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Anglo-Saxon(Old English period) Literature.

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  6. English Literature (19 century).

The period of Anglo-Saxon literature extends from the 5-th to the beginning of the 12-th century. Britain was subjected to the invasion of Angles, Saxons and Jutes (West Germanic tribes). West Saxon dialect was the most important language for literature.

The principal achievements were the orally transmitted poems composed and recited by minstrels. The most important literary work of this period is “Beowulf” which contains vivid description, action and character portrayal. It is based on legends of Teutonic tribes and was recorded in the 8-th century. To this period also belong “Widsith (far wanderer), the story of the wanderings of a minstrel”; “Deor’s Lament” which describes the sorrows of a bard who lost his master’s favour; “The wife’s Lament”, the first English poem with love theme; “The Seafarer”, which describes a sailor’s love for the sea.

Of Christian literature the example is the verses by Caedmon in praise of God (“Hymn of Caedmon”, “Christ and Satan”, “Daniel”, “Genesis”).

The other famous poet of this period was Cynewulf (“Christ”, “Elene”, “The Fates of the Apostles”).

The first examples of English prose of this period were written during the reign of Alfred the Great, the King of Wessex.

He was both the patron of men of learning and a translator of the Venerable Bede’s ecclesiastical history. Bede was the author of about forty historical and theological works, most of them written in Latin.

King Alfred contributed to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a detailed record of English history written in old English. Aelfric, an abbot, wrote prose of the period including “Lives of Saints”, a book of sermons; “Colloquium”, an English-Latin dictionary.

Old English writings are a rich source of information on life, customs and ideas of this time.

The “ Art-for-art’s-sake” movement was an attempt to separate artistic matters from subsidiary concerns such as morality, social concerns, nationalism, even personal biography.

In the late 18th and the 19th century esthetics began to attempt to discover the abstract principles of artistic beauty and strove to create beauty.

Artists and writers began to think of themselves as independent of social currents and the world around them. For their slogan they took John Keats words “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”. The cult of beauty was basic for romanticism, the Pre-Raphaelites and the decadent writers.

The principles of the movement art for arts sake were stated by Victor Cousin and the philosophers of the 19 century (Kant, Hegel, Bergson) contributed to the development of a science called experimental esthetics, a branch of psychophysics.


Avant-garde, in literature experimental trend in writing in early 20th century with new forms and techniques. It is characterized by breaking the conventional narrative and the lay out of the book. The movement was later called modernism.

Baptism (Gr baptein, “to dip”, or “to immerse”) one of the sacraments of the Christian church, performed by applying water to the person of the candidate in various modes, in the name of the Trinity.

Two modes of baptism are practised: one by immersion or dipping, and another by aspersion or sprinkling.

Dispute concerning the mode of baptism became one of the irreconcilable differences between the Eastern and Western churches, the former adhering to immersion, the latter adopted pouring water on the head.


Baptists, name of a Christian sect or denomination which bases its policy on the New Testament only. For them the only valid Christian baptism is the immersion. The English Baptists were since the time of the Reformation (see Reformation) divided into two sections: the General (or Arminian) and the Particular (or Calvinistic).

The Baptists are trinitarians and their churches are congregational in government.


Biography, the life history of an individual written by another person. The earliest biographical records are contained in the Old Testament, and in the descriptions of the lives and exploits of the great rulers of antiquity.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John portrayed the life of Jesus Christ.

The subject matter of medieval biographies was the record of the lives of martyrs, saints and churchmen.

Later biographical works include “The Negotiations of Thomas Wolsey” by the English courtier and author George Cavendish(1500) “Life of Samuel Johnson” by James Boswell, “Life of Sir Walter Scott” by John Gibson Lockhart and the “British Dictionary of National Biography”(1900) edited by Leslie Stephen in 63 volumes.

(the) Beat Generation, term applied to the experimental method of “cut-up” and “fold-in” and use of hallucinatory images to write books.

It concerns a group of post war – WWII writers who became popular in the 1950s-60s. General element of their writings included rejection of materialism, interest in Eastern religions, “new cultural” experiments with drugs, “free” sexual relationship.

The central figures of the movement were Allen Ginsberg (“Howl”), William S. Burrough (“Naked Lunch”), Jack Kerouac (“On the Road”). The members of “Beat generation” met in New York and later moved to San Francisco where they developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists who were noted for their non-conformity with society demanding spiritual, sexual liberation, liberation from censorship. They introduced ecological discussions (“Fresh Planet”), influenced musicians (the Beatles and other rock musicians), opposed to the military-industrial machine civilization.

W.Burroughs used drugs to exploit “junk” in two senses – junk as drugs and junk cultural rubbish (“Junkie”, “The Naked Lunch”, “The Ticket That Exploded”, “Nova Express”). He calls his works satires. They are loose and surreal associations, a mixture of the images of science fiction merging with the author’s mind-blowing homoerotic dreams that create fantasies of endless warring powers.

W.Burroughs called himself a “cosmonaut of inner space” and pictured a world of authoritarian forces which struggle with free consciousness. The texts of his books are obscene, reflecting society gone in barbarity, technological systems, violence. His open forms in writing look like abstractions in painting.


British drama, the drama of medieval England consisted of mysteries, miracle plays and moralities. Notable in the cycle known as Coventry Plays, which was performed in the town of Coventry annually in the 16th century. One of the best known morality plays is “Everyman”.

The development of the drama culminated in the work of W. Shakespeare. The greatest among the dramatists who wrote at this time was Christopher Marlowe, who was second only to Shakespeare in his mastery of dramatic blank verse. Among Marlowe’s dramas are “Tamburlaine the Great ”, “The Tragedy of Dr. Faustus”.

In the times of the civil war between the Parliament and the King (1642), puritans passed an order which forbade the performance of any kind of theatrical entertainment.

With the Restoration the drama achieved even a greater popularity. The period was distinguished mainly for its comedy of manners. The two outstanding writers of comedy of the 18th century were Oliver Goldsmith (“She Stoops to Conquer”) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (“The Rivals”, “The School for Scandal”, “The Critic”).

The most important dramatists of the 19th and 20th centuries were George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey.

For additional information see separate articles on the English authors.

Many types of drama do not fall into the category of either tragedy or comedy.

The term melodrama is applied to a play in which romantic and exciting situations and incidents of a sensational nature are stressed at the expense of characterization.

Calvinism, Knox, John, an ardent disciple of Calvin established Calvinism as the national religion of Scotland. In 1560, Knox persuaded the Scottish Parliament to adopt a confession of faith and book of discipline. The Parliament created the Scottish Presbyterian church. The Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, attempted to overthrow the new Protestant church, but after a struggle, she herself was forced to leave the country. Calvinism was triumphant in Scotland, except for a few districts in the north, in which Roman Catholicism remained strong, particularly among the noble families.


Canto, a song, part of a poem


Comedy, generally deals with the light and amusing side of life and usually has a happy ending. Comedy deals with the follies and absurdities of human beings and sometimes has a satirical purpose. The object of a tragedy is to excite emotions; of a comedy, to excite mirth.

Comedy of manners has the purpose to satirize the weaknesses of the upper classes. It was in vogue in the 17th and 18th centuries and is still written today.

Comedy of humors is a satiric form of comedy popular in England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Sentimental comedy in the 18th century had for its purpose the reform of public morals.

Farce is the type in which the emphasis is on a complicated and extravagant plot.

Burlesque is a more serious work.

Vaudeville is a set theatrical piece in which pantomime or a dialogue is combined with light songs and dancing.

Criticism, the art of judging the result of any endearor, but more specifically the evaluation, according to certain principles and canons, of the merits and deficiencies of a work of literature or the arts. The Poetics of Aristotle was the first important work of criticism. Aristotle maintained that the quality of a work of art could be determined and measured in proportion to the enjoyment it afforded society and the highest enjoyment was provided by those works which were based on the “imitation” what was universal, rather that individual and particular in human nature. He also trended questions of construction and style pointing out that art is governed by certain laws and criticism may be practiced as a scientific analysis of art.

The Middle Ages with its emphasis on the didactic and theological rather than esthetic aspects of art, produced no great critic except Dante. In Renaissance criticism was revived as literary art in the works of Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson.

The important English critics are Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Malthew Arnold.


Chronicles, (“events of the day”), 1) a historical record chronologically arranged; 2) the two Old Testament books.

Cubism, an avant-garde movement in early 20th century, founded by P. Picasso, that inspired related movement in literature before surrealism became more popular. In cubism objects are broken up and recast in an abstract form. Instead of presenting objects from one view point many view points are presented to describe the subject in a greater contest that renders it with ambiguity of interpretation. In literature most of Gertrude Stein’s works are built on repetition of words and phrases as blocks in passages and chapters.


Cycle, literary cycles are stories grouped around common figures, often based on mythical or historical figures.

Dadaizm, a literary and artistic movement of the 1920’s which forsook traditional forms of communication and representation for individualistic esthetic anarchy. It is generally regarded as one of the sources of the movement called surrealism. The 20th century artistic and literary movements revolted against the cult of beauty and destroyed beauty in art and literature. Their goal was to put an end to art itself using eccentric distortion of reality.


Deism, the belief in a personal transcendent God who created the world but does not intervene in its affairs. It operates on the basis of mechanical laws. Natural Religion is based on reason and experience.

Detective story, a type of fiction in which the action is provided by the logical solution of a crime. The crime is usually presented first and the narration presents an investigation of motives, methods, clues. The solution is usually made by the detective hero in a climax when the identity and motives of the criminal are exposed and proved.

The art of the detective story developed in the 19th century with the works of Edgar Allan Poe. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is the first modern detective story.

The first nature detective novels belong to Wilkie Collins (“The Woman in White”, “The Moonstone”). The detective hero of unique talent for deductions Sherlock Holmes was introduced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Some of the best detective story writers are G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, F. D. Hammett.

Drama, a literary composition in either verse or prose, intended to be performed by actors upon a stage, and usually in the form of a narrative told by the action and dialogue of characters portrayed by the actors.

A drama is usually divided into several acts, which for more effective telling the story are often divided into scenes.

Three ancient principles of dramatic construction have at various times exercised great influence on dramatic writing.

These principles were introduced by the Greek dramatists of the 5th century b. c. and were set down by Aristotle in his “Poetics”. They are known as the three “unities” – of time, of action, of place. The unities were often observed in periods of classical influence, but were ignored by playwrights in periods of romantic or realistic influences.

Shakespeare ignored the unities of time and place and he frequently ignored the unity of action by introducing into a tragedy a comic scene, such as the grave-digging scene in “Hamlet”.

The principle types of the drama are tragedy and comedy.


Elegy, a funeral song sad and plaintive in spirit, or a meditative poem with sorrowful theme.


English literature (17th century), reflects the conflicts between the Royalists (supporters of the King) and Parliament and its forces (Puritans). The Commonwealth, established by Oliver Cromwell was followed by the Restoration. This period lacks the power of the Renaissance. The poetry is less original in thought and emotion.

The prose, which was mainly devoted to religions, scientific and political issues is more developed.

The poets of the century may be classified into:

1) The Pastoral Poets, characterized by their love for nature (E. Spenser)

2) The Metaphysical Poets (John Donne), characterized by fantastic figures of speech, drama, realism, skepticism. Donne had a great influence on the poets of the 20th century.

3) The Cavalier Poets, easy-going and cynical. Richard Lovelace, Tomas Carew.

4) The Classical Tradition Poets, characterized by restraint and correctness (Sir John Denham, Abraham Cowley, Andrew Marvell).

5) The Satiric Poets (Samuel Butler and John Dryden).

Among them stands apart John Milton, one of the greatest poets in all English literature. He is noted for lofty imagination, mastery of blank verse. John Milton’s master pieces are the epic poems “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained”. Other famous poetic works are “L’Allegro”, “Il Penseroso”, “Lycidas” and over 20 sonnets.

Among the prose writers in the 17th century flourished Francis Bacon, “the father of inductive philosophy”, Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy), the philosopher John Locke (“Essay Concerning the Human Understanding”).

Under the patronage of King James I over fifty scholars translated the Bible known as “The Authorized Version” or the “King James’ Bible”.

Samuel Pepys’ “Diary” was a lively record of the events in Restoration London.

John Milton wrote pamphlets in defense of the freedom of speech (“Areopagitica”), in favour of humanistic education (“Of Education”).

John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is an allegory of a man’s life. It is written in the spirit of Puritanism.

John Dryden is noted for the criticism of an English prose style which is characterized by naturalness, clarity, conciseness. Dryden is regarded as the creator of modern English prose. The most important prose works are his critical works including “Of Dramatic Poesie”.


English literature (18th century).

The classical traditions in literature were followed both in poetry and prose. The literature of this period cultivated reason, formalism and critical attitude to life. Roman writers, including Vergil, Horace, Lucretius were models for the English writers of the 18th century. This period is known also as the period of neo-classicism in the English literature. This period was an age of prose writings and foreshadowed to its end a new type of romantic poetry.

There appeared two new forms in English literature – (the essay and the novel) and the first newspapers and periodicals were published.

The first newspaper was called “The Daily Courant” (1702).

The journal “A Review of the Affairs of France and of all Europe as Influenced by that Nation” (1704) was written by a most prolific author of the period, Daniel Defoe. Defoe was known also for his pamphlets and historical writings. He suggested the essayist Sir Richard Steele the idea for the famous periodical “The Tatler”, which was followed by “The Spectator” whose founder was another essayist Thomas Addison. The authors criticized the manners and morals from the point of view of middle class morality.

The greatest English satirist in England, Jonathan Swift wrote allegorical satires on various aspects of religion “The Tale of a Tub”, on human vices and institutions “Gulliver’s Travels” in support of Irish people living conditions (“The Drapier Letters”, “Modest Proposal”).

The Neoclassic poetry lacked lyricism, was strict in form and had a didactic and satiric tone.

It was written in the rhymed two-line form, the heroic couplet.

The noted poet of this period was Alexander Pope. Among his best known works are “The Essay on Criticism”, the mock-epic “The Rape of the Lock”, the didactic poem “Essay on Man”.

John Gay was famous for his “Fables”.

The novel, which became the most important literary form of the 18th century, was represented by Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, “Moll Flanders”, “Roxana”. In the 18th century the novel is characterized by the analysis of thought and emotion.

Samuel Richardson is noted for his novels in the form of series of letters and for his creation of the English novel of sentiment and character. He created four literary types of novel: 1) the lady of high morals; 2) her male counterpart; 3) the polished profligate (vicious, dissolute person); 4) a persecuted for his beliefs protestant. Among his novels are “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded”, “Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady”, “History of Sir Charles Grandison”.

Other major novelists: Henry Fielding (“The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling” regarded as the greatest novel in English).

Tobias Georse Smollett is the founder of the novel of life at sea (“The Adventures of Roderick Random).

Samuel Johnson was the most influential author of the time. His most important works are “Lives of the English poets” (1779), “A Dictionary of the English Language” (1755).

James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson” is considered to be the greatest of English biographies.


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