernism. Joyce uses the stream of consciousness technique in his controversial novel. The events of one day in the life of three Dubliners is told using this method. Imitative of the workings of the mind, the narrative contains fragments of thought. Later, other modernist authors employed fragmented narratives that were not in chronological order.

Although the specific movements of modernism were not lasting, they all had some commonalities. For one thing, each movement sought to be different, experimenting with new forms. Sometimes they even meant to shock, or at least startle, audiences. Often they meant to suggest a message rather than stating it directly.

Here, then, are the main features of Modernism:

  1. The use of images as symbols.
  2. The presentation of human experiences in fragments (stream of consciousness). Also, elements of Dadaism.
  3. The use of previously taboo subjects.
  4. Close attention to new psychological aspects and insights.
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Modernism is one of those terms that is attached to a present moment in history, but becomes misleading and clumsy as time (and literature) moves on.  At the time of its naming, it referred to a departure from artificial constructions and imaginative narrative structures as seen in Romanticism, Victorianism, and 19th century technology.  In literature it was an embrace of the real world and its dramas and social states – Ibsen’s dramas are an excellent model for domestic modernism.  In English literature, it is represented by Dickens, who painted pictures of British life much less picturesque than earlier novelists – compare Oliver Twist’s mise-en-scene in contrast to Bronte’s.  In poetry, modernism released poetry from rhyme and meter, giving us Eliot’s The Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  The period, traditionally lasting until some time between the World Wars, was followed by what is now called post-modernism, including Futurism/Dada/Surrealism, etc.

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