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Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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Evolution of Literature

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this unit, the learner will be able to:

  1. identify the significant developments in the history of English literature
  2. develop knowledge on how the historical and cultural contexts influenced the English writers and their works
  3. become familiarized with a selection of important literary figures and some of their works
  4. analyse literary works based on the periods of their origin


All of you might have come across poems, short stories, novels, and other literary forms. Have you ever wondered as to why the poems do not look similar? Why do all novels not follow the same method of narration? Or why are the incidents not placed in order? Have you ever thought of why Milton wrote in a grand style, and why Wordsworth wrote in a language used by common people?

Yes, they are not the same because they belong to different periods in the history of litera-ture, and because they portray different tenets that prevailed during the respective periods. Have a look at what follows, to get a brief idea on the evolution of literature in England.


History, Various periods, Poetry, Prose, Drama, Society


The history of English literature is very closely associated with the history of the English race. It originated with the establishment of the country, and continued, and is still continuing to develop in accordance with the social changes in the country. When we examine the history of English literature, we find that it is distinctly divided into different periods. Each period is named after a central literary figure, or the name of the ruler, or a trait, and each period has its own distinct characteristics.

1.2.1 The Major Periods

  • The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period
  • The Anglo-Norman or Middle English period
  • The Renaissance Period
  • The Neoclassical Period
  • The Romantic Period
  • The Victorian Period
  • The Modern Period
  • The Contemporary Period The Old English Period or the Anglo-Saxon Period (450-1066 AD)

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. 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 had its origin in the ancient Engle-land while Brit-ain was still a Roman province.

.The language that these Anglo-Saxon settlers used, along with some Latin and Celtic words, evolved into Old English. Anglo-Saxon liter-ature, or Old English literature marks the ear-liest phase in the history of English literature. This period comprises those works that were produced in Old English or Anglo-Saxon from the 5th Century AD to 1066.

As most of the literature of the period was in oral form, much of it has been lost. Only some of them can be found in the extant manuscripts like The Exeter Book, The Ju-nius Manuscript, The Vercelli Book and The Nowell Codex. The most important poem of this period is Beowulf. Another poem “Widsith” describes continental courts visited in imagination by a far-wandering poet.

The setting of the story of Beowulf is in pagan Scandinavia in the 6th century. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, arrives to help the Danish king, Hrothgar. The feasting hall of Hrothgar is attacked by a fierceful monster, Grendel. Beowulf saves the king and the country by slaying Grendel. After the death of Grendel, its mother attacks the hall, and she is also slayed.

After embracing Christianity, the Anglo-Sax-on poets took up religious themes as the subject matter of their poetry. The two important religious poets of the Anglo-Saxon period were Caedmon and Cynewulf. Recorded by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Caedmon’s “Hymn” is the oldest extant work in the Old English language. Cynewulf’s most import-ant poem is “Christ,” a metrical narrative of leading events of Christ’s ministry on earth, including his return to judgement, which is treated with much grandeur. The poetry of that time was melancholic, it dealt with the primal things of life.

Latin prose enjoyed a prominent position be-fore the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England. The Anglo-Saxon period also marked the beginning of English prose through the Chronicles, which probably began in King Alfred’s time. Old English prose works include legal writings, medical tracts, religious texts and translations from Latin and other languages. The two great pioneers of English prose were Alfred the Great and Aelfric.

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 dis-placed as the Anglo-Saxon king. The foreign types of literature introduced after the Nor-man Conquest first found favour with the monarchs and courtiers, and were deliberately fostered by them, to the disregard of native forms.

In spite of the English language having been thrown into the background, some works were composed in it, though they echoed mainly the sentiments and tastes of the French writers. 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.

The most popular form of literature during the Middle Ages was romance. These romances are notable for their stories rather than their poetry, and they, like the drama afterwards, furnished the chief mental recreation of the time for the great body of people. 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.

In the Middle English period, Miracle plays, Morality plays, and Interludes became very popular. Miracle plays were stories taken from the Bible. The priests and monks were the actors.

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. Another important poet of the period is John Gower. Gower rep-resents the English culmination of that courtly medieval poetry which had its rise in France two or three hundred years before. His most important work is Confessio Amantis. An-other great poet is John Wycliffe, who was a religious reformer and founder of the Lollard Movement. He was the first translator of the Bible into English, and a very popular leader of Oxford. He has been called “The Morning Star of Reformation.” Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the makers of English poetry, and he is rightly called the ‘Father of English Poetry’. The most famous and characteristic work of Chaucer is The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer wrote a poem named “An ABC,” an acrostic which he wrote for people to use in prayer.

There were only a few minor poets, the imitators and successors of Chaucer, called the English and Scottish Chaucerians, who wrote during this period. Chaucer’s successors were Occleve, Lydgate, Hawes, Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas. They all did little, but copied him, and they represented an era of mediocrity in English literature that continued up to the time of the Renaissance .

This revival took place between the 14th and 15th centuries, but the French word ‘Renais-sance’ means more than that. There developed a critical attitude towards the medieval insti-tutions. In short, a great change was taking place in men’s attitude towards themselves. The Renaissance period witnessed the discovery of new continents, new discoveries in astronomy, the decline of the feudal system, the invention of the printing press, gunpowder, etc.

Renaissance began in Italy, and landed in England with Caxton’s printing press. The English Renaissance denotes a cultural and artistic movement in England from the early 16th to the early 17th century. The main feature was its emphasis on Humanism. It was through Dante’s Divine Comedy, Boccaccio’s The Decameron, and Petrarch’s poems and sonnets that Renaissance gained populari-ty in Europe during the Elizabethan Period. Renaissance had several other inclinations, which were actually the substantial features of Humanism. These include:

  • The reawakening of classical works, especially of ancient Greece.
  • The rediscovery of the external universe, and its significance to the human race.
  • The complexities in human characters.
  • The heightened compassion to formal beauty, and the encouragement of a sense of beauty.
  • The conviction that men are answerable for their own actions.
  • Instead of seeking inspiration from the higher authorities, as was done in the Middle Ages, the writers of the age found guidance from their inner self.

The Renaissance period in England is also known as the Elizabethan Period or the Age of Shakespeare, and it is considered the ‘gold-en age’ in the history of English literature. During the period of Renaissance, the form of English literature that flourished abundantly was drama. The main playwrights of this pe-riod were William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene, and Ben Jonson. The main characteristics of the plays of the Elizabethan period include dealing with the theme of revenge, internal conflicts and so-liloquies, good versus evil, the inclusion of scenes having melodramatic elements, the rivalry between the hero and the villain, ele-ments of tragicomedy, the presence of super-natural beings like ghosts, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and witches as in Macbeth, and the use of blank verse.

William Shakespeare was part of a theatre company called Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

Elizabethan poetry is one of the glories of English literature. The poetry of this period is remarkable for the spirit of imagination. All varieties of poetic forms – lyrics, elegies, odes, sonnets etc. were accepted. The most prominent among them was the sonnet form.

.Sonnet is a poem of 14 lines. The English son-net is also known as the Shakespearean son-net. Shakespeare has written numerous son-nets. But, of them, only 154 are available now. Sidney has also contributed many sonnets to English poetry. Their sonnets do not follow the Italian structure of eight and six lines.

Edmund Spenser is said to be (1552 -1595) the chief glory of English poetry even today. Spenser’s sonnets differ from Shakespeare’s sonnets in its stanza form. The poem contains four quatrains and a couplet. It differs in its rhyming scheme too.

Rhyming Scheme of Sonnets

  • Petrarchan Sonnet – abba abba cde cde or abba abba cdc dcd
  • Shakespearean Sonnet – abab cdcd efef gg
  • Spenserian Sonnet – abab bcbc cdcd ee

Although the Elizabethan age is called ‘The Golden Age of English poetry and drama’, English prose was set on the track of glory by such great prose writers as Lyly, Greene, Lodge, Nashe, Deloney and Dekker, with Sir Philip Sidney at the forefront.

The 17th century portrayed a decline in the spirit of Renaissance, and the writers during that period either imitated the Elizabethan writers, or employed novel techniques in their writings. The period is divided into two —The Puritan Age, also known as the Age of Milton (1600-1660) and the Restoration Period or the Age of Dryden (1660-1700). Until the year of 1660, Puritanism was a dominant feature of the age. John Milton can be considered as the representative poet of the time. The period represented the emancipation of English society from the shackles of the tyrannical ruler, Charles I, and acquainted the society with morality and high ideals in politics.

.The most noteworthy poet of the Puritan Age was John Milton (1608-1674). Being a child of the Renaissance, he was a worshipper of the Humanist Movement. Other than Milton, the poetry of the School of Spencer, the Meta-physical poets, and the Cavalier poets also were greatly acknowledged, but none of them excelled in nobility and resoluteness, when compared to John Milton.

There are 8000 different words used in Milton’s poem Paradise Lost

Apart from poetry, this era was rich in prose too. The greatest prose writers of the period were Francis Bacon, who wrote during the Shakespearean period too, John Milton, Jer-emy Tayler, Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Brown.

The Neoclassical period spans between 1660 and 1798. It has further been classified into two parts: the Restoration Period or the Age of Dryden (1660-1700), and the Classical Age or the Augustan Age (18th Century). The Classi-cal Age has been subcategorized into two dis-tinct periods – the Age of Pope (1700-1744) and the Age of Johnson (1744-1784).

The Restoration Period is so called because monarchy was restored in England after the period of Oliver Cromwell in 1660. Charles II returned from France, and was crowned in England at that time. The period is alternately known as the Age of Dryden, as Dryden was the greatest literary personality of the period.

The society lacked the Elizabethan spirit of patriotism, creative vigour and the passion for exploration and romance. Together with this, Puritanism, with its moral discipline and worship of freedom also became extinct. The writers of the age made two significant con-tributions to the world of English literature: realism, and preciseness.

The main feature of Restoration poetry is that it is mostly representative of the age, and satirical. The poets of the period, especially Dryden, adopted heroic couplet as a means to express their emotions. He wrote in an elo-quent and powerful manner, which paved the stones for the classical school of poetry.

Restoration drama displayed entirely new characteristics, as it originated after enduring rigorous changes in the social and political conditions. For these writers, prose was the medium of expression, and they expressed a realistic, intellectual and critical attitude to-wards human life and the problems pertaining to it.

The most famous form of drama that flour-ished during the Restoration Period was the Comedy of Manners, which satirically pre-sented the false sophistications and manner-isms of the dominant classes of the society. The most popular dramatist belonging to this genre was William Congreve.

The Restoration literature excelled in the field of prose. There emerged a unique style of writing in prose, which could be employed for plain narrative, practical business, and dis-cussion of complicated issues. Dryden, John Bunyan, William Temple, Thomas Sprat, and Viscount Halifax were the prominent prose writers. John Bunyan also was a predominant figure in prose literature of the period, whose famous works include The Pilgrim’s Progress.

.The 18th century in English literature is known as the Classical Age, the Augustan Age, the Age of Prose, the Age of Reason or the Age of Good Sense. Prose occupied a superior posi-tion in the history of English literature in this period.

The most noteworthy achievement of this period was the birth and growth of the novel genre. Novel, which is an unavoidable genre in literature today, was nurtured by the emi-nent writers of the period, like Daniel Defoe, Richardson, Smollet and Fielding.

The first half of the 18th Century is known as the Age of Pope, because it was Alexander Pope who was the predominant writer of that period. Although the poetry of his period is not high poetry, it still had some attractive fea-tures like the versification that was technically beautiful, the precision in terms of expression and satirical quality.

The noteworthy poets of this period were Al-exander Pope, John Gay, Matthew Prior, and Edward Young. The main prose writers of the Age of Pope were Jonathan Swift, Daniel De foe, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. The peculiarity of the prose writings of this period was that it exhibited the features of classical prose like, preciseness and clarity in expres-sion, and direct statement of things.

The second half of the Augustan Age is also known as the Age of Johnson, because the lit-erature of the age was dominated by the works of Dr. Samuel Johnson. Towards the end of the period, an aversion towards classicism, and an attraction towards the romantic spirit were fostered. The change was clearly visible in the poetry of the time. The poets, who in their poetry showed affinity towards the Ro-mantic ideas, are considered as the precursors of the Romantic period. Some of them are Thomas Gray, William Blake, James Thom-son, William Cowper, William Collins, and George Crabbe. As the age showed an affinity towards Romanticism, it is also known as the Age of Transition.

The period was also rich in prose. The main prose writers of the period were Samuel John son, Edmund Burke, and Edward Gibbon. These writers can be considered as the pillars of the period, and embodied in themselves the chief achievements of English prose. The Age of Johnson was succeeded by the Romantic Period. The publication of Lyrical Ballads, by William Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge, in 1798, marked the end of the Neoclassical era.

The Romantic period can be considered as the Spring of English literature. It was a pe-riod in which the literary works displayed a revolt against the norms propagated by the followers of the Classical school, especially the Neoclassical writers. The noteworthy po-ets of this period were William Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, Robert Southey, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron. The lit-erary genre that gained prominence during the Romantic Age was poetry. The publication of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge familiarised the generation with a new form of poetry which had tenets that were in contrast to the poetry of the 18th century.

The poets of this period gave prominence to the use of simple language. They mostly used the language of the common folk. The prose writers of the Romantic period also rejected the Augustan style of writing. They resorted to the ponderous, expressive and or-nate prose language of the Elizabethan peri-od. They emphasised emotions and feelings. They introduced a new type of novel, known as the Gothic Novel. This new genre instantly gained popularity among the reading public, as they became instantaneously enchanted by the Gothic elements like supernaturalism, haunted settings, atmosphere of mystery and suspense, and melodramatic elements.

The commencement of the Victorian period took place during the second quarter of the 19th century. The Victorian era was a very prolonged period, full of complexities. The period witnessed great change and progress in all spheres of life. It was an era of materi-al affluence, political awakening, democratic reforms, industrial and mechanical progress, scientific advancement, social unrest, educa-tional expansion, idealism, and pessimism. The literature of this period, wonderfully rich and varied in personal quality, embodies the spirit of the age. The Victorian era is charac-terised by the following main currents which transformed both life and literature.

Philosophy, criticism and prose attained great-er importance than poetry. But that did not mean that poetry was neglected.The three great names under Victorian poetry are Al-fred Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Mat-thew Arnold. Tennyson is the most represen-tative poet of the Victorian Age. His poetry is a record of the intellectual and spiritual life of the time. Browning dealt with subjects that were rough and ugly, and he aimed to show that truth was hidden in both the evil and the good. Browning immortalised himself with his dramatic monologues. Matthew Arnold stands in the direct line of poet critics from Sidney to T.S. Eliot. He defined poetry as a criticism of life and explained that he meant a powerful application of ideas to life. Mi-nor poets of the Victorian Age are Elizabeth Barret Browning, D.G. Rossetti, Morris and Swinburne. Of them, Rossetti was a leader of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement.

The Victorian Age in English Literature is re-markable for the development of fiction and novels. Its literary importance is as great as the Elizabethan drama of the Age of Elizabeth. The novelists of this era – Charles Dickens, Meredith, Thackeray, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and the Bronte Sisters – occupy a very high place in the history of English fiction. Charles Kingsley, Charles Reade, Benjamin Disraeli, Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope are a few worthy names to be mentioned in a discussion of social novels in Victorian Liter-ature.

The Victorian non-fictional prose is a rich sequel to the earlier traditions. The major non- fictional prose writings of the period are known as “sage writings.” The most mean-ingful contributions to the storehouse of sage writing are made by Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold.

The beginning of the 20th Century marked the Modern Period in English literature. The most noteworthy trait of the literature of the Modern period is its rival attitude towards the literature produced by the Victorian writ-ers. They considered the Victorian ideals as meaningless, artificial, mean, and absurd. In-volving themes of contempt of money, natu-ral beauty, divine love, and the sentiments of home and life, were looked down with hatred. Therefore, the writers of the modern period had to foster innovative perspectives and use new techniques in their writings.

Numerous writers belonging to this period set off to learn and think about the ideas propa-gated by Karl Marx, Engles, Ruskin, and Mor-ris, and they began to deliberate on practical ideas for reforming society. Modern literature is enriched with experimentation, which is a typical nature of the period – an age of transi-tion and discovery. The poets of the modern period were of the belief that a poet had to display his own personality through his po-etry. The uniqueness of his character should be displayed through the medium of poetry. It was to them, a means of finding their own inner self.

The most representative poet of the modern period is T. S. Eliot. The other major poets of this period are Robert Bridges, G.M. Hopkins, W. B. Yeats, A. E. Houseman and Wilfred Owen.

English drama continued in a state of decay for nearly two centuries, after the Elizabethan age. However, this came to an end during the last decade of the 19th Century. The main playwrights who revived the glory of drama were the Irish dramatists, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Shaw introduced what is popularly known as the Comedy of Ideas, while Wilde introduced the Comedy of Manners. Apart from these two types of plays, there emerged a third type of drama, under the influence of the Irish Dramatic Movement. Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats were the found-ers of this movement. The main writers who wrote under the influence of this movement were J.M. Synge and Sean O’ Casey. Other major dramatists of the period were Harold Pinter, John Galsworthy, and John Masefield.

The main characteristic of the modern novel is its realistic, psychological portrayal. The novelists of this period were pioneers in in-troducing in their novels new points of views, characters with complicated mindsets, with imperceptible motives. They introduced the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, which aided them in revealing the inner mental mechanisms of the characters, and also helped them in presenting the developments in the character. Apart from their realistic and psy-chological presentation of matters, they were quite liberal in discussing sexual matters also.

The novelists of the beginning of the modern period were H.G. Wells, E. M. Foster, Arnold Bennett, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Rudy-ard Kipling and John Galsworthy. The com-mencement of the First World War paved the way to new trends in literature which were the result of new forces such as the war and breaking of long-standing customs. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and Somerset Maugham played important roles in contributing to the litera-ture during the second half of the century.

The Second World War marked the beginning of new tendencies and inclinations in the writ-ing styles and themes in English literature. Al-though it was poetry that gained much acclaim during the period, the most striking form of literature that was the product of the effects of World War II was the novel. This was due to the influence of mass media, motion pictures, newspapers, and radio. Many writers were in-fluenced by war, and the influence was felt in their writings too. Graham Greene is one of them. Samuel Beckett depicted the emotions of desolate minds through his works. George Orwell wrote novels with political inclina-tions.

The new trends reflected in the novels of the period too. The 1950s saw a new group of writers who dealt with themes that were novel to literature. Some of them were Doris Lessing, William Golding, Kingsley Amis, Colin Wilson, Alan Sillitoe, Muriel Spark and others.


  • The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period produced oral literature mainly.
  • Ballad – a popular form
  • Romances, miracle plays, morality plays and interludes – the products of An-glo-Norman or Middle English period
  • The Renaissance Period – the Age of Shakespeare
  • The Neoclassical Period – the Age of Dryden, Pope and Johnson
  • The writers of the Romantic Period – inspired by Elizabethan writers. Use of simple language
  • The Victorian Period – Age of complexities, Age of readers
  • The Modern Period – Influences of World War I
  • The Contemporary Period – Consequence of World War II

Objective Questions

  1. Who wrote The Canterbury Tales?
  2. Who was the first English printer?
  3. What were the non fictional writings of the Victorian Age called?
  4. What kind of play is Congreve’s The Way of the World?
  5. To which century did the Metaphysical Poets belong?
  6. Who published Lyrical Ballads?
  7. Who wrote dramatic monologues?
  8. Who wrote the poem “The Waste Land”?
  9. Who introduced the Comedy of Ideas?
  10. In which Age did poetic comedy originate?
  11. Who was the revolutionary poet of the Romantic period?
  12. Which period is known as the Age of Readers?
  13. What does the term ‘Renaissance’ mean?
  14. What is the Puritan Age also known as?
  15. Name a poem by T.S. Eliot.



  1. Geoffrey Chaucer
  2. William Caxton
  3. Sage writings
  4. Comedy of Manners
  5. 17th
  6. William Wordsworth and S.T. Coleridge
  7. Robert Browning
  8. T.S. Eliot
  9. G.B. Shaw
  10. The Victorian Age
  11. P.B. Shelley
  12. The Victorian Age
  13. Rebirth
  14. The Age of Milton
  15. The Waste Land



  1. Discuss the nature of literature written during the Victorian period.
  2. Write short notes on
    a) Elizabethan literature.
    b) Miracle plays, morality plays, and interludes.
  3. Discuss the nature of literature during the Old English and Middle English periods.
  4. Who were the major writers of the Neoclassical period? Discuss their contributions to literature of the period.


Suggested Readings


  1. Albert, Edward. History of English Literature. Oxford UP, 2017.
  2. Drabble, Margaret. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford UP, 2019.
  3. Hudson, William Henry. An Outline History of English Literature. Maple Press, 2012.
  4. Long, William J. English Literature: Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English-Speaking World. Rupa, 2015.