The early part of the twentieth century saw massive changes in the everyday life of people in cities. The inventions of the automobile, airplane, and telephone shrank distances around the world and sped up the pace of life. Freud’s theories of psychology changed the popular understanding of the mind and identity, and the thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche changed traditional opinions of truth, certainty, and morality.

Science was rapidly shifting from two-hundred-year-old Newtonian models, to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and finally to quantum mechanics.

At least partly in response to this acceleration of life and thought, a wave of experimental art movements, sometimes called “modernist” because of their emphasis on extreme changes, swept through Europe.

In Paris, the painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed cubism, a style of painting that abandoned realism and traditional perspective to fragment space and explode form.

In music, meanwhile, composers such as the Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky were beginning experiments with rhythm and harmony that would soon culminate in the outright chaos of composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.

In literature, “modernism” describes more of a time period than a movement. But what connects the modernist writers—is a shared desire to break with established forms and subjects in art and literature.

Influenced by European art movements, many modernist writers rejected realistic representation and traditional formal expectations. In their novels, they explored their characters’ psychology through stream of consciousness and interior monologue.


In poetry, they mixed slang with elevated language, experimented with free verse, and often studded their works with difficult allusions and disconnected images.

Among the earliest groups to shape English-language modernism were the imagists, a circle of poets led initially by the Englishman T. E. Hulme and the American Ezra Pound, in the early 1910s. These poets included the use of plain speech, the preference for free verse over closed forms, and above all the creation of the vivid, hard-edged image.

The influence of modernism, both on those artists who have rejected it and on those who have followed its direction, was widespread. Joyce, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and other modernists used compositional strategies that are still central to literature.

Literary modernism has continued to shape art as a form of cultural revolution that must break with established history, constantly pushing the boundaries of artistic practice.

The above text was modified from:

The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The 20th Century: Topic 2: Overview,