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Contemporary English Literature - A Brief History

Updated on November 13, 2012

The 20th century saw many great changes in the outlook of the people. These changes are brought about by different factors such as the two great wars, World War I and World War II, the radical experiments in art, and the emergence of new nations out of colonial rule.

World War I and World War II

World War I was not called 'World War I' until the occurrence of World War II. For the people who went through World War I, it was called the "Great War." The beginnings of World War I are very complicated. It involved a tangle of alliances and ties which participated in the vast battlefield. But, basically, World War I started with a dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, led Austria-Hungary to declare an ultimatum against Serbia. Serbia's reaction, much to the dissatisfaction of Austria-Hungary, was to call up old ties with Russia just in case the impending battle (the Great War) happened. Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia on July 28, 1914. Both parties called up their old ties and in the intricate web of alliances, the Great War obtained the greatness that it was later known to have.

World War II, on the other hand, began on September 1, 1939 when Germany attacked Poland without declaring war. Two opposing forces were at work during this time: the Allied Forces and the Axis Powers. The Allied Forces or Allies included Britain, France and the United States. The Axis Powers, on the contrary, included Germany, Italy and Japan.

Radical Experiments in Art

The radical experimentation in the artistic field is collectively called the "Modernist Experiment." Modernism in art was a great shift from the idealistic outlook to the critical perspective. Thus, paintings depicted what were the everyday mundane things of life, not the images of heroism and grandeur. Modernism also gave rise to individual techniques and styles which digressed from the traditional. The most important concepts of this movement include "the importance of the machine as being part of beauty, the importance of subjective experience, [and] the necessity for system to replace the concept of 'objective reality.'"

New Nations

Ireland was the oldest colony of Britain. The Irish have for long struggled to break the bonds of the English from them. They gained independence in 1922. The main thrust of their struggle for sovereignty was the search for a national identity. Writers felt compelled to take a new look at Ireland and re-imagine it. The emergence of new nations, re-imagined and reconstructed, was a main theme among writers on that time.

English Literature

The events in history mentioned above contributed to the perspective of writers of that period. The two world wars saw the rise of soldier poets. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were two of the notable soldier poets whose works were controversial, owing to their grave representation of the war. They used irony in most of their poems to depict the wretchedness of war. Some readers and some poets like Ezra Pound disliked the works of Sassoon and Owen because according to these critics, the works were unpatriotic.

Modernist writings were mostly concerned about the structure and style. They discarded traditional forms. In poetry, for example, free verse was adopted instead of fixed patterns and rhyme schemes. The Modernist writers, however, did not have just one unified style. They freed themselves from the uniformity or unity of any artistic movement and created their own individual styles. They concerned themselves with similar themes, though. Most of these writers saw the decline of society and its values and ideals. They observed the degradation amidst the advancements in science and technology. They also wrote about sex and the body. These got James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence into trouble with censorship. They also wrote about the city life, particularly the people residing in them. They concentrated on the psychology of these people. Some writers like Virginia Woolf exploited psychology and employed the technique called "stream of consciousness." This technique showed the inner workings of the mind, apparently without any logic in the flow of thoughts and words, in contrast to an oral discourse which is supposedly logical and orderly.

The literary innovations of this period were largely influenced by the surroundings and the changes that were occurring in it, pretty much like the other periods of English literature. What distinguished this period, though, from the other, is the relatively grave and pessimistic outlook which is present in most of the writings. The writers exposed the mundane, the earthly, and the real no matter how ugly these realities may seem. They cared less about ideals and concentrated on what was tangible and experienced.


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      Just a comment 2 years ago

      It is a good summary, but the title is not proper. The text is about Modernist period in literature (cca. 1890-1960) and not CONTEMPORARY Literature.

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      atikah 3 years ago

      thanks a lot! ;)

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      Albert Bayot 5 years ago from Philippines

      Glad you liked it!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      Very interesting and thanks for sharing.