In 2023, the masterpieces of Modernist literature continue to dazzle and astonish. Award-winning biographer and critic Frances Wilson is our guide to Joyce, Eliot, Woolf and beyond.
‘Make it New’ said Ezra Pound in 1928, and the newness of literary modernism is still shocking us. We’re still in awe of TS Eliot, intimidated by James Joyce, and afraid of Virginia Woolf. The modernists responded to a world where God was dead, or at least dying, and Freud had shown that we were not as rational as we thought we were. We needed to find new ways to express ourselves, or to express the fact that there were now no obvious ways of expressing ourselves, if indeed there was a self to express. While the Bloomsbury group embraced the dissolution of consciousness with a euphoric sense of freedom, DH Lawrence feared what the future held and looked with nostalgia to a better and more stable past.
Focusing on six modernist masterpieces, Frances Wilson will show that while modernism was violent and challenging it was also witty, fresh, and exhilarating, packed with beauty and wisdom. This course will introduce the movement’s most outstanding personalities and explore the role of modernism in reigniting poetry, biography, autobiography, criticism, the novel and the short story.
Week 1 – T S Eliot – The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock (1915)
‘Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is laid out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table…’
To whom is the narrator speaking in these opening lines? Where are the two of them – whoever they are – going? And is it tasteful to compare the beauty of the sunset to ‘a patient etherised upon a table?’ Prufrock, we learn, is a sexually frustrated middle-aged man who wants to say something but ends up saying nothing; little wonder the reviewers were frustrated by the poem. ‘The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot’, wrote the critic in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone – even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry.’
Written when Eliot was 22 years old, Prufrock heralded the break with Victorian tradition at the same time as it is heavily dependent on Dante, the Bible, Shakespeare, the Metaphysical poets and the French Symbolists. In this first masterclass we will combine close readings of Prufrock with an introduction to the life and work of T S Eliot, the Godfather of modernism.
Week 2: James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo …
The hero of A Portrait, whose evolution from child to artist is described in a vocabulary which evolves which his age, is Stephen Dedalus, and Joyce’s wayward use of language, by which he accessed areas of experience for which words do not yet exist, was one of the things that alienated his first readers. ‘I can’t print what I can’t understand’, his editor said when he read the first draft of the book, but A Portrait is now recognised as Joyce’s most accessible work. This session will unlock the book’s difficulties and show why A Portrait is rightly regarded as one of the seminal novels of the age.
Week 3: Lytton Strachey – Eminent Victorians (1918)
Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead—who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortège of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism.
Modernist biography is every bit as incendiary as modernist poetry or the modernist novel, and the hilarious character assassinations that compose Eminent Victorians destroyed forever the pretentions of the Victorians to moral superiority, and the idea of biography as objective truth. ‘It is brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized’, wrote Bertrand Russell, reading the book while serving time in Brixton Prison, ‘I often laughed out loud in my cell … The warder came to my cell to remind me that prison was a place of punishment’.
Week 4: Katherine Mansfield – The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922)
Lytton Strachey described Katherine Mansfield as a ‘foul-mouthed, virulent, brazen-faced broomstick of a creature’ while Virginia Woolf said that Mansfield was the only writer of whom she was jealous. Her short stories are like shards of glass, but they are also like cinema: fascinated by the burgeoning film industry, Mansfield utilised the effects of close-ups, tracking shots and fade-outs. This session will focus on her short, explosive life (Mansfield died aged 34), and her lasting impact on the art of brevity.
Week 5: DH Lawrence – Studies in Classic American Literature (1923)
It is hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language. We just don’t listen. There is a new voice in the old American classics…
Lawrence was a novelist but also a critic, and his criticism is amongst the best of the twentieth century. It was he who first recognised the genius of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman: before Lawrence celebrated classic American literature the term itself was seen as an oxymoron. How could a country as young and raw as America have produced ‘classic literature’? In these electrifying essays we find Lawrence’s most devastating insights, such has the recognition that we should ‘never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper functions of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”
Week 6: Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927)
‘A group of people plan to sail in a small boat to a lighthouse’, complained the novelist Arnold Bennet on finishing To the Lighthouse. ‘At the end some of them reach the lighthouse in a small boat. That is the externality of the plot.’ Divided into three sections based on two single days, ten years apart, Woolf’s masterpiece centres on the Ramsay family and their annual holidays on the Isle of Skye. Instead of a plot we have the thoughts and observations of the family and their friends; this is because, Woolf believed, ‘everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss.’ An exploration of consciousness, To the Lighthouse is also Woolf’s most personal book; returning to her own childhood she dealt in these pages with the devastating early death of her mother.