The world of literature evolves as everything else around us grows as well. English literature is no stranger to this evolution. In this article we will cover the transitions this literature has faced over the many periods of history and how you can access some great sources when trying to study it.
What is Literature?
Literature reflects life. It reflects the society that generates it. The word literature comes from the Latin word litaritura, which means “letter writing”. A literary genre is a subset of a literary language.Initially, literature was meant to entertain people. It also achieved reform over time. The writers started writing about social issues. So it became a tool to educate the public and encourage reform. From ancient civilizations to modern times, literature has provided insight into the issues and trends of the time.
What is English Literature?
English literature began with the English people’s history. Fiction, nonfiction, and plays are all examples of English literature. The earliest English literature reflects the life of the people in that region at that time. For example, all the changes in English society from ancient to modern times have influenced English literature.
The Evolution of English Literature
Here, we will cover the history of English literature and how it was influenced by different periods. You may be interested in studying the different eras of literature. Some great information is available on the internet but it can often be blocked because the content is aimed at only certain countries.
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- The Old English or Anglo-Saxon Period (450 -1066 AD)
Anglo-Saxon Old English is incomprehensible to modern English speakers. However, words like “day”, “year”, “kiss”, “love”, and “arm” have survived into modern English.The Anglo-Saxon poetry was mostly sung. That’s why there’s so little left. The most famous is Beowulf.
English epic poem – Beowulf tells the story of a brave hero named Beowulf. This poem is replete with allusions to historical events, kings, and nations.The Anglo-Saxons replaced Latin prose with English that followed all normal speech rules. Alfred the Great, the famous Anglo-Saxon king, translated the Latin Chronicles into English.
Aelfric, however, was the second most famous Anglo-Saxon prose writer. He was a priest. His works include Saints’ Lives, Homilies, and Grammar. Aelfric’s prose was also easy and alliterative compared to other contemporary prose writers.
- Middle English Period or Anglo – Norman Period (1066 – 1500 AD)
It was the Normans who brought with them scholars and soldiers to the English literature and language. This was the basis of the romanticism you see in some English books. They wanted to resurrect knowledge, preserve memories, celebrate victories, and sing of love and adventure. The Anglo-Normans’ preferred forms of writing were chronicles, religious and didactic writing, poetry, romances, and drama.
Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans introduced romantic tales of love and adventure. The Anglo-Norman period was thus chivalric rather than heroic. A popular literary genre during the Anglo-Norman or Middle English era was romance. Romance stories trumped poetry in these stories. Most of them came from Latin and French sources. They told of King Arthur, the Trojan War, Charlemagne, and Alexander the Great.
- The Renaissance Period (1500 – 1660 AD)
The Renaissance period was defined by its emphasis on Humanism, or the study of man as an object. Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch started the Renaissance in Italy. However, it gained popularity in Elizabethan Europe. The Renaissance had many subordinate trends that were actually significant aspects of Humanism. These are:
- Re-discovery of classical antiquity, especially Greece.
- The importance of rediscovering the external universe.
- Personality issues in humans.
- Enhanced sensitivity to formal beauty and aesthetic sense.
- Belief that men are self-reliant.
- Instead of seeking guidance from a higher authority, as in the Middle Ages, Renaissance writers sought guidance from within.
- The Neoclassical Period (1660 – 1798)
The Neoclassical Period in English Literature spans 1660-1798. This time period is divided into two parts: the Restoration Period (1660-1700) and the Classical Age (1700-1700). (18 Century). the Age of Pope (1700-1744) and the Age of Johnson (1744-1784).
Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Edward Gibbon were the dominant prose writers. They were the pillars of Johnson’s Age and the pinnacles of English prose. The Romantic Era followed Johnson’s. The ‘Lyrical Ballads’ by William Wordsworth and S.T. Coleridge marked the end of the Neoclassical era.
- The Romantic Period (1798 – 1837)
The Romantic Period was the most prolific in English literature. It was an 18th century Classical revolt. There were writers from this era like Wordsworth and Coleridge. The Romantic Era was largely a poetic era. Introducing a new form of poetry in opposition to the Classical school, Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads.
The Romantic poets emphasized language simplicity and chose common language. They drew inspiration from the Elizabethan masters—Shakespeare, Spenser, and others. Their poems usually dealt with everyday events. The Romantic poets proved that the mundane aspects of nature and everyday life can be as interesting and significant as the grander aspects of nature and life.
The Romantic prose writers also rejected the Augustan style. They reverted to Renaissance ponderous, poetic, flowery prose. The Romantic Age produced a new type of novel, the Gothic Novel, which quickly gained popularity among readers due to its Gothic elements, such as supernatural, gloomy settings, and bizarre situations.
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- The Victorian Period (1837–1901)
The Victorian period of English literature combines two opposing styles: Romanticism and Classicism. Its affinity for Classicism stemmed from its logical approach to life’s problems, deep morality, and desire for stability and balance. The Romantic spirit had not completely exhausted itself but had abruptly ended for the following reasons:
- Keats, Byron, and Shelley died young.
- Industrialization and material wealth led to disillusionment.
- Unrest in society and economy
- The Modern Period (1901 – 1945)
The Modern Period in English literature began in the early 1900s. The main characteristic of Modern literature was its antipathy to life and its problems. Teenagers in the first decade of the century thought the Victorian era was hypocritical and its ideals were shallow, mean, and stupid. This rebellion influenced modern literature, which was influenced by moral, spiritual, and mental attitudes that were radically different from the Victorians.
- The Contemporary Period (1945 – Present)
Each decade in the history of English literature introduced new writing styles. There was a new generation of writers and issues in the 1950s. A few of these writers are Colin Wilson and John Wain. It was Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis that dominated the 1950s (1954). It was one of the first novels set in a university.
William Golding was a master storyteller. He always explored human behavior in his novels. Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Inheritors (1955). The novel evolved from the 1970s. A, B, C, and D.
- Foreign and regional voices.
- More female voices
- The campus novel
- The arrival of Magic Realism, a type of fantasy.
Thus, contemporary English literature features realistic stories with strong characters and realistic themes. The Settings of contemporary novels are usually the current or modern era. A search for humanity’s goodness is a common theme in contemporary novels and poetry.
Here you go, that was a quick rundown of the history and present of English literature and how you can access this great content to expand your knowledge of the language.