Penelope Maclachlan

Modernism began in the nineteenth century and peaked just before World War I. It was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 1700s and went on until the 1800s. The Revolution meant progress, but the effects on the poor were appalling. They included malnutrition;  the lowest paid workers were unable to afford decent food. 

Modernists revalued the assumptions of their predecessors, among which was faith in reason. Modernism was a rebellion against nineteenth nineteenth century academic and historic traditions and against Victorian nationalism and cultural absolutism. Characteristics of Modernism include individualism, experimentation, absurdity, symbolism and formalism. Formalism concerns itself with form rather than content in artistic work. 

Individualism uncovers the character’s emotions, considerations, and activities, without analysis by the creator. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is one of the most important twentieth  century writers  and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device. The stream of consciousness deals with the flow of ideas and thoughts running in the inner mind of a character.  In her novel, Mrs Dalloway, she deploys stream of consciousness to tell the story of a day in London in 1923. Here the protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, reacts to her surroundings:

“For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life.”

What she sees the recreates in her own mind.   

Experimentation led to the stream of consciousness technique. As with individualism, the reader is shown, not told, what the characters are experiencing. We are invited not to censure but to observe. Ulysses by James Joyce deploys stream of consciousness, as the following quotation shows:

“A warm human plumpness settled down on his brain. His brain yielded. Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.”

Logically this does not stand up to analysis, but it is not intended to. Instead Joyce conjures up the sensations of the character which are irrational yet true. 

T S Eliot deploys absurdity in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. The title itself suggest that that the protagonist, who is also the narrator, is no hero. He says of himself:

                 “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

                 I do not think that they will sing to me.” 

Symbolism occurs frequently in Mrs Dalloway. A poignant  example is Septimus:

            “As these doctors see him, Septimus is a danger to society because he serves as a reminder of the damage of war, instead of the heroism. He must be put away so people can still believe in the grandness of English empire.”

Virginia Woolf echoes the views of Wilfred Owen, who fought in World War I. His poems refuse to celebrate war, but instead show us with ruthless clarity how it kills or rips off the limbs of fine young people sacrificed on a false altar of patriotism.  

               Writers, like all artists, learn from their predecessors. Our finest poets today study the works of their forebears and introduce fresh ideas and techniques. Alice Oswald, when she says “I believe the poet shouldn’t be in the poem at all except as a lens or as ears” , she reminds us of authors like Virginia Woolf, who refrain from authorial interference, but lets thoughts speak for themselves.    .

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