The word literature comes from the Latin word ‘litaritura’ meaning “writing organized with letters”. Literature can be termed as the mirror of society. It depicts the social norms, culture and tradition of any period. In every era literature can be used to understand the lifestyle, culture and tradition of that time period. It also signifies the changes that have occurred in our society. Here we’ll talk about English literature, which refers to all the literary works like novels, short stories, poems, fiction, non-fiction, and plays composed in English. So let’s take a look at the history of English Literature and its literary periods and movements. There are 8 major periods in the history of English Literature which we’ll discuss further in detail.
History of English Literature (Literary Periods and Movements)
Old English Period (450–1066)
Is also known as ‘The Anglo-Saxon Period’ which starts from the mid of 4th century and goes up-to the 10th century. The Angles and Saxons were the ancestors of the English race. They migrated to Britain around the 5th century after the fall of Western Roman Empire. The English Literature of this periods include, Genesis, Exodus, The Wanderer, Wife’s lament, Husband’s message, The battle of Maldon etc. Earlier, to understand the temperament of readers, writers would make use of alteration rather than a rhyming scheme. Moreover, some of the famous writers of old English literature were Cynewulf and Caedmon.
Middle English period (1066–1500)
When the Normans conquered Britain it gave rise to a new era in the history of English literature. They brought with their rich French culture and language. This period of literature is also termed as Anglo-French Literature. People like ‘Geoffrey Chaucer’ are amongst one of the most highly regarded poets within the period of 1342 to 1400 and were renowned for his courtly love poetry, including the famous “Canterbury Tales”. “The House of Fame”, and ‘The Book of the Duchess’. Another significant work includes William Langland’s famous religious works like “Piers Plowman”. During this era of English Literature works like ‘Everyman’ was a noted Morality play of the time and Miracle plays were taken from The Bible and were frequently performed in churches.
The Renaissance Period (1500–1660)
The Renaissance Period is also known as the ‘Elizabethan Period’ or ‘The Age of Shakespeare’. In-fact it is considered as the ‘Golden Age’ in the history of English literature. After the Middle Ages in Europe came the Renaissance which means revival or rebirth. At times this period is also referred to as ‘The Enlightenment Period’ in English Literature. Some noted works of the time are works of ‘John Donne’ also played a greater role in metaphysical poetry and beautiful sonnets of the Golden age. However, Literary Dramas have played a crucial role in making this age ‘Golden’. The first comedy play in this age was ‘Ralph Roister Doister’ by Nicholas Udall.
Classics like ‘Hamlet’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Othello’ and ‘Julius Ceasar’ to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘As You Like It’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ were some of the most important contributions made by William Shakespeare. His contribution was so immense that this age is also referred as ‘The Age of Shakespeare’. Other notable writers of the Golden age include writers like John Milton, John Webster, Thomas Kyd, George Peele, Ben Jonson, etc.
The Neoclassical Period (1660–1798)
The period from 1660 to 1700’s is called the Restoration Period because monarchy was restored in England. Charles II came returned to England from his exile in France and became the King.
During the mid 18th and late 18th century, novels were introduced to the world. Daniel Defoe experimented with the prose narrative and wrote a novel called ‘Robinson Crusoe’. He is considered as one of the most significant writers who introduced novel writing to the literary world. In prose writing, Richard Steel and Jonathan Swift are also some of the popular names in prose writing.
The Romantic Period (1798–1837)
This period can be considered the most flourished period of English Literature. Legends like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Shelley, Keats, and Byron belonged to this period. It can also be termed as the age of poetry. This age poets focused on the simplicity of language and chose the language of the common people. They took inspiration from Shakespeare, Spenser and others in order to connect with the masses. Their poems usually about the events of everyday life. The Romantic poets proved that if the daily aspects of life, nature and the common things of life are treated in the right way, than it can become fascinating and interesting.
The Victorian Period (1837–1901)
The Victorian Period is quite complicated and is a long period. That’s the reason it is divided into 2 sub periods. The two sub periods were the Early Victorian Period (1837-1870) and Later Victorian Period (1870-1901). There were numerous great writers who flourished during The Victorian Period.
This period was dominated by the middle class and majorly called the Early Victorian period. Some of the great writers of this time were Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Thackeray.
After 1870 the second phase of The Victorian Era started which was named, “Later Victorian Period”. Some of the influential writers of this period were Charles Swinburne, Christiana Rossetti, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde.
The Modern Period (1901-1945)
This period started in the 20th century. In this period, the writer’s approach towards life and its problems that was followed in The Victorian Era was opposed. A new value system was introduced by the writers and was also visible in their writing style and work. The main reason for the sift was the lack of self-interrogation and absence of scientific thoughts in the Victorian Writers. The Few important writers who were responsible for this change in mind set were writers like Engles, Karl Marx, Morris and many more.
The Contemporary Period (1945 – Present)
After the second World War there was a major shift in English Literature. Which was caused by the arrival of mass mediums like newspapers, radio, TV and films. The writers of this period experiment more than ever because they have access to more information than writers of the earlier periods. The information was used by the writers to explore more aspects of human emotions and nature. Some notable writers of this era are John Wain, William Golding, Yuval Noah Harari, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and many more.
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