The span of time from the late nineteenth and the early portion of the twentieth centuries, known as the Modernist period, saw an emergence of profound and radically different works of literature. The authors of these works (focusing specifically on ‘British’ authors featured in the textbook) utilized new forms and characteristics regarding style, plot, point of view, character, etc.
They also possessed a vastly different outlook on life shaped by years of war and depression, scientific theories such as evolution, social conflicts involving religion, and political issues, which created a dark and despairing feel to this period of literature. There are several works that exemplify the key characteristics of this period. A key characteristic, and one of the easiest to recognize, are the experimental forms such as free verse and stream of consciousness. T. S.
Eliot frequently utilizes these experimental forms in his works, such as “The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock”, which is a dramatic monologue that utilizes stream of consciousness. The seemingly random sequence of thoughts represents the speaker’s self-doubt, as he continuously second guesses himself. The speaker’s thoughts throughout the poem in which he makes excuses for his inability to pursue his goal, which also help the reader get a sense of the speaker’s anxiety and frustration.
Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill” is not as despairing as other works, however it does use a free verse scheme whose light beat compliments the speaker’s memories of childhood innocence. Another defining aspect of Modernism is the fall from innocence, meaning mankind has fallen into corruption, evil, and immorality largely as a result from the wars (particularly World War I and the Spanish Revolution) that destroyed much of Europe and witnessed despicable acts of violence committed by men against each other.
Dylan Thomas explores this in “Fern Hill” when the speaker reminisces about his childhood. His memories describe images that allude to the Garden of Eden. However, the speaker realizes that he has grown older and has thus fallen further and further away from the innocence of his childhood. Wystan Hugh Auden’s “Lullaby” also portrays the fall from innocence, in which the speaker is watching his lover sleep. As the speaker watches, he confesses his unfaithfulness and dishonesty and comments on how his lover appears innocent, but the speaker knows that his lover isn’t innocent either.
Another example is William Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse”. The speaker in “Adam’s Curse” is having conversation with his lover in which they discuss the difficulties with striving for beauty, weather it is writing a poem or grooming one’s self. They both come to the conclusion that the reason for the difficulty is that when Adam lost the Garden of Eden because of his sin, the future of mankind would be cursed to have to seek beauty because of his sins. The next characteristic of Modernism, and quite possible the most prevalent, is the presence of human suffering.
The early twentieth century was host to some of the worst events in history. War had left Europe in ruins, millions were dead, and millions more were starving and in poverty, which led many to believe that there was no end to the pain and suffering. Samuel Beckett expresses this perpetual suffering throughout the story “Endgame”. The two characters in the story, Hamm and Clov, are completely dependant on one another for survival. However, the two despise each other, making their lives miserable and depressing.
The fact that they need each other to live shows that they will remain miserable until their death. The title “Endgame” refers to the fact that life is a game that no matter what you do or how you play, you will lose. Another characteristic is the shift in settings from nature to the cities. This reflects the rapid growth of the cities due to the large number of people moving in from the countryside. Authors use the cities to emphasize the despair and suffering because of the darkness and filth associated with them.
Eliot uses this setting in ‘Prufrock’ to enhance the speaker’s suffering due to the fact that he repeatedly finds fault with himself and that he was unsuccessful in establishing a relationship. Beckett uses a similar setting in “Endgame” that resembles that of a bomb shelter or other dark structure to enhance the characters’ suffering as well as to represent the fact that they are imprisoned in the structure as well as their suffering. The destruction and aftermath of World War I as well as other bloody civil wars and revolutions of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century vastly changed the world’s outlook on life.
People questioned how God could have allowed such horrible things to happen, they could see no end to the pain and suffering they had endured, and they felt guilty for the horrific acts committed against one another. Authors such as Thomas, Auden, Eliot, Beckett, Yeats, and many more used an array of innovative and distinctive methods and techniques in their works to capture the suffering and remorse experienced my many, and in doing so, established a new genre of literature called Modernism.