Modernist Literature

and welcome to yet another session of the NPTEL course in the History of English
Language and Literature. In today’s session taking off from the dramatic rejection of
tradition of art initiated by Marcel Duchamp, we continue
looking at Modernist Literature and how this rejection of tradition was getting effected
in many of these writings. Modernist literature was not about what we
see it was rather about how one sees and how one
understands and this was explicated in the stream of consciousness technique which we
shall be taking a look at when we talk about particularly
the novel of the modernist period. In addition we notice lot of features which could
be seen as representative of the modernist period.
We notice that in the modernist period the literature was apparently away from a sense
of objectivity and because of this we find many
of the traditional elements being pushed out of
the literature of the modernist times such as we do not have an omniscient external narration
or fixed narrative points of view but we do not have any clear-cut moral positions either
so mostly in novels we begin to see this newer
forms of experimentations away from any kind of
objectivity. There is also blurring of distinction between
genres theoretically in place the principles that defined various genres such
as drama, prose, novel or poetry. They did not
hold any value from the modernist time onwards we find many writers and artist continuously
challenging these definitions of genres. So accordingly we find novels becoming more lyrical
and poetic and poems on the other hand becoming more documentary and prose like also.
So it becomes almost impossible to see what is more acceptable than something else, it
is just one seamless continuum in which one rejection
after the other of particular kinds of tradition become celebrated and also more delightful
and all together we find most of the modernist literature celebrating the fragmented forms
and the discontinuous narrative. And there is also random-seeming collage of
disparate materials but however when we look at writings of this period in detail we begin
to notice that this is not just a random collage but
there is an inherent sense of coherence which is perhaps most appropriate for talking about
the various crises that were nominating the 20th century.
For instances this is also a time to perhaps remember how later Elliot would make use of
his idea of objective are co-relative while bringing
together the seemingly different things but to
talk about one central objective or one central emotion. The literature was getting more
reflexive so we find poems plays and novels raising issues concerning their own nature,
status and role and not always talking about something external and unconcerning their
own forms of art. There is a dominant role played by a fierce
form of asceticism. We do not find any overelaborate art forms in the 20th century,
in fact the elaborate art forms of the 19th century
were beginning to be seen as deeply offensive and repulsive. We find this getting reflected
in the field of architecture as well. There are
these dictums which become the raining forces of
the day such as decoration is a crime, less is more or a house is a machine for living
in. So modernist architecture also becomes a reflection
of most of these newer tendencies and accordingly we find a certain kind of minimalism
getting practiced in literature as well and all of these newer tendencies could be captured
in one single term avant-garde which means ahead of time and beyond historical limitations.
We find that many of these writers and many of these forms of writing were avant-garde
in the sense that they challenge the status quo
and also challenge the middle class value system
which was in place until the Victorian period. This also useful time to remember that the
Victorian period was characterized by a particular value system about which most of them
were very prudish and also there were taboo subjects, there was a particular temperament
which was enjoyed a certain kind of balance, all of this seem to go away from the beginning
of the 20th century onwards. Though there is a way in which a greater move
towards democratization of art and literature was beginning to be practiced from that 19th
century onwards, in the modernist period we find that there is a dramatic rejection of
this tendency as well and as a result there are two different kinds of art available there is
a distinction between high and low art and we find this
getting further cemented in the period of high modernism dominated by Elliot, Pound
and Joyce, keeping in mind the way in which Marcel
Duchamp’s Fountain challenged the conventional sensibilities. Let us take a look at how the literature of
the period was challenging the convention understanding and the convention of critical
principals. We find the number of works being produced in the modernist times which did
not take the audience into consideration. The
attitude of the artist in these times being radically different from that of the previous
times. We find many writers such as Elliot and James
Joyce producing works which are difficult to
read and understand and there is no longer any care being placed to ensure that the work
should be accessible to the reading public. In fact we find a detachment or an indifference
towards the readers from the side of the author and literature in that sense gets dedicated
to experimentation and innovation and the role of the reader and role of the critic
becomes quite minimal over here. The dictum seems to
be make it new, make it different and make it difficult.
And we find that some of the works such as The Wasteland and Ulysses they become almost
inaccessible to the reader that they always have to be accompanied with certain set of
sources, notes, annotations, etc. from the author or from any other informed critic. And this is also the time when an entire series
of secondary material publishing industry also
begin to dominate the literary scene from the beginning of the 20th century onwards,
and also this very idea of having some kind of an aid
to understand a text was not very popular until
the 19th century, this is also an implication and a consequence of this dramatic rejection
of the tradition which dominated the 20th century. Even before we reach the period of high modernism
it is important to take a look at the work that was available in early 20th century,
the set of works written between 1900 and 1922
could be together club as Edwardian and Georgian Literature and this period is dominated by
two form majorly two genres fiction and poetry. During this early modernist phase we find
certain set of writers being more dominant than the
other and accordingly we also find two major genres dominating the literacy. In fiction
we have a set of writers such as Rudyard Kipling,
E M Forster, H G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton and Thomas Hardy, these writers
and the few others which will come back to take a look at when we talk about the modernist
novel. However in poetry the variety was very impressive
and fascinating it was also becoming the source of a more complex kind of a discussion.
In poetry we find that it is very difficult to
identify particular writers and particular followers of a movement but rather we begin
by identifying the major movements which were
dominating the early 20th century in terms of
the poetic art. There was a prominence of the Decadence Movement
which was influencing most of the early 20th century poets it was followed by
the Symbolist Movement there was also two kinds of poet becomes almost definitional
of the age Edwardian poetry and Georgian poetry and a growing group of people were becoming
very significant in laying the foundations of
modernist poetry known as the Bloomsbury group, there was also the Kailyard School from
the Scottish writers. Taking a more focused look at the Edwardian
and Georgian Poetry, it would be useful to highlight that it was based on the names of
the ruling monarchs King Edward who rule from 1901 till 1910 and King George who ruled from
1910 till 1936 and these set of poets together known as the Edwardian and Georgian Poetry
for sake of convenience and the literary historical chronology we find them getting
located between Swinburne and the Pound-Eliot revolution.
They could also be seen as the poets who bridge the gap between the late Victorian period
and the high modernist period, these set of poets they had much skill and originality
and had a lot of interest in technical experiment
but however we do not find them beginning to
experiment but clearly since they were writing soon after Victorian period they were more
keen on trying to establish certain conventions which were going out of their way and we find
them being quite timid in that sense and they also look more conventional when we look at
them from the contemporary point of view. They did not want to challenge or defy any
conventions, they were more content to delimit or
modify the poetic inheritance of the 19th century, we do not find them consciously seeking
out for any radically new approach either. Let us first take a look at some of the common
themes which could be seen as characteristics to this kind of poetry named as Georgian and
Edwardian poetry, all of these writers were rooted in local and regional context and they
also spoke about rural themes as a sense of nostalgia that we find in their proms, and
there is also a dominance of agrarian imagery though this was a period of rapid mechanization
and urbanization and we also find a detailed portray of landscapes especially of the country
side. The poetry is heavily sentimental and here
we see a continuation of the Victorian sensibilities as well and there is a tendency to speak realistically
about everyday life and not to linger on with philosophical discussion about the various
crises which were dominating the 20th century.
And alongside we also find some reflections of the 20th century crises as well we find
some amount of war poetry finding its way into
this collection and there is also a lot of discussion
about British Empire and the colonial expansion which was also beginning to fade from the
beginning of the 20th century. Let us first take a look at the collection
of Edwardian poetry, a very significant fact we
foregrounded at this point is that the term Edwardian poetry and this form of classification
was not found in the early 20th century rather it is a more recent phenomenon with Kenneth
Millard publishing a volume titled Edwardian Poetry in 1991, so it is a very recent
phenomenon to club together a set of poets, give them the common term Edwardian poetry.
The set of poets were included in this collection are Housman, Henry Newbolt, John
Masefield, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, John Davidson and Rupert Brooke. Not all of
these writers are very famous in the contemporary nor were they extremely popular during
their lifetime but however it is important for a sense of a continued and coherent literary
history to mention all of these works in continuum. All of these writers together they were concern
with the fast disappearing values of Old England in the age of modernization so as
noted earlier it is dominated by a sense of nostalgia. If you take a look at the work of Masefield,
he was one of the prominent poets of the Edwardian and the Georgian period and that
is in some of these writers it is quite difficult to
classify them as well, Masefield was more noted for being the poet laureate for about
37 years. He was in fact it is considered by
many historians that he was grossly overestimated by
his readers and he did enjoy a lot of popularity officially and other wise and he was mainly
influenced by the writings and the works of Kipling.
Thomas Hardy who is also one of the prominent novelists of the 20th century, he wrote
mostly war poetry his work such as Drummer Hodge, Channel Firing, The Going of the
Battery and The Man He Killed were popular even during his own lifetime. We find him
approaching war with a very different sense of understanding, for him war was only an
exercise in both brutality and stupidity and in his poems we find him meditating on the
soldiers, their families and the beloveds and not about the kind of material success
that it would give to particular nations or particular
rulers. Rupert Brooke is perhaps a best known among
these poets his also published as a Georgian poet in some of the earlier anthologies, he
was the most important and the prominent one among the war poets about whom we shall be
taking a look at even later. His most important work The Soldier a poem, it was read on the
Easter Sunday of 1915 across Britain. In his work we find certain kind of an idealism
of war which begins to go away as the century progresses and he was one them in the very
few who continued to be fascinated with the idea of fighting for the nation and in his work
we find that there is a bizarre combination of
opposites and a contrasting elements for example in the same poem we find him talking about
two aspects such as Love and Nausea, fortunately he died very young at the age of 27 and
Yeats identified him as the handsomest young man in England. If you could read from the poem The Soldier
which is oft anthologized and much quoted even
the contemporary. If I should die, think only this of me, that there is some corner of a
foreign field that is forever England. There shall
be in that rich earth a richer dust concealed, a dust
whom England bore, shaped, made aware, gave, once her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
a body of England’s breathing English air,
washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. After his death this poem was considered very
touching and very moving it also aroused a lot
of popular sentiments against wars and many of these young British men losing their lives
in these pointless wars. In Georgian Poetry also we find a sense of
nostalgia dominating when we talk about Georgian Poetry usually it is about a set
of poems who were together anthologized in the
series of five volumes edited by Howard Marsh and this series appeared from 1912 till 1922
as five different books, they enjoyed much popularity during the early 20th century though
its critical genius was much a they continued
to be identified among the foremost writers of the early 20th century.
We find that most of the writers in this volume they were all true to life and they did not
resolve to any form of ornamentation or exaggeration, their poetry was extremely
sentimental. We also find the continuation of some of the characteristics of the previous
age such as the seventeenth century and also a
sense of pride in the Englishness of the past which
could also be identified as the nationalist pride but in the 20th century it is again
useful to remember all of these things were going out
of fashion so Georgian and the Edwardian poetry together they were also seen as some kind
of a poetry from the past. But Georgian poetry continues to be significant
for one thing because it was one of the rare responses to the first moments of global migrations
and cosmopolitanisms and these set of poets they also lamented the fact that England
was moving towards a rapid urbanized economy and it one did not have much time
to look at the glorious past or to engage with the
countryside or the agrarian economy. And what also made this distinct in the globalized
period of the early 20th century was that there was much emphasis on the local and the
regional and they were in that sense also seen
as rural poets as against a dominating urbanization and the more popular ones among the
Georgian poets were John Masefield, Walter de la Mare, W H Davis and Rupert Brooke, who
as we mentioned were anthologized in both Georgian and Edwardian poetry.
The other important members Wilford Gibson, James Stephens and Ralph Hodgson are now
more forgotten figures. The one criticism which is more dominant against Georgian poetry
is that they do no sketch the historical or economic
conditions of the time so we do not find much of a reflection of the sociopolitical
or the religious conditions of the those times and
nevertheless the popularity ensured that the people were also longing for some kind of
a nostalgic depiction of the English
In this context it is also important to foreground poetry bookshop which was associated with
Harold Monro and this was bookshop in the Bloomsbury district and they also ensured
the availability and publication of many such
important text of the early 20th century. Taking closer look at the Georgian poets W
H Davies authored Cowslips and Larks and he was considered far more meditative than other
Georgian poets. Walter de la Mare retained a
kind of romantic sentimentality in his works and he incased with the themes of childhood,
death and the supernatural, this is particularly evident in his poem The Listeners. Rudyard
Kipling who had an Indian connection authored the poem Gunga Din in which he celebrates
Indian’s courage and some of his other works also talk about the way in which the east
and the west can encounter for example the Ballad
of the East and West has this oft coated line, East is East and West is West and never the
twain shall meet. Kipling also wrote some war
poems such as Soldier Soldier, Danny Deever and Young British Soldier.
Charlette Mew instantly was the only woman poet among the Edwardian and the Georgian
Poets to find her way into this canon, her important poem The Farmer’s Bride was also
published by Harold Monro who was responsible and popularizing most of the early poetry
of 20th century and in this poem what made it
significant was the fact that it echoes Jude the
Obscure, though this poetry was extremely popular in the early 20th century they were
severely criticized by Pound and Eliot later when they became the leaders of high modernism
in the early 20th century. Now it is time for us to take a look at some
of the prominent movements of this period, the
first one being the Decadence Movement, the Decadence Movement was a movement in the
field of art which prioritized experience over everything else, they follow the aesthetic
ideology of excess and artificiality. This significantly was quite opposed to the
idea of aestheticism, one should not make the
mistake of using aestheticism and decadence synonymously because decadence was mostly
a pejorative term used by critics to disparage
the aestheticism of France and the symbolism of
the Pre-Raphaelites. Here we also note that some of the terms which were seemingly
synonymous did not really have the same kind of import in the 20th century. Scottish Kailyard School was influential movement
which range from the 1880s to the 1890s though it was at the turn of the century the
end of the 19th century, we find a lasting influence
of the Kailyard School even in the 20th century. The important writers who belong to this
group were three Edinburgh University writers J M Barrie who is now most famous for his
character Peter Pan, Rev John Watson and S R Crockett.
Kailyard means a kitchen garden in the Scottish tongue, so keeping in tune with term what
they tried to capture was the Scottish rural life through different anecdotes and episodes
and we also find these writers exhibiting a strange
kind of stoicism in the phase of poverty and also exhibiting a kind of nostalgia for the
countryside. They also had a high degree of piety which
made them quite distinct and different from the
other writers of the modernist period, however again one of the criticism against them was
that they did not engage with any real problems and issues though the end of the 19th century
and earlier 20th century was completed ridden by various sociopolitical issues. Scottish
Kailyard School was extremely popular for a while and this is also another instance
where we find Scotland and England to complementing
each other in terms of their literary output. The Symbolist Movement we can say was inaugurated
by Arthur Symons whose epoch making work The Symbolist Movement in Literature
was published in 1899. His influence was quite widespread it could be said that
it was not a movement limited to Britain but it was
also found in France, Russia and Belgium, so in that sense we can even say that as a
movement and as an idea it had varying kind of origin. Charles Baudelaire was one of the leading
figures of the Symbolist Movement, his Flowers of
Evil published in 1857 became extremely influential in Britain though Baudelaire was a
French Poet and Baudelaire in turn was influenced majorly by the American poet Edgar Allan
Poe. Here we find a way in which different nations and different languages and literatures
informing each other and also influencing various schools of thought.
Here as we pointed in the introductory session, it is no longer limited to particular
communities and particular nationalities but about an overarching influence that cuts across
different nations. The other important figures were Stephane Mallarne and Paul Verlaine.
Jean Moreas was the one who actually invented the
term Symbolism in order to distinguish the symbolist from the decadents.
Here again it is important to highlight that decadents was a term which many of the artist
were not very comfortable with so they used to stay away from the term decadents and they
use other terms such as aestheticism or symbolism depending upon what kind of art one was
Moreas Symbolist Manifesto of 1886 in that sense could be seen as a foundational
work in the emergence of the Symbolist Movement. Overall one can see a form of reaction being
generated against naturalism and realism through the symbolist movement. What made
them distinct from the other poets was their use
of private symbols in poetry and most of these symbols were drawn from religious or even
from esoteric traditions and that since they also become quieter representative of the
modernist portray because most of these symbols were not accessible to a common reader
and since some cases we also find another poet or the artist themselves inventing these
terms which remained very private and very esoteric. In the early 20th century, a particular group
named Bloomsbury group became very influential in reshaping the ideals of literature,
arts and even the conventions of the society. This was a privilege coterie of English writers
who met regularly in the Bloomsbury district of London in the early 20th century, the most
prominent names of these set of people include Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Roger
Fry, J M Kaynes and Lytton Strachey. As the names suggest we also realize that
they were not in the same field they were scientist,
artist, literary writers and economists and painters who all decided to come together
to challenge the conventions of the contemporary
period. There was one thing that tied them together it was their intolerance of the Victorian
prudishness and we also find them together trying to redefine the notions of sexual morality
by going against most of the moral convention of those times. As we begin to wrap up this lecture let us
comeback again to this term which became quite definitional and representative of the modernist
period, Avant garde and it was this term which could capture the diverse ways in which
the age was beginning to manifest itself and while talking about this term Avant-garde
it is again useful to remember that this term was
came quite handy not just in talking about literature but in all other forms of art and
all other forms of new techniques which were being devised.
It could also be used to talk about new sensibility in the context of war, high imperialism and
the new ideas and philosophy and human psychology and as a age progressed and as many of
the experimental and innovative work were dominating art, literature, culture and politics
we also find it became the hallmark of modernism
as well. Accordingly we also find many using this term
Avant garde to even talk about the radical departures in view about God, religious doctrine
and about sexuality in general and since this term continued to push the boundaries of status
quo and challenged the mainstream cultural values, the modernist literature throughout
remained extremely powerful and extremely radical so that it could never be contained
within any kind of conventional ideals or conventional definitions.
So with this understanding we also get ready to take a look at the other varying form of
genres and other varying form of writings in the coming sessions and this is all we
got for today’s lecture. Thank you for listening
and I look forward to seeing you in the coming sessions.

4 Replies to “Modernist Literature

  1. Mam what can i ask a question?
    I am a student of M.A ENGLISH (CBLU UNIVERSITY)BHIWANI ,HR And interested in history of english literature,so which book you prefer me for best study.

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