The term English literature refers to literature written in the modern English language or its antecedents, or literature composed in English by writers who are not from England. In academia, the term often labels departments and programs practicing English studies.
English literature emerged as a recognisable entity only in the medieval period, when the English language itself became distinct from the Norman and Anglo-Saxon dialects which preceded it (see Old English poetry). The oldest surviving text in a language considered "English" is Caedmon's Hymn.
The oral tradition was very strong in early British culture and most literary works were written to be performed. Epic poems were thus very popular, but only one, Beowulf, has survived to the present day.
In 1066, the Normans conquered England. These people spoke Norman, a Romance language, which over hundreds of years blended with Old English to form Middle English.
In the late medieval period (1200-1500), the ideals of courtly love entered England and authors began to write romances, either in verse or prose. Especially popular were tales of King Arthur and his court. The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight shows many of the key features of literature at this time: a setting in the legendary time of King Arthur, an emphasis on chivalry and knightly behavior, and religious overtones.
English drama at this time was overtly religious. Mystery plays were enacted in cities and towns to celebrate major holidays, and the less formal mummers plays also conveyed Christian themes.
England's first great author, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote in Middle English. His most famous work is The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories in a variety of genres, ostensibly told by people from all walks of life. But, though Chaucer is most certainly an English author, he was inspired by literary developments taking place elsewhere in Europe, especially in Italy. The Canterbury Tales are quite indebted to Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. The Renaissance was making its way to Britain.
See Medieval literature
See 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 Elizabethan era saw a great flourishing of literature, especially in the field of drama. William Shakespeare stands out in this period as a poet and playwright as yet unsurpassed. Other important figures in Elizabethan theatre include Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont. It is at this time that the city comedy genre develops.
The sonnet form and other Italian literary influences arrived in English literature. The sonnet was introduced into English by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century. Poems intended for 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.
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.
After Shakespeare's death, the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson was the leading literary figure of the Jacobean era. Others who followed Jonson's style include Beaumont and Fletcher and the other "Sons of Ben." Another popular style of theatre during Jacobean times was the revenge play, popularized by John Webster and Thomas Kyd.
The King James Bible, one of the most massive translation projects in the history of English up to this time, was completed in 1611.
The major poets of the early 17th century included John Donne and the other Metaphysical poets.
The Cavalier poets were notable at this period.
John Milton, the author of the religious epic Paradise Lost, and Andrew Marvell were active in the turbulent years of the mid-17th century.
Diarists John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys depicted the cultural scene of the times.
The re-opening of the theatres provided stages for Restoration comedy with its satirical views of the new nobility and rising bourgeoisie. The mobility of society following the social upheavals of the previous generation provided material for comedy of manners.
Aphra Behn, a novelist and playwright, was the first professional woman writer.
John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a religious allegory, remains one of the most widely-read works from this period.
The early 18th century is known as the Augustan Age of English literature. The poetry of the time was highly formal, as exemplified by the works of Alexander Pope.
The English novel did not become a popular form until the 18th century; many works, however, claim a place as the first novel in English. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) is one popular candidate for this honor. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the novel form was well-established by such authors as Henry Fielding, Laurence Stern, and Samuel Richardson, who perfected the epistolary novel. Richardson's work was moralistic, while Fielding and Stern took a more comic approach.
Age of Sensibility
The reaction to urbanism and industrialisation prompted poets to explore nature, for example: the Lake Poets, including William Wordsworth. These Romantic Poets brought a new emotionalism and introspection to English literature.
The major "Second generation" Romantic Poets were Lord Byron, Percy Bysse Shelley and John Keats.
Jane Austen 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 money.
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.
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 Thackery; the realist novels of George Eliot; and Anthony Trollope's insightful portrayals of the lives of the landowning and professional classes.
An interest in rural matters and the changing social and economic situation of the coutryside may be seen in the novels of Thomas Hardy and others.
Leading poetic figures of the Victorian era included Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Literature for children was published during the Victorian period, some of which has become globally well-known, such as the work of Lewis Carroll who was a proponent of nonsense verse, as was Edward Lear.
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, often based on his experiences of British ruled India. Kipling was closely associated with imperialism and this has damaged his reputation in more recent times.
The Georgian poets maintained a conservative approach to poetry.
The experiences of the First World War were reflected in the work of war poets such as Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon. Many writers turned away from patriotic and imperialist themes as a result of the war, notably Kipling.
Important novelists between the two World Wars included D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, a member of the Bloomsbury group. Besides the Bloomsbury group, the Sitwells also gathered a literary and artistic clique, if less influential.
H. G. Wells was a pioneer of science fiction. George Orwell's critique of totalitarianism has lent the word Orwellian to the English language. Aldous Huxley's dystopian Brave New World and J. G. Ballard are precursors of the cyberpunk movement.
W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin are important poets.
Other notable writers include Muriel Spark, Daphne du Maurier, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene and G. K. Chesterton
Writers of popular literature include P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie.
John Fowles and Julian Barnes are examples of Postmodern literature in English.
Important writers of the beginning of the 21st century include Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Will Self, Andrew Motion and Salman Rushdie.
Last updated: 06-01-2005 22:42:31