History of the English literature
The basic features and characteristic features of the English literature as its chronological development. The best representatives of prose and poetry, dramatic art of different epoch and directions. Subjects of products of modern English authors.
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The critical discourse of the era was dominated by the Whig quarterly The Edinburgh Review (begun 1802), edited by Francis Jeffrey, and its Tory rivals The Quarterly Review (begun 1809) and the monthly Blackwood's Magazine (begun 1817). Though their attacks on contemporary writers could be savagely partisan, they set a notable standard of fearless and independent journalism. Similar independence was shown by Leigh Hunt, whose outspoken journalism, particularly in his Examiner (begun 1808), was of wide influence, and by William Cobbett, whose Rural Rides (collected in 1830 from his Political Register) gives a telling picture, in forceful and clear prose, of the English countryside of his day.
This was a great era of English theatre, notable for the acting of John Philip Kemble, Sarah Siddons, and, from 1814, the brilliant Edmund Kean. But it was not a great period of playwriting. The exclusive right to perform plays enjoyed by the “Royal” (or “legitimate”) theatres created a damaging split between high and low art forms. The classic repertoire continued to be played but in buildings that had grown too large for subtle staging, and, when commissioning new texts, legitimate theatres were torn between a wish to preserve the blank-verse manner of the great tradition of English tragedy and a need to reflect the more-popular modes of performance developed by their illegitimate rivals.
This problem was less acute in comedy, where prose was the norm and Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan had, in the 1770s, revived the tradition of “laughing comedy.” But despite their attack on it, sentimental comedy remained the dominant mode, persisting in the work of Richard Cumberland (The West Indian, 1771), Hannah Cowley (The Belle's Stratagem, 1780), Elizabeth Inchbald (I'll Tell You What, 1785), John O'Keeffe (Wild Oats, 1791), Frederic Reynolds (The Dramatist, 1789), George Colman the Younger (John Bull, 1803), and Thomas Morton (Speed the Plough, 1800). Sentimental drama received a fresh impetus in the 1790s from the work of the German dramatist August von Kotzebue; Inchbald translated his controversial Das Kind Der Liebe (1790) as Lovers' Vows in 1798.
By the 1780s, sentimental plays were beginning to anticipate what would become the most important dramatic form of the early 19th century: melodrama. Thomas Holcroft's Seduction (1787) and The Road to Ruin (1792) have something of the moral simplicity, tragicomic plot, and sensationalism of the “melodrames” of Guilbert de Pixerecourt; Holcroft translated the latter's Coelina (1800) as A Tale of Mystery in 1802. Using background music to intensify the emotional effect, the form appealed chiefly, but not exclusively, to the working-class audiences of the “illegitimate” theatres. Many early examples, such as Matthew Lewis's The Castle Spectre (first performance 1797) and J.R. Planche's The
Vampire (1820), were theatrical equivalents of the Gothic novel. But there were also criminal melodramas (Isaac Pocock, The Miller and His Men, 1813), patriotic melodramas (Douglas Jerrold, Black-Eyed Susan, 1829), domestic melodramas (John Howard Payne, Clari, 1823), and even industrial melodramas (John Walker, The Factory Lad, 1832). The energy and narrative force of the form would gradually help to revivify the “legitimate” serious drama, and its basic concerns would persist in the films and television of a later period.
Legitimate drama, performed at patent theatres, is best represented by the work of James Sheridan Knowles, who wrote stiffly neo-Elizabethan verse plays, both tragic and comic (Virginius, 1820; The Hunchback, 1832). The great lyric poets of the era all attempted to write tragedies of this kind, with little success. Coleridge's Osorio (1797) was produced (as Remorse) at Drury Lane in 1813, and Byron's Marino Faliero in 1821. Wordsworth's The Borderers (1797), Keats's Otho the Great (1819), and Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Cenci (1819) remained unperformed, though The Cenci has a sustained narrative tension that distinguishes it from the general Romantic tendency to subordinate action to character and produce “closet dramas” (for reading) rather than theatrical texts. The Victorian poet Robert Browning would spend much of his early career writing verse plays for the legitimate theatre (Strafford, 1837; A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, produced in 1843). But after the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843, which abolished the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate drama, demand for this kind of play rapidly disappeared.
Reginald P.C. Mutter
John Bernard Beer
The post-Romantic and Victorian eras
Self-consciousness was the quality that John Stuart Mill identified, in 1838, as “the daemon of the men of genius of our time.” Introspection was inevitable in the literature of an immediately Post-Romantic period, and the age itself was as prone to self-analysis as were its individual authors. Hazlitt's essays in The Spirit of the Age (1825) were echoed by Mill's articles of the same title in 1831, by Thomas Carlyle's essays Signs of the Times (1829) and Characteristics (1831), and by Richard Henry Horne's New Spirit of the Age in 1844.
This persistent scrutiny was the product of an acute sense of change. Britain had emerged from the long war with France (1793-1815) as a great power and as the world's predominant economy. Visiting England in 1847, the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson observed of the
English that “the modern world is theirs. They have made and make it day by day.”
This new status as the world's first urban and industrialized society was responsible for the extraordinary wealth, vitality, and self-confidence of the period. Abroad these energies expressed themselves in the growth of the British Empire. At home they were accompanied by rapid social change and fierce intellectual controversy.
The juxtaposition of this new industrial wealth with a new kind of urban poverty is only one of the paradoxes that characterize this long and diverse period. In religion the climax of the Evangelical revival coincided with an unprecedentedly severe set of challenges to faith. The idealism and transcendentalism of Romantic thought were challenged by the growing prestige of empirical science and utilitarian moral philosophy, a process that encouraged more-objective modes in literature. Realism would be one of the great artistic movements of the era. In politics a widespread commitment to economic and personal freedom was, nonetheless, accompanied by a steady growth in the power of the state. The prudery for which the Victorian Age is notorious in fact went hand in hand with an equally violent immoralism, seen, for example, in Algernon Charles Swinburne's poetry or the writings of the Decadents. Most fundamentally of all, the rapid change that many writers interpreted as progress inspired in others a fierce nostalgia. Enthusiastic rediscoveries of ancient Greece, Elizabethan England, and, especially, the Middle Ages by writers, artists, architects, and designers made this age of change simultaneously an age of active and determined historicism.
John Stuart Mill caught this contradictory quality, with characteristic acuteness, in his essays on Jeremy Bentham (1838) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1840). Every contemporary thinker, he argued, was indebted to these two “seminal minds.” Yet Bentham, as the enduring voice of the Enlightenment, and Coleridge, as the chief English example of the Romantic reaction against it, held diametrically opposed views.
A similar sense of sharp controversy is given by Carlyle in Sartor Resartus (1833-34). An eccentric philosophical fiction in the tradition of Swift and Sterne, the book argues for a new mode of spirituality in an age that Carlyle himself suggests to be one of mechanism. Carlyle's choice of the novel form and the book's humour, generic flexibility, and political engagement point forward to distinctive characteristics of Victorian literature.
Charles Dickens first attracted attention with the descriptive essays and tales originally written for newspapers, beginning in 1833, and collected as Sketches by “Boz” (1836). On the strength of this volume, Dickens contracted to write a historical novel in the tradition of Scott (eventually published as Barnaby Rudge in 1841). By chance his gifts were turned into a more distinctive channel. In February 1836 he agreed to write the text for a series of comic engravings. The unexpected result was The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), one of the funniest novels in English literature. By July 1837, sales of the monthly installments exceeded 40,000 copies. Dickens's extraordinary popular appeal and the enormous imaginative potential of the Victorian novel were simultaneously established.
The chief technical features of Dickens's fiction were also formed by this success. Serial publication encouraged the use of multiple plot and required that each episode be individually shaped. At the same time it produced an unprecedentedly close relationship between author and reader. Part dramatist, part journalist, part mythmaker, and part wit, Dickens took the picaresque tradition of Smollett and Fielding and gave it a Shakespearean vigour and variety.
His early novels have been attacked at times for sentimentality, melodrama, or shapelessness. They are now increasingly appreciated for their comic or macabre zest and their poetic fertility. Dombey and Son (1846-48) marks the beginning of Dickens's later period. He thenceforth combined his gift for vivid caricature with a stronger sense of personality, designed his plots more carefully, and used symbolism to give his books greater thematic coherence. Of the masterpieces of the next decade, David Copperfield (1849-50) uses the form of a fictional autobiography to explore the great Romantic theme of the growth and comprehension of the self. Bleak House (1852-53) addresses itself to law and litigiousness; Hard Times (1854) is a Carlylean defense of art in an age of mechanism; and Little Dorrit (1855-57) dramatizes the idea of imprisonment, both literal and spiritual. Two great novels, both involved with issues of social class and human worth, appeared in the 1860s: Great Expectations (1860-61) and Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). His final book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (published posthumously, 1870), was left tantalizingly uncompleted at the time of his death.
In many ways, however, the qualities of Romantic verse could be absorbed, rather than simply superseded, by the Victorian novel. This is suggested clearly by the work of the Bronte sisters. Growing up in a remote but cultivated vicarage in Yorkshire, they, as children, invented the imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal. These inventions supplied the context for many of the poems in their first, and pseudonymous, publication, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846). Their Gothic plots and Byronic passions also informed the novels that began to be published in the following year.
Anne Bronte wrote of the painful reality of disagreeable experience, although both her novels have cheerful romantic endings. Agnes Grey (1847) is a stark account of the working life of a governess, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) paints a grim picture of the heroine's marriage to an abusive husband. Charlotte Bronte, like her sisters, appears at first sight to have been writing a literal fiction of provincial life. In her first novel, Jane Eyre (1847), for example, the heroine's choice between sexual need and ethical duty belongs very firmly to the mode of moral realism. But her hair's-breadth escape from a bigamous marriage with her employer and the death by fire of his mad first wife derive from the rather different tradition of the Gothic novel. In Shirley (1849) Charlotte Bronte strove to be, in her own words, “as unromantic as Monday morning.” In Villette (1853) the distinctive Gothic elements return to lend this study of the limits of stoicism an unexpected psychological intensity and drama.
Emily Bronte united these diverse traditions still more successfully in her only novel, Wuthering Heights (1847). Closely observed regional detail, precisely handled plot, and a sophisticated use of multiple internal narrators are combined with vivid imagery and an extravagantly Gothic theme. The result is a perfectly achieved study of elemental passions and the strongest possible refutation of the assumption that the age of the novel must also be an age of realism.
Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Deeply influenced by Shelley, Robert Browning made two false starts. One was as a playwright in the 1830s and '40s. The other was as the late-Romantic poet of the confessional meditation Pauline (1833) and the difficult though innovatory narrative poem Sordello (1840).
Browning found his individual and distinctively modern voice in 1842, with the volume Dramatic Lyrics. As the title suggests, it was a collection of dramatic monologues, among them Porphyria's Lover, Johannes Agricola in Meditation, and My Last Duchess. The monologues make clear the radical originality of Browning's new manner: they involve the reader in sympathetic identification with the interior processes of criminal or unconventional minds, requiring active rather than merely passive engagement in the processes of moral judgment and self-discovery. More such monologues and some equally striking lyrics make up Men and Women (1855).
In 1846 Browning married Elizabeth Barrett. Though now remembered chiefly for her love poems Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) and her experiment with the verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856; dated 1857), she was in her own lifetime far better known than her husband. Her Poems (1844) established her as a leading poet of the age. Casa Guidi Windows (1851) is a subtle reflection on her experience of Italian politics, and A Musical Instrument (1862) is one of the century's most memorable expressions of the difficulty of the poet's role. Only with the publication of Dramatis Personae (1864) did Robert Browning achieve the sort of fame that Tennyson had enjoyed for more than 20 years. The volume contains, in Rabbi Ben Ezra, the most extreme statement of Browning's celebrated optimism. Hand in hand with this reassuring creed, however, go the skeptical intelligence and the sense of the grotesque displayed in such poems as Caliban upon Setebos and Mr. Sludge, `The Medium.'?
His The Ring and the Book (1868-69) gives the dramatic monologue format unprecedented scope. Published in parts, like a
Dickens novel, it tells a sordid murder story in a way that both explores moral issues and suggests the problematic nature of human knowledge. Browning's work after this date, though voluminous, is uneven.
Arnold and Clough
Matthew Arnold's first volume of verse, The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems (1849), combined lyric grace with an acute sense of the dark philosophical landscape of the period. The title poem of his next collection, Empedocles on Etna (1852), is a sustained statement of the modern dilemma and a remarkable poetic embodiment of the process that Arnold called “the dialogue of the mind with itself.” Arnold later suppressed this poem and attempted to write in a more impersonal manner. His greatest work (Switzerland, Dover Beach, The Scholar-Gipsy) is, however, always elegiac in tone. In the 1860s he turned from verse to prose and became, with Essays in Criticism (1865), Culture and Anarchy (1869), and Literature and Dogma (1873), a lively and acute writer of literary, social, and religious criticism.
Arnold's friend Arthur Hugh Clough died young but managed nonetheless to produce three highly original poems. The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich (1848) is a narrative poem of modern life, written in hexameters. Amours de Voyage (1858) goes beyond this to the full-scale verse novel, using multiple internal narrators and vivid contemporary detail. Dipsychus (published posthumously in 1865 but not available in an unexpurgated version until 1951) is a remarkable closet drama that debates issues of belief and morality with a frankness, and a metrical liveliness, unequaled in Victorian verse.
Early Victorian nonfiction prose
Carlyle may be said to have initiated Victorian literature with Sartor Resartus. He continued thereafter to have a powerful effect on its development. The French Revolution (1837), the book that made him famous, spoke very directly to this consciously postrevolutionary age. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) combined the Romantic idea of the genius with a further statement of German transcendentalist philosophy, which Carlyle opposed to the influential doctrines of empiricism and utilitarianism. Carlyle's political writing, in Chartism (1839; dated 1840), Past and Present (1843), and the splenetic Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), inspired other writers to similar “prophetic” denunciations of laissez-faire economics and utilitarian ethics. The first importance of John Ruskin is as an art critic who, in Modern Painters (5 vol., 1843-60), brought Romantic theory to the study of painting and forged an appropriate prose for its expression. But in The Stones of Venice (3 vol., 1851-53), Ruskin took the political medievalism of Carlyle's Past and Present and gave it a poetic fullness and force. This imaginative engagement with social and economic problems continued into Unto This Last (1860), The Crown of Wild Olive (1866), and Fors Clavigera (1871-84). John Henry Newman was a poet, novelist, and theologian who wrote many of the tracts, published as Tracts for the Times (1833-41), that promoted the Oxford movement, which sought to reassert the Roman Catholic identity of the Church of England. His subsequent religious development is memorably described in his Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), one of the many great autobiographies of this introspective century.
Late Victorian literature
“The modern spirit,” Matthew Arnold observed in 1865, “is now awake.” In 1859 Charles Darwin had published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Historians, philosophers, and scientists were all beginning to apply the idea of evolution to new areas of study of the human experience. Traditional conceptions of man's nature and place in the world were, as a consequence, under threat. Walter Pater summed up the process, in 1866, by stating that “Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the `relative' spirit in place of the `absolute.'?”
The economic crisis of the 1840s was long past. But the fierce political debates that led first to the Second Reform Act of 1867 and then to the battles for the enfranchisement of women were accompanied by a deepening crisis of belief.
Late Victorian fiction may express doubts and uncertainties, but in aesthetic terms it displays a new sophistication and self-confidence. The expatriate American novelist Henry James wrote in 1884 that until recently the English novel had “had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it.” Its acquisition of these things was due in no small part to Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot. Initially a critic and translator, she was influenced, after the loss of her Christian faith, by the ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach and Auguste Comte. Her advanced intellectual interests combined with her sophisticated sense of the novel form to shape her remarkable fiction. Her early novels--Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner (1861)--are closely observed studies of English rural life that offer, at the same time, complex contemporary ideas and a subtle tracing of moral issues. Her masterpiece, Middlemarch (1871-72), is an unprecedentedly full study of the life of a provincial town, focused on the thwarted idealism of her two principal characters. George Eliot is a realist, but her realism involves a scientific analysis of the interior processes of social and personal existence.
Her fellow realist Anthony Trollope published his first novel in 1847 but only established his distinctive manner with The Warden (1855), the first of a series of six novels set in the fictional county of Barsetshire and completed in 1867. This sequence was followed by a further series, the six-volume Palliser group (1864-80), set in the world of British parliamentary politics. Trollope published an astonishing total of 47 novels, and his Autobiography (1883) is a uniquely candid account of the working life of a Victorian writer.
The third major novelist of the 1870s was George Meredith, who also worked as a poet, a journalist, and a publisher's reader. His prose style is eccentric and his achievement uneven. His greatest work of fiction, The Egoist (1879), however, is an incisive comic novel that embodies the distinctive theory of the corrective and therapeutic powers of laughter expressed in his lecture The Idea of Comedy (1877).
In the 1880s the three-volume novel, with its panoramic vistas and proliferating subplots, began to give way to more narrowly focused one-volume novels. At the same time, a gap started to open between popular fiction and the “literary” or “art” novel. The flowering of realist fiction was also accompanied, perhaps inevitably, by a revival of its opposite, the romance. The 1860s had produced a new subgenre, the sensation novel, seen at its best in the work of Wilkie Collins. Gothic novels and romances by Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Morris, and Oscar Wilde; utopian fiction by Morris and Samuel Butler; and the early science fiction of H.G. Wells make it possible to speak of a full-scale romance revival.
Realism continued to flourish, however, sometimes encouraged by the example of European realist and naturalist novelists. Both George Moore and George Gissing were influenced by Emile Zola, though both also reacted against him. The 1890s saw intense concern with the social role of women, reflected in the New Woman fiction of Grant Allen (The Woman Who Did, 1895), Sarah Grand (The Heavenly Twins, 1893), and George Egerton (Keynotes, 1893). The heroines of such texts breach conventional assumptions by supporting woman suffrage, smoking, adopting “rational” dress, and rejecting traditional double standards in sexual behaviour.
The greatest novelist of this generation, however, was Thomas Hardy. His first published novel, Desperate Remedies, appeared in 1871 and was followed by 13 more before he abandoned prose to publish (in the 20th century) only poetry. His major fiction consists of the tragic novels of rural life, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). In these novels his brilliant evocation of the landscape and people of his fictional Wessex is combined with a sophisticated sense of the “ache of modernism.”
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848 and unofficially reinforced a decade later, was founded as a group of painters but also functioned as a school of writers who linked the incipient Aestheticism of Keats and De Quincey to the Decadent movement of the fin de siecle. Dante Gabriel Rossetti collected his early writing in Poems (1870), a volume that led the critic Robert Buchanan to attack him as the leader of The Fleshly School of Poetry. Rossetti combined some subtle treatments of contemporary life with a new kind of medievalism, seen also in The Defence of Guenevere (1858) by William Morris. The earnest political use of the Middle Ages found in Carlyle and Ruskin did not die out--Morris himself continued it and linked it, in the 1880s, with Marxism. But these writers also used medieval settings as a context that made possible an uninhibited treatment of sex and violence. The shocking subject matter and vivid imagery of Morris's first volume were further developed by Algernon Charles Swinburne, who, in Atalanta in Calydon (1865) and Poems and Ballads (1866), combined them with an intoxicating metrical power. His second series of Poems and Ballads (1878), with its moving elegies for Charles Baudelaire and Theophile Gautier, displays a sophisticated command of recent developments in avant-garde French verse.
The carefully wrought religious poetry of Christina Rossetti is perhaps truer to the original, pious purposes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her first collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), with its vivid but richly ambiguous title poem, established her status as one of the outstanding lyric poets of the century. The other outstanding religious poet of this period is Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest whose work was first collected as Poems in 1918, nearly 30 years after his death. Overpraised by
Modernist critics, who saw him as the sole great poet of the era, he was in fact an important minor talent and an ingenious technical innovator.
Robert Browning's experiments with the dramatic monologue were further developed in the 1860s by Augusta Webster, who used the form in Dramatic Studies (1866), A Woman Sold and Other Poems (1867), and Portraits (1870) to produce penetrating accounts of female experience. Her posthumously published sonnet sequence Mother & Daughter (1895) is a lucid and unsentimental account of that relationship.
The 1890s witnessed a flowering of lyric verse, influenced intellectually by the critic and novelist Walter Pater and formally by contemporary French practice. Such writing was widely attacked as “decadent” for its improper subject matter and its consciously amoral doctrine of “art for art's sake.” This stress upon artifice and the freedom of art from conventional moral constraints went hand in hand, however, with an exquisite craftsmanship and a devotion to intense emotional and sensory effects.
Outstanding among the numerous poets publishing in the final decade of the century were John Davidson, Arthur Symons, Francis Thompson, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and A.E. Housman. In The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), Symons suggested the links between this writing and European Symbolism and Impressionism. Thompson provides a vivid example of the way in which a decadent manner could, paradoxically, be combined with fierce religious enthusiasm. A rather different note was struck by Rudyard Kipling, who combined polemical force and sharp observation (particularly of colonial experience) with a remarkable metrical vigour.
The Victorian theatre
Early Victorian drama was a popular art form, appealing to an uneducated audience that demanded emotional excitement rather than intellectual subtlety. Vivacious melodramas did not, however, hold exclusive possession of the stage. The mid-century saw lively comedies by Dion Boucicault and Tom Taylor. In the 1860s T.W. Robertson pioneered a new realist drama, an achievement later celebrated by Arthur Wing Pinero in his charming sentimental comedy Trelawny of the “Wells” (1898). The 1890s were, however, the outstanding decade of dramatic innovation. Oscar Wilde crowned his brief career as a playwright with one of the few great high comedies in English, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). At the same time, the influence of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen was helping to produce a new genre of serious “problem plays,” such as Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893). J.T. Grein founded the Independent Theatre in 1891 to foster such work and staged there the first plays of George Bernard Shaw and translations of Ibsen.
Victorian literary comedy
Victorian literature began with such humorous books as Sartor Resartus and The Pickwick Papers. Despite the crisis of faith, the “Condition of England” question, and the “ache of modernism,” this note was sustained throughout the century. The comic novels of Dickens and Thackeray, the squibs, sketches, and light verse of Thomas Hood and Douglas Jerrold, the nonsense of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and the humorous light fiction of Jerome K. Jerome and George Grossmith and his brother Weedon Grossmith are proof that this age, so often remembered for its gloomy rectitude, may in fact have been the greatest era of comic writing in English literature.
The 20th century
From 1900 to 1945
The 20th century opened with great hope but also with some apprehension, for the new century marked the final approach to a new millennium. For many, humankind was entering upon an unprecedented era. H.G. Wells's utopian studies, the aptly titled Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901) and A Modern Utopia (1905), both captured and qualified this optimistic mood and gave expression to a common conviction that science and technology would transform the world in the century ahead. To achieve such transformation, outmoded institutions and ideals had to be replaced by ones more suited to the growth and liberation of the human spirit. The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the accession of Edward VII seemed to confirm that a franker, less inhibited era had begun.
Many writers of the Edwardian period, drawing widely upon the realistic and naturalistic conventions of the 19th century (upon Ibsen in drama and Balzac, Turgenev, Flaubert, Zola, Eliot, and Dickens in fiction) and in tune with the anti-Aestheticism unleashed by the trial of the archetypal Aesthete, Oscar Wilde, saw their task in the new century to be an unashamedly didactic one. In a series of wittily iconoclastic plays, of which Man and Superman (performed 1905, published 1903) and Major Barbara (performed 1905, published 1907) are the most substantial, George Bernard Shaw turned the Edwardian theatre into an arena for debate upon the principal concerns of the day: the question of political organization, the morality of armaments and war, the function of class and of the professions, the validity of the family and of marriage, and the issue of female emancipation. Nor was he alone in this, even if he was alone in the brilliance of his comedy. John Galsworthy made use of the theatre in Strife (1909) to explore the conflict between capital and labour, and in Justice (1910) he lent his support to reform of the penal system, while Harley Granville-Barker, whose revolutionary approach to stage direction did much to change theatrical production in the period, dissected in The Voysey Inheritance (performed 1905, published 1909) and Waste (performed 1907, published 1909) the hypocrisies and deceit of upper-class and professional life.
Many Edwardian novelists were similarly eager to explore the shortcomings of English social life. Wells--in Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900); Kipps (1905); Ann Veronica (1909), his pro-suffragist novel; and The History of Mr. Polly (1910)--captured the frustrations of lower- and middle-class existence, even though he relieved his accounts with many comic touches. In Anna of the Five Towns (1902), Arnold Bennett detailed the constrictions of provincial life among the self-made business classes in the area of England known as the Potteries; in The Man of Property (1906), the first volume of The Forsyte Saga, Galsworthy described the destructive possessiveness of the professional bourgeoisie; and, in Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and The Longest Journey (1907), E.M. Forster portrayed with irony the insensitivity, self-repression, and philistinism of the English middle classes.
These novelists, however, wrote more memorably when they allowed themselves a larger perspective. In The Old Wives' Tale (1908), Bennett showed the destructive effects of time on the lives of individuals and communities and evoked a quality of pathos that he never matched in his other fiction; in Tono-Bungay (1909), Wells showed the ominous consequences of the uncontrolled developments taking place within a British society still dependent upon the institutions of a long-defunct landed aristocracy; and in Howards End (1910), Forster showed how little the rootless and self-important world of contemporary commerce cared for the more rooted world of culture, although he acknowledged that commerce was a necessary evil. Nevertheless, even as they perceived the difficulties of the present, most Edwardian novelists, like their counterparts in the theatre, held firmly to the belief not only that constructive change was possible but also that this change could in some measure be advanced by their writing.
Other writers, including Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling, who had established their reputations during the previous century, and Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and Edward Thomas, who established their reputations in the first decade of the new century, were less confident about the future and sought to revive the traditional forms--the ballad, the narrative poem, the satire, the fantasy, the topographical poem, and the essay--that in their view preserved traditional sentiments and perceptions. The revival of traditional forms in the late 19th and early 20th century was not a unique event. There were many such revivals during the 20th century, and the traditional poetry of A.E. Housman (whose book A Shropshire Lad, originally published in 1896, enjoyed huge popular success during World War I), Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden represents an important and often neglected strand of English literature in the first half of the century.
The most significant writing of the period, traditionalist or modern, was inspired by neither hope nor apprehension but by bleaker feelings that the new century would witness the collapse of a whole civilization. The new century had begun with Great Britain involved in the South African War (the Boer War; 1899-1902), and it seemed to some that the British Empire was as doomed to destruction, both from within and from without, as had been the Roman Empire. In his poems on the South African War, Hardy (whose achievement as a poet in the 20th century rivaled his achievement as a novelist in the 19th) questioned simply and sardonically the human cost of empire building and established a tone and style that many British poets were to use in the course of the century, while Kipling, who had done much to engender pride in empire, began to speak in his verse and short stories of the burden of empire and the tribulations it would bring.
No one captured the sense of an imperial civilization in decline more fully or subtly than the expatriate American novelist Henry James. In The Portrait of a Lady (1881), he had briefly anatomized the fatal loss of energy of the English ruling class and, in The Princess Casamassima (1886), had described more directly the various instabilities that threatened its paternalistic rule. He did so with regret: the patrician American admired in the English upper class its sense of moral obligation to the community. By the turn of the century, however, he had noted a disturbing change. In The Spoils of Poynton (1897) and What Maisie Knew (1897), members of the upper class no longer seem troubled by the means adopted to achieve their morally dubious ends. Great Britain had become indistinguishable from the other nations of the Old World, in which an ugly rapacity had never been far from the surface. James's dismay at this condition gave to his subtle and compressed late fiction, The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), much of its gravity and air of disenchantment.
James's awareness of crisis affected the very form and style of his writing, for he was no longer assured that the world about which he wrote was either coherent in itself or unambiguously intelligible to its inhabitants. His fiction still presented characters within an identifiable social world, but he found his characters and their world increasingly elusive and enigmatic and his own grasp upon them, as he made clear in The Sacred Fount (1901), the questionable consequence of artistic will.
Another expatriate novelist, Joseph Conrad (pseudonym of Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, born in the Ukraine of Polish parents), shared James's sense of crisis but attributed it less to the decline of a specific civilization than to human failings. Man was a solitary, romantic creature of will who at any cost imposed his meaning upon the world because he could not endure a world that did not reflect his central place within it. In Almayer's Folly (1895) and Lord Jim (1900), he had seemed to sympathize with this predicament; but in “Heart of Darkness” (1902), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911), he detailed such imposition, and the psychological pathologies he increasingly associated with it, without sympathy. He did so as a philosophical novelist whose concern with the mocking limits of human knowledge affected not only the content of his fiction but also its very structure. His writing itself is marked by gaps in the narrative, by narrators who do not fully grasp the significance of the events they are retelling, and by characters who are unable to make themselves understood. James and Conrad used many of the conventions of 19th-century realism but transformed them to express what are considered to be peculiarly 20th-century preoccupations and anxieties.
The Modernist revolution
Anglo-American Modernism: Pound, Lewis, Lawrence, and Eliot
From 1908 to 1914 there was a remarkably productive period of innovation and experiment as novelists and poets undertook, in anthologies and magazines, to challenge the literary conventions not just of the recent past but of the entire post-Romantic era. For a brief moment, London, which up to that point had been culturally one of the dullest of the European capitals, boasted an avant- garde to rival those of Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, even if its leading personality, Ezra Pound, and many of its most notable figures were American.
The spirit of Modernism--a radical and utopian spirit stimulated by new ideas in anthropology, psychology, philosophy, political theory, and psychoanalysis--was in the air, expressed rather mutedly by the pastoral and often anti-Modern poets of the Georgian movement (1912-22; see Georgian poetry) and more authentically by the English and American poets of the Imagist movement, to which Pound first drew attention in Ripostes (1912), a volume of his own poetry, and in Des Imagistes (1914), an anthology. Prominent among the Imagists were the English poets T.E. Hulme, F.S. Flint, and Richard Aldington and the Americans Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Amy Lowell.
Reacting against what they considered to be an exhausted poetic tradition, the Imagists wanted to refine the language of poetry in order to make it a vehicle not for pastoral sentiment or imperialistic rhetoric but for the exact description and evocation of mood. To this end they experimented with free or irregular verse and made the image their principal instrument. In contrast to the leisurely Georgians, they worked with brief and economical forms.
Meanwhile, painters and sculptors, grouped together by the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis under the banner of Vorticism, combined the abstract art of the Cubists with the example of the Italian Futurists who conveyed in their painting, sculpture, and literature the new sensations of movement and scale associated with modern developments such as automobiles and airplanes. With the typographically arresting Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex (two editions, 1914 and 1915) Vorticism found its polemical mouthpiece and in Lewis, its editor, its most active propagandist and accomplished literary exponent. His experimental play Enemy of the Stars, published in Blast in 1914, and his experimental novel Tarr (1918) can still surprise with their violent exuberance.
World War I brought this first period of the Modernist revolution to an end and, while not destroying its radical and utopian impulse, made the Anglo-American Modernists all too aware of the gulf between their ideals and the chaos of the present. Novelists and poets parodied received forms and styles, in their view made redundant by the immensity and horror of the war, but, as can be seen most clearly in Pound's angry and satirical Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), with a note of anguish and with the wish that writers might again make form and style the bearers of authentic meanings.
In his two most innovative novels, The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920), D.H. Lawrence traced the sickness of modern civilization--a civilization in his view only too eager to participate in the mass slaughter of the war--to the effects of industrialization upon the human psyche. Yet as he rejected the conventions of the fictional tradition, which he had used to brilliant effect in his deeply felt autobiographical novel of working-class family life, Sons and Lovers (1913), he drew upon myth and symbol to hold out the hope that individual and collective rebirth could come through human intensity and passion.
On the other hand, the poet and playwright T.S. Eliot, another American resident in London, in his most innovative poetry, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), traced the sickness of modern civilization--a civilization that, on the evidence of the war, preferred death or death-in-life to life--to the spiritual emptiness and rootlessness of modern existence. As he rejected the conventions of the poetic tradition, Eliot, like Lawrence, drew upon myth and symbol to hold out the hope of individual and collective rebirth, but he differed sharply from Lawrence by supposing that rebirth could come through self-denial and self-abnegation. Even so, their satirical intensity, no less than the seriousness and scope of their analyses of the failings of a civilization that had voluntarily entered upon the First World War, ensured that Lawrence and Eliot became the leading and most authoritative figures of Anglo-American Modernism in England in the whole of the postwar period.
During the 1920s Lawrence (who had left England in 1919) and Eliot began to develop viewpoints at odds with the reputations they had established through their early work. In Kangaroo (1923) and The Plumed Serpent (1926), Lawrence revealed the attraction to him of charismatic, masculine leadership, while, in For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (1928), Eliot (whose influence as a literary critic now rivaled his influence as a poet) announced that he was a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics and anglo-catholic in religion” and committed himself to hierarchy and order. Elitist and paternalistic, they did not, however, adopt the extreme positions of Pound (who left England in 1920 and settled permanently in Italy in 1925) or Lewis. Drawing upon the ideas of the left and of the right, Pound and Lewis dismissed democracy as a sham and argued that economic and ideological manipulation was the dominant factor. For some, the antidemocratic views of the Anglo-American Modernists simply made explicit the reactionary tendencies inherent in the movement from its beginning; for others, they came from a tragic loss of balance occasioned by World War I. This issue is a complex one, and judgments upon the literary merit and political status of Pound's ambitious but immensely difficult Imagist epic The Cantos (1917-70) and Lewis's powerful sequence of politico-theological novels The Human Age (The Childermass, 1928; Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta, both 1955) are sharply divided.
Celtic Modernism: Yeats, Joyce, Jones, and MacDiarmid
Pound, Lewis, Lawrence, and Eliot were the principal male figures of Anglo-American Modernism, but important contributions also were made by the Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats and the Irish novelist James Joyce. By virtue of nationality, residence, and, in Yeats's case, an unjust reputation as a poet still steeped in Celtic mythology, they had less immediate impact upon the British literary intelligentsia in the late 1910s and early 1920s than Pound, Lewis, Lawrence, and Eliot, although by the mid-1920s their influence had become direct and substantial. Many critics today argue that Yeats's work as a poet and Joyce's work as a novelist are the most important Modernist achievements of the period.
In his early verse and drama, Yeats, who had been influenced as a young man by the Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite movements, evoked a legendary and supernatural Ireland in language that was often vague and grandiloquent. As an adherent of the cause of Irish nationalism, he had hoped to instill pride in the Irish past. The poetry of The Green Helmet (1910) and Responsibilities (1914), however, was marked not only by a more concrete and colloquial style but also by a growing isolation from the nationalist movement, for Yeats celebrated an aristocratic Ireland epitomized for him by the family and country house of his friend and patron, Lady Gregory.
The grandeur of his mature reflective poetry in The Wild Swans at Coole (1917), Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928), and The Winding Stair (1929) derived in large measure from the way in which (caught up by the violent discords of contemporary Irish history) he accepted the fact that his idealized Ireland was illusory. At its best his mature style combined passion and precision with powerful symbol, strong rhythm, and lucid diction; and even though his poetry often touched upon public themes, he never ceased to reflect upon the Romantic themes of creativity, selfhood, and the individual's relationship to nature, time, and history.
Joyce, who spent his adult life on the continent of Europe, expressed in his fiction his sense of the limits and possibilities of the Ireland he had left behind. In his collection of short stories, Dubliners (1914), and his largely autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), he described in fiction at once realist and symbolist the individual cost of the sexual and imaginative oppressiveness of life in Ireland. As if by provocative contrast, his panoramic novel of urban life, Ulysses (1922), was sexually frank and imaginatively profuse. (Copies of the first edition were burned by the New York postal authorities, and British customs officials seized the second edition in 1923.) Employing extraordinary formal and linguistic inventiveness, including the stream-of-consciousness method, Joyce depicted the experiences and the fantasies of various men and women in Dublin on a summer's day in June 1904. Yet his purpose was not simply documentary, for he drew upon an encyclopaedic range of European literature to stress the rich universality of life buried beneath the provincialism of pre-independence Dublin, in 1904 a city still within the British Empire. In his even more experimental Finnegans Wake (1939), extracts of which had already appeared as Work in Progress from 1928 to 1937, Joyce's commitment to cultural universality became absolute. By means of a strange, polyglot idiom of puns and portmanteau words, he not only explored the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious but also suggested that the languages and myths of Ireland were interwoven with the languages and myths of many other cultures.
The example of Joyce's experimentalism was followed by the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones and by the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (pseudonym of Christopher Murray Grieve). Whereas Jones concerned himself, in his complex and allusive poetry and prose, with the Celtic, Saxon, Roman, and Christian roots of Great Britain, MacDiarmid sought not only to recover what he considered to be an authentically Scottish culture but also to establish, as in his In Memoriam James Joyce (1955), the truly cosmopolitan nature of Celtic consciousness and achievement. MacDiarmid's masterpiece in the vernacular, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), helped to inspire the Scottish renaissance of the 1920s and '30s.
The literature of World War I and the interwar period
The impact of
World War I upon the Anglo-American Modernists has been noted. In addition the war brought a variety of responses from the more-traditionalist writers, predominantly poets, who saw action. Rupert Brooke caught the idealism of the opening months of the war (and died in service); Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney caught the mounting anger and sense of waste as the war continued; and Isaac Rosenberg (perhaps the most original of the war poets), Wilfred Owen, and Edmund Blunden not only caught the comradely compassion of the trenches but also addressed themselves to the larger moral perplexities raised by the war (Rosenberg and Owen were killed in action).
It was not until the 1930s, however, that much of this poetry became widely known. In the wake of the war the dominant tone, at once cynical and bewildered, was set by Aldous Huxley's satirical novel Crome Yellow (1921). Drawing upon Lawrence and Eliot, he concerned himself in his novels of ideas--Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925), and Point Counter Point (1928)--with the fate of the individual in rootless modernity. His pessimistic vision found its most complete expression in the 1930s, however, in his most famous and inventive novel, the anti-utopian fantasy Brave New World (1932), and his account of the anxieties of middle-class intellectuals of the period, Eyeless in Gaza (1936).
Huxley's frank and disillusioned manner was echoed by the dramatist Noel Coward in The Vortex (1924), which established his reputation; by the poet Robert Graves in his autobiography, Good-Bye to All That (1929); and by the poet Richard Aldington in his Death of a Hero (1929), a semiautobiographical novel of prewar bohemian London and the trenches. Exceptions to this dominant mood were found among writers too old to consider themselves, as did Graves and Aldington, members of a betrayed generation. In A Passage to India (1924), E.M. Forster examined the quest for and failure of human understanding among various ethnic and social groups in India under British rule. In Parade's End (1950; comprising Some Do Not, 1924; No More Parades, 1925; A Man Could Stand Up, 1926; and Last Post, 1928) Ford Madox Ford, with an obvious debt to James and Conrad, examined the demise of aristocratic England in the course of the war, exploring on a larger scale the themes he had treated with brilliant economy in his short novel The Good Soldier (1915). And in Wolf Solent (1929) and A
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