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British Literature from 1660 to Today: 20th Century

The 20th Century

Global war is one of the defining features of twentieth-century experience, and the first global war is the subject of one of this period’s topics, “Representing the Great War.” Masses of dead bodies strewn upon the ground, plumes of poison gas drifting through the air, hundreds of miles of trenches infested with rats—these are but some of the indelible images that have come to be associated with World War I (1914-18). It was a war that unleashed death, loss, and suffering on an unprecedented scale. How did recruiting posters, paintings, memoirs, and memorials represent the war? Was it a heroic occasion, comparable to a sporting event, eliciting displays of manly valor and courage? Or was it an ignominious waste of human life, with little gain to show on either side of the conflict, deserving bitterly ironic treatment? What were the differences between how civilians and soldiers, men and women, painters and poets represented the war? How effective or inadequate were memorials, poems, or memoirs in conveying the enormous scale and horror of the war? These are among the issues explored in this topic about the challenge to writers and artists of representing the unrepresentable.

Red Stone DancerAnother of the twentieth century’s defining features is radical artistic experiment. The boundary-breaking art, literature, and music of the first decades of the century are the subject of the topic “Modernist Experiment.” Among the leading aesthetic innovators of this era were the composer Igor Stravinsky, the cubist Pablo Picasso, and the futurist F. T. Marinetti. ElectricityThe waves of artistic energy in the avant-garde European arts soon crossed the English Channel, as instanced by the abstraction and dynamism of Red Stone Dancer (1913-14) by the London-based vorticist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Other vorticists and modernists include such English-language writers as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Mina Loy, who also responded to the stimulus and challenge of the European avant-garde with manifestos, poems, plays, and other writings. This topic explores the links between Continental experiment and the modernist innovations of English-language poets and writers during a period of extraordinary ferment in literature and the arts.

Damage in DublinAnother of the defining features of the twentieth century was the emergence of new nations out of European colonial rule. Among these nations, Ireland was the oldest of Britain’s colonies and the first in modern times to fight for independence. The topic “Imagining Ireland” explores how twentieth-century Irish writers fashioned new ideas about the Irish nation. It focuses on two periods of crisis, when the violent struggle for independence put the greatest pressure on literary attempts to imagine the nation: in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the later outbreaks of sectarian violence from 1969 (known as the Troubles) in Northern Ireland. How do poems, plays, memoirs, short stories, and other literary works represent the bloodshed and yet the potential benefits of these violent political upheavals? Do they honor or lament, idealize or criticize, these political acts? And how do these literary representations compare with political speeches and treaties that bear on these defining moments in modern Irish history? “Imagining Ireland” considers these and other questions about literature and the making of Irish nationality, which continue to preoccupy contemporary writers of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Irish diaspora.

*From the Norton Anthology of British Literature


A Room of Ones Own or Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers or Lady Chatterly's Lover or St. Mawr or The Rainbow
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

The Heart of Darkness

W. B. Yeats

Major Novelists


T. S. Eliot


"The Waste Land" 2614

"Sweeny Among the Nightingales"

"Journey of the Magi" 2631

"The Hollow Men" 2628

Other Readings

Stevie Smith (1902-1971): “Not Waving but Drowning,” p. 2374;

W. H. Auden (1907-1973): “As I Walked Out One Evening,” p. 2427, “”Musee des Beaux Arts,” p. 2428;

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953): “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,” p. 2445, “Do Not Go Gentle

into That Good Night,” p. 2450;

Nadine Gordimer (b. 1923), “The Moment before the Gun Went Off,” p. 2575-78;

Alice Munro (b. 1931): “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” pp. 2715-24.

Chinua Achebe (b.1930): from “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” pp. 2709-14;

Ted Hughes (1930-1998): “Wind,” p. 2594, “Theology,” p. 2598, “Daffodils,” p. 2599;

Seamus Heaney (b. 1939): “Digging,” p. 2824, “The Forge,” p. 2825, “The Grauballe Man,” p. 2825, “Punishment,” p. 2826;

Carol Ann Duffy (b. 1955): “Warming Her Pearls,” p. 2874, “Medusa,” p. 2875, “Mrs. Lazarus,” p. 2876;

Salman Rushdie (b. 1947): “The Prophet’s Hair,” pp. 2854-63.