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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 comes from the Latin word ‘litaritura’ meaning “writing organized with letters”. We classify literature 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. Literature also provides escape from the ‘grim realities’ of life. While many people read to escape the boredom of their life. Moreover, the higher type of literature helps the reader to escape from trivial reality into significant reality.
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) 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. When we analyze the history of English literature, we discover that it consists of eight (8) major periods and several ages. Each period or age of English literature is named after the central literary figure, or the important rulers of England, or certain literary movements. Moreover each period or phase of English literature has its distinct characteristics.
10 Best Books on the History of English Literature
Andrew Sanders’s Short Oxford History of English literature
John Sutherland’s A Little History of English Literature
William Harmon’s Handbook to Literature
David Damrosch’s Longman Anthology of British Literature
Michael Alexander’s A History of English Literature
Boris Ford’s The Pelican Guide to English Literature
William Henry Hudson’s An outline history of English literature
B. Ifor Evans’s A short history of English literature
Stephen Greenblatt’s The Norton Anthology of English Literature
George Sampson’s The Cambridge History of English Literature
Let us briefly overview and analyze the history of English literature from the earliest times up to the present age.
What are the ‘Eight (8) Major Periods’ in the history of English Literature?
The major eight (8) periods in the history of English literature are:
- The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period (450–1066)
- The Anglo-Norman or Middle English period (1066–1500)
- The Renaissance Period (1500–1660)
- The Neoclassical Period (1660–1798)
- The Romantic Period (1798–1837)
- The Victorian Period (1837–1901)
- The Modern Period (1901-1945)
- The Contemporary Period (1945–Today)
A Brief Overview & Timeline of British Literary Periods
Major literary Trends, Movements and Highlights
|Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period
|Heroic Tradition: poetry focused on hero’s bravery
Elegiac Tradition: writers mourned the passing of earlier, better times.
|Anglo-Norman or Middle English Period
|Popular forms of Writing: Chronicles, Poetry, Drama, Religious and Didactic writing.|
|Renaissance Period or Age of Shakespeare
|Trends: Revival of learning, Rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art, focus on ‘Humanism’ and ‘Puritanism’.
Major Forms of literature: poetry and drama.
|Neoclassical Period or the Enlightenment Age
|Trends: Revival of classical art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome, focus on order, accuracy, and structure.
Poetic Trends: Use of allusions, heroic couplet and strict meter and rhyme.
Chief Contribution: The Modern Novel.
|Trends: The Romantic Movement in Poetry, Gothicism in literature.
Chief Contribution: Romantic Poetry and The Gothic Novel.
|Literary Trends & Movements: Symbolism, Utilitarianism, Oxford Movement, Romantic Protestantism. Age of Prose & Novel.
Main Focus: individually, morality note, conflict between religion and science, human beings than nature.
|Literary Trends: psychological and realistic novel, use of stream of consciousness technique, futurism, cubism, Dadaism, Symbolism, Expressionism and Imagism.|
|Literary Trends: structuralism, deconstruction, poststructuralism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and magic realism.
Main Focus: horrors of war, genocide, life experiences, real-life themes, alienation, transformation, consumption & relativity of truth.
1. The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period (450-1066 AD)
Angles and Saxons were the ancestors of the English race. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the early 5th Century, three Germanic tribes—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—saw an opportunity to fill in the power gap and started migrating to Britain. The Anglo-Saxons were fearless, adventurous, and brave people. By 670 A.D. they had occupied the major part of the country, and the land of Anglos or Angloland—present day England—became their permanent abode.
The language brought by these Anglo-Saxon settlers together with some Latin and Celtic words became Old English. Anglo-Saxon literature was the earliest phase of English literature. This period consists of literature written in Old English in Anglo-Saxon England from the 5th Century AD to the Norman Conquest of 1066.
The Old English spoken by Anglo-Saxon people looks incomprehensible to today’s English-speakers. However, there are a good number of words that have survived in modern day English such as “day” , “year”, “kiss” , “love” , “arm” etc.
1.1 Anglo-Saxon Poetry
The Anglo-Saxons were fond of singing about battles, gods and their ancestral heroes. It is, however, these songs of religion, wars, and agriculture that marked the beginning of English poetry in ancient England.
The Anglo-Saxon poetry was mostly sung instead of written. That’s why there are very few remnants left of it. Among them, the most famous one is Beowulf. It is the first English epic poem. Beowulf 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 praises in honor of God. 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 that occurred in the life of Jesus Christ.
1.2. The Anglo-Saxon Prose
The Anglo-Saxons replaced Latin prose with English which 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. However, the second famous prose writer of the Anglo-Saxon period was, no doubt, Aelfric. He was actually a priest. Among his famous writings were Lives of the Saints, Homilies, and Grammar. Moreover, compared to other contemporary prose writers of the period, Aelfric’s prose was easy and alliterative.
1.3. 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 who was the Conqueror of Normandy, France, the Anglo-Saxon period finally came to an end. In history, their ruling period extends roughly from 450 A.D. to 1066 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.
2. The Anglo-Norman or Middle English Period (1066-1500 AD)
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. Since the Anglo-Norman period belonged to the Middle Ages or Medieval times in Britain History, we also call it the Middle English period in the history of English 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.
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2.1. The Romances of Anglo-Norman Period
In contrast to the courage, seriousness, and savagery of the Anglo-Saxon literature, the Normans introduced 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.
2.2. Chronicles in the Anglo-Norman Period
In the Anglo-Norman period of English literature, chronicles became a well-established form of writing. These chronicles basically recorded the history of kings. Though written in the Anglo-Norman language, these chronicles, however, 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.
2.3. The Mystery and Miracle Plays
Another remarkable achievement of the Middle English Period, however, 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, they chose Latin as the medium of writing and performing these plays.
2.4. 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.
2.5. The Anglo-Norman Poets
Some of the famous poets of the Middle English period and their notable works are briefly discussed below:
2.5.1. Philippe de Thaun
Philipe de Thaun was one of the earliest Anglo-Norman poets of the period. He was mainly famous for his two significant poems. The first one was ‘Livre des Creatures’’. It was a treatise on astronomy written around 1119. His second famous work was the allegorical poem ‘Bestiaire’ written around 1121 in the Anglo-Norman dialect.
2.5.2. 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 but wrote his poems in Latin. In his poems, he has mainly addressed to English persons.
2.5.4. 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).
2.5.5. William Langland
One of the notable poets of the Middle Ages, William Langland emerged in the 14th century. He held a significant place in the history of English literature and wrote many important poems. His most famous poem is ‘A Vision of Piers the Plowman’. As a satire on the corrupt religious practices, Langland’s poem clearly discusses the ethical problems of that time. Most of his poems are satirical in nature and bring about moral, political and social questions.
2.5.6. John Gower
John Gower also occupied a significant place in the development of English poetry of the Medieval period. He wrote around the 14th or 15th century bringing about the poems that represented the English culmination of courtly medieval poetry. His poems, indeed, proved that English can compete with the other languages that had distinguished themselves in poetry. Gower was mainly a narrative poet and a moralist. His most famous poem is Confession Amantis, written in the form of conversation between the divine interpreter and the poet. Like Chaucer, John Gower also played a significant role in developing English language as a thoroughly equipped medium of literature.
2.6. The Age of Chaucer
Towards the end of the Middle English period came ‘The Age of Chaucer’, covering the period from 1343 to 1450. It is the most significant time period in the literary history of English literature. Chaucer made a fresh and distinct beginning in English literature and became the ‘Father of English literature’ as well as the ‘Father of English poetry’. Chaucer’s poetry has been widely read from his own day to the present time. He was not merely a bookman or the visionary, rather, he was a man of the world and its affairs.
Chaucer’s most significant work is Canterbury Tales. It is a collection of stories related by the pilgrims of different sections of society who are on their way to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. A landmark in the history of English poetry, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales enriched the English language and meter to an extent that could be conveniently used for any purpose. Furthermore, his introduction of a variety of characters into a single action and their engagement in animated dialogues fulfilled every requirement of the dramatists who were short of bringing their plays on the stage. Chaucer’s works also showed to the novelists the way to portray their characters.
2.6.1. Decline in English Poetry
Chaucer’s significance in the development of English literature is remarkable as he shifted poetry from the region of Theology and Metaphysics to the old classical principle of the direct imitation of nature. After Chaucer there came a decline in English poetry for about 100 years. The period from 1400 to the Renaissance was bereft of quality literature. The poets of that time period produced little work and merely imitated Chaucer and his contemporaries.
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 1066, while for others it lasted up to 1450 or 1500. The Norman Conquest of England had, in fact, a profound effect in introducing various changes in the history of English literature. ‘The Age of Chaucer was followed by The Renaissance Period also known as the Elizabethan Period or the Age of Shakespeare in the history of English literature.
3. The Renaissance Period (1500–1660)
The Renaissance Period in the history of English literature is also known as the Elizabethan Period or the Age of Shakespeare. It is, in fact, the ‘golden age’ in the history of English literature. After the Middle Ages in Europe came the Renaissance, meaning revival or rebirth. As a result, the darkness of the middle ages was replaced by the enlightenment of the human mind with the ‘Revival of Learning’, which the Renaissance prompted.
The major characteristic of the Renaissance was its focus on Humanism i.e. man’s concern with himself as an object of observation. The Renaissance actually started Italy by Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. However, it became popular in Europe during the Elizabethan Period. Beside focusing on the ‘study of mankind’, Renaissance had numerous subordinate trends which were actually the significant aspects of Humanism. These include:
- The rediscovery of classical antiquity, particularly of ancient Greece.
- The rediscovery of the external universe, and its importance for man.
- The problems of human personality.
- The enhanced sensitivity to formal beauty, and the cultivation of the aesthetic sense.
- The belief that men are responsible for their own actions.
Instead of looking up to some higher authority for guidance, as was done in The Middle Ages, the writers of the Renaissance Period found guidance from within.
3.1. Elizabethan Drama
During the Renaissance Period the most important achievement in English literature was in the field of drama. The dramatists of this golden period include William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene and others. All these writers produced prolific works. However, the greatest among all Elizabethan dramatists was Shakespeare in whose hands the Elizabethan drama reached its climax. He took English drama to the level which could not be surpassed till today.
The main characteristics of the Elizabethan drama include–revenge themes, internal conflicts, good versus evil, melodramatic scenes, hero-villain protagonists, tragic-comedy, presence of supernatural beings such as ghosts and witches and the use of blank verse. Here are some famous dramatists of the Elizabethan Period:
3.1.1. Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
There was a famous group of dramatists in the Elizabethan Period known as ‘University Wits’. It was actually a professional set of literary men. Of all the members of this group Marlowe was the greatest, while other dramatists such as Lyly, Peele, Greene, Lodge, and Nash were minor artists.
Nevertheless, Marlowe’s contributions to the Elizabethan drama were remarkable. Although his plays were different from Shakespeare’s in content and style, yet he raised the subject-matter of drama to a higher level. It was Marlowe who gave beauty, dignity, and poetic glow to the drama. There is no doubt that he did the groundwork on which Shakespeare built the grand edifice. Therefore, Marlowe has been rightly called “the Father of English Dramatic Poetry.”
Marlowe’s first play Tamburlaine appeared in 1587 and took the public on a storm due to its impetuous force, sensitivity to beauty, and splendid command of blank verse. His other famous work, however, include The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus which tells the story of a scholar who sells his soul to the devil for unlimited power and worldly enjoyment. The third famous tragic play of Marlowe is The Jew of Malta. Though it has a glorious opening, it is not as fine as Doctor Faustus. Marlowe’s last play is Edward II which is best from technical point of view but lacks the rhythmic beauty as well as grandeur of his earlier plays.
3.1.2. William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
It was Shakespeare, the greatest of all Elizabethan dramatists, who took English drama to the highest peak of fame. He was, indeed, a gifted man. His brilliant imagination, keen insight, and a creative mind gave new life to the old familiar stories and made them glow with tenderest feelings and deepest thoughts. His style and versification were extremely remarkable. He was not only the greatest dramatist of his time, but also a famous poet as well. His sonnets, replete with passion and aesthetic sense, also possess a significant place in the history of English literature. Although Shakespeare belonged to the Elizabethan Age, due to his universality he belongs to all times.
Shakespeare’s works include non-dramatic poetry consisting of two narrative poems, Venice and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, 154 sonnets, and 37 plays. His work as a dramatist extends over some 24 years (1588-1612), and is divided into four periods. Let’s briefly overview this period:
1577-1593: First Period
This period includes Shakespeare’s early experimental work. The famous works of this period are: the revision of old plays as the three parts of Henry VI and Titus Andronicus; his first comedies—The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Comedy of Errors ; his first chronicle play—Richard III; and his most famous youthful tragedy—Romeo and Juliet.
1594-1600: Second Period
This period reveals Shakespeare’s development as a great thinker and artist. The works of this period includes Shakespeare’s great comedies and chronicle plays such as: The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Henry IV, King John, Henry V, Part I and II, Much Ado About Nothing, The Training of the Shrew, As You Like It, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Twelfth Night.
1601-1608: Third Period
This period includes Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies and somber comedies. His main concern there is to reveal the darker side of human personality and its destructive passions. The major works of this period are: Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, King Lear, All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, Anthony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, and Timon of Athens.
1608-1612: Fourth Period
This period includes Shakespeare’s later dramatic romances and comedies. Here we see a decline in his power of thought and expression. Still his plays are tender and gracious. The famous works of this period are: The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and Cymbeline. He wrote all these plays in collaboration with other dramatists.
3.1.3. Ben Johnson (1573-1637)
Ben Johnson was Shakespeare’s contemporary as well as a prominent dramatist of his times. But he was just the opposite of Shakespeare. A moralist, reformer, and a classist, Johnson in his works presented a true picture of contemporary society. He wrote his plays in a realistic manner and introduced his theory of ‘humour’. His famous comedies are: The Alchemist, Bartholomew, Fair, Volpone, Every Man in His Humour, Every Man Out of His Humour, and The Silent Woman.
3.1.4. Other Major Figures
There were many other playwrights who were part of the Golden Age of English Drama. For instance, Lyly wrote Euphues, Sapho and Phao, Midas, Endymion and Compaspe. Thomas Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy. Robert Greene wrote Orlando Furioso. Compared to the works of the greatest dramatists of this period, their works are of little importance.
3.1.5. The Puritan Age (1600-1660)
In the 17th century came the decline of the Renaissance spirit. The writers of that time either imitated the Elizabethan masters or paved new paths. The 17th century’s literature is divided into two periods—The Puritan Age or the Age of Milton (1600-1660) and the Restoration Period or the Age of Dryden (1660-1700). Up to 1660, Puritanism dominated the 17th Century. John Milton was the greatest representative of the Puritan spirit. The Puritan movement in literature is also called the second Renaissance because of the revival of man’s moral nature. It stood for people’s liberty from the shackles of the despotic ruler and introduced morality and high ideals in politics.
John Milton(1608-1674) was the most significant poet of the Puritan Age. He was a great scholar of classical as well as Hebrew literature. A child of the Renaissance, Milton was also a great humanist. As an artist we may call him the last Elizabethan. Milton’s greatest poetical works are Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. Besides Milton, the poetry of The School of Spencer, The Metaphysical Poets, and The Cavalier Poets also earned great fame. But no one of them was as noblest and indomitable representative of the Puritan spirit as John Milton.
Moreover, this period was rich in prose as well. Among the great prose writers of the Puritan Age include Francis Bacon, Milton, Robert Burton, Jeremy Tayler, Sir Thomas Brown and Clarendon. During this period we find English prose developing into a magniloquent and rich instrument capable of expressing all types of ideas, such as scientific, philosophical, poetic, religious and personal.
4. The Neoclassical Period (1660-1798)
The period between 1660 and 1798 is roughly marked as the Neoclassical Period in the history of English literature. Moreover, this time period is divided into two parts: the Restoration Period or the Age of Dryden (1660-1700), and the Classical Age or the Augustan Age (18 Century). The Classical Age is further divided into two distinct periods–the Age of Pope (1700-1744) and the Age of Johnson (1744-1784).
4.1. The Restoration Period (1660-1700)
The period from 1660 to 1700 is called the Restoration Period because monarchy was restored in England, and Charles II came back to England from his exile in France and became the King. It is also known as the Age of Dryden because Dryden was the most significant literary figure of the age. The Puritans who were previously controlling the country were finally defeated. As a result, a reaction was launched against whatever they held sacred. All restraints and discipline were casted away, and a tide of indecency and frivolity swept the country. Since Charles II and his followers had enjoyed a gay life during their exile in France, they introduced same foppery and looseness in England as well.
As a result, the people were deprived of the old Elizabethan spirit with its patriotism, creative vigor and the love of adventure and romance. Moreover, the Puritan spirit with its moral discipline and love of liberty also became a thing of the past. The writers of this period made two important contributions to English literature. The first was in the form of realism and the second was a tendency to preciseness.
4.1.1 The Restoration Poetry
The Restoration Poetry was mostly realistic and satirical. It was mostly written in the heroic couplet, of which Dryden was the greatest master. He was the most important figure of the Restoration Period and made great achievements in the fields of poetry, drama and prose. In fact, he was the only poet of his age worth mentioning. He wrote in a lucid and forceful style that laid the foundation of the classical school of poetry in England.
Furthermore, Dryden’s poetry is divided into three groups: Doctrinal Poems, Political Satires, and The Fables. His famous political satires include Absalom and Achitophel and The Medal. Dryden’s famous doctrinal poems are Religio Laici and The Hind and the Panther. His fables, written in narrative form, entitle him to rank among the best story-tellers in verse in England. Palamon and Arcite can be examined in this regard. Dryden’s poetry displays all the characteristics of the Restoration Period and is, therefore, thoroughly representative of that age.
4.1.1 The Restoration Drama and Prose
Restoration drama showed entirely new trends due to the long break with the past. It was extremely influenced by the new age that was deficient in poetic feeling, imagination, and emotional approach to life. Rather, it focused on prose as the medium of expression, and had a realistic, intellectual and critical approach to human life and its problems.
The Comedy of Manners was the most famous form of drama during the Restoration Period. It portrayed the sophistical life of society’s dominant class—its insolence, gaiety, intrigue and foppery. The most popular Restoration dramatist was William Congreve. He wrote the best comedies, for instance, Love for Love and The Way of the World. The chief writer of heroic tragedy was Dryden. His famous tragic plays include Tyrannic Love, All for Love, and The Conquest of Granada.
In the field of prose, the Restoration Period held its head higher than poetry and drama. A unique prose style evolved for the first time. This style could be used for plain narrative, practical business, and argumentative exposition of intricate topics. Dryden was the dominant leader and practitioner of that new prose style. Other famous prose writers of the period were John Bunyan, John Tillotson, William Temple, Thomas Sprat, and Viscount Halifax. Besides Dryden, John Bunyan was the greatest prose writer of the age. His most famous work is The Pilgrim’s Progress.
4.2. The Classical or Augustan Age (18th Century)
The 18th century in English literature is called the Classical Age or the Augustan Age. We also call it the Age of Reason or the Age of Good Sense. The writers of the age produced works of great significance and merit. The major characteristics of the Restoration period—precision and realism—were carried to further perfection. It was during the 18th century that for the first time in the history of English literature prose occupied the front position.
The most important feature of the 18th Century was the origin and development of the novel. This new literary form, which at present holds a prominent place, was fed and nourished by the great masters such as Defoe, Richardson, Smollet, Fielding, and others. All these writers laid the secure foundation of this new form.
4.2.1 The Age of Pope (1700-1744)
The earlier part of the 18th Century is called the Age of Pope, since Alexander Pope was the dominating figure in that period. The poetry of the Age of Pope is not of a high order. Still, it has some distinct merits such as the creation of a technically beautiful verse, the clarity of its expression and the finished art of satire.
The famous poets of this age include Alexander Pope (the greatest of all poets of this age), Matthew Prior, John Gay, Edward Young and others. However, the greatest prose writers of this age were Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. The prose of this age exhibits the classical qualities—for instance, vigor, clarity, and direct statement.
4.2.2 The Age of Johnson (1744-1784)
The later half of the Augustan Age was dominated by Dr. Samuel Johnson and is, therefore, called the Age of Johnson. During this age, cracks had begun to appear in the edifice of classicism and there were clear signs of revolt in favor of the Romantic spirit. It was especially noticeable in the field of poetry. The poets who showed romantic leanings in their poetry are the precursors of the Romantic Revival. These poets include James Thomson, William Blake, Thomas Gray, William Cowper, William Collins, and George Crabbe. Due to its Romantic inclinations, we also call the Age of Johnson as the Age of Transition in English Literature.
The dominating prose writers of this age were Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Edward Gibbon. They were, indeed, the pillars of the Age of Johnson and represented in themselves the highest achievements of English prose. After the Age of Johnson came the Romantic Period. The Neoclassical period officially ended in 1798 when William Wordsworth and S.T. Coleridge published the ‘Lyrical Ballads’.
5. The Romantic Period (1798–1837)
The most flourished period in the history of English literature is the Romantic Period. It was a revolt against the Classical school of the 18th Century. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Shelley, Keats, and Byron belonged to this period. The Romantic Age was basically the age of poetry. With the publication of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and Coleridge introduced a new form of poetry in opposition to the poetry of the Classical school.
The Romantic poets focused on the simplicity of language and chose the language of the common people. They looked back to the Elizabethan masters—Shakespeare, Spenser and others—in order to take inspiration from them. Their poems usually dealt with the events of everyday life. The Romantic poets proved that if the trivial aspects of nature and the common things of life are treated in the right way, they could be as interesting and significant as the grand aspects of nature and life.
The prose writers of the Romantic period also rejected the Augustan style of writing. They reverted to the ponderous, poetical and flowery prose of the Renaissance. Since the Romantic Age was characterized by the excess of emotions, it produced a new type of novel—the Gothic Novel—which soon became popular among the multitude of readers with its Gothic elements such as supernatural, gloomy settings and bizarre situations.
5.1 Difference Between Classicism and Romanticism
Romanticism was explicitly opposed to Classicism. While the Classical Age was the age of prose, the Romantic Age was the age of poetry. During the Romantic Period, poetry became the proper medium of the expression of thoughts, emotions, and imaginative process of the artist. Classicism laid stress upon the impersonal aspects of life, whereas Romantic literature openly shifted the center of art to the personal aspects of individuals.
Moreover, the heroic couplet was the only form of writing poetry in the Classical Age. While in the Romantic Period, the poets focused on simple and natural diction. The liberty of the poet from the shackles of the literary rules was the watchword of the Romantic movement. Thus, Romantic literature is a genuinely creative literature focusing on the highest creative faculty of man.
6. The Victorian Period (1837–1901)
Beginning in the second quarter of the 19th Century, the Victorian Period is so long as well as complicated. Moreover, there are numerous great writers who flourished during that period. That’s why, for the sake of convenience, the Victorian Period is divided into two further periods—Early Victorian Period (1837-1870) and Later Victorian Period (1870-1901).
6.1. Early Victorian Period
The Earlier Victorian Period was, in fact, dominated by middle class supremacy, the age of ‘laissez-fair’ or free trade, and of unrestricted competition. The great writers of this period were Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, Thackeray and Ruskin. All these poets, novelists, and prose writers, in spite of their individual differences, exhibited the same approach to contemporary issues. Due to this, they form a certain homogenous group possessing the same social, literary, and moral values.
6.2. Later Victorian Period
The Later Victorian Period began after 1870. The most prominent writers of that period were Christiana Rossetti, Charles Swinburne, George Eliot, William Morris, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Pater and others. In poetry, Morris, Swinburne and Rossetti were the protagonists of a new literary movement—the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. Later on, this movement was followed by the Aesthetic Movement. Its protagonists were Oscar Wilde, Earnest Dowson, Arthur Symons and Lionel Pigot Johnson. In the field of novels, however, George Eliot laid the foundation of the ‘Modern Psychological Novel’, followed by Thomas Hardy and Meredith.
The Victorian Period exhibits a unique and complex amalgamation of two opposites—Romanticism and Classicism. Basically, its inclination towards Classicism was due its rational approach to the problems of life, deeply moral attitude, and a search for stability and balance. On the other hand, it exhibited close proximity to the Romantic spirit which had not completely exhausted itself but suddenly ended due to the following reasons:
- the premature deaths of Keats, Byron, and Shelley.
- the disillusionment resulted from industrialization and material prosperity.
- the social and economic unrest.
Courtesy: By The Book
7. The Modern Period (1901-1945)
From the beginning of the 20th Century started the Modern Period in English literature. The most significant feature of Modern literature was that it opposed the general attitude of Victorian writers and people to life and its problems. During the first decade of the 20th Century, the young people regarded the Victorian age as hypocritical, and the Victorian ideals as superficial, mean and stupid. This rebellion hugely affected modern literature which was directed by moral values, spiritual ideals as well as mental attitudes that were dramatically opposed to those of the Victorians.
Moreover, the Modernists no longer believed in the sanctity of home life as Victorians did. They also reacted against the Victorians’ attitude of self complacency and self perfection. Since the modern writers could no longer write in the old manner, they devised their own. If they wrote about the contempt of money, natural beauty, divine love, and the sentiments of home and life , they were considered running the risk of striking a false note. Even if they treated the same themes, they had to do it tactfully to evoke unique thoughts and emotions. The modern writers, therefore, had to cultivate a fresh point of view employing fresh techniques.
The main cause of this attitude of interrogations and disintegration of old values was the impact of scientific thought on the people. Many writers of the 20th Century began to study and contemplate seriously over the writings of Karl Marx, Engles, Ruskin, Morris etc. and discuss practical suggestions for the reconstruction of society. The 20th Century literature is full of experimentation and adventures peculiar to the modern age—an age of transition and discovery.
Presentation on Modernism in British Literature:
7.1. Modern Poetry
Modern poetry followed an entirely different tradition from the Romantic and Victorian tradition of poetry. The modern poets believed that the poet’s business was to be uniquely himself, and to project his personality through the medium of his art. Poetry to them was a method of discovering one’s self, and then a means of projecting this discovery.
T. S. Eliot is the chief representative of modern poetry. A greatest poet as well as a critic, he reinforced his political theories by his own poetry, and thus exerted a tremendous influence on modern poetry. His most famous poems include The Waste Land, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Dry Salvages, East Coker, and Little Gidding. Other famous modern poets are Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. E. Houseman, Wilfred Owen, W. B. Yeats and others.
7.2. Modern Drama
Drama in England suffered a decline for about two centuries after the death of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It was revived, however, in the last decade of the 19th Century. The two important dramatists who took a significant part in the revival of drama were the Irish men—George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Shaw practiced the Comedy of Idea, whereas Wilde practiced the new Comedy of Manners. Shaw, a great thinker, represented the Puritan side of the Anglo-Irish tradition. Wilde, on the other hand, was fond of a luxurious life. He was not a deep thinker as Shaw was and his attitude to life was essentially a playful and entertaining one.
Besides the comedy of manners and ideas, another type of drama evolved in England under the influence of the Irish Dramatic Movement. Its originators were Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats. The two important dramatists of this movement were J. M. Synge and Sean O’ Casey. Other famous modern dramatists include Harold Pinter, John Galsworthy, John Masefield, J. M. Berrie, and Harley Granville-Barker.
7.3. Modern Novel
The modern novel is realistic as well as psychological. The Modern novelists had introduced into the novel subtle points of view, reserved and refined characters, and intangible delicacies of motive. All these had never been attempted before by any English novelist. The modern novelist in their works employed the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. This technique not only helped them to reveal the character completely and present development in character. Besides being realistic and psychological, the modern novelists were quite frank with sexual matters.
The modern novelists who dominated the earlier part of the 20th Century were H. G. Bells, Arnold Bennett, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy and E. M. Foster. From the beginning of World War I new experiments were made in the field of literature on account of the new forces which resulted from war and broke the old tradition. The writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Adlous Huxley, D. H. Laurence, and Somerset Maugham made the greatest contribution to this century.
8. The Contemporary Period (1945–Today)
After World War II, new trends appeared in English literature. Although poetry was the most memorable form to come out of World War I, the novel was the form which told the stories of World War II. This was because mass media, cinema, newspapers, and radio had changed the way of information and entertainment. There were many writers who wrote about war. For instance, Henry Greene’s novels— Nothing (1950), The End of Affair (1951), and A Burnt-out Case (1961) deal with war. These novels explore regions of human unhappiness in many different areas of the world.
Then came Samuel Beckett, best known for his plays, who described interior feelings of lonely souls in his works. In this regard came his novels Murphy (1938) and How It Is (1961). Similarly, the novels of George Orwell also possess political intention. As a socialist, Orwell believed in equality. His famous works are Animal Farm (1945), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
8.1. The Novel from 1950s and 1960s
Certainly, each decade in the history of English literature introduced different ways of writing. In the 1950s, a new generation of writers appeared, with new subjects and issues. These writers include Colin Wilson, John Wain, Alan Sillitoe, Muriel Spark, Doris Lessing, William Golding and others. The most successful comic novel of the 1950s was Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954). It was, in fact, one of the first novels to have a university setting.
William Golding was one of the great story-tellers of his time. He always explored in his novels the things which form human behavior. His famous novels are Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Inheritors (1955). From the 1970s, the novel took several directions. The four main directions were:
- the focus on foreign and local regional voices.
- the focus on more female voices.
- the academic or campus novel.
- the coming of the kind of fantasy known as Magic Realism.
Thus, British literature of the contemporary period mainly includes reality-based stories having strong characters and realistic themes. The Settings of contemporary novels are usually the current or modern era. In their novels and poetry, the contemporary writers deal with such themes as war, racism, identity, family, home, and a search for goodness in humanity.
For this article, I consulted the following books:
- Andrew Sanders’s The Short Oxford History of English Literature
- Robert Barnard’s A Short History of English Literature
- Stephen Coote’s The Penguin Short History of English Literature
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