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The dawn of english literature

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The Ancient Britons and Their Language. Many hundred

years ago (about the 4th century before our era) the country we now call England was known as Britain, and the people who lived there were the Britons. They belonged to the Celtic race; the language they spoke was Celtic. Their culture, that is to

say their way of thinking and their understanding of Nature, was very primitive.

One of the old English words you will meet in English litera­ture is "folk" [fouk] which means "people". Folk-dances, folk ­songs and folk-lore are the dances, songs and poems that people made up when at work or at war, or for entertainment. Yet there were also professional musicians called "bards". The songs of these poets were about events they wanted to be remembered.

The beautiful Saxon poem called "Beowulf" tells us of the times long before the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. There is no mention of England. The poem was compiled in the 10th century by an unknown scribe. The manuscript is in the British Museum, in London. It is impossible for a non-specialist to read it in the original, so the parts from "Beowulf" printed in this book are in the English translation. Its social interest lies in the vivid de­scription of the life of that period.


(7th-11th centuries)

The culture of the early Britons changed greatly un­der the influence of Christianity. Christianity penetrated into the British Isles in the 3rd century. This was the

time when the great Roman Empire was ruled by several emperors. Constantine Chlora ruled over the northern and western parts which included Britain, Gaule [go:l] (France) and Spain. The eastern part of the Roman Empire was ruled by Diocletian. The southern part was ruled by two other em­perors.

Now that Roman civilization poured into the country again, a second set of Latin words was in­troduced into the language .of the Anglo-Saxons because the religious books that the Roman monks had brought to England were all written in Latin and Greek. The monasteries where the art of reading and writing was practiced , became the

centres of almost all the learning and education in the country. No wonder many poets and writers imitated those Latin books about the early Christians, and they also made up many stories of their own about saints.

(12th—13th centuries)


After the death of King Canute, the struggle between the Anglo-Saxon earls for supreme power began again. The internal feud invited a foreign conquest. The Northmen

who had settled in Normandy 150 years before did not miss their chance. In the year 1066, the Norman Duke Wil­liam crossed the Channel and conquered the English in .the great battle fought ' at Hast­ings .Within five years William—the Conqueror was complete master of the whole of England. The lands of most of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy were given to the Norman barons, and they introduced their feudal laws to compel the peasants to work for them. The English became the servile class. .

William the Conqueror could not speak a word of English. He and his barons spoke Norman-French, not pure French because the Normans were simply the same Danes with a French polish. Yet during the following 200 years that the Normans kept coming over to Eng­land, they could not suppress the English language. Com­munication went on in three languages:

1) at the monasteries, learning went on in Latin;

2) Norman-French was the language of the ruling class spoken at court and in official institutions;

3) but the common people held obstinately to their own expressive mother tongue.

Norman-French and Anglo-Saxon were moulded into one national language only towards the beginning of the 14th century when the Hundred Years' War broke out. The language of that time is called Middle English.


Most of the British writers and poets about whom we are going to speak were educated at universities. It will be interesting to know how and when the two great universities of Oxford and Cam­bridge were founded in England.

The graduates were awarded with degrees: Bachelor of Science, Master of Arts, and Doctor.

In the 14th century the process of centralization was carried to a state of perfection. As the Norman masters applied the same methods of government and exploita­tion to all parts of England, They forced the Northumbrians, Mercians and West Saxons to unite and fight for a common cause. The Nor­man kings made London their residence. It became the most populous town in England. The London dialect was the central (midland) dialect, and was understood •through­out the country. It was the London dialect from which the national language developed.


The protest against the Catholic Church and the growth of national feeling during the first years of the Great War immediately found an echo in literature. There appeared poor priests who wandered from one village to another and talked to the people. They protested not only against the rich bishops but also against all churchmen who were ignorant men and did not want to teach the people anything.

The greatest writer of the 14th century was Geoffrey Chaucer. Whereas Langland expressed the thoughts of the peasants and wyclif the protest against the Church, Chaucer was the writer of the n ew class, the bourgeoisie. He was not however a preacher of bourgeois ide­ology. He was simply a writer of the world, that is to say he wrote about things he saw, and described people he met. Chaucer was the first who broke away from medieval forms and cleared the way for realism.


The death of Chaucer was a great blow to English poetry. It took two centuries to produce a poet equal to him. The Hundred Years' War ended, but another mis­fortune befell the country: a feudal war broke out be­tween the descendants of Ed­ward III. This is what led to it.


Though there was hardly any "polite" English literature (writ­ten literature) in the 15th century, folk poetry flourished in Eng­land and Scotland. Folk-songs were heard everywhere. Songs were made up for every occasion. There were harvest songs, mowing songs, spinning and weaving songs, etc.

The best of folk poetry were the ballads. The word "ballad" (or "ballade") comes from the French "ballet" which was derived from the Italian verb "ballare" (to dance).

English and Scotch ballads were short narratives in verse, partly lyrical and partly epic, which were _either_for singing or for reciting. They were often accompanied by musical instruments (such as bagpipes in Scotland) and dancing.


England's favourite hero, Robin Hood, is a partly legendary, partly historical character. He lived in about the second half of the 12th century, in the times of King Henry II and his son Richard the Lion-Heart. In those days many of the big castles be­longed to robber-barons, who ill-treated the people, stole children and took away the cattle and corn of the villains . If the country­folk resisted, they were either killed by the barons or driven away, and their homes were destroyed. They had no choice but to go out in bands and hide in the woods; then they were declared "out­laws" (outside the protection of the law).


The "dark" Middle Ages were followed by a time known in art and literature as the Renaissance. The word "renaiscence” means "rebirth" and was used to denote a phase in the cultural development of Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. A series of events changed the intellectual and moral at­titude of the people.

Man began to reason about his natural rights and turned against the teachings of the Church that subordinated Man to God. There rose an interest in all that revealed Man and that concerned human history as a whole, Fields of learning, such as philosophy, history and languages, began to be called the Humanities, and the writers who studied them—the' humanists (the very word showing that their interest lay in Man, not in religion).

A profound study of Latin and Greek uncovered the stores of antique literature. For the humanists the Renaissance was a re­birth of antique arts and literature.

The first bourgeois country in Europe was Italy. The literature of the Renaissance flourished there in the 14th century. Dante and Petrarch, the poets, and the writer Boccaccio lived at that time. It was in Italy that Chaucer learned to appreciate classical literature. The Italian painters and sculptors Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael revived in art natural beauty and the subject of love, both of which had been made sinful by the religious theory.

In France of the Renaissance we find the great writer Rabelais, in the Netherlands—Erasmus, in England — Thomas More, Francis Bacon and Shakespeare, and in Poland—the astronomer Copernic.

The literature of the Renaissance, as well as the Fine Arts, taught that man was not an evil being, that he had a right to live and enjoy himself and develop all his talents. Man was not subor­dinated to a god. His happiness was here on earth, and it depended on his own strength and mental abilities to achieve it. Man was to be his own guide to truth and happiness.

Shakespeare's Contribution to World Literature

Shakespeare's merits are enormous. He created a new epoch in world literature. The ideas set forth by the Renaissance, the strug­gle for happiness and freedom, are expressed by him in the most realistic forms.

In many parts of his great tragedies the dramatist shows the worst aspect of things. He seems to realize how much bloodshed the struggle for freedom will cost and that neither he nor the next generations will ever live long enough to see what freedom is. Yet, in the same tragedies we feel Shakespeare's firm belief in a better future for all mankind. He had faith in man. His love of man is seen in his intolerance towards injustice. Shakespeare's plays have become popular throughout the world because of these great humanist ideas and his universal and realistic characters. The whole history of English drama can be traced throughout Shakespeare's works for he combined all forms that existed before him and developed them to great heights. His works emerge from the Renaissance and become the forerunner for the literature of the following centuries. He creates characters of great depth and unusual intellects. Shakespeare is attracted by the intellect of man. We see a philosopher in Hamlet; a learned man in Horatio; a cunning diplomat in Claudius (the king of Denmark); even in the case of the stupid Polonius, the intellect is revealed in his artful machinations. When an illiterate man is depicted, he is shown as having sound common sense; and if he happens to be a comical character, he may be sly, or shrewd and witty. His wit is shown in the various puns (play upon words) as with the two servants in the "Two Gentlemen of Verona".

The development of Shakespeare's characters makes him dif­ferent from his predecessors (Marlowe and others). Their charac­ters remain static all through their plays while Shakespeare's characters change in the course of action. Shakespeare was the first dramatist to mix tragedy and comedy. Shakespeare was also a great master of plot. We find more than one plot developing in such a play as "The Tragedy of King Lear".

The soliloquies in Shakespeare's plays are not long. The give-and-take of his dialogue made it very easy for the common peo­ple of those days to understand his plays. Many phrases, once caught by his audiences, remained with the people and became part of their everyday language.

There are some common phrases which the English owe to William Shakespeare. Some of them, perhaps, were phrases which were known before Shakespeare's time, but it is because Shake­speare used them, and put them into his plays, that they have now become part of the everyday language of Englishmen.



The English Bourgeois Revolution may be,_djvided into three periods: 1. The eve of the Revolution. 2.The Civil War (1642—1649). 3. The formation of the-Com­monwealth (or Republic) in 1649 and the Protectorate un­der Oliver Cromwell_.which lasted until his death in1660. These were years of military dictatorship.


Oliver Cromwell was a landowner and lived in Huntingdon­shire. He had first been a member of Parliament in 1628, and was now a member of the Long Parliament. Nobody knew, not even himself, that he had a great talent for military leadership until the Revolution broke out. At first Cromwell was given command of the "Town Militia".


The political struggles involving broad masses of the English population favoured the development of political literature and laid the foundation of journalism. The English people took a tremendous interest in all kinds of information about the political events of the time. Leaflets with informations , the so-called "relations", began to appear. The periodical press sprang up as well.

The greatest of all publicists during the Puritan Revolution was John Milton. His works and pamphlets gave theoretical foun­dation to the struggle of the bourgeoisie against the monarchy. He became the chief ideologist of the Independents.

During the Renaissance poetry (the language of the drama) had been the most popular form of literature. During the Revolu­tion prose became very popular because it was easier to write on social-political problems in prose literature.


The history of England of the second half of the 17th century and during all of the 18th century was marked by British colonial expansion.

It was a sound-thinking and rational age, that is to say ,people hated prejudices; they lived by common sense, their decisions were not absurd or extreme.

This period saw a remarkable rise of literature. People wrote on main subjects and made great contributions in the fields of philosophy, history, natural sciences and the new study of politi­cal economy.

The central problem of vital importance to the writers of the 18th century was the study of man and the origin of his good and evil qualities. Human nature, they said, was virtuous, yet man diverged from virtue under the influence of a vicious society. Thus formulated, the problem became a social problem. At every turn the writers met with the survivals of feudalism in the country and with the evils of the newly established system of production. They were as yet unable to understand the laws of its develop­ment. "Vice is due to ignorance," they said. Eventually the writ­ers of the 18th century started a public movement for enlighten­ing the people. They thought to improve the world by teaching, they said they would bring light to the people. The writers of the age of the Enlightenment considered Church dogmas and cast distinctions as useless lumber and rejected them.




The ideas of Chartism attracted the attention of many pro­gressive-minded people of the time. Many prominent writers became aware of the social injustices around them and tried to picture them in their works . Thus this period of fierce class struggle was mirrored in literature by the appearance of a new trend, that of Critical Realism. The gretest novelists of the age are Charles Dickens , William Makepease Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell.

These writers used the novel as a means to protest against the evils in contemporary social and economic life and to picture the world in a realistic way.

Engels said that in his opinion Realism should depict typical characters in typical circumstances.

The critical realists introdu­ced new characters into literature: they described the new social force in modern history — the working class. They expressed deep sympathy for the working people; they described the un­bearable conditions of their life and work; they voiced a passion­ate protest against exploitation and described their persistent struggle for their rights.

Hard Times by Charles Dick­ens and Mary Barton by Eliza­beth Gaskell are among the best works of 19th century Critical Realism in which the Chartist movement is described.

The greatness of these novel­ists lies not only in their truthful description of contemporary life, but also in their profound humanism. Their sympathy lies with the ordinary labouring people. They believed in the good qualities of the human heart.

The end of the Century

In the seventies of the 19th century most writers on social prob­lems believed that science and science alone would finally sweep away all human misery and bring civilization to all. Men of science were greatly admired. They were invited to speak in public halls and express their opinions on all kinds of subjects.

Philanthropy, never having been able to prevent poverty, now became a laughing stock. Disillusionment led to pessimism and found its expression in a very pessimistic literature, the literature of the Decadence. So the phrase 'the End of the Century' meant not only the turn of the century: it also meant that a certain change had occurred in the more clearly-thinking minds.

It was the End of the Century that created writers who were interested in human society as a whole (Shaw, Galsworthy), and anew type of writer who was preoccupied with the future of mankind (Wells).


  1. The Twenties

A symbolic method of writing had already started early in the 20th century. It was in the twenties, along with works of Critical Realism produced by Shaw, Wells and Galsworthy, that there ap­peared writers who refused to acknowledge reality as such. They would not believe that the mind of man reflected reality—that is to say, nature and society. They would not believe that social re­lations between people influenced not only the formation of charac­ter in individuals, but also historical events. They thought reality to be superficial,—it was only a world of appearances. The cause of everything that happened— that is, what led to events—was the irrational, the unconscious and the mystical in man. These writers called the inner psychological process 'the stream of consciousness' and based a new literary technique upon it.

The most important author to use this new literary technique was James Joyce (1882—1941). He influenced many writers on both sides of the Atlantic.

2. The Thirties

The second period in the development of English literature was the decade between 1930 and World War II.

The world economic crisis spread over the whole capitalist world in the beginning of the thirties. The Hunger March of the unemployed in 1933 was the most memorable event in Britain. The unemployed marched from Glasgow to London holding meetings in every town they passed.

A new generation of realist writers, among them Richard Aldington, J. B. Priestley and A. J. Cronin appear on the literary scene.

3. Post-War and Modern Literature

After World War II there appear young writers like James Aldridge, who are ready to keep up the standard of wholesome op­timism, and mature writers, who have passed through a certain creative crisis, but who are now arduously working to discover a hu­manism with a positive set of values. Such a writer is Graham. Greene.

In the fifties there appears a very interesting trend in literature, the followers of which were called 'The Angry Young Men'. The post-war changes had given a chance to a large number of young people from the more democratic layers of society to receive higher education at universities. But on graduating, these students found they had no prospects in life. Unemployment had increased after the war and besides that, English society continued to follow the old conservative rules of life and apparently did not need them. No one was interested to learn what their ideas on life and society were. They felt deceived and became angry.

There appeared works dealing with such characters, angry young men who were angry with everything and everybody. Outstanding writers of this trend were John Wain, Kingsley Amis and the dramatist John Osborne.

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