Literary History

There are traditionally two basic ways of organizing the vast and rather heterogeneous material called literature: one can arrange it by genre (that is, by type or kind) or by historical period. The latter approach is called literary history. Literary history breaks down the historical flow of literature into distinct periods arranged in chronological order and classifies literature on the basis of the assumption that the literary texts written in a given time span have certain characteristic features, norms, assumptions in common, while they differ in these features, norms, assumptions from works written in another time span.

This approach makes a systematic organization of the material of literature possible and opens fruitful ways of discussing this material. Identifying the common characteristics of a period in literary history, pointing out differences between two periods, or showing how literature evolves from one age to another are all fruitful considerations for the literary historian. Apart from this, literary history is also very useful in the study of individual works of literature. It is a common experience that when we read a text we tend to feel more comfortable if we can place it in literary history. This fact indicates that the historical background provides an important context for understanding literature. The more we are aware of the characteristic beliefs, attitudes, assumptions of a given period, the more we can appreciate a literary text written in that period. In some cases, moreover, it is quite impossible to understand works of literature without some background knowledge of the period in which they were written. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, for example, would hardly make any sense without an awareness of the medieval concept of love and crucial aspects of Spenser’s Faerie Queene would be ignored without some background knowledge of Elizabethan politics.

In spite of its general usefulness, however, the historical approach – just as the generic one – has its problems, too. It is questionable, for example, whether one can really establish homogeneous periods in literary history. The fact is that there is quite a bit of overlapping between the characteristic features of different historical periods and that no single work of literature can manifest all the characteristic features associated with a period. Historical periods seem, therefore, to be generalized abstractions, and generalizations always carry the danger of blotting out the uniqueness of individual works of literature. Another problem is that historical periods have a certain inevitable vagueness about them as their boundaries can never be clearly determined and as different periods are sometimes identified on very different grounds. Of the traditional literary historical periods, for example, the Restoration is determined by a political event, the 18th century is based on chronology, the Renaissance is a term borrowed from art history, and the Elizabethan and Victorian periods are named after the monarchs who ruled England in those periods. A further difficulty lies in the problem of what belongs to literary history. Is it only the canonical masterpieces that define a period, or should we – as has been suggested by modern theoretical schools – also consider extra-canonical works, or even private letters, diaries, the social, political, technological contexts to understand the spirit of an age?

These doubts about the basic assumptions of the literary historical approach can lead to interesting and fruitful discussions, yet they need not concern us here. What a student of English literature should be familiar with, as a start, is only the way English literary history is traditionally divided into periods and some of the most central characteristic features of these periods. Therefore, we provide below a rough outline of the periods of English literary history with a few representative authors and works from each period, and with some remarks about the differences between the traditional Hungarian and English periodization.

For a more detailed overview of the periods of English literature you may consult one of the following websites:

Historical Background (in A Guide to the Study of Literature)

British Literature through Time (at Studyguide.org)

English Literature and History

For a comprehensive treatment of English and American Literary history see

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature


Periods of English Literature

Middle Ages (ca. 500 A.D. – 1500)

Anglo-Saxon or Old English literature (500 A.D to the 12th century): the English literature of this period is made up entirely of oral poetry. The characteristic literary form is alliterative accentual verse. The greatest literary achievement of the age is the epic Beowulf (written down in ca. 1000).

Middle English literature (from the end of the 12th century to 1500): a new period begins because the Norman Conquest (1066) has brought significant changes both to the English language and to literature. The greatest poet of this period is Geoffrey Chaucer (ca.1343-1400). Characteristic genres are the verse romance (e.g. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde), mystery plays (e.g. the Second Shepherd’s Play), and morality plays (e.g. Everyman).

Renaissance

This is a period that spans the 16th and 17th centuries in England (note that in Italy the Renaissance started as early as the 14th century). The most famous English authors in this period are Sir Thomas More, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton. The reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) is usually considered to be the high point of the English Renaissance and is often referred to as the Elizabethan era.

Note that in Europe the Renaissance typically ends in what is described as the Baroque period. Although in art and architecture this category is applicable to British art history, as well, in literature there was no distinct baroque period in Britain.

The Restoration and the 18th century (1660-1800)

Although such Renaissance authors as John Milton and Andrew Marvell died long after the Restoration of the Stuarts took place. 1660, the year of the Restoration, is still regarded as the start of a new era. This period is predominantly neo-classical in its aesthetic attitude (especially the Augustan age 1660-1740) and characteristically rationalistic in its outlook. For the latter reason this era is also often referred to as the Age of Reason, the Age of Common Sense, or the Enlightenment. Characteristic authors are John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson. The 18th century also saw the rise of the English novel. The most important English novelists of the period were Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Lawrence Sterne.

Romantic and Victorian period (roughly the 19th century)

Romanticism (1789-1832) probably started earlier in England than in any other European country. The characteristic achievement of the era is to be found in the poetry of William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats.

Note that in European literature the term Romanticism is usually used to describe the period starting with the 1830’s. The dates of English Romanticism given above roughly correspond to German ‘early romanticism’ (Frühromantik), while the period of European Romanticism covers approximately the English Victorian Age.

The Victorian period covers the years of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901). Victorian poetry, as practiced variously by such authors as Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is more or less a continuation of the traditions of English Romanticism. The Victorian era is also the heyday of the novel. Chales Dickens, the Brontë sisters, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy all wrote their masterpieces in this period.

20th century

Pre World War II: perhaps the most characteristic literary achievement of British literature before 1945 is the modernism associated with the names of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and others. It is characterised by experiments in form and style, and a breaking away from established rules and conventions.

Post-war literature (postmodernism): as it is practically the present, this is the most difficult period to define, especially as there is no clear dividing line between modernism and post-modernism. The post-war period, however, produced experimental techniques in all genres, such as the Theatre of the Absurd, associated with Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, and new modes in poetry and fiction, too. Some outstanding authors in English literature are Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Salman Rushdie, John Fowles, Kazuo Ishiguro and Tom Stoppard.