The Context of English Literature, 1900-1930

By Michael Bell | Go to book overview

I

Introduction: modern
movements in literature

MICHAEL BELL

Literature undeniably reflects in some sense the life and thought of its time, but to determine how it does so is the delicate and continuing function of criticism. It may address itself to 'life' in a greater or lesser degree but its value as literature is not in any simple sense contingent on such a criterion. The vitality or meaningfulness of literature hinges on its internal intensity rather than the quantity of historical information in a factual sense that it may include. It is a delicate matter, therefore, to mediate pertinently between literary experience and its putative contexts; to discuss 'influences' and preoccupations without collapsing the tension of this vital heterogeneity. This general consideration has an especial importance in the modern context since it is precisely from the influential modern writers that we have inherited the insistence that literature be seen as literature and 'not another thing'; that it is not simply a vehicle for 'ideas' or 'content' which could be expressed in some other form. In fact, this discrimination is one of the defining strains of literary modernism.

The approach in this essay reflects that perception. Rather than attempt to sketch the manifold interrelations of modern literature with contemporary life and thought in a one-to-one, quantitative way, I have tried primarily to establish what kind of a literature it is. In so far as a distinct body of characteristics can be detected, this provides the perspective on its extra-literary relations. That amounts, in effect, to offering some definitions of the modern element in literature. I say definitions because I do not believe there is a single principle or

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