The early part of the twentieth century saw massive changes in the everyday life of people in cities. The recent inventions of the automobile, airplane, and telephone shrank distances around the world and sped up the pace of life. Freud’s theory of the unconscious and infantile sexuality radically altered the popular understanding of the mind and identity, and the late-nineteenth-century thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche in different ways undermined traditional notions of truth, certainty, and morality. Theoretical science, meanwhile, was rapidly shifting from two-hundred-year-old Newtonian models to Einstein’s theory of relativity and finally to quantum mechanics.
At least partly in response to this acceleration of life and thought, a wave of aggressively experimental movements, sometimes collectively termed “modernist” because of their emphasis on radical innovation, swept through Europe. In Paris, the Spanish expatriate painter Pablo Picasso and the Frenchman Georges Braque developed cubism, a style of painting that abandoned realism and traditional perspective to fragment space and explode form. In Italy, the spokesperson for futurism, F. T. Marinetti, led an artistic movement that touched on everything from painting to poetry to cooking and encouraged an escape from the past into the rapid, energetic, mechanical world of the automobile, the airplane, and Marinetti’s own “aeropoetics.” Dadaists such as the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp, author of the ready-made Fountain (1917), a urinal, began a guerilla campaign against established notions of sense and the boundaries of what could be called art. In music, meanwhile, composers such as the Frenchman Claude Debussy and Russian-born Igor Stravinsky were beginning experiments with rhythm and harmony that would soon culminate in the outright atonality of composers such as the Austrians Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.
In England, this outbreak of modernist experiment influenced a loosely interrelated network of groups and individuals, many of them based in London. In anglophone literature, “modernism” more nearly describes an era than a unitary movement. But what connects the modernist writers—aside from a rich web of personal and professional connections—is a shared desire to break with established forms and subjects in art and literature. Influenced by European art movements, many modernist writers rejected realistic representation and traditional formal expectations. In the novel, they explored the Freudian depths of their characters’ psyches through stream of consciousness and interior monologue. In poetry, they mixed slang with elevated language, experimented with free verse, and often studded their works with difficult allusions and disconnected images. Ironically, the success of modernism’s initially radical techniques eventually transformed them into the established norms that would be resisted by later generations.
Among the earliest groups to shape English-language modernism were the imagists, a circle of poets led initially by the Englishman T. E. Hulme and the American Ezra Pound, in the early 1910s. Imagist poetic doctrine included the use of plain speech, the preference for free verse over closed forms, and above all the creation of the vivid, hard-edged image. The first two of these tenets in particular helped to shape later modernism and have had a far-reaching impact on poetic practice in English. Shaped by Asian forms such as the haiku, the imagist poem tended to be brief and ephemeral, presenting a single striking image or metaphor (see “An Imagist Cluster” in NAEL). Pound soon dissociated himself from the movement, and the imagists—including the poets H. D., Richard Aldington, and John Gould Fletcher—continued to publish their annual anthology under the leadership of the American poet Amy Lowell.
Pound, meanwhile, went on to become a literary proponent of vorticism, an English movement in the visual arts led by the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis. The vorticists championed energy and life over what they saw as the turpitude of European society and sought to tap into or create the concentration of energies they dubbed a “vortex.” After having published only one issue of their now notorious journal Blast, the vorticists suddenly found their often violent rhetoric and their ambivalence about English national identity at odds with the real violence of World War I and the wartime climate of patriotism. The second issue of Blast—published behind schedule and dubbed a “war number”—declared the vorticists’ loyalty to England in the fight against German fascism on aesthetic grounds. It also announced the death in the trenches of one of the movement’s leading lights, the French-born sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. This loss and the general dispersal of the vorticists mark a major turning point for English modernism.
As modernism developed, the flashy, aggressive polemics of Lewis and Pound were replaced by the more reasoned, essayistic criticism of Pound’s friend and collaborator T. S. Eliot. Eliot’s Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses were technically innovative and initially controversial (Ulysses was banned in the United States and Great Britain), but their eventual acceptance as literary landmarks helped to bring modernism into the canon of English literature. In the decades to come, the massive influence of Eliot as a critic would transform the image of modernism into what Eliot himself called classicism, a position deeply rooted in a sense of the literary past and emphasizing the impersonality of the work of art.
In the post-World War II period, modernism became the institutionally approved norm against which later poetic movements, from the “Movement” of Philip Larkin to avant-garde Language Poetry, reacted. Nonetheless, the influence of modernism, both on those artists who have repudiated it and on those who have followed its direction, was pervasive. Joyce, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and other modernists provided compositional strategies still central to literature. Writers as diverse as W. H. Auden, Samuel Beckett, Derek Walcott, and Salman Rushdie have all, in one way or another, continued to extend the discoveries of the modernist experiment—adapting modernist techniques to new political climates marked by the Cold War and its aftermath, as well as to the very different histories of formerly colonized nations. Like the early twentieth-century avant-garde in European art and music, meanwhile, literary modernism has continued to shape a sense of art as a form of cultural revolution that must break with established history, constantly pushing out the boundaries of artistic practice.