miércoles, 7 de enero de 2009

English Literature in the 20th century

We're going to talk about English Literature from 1900 to 1950.
Two world wars, an intervening economic depression of great severity, and the austerity of life in Britain following the second of these wars help to explain the quality and direction of English literature in the 20th century.

The most popular writer of the early years of the 20th century was probably Rudyard Kipling, a highly versatile writer of novels, short stories and poems, often based on his experiences in British India.

Aldous Huxley was the writer who expressed the sense of disillusionment and hopelessness in the period after World War I in his Point Counter Point (1928).

Before Huxley, and before the war, the sensitively written novels of E. M. Forster, exposed the hollowness and deadness of both abstract intellectuality and highter-class social life. Forster had called for a return to a simple, intuitive literature. His most famous novel is, A Passage to India (1924).

D. H. Lawrence similarly related his sense of the need for a return from the complexities, and cold materialism of modern life to the primitive. His numerous novels and short stories, are for the most part more clearly experimental than Forster's.

Even more experimental and unorthodox than Lawrence's novels were those of the Irish writer James Joyce. In his novel Ulysses (1922) he focused on the events of a single day and related them to one another in thematic patterns based on Greek mythology. In some of these experiments his novels were paralleled by those of Virginia Woolf, who was very imitated for his novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927).

Among young novelists, Evelyn Waugh, like Aldous Huxley, satirized the society of the 1920s in Decline and Fall (1928). His later novels, similarly satirical and extravagant, showed a deepening moral tone, as in The Loved One (1948) and Brideshead Revisited (1945).
Graham Greene, investigated in his more serious novels the problem of evil in human life.

Now, we're going to talk about poetry and drama in this century.


Poets at the end of the Victorian age reflect the crisis of values of the time. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy are the two best examples. Hopkins and Hardy are poets of changing times. Their poems celebrate nature, but also show the great sadness and anxiety of society.

First world war poetry

The first world war was called 'the war to end all wars.' In fact it was just the first of many wars in the twentieth century. It was, however, the first war in which the soldiers from the lower classes could read and write – and they wrote home describing the horrors and the uselessness of the war they were fiighting. A new range of words entered everyone's languaje: 'no-man´s-land' is one example.

The poets who wrote about the war from their own experience did not try to make the soldiers into heroes. 'The poetry is in the pity' wrote Wilfred Owen. In another poem, Owen uses a famous latin line to question the values of war: 'it is sweet and correct to die for your country.' Poems like 'anthem for doomed youth', 'strange meeting' and 'futility' are elegies for a dead generation, poems about the wasteland of modern war.
Like so many other soldiers , Wilfred Owen was killed in the war, and most of his poems were published after his death.
Rupert Brooke also died in the war not long after writing these famous lines:

If i should die, think only this of me;
that there`s some corner of a foreign field
that is forever England.

Edward Thomas was a poet of nature. He describes the effects of the war on the English countryside in 'the team´s head-brass'. His best-known poem 'adlestrop' is rather like a poem by Brooke as it describes a moment which can never return.

Many other poets described the war in detail. T.S. Eliot, for example, in 'dead man´s dump' describes the dead bodies and the horror of war very cleary. Generation of poets and other artists died in the war.

Siegfried Sassoon survived the war, and went on to write poetry and prose for many years. But the best of this writing is about the war. Poems like 'the general' were among the first to criticize the way the war was planned.
Edmund Blunden, was the editor of Owen´s poems when a collected edition was plublished in 1931. Blunden´s own volume undertones of war is one of the most detailed accounts of life in the trenches, seen from the distance of a few years after the war had ended.

T.S. Eliot is considered by many critics to be the most important poet in English in the twentieth century. Like so many other writers he was an outsider. Ezra Pound encouraged him in his writing, and his first volume was published in 1917. This was Prufrock and other Observations. it contains one of Eliot´s best-known poems 'the love song of J. Alfred Prufrock'.
In 1922 T.S. Eliot published "The Waste Land" and, ever since, it has been considered the most important single poem of the century. It takes the ideas of time, and waste, already found in 'Prufrock' and extends them to all societies, all times, and all cultures.

The popular new form of art in the early part of the twentieth century was the cinema.
There is a definite separation between high culture and popular culture in the 1920s. Texts like "The Waste Land" land were deliberately difficult in the range of references and in the modern techniques used.

Of course, many poets still wrote in traditional ways – perhaps Robert Graves is the most important one. He continued to write until the 1980s, and became one of the great lyric poets of the century.

Walter De la Mare, who wrote many poems for children, was another writer who did not follow the fasions of high culture, and remained popular for well over fifty years.

In the 1930s, the poets who followed Eliot brought a new political tone into modern poetry. W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis Macneice and C. Day-Lewis are often considered together as a group known as the thirties poets.

One of the most popular poets of the century was A. E. Housman. He published A Shropshire Lad, and over the next twenty years it became a best-seller, it was the volume of poetry most read by the soldiers in the First World War.

Poetry after the war included many Works by W.H. Auden, who by then lived in America. His long poem The Age of Anxiety (1948) in many ways gave its name to the period.

The poets of the 1920s and 1930s continued to write during and after the Second World War. The poets who died during the war did not produce work of such greatness as the soldiers of the First World War. But the poetry of Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes is the poetry of war. Douglas’s Selected Poems came out in 1943, before his death in 1944; Keyes too had published a couple of volumenes before his death .His Collected Poems was published in 1945.

Dylan Thomas, who had started publishing poetry in the 1930s, was in many ways the most important new voice of the 1940s.His language is colourful, his images complex , and his view of nature bright. He goes beyond the fear of death.

John Betjeman became Poet Laureate, and was a very popular figure. His Collected Poems (1958/1962)was a best-seller , as was his autobiography in verse, Summoned by Bells.

For the poet Philip Larkin the poetry of Betjeman was important because it was Betjeman, who restored direct intelligible communication to poetry.

The poets of the 1950s are often considered together as The Movement. But the name has little real meaning, since most of the poets did not consider themselves part of any group.

Elizabeth Jennings, in A Way of Looking (1955), showed a new way of writing, as well as looking, with clear description, often ironic in its attitudes; she often writes of personal pain.

Donald Davie and D.J.Enright are other figures from the 1950s who have continued to write important poetry.


The Theatre was introduced to England from Europe by the Romans, and auditoriums were constructed all over the country by this purpose. The theatre is an important genre inside the English literature, his maximum literary figure is William Shakespeare, who supported English drama tradition.

The Irishman George Bernard Shaw was the leading figure in English drama from the 1890s until his dead in 1950. He was known for his use of the theatre to discuss issues, and from prostitution to language itself.

Edwardian musical comedy held the London stage (together with foreign operetta imports) until World War I and was then supplanted by increasingly popular American musical theatre and comedies by Noel Coward, Ivor Novello and their contemporaries. The motion picture mounted a challenge to the stage. At first, films were silent and presented only a limited challenge to theatre. But by the end of the 1920s, films like The Jazz Singer could be presented with synchronized sound, and critics wondered if the cinema would replace live theatre altogether. Some dramatists wrote for the new medium, but playwriting continued.

Postmodernism had an important effect on English drama in the latter half of the 20th Century. This can be seen particularly in the work of Samuel Beckett (most notably in Waiting for Godot), who in turn influenced writers such as Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard.

Today the West End of London has a large number of theatres, particularly centred around Shaftesbury Avenue. A prolific writer of music for musicals of the 20th century, Andrew Lloyd Webber, has dominated the West End for a number of years, and his works have travelled to Broadway in New York and around the world, as well as being turned into film. After T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in 1935 , there was a short period when poetic drama became popular. Eliot’s plays such as The Family Reunion (1939) and The Cocktail Party (1950), were very successful. Christopher Fry was the other main poetic dramatist. Terence Rattigan’s plays were not poetic.They enjoyed great success , especially in the 1940s and early 1950s,with audiences who shared their middle-class background and concerns.

During the 1950s a new kind of drama began to reach the theatres of Europe.There were two new trends in drama : absurd drama and social drama.

Absurd drama began in France in the 1940s and reached Britain with Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett in 1955.The term absurd was first used by the critic Martin Esslin to describe the new kind of drama , which showed how meaningless life was.Esslin has now decided the term was wrong , and has tried to find another way of describing these plays ,however no suitable name has been found , apart from the adjective Beckettian , from the author’s name.

The new social drama of the 1950s brought into drama the young generation after the war , often from the lower classes.The most famous play of the time was Look Back in Anger by John Osborne,staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1956.


1. en.wikipedia.
2. Encarta.

Crédito de la imagen:

Guide to English Literature: Britain and Ireland. Ed.Penguin

Posted by Maria José Palacios, Marcos Pascual and Alicia Blanco.

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