MODERNISM 1900 – 1945
1900 – 1914: Incredible Period of Invention.
Whereas philsophy and theology continued to grow darker, the mood surrounding industry, science and technology greeted the new 20th century with excitement and invention. There had never been a period of such rapid and massive invention than the early 20th century. If you tick off in your mind all of the things that we take for granted today that were invented in the period just prior to World War I, it is mind boggling: the light bulb, the airplane, the passenger automobile, the phonograph, indoor bathrooms, modern waterworks and sewage, the cinema, the radio that anyone could buy for home, and on and on.
The Masters of the World go to War
Such invention, however, was the product of the western world’s gigantic industrial machine and its imperial and colonical control over most of the world. Most of the tensions that led to World War I involved balances of power, who owns or controls what portions of the world, with Germany jockeying to control more than they had.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 coincided with massive advances in weapon technology. The war began with both sides equipped with an endless supply of weaponry that had never been used in such a war before: the machine gun, artillery, chemical warfare, grenade launchers, jelly bombs, airplanes and zeppelins. The war was supposed to be over in a matter of months, at least, that is what the hundreds of thousands of idealistic Brits who volunteered to cross the Channel and fight with the French believed. It lasted over four years, and caused 37 million casualties. Of those 37, over 1 million young British men and women died in battle. (Over 100,000 British civilians died, by the way, from such things as the Zeppelin attacks over London, which terrorized the city. No one had ever imagined they would be bombed from the sky.) In the Battle of Somme alone, over 1 million soldiers died. In one day of that battle alone, more soldiers died than in the entire Viet Nam War.
The Division in History: Before and After War.
I only emphasize the grim facts of this war to make it clear that one cannot overestimate the impact this war had on all of history, one a British mentality, and, consequently, on all literature and art that followed. The Western World went into the war in 1914 optimistic, believing that they were the masters of civilization, providentially chosen. The Western World came out of the war in 1918 with all millenarian beliefs crushed. For the first time in history, England questioned what humanity and civilization is. The incredible industry and invention that had made the country great was also responsible for the incredible machines of killing that allowed for such amazing loss of life. People wondered how the most civilized nations in the world could slaughter each other over a four year period.
I cannot do justice emphasizing in one short online lecture the monumental changes to British culture the war had. There are many good books on the subject. One I highly recommend, The Great War, by Paul Fussell. He was an English professor, and had first-hand experience with the war. He writes about the ways in which the war even changed the English language as we know it.
Modernist Spirit in Literature.
Up until the war, literature became caught up in the spirit of change and invention that was occurring in the world. The desire among writers and artists was to “Make it New!” There was a strong drive to break with a literary tradition, and to try new forms and ways with written expression. One can also see this drive in visual arts, with post-expressionism and cubism.
After the war, the desire to Make it New prevails, but with a different tenor. There is a dominant mood of darkness, alienation and betrayal in the post-War literature, combined with a spirit to break completely with the past and to try to make sense of a world that had become fractured and meaningless. Writers were in a state of shock of the destruction of the war, but they also wanted to use art in order to create meaning in the world, or at least to try to re-create meaning.
Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot.
Thomas Hardy is a very interesting poet because he straddles both a late Victorian world and an early Modernism. His poems are generally dark and pessimistic, and, like “Channel Firing,” he seems to sense the growing darkness.
T.S. Eliot is arguable the father of Modern Poetry. He wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” several years before the war, and when he was still a United States citizen. He was unable to find a journal to publish the poem until the middle of the war. The poem was shocking to audiences. The subject matter of the poem was new and unusual: the dramatic monologue of a balding, middle aged man who feels that life has passed him by. Eliot makes a concerted break with the sappy, romantic poetry of his time that was very popular. With this poem and his subsequent prose, Eliot calls for a more strict, classical, difficult and challenging poetry. He emphasizes experimentation with form combined with a classical, labored and stringent content.
During and after the war, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” hit a chord with American and British audiences who identified with Eliot’s expression of loneliness, alienation, confusion, desparation, betrayal and meaninglessness. His major poem, The Wasteland, which came out in 1922, depicted culture as dried up, dereacinated, futile–all of the greatness of literature and art of the past becoming twisted, corrupted, mutated and forgotten. The poem was a wild success with a generation feeling dark and diaffected by the war.
Entry filed under: British Literature.