This article is focused on English-language literature rather than the literature of England , so that it includes writers from Scotland , Wales , the Crown dependencies , and the whole of Ireland , as well as literature in English from countries of the former British Empire , including the United States.
However, until the early 19th century, it only deals with the literature of the United Kingdom , the Crown dependencies and Ireland. It does not include literature written in the other languages of Britain. The English language has developed over the course of more than 1, years. Beowulf is the most famous work in Old English, and has achieved national epic status in England, despite being set in Scandinavia.
However, following the Norman conquest of England in , the written form of the Anglo-Saxon language became less common.
Under the influence of the new aristocracy, French became the standard language of courts, parliament, and polite society. This form of English lasted until the s, when the Chancery Standard late Middle English , a London -based form of English, became widespread.
Geoffrey Chaucer — , author of The Canterbury Tales , was a significant figure in the development of the legitimacy of vernacular Middle English at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were still French and Latin. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in also helped to standardise the language, as did the King James Bible ,  and the Great Vowel Shift. Poet and playwright William Shakespeare — is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and one of the world's greatest dramatists.
The English language spread throughout the world with the development of the British Empire between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history. And in the last hundred plus years numerous writers from Great Britain , the island of Ireland , the USA, and members of other former British colonies have received the Nobel Prize for works in the English language.
Old English literature , or Anglo-Saxon literature, encompasses the surviving literature written in Old English in Anglo-Saxon England , in the period after the settlement of the Saxons and other Germanic tribes in England Jutes and the Angles c.
Widsith , which appears in the Exeter Book of the late 10th century, gives a list of kings of tribes ordered according to their popularity and impact on history, with Attila King of the Huns coming first, followed by Eormanric of the Ostrogoths. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English , from the 9th century, that chronicle is the history of the Anglo-Saxons.
This is a work of uncertain date, celebrating the Battle of Maldon of , at which the Anglo-Saxons failed to prevent a Viking invasion. Oral tradition was very strong in early English culture and most literary works were written to be performed. The only surviving manuscript is the Nowell Codex , the precise date of which is debated, but most estimates place it close to the year Beowulf is the conventional title,  and its composition is dated between the 8th   and the early 11th century.
The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English and is, with the runic Ruthwell Cross and Franks Casket inscriptions, one of three candidates for the earliest attested example of Old English poetry.
It is also one of the earliest recorded examples of sustained poetry in a Germanic language. Classical antiquity was not forgotten in Anglo-Saxon England, and several Old English poems are adaptations of late classical philosophical texts. The longest is King Alfred 's — 9th-century translation of Boethius ' Consolation of Philosophy.
History of English Literature – Understand the Concept
After the Norman conquest of England in , the written form of the Anglo-Saxon language became less common. As the invaders integrated, their language and literature mingled with that of the natives, and the Norman dialects of the ruling classes became Anglo-Norman.
From then until the 12th century, Anglo-Saxon underwent a gradual transition into Middle English. Political power was no longer in English hands, so that the West Saxon literary language had no more influence than any other dialect and Middle English literature was written in the many dialects that corresponded to the region, history, culture, and background of individual writers.
In this period religious literature continued to enjoy popularity and Hagiographies were written, adapted and translated: for example, The Life of Saint Audrey , Eadmer 's c. Middle English Bible translations , notably Wycliffe's Bible , helped to establish English as a literary language. Wycliffe's Bible is the name now given to a group of Bible translations into Middle English that were made under the direction of, or at the instigation of, John Wycliffe.
They appeared between about and Another literary genre, that of Romances , appears in English from the 13th century, with King Horn and Havelock the Dane , based on Anglo-Norman originals such as the Romance of Horn c. Langland's Piers Plowman written c. It is one of the better-known Arthurian stories of an established type known as the "beheading game".
British Literary Movements (1 of 4)
Developing from Welsh, Irish and English tradition, Sir Gawain highlights the importance of honour and chivalry. Preserved in the same manuscript with Sir Gawayne were three other poems, now generally accepted as the work of the same author, including an intricate elegiac poem, Pearl. Middle English lasted until the s, when the Chancery Standard , a London-based form of English, became widespread and the printing press started to standardise the language.
Chaucer is best known today for The Canterbury Tales. This is a collection of stories written in Middle English mostly in verse although some are in prose , that are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from Southwark to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.
Chaucer is a significant figure in the development of the legitimacy of the vernacular , Middle English, at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were still French and Latin. At this time, literature in England was being written in various languages, including Latin, Norman-French, and English: the multilingual nature of the audience for literature in the 14th century is illustrated by the example of John Gower c.
A contemporary of William Langland and a personal friend of Chaucer, Gower is remembered primarily for three major works: the Mirroir de l'Omme , Vox Clamantis , and Confessio Amantis , three long poems written in Anglo-Norman , Latin and Middle English respectively, which are united by common moral and political themes.
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Significant religious works were also created in the 14th century, including those of Julian of Norwich c. Julian's Revelations of Divine Love about is believed to be the first published book written by a woman in the English language. It was popular and influential in the later revival of interest in the Arthurian legends. In the Middle Ages , drama in the vernacular languages of Europe may have emerged from enactments of the liturgy.
Mystery plays were presented in the porches of cathedrals or by strolling players on feast days. Miracle and mystery plays, along with morality plays or "interludes" , later evolved into more elaborate forms of drama, such as was seen on the Elizabethan stages. Another form of medieval theatre was the mummers' plays , a form of early street theatre associated with the Morris dance , concentrating on themes such as Saint George and the Dragon and Robin Hood.
These were folk tales re-telling old stories, and the actors travelled from town to town performing these for their audiences in return for money and hospitality. Mystery plays and miracle plays are among the earliest formally developed plays in medieval Europe. Medieval mystery plays focused on the representation of Bible stories in churches as tableaux with accompanying antiphonal song.
They developed from the 10th to the 16th century, reaching the height of their popularity in the 15th century before being rendered obsolete by the rise of professional theatre. There are four complete or nearly complete extant English biblical collections of plays from the late medieval period.
The most complete is the York cycle of 48 pageants.
They were performed in the city of York , from the middle of the 14th century until Having grown out of the religiously based mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the morality play is a genre of medieval and early Tudor theatrical entertainment, which represented a shift towards a more secular base for European theatre.
The plays were most popular in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Like John Bunyan 's allegory Pilgrim's Progress , Everyman examines the question of Christian salvation through the use of allegorical characters. After William Caxton introduced the printing press in England in , vernacular literature flourished.
The English Renaissance was a cultural and artistic movement in England dating from the late 15th to the 17th century.
It is associated with the pan-European Renaissance that is usually regarded as beginning in Italy in the late 14th century. Like most of northern Europe, England saw little of these developments until more than a century later. Renaissance style and ideas were slow in penetrating England, and the Elizabethan era in the second half of the 16th century is usually regarded as the height of the English Renaissance.
This Italian influence can also be found in the poetry of Thomas Wyatt — , one of the earliest English Renaissance poets. Edmund Spenser c.
Poems intended to be set to music as songs, such as those by Thomas Campion — , became popular as printed literature was disseminated more widely in households. Gorboduc is notable especially as the first verse drama in English to employ blank verse , and for the way it developed elements, from the earlier morality plays and Senecan tragedy , in the direction which would be followed by later playwrights.
William Shakespeare — stands out in this period as a poet and playwright as yet unsurpassed. Shakespeare's career continues in the Jacobean period. In the early 17th century Shakespeare wrote the so-called " problem plays ", as well as a number of his best known tragedies , including Macbeth and King Lear.
Less bleak than the tragedies, these four plays are graver in tone than the comedies of the s, but they end with reconciliation and the forgiveness of potentially tragic errors. After Shakespeare's death, the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson — was the leading literary figure of the Jacobean era. Jonson's aesthetics hark back to the Middle Ages and his characters embody the theory of humours , which was based on contemporary medical theory.
Others who followed Jonson's style include Beaumont and Fletcher , who wrote the popular comedy, The Knight of the Burning Pestle probably —08 , a satire of the rising middle class. Another popular style of theatre during Jacobean times was the revenge play , which was popularized in the Elizabethan era by Thomas Kyd — , and then further developed later by John Webster?
George Chapman c. Shakespeare popularized the English sonnet , which made significant changes to Petrarch 's model.
A collection of by sonnets , dealing with themes such as the passage of time, love, beauty and mortality, were first published in a quarto. The most important prose work of the early 17th century was the King James Bible. This, one of the most massive translation projects in the history of English up to this time, was started in and completed in This represents the culmination of a tradition of Bible translation into English that began with the work of William Tyndale , and it became the standard Bible of the Church of England.
The Metaphysical poets John Donne — and George Herbert — were still alive after , and later in the 17th century a second generation of metaphysical poets were writing, including Richard Crashaw — , Andrew Marvell — , Thomas Traherne or — and Henry Vaughan — The Cavalier poets were another important group of 17th-century poets, who came from the classes that supported King Charles I during the English Civil War — King Charles reigned from and was executed They "were not a formal group, but all were influenced by" Ben Jonson.
Most of the Cavalier poets were courtiers, with notable exceptions. For example, Robert Herrick was not a courtier, but his style marks him as a Cavalier poet. Cavalier works make use of allegory and classical allusions, and are influenced by Roman authors Horace, Cicero and Ovid. John Milton — "was the last great poet of the English Renaissance"  and published a number of works before , including A L'Allegro ,; Il Penseroso , ; Comus a masque , ; and Lycidas , However, his major epic works, including Paradise Lost were published in the Restoration period.
It saw Locke's Two Treatises on Government , the founding of the Royal Society , the experiments and the holy meditations of Robert 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. John Milton , one of the greatest English poets, wrote at this time of religious flux and political upheaval.
Milton is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost