Study Guide

Modernism Top Authors

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  • Ezra Pound

    Besides having one of the most terrifyingly brutal pun-ready names in the English language, Pound was one of the 20th century's great American poets. This dude was important for single-handedly crafting the tradition of Modernist poetry and quite literally shaping the work of other players of the period, such as T.S. Eliot and H.D.

    Pound's Imagism, which morphed into Vorticism after 1913, gave poetry in English its focus on simple, concrete diction and spare syntax, as well as its emphasis on strong visual imagery, which continues to this day. Pound it.


    As well as being one of the century's most important poets, Pound was also a scholar. Way to overachieve, Pound. In Cathay, his re-working of Chinese poetry, he remakes an entire tradition new to English speakers. See "Make It New" for more awesomeness.

    Hugh Selwyn Mauberly

    This is Pound's response to WWI from the perspective of a Prufrock-esque narrator. Like Eliot's poem "The Lovesong Of J. Alfred Prufrock," Hugh Selwyn demands patience and effort from readers, but it offers bigtime rewards. Also like Eliot's work, this poem brings ancient ideas and texts into the present.

    "In a Station of the Metro"

    Pound's quintessentially Imagist work. Short and sweet. We'll discuss it more in our analysis section—mosey on over and check it out.

    Chew on This:

    Poetry probably began as prayers or magical chants intended to work changes in the world. Pound can be read as going back to the really ancient roots of the poetic tradition, making it clear that he found the modern world as full of magic as it ever was.

    Pound can also be read as expressing that the modern world was so messed-up that it was in dire need of a little magic.

  • T.S. Eliot

    Ol' T.S. was a piece of work. He was your classic Modernist overachiever—doing multi-duty as a poet, essayist, playwright, and critic. He was indisputably a genius. He was also a jerk.

    No, we're not just talking about his iffy relationship with his ailing wife. We're talking about his sadistic relationship to his readers. "Hey, poetry-lovers," Eliot seems to say. "You think you can hack poetry? How about poetry in six different languages? Huh? Yeah, you like that? How about references to thirty five different obscure authors? Huh? You like that? Yeah, didn't think so. Wuss."

    T.S. Eliot sets up hoops and asks you, the ever-patient reader, to jump through them. Some people are reduced to tears by this game of "spot all the allusions." Some people love it. But there's one thing that all readers of Eliot agree on: this dude was ridiculously smart and talented.

    "Hollow Men"

    You may have heard the lines "This is the way the world will end/Not with a bang, but a whimper." Awesome, right? Well, they come from this poem.

    "Hollow Men" is Eliot's way of describing the lost souls of his generation, traumatized by their experience in WWI.

    "The Waste Land"

    This poem is super-duper important. In this work, Eliot sounds like a Victorian, all mopey and depressed over how far civilization has fallen. But his method is definitely Modernist.

    Like Pound, Eliot gives poetic conventions a good shake, throwing all sorts of references into a blender and producing works of great complexity composed of allusions to and fragments from other texts.

    That makes it hard for the reader, but this is intentional (and, yes, kind of sadistic). Eliot believed that writers and readers alike have to work to construct some sort of new form and meaning: he was clearly a follower of the 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration school of reading. "The Waste Land" forces readers to go on a treasure hunt, playing a game of "collect 'em all" when it comes to allusions to classical texts.

    "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock"

    This is also one of the big daddies of Modernist poetry. It's about a sadsack named Prufrock walking around, wondering why the ladeez don't love him in the way he feels he deserves to be loved. Womp, womp. It's also about the passage of time, and how cruel and unrelenting it is.

    Chew on this:

    Eliot evokes the epic tradition of poetry by choosing an epigraph from Dante's Inferno for "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock." But it is clear from the poem's content that Eliot doesn't think the modern age can really produce an actually epic.

    Why does Eliot make the poem look like an epic and sound like an epic in places only to disappoint us with something that is clearly so mundane (a dude moaning about his girl troubles)?

  • James Joyce

    An Irishman from Dublin, Joyce is mostly known for his novels, though he wrote poetry, plays, and essays. His multi-lingual allusions and puns have given many a reader conniptions—there should be a rule that everyone who finishes Ulysses gets a gold star, and everyone who finishes Finnegan's Wake gets a freaking gold brick.

    Finnegan's Wake

    Joyce studied a number of languages. Many of these, including even Esperanto, turn up as puns and references in Finnegan's Wake, making this novel the single hardest book to get through in the (mostly) English language.


    These stories, on the other hand, are easy to get through. They're also brilliant. Joyce's short stories changed the way people write short stories in English. They are much less Avant-garde (read: readable) than Joyce's novels, but still focus on individual consciousness.

    Do yourself a favor and read these bad boys. They're beautiful, they're (comparatively) easy, and they kind of exemplify what kind of awesomeness can come out of the genre of the short story. You will thank yourself (and your good buddy Shmoop).


    What can we say? If you've read Finnegan's Wake, you'll think this novel is easy. And even if you haven't (and think that Ulysses is the hardest book in the universe) you'll think this novel is genius. You kind of have to: everyone else does.

    Ulysses was famously banned in some countries because it's pretty dang filthy: there's masturbation and sexytimes galore.

    It's also famous for its strategy of shifting narrative styles and points of view from one chapter to another and for juxtaposing the life of everyday Dublin to mythological events and figures from Homer's Odyssey. This was Joyce's way of suggesting that any subject is fit fodder for art. Or maybe he's just showing off?

    Chew on This:

    As we've seen, lots of Modernist works, both poetry and fiction, plunge us into the interior worlds of their characters. Why might these writers—especially Joyce—want to do that?

    As T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (1922) did for poetry, Ulysses changed people's ideas about what a novel is and what it can do. Joyce, more than any author before him, realized that how you write about something determines what you can write about. In other words, form is inseparable from content, and content from form.

  • Virginia Woolf

    Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Um, besides Edward Albee… pretty much everyone. She's super-intimidating.

    Woolf was an important pioneer of the stream-of-consciousness technique. Though the mind of an average person was not considered interesting or important enough by earlier writers to merit elevating it to art, for Woolf and for other Modernists, it was the most important thing—the best subject a writer could choose.

    Mrs. Dalloway

    This tour-de-force novel, written in 1925, particularly demonstrates the stream of consciousness technique. We sample the thoughts of a cross-section of London society, from Mrs. Dalloway and her comfortable middle-class friends to a shell-shocked veteran of WWI.

    "A Room of One's Own"

    Woolf speaks about female writers and writing to a male audience not used to thinking about women as creatures with complex minds. Ugh. Every time we want to go back and live in the 1920s, a reality check like this rears its ugly head.


    Woolf's novel asks questions about gender no earlier writer in English had ever asked before. How's that for making it new? Dang, Woolf. Your smarts scare us.

    This novel, dedicated to Woolf's flame, Vita Sackville-West, is a hybrid: sort of a science-fiction novel, kind of a pseudo-biography. This book blurs lines of genre and gender with cross-dressing zest. It couldn't be more Modernist.

  • Franz Kafka

    Contrary to popular belief, Kafka was not half-man, half-bug. Nor did he have an airport named after him.

    He actually had a pretty quiet (and pretty miserable) life. Kafka was a German Jew living in Czechoslovakia. Jews and Germans were not popular among the Czechs—meaning Kafka was doubly disliked.

    Apart from these issues of race and class, Kafka did not even feel that he belonged in his own family. His father especially did not understand or appreciate Kafka's artistic temperament. It's no shocker, really, that Kafka liked writing about the alienation of the modern man.

    The Metamorphosis

    The fact that Kafka did his writing in isolation (and didn't publish most of it during his lifetime) probably helped to shape his work into what it is: a strange and sometimes darkly funny amalgamation of parable, Surrealistic interior narrative, and social commentary.

    This short novel, in which a man turns into a disgusting bug, is totally all of these things.

    "A Hunger Artist"

    Here's another strange parable in which a man starves himself to death in public as a sort of artistic performance. What—did you expect something normal from Kafka? Pssshhh.

    "In the Penal Colony"

    Maybe because his life was so famously constrained—Kafka worked as a lawyer during the day and was free to write only at night—he wrote more than once about the subject of prisons and punishment.

    This dystopian story examines in graphic detail the horrific torture of a prisoner in an unnamed state. Yeah, Shmoopers: if you want uplifting do not turn to Kafka.

    Chew on this:

    One of the most interesting things about Kafka's work is that, like other Modernist texts, it can be read in many ways. The language itself is simple enough, but the works suggest many different meanings and ideas. How does this relate to the idea of the unconscious?

    Kafka is a totally unique writer. But it he following Pound's advice to "Make it New"? Why or why not?

  • William Butler Yeats

    Although Yeats' poetic technique couldn't be called Avant-garde (since he generally wrote metrically regular verse and frequently used fixed poetic forms), he shared some of the major concerns of the Modernists—like isolation and a preoccupation with history. Plus, he's a little bit of genius. They don't hand out Nobel Prizes like candy, after all.

    "The Second Coming"

    This poem was written in the aftermath of World War I, and can be said to speak for the generation when it announces, "Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold." Yikes. That sounds Modernist to us.

    "Sailing to Byzantium"

    In the Romantic period, Keats wrote his "Ode to a Nightingale", in which a bird's song was able to lift the poet to new heights of art. For Yeats, nature can't do that trick anymore. Only art can.

    In this poem, the aging narrator wishes to be transformed into a work of art: a mechanized songbird rather than a real one.

    "The Song of the Wandering Aengus"

    Yeats is adding his own contribution to traditional stories about a Celtic god of youth and beauty in this lovely early poem.

  • Marcel Proust

    There's probably only one writer who can rival Henry James for the stupendous length of his sentences. Meet Marcel Proust. He really likes cookies.

    Like Kafka and Yeats, Proust was a retiring sort of fellow. He spent most of his life in bed (cozy!) suffering from maladies that might have been imaginary. It was as though he had to retreat from the world in order to internalize and re-create it.

    Remembrance of Things Past

    They say that you realize you're middle-aged when you know you'll never read Remembrance of Things Past. So do yourself a favor and read this seven-part semi-autobiographical work, which is famous for its lyrical descriptions and psychological realism. Not only will you have an awesome thing to talk about at parties; you'll also never be middle-aged. Right? That's how that works, right?

    The book reflects scientific and philosophical theories about the nature of time and memory we still find significant and relevant, like Proust's insights into the way a taste or a smell can unfold a whole world of past experience.

  • William Carlos Williams

    "No ideas but in things" is the very American slogan of William Carlos Williams, a poet and medical doctor from New Jersey. Hearing him read his poems on the many audio files littering the Internet—this one, for example —helps us to realize just how American Williams really is. Check out his Tony Soprano-style Jersey accent.

    In contrast to a poet like Eliot or Pound, who affect high-flown European tones when reading their work even though they are as American as Williams is, Williams sounds like a guy you might run into on the streets of Newark. The diction of his poems and other writing is simple and casual. You won't generally need a dictionary and encyclopedia to understand this poet's works—unlike Eliot and Pound.

    While Pound talked a good game in his Imagist manifesto, Williams's work truly does embrace the rules about plain diction and concreteness in a way that Pound's work often doesn't. These poems generally stick to simple things, staying true to the whole "No ideas but in things" credo.

    "The Red Wheelbarrow"

    This little dude packs a wallop. In this important Modernist poem, Williams writes about a red wheelbarrow rather than writing about abstractions. Bonus: it's short and sweet.

    "This is Just to Say"

    This is another short piece that takes the most banal of communications—a note left on the refrigerator—and turns it into a poem. Poetry is everywhere, says Williams.

    "To a Poor Old Woman"

    In this poem, Williams continues to play with free verse in ways that still resonate for poets today.

  • William Faulkner

    Ol' Willy Faulkner invented a world. It wasn't just that each of his novels created full fictional universes, but that he envisioned and even mapped out a detailed imaginary place in which he set several of his novels. Welcome to Yoknapatawpha County in rural Mississippi.

    The Sound and the Fury

    In this novel, Faulkner tells the same story from several different points of view. This makes it especially difficult (yes, including for all of us at Shmoop—nobody chooses this novel as beach reading). The novel follows the quickly shifting stream of consciousness of several people, including one who is mentally incapacitated, and combines lyrical language with subject matter that shocked the prim and proper audiences of Faulkner's day.

    "A Rose for Emily"

    Spoiler alert: here be necrophilia. This short story exemplifies Faulkner's particularly pungent—no, seriously—brand of Southern Gothic.

    As I Lay Dying

    Telling a story from multiple points of view did the trick for Faulkner in his earlier novel, The Sound and the Fury, so he one-upped himself here. This book tells the story from fifteen—count 'em, fifteen—different perspectives. The story centers around the Bundren clan, off to bury the family's matriarch.

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