history of english literature

history of english literature

Exploring the History of English Literature

1. Introduction to English Literature

The most famous Old English literature remains the epic poem ‘Beowulf’. Some other great works of this period include Caedmon’s ‘Hymn’, Caedmon’s ‘Cross’, Judith, a fragment of a religious poem illustrating the apocryphal story of Judith and Holofernes, the ‘Dream of the Rood’, instructions for Christians, riddles, and charms, and various types of verse spells. Other features of this period were the warrior culture, for example, life in mead halls and the importance of weapons, the belief that an early death brought fame. There was also the early Germanic oral tradition of poetry. The most famous and celebrated of these modern periods is the alliterative verse characteristic of works of this time. Most of the Old English poetry was probably intended to be chanted, with harp accompaniment, by the Anglo-Saxon scop. The prosody of Old English poetry was poorly understood during the Old English period, with an indifferent approach to the understanding. The early part of the period is mainly in Latin.

There are various ways of studying the history of a particular national literature. Although foreign influences were always pouring in, English literature has evolved to have its own individuality. This has been the result of many cultural, spiritual, political, and other psychological forces at work from time to time. This time factor is really important as the changes took place with the passage of time; sometimes slowly, at other times rapidly and violently. The history of a national literature in any country is not only a record of the works produced from an intellectual standpoint but also in relation to the religious, social, and political influences of the time. The history of English literature is the development of these different styles which readily divide the traditional works of literature.

(An Overview)

2. Early English Literature: From Beowulf to Chaucer

English literature starts with the arrival of Teutonic tribes which from their Scandinavian homeland had fought and envassaled their way westward over Europe. The English Shakespeare and the German Goethe were the offspring of common ancestors who dwelt together in the primaeval forests of north west Europe. We have in English literature a rich and well-preserved treasure-house of the oldest literary forms of our race. Our early epic is more typical than the German Niebelungenlied. Our early ballad is more spontaneous than the Danish folk-song. Our early lyrics have a higher literary value than those of Norway or Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, or Friesland. From our earliest records related to the island of England, we have a series of writings which are preserved in the precious volumes of the Venerable Bede.

One of the shortest but by no means the least important epochs in the history of literature is that one usually referred to as “Early English Literature”. It is spoken of as short because the beginnings of English itself may be seen in a few eleventh century shrifts, while the full efflorecense of English literature is generally dated from the end of the fourteenth century when Geoffrey Chaucer had managed to combine literary skill with simplicity of language and genuine humor. To trace the history of Early English Literature necessitates going back for twelve hundred years to the age when the Teutonic races wrought themselves into new forms, both of speech and life, by contact and dispute with the old citizens of Greece and Rome.

3. The Renaissance and Shakespearean Era

As men were beginning to realize how much of the world had survived the classical age, an outburst of industry, geography, navigation, and science took place. More literature (in the extended sense which suits the age) escaped “schoolroom” her self-consciousness and much of it became more urban, more rambling. The English, realizing at last that they had a country of their own which could produce wealth, beauty, and wisdom as well as beggars and poor scholars and divine, find themselves preferring English to Italian, their racy roadside English to the high-Latinism of the schoolmen and to the low-French which were more seductive. Small wonder that they were eager to justify their sentiments and thinks from the beginning of their adulthood; small wonder that one of their first duties was to supply Christianity – the religion of sensitive and proud moderns – with a bulk capable of interest, and pathos, and a wholeheartedly-realistic salvation only Pre-Christian antiquity and medieval Christianity could offer.

The era is divided into two periods: the earlier, and the greater part of the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603), and the rest of the years reign. The main characteristic of the age is its tremendous richness and the dramatic advances in learning and science throughout the whole period of Elizabeth. During her reign, England emerged as the world power and the most advanced country in commerce and industry. Medieval values and scale of life were rapidly outgrown. It did not, of course, become a paradise. There were enormous political, social and religious upheavals. The leaders of the Church were in fact among the most stable figures in the age, maintaining the traditional Christian doctrine and even the more traditional Latin ceremonies, but with a new and concrete sense of what it all meant and a new literary and emotional richness which dumbfounded the puritan ethicists.

4. The Rise of the Novel and Romanticism

Despite their isolated subjectivity, the Romantics return to their roots in the sense of a bond with Europe, a return to classical models and to native tradition. They are not insular or parochial. It could not have been otherwise, for in this grand moment in which the vessel of England, through an incomparable balance of creation and minds, has been able to accommodate both an uninterrupted continuity of reading men—the readers are also in some sense actors of the literary event which they make live anew through recitation—and an elite capable of assimilating every novel and original force which the wider world incessantly offers to the sacred ‘problem’ of man. However, there is always a national spirit as well, and this surely makes their treasure a part of the universal spirit of the European world of civilization, but in a way that is also national, viable, and durable.

The form which has enriched English literature most is the novel. This characteristically modern shape began to appear in the seventeenth century in the works of Bunyan, but it really took form in the eighteenth century. The outstanding authors were Samuel Richardson with Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded and Clarissa: Or, the History of a Young Lady; Henry Fielding, who showed the lighter side of society in Tom Jones or The History of a Foundling; and Laurence Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy was a new and audacious historical experiment. The novel has many varieties, and for this reason is peculiarly suited to the talents of the British and American writers who have principally developed it. Jane Austen’s spirited criticism of middle-class society in her day—confining herself to her own “two inches of ivory”—constitutes a delightful moment in a period that discovers Romanticism, the delicate yearnings of Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley, the rebellious energy of Byron, the developing genius of Scott, the history of the traitor Waverley.

5. Modernism and Contemporary Literature

Many other writers, however, attempted to possess form in order to make their point more effectively. New defining purpose helped to overcome modernism’s fragmentary and iconoclastic tendencies; authors, according to Middleton Murry, who ‘deny form are revelling only in the chaos of the creative process’. Whereas traditional texts tended to sustain a traditional mindset, modern works were often designed to puzzle and discomfort the reader. Fiction, in the hands of Joyce, Woolf, Forster, and others, was closer to music in that it was a structured form between ‘aesthetic object’ and society, potentially transforming and bringing them into mutual contact and understanding. Experimental form was not exclusive to the novel. Drama also came to resemble the fracture of human society. Such was the response to the terrors of the real world and the imagination that the broken form was deemed the most appropriate way of expressing the horrors of the real and symbolic world.

Culture was restless in the 1920s and 1930s. There were shifts and changes in philosophy, criticism, and sociology, among other areas, as well as in literature. In the light of modern physics, literature, especially the poetry of symbolists and imagists, took on a new form. Artists, generally, attempted to create something starkly new – to produce a ‘shock of the new.’ Many found traditional literary forms stale and inadequate to reflect their experiences of the horror of World War 1, for example, or the pace of life in the new cities. They looked toward the idea of ‘freedom’ in artistic expression. Some ‘modernist’ writing is hardly more than a series of disconnected and confusing images.

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