top of page

Tracing the origins of English Literature

The English Language remains a common language that connects the world through the widespread aura of globalisation. English Literature remains a unique part of this language that has evolved for more than 1,400 years ever since it was started. The English language itself went from Old to Middle to modern.

Literature written in English has spread around in several countries including The United Kingdom and its crown dependencies, the Republic of Ireland, the United States, and the countries of the former British Empire.

Old English (Anglo - Saxon Period) - (450 - 1066)

English Literature's origin started with the Anglo-Saxons and Germanic settlers in Anglo-Saxon in the 5th century, c. 450. Since Old English existed at that time, the oldest and the earliest piece of English literature was in Old English Literature with a set of Anglo-Frisian dialects. The history of English literature continued with the Germanic tradition of the Anglo-Saxon settlers.

Beowulf was the earliest and most popular work in Old English Literature as it is estimated to be written in England sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries.

Middle English Period - (1066 - 1500)

This era followed the Middle English era which caused a lot of variations and changes in the English language. Middle English was a form of the English language spoken after the Normans conquested England until the late 15th century.

This form of English was used by the father of English Literature, Geoffrey Chaucer in his famous work, The Canterbury Tales.

The Renaissance Period - (1500 - 1600)

The Renaissance Period saw the comeback of classical literature, adoption of Human philosophy, cultural revival and poetic evolution.

This started when Italian authors began writing in their native vernacular language, instead of languages used mostly such as Latin, French or Provençal.

Dante, Petrarch and Machiavelli are examples of Italian Renaissance writers that were very notable in this field and popularised the same.

In this era, literacy rose among people, printing accelerated and this era was a notable part of the revolutionary years of the 17th century that shaped what modern poetry looked like. More literacy amongst people helped in the widespread popularity of this culture, giving the English Language a place of international prestige and English literature being blended with a variety of cultures, middle English poetry and medieval mystery plays; ballads, hymns, and popular songs; translations from classical literature and contemporary literature from the Continent.

The Neoclassical Period - (1600 - 1785)

This period is broken down into three parts: the Restoration Age (1660-1700), the Augustan Age (1700-1750), and the Age of Johnson (1750-1798).

The word Neoclassical is a combination of the terms 'neo,' which means 'new,' and 'classical,' as in the day of the Roman and Greek classics. The Neoclassical Period commenced when writers tried imitating the style of Romans and Greeks. In this style, they emphasized logic and reason and so this era was also called the era of The Enlightenment.

Neoclassical literature is characterized by order, accuracy, and structure. The one main thing that differs this era from the previous Renaissance era is that it highlights the fact that humans were flawed as compared to the Renaissance era which always showed man as 'good'. They emphasized restraint, self-control, and common sense. Some popular types of literature included: Parody, Essays, Satire, Letters, Fables, Melodrama etc.

The Romantic Period - (1785 - 1832)

The era of Romanticism was characterized by a celebration of nature and the common man, a focus on individual experience, an idealization of women, and an embrace of isolation and melancholy.

As much as it might sound familiar, Romanticism was not about love but drew its meaning from the french word romaunt (a romantic story told in verse).

Prominent Romantic writers include John Keats, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley.

Unlike traditional Literature, romanticism focused on the emotions of the writer, celebrated nature and described the lessons it taught metaphorically.

Romantic literature is marked by six primary characteristics: a celebration of nature, a focus on the individual and spirituality, a celebration of isolation and melancholy, interest in the common man, idealization of women, and personification and pathetic fallacy.

The Victorian Age - (1832 - 1901)

Victorian Literature refers to English Literature during the reign of Queen Victoria. This was the golden age of English literature, especially for British novels. Novels became more popular due to the influence of this era.

Famous novelists from this period include Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, the three Brontë sisters, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy.

The difference between this era and the preceding Romantic era was that while the Romantic era focused on feelings, expressions, nature and morals, the victorian era reflected realities and sufferings of the world, especially people working in factories, treating the lower class and condition of women and children etc.

English writing from this era reflects the major transformations in most aspects of English life, from scientific, economic, and technological advances to changes in class structures and the role of religion in society.

The Edwardian Period - (1901 - 1914)