History of English Literature

Do you want to know more about the great poets and writers of English literature?
Do you want to know how it all started?

In short, are you interested in the history of English literature?
Stay tuned and keep reading.

The English language has evolved over the period of time. As time has progressed a number of changes can be seen through the language. The English that was used 1500 years ago is almost incomprehensible for a person of today’s age.  Hence, it can be stated that there are radical differences between the Old English and English used after Post Modernism. The history of English literature is divided into 5 periods; Old literature (858-1100), Middle Ages (1100-1500), Renaissance (1500-1660), Neo-Classical Age (1660-1798), 19th Century Literature and Modern English literature (Since 1901).

To begin with, the Old English literature is the oldest form of English literature known to us. It is suggested that literature did exist before this time period however, no proper record is found. The Old English literature traditions from the Anglo-Saxon settlers who were Germanic. Germanics originate from the Latin word Germani.

The first piece of literature, called Beowulf
The first page of Beowulf (700-1000 AD).

Germanic were an ethnic group of North Europe that were first addressed by Graeco-Roman authors. This first piece of literature dates back to the 8th century and is named Beowulf. It is a poem that consists of 3218 lines and is the most magnificent work of the Germanic Literature that has survived to remain a significant piece of the history of the English literature. The poem is based upon a singular manuscript that dates from 10th century and is preserved at the British library.

The Old English time period is based upon two major influences German and French. The French works are based on ‘regular metrical’ lengths made up of stanzas and couplets. On the other hand, the German poetry uses rhythm coupled with repeated alliterations (consonants) to establish a link between the phrases. Piers Plowman with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are the greatest pieces produced during the transition of Old English after which a newer approach to composing literature was used by Chaucer.

Piers Ploughman
Image of ploughing from Piers Plowman by William Lnagland (14th century).

Out of the two poems, Sir Gawain does not reveal about the identity of the author and is hence declared as entirely anonymous. While on the other hand, Pier Plowman does give a very little idea about the author. Throughout the poem the name used for the narrator is Will, however some reference made within the text suggest that the name of the author might be Langland. Langland is not known otherwise except due to this poem. Nothing else traces back to him.

Pier Plowman is based upon 7000 lines and has three versions. The first piece dates back to 1367 and it is predicted that it would have taken 23 years for the same author to produce the other works. A progression between the three pieces can be seen where one is more refined and attuned than the other. While Pier Plowman is a character that explores about Christian truth and unleashes on a spiritual quest, Sir Gawain is about a knight at court.

Sir Gawain is from the same time period as of Pier Plowman yet the language used is courtlier and more formal in comparison to Pier Plowman. This gives us the sense that ever since the origin of known literature a duality exists. There have been, if not more, at least two forms of expression-formal and informal.

Geoffrey Chaucer was in the household of Edward II as one of the “yeomen of chamber” out of four. He was aged twenty-seven at that time. Fulfilling his duties towards the royals, Chaucer was appointed as King’s esquires. His duty was to entertain the court with music and stories. This led Chaucer to produce a vast amount of literature.

His pieces ranged from comedy to high romance. Since, his works were initially read in the courtly circles in England they were fashioned such that they were read aloud and were well calculated to keep the listeners engaged. Chaucer also used his writing skills in diplomacy. He was able to get himself reappointed by Henry IV through his poem “The Complaint of Chaucer to his Empty Purse”.

Geoffrey Chaucer
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1400-1405, Huntington Library.

Moving forward with the history of English literature to late 1300’s and early 1400’s is The Canterbury Tales. These are the most known and celebrated tales of the 14th century. These tales were also written by Chaucer. Before Chaucer’s time the most popular in such format was Boccaccio’s Decameron. But Chaucer through his exceptional sense of language, surpasses his predecessors. This is done by accumulating tales from a wide array of topics and bringing them together. Adding on, his collection consists of tales that are extremely courtlier in nature and use extremely polite but formal language for example “The Knights Tale” as well as tales that are loaded with humor or romance.

Humor is also used throughout his works to hold and connect the stories together. Canterbury Tales are essentially the accounts of Pilgrims while they traveled from London to Canterbury. Amongst a total of hundred and twenty tales, Chaucer includes himself in thirty of them. The pilgrims are a representation of various sections of society that rage from the poor to high class. The tales are about experiences of pilgrims as they en-route towards Canterbury.

After Chaucer if a person was blessed with the ability to produce excellent lyric was Edmund Spenser. He is regarded to have the greater lyric abilities after Chaucer in the two centuries. Edmund Spenser 1579-1596 was a Cambridge graduate. The first vital piece of literature formulated by him was “The Shepheardes Calender” in 1579. It is made of 12 eclogues- one for each month. Even though they are on different subjects but are held together in a manner that it feels like a single poem.

Spenser also used his work to praise the Queen Elizabeth I under the poem Faerie Queene. A common feature shared by the writers of the past two centuries is that their works are politically well oriented. Writers of that time were highly informed about the situation of politics around them.

Shepherda Calender
Aprill, from “the Shepheardes Calender” by Edmund Spenser.

A new boom in English literature was seen toward the end of 16th century. This was because of opening of public theaters. Before this, plays were performed in courtyards of inns where the surrounding environments were not up to the mark. Similarly, the actors performing in such conditions were also not able to play the best of themselves. As a result, the performances done at such venues were extremely poor. Other than this literature was consumed in the royal courts that included poem, plays and songs.

In 1576, James Burbage built what we now call a theater. It was situated north outside London. It was given the name theater by Burbage and ever since it is called that. The theater had a structure similar to an Inn yard with galleries and a stage. No permission was required by the city magistrates and everyone could indulge themselves into dramatic pleasures.

Within a time of two years, two more theaters sprung up and by 1954 a third theater named Swan was constructed. This made two theaters in the North and two at the South bank. The original theater built by James was dismantled by his sons and was shifted at the South Bank under the new name The Globe. The Globe was famous because of two major reasons. It produced one of the finest actors of English Stage, Richard who was also a brother of James. And many of the Shakespeare’s plays were first presented there.

The rise of theaters made it coherent that the English playwriters were evolving through time but also were the people of the city. It was calculated that at Shakespeare’s time the weekly audience at the four theaters was almost about sixteen thousand people. At that time the total population of London was one hundred and sixty thousand people. What this meant was that one out of eight Londoner was going to watch theater each week. This level of response and attendance is only comparable to the advent of cinemas on 1930’s.

In the year 1564 two English poets were born, Marlowe and Shakespeare. These both brought English theaters to a three-decade glory period where literature was celebrated the most. Marlowe was a member of the Elizabethan secret service that landed him in grave trouble. It was also due to this that Marlowe was murdered. Marlowe had his first successful play in 1857 named Tamburlaine. Unfortunately, the original version of the play has not been found but there do exist some corrupted versions. This is due to the fact that the play was written several years after Marlowe died.

Marlowe characters use poetic verse to describe themselves and their surroundings. Since Marlowe was mysteriously murdered and in the same time period another brilliant writer emerged under the name Shakespeare it is argued by several conspiracy theorists that it was indeed Marlowe under a common name. To add on, theories suggest that Marlowe due to his secret service was in continuous turmoil as a result he faked his own death to continue his stage career. Other also suggest that Shakespeare is a hoax and actually his works are from statesmen Francis Bacon.

All of the above however is not true! Shakespeare did exist in real life! Shakespeare also the national poet of England was baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564. His father named John was also an active and known citizen of his hometown. Shakespeare began his career by trying his luck in acting. He also tried to write while acting and the rest we know is history. Works of Shakespeare are still referenced and used. His compositions are somewhat everlasting. What is interesting about his works is that he showed little to no interest in publishing his plays and called them scripts for acting rather than literature.

Shakespeare made a number of plays that were a display of his true abilities. Shakespeare works experience a sharp transition after the beginning of the 17th century. Prior to the 17th century, his works were based on the beginnings of the British royalties. His played expanded on the ideas of rivalry, conquest and building an empire. Meanwhile there were also some romantic pieces such as the tragic romance story of Romeo and Juliet, and two comic romance stories of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like IT. He also produced other comics such as The Taming of the Shrew (1593) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600).

After the beginning of the new century however, Shakespeare exhibited a radical shift towards writing tragic and dark comedies. The resultant of this change was four great tragic stories; Hamlet, Othello, King Kear and Macbeth. A common style identified in all of these tragic plays is that Shakespeare uses a central character and his actions to drive the complete story. The actions and flaws of the character make the tragic ending unavoidable.

Hamlet
Hamlet from “The Works of Shakspeare.”

Shakespeare’s works always shared a pattern. The last four plays of him did the same. It is put into words like “Rather like the natural rhythm of winter, followed by hibernation and emergence into spring, the plots begin with violently evil deeds. The good characters somehow escape to safety and a new life, often with a new identity. Years pass and children grow up, until eventually all is resolved. Hence rupture, retirement, renewal and reconciliation.”

It is argued that Shakespeare single handedly dominated English Literature. Even if Shakespeare had not written his plays the poems produced by him were enough to make him the National Poet of England. He wrote a total of 154 sonnets which are all addressed to a young man. These were written during 1590’s however got published in 1609.

After Shakespeare to follow was Ben Jonson. He was a comic writer and created a number of fine comic pieces. His articulation was based on common behaviors of human beings. He had a sharp eye about everyday life of humans. In comparison to Shakespeare, Jonson believed in the art of playwright. He arranged publications of his own books and in 1919 Oxford University gave him an honorary degree as Master of Arts.

The 17th century poets usually used literary allusion, paradox and language that was not commonly used by other authors. They used rhythms and poetic verse in manner that would enthrall the reader completely.  One of the members of such group was John Donne. His works consists of a wide array of themes that range from erotica to holy sonnets.

Donne was also the dean of St Paul’s in 1621. He was an influential preacher who used his writing to convince people. George Herbert was also a poet of the same time. He was an aristocrat and his mother was a friend of John Donne. Unlike his fellow poets he only wrote devotional poems. They were published shortly after his death in a single volume. With such characteristics, these poets became popular as Metaphysical Poets.

A relatively different approach towards literature was of Marvell. While he was alive, he was not the center of attention for all but was linked to some prominent common wealth leaders. His poems were published after his death and were not appreciated until 20th century. They were subtle in nature and provocative.

As a result, it was not liked by most people at that time. Milton was another young poet that furthered English Literature. The first published work of Milton was his poem that was published along Shakespeare’s works in 1632. Milton was also a student of Cambridge and was an admirable student. He wrote several poems during his days at the Cambridge. These were published in 1645 long after his graduation. Milton also wrote about his fellow student. It was a tribute to Edward King who died in a shipwreck in the Irish Sea.

A vital time period was the Pilgrim’s Process of 1678. The Pilgrim’s Process is arguably the most liked piece in the history of English literature. Almost all the household contained at least two books- Bible and The Pilgrim’s Process. The book was produced as a direct result to the persecution of Nonconformists. The book was all encompassing, it was used for preaching yet had features of a folk tale and in-depth characters similar to novels.

A Tale of a Tub
A Tale of a Tub, by Jonathan Swift, 1704

As Britain entered the new century, there was a bloom in literature again. Jonathan Swift initiated his writing career with two books “The Battle of the Books” and “A Tale of Tub”. He was claimed to be the oldest author of the Augustan Rule. These talk about religious arguments and literary theories. Swifts work attack on the fashionable trends that religious circles have had adopted.

A decade after the beginning of the new century, writing has now evolved from a recreational activity into a proper daily job. Now publications are not delayed until the death of the poor authors who worked all their life yet were sadly recognized after their deaths but texts were printed the very next day.

In 1709, a new period of writing began when Richard Steele created The Tatler. It was a weekly production that was presented thrice a week into the café houses of London. These publications were based of journalistic art form unlike many other journals present at the moment. Later on the Tatler was replaced by daily Spectator. Other authors also devoted themselves towards the writing solely. Among them was Alexander Pope. He became extremely skilled in making rhythmic and rhyming couplets that were used to question one’s knowledge. They were heroic in nature and inspired people to think out of the box. His works are distributed into six volumes that were published between 1715-1720.

Since the writing styles were also evolving through time, another author that sprung up was Daniel Defoe. He pursued journalism long before the invention of newspaper. He would travel and gather information, material and evidences. His works can be regarded a good combination of imaginative and investigative skills. He wrote a fictional Journal for the Great Plague in the year 1722. While works of Defoe were becoming popular, Jonathan Swift also wrote Gulliver’s Travels inspired by Defoe which later became known as one of the most popular novels of the history.

An immense increase in literature was also seen in the later half of the 18th century. This was mainly due to the Scottish Enlightenment, during which immanent development was done in spheres of economics, politics and social life. The enlightenment also led to scientific research hence during this a ton of literature was produced and published. Works of David Hume and Adam Smith were largely published during this time as they were the forerunners of the intellectual movement. Meanwhile an encyclopedia that had been printing since 1751 was completed and celebrated in Edinburgh under Society of Gentleman in Scotland.

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Throughout the aforementioned scenarios it can be understood that English authors have a very precise point of inspiration upon which they fixate while producing any piece.

Edward Gibbons took this point to another level. His book revolved around the entire decline of the Roman Empire. Edward Gibbon later describes the day: ‘It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.’ What was original conceived as a single idea got converted into six volumes that majorly discuss the European history and the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

His series became successful as soon as the first volume was published. The claim to fame of the book was its controversial nature. It provoked Christian controversy and on top of the fact that he elaborated on such a grand event.  Gibbon states with some satisfaction in his conclusion: ‘The monuments of ancient Rome have been elucidated by the diligence of the antiquarian; and the footsteps of heroes, the relics not of superstition but of empire, are devoutly visited by a new race of pilgrims from the remote, and once savage, countries of the north.’

The modern literature belongs to almost all parts of the World. New writers are coming up with ideas and impressions that indulge the writer in such a manner that one continues to read on and on. What once the practice of the British is now practiced all over the globe. Post-Modernist literature also know as the most recent literature is based of five geological locations African, Australian, Canadian, Caribbean and Indian Literature.  With this, history of English literature is yet to be made for modernist and post-modernist literature.

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8 thoughts on “History of English Literature”

  1. History of English literature is quite fascinating. There are so many great authors and poets that made great contributions to the English literature. The content is great by the way!

    Reply
  2. The printing industry in the 18th century played a significant role in the history of English literature by helping authors to print faster, cheaper, and more.

    Reply
  3. History of the English literature is largely impacted by the French literature. Or to be more accurate, I should say the French and English literature had lots of interactions and impacted one another.

    Reply
    • There has been lots of interactions between French and English. Translations from both languages were big part of this.

      Reply
  4. Shakespeare is an inseparable part of the English literature as a great poet and playwright. Every time, I read about the history of English literature, his name and his work takes a big portion of the article. He is unrepeatable!

    Reply

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