What is English Literature?

Sasha Blakeley, Ann Casano
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Ann Casano

    Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Learn the definition of English literature. Explore the history of English literature and the major literary eras, from Old English to the twenty-first century. Updated: 08/06/2021

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What is English Literature?

What is the meaning of ''literature?'' English literature is a broad term for all English-language literature that has been produced throughout history. Literature that is typically read in translation into English is not considered English literature. English literature dates back centuries and is very important to study for several reasons. Many of the most famous works in the history of English literature deal with universal themes and can be helpful for those wishing to understand historical time periods and the development of literature and poetry over time.

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History of English Literature

Today, English literature is one of the most popular college courses around the world. An English literature definition includes writers from Britain, Ireland, America, Canada, and many other regions where English is spoken. Because English literature dates back so many centuries, it can be helpful to look at different eras to get a sense of how literature has evolved over time and what the most important works of each era were. The dates given below are not set in stone but are instead guidelines that can help differentiate time periods.

Old English Literature (700-1150 CE)

Before English evolved into its modern form, it was actually so different that contemporary English speakers could not possibly understand it. This language is called Old English, and it is in Old English that the earliest works of English literature were written. The earliest surviving work of English literature is a poem called Beowulf that was probably first written in around 700, though it probably existed as an oral story for much longer. Old English writing looks like this:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Poet Seamus Heaney translated these lines as:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

Because literacy rates were low and stories were often passed down orally, Beowulf's lines are alliterative to make them more memorable. It is unknown who wrote Beowulf, but it is thought that the earliest surviving version was either written or heavily edited by some monks. Other notable works of Old English literature include Caedmon's Hymn and The Dream of the Rood.

Middle English Literature (1150-1485)

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in Middle English

Geoffrey Chaucer is integral to the history of English literature

Middle English was a midway point between Old English and contemporary English. While it is still quite different from the English that most people are familiar with today, it is more or less readable for contemporary English speakers. At this point in Britain, the common people were speaking Middle English, but the nobility mostly spoke French. For that reason, as well as low literacy rates, few works of English literature were produced for some time. The most notable author of this time period is Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400). Chaucer was a poet who defied tradition by writing his works in Middle English instead of French. His magnum opus was The Canterbury Tales, a series of stories told in verse about a group of people on a pilgrimage together. The stories are at once amusing and moralizing. His writing looked like this:

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, were right y-nough to me
To speke of wo that is in mariage

This is the beginning of one of Chaucer's most famous stories: The Wife of Bath's Tale. In addition to Chaucer, another Middle English writer of note is Thomas Malory, who wrote Le Morte d'Arthur in 1485. This was a retelling of the myth of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. As with Old English works, some Middle English works are anonymous or survive only in fragments.

English Renaissance Literature (1485-1660)

The term ''Renaissance'' means ''revival'' or ''rebirth.'' It was a movement that swept across Europe over the course of several centuries. It was a time of social change where people's lives were altered by urbanization and agricultural advances. By far the most influential writer of this period is William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Shakespeare authored at least 38 plays and 154 sonnets during his career, many of which are still widely read, studied, and performed around the world today. The influence that Shakespeare had on English literature and the world, in general, was profound and essentially unprecedented. His famous plays include Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado About Nothing.

While Shakespeare was extremely influential, there were many other English Renaissance writers of note, including:

  • Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), a poet
  • John Donne (1572-1631), a poet
  • Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), a playwright
  • Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), a poet
  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a philosopher

Many of the major forms of English poetry and literature were developed during this time and all of these writers are still widely read today.

English Restoration Literature (1660-1750)

In 1649, the English monarchy was abolished and the country was ruled by Oliver Cromwell, who held the title of Lord Protector. In 1660, the monarchy was re-established, leading to a period in English history called the Restoration. Because of the political instability in England at this time, some of the most popular literature was written as a form of protest. A major writer of this era was the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who frequently criticized elements of European society in his works. His satirical essay A Modest Proposal and his famous novel Gulliver's Travels were both popular when they were first published and they are still studied today. Other writers from this time include:

  • John Milton (1608-1674), a poet who spanned the Renaissance and Restoration periods
  • John Dryden (1631-1700), a poet and England's first Poet Laureate
  • Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), a diarist
  • Aphra Behn (1640-1689), a playwright
  • Alexander Pope (1688-1744), a poet
  • Daniel Defoe (c. 1660-1731), a novelist

Aphra Behn was a playwright in the Restoration era

The history of English literature includes work by Aphra Behn

Samuel Pepys is particularly interesting because as a diarist, he had the opportunity to directly record his experiences during the Great Fire of London. This has proved to be an extremely useful primary source for historians who want to know exactly what the fire was like, as well as other details of daily life that other people might not have thought to record.

Romantic Literature (1750-1837)

Romanticism was a literary movement that worked to deconstruct existing literary conventions to create a new kind of literature. The Romantics valued individual expression, heightened emotions, and an appreciation for the beautiful and the sublime. Romantic literature sometimes had neoclassical elements and often featured an appreciation for the natural world. As a movement, Romanticism was most prominent in England and later in America. It was also an artistic and social movement. The Romantics tended to be supportive of popular freedom movements like the French Revolution. Important Romantics include:

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the simple definition of literature?

Literature is a general term for written works, including novels, short stories, poems, and essays. The study of English literature looks at all of the most important works written in English over the centuries.

What is the brief history of literature?

English literature has developed over more than a thousand years. The earliest known work of English literature is the Old English poem Beowulf. Since then, literature has developed and diversified enormously.

Is there a single definition of literature?

Generally speaking, literature refers to all books, poems, essays, and short stories. However, it can also be used to refer specifically to works of greater artistic merit. The term is flexible and can be applied in various ways.

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