Periods of English Literature

For convenience of discussion, historians divide the continuity of English literature into segments of time that are called “periods. ” The exact number, dates, and names of these periods vary,but the list below conforms to widespread practice. The list is followed by a brief comment on each period, in chronological order. 450-1066 Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) Period 1066-1500 Middle English Period 1500-1660 The Renaissance (or Early Modern) 1558-1603 Elizabethan Age 603-1625 Jacobean Age 1625-1649 Caroline Age 1649-1660 Commonwealth Period (or Puritan Interregnum) 1660-1785 The Neoclassical Period 1660-1700 The Restoration 1700-1745 The Augustan Age (or Age of Pope) 1745-1785 The Age of Sensibility (or Age of Johnson) 1785-1830 The Romantic Period 1832-1901 The Victorian Period 1848-1860 The Pre-Raphaelites 1880-1901 Aestheticism and Decadence 1901-1914 The Edwardian Period 1910-1936 The Georgian Period 1914- The Modern Period 1945- PostmodernismThe Old English Period, or the Anglo-Saxon Period, extended from the invasion of Celtic England by Germanic tribes (the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) in the first half of the fifth century to the conquest of England in 1066 by the Norman French under the leadership of William the Conqueror. Only after they had been converted to Christianity in the seventh century did the Anglo-Saxons, whose earlier literature had been oral, begin to develop a written literature. (See oral formulaic poetry. A high level of culture and learning was soon achieved in various monasteries; the eighth-century churchmen Bede and Alcuin were major scholars who wrote in Latin, the standard language of international scholarship. The poetry written in the vernacular Anglo-Saxon, known also as Old English, included Beowulf (eighth century), the greatest of Germanic epic poems, and such lyric laments as “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “Deor,” all of which, though composed by Christian writers, reflect the conditions of life in the pagan past.Caedmon and Cynewulf were poets who wrote on biblical and religious themes, and there survive a number of Old English lives of saints, sermons, and paraphrases of books of the Bible. Alfred the Great, a West Saxon king (871-99) who for a time united all the kingdoms of southern England against a new wave of Germanic invaders, the Vikings, was no less important as a patron of literature than as a warrior. He himself translated into Old English various books of Latin prose, supervised translations by other hands, and instituted the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle, a continuous record, year by year, of important events in England.See H. M. Chadwick, The Heroic Age (1912); S. B. Greenfield, A Critical History of Old English Literature (1965); C. L. Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature (1966). Middle English Period. The four and a half centuries between the Norman Conquest in 1066, which effected radical changes in the language, life, and culture of England, and about 1500, when the standard literary language (deriving from the dialect of the London area) had become recognizably “modern English”—that is, similar to the language we speak and write today.The span from 1100 to 1350 is sometimes discriminated as the Anglo- Norman Period, because the non-Latin literature of that time was written mainly in Anglo-Norman, the French dialect spoken by the invaders who had established themselves as the ruling class of England, and who shared a literary culture with French-speaking areas of mainland Europe. Among the important and influential works from this period are Marie de France’s Lais (c. 1180—which may have been written while Marie was at the royal court in England), Guillaume de Lorris’ and Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose (12257-75? , and Chretien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide (the first Arthurian romance, C. 1165) and Yvain (c. 1177-81). When the native vernacular—descended from Anglo-Saxon, but with extensive lexical and syntactic elements assimilated from Anglo-Norman, and known as “middle English”—came into general literary use, it was at first mainly the vehicle for religious and homiletic writings. The first great age of primarily secular literature—rooted in the Anglo-Norman, French, Irish, and Welsh, as well as the native English literature—was the second half of the fourteenth century.This was the age of Chaucer and John Gower, of William Langland’s great religious and satirical poem Piers Plowman, and of the anonymous master who wrote four major poems in complex alliterative meter, including Pearl, an elegy, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This last work is the most accomplished of the English chivalric romances; the most notable prose romance was Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, written a century later. The outstanding poets of the fifteenth century were the “Scottish Chaucerians,” who included King James I of Scotland and Robert Henryson.The fifteenth century was more important for popular literature than for the artful literature addressed to the upper classes: it was the age of many excellent songs, secular and religious, and of folk ballads, as well as the flowering time of the miracle and morality plays, which were written and produced for the general public. See W. L. Renwick and H. Orton, The Beginnings of English Literature to Skelton (rev. , 1952); H. S. Bennett, Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century (1947); Edward Vasta, ed. , Middle English Survey: Critical Essays (1965). The Renaissance, 1500-1660.There is an increasing use by historians of the term early modern to denote this era: see the entry Renaissance. Elizabethan Age. Strictly speaking, the period of the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603); the term “Elizabethan,” however, is often used loosely to refer to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, even after the death of Elizabeth. This was a time of rapid development in English commerce, maritime power, and nationalist feeling—the defeat of the Spanish Armada occurred in 1588. It was a great (in drama the greatest) age of English literature—the age of Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe,Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and many other extraordinary writers of prose and of dramatic, lyric, and narrative poetry. A number of scholars have looked back on this era as one of intellectual coherence and social order; an influential example was E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture (1943). Recent historical critics, however, have emphasized its intellectual uncertainties and political and social conflicts; see new historicism. Jacobean Age. The reign of James I (in Latin, “Jacobus”), 1603-25, which followed that of Queen Elizabeth.This was the period in prose writings of Bacon, John Donne’s sermons, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and the King James translation of the Bible. It was also the time of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies and tragicomedies, and of major writings by other notable poets and playwrights including Donne, Ben Jonson, Michael Drayton, Lady Mary Wroth, Sir Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, John Webster, George Chapman, Thomas Middleton, Philip Massinger, and Elizabeth Cary, whose notable biblical drama The Tragedy of Mariam, the Faire Queene of Jewry was first long play by an Englishwoman to be published.See Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background (1934); Douglas Bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century (1945); C. V. Wedgewood, Seventeenth Century English Literature (1950). Caroline Age. The reign of Charles I, 1625-49; the name is derived from “Carolus,” the Latin version of “Charles. ” This was the time of the English Civil War fought between the supporters of the king (known as “Cavaliers”) and the supporters of Parliament (known as “Roundheads/’ from their custom of wearing their hair cut short).John Milton began his writing during this period; it was the age also of the religious poet George Herbert and of the prose writers Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Browne. Associated with the court were the Cavalier poets, writers of witty and polished lyrics of courtship and gallantry. The group included Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, and Thomas Carew. Robert Herrick, although a country parson, is often classified with the Cavalier poets because, like them, he was a Son of Ben—that is, an admirer and follower of Ben Jonson—in many of his lyrics of love and gallant compliment.See Robin Skelton, Cavalier Poets (1960). The Commonwealth Period, also known as the Puritan Interregnum,extends from the end of the Civil War and the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the restoration of the Stuart monarchy under Charles II in 1660. In this period England was ruled by Parliament under the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell; his death in 1658 marked the dissolution of the Commonwealth. Drama almost disappeared for eighteen years after the Puritans closed the public theaters in September 1642, not only on moral and religious grounds, but also to prevent public assemblies that might foment civil disorder.It was the age of Milton’s political pamphlets, of Hobbes’ political treatise Leviathan (1651), of the prose writers Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Fuller, Jeremy Taylor, and Izaak Walton, and of the poets Henry Vaughan, Edmund Waller, Abraham Cowley, Sir William Davenant, and Andrew Marvell. The Neoclassical Period, 1660-1785; see the entry neoclassic and romantic. Restoration. This period takes its name from the restoration of the Stuart line (Charles II) to the English throne in 1660, at the end of the Commonwealth; it is specified as lasting until 1700.The urbanity, wit, and licentiousness of the life centering on the court, in sharp contrast to the seriousness and sobriety of the earlier Puritan regime, is reflected in much of the literature of this age. The theaters came back to vigorous life after the revocation of the ban placed on them by the Puritans in 1642, although they became more exlusively oriented toward the aristocratic classes than they had been earlier.Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, William Congreve, and John Dryden developed the distinctive comedy of manners called Restoration comedy, and Dryden, Thomas Otway, and other playwrights developed the even more distinctive form of tragedy called heroic drama. Dryden was the major poet and critic, as well as one of the major dramatists. Other poets were the satirists Samuel Butler and the Earl of Rochester; notable writers in prose, in addition to the masterly Dryden, were Samuel Pepys, Sir William Temple, the religious writer in vernacular English John Bunyan, and the philosopher John Locke.Aphra Behn, the first Englishwoman to earn her living by her pen and one of the most inventive and versatile authors of the age, wrote poems, highly successful plays, and Oroonoko, the tragic story of a noble African slave, an important precursor of the novel. See Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background (1934); L. I. Bredvold, The Intellectual Milieu of John Dryden (1932). Augustan Age. The original Augustan Age was the brilliant literary period of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid under the Roman emperor Augustus (27 B. . -A. D. 14). In the eighteenth century and later, however, the term was frequently applied also to the literary period in England from approximately 1700 to 1745. The leading writers of the time (such as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Joseph Addison) themselves drew the parallel to the Roman Augustans, and deliberately imitated their literary forms and subjects, their emphasis on social concerns, and their ideals of moderation, decorum, and urbanity. (See neoclassicism. A major representative of popular, rather than classical, writing in this period was the novelist, journalist, and pamphleteer Daniel Defoe. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a brilliant letterwriter in a great era of letter-writing; she also wrote poems of wit and candor that violated the conventional moral and intellectual roles assigned to women in the Augustan era. Age of Sensibility. The period between the death of Alexander Pope in 1744, and 1785, which was one year after the death of Samuel Johnson and one year before Robert Burns’ Poems, Chiefly in Scottish Dialect. Alternative dates frequently proposed for the end of this period are 1789 and 1798; see Romantic Period. ) An older name for this half-century, the Age of Johnson, stresses the dominant position of Samuel Johnson (1709-84) and his literary and intellectual circle, which included Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, James Boswell, Edward Gibbon, and Hester Lynch Thrale. These authors on the whole represented a culmination of the literary and critical modes of neoclassicism and the worldview of the Enlightenment.The more recent name, “Age of Sensibility,” puts its stress on the emergence, in other writers of the 1740s and later, of new cultural attitudes, theories of literature, and types of poetry; we find in this period, for example, a growing sympathy for the Middle Ages, a vogue of cultural primitivism, an awakening interest in ballads and other folk literature, a turn from neoclassic “correctness” and its emphasis on judgment and restraint to an emphasis on instinct and feeling, the development of a literature of sensibility, and above all the exaltation by some critics of “original genius” and a “bardic” poetry of the sublime and visionary imagination. Thomas Gray expressed this anti-neoclassic sensibility and set of values in his “Stanzas to Mr. Bentley” (1752): But not to one in this benighted age Is that diviner inspiration given, That burns in Shakespeare’s or in Milton’s page, The pomp and prodigality of Heaven. Other poets who showed similar shifts in thought and taste were William Collins and Joseph and Thomas Warton (poets who, together with Gray, began in the 1740s the vogue for what Samuel Johnson slightingly referred to as “ode, and elegy, and sonnet”), Christopher Smart, and William Cowper.Thomas Percy published his influential Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), which included many folk ballads and a few medieval metrical romances, and James Macpherson in the same decade published his greatly doctored (and in considerable part fabricated) versions of the poems of the Gaelic bard Ossian (Oisin) which were enormously popular throughout Europe. This was also the period of the great novelists, some realistic and satiric and some “sentimental”: Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Laurence Sterne. See W. J. Bate, From Classic to Romantic (1946); Northrop Frye, “Toward Defining an Age of Sensibility,” in Fables of Identity (1963), and ed. Romanticism Reconsidered (1965); F. W. Hilles and Harold Bloom, eds. , From Sensibility to Romanticism (1965). Romantic Period. The Romantic Period in English literature is dated as eginning in 1785 (see Age of Sensibility)—or alternatively in 1789 (the outbreak of the French Revolution), or in 1798 (the publication of William Wordsworth’s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads)—and as ending either in 1830 or else in 1832, the year in which Sir Walter Scott died and the passage of the Reform Bill signaled the political preoccupations of the Victorian era. For some characteristics of the thought and writings of this remarkable and diverse literary period, as well as for a list of suggested readings, see neoclassic and romantic. The term is often applied also to literary movements in European countries and America; see periods of American literature. Romantic characteristics are usually said to have been manifested first in Germany and England in the 1790s, and not to have become prominent in France and America until two or three decades after that time.Major English writers of the period, in addition to Wordsworth and Coleridge, were the poets Robert Burns, William Blake, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Walter Savage Landor; the prose writers Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Leigh Hunt; and the novelists Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, and Mary Shelley. The span between 1786 and the close of the eighteenth century was that of the Gothic romances by William Beckford, Matthew Gregory Lewis, William Godwin, and, above all, Anne Radcliffe. Victorian Period. The beginning of the Victorian Period is frequently dated 1830, or alternatively 1832 (the passage of the first Reform Bill), and sometimes 1837 (the accession of Queen Victoria); it extends to the death of Victoria in 1901.Historians often subdivide the long period into three phases: Early Victorian (to 1848), Mid-Victorian (1848-70), and Late Victorian (1870-1901). Much writing of the period, whether imaginative or didactic, in verse or in prose, dealt with or reflected the pressing social, economic, religious, and intellectual issues and problems of that era. (For a summary of these issues, and also for the derogatory use of the term “Victorian,” see Victorian and Victorianism. ) Among the notable poets were Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Matthew Arnold, and Gerard Manley Hopkins (whose remarkably innovative poems, however, did not become known until they were published, long after his death, in 1918).The most prominent essayists were Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Arnold, and Walter Pater; the most distinguished of many excellent novelists (this was a great age of English prose fiction) were Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, George Meredith, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and Samuel Butler. For prominent literary movements during the Victorian era, see the entries on Pre-Raphaelites, Aestheticism, and Decadence. Edwardian Period. The span between the death of Victoria (1901) and the beginning of World War I (1914) is named for King Edward VII, who reigned from 1901 to 1910.Poets writing at the time included Thomas Hardy (who gave up novels for poetry at the beginning of the century), Alfred Noyes, William Butler Yeats, and Rudyard Kipling; dramatists included Henry Arthur Jones, Arthur Wing Pinero, James Barrie, John Galsworthy, George Bernard Shaw, and the playwrights of the Celtic Revival such as Lady Gregory, Yeats, and John M. Synge. Many of the major achievements were in prose fiction— works by Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, John Galsworthy, H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, and Henry James, who published his major final novels, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, between 1902 and 1904.Georgian Period is a term applied both to the reigns in England of the four successive Georges (1714-1830) and (more frequently) to the reign of George V (1910-36). Georgian poets usually designates a group of writers in the latter era who loomed large in four anthologies entitled Georgian Poetry, which were published by Edward Marsh between 1912 and 1922. Marsh favored writers we now tend to regard as relatively minor poets such as Rupert Brooke, Walter de la Mare, Ralph Hodgson, W. H. Davies, and John Masefield. The term “Georgian poetry” has come to connote verse which is mainly rural in subject matter, deft and delicate rather than bold and passionate in manner, and traditional rather than experimental in technique and form.Modern Period. The application of the term “modern,” of course, varies with the passage of time, but it is frequently applied specifically to the literature written since the beginning of World War I in 1914; see modernism and postmodernism. This period has been marked by persistent and multidimensioned experiments in subject matter, form, and style, and has produced major achievements in all the literary genres. Among the notable writers are the poets W. B. Yeats, Wilfred Owen, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, and Seamus Heaney; the novelists Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, ?. ?.Forster, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, and Nadine Gordimer; the dramatists G. ?. Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Noel Coward, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill, Brendan Behan, Frank McGuinness, and Tom Stoppard. The modern age was also an important era for literary criticism; among the innovative English critics were T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, Virginia Woolf, E R. Leavis, and William Empson. (See New Criticism. ) This entry has followed what has been the widespread practice of including under “English literature” writers in the English language from all the British Isles. A number of the authors listed above, were in fact natives of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.Of the Modern Period especially it can be said that much of the greatest “English” literature was written by the Irish writers Yeats, PERSONA, TONE, AND VOICE 21 7 Shaw, Joyce, O’Casey, Beckett, Iris Murdoch, and Seamus Heaney. And in recent decades, some of the most notable literary achievements in the English language have been written by natives of recently liberated English colonies (who are often referred to as “postcolonial authors”)/ including the South Africans Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, and Athol Fugard; the West Indians V. S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott; the Nigerians Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka; and the Indian novelists R. K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie. See postcolonial studies. The Postmodern Period is a name sometimes applied to the era after World War

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