Romantic Modern Post Modern Literature Thesis

Pages: 4 (1607 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 4  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Literature

Romantic, Modern and Postmodern Literature

There is a great deal of debate about the demarcation points or the areas of transition between romanticism, modernism and postmodernism. On the one hand, many see the modernist movement in art and literature as being, in some senses, an extension of the themes and the intentions of the late romantics like W.B. Yeats; and there is an ongoing debate about whether Yeats is a romantic or modernist. On the other hand there is also a strong argument for the separation of romanticism and modernism.

Critics note that the romantics were more inclined towards absolutes and religious beliefs. (Introduction to Romanticism) This transcendental tendency can be seen for example in the works of Wordsworth. Wordsworth is also a prime example the romantic veneration of nature; which is also a central point of difference with regard to modernism and postmodernism. Modernism is characterized more by a concern with the ordinary social and mundane world of existence. As one critic notes, "modernist literature can be viewed largely in terms of its formal, stylistic and semantic movement away from Romanticism, examining subject matter that is traditionally mundane…" (Modernist literature) Other critics argue that poets like Byron and Yeats were in some respects postmodern in their attitudes towards aspects such as non-dualism and the deconstruction of 'master narratives' in society. (Orr)

Postmodernism is to large extent a reaction against modernism and more specifically against the ideological assumptions that were felt to still linger in the modernist approach to reality. Postmodernism argues against the leaning in modernism towards eternal values and the search for a stable truth. The postmodernist would see all "final" truth as suspect and relative to social and cultural contexts.

The central point that is being made in this paper is that the terms romanticism, modernism and postmodern are categories that are shifting and permeable and not definitively fixed or cast in stone. They are categories and as such are only estimates of the change in literary and artistic history and viewpoints -- to which there are many exceptions.

Having said this, certain changes or points of departure in literature and art can be identified and discussed in terms of general movements. A prime example of the romantic ethos and worldview can be found in the works of William Blake. At the same time one can also see aspects of the modernist ethos in his work.

Blake reacted strongly against the emerging industrial, rational and scientific view of life and his works clearly suggest a more heroic and ideal reality, which was more truthful and valid than the world of everyday reality. This is evident for example in the poem London, where he expressed his sense of despair and disillusionment at the suffering of people in the city and the way that people were blind to true reality because of "…"mind-forged manacles " (Line 8) (Abrams 42) He also exposed the way that society treats the innocent in The Chimney Sweeper.

While the mythical and mystical elements in Blake's poetry allow us to categorize his works as romantic, we can also argue that there are elements in his works that are very similar to modernist sentiments; for example, his critique of society and the way that modern science and industry perverts the understanding of true reality. Blake also differs from the romantic view of nature. Unlike Wordsworth, Blake sees all of nature and humanity as 'fallen' and the ordinary world as secondary to true reality that is hidden form the common view. Imagination is central to the work of Blake. For Blake the power of the imagination enables us,

To see the World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an Hour

(Keynes 431)

This view brings him more in line with modernism and postmodernism. As has been suggested, modernism was a movement that was based on a loss of faith in human government and in the ability of man to create a just world and society. The First World War was an important impetus towards modernist thinking, as the huge and unnecessary loss of life and carnage of this war led many artists and writers to radically question the assumptions and views of the past.

One of the central differences therefore between modernism and romanticism is the modernist focus on the failure of human nature and the exposure of the evil and decadence that lurks in the "heart" of the human. This contrasts with the romantic view of the heroic, imaginative and ideal human being. Events like the French Revolution changed this optimistic view of human nature led many romantics to realize that "…what soars in the human spirit is not always conscious." (Chapter 5 - Modernism and the Subject) This disillusionment was to lead to the central critical tenor of modernism. "In the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century, the scrutiny of Enlightenment intellectualism turned nasty and produced a counter-Romanticist movement called Modernism." (Chapter 5 - Modernism and the Subject ) This disillusionment is already evident in the poetry of Blake and becomes more evident in one of the most profound modernist novels, Heart of Darkness.

This novel by Joseph Conrad explores the destructive influences of colonization. More importantly, the novel exposes the underlying reason for the cruelty and injustices of colonization in the "horror" that lies hidden in the human heart. This is seen in the character of Kurtz. The central theme of the novel is the search for self and an investigation of the true nature of human beings who are no longer constrained by the norms and rules of society. Kurtz is beyond social control and has encountered his own nature - which is the "Heart of Darkness" of the title.

There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! He had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air. (Conrad 144)

Conrad suggests that, unlike the romantic vision of the heroic human, once the strictures and norms of society are removed the true nature of the human heart is revealed.

The postmodern ethos goes a step further in an analysis of society and human nature. In postmodernism we find that all truth and reality is contingent or relative to society, culture and other dominating factors. In other words, simply put, there is no ground or centre on which to rely and reality is in fact seen as chaos that is shaped and ordered by ideals and norms. From this perspective there is no intrinsic underlying foundation to reality, which is what the romantics were searching for.

A book that has often been referred to as an example of earlier views of postmodernism is Achebe's Things Fall Apart. The very title of the book which summarizes the postmodern ethos as is taken from a poem by W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming. This is an apocalyptic poem that describes the modern wasteland and a world in which there is no center or sense of certainty. This view is reflected in the plot of the novel and in the clash of cultural views and events that surround the central character of Okonkwo.

This postmodern ethos is reflected in the thinking of a philosopher like Foucault. Foucault refers to the cultural institutions and authorities who construct and determine truth and reality fro others. In the novel Okonkwo tries to retain his own personal and cultural reality in a world where colonialism has upset all the norms and values that make up his world. The novel can be related to Foucault's view of truth and reality invented… [END OF PREVIEW]

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