English Literature Glossary of Literary Terms
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
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]
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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]
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.
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