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Structure and Dissolution in English Writing, 1910-1920
Britain, Ireland, And Continental Europe
Stuart Sillars. Structure and Dissolution in English Writing, 1910-1920. New York: St. Martin's, 1999. viii + 216 pp.
Stuart Sillars marks out the second decade of the twentieth century as a time when "a profound shift in the relation between words and things took place in literary epistemology." Interestingly, Sillars is speaking of a shift different from the emergence of modernism, which he describes as a linear progression from the past. Rather, he is speaking of a parallel development reflected in the larger social and political turmoil of the period and its effect on language, especially the language of literature. He tracks this development through poets and novelists who are not traditionally considered "modernist": E. M. Forster, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edward Thomas; there is also a chapter on a firmly canonical text, D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, since this novel fits the literary phenomenon he is analyzing. Sillars chooses these works because he feels that they have generally been considered failures by literary critics of the period, and their radical approach to language raises interests and concerns not normally discussed within the discourse on modernism.
He sees this "linguistic schism" occurring in two stages: first, "a displacement of previous literary modes and conventions not by a forthright rejection in favor of new models [which would characterize modernism], but by employing them as an ironical continuation that mingles extension and refusal, in a manner that deliberately reveals the inadequacies and the false 'literary' qualities of such models," and second, a "rejection of both the forms and their rejection" so that "the whole essence of language and literary forms is held up for critical analysis and, in the process, fails completely." The latter statement is characteristic of a significant drawback in Sillars's prose style: a tendency toward overstatement where a more qualified and less extreme statement would be more easily defensible and even more accurate. For, in the works analyzed here, "the whole essence of language and literary forms" does not fail completely, but Sillars does present a convincing argument on the radical revision that the authors enact upon these concepts. It may be a less exciting and bold statement, but still one that helps us to better understand the importance of works that do not receive frequent attention within the modernist canon. [End Page 1034]
There is an important distinction to be made here: none of the works that Sillars addresses is by any means noncanonical. Forster's Howards End, Lawrence's The Rainbow, and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edward Thomas are not in danger of removal from the canon, but they are all works that do not, in Sillars's assessment, fit with other modernist works, and therefore they are largely misunderstood in criticism of twentieth-century literature.
Each text enacts the acceptance/rejection model in different ways. Howards End, through a complex "network of references" to other works of literature, at once criticizes the act of learning about life by reading novels, yet is itself, ironically, a novel. Owen, in his poetry, uses or references traditional forms in order to capture modern experiences of warfare, and an unresolved discontinuity emerges between form and subject. In Lawrence's The Rainbow, the author both accepts and rejects language as a form of communication, ultimately showing the failure of language to represent the depth of feelings experienced by the characters in the novel. Instead, language can only be used to describe its own inadequacies. Sassoon writes in exile from language, as he uses different voices to demonstrate the discrepancies in understanding between frontline soldiers, authority figures, and civilians. Finally, Edward Thomas functions as the epitome of Sillars's thesis, exhibiting "the dissolving of language itself to a degree far greater than is found in any other writer of the period." Thomas's nature poetry functions in a way that exposes the discord between words and things, yet this discord...