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This section provides an overview of English literature from its beginnings around 449 A.D. to around 1900, with a list of the main English authors for each era. The more recent period will be covered in a separate section.

Literature, in its widest sense, includes every written record of the activity of man, but only the more or less permanent writings are usually classed as literature. The highest forms of printed or written works which are included in this classification are distinguished by vigor of expression and elevation of thought. (See Literature, American Literature, and the subhead Literature under Arabia, Canada, England, France, Germany, etc.)

Periods English Literature

Anglo-Saxon, 449-1350. (See Anglo-Saxon.)

  1. Poetry – Most noted example, Beowulf (q. v.).
  2. Prose – Most noted example, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (918).
  3. Good Qualities – Seriousness, Dignity, Rugged strength.
  4. Defects – Limited range of subject-matter, Lack of humor, Fatalistic, Too melancholy and gloomy.

(With the Norman invasion, in 1066, were brought the Norman literature of chivalric adventure, romantic love, and courtly worship. The Norman language became the spoken tongue. By 1350 the good qualities of the manner, form, and matter of the Norman literature and the Saxon literature were rapidly blending in the productions of the English authors, who were using a language formed by the coalescing of the Anglo-Saxon and the Norman. This resulting language was ready to be formed into modern English by the master hand of Chaucer.)

Chaucerian, 1350-1400.

The writers of this period were writing in a language which today is barely recognizable as English, yet this was the first manifestation of an original, national language. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer is the most notable work of this period and the only one which is still widely read.

Chief Writers :

  1. Chaucer.
  2. Gower.
  3. Langland.
  4. Wycliffe.

(See articles treating of these authors for particulars, relative to the writers and their works.)

Dark, or Barren, 1400-1550.

This period is so-named because there were very few good English writers during this era. In fact, they have all been largely forgotten and are only of interest to experts.

Chief Writers :

  1. Tyndale.
  2. Wyatt.
  3. Surrey.

(A time of disturbance and unrest comparatively barren of good literatures The period is noted for its ballads. See Ballad.)

Elizabethan, or Golden, 1550-1625.

This period in English literature saw an unprecedented flowering of English literature and corresponds to the Renaissance and the general growth in literacy and the arts. Shakespeare, and to some extent Marlowe have become part of the English literary canon. The other authors are still recognized as great, but are rarely read outside of academia.

Chief Writers :

  1. Sidney.
  2. Bacon.
  3. Spenser.
  4. Marlowe.
  5. Shakespeare.
  6. Jonson.
  7. Hooker.

(In this epoch we have the culmination of the development of the Gothic or Romantic drama, which had been progressing since 1100. From that time to Shakespeare the following phases developed : Miracle Plays; Mysteries ; Mask ; Comedy; Tragedy, which see. The epoch was characterized by boundless aspiration, originality of view and manner, freedom from restraint, a broad and generous sympathy with and interest in all life, in the past, as well as the future, a similar feeling for the supernatural and mysterious. The epoch is first in the scope and splendor of its literature.)

Puritan, 1625-1660.

This period of English literature saw religious oppression and censorship by the Puritan religious zealots. Despite this, the period managed to produce notable works of literature. Milton’s Paradise Lost stands as an enduring masterpiece and part of the canon of English literature. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is no longer widely read outside of university classes but is nevertheless a masterpiece of spiritual growth and searching.

Chief Writers :

  1. Milton.
  2. Bunyan.
  3. Herrick.

(In this period the ideals of life were noble but austere. Milton, the chief writer, lacked the breadth and scope of the greatest of the Elizabethans, their humor, spontaneity, and comprehensive knowledge of normal human life, but he remains unsurpassed in the dignity, harmony, and sublimity of his poetry and his standards of life.)

Restoration, 1660-1700.

Except for Dryden, most of the authors during this period have been largely forgotten and for good reason.

Chief Writers:

  1. Waller.
  2. Dryden.
  3. Locke.
  4. Jeremy Taylor.

(A marked change now appeared in the form and subject-matter of literature. The masterpieces are didactic and satiric. A dislike of nature, enthusiasm, and passion was prevalent. The heroic couplet meter, the so-called rocking horse, became the most popular poetic form.)

Classical, 1700-1740.

Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel has transcended the ear in which it was written and continues to be read. The other authors, though definitely good, are now largely ignored.

Chief Writers :

  1. Swift.
  2. Addison.
  3. Pope.

(This epoch was a culmination of the standards introduced in the preceding epoch. Form became preeminent and matter was made subordinate in importance. The emotional field was ignored and literature became cold, formal, artificial, and insincere.)

Johnsonian, 1740-1780.

Among the writers of this period, Boswell stands out for his remarkably frank and informative diary. Gibbon’s magisterial work on the Roman Empire continues to shape and influence our views and understanding of the past.

Chief Writers :

  1. Johnson.
  2. Goldsmith.
  3. Gray.
  4. Defoe.
  5. Richardson.
  6. Fielding.
  7. Gibbon.
  8. Burke.
  9. Boswell.
  10. Hume

(There was a gradual falling away from the ideals of the classical period during this era. The novel began to supplant the drama as the most popular form of literature. The emotional field once more was drawn upon and imaginative freedom again gradually appeared in English literature, the yielding classical standards being replaced by those of romanticism.)

Revolution, 1780-1837.

This period produced many notable British writers. Jane Austen continues to be a popular favorite, and her work has been adapted for the movies. Poets such as Wordsworth, Burns and Keats are definitely worthy of acclaim but are generally no longer read, their poetry having fallen out of vogue.

Chief Writers :

  1. Lamb.
  2. Cowper.
  3. Wordsworth.
  4. Southey.
  5. Coleridge.
  6. Burns.
  7. Scott.
  8. Byron.
  9. Shelley.
  10. Keats.
  11. De Quincey.
  12. Austen.

(The works of the authors of this period have great beauty of form and are intensely individual, emotional, and sincere. In the breadth of their interest in and love for all life and nature, the writers of this era surpass those of all preceding epochs. We have here the high tide of lyric poetry and the period is second only to the Elizabethan Age in the beauty and excellence of its literature. The age was especially noted for possessing the supreme lyric genius, Shelley, the greatest interpreter of nature, Wordsworth, the greatest historical novelist, Scott, and the best interpreter of simple, everyday character, Jane Austen. Poetry and the novel were the chief forms.)

Victorian, 1837-1900

The Victorian Era was a second Renaissance and produced a flowering of literature and science. Of the chief authors of the period, Charles Dickens remains widely read and his works have never gone out of print. Darwin’s masterpiece, The Origin of Species, is rarely read today but has profoundly influenced our modern world.

Chief Writers:

  1. Darwin.
  2. Tyndall.
  3. Huxley.
  4. Spencer.
  5. Macaulay.
  6. Carlyle.
  7. Ruskin.
  8. Arnold.
  9. Dickens.
  10. Thackeray.
  11. George Eliot.
  12. Browning.
  13. Mrs. Browning.
  14. Tennyson.

(This period is sometimes called the Cosmic Epoch on account of its orderliness and its regard for scientific law in everything. In its study of human life it is the most comprehensive of all, though it is too much perplexed with its failure to read life’s mysteries, to have the joyous loving interest in it of the Elizabethans, or to be content with the sentimental and visionary fancies about it of the Revolution writers. Its books are zealous with purpose; the regard for law makes its literature beautiful in form without artificiality. The literature is emotional and ardent, but sensible and moderate. Beauty and truth are its leading aims. It is essentially an era of prose, in the breadth and excellence of which it ranks first. Though mainly a scientific period with some classical tendencies, the romantic characteristics of the Revolutionary epoch prevail. The novel is the most popular form.)

C. American Literature, Its Periods.

The United States soon developed its own branch of English literature. Most of the writers from the early period are no longer widely read. Cotton Mather’s writings provide insight into the intolerant Puritan mind which led to the Salem Witch Trials.

Colonial Period, 1607-1775.

Chief Writers :

  1. Winthrop.
  2. Mather, Cotton.
  3. Franklin.
  4. Eliot, John.
  5. Edwards, Jonathan.

Revolutionary Period, 1775-1815s

Chief Writers :

  1. Jefferson.
  2. Hamilton.
  3. Barlow, Joel.
  4. Paine, Thomas.
  5. Dwight.
  6. Brown, Charles B. (86).

Transcendental Period, 1815-1840.

This period saw American Literature come into its own. Writers such as Edgar Allan Poe remain popular and influential.

Chief Writers :

  1. Irving.
  2. Cooper.
  3. Bryant.
  4. Poe.
  5. Hawthorne.
  6. Emerson.
  7. Alcott.
  8. Thoreau.

Late 1800s, 1840-1900

The period covering the transformation of the United States through the crucible of the Civil War and the unprecedented growth of the Gilded Age produced few writers which have stood the test of time. Of the writers that dominated this period, only Mark Twain and to some extend Longfellow remain somewhat popular to this day.

Chief Writers :

  1. Longfellow.
  2. Holmes.
  3. Whittier.
  4. Stowe.
  5. Prescott.
  6. Hoist.
  7. Bancroft.
  8. Motley.
  9. Schurz.
  10. Beecher.
  11. Howells.
  12. Clemens. (Mark Twain)
  13. Ade.
  14. Wilcox.
  15. Parkman.
  16. Riley.
  17. Cable.
  18. Roosevelt.

In reviewing the English writers of the past, it is interesting to see how most of the chief writers of each era have since been forgotten. Few authors stand the test of time or withstand changes in public taste. Some however transcend their era and continue to dominate English literature to this day.

Time will tell whether any of today’s popular authors or critically acclaimed writers will be remembered in the years to come.