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English literature

The Early Twentieth Century

Irish drama flowered in the early 20th cent., largely under the aegis of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (see Irish literary renaissance). John Millington Synge, William Butler Yeats, and Sean O'Casey all wrote on Irish themes—mythical in Yeats's poetic drama, political in O'Casey's realistic plays. Also Irish, George Bernard Shaw wrote biting dramas that reflect all aspects of British society. In fact, many of the towering figures of 20th-century English literature were not English; Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, O'Casey, and Beckett were Irish, Dylan Thomas was Welsh, T. S. Eliot was born an American, and Conrad was Polish.

Poetry in the early 20th cent. was typified by the conventional romanticism of such poets as John Masefield, Alfred Noyes, and Walter de la Mare and by the experiments of the imagists, notably Hilda Doolittle (H. D.), Richard Aldington, Herbert Read, and D. H. Lawrence. The finest poet of the period was Yeats, whose poetry fused romantic vision with contemporary political and aesthetic concerns. Though the 19th-century tradition of the novel lived on in the work of Arnold Bennett, William Henry Hudson, and John Galsworthy, new writers like Henry James, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad expressed the skepticism and alienation that were to become features of post-Victorian sensibility.

World War I shook England to the core. As social mores were shaken, so too were artistic conventions. The work of war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the latter killed in the war (as were Rupert Brooke and Isaac Rosenberg), was particularly influential. Ford Madox Ford's landmark tetralogy, Parade's End, is perhaps the finest depiction of the war and its effects. The new era called for new forms, typified by the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, first published in 1918, and of T. S. Eliot, whose long poem The Waste Land (1922) was a watershed in both American and English literary history. Its difficulty, formal invention, and bleak antiromanticism were to influence poets for decades.

Equally important was the novel Ulysses, also published in 1922, by the expatriate Irishman James Joyce. Although his books were controversial because of their freedom of language and content, Joyce's revolutions in narrative form, the treatment of time, and nearly all other techniques of the novel made him a master to be studied, but only intermittently copied. Though more conventional in form, the novels of D. H. Lawrence were equally challenging to convention; he was the first to champion both the primitive and the supercivilized urges of men and women.

Sensitivity and psychological subtlety mark the superb novels of Virginia Woolf, who, like Dorothy Richardson, experimented with the interior forms of narration. Woolf was the center of the brilliant Bloomsbury group, which included the novelist E. M. Forster, the biographer Lytton Strachey, and many important English intellectuals of the early 20th cent. Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh satirized the group and the period, while Katharine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen captured their flavor in fiction.

Moved by the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and English policies of appeasement, many writers and intellectuals sought solutions in the politics of the left—or the right. Wyndham Lewis satirized what he thought was the total dissolution of culture in Apes of Gods (1930). George Orwell fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. The experience left him profoundly disillusioned with Communism, a feeling he eloquently expressed in such works as Animal Farm (1946) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). The poets W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and C. Day Lewis all proclaimed their leftist respective political commitments, but the pressing demands of World War II superseded these long-term ideals.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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