The Development of English Literature

National traditions role in enriching and development of the world literature. Romantic poetry. The first major work of literature is the epic poem "Beowulf". Carpe Diem Poetry. The masters of literature from the turn of the XIV century to the present.

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English Literature

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Tashkent 2006


The Development of English Literature (Periodization).

Its Place in the World Literature.

English literature is a component part of the world literature. Its best national traditions have played an important role in enriching and development of the world literature. English literature consists of poetry, prose, and drama written in the English language by authors in England, Scotland, and Wales. These lands have produced many outstanding writers.

English literature is a rich literature. It includes masterpieces in many forms, particularly a novel, a short story, an epic and lyric poetry, an essay, literary criticism, and drama. English literature is also one of the oldest national literatures in the world. The masters of English literature from the turn of the XIV century to the present rank among the world's greatest literary figures. Such names as Geoffry Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, George Gordon Byron, Charles Dickens, Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy and many others are famous all over the world. Their way of writing has influenced a great number of writers, poets and playwrights from other countries.

National literature is the reflection of the history and national peculiarities of people. Each national literature has much in common with the world literary progress, but at the same time has its own specific features as well. One of the characteristic features of the English authors is that they have always been deeply interested in political and social environment of their time. They are parts of the real world, which dramatically influences what and how they write. What takes place in the writer's study is crucial, but it also emphasizes the importance of what takes place in the larger world.

The world Book Encyclopedia gives the following outline of English Literature:

I. Old English literature (500-1100)

A. Old English Poetry. B. Old English Prose.

II. Middle English literature (1100-1485)

A.The development of English romances.

B. The age of Chaucer. C. Early English drama.

III. The beginning of Modern English literature (1485-1603)

A.Elizabethan poetry.

B.Elizabethan drama. C. Elizabethan fiction.

IV. The Stuarts and Puritans (1603-1660)

A.Metaphysical and Cavalier poets. C. Prose writing.

B.Jacobian drama. D. John Milton.

V. Restoration literature (1660-1700).

A.John Dryden. C. Restoration prose.

B.Restoration drama.

VI. The Augustan Age (1700-1750)

A.Swift and Pope. C. The rise of the novel.

B.Addison and Steele.

VII. The Age of Johnson (1750-1784)

A. Samuel Johnson. B. The Johnson circle.

VIII. Romantic literature (1784-1832)

A.The pre-romantics. C. Romantic prose.

B.Romantic poetry.

IX. Victorian literature (1832-1901).

A.Early Victorian literature.

B.Later Victorian literature.

X. The 1900's.

A.Literature before World War I.

B.Poetry between the wars.

C.Fiction between the wars.

D.Literature after World War II.

E.English literature today.

Having studied the outline given above, and the periodizations presented in other books on English literature, and taking into consideration the general objectives of the course and the number of academic hours in the curriculum, we decided to focus on more issues and divided this book into nine units according to the following outline:

1.Old English Literature.

2.Middle English Literature.

3.The Renaissance.

4. English literature in the Seventeenth Century.

5. The Eighteenth Century. (The Age of Reason or Enlightenment).

6. The Romantic Age.

7. The Victorian Age.

8. English Literature at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

9. English Literature in the Twentieth Century.

Each period is a step in the development of English literature, and each gave the world genuine works with their own flavour and individuality.


For the first eleven hundred years of its recorded history, the island of Britain suffered a series of invasions. The southern part of the island, washed by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, was attractive to outsiders with its mild climate and rich soil. Each invasion brought bloodshed and sorrow, but each also brought new people with new culture and those different peoples created a nation.

250,000 years ago the island was inhabited by cave dwellers. Invaders from the Iberian peninsula (Modern Spain and Portugal) overcame their culture about 2000 B.C., erecting Stonehenge - the circle of huge upright stones. Then a new group, the Celts, appeared. Migrating from East, the Celtic people spread throughout Europe before reaching the British Isles around 600 B.C. They used bronze and later iron tools and grew crops. Some Celtic tribes, each with its own King, warred with each other, and erected timber and stone fortresses. Their priests - called druids - made sacrifices in forest shrines. The people who lived in Britain at that time were called the Britons.

In the 1st century before our era the powerful State of Rome conquered Britain. The Romans were practical men. They were very clever at making hard roads and building bridges and fine tall houses. The Romans taught Britons many things. But at the end of the 4th century they had to leave Britain because they were needed to defend their own country invaded by barbaric people.

As soon as Romans left, Britain had to defend the country from Germanic tribes called Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The Anglo-Saxons were advanced people and by the time they conquered Britain, they already had their own letters called runes, but still no written literature existed yet, and the stories and poems they made up passed from one generation to another verbally. Songs and tales composed by people when at work or at war, or for amusement (folk-lore) became wide-spread. There were also professional singers called bards. They composed songs about events they wanted to be remembered. Their songs were about wonderful battles and exploits of brave warriors. These songs were handed down to their children and grandchildren and finally reached the times when certain people who were called scribes wrote them down. (The word scribe comes from the Latin scribere-to write).

Many old English poems glorified a real or imaginary hero and tried to teach the values of bravery and generosity. Poets used alliteration (words that begin with the same sound) and kennings (elaborate descriptive phrases). They also used internal rhyme, in which a word within a line rhymes with a word at the end of the line.

The first major work of English literature is the epic poem Beowulf.


The beautiful Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf may be called the foundation-stone of all British poetry. It tells of times long before the Angles and Saxons came to Britain. There is no mention of England in it. The poem was composed around 700 by an unknown author. This was about seventy years after the death of Mohammed and in the same age as the beginning of the great Tang Dynasty in China. Three hundred years later, about the year 1000, the manuscript, which still survives, was written down by an unknown scribe. The poem presents the legendary history of the Anglo-Saxons, and its author might have been descended from the original tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who invaded Britain from the European continent in the fifth century. Those people spoke Germanic language in which the poem is written. Beowulf is 3182 lines long, approximately 80 or 90 pages in book length. The narrative itself falls into two halves: the first part takes place in Denmark where, coming to the aid of King Hrothgar, Beowulf fights the monster Grendel and Grendel's mother. The second part is set in Southern Sweden where, after the death of King Hygelac and his son, Heardred, Beowulf has ruled in peace and prosperity far 50 years before being called upon to combat a dragon that is terrorizing the country after having its treasure hoard looted. Beowulf blends a fairy-tale narrative with considerable historical material. (Sweedish and Danish kings really ruled in the VI century).

The manuscript of Beowulf is in the British Museum, in London. It is impossible for a non-specialist to read it in the original, so it was translated into modern English language in the 20th century.

The story of Beowulf:

Once upon a time, many-many centuries ago, there lived a king of Danes named Hrothgar. He had won many battles and gained great wealth. He built a large and beautiful palace (Heorot) and he presented costly gifts to his warriors and gave splendid banques. But the joy of the king didn't last long. In the dark fens nearby there lived a fierce sea-monster Grendel. He wanted to destroy the palace Heorot as he disliked noise. Grendel looked like a man but was much bigger, and his whole body was covered with long hair, so thick and tough that no weapon could harm him.

One night when the warriors in Heorot were asleep, Grendel rushed in, seized thirty men and devoured them. The next night the monster appeared again. The men defended themselves bravely, but their swords could not even hurt the monster. From that time no one dared to come to Heorot. For twelve years the palace stood deserted. The news of the disaster reached Beowulf, nephew of Hygelac, king of the Jutes. Beowulf was the strongest and the bravest of all the warriors. He was said to have the strength of thirty men. He decided to help Hrothgar. With fourteen chosen companions he set sail for the country of the Danes. Hrothgar gladly welcomed Beowulf and gave a banquet in his honour. Late at night, when the feast was over, all went to sleep except Beowulf. Beowulf knew that no weapon could kill Grendel and decided to fight bare-handed.

Suddenly the man-eater rushed into the hall. He seized and devoured one of the sleeping warriors, and then approached Beowulf. A desperate hand-to-hand fight began. At first Beowulf's courage fled:

The demon delayed not, but quickly clutched

A sleeping thane in his swift assault,

Gulped the blood, and gobbled the flesh,

Greedily gorged on the lifeless corpse,

The hands and the feet. Then the fiend stepped nearer,

Sprang on the Sea-Geat lying outstretched,

Glasping him close with his monstrous clow.

But Beowulf grappled and gripped him hard,

Struggled up on his elbow; the shepherd of sins

Soon found that never before had he felt

In any man other in all the earth

A mightier hand-grip; his mood was humbled,

His courage fled; but he found no escape!

But soon, remembering the boast he had made at the banquet and his glorious duty, Beowulf regained his courage, sprang to his feet and went on fighting. It was so terrible that the walls of the palace shook. Beowulf managed to tear off Grendel's arm, and the monster retreated to his den howling and roaring with pain and fury. He was fatally wounded and soon died:

Each loathed the other while life should last!

There Grendel suffered a grievous hurt,

A wound in the shoulder, gaping and wide;

Sinews snapped and bone-joints broke,

And Beowulf gained the glory of battle.

Grendel, fated, fled to the fens,

To his joyless dwelling, sick unto death.

He knew in his heart that his hours were numbered

His days at an end. For all the Danes

There wish was fulfilled in the fall of Grendel.

The stranger from far, the stalwart and strong,

Had purged of evil the hall of Hrothgar,

And cleansed of crime; the heart of the hero

Joyed in the deed his daring had done.

The next night Grendel's mother, a water-witch, came to Heorot to avenge her son's death. While Beowulf was asleep she snatched away one of Hrothgar's favourite warriors. Beowulf decided to kill the water-witch too. He plunged into the water and found the water-witch in her den beside the dead body of her son. A desperate fight began. At first Beowulf was nearly overcome, as his sword had no power against the monster. But fortunately his glance fell upon a huge magic sword hanging on the wall. Beowulf killed the monster with its help. Then he cut off the heads of Grendel and of the water-witch and carried them to the surface. Heorot was freed forever.

Hrothgar poured treasures into Beowulf's hands.

At last the day came for Beowulf to sail home. Everybody regretted his departure. When Beowulf arrived in his own land, he gave all the treasures he had brought to Hygelac and the people. Beowulf was admired and honoured by everybody. After the death of Hygelac, Beowulf became the king of the Jutes.

For fifty years he ruled his country wisely and well until one day a great disaster befell the happy land: every night there appeared a fire-breathing dragon who came and destroyed the villages. Remembering his glorious youth, Beowulf decided to fight and save his people, but of all his earls only Wiglaf, a brave warrior and heir to the kingdom, had the courage to help him. In a fierce battle the dragon was killed, but his flames burnt Beowulf.

Beowulf ordered Wiglaf to take as much treasure as he could carry and give it to the Jutes. In his last hour he thought only of his people, for whose happiness he had sacrificed his life. Beowulf's victory over the monsters symbolized the triumph of a man over the powers of darkness and evil.

The Literature of the 7th - 11th Centuries

Anglo-Saxon Literature. The culture of the early Britons greatly changed under the influence of Christianity, which penetrated into the British Isles in the 3rd century. That was the time when many Christians escaped from Roman persecution to Britain and Gaul (France), which were colonies of the Roman Empire at that period.

At the end of the 6th century the head of the Roman church at that time Pope Gregory decided to spread his influence over England by converting people to Christianity and sent monks to the island. They landed in Kent and built the first church in the town of Canterbury.

Now the Roman civilization poured into the country again, Latin words once more entered the language of the Anglo-Saxons, because the religious books were all written in Latin. The monasteries, where reading and writing were practiced, became the centre of learning and education in the country. Poets and writers of that period imitated Latin books about the early Christians, and also made up stories of their own, about saints. The names of only two of those early poets have reached our days. They were Caedmon and Cynewulf.

Caedmon lived in the 7th century. He was a shepherd at Whitby, a famous abbey in Yorkshire. He composed his poetry in his native language, in the Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon. He composed hymns and a poem Paraphrase. This poem retells fragments from the Bible in alliterative verse. Many other monks took part in the work but their names are unknown.

Cynewulf was a monk who lived at the end of the 8th century. His name was not forgotten, as he signed his name in runes in the last line of his works. Two of his poems, Elene and Juliana are notable because they are the first Anglo-Saxon works to introduce women characters.

Along with religious poetry, folk-tales about worldly affairs were written down at the monasteries and put into verse by poets. These were wedding-songs, songs to be sung at feasts, war-songs, death-songs, and also ploughing-songs, and even riddles.

Thus, the spread of Christianity was crucial for the development of Anglo-Saxon culture. The Church brought contact with the distant and ancient Mediterranean world. To the illiterate Germanic tribes it brought the essential skill for advanced culture - writing. Soon Anglo-Saxon monasteries were copying books from Rome and beginning to produce manuscripts. The church also served as a force for unity and peace, trying to teach new values to these warrior-kings - compassion and cooperation, instead of arrogance and violence.

Written literature did not exist in the British Isles until about the year 700. It first comes to our attention in the work of the most famous of the Anglo-Saxon monks, the Venerable Bede.

The Venerable Bede (673-735)

The Venerable Bede is considered the father of English history, as he was the author of the most important history of early England. During his lifetime he was the most learned scholar in all of Western Europe. He was born in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in 673. He was orphaned when he was only seven and his relatives put him under the supervision of monks at Wearmouth Abbey. Two years later, in 682, he was sent to the newly built abbey of Jarrow, where he was to spend the rest of his life.

From boyhood Bede studied in the library of Jarrow. Then in 703, the year of the ordination to the priesthood, Bede began to write. During 28 years he completed forty books: commentaries on the Bible; lives of abbots, martyrs, and saints; books on philosophy and poetry.

Bede's masterpiece, completed in 731, when he was 51 years old, is his The Ecclesiastical History of the English Race, which describes the growth of the Christian church in England from the attack of Julius Caesar in 55 B.C. to Bede's own days. Although Bede was Anglo-Saxon, he wrote the work in Latin, the language he spoke and wrote. Late in the ninth century, scholars at the court of King Alfred translated it into Anglo-Saxon. The Ecclesiastical History of the English Race seemed to them one of the central works of their culture, worthy of reproduction into a language more people could read.

Alfred the Great (849 - 901)

The beginning of the 9th century was a troubled time for England. Da-nish pirates, called Northmen kept coming from overseas for plunder. Each year their number increased. When Alfred was made king in 871, England's danger was the greatest. Nevertheless, in a great battle fought by Alfred at Maldon in 891, the Northmen were defeated, and Alfred decided to make peace with them. The greater portion of England was given up to the new-comers. The only part of the kingdom left in possession of Alfred was Wessex.

Alfred was a Latin scholar. He is famous not only for having built the first navy, but for trying to enlighten his people. He drew up a code of laws and translated the Church-history of Bede from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, the native language of his people, and a part of the Bible as well. He created the first history of England, the first prose in English literature, the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The literature of the early Middle Ages and the church taught that man was an evil being and his life on earth was a sinful life. As man was subordinated to God he had to prepare himself for the after-life by subduing his passions and disregarding all earthly cares.


The Literature of the Norman Period (12th - 13th centuries).

When King Alfred died, the account of the wars with the Danes showed how many suffered in that age, how bitter, insecure, and cruel life was. Parties of the Northmen sailed round Scotland and over to Ireland. Others sailed south across the channel to France. They conquered the north of France and settled there. In the next hundred years they came to be called Normans, and their country Normandy.

In themiddle of the 11th century the internal feuds among the Anglo-Saxon earls weakened the country. The Normans did not miss their chance and in 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, defeated the English troops at Hastings in a great battle. Within five years William the Conqueror became complete master of the whole England.

The lands of most of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy were given to the Norman barons, and they introduced their feudal laws to compel the peasants to work for them. The English became an oppressed nation.

William the Conqueror could not speak a word of English. He and his barons spoke the Norman dialect of the French language; but the Anglo-Saxon dialect was not suppressed. During the following 200 years communication went on in three languages: 1) Latin at the monasteries; 2) Norman-French at court and in official institutions; 3) The common people held firmly to their mother tongue.

In the 13th century the first universities in Oxford and Cambridge were founded. So, during the Anglo-Norman period feudal culture was at its height.

By about 1300 English had again become the chief national language but in altered form called Middle English. Middle English included elements of French, Latin, Old English, and local dialects.

Tales in verse and lyrical poems appeared praising the bravery and gallantry of noble knights, their heroic deeds and chivalrous attitude towards ladies. At first they were all in Norman-French. Many of the stories came from old French sources, the language of which was a Romanic dialect, and for that reason these works were called romances. They were brought to England by medieval poets called trouveres (finders), who came from France with the Norman conquerors. Later in England such poets were called minstrels and their art of composing romances and ballads and singing them was called the art of minstrelsy.

A number of romances were based on Celtic legends, especially those about King Arthur and the knights. The heroes of these romances, unlike the characters of church literature, were human beings who loved, hated and suffered. Their worship of fair ladies motivated the plots of the stories.

In the 15th century Sir Thomas Malory (1395? -1471) collected the romances of King Arthur and arranged them in a series of stories in prose, intelligible to any modern render. The words in Malory's sentences have a beauty of movement, which cannot escape unnoticed. The stories began with the birth of Arthur and how he became king, then related all the adventures of King Arthur and his noble knights and ended in the death of these knights and of Arthur himself.

The work was published in 1485 by Caxton, the first English printer, at Westminster (London), under the title of Sir Thomas Malory's Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of Round Table. The book was more widely known as Morte d'Arthur (old French for Death of Arthur).

This epic in twenty-one books reflects the evolution of feudal society, its ideals, beliefs and tragedies. Malory's romance is the most complete English version of stories about King Arthur.


The Medieval Romance

In the medieval period the term romance meant a long narrative in verse or prose telling of the adventures of a hero. These stories of adventure usually include knights, ladies in distress, kings, and villains. The material for the medieval romance in English was mainly drawn from the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. This subject matter is sometimes called the Matter of Britain.

Central to the medieval romance was the code of chivalry, the rules and customs connected with knighthood. Originally chivalry (from the French word chevalier, which means knight or horseman) referred to the practice of training knights for the purpose of fighting. The qualities of the ideal courtly knight in the Middle Ages were bravery, honor, courtesy, protection of the weak, respect for women, generosity, and fairness to enemies. An important element in the code of chivalry was the ideal of courtly love. This concept required a knight to serve a virtuous noblewoman (often married) and perform brave deeds to prove his devotion while she remained chaste and unattainable.

The code of chivalry and the ideal of courtly love were still in evidence during the Renaissance as well. Knights and courtiers who wrote on courtly themes included the Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Sir Walter Raleigh. Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney wrote highly formalized portraits of ideal love.

Medieval romance and its attendant codes of chivalry and courtly love faded in the Age of Reason during the XVIII century, but in the nineteenth century, Romanticism brought back the ideals of chivalry.

Treatment of the romance themes of chivalry and courtly love are still the topics of literature. Historical fiction often attempts to recreate the world of the Middle Ages.

Fable and Fabliau

In urban literature fables and fabliaux were also popular. Fable is a short tale or prolonged personification with animal characters intended to convey a moral truth; it's a myth, a fiction, a falsehood. It's a short story about supernatural or extraordinary persons or incidents. Fabliaux are funny metrical short stories about cunning humbugs and the unfaithful wives of rich merchants. These tales were popular in medieval France. These stories were told in the dialects of Middle English. They were usually comic, frankly coarse and often cynical. The urban literature did not idealize characters as the romances did. The fabliaux show a practical attitude to life.

Pre-Renaissance Period in English Literature

In the 14th century the Norman kings made London their residence. It became the most inhabited and busy town in England. (The London dialect was the central dialect, and could be understood throughout the country). Even peasants who wished to get free of their masters went to London. But the life in the country was miserable especially with the so-called Hundred Years' War flamed by king Edward against France. There was another burden on people's shoulders - rich foreign bishops of the Catholic Church, who did not care of people's sufferings. The protest against the Catholic hurch and the growth of national feeling during the first years of the War found the reflection in literature. There appeared poor priests who wandered from one village to another and talked to the people. They protested not only against rich bishops but also against churchmen who were ignorant and could not teach people anything. Among poor priests were then acknowledged poets William Langland and John Wyclif.

William Langland (1332?-1400?) was a poor priest. His parents were poor but free peasants. He denounced the rich churchmen and said that everybody was obliged to work. His name is remembered for a poem he wrote, The Visions of William Concerning Piers the Ploughman (Piers -Peter). Nowadays the poem is called Piers Plowman.

Piers Plowman is an allegorical poem. In it Vice and Virtue are spoken of as if they were human beings. Truth is a young maiden, Greed is an old witch. The poem was very popular in the Middle Ages. It begins with a vision which the poet William had on the Malvern Hills. In a long and complicated succession of scenes Langland portrays almost every side of fourteenth-century life. In his dream the poet sees Piers the Ploughman, a peasant. Piers tells him about the hard life of the people. He sees the corruption of wealth, and the inadequacies of government. To him, the only salvation lies in honest labour and in the service of Christ. If Langland were not a mystic, he would have been a revolutionary. He is the nearest approach to Dante in English poetry, for despite his roughness, and the bleak atmosphere of much of his work, he has written the greatest poem in English devoted to the Christian way of life.

But modern poetry begins with one of the most prominent people of the Middle English period - Geoffrey Chaucer, diplomat, soldier and scholar.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 - 1400)

Geoffrey Chaucer is listed by most scholars as one of the three greatest poets in English literature (along with William Shakespeare and John Milton). He was born in London. His father, John Chaucer, was a wine merchant. In 1357 Geoffrey was listed as a page in the household of the wife of Prince Lionel, a son of Edward III. His service in that household indicates that his family had sufficient social status for him to receive a courtly education. Throughout the rest of his lifetime, Chaucer was in some way connected with members of the royal family. In 1366 Chaucer married Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. Chaucer rose socially through his marriage. In 1368 he became one of the King's esquires, which in those days meant that he worked in the administrative department of the King's government. One of his duties was to act as a government envoy on foreign Diplomatic missions. Chaucer's diplomatic missions took him first to France and later to Italy.

Chaucer's poetry is generally divided into three periods.

The French period. While in France Geoffrey Chaucer came in contact with French literature, his earliest poems were written in imitation of the French romances. He translated from French a famous allegorical poem of the 13th century, The Romance of the Rose.

The Italian period. In 1372 Chaucer was sent to Genoa to arrange a commercial treaty. In Italy he became acquainted with Italian life and culture, with the classical authors and with the newer Italian works of Dante and Petrarch, with the tales of Boccaccio. In Chaucer's own writing, the French models of his earliest years gave way to this Italian influence. To the Italian period can be assigned The House of Fame, a didactic poem; The Parliament of Fowls (birds), an allegorical poem satirizing Parliament; Troilus and Criseyda, which is considered to be the predecessor of the psychological novel in England, and The Legend of Good Women, a dream-poem.

The English, period. After his return to London, Chaucer became a customs official at the port of London. He gave up his job in 1386, and began composing his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales, but it remained unfinished.

He died in 1400 and was buried in Westminster Abbey in a section, which later became established as the Poet's Corner. Chaucer was the last English writer of the Middle Ages and the first of the Renaissance.

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales, for which Chaucer's name is best remembered, is a long poem with a general introduction (The Prologue), the clearest picture of late medieval life existent anywhere. The framework, which serves to connect twenty-four stories, told in verse, is a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. In the prologue thirty men and women from all ranks of society pass before the readers' eyes. Chaucer draws a rapid portrait of each traveller, thus showing his character. Chaucer himself and a certain Harry Bailly, the host (owner) of a London inn are among them. Harry Bailly proposes the following plan: each pilgrim was to tell two stories on the way to the shrine and two on the way back. The host would be their guide and would judge their stories. He who told the best story was to have a fine supper at the expense of the others.

Chaucer planned to include 120 stories, but he managed only twenty-four, some of them were not completed. The individual stories are of many kinds: religious stories, legends, fables, fairy tales, sermons, and courtly romances. Short story writers in the following centuries learned much about their craft from Geoffrey Chaucer.

As it was already mentioned, Chaucer introduces each of his pilgrims in the prologue, and then he lets us know about them through stories they tell. His quick, sure strokes portray the pilgrims at once as types and individuals true of their own age and, still more, representative of humanity in general. He keeps the whole poem alive by interspersing the tales themselves with the talk, the quarrels, and the opinions of the pilgrims. The passage below is a part from the prologue, where the author introduces a plowman:

There was a Plowman with him there, his brother

Many aload of dung one time or other

He must have carted through the morning dew.

He was an honest worker, good and true,

Living in peace and perfect charity,

And, as the gospel bade him, so did he,

Loving God best with all his heart and mind

And then his neighbour as himself, repined

At no misfortune, slacked for no content,

For steadily about his work he went

To thrash his corn, to dig or to manure

Or make a ditch; and he would help the poor

For love of Christ and never take a penny

If he could help it, and, as prompt as any,

He paid his tithes and full when they were due

On what he owned, and on his earning too

He wore a tabard smock and rode a mare.

In Canterbury Tales Chaucer introduced a rhythmic pattern called iambic pentameter into English poetry. This pattern, or meter, consists of 10 syllables alternately unaccented and accented in each line. The lines may or may not rhyme. Iambic pentameter became a widely used meter in English poetry.

Chaucer's contribution to English literature is usually explained by the following:

1. The Canterbury Tales sum up all types of stories that existed in the Middle Ages.

2. He managed to show different types of people that lived during his time and through these people he showed a true picture of the life of the 14th century. (The pilgrims range in rank from a knight to a poor plowman. Only the very highest and lowest ranks - the nobility and the serfs - are missing.)

3. In Chaucer's age the English language was still divided by dialects, though London was rapidly making East Midland into a standard language. Chaucer was the creator of a new literary language. He chose to write in English, the popular language of common people, though aristocracy of his time read and spoke French. Chaucer was the true founder of English literature.

4. Chaucer was by learning a man of the Middle Ages, but his attitude towards mankind was so broad-minded that his work is timeless. He is the earliest English poet who may still be read for pleasure today.

Literature of the 15th century

Chaucer as a poet is so good that he makes the fifteenth century appear dull. His death was a great blow to English poetry. Almost two centuries passed before a poet equal to him was born. But folk poetry flourished in England and Scotland in the 15th century. The most interesting examples of folk poetry were ballads. Ballads and songs expressed the sentiments and thoughts of people. They were handed down orally from generation to generation. The art of printing did not stop the creation of folk-songs and ballads. They were still composed at the dawn of the 18th century.

The original authors of ballads are unknown; in fact, a given ballad may exist in several versions, because many different people told and revised the ballad as it travelled from village to village. But when a version seemed just right, its teller would be urged to recite the story again and again without changing a thing.

Below you'll read some stanzas that represent the style of folk ballads.

The Wife of Usher's Well

There lived a wife at Usher's Well,

1. And a wealthy wife was she;

She had three stout1 and stalwart sons,

And sent them o'er the sea.

They hadna' been a week from her,

5. A week but barely ane,2

When word came to the carlin3 wife

That her three sons were gane.4

They hadna' been a week from her,

10. A week but barely three,

When word came to the carlin wife

That her sons she'd never see.

I wish the wind may never cease,

15. Nor fashes in the flood,5

Till my three sons come hame to me,

In earthly flesh and blood.


Folk Ballads

A folk ballad is a popular literary form. It comes from unlettered people rather than from professional minstrels or scholarly poets. That is why the ballad tends to express its meaning in simple language. (But the centuries-old dialect of many folk ballads may seem to readers complex ). The ballad stanza consists of four lines (a quatrain), rhyming abcb, with four accented syllables within the first and third lines and three in the second and fourth lines.

There 'lived a 'wife at 'Usher's 'Well, a

And a 'wealthy 'was 'she; b

She had 'three 'stout and 'stalwart 'sons, c

And 'sent them 'o'er the 'sea. b

Some folk ballads make use of refrains, repetitions of a line or lines in every stanza without variation. Refrains add emphasis and a note of continuity to the ballads.

As regards to content, the ballads are usually divided into three groups: historical, heroic, and romantic ballads. Historical ballads were based on a historical fact, while heroic ballads were about people who were persecuted by the law or by their own families. Among the most popular ones were those about Robin Hood, who was an outlaw.

Robin Hood Ballads

The Robin Hood ballads, numbering some forty separate ballads, were written down at various times not earlier than the 14th and 15th centuries. Robin Hood is a partly historical, partly legendary character. Most probably he lived in the second half of the 12th century, during the reign of Henry II and his son Richard, the Lion Heart. The older ballads tell us much about the Saxon yeomen, who were famous archers and keen hunters. Being ill treated by the Norman robber-barons, they longed to live free in the forest with Robin as their leader. Robin Hood always helped the country folk in their troubles. Though sheriff put a big price on Robin's head, Saxons didn't betray him.

Thus, Robin was an outlaw and lived in Sherwood Forest. He was smart and clever with a twinkle in the eye. Whenever the Sheriff or the king sent out a party of men to catch him, Robin fought with so much vigour that his enemies, amazed at his bravery, confessed themselves beaten and stayed with him in the forest. They became the merry men of Robin Hood.

In the 16th century many new episodes were introduced into the ballads. They were arranged in series, the most popular of which was The Jolly Life of Robin Hood and His Men in Sherwood.

Here is one of the best-known Robin Hood ballads in Modern English spelling.

Robin Hood and Allan-a-Dale

Come listen to me, you gallants so free

All you that love mirth for to hear,

And I will tell you of a bold outlaw

That lived in Nottinghamshier.

As Robin Hood in the forest stood,

All under the greenwood tree,

There he was aware of a brave young man

As fine as fine might be.

The youngster was clothed in scarlet red,

In scarlet fine and gay;

And he did frisk it over the plain,

And chanted a roundelay.

As Robin Hood next morning stood

Amongst the leaves so gay,

There did he espy the same young man,

Come drooping along the way.

The scarlet he wore the day before

It was clean cast away;

And at every step he fetched a sigh,

Alack and a well-a-day!

Then stepped forth brave Little John,

And Midge, the miller's son,

Which made the young man bend his bow,

When as he saw them come.

Stand off, stand off! the young man said,

What is your will with me?

You must come before our master straight,

Under yon greenwood tree.

And when he came bold Robin before,

Robin asked him courteously,

O, hast thou any money to spare

For my merry men and me?

I have no money, the young man said,

But five shillings and a ring;

And that I have kept this seven long years,

To have it at my wedding.

Yesterday I should have married a maid,

But she soon from me was tane,

And chosen to be an old knight's delight,

Whereby my poor heart is slain.

What is thy name? then said Robin Hood,

Come tell me without any fail:

By the faith of my body, then said the young man,

My name it is Allan-a-Dale.

What wilt thou give me? said Robin Hood,

In ready gold or fee,

To help thee to thy true love again,

And deliver her into thee?

I have no money then quoth the young man,

No ready gold nor fee,

But I will swear upon a book

Thy true servant for to be.

How many miles is it to thy true love?

Come tell me without guile:

By the faith of my body, then said the young man,

It is but five little mile.

Then Robin he hasted over the plain,

He did neither sting nor lin,

Until he came unto the church,

Where Allan should keep his wedding.

What hast thou here, the bishop then said

I prithee now tell unto me:

I am a bold harper, quoth Robin Hood,

And the best in the north country.

O welcome, o welcome, the bishop he said,

That music best pleaseth me;

You shall have no music, quoth Robin Hood,

Till the bride and the bridegroom I see.

With that came in a wealthy knight,

Which was both grave and old,

And after him a bonnie lass,

Did shine like the glistering gold.

This is not a fit match, quoth bold Robin Hood,

That you do seem to make here,

For since we are come into the church,

The bride shall choose her own dear.

Then Robin Hood put his horn to his mouth,

And blew blasts two or three;

When four-and-twenty bowmen bold

Came leaping over the lea.

And when they came into the churchyard,

Marching all on a row,

The very first man was Allan-a-Dale,

To give bold Robin his bow.

This is thy true love, Robin he said,

Young Allan as I hear say;

And you shall be married at this same time,

Before we depart away.

That shall not be, the bishop he said,

For thy word shall not stand;

They shall be three times asked in the church,

As the law is of our land.

Robin Hood pulled off the bishop's coat,

And put it upon Little John;

By the faith of my body, then Robin said,

This cloth doth make thee a man.

When Little John went into the quire,

The people began to laugh;

He asked them seven times in the church,

Lest three times should not be enough.

Who gives me this maid? said Little John;

Quoth Robin Hood, That do I,

And he that takes her from Allan-a-Dale

Full dearly he shall her buy.

And thus having end of this merry wedding,

The bride looked like a queen;

And so they returned to the merry greenwood,

Amongst the leaves so green.


Renaissance was a great cultural movement that began in Italy during the early 1330's. It spread to England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and other countries in the late 1400's and ended about 1600.

The word Renaissance comes from the Latin word rinascere and means rebirth. The Renaissance was the period when European culture was at its height. At that time great importance was assigned to intellect, experience, scientific experiment. The new ideology proclaimed the value of human individuality. This new outlook was called Humanism. The humanists were scholars and artists who studied subjects that they believed would help them better understand the problems of humanity. These subjects included literature and philosophy. The humanists considered that the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome had excelled in such subjects and could serve as models.

During the Middle Ages the most important branch of learning was theology. Renaissance thinkers paid greater attention to the study of humanity.

The Renaissance In Engand

During the Renaissance period (particularly 1485-1603) Middle English began to develop into Modern English. By the late 1500's the English people were speaking and writing English in a form much like that used today.

The Renaissance in England is usually studied by dividing it into three parts: the rise of the Renaissance under the early Tudor monarchs (1500-1558), the height of the Renaissance under Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and the decline of the Renaissance under the Stuart monarchs (1603-1649).

The Rise of the Renaissance

The invention of printing press and improved methods of manufacturing paper made possible the rapid spread of knowledge. In 1476, during the Wars of the Roses, William Caxton set up the first printing press in London. Before that time, books and other literary works were slowly and laboriously copied by hand. Printing made it possible to produce far more books at lower costs. By 1640 Caxton's and other presses had printed more than 216,000 different works and editions. It is estimated that by 1530 more than half the population of England was literate. Learning at that time flourished not only at Oxford and Cambridge, but at the lower educational levels too.

At that period new types of literature were imported from the European continent. Chief among these were the sonnet, imported by Wyatt and Surrey from Italy, where it had been perfected by Francis Petrarch; and the essay, imported by Sir Francis Bacon from France. Other verse forms were also borrowed from the Italian and the French. The native drama continued to develop and gain popularity.

The Height of the Renaissance

Under the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), order was restored, and England entered upon her most glorious age. Elizabeth was only twenty-five when she assumed the throne, never married, and ruled wisely and well for forty-five years.

Interested in education, Queen Elizabeth established one hundred free grammar schools in all parts of the country. These schools were open to both sexes of all ranks. In 1579, Gresham College was founded in London to cater to the needs of the middle class. Unlike the classical curriculum offered by Oxford and Cambridge, its curriculum included law, medicine and other practical courses. As the children of the middle class grew better educated, the middle class itself grew in power.

During Elizabeth's reign, England began to gain supremacy on the seas. The Elizabethan Age is an age of poetry. Except perhaps for the essayist Francis Bacon and the critic Christopher Marlowe, people were not yet writing prose of literary quality. Some Elizabethan writers dealt exclusively in lyric poetry, but many were also playwrights writing their plays in verse.

The Elizabethan period was golden age of English drama. In 1576, James Burbage built England's first playhouse, called The Theatre, in a subburb of London. Until this time, drama had been performed in the streets, in homes and palaces, and at English universities. After Burbage built The Theatre, other playhouses were constructed, which rapidly increased the popularity of drama.

A group of leading Elizabethan playwrights was known as the University Wits because they had attended the famous English universities at Oxford or Cambridge. These playwrights included Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe, and George Peele. Marlowe was the most important dramatist among the Wits.

William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and other more than a dozen first-rate playwrights also created their skillful dramas at that period. Blank verse, introduced into the language by Surrey, became the main form for writing tragedies and comedies.

In 1600, when the new century began, Elizabeth was an aging queen not in the best of health. She was childless. After her death, in 1603, King James of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, became the king of England.

The Decline of the Renaissance

James I, the first Stuart king, had little first-hand knowledge of England. Elizabeth had managed to maintain religious balance between Protestants and Catholics, but under the Stuarts that balance was lost. Religious and political unrest was growing.

At that period a number of young Cavaliers, loyal to the king, wrote about love and loyalty, but even in the love poems it is evident that the freshness of the Elizabethan era had passed. Among the best of these poets were Richard Lovelace and Robert Herrick.

Drama continued to flourish in England under the Stuarts. Shakespeare's great tragedies were written during the reign of King James, and Shakespeare's acting company, taken under the patronage of the king, became known as the King's Men. The theatre in fact remained a popular form of entertainment until the puritan government closed all playhouses in 1649.

The greatest of the Puritan poets, and one of the greatest English poets was John Milton, Latin secretary to the Puritan Commonwealth. While in this position his sight began to fail ; eventually he became blind. He composed Paradise Lost, his greatest work and the most successful English epic, sightless.


Three chief forms of poetry flourished during the Elizabethan Age. They were the lyric, the sonnet, and narrative poetry.

The lyric is a short poem that expresses a poet's personal emotions and thoughts in a songlike style.

The sonnet is a 14-line poem with a certain pattern of rhyme and rhythm. Elizabethan poets wrote two types of sonnets, the Italian sonnet and the English sonnet. The two types differed in the arrangement of the rhymes. Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet from Italy into English literature in the early 1500's. William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser wrote sonnet sequences. A sonnet sequence is a group of sonnets based on a single theme or about one person.

Narrative poetry. A narrative poem tells a story. Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and Spenser's The Faerie Queene are the examples of narrative poetry.

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)

One of the outstanding representatives of the English Renaissance was Sir Thomas More. He was a great English author, statesman, and scholar. More was born in London, probably in 1477 or 1478. He studied at Oxford. More began his career as a lawyer in 1494, and became an undersheriff of London in 1510, and then held various high positions. He served as Lord Chancellor, the highest judicial official in England, from 1529 to 1532. But More resigned because he opposed King Henry VIII's plan to divorce his queen. He was beheaded in 1535 for refusing to accept the king as the head of the English church. More has since become an example of the individual who places conscience above the claims of authority. The Roman Catholic Church declared him a saint in 1935.

More published his famous work Utopia at the age of thirty-eight. It was written in Latin. Utopia is an account of an ideal society, with justice and equality for all citizens. This masterpiece gave the word utopia to many languages of the world. Utopia is divided into two books.

Book I contains a conversation between More himself, the Flemish humanist Petrus Aegidius, and a philosophical sailor Raphael Hythloday. Their conversation deals with social and economic conditions in Europe and in England.

Book II is dedicated to Hythloday's description of the island of Utopia (meaning Nowhere), which he visited during one of his journeys. It is a state that has achieved absolute social and economic harmony.

In Utopia the author criticizes the social system of England. He ad-vances the proposal that education should be provided for everybody, men and women. He advocates tolerance for every form of religion. Wars and Warriors are abolished in Utopia. Kings are also attacked in this book. More writes The people choose the king for their own sakes and not for his. Many of More's reforms have been built into the modern world.

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