Historical overview of English literature

Site: Plateforme pédagogique de l'Université Sétif2
Cours: Initiation to literary texts
Livre: Historical overview of English literature
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Date: Saturday 22 June 2024, 06:54

1. 1- Old English literature: 450-1153

The first works written in Old English appeared in the early Middle Ages. The oldest surviving text is the Hymn of Cædmon. Oral tradition was omnipresent in early English culture; Hence epic poems were very popular. Many poems like Beowulf, have survived anonymously to the rich corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature that resemble today's Icelandic, Norwegian, North Frisian and the Northumbrian and Scots English dialects of modern English. Much Old English verse is adapted from the earlier Germanic war poems and the German feature of alliterative verse, which helped the memorization and oral transmission of literature from one generation to another. But the first written literature dates to the early Christian monasteries founded by Augustine of Canterbury and his disciples to suit the needs of Christian readers

2. 2- Middle English literature

It evolved from 1066 onward. This is the earliest form of English literature comprehensible to modern readers and listeners, yet not easily. Middle English lasts up until the 1470s, when the Chancery Standard became widespread and the printing press appeared. Middle English Bible translations, mainly Wycliffe's Bible, helped to render English a literary language.

   There are three major categories of Middle English Literature: Religious, Courtly love, and Arthurian. William Langland's Piers Plowman, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (most likely by the Pearl Poet) are considered as the major works of this period.

   The most influential Middle English author was Geoffrey Chaucer who is regarded as "the Father of English Literature," Chaucer is regarded as the first author to demonstrate the artistic merit of the vernacular English language, rather than French or Latin.

    Among the many religious works the writings of the Katherine Group, Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle.

    Since the 14th century, poetry in English has been written in Ireland and by Irish writers abroad.

3. 3- Renaissance literature: 1486-1625

After the introduction of the printing press into England by William Caxton in 1476, vernacular literature blossomed. The Reformation also helped in the production of vernacular liturgy which led to the Book of Common Prayer, with an immense influence on literary English language. The poetry, drama, and prose produced during the reign of: Queen Elizabeth I and King James I constitutes what is known as early modern (or Renaissance) literature.

3.1. *Elizabethan era (1558-1603):

English playwrights were influenced by the Italian style. So the Elizabethan Era was a very violent age which coincided with the political assassinations in Renaissance Italy ( due to Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince). As a result, representing violence on stage was suitable for the Elizabethan audience. The two major earlier Elizabethan plays were Gorboduc (1561) by Sackville and Norton, and The Spanish Tragedy (1592) by Kyd (1558–94).

     The most important literary figures in Elizabethan theatre include William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher.

     It is at this time that the city comedy genre advanced. The sonnet also was presented into English by Thomas Wyatt. In the later 16th century, English poetry was featured by the elaboration of language and immense allusion to classical myths. One of the major poets of this period is Edmund Spenser author of The Faerie Queene, an epic poem and outstanding allegory narrating the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I. Elizabeth I herself produced some poems like On Monsieur’s Departure.

3.2. *Jacobean literature (1603-25):

      After Shakespeare's death, Ben Jonson was the leading literary figure of the Jacobean era. In addition to Beaumont, and Fletcher who wrote the brilliant comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

4. 4- The Caroline and Restoration period (1625-1689):

Restoration literature includes Paradise Lost and the Earl of Rochester's Sodom, as well as The Country Wife and Pilgrim's Progress. The most important poetic form of the era was satire which was published anonymously. John Dryden was set upon for being suspected of having written the Satire on Mankind. 

    Prose in this period is characterized by Christian religious writings, and the appearance of two genres: fiction and journalism.

    It is not easy to trace back the beginning of the English novel. One of the most significant figures in the rise of the novel in the Restoration period is Aphra Behn.

    As for drama, once the Puritan system's ban on public stage performance ended, it flourished again. The plays which dominated the literary scenes are the hard comedies of John Dryden

5. 5- Augustan literature 1689 – 1750:

The literature of the period is mainly political. It is an era of scandal, energy and creation that reflected an image when British people found themselves surrounded by huge economy, education, and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

    The most famous poet of the age is Alexander Pope. Other important figures include James Thomson and Edward Young.

    In prose, this period noticed the elaboration of the English Novel and essay when Daniel Defoe switched from journalism to fiction with Robinson Crusoe

6. 6- Age of sensibility: 1750-1798

This period is also labeled as the "Age of Johnson" after “Samuel Johnson” writer of the poem "The Vanity of human wishes". Other important figures include During Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe. The graveyard poets’ also are considered as the forefathers of the Gothic genre.  Furthermore the bad working situations, the clash of classes and pollution, led to arguing about industrialization and focusing on the value of nature

7. 8- Victorian period and the 19th Century (1832-1901)

Queen Victoria's reign’s literature includes sentimental novels. Major British writers are Elizabeth Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. In America, the major writers are Stephen Crane, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson

8. 9- Modernist period (1914-1945?)

British modernist writers include W. B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, and Wilfred Owen. America modernist writers include Robert Frost, Flannery O'Connor and writers of The Lost Generation: Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, in addition to "The Harlem Renaissance" writers like Baldwin and Ellison