History of English Literature An Overview

The History of English literature

Like every other thing, the history of English literature has its evolution and it began roughly in the 14th century when the first major English writer Geoffrey Chaucer started writing in English (old English). But when we talk about its roots it goes back to 8th century BC when Homer (the writer of Iliad and Odyssey) was the earliest writer known in Greek, hence the heritage of art and literature is Greek origin.

        Before Chaucer, England was dominated by the Greeks and Roman tribes. When we say that the English literature began with Chaucer that does not mean that the people were not there before, people were there but they were governed by other people like Greeks and Romans thus the heritage of literature is Greco-Roman. Therefore they were Greeks who ruled entire Europe and other parts of the World before the nation England emerged. After Greeks, there came Roman and the Romans were defeated by the German tribes in 450 AD, and the roots of English literature were first traced there.


literary ages

     The German tribes include, Angle, Saxon and Jutes therefore from Angle and Saxon became Anglo Saxon and from Angles became England and so English hence the English was the dialect of German tribes which became English in 5th century AD and it continues until 1066 when the Normans invaded England and they were French-speaking.  Therefore after that, it was French that dominated England and was made the official language, earlier it was Anglo Saxon which we call old English. The Anglo-Norman dialect is called Middle English and it continued till the 14th century when the nation called England emerged. The real history of English literature begun when Chaucer attempted in Old English but the real history of the English language begins even after Chaucer.

           After Chaucer there came renaissance in the 16th century in England the renaissance actually begun in Italy in the 15th century when the Muslim invaded Constantinople, Italy in 1453. The renaissance brought about a revival in literature the revival of Greek literature, and a kind of awareness that was spread among people about art and literature. Now the question comes when the Greek literature was so rich, what was the need of revival? Actually in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Turks, they started burning libraries and education centers, so whatever text was saved by the individuals they run away with that because the literature was not available for common people before and it was restricted to writers or the Church authorities because the Church of Rome was dominating the whole Europe at that time, even the king was subjected to the Church.

         When the religious dictate came to an end with the emergence of renaissance, and the Greco-Roman literature was available to common people, the republican ideas also came into being because in the 5th century BC Athens was the best republic in the world, (Pluto wrote a book called ‘Republic’) and the writers had the liberty to write about anything which was not the case in Roman and Anglo-Norman period. The ideas of humanism, human equality, liberty, and democracy came and that is how the modern period in world history begins.

         With the emergence of the renaissance in England in 16th-century literature took a new shape altogether and there have been many great writers like the University wits (John Lyly, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Nash, and Thomas Kyd), Shakespeare Ben Jonson, Chapman, etc. and the Drama was the dominant form of literature initially where around 300 theatre companies like The Globe and Swan were established to perform these dramas.

        The renaissance period was essentially Romantic in nature and the writers had the freedom to write about anything. They were not rule-bound and have freedom of thoughts and expression that is why in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus he was enquiring about God, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he wants to know everything about good and bad. Hence the renaissance literature was providing a kind of liberty of thought and emotion that is why Renaissance is considered as the first modern period in the history of English literature.

       In Renaissance, there were also some great poets like Philip Sydney and Edmund Spenser and prose writers like Thomas More who wrote Utopia, an ideal republic later they were followed by Bacon the first English essay writer. The year 1660, the beginning of the restoration period is considered the end of renaissance where Milton is the last writer who wrote the Paradise Lost the greatest epic ever written in English. The period takes its name from the restoration of King Charles II to the English throne in 1660. In this period the Theatres were brought back to life by lifting the ban imposed by the Puritan government in 1642.

      A famous genre was called Restoration comedy or comedy of manners was developed by writers like William Wycherley, George Etherege, William Congreve, and John Dryden. This age also shows the rise of women writers like Aphra Behn who was the first female writer to earn a living through her writings. She wrote Oroonoko the famous tragic story of a noble African slave.

     The next period is the Neo-classical period, and writers in this period were more conservative and radical in their thoughts. They thought that the renaissance writer took more liberty of emotion and thought while writing and violating the classical rules of writing. Therefore the Neo-classical writers were more of a rule-bound and they brought back the classical rules in literature.

         The main aim of the Neo-classical writers was to reintroduce the classical rules in literature as well as in life as they thought that the present literature is immoral. The leading writers of the age were Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Richard Steele and Alexander Pope they imitated the literary forms and subjects of Aristotle and Horace and translated many of their works into English. The literature of the age reflects the Urbanity, wit, and licentiousness of the life focusing on the court in contrast to the seriousness of common life.

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3 thoughts on “History of English Literature An Overview

  1. sir, this article is really helpful for competitive exam. You have given a brief and comprehensive description of history of english literature.

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