It has vitality, rich variety and continuity. As literature is the reflection of society, the various changes which have come about in English society, from the earliest to the modern time, have left their stamp on English literature. Thus in order to appreciate properly the various phases of English literature, knowledge of English Social and Political History is essential. For example, we cannot form a just estimate of Chaucer without taking into account the characteristics of the period in which he was living, or of Shakespeare without taking proper notice of the great events which were taking place during the reign of Elizabeth. The same is the case with other great figures and important movements in English literature.
English Literature is one of richest literatures of the world. Being the literature of a great nation which, though inhabiting a small island off the west coast of Europe, has made its mark in the world on account of her spirit of adventure, perseverance and tenacity, it reflects these characteristics of a great people.
When we study the history of English literature from the earliest to modern times, we find that it has passed through certain definite phases, each having marked characteristics. These phases may be termed as ‘Ages’ or ‘Periods’, which are named after the central literary figures or the important rulers of England. Thus we have the ‘Ages’ of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Johnson. Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hardy; and, on the other hand, the Elizabethan Age, the Jacobean Period, the Age of Queen Anne, the Victorian Age, the Georgian Period. Some of these phases are named after certain literary movements, as the Classical Age, the Romantic Age; while others after certain important historial eras, as the Medieval Period, Anglo-Saxon Period, Anglo-Norman Period. These literary phases are also named by some literary historians after the centuries, as the Seventeenth Century Literature, Eighteenth Century Literature, Nineteenth-Century Literature and Twentieth Century Literature. These ‘Ages’ and ‘Periods’ naturally overlap each other, and they are not to be followed strictly, but it is essential to keep them in mind in order to follow the growth of English literature, and its salient and distinctive characteristics during the various periods of its development.
Now let us have a critical survey of the background and development of English literature from the earliest times upto the present age.