Introduction to a Brief Survey of English Literature History
The first thing necessary to consider when we are talking about the history of English literature is the fact that the term ‘English literature’ refers not only to a specific nation but to the literatures produced in the whole English-speaking countries. It covers literary works written in the English language, or literature composed in English by writers who are not necessarily from England; Joseph Conrad was Polish, Robert Burns was Scottish, James Joyce was Irish, Edgar Allan Poe was American, Salman Rushdie is Indian. So, English literary works do not cover only those published in England, the U.S.A., and Australia. A literary work produced in India, New Zealand, or even Singapore must be included into English literature. In other words English literature is as diverse as the Englishes that are spoken around the world.
Despite this fact, however, if we want to talk about the historical development of English literature, we always have to start with the body of written works produced in the English language by inhabitants of the British Isles (including Ireland) because this country is undoubtedly the first in cultivating the seeds of English literature. The major literature written in English outside the British Isles are usually treated separately under American literature, Australian literature, Canadian literature, and New Zealand literature (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007).
The second thing to consider in talking about the history of a literature is the criteria of grouping its periods. Up to now there is no yet agreement among scholars about how to divide the periods of English literature. Yet, the most recent divisions are tended to be based on “a series of periods whose names, at least, are derived from the most diverse activities of the human mind” (Wellek, 1956: 263). In such way of division, we do still find the terms ‘Elizabethan’, ‘Victorian’, ‘Jacobean’, or ‘Augustan’, like those used in older divisions. Their use, however, does not rigidly refer to the ascents to the throne and the deaths of the monarch; they ‘have assumed a new meaning inside a scheme of intellectual history” (Wellek, 1956: 263). In other words, those terms are maintained because those monarchs seem to symbolize the character of their era.
Last but not least, another thing important to consider before undertaking a discussion of the history of English literature is its antecedents. This point is essential because, similar to other forms of culture, all literature is naturally developed by taking certain sources as their origin. The culture of Western Europe, which includes England and, later on America, is derived from two ultimate sources: Gracco-Roman civilization and Judeao-Christian theology. From the classical world of Greece and Rome the people of the Western Europe have inherited a highly developed sense of imagination and expression as well as literary forms.
The influence of Greek on English literature can be clearly seen from the fact that Latin was the most dominant language of education until fairly recently and has had enormous effect on English literary works from the earliest times. The latter imitated and assimilated earlier Greek achievements even during the most productive period of Roman culture (100 BC—400 AD) Later on, it was the result of that imitation and assimilation which was passed on to English literature.
The Judeao-Christian tradition as embodied in the Bible has also given English literature a rich store of mythic incident, symbol and allusion in the heroic legends of the Old and new Testaments. This fact causes everyone who wants to succeed in studying English literature, regardless of his or her religious belief, has to have knowledge about the scriptures as it is to know Greek and Roman mythology and literary tradition. Even the most modern literary works in English often present biblical allusions, and the very names of characters are often chosen in order to evoke expectations associated with their biblical counterparts.
It should be noted here that when dealing with references to religion in literature, the material should be treated as objectively and unemotionally as possible. One’s own belief or disbelief should not be allowed to influence or distort the author’s intention. We should always remember that the presence of Christian tradition in literature is neither more nor less valid than those of any other religious system—Celtic, Yoruba, Moslem, Buddhism, or Hindu. All of them are presented for the sake of artistic purposes. So, if England had been dominated by Buddhism from earliest times, it is quite possible that we should have learnt Buddhism in order to understand English literature.
The historical development of literature in English-speaking world, based on the criteria of division derived from the most diverse activities of the human mind, can be marked off into nine major periods or ages. Due to the rapid changes taking place in human lives in the later five periods, they tend to last in shorter period of time and are further divided into some sub-periods. Here is the list of the periods of English literature.
||: OLD ENGLISH (ANGLO-SAXON) PERIOD|
||: MIDDLE ENGLISH PERIOD|
||: RENAISSANCE PERIOD|
|(1) 1558-1603 : Elizabethan Period|
|(2) 1603-1625 : Jacobean Period|
|(3) 1625-1649 : Caroline Period|
||: COMMONWEALTH AND RESTORATION|
|(1) 1649-1660 : Commonwealth Period|
|(2) 1660-1682 : Restoration Period|
|(3) 1558-1603 : Elizabethan Period|
|(4) 1603-1625 : Jacobean Period|
||: NEO-CLASSICAL (AUGUSTAN) PERIOD|
||THE TWENTIETH CENTURY|
|(1) 1901-1914 : Edwardian Period|
|(2) 1914-1939 : Modernist Period|