History of British Literature

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Anglo-Saxon Literature (450-1100) is primarily limited to works from the West Saxon region of England. Although few writings survived, those that have reveal a people who reveled in manipulating their language and whose feelings were not unlike modern man. They delighted in riddles, and their poetry portrayed feelings of loss as well as victory. Poems such as "The Dream of the Rood," "Deor's Lament," and "The Husband's Message" as well as the long epic poems are proof of their sophistication of thought and language. Representative Works of the Period are:

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Alfred the Great? (important record of Anglo-Saxon life)
  • Battle of Brunnanburh (mock epic describing the invasion of Danish Vikings)
  • Beowulf (heroic epic, written in alliterative form with two half lines broken by a caesura)
  • The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede

The Medieval Period (1100-1500) was a time of strong religious influence. The church was the center of learning and monks acted as scribes recording the literature of the times. The French tradition of courtly love whereby men were expected to love from afar and treat women with chivalry was also strongly felt. Generally, the literature can be divided into two categories: secular (worldly) and religious. Religious literature frequently concentrated on teaching the reader ways to a more godly life.

After the invasion by William the Conqueror, little Anglo-Saxon literature was produced because the language of the educated was French. Middle English, as a major literary vehicle, does not appear until about 1300. Before that time, there are few instances of significant writings.

Literature, still dependent upon the oral tradition, was designed to be spoken rather than read and this required a poetic form. Some were merely ballads such as "Bonny Barbara Allan" and "Sir Patrick Spens," but many were long tales consistent in length with a modern novel.

In addition, drama began to appear in the form of Miracle Plays (lives of the saints), Mystery Plays (stories from the Old and New Testament), and Morality Plays (sermons disguised as allegories). Second Shepherds' Play is an example of a Mystery Play. Everyman is an example of a Morality Play. Representative Works of the Period are:

  • The Bible by John Wyclif (first English translation of this work)
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (major work of the medieval period)
  • Confessio Amantis by John Gower (religious work)
  • Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (extensive recounting of the Arthurian legends)
  • Owl and the Nightingale (dialogue between two birds written in classical debate form)
  • The Pearl (carefully contrived dream tale with religious overtones.)
  • Piers Plowman by William Langland (work of social satire particularly critical of the clergy)
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Arthurian tale of courtly love)

The Renaissance (1500-1700) was a period of amazing literary productivity during which the church lost importance. The explosion of literature was probably aided by the printing press, but nothing explains the extraordinary quality of the writing. Shakespeare dominates the age, but he is not alone. The concept of a renaissance man, who could fight, write poetry, and be a lover too, was the ideal of the age. Drama and poetry now shared equal literary importance. In addition, Greek and Latin literature was rediscovered and incorporated into the writing of the period. Representative Works of the Period are:

poetry

  • The Fairie Queen by Edmund Spenser (religious allegory using the Spenserian stanza)
  • "Holy Sonnets" by John Donne (poems which mesh the physical with the spiritual)
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton (epic poem which recounts the Adam and Eve tale and also includes a description of hell which is frequently treated as fact)
  • "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvel (classic love poem)

novels

  • King James version of the Bible (translation of The Bible which transforms it into a piece of literature)
  • Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (one of two books most read during the 18th century/early effort at a novel/written as an allegorical tale similar to the Fairie Queen)

drama

  • Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (tragedy, the literary form for which Marlowe was particularly known)
  • Plays by William Shakespeare (major dramas of the period and perhaps of all time)

non-fiction

  • Novum Organum by Francis Bacon (beginning of modern scientific inquiry)

The Age of Reason (1700-1800) was a time of political turmoil. Writing was more scientific and reasoned. The novel as a form of literature begins to appear. Writers began to rely upon the purchase by individuals of their writings to support themselves instead of upon the support of a single patron. The rise of the middle class meant that writers now wrote to this group rather than the aristocracy. Representative Works of the Period are:

poetry

  • "Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard" by Thomas Gray (poem with the stirrings of the Romantic period to follow)
  • "Epistle to Miss Blount" by Alexander Pope (uses the heroic couplet to its advantage)
  • "To A Mouse" by Robert Burns (Scottish poem which reflects the dialect of Burn's origin as well as a movement to the Romantic period)

novels

  • Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (satire)
  • Pamela by Samuel Richardson (first work which introduces plot into a novel)
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (beginning of the modern English novel using realistic details)
  • Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (early novel with a well defined plot)
  • The Vicar of Wakefield (very fine early novel) by Oliver Goldsmith.

drama

  • The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan (amusing play showing life through satirical eyes)
  • She Stoops to Conquer (a humorous play) by Oliver Goldsmith.
  • The Way of the World by William Congreve (humorous play)

non-fiction

  • Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson
  • Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (describes with detailed accuracy the period as well as the man)
  • "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift (satire)
  • The Tattler and The Spectator by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (early newspapers)
 

The Romantics (1800-1830) turned away from reason and saw a rose colored world. Their writings in the form of poetry focused on nature and feelings rather than the frailties of the real world. The period represents only a brief interlude before a return to more pragmatic period. Representative Works of the Period are:

poetry

  • Don Juan by George Gordon, Lord Byron (epic poem)
  • Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (long narrative poem)
  • Kubla Khan and Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (long narrative poems)
  • "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" by William Wordsworth (nature poem)
  • "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats (lyric poem)
  • "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • "The Tyger" by William Blake (mystical poem)

novels

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (early science fiction novel)
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (novel of manners)

The Victorians (1830-1880) returned to writing which reflected the relevant concerns of the period. The novel begins to overtake poetry in importance. The writing of the period was generally more restrained and less sensual than that of the Romantics. Representative Works of the Period are:

poetry

  • Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (lyric poem by poet laureate)
  • "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning (dramatic monologue incorporated into poetry)
  • Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald (translation of a Persian poem)
  • Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (love letters in poetic form)

novels

  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson (children's adventure tale)
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (early romance work)
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (depicts life in the 19th century which was not always pretty)
  • The Palliser Novels by Anthony Trollope (life in the 19th century from the aristocratic viewpoint)
  • Silas Marner by George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thacheray (novel of love and manners with a touch of adventure)
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (romantic novel)

Transitional (1880-1915) writers represent a maturing of the Victorian period. Writing reflected scientific knowledge and self discovery, but lacks some of the maturity found in the post-war writing to follow. Representative Works of the Period are:

poetry

  • The Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman (pastoral poem)

novels

  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (early mystery novel featuring Sherlock Holmes)
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling (tale from India)
  • Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (dark questioning novel)
  • Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (dark questioning novel)
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (beginning of modern science fiction)
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (children's tale of adventure)

drama

  • The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde (play of biting humor)
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (major drama of the period)

Modern (1915-1960) writing reflected a world less sure of itself. Writers produced questioning poetry and novels which reveal the loss of innocence brought on by world wide wars. Poetry was more experimental as were novels. Frequently, the public was shocked by the subjects and treatments of them. Taboos about sex, religion, and politics were often ignored. Representative Works of the Period are:

poetry

  • "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot (experimental poem)

novels

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell (parable)
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (novel of the future)
  • I , Claudius by Robert Graves (historical novel)
  • Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence (one of the first erotic novel to be accepted as a literary force)
  • The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (novel questioning man's place in the world)
  • Ulysses by James Joyce (experimental novel using the stream of consciousness)

drama

  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (experimental play)

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