The similarity and difference of themes and genres of the leading literature representatives




 

The term English literature refers to literature written in the English language, including literature composed in English by writers not necessarily from England; Joseph Conrad was Polish, Robert Burns was Scottish, James Joyce was Irish, Dylan Thomas was Welsh, Edgar Allan Poe was American, V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad, Vladimir Nabokov was Russian. In other words, English literature is as diverse as the varieties and dialects of English spoken around the world. In academia, the term often labels departments and programmes practising English studies in secondary and tertiary educational systems. Despite the variety of authors of English literature, the works of William Shakespeare remain paramount throughout the English-speaking world.

This article primarily deals with literature from Britain written in English. For literature from specific English-speaking regions, consult the see also section at the bottom of the page.

Early Modern period

The Elizabethan era saw a great flourishing of literature, especially in the field of drama. The Italian Renaissance had rediscovered the ancient Greek and Roman theatre, and this was instrumental in the development of the new drama, which was then beginning to evolve apart from the old mystery and miracle plays of the Middle Ages. The Italians were particularly inspired by Seneca (a major tragic playwright and philosopher, the tutor of Nero) and Plautus (its comic clichés, especially that of the boasting soldier had a powerful influence on the Renaissance and after). However, the Italian tragedies embraced a principle contrary to Seneca's ethics: showing blood and violence on the stage. In Seneca's plays such scenes were only acted by the characters [18, 123]. But the English playwrights were intrigued by Italian model: a conspicuous community of Italian actors had settled in London and Giovanni Florio had brought much of the Italian language and culture to England. It is also true that the Elizabethan Era was a very violent age and that the high incidence of political assassinations in Renaissance Italy (embodied by Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince) did little to calm fears of popish plots. As a result, representing that kind of violence on the stage was probably more cathartic for the Elizabethan spectator. Following earlier Elizabethan plays such as Gorboduc by Sackville & Norton and The Spanish Tragedy by Kyd that was to provide much material for Hamlet, William Shakespeare stands out in this period as a poet and playwright as yet unsurpassed. Shakespeare was not a man of letters by profession, and probably had only some grammar school education. He was neither a lawyer, nor an aristocrat as the "university wits" that had monopolised the English stage when he started writing. But he was very gifted and incredibly versatile, and he surpassed "professionals" as Robert Greene who mocked this "shake-scene" of low origins [23, 145]. Though most dramas met with great success, it is in his later years (marked by the early reign of James I) that he wrote what have been considered his greatest plays: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, a tragicomedy that inscribes within the main drama a brilliant pageant to the new king. Shakespeare also popularized the English sonnet which made significant changes to Petrarch's model.

Modernism

The movement known as English literary modernism grew out of a general sense of disillusionment with Victorian era attitudes of certainty, conservatism, and objective truth. The movement was greatly influenced by the ideas of Romanticism, Karl Marx's political writings, and the psychoanalytic theories of subconscious - Sigmund Freud. The continental art movements of Impressionism, and later Cubism, were also important inspirations for modernist writers.

Although literary modernism reached its peak between the First and Second World Wars, the earliest examples of the movement's attitudes appeared in the mid to late nineteenth century. Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. E. Housman, and the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy represented a few of the major early modernists writing in England during the Victorian period.

The first decades of the twentieth century saw several major works of modernism published, including the seminal short story collection Dubliners by James Joyce, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the poetry and drama of William Butler Yeats.

Important novelists between the World Wars included Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse and D. H. Lawrence. T. S. Eliot was the preeminent English poet of the period. Across the Atlantic writers like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and the poets Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost developed a more American take on the modernist aesthetic in their work.

Perhaps the most contentiously important figure in the development of the modernist movement was the American poet Ezra Pound. Credited with "discovering" both T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, whose stream of consciousness novel Ulysses is considered to be one of the century's greatest literary achievements, Pound also advanced the cause of imagism and free verse, forms which would dominate English poetry into the twenty-first century.

Gertrude Stein, an American expat, was also an enormous literary force during this time period, famous for her line "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose."

Other notable writers of this period included H.D., Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, William Carlos Williams, Ralph Ellison, Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas and Graham Greene. However, some of these writers are more closely associated with what has become known as post-modernism, a term often used to encompass the diverse range of writers who succeeded the modernists.

The term Postmodern literature is used to describe certain tendencies in post-World War II literature. It is both a continuation of the experimentation championed by writers of the modernist period (relying heavily, for example, on fragmentation, paradox, questionable narrators, etc.) and a reaction against Enlightenment ideas implicit in Modernist literature. Postmodern literature, like postmodernism as a whole, is difficult to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance of postmodern literature. Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Thomas Pynchon

Modernist literature is the literary expression of the tendencies of Modernism, especially High modernism.

Modernism as a literary movement reached its height in Europe between 1900 and the middle 1920s. Modernist literature addressed aesthetic problems similar to those examined in non-literary forms of contemporaneous Modernist art, such as Modernist painting. Gertrude Stein's abstract writings, for example, have often been compared to the fragmentary and multi-perspectival Cubism of her friend Pablo Picasso.

The Modernist emphasis on a radical individualism can be seen in the many literary manifestos issued by various groups within the movement. The concerns expressed by Simmel above are echoed in Richard Huelsenbeck's "First German Dada Manifesto" of 1918:

"Art in its execution and direction is dependent on the time in which it lives, and artists are creatures of their epoch. The highest art will be that which in its conscious content presents the thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week ... The best and most extraordinary artists will be those who every hour snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life, who, with bleeding hands and hearts, hold fast to the intelligence of their time." [3, 136]

The cultural history of humanity creates a unique common history that connects previous generations with the current generation of humans. The Modernist re-contextualization of the individual within the fabric of this received social heritage can be seen in the "mythic method" which T.S.

Modernist literature involved such authors as Knut Hamsun (whose novel Hunger is considered to be the first modernist novel), Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Dylan Thomas, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, James Joyce, Hugh MacDiarmid, William Faulkner, Jean Toomer, Ernest Hemingway, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Joseph Conrad, Andrei Bely, W. B. Yeats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Luigi Pirandello, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Jaroslav Hašek, Samuel Beckett, Menno ter Braak, Marcel Proust, Mikhail Bulgakov, Robert Frost, Boris Pasternak, Djuna Barnes, Patricia Highsmith and others.

Modernist literature attempted to move from the bonds of Realist literature and to introduce concepts such as disjointed timelines. Modernism was distinguished by an emancipatory metanarrative. In the wake of Modernism, and post-enlightenment, metanarratives tended to be emancipatory, whereas beforehand this was not a consistent characteristic. Contemporary metanarratives were becoming less relevant in light of the implications of World War I, the rise of trade unionism, a general social discontent, and the emergence of psychoanalysis. The consequent need for a unifying function brought about a growth in the political importance of culture.

Modernist literature can be viewed largely in terms of its formal, stylistic and semantic movement away from Romanticism, examining subject matter that is traditionally mundane a prime example being The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot. Modernist literature often features a marked pessimism, a clear rejection of the optimism apparent in Victorian literature. In fact, "a common motif in Modernist fiction is that of an alienated individual--a dysfunctional individual trying in vain to make sense of a predominantly urban and fragmented society." But the questioning spirit of modernism could also be seen, less elegaically, as part of a necessary search for ways to make a new sense of a broken world. An example is A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid, in which the individual artist applies Eliot's techniques to respond (in this case) to a historically fractured nationalism, using a more comic, parodic and "optimistic" (though no less "hopeless") modernist expression in which the artist as "hero" seeks to embrace complexity and locate new meanings.

However, many Modernist works like T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land are marked by the absence even of a central, heroic figure. In rejecting the solipsism of Romantics like Shelley and Byron, such works reject the notion of subject associated with Cartesian dualism, collapsing narrative and narrator into a collection of disjointed fragments and overlapping voices [7, 121].

Modernist literature often moves beyond the limitations of the Realist novel with a concern for larger factors such as social or historical change. This is prominent in "stream of consciousness" writing. Examples can be seen in Virginia Woolf's Kew Gardens and Mrs Dalloway, James Joyce's Ulysses, Katherine Porter's Flowering Judas, Jean Toomer's Cane, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and others.

Modernism as a literary movement is seen, in large part, as a reaction to the emergence of city life as a central force in society. Furthermore, an early attention to the object as freestanding became in later Modernism a preoccupation with form. The dyadic collapse of the distance between subject and object represented a movement from means to is. Where Romanticism stressed the subjectivity of experience, Modernist writers were more acutely conscious of the objectivity of their surroundings. In Modernism the object is; the language doesn't mean it is. This is a shift from an epistemological aesthetic to an ontological aesthetic or, in simpler terms, a shift from a knowledge-based aesthetic to a being-based aesthetic. This shift is central to Modernism. Archibald MacLeish, for instance, said, "A poem should not mean / But be."

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