Brief History of English Literature

History of English Literature

history of english literature

History of English Literature starts with the emergence of English language. Like any other language, English Language has gone through different periods of evolution. It evolved over centuries and made a very rapid transformation in its form. English literature that we have in the Modern Era is very different from the Chaucerian Period or before this. How it transformed over the time and what terms were allotted to different periods: We will have a detailed study period wise.  The main literary periods of ‘history of English literature’ are as follows:

Name of Literary Eras in History of English Literature:

Pre-Chaucerian Period (500-1340)

The Age of Chaucer (1340-1400)

From Chaucer to Tottel’s Miscellany (1400-1557)

The Renaissance-The Age of Shakespeare (1557–1625)

Puritan Age-The Age of Milton (1625-1660)

The Age of Dryden (1660-1700)

Augustan literature-The Age of Pope (1700–1745)

The Age of Johnson (1745-1798)

The Age of Wordsworth (1798-1837)

Victorian literature (1837–1901)

The Present Age (1901-present)

Pre-Chaucerian Period (500-1340)

Pre-Chaucerian literature is the literature written before the period of Chaucer. This period has a significant place in history of English literature. The two major periods, the literature of this time comprises of are, Anglo Saxon and Anglo Norman.

(I) ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD (450–1066)

History of English literature normally starts with Anglo-Saxon period. The English Literature written during Anglo-Saxon period is the Old English Literature. This literary period was 600 years. Old English Literature includes works of diverse genres like chronicles,  sermons, heroic poetry, translations of Bible, hagiography, legal writings, riddles, and many more. 400 total manuscripts that have survived from this period and are of special interest.  (1) The compilation of the manuscripts of poetry from the Anglo-Saxon period is in these four major manuscripts: the Exeter Book, the Junius Manuscript, the Vercelli Book, and the Beowulf manuscript. The most notable manuscript from prose is Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is a historical record. (2) Prominent writers from this literary period include Alfred the Great, Aldhelm, Alcuin, Aelfric Bata, Aelfric of Canterbury, Bede, Cynewuf, Caedmon, Wulfstan, etc. In addition, Hygeburg, who was a female writer and a nun, is the first Englishwoman known to compose a complete literary writing.

(II) ANGLO-NORMAN PERIOD (1066-1340)

Anglo-Norman literature is the literature written at the time of Anglo-Norman period. It is in the Anglo-Norman language. This language took form during the time 1066–1204, when the England and Duchy of Normandy came together to make the Anglo-Norman empire. The literature of this time was rich in writing the legends and lives of saints. It also included epic poetry, romance poetry, lyric poetry, fables, Fabliaux, writings on history, hagiography, religious tales, Didactic literature, drama, satire etc. The most famous manuscripts from this period include Brut, The Owl and the Nightingale, The Ormulum, Arthur and Merlin, Tristan and Iseult, La gageure, Anglo-Norman Sermon, Voyage de Saint Brandan, Piers Plowman, Roman de Renart, etc. Prominent writers from this literary period include; Layamon, Robert Biket, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Béroul, Thomas, Nicole Bozon, etc. The Age of Chaucer (1340-1400)

The Age of Chaucer is considered a period of major development in history of English Literature. It was the start of new English language and literature. Geoffrey Chaucer was a poet and an author of English language. In his brief life of 57 years, he contributed significantly in the development of English. For this reason, his has the title of “Father of English Literature”. The Canterbury Tales is his most prominent wok. The age of Chaucer faced various religious, social, political challenges. The churches, which used to have authority, were corrupted and people were starting to go against the commands of the church. People started to think more openly and without the restrictions of church and hence their writing style changed too. The theme of writings was moving from romance and fables to more humanistic. There were no dramas or novels written in that time. Prose and poetry were getting more importance.

The most famous works from the age of Chaucer include The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women, and Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer’s book, Treatise on the Astrolabe, has technical writing which shows that he was good at science too as he was in English literature. (5) Other main authors of the age of Chaucer are, William Langland, John Gower, Giovanni Boccaccio and John Trevisa. (6) These are the other major works of Chaucer’s period: Piers Plowman, Confessio Amantis, Decameron, Vox Clamantis, The Knight’s Tale, Famous Women, etc. Though the Age of Chaucer was a short period, it made a great impact on English literature and changed its direction. It laid the basis of modern English language and literature.

From Chaucer to Tottel’s Miscellany

After the death of Chaucer, the conditions in England became very unfavourable. There were political conflicts and war. Thus, the 15th century does not have much literary productiveness. Some poets who tried to imitate Chaucer’s style produced some manuscripts but because those were imitative, they did not hold a much permanent value. From these people, the most prominent were Thomas Occleve and John Lydgate, who wrote The Governail of Princes and Stories of Thebes However, the poet, William Dunbar’s ‘Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins’ is very original with humour, vigour and homely pathos. In prose, there was more work done. Reginald Pecock’s ‘Bloke of Faith’ proved to be a landmark in English prose. One great thing that happened during this period was the establishment of the first English printing press. William Caxton did it at Westminster in 1476.

Other important works that started at a later time of this period include English New Testament, the complete English Bible of Miles Coverdale, Pastime of Pleasure, etc. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia is typical and thorough writing of this period. It was translated from Latin in 1551 and it described an ideal society.  At the end of this period, stand out two names, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. They have the honour of bringing love-poetry and Sonnet to English literature. Surrey was also the first writer to use ten-syllable verse, which also has the name of blank verse. In 1557, Tottel’s Miscellany, a compilation of miscellaneous English poems, came out. Almost half of the poems in this collection were of Wyatt and Surrey. Tottel’s Miscellany, published just a year before Elizabeth’s period, marked the dawn of a new era, as it was . (1)

The Age of Shakespeare (1577-1625) or The Renaissance in History of English Literature

The age of Shakespeare started with the start of Elizabeth’s reign in 1558. It ends with the death of James I. in 1625. This period is the golden age in history of English literature because of the productiveness of it. This period brought massive changes in the history of English literature. The Age of Shakespeare is divided into two periods: The Age of Elizabeth and The Jacobean Age.

(I) THE AGE OF ELIZABETH (1558-1603)

With the reign of Elizabeth, the English literature started to flourish. The first publication, which marked the start of this golden age, was Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spenser in 1579. In the first half of the Elizabeth era, there was composition of little verses of any value. Spenser was the most celebrated poet of this era and he was called the poet’s poet. He had a remarkable influence on the poetry that followed after him. Elizabethan literature was also the golden age of drama too as Shakespeare was present there. Shakespeare plays were in a range of different genres. Those included tragedies like Hamlet or Othello etc, comedies like As You Like It, historic plays like Richard III etc.  Other writers of Elizabethan literature include Sir Philip Sidney, Thomas Campion, Sackville, Norton, Thomas Kyd, etc. Famous literary works of this era include The Faerie Queene, Astrophel and Stella, The Defence of Poetry, Gorboduc, The Spanish Tragedy etc.

(II) THE JACOBEAN AGE (1603-1625)

The Jacobean Age was the era of James I . The literature written during this period is Jacobean Literature. Shakespeare wrote some of his prominent plays during this period. Those plays include King Lear (1605), Macbeth (1606), and The Tempest (1610).  Jacobean literature, as compared to the Elizabethan literature, was dark. It is because Shakespeare wrote his so-called problem plays like All is Well that Ends Well and famous tragedies in this era. John Webster, who was a dramatist, often portrayed the problem of evil in his dramas. This period’s comedy consisted of the bitter satire from Ben Jonson and the diverse writings from John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont. Popular works of this time include Volpone, Bartholomew Fair, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, The White Devil, The Changelin, etc. King James Bible was the most prominent prose work of Jacobean Literature.

The Age of Milton or Puritan Age (1625-1660)

In the age of Milton, Puritanism grew as a moral and social force. Puritans were the ancestors of Wycliffe and Lollards. They had very strict opinions regarding life and behaviour of people. The works of Puritan age are mostly sombre in character. There is a sense of sadness, gloom and pessimism, as there was political and religious confusion, and King Charles I was also killed. This era is also known as the Late Renaissance. Poetry was the main focus of this era and the most contribution made in this period was by John Milton. Milton was the last greatest poet of the Renaissance period. He published many writings before 1660. These works include L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus and Lycidas. There were other poets too: The Metaphysical Poets and Cavalier Poets. The metaphysical poets were the people of learning. These poets include John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan, etc.

The Cavalier poets were supporters of King Charles I during the English Civil War. These poets include Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Thomas Carew and Sir John Suckling. Cavalier poets used “classical and allegory allusions”. Roman authors like Horace, Cicero and Ovid influenced these poets. Metaphysical poetry was spiritual. Metaphysical poets wrote poetry with “far-fetched or unusual similes or metaphors”. The famous works of age of Milton include Songs and Sonnets, The Hesperides and Noble Numbers, The Sun Rising, Colasterion, Tetrachordon, etc.

The Age of Dryden (1660-1700)

The second name of Age of Dryden is the Restoration Age because of the restoration of monarchy in England. This era started when Charles II returned to the throne. Because people had spent a lot of time restricted in Puritan period, after it there was an immense reaction against it. Moderation and decency started dissipating. Faithlessness, betrayal and recklessness became fashionable, and the people who still had some goodness were laughed at. All of this had a definite impact on literature of the Restoration era. Literature became intellectual rather than imaginative or emotional. Though it was often brilliant, it was a bit hard and insensitive. Even poetry became prosaic and was lacking imagination. Examples of which include Sodom from Earl of Rochester, The Country Wife by William Wycherley, Two Treatises on Government by Locke, etc.

Apart from this, there were still people like Dryden who saved this era. Dryden was the main influential poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright who represented this period.  His most prominent work is the mock-heroic MacFlecknoe. More works from him include the two great doctrinal poems, Religio Laid and The Hind and the Panther, Love Triumphant or Nature Will Prevail, The Wild Gallant, etc. Other notable writers from this time are John Bunyan, Edmund Waller, Sir John Denham, Samuel Butler, Jeremy Collier, John Gay, etc. Prominent works from this time include Hudibras, The Wild Gallant, Grace Abounding, The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, The Holy War, etc. John Milton published his most appreciated piece of writing Paradise Lost during this era.

The start of novel writing was also during this era. Aphra Behn, the female author of Oroonoko, is considered to be the first novelist in England.

The Age of Pope or Augustan literature (170–1750)

Alexander Pope is the most prominent poet of this era and that is why it is The Age of Pope. It also has the name of “the Age of Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason” as judgement of everything was on rational and scientific grounds. Moderation was standard behaviour, and anything extravagant was not very acceptable. The writers of this age stayed close to the style of ancient writers, and that for them was good writing. This era was also the Classical Age of poetry. It was poetry of criticism and argument. Writers wrote it for the interest of society and there was no use of imagination or love of nature expressed. However, as the era progressed, great poets like Pope came forward and wrote everlasting poems. Examples of which are, The melancholy of James Thomson, ‘The Seasons’ Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. Mock-heroic poetry was also very prominent. Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad are still greatest examples of mock-heroic poetry.

In drama, George Lillo and Richard Steele composed very high moral forms of tragedy. In those, the characters were entirely middle class or working class. Opera was also becoming popular in England at this time. In prose, ‘The Spectator’ of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele dominated the initial period. It was a British periodical essay containing 2500 words each. There was more work on novels too. Daniel Defoe’s novels Roxana, Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe are of importance. Other authors of this era include Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, etc. Other important works of this period include Roderick Random, Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal, the Drapier Letters, Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, Joseph Andrews, Shamela, Clarissa, Tom Jones, etc.

The Age of Johnson (1750-1798)

Age of Johnson is the name of this era because of the prominent work of Samuel Johnson in this era. Johnson was an English writer who provided long lasting contributions to English literature. He was a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. “A Dictionary of the English Language” by Johnson was published in 1755 after nine years of writing. Literary people describe it as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship”. Richard Brinsley Sheridan is another name of this era who went on to become the most prominent playwright of this time. His famous works that were instant success include The Rivals and The School for Scandal. Other emerging Irish authors of this age include Oliver Goldsmith and Laurence Sterne. Their works include The Vicar of Wakefield, The Deserted Village The Good-Natur’d Man, She Stoops to Conquer, etc. Also written in this era was Frances Burney’s Evelina, which was one of the first ‘novels of manners’.

The genre of “sentimental novel” or “novel of sensibility” formed during this period. This era observes the intellectual and emotional perceptions of sensibility, sentiment, and sentimentalism. Sentimentalism began as a fashion in both prose and poetry fiction in the 18th century. That is why “The Age of Sensibility” is another name of this period. Most prominent sentimental novels from this age include Vicar of Wakefield, Tristram Shandy, The Man of Feeling, etc. The genre of Gothic fiction emerged too by Horace Walpole’s novel “The Castle of Otranto”. It combines components of romance and horror. Ann Radcliffe presented the dark figure of the gothic villain. This figure later advanced into the Byronic hero. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann is an example of this genre.

The Age of Wordsworth (1798-1837)

This era also has the name of the Romantic Era in the history of English literature. William Wordsworth was an English Romantic poet. He, in collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge helped to mark the start of the Romantic Age in English literature, by jointly publishing “Lyrical Ballads” in 1798. That is why the period starting from that year is called the Age of Wordsworth. This age was big on Romanticism. It was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement. Other early Romantic poets include the initiate of the Romantic Movement Robert Burns, the painter William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, the journalist Thomas de Quincey, etc. The most prominent romantic writings of this early generation include “Rime of the Ancient Mariner“,  “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey“, “Resolution and Independence“, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” and The Prelude, which is an autobiographical epic.

This age was a riot against classical rules of literary composition. It was also a rebel against the dominion of intellect and reason and was in support of imagination and wonder. The Romantic poets of the second generation include Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Felicia Hemans and John Keats. Their works include Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, Adonaïs, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn, etc. Romanticism influenced novels too. One of the most celebrated novelists of this period was Sir Walter Scott. His historical romances inspired painters, composers, and writers all through Europe. Waverley is his first historical novel. Another novelist, Jane Austen’s story line in novels is fundamentally comic. Her most celebrated works are Pride and Prejudice and Emma. Another famous novel of this period is Frankenstein by the author Mary Shelley.

Victorian literature (1837–1901)

Victorian literature is the literature that evolved in the period of Queen Victoria. The literature of this era was a mix of romanticism and realism. This age is great in both poetry and prose. The greatest poet of the Victorian period was Alfred Lord Tennyson. Alfred’s poetry was romantic and reflected the age perfectly with its mixture of social conviction and religious confusion. S. Eliot described him as “the greatest master of metrics as well as melancholia”. Tennyson’s famous works include poetry of short lyrics Break, Break, Break, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Tears, Idle Tears and Crossing the Bar. He also wrote blank verse poetry including Ulysses, Idylls of the King, and Tithonus. Other famous poets of Victorian age were Robert Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Dramatic monologues were Browning’s speciality. W.S. Gilbert was famous in this era too and was the writer of comic verses. His most celebrated work is his fourteen comic operas.

America also produced two greatest poets of the 19th century, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. The novels of this era were also doing great. Children’s literature, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, came about too. Charles Dickens became the most famous novelist from this era. His famous works include Bleak House, Oliver Twist, etc. Thomas Hardy was a realist and a prominent figure of this era, and is famously known for his The Mayor of Casterbridge. Other writers of Victorian’s age include William Makepeace Thackeray, The Brontë sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James etc. Notable works of this time are The Princess Casamassima, The Time Machine, Kidnapped, Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy, Leaves of Grass, etc.

The Present Age in History of English Literature (1901-present)

The present age is also the age of Modernism in the history of English literature. A major literary movement, Modernism, started with the dawn of the twentieth-century. Irish writers played an important part in this period. The most important Irish writers of this age are James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Modernist writers from America include T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, etc. Modernists from Britain Include Joseph Conrad, E.M. Forster, Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, etc. The modernist authors wanted to break the traditional ways of writing and experiment with other literary forms of expression to make it new. Thomas Hardy was the major poet in the initial years of the twentieth-century. He was not a modernist but played the role of a transitional figure between the ages of Victorian and Modernism. Henry James was another important transitional figure. Sister Carrie was the first most celebrated novel of this period. It was published by Theodore Dreisser in 1900.

Major poetry from this age includes The Tower by nobel prize winner W.B. Yeats, “Prufock”, “The Wasteland”, “The Cantos”, etc. Important prose includes The Playboy of the Western World, Hay Fever, Ulysses, The Old Wives’ Tale, A Room with a View, The Man who was Thursday, The Rock, etc. Radio drama also started in the Twentieth-century. In the closing years of Twentieth-century, the literary genre of science fiction became significant. Prominent writers of this genre include Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Adams, Robert Heinlein, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Ian Banks, etc. 2001: A Space of Odyssey and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are the prominent examples of this genre.

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