British Literature Comparison of Romanticism and Modernism

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Literary movements such as Romanticism and modernism had a broad international impact on the arts, and both had significant roots in British literature. The differences and similarities between British Romanticism and modernism rest not only in each movement’s key artistic attributes, such as narrative style and choice of setting, but also in the cultural and historical contexts that gave them shape.

1 Romanticism in Context

Romanticism in Britain developed in response to Enlightenment ideals. The Enlightenment, an 18th century cultural movement that encompassed philosophy, politics and the arts, idealized logic and science. Romantic artists rejected Enlightenment ideals as passionless, and emphasized individuality, spiritual experience and grandiose displays of human emotion. Romanticism developed alongside the Enlightenment and continued through the first half decades of the 19th century. Notable Romantic writers included William Blake, who wrote and illustrated “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” and Lord Byron, whose work “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” defined the ideal of the Romantic hero.

2 Hallmarks of Romanticism

British Romantics prized individual achievements, and elevated protagonists and even writers themselves to the status of heroes. Romantic poetry and prose often took place in idealized rural settings, as in the poetry of William Wordsworth, or country estates, like in Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Romantic writers believed in the universal applicability of art, and sought to make their literature accessible to all readers, regardless of education. This resulted in the explosive popularity of the Romantic novel, and the establishment of the novel as a widespread form of popular entertainment. Romantic novels such as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” not only caused a sensation upon their original publication, but have enduring appeal as popular works.

3 Modernism in Context

While Romanticism developed throughout the height of colonial Britain’s political and economic influence, modernism come of age in one of its darkest, most pessimistic eras. British modernism came into its own between 1915, when Ford Madox Ford published “The Good Soldier,” and 1922, the landmark year that saw the publication of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Modernist writers, confronted with the harsh social conditions of industrialization and the horrors of World War I, presented a literature dismissive of Romantic hallmarks such as spirituality and idealized love. Modernism developed out of Victorianism, a movement that prized realism over Romanticism's fantastic excesses. Modernism's primary focus -- an interest in reality as defined through psychology and psychoanalysis -- can be seen as a development of Victorian realism.

4 Hallmarks of Modernism

Whereas Romantic writers established conventions such as the linear plot and third-person narrator, modernists emphasized non-linearity and stream-of-consciousness narration. Unlike the pastoral settings of many Romantic works, modernist literature such as “Ulysses” and “The Waste Land” took place in a distinctly urban environment. In poetry, the Romantics prized the artistry of traditional forms like the sonnet, whereas the modernists emphasized formless experiments in free verse and sound poetry. Lastly, while the Romantics sought to make literature accessible to everyone, the modernists prized dense allusions and linguistic experiments that could sometimes border on incomprehensibility.

Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.