In a broad sense, modern is applied to writing marked by a strong and conscious break with traditional forms and techniques of expression. It employs a distinctive kind of IMAGINATION, one that insists on having its general frame of reference within itself. It thus practices the solipsism of which Allen Tate accused the modern mind: it believes that we create the world in the act of perceiving it. Modern implies a historical discontinuity, a sense of alienation, of loss, and of despair. It not only rejects history, but also rejects the society of whose fabrication history is a record. It rejects traditional values and assumptions, and it rejects equally the rhetoric by which they were communicated. It elevates the individual and the inner being over the social human being, and prefers the unconscious to the self-conscious. The psychologies of Freud and Jung have been seminal in the modern movement in literature. Its most interesting artistic strategies are its attempts to deal with the unconscious and the MYTHOPOEIC. It is basically anti-intellectual, celebrating passion and will over reason and systematic morality. In many respects it is a reaction against REALISM and NATURALISM and the scientific postulates on which they rest. Although by no means can all modern writers be termed philosophical existentialists, existentialism has created a schema within which much of the modern temper can see a reflection of its attitudes and assumptions (see EXISTENTIALISM). The modern revels in a dense and often unordered actuality as opposed to the practical and systematic, and in exploring that actuality as it exists in the mind of the writer it has been richly experimental with language FORM, SYMBOL, and MYTH.
The modern has meant a decisive break with tradition in most of its manifestations, and what has been distinctively worthwhile in the literature of this century has come, in considerable part, from this modern temper. Merely to name some of the writers who belong in the modern tradition, although none of them partake of all of it, is to indicate the vitality, variety, and artistic success of modern writing: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Henry Adams, Andre Gide, Marcel Proust, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Stephane Mallarme, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Rimbaud. And such a list could be continued for many pages.
The Modernist Period in English Literature:
The Modernist Period in England may be considered to begin with the first World War in 1914, to be marked by the strenuousness of that experience and by the flowering of talent and experiment that came during the boom of the twenties and that fell away during the ordeal of the economic depression in the 1930's. The catastrophic years of the second World War, which made England an embattled fortress, profoundly and negatively marked everything British, and it was followed by a period of desperate uncertainty, a sadly diminished age. By 1965, which to all purposes marked an end to the Modernist Period, the uncertainty was giving way to anger and protest.
In the early years of the Modernist Period, the novelists of the EDWARDIAN AGE continued as major figures, with Galsworthy, Wells, Bennett, Forster, and Conrad dominating the scene, and to be joined before the 'teens were over by Somerset Maugham. A new fiction, centering itself in the experimental examination of the inner self was coming into being in the works of writers like Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf. It reached its peak in the publication in 1922 of James Joyce's Ulysses, a book perhaps as influential as any prose work by a British writer in this century. In highly differing ways D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and Evelyn Waugh protested against the nature of modern society; and the maliciously witty novel, as Huxley and Waugh wrote it in the twenties and thirties, was typical of the attitude of the age and is probably as truly representative of the English NOVEL in the contemporary period as is the novel exploring the private self through the STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS. In the thirties and forties, Joyce Cary and Graham Green produced a more traditional fiction of great effectiveness, and Henry Green made comedy of everyday life. Throughout the period English writers have practiced the SHORT STORY with distinction; notable examples being Katherine Mansfield and Somerset Maugham, working in the tradition of Chekhov.
The theater saw the social PLAYS of Galsworthy, Jones, and Pinero, the PLAY of ideas of Shaw, and the COMEDY OF MANNERS of Maugham-all well-established in the EDWARDIAN AGE continue and be joined by Noel Coward's comedy, the proletarian DRAMA of Sean O'Casey, the serious VERSE PLAYS of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry, and the high craftsmanship of Terence Rattigan.
Perhaps the greatest changes in literature, however, came in POETRY and CRITICISM. In 1914 Bridges was POET LAUREATE; he was succeeded in 1930 by John Masefield, who died in 1967. Wilfred Owen was one of the most powerful poetic voices of the early years of the contemporary period, but his career ended with an untimely death in the first World War. Through the period Yeats continued poetic creation, steadily modifying his style and subjects to his late form. At the time of his death in 1939 he probably shared with T. S. Eliot the distinction of being the most influential poet in the British Isles. Yet Eliot's The Waste Land, although its author was American, was the most important single poetic publication in England in the period. In the work of Yeats and Eliot, of W. H. Auden, of Stephen Spender, of C. Day-Lewis, of Edith Sitwell, and of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose POEMS were posthumously published in a new poetry came emphatically into being. The death at thirty-nine of Dylan Thomas in 1953 silenced a powerful lyric voice, which had already produced fine poetry and gave promise of doing even finer work. T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards, along with T. E. Hulme, Herbert Read, F. R. Leavis, Cyril Connolly, and others, created an informed, essentially anti-Romantic, ANALYTICAL CRITICISM, centering its attention on the work of art itself.
During the period between 1914 and 1965, in the truest sense modernism as a literary mode developed and gained a powerful ascendancy, and disparate as many of the writers and movements of the period were, they seem, in hindsight, to have shared most of the fundamental assumptions about art, humanity, and life that are embraced in the term MODERN. But however much the literary movement in the Modern Period seems to have a unified history, Great Britain was during the time in the process of national and cultural diminution, for England in the twentieth century has watched her political and military supremacy gradually dissipate, and since the second World War she has found herself greatly reduced in the international scene and torn by internal economic and political troubles. Her writers during these turbulent and unhappy years turned inward for their subject matter and expressed bitter and often despairing cynicism. Her major literary figures in the Modernist Period, as they were in the Edwardian Age, were often non-English. Her chief poets were Irish, American, and Welsh; her most influential novelists, Polish and Irish; her principal dramatists, Irish and American.
from A Handbook to Literature, fourth ed. by C. Hugh Holman (Bobbs-Merrill 1980)