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Introduction to English Literature
Literature is the reflection of life. It mirrors the society in which it is generated. The word literature has come from the Latin word ‘litaritura’ meaning “writing organized with letters”. Moreover, literature is classified according to language, origin, historical period, genre, and subject matter.
Initially, literature was a form of entertainment for the people. Over time, it attained the purpose of reform as well. The writers stated highlighting the social issues in their writing. Thus, it became a medium to draw the audience’s attention to certain matters and urge them to think about the reform. From ancient civilizations to the modern era, indeed, all the works of literature have given us insight into the issues and trends prevailing at that time.
English literature, however, emerged with the beginning of the history of English people. It refers to all the literary works (novels, short stories, poems, fiction, nonfiction, and plays) that has been composed in English. The earliest works of English literature mirror the life lived by the people of that region at that specific period. For instance, all the changes undergone by English society from the earliest to the modern time have left their imprints on English literature.
Being the literature of a nation characterized by the spirit of determination, adventure, and diligence, English literature is rich in vitality, diversity, and essence.
A Brief History of English Literature
The introduction and history of English literature go side by side. You can’t get the complete introduction of English literature without going deep down in its history.
The history of English literature initiated with the history of the English race and kept on developing with the social development of the nation. In order to briefly overview the history of English literature, we have to divide it into two periods:
- The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period
- The Anglo-Norman or Middle English period
The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period (650 A.D.-1066 A.D.)
The earliest phase of English literature started with Anglo-Saxon literature-the literature produced by Angles and Saxons. This period consists of literature written in Old English in Anglo-Saxon England from the 7th century to the Norman Conquest of 1066.
Angles and Saxons were the ancestors of the English race. They came to England around the 5th century and had occupied the major part of the country by 670 A.D. Furthermore, they settled in England and made it their permanent abode. The Anglo-Saxons were fearless, adventurous, and brave people. They spoke the language that we now recognize as Old English.
The Anglo-Saxons were fond of singing about battles, gods and their ancestral heroes. It is these songs of religion, wars, and agriculture, that mark the beginning of English poetry in ancient England.
There are very few remnants left of the Anglo-Saxon poetry. Among them, the most famous one is Beowulf. It is the first English epic poem. It narrates a tale of the adventures of Beowulf, a brave hero. This poem, in fact, abounds in all sorts of references and allusions to great events and the fortunes of kings and nations.
After embracing Christianity, the Anglo-Saxon poets began to write religious poetry. Therefore, the major portion of Anglo-Saxon poetry encompasses religion. The most famous religious poets of the Anglo-Saxon period were Caedmon and Cynewulf. Caedmon is famous for his Hymn in which praised in honor of God. However, Cynewulf’s famous religious poems were Juliana, The Fates of the Apostles, Crist, and Elene. Among them , ‘Crist’ is the most popular one telling the event occurred in the life of Jesus Christ.
The Anglo-Saxon Prose
The Anglo-Saxons replaced Latin prose with English. It observed all the rules of ordinary speech in its construction. The famous Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great, translated most of the famous Latin Chronicles in English. The second famous prose writer of the Anglo-Saxon period was, no doubt, Aelfric. He was actually a priest. His famous writings were Lives of the Saints, Homilies, and Grammar. Moreover, Aelfric’s prose was easy and alliterative.
The Decline of Anglo-Saxons
The Anglo-Saxon period flourished until the Norman Conquest of 1066. After the defeat of Harold, the last of Saxon kings, by William, the Conqueror of Normandy, France, the Anglo-Saxon period came to an end. However, in history, their ruling period extends roughly from 670 A.D. to 1100 A.D.
There is no doubt that the Anglo-Saxons lived a life rich in courage, splendor, savagery, and sentiment. Their literature, thus, remarkably contains all these traits. It reflects all the main principles of their life, for instance, the love of personal freedom, religion, appreciation for womanhood, responsiveness to nature, and the struggle for glory.
The Anglo-Norman or Middle English Period (1066 A.D.-1340 A.D.)
With the Norman conquest began a new era in the history of England literature. The Normans brought with them their rich French culture and language. The literature of this period comes under the category of Norman-French Literature or Anglo-French Literature.
The Norman Conquest brought a radical change in English culture, law, language, and character. English became the language spoken only by the poor and powerless. While Norman-French became the language of the rich. It also became the symbol of social status and prestige. The Anglo-Normans wrote mainly to cater to the taste of Norman rulers. Moreover, only the monarchs and courtiers of that time had a right to encourage the literary writings.
We can’t deny the fact that the Norman Contest stimulated the awakening of the people, who extremely needed an outside stimulus at that time. Soon the people got influenced by a new vision and ultimately united in a common hope. As a result, the Anglo-Saxons’ hostility towards the Normans also turned into national unity.
The Normans brought with them their soldiers, artisans, traders, chroniclers, minstrels, and scholars. With their help, they wanted to revive knowledge, record memorable events, celebrate victories, and sing of love and adventure. In addition, the most popular forms of writing for the Anglo-Normans were chronicles, religious and didactic writing, poetry, romances and drama.
The Romances of Anglo-Norman period
In contrast to the courage, seriousness, and savagery of the Anglo-Saxon literature, the Normans introduced the romantic tales of love and adventure in literature. This made the Anglo-Norman period to be chivalric rather than a heroic one. Romance became the most popular form of literature during the Anglo-Norman or Middle English period. These romances were famous for their stories rather than poetry. Most of them, in fact, had their origin in Latin and French sources. They told the stories of King Arthur, The War of Troy, the mythical doings of Charlemagne, and Alexander the Great.
Chronicles in the Anglo-Norman Period
In the Anglo-Norman period of English literature, chronicles became a well-established form of writing. These chronicles recorded the history of kings. Though written in the Anglo-Norman language, these chronicles became the major source of historical knowledge for medieval people. Additionally, they contained historical events, and legendary material without any interpretation or comment by the author.
The Mystery and Miracle Plays
Another remarkable achievement of the Middle English Period was religious or didactic writings. Under this category came the Mystery and Miracle plays. The Mystery plays were based on subjects taken from the Bible while the Miracle plays depicted the lives of saints. Since only the clergymen of the church had the authority to write and perform these plays, so they chose Latin as the medium of writing and performing these plays.
The Morality Plays
In the Middle English period, Morality plays also became very popular. Allegory was, in fact, the main streak of these plays. In the Morality plays characters were personified abstractions presenting the conflict in the human soul. The sole purpose of these plays was to instruct the people through the Bible, lives of saints, and the conflict between good and evil. Hence, these plays also came under the category of religious and didactic writing of that period.
The Anglo-Norman Poets
Some of the famous Anglo-Norman poets and their notable works are briefly discussed below:
Philippe de Thaun
Philipe de Thaun is one of the earliest Anglo-Norman poets of the period. He is famous for two poems. The first one is ‘Livre des Creatures’’. It is a treatise on astronomy written around 1119. While, his second famous work is the allegorical poem ‘Bestiaire’ written around 1121 in the Anglo-Norman dialect.
Reginald of Canterbury
Another famous Anglo-Norman poet is Reginald of Canterbury. He was a monk as well. His most famous poem is ‘The Legend of St Malchus’ which was written around 1112.
Hilarius was another Anglo-Norman poet of the 12th century. He was an Englishman. He wrote his poems in Latin. In his poems, he has mainly addressed to English persons.
Benoit de Sainte Maur
Benoit de Sainte-Maure was a famous French poet in the 12th century. His most famous work was ‘Roman de Troie’ (The Romance of Troy).
Although the beginning of the Anglo-Norman Period is obvious, historians differ on when this period ended. Some historians say that it ended in 1144 or 1154, while for others it lasted up to 1204 or1340. The Norman Conquest of England had, in fact, a profound effects in introducing various changes in the history of English literature. After this period came ‘The Age of Chaucer’ followed by The Renaissance Period also known as the Elizabethan Period or the Age of Shakespeare in the history of English literature.