HISTORY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE
England has a rich literature with a long history. This is an attempt to tell the story of English literature from its beginnings to the present day. The history of English writing begins very early in the Anglo-Saxons period and continues through the Renaissance, the Augustan and Romantic periods to the Victorian age, the twentieth century, and down to the present.
We study literature at the basic level because it is through reading literature that we not only learn history but also learn how to write. Literature also helps us see things through another person’s eyes.It should be most useful right at the start of the course, or later as a resource for exercises in revision, and to help you reflect on value judgments in literary criticism. It may also be suitable for university students and the general reader who is interested in the history of literature.
Literary history can be useful, and is increasingly necessary. Scholars specialize in single fields, English teachers teach single works. ‘Literature’ is a word with a qualitative implication, not just a neutral term for writing in general. Without this implication and without a belief on the part of the author that some qualities of literature are best appreciated when it is presented in the order in which it appeared. There would be little point in a literary history. This effort to put the most memorable English writing in an intelligible historical perspective is offered as an aid to public understanding.
A. What is history
….. According to Cambridge dictionary, history is:
- (The study of or a record of) past events considered together, especially events of a particular period, country or subject.
- Something that happened or ended a long time ago and is not important now or a person who is not important now, although they were in the past.
- Something that has been done or experienced by a particular person or thing repeatedly over a long period.
On the other hand, History (from Greekἱστορία – historia, meaning “inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation) is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented.
B. What is literature
According to Cambridge dictionary, literature is:
- Written artistic works, especially those with a high and lasting artistic value.
- All the information relating to a subject, especially information written by specialists.
- Printed material published by a company, which is intended to encourage people to buy that company’s products or services.
However, based on Richard Ohman literature is the sum of literary works.
C. The Anglo-Saxon period and the Middle ages
Many consider that English history began with the invasion of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in 449. These Germanic invaders took over the
Southeastern part of the island and called it “Angle-land.” They formed small tribal kingdoms whose member lacked written language, supported themselves trough farming and hunting, and believed in many different gods. In 596 missionaries attempted to convert Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. By the year 650, most of England was Christian (at least in name). Although the people appeared to be intense believers in God and the church, many held on to their pagan beliefs and traditions.
During the eighth and ninth centuries, other Germanic tribes attacked Britain. Danes and Norsemen took to the seas in an attempt to win Britain by force. By the middle of the ninth century, most of England had fallen to the invaders. However, the tide was turned in 878 when Alfred, the Saxons king of Wessex, led his warriors to victory over Danes in the Battle of Edington. Alfred went on capture London and, eventually, much of England. For these and other feats, Alfred was called “the Great.” Later, Alfred’s son and grandson won back all of England from the Danes, and The country was at peace.
These peaceful days did not last forever. When King Edward died in 1066, the Duke of Normandy laid claim to the English throne. When the English council of elders chose Harold II as king, the duke retaliated by attacking and defeating the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, emerging as England’s first Norman king, William I. Along with new king, England gained a taste of French culture. Though the Anglo-Saxons culture was solid, England assimilated many French influences, including feudalism and chivalry. The fourteenth century was a dark time in England’s history. Edward III warred against France; the Black Death killed almost a third of England people; and rival popes caused a decline in respect for the church. Nevertheless, towns and cities continued to grow, and the feudal system was fading. A new era was approaching.
People are reading and listening to songs and poems, few people of the time could read, but they loved to listen to songs, stories, poems, sermons, and created a great body of oral literature in order to entertain and to teach. They also created beautiful glass window. The beautifully crafted stained-glass windows of the cathedrals were more than decorations. They presented Bible stories and moral lessons to educate and inspire those who could not read written language but who could appreciate pictures. Schools of theology spread across Europe, along with an interest in reason Greek philosophy. One of the great religious philosophers, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), aimed to reconcile faith with reason and to describe the nature and destiny of Christian humanity.
The Anglo-Saxons was compiled in Old English and served as a year-by-year diary of important world events. Some years of English history were extensively recorded while others were left in incomplete or blank. Although authors did not begin compiling data until 892, recorded events begin in the year 1 with the birth of Christ. The Anglo-Saxons Chronicle was updated until the twelfth century. Telling riddle was a common form of intellectual simulation for the English in the Middle Ages.
In its early stage, English was mostly a spoken rather than a written language. Reading was primarily limited to members of the clergy. Although a few works of literature were written in Old English, most were written in Latin. For example, the Venerable Bede composed his monumental Ecclesiastical History of the English People in Latin even though he lived in and wrote mostly about England.
When French culture began to dominate Europe, educated English people spoke and wrote in French. Even as French dominance declined, the influence remained. For example, the printer of Sir Thomas Malory’s story of King Arthur thought it fitting to give the English work a French title: Le Morte d’Arthur
Gradually, however the English language became the vehicle for its own literature. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, was composed in English. 
D. The English renaissance
As England was emerging from the Middle Ages, significant changes were taking place in the worlds. After feudalism collapsed in Europe, a new economy arose. Vassals preferred to give money payments to their lords, rather than military service. The lords, in return, used the money to hire professionally trained troops. Money became a source of power.
The word “Renaissance” (French for “rebirth”) is a fitting title to describe the reawakened interest in science, art, and literature that swept across Europe during this period. During the Renaissance, great advances were made in education and science, while some of the world’s finest artists and writers created their masterpieces.
In 1517, The German monk Martin Luther protested against the sale of the Catholic Church. His protests were the beginning of a religious movement called the Reformation that eventually led to Protestantism. The Reformation had a tremendous influence on the social, political, and economic structure of Europe in the sixteenth century.
The Tudor royal line began with Henry VII who was crowned in 1485. His son Henry VIII’s reign, which began in 1509, spanned several successful wars and six marriages. In 1530, Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England (THE Anglican Church), creating long-lasting conflicts among religious factions. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, came to the throne in 1558. She turned England into a great sea power capable of defeating the feared Spanish Armada. Elizabeth also supported a flourishing period o cultural achievement.
When Elizabeth I died in 1603. The throne passed peacefully to her cousin James, king of Scotland and a member of the Stuart family. Unfortunately, James’s domineering approach provoked disputes with Parliament, conflicts that ultimately lost. James’s son and successor, Charles I, understood the people even less. His conflicts with Parliament finally led to a civil war. In 1649, Charles lost both his throne and his life.
England soon became a commonwealth ruled by Oliver Cromwell, an iron-willed Puritan. Cromwell achieved his goals of creating a stable government and ensuring toleration for Puritans. After his death in 1658, Parliament reconvened and, in 1660, invited Charles Stuart, son of Charles I, to become king. The monarchy was restored.
England was bombarded with broadsheets and pamphlets that advertise the delights of a “new life” in the America colonies. They usually neglected to mention the hardships and hazards that accompanied it.
After Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church; the Book of Common Prayer replaced the Latin missal. Because it was written in English instead of Latin, the book allowed people to read the prayers for themselves. New English versions of the Bible, including the King James Bible of 1611, also allowed people to gain a better understanding of the Christian faith.
The Compleat Angler, by Izaak Walton (1653), combined practical information about fishing with quotations, songs, folklore, and descriptions of an idyllic rural life.
Timely correspondence was considered important, and most people wrote letters in the morning before dinner. Public mail coaches were established along the best roads, and eight postal lines were running in England by 1640.
The chapbook was popular form of literature in the sixteenth century. Its content ranged from songs, poems, and fairy tales to ghost stories and tales of travel. Chapbooks were usually only sixteenth or thirty-two pages long.
Two major groups of poets appeared during the Renaissance, metaphysical and Cavalier. Metaphysical poets wrote highly intellectual poems characterized by complex thought, paradox, natural rhythms, harsh language and, especially, the conceit, or a comparison between two very unlike things. The best known of the metaphysical poets was John Donne.
The Cavalier poets were English gentlemen who were supports of King Charles I. Their poetry, primarily about such dashing subjects as love, war, and honor, was influenced by the poetry of their predecessors Ben Jonson and John Donne. The most famous of the Cavalier poets was Sir John Suckling.
E. The restoration and the eighteenth century
For the people of England, King Charles II’s parade marked the beginning of a new era-one free from Cromwell and his oppressive mandates. The new king, fond of pomp and ceremony, set the tone for a nation ready to make up for years of austere living.
The glorious revolution after his coronation, Charles II worked with Parliament to restore peace and order to the nation. Upon Charles’s death in 1685, his brother James II took the throne. Unfortunately, James proved so unpopular that Parliament asked Charles’s daughter Mary and her Dutch Protestant husband William to replace James in 1688. William and Mary took the throne in what was called “Glorious Revolution” because it occurred without bloodshed. The new king and queen affirmed the 1689 Bill of Rights, which allowed the propertied classes to rule through an elected Parliament. However, not a democracy, England now had a representative’s government.
After the death of Mary and William, Anne, the younger daughter of James II, took the throne. She would be the last of the Stuarts to rule England. To prevent any Roman Catholic Stuarts from reigning in the future, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement, which provided that the throne should go next to James I’s Protestant relations. In 1707, the Act of Union was passed, and Scotland joined in England to form the kingdom of Great Britain.
When Queen Anne died leaving no heir to the throne, her nearest Protestant relative, George Augustus, succeed her. King George I came from Hanover, Germany, and never learned the English language. He took little interest of England and lost popularity because of his turbulent private life. His son George II was equally unpopular. George III, however, was born and educated an Englishman.
The political arena was not the only area of activity in Great Britain in the eighteenth century. The industrial revolution brought it lasting changes in manufacturing, the economy, and society in general. People began to migrate from their rural farms to urban communities to find jobs in factories. New class distinction emerged. Those who owned factories or controlled production were called “capitalists” and were considered to be in a higher social class than workers.
The first English newspaper was developed at the beginning of the seventh century, but was heavily censored during both King Charles I’s reign and Cromwell era. With the restoration of King Charles II, however, restrictions on the press were gradually phased out, and English publishers enjoyed considerable freedom. Their only restriction was to refrain was to refrain from criticizing the government.
Peopled enjoyed reading about the latest developments in art, literature, and science, and British periodicals provided updates on these topics. The Tattler and The Spectator, two popular periodicals of the time, delighted readers with a mixture of current events and social gossip.
In 1719 Daniel De’Foe’s Robinson Crusoe, which tells the tale of shipwrecked man, was published to enormous success. It is over whelming popularity encouraged the publication of other novels. Five authors there are DeFoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollett, they wrote the first of the classic English novels.
Personal diaries were in style, and people used them to record the details of their daily lives-from major events to the latest gossip. Today, Samuel Pepys, Fanny Burney, and John Evelyn are famous for their journal, which provides fascinating accounts of Britain during this time period.
Between the Renaissance and eighteenth century, a major change to took place in literature. Many authors switched from writing poetry to writing prose. This era, known as the Age of Reason, brought a simpler form literature marked by reason and good taste. No longer were authors writing gushing, imaginative love poems. Rather, authors such as John Locke and David Hume wrote great philosophical treatises on rational thought.
One of the most renowned works of the time was Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon’s work emphasized rational thinking and encouraged people to replace emotions with logical thought.
Eighteenth-century writers took pride in looking at the world around them with a sharp eye, and writing about what they saw with a sharp pen. Wit, or cleverness, was prized in conversation and in writing. Humorous, harsh, or pretentious, wit was every where. In the mocking poetry of Alexander Pope, in the biting satire of Jonathan Swift, and in the definitions in Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Two modes of satire emerged during this periods: Horatian, in which the author mildly pokes fun at a subject, and Juvenalian, in which the author mercilessly criticizes certain practice or characters. Artist, too, especially William Hogarth, produced witty, satirical drawings that ridiculed the politics, manners, and celebrities of the day.
By the end of the century, writers and readers had begun to feel that they had sacrificed heart and soul for wit. They turned to their emotions, and the Age of reason in literature came to an end.
F. The romantic period
George III George III ruled Britain for more than fifty years. The first monarch from the House of Hanover to be born in Great Britain, King George showed great concern for his subject, if not great prowess as a ruler. During the course of his long reign, King George lost the American colonies and suffered from bouts of dementia. Still, he was a kind, frugal family man whose sense of private duty and public morality made him popular with his subjects.
In 1783 George III named the youthful William Pitt prime minister of Britain. At this time, Britain was on the brink of war with France, and Pitt was prepared with strategies. As the French Revolution turned into a full-scale war, Pitt organized several coalitions of countries against France, leading eventually to the defeat of France’s leader, Napoleon, in 1814.
The Regent George IV in 1811 George III was officially declared insane at the age of seventy-three. His son was made regent, or stand-in ruler. In place of mentally incompetent monarch, Britain now had an extravagant and thoughtless ruler. In 1820 his father died, and the prince regent became King George IV, a man who lived lavishly and paid little attention to his suffering subjects for the duration of his reign.
William IV George IV died in 1830 and was succeeded by his more liberal brother, William IV. William’s major contribution to his reign was his passage of the Reform Bill 1932, which extended the right to vote to members of the middle class and some artisans. The bill encouraged political party organization and began to weaken the monarchy’s grip on politics.
The population of Great Britain was quickly rising owing to several factors: fewer people were dying of infectious diseases such as smallpox, and more people were marrying at a young age and producing large families.
The agricultural way of life continued to decline as people poured into industrial towns in search of work. Uncontrolled urban growth produced dreadful living conditions, stirring the poet Shelley to write, “Hell is a city much like London.”
The rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer, while middle-class customs and values, especially an emphasis on money making, came to dominate the society
Editors and publishers catered to the growing middle class, tailoring publications to suit the public’s tastes. The Edinburgh Review, providing critical essays and literary pieces, became extremely popular, and contributors such as Thomas Babington Macaulay gained literary fame through it.
Satirical works continued to entertain the public. Artist George Cruikshank caricatured social life in drawings he created for Pierce Egan’s 1821 book Life in London; or The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom… In their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis. The book, which chronicles two characters’ exiting lives in London, was a best-seller
The Gentleman’s Magazine was the first periodical to contain the word “magazine.” Each edition included a wide variety of entertaining material from political debates to poems. The magazine served as a model for later American periodicals.
Essays many writers expressed their opinions, feelings, and personalities in informal essays. William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, and others voiced their thoughts on politics, philosophy, literature, and popular culture, while reformers exposed society’s ills and proposed remedies.
About London, The people of England were dazzled by London. Both professional and novice writers penned letters, memoirs, and diary entries describing London’s mixture of social classes, constant activity, and entertaining theater.
Out of the smoke of the French revolution and the Industrial Revolution emerged an approach to writing characterized by emotion over reason. In this Romantic Age, the individual person was valued over society, imagination was valued over logic, and the natural was valued over the artificial. Romantics found inspiration in nature, folk art, the past, and their passions.
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were two of the most important romantic poets. Wordsworth created simple poems about common people in ordinary settings. Coleridge, on the other hand, explored exotics and supernatural themes.
The Romantics watched as cities grew, industry prospered, and farming life declined. In an effort to reclaim nature, the Romantics made it a central force in their lives and their literature. Nature was celebrated as a source of delight, an image of love, and a model of moral perfection. To the Romantics, nature provided the pattern on which to base their creative lives.
At the same time, libertarianism, or an emphasis on individual rights, became popular. The Romantics rejected the authoritarian themes of the previous period and asserted individual freedoms in their writings. To them, nature and libertarianism went hand in hand.
G. The Victorian age
Victoria was crowned queen in 1837, at the age of eighteen, and went to rule more than sixty years- the longest reign in British history. In 1840 she married her German cousin Albert, whom she adored. Victoria eventually bore nine children, while Albert assumed an extensive role in influencing the governing of the country. Royal observers commented that for all intents and purposes he was king.
To escape hectic London, Albert design Balmoral Castle in Scotland and a royal residence on the Isle of Wight. The family made frequent retreats to these homes was they could enjoy a simpler life that brought them closer to lives of their increasingly middle-class subjects.
In 1861 Prince Albert died of typhoid fever; the inconsolable queen went into deep mourning, which lasted virtually the rest of her life. She attempted to govern her country as her beloved Albert would have wished. But eventually she withdrew to Balmoral and become remote figure. Victoria’s minister and subjects disapproved of her distant manner and began to talk of abolishing the monarchy. By the time of her death in 1901, however, Victoria had reached the peak of her popularity, especially among the middle classes that had risen and prospered during her reign.
The Victorian age encompassed years of unprecedented economic, technological, and political expansion and dramatic social change. In 1901 Victoria’s eldest son took the throne as Edward VII. The Victorian age was over, and the modern age had begun.
Victorians enjoyed reading in a variety of genres. Historical fiction gripped readers, as did the mystery novel. English science fiction vividly portrayed the deep split between a Victorian man’s public and private lives.
Founded by Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells, Punch magazine amused Victorians with satiric commentaries and clever drawings. The magazine has enjoyed more than 150 years of success despite often being banned in Europe.
In December of 1855, Thomas Macaulay published the third and fourth volumes of his History of England. They were a huge success, selling 26,500 copies in the first ten weeks. The fifth and final volume appeared in 1861. Macaulay had fulfilled his dream of writing a work of history that was as popular as a fashionable novel.
The social codes governing middle class life found expression in ever-growing numbers of etiquette books and deportment guides. One such book, entitled Office Staff Practices, listed a strict code of behavior for employees, including no talking during business hours.
“Theater”, as one critic has pointed out, “was to Victorian England what television is to us today”. Like television, Victorian theater drew a huge audience with a spectacular staging of farces and melodramas, and, like television, most of what it offered was artistically undistinguished. By the 1890’s, however, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw were turning out plays that rank with the masterpieces of any age.
H. The twentieth century
Edward VII brought a renewed sense of gaiety and glamour to the musty court sense. Politically, he secured the friendship of several major European countries, leading to the “Entente Cordiale,” and earning him the title Edward the Peacemaker. Sadly, Edward died only nine years after becoming king, and with him died the peace, power, and privilege that many British had come to assume was the birthright.
The reign of Edwards’s son, George V (1910-1936), took the nation through a war of unprecedented destruction. Britain viewed Germany’s sudden invasion of Belgium in 1914 as a threat and declared war. Britain, France, and Russia joined against Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Turkey in a fight that spread to every continent. In this “Great War,” rival armies faced one another over hundreds of miles of parallel trenches. It was a war of mud, blood, and barbed wire, made more deadly by new tanks, machine guns, flamethrowers, and poison gas.
The settlement of an ugly war turned out to be ugly as well. The Treaty of Versailles in January 1919 exacted a high price from Germany, one that it could never pay.
In 1941, large parts of London were destroyed, and 60,000 civilians were killed. The head of England’s war cabinet, Winston Churchill, joined forces with U.S President Roosevelt to find a way to end the war that was threatening both nations. On June 6, 1994, British and American forces landed in Normandy, France. Within a year, Germany had surrendered.
The sun set over the British Empire, which dissolved into a federation of independent nations. These nations included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Arica, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and the West Indies.
The economy fluctuated under the direction of Prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the 1980s and ‘90s. In 1997 forty-three-year-old Tony Blair became the youngest prime minister in almost 200 years.
After witnessing the horrors of World War I, many authors were inspired to write. Rupert Brooke expressed the patriotic fervor of the beginning f the war, while Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen recorded the savageness of the continuing war.
In 1962, the tabloid was developed as a supplement to the Sunday newspaper. Scandal-seeking readers bought tabloids for their sensationalized stories about public figures. Tabloid journalists were often blamed for exaggerating stories and even fabricating them. In 1997 the “paparazzi,” or tabloid journalists, were widely censured for their role in the accidental death of Princess Diana.
The Web Today people are turning to the World Wide Web for some of the information and entertainment they once found in printed material. Not only are there growing numbers of Web-generated magazines and other information sources, but many traditional newspapers, magazines, and reference works are presenting material on their own Web sites as well.
A new approach to literature appeared with new century-modernism. The term of modernism covers a variety of movements united by the desire to break with the past, to change the structure and content of the arts. Spurred by new ideas in anthropology, psychology, and philosophy, writers and other were both creating and responding to new ways of perceiving and describing the world.
We study literature at the basic level because it is through reading literature that we not only learn history but also learn how to write. Literature also helps us see things through another person’s eyes.It can be concluded that the history of English literature is divided in to six ages, namely: the Anglo-Saxon period and the Middle Ages, The English Renaissance, The Restoration, The Victorian Ages, and The Twentieth with different literature tendency in every era.
- Henry, Alexander. A History of English Literature. Macmillan Foundation, 2000.
- 2. Wolfe, Denny. Literature: British Literature. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
- 3. Fletcher, Robert. A History of English Literature. Macmillan Press, 1999.
- 4. Alexander, Michael. A History of English Literature: Second Edition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001
- 5. http://www.bartleby.com/cambridge/
- 6. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/ wiki/English_literature/
 Alexander Henry, A History of English Literature (Macmillan Foundation, 2000) pg. 7.
 Bachelors Degree in English, http://ph.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110616134846AA8UG0t
 Henry, Op.Cit., 7
 Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary: third editions (software).
 Alexander Henry, A History of English Literature. Macmillan (2000). Pg. 73
 Under feudalism, land was parceled out to lords who supported the Norman king. These lords granted land to vassals in exchange for an oath of military duty.
 According to the code of chivalry, knights strove to be honorable, generous, brave, skillful in battle, respectful to women, and helpful to the weak.