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Home » » Short summary of English literature

English literature is now one of the most widely studied college subjects in the world. A definition of English literature includes authors from the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, Canada, and many other countries where English is spoken. Because English literature spans centuries, it's useful to look at different eras to gain a sense of how it's changed over time and what the most important works of each period were. The dates listed here are not set in stone, but rather serve as recommendations for separating time eras.

Literature in Old English (700-1150 CE)

English used to be so different before it evolved into the modern form that modern English speakers couldn't grasp it. The first works of English literature were written in this language, which was known as Old English. The oldest surviving piece of English literature is Beowulf, a poem that was most likely composed around 700, though it was most likely told orally for much longer.

Beowulf's lines are alliterative to make them more memorable because literacy rates were low and stories were generally passed down orally. It is uncertain who penned Beowulf, but the earliest surviving version is assumed to have been written or substantially edited by monks. Caedmon's Hymn and The Dream of the Rood are two other significant Old English poems.

English Literature in the Middle Ages (1150-1485)

Middle English was a transitional language between Old English and modern English. While it is still considerably distinct from most people's everyday English, it is more or less readable for modern English speakers. The general people in Britain spoke Middle English during this time, but the nobility mostly spoke French. As a result of this, together with low literacy rates, few works of English literature were written for a long period. Geoffrey Chaucer is the most famous author of this period (c. 1340-1400).

Chaucer broke tradition by writing his poems in Middle English rather than French. The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories recounted in rhyme about a group of people on a trip together, was his major achievement. The stories are both entertaining and instructive. This is what his writing looked like:

Even though I am a noon rectorite, I have a lot of experience.

Were right y-enough for me in this globe.

To speak of what is going on in a marriage

This is the start of The Wife of Bath's Tale, one of Chaucer's most famous stories.

In addition to Chaucer, Thomas Malory, who penned Le Morte d'Arthur in 1485, is a notable Middle English author. This was a retelling of the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table Knights. Some Middle English writings, like Old English compositions, are nameless or only exist in fragments.

Renaissance Literature in England (1485-1660)

is a phrase that signifies "revival" or "rebirth." Over several centuries, it was a movement that spread across Europe. It was a period of societal transition, with urbanization and agricultural advancements affecting people's lives. William Shakespeare is by far the most significant writer of this period (1564-1616). During his lifetime, Shakespeare wrote at least 38 plays and 154 sonnets, many of which are still read, studied, and performed around the world today. Shakespeare had a tremendous and virtually unprecedented impact on English literature and the world in general. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado About Nothing are among his most famous works.

While Shakespeare was a huge influence, there were several other notable English Renaissance writers, including:

Poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

A poet named John Donne (1572-1631)

Christopher Marlowe was a dramatist who lived from 1564 to 1593.

Edmund Spenser was a poet who lived from 1552 to 1599.

Philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

During this time, many of the primary types of English poetry and literature emerged, and all of these writers are still widely read today.

Restoration Literature in English (1660-1750)

The English monarchy was dissolved in 1649, and Oliver Cromwell, who had the title of Lord Protector, became the country's ruler. The monarchy was restored in 1660, ushering in the Restoration period in English history. As a result of the political unrest in England during the period, some of the most popular literature was written in protest. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), an Irish satirist who regularly critiqued features of European culture in his works, was a notable writer of the time.

His classic novel Gulliver's Travels and his satirical essay A Modest Proposal were both successful when they were originally published and are widely studied today. Among the other writers of the period are:

John Milton (1608-1674) was an English poet who lived during the Renaissance and the Restoration periods.

John Dryden (1631-1700) was a poet and the first Poet Laureate of England.

Samuel Pepys was a diarist who lived from 1633 to 1703.

Playwright Aphra Behn (1640-1689)

Alexander Pope was a poet who lived from 1688 until 1744.

Novelist Daniel Defoe (c. 1660-1731)

Because he was a diarist, Samuel Pepys had the unique opportunity to firsthand record his experiences during the Great Fire of London. For historians who want to know exactly what the fire was like, as well as other elements of daily life that other people might not have thought to record, this has proven to be an exceptionally important primary source.

Literature of the Romantic Era (1750-1837)

Romanticism was a literary movement that attempted to destroy established literary traditions to produce a new type of writing. Individual expression, heightened emotions, and an appreciation for the beautiful and sublime were cherished by the Romantics. Romantic literature had neoclassical themes and frequently emphasized a love of nature. Romanticism was most popular in England and later in America as a movement. It was also a social and artistic movement. The Romantics were often sympathetic to popular liberation movements such as the French Revolution.

Victorian Era (Victorian Era)

Through the eyes of novelist Charles Dickens and dramatist Oscar Wilde, Victorian literature from 1830 to 1901 provides an opportunity to learn about the transition from a rural, pastoral culture to a modern urban economy. Nonfiction writing, such as Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species," sparked new ideas. George Eliot's works, which focus on the inner lives of her characters and examine the concepts of free will and fate, are still influential among modern writers.

The era of the Modern

The modern period (writing from the twentieth century) is particularly essential for learning about World Wars I and II via the views of poets like Isaac Rosenberg, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Elliot, W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Henry Reed, and Alun Lewis. The English literary canon continues to evolve, raising the prospect that new forms will be regarded as relevant for the study of English literature in the future. 


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