Stemming from the period of huge cultural advance known as the Renaissance which began in Italy in the 13th century but took a while to reach England , this period in English literature is dominated by Elizabethan playwrights such as William Shakespeare , Christopher Marlowe and John Webster. A key influence in this period was the revival in interest in classical literature, which had a profound influence not only on writing, but on art and philosophy.
A contemporary of Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser was another highly influential Elizabethan poet, who exemplified Elizabethan literature with his defining masterpiece, The Faerie Queene , an allegorical poem written in celebration of the Tudor dynasty and the reign of Elizabeth I. Her Majesty must have approved: on the strength of this poem, its author was granted a pension for life. This relatively narrow period of literary history coincides with the end of the Stuart monarchs, and is generally thought of as literature that flourished under the restored court of Charles II.
Poetry is by far the most important genre of this period. Descartes is shown on the right, advising Queen Christina of Sweden. It was characterised by a scientific, rational approach to the issues of the day, challenging prevailing beliefs, which had a religious basis.
The movement advocated the logical working out of problems, the use of empirical evidence to support beliefs, and the rejection of superstition. Isaac Newton and Mozart are two of the famous names this era spawned. Based on an incident said to have been described to Pope by a friend, The Rape of the Lock is his most famous poem.
Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre
The Romantic period was a response to the major social change taking place in England at the time, with the Industrial Revolution seeing a move from countryside to town, and the advent of polluted, overcrowded industrial cities. The Romantic period was also a reaction against the thoughts and ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, in which poets in particular rejected the scientific rationalisation of nature.
Human experience of nature is an important part of Lyrical Ballads. William Wordsworth was one of a group of poets whose work exemplifies Romanticism, and his poems, many of which were written at his home in the Lake District, are some of the finest examples of Romantic literature.
The Lyrical Ballads was a collection of poems mostly by Wordsworth, with a few contributed by his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Though the response to the collection at the time of its publication was underwhelming, it is now seen as an important development in English literature because the simpler language used — a reaction against the florid, overly intellectual language of 18th century poetry — made the poems accessible to anybody. This was also an acknowledgement of the fact that human emotion is a universal experience, whether rich or poor — an idea also reflected in the title of the collection and the use of the ballad form, which came from a long tradition of oral storytelling beloved of the poor.
While the likes of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley dominated the Romantic scene here in England, another movement was developing over in America, where Romanticism influenced New England Transcendentalism. Followers of this movement believed in the innate goodness of the individual and of nature, but also that the individual is prone to corruption by society and its organised religion and politics. Like Romanticism, Transcendentalism reacted against rationalisation and advocated the power of inherent human spirituality. Alcott and her publisher disliked the original draft of Little Women , but it proved popular with girls.
The Transcendentalist writer of whom most British people will have heard is Louisa May Alcott, author of the much-loved Little Women series. Her family and its transcendental thinking formed the inspiration for Little Women — the character of Jo being a loose portrayal of Alcott herself. The novel is still a childhood staple in homes in the USA and Britain alike. Its focus was on realistic depictions of contemporary life and society, including realistic details of day-to-day life — the kind of scenes previously shunned in favour of the idealised subjects of the Romantics.
The town of Middlemarch is thought to be based on Coventry. Poetry was still a prominent literary genre, with Browning and Tennyson two of the most famous Victorian poets; but this form was far less significant than it had been during the Romantic period. Oliver Twist contributed to changing Victorian attitudes on poverty and social welfare.
Victorian novelist Charles Dickens is one of the most famous of all English authors, and his novels are often seen as the archetypal Victorian novels. The atmosphere of one of his most famous novels, Oliver Twist , is a good example of this. Just as previous literary movements had rebelled against the attitudes of those that had gone before them, so literary modernism reacted against the conservative attitudes of the Victorian period; the First World War was also a key influence.
An important characteristic of modernism is self-consciousness, which saw a spate of literary experimentation; the stream-of-consciousness novel was one such innovation. The novel broke new ground in many ways, but its most famous characteristic is its use of a different literary genre or experiment for each chapter; one, for example, has no punctuation, while another is written as though it were a play.
Postmodernism can be said to react to Modernist ideas, introducing new concepts such as the unreliable narrator and pastiche.
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Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre
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