History of the English literature
The basic features and characteristic features of the English literature as its chronological development. The best representatives of prose and poetry, dramatic art of different epoch and directions. Subjects of products of modern English authors.
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English literature, the body of written works produced in the English language by inhabitants of the British Isles (including Ireland) from the 7th century to the present day. The major literatures written in English outside the British Isles are treated separately under American literature, Australian literature, Canadian literature, and New Zealand literature.
English literature has sometimes been stigmatized as insular. It can be argued that no single English novel attains the universality of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace or the French writer Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Yet in the Middle Ages the Old English literature of the subjugated Saxons was leavened by the Latin and Anglo-Norman writings, eminently foreign in origin, in which the churchmen and the Norman conquerors expressed themselves. From this combination emerged a flexible and subtle linguistic instrument exploited by Geoffrey Chaucer and brought to supreme application by William Shakespeare. During the Renaissance the renewed interest in Classical learning and values had an important effect on English literature, as on all the arts; and ideas of Augustan literary propriety in the 18th century and reverence in the 19th century for a less specific, though still selectively viewed, Classical antiquity continued to shape the literature. All three of these impulses derived from a foreign source, namely the Mediterranean basin. The Decadents of the late 19th century and the Modernists of the early 20th looked to continental European individuals and movements for inspiration. Nor was attraction toward European intellectualism dead in the late 20th century, for by the mid-1980s the approach known as structuralism, a phenomenon predominantly French and German in origin, infused the very study of English literature itself in a host of published critical studies and university departments. Additional influence was exercised by deconstructionist analysis, based largely on the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida.
Further, Britain's past imperial activities around the globe continued to inspire literature--in some cases wistful, in other cases hostile. Finally, English literature has enjoyed a certain diffusion abroad, not only in predominantly English-speaking countries but also in all those others where English is the first choice of study as a second language.
English literature is therefore not so much insular as detached from the continental European tradition across the Channel. It is strong in all the conventional categories of the bookseller's list: in Shakespeare it has a dramatist of world renown; in poetry, a genre notoriously resistant to adequate translation and therefore difficult to compare with the poetry of other literatures, it is so peculiarly rich as to merit inclusion in the front rank; English literature's humour has been found as hard to convey to foreigners as poetry, if not more so--a fact at any rate permitting bestowal of the label “idiosyncratic”; English literature's remarkable body of travel writings constitutes another counterthrust to the charge of insularity; in autobiography, biography, and historical writing, English literature compares with the best of any culture; and children's literature, fantasy, essays, and journals, which tend to be considered minor genres, are all fields of exceptional achievement as regards English literature. Even in philosophical writings, popularly thought of as hard to combine with literary value, thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell stand comparison for lucidity and grace with the best of the French philosophers and the masters of Classical antiquity.
Some of English literature's most distinguished practitioners in the 20th century--from Joseph Conrad at its beginning to V.S. Naipaul and Tom Stoppard at its end--were born outside the British Isles. What is more, none of the aforementioned had as much in common with his adoptive country as did, for instance, Doris Lessing and Peter Porter (two other distinguished writer-immigrants to Britain), both having been born into a British family and having been brought up on British Commonwealth soil.
On the other hand, during the same period in the 20th century, many notable practitioners of English literature left the British Isles to live abroad: James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, and Anthony Burgess. In one case, that of Samuel Beckett, this process was carried to the extent of writing works first in French and then translating them into English.
Even English literature considered purely as a product of the British Isles is extraordinarily heterogeneous, however. Literature actually written in those Celtic tongues once prevalent in Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales--called the “Celtic Fringe”--is treated separately (see Celtic literature). Yet Irish, Scots, and Welsh writers have contributed enormously to English literature even when they have written in dialect, as the 18th-century poet Robert Burns and the 20th-century Scots writer Alasdair Gray have done. In the latter half of the 20th century, interest began also to focus on writings in English or English dialect by recent settlers in
Britain, such as Afro-Caribbeans and people from Africa proper, the Indian subcontinent, and East Asia.
Even within England, culturally and historically the dominant partner in the union of territories comprising Britain, literature has been as enriched by strongly provincial writers as by metropolitan ones. Another contrast more fruitful than not for English letters has been that between social milieus, however much observers of Britain in their own writings may have deplored the survival of class distinctions.
As far back as medieval times, a courtly tradition in literature cross-fertilized with an earthier demotic one. Shakespeare's frequent juxtaposition of royalty in one scene with plebeians in the next reflects a very British way of looking at society. This awareness of differences between high life and low, a state of affairs fertile in creative tensions, is observable throughout the history of English literature.
The Old English period
The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who invaded Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries brought with them the common Germanic metre; but of their earliest oral poetry, probably used for panegyric, magic, and short narrative, little or none survives. For nearly a century after the conversion of King Aethelberht I of Kent to Christianity about 600, there is no evidence that the English wrote poetry in their own language. But St. Bede the Venerable, in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), wrote that in the late 7th century Caedmon, an illiterate Northumbrian cowherd, was inspired in a dream to compose a short hymn in praise of the creation. Caedmon later composed verses based on Scripture, which was expounded for him by monks at Streaneshalch (now called Whitby), but only the “Hymn of Creation” survives. Caedmon legitimized the native verse form by adapting it to Christian themes. Others, following his example, gave England a body of vernacular poetry unparalleled in Europe before the end of the 1st millennium.
Virtually all Old English poetry is written in a single metre, a four-stress line with a syntactical break, or caesura, between the second and third stresses, and with alliteration linking the two halves of the line; this pattern is occasionally varied by six-stress lines.
The poetry is formulaic, drawing on a common set of stock phrases and phrase patterns, applying standard epithets to various classes of characters, and depicting scenery with such recurring images as the eagle and the wolf, which wait during battles to feast on carrion, and ice and snow, which appear in the landscape to signal sorrow. In the best poems such formulas, far from being tedious, give a strong impression of the richness of the cultural fund from which poets could draw. Other standard devices of this poetry are the kenning, a figurative name for a thing, usually expressed in a compound noun (e.g., swan-road used to name the sea); and variation, the repeating of a single idea in different words, with each repetition adding a new level of meaning.
That these verse techniques changed little during 400 years of literary production suggests the extreme conservatism of Anglo-Saxon culture.
The major manuscripts
Most Old English poetry is preserved in four manuscripts of the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The Beowulf manuscript (British Library) contains Beowulf, Judith, and three prose tracts; the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral) is a miscellaneous gathering of lyrics, riddles, didactic poems, and religious narratives; the Junius Manuscript (Bodleian Library, Oxford)--also called the Caedmon Manuscript, even though its contents are no longer attributed to Caedmon--contains biblical paraphrases; and the Vercelli Book (found in the cathedral library in Vercelli, Italy) contains saints' lives, several short religious poems, and prose homilies. In addition to the poems in these books are historical poems in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; poetic renderings of Psalms 51-150; the 31 “Metres” included in King Alfred the Great's translation of Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy); magical, didactic, elegiac, and heroic poems; and others, miscellaneously interspersed with prose, jotted in margins, and even worked in stone or metal.
Problems of dating
Few poems can be dated as closely as Caedmon's “Hymn.” King Alfred's compositions fall into the late 9th century, and Bede composed his “Death Song” within 50 days of his death on May 25, 735. Historical poems such as “The Battle of Brunanburh” (after 937) and “The Battle of Maldon” (after 991) are fixed by the dates of the events they commemorate. A translation of one of Aldhelm's riddles is found not only in the Exeter Book but also in an early 9th-century manuscript at Leiden, Neth. And at least a part of “The Dream of the Rood” can be dated by an excerpt carved on the 8th-century Ruthwell Cross (in Dumfriesshire, Scot.). But in the absence of such indications, Old English poems are hard to date, and the scholarly consensus that most were composed in the Midlands and the North in the 8th and 9th centuries gave way to uncertainty during the last two decades of the 20th century. Many now hold that “The Wanderer,” Beowulf, and other poems once assumed to have been written in the 8th century are of the 9th century or later. For most poems, there is no scholarly consensus beyond the belief that they were written between the 8th and the 11th centuries.
If few poems can be dated accurately, still fewer can be attributed to particular poets. The most important author from whom a considerable body of work survives is Cynewulf, who wove his runic signature into the epilogues of four poems. Aside from his name, little is known of him; he probably lived in the 9th century in Mercia or Northumbria. His works include The Fates of the Apostles, a short martyrology; The Ascension (also called Christ II), a homily and biblical narrative; Juliana, a saint's passion set in the reign of the Roman emperor Maximian (late 3rd century ad); and Elene, perhaps the best of his poems, which describes the mission of St. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, to recover Christ's cross. Cynewulf's work is lucid and technically elegant; his theme is the continuing evangelical mission from the time of Christ to the triumph of Christianity under Constantine. Several poems not by Cynewulf are associated with him because of their subject matter. These include two lives of St. Guthlac and Andreas; the latter, the apocryphal story of how St. Andrew fell into the hands of the cannibalistic (and presumably mythical) Mermedonians, has stylistic affinities with Beowulf. Also in the “Cynewulf group” are several poems with Christ as their subject, of which the most important is “The Dream of the Rood,” in which the cross speaks of itself as Christ's loyal thane and yet the instrument of his death. This tragic paradox echoes a recurring theme of secular poetry and at the same time movingly expresses the religious paradoxes of Christ's triumph in death and humankind's redemption from sin.
Several poems of the Junius Manuscript are based on the Old Testament narratives Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. Of these, Exodus is remarkable for its intricate diction and bold imagery. The fragmentary Judith of the Beowulf Manuscript stirringly embellishes the story from the Apocrypha of the heroine who led the Jews to victory over the Assyrians.
Elegiac and heroic verse
The term elegy is used of Old English poems that lament the loss of worldly goods, glory, or human companionship. “The Wanderer” is narrated by a man, deprived of lord and kinsmen, whose journeys lead him to the realization that there is stability only in heaven. “The Seafarer” is similar, but its journey motif more explicitly symbolizes the speaker's spiritual yearnings. Several others have similar themes, and three elegies--“The Husband's Message,” “The Wife's Lament,” and “Wulf and Eadwacer”--describe what appears to be a conventional situation: the separation of husband and wife by the husband's exile.
“Deor” bridges the gap between the elegy and the heroic poem, for in it a poet laments the loss of his position at court by alluding to sorrowful stories from Germanic legend. Beowulf itself narrates the battles of Beowulf, a prince of the Geats (a tribe in what is now southern Sweden), against the monstrous Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. The account contains some of the best elegiac verse in the language, and, by setting marvelous tales against a historical background in which victory is always temporary and strife is always renewed, the poet gives the whole an elegiac cast. Beowulf also is one of the best religious poems, not only because of its explicitly Christian passages but also because Beowulf's monstrous foes are depicted as God's enemies and Beowulf himself as God's champion. Other heroic narratives are fragmentary. Of “The Battle of Finnsburh” and “Waldere” only enough remains to indicate that, when whole, they must have been fast-paced and stirring.
Of several poems dealing with English history and preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the most notable is “The Battle of Brunanburh,” a panegyric on the occasion of King Athelstan's victory over a coalition of Norsemen and Scots in 937. But the best historical poem is not from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. “The Battle of Maldon,” which describes the defeat of Aldorman Byrhtnoth and much of his army at the hands of Viking invaders in 991, discovers in defeat an occasion to celebrate the heroic ideal, contrasting the determination of many of Byrhtnoth's thanes to avenge his death or die in the attempt with the cowardice of others who left the field. Minor poetic genres include catalogs (two sets of “Maxims” and “Widsith,” a list of rulers, tribes, and notables in the heroic age), dialogues, metrical prefaces and epilogues to prose works of the Alfredian period, and liturgical poems associated with the Benedictine Office.
The earliest English prose work, the law code of King Aethelberht I of Kent, was written within a few years of the arrival in England (597) of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Other 7th- and 8th-century prose, similarly practical in character, includes more laws, wills, and charters. According to Cuthbert, who was a monk at Jarrow, Bede at the time of his death had just finished a translation of the Gospel of St. John, though this does not survive. Two medical tracts, Herbarium and Medicina de quadrupedibus, very likely date from the 8th century.
Early translations into English
The earliest literary prose dates from the late 9th century, when King Alfred, eager to improve the state of English learning, led a vigorous program to translate into English “certain books that are necessary for all men to know.” Alfred himself translated the Pastoral Care of St. Gregory I the Great, the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, the Soliloquies of St. Augustine of Hippo, and the first 50 Psalms. His Pastoral Care is a fairly literal translation, but his Boethius is extensively restructured and revised to make explicit the Christian message that medieval commentators saw in that work. He revised the Soliloquies even more radically, departing from his source to draw from Gregory and St. Jerome, as well as from other works by Augustine. Alfred's prefaces to these works are of great historical interest.
At Alfred's urging, Bishop Werferth of Worcester translated the Dialogues of Gregory; probably Alfred also inspired anonymous scholars to translate Bede's Historia ecclesiastica and Paulus Orosius's Historiarum adversum paganos libri vii (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans). Both of these works are much abridged; the Bede translation follows its source slavishly, but the translator of Orosius added many details of northern European geography and also accounts of the voyages of Ohthere the Norwegian and Wulfstan the Dane. These accounts, in addition to their geographical interest, show that friendly commerce between England and Scandinavia was possible even during the Danish wars. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle probably originated in Alfred's reign. Its earliest annals (beginning in the reign of Julius Caesar) are laconic, except the entry for 755, which records in detail a feud between the West Saxon king Cynewulf and the would-be usurper Cyneheard. The entries covering the Danish wars of the late 9th century are much fuller, and those running from the reign of Ethelred II to the Norman Conquest in 1066 (when the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle exists in several versions) contain many passages of excellent writing. The early 10th century is not notable for literary production, but some of the homilies in the Vercelli Book and the Blickling Manuscript (Scheide Library, Princeton University) may belong to that period.
Late 10th- and 11th-century prose
The prose literature of the mid- to late 10th century is associated with the Benedictine Reform, a movement that sought to impose order and discipline on a monastic establishment that was thought to have grown lax. Aethelwold, bishop of Winchester and one of the leaders of the reform, translated the Rule of St. Benedict. But the greatest and most prolific writer of this period was his pupil Aelfric, a monk at Cerne and later abbot of Eynsham, whose works include three cycles of 40 homilies each (Catholic Homilies, 2 vol., and the Lives of the Saints), as well as homilies not in these cycles; a Latin grammar; a treatise on time and natural history; pastoral letters; and several translations. His Latin Colloquy, supplied with an Old English version by an anonymous glossarist, gives a fascinating glimpse into the Anglo-Saxon monastic classroom. Aelfric wrote with lucidity and astonishing beauty, using the rhetorical devices of Latin literature frequently but without ostentation; his later alliterative prose, which loosely imitates the rhythms of Old English poetry, influenced writers long after the Norman Conquest. Wulfstan, archbishop of York, wrote legal codes, both civil and ecclesiastical, and a number of homilies, including Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (“Wulf's Address to the English”), a ferocious denunciation of the morals of his time. To judge from the number of extant manuscripts, these two writers were enormously popular. Byrhtferth of Ramsey wrote several Latin works and the Enchiridion, a textbook on the calendar, notable for its ornate style. Numerous anonymous works, some of very high quality, were produced in this period, including homilies, saints' lives, dialogues, and translations of such works as the Gospels, several Old Testament books, liturgical texts, monastic rules, penitential handbooks, and the romance Apollonius of Tyre (translated from Latin but probably derived from a Greek original). The works of the Benedictine Reform were written during a few remarkable decades around the turn of the millennium. Little original work can be securely dated to the period after Wulfstan's death (1023), but the continued vigour of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle shows that good Old English prose was written right up to the
Norman Conquest. By the end of this period, English had been established as a literary language with a polish and versatility unequaled among European vernaculars.
The early Middle English period
The Norman Conquest worked no immediate transformation on either the language or the literature of the English. Older poetry continued to be copied during the last half of the 11th century; two poems of the early 12th century--“Durham,” which praises that city's cathedral and its relics, and “Instructions for Christians,” a didactic piece--show that correct alliterative verse could be composed well after 1066. But even before the conquest, rhyme had begun to supplant rather than supplement alliteration in some poems, which continued to use the older four-stress line, although their rhythms varied from the set types used in classical Old English verse. A postconquest example is “The Grave,” which contains several rhyming lines; a poem from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the death of William the Conqueror, lamenting his cruelty and greed, has more rhyme than alliteration.
Influence of French poetry
By the end of the 12th century, English poetry had been so heavily influenced by French models that such a work as the long epic Brut (c. 1200) by Lawamon, a Worcestershire priest, seems archaic for mixing alliterative lines with rhyming couplets while generally eschewing French vocabulary. The Brut draws mainly upon Wace's Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut (1155; based in turn upon Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain]), but in Lawamon's hands the Arthurian story takes on a Germanic and heroic flavour largely missing in Wace. The Brut exists in two manuscripts, one written shortly after 1200 and the other some 50 years later. That the later version has been extensively modernized and somewhat abridged suggests the speed with which English language and literary tastes were changing in this period. The Proverbs of Alfred was written somewhat earlier, in the late 12th century; these proverbs deliver conventional wisdom in a mixture of rhymed couplets and alliterative lines, and it is hardly likely that any of the material they contain actually originated with the king whose wisdom they celebrate. The early 13th-century Bestiary mixes alliterative lines, three- and four-stress couplets, and septenary (heptameter) lines, but the logic behind this mix is more obvious than in the Brut and the Proverbs, for the poet was imitating the varied metres of his Latin source. More regular in form than these poems is the anonymous Poema morale in septenary couplets, in which an old man delivers a dose of moral advice to his presumably younger audience.
By far the most brilliant poem of this period is The Owl and the
Nightingale (written after 1189), an example of the popular debate genre. The two birds argue topics ranging from their hygienic habits, looks, and songs to marriage, prognostication, and the proper modes of worship. The nightingale stands for the joyous aspects of life, the owl for the sombre; there is no clear winner, but the debate ends as the birds go off to state their cases to one Nicholas of Guildford, a wise man. The poem is learned in the clerical tradition but wears its learning lightly as the disputants speak in colloquial and sometimes earthy language. Like the Poema morale, The Owl and the Nightingale is metrically regular (octosyllabic couplets), but it uses the French metre with an assurance unusual in so early a poem.
The 13th century saw a rise in the popularity of long didactic poems presenting biblical narrative, saints' lives, or moral instruction for those untutored in Latin or French. The most idiosyncratic of these is the Ormulum by Orm, an Augustinian canon in the north of England. Written in some 20,000 lines arranged in unrhymed but metrically rigid couplets, the work is interesting mainly in that the manuscript that preserves it is Orm's autograph and shows his somewhat fussy efforts to reform and regularize English spelling. Other biblical paraphrases are Genesis and Exodus, Jacob and Joseph, and the vast Cursor mundi, whose subject, as its title suggests, is the history of the world. An especially popular work was the South English Legendary, which began as a miscellaneous collection of saints' lives but was expanded by later redactors and rearranged in the order of the church calendar. The didactic tradition continued into the 14th century with Robert Mannyng's Handling Sin, a confessional manual whose expected dryness is relieved by the insertion of lively narratives, and the Prick of Conscience, a popular summary of theology sometimes attributed to the mystic Richard Rolle.
The earliest examples of verse romance, a genre that would remain popular through the Middle Ages, appeared in the 13th century. King Horn and Floris and Blauncheflour both are preserved in a manuscript of about 1250. King Horn, oddly written in short two- and three-stress lines, is a vigorous tale of a kingdom lost and regained, with a subplot concerning Horn's love for Princess Rymenhild. Floris and Blauncheflour is more exotic, being the tale of a pair of royal lovers who become separated and, after various adventures in eastern lands, reunited. Not much later than these is The Lay of Havelok the Dane, a tale of princely love and adventure similar to King Horn but more competently executed. Many more such romances were produced in the 14th century. Popular subgenres were “the matter of Britain” (Arthurian romances such as Of Arthour and of Merlin and Ywain and Gawain), “the matter of Troy” (tales of antiquity such as The Siege of Troy and King Alisaunder), and the English Breton lays (stories of otherworldly magic, such as Lai le Freine and Sir Orfeo, modeled after those of professional Breton storytellers). These relatively unsophisticated works were written for a bourgeois audience, and the manuscripts that preserve them are early examples of commercial book production. The humorous beast epic makes its first appearance in Britain in the 13th century with The Fox and the Wolf, taken indirectly from the Old French Roman de Renart. In the same manuscript with this work is Dame Sirith, the earliest English fabliau. Another sort of humour is found in The Land of Cockaygne, which depicts a utopia better than heaven, where rivers run with milk, honey, and wine, geese fly about already roasted, and monks hunt with hawks and dance with nuns.
The lyric was virtually unknown to Old English poets. Poems such as “Deor” and “Wulf and Eadwacer,” which have been called lyrics, are thematically different from those that began to circulate orally in the 12th century and to be written down in great numbers in the 13th; these Old English poems also have a stronger narrative component than the later productions. The most frequent topics in the Middle English secular lyric are springtime and romantic love; many rework such themes tediously, but some, such as “Foweles in the frith” (13th century) and “Ich am of Irlaunde” (14th century), convey strong emotions in a few lines. Two lyrics of the early 13th century, “Mirie it is while sumer ilast” and “Sumer is icumen in,” are preserved with musical settings, and probably most of the others were meant to be sung. The dominant mood of the religious lyrics is passionate: the poets sorrow for Christ on the cross and for the Virgin Mary, celebrate the “five joys” of Mary, and import language from love poetry to express religious devotion. Excellent early examples are “Nou goth sonne under wod” and “Stond wel, moder, ounder rode.” Many of the lyrics are preserved in manuscript anthologies, of which the best is British Library manuscript Harley 2253 from the early 14th century. In this collection, known as the Harley Lyrics, the love poems, such as “Alysoun” and “Blow, Northern Wind,” take after the poems of the Provencal troubadours but are less formal, less abstract, and more lively. The religious lyrics also are of high quality; but the most remarkable of the Harley Lyrics, “The Man in the Moon,” far from being about love or religion, imagines the man in the Moon as a simple peasant, sympathizes with his hard life, and offers him some useful advice on how to best the village hayward (a local officer in charge of a town's common herd of cattle).
A poem such as “The Man in the Moon” serves as a reminder that, although the poetry of the early Middle English period was increasingly influenced by the Anglo-Norman literature produced for the courts, it is seldom “courtly.” Most English poets, whether writing about kings or peasants, looked at life from a bourgeois perspective. If their work sometimes lacks sophistication, it nevertheless has a vitality that comes from preoccupation with daily affairs.
Old English prose texts were copied for more than a century after the Norman Conquest; the homilies of Aelfric were especially popular, and King Alfred's translations of Boethius and Augustine survive only in 12th-century manuscripts. In the early 13th century an anonymous worker at Worcester supplied glosses to certain words in a number of Old English manuscripts, which demonstrates that by this time the older language was beginning to pose difficulties for readers.
The composition of English prose also continued without interruption. Two manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle exhibit very strong prose for years after the conquest, and one of these, the Peterborough Chronicle, continues to 1154. Two manuscripts of about 1200 contain 12th-century sermons, and another has the workmanlike compilation Vices and Virtues, composed about 1200. But the English language faced stiff competition from both Anglo-Norman (the insular dialect of French being used increasingly in the monasteries) and Latin, a language intelligible to speakers of both English and French. It was inevitable, then, that the production of English prose should decline in quantity, if not in quality. The great prose works of this period were composed mainly for those who could read only English--women especially. In the West Midlands the Old English alliterative prose tradition remained very much alive into the 13th century, when the several texts known collectively as the Katherine Group were written. St. Katherine, St. Margaret, and St. Juliana, found together in a single manuscript, have rhythms strongly reminiscent of those of Aelfric and Wulfstan. So to a lesser extent do Hali Meithhad (“Holy Maidenhood”) and Sawles Warde (“The Guardianship of the Soul”) from the same book, but newer influences can be seen in these works as well: as the title of another devotional piece, The Wohunge of Ure Lauerd (“The Wooing of Our Lord”), suggests, the prose of this time often has a rapturous, even sensual flavour, and, like the poetry, it frequently employs the language of love to express religious fervour.
Further removed from the Old English prose tradition, though often associated with the Katherine Group, is the Ancrene Wisse (“Guide for Anchoresses,” also known as the Ancrene Riwle, or “Rule for Anchoresses”), a manual for the guidance of women recluses outside the regular orders. This anonymous work, which was translated into French and Latin and remained popular until the 16th century, is notable for its humanity, practicality, and insight into human nature but even more for its brilliant style. Like the other prose of its time, it uses alliteration as ornament, but it is more indebted to new fashions in preaching, which had originated in the universities, than to native traditions. With its richly figurative language, rhetorically crafted sentences, and carefully logical divisions and subdivisions, it manages to achieve in English the effects that such contemporary writers as John of Salisbury and Walter Map were striving for in Latin.
Little noteworthy prose was written in the late 13th century. In the early 14th century Dan Michel of Northgate produced in Kentish the Ayenbite of Inwit (“Prick of Conscience”), a translation from French. But the best prose of this time is by the mystic Richard Rolle, the hermit of Hampole, whose English tracts include The Commandment, Meditations on the Passion, and The Form of Perfect Living, among others. His intense and stylized prose was among the most popular of the 14th century and inspired such later works as Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection, Julian of Norwich's Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, and the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing.
Peter S. Baker
The later Middle English and early Renaissance periods
One of the most important factors in the nature and development of English literature between about 1350 and 1550 was the peculiar linguistic situation in England at the beginning of the period. Among the small minority of the population that could be regarded as literate, bilingualism and even trilingualism were common. Insofar as it was considered a serious literary medium at all, English was obliged to compete on uneven terms with Latin and with the Anglo-Norman dialect of French widely used in England at the time. Moreover, extreme dialectal diversity within English itself made it difficult for vernacular writings, irrespective of their literary pretensions, to circulate very far outside their immediate areas of composition, a disadvantage not suffered by writings in Anglo-Norman and Latin. Literary culture managed to survive and in fact to flourish in the face of such potentially crushing factors as the catastrophic mortality of the Black Death (1347-51), chronic external and internal military conflicts in the form of the Hundred Years' War and the Wars of the Roses, and serious social, political, and religious unrest, as evinced in the Peasants' Revolt (1381) and the rise of Lollardism (centred on the religious teachings of John Wycliffe). All the more remarkable, then, was the literary and linguistic revolution that took place in England between about 1350 and 1400 and that was slowly and soberly consolidated over the subsequent 150 years.
Later Middle English poetry
The revival of alliterative poetry
The most puzzling episode in the development of later Middle English literature is the apparently sudden reappearance of unrhymed alliterative poetry in the mid-14th century. Debate continues as to whether the group of long, serious, and sometimes learned poems written between about 1350 and the first decade of the 15th century should be regarded as an “alliterative revival” or rather as the late flowering of a largely lost native tradition stretching back to the Old English period. The earliest examples of the phenomenon, William of Palerne and Winner and Waster, are both datable to the 1350s, but neither poem exhibits to the full all the characteristics of the slightly later poems central to the movement. William of Palerne, condescendingly commissioned by a nobleman for the benefit of “them that know no French,” is a homely paraphrase of a courtly Continental romance, the only poem in the group to take love as its central theme. The poet's technical competence in handling the difficult syntax and diction of the alliterative style is not, however, to be compared with that of Winner and Waster's author, who exhibits full mastery of the form, particularly in descriptions of setting and spectacle. This poem's topical concern with social satire links it primarily with another, less formal body of alliterative verse, of which William Langland's Piers Plowman was the principal representative and exemplar. Indeed, Winner and Waster, with its sense of social commitment and occasional apocalyptic gesture, may well have served as a source of inspiration for Langland himself.
The term alliterative revival should not be taken to imply a return to the principles of classical Old English versification. The authors of the later 14th-century alliterative poems either inherited or developed their own conventions, which resemble those of the Old English tradition in only the most general way. The syntax and particularly the diction of later Middle English alliterative verse were also distinctive, and the search for alliterating phrases and constructions led to the extensive use of archaic, technical, and dialectal words. Hunts, feasts, battles, storms, and landscapes were described with a brilliant concretion of detail rarely paralleled since, while the abler poets also contrived subtle modulations of the staple verse-paragraph to accommodate dialogue, discourse, and argument. Among the poems central to the movement were three pieces dealing with the life and legends of Alexander the Great, the massive Destruction of Troy, and the Siege of Jerusalem. The fact that all of these derived from various Latin sources suggests that the anonymous poets were likely to have been clerics with a strong, if bookish, historical sense of their romance “matters.” The “matter of Britain” was represented by an outstanding composition, the alliterative Morte Arthure, an epic portrayal of King Arthur's conquests in Europe and his eventual fall, which combined a strong narrative thrust with considerable density and subtlety of diction. A gathering sense of inevitable transitoriness gradually tempers the virile realization of heroic idealism, and it is not surprising to find that the poem was later used by Sir Thomas Malory as a source for his prose account of the Arthurian legend, Le Morte Darthur (completed c. 1470).
The alliterative movement would today be regarded as a curious but inconsiderable episode were it not for four other poems now generally attributed to a single anonymous author: the chivalric romance Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, two homiletic poems called Patience and Purity (or Cleanness), and an elegiac dream vision known as Pearl, all miraculously preserved in a single manuscript dated about 1400. The poet of Sir Gawayne far exceeded the other alliterative writers in his mastery of form and style, and, though he wrote ultimately as a moralist, human warmth and sympathy (often taking comic form) are also close to the heart of his work. Patience relates the biblical story of Jonah as a human comedy of petulance and irascibility set off against God's benign forbearance. Purity imaginatively re-creates several monitory narratives of human impurity and its consequences in a spectacular display of poetic skill: the Flood, the destruction of Sodom, and Belshazzar's Feast. The poet's principal achievement, however, was Sir Gawayne, in which he used the conventional apparatus of chivalric romance to engage in a serious exploration of moral conduct in the face of the unknown. The hero, Gawain, a questing knight of Arthur's court, embodies a combination of the noblest chivalric and spiritual aspirations of the age, but, instead of triumphing in the conventional way, he fails when tested (albeit rather unfairly) by mysterious supernatural powers. No paraphrase can hope to recapture the imaginative resources displayed in the telling of the story and the structuring of the poem as a work of art. Pearl stands somewhat aside from the alliterative movement proper. In common with a number of other poems of the period, it was composed in stanzaic form, with alliteration used for ornamental effect. Technically, it is one of the most complex poems in the language, an attempt to work in words an analogy to the jeweler's art. The jeweler-poet is vouchsafed a heavenly vision in which he sees his pearl, the discreet symbol used in the poem for a lost infant daughter who has died to become a bride of Christ. She offers theological consolation for his grief, expounding the way of salvation and the place of human life in a transcendental and extra-temporal view of things.
The alliterative movement was primarily confined to poets writing in northern and northwestern England, who showed little regard for courtly, London-based literary developments. It is likely that alliterative poetry, under aristocratic patronage, filled a gap in the literary life of the provinces caused by the decline of Anglo-Norman in the latter half of the 14th century. Alliterative poetry was not unknown in London and the southeast, but it penetrated those areas in a modified form and in poems that dealt with different subject matter.
William Langland's long alliterative poem Piers Plowman begins with a vision of the world seen from the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, where, tradition has it, the poet was born and brought up and where he would have been open to the influence of the alliterative movement. If what he tells about himself in the poem is true (and there is no other source of information), he later lived obscurely in London as an unbeneficed cleric. Langland wrote in the unrhymed alliterative mode, but he modified it in such a way as to make it more accessible to a wider audience by treating the metre more loosely and avoiding the arcane diction of the provincial poets. His poem exists in at least three and possibly four versions: A, Piers Plowman in its short early form, dating from the 1360s; B, a major revision and extension of A made in the late 1370s; C (1380s), a less “literary” version of B, apparently intended to bring its doctrinal issues into clearer focus; and Z, a conjectured version that calls into question the dating for A, B, and C. The poem takes the form of a series of dream visions dealing with the social and spiritual predicament of late 14th-century England against a sombre apocalyptic backdrop. Realistic and allegorical elements are mingled in a phantasmagoric way, and both the poetic medium and the structure are frequently subverted by the writer's spiritual and didactic impulses.
Passages of involuted theological reasoning mingle with scatological satire, and moments of sublime religious feeling appear alongside forthright political comment. This makes it a work of the utmost difficulty, defiant of categorization, but at the same time Langland never fails to convince the reader of the passionate integrity of his writing. His bitter attacks on political and ecclesiastical corruption (especially among the friars) quickly struck chords with his contemporaries. Among minor poems in the same vein are Mum and the Sothsegger (c. 1399-1406) and a Lollard piece called Pierce the Ploughman's Creed (c. 1395). In the 16th century, Piers Plowman was issued as a printed book and was used for apologetic purposes by the early Protestants.
Apart from a few late and minor reappearances in Scotland and the northwest of England, the alliterative movement was over before the first quarter of the 15th century had passed. The other major strand in the development of English poetry from roughly 1350 proved much more durable.
The cultivation and refinement of human sentiment with respect to love, already present in earlier 14th-century writings such as the Harley Lyrics, took firm root in English court culture during the reign of Richard II (1377-99). English began to displace Anglo-Norman as the language spoken at court and in aristocratic circles, and signs of royal and noble patronage for English vernacular writers became evident. These processes undoubtedly created some of the conditions in which a writer of Chaucer's interests and temperament might flourish, but they were encouraged and given direction by his genius in establishing English as a literary language.
Chaucer and Gower
Geoffrey Chaucer, a Londoner of bourgeois origins, was at various times a courtier, a diplomat, and a civil servant. His poetry frequently (but not always unironically) reflects the views and values associated with the term courtly. It is in some ways not easy to account for his decision to write in English, and it is not surprising that his earliest substantial poems, the Book of the Duchess (c. 1370) and the House of Fame (1370s), were heavily indebted to the fashionable French courtly love poetry of the time. Also of French origin was the octosyllabic couplet used in these poems.
Chaucer's abandonment of this engaging but ultimately jejune metre in favour of a 10-syllable line (specifically, iambic pentameter) was a portentous moment for English poetry. His mastery of it was first revealed in stanzaic form, notably the seven-line stanza (rhyme royal) of the Parliament of Fowls (c. 1382) and Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385), and later was extended in the decasyllabic couplets of the prologue to the Legend of Good Women (1380s) and large parts of The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387-1400).
Though Chaucer wrote a number of moral and amatory lyrics, which were imitated by his 15th-century followers, his major achievements were in the field of narrative poetry. The early influence of French courtly love poetry (notably the Roman de la Rose, which he translated) gave way to an interest in Italian literature. Chaucer was acquainted with Dante's writings and took a story from Petrarch for the substance of “The Clerk's Tale.” Two of his major poems, Troilus and Criseyde and “The Knight's Tale,” were based, respectively, on the Filostrato and the Teseida of Boccaccio.
The Troilus, Chaucer's single most ambitious poem, is a moving story of love gained and betrayed set against the background of the Trojan War. As well as being a poem of profound human sympathy and insight, it also has a marked philosophical dimension derived from Chaucer's reading of Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae, a work that he also translated in prose.
His consummate skill in narrative art, however, was most fully displayed in The Canterbury Tales, an unfinished series of stories purporting to be told by a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket and back. The illusion that the individual pilgrims (rather than Chaucer himself) tell their tales gave him an unprecedented freedom of authorial stance, which enabled him to explore the rich fictive potentialities of a number of genres: pious legend (in “The Man of Law's Tale” and “The Prioress's Tale”), fabliau (“The Shipman's Tale,” “The Miller's Tale,” and “The Reeve's Tale”), chivalric romance (“The Knight's Tale”), popular romance (parodied in Chaucer's “own” “Tale of Sir Thopas”), beast fable (“The Nun's Priest's Tale” and “The Manciple's Tale”), and more--what the poet John Dryden later summed up as “God's plenty.”
A recurrent concern in Chaucer's writings is the refined and sophisticated cultivation of love, commonly described by the modern expression courtly love. A French term of Chaucer's time, fine amour, gives a more authentic description of the phenomenon; Chaucer's friend John Gower translated it as “fine loving” in his long poem Confessio amantis (begun c. 1386). The Confessio runs to some 33,000 lines in octosyllabic couplets and takes the form of a collection of exemplary tales placed within the framework of a lover's confession to a priest of Venus. Gower provides a contrast to Chaucer in that the sober and earnest moral intent behind Gower's writing is always clear, whereas Chaucer can be noncommittal and evasive.
On the other hand, though Gower's verse is generally fluent and pleasing to read, it has a thin homogeneity of texture that cannot compare with the colour and range found in the language of his great contemporary. Gower was undoubtedly extremely learned by lay standards, and many Classical myths (especially those deriving from Ovid's Metamorphoses) make the first of their numerous appearances in English literature in the Confessio. Gower was also deeply concerned with the moral and social condition of contemporary society, and he dealt with it in two weighty compositions in French and Latin, respectively: the Mirour de l'omme (c. 1374-78; The Mirror of
Mankind) and Vox clamantis (c. 1385; The Voice of One Crying).
Poetry after Chaucer and Gower. Courtly poetry
The numerous 15th-century followers of Chaucer continued to treat the conventional range of courtly and moralizing topics, but only rarely with the intelligence and stylistic accomplishment of their distinguished predecessors. The canon of Chaucer's works began to accumulate delightful but apocryphal trifles such as “The Flower and the Leaf” and “The Assembly of Ladies” (both c. 1475), the former, like a surprising quantity of 15th-century verse of this type, purportedly written by a woman. The stock figures of the ardent but endlessly frustrated lover and the irresistible but disdainful lady were cultivated as part of the “game of love” depicted in numerous courtly lyrics. By the 15th century, vernacular literacy was spreading rapidly among both men and women of the laity, with the influence of French courtly love poetry remaining strong. Aristocratic and knightly versifiers such as Charles, duc d'Orleans (captured at Agincourt in 1415), his “jailer” William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, and Sir Richard Ros (translator of Alain Chartier's influential La Belle Dame sans merci) were widely read and imitated among the gentry and in bourgeois circles well into the 16th century.
Both Chaucer and Gower had to some extent enjoyed royal and aristocratic patronage, and the active seeking of patronage became a pervasive feature of the 15th-century literary scene. Thomas Hoccleve, a minor civil servant who probably knew Chaucer and claimed to be his disciple, dedicated The Regiment of Princes (c. 1412), culled from an earlier work of the same name, to the future king Henry V. Most of Hoccleve's compositions seem to have been written with an eye to patronage, and, though they occasionally yield unexpected glimpses of his daily and private lives, they have little to recommend them as poetry. Hoccleve's aspiration to be Chaucer's successor was rapidly overshadowed, in sheer bulk if not necessarily in literary merit, by the formidable oeuvre of John Lydgate, a monk at the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. Lydgate, too, was greatly stimulated at the prospects opened up by distinguished patronage and produced as a result a number of very long pieces that were greatly admired in their day. A staunch Lancastrian, Lydgate dedicated his Troy Book (1412-21) and Life of Our Lady to Henry V and his Fall of Princes (1431-38; based ultimately on Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium) to Humphrey Plantagenet, duke of Gloucester. He also essayed courtly verse in Chaucer's manner (The Complaint of the Black Knight and The Temple of Glass), but his imitation of the master's style was rarely successful. Both Lydgate and Hoccleve admired above all Chaucer's “eloquence,” by which they meant mainly the Latinate elements in his diction. Their own painfully polysyllabic style, which came to be known as the “aureate” style, was widely imitated for more than a century. In sum, the major 15th-century English poets were generally undistinguished as successors of Chaucer, and, for a significant but independent extension of his achievement, one must look to the Scottish courtly poets known as the makaris (“makers”), among whom were King James I of Scotland, Robert Henryson, and William Dunbar.
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