English literature is the literature written in the English language, including literature composed in English by writers not necessarily from England; for example, Robert Burns was Scottish, James Joyce was Irish, Joseph Conrad was Polish, Dylan Thomas was Welsh, Edgar Allan Poe was American, J. R. R. Tolkien was born in the Orange Free State, V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad, and Vladimir Nabokov was Russian, but all are considered important writers in the history of English literature. In other words, English literature is as diverse as the varieties and dialects of English spoken around the world. In academia, the term often labels departments and programmes practising English studies in secondary and tertiary educational systems. Despite the variety of authors of English literature, the works of William Shakespeare remain paramount throughout the English-speaking world.
1. Old English literature
Old English literature (or Anglo-Saxon literature) encompasses literature written in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) in Anglo-Saxon England, in the period from the 7th century to the Norman Conquest of 1066. These works include genres such as epic poetry, hagiography, sermons, Bible translations, legal works, chronicles, riddles, and others. In all there are about 400 surviving manuscripts from the period, a significant corpus of both popular interest and specialist research.
Among the most important works of this period is the poem Beowulf, which has achieved national epic status in England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle otherwise proves significant to study of the era, preserving a chronology of early English history, while the poem Cædmon’s Hymn from the 7th century survives as the oldest extant work of literature in English.
Anglo-Saxon literature has gone through different periods of research—in the 19th and early 20th centuries the focus was on the Germanic roots of English, later the literary merits were emphasised, and today the focus is upon paleography and the physical manuscripts themselves more generally: scholars debate such issues as dating, place of origin, authorship, and the connections between Anglo-Saxon culture and the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages.
The first works in English, written in Old English, appeared in the early Middle Ages, the oldest surviving text being the Hymn of Cædmon. The oral tradition was very strong in the early English culture and most literary works were written to be performed. Epic poems were thus very popular, and many, including Beowulf, have survived to the present day in the rich corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature that closely resemble today’s Icelandic, Norwegian, North Frisian and the Northumbrian and Scots English dialects of modern English. Much Old English verse in the extant manuscripts is probably adapted from the earlier Germanic war poems from the continent. When such poetry was brought to England it was still being handed down orally from one generation to another, and the constant presence of alliterative verse, or consonant rhyme (today’s newspaper headlines and marketing abundantly use this technique such as in Big is Better) helped the Anglo-Saxon people to remember it. Such rhyme is a feature of Germanic languages and is opposed to vocalic or end-rhyme of Romance languages. But the first written literature dates to the early Christian monasteries founded by Augustine of Canterbury and his disciples and it is reasonable to believe that it was somehow adapted to suit the needs of Christian readers .
2. Middle English literature
The term Middle English literature refers to the literature written in the form of the English language known as Middle English, from the 12th century until the 1470s, when the Chancery Standard, a form of London-based English, became widespread and the printing press regularized the language. Between the 1470s and the middle of the following century there is a transition to early Modern English though in literary terms the characteristics of the literary works written does not change radically until the effects of the Renaissance and Reformed Christianity become more apparent in the reign of King Henry VIII. There are three main categories of Middle English Literature: Religious, Courtly love, and Arthurian, though much of Geoffrey Chaucer‘s work stands outside these. Among the many religious works are those in the Katherine Group and the writings of Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle.
In the 12th century, a new form of English now known as Middle English evolved. This is the earliest form of English literature which is comprehensible to modern readers and listeners, albeit not easily. Middle English lasts up until the 1470s, when the Chancery Standard, a form of London-based English, became widespread and the printing press regularized the language. Middle English Bible translations, notably Wycliffe’s Bible, helped to establish English as a literary language.
There are three main categories of Middle English Literature: Religious, Courtly love, and Arthurian. William Langland‘s Piers Plowman is considered by many critics to be one of the early great works of English literature along with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (most likely by the Pearl Poet) during the Middle Ages. Piers Plowman also contains the earliest surviving allusion to a literary tradition of the legendary English archer, swordsman, and outlaw Robin Hood.
The most significant Middle English author was Geoffrey Chaucer who was active in the late 14th century. Often regarded as “the Father of English Literature,” Chaucer is widely credited as the first author to demonstrate the artistic legitimacy of the vernacular English language, rather than French or Latin. The Canterbury Tales was Chaucer’s magnum opus, and a towering achievement of Western culture. The first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love is in Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules 1382.
The multilingual audience for literature in the 14th century can be illustrated by the example of John Gower, who wrote in Latin, Middle English and Anglo-Norman.
Since at least the 14th century, poetry in English has been written in Ireland and by Irish writers abroad. The earliest poem in English by a Welsh poet dates from about 1470.
3. Renaissance literature
The English Renaissance was a cultural and artistic movement in England dating from the late 15th and early 16th centuries to the early 17th century. It is associated with the pan-European Renaissance that is usually regarded as beginning in Italy in the late 14th century; like most of northern Europe England saw little of these developments for more than a century later. The beginning of the English Renaissance is often taken, as a convenience, as 1485, when the Battle of Bosworth Field ended the Wars of the Roses and inaugurated the Tudor Dynasty. Renaissance style and ideas, however, were slow in penetrating England, and the Elizabethan era in the second half of the 16th century is usually regarded as the height of the English Renaissance.
Following the introduction of a printing press into England by William Caxton in 1476, vernacular literature flourished. The Reformation inspired the production of vernacular liturgy which led to the Book of Common Prayer, a lasting influence on literary English language. The poetry, drama, and prose produced under both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I constitute what is today labelled as Early modern (or Renaissance).
4. Elizabethan era
The Elizabethan era saw a great flourishing of literature, especially in the field of drama. The Italian Renaissance had rediscovered the ancient Greek and Roman theatre, and this was instrumental in the development of the new drama, which was then beginning to evolve apart from the old mystery and miracle plays of the Middle Ages. The Italians were particularly inspired by Seneca (a major tragic playwright and philosopher, the tutor of Nero) and Plautus (its comic clichés, especially that of the boasting soldier had a powerful influence on the Renaissance and after). However, the Italian tragedies embraced a principle contrary to Seneca’s ethics: showing blood and violence on the stage. In Seneca’s plays such scenes were only acted by the characters. But the English playwrights were intrigued by Italian model: a conspicuous community of Italian actors had settled in London and Giovanni Florio had brought much of the Italian language and culture to England.
Following earlier Elizabethan plays such as Gorboduc by Sackville & Norton and The Spanish Tragedy by Kyd that was to provide much material for Hamlet, William Shakespeare stands out in this period as a poet and playwright as yet unsurpassed. Shakespeare was very gifted and incredibly versatile, and he surpassed “professionals” as Robert Greene who mocked this “shake-scene” of low origins. Though most dramas met with great success, it is in his later years (marked by the early reign of James I) that he wrote what have been considered his greatest plays: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, a tragicomedy that inscribes within the main drama a brilliant pageant to the new king.
Shakespeare also popularized the English sonnet which made significant changes to Petrarch‘s model. The sonnet was introduced into English by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century. Poems intended to be set to music as songs, such as by Thomas Campion, became popular as printed literature was disseminated more widely in households. See English Madrigal School. Other important figures in Elizabethan theatre include Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont. Had Marlowe (1564-1593) not been stabbed at twenty-nine in a tavern brawl, says Anthony Burgess, he might have rivalled, if not equalled Shakespeare himself for his poetic gifts. Marlowe’s subject matter focuses more on the moral drama of the Renaissance man than any other thing. Marlowe was fascinated and terrified by the new frontiers opened by modern science. Drawing on German lore, he introduced Dr. Faustus to England, a scientist and magician who is obsessed by the thirst of knowledge and the desire to push man’s technological power to its limits. His dark heroes may have something of Marlowe himself, whose untimely death remains a mystery. He was known for being an atheist, leading a lawless life, keeping many mistresses, consorting with ruffians: living the ‘high life’ of London‘s underworld.
Beaumont and Fletcher are less-known, but it is almost sure that they helped Shakespeare write some of his best dramas, and were quite popular at the time. It is also at this time that the city comedy genre develops. In the later 16th century English poetry was characterised by elaboration of language and extensive allusion to classical myths. The most important poets of this era include Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney. Elizabeth herself, a product of Renaissance humanism, produced occasional poems such as On Monsieur’s Departure. The most famous themes of the Elizabethan Drama are: Revenge, Sensationalism, Melodrama and Vengeance.
The English playwrights were intrigued by Italian model: a conspicuous community of Italian actors had settled in London and Giovanni Florio had brought much of the Italian language and culture to England. It is also true that the Elizabethan Era was a very violent age and that the high incidence of political assassinations in Renaissance Italy (embodied by Niccolò Machiavelli‘s The Prince) did little to calm fears of popish plots. As a result, representing that kind of violence on the stage was probably more cathartic for the Elizabethan spectator. Following earlier Elizabethan plays such as Gorboduc by Sackville and Norton and The Spanish Tragedy by Kyd that was to provide much material for Hamlet, William Shakespeare stands out in this period as a poet and playwright as yet unsurpassed. Shakespeare was not a man of letters by profession, and probably had only some grammar school education. He was neither a lawyer, nor an aristocrat as the “university wits” that had monopolised the English stage when he started writing. But he was very gifted and incredibly versatile, and he surpassed “professionals” as Robert Greene who mocked this “shake-scene” of low origins. Though most dramas met with great success, it is in his later years (marked by the early reign of James I) that he wrote what have been considered his greatest plays: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, a tragicomedy that inscribes within the main drama a brilliant pageant to the new king. Shakespeare also popularized the English sonnet which made significant changes to Petrarch‘s model.
The sonnet was introduced into English by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century. Poems intended to be set to music as songs, such as by Thomas Campion, became popular as printed literature was disseminated more widely in households. See English Madrigal School. Other important figures in Elizabethan theatre include Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont. Had Marlowe (1564–1593) not been stabbed at twenty-nine in a tavern brawl, says Anthony Burgess, he might have rivalled, if not equalled Shakespeare himself for his poetic gifts. Remarkably, he was born only a few weeks before Shakespeare and must have known him well. Marlowe’s subject matter, though, is different: it focuses more on the moral drama of the renaissance man than any other thing. Marlowe was fascinated and terrified by the new frontiers opened by modern science. Drawing on German lore, he introduced Dr. Faustus to England, a scientist and magician who is obsessed by the thirst of knowledge and the desire to push man’s technological power to its limits. He acquires supernatural gifts that even allow him to go back in time and wed Helen of Troy, but at the end of his twenty-four years’ covenant with the devil he has to surrender his soul to him. His dark heroes may have something of Marlowe himself, whose death remains a mystery. He was known for being an atheist, leading a lawless life, keeping many mistresses, consorting with ruffians: living the ‘high life’ of London‘s underworld. But many suspect that this might have been a cover-up for his activities as a secret agent for Elizabeth I, hinting that the ‘accidental stabbing’ might have been a premeditated assassination by the enemies of The Crown. Beaumont and Fletcher are less-known, but it is almost sure that they helped Shakespeare write some of his best dramas, and were quite popular at the time. It is also at this time that the city comedy genre develops. In the later 16th century English poetry was characterised by elaboration of language and extensive allusion to classical myths. The most important poets of this era include Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney. Elizabeth herself, a product of Renaissance humanism, produced occasional poems such as On Monsieur’s Departure.
5. Jacobean literature
After Shakespeare’s death, the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson was the leading literary figure of the Jacobean era. However, Jonson’s aesthetics hark back to the Middle Ages rather than to the Tudor Era: his characters embody the theory of humours. According to this contemporary medical theory, behavioral differences result from a prevalence of one of the body’s four “humours” (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) over the other three; these humours correspond with the four elements of the universe: air, water, fire, and earth. This leads Jonson to exemplify such differences to the point of creating types, or clichés.
Jonson is a master of style, and a brilliant satirist. His Volpone shows how a group of scammers are fooled by a top con-artist, vice being punished by vice, virtue meting out its reward.
Others who followed Jonson’s style include Beaumont and Fletcher, who wrote the brilliant comedy, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, a mockery of the rising middle class and especially of those nouveaux riches who pretend to dictate literary taste without knowing much literature at all. In the story, a couple of grocers wrangle with professional actors to have their illiterate son play a leading role in a drama. He becomes a knight-errant wearing, appropriately, a burning pestle on his shield. Seeking to win a princess’ heart, the young man is ridiculed much in the way Don Quixote was. One of Beaumont and Fletcher’s chief merits was that of realising how feudalism and chivalry had turned into snobbery and make-believe and that new social classes were on the rise.
Another popular style of theatre during Jacobean times was the revenge play, popularized by John Webster and Thomas Kyd. George Chapman wrote a couple of subtle revenge tragedies, but must be remembered chiefly on account of his famous translation of Homer, one that had a profound influence on all future English literature, even inspiring John Keats to write one of his best sonnets.
The King James Bible, one of the most massive translation projects in the history of English up to this time, was started in 1604 and completed in 1611. It represents the culmination of a tradition of Bible translation into English that began with the work of William Tyndale. It became the standard Bible of the Church of England. This project was headed by James I himself, who supervised the work of forty-seven scholars. Although many other translations into English have been made, some of which are widely considered more accurate, many aesthetically prefer the King James Bible, whose meter is made to mimic the original Hebrew verse.
Besides Shakespeare, whose figure towers over the early 17th century, the major poets of the early 17th century included John Donne and the other Metaphysical poets. Influenced by continental Baroque, and taking as his subject matter both Christian mysticism and eroticism, metaphysical poetry uses unconventional or “unpoetic” figures, such as a compass or a mosquito, to reach surprise effects. For example, in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, one of Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, the points of a compass represent two lovers, the woman who is home, waiting, being the centre, the farther point being her lover sailing away from her. But the larger the distance, the more the hands of the compass lean to each other: separation makes love grow fonder. The paradox or the oxymoron is a constant in this poetry whose fears and anxieties also speak of a world of spiritual certainties shaken by the modern discoveries of geography and science, one that is no longer the centre of the universe. Apart from the metaphysical poetry of Donne, the 17th century is also celebrated for its Baroque poetry. Baroque poetry served the same ends as the art of the period; the Baroque style is lofty, sweeping, epic, and religious. Many of these poets have an overtly Catholic sensibility (namely Richard Crashaw) and wrote poetry for the Catholic counter-Reformation in order to establish a feeling of supremacy and mysticism that would ideally persuade newly emerging Protestant groups back toward Catholicism.
Restoration literature is the English literature written during the historical period commonly referred to as the English Restoration (1660–1689), which corresponds to the last years of the direct Stuart reign in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In general, the term is used to denote roughly homogeneous styles of literature that center on a celebration of or reaction to the restored court of Charles II. It is a literature that includes extremes, for it encompasses both Paradise Lost and the Earl of Rochester‘s Sodom, the high-spirited sexual comedy of The Country Wife and the moral wisdom of The Pilgrim’s Progress. It saw Locke‘s Treatises of Government, the founding of the Royal Society, the experiments and holy meditations of Robert Boyle, the hysterical attacks on theaters from Jeremy Collier, and the pioneering of literary criticism from John Dryden and John Dennis. The period witnessed news become a commodity, the essay developed into a periodical art form, and the beginnings of textual criticism.
The dates for Restoration literature are a matter of convention, and they differ markedly from genre to genre. Thus, the “Restoration” in drama may last until 1700, while in poetry it may last only until 1666 (see 1666 in poetry) and the annus mirabilis; and in prose it might end in 1688, with the increasing tensions over succession and the corresponding rise in journalism and periodicals, or not until 1700, when those periodicals grew more stabilized. In general, scholars use the term “Restoration” to denote the literature that began and flourished under Charles II, whether that literature was the laudatory ode that gained a new life with restored aristocracy, the eschatological literature that showed an increasing despair among Puritans, or the literature of rapid communication and trade that followed in the wake of England’s mercantile empire.
Restoration literature includes both Paradise Lost and the Earl of Rochester‘s Sodom, the high spirited sexual comedy of The Country Wife and the moral wisdom of Pilgrim’s Progress. It saw Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, the founding of the Royal Society, the experiments of Robert Boyle and the holy meditations of Boyle, the hysterical attacks on theatres from Jeremy Collier, the pioneering of literary criticism from Dryden, and the first newspapers. The official break in literary culture caused by censorship and radically moralist standards under Cromwell’s Puritan regime created a gap in literary tradition, allowing a seemingly fresh start for all forms of literature after the Restoration. During the Interregnum, the royalist forces attached to the court of Charles I went into exile with the twenty-year-old Charles II. The nobility who travelled with Charles II were therefore lodged for over a decade in the midst of the continent’s literary scene. Charles spent his time attending plays in France, and he developed a taste for Spanish plays. Those nobles living in Holland began to learn about mercantile exchange as well as the tolerant, rationalist prose debates that circulated in that officially tolerant nation.
The largest and most important poetic form of the era was satire. In general, publication of satire was done anonymously. There were great dangers in being associated with a satire. On the one hand, defamation law was a wide net, and it was difficult for a satirist to avoid prosecution if he were proven to have written a piece that seemed to criticize a noble. On the other hand, wealthy individuals would respond to satire as often as not by having the suspected poet physically attacked by ruffians. John Dryden was set upon for being merely suspected of having written the Satire on Mankind. A consequence of this anonymity is that a great many poems, some of them of merit, are unpublished and largely unknown.
Prose in the Restoration period is dominated by Christian religious writing, but the Restoration also saw the beginnings of two genres that would dominate later periods: fiction and journalism. Religious writing often strayed into political and economic writing, just as political and economic writing implied or directly addressed religion. The Restoration was also the time when John Locke wrote many of his philosophical works. Locke’s empiricism was an attempt at understanding the basis of human understanding itself and thereby devising a proper manner for making sound decisions. These same scientific methods led Locke to his three Treatises on Government, which later inspired the thinkers in the American Revolution. As with his work on understanding, Locke moves from the most basic units of society toward the more elaborate, and, like Thomas Hobbes, he emphasizes the plastic nature of the social contract. For an age that had seen absolute monarchy overthrown, democracy attempted, democracy corrupted, and limited monarchy restored, only a flexible basis for government could be satisfying. The Restoration moderated most of the more strident sectarian writing, but radicalism persisted after the Restoration. Puritan authors such as John Milton were forced to retire from public life or adapt, and those Digger, Fifth Monarchist, Leveller, Quaker, and Anabaptist authors who had preached against monarchy and who had participated directly in the regicide of Charles I were partially suppressed. Consequently, violent writings were forced underground, and many of those who had served in the Interregnum attenuated their positions in the Restoration. John Bunyan stands out beyond other religious authors of the period. Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of personal salvation and a guide to the Christian life. Instead of any focus on eschatology or divine retribution, Bunyan instead writes about how the individual saint can prevail against the temptations of mind and body that threaten damnation. The book is written in a straightforward narrative and shows influence from both drama and biography, and yet it also shows an awareness of the grand allegorical tradition found in Edmund Spenser. During the Restoration period, the most common manner of getting news would have been a broadsheet publication. A single, large sheet of paper might have a written, usually partisan, account of an event. However, the period saw the beginnings of the first professional and periodical (meaning that the publication was regular) journalism in England. Journalism develops late, generally around the time of William of Orange‘s claiming the throne in 1689. Coincidentally or by design, England began to have newspapers just when William came to court from Amsterdam, where there were already newspapers being published.
It is impossible to satisfactorily date the beginning of the novel in English. However, long fiction and fictional biographies began to distinguish themselves from other forms in England during the Restoration period. An existing tradition of Romance fiction in France and Spain was popular in England. The “Romance” was considered a feminine form, and women were taxed with reading “novels” as a vice. One of the most significant figures in the rise of the novel in the Restoration period is Aphra Behn. She was not only the first professional female novelist, but she may be among the first professional novelists of either sex in England. Behn’s most famous novel was Oroonoko in 1688. This was a biography of an entirely fictional African king who had been enslaved in Suriname. Behn’s novels show the influence of tragedy and her experiences as a dramatist.
As soon as the previous Puritan regime’s ban on public stage representations was lifted, the drama recreated itself quickly and abundantly. The most famous plays of the early Restoration period are the unsentimental or “hard” comedies of John Dryden, William Wycherley, and George Etherege, which reflect the atmosphere at Court, and celebrate an aristocratic macho lifestyle of unremitting sexual intrigue and conquest. After a sharp drop in both quality and quantity in the 1680s, the mid-90s saw a brief second flowering of the drama, especially comedy. Comedies like William Congreve‘s The Way of the World (1700), and John Vanbrugh‘s The Relapse (1696) and The Provoked Wife (1697) were “softer” and more middle-class in ethos, very different from the aristocratic extravaganza twenty years earlier, and aimed at a wider audience. The playwrights of the 1690s set out to appeal to more socially mixed audiences with a strong middle-class element, and to female spectators, for instance by moving the war between the sexes from the arena of intrigue into that of marriage. The focus in comedy is less on young lovers outwitting the older generation, more on marital relations after the wedding bells
6. Augustan literature
Augustan literature (sometimes referred to misleadingly as Georgian literature) is a style of English literature produced during the reigns of Queen Anne, King George I, and George II in the 1740s with the deaths of Pope and Swift (1744 and 1745, respectively). It is a literary epoch that featured the rapid development of the novel, an explosion in satire, the mutation of drama from political satire into melodrama, and an evolution toward poetry of personal exploration. In philosophy, it was an age increasingly dominated by empiricism, while in the writings of political-economy it marked the evolution of mercantilism as a formal philosophy, the development of capitalism, and the triumph of trade.
The chronological boundary points of the era are generally vague, largely since the label’s origin in contemporary 18th century criticism has made it a shorthand designation for a somewhat nebulous age of satire. This new Augustan period exhibited exceptionally bold political writings in all genres, with the satires of the age marked by an arch, ironic pose, full of nuance, and a superficial air of dignified calm that hid sharp criticisms beneath.
As literacy (and London’s population, especially) grew, literature began to appear from all over the kingdom. Authors gradually began to accept literature that went in unique directions rather than the formerly monolithic conventions and, through this, slowly began to honor and recreate various folk compositions. Beneath the appearance of a placid and highly regulated series of writing modes, many developments of the later Romantic era were beginning to take place—while politically, philosophically, and literarily, modern consciousness emerged from hitherto feudal and courtly notions.
The term Augustan literature derives from authors of the 1720s and 1730s themselves, who responded to a term that George I of England preferred for himself. While George I meant the title to reflect his might, they instead saw in it a reflection of Ancient Rome‘s transition from rough and ready literature to highly political and highly polished literature. Because of the aptness of the metaphor, the period from 1689 – 1750 was called “the Augustan Age” by critics throughout the 18th century (including Voltaire and Oliver Goldsmith). The literature of the period is overtly political and thoroughly aware of critical dictates for literature. It is an age of exuberance and scandal, of enormous energy and inventiveness and outrage, that reflected an era when English, Scottish, and Irish people found themselves in the midst of an expanding economy, lowering barriers to education, and the stirrings of the Industrial Revolution.
The most outstanding poet of the age is Alexander Pope, but Pope’s excellence is partially in his constant battle with other poets, and his serene, seemingly neo-Classical approach to poetry is in competition with highly idiosyncratic verse and strong competition from such poets as Ambrose Philips. It was during this time that James Thomson produced his melancholy The Seasons and Edward Young wrote Night Thoughts. It is also the era that saw a serious competition over the proper model for the pastoral. In criticism, poets struggled with a doctrine of decorum, of matching proper words with proper sense and of achieving a diction that matched the gravity of a subject. At the same time, the mock-heroic was at its zenith. Pope’s Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad are still the greatest mock-heroic poems ever written.
In prose, the earlier part of the period was overshadowed by the development of the English essay. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele‘s The Spectator established the form of the British periodical essay, inventing the pose of the detached observer of human life who can meditate upon the world without advocating any specific changes in it. However, this was also the time when the English novel, first emerging in the Restoration, developed into a major art form. Daniel Defoe turned from journalism and writing criminal lives for the press to writing fictional criminal lives with Roxana and Moll Flanders. He also wrote a fictional treatment of the travels of Alexander Selkirk called Robinson Crusoe (1719). The novel would benefit indirectly from a tragedy of the stage, and in mid-century many more authors would begin to write novels.
If Addison and Steele overawed one type of prose, then Jonathan Swift did another. Swift’s prose style is unmannered and direct, with a clarity that few contemporaries matched. He was a profound skeptic about the modern world, but he was similarly profoundly distrustful of nostalgia. He saw in history a record of lies and vanity, and he saw in the present a madness of vanity and lies. Core Christian values were essential, but these values had to be muscular and assertive and developed by constant rejection of the games of confidence men and their gullies. Swift’s A Tale of a Tub announced his skeptical analysis of the claims of the modern world, and his later prose works, such as his war with Patridge the astrologer, and most of all his derision of pride in Gulliver’s Travels left only the individual in constant fear and humility safe. After his “exile” to Ireland, Swift reluctantly began defending the Irish people from the predations of colonialism. His A Modest Proposal and the Drapier Letters provoked riots and arrests, but Swift, who had no love of Irish Roman Catholics, was outraged by the abuses and barbarity he saw around him.
Drama in the early part of the period featured the last plays of John Vanbrugh and William Congreve, both of whom carried on the Restoration comedy with some alterations. However, the majority of stagings were of lower farces and much more serious and domestic tragedies. George Lillo and Richard Steele both produced highly moral forms of tragedy, where the characters and the concerns of the characters were wholly middle class or working class. This reflected a marked change in the audience for plays, as royal patronage was no longer the important part of theatrical success. Additionally, Colley Cibber and John Rich began to battle each other for greater and greater spectacles to present on stage. The figure of Harlequin was introduced, and pantomime theatre began to be staged. This “low” comedy was quite popular, and the plays became tertiary to the staging. Opera also began to be popular in London, and there was significant literary resistance to this Italian incursion. This trend was broken only by a few attempts at a new type of comedy. Pope and John Arbuthnot and John Gay attempted a play entitled Three Hours After Marriage that failed. In 1728, however, John Gay returned to the playhouse with The Beggar’s Opera. Gay’s opera was in English and retold the story of Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild. However, it seemed to be an allegory for Robert Walpole and the directors of the South Sea Company, and so Gay’s follow up opera was banned without performance. The Licensing Act 1737 brought an abrupt halt to much of the period’s drama, as the theatres were once again brought under state control.
An effect of the Licensing Act was to cause more than one aspiring playwright to switch over to writing novels. Henry Fielding began to write prose satire and novels after his plays could not pass the censors. Henry Brooke also turned to novels. In the interim, Samuel Richardson had produced a novel intended to counter the deleterious effects of novels in Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740). Henry Fielding attacked the absurdity of this novel with two of his own works, Joseph Andrews and Shamela, and then countered Richardson’s Clarissa with Tom Jones. Henry Mackenzie wrote The Man of Feeling and indirectly began the sentimental novel. Laurence Sterne attempted a Swiftian novel with a unique perspective on the impossibility of biography (the model for most novels up to that point) and understanding with Tristram Shandy, even as his detractor Tobias Smollett elevated the picaresque novel with his works. Each of these novels represents a formal and thematic divergence from the others. Each novelist was in dialogue and competition with the others, and, in a sense, the novel established itself as a diverse and open-formed genre in this explosion of creativity. The most lasting effects of the experimentation would be the psychological realism of Richardson, the bemused narrative voice of Fielding, and the sentimentality of Brooke.
7. 18th century
During the Age of Sensibility, literature reflected the worldview of the Age of Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) – a rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues that promoted a secular view of the world and a general sense of progress and perfectibility. Led by the philosophers who were inspired by the discoveries of the previous century (Newton) and the writings of Descartes, Locke and Bacon.
They sought to discover and to act upon universally valid principles governing humanity, nature, and society. They variously attacked spiritual and scientific authority, dogmatism, intolerance, censorship, and economic and social restraints. They considered the state the proper and rational instrument of progress. The extreme rationalism and skepticism of the age led naturally to deism; the same qualities played a part in bringing the later reaction of romanticism. The Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot epitomized the spirit of the age.
During the end of the 18th century, Horace Walpole‘s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, created the Gothic fiction genre, that combines elements of horror and romance. The pioneering gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding figure of the gothic villain which developed into the Byronic hero. Her most popular and influential work The Mysteries of Udolpho 1794, is frequently cited as the archetypal Gothic novel. Vathek 1786 by William Beckford, and The Monk 1796 by Matthew Lewis, were further notable early works in both the gothic and horror literary genres
The changing landscape of Britain brought about by the steam engine has two major outcomes: the boom of industrialism with the expansion of the city, and the consequent depopulation of the countryside as a result of the enclosures, or privatisation of pastures. Most peasants poured into the city to work in the new factories.
This abrupt change is revealed by the change of meaning in five key words: industry (once meaning “creativity”), democracy (once disparagingly used as “mob rule“), class (from now also used with a social connotation), art (once just meaning “craft”), culture (once only belonging to farming).
But the poor condition of workers, the new class-conflicts and the pollution of the environment causes a reaction to urbanism and industrialisation prompting poets to rediscover the beauty and value of nature. Mother earth is seen as the only source of wisdom, the only solution to the ugliness caused by machines.
The superiority of nature and instinct over civilisation had been preached by Jean Jacques Rousseau and his message was picked by almost all European poets. The first in England were the Lake Poets, a small group of friends including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These early Romantic Poets brought a new emotionalism and introspection, and their emergence is marked by the first romantic Manifesto in English literature, the “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads“. This collection was mostly contributed by Wordsworth, although Coleridge must be credited for his long and impressive Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a tragic ballad about the survival of one sailor through a series of supernatural events on his voyage through the south seas which involves the slaying of an albatross, the death of the rest of the crew, a visit from Death and his mate, Life-in-Death, and the eventual redemption of the Mariner.
Coleridge and Wordsworth, however, understood romanticism in two entirely different ways: while Coleridge sought to make the supernatural “real” (much like sci-fi movies use special effects to make unlikely plots believable), Wordsworth sought to stir the imagination of readers through his down-to-earth characters taken from real life (in “The Idiot Boy”, for example), or the beauty of the Lake District that largely inspired his production (as in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”).
The “Second generation” of Romantic poets includes Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. Byron, however, was still influenced by 18th-century satirists and was, perhaps the least ‘romantic’ of the three. His amours with a number of prominent but married ladies was also a way to voice his dissent on the hypocrisy of a high society that was only apparently religious but in fact largely libertine, the same that had derided him for being physically impaired. His first trip to Europe resulted in the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a mock-heroic epic of a young man’s adventures in Europe but also a sharp satire against London society. Despite Childe Harold’s success on his return to England, accompanied by the publication of The Corsair his alleged incestuous affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh in 1816 actually forced him to leave England for good and seek asylum on the continent. Here he joined Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary, with his secretary John William Polidori on the shores of Lake Geneva during the ‘year without a summer’ of 1816. Polidori’s The Vampyre was published in 1819, creating the literary vampire genre. His short story was inspired by the life of Lord Byron and his poem The Giaour.
One of Percy Shelley’s most prominent works is the Ode to the West Wind. Despite his apparent refusal to believe in God, this poem is considered a homage to pantheism, the recognition of a spiritual presence in nature. Shelley’s groundbreaking poem The Masque of Anarchy calls for nonviolence in protest and political action. It is perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent protest. Mahatma Gandhi‘s passive resistance was influenced and inspired by Shelley’s verse, and Gandhi would often quote the poem to vast audiences.
The plot for Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein is said to have come from a nightmare she had during stormy nights on Lake Geneva in the company of Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori. Her idea of making a body with human parts stolen from different corpses and then animating it with electricity was perhaps influenced by Alessandro Volta‘s invention and Luigi Galvani‘s experiments with dead frogs. Frankenstein’s chilling tale also suggests modern organ transplants, tissue regeneration, reminding us of the moral issues raised by today’s medicine. But the creature of Frankenstein is incredibly romantic as well. Although “the monster” is intelligent, good and loving, he is shunned by everyone because of his ugliness and deformity, and the desperation and envy that result from social exclusion turn him against the very man who created him.
John Keats did not share Byron’s and Shelley’s extremely revolutionary ideals, but his cult of pantheism is as important as Shelley’s. Keats was in love with the ancient stones of the Parthenon that Lord Elgin had brought to England from Greece, also known as the Elgin Marbles). He celebrates ancient Greece: the beauty of free, youthful love couples here with that of classical art. Keats’s great attention to art, especially in his Ode on a Grecian Urn is quite new in romanticism, and it inspired Walter Pater‘s and then Oscar Wilde‘s belief in the absolute value of art as independent from aesthetics.
Some rightly think that the most popular novelist of the era was Sir Walter Scott, whose grand historical romances inspired a generation of painters, composers, and writers throughout Europe. Scott’s novel-writing career was launched in 1814 with Waverley, often called the first historical novel, and was followed by Ivanhoe. His popularity in England and further abroad did much to form the modern stereotype of Scottish culture. Other novels by Scott which contributed to the image of him as a Scottish patriot include Rob Roy.
In retrospect, we now look back to Jane Austen, who wrote novels about the life of the landed gentry, seen from a woman’s point of view, and wryly focused on practical social issues, especially marriage and choosing the right partner in life, with love being above all else. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice would set the model for all Romance Novels to follow. Jane Austen created the ultimate hero and heroine in Darcy and Elizabeth, who must overcome their own stubborn pride and the prejudices they have toward each other, in order to come to a middle ground, where they finally realize their love for one another. Austen’s other most notable works include; Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Emma. In her novels, Austen brings to light the hardships women faced, who usually did not inherit money, could not work and where their only chance in life depended on the man they married. She brought to light not only the difficulties women faced in her day, but also what was expected of men and of the careers they had to follow. This she does with wit and humour and with endings where all characters, good or bad, receive exactly what they deserve. Poet, painter and printmaker William Blake is usually included among the English Romanticists, though his visionary work is much different from that of the others discussed in this section.
In America, with the essays and poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson began an explosion of American English literature, which included the publication of Herman Melville‘s Moby Dick and the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
9. Victorian literature
Victorian literature is the literature produced during the reign of Queen Victoria (1830–1901) (the Victorian era). It forms a link and transition between the writers of the romantic period and the very different literature of the 20th century. Along with romance novels, there were many horror novels written as well.
The 19th century saw the novel become the leading form of literature in English. The works by pre-Victorian writers such as Jane Austen and Walter Scott had perfected both closely observed social satire and adventure stories. Popular works opened a market for the novel amongst a reading public. The 19th century is often regarded as a high point in British literature as well as in other countries such as France, the United States and Russia. Books, and novels in particular, became ubiquitous, and the “Victorian novelist” created legacy works with continuing appeal.
It was in the Victorian era (1837–1901) that the novel became the leading form of literature in English. Most writers were now more concerned to meet the tastes of a large middle class reading public than to please aristocratic patrons. The best known works of the era include the emotionally powerful works of the Brontë sisters; the satire Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray; the realist novels of George Eliot; and Anthony Trollope‘s insightful portrayals of the lives of the landowning and professional classes.
Charles Dickens emerged on the literary scene in the 1830s, confirming the trend for serial publication. Dickens wrote vividly about London life and the struggles of the poor, but in a good-humoured fashion which was acceptable to readers of all classes. His early works such as the Pickwick Papers are masterpieces of comedy. Later his works became darker, without losing his genius for caricature.
The Bronte sisters were English writers of the 1840s and 1850s. Their novels caused a sensation when they were first published and were subsequently accepted into the canon of great English literature. They had written compulsively from early childhood and were first published, at their own expense, in 1846 as poets under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The book attracted little attention, selling only two copies. The sisters returned to prose, producing a novel each in the following year. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were released in 1847.
An interest in rural matters and the changing social and economic situation of the countryside may be seen in the novels of Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, and others. Leading poetic figures included Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Christina Rossetti.
The novels of George Eliot, such as Middlemarch, were a milestone of literary realism, and combine high Victorian literary detail with an intellectual breadth that removes them from the narrow confines they often depict. Novels of Thomas Hardy and others, dealt with the changing social and economic situation of the countryside. Wilkie Collins epistolary novel The Moonstone 1868, has been acclaimed as the first detective novel in the English language.
The premier ghost story writer of the 19th century was Sheridan Le Fanu. His works include the macabre mystery novel Uncle Silas 1865, and his Gothic novella Carmilla 1872, tells the story of a young woman’s susceptibility to the attentions of a female vampire. Bram Stoker‘s seminal horror Dracula, has been attributed to a number of literary genres including vampire literature, horror fiction, gothic novel and invasion literature.
H. G. Wells invented a number of themes that are now classic in the science fiction genre. The War of the Worlds 1898, describing an invasion of late Victorian England by Martians using tripod fighting machines equipped with advanced weaponry, is a seminal depiction of an alien invasion of Earth. The Time Machine is generally credited with the popularization of the concept of time travel using a vehicle that allows an operator to travel purposefully and selectively. The term “time machine” coined by Wells, is now universally used to refer to such a vehicle.
Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant London-based “consulting detective”, famous for his intellectual prowess. Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring Holmes, from 1880 up to 1907, with a final case in 1914. All but four Conan Doyle stories are narrated by Holmes’ friend, assistant, and biographer, Dr. John H. Watson.
Literature for children developed as a separate genre. Some works become globally well-known, such as those of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, both of whom used nonsense verse. Adventure novels, such as those of Robert Louis Stevenson, are generally classified as for children. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, depicts the dual personality of a kind and intelligent physician who turns into a psychopathic monster after imbibing a drug intended to separate good from evil in a personality. His Kidnapped is a fast-paced historical novel set in the aftermath of the ’45 Jacobite Rising, and Treasure Island 1883, is the classic pirate adventure. At the end of the Victorian Era and leading into the Edwardian Era, Beatrix Potter was an author and illustrator, best known for her children’s books, which featured animal characters. In her thirties, Potter published the highly successful children’s book The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902. Potter eventually went on to published 23 children’s books and become a wealthly woman. Her books along with Lewis Carroll’s are read and published to this day.
The Lost World literary genre was inspired by real stories of archaeological discoveries by imperial adventurers. H. Rider Haggard wrote one of the earliest examples, King Solomon’s Mines, in 1885. Contemporary European politics and diplomatic manoeuvrings informed Anthony Hope‘s swashbuckling Ruritanian adventure novel The Prisoner of Zenda. An important forerunner of modernist literature, Joseph Conrad wrote the novel Heart of Darkness in 1899. A symbolic story within a story or frame narrative about an Englishman Marlow’s foreign assignment, it is widely regarded as a significant work of English literature and part of the Western canon.
10. English literature since 1900
The major lyric poet of the first decades of the 20th century was Thomas Hardy. Following the classic novels Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy then concentrated on poetry after the harsh critical response to his last novel, Jude the Obscure. The most widely popular writer of the early years of the 20th century was arguably Rudyard Kipling, a highly versatile writer of novels, short stories and poems, and to date the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Kipling’s works include The Jungle Book, The Man Who Would Be King and Kim, while his inspirational poem If— is a national favourite. Like William Ernest Henley‘s poem Invictus that has inspired such people as Nelson Mandela when he was incarcerated, If— is a memorable evocation of Victorian stoicism, regarded as a traditional British virtue. Erskine Childers‘ The Riddle of the Sands 1903, defined the spy novel. The Kailyard school of Scottish writers, notably J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, presented an idealised version of society and brought elements of fantasy and folklore back into fashion. The 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma Orczy, is a precursor to the “disguised superhero”. In 1908, Kenneth Grahame wrote the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows, while the Scouts founder Robert Baden Powell‘s first book Scouting for Boys was published. John Buchan penned the adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1915. Strongly influenced by his Christian faith, G. K. Chesterton was a prolific and hugely influential writer with a diverse output. Aldous Huxley‘s futuristic novel Brave New World, anticipates developments in reproductive technology and sleep-learning that combine to change society. The future society is an embodiment of the ideals that form the basis of futurism.
Modernist literature is sub-genre of Modernism, a predominantly European movement beginning in the early 20th century that was characterized by a self-conscious break with traditional aesthetic forms. Representing the radical shift in cultural sensibilities surrounding World War I, modernist literature struggled with the new realm of subject matter brought about by an increasingly industrialized and globalized world.
In its earliest incarnations, modernism fostered a utopian spirit, stimulated by innovations happening in the fields of anthropology, psychology, philosophy, political theory, and psychoanalysis. Writers such as Ezra Pound and other poets of the Imagist movement characterized this exuberant spririt, rejecting the sentiment and discursiveness typical of Romanticism and Victorian literature for poetry that instead favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language.
This new idealism ended, however, with the outbreak of war, when writers began to generate more cynical postwar works that reflected a prevailing sense of disillusionment and fragmented thought. Many modernist writers shared a mistrust of institutions of power such as government and religion, and rejected the notion of absolute truths. Like T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Waste Land, later modernist works were increasingly self-aware, introspective, and often embraced the unconscious fears of a darker humanity.
The movement known as English literary modernism grew out of a general sense of disillusionment with Victorian era attitudes of certainty, conservatism, and objective truth. The movement was greatly influenced by the ideas of Romanticism, Karl Marx‘s political writings, and the psychoanalytic theories of subconscious – Sigmund Freud. The continental art movements of Impressionism, and later Cubism, were also important inspirations for modernist writers.
Although literary modernism reached its peak between the First and Second World Wars, the earliest examples of the movement’s attitudes appeared in the mid to late 19th century. Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. E. Housman, and the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy represented a few of the major early modernists writing in England during the Victorian period.
The first decades of the 20th century saw several major works of modernism published, including the seminal short story collection Dubliners by James Joyce, Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness, and the poetry and drama of William Butler Yeats. Joyce’s magnum opus Ulysses, is arguably the most important work of Modernist literature, and has been referred to as “a demonstration and summation of the entire movement”. It is an interpretation of the Odyssey set in Dublin, and culminates in Finnegans Wake.
Important novelists between the World Wars included Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse and D. H. Lawrence. Woolf was an influential feminist, and a major stylistic innovator associated with the stream-of-consciousness technique. Her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own contains her famous dictum; “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. T. S. Eliot was the preeminent English poet of the period. Across the Atlantic writers like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and the poets Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost developed a more American take on the modernist aesthetic in their work.
Important in the development of the modernist movement was the American poet Ezra Pound. Credited with “discovering” both T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, Pound also advanced the cause of imagism and free verse. Gertrude Stein, an American expat, was also an enormous literary force during this time period, famous for her line “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
Other notable writers of this period included H.D., Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, William Carlos Williams, Ralph Ellison, Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas and Graham Greene. However, some of these writers are more closely associated with what has become known as post-modernism, a term often used to encompass the diverse range of writers who succeeded the modernists.
12. Post-modern literature
The term Postmodern literature is used to describe certain characteristics of post–World War II literature (relying heavily, for example, on fragmentation, paradox, questionable narrators, etc.) and a reaction against Enlightenment ideas implicit in Modernist literature.
Postmodern literature, like postmodernism as a whole, is hard to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance of postmodern literature. But as is often the case with artistic movements, postmodern literature is commonly defined in relation to its precursor. More specifically, Postmodern literature will not conclude with the neatly tied-up ending that is often found in Modernist literature, but often parodies it. Postmodern authors tend to celebrate chance over craft, and further employ metafiction to undermine the writer’s authority. Another characteristic of postmodern literature is the questioning of distinctions between high and low culture through the use of pastiche, the combination of subjects and genres not previously deemed fit for literature.
13. Post World War II
One of the most significant writers in this period was George Orwell. An essayist and novelist, Orwell’s works are considered among the most important social and political commentaries of the 20th century. Dealing with issues such as poverty in The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, and colonialism in Burmese Days. Orwell’s works were often semi-autobiographical and in the case of Homage to Catalonia, wholly. Malcolm Lowry is best known for Under the Volcano.
Agatha Christie was a crime writer of novels, short stories and plays, best remembered for her 80 detective novels and her successful West End theatre plays. Christie’s works, particularly featuring the detectives Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, have given her the title the ‘Queen of Crime’ and made her one of the most important and innovative writers in the development of the genre. Christie’s novels include, Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile and And Then There Were None. Another popular writer during the Golden Age of detective fiction was Dorothy L. Sayers. The novelist Georgette Heyer created the historical romance genre.
An informal literary discussion group associated with the English faculty at the University of Oxford, were the “Inklings“. Its leading members were the major fantasy novelists; C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Lewis is known for his fiction, especially The Chronicles of Narnia, while Tolkien is best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
In thriller writing, Ian Fleming created the character James Bond 007 in January 1952, while on holiday at his Jamaican estate, Goldeneye. Fleming chronicled Bond’s adventures in twelve novels, including Casino Royale (1953), Live and Let Die (1954), Dr. No (1958), Goldfinger (1959), Thunderball (1961), and nine short story works. In Anthony Burgess‘s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), the main character Alex‘s exercise of free will is curtailed by the use of a classical conditioning technique. Burgess creates a new speech in his novel that is the teenage slang of the not-too-distant future. Roald Dahl rose to prominence with his children’s fantasy novels, often inspired by experiences from his childhood, which are notable for their often unexpected endings, and unsentimental, dark humour. Science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is based on his various short stories, particularly The Sentinel. Some notable writers in the latter half of the 20th century include Margaret Atwood, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, J. G. Ballard, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, William Golding and Salman Rushdie. Ian McEwan‘s Atonement (2001), refers to the process of forgiving or pardoning a transgression, and alludes to the main character’s search for atonement in wartime England. His 2005 novel Saturday, follows an especially eventful day in the life of a successful neurosurgeon.