Modernism is a period in literature and art that began in the late 1800s and became increasingly widespread after WWI. According to T.S. Eliot and Modernity, “modernism is a reaction against the modern” (Menand, 1996). This movement was characterized by a rethinking of the way in which the world operated due in significant part to the war. “Modernism took shape decades before World War I, but its clamorous arrival was vastly accelerated by the greatest collective trauma in history to that point” (Johnson, 2012). Encompassed in the modernist movement were poetry, fiction, drama, painting, music, and architecture (Gonzalez). These works broke free from the traditional mold that they used to be structured by and were characterized by experimentation with form and expression. One of the primary reasons for the differences that were seen in art and literature following WWI was a world shift in which Europe ceded world power to the United States.

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Many of the writers and artists in the U.S. used different style and expression than their European predecessors. The tragedies that were seen in WWI influenced literature and art during the modernist period by causing the producers of these works to lose their pretenses and present more direct messages about the world around them. “During and after World War I, flowery Victorian language was blown apart and replaced by more sinewy and R-rated prose styles. In visual art, Surrealists and Expressionists devised wobbly, chopped-up perspectives and nightmarish visions of fractured human bodies and splintered societies slouching toward moral chaos” (Johnson, 2012). Thus, the art and literature of the modernist movement encompassed reality as seen in WWI which was in stark contrast to the rosy view of the world that was often characteristic of Victorian literature and art. The discontent of the people toward authoritarian governments and widespread militarism led to a high demand for this type of literature in art throughout Europe and the United States.
T.S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot, who was born in the U.S. in 1888 and relocated to the United Kingdom in 1927, is considered to be one of the central figures in the modernist movement. His work, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, is often characterized as the beginning of modernism in poetry. Similar to other writers of this time period, Eliot’s works illustrates a strong criticism of modern society. “Eliot identified the main stream of modern culture as romanticism, and he regarded romanticism as the secret friend and abettor of all the tendencies of modern life he most deplored: liberalism, secularism, laissez-faire” (Menand, 1996). Thus, Eliot sought to break free from the main stream in his poetic works. “His poems in many respects articulated the disillusionment of a younger post-World War I generation with the values and conventions – both literary and social – of the Victorian era” (, 2016). The most famous lines of one of T.S. Eliot’s poems, The Hollow Men written in 1925, state, “This is the way the world ends; This is the way the world ends; This is the way the world ends; Not with a bang but a whimper” (“T.S. Eliot”, 1965). In these lines, the effects of WWI are evident; these lines helped to solidify Eliot’s reputation as a poet of the post-World War I era of disillusionment and despair (“T.S. Eliot”, 1965). The Victoria era flowery lines that were once present in poetry have been replaced by a gloomier outlook that signifies how the times had changed. In fact, much of Eliot’s works were filled with melancholy, a common element of post-World War I modernism.

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  • Johnson, Reed. “Are Forever Changed By World War I.” LA Times. 21 July 2012. Web. 12
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  •, “T. S. Eliot | Academy of American Poets.” 2016. Web. 12 February 2016.
  • “T.S. Eliot, the Poet, is Dead in London at 76.” 5 January 1965. Web. 12
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