A Brief History of British Literature

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Since the earliest days of the English literary canon, it has evolved in tandem with the nation’s racial and social history. English literature has eight (8) key periods and various ages when we look at history. The major literary figures, historical figures, literary trends, and literary epochs of English literature are all commemorated in the period names given to each literary era. In addition, each age or phase of English literature has its own specific traits.

English Literature’s Major Periods

The eight (8) key periods in English literature’s history are:

The Anglo-Saxon (450–1066)

The Anglo-Norman (1066–1500)

The Renaissance (1500–1660)

The Neo-classical Period (1660–1798)

The Romantic Age (1798–1837)

The Victorian Age (1837–1901)

The Modern Era (1901-1945)

The Contemporary Era(1945–Today)

Here, we will take a look at the history of English literature, from prehistoric times to the modern day.

Anglo-Saxon Period ((450-1066 AD)

The English are descended from the Angles and Saxons, two ancient European people groups. Three Germanic tribes—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—saw an opportunity to fill the power gap after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the early 5th century and began migrating to Britain. A courageous, adventurous, and brave group of people, the Anglo-Saxons were. It was not until the year 670 A.D. that they had taken over much of the nation and established permanent settlements in what is now known as Angloland (modern-day England).

Anglo-Saxon immigrants brought with them certain Latin and Celtic vocabulary, which formed the basis of Old English. Early English literature was characterised by Anglo-Saxon literature. Literature from the 5th century through the Norman conquest of 1066 in Anglo-Saxon England was composed in Old English.

Anglo-Saxon Poetry

Anglo-Saxon poetry may be separated into two divisions, despite the shared characteristics of the period’s literature. These groups are: Religious or Christian poetry and Pagan poetry.

The characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poetry include respect for freedom, respect for womanhood, responsiveness to nature, strong religious convictions, and love for heresy.

Beowulf is the most well-known of Anglo-Saxon poetry.  The first English epic poem, it is a work of art in and of itself. Beowulf tells the story of Beowulf, a courageous warrior. Allusions and references to momentous events and the fortunes of monarchs and countries abound throughout this poem.

The Anglo-Saxon poets began writing religious poetry once they converted to Christianity. As a result, the majority of Anglo-Saxon poetry deals with religious themes. Caedmon and Cynewulf, two of the most well-known Anglo-Saxon religious poets, dominated the genre throughout this time period. For his Hymn, Caedmon is renowned. In it, he expresses his gratitude to God. Juliana, The Fates of the Apostles, Crist, and Elene were among of Cynewulf’s most well-known religious poetry. Among these, ‘Crist’ tells the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.

Anglo-Saxon culture flourished until the Norman conquest in 1066 when it ended. The Anglo-Saxon period came to an end with the defeat of Harold, the last Saxon monarch, by William, the Conqueror of Normandy. Their reign lasted roughly between the years 450 and 1066.

The Anglo-Norman (1066-1500 AD)

With the Norman conquest, a new period in the literary history of England started. The Normans took their French culture and language with them. This period’s literature is classified as Norman-French Literature or Anglo-French Literature. Due to the fact that the Anglo-Norman period was part of the Middle Ages or Medieval period in British history, it is also known as the Middle English period in the history of English literature.

The Norman Conquest drastically altered English culture, law, and language.  The only people who spoke English were the poor and helpless. While Norman-French became the language of the affluent. It also became the emblem of social prestige and rank. Anglo-Normans wrote primarily to satisfy the preferences of Norman kings. In addition, only the monarchs and courtiers of the time had the authority to foster literary works.

The Romances of this period

Literature from this time period In contrast to the bravery, solemnity, and brutality of Anglo-Saxon literature, the Normans added lyrical tales of love and adventure. This rendered the Anglo-Norman period chivalric as opposed to heroic. During the Anglo-Norman or Middle-English periods, romance became the most popular type of literature. These romances were renowned for their narratives, not their poetry. In reality, the majority of them originated from Latin and French sources. They recounted the legends of King Arthur, The Trojan War, Charlemagne, and Alexander the Great.

Mystery and Morality plays

Nevertheless, religious or didactic texts were a great achievement of the Middle English period. This genre included Mysterious and Miracle plays. The Miracle plays featured the lives of saints, but the Mystery plays were based on biblical themes. Since only church clerics had the power to compose and perform these plays, Latin was chosen as the language for composing and performing them.

Age of Chaucer (1348-144 A.D.)

It is the most crucial period in English literature’s literary history. Chaucer established a new and unique beginning in English writing and became known as the “Father of English literature” and “Father of English poetry.” His poetry has been extensively read from the time of his death till the present. He was not only a scholar or a visionary, but also a man of the world and its issues.

Canterbury Tales is the most notable of Chaucer’s works. It is a compilation of tales told by pilgrims from all social strata on their approach to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. The Canterbury Tales, a landmark in the history of English poetry, enhanced the English language and metre to the point where they could be utilised for any purpose. In addition, his incorporation of several characters into a single action and their participation in dynamic discussions satisfied every need of the playwrights who lacked the means to present their works. Chaucer’s books also influenced how authors portrayed their characters.

Chaucer’s contribution to the evolution of English literature is notable because he switched poetry from the realm of theology and metaphysics to the ancient classical idea of direct imitation of nature. After Chaucer, English poetry declined for around one hundred years. Between 1400 to the Renaissance, there was no excellent literature. Poets of the era created little works and merely mimicked Chaucer and his contemporaries.

The Renaissance Period (1500–1660)

In the history of English literature, the Renaissance Period is often known as the Elizabethan Period or the Age of Shakespeare. It is, in reality, the “golden age” in English literary history. In Europe, the Middle Ages were followed by the Renaissance, which means resurrection or rebirth. As a result, the darkness of the Middle Ages was replaced by the illumination of the human intellect through the Renaissance-inspired “Revival of Learning.”

Humanism, or man’s interest in himself as an object of study, was the defining trait of the Renaissance, which was characterised by a preoccupation with himself as an object of study. The Italian Renaissance began with Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. Nonetheless, it gained popularity in Europe throughout the Elizabethan era. In addition to emphasising the study of mankind,’ the Renaissance was characterised by a number of secondary developments that were actually the most significant characteristics of Humanism.

Elizabethan Drama

The most significant contribution to English literature during the Renaissance was in the realm of theatre. William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Kyd, and Robert Greene are among the dramatists of this golden age. All of these authors created numerous works. Shakespeare, however, was the greatest of all Elizabethan dramatists, and it was in his hands that Elizabethan theatre reached its zenith. He elevated English drama to a level that has yet to be exceeded.

Revenge themes, personal tensions, good vs evil, melodramatic scenes, hero-villain protagonists, tragic-comedy, the presence of supernatural creatures like as ghosts and witches, and the use of blank verse are the fundamental hallmarks of Elizabethan theatre.

 The Puritan Age (1600-1660)

The Renaissance spirit began to wane in the 17th century. The Elizabethan masters were emulated or new pathways were blazed by the writers of the day. The literature of the 17th century is split into two periods: the Puritan Age, or Milton’s Age (1600-1660), and the Restoration Period, or Dryden’s Age (1660-1700). Puritanism controlled the 17th century until 1660. The Puritan spirit was best represented by John Milton. Because of the resurrection of man’s moral essence, the Puritan movement in literature is sometimes known as the second Renaissance. It stood for people’s emancipation from the autocratic ruler’s restraints and instilled morality and lofty values into politics.

John Milton was the most influential poet of the Puritan period. He was a remarkable scholar of both classical and Hebrew literature. Milton, a Renaissance guy, was also a brilliant humanist. As an artist, he is known as the “Last Elizabethan.” Milton’s most famous poems include Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. Aside from Milton, the poetry of The School of Spencer, The Metaphysical Poets, and The Cavalier Poets became well-known. But none was a more noble and tenacious champion of the Puritan ethos than John Milton.

Francis Bacon, Milton, Robert Burton, Jeremy Tayler, Sir Thomas Brown, and Clarendon were among the great Puritan prose authors. During this time, English prose develops into a magnificent and rich tool capable of conveying a wide range of ideas, including scientific, philosophical, lyrical, religious, and personal ones.

The Restoration Age (1660-1700)

The Restoration Period runs from 1660 to 1700, when the monarchy was restored in England and Charles II returned to England from exile in France to become King. It is also known as the Dryden Age since Dryden was the most influential literary figure of the time. The Puritans, who previously ruled the country, were eventually defeated. As a result, they began a counter-reaction against anything they held dear. All constraints and discipline were thrown aside, and the country was swept up in a sea of immorality and frivolity. Because Charles II and his adherents had lived a gay life in exile in France, they brought the same foppery and looseness to England.

As a result, the people lost touch with the ancient Elizabethan mentality, which was characterised by patriotism, creative vitality, and a love of adventure and romance. Furthermore, the Puritan character, with its moral discipline and love of liberty, faded away. This period’s authors produced two significant contributions to English literature. The first was realism, and the second was a proclivity for precision.

The majority of Restoration Poetry was realistic and satirical. It was largely composed in heroic couplets, which Dryden was a master at. He was the most prominent character of the Restoration Period, and he achieved great things in poetry, theatre, and prose. In reality, he was the only poet of his generation worthy of consideration. He wrote in a straightforward and strong manner that provided the groundwork for England’s classical school of poetry.

During the Restoration Period, the most well-known style of play was the Comedy of Manners. It depicted the sophistical life of society’s dominating elite, with its arrogance, gaiety, intrigue, and foppery. William Congreve was the most well-known Restoration playwright.

The Restoration Period excelled in the realm of prose more than poetry and theatre. Initially, a distinctive literary style was formed. This style might be utilised for straightforward narratives, corporate applications, and the argumentative presentation of complex ideas. Dryden was the foremost practitioner and pioneer of this new literary style. John Bunyan, John Tillotson, William Temple, Thomas Sprat, and Viscount Halifax were among prominent prose authors of the time period. John Bunyan was, with Dryden, the best prose writer of his day. The most renowned of his works is The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The Classical Age (1700-1798)

In English literature, the 18th century is known as the Classical Age or the Augustan Age. It is often referred to as the Age of Reason. The authors of the era produced works of immense relevance and worth. Precision and realism, two of the defining traits of the Restoration era, were refined further. In the history of English literature, prose assumed the lead position for the first time during the 18th century.

The most significant aspect of the 18th century was the emergence and growth of the novel. The great masters like as Defoe, Richardson, Smollet, and Fielding, among others, fed and nurtured this new literary genre, which currently retains a significant position. All of these authors established a solid basis for this new form.

The early portion of the 18th century is known as the Age of Pope because Alexander Pope was the most influential man during that time. The poetry of the Age of Pope is not of a very high calibre. Nonetheless, it has a number of distinguishing qualities, including the use of heroic-couplet,  the clarity of its presentation, and the mastery of satire as an art form.

The second part of the Augustan Age is known as the Age of Johnson. During this period, fissures appeared in the structure of classicism, and there were unmistakable indications of a revolution in favour of the Romantic spirit. It was particularly evident in the realm of poetry. The writers whose poetry exhibited romantic leanings are the forerunners of the Romantic Revival. William Blake, Thomas Gray, and George Crabbe are among these poets. Due to its Romantic tendencies, the Age of Johnson is also known as the Age of Transition.

The Romantic Period (1798-1832)

The Romantic Period is the most prolific period in the history of English literature. It was an 18th-century revolution against the Classical school. This time included Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Essentially, the Romantic Era was the period of poetry. In response to the poetry of the Classical school, Wordsworth and Coleridge established a new genre of poetry with the publishing of Lyrical Ballads.

The Romantic poets emphasised the simplicity of language and opted for the vernacular. They looked to the Elizabethan masters, like Shakespeare, Spenser, and others, for inspiration. Their poetry typically dealt with ordinary occurrences. The Romantic poets demonstrated that the trifling features of nature and the mundane things of life may be as intriguing and meaningful as the big aspects of nature and life if they are addressed appropriately.

How romanticism is different from classicism?

Romanticism stood in direct opposition to Classicism. In contrast to the Classical Age, the Romantic Age was the age of poetry. During the Romantic Era, poetry became the ideal medium for expressing the artist’s thoughts, feelings, and creative process. Classicism emphasised the impersonal features of existence, while Romantic literature blatantly turned the focus of art to the personal characteristics of individuals.

In addition, the heroic couplet was the only form of poetry during the Classical Era. During the Romantic Era, poets emphasised plain, natural language. Romanticism was characterised by the liberation of the poet from the constraints of literary conventions. Thus, Romantic literature is really creative literature that emphasises man’s fullest creative capacity.

The Victorian Period (1837-1900)

Beginning in the second part of the 19th century, the Victorian Era is a lengthy and complex time period. In addition, a number of outstanding authors blossomed throughout this time period. For simplicity, the Victorian Period is separated into two additional periods: The early Victorian Period and the Later Victorian Period.

In reality, the earlier Victorian Period was controlled by middle-class supremacy, the age of ‘laissez-faire’ or free commerce, and unrestrained rivalry. Robert Browning, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Alfred Tennyson,  Carlyle, and Thackeray were among the finest authors of the time. Despite their variations, all of these poets, novelists, and prose authors had the same approach to modern challenges. As a result, they constitute a distinct homogeneous community with similar social, literary, and moral beliefs.

After 1870, the Later Victorian Period started. Christiana Rossetti, Charles Swinburne, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Oscar Wilde were among the most notable writers of the time. In poetry, Morris and Rossetti were the leaders of a new literary movement known as the Pre-Raphaelites. This trend was later followed by the Aesthetic Movement. Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, and Lionel Pigot Johnson played the main characters. In the sphere of novels, however, George Eliot established the ‘Modern Psychological Novel,’ which was later followed by Thomas Hardy.

Modern Period (1901-1945)

The Modern Period in English literature began at the turn of the twentieth century. The most notable aspect of Modern literature was its opposition to the overall attitude of Victorian writers and society toward life and its difficulties. During the first decade of the twentieth century, young people saw the Victorian era as hypocritical, and Victorian values as shallow, nasty, and foolish. This rebellion had a significant impact on contemporary literature, which was influenced by moral principles, spiritual goals, and mental attitudes that were diametrically opposed to those of the Victorians.

Furthermore, unlike the Victorians, the Modernists did not believe in the sacredness of family life. They also responded to the Victorians’ self-satisfaction and self-perfection. Because modern writers could no longer write in the traditional method, they invented their own. They were seen to be risking a false note if they wrote about money’s scorn, natural beauty, heavenly love, and home and life feelings. Even if they addressed the same issues, they had to do it delicately in order to elicit distinct ideas and feelings. As a result, modern writers had to create a new point of view while adopting new approaches.

The effect of scientific ideas on individuals was the primary source of this interrogative attitude and the collapse of ancient values. Many twentieth-century writers began to examine and thoroughly consider the ideas of Karl Marx, Engels, Ruskin, Morris, and others, and explore practical recommendations for social reconstruction. The literature of the twentieth century is full of experiments and experiences unique to the modern age.

As far as modern poetry is concerned, T. S. Eliot is its most prominent representative figure. Poet and critic of the highest calibre, he bolstered his political beliefs with his own poetry and had a profound impact on modern poetry as a result. The Waste Land, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Little Gidding are some of his most renowned poems. Other well-known contemporary poets include A. E. Houseman, Wilfred Owen, and W. B. Yeats.

After the deaths of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, English drama endured a slump for around two centuries. However, it was revitalised in the final decade of the 19th century. Irishmen George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde were the two prominent dramatists who contributed significantly to the renaissance of theatre. Wilde practised the new Comedy of Manners, whilst Shaw practised the Comedy of Idea. Great thinker Shaw exemplified the Puritan part of the Anglo-Irish culture. Wilde, on the other hand, had a lavish lifestyle. He was not a profound thinker like Shaw, and his outlook on life was mostly amusing and enjoyable.

The modern novel is both realistic and psychological. Modern writers infused their works with nuanced points of view, restrained and polished characters, and intangible nuances of motivation. None of them had ever been attempted by an English author before. The modern author adopted the “stream of consciousness” approach in their writings. This method not only helped them to unveil the character in its entirety but also demonstrate character development. In addition to being realistic and psychological, modern novels were also quite open about sexual themes.

Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy, and E. M. Foster were the contemporary authors who dominated the first decades of the 20th century. As a result of the new forces that arose from the war, the old literary tradition was shattered and new literary experiments were conducted beginning with World War I.

The Contemporary Age (1940s till today)

After World War II, new literary tendencies emerged in the English language. Even if poetry was the most remembered form to emerge from World War I, the novel was the vehicle in which the tales of World War II were presented. This was due to the fact that mass media, including film, newspapers, and radio, had altered the method in which information and entertainment were delivered. There were several authors who wrote about warfare. Henry Greene’s novels, for instance, deal with conflict. These novels examine various zones of human suffering throughout the globe. George Orwell’s works have a political purpose. As a socialist, Orwell was an advocate of equality. His well-known works are Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four which he wrote in 1949.

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