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British Modernism

Special thanks to Eastern's own Catherine Allegretti for writing this helpful intro!

The period from 1901-1939 is often referred to as the Modernist Period. The Victorian Period ended with the death of Queen Victoria and a change in the political stability that her rule had guaranteed. Modernism responds to rapid transformations in Western society, including urbanization, the growth of industry, and World War I. It is a difficult term to define, but at its most basic, it was an avant-garde movement in literature and art that sought to break away from ordinary social values, commercialism, and the “genteel” literary tradition that preceded it. Thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Mach, and Sigmund Freud greatly influenced this movement. These men challenged traditional ways of thinking, something that defined the individualism of the Modernist movement. Modernism’s pessimism was in part the product of the devastation of World War I, which many writers experienced personally on the battlefield. Much modernist literature is actually antimodern, registering modernity as an experience of loss. The modernist artist was a critic of the art that came before him/her as well as the culture of which he/she was a part. At the heart of modernist art was the belief that the previously sustaining elements of human life, like religious beliefs, social mores, and artistic convictions, had been destroyed or proven false or fragile. This sense of fragmentation led to a literature built out of fragments of myth, history, personal experience, or earlier art.


Although World War I was the largest influence on many poets during the time, some poets found success much earlier in the period. Thomas Hardy and A.E. Housman are two examples of this. Both wrote several war poems, with Hardy capturing the viewpoint and language of soldiers as he detailed the horror of both the Boer Wars and eventually World War I. An example of this is “The Man He Killed” (1902), a poem that shows two men in battle, with one feeling regretful about having to shoot the other. In this poem Hardy comments on the way war can turn potential friends into enemies. Housman had already found success in writing with his publication of A Shropshire Lad (1896), a collection of 63 poems that captured a deep level of emotional vulnerability. After World War I, he began writing another collection of poems to commemorate those who had died in war.


World War I is significant because it was the first modern war. It also created social, political, and economic problems for Great Britain as they incurred heavy debts, and the United States began emerging as a new national power. World War I marked the beginning of a decline in Great Britain’s global status. The poetry of the time is representative of that and shows the deep pessimism of this post-war nation.

The War Poets

World War I inspired a lot of poetry both from soldiers on the battlefield describing their experiences and war supporters at home, writing enthusiastically about Great Britain’s efforts. A number of these poets, including Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, and Rupert Brooke, died on the battlefield. Brooke’s sonnet, “The Soldier” (1914), is a memoir of a deceased soldier. This poem, as well as several written by these soldier poets, reflected on the death and accomplishments of those fighting in war. For those who survived the battlefield like Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Guerney, and Robert Graves, their experiences had a direct impact on their poetry. Often in their later works, they would compare the horrors of war with the peaceful landscape of England they’d always known.


Modernist writing is highly self-reflexive and poems written during this time were much shorter and relied more heavily on free verse. Additionally, many poets used the theory of imagism in their writing, which involved concise language and sought to capture an image.

Among the English poets of the Modern Period, two of the most prolific were not English-born writers. T.S. Eliot was an American-born British poet who is often considered one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. His poems enforced what he felt was a necessary shift away from the dreaminess of Romanticism. Eliot’s ability to be classified as both an American and British poet shows the internationalism that characterizes modernism. There was no longer a need to limit writers to one nationality. One of his first well-known works was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915). This poem is an internal monologue and is narrated using a stream of consciousness. This technique is an attempt to provide readers with a written account of a narrator’s thoughts and feelings. Another of his famous poems is The Waste Land (1922). More on Eliot can be found in the American literature intros.

Irish writer W.B. Yeats was another significant figure in Modernist poetry. Although Yeats’ initial poetry focused on Celtic values and the Irish past, tension surrounding the Irish revolutionaries caused Yeats to write more politically. His publication of Easter (1916) showed this change in attitude. This poem was written as a response to the Easter Rebellion, when thousands of Irish Republicans were killed for their support of an Ireland independent of Great Britain. In this poem, he describes the rebels’ hearts as immovable like rock and although he celebrates heroes, he also chastises the stubbornness of the leaders of the rebellion. Perhaps his greatest collection of poems is The Tower (1928), which contained famous poems like “Leda and the Swan,” “Among School Children,” and “Sailing to Byzantium”. The latter showed Yeats’ unwillingness to accept his old age and his rejection of society’s established roles for the elderly.

Aside from these two poets, W.H. Auden also reached prominence during the Modernist period. He is famous for writing poetry on a variety of subjects like love, politics, culture, psychology, and religion. His poems “Funeral Blues” (1936) and “September 1, 1939” (1939) each relate to one of these themes. The latter of these poems mirrors Yeats’ poem Easter and focuses on the start of World War II. Like Yeats he discusses the historical failures of people involved in the conflict, but looks ahead to potential reconciliation in the future. His poem “Funeral Blues” has an unknown narrator lamenting the death of someone close to him. He asks for complete silence while he mourns.


Fiction during this time shifted from the focus of man in his social circle to man as an isolated individual. This change emphasized the thought processes and unconscious impulses of man. Although this became an emerging trend, there were still writers who adhered to the traditional themes of social class. One writer who encompassed both Victorian and Modernist ideals was E.M. Forster. While many of his works discussed class and hierarchy in social status, he also displayed an interest in individual values. His two most well known works are A Room with A View (1908) and A Passage to India (1924). A Room with A View tells the story of a romance between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson. While Lucy feels obligated by social class to marry her wealthy fiancé Cecil, in the end she is unable to deny the chemistry with George and the signs that they are destined to be together. Forster’s A Passage to India revolves around the lives of four characters: Dr. Aziz, Mr. Cyril Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Miss Adela. During a trip to the Marabar Caves in India, Adela believes Dr. Aziz has assaulted her. The trial that ensues exposes the race relations of the time and the Indian independence movement that occurred during the 1920s.

D.H. Lawrence’s novels focused on relationships between classes. His novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) is one of his most famous and controversial and discusses a relationship between a working class man and an upper class woman. Lady Chatterley’s husband, Clifford Chatterley, has been paralyzed from the waist down. That, combined with his emotional distance, leads Lady Chatterley to have an affair with the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. This affair helps Lady Chatterley realize that love requires both the mind and body to be successful.

James Joyce found success with his novel Ulysses (1922). Ulysses is divided into 18 chapters, each with themes and characters relating to the Odyssey. The novel revolves around Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom who represent Telemachus, Odysseus, and Penelope. Similar to Odysseus’ journey, Leopold is seen as the hero as he travels through Dublin. This novel’s fragmented and nonlinear plot was a common feature of fiction during the Modernist period. Joyce’s novel also makes reference to Greek and Roman mythology, another characteristic of Modernist writers.

Although women had broken into the literary arena, men still dominated the writing during this time. One exception to this was the novelist Virginia Woolf. Woolf wrote primarily about upper-middle-class women and their responsibilities. Her famous works include, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and A Room of One’s Own (1929). Her novel Mrs. Dalloway is told in a stream of consciousness, and has two separate storylines. One is Clarissa Dalloway’s, who is preparing for her party and reflecting on her youth and her choice for a husband. The other narrative is about Septimus Smith, a World War I veteran suffering from hallucinations about the war. This novel signaled a move toward radical thinking because of the undertones of homosexuality between Clarissa and a childhood friend, Sally. In A Room of One’s Own Woolf explores the role of women in fiction and addresses the limitations that women face when writing. In one section of the novel, Woolf creates a sister for Shakespeare to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare’s gifts would have been denied the same opportunities and success.

Short Stories

Katherine Mansfield is considered one of the most prominent short story writers during the Modernist period. Mansfield wrote on a number of topics including social class, familial relationships, and the social consequences that come from war. Her short story “The Doll’s House” (1922) examines how class affects social relationships between children. When the Burnell children are given a dollhouse, the eldest refuses to let a much poorer family see it. When the youngest of the Burnells does not follow this classist behavior, she is rebuked. Mansfield uses child protagonists and themes of class in many of her other short stories including “The Garden Party” (1922) and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” (1922).

Science Fiction

Following the lead of Victorian period writers like H.G. Wells, writer Aldous Huxley wrote his dystopian novel, Brave New World (1931), during the Modernist period. The novel is set in a futuristic London where people are discouraged from thinking freely and are instead taught according to their role in a caste system. Huxley also anticipates developments in reproductive technology and subconscious education.

Stay Tuned for more from these Novelists

Several authors writing in the modernist period would continue to write well into the post-modernist period. Two examples of this are Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Evelyn Waugh is known for his satirical works; Brideshead Revisted (1945) is one of his more famous. This novel looks at the appeal of the wealthier society as Charles meets upper class citizens during his time at Oxford University. Waugh, a convert to the Catholic faith, also incorporates Catholicism into his novel and leaves the protagonist questioning the religion several times throughout the story. Graham Greene’s novels encompass thriller and crime story techniques and often explored serious social and moral issues. His novel Brighton Rock (1938) follows the teenage sociopath, Pinkie, and his murder of someone who threatened his gang. The story follows his attempts to escape the authorities and cover up his crime.


During a period where novels maintained a high level of popularity, George Bernard Shaw still found success in his playwriting. His controversial ideals were shown in many of his works and would influence writers in later years. His play Pygmalion (1912) has been adapted and performed several times. The play centers on attempts by Professor Henry Higgins to train a lower class girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass as a duchess. This play was a modern take on Greek and Roman mythology.

Many of these authors would continue to write for several decades; however, World War II would prove to be a influence in future literature. This war had a profound impact on Great Britain’s status as a global power and literature of the time reflected that.


For this introduction I consulted: Robert Barnard’s A Short History of English Literature, Stephen Coote’s The Penguin Short History of English Literature, Andrew Sanders’ The Short Oxford History of English Literature.