Being the origin of the English language, England has yielded many noteworthy literary works and authors. While each of these is unique, they represent England’s literature as a cohesive body. Over the ages, different styles and approaches to literature have become evident.
The oldest surviving texts are written in Old English and are from the early part of the Middle Ages. Before these, literary works were in the form of oral tales that were passed down from one generation to the next.
Geoffrey Chaucer on engraving from 1846.English author, poet, philosopher, bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat. Engraved by J. Thomson and published in London by Charles Knight, Ludgate Street & Pall Mall East.
These works were usually written in poetic prose that could be performed, instead of merely being recited. These were fluid and dynamic, changing with each performance. The Anglo-Saxons brought Germanic poetry and performances with them when they inhabited England. Thus, even the essentially English literature of the time became influenced, often adapting Germanic poems and tales. The Anglo-Saxons made extensive use of alliteration (beginning each or most words in a sentence with the same letter; e.g. fight the fine fight of the faith) as well as rhyme to assist them to remember the pieces.
The 1100’s saw the development of Middle English, which was far more influenced by French and Latin than the English of old. By this time, poems and tales were being written down, thereby allowing a greater number of people to have access to and enjoy it. Middle English was the main language of literature right up until the 1470’s, at which time it was replaced by a London-based English called Chancery Standard.
Middle English can be divided into 1) religious, 2) courtly love and 3) Arthurian. Geoffrey Chaucer, dubbed the “father of English literature”, was one of the key figures of the 14th century. He used English in ways that it had never before been used and opened up endless opportunities for those that followed his lead.
The English Renaissance of the 15th Century brought about a tendency toward the use of vernacular literature, or the English of the common people. This meant that a vast number of others could now appreciate books, poems and dramas. It is important to remember that literature was not viewed merely as a form of entertainment. Rather, it was a dialogue about political and social issues, an outlet for emotions. So, when the common people were invited to share in this dialogue, it had major implications on how literature was viewed by all.
Elizabethan literature was part of the Renaissance movement (along with many others). Especially popular was drama and theatre, which was greatly influenced by Greek and Roman cultures. Comedy and tragedy were popular themes, playing a cathartic role for the spectators as they were able to vent pent-up frustrations in the name of literature.
William Shakespeare was, and still is, an acclaimed author from the Elizabethan era. Baptised in April 1564 (exact date of birth unknown), he lived to be only 52 years of age. William Shakespeare was a poet, playwright and actor, but is best known for his plays, which include Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and The Tempest.
The 18th century was dubbed the “Age of Enlightenment” as literature reflected the society’s tendency to rely on science, politics, religion and economy for guidance, rather than on gods, fate and chance. Literature attacked socially accepted norms, forcing people to question their beliefs. There was also a greater emphasis on acting upon instincts rather than always exercising self-control and restraint. With this new attitude, the literary world and its authors reflected back on the medieval productions with a renewed sympathy for the lack of emotions displayed. This led to the remaking of several ballads and folk tales.
Several styles followed over the course of the next few decades. These include Romanticism, Victorianism and Modernism. All of these played their important role in the creation of English literary history. Modernism is particularly interesting as it presented a different perspective; one that moved away from everything being certain and objective (typical of Victorian literature). Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories of the subconscious wove their academic thread through much of the authors’ productions.
Works typical of the Modernist era include Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) and the writings of William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, T's. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost (although not all of these are English writers).