English Literature


Иностранные языки, филология и лингвистика

The works of authors who lived in the former colonies of Great Britain including Ireland and India as well as English-writing immigrants who are closely identified with English life are also considered part of English literature. English literature is a rich literature. English literature is also one of the oldest national literatures in the Western world.



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English Literature

English literature consists of poetry, prose, and drama written in the English language by authors from England, Scotland, and Wales and dates back from the introduction of Old English by the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century AD to the present. The works of authors who lived in the former colonies of Great Britain, including Ireland and India, as well as English-writing immigrants who are closely identified with English life are also considered part of English literature.

English literature is a rich literature. It includes masterpieces in many forms, particularly the novel, the short story, epic and lyric poetry, the essay, literary criticism, and drama. English literature is also one of the oldest national literatures in the Western world. English authors wrote important works as early as the A.D. 700's.

English authors have always been deeply interested in the political and social conditions of their times. In their works, they have described, criticized, and commented on the society in which they lived and often used their works to promote economic, political, and social reforms, as well as to reach purely aesthetic goals.

English literature closely follows the development of the English nation and it is convenient to divide it into periods according to the history of Great Britain.

English Literature Timeline

1. Old English literature (500-1100)

2. Middle English period (1100-1485)

3. Elizabethan Literature (1485-1603)

4. The Stuarts and the Puritans (1603-1660)

5. The Restoration Period (1660-1700)

6. The Augustan Age (1700-1750)

7. The Age of Johnson (1750-1784)

8. Romanticism (1784-1832)

9. The Victorian Age (1837-1901)

10. Modern English Literature (1901-1980s)

11. Contemporary English Literature (1980s-now)

Old English literature (500-1100)

Historical Background

The British Isles got their name from their original population – Ancient Britons (Brythons), or Brits, who evolved from the nomadic Stone Age hunters, often referred to as Picts or Scots, and Celtic tribes of warriors, who started coming to the Isles from the continent in the 8th century BC. In about 450 BC they occupied the whole of the British Isles living in small patriarchal family clans (tribes). Their basic activity was war and farming based on the common land ownership. The Ancient Britons were both pagans headed by druids (Stonehenge being their most famous religious monument) and Christians.

In 55 BC the Isles were conquered by the troops of Julius Caesar and, until the withdrawal of the Roman legions in 407 AD, Britain became a province of the Roman Empire. The Roman civilization introduced the Britons to Christianity; the Romans built good roads and founded many commercial centers, including London (former Roman Londinium); they erected the Hadrian’s Wall protecting Roman Britain from the belligerent northern Picts and Scots. Yet, the Romans never were quite at home at the Isles and hardly mixed with the native population.

The withdrawal of Roman troops in the 407 AD was caused by the general migration of the peoples in Western Europe. The Germanic tribes, including the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, poured into Britain and drove the original Celtic population into the inaccessible mountainous regions of Scotland, Cornwall, and Wales. The Anglo-Saxon tribes established 7 powerful kingdoms in the British Isles, which were at the state of permanent war with one another. The most prominent ruler of the period was Wessex king Alfred the Great (849-901) who worked to bring peace, political stability and promote culture.

In general, Anglo-Saxon social life was organized in much smaller units than the Roman urban civilization. Typically, Anglo-Saxons lived in small communities of huts arranged around the lord’s house – mead hall. They were farmers or fishermen. The values prevalent in Anglo-Saxon society included

  1.  loyalty to one’s lord (to die for him in battle was a supreme virtue);
  2.  hospitality;
  3.  an acute sense of Fate (‘wyrd’)

Originally, the Anglo-Saxons were pagans and their conversion to Christianity started in the 6-7th centuries separately by Irish missionaries and St. Augustine of Canterbury, who was sent to Britain by Pope Gregory in 597 AD. The country became Christian by about 660 AD. The prevailing early Celtic Christianity was tolerant towards the existing pagan culture and brought about monastic practice of recording and preserving the existing works of Anglo-Saxon pagan literature and folklore.

The rule of Anglo-Saxons ended when a new wave of sea-raiders came to the Isles in the 8th-10th centuries AD. These were the Danes (Vikings) from Scandinavia, who for 30 years (1013 to 1042) invaded and ruled Britain, and the Normans, who, originally Norwegian, got their name after conquering northern France (Normandy). The French-speaking Normans headed by William the Conqueror defeated the Saxon army at the battle of Hastings in 1066 and invaded the whole country, starting a new period in its history.

 Anglo-Saxon Literature

English literature started as Old English poetry and prose written in the various dialects of Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, which was the chief literary language until 1100. This language was brought from Europe by the Germanic tribes of the Angles, the Jutes, and the Saxons, together with the Germanic poetic tradition, which remained relatively constant until the conquest by Norman-French invaders in 1066. Old English was a Germanic language so different from modern English in grammar, vocabulary and syntax that it bears very little resemblance to the latter and must be studied as an independent tongue.

Old English poetry was alliterative, i.e. without rhyme, paying attention only to the number of syllables, alliteration (using words that begin with the same sound), and stress. The main rules of alliterative poetry included the following:

  1.  each line was made up of two half-lines, separated by a pause (caesura) and joined by alliteration;
  2.  each half-line consisted of two ‘feet’ (each foot has a stressed syllable and a number on unstressed ones);
  3.  the alliterated words in the two half-lines started with the same consonant of the stressed syllable;
  4.  a word beginning with a vowel alliterated with any other word beginning the any other vowel.

Old English poetry also heavily relied upon kennings (elaborate descriptive phrases, e.g. swan’s path – the sea) and such set metaphors ensured its powerful imagery and formulaic character. Such poems usually glorified a real or imaginary hero and tried to teach the values of bravery and generosity.

Anglo-Saxon literature was predominantly oral. The Anglo-Saxons had an alphabet which consisted of 24 runes, whose form made it easy to carve them on stone and wood. Yet, the runic alphabet was used primarily for religious inscriptions and poetry predominantly depended on the memory of the scops or minstrels, who delivered it orally by chanting by with harp or drum accompaniment, usually at feats. Minstrels preserved the existing poetic works, mostly epic songs, and created new ones, which would usually glorify a certain chieftain and his heroic deeds. Anglo-Saxons were pagans and for them posthumous fame and glorification in songs could be compared with immortality. Thus, a skilled minstrel, who could make his patron remembered long after his death, occupied an important position in the Anglo-Saxon society.

Only with the introduction of Christianity, which brought about Latin (a second literary language of the period) and the Latin alphabet, Old English literature became written. Thus, English literature began through the combined influence of the Anglo-Saxon tradition and the Christian church.

The first major work of English literature and the greatest surviving epic poem is "Beowulf" (composed c. 700, recorded c. 1000, first published 1833) written in a Wessex dialect by an unknown author. In this alliterative poem, which is set in Scandinavia in the 5-6th centuries, Beowulf, a hero of the Scandinavian people, the Geats, is sent to help of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall (in Heorot) has been under attack by a man-eating monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf mortally wounds him with his bare hands, Grendel retreats to his underwater home and Grendel's mother attacks the hall to avenge her son and is then also slain by Beowulf, who follows her underwater. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden, relates his heroic deeds and is given land by his king Hygelac, which he gloriously rules for 50 years. After that, Beowulf has to fight a dragon, which guarded his hoard for 300 years but was disturbed by the theft of a golden goblet and attacks Beowulf’s people, the Geats. Beowulf defeats the dragon, but only with the help of Wiglif, and is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants bury him in a burial mound in Geatland. Beowulf’s funeral ends the poem.

Through some of its characters and peripheral episodes “Beowulf” is linked to a network of European legends and epics. Some of the names it uses are historical (e.g. Hygelac, who is recorded to die in 521) and the action is firmly attached to many points in the history of Germanic Europe. The genealogies of the poem’s characters root it in human and supernatural history, while indicated places and historical details give it a sense of immediacy and physical reality.

The poem deals with the issues of male heroism and well-deserved glory, feasting and fighting, which were focal for Anglo-Saxons. It promotes the archetypal values of the feudal Anglo-Saxon society, yet, many peripheral episodes introduce conflicts inside this feudal code, The poem also shows the triumph of Christianity over paganism: one of the antagonists, Grendel, is viewed as a descendent of Cain, while Beowulf is represented as a Christian. The original poem can be trying for an impatient modern reader. According to the epic tradition, the action progresses slowly, with elaboration of other episodes, imbedded stories, rhetorical speeches and laments. Nonetheless, the poem’s broad message, its larger considerations of life and death, war and peace, society and individual, good and evil, honor and pride allow its many contemporary interpretations, from Hollywood movies to Christian allegories. Yet, “Beowulf” is not just a story, it is powerful gripping poetry, as noted by its readers, including the eminent medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien, who passionately proves it in his two essays “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics” and “On Translating Beowulf

The heroic tradition of Anglo-Saxon epic poetry was continued in the late alliterative poem "The Battle of Maldon" written soon after the battle between the Britons and the Vikings from Denmark, which took place at Maldon on the Blackwater river in Essex in 991. The author of the epic remains unknown and of the poem itself only the central part (325 lines) has survived in a later transcript, the original manuscript perished in a fire in 1731.

The poem tells how the Vikings landed near Maldon and demanded tribute; this was contemptuously rejected by the Saxon leader Byrhtnoth. The coming battle was delayed by the tide, but overconfident Byrhtnoth allowed the Danes to cross the river before joining battle, thus giving up the only chance for a smaller British army to win. In the course of the disastrously bloody battle Byrhtnoth was killed and the few surviving Saxons fled under the command of Godric. Later, united by Aelfwin, the few Saxon leaders tried to rejoin the battle, but continued to fall. The second half of the poem is a powerful expression of the traditional Germanic values of courage in defeat, the Saxon’s loyalty to their leader, Byrhtnoth, their determination to avenge him at the cost of their lives and earn eternal glory by dying valiantly in battle. The poem does so in presenting individual actions, a short series of speeches of explanation, encouragement, and boasting. The surviving fragment of the poem breaks at this point

Despite its late date of composition, the work is traditionally heroic and archaic. Its presentation of values and the type of the hero warrior resembles “Beowulf” and other Germanic epics, though the traditional values here are seen to be in decline. The poem finds a fine analysis in yet another work by J.R.R. Tolkien, his fanfic play “The Homecoming of Beorhnoth”, which dwells on the impossibility to practice Old Germanic values in the changing society.

After about 750, when monasteries firmly established themselves as the main centers of written culture and learning, poetry flourished in Northumbria, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the north. There, poets wrote verses about the lives and hardships of saints. The leading Northumbrian poet was Cynewulf. Several works are attributed to him, including the religious poems "The Fates of the Apostles," "Elene, and “Juliana” elegies, written before 940, which express the sense of loneliness in exile and an inflexible Fate.

Due to its oral form, most poetry has been lost. What remains owes its survival to monastic scribes who favoured verse with a Christian motivation or flavor. Such was one of the earliest attributed short poems praising God, "Caedmon's Hymn" (late 7th century), which consists of nine lines, and was written by Caedmon the herder. He lived during the 600's and is the first English poet known by name, as his story is related by another author of the period, Bede the Venerable, Reputedly, Caedmon preferred not to participate when at a feast everyone took turn singing and entertaining the company. Instead he would leave the hall in embarrassment. On one such occasion he, no longer a young man, left the feast and went to the stables where he had a dream of a voice commanding him to sing about the creation of all things. Caedmon immediately started singing and since that time he became a monk at the near monastery at Whitby, and transformed all religious texts related to him (as he was illiterate) into beautiful hymns and verses, of which only the alliterative “Caedmon’s Hymn” written in a Yorkshire dialect is known to survive.

Also survived the so-called elegiac poems, telling of sadness of exile and separation from one’s lord or community. Among these are “The Wanderer”, “The Seafarer”, “Deor’s Lament”, and the unusual lyric “Wulf”, written by a woman. The latter is a powerful cry of anguish which has not lost its force even after 1000 years. Although the poem is rather ambiguous, it seems to be addressed by a woman to her lover Wulf, who is far away from her. The other man mentioned, Eadwacer, is probably her husband and the “whelp” – her illegitimate baby son by Wulf.

An interesting example of the merge of Christian Latin and Old English pagan poetry is represented by the undated poem “The Dream of the Rood” (i.e. of the Cross) by an unknown author. It relates a vision of an anonymous character, who, in his sleep, is told a story by the tree, which became the Cross on which Christ was crucified. Though purely Christian in its choice of the subject, the poem develops the topic using Germanic point of view and imagery, i.e. Christ is viewed as a young hero whose courage is emphasized and praised.

Prose in Old English was a later achievement represented by many religious works. The most prominent prosaic work of the Old English Period is the Latin work "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" (731) by a Northumbrian monk, Saint Bede the Venerable (673-735), first published in Latin and then translated among other works by King Alfred the Great between 871 and 899. This work is the first history of the English people and a valuable source of information about English life from the late 500's to 731. Scholar and historian, Bede the Venerable also wrote scientific works largely concerning chronology and calendar, lives of saints, and historical treatises. He is also the author of the first known works in linguistics by an English scholar: “De orthographia” (on spelling) and “De arte metrica” (on the art of versification).

Most prose writers wrote in Latin until the late 800's, when King Alfred the Great of Wessex in southeastern England became the first known prosaic writer in Old English and started translations of Latin works into the Wessex dialect of Old English. Besides Bede’s “History”, King Alfred’s translations into Old English include abstracts from the Bible and a famous treatise by a Roman scholar Boethius “Consolation of Philosophy” about heroic stoicism, which proved congenial to the British temperament. King Alfred the Great also initiated historical writing in Old English, which began with the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" (from about 892 to 1154) -- at first brief notes of yearly events but later a dignified and even poetic record of current events in England. The existing version of the "Chronicle" dates from King Alfred's reign and was compiled from earlier records (now lost

Later, the prosaic tradition in Old English was continued by yet another monk, Aelfric, who wrote a series of homilies (short moral essays) in Old English during the 990s.

Yet, a lot of literature from the Old English period survived without being recorded, as folklore. Spells, charms, and riddles, legends and fairy-tales have been orally rendered into modern English and published, for instance, in the famous "Mother Goose" collection of nursery rhymes or 19-20th century collections of fairy-tales.


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