6 minute read

English literature

English literature, poetry, prose, and drama written by authors from the British Isles, primarily England, Scotland, and Wales, and, to a certain extent, Ireland. English literature mirrors the development of the English language and is inextricably bound up with the country's history, politics, and social developments.

Old English literature (500–1100)

Old English (OE) is the form of English spoken by the tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who settled in the British Isles in the 400s and 500s. The epic poem Beowulf is the first significant piece of English literature; its author is unknown. OE poetry is characterized by the use of alliteration (the repetitive use of words beginning with the same sound) and by its use of elaborate metaphoric phrases called kennings. The sea, for instance, may be referred to as “the whale-road.” Caedmon (fl. 670) is the first known English poet, and the only work ascribed to him (by the Venerable Bede in 731) is a nine-line “Hymn of Caedmon.” Prose works of that time comprised mostly histories and religious writings, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation being the first and most important.

Middle English literature (1100–1485)

The mixture of Latin (from the Catholic Church) and French (from the Norman invaders), overlaid on the earlier OE and local dialects, created Middle English (ME). ME literature developed the romances (primarily adventure stories told mostly in verse). The cycle of legends about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is a major example of this genre. The most complete version (Le Morte d'Arthur, or The Death of Arthur) was written in the late 1400s by Sir Thomas Malory. The most important English author of ME literature was the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400). His Canterbury Tales (late 1300s) employed end rhymes and a five-beat line (iambic pentameter) that is still a mainstay of English poetry.

Development of modern English

During the 1400s, changes in the language brought about modern English; for example, by the late 1500s, people were writing and speaking in a language we can recognize today. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), England experienced a golden age of poetry and drama. William Shakespeare (1564–1616) is the greatest figure of English drama, but contemporaries included Ben Jonson (Volpone, Bartholomew Fayre) and Christopher Marlowe (Tamburlaine the Great, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus).

In poetry, longer narrative verse was written by William Shakespeare (Venus and Adonis) and Edmund Spenser (The Faerie Queene). Both also wrote sonnet sequences (a series of sonnets on a single topic or person) which were a popular verse form of the time.

The Later Renaissance and the Commonwealth (1600–60)

James I, a Stuart, ascended the throne after Elizabeth I. In 1648 the Puritans under Cromwell overthrew the monarchy and established a Commonwealth. The theater continued under James, but it took on a darker tone. Known as Jacobean drama, these plays often concentrated on action, violence, and the theme of revenge. John Webster's Duchess of Malfi (c. 1612–14) is a prime example of Jacobean tragedy. Other playwrights included Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (The Maid's Tragedy), and John Ford (The Witch of Edmonton). The Puritans closed the theaters in 1648. John Donne was the leading metaphysical poet (a school of poetry that used vivid, common speech together with complex metaphorical allusions called conceits). Others in the group included Henry Vaughan and George Herbert. The Cavalier poets, on the other hand, concentrated on lighter verse. They are typified by the works of Robert Herrick and Richard Lovelace. The greatest poet of the era was John Milton, whose epic Paradise Lost (1667) was based on the Bible story of Adam and Eve. Perhaps the most enduring, influential prose work of the era was the King James version of the Bible (translated in 1611).

The Restoration (1660–1700)

After the monarchy was restored in 1660, drama returned principally in the form of Restoration comedy, a comedy of manners that concentrated on the amorous pursuits of the upper class. Chief among the Restoration playwrights was William Congreve, whose The Way of the World (1700) is still a repertory staple. Others included William Wycherley, and Colley Cibber. Prose works of the era included John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Serious drama and poetry were served by the outstanding poet John Dryden, as exemplified in his play All for love (1678) and his satire MacFlecknoe (1682).

The Augustinians (1700–50)

The early 18th century saw a revival of classical, mainly Roman, aesthetics with an emphasis on reason, proportion, and elegance. This was especially manifest in the poetic satires of Alexander Pope, most notably in The Rape of the Lock (1712), and in the prose writings of the powerful satirist Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels (1726). The novel came into its own in this period, with such writers as Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Samuel Richardson, and Daniel Defoe. From mid-century to about 1785, criticism reached new heights with the works of Samuel Johnson and his circle, which included James Boswell, biographer, and Edward Gibbon, historian, and the playwright/poet Oliver Goldsmith.

Romantic literature (1785–1837)

Pre-romantics, principally the poet William Blake, began the shift in emphasis from reason to feeling and emotion, as exemplified in his Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). Other pre-romantic poets of the era included Thomas Gray, William Cowper, and the great Scottish poet Robert Burns.

The great romantic poets of the early 19th century were William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Their joint effort Lyrical Ballads (1798) heralded a change to elemental human emotions and a deep, personal tone. Later, the extraordinary group of Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats brought romantic poetry to its heights. The novel was also well-served by Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819). The Gothic novel (horror story) was created by Horace Walpole with the Castle of Otranto (1754) and was taken up by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818).

The Victorian Age in literature (1837–1901)

In 1837, Victoria was crowned Queen and inaugurated the longest reign in England (till 1901) and one of its most illustrious literary eras. The novel is the jewel in the crown of Victorian literature. Charles Dickens created worlds of vivid, memorable characters in works like The Pickwick Papers (1836–37) and Oliver Twist (1837–39) and, later, the grimmer side of Victorian life in Bleak House (1852–53) and Hard Times (1854). Major novelists of this period also included: William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair, 1847–48), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights, 1847), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre, 1847). Later Victorian novelists include such important figures as George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans), Thomas Hardy, and George Meredith. Late 19th-century poets often assumed a darker, more problematic tone, as in Lord Alfred Tennyson (In Memoriam, 1850), Matthew Arnold (“Dover Beach,” 1867), and Robert Browning (The Ring and the Book, 1868–69). Drama came back after something of a hiatus for most of the century. By 1900, Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895), and George Bernard Shaw (Man and Superman, 1901–03; Major Barbara, 1905) were producing witty comedies and socially trenchant dramas.

Twentieth-Century literature

Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, 1902) wrote penetrating psychological novels while John Galsworthy (The Forsyte Saga, 1906–21, a series of three works) wrote realistic novels and plays. Virginia Woolf, largely forsaking normal plot and character development, wrote novels to describe inner reality using a technique called “stream of consciousness,” as in To the Lighthouse, 1927. The Irish novelist James Joyce broke new ground in writing highly stylized, literary works that utilized interior monologues and random associations in ways not tried before, as in Ulysses (1922). The American-born T.S. Eliot (The Waste Land, 1922) wrote poetry in a distinctly modern idiom.

Through both World Wars and up to today, literature in the British Isles has made major contributions to world culture. Among the significant novelists are D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. More recent novelists include C.P. Snow, Doris Lessing, and John LeCarré. Poets include W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and Ted Hughes. Playwrights include: Christopher Fry, John Osborne, Tom Stoppard, and David Hare.

Additional topics

21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia - Eilat to ERA