English Literature
Glossary of Literary Terms

This is a reprint from The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914. Words in bold within the text indicate terms cross-referenced to other articles in the book

Abstract Expressionism

A form of art in which the artist expresses himself purely through the use of form and colour. It is non-representational, or non-objective, art, which means that there are no concrete objects represented. It was one of the first purely American art movements and is usually associated with New York in the 1940s - ‘60s.

In terms of art history, the movement can be broadly divided into two groups: action painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning who put the focus on the physical action involved in painting, and colour field painters such as Kenneth Noland and Mark Rothko who were primarily concerned with exploring the effect of pure colour on a canvas.

Abstract Expressionism is closely linked to several literary movements, particularly Imagism and Postmodernism. The New York School of writers, led by poets John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara, were actively involved in the appreciation and promotion of Abstract Expressionism in America. Many of their poems attempt to replicate in lyric form what the painters were doing on canvas. [Jonathan Ellis]


The doctrine that aesthetic values - judgements about beauty - are the most important in assessing a work of art, and that art is an end in itself and does not require a religious, moral, or didactic purpose. The outlook, encapsulated in Theophile Gautier’s dictum ‘l’art pour l’art’, (‘art for art’s sake’), was popular in France through much of the nineteenth century, and gave rise to the English Aesthetic Movement of the late nineteenth century, influenced particularly by the critic and Oxford University tutor Walter Pater (1839-1894). Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was one of the most outspoken proponents of the movement, which influenced the poetry and painting of the pre-Raphaelites, and the early poetry of W. B. Yeats (1865-1939).


In poetry: the repetition of sounds in closely associated words. The term is usually applied to the repetition of consonants, particularly when they are the first letter of the words, but can apply to any stressed consonants. The term is sometimes used to refer to repeated vowel sounds, though the term more often used in this case is ‘assonance’. e.g. O wild West Wind

Angry Young Men

A term coined by literary journalists in the 1950s to describe the writers at the forefront of a new trend of social realism and anti-establishment attitudes in fiction and drama. The phrase Angry Young Man was used in 1951 as the title of the autobiography of Leslie Allen Paul, a co-founder of the Woodcraft Folk youth movement, but its application in 1956 was inspired by the title of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, which struck the keynote for the new trend. Other writers often grouped under this heading are Arnold Wesker, Kingsley Amis, John Braine, John Wain, and Alan Sillitoe.

Anti-hero / anti-heroic

A protagonist in a work of literature who lacks, and may be opposed to, traditional heroic virtues such as courage, confidence, and virtue, and may have characteristics traditionally associated with a villain. He may be a flawed character who fails where a conventional hero would succeed, or his attitudes might be intended to subvert the idea of a literary hero, or of what society might consider to be heroic.

Examples are Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), and many of the protagonists in the works of the Angry Young Men, particularly Smith in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959) by Alan Sillitoe. Absurdist antiheroes appeared in the Theatre of the Absurd, for example Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot (1952) by Samuel Beckett, and their counterparts, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966) by Tom Stoppard.


In poetry: a repetition of similar vowel sounds in words of close proximity, particularly in stressed syllables. A form of imperfect rhyme, where the vowels rhyme but not the consonants. e.g. know - home - goat - go.

Beat literature / Beat writers / Beat generation

A style of literature which emerged in America in the 1950s, influenced by the poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and the novelist Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), two of the best-known works being Ginsberg's Howl (1956), and Kerouac's On the Road (1957). They themselves were influenced by William Burroughs (1914-1977), best known as the author of The Naked Lunch (1959). Beat writers had little regard for the formal conventions of literature, and put all the emphasis on spontaneity and self-expression, their loosely-structured style reflecting the influence of the jazz music of the time. The term's origins are variously said to be the 'beatitude' of the state of mind to which they aspired, the 'beat' of jazz music, or 'beaten' as in 'worn out', or ‘defeated’.

The movement was associated with the idea of 'dropping out' of materialistic middle-class life, to pursue a form of freedom and spiritual exploration. They were forerunners of the Hippie counter-culture of the 1960s. Ginsberg visited England in the 1960s, and his spontaneous style and emphasis on poetry as live performance influenced The Liverpool Poets.


A German word meaning a 'novel of education', referring to a novel taking as its theme the development of an individual from childhood to adulthood, following the protagonist's search for his or her own identity. The form was common in German literature, the archetype being Goethe's Wilhelm Meister Lehrjahre (1795-6). In English literature the term is more applicable to novels of the 19th century, such as David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, but can also be applied to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) by James Joyce.

Black Mountain Poets

A group of avant-garde American poets writing during the 1950s that included Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley. These poets shared ties to Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, an experimental school of art that operated from 1933 until its closing in 1956, and to its literary review, The Black Mountain Review. The poets are also sometimes referred to as ‘projectivist’ poets because of their shared interest in Charles Olson’s ‘projectivist verse’. [Trenton Hickman]

Bloomsbury Group

A group of writers, artists, and critics centred around Vanessa and Virginia Stephen (later Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf) and their home in the Bloomsbury area of London in the early years of the twentieth century. Opposed to the social constraints of their age, they had a modernising liberal outlook, and made significant achievements in their fields, though they were accused by some of elitism.

Chicana / Chicano

See Latino/a literature

Confessional poetry

An approach to poetry in which the poet employs his or her own life and feelings as subject matter, often using verse as an outlet for powerful emotions. The attitude was a break from the view that poetry should be impersonal, advocated by T. S. Eliot. The style emerged in America with Robert Lowell’s volume Life Studies (1959), other practitioners being John Berryman (1914-1972), Anne Sexton (1928-1974), and Sylvia Plath (1932-1963).


The use of language to indicate a state of affairs which exists, in contrast to language used ‘performatively’ - to initiate an action. See Performative.


A European art movement, characterised by an anarchic protest against bourgeois society, founded in 1916 by the Rumanian-born French poet, Tristan Tzara (1896-1963). Part of the motivation behind the movement was the wish to express a sense of outrage in response to the First World War, and the culture which had brought it about. The main centre of Dadaism was Paris, but it also flourished in America, the main proponents of the two centres being Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Man Ray (1890-1976) respectively. The movement was superseded by Surrealism from around 1922.

Deconstruction / deconstruct

A concept originating in poststructuralist critical theory, deriving from the work of Jacques Derrida (1930- ), which is used in many ways. It refers to the analysis of a text taking into account that its meaning is not fixed but can vary according to the way in which the writer, and reader, interpret language. Instead of looking for meanings, deconstruction aims to analyse concepts and modes of thought to expose the preconceived ideas on which they are founded.

Dystopia / dystopian

A Greek term which means a bad place, or the opposite of Utopia. The negative characteristics of a dystopia serve as a warning of possible social and political developments to be avoided. Examples of modern novels which depict dystopias are Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell (1903-1950), and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963).

Existentialism / Existential

A European movement in philosophy which became particularly influential after the Second World War. Some of the leading proponents were Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Albert Camus (1913-1960), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). The existentialist world-view sees human existence as ultimately meaningless - a situation which causes ‘angst’, or dread - but at the same time emphasises the importance of each individual taking responsibility for his or her own choices concerning decisions and actions. Existentialism was a direct influence on the dramatists of the Theatre of the Absurd, such as Samuel Beckett, and on the British novelists Iris Murdoch, John Fowles, and Muriel Spark.

Feminist / womanist

Feminist writing and criticism highlights the position of women in literature, society, and world culture, emphasising that the roles and experiences of women tend to be marginalised by patriarchal societies. Feminist writers and critics attempt to redress the balance by writing literature and criticism from the point of view of women. A key feminist work from the modern period is A Room of One’s Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf.

The term ‘womanist’ is sometimes used to refer to black feminists, to distinguish their approach from that of mainstream white middle-class feminism.


An artistic and critical sensibility in American and British literature and criticism which reached its greatest influence between 1930 and 1950, and which promoted a view of art as ‘objective’ - that is, that the work in itself was more important than the subjective contexts of its artistic production. In formalism, the proper focus of artistic creation and criticism is the art object itself, rather than the author or artist’s thoughts, intentions, or other personal sensibilities. In the case of literature, formalism assumes that well-wrought form (the structure of the literary piece, its constituent images, metaphors, and other ‘building blocks’) can carry the most important dimensions of content from the author to the reader without reference to contextual elements. Much of post-war literature in both Great Britain and the United States can be seen as a reaction to this extreme view, as poets and writers actively sought to reintroduce subjectivities into literary production and study as a way of reclaiming the ‘personal’ in literary experience. [Trenton Hickman]

Freud, Sigmund / Freudian

By revolutionising our understanding of the inner workings of the human mind, the process of personality development, and the motives behind human behaviour, the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a major influence on twentieth century thought. Freud showed the importance of the unconscious in all aspects of human life, and developed techniques of psychoanalysis and dream interpretation as ways of gaining access to it. In art Freud was a direct influence on Surrealism, and in English literature was a direct influence on W. H. Auden, D. H. Lawrence, and Iris Murdoch.

Georgian poets

Poets active during the early part of the reign of George V, (1910-1936), including Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Walter de la Mare, and Edward Thomas. They wrote delicate lyrical poetry, often concerned with nature. Their style was a break from the poetry of the late nineteenth century, and the decadence which had evolved from aestheticism. In the 1920s they were overshadowed by the Modernist innovations of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.

Gothic / Southern Gothic

Gothic literature deals with macabre, supernatural, subject matter, aimed at inducing fear and a sense of dread. The form became popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, classics of the genre being The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horace Walpole (1717-1797), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818), and Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley (1797-1851).

In the context of modern literature the term is still used to describe literature with macabre, horrifying subject matter, such as much of the work of Beryl Bainbridge.

In modern American literature the term Southern Gothic is applied to works by writers from the Southern States of the USA, whose stories are often set in that region, and include macabre or fantastic incidents in their plots. Examples are, William Faulkner (1897-1962), Tennessee Williams (1911-1883), Carson McCullers (1917-1967), Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), and Harper Lee (1926- ).

Group, The

A name sometimes given to a group of British poets who, in the late 1950s and 1960s, wanted to take poetry in a new direction by liberating it from the restraints favoured by The Movement. The main poets were Ted Hughes, Peter Porter, George Macbeth, Peter Redgrove, and Alan Brownjohn.

Harlem Renaissance

A flourishing of African-American literature which took place in the 1920s and was centred around the Harlem district of New York City. The movement took African-American life and culture as its subject matter, some of its major writers being James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960), Langston Hughes (1902-1967), and Countee Cullen (1903-1946).

Hippie / Hippy movement

A movement of young people, in America and Europe in the 1960s, who rejected conventional values and morality and adopted a rootless, or communal style of living. Many used, and advocated the use of, psychoactive drugs, such as marijuana and LSD, to achieve altered states of awareness. Their ideals were those of peace and love, and they congregated at rock festivals, culminating in the Woodstock festival of 1969. Their main art forms were psychedelic music, posters, and light shows. The American writers Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey were associated with the movement.

Imagism / Imagist

The Imagists were a group of poets who were influenced by Ezra Pound, who in turn had been influenced by the French Symbolist poets, Japanese haiku, and the writings of the poet and critic T. E. Hulme (1883-1917). The Imagist movement, which originated in London and was prominent in England and America from around 1912 to 1917, was crucial to the development of Modernist poetry. These poets aimed to free poetry from the conventions of the time by advocating a free choice of rhythm and subject matter, the diction of speech, and the presentation of meaning through the evocation of clear, precise, visual images.

Among the poets associated with Ezra Pound in this movement were Hilda Doolittle, Amy Lowell, and William Carlos Williams. Pound later associated himself with Vorticism, and Amy Lowell took over the leadership of the Imagist movement. Many English and American poets were influenced by Imagism, such as D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Conrad Aiken, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens.


A term used to denote a text referred to within a text. The Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and Classical myths, for example, are frequently found as intertexts in works of literature. [Julie Ellam]


A term which can refer to a text’s inclusion of intertexts, but is also a concept introduced by philosopher and semiotician Julia Kristeva, and used in poststructuralist criticism, according to which a text is seen as not only connecting the author to the reader, but also as being connected to all other texts, past and present. Thus there is a limit to the extent to which an individual text can be said to be original or unique, and a limit to the extent to which an individual author can be said to be the originator of a text. [Julie Ellam]

Irish Cultural Revival / Irish Literary Revival

Also called Irish Literary Renaissance, Celtic Renaissance, or Celtic Revival. A revival of Irish literature in the late nineteenth century, driven primarily by W. B. Yeats. The aim was to create a distinctive Irish literature by drawing on Irish history and folklore. In the 1880s the Gaelic League attempted to revive the Irish language, but the use of Gaelic was not a requirement of the revival led by Yeats in the 1890s. The movement developed simultaneously with a rise in Irish nationalism, and a growth of interest in Gaelic traditions.

Jung / Jungian

The theories of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) grew out of those of Sigmund Freud. Having been originally closely associated with Freud, he broke away and developed his own theories, which placed less emphasis on sexuality, and more on symbolism, the collective unconscious, and archetypes. Many artists, including the British novelist John Fowles, have been influenced by Jung’s ideas, particularly his emphasis on the importance of myths and symbols.

Latino/a literature

Literature written in English for an English-speaking audience by American writers of Latin-American heritage, such as the Puerto Rican American (sometimes called ‘Nuyorican’, since many of these writers are ‘New York Puerto Ricans’), Cuban-American, Dominican-American, and Mexican-American (often called ‘Chicano/a’) writers. Latino/a (‘Latino’ if male, ‘Latina’ if female) writers were the big literary phenomenon of the 1990s in the United States. [Trenton Hickman]

Magic realism

Fiction which displays a mingling of the mundane with the fantastic, giving the narrative dual dimensions of realism and fantasy. One of its purposes is to draw attention to the fact that all narrative is an invention. The technique is mainly associated with South American writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, but has also been used by writers such as the British Angela Carter, and the Anglo-Indian Salman Rushdie.

Marx, Karl / Marxist

The theories of the German social scientist and revolutionary Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-1883) have had a profound effect on political and economic thought throughout the world since the mid-nineteenth century. His best-known works are The Communist Manifesto (1848), written with Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), and Das Kapital (1867-95). His writings, based on an analysis of capitalist society in which he saw the workers as being exploited, emphasised the importance of class struggle and change through conflict.

In English Literature Marx was an influence on the political dimension of works by writers of the 1930s such as W. H. Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis.

Marxist criticism

Literary criticism deriving from the theories of Marx, which emphasises the cultural and political context in which the text was produced.

Metafiction / metanarrative

Fiction about fiction. An approach in which the writer draws attention to the process by which the author and the reader together create the experience of fiction, implicitly questioning the relationship between fiction and reality. This postmodern technique was used in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) and other novels by John Fowles.


The term ‘modern’ can apply to a wide variety of different historical periods in different contexts. In the context of ‘modern literature’ it is generally taken to refer to the period from 1914, the outbreak of the First World War, to the present day. When capitalised, ‘Modern’ can refer to Modernism.

Modernism / Modernist

A movement in all the arts in Europe, with its roots in the nineteenth century but flourishing in the period during and after the First World War. The period 1910 to 1930 is sometimes called the period of ‘high Modernism’. The War having undermined faith in order and stability in Europe, artists and writers sought to break with tradition and find new ways of representing experience.

Some of the characteristic features of modernist literature are: a drawing of inspiration from European culture as a whole; experimentation with form, such as the fragmentation and discontinuity found in the free verse of ‘The Waste Land’ by T. S. Eliot; the radical approach to plot, time, language, and character presentation as seen in Ulysses by James Joyce and the novels of Virginia Woolf; a decrease in emphasis on morality, and an increase in subjective, relative, and uncertain attitudes; in poetry, a move towards simplicity and directness in the use of language.

Dada, Surrealism, The Theatre of the Absurd, and stream of consciousness are all aspects of Modernism.

Movement, The

The name given to a generation of British poets who came to prominence in the 1950s, of whom the best-known was Philip Larkin (1922-1985). Disliking the free form and emotional tone of poets such as Dylan Thomas and W. S. Graham, they initiated a style of verse which was intellectual, witty, and carefully crafted. Their work gained prominence in the anthology New Lines (1956), edited by Robert Conquest. Other Movement poets included Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis, D. J. Enright, and John Wain.

Naturalism / naturalist

A term often used interchangeably with Realism, but which has a more specific meaning suggesting that human life is controlled by natural forces such as those explored in the natural sciences, particularly those expounded by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Naturalist writers aimed to create accurate representations of characters and their interaction with their environment based on scientific truth. The movement was particularly associated with the nineteenth-century French novelist Emile Zola (1840-1902), and influenced the English writers George Gissing (1857-1903) and Arnold Bennett (1867-1931).

New Apocalypse / New Romantics

Movements in British Poetry which flourished in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Dylan Thomas was the foremost poet. The poets behind the movements were Henry Treece (1911-1966), George Granville Barker, (1913-1991), W. S. Graham (1918-1986), J. F. Hendry (1912-1986), and Dorian Cooke. They reacted against the politically-orientated realist poetry of the '30s by drawing inspiration from mythology and the unconscious. Their work is generally regarded by critics as having little merit, being vastly inferior to that of Thomas.

The New Criticism

A movement in literary criticism which developed in the USA in the 1940s, and which aimed to approach literary texts in an ‘objective’ way, as self-contained objects of study, without reference to such contextual factors as the author’s biography, or intentions. One of the main texts of the movement was Understanding Poetry (1938), by Cleanthe Brooks (1906-1994) and Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989). The movement was influenced by the British critic I. A. Richards (1893-1979), and his books Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), Science and Poetry (1926), and Practical Criticism (1929). Richards, in turn, had been influenced by the critical stance of F. R. Leavis (1895-1978), and T. S. Eliot (1888-1965).

The New Journalism

A mid-twentieth-century American literary aesthetic practised by writers such as Thomas Wolfe and Norman Mailer, which privileges a lively, newspaper-style ‘novelization’ of actual events but from a subjective narratorial point of view, fusing the art of novel writing with the quirky accessibility of the journalist as character and participant. [Trenton Hickman]

New York School

A group of American poets who lived and worked in and around New York City during the mid-twentieth century, including Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. The aesthetic of these poets evidences a shared interest in abstract expressionist art as well as in American popular cultural subjects such as jazz and movies. Their poetry magnifies these interests and elevates them through sophisticated intellectual treatment into smart, witty, verbal ‘gymnastics’ of verse. [Trenton Hickman]

Omniscient narrator

See viewpoint.


In poetry: a word whose sound resembles the sound to which it refers, or whose sound suggests the sound of something associated with its meaning. e.g. buzz, splash.

Other / otherness

A concept central to postcolonial criticism, referring to the way colonised people and places were seen as alien, subordinate, and implicitly, inferior, from the point of view of the colonising culture. The concept can be extended into other areas, such as when feminist criticism sees women as being put in the position of ‘other’ by a patriarchal point of view.


International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists. International P.E.N. was founded in London in 1921 by Mrs. C. A. Dawson Scott. Its first president was John Galsworthy. The only world-wide association of writers, its aims are to:
1. Promote intellectual co-operation and understanding among writers. 2. Create a world community of writers that would emphasise the central role of literature in the development of world culture. 3. Defend literature against the many threats to its survival which the modern world poses. [www.internationalpen.org.uk]

Performative / performativity

'Performative' indicates the special qualities brought out through a 'performance' of something (for example, a play text or poem) or in some cases, an artistic event which has no originating text (such as in performance art). The 'performance' is a time-and-space bound event, which is ephemeral (it never happens exactly the same way twice). A further, related meaning (derived from the philosophy of J. L. Austin) is that of doing or making something happen, rather than stating or representing it. This leads to the idea that the 'performative' is how symbolic systems (language, art, theatre) both represent things from the world, but are also simultaneously making that world.

'Performativity' is a related term. It is the ability of something to be 'performative' or else that it should be seen as constructed through performative means. Judith Butler, the cultural theorist, argues that 'gender' for example is constructed through performance. [Steven Barfield]

Point of view

See viewpoint

Pop art

Art movement in Britain and America in the late 1950s and 1960s in which elements from everyday life, popular culture, and the mass media were used as subject matter. Not always taken seriously by critics or the public, pop art could be seen partly as a liberating attack on more conventional art, and partly as a response to a mechanised, media and advertising-saturated, modern world. American pop artists included Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. British representatives included Peter Blake and David Hockney. Pop art had a direct influence on The Liverpool Poets.

Postcolonial literature

Literature written in the language of former colonisers by natives of their colonies. Usually, literature written in English by writers from former colonies of Great Britain. The term usually applies to literature written after the country has ceased to be a colony, but can also include literature written during the time of colonisation.

Postcolonial criticism

Branch of literary criticism which focuses on seeing the literature and experience of peoples of former colonies in the context of their own cultures, as opposed to seeing them from the perspective of the European literature and criticism dominant during the time of the Empire.

Postmodern / Postmodernism

In a general sense, literature written since the Second World War, i.e. after the Modernist era. In a more specific sense the concept of postmodernism as a subject of study emerged in the 1980s, applying across many disciplines, encouraging inter-disciplinary studies, and being interpreted in many ways.

The postmodern outlook is associated with the erosion of confidence in the idea of progress, as a result of such phenomena as the holocaust, the threat of nuclear war, and environmental pollution.

In literature one of its manifestations is the attempts by some writers to examine and break down boundaries involved in such issues as race, gender, and class, and to break down divisions between different genres of literature. Other aspects of the postmodernist outlook are: a spirit of playfulness with the fragmented world, the awareness of fiction as an artifice, and the creation of works as a pastiche of forms from the past. Postmodern writers include Thomas Pynchon, John Fowles, Angela Carter, and Salman Rushdie.

In literary criticism such approaches as structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postcolonial criticism are postmodern methods.


A postmodern approach to literary criticism, and other disciplines, growing out of structuralism. Like structuralism, it questions the relationship between language and reality, and it sees ‘reality’ as something socially constructed.


To produce or propose a debating point or problem out of given data. [Dr Margaret Sonmez]


A style of poetry innovated by American poet Charles Olson in his 1950 essay ‘Projective Verse’ and adopted by others of the Black Mountain poets. Olson advocated a poetry that rebelled against the formalist, New Critical poetry that preceded it by insisting that ‘form was never more than an extension of content’ and that the poem should emerge line by line, driven by the measure of one’s breath and with ‘one perception’ necessarily ‘projecting’ itself into ‘a further perception’. In this manner, Olson and other projectivists hoped that the speed, immediacy, and lack of predetermined poetic form would re-energise the poetry of their time with a spontaneity and improvisational spirit that had been lost over the preceding decades. [Trenton Hickman]

Pylon Poets

A name given to British poets of the 1930s who included industrial artefacts such as pylons in their descriptions of landscape. The poets included W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, and Cecil Day-Lewis. The nick-name originated in response to Stephen Spender’s poem ‘The Pylons’.

Realism / social realism / Socialist realism

Broadly - writing about people and settings which could really exist, and events which could really happen. In particular the term Realism refers to a movement of nineteenth-century European art and literature which rejected Classical models and Romantic ideals in favour of a realistic portrayal of actual life in realistic settings, often focusing on the harsher aspects of life under industrialism and capitalism. Forerunners in literature were the French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), and the English novelist George Eliot (1819-1880). In the twentieth century the writing of the Angry Young Men can be seen as a reassertion of the values of realism.

‘Social realism’, a term borrowed from art criticism, is often used synonymously with ‘realism’.

‘Socialist realism’ refers to literature or criticism presented from the Marxist viewpoint.


The term is used both in a general, and in a specific, way. The specific sense refers to Romanticism, a movement prevalent in European art, music, and literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The style was revolutionary in that it emphasised subjective experience, and favoured innovation over adherence to traditional or Classical forms, and the expression of feeling over reason. In English literature, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) were first-generation Romantic poets, and Byron (1788-1824), Shelley (1792-1822), and Keats (1795-1821) were second-generation Romantics.

In its more general application the term can refer to an attitude of mind which draws on imagination and emotion rather than reason, and favours subjective, dream-like, or exotic experiences over realism.

Sprung rhythm

A name given by Gerard Manley Hopkins to his technique of breaking up the regular metre of poetry to achieve versatile and surprising rhythms, which retained regularity but more closely resembled speech than did conventional poetry.

Stream of consciousness

Sometimes called ‘continuous monologue’. Literary technique developed in the 1920s, as part of Modernism which attempts to reproduce the moment-to-moment flow of subjective thoughts and perceptions in an individual’s mind. The technique was used by Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. The term was originally coined by the American philosopher and psychologist William James in Principles of Psychology (1890).


An approach to literary criticism which emphasises that a text does not have one fixed meaning, but is open to any number of interpretations, depending on the meanings attributed to words by both the writer and the reader. It is founded on the idea that the meanings of words are ultimately arbitrary, and instead of looking for the meaning of a text, structural analysis aims to explore oppositions and conflicts within the text, and the underlying structures of thought which produce meanings. The approach is based on the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), and has been influential in the humanities since the mid 1950s, being applied not only to literary texts but to a wide range of cultural phenomena.


An artistic and literary movement which grew out of Dadaism between 1917 and the 1920s. Influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, the practitioners explored the world of dreams and the unconscious in their art, emphasising the irrational dimensions of human experience. Leaders of the movement were the French artists Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), who coined the term in 1917, and André Breton (1896-1966).

Surrealists experimented with automatic writing, the technique, analogous to the free association method of psychoanalysis, involving the attempt to achieve a state of mind in which rational thought is disengaged, to allow words to arise spontaneously from the unconscious.

Symbolist / Symbolism

The Symbolist movement originated in France with the volume of poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), and was taken up by such poets as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Jules Laforgue. They aimed to break away from the formal conventions of French poetry, and attempted to express the transitory perceptions and sensations of inner life, rather than rational ideas. They believed in the imagination as the arbiter of reality, were interested in the idea of a correspondence between the senses, and aimed to express meaning through the sound patterns of words and suggestive, evocative images, rather than by using language as a medium for statement and argument.

The Symbolists were a major influence on British, Irish, and American writers such as W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, e e cummings, Wallace Stevens, and William Faulkner.

Theatre of the Absurd

Avant-garde drama movement originating in the 1950s in Europe with dramatists such as Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), Jean Genet (1910-1986), and Eugene Ionesco (1912-1994). Influenced philosophically by Existentialism, and in particular by The Myth of Sisyphus (1943) by Albert Camus (1913-1960), they expressed a world view in which there was no God, and life was meaningless. They had no faith in logic or rational communication, feeling that attempts to construe meanings broke down into absurdity - ‘absurd’ in this context meaning ‘out of harmony’ rather than ‘ridiculous’.

In their approach to the theatre they drew upon a tradition of comedy which can be traced from Roman drama through the music hall, and into such as the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, and the surreal comedies of the Marx Brothers of the 1930s and ‘40s.

Unreliable narrator

A fictional narrator whose views do not coincide with those of the author, or do not accurately represent what ‘really’ happened in the story. Henry James was a master of the unreliable narrator technique. Writers use subtle methods to let readers know that they cannot trust what the narrator says, setting up tension between reader and narrative. One extreme example is seen in the novel Spider (1990) by Patrick McGrath, in which the narrator, a schizophrenic, is unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Without intruding on the first-person viewpoint, McGrath gradually allows the reader to understand that what the narrator thinks is the truth is not the truth at all.


A Greek term which means an imaginary perfect place. Even if the imagined place could never be achieved in reality, its positive qualities represent ideals to be striven for. The term was coined by Thomas More (1478-1535) who wrote his Utopia, a description of an ideal state, in 1516. Other examples of such descriptions in the history of literature, include Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626), and The Republic by Plato (c.427-347 BC).

Viewpoint / Point of view

The viewpoint which the reader shares while reading a narrative. Fiction writers use three main viewpoints: 1. The omniscient (all-knowing) narrator's viewpoint. The narrator of the story theoretically knows everything about all the characters. Referring to them in the third-person, the author can tell us about the characters in an objective way and switch between them at will, showing us what each is doing thinking and feeling at any time. 2. The first-person viewpoint, in which the narrator speaks as 'I' and conveys the story through his/her own subjective experience. 3. The viewpoint of the main character, or characters, in the story, but conveyed in the third-person. Here the narrative is ostensibly being presented by a narrator, in that we read 'she did this', or 'he did that', but the narrator's viewpoint is merged with that of the character(s) so that everything in the story is seen through the subjective experience of the character(s).


An approach to art and literature associated with the abstract artist Percy Wyndham-Lewis (1882-1957) which sought to address industrial processes through art. Although mainly a movement in painting and sculpture, Wyndham-Lewis, influenced by Imagist poetry, and collaborating with Ezra Pound, published two issues of a journal named BLAST.

The War Poets

Name given to a group of British soldier-poets who became prominent during the First World War, the best-known being Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918), and Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). The main impact of their poetry came through its depiction of the horrors of war, bringing the reality of events home to the British public.


See Feminist.

Author: Ian Mackean, except where otherwise credited. Other contributors: Jonathan Ellis, Trenton Hickman, Julie Ellam, Steven Barfield, Dr Margaret Sonmez.

This is a sample section from The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914 edited by Ian Mackean. For more details click here

Search this site
Search the web
Privacy Policy