English Literature: Its Background and Development

Introduction
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.

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.

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.

The Anglo-Saxon Or Old-English Period (670-1100)

The earliest phase of English literature started with Anglo-Saxon literature of the Angles and Saxons (the ancestors of the English race) much before they occupied Britain. English was the common name and tongue of these tribes. Before they occupied Britain they lived along the coasts of Sweden and Denmark, and the land which they occupied was called Engle-land. These tribes were fearless, adventurous and brave, and during the later years of Roman occupation of Britain, they kept the British coast in terror. Like other nations they sang at their feasts about battles, gods and their ancestral heroes, and some of their chiefs were also bards. It was in these songs of religion, wars and agriculture, that English poetry began in the ancient Engle-land while Britain was still a Roman province.

Though much of this Anglo-Saxon poetry is lost, there are still some fragments left. For example, Widsith describes continental courts visited in imagination by a far-wandering poet; Waldhere tells how Walter of Aquitaine withstood a host of foes in the passes of the Vosges; the splendid fragment called The Fight at Finnesburg deals with the same favourite theme of battle against fearful odds; and Complaint of Deor describes the disappointment of a lover. The most important poem of this period is Beowulf. It is a tale of adventures of Beowulf, the hero, who is an champion an slayer of monsters; the incidents in it are such as may be found in hundreds of other stories, but what makes it really interesting and different from later romances, is that is full of all sorts of references and allusions to great events, to the fortunes of kings and nations. There is thus an historical background.
After the Anglo-Saxons embraced Christianity, the poets took up religious themes as the subject-matter of their poetry. In fact, a major portion of Anglo-Saxon poetry is religious. The two important religious poets of the Anglo-Saxon period were Caedmon and Cynewulf. Caedmon sang in series the whole story of the fate of man, from the Creation and the Fall to the Redemption and the Last Judgment, and within this large framework, the Scripture history. Cynewulf’s most important poem is the Crist, a metrical narrative of leading events of Christ’s ministry upon earth, including his return to judgment, which is treated with much grandeur.
Anglo-Saxon poetry is markedly different from the poetry of the next period—Middle English or Anglo-Norman period—for it deals with the traditions of an older world, and expresses another temperament and way of living; it breathes the influence of the wind and storm. It is the poetry of a stern and passionate people, concerned with the primal things of life, moody, melancholy and fierce, yet with great capacity for endurance and fidelity.
The Anglo-Saxon period was also marked by the beginning of English prose. Through the Chronicles, which probably began in King Alfred’s time, and through Alfred’s translations from the Latin a common available prose was established, which had all sorts of possibilities in it. In fact, unlike poetry, there was no break in prose of Anglo-Saxon period and the Middle English period, and even the later prose in England was continuation of Anglo-Saxon prose. The tendency of the Anglo-Saxon prose is towards observance of the rules of ordinary speech, that is why, though one has to make a considerable effort in order to read verse of the Anglo-Saxons, it is comparatively easy to understand their prose. The great success of Anglo-Saxon prose is in religious instructions, and the two great pioneers of English prose were Alfred the Great, the glorious king of Wessex, who translated a number of Latin Chronicles in English, and Aelfric, a priest, who wrote sermons in a sort of poetic prose.
The Angles and Saxons first landed in England in the middle of the fifth century, and by 670 A.D. they had occupied almost the whole of the country. Unlike the Romans who came as conquerors, these tribes settled in England and made her their permanent home. They became, therefore, the ancestors of the English race. The Anglo-Saxon kings, of whom Alfred the Great was the most prominent, ruled till 1066, when Harold, the last of Saxon kings, was defeated at the Battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror of Normandy, France. The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period in English literature, therefore, extends roughly from 670 A.D. to 1100 A.D.
As it has been made clear in the First Part of this book that the literature of any country in any period is the reflection of the life lived by the people of that country in that particular period, we find that this applies to the literature of this period. The Angles and Saxons combined in themselves opposing traits of character—savagery and sentiment, rough living and deep feeling, splendid courage and deep melancholy resulting from thinking about the unanswered problem of death. Thus they lived a rich external as well as internal life, and it is especially the latter which is the basis of their rich literature. To these brave and fearless fighters, love of untarnished glory, and happy domestic life and virtues, made great appeal. They followed in their life five great principles—love of personal freedom, responsiveness to nature, religion, love for womanhood, and struggle for glory. All these principles are reflected in their literature. They were full of emotions and aspirations, and loved music and songs. Thus we read in Beowulf:
Music and song where the heroes sat—
The glee—wood rang, a song uprose
When Hrothgar’s scop gave the hall good cheer.
The Anglo Saxon language is only a branch of the great Aryan or Indo-European family of languages. It has the same root words for father and mother, for God and man, for the common needs and the common relations of life, as we find in Sanskrit, Iranian, Greek and Latin. And it is this old vigorous Anglo-Saxon language which forms the basis of modern English.

Middle-English Or Anglo-Norman Period (1100-1500)

The Normans, who were residing in Normandy (France) defeated the Anglo-Saxon King at the Battle of Hastings (1066) and conquered England.
The Norman Conquest inaugurated a distinctly new epoch in the literary as well as political history of England. The Anglo-Saxon authors were then as suddenly and permanently displaced as the Anglo-Saxon king.

The literature afterwards read and written by Englishmen was thereby as completely transformed as the sentiments and tastes of English rulers. The foreign types of literature introduced after the Norman Conquest first found favour with the monarchs and courtiers, and were deliberately fostered by them, to the disregard of native forms. No effective protest was possible by the Anglo-Saxons, and English thought for centuries to come was largely fashioned in the manner of the French. Throughout the whole period, which we call the Middle English period (as belonging to the Middle Ages or Medieval times in the History of Britain) or the Anglo-Norman period, in forms of artistic expression as well as of religious service, the English openly acknowledged a Latin control.

It is true that before the Norman Conquest the Anglo-Saxons had a body of native literature distinctly superior to any European vernacular. But one cannot deny that the Normans came to their land when they greatly needed an external stimulus. The Conquest effected a wholesome awakening of national life. The people were suddenly inspired by a new vision of a greater future. They became united in a common hope. In course of time the Anglo-Saxons lost their initial hostility to the new comers, and all became part and parcel of one nation. The Normans not only brought with them soldiers and artisans and traders, they also imported scholars to revive knowledge, chroniclers to record memorable events, minstrels to celebrate victories, or sing of adventure and love.
The great difference between the two periods—Anglo-Saxon period and Anglo-Norman period, is marked by the disappearance of the old English poetry. There is nothing during the Anglo-Norman period like Beowulf or Fall of the Angels. The later religious poetry has little in it to recall the finished art of Cynewulf. Anglo-Saxon poetry, whether derived from heathendom or from the Church, has ideas and manners of its own; it comes to perfection, and then it dies away. It seems that Anglo-Saxon poetry grows to rich maturity, and then disappears, as with the new forms of language and under new influences, the poetical education started again, and so the poetry of the Anglo-Norman period has nothing in common the Anglo-Saxon poetry.
The most obvious change in literary expression appears in the vehicle employed. For centuries Latin had been more or less spoken or written by the clergy in England. The Conquest which led to the reinvigoration of the monasteries and the tightening of the ties with Rome, determined its more extensive use. Still more important, as a result of foreign sentiment in court and castle, it caused writings in the English vernacular to be disregarded, and established French as the natural speech of the cultivated and the high-born. The clergy insisted on the use of Latin, the nobility on the use of French; no one of influence saw the utility of English as a means of perpetuating thought, and for nearly three centuries very few works appeared in the native tongue.
In spite of the English language having been thrown into the background, some works were composed in it, though they echoed in the main the sentiments and tastes of the French writers, as French then was the supreme arbiter of European literary style. Another striking characteristic of medieval literature is its general anonymity. Of the many who wrote the names of but few are recorded, and of the history of these few we have only the most meagre details. It was because originality was deplored as a fault, and independence of treatment was a heinous offence in their eyes.
(a)  The Romances
The most popular form of literature during the Middle English period was the romances. No literary productions of the Middle Ages are so characteristic, none so perennially attractive as those that treat romantically of heroes and heroines of by-gone days. These romances are notable for their stories rather than their poetry, and they, like the drama afterwards, furnished the chief mental recreation of time for the great body of the people. These romances were mostly borrowed from Latin and French sources. They deal with the stories of King Arthur, The War of Troy, the mythical doings of Charlemagne and of Alexander the Great.
(b)  The Miracle and Morality Plays
In the Middle English period Miracle plays became very popular. From the growth and development of the Bible story, scene by scene, carried to its logical conclusion, this drama—developed to an enormous cycle of sacred history, beginning with the creation of man, his fall and banishment from the Garden of Eden and extending through the more important matters of the Old Testament and life of Christ in the New to the summoning of the quick and the dead on the day of final judgment. This kind of drama is called the miracle play—sometimes less correctly the mystery play—and it flourished throughout England from the reign of Henry II to that of Elizabeth (1154-1603).
Another form of drama which flourished during the Middle Ages was the Morality plays. In these plays the uniform theme is the struggle between the powers of good and evil for the mastery of the soul of man. The personages were abstract virtues, or vices, each acting and speaking in accordance with his name; and the plot was built upon their contrasts and influences on human nature, with the intent to teach right living and uphold religion. In a word, allegory is the distinguishing mark of the moral plays. In these moral plays the protagonist is always an abstraction; he is Mankind, the Human Race, the Pride of Life, and there is an attempt to compass the whole scope of man’s experience and temptations in life, as there had been a corresponding effort in the Miracle plays to embrace the complete range of sacred history, the life of Christ, and the redemption of the world.
(c)  William Langland (1332 ?…?)
One of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages was William Langland, and his poem, A Vision of Piers the Plowman holds an important place in English literature. In spite of its archaic style, it is a classic work in English literature. This poem, which is a satire on the corrupt religious practices, throws light on the ethical problems of the day. The character assumed by Langland is that of the prophet, denouncing the sins of society and encouraging men to aspire to a higher life. He represents the dissatisfaction of the lower and the more thinking classes of English society, as Chaucer represents the content of the aristocracy and the prosperous middle class. Although Langland is essentially a satiric poet, he has decided views on political and social questions. The feudal system is his ideal; he desires no change in the institution of his days, and he thinks that all would be well if the different orders of society would do their duty. Like Dante and Bunyan, he ennobles his satire by arraying it in a garb of allegory; and he is intensely real.
(d)  John Gower (1325?—1408)
Gower occupies an important place in the development of English poetry. Though it was Chaucer who played the most important role in this direction, Gower’s contribution cannot be ignored. Gower represents the English culmination of that courtly medieval poetry which had its rise in France two or three hundred years before. He is a great stylist, and he proved that English might compete with the other languages which had most distinguished themselves in poetry. Gower is mainly a narrative poet and his most important work is Confession Amantis, which is in the form of conversation between the poet and a divine interpreter. It is an encyclopaedia of the art of love, and satirises the vanities of the current time. Throughout the collection of stories which forms the major portion of Confession Amantis, Gower presents himself as a moralist. Though Gower was inferior to Chaucer, it is sufficient that they were certainly fellow pioneers, fellow schoolmasters, in the task of bringing England to literature. Up to their time, the literary production of England had been exceedingly rudimentary and limited. Gower, like Chaucer, performed the function of establishing the form of English as a thoroughly equipped medium of literature.
(e)  Chaucer (1340?…1400)
It was, in fact, Chaucer who was the real founder of English poetry, and he is rightly called the ‘Father of English Poetry’. Unlike the poetry of his predecessors and contemporaries, which is read by few except professed scholars, Chaucer’s poetry has been read and enjoyed continuously from his own day to this, and the greatest of his successors, from Spenser and Milton to Tennyson and William Morris, have joined in praising it. Chaucer, in fact, made a fresh beginning in English literature. He disregarded altogether the old English tradition. His education as a poet was two-fold. Part of it came from French and Italian literatures, but part of it came from life. He was not a mere bookman, nor was he in the least a visionary. Like Shakespeare and Milton, he was, on the contrary, a man of the world and of affairs.
The most famous and characteristic work of Chaucer is the Canterbury Tales, which is a collection of stories related by the pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. These pilgrims represent different sections of contemporary English society, and in the description of the most prominent of these people in the Prologue Chaucer’s powers are shown at their very highest. All these characters are individualized, yet their thoroughly typical quality gives unique value to Chaucer’s picture of men and manners in the England of his time.
The Canterbury Tales is a landmark in the history of English poetry because here Chaucer enriched the English language and metre to such an extent, that now it could be conveniently used for any purpose. Moreover, by introducing a variety of highly-finished characters into a single action, and engaging them in an animated dialogue, Chaucer fulfilled every requirement of the dramatist, short of bringing his plays on the stage. Also, by drawing finished and various portraits in verse, he showed the way to the novelists to portray characters.
Chaucer’s works fall into three periods. During the first period he imitated French models, particularly the famous and very long poem Le Roman de la Rose of which he made a translation—Romaunt of the Rose. This poem which gives an intimate introduction to the medieval French romances and allegories of courtly love, is the embryo out of which all Chaucer’s poetry grows. During this period he also wrote the Book of the Duchess, an elegy, which in its form and nature is like the Romaunt of the Rose; Complaint unto Pity, a shorter poem and ABC, a series of stanzas religious in tone, in which each opens with a letter of the alphabet in order.
The poems of the second period (1373-84) show the influence of Italian literature, especially of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Boccaccio’s poems. In this period he wrote The Parliament of Fowls, which contains very dramatic and satiric dialogues between the assembled birds; Troilus and Criseyde, which narrates the story of the Trojan prince Troilus and his love for a damsel, Creseida; The Story of Griselda, in which is given a pitiful picture of womanhood; and The House of Fame, which is a masterpiece of comic fantasy, with a graver undertone of contemplation of human folly.
Chaucer’s third period (1384-90) may be called the English period, because in it he threw off foreign influences and showed native originality. In the Legend of Good Woman he employed for the first time the heroic couplet. It was during this period that he wrote The Canterbury Tales, his greatest poetic achievement, which places us in the heart of London. Here we find his gentle, kindly humour, which is Chaucer’s greatest quality, at its very best.
Chaucer’s importance in the development of English literature is very great because he removed poetry from the region of Metaphysics and Theology, and made it hold as “twere the mirror up to nature”. He thus brought back the old classical principle of the direct imitation of nature.
(f)  Chaucer’s Successors
After Chaucer there was a decline in English poetry for about one hundred years. The years from 1400 to the Renaissance were a period bereft of literature. There were only a few minor poets, the imitators and successors of Chaucer, who are called the English and Scottish Chaucerians who wrote during this period. The main cause of the decline of literature during this period was that no writer of genius was born during those long years. Chaucer’s successors were Occieeve, Lydgate, Hawes, Skelton Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas. They all did little but copy him, and they represent on era of mediocrity in English literature that continues up to the time of the Renaissance.