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date: 11 December 2023


(act. 1954–1959)


(act. 1954–1959)
  • Blake Morrison

Movement (act. 1954–1959), was the name given to a group of poets and novelists—chief among them Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, D. J. Enright, John Wain, Thom Gunn, and Robert Conquest (b. 1917)—who came to prominence in the mid-1950s and who were identified with a tough-minded, rationalistic, debunking manner. Though their coherence as a group was relatively short-lived, for a time these writers gave expression to values widely shared by their generation and forged a consensus characteristic of post-war, welfare-state Britain.

The term was first coined on 1 October 1954 in an unsigned article in The Spectator written by the magazine's literary editor J. D. Scott, which claimed that the Movement was 'part of the tide which is pulling us through the Fifties towards the Sixties … The Movement, as well as being anti-phoney, is anti-wet; sceptical, robust, ironic, prepared to be as comfortable as possible' (Morrison, 2). This was the first time that the Movement had been given a definite article and capital letter. But other critics had already spoken of a new generation of British writers. And the membership of the group was clearly defined over the next two years with the appearance of two anthologies, D. J. Enright's Poets of the 1950s and Robert Conquest's New Lines, the latter adding the names of John Holloway (1920–1999) and Elizabeth Jennings to those listed above. In addition to these collective volumes, the years 1953 to 1956 also saw the publication of Amis's Lucky Jim, Wain's Hurry on Down, Larkin's The Less Deceived, Gunn's Fighting Terms, and Davie's Brides of Reason, key works in establishing a 'period style' for the 1950s.

In retrospect the writers themselves tended to deny the existence of the Movement. Larkin said that he had 'no sense at all' of belonging to it, Gunn that 'I found I was in it before I knew it existed', and Amis that it was a '“phantom” movement' (Morrison, 4). However, the existence of common aesthetic principles is indisputable. Shared social backgrounds and political beliefs also played a part in the formation of a group ethos. Moreover the Movement writers comprise a distinct generation, their dates of birth spanning the years 1917 to 1929 and centred on 1922, when Amis, Davie, and Larkin were born.

The first stirrings of the Movement can be traced back to 1941, when Amis and Larkin met at St John's College, Oxford; Wain arrived at the same college two years later. A talent for mimicry, a shared interest in jazz, and a fiercely dismissive attitude to any canonical literary work they deemed turgid drew Amis and Larkin together, and when they left Oxford—Amis to join the army, Larkin to take up his first post as a librarian—they remained in close contact, as can be seen from their voluminous and often hilarious correspondence. Both at this point were influenced by W. H. Auden, whose poetry was immune to the 1940s vogue for neo-Romanticism; Wain and other young Oxford contemporaries found a similarly inspiring example of 'dryness' in the poetry of William Empson.

There was no comparable set of friendships at Cambridge University, where Davie, Gunn, and Enright studied, but all felt the example of F. R. Leavis, whose rigorous approach to literature, hostile to any hint of preciosity and vagueness, left its mark. Though the Movement never issued a manifesto, Davie's 1952 critical study Purity of Diction in English Verse typified its prejudice towards a poetry that was crisp, urbane, and conversational, rather than oratorical in the mode of Dylan Thomas. In the 1950s all the Movement writers lived or worked in a university environment, most of them as lecturers in literature. They also reviewed and polemicized a good deal in literary journals, and this helped them to create the taste by which they were enjoyed.

Socially the Movement was cohesive. Larkin, Davie, Wain, and Enright grew up in the industrial midlands, and only Gunn came from a background that could be considered upper middle class. Nearly all the group were educated at grammar schools, and several were scholarship boys—a fact remarked on by older writers from more privileged backgrounds, including Edith Sitwell, Stephen Spender, and Somerset Maugham, who felt threatened by, and were extremely critical of, this new generation. These sentiments were epitomized in Maugham's infamous attack on the 'ominous significance' of Lucky Jim, which for him symbolized the emergence of a new generation of 'scum'.

They have no manners, and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament. Their idea of a celebration is to go to a public house and drink six beers. They are mean, malicious, and envious … Charity, kindliness, generosity are qualities which they hold in contempt. They are scum. Sunday Times, 25 Dec 1955, quoted in Morrison

If the Movement enjoyed flagging up their status as lowly provincials—unusually for an emerging generation of writers, none of them lived in London—they also flaunted their prejudice against 'abroad', as though continental Europe was an haut bourgeois preserve. I Like it Here, the title of Amis's third novel, typifies the Movement's little-Englandism, as does Larkin's remark that he wouldn't mind going to China if he could come back the same day. The fact that several of the Movement travelled widely, with Gunn settling in the United States, for example, and Enright spending most of the 1950s outside the United Kingdom, did little to modify the pose of insularity: the pleasure in teasing ‘London types’, enthusiasts for foreign poetry, bohemians, and Celts was too seductive. In retrospect the pose looks narrow and churlish, and even at the time the Movement was accused of philistinism. But its definition of culture wasn't wholly negative. In their advocacy of jazz, film, science fiction, detective fiction, and the writer Ian Fleming, for example, Larkin and Amis were generously inclusive and ahead of their time.

Because of its social profile the Movement was imagined to be left of centre, an impression reinforced when Amis published a pamphlet called Socialism and the Intellectuals in 1957, which identified him as a long-standing Labour voter. But Amis was later to turn right, as were others in the Movement, and even in the 1950s the underlying spirit of the Movement was one of compromise or ‘Butskellism’, not firm political allegiance. George Orwell's anti-totalitarianism was a key influence; the ground-breaking research Robert Conquest carried out for his book The Great Terror, on the Stalinist era in Soviet Russia, also had its effect. 'A neutral tone is nowadays preferred', wrote Davie in his poem 'Remembering the Thirties', contrasting the politics of his generation of poets with the more engagé version of the AudenSpender generation. With the war concluded, mass unemployment banished, the empire dissolved, and the welfare state providing free health and education, it was said there were no good brave causes left: as Thom Gunn put it, 'The agony of the time is that there is no agony' (letter to the London Magazine, June 1957, quoted in Morrison, 96). Gunn would later be less complacent. But for a time, until the Suez crisis, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the mood was one of ‘consolidation’ or of willed, intentional ‘loss of nerve’. Such quietism is apparent in the Movement's poems and novels, where the protagonists repeatedly ward off commitment (whether political, moral, or marital) and avoid taking sides.

In terms of its aesthetic, the Movement was pointedly anti-modernist, arguing that 'making it new' was now old-fashioned, that T. S. Eliot and James Joyce had arrogantly ignored the 'ordinary reader', and that the avant-gardists of 1914 had all but destroyed a native line of English literature much as the First World War had destroyed the flower of English youth. In Larkin's opinion the work of Picasso, Ezra Pound, and Charlie Parker played upon an audience's readiness 'to be mystified or outraged' and maintained its hold 'only by being more mystifying and more outrageous' (All What Jazz: a Record Diary, 1961–68, 1970, 17). Larkin's own approach, by contrast, was deliberately downbeat and homespun: he compared writing poetry to knitting or laying an egg. Amis likewise claimed to write 'believable stories about understandable characters in a reasonably straightforward style: no tricks, no experimental foolery'. Though both were overstating the case—Larkin drew on the French symbolists, and late Amis sometimes reads like late Henry James—there is no doubt that their writing was shaped by a reaction against modernist practice.

Almost as soon as New Lines established them, the Movement writers began to diverge. After 1956 they no longer enjoyed the authority of speaking for a generation: younger authors were coming through—Ted Hughes, Doris Lessing, and John Osborne among them—and newer movements such as the ‘beat poets’ and the ‘angry young men’ excited greater media attention. Some in the Movement thought better of their previous affiliation: Davie dismissed the group's awareness of its audience as 'pusillanimous'; Gunn, based in California, began to experiment in freer verse forms, including syllabics, and to explore gay sub-culture; Elizabeth Jennings, who as the sole woman in the group was once likened to a schoolmistress among a bunch of drunken marines, became less inhibited about writing gently romantic, quasi-philosophical verse. By the 1960s the Movement writers had become, if not marginalized, certainly at odds with the spirit of the age. Some of the books they published were of major importance—Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings, Amis's The Anti-Death League, and Gunn's Touch, for example—but these were acclaimed as individual achievements, not as expressions of a group or Zeitgeist.

White, Oxbridge-educated, and for the most part heterosexual, middle class, and male, the Movement has little obvious appeal in an era of plurality and multiculturalism. Even the name seems ironic given the photos of some of the participants, stiffly immobile in their spectacles and tweed jackets. Yet the Movement has survived—not just because literary historians have allocated it a footnote, or because later writers resemble the Movement in tone or manner, but because Larkin and Amis, in particular, have left behind an indispensable body of work, still prized for its wit, humour, and honesty.


  • B. Morrison, The Movement: English poetry and fiction of the 1950s (1980)
  • The letters of Kingsley Amis, ed. Z. Leader (2000)
  • A. Thwaite, The selected letters of Philip Larkin, 1940–1985 (1992)
  • A. Motion, Philip Larkin: a writer's life (1993)
  • Z. Leader, The life of Kingsley Amis (2006)