- English literature
The term English literature refers to
literaturewritten in the English language, including literature composed in English by writers not necessarily from England; Joseph Conradwas Polish, Robert Burnswas Scottish, James Joycewas Irish, Dylan Thomaswas Welsh, Edgar Allan Poewas American, Salman Rushdieis Indian, V.S. Naipaulwas born in Trinidad, Vladimir Nabokovwas Russian. 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 Shakespeareremain paramount throughout the English-speaking world.
This article primarily deals with literature from Britain written in English. For literature from specific English-speaking regions, consult the see also section at the bottom of the page.
The first works in English, written in
Old English, appeared in the early Middle Ages (the oldest surviving text is Cædmon'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 and many, including " Beowulf", have survived to the present day in the rich corpus of Anglo-Saxon literaturethat closely resemble today's Norwegian or, better yet, Icelandic. Much Anglo-Saxon verse in the extant manuscripts is probably a "milder" adaptation of the earlier Viking and German 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 peoples remember it. Such rhyme is a feature of Germanic languagesand is opposed to vocalic or end-rhyme of Romance languages. But the first written literature dates to the early Christian monasteries founded by St. Augustine of Canterburyand his disciples and it is reasonable to believe that it was somehow adapted to suit to needs of Christian readers. Even without their crudest lines, Viking war poems still smell of blood feuds and their consonant rhymes sound like the smashing of swords under the gloomy northern sky: there is always a sense of imminent danger in the narratives. Sooner or later, all things must come to an end, as Beowulf eventually dies at the hands of the monsters he spends the tale fighting. The feelings of Beowulf that nothing lasts, that youth and joy will turn to death and sorrow entered Christianity and were to dominate the future landscape of English fiction.
Following the introduction of a printing press into England by
William Caxtonin 1476, vernacular literatureflourished. The Reformationinspired the production of vernacular liturgywhich led to the Book of Common Prayer, a lasting influence on literary English language. The poetry, drama, and prose produced under both Queen Elizabeth Iand King James I constitute what is today labelled as Early modern (or Renaissance).
Early Modern period
Elizabethan erasaw a great flourishing of literature, especially in the field of drama. The Italian Renaissancehad 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 playsof 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 Floriohad brought much of the Italian languageand 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 RenaissanceItaly (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 & Norton and " The Spanish Tragedy" by Kyd that was to provide much material for " Hamlet", William Shakespearestands out in this period as a poetand playwrightas 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 tragicomedythat inscribes within the main drama a brilliant pageant to the new king. This 'play within a play' takes the form of a masque, an interlude with music and dance coloured by the novel special effects of the new indoor theatres. Critics have shown that this masterpiece, which can be considered a dramatic work in its own right, was written for James's court, if not for the monarch himself. The magic arts of Prospero, on which depend the outcome of the plot, hint at the fine relationship between artand naturein poetry. Significantly for those times (the arrival of the first colonists in America), "The Tempest" is (though not apparently) set on a Bermudan island, as research on the "Bermuda Pamphlets" (1609) has shown, linking Shakespeare to the "Virginia Company itself". The "News from the New World", as Frank Kermode points out, were already out and Shakespeare's interest in this respect is remarkable. Shakespeare also popularized the English sonnetwhich 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 theatreinclude 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 devilhe has to surrender his soulto him. 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. 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 comedygenre 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 Spenserand Sir Philip Sidney. Elizabeth herself, a product of Renaissance humanism, produced occasional poems such as " On Monsieur’s Departure". Canons of Renaissance poetry
After Shakespeare's death, the poet and dramatist
Ben Jonsonwas the leading literary figure of the Jacobean era(The reign of James I). 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 Quixotewas. 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 Websterand Thomas Kyd. George Chapmanwrote 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 Keatsto 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 Bibleof the Church of England, and some consider it one of the greatest literary works of all time. 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 1600s, the major poets of the early 17th century included
John Donneand 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 paradoxor the oxymoronis 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.
Caroline and Cromwellian literature
The turbulent years of the mid-17th century, during the reign of Charles I and the subsequent Commonwealth and Protectorate, saw a flourishing of political literature in English.
Pamphletswritten by sympathisers of every faction in the English civil warran from vicious personal attacks and polemics, through many forms of propaganda, to high-minded schemes to reform the nation. Of the latter type, " Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbeswould prove to be one of the most important works of British political philosophy. Hobbes's writings are some of the few political works from the era which are still regularly published while John Bramhall, who was Hobbes's chief critic, is largely forgotten. The period also saw a flourishing of news books, the precursors to the British newspaper, with journalists such as Henry Muddiman, Marchamont Needham, and John Birkenheadrepresenting the views and activities of the contending parties. The frequent arrests of authors and the suppression of their works, with the consequence of foreign or underground printing, led to the proposal of a licensing system. The " Areopagitica", a political pamphlet by John Milton, was written in opposition to licensing and is regarded as one of the most eloquent defenses of press freedomever written.
Specifically in the reign of Charles I (1625 – 42),
English Renaissance theatreexperienced its concluding efflorescence. The last works of Ben Jonsonappeared on stage and in print, along with the final generation of major voices in the drama of the age: John Ford, Philip Massinger, James Shirley, and Richard Brome. With the closure of the theatres at the start of the English Civil Warin 1642, drama was suppressed for a generation, to resume only in the altered society of the English Restorationin 1660.
Other forms of literature written during this period are usually ascribed political
subtexts, or their authors are grouped along political lines. The cavalier poets, active mainly before the civil war, owed much to the earlier school of metaphysical poets. The forced retirement of royalist officials after the execution of Charles I was a good thing in the case of Izaak Walton, as it gave him time to work on his book " The Compleat Angler". Published in 1653, the book, ostensibly a guide to fishing, is much more: a meditation on life, leisure, and contentment. The two most important poets of Oliver Cromwell's England were Andrew Marvelland John Milton, with both producing works praising the new government; such as Marvell's "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland". Despite their republican beliefs they escaped punishment upon the Restoration of Charles II, after which Milton wrote some of his greatest poetical works (with any possible political message hidden under allegory). Thomas Brownewas another writer of the period; a learned man with an extensive library, he wrote prolifically on science, religion, medicine and the esoteric.
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 " Treatises on Government," the founding of the Royal Society, the experiments of Robert Boyleand 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:
fictionand 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 Lockewrote 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 Miltonwere 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 regicideof 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 Bunyanstands out beyond other religious authors of the period. Bunyan's " The Pilgrim's Progress" is an allegoryof personal salvation and a guide to the Christian life. Instead of any focus on eschatologyor divine retribution, Bunyan instead writes about how the individual saintcan prevail against the temptations of mind and body that threaten damnation. The book is written in a straightforward narrative and shows influence from both dramaand 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 broadsheetpublication. 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
Franceand Spainwas 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 tragedyand 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 " Love For Love" (1695) and " 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 extravaganzatwenty 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-classelement, 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.
John Evelynand Samuel Pepysdepicted everyday London life and the cultural scene of the times.
Augustan literaturederives from authors of the 1720s and 1730's themselves, who responded to a term that George I of Englandpreferred 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 Voltaireand 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 Youngwrote "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-heroicwas 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 Addisonand 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 artform. Daniel Defoeturned from journalismand writing criminal lives for the press to writing fictional criminal lives with "" and " Moll Flanders." He also wrote a fictional treatment of the travels of Alexander Selkirkcalled " 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 Swiftdid 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 Christianvalues 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 Vanbrughand 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 Lilloand Richard Steeleboth 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 Cibberand John Rich began to battle each other for greater and greater spectacles to present on stage. The figure of Harlequinwas introduced, and pantomimetheatre began to be staged. This "low" comedy was quite popular, and the plays became tertiary to the staging. Operaalso 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 Arbuthnotand John Gayattempted 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 Sheppardand Jonathan Wild. However, it seemed to be an allegory for Robert Walpoleand the directors of the South Sea Company, and so Gay's follow up opera was banned without performance. The licensing actof 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 Fieldingbegan to write prose satire and novels after his plays could not pass the censors. Henry Brookealso turned to novels. In the interim, Samuel Richardsonhad produced a novel intended to counter the deleterious effects of novels in " Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded" (1749). 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". Brooke wrote " The Man of Feeling" and indirectly began the sentimental novel. Laurence Sterneattempted 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 Smollettelevated the picaresque novelwith 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.
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
Encyclopédieof Denis Diderot epitomized the spirit of the age.
During the end of the 19th century
Ann Radcliffewould be the pioneer of the Gothic Novel. Her novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne in 1789, sets the tone for the majority of her work, which tended to involve innocent, but heroic young women who find themselves in gloomy, mysterious castles ruled by even more mysterious barons with dark pasts. The Romance of the Forest would follow and her most famous novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, is considered the ultimate Gothic Novel of the late 18th century.
Increased emphasis on instinct and feeling, rather than judgment and restraint. A growing sympathy for the Middle Ages during the Age of Sensibility sparked an interest in medieval ballads and folk literature. Ann Radcliffe's novel would embody all of this in The Mysteries of Udolpho.
The changing landscape of Britain brought about by the steam engine has two major outcomes: the boom of
industrialismwith the expansion of the city, and the consequent depopulation of the countryside as a result of the enclosures, or privatisationof 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
urbanismand industrialisation prompting poets to rediscover the beauty and value of nature. Mother earthis seen as the only source of wisdom, the only solution to the ugliness caused by machines.
The superiority of nature and instinct over
civilisationhad been preached by Jean Jacques Rousseauand his message was picked by almost all European poets. The first in Englandwere the Lake Poets, a small group of friends including William Wordsworthand 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 (for eg. in "The Idiot Boy"), or the beauty of the
Lake Districtthat 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, Mary Shelleyand 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 Europeresulted 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 Giaour" and " 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 Dr. John Polidorion the shores of Lake Genevaduring the 'year without a summer' of 1816.
Although his is just a short story, Polidori must be credited for introducing
The Vampyre, conceived from the same competition which spawned Mary Shelley's " Frankenstein", to English literature. Percy, like Mary, had much in common with Byron: he was an aristocrat from a famous and ancient family, had embraced atheism and free-thinking and, like him, was fleeing from scandal in England.
Shelley had been expelled from college for openly declaring his
atheism. He had married a 16-year-old girl, Harriet Westbrook whom he had abandoned soon after for Mary (Harriet took her own life after that). Harriet did not embrace his ideals of free loveand anarchism, and was not as educated as to contribute to literary debate. Mary was different: the daughter of philosopher and revolutionary William Godwin, she was intellectually more of an equal, shared some of his ideals and was a feminist like her late mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "Vindication of the Rights of Women".
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.
Mary Shelley did not go down in history for her poetry, but for giving birth to
science fiction: the plot for the novelis said to have come from a nightmare 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 electricitywas 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
pantheismis as important as Shelley's. Keats was in love with the ancient stones of the Parthenonthat Lord Elgin had brought to Englandfrom 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 will inspire 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. His most remembered work, Ivanhoe, continues to be studied to this day.
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. Her most important and popular novel, 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. In her novels, Jane 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. Jane Austen started a genre that is still followed today. Her works generally are seen as 'realist' and not romantic in the artistic sense.
Poet, painter and printmaker
William Blakeis usually included among the English Romanticists, though his visionary work is much different from that of the others discussed in this section.
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 Brontësisters; 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 Dickensemerged on the literary scene in the 1830s, confirming the trend for serial publication. Dickens wrote vividly about Londonlife 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.
Bronte sisterswere 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 Heightsand Anne's Agnes Greywere released in 1847 after their long search to secure publishers.
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.
Literature for children developed as a separate genre. Some works become globally well-known, such as those of
Lewis Carrolland Edward Lear, both of whom used nonsense verse. Adventure novels, such as those of Anthony Hopeand Robert Louis Stevenson, were written for adults but are now generally classified as for children. At the end of the Victorian Era and leading into the Edwardian Era, Helen Beatrix Potterwas an English 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 Rabbitin 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 movement known as English literary
modernismgrew out of a general sense of disillusionment with Victorian eraattitudes 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 nineteenth century. Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. E. Housman, and the poet and novelist Thomas Hardyrepresented a few of the major early modernists writing in England during the Victorian period.
The first decades of the twentieth 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.
Important novelists between the World Wars included
Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouseand D. H. Lawrence. T. S. Eliotwas the preeminent English poet of the period. Across the Atlantic writers like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and the poets Wallace Stevensand Robert Frostdeveloped a more American take on the modernist aesthetic in their work.
Perhaps the most contentiously important figure in the development of the modernist movement was the American poet
Ezra Pound. Credited with "discovering" both T. S. Eliotand James Joyce, whose stream of consciousness novel "Ulysses" is considered to be one of the century's greatest literary achievements, Pound also advanced the cause of imagismand free verse, forms which would dominate English poetry into the twenty-first century. 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. Thomasand 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.
The term Postmodern literature is used to describe certain tendencies in post-World War II literature. It is both a continuation of the experimentation championed by writers of the modernist period (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 difficult to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance of postmodern literature.
Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Thomas Pynchon
Views of English literature
"I had always thought of English literature as the richest in the world; the discovery now of a secret chamber (sc. Old English literature) at the very threshold of that literature came to me as an additional gift." - Jorge Luis Borges, 'An Autobiographical Essay', The Aleph & Other Stories
Early English Jewish literature
Indian English literature
List of English language poets
Literature of South Africa
New Zealand literature
* [http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/ Luminarium: Anthology of Middle English Literature (1350-1485)]
* [http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/ Luminarium: 16th Century Renaissance English Literature (1485-1603)]
* [http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/ Luminarium: Seventeenth Century English Literature (1603-1660)]
* [http://www.wwnorton.com/nael/welcome.htm Norton Anthology of English Literature]
* [http://www.johnkeats.org A Website of the Romantic Movement in English Literature]
* [http://www.unizar.es/departamentos/filologia_inglesa/garciala/bibliography.html A Bibliography of Literary Theory, Criticism and Philology] Ed. José Ángel García Landa, (University of Zaragoza, Spain)
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