A Concise History of British Literature
Chapter 1 English Literature of Anglo-Saxon Period
1. The historical background
(1) Before the Germanic invasion
(2) During the Germanic invasion
d. social classes structure: hide-hundred; eoldermen (lord) – thane - middle class
(freemen) - lower class (slave or bondmen: theow);
e. social organization: clan or tribes.
f. military Organization;
g. Church function: spirit, civil service, education;
h. economy: coins, trade, slavery;
i. feasts and festival: Halloween, Easter; j. legal system. 2. The Overview of the culture
(1) The mixture of pagan and Christian spirit.
(2) Literature: a. poetry: two types; b. prose: two figures.
1. A general introduction.
2. The content.
3. The literary features.
(1) the use of alliteration
(2) the use of metaphors and understatements
(3) the mixture of pagan and Christian elements
III. The Old English Prose
1. What is prose?
(1) The Venerable Bede
(2) Alfred the Great
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Chapter 2 English Literature of the Late Medieval Ages
1. The Historical Background.
(1) The year 1066: Norman Conquest.
(2) The social situations soon after the conquest.
A. Norman nobles and serfs;
B. restoration of the church.
(3) The 11th century.
A. the crusade and knights.
B. dominance of French and Latin;
(4) The 12th century.
A. the centralized government;
B. kings and the church (Henry II and Thomas); (5) The 13th century.
A. The legend of Robin Hood;
B. Magna Carta (1215);
C. the beginning of the Parliament
D. English and Latin: official languages (the end) (6) The 14th century.
a. the House of Lords and the House of Commons—conflict between the Parliament
b. the rise of towns.
c. the change of Church.
d. the role of women.
e. the Hundred Years’ War—starting.
f. the development of the trade: London.
g. the Black Death.
h. the Peasants’ Revolt—1381.
i. The translation of Bible by Wycliff. (7) The 15th century.
a. The Peasants Revolt (1453)
b. The War of Roses between Lancasters and Yorks.
c. the printing-press—William Caxton.
d. the starting of Tudor Monarchy(1485)
2. The Overview of Literature.
(1) the stories from the Celtic lands of Wales and Brittany—great myths of the Middle
(2) Geoffrye of Monmouth—Historia Regum Britanniae—King Authur.
(3) Wace—Le Roman de Brut.
(4) The romance.
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(5) the second half of the 14th century: Langland, Gawin poet, Chaucer.
II. Sir Gawin and Green Knight.
1. a general introduction.
2. the plot.
III. William Langland.
2. Piers the Plowman
2. Literary Career: three periods
(1) French period
(2) Italian period
(3) master period
3. The Canterbury Tales
A. The Framework;
B. The General Prologue;
C. The Tale Proper.
4. His Contribution.
(1) He introduced from France the rhymed stanza of various types.
(2) He is the first great poet who wrote in the current English language.
(3) The spoken English of the time consisted of several dialects, and Chaucer did much in
making the dialect of London the standard for the modern English speech.
V. Popular Ballads.
VI. Thomas Malory and English Prose
VII. The beginning of English Drama.
1. Miracle Plays.
Miracle play or mystery play is a form of medieval drama that came from dramatization
ththof the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It developed from the 10 to the 16 century,
threaching its height in the 15 century. The simple lyric character of the early texts was enlarged by the addition of dialogue and dramatic action. Eventually the performance was
moved to the churchyard and the marketplace.
2. Morality Plays.
A morality play is a play enforcing a moral truth or lesson by means of the speech and
action of characters which are personified abstractions – figures representing vices and virtues, qualities of the human mind, or abstract conceptions in general. 3. Interlude.
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The interlude, which grew out of the morality, was intended, as its name implies, to be
used more as a filler than as the main part of an entertainment. As its best it was short, witty,
simple in plot, suited for the diversion of guests at a banquet, or for the relaxation of the
audience between the divisions of a serious play. It was essentially an indoors performance,
and generally of an aristocratic nature.
Chapter 3 English Literature in the Renaissance
I. A Historical Background
II. The Overview of the Literature (1485-1660)
Printing press—readership—growth of middle class—trade-education for
laypeople-centralization of power-intellectual life-exploration-new impetus and direction of literature.
Humanism-study of the literature of classical antiquity and reformed education.
Literary style-modeled on the ancients.
The effect of humanism-the dissemination of the cultivated, clear, and sensible attitude of its classically educated adherents.
The first tendency by Sidney and Spenser: ornate, florid, highly figured style.
The second tendency by Donne: metaphysical style—complexity and ingenuity.
The third tendency by Johnson: reaction--Classically pure and restrained style.
The fourth tendency by Milton: central Christian and Biblical tradition.
a. the native tradition and classical examples.
b. the drama stands highest in popular estimation: Marlowe – Shakespeare – Jonson.
a. translation of Bible;
II. English poetry.
1. Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard (courtly makers)
(1) Wyatt: introducing sonnets.
(2) Howard: introducing sonnets and writing the first blank verse.
2. Sir Philip Sidney—poet, critic, prose writer
a. English gentleman;
b. brilliant and fascinating personality;
a. Arcadia: pastoral romance;
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b. Astrophel and Stella (108): sonnet sequence to Penelope Dvereux—platonic
Petrarchan conceits and original feelings-moving to creativeness—building of a
narrative story; theme-love originality-act of writing.
c. Defense of Poesy: an apology for imaginative literature—beginning of literary
3. Edmund Spenser
(1) life: Cambridge - Sidney’s friend - ―Areopagus‖ – Ireland - Westminster Abbey.
a. The Shepherds Calendar: the budding of English poetry in Renaissance.
b. Amoretti and Epithalamion: sonnet sequence
c. Faerie Queene:
; The general end--A romantic and allegorical epic—steps to virtue.
; 12 books and 12 virtues: Holiness, temperance, justice and courtesy.
; Two-level function: part of the story and part of allegory (symbolic meaning)
; Many allusions to classical writers.
; Themes: puritanism, nationalism, humanism and Renaissance
Neoclassicism—a Christian humanist.
(3) Spenserian Stanza.
III. English Prose
1. Thomas More
(1) Life: ―Renaissance man‖, scholar, statesman, theorist, prose writer, diplomat, patron of
a. learned Greek at Canterbury College, Oxford;
b. studies law at Lincoln Inn;
c. Lord Chancellor;
(2) Utopia: the first English science fiction.
Written in Latin, two parts, the second—place of nowhere.
A philosophical mariner (Raphael Hythloday) tells his voyages in which he discovers a land-Utopia.
a. The part one is organized as dialogue with mariner depicting his philosophy.
b. The part two is a description of the island kingdom where gold and silver are worn by criminal, religious freedom is total and no one owns anything.
c. the nature of the book: attacking the chief political and social evils of his time.
d. the book and the Republic: an attempt to describe the Republic in a new way, but it possesses an modern character and the resemblance is in externals.
e. it played a key role in the Humanist awakening of the 16th century which moved away from the Medieval otherworldliness towards Renaissance secularism.
f. the Utopia
(3) the significance.
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a. it was the first champion of national ideas and national languages; it created a
national prose, equally adapted to handling scientific and artistic material.
b. a elegant Latin scholar and the father of English prose: he composed works in
English, translated from Latin into English biography, wrote History of Richard III.
2. Francis Bacon: writer, philosopher and statesman
(1) life: Cambridge - humanism in Paris – knighted - Lord Chancellor – bribery - focusing
on philosophy and literature.
(2) philosophical ideas: advancement of science—people:servants and interpreters of
nature—method: a child before nature—facts and observations: experimental.
(3) ―Essays‖: 57.
a. he was a master of numerous and varied styles.
b. his method is to weigh and balance maters, indicating the ideal course of action and
the practical one, pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of each, but leaving the
reader to make the final decisions. (arguments)
IV. English Drama
1. A general survey.
(1) Everyman marks the beginning of modern drama.
(2) two influences.
a. the classics: classical in form and English in content;
b. native or popular drama.
(3) the University Wits.
2. Christopher Marlowe: greatest playwright before Shakespeare and most gifted of the Wits.
(1) Life: first interested in classical poetry—then in drama.
(2) Major works
b. The Jew of Malta;
c. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.
(3) The significance of his plays.
V. William Shakespeare
(1) 1564, Stratford-on-Avon;
(2) Grammar School;
(3) Queen visit to Castle;
(4) marriage to Anne Hathaway;
(5) London, the Globe Theatre: small part and proprietor;
(6) the 1st Folio, Quarto;
(7) Retired, son—Hamnet; H. 1616.
2. Dramatic career
3. Major plays-men-centered.
(1) Romeo and Juliet--tragic love and fate
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(2) The Merchant of Venice.
Good over evil.
(3) Henry IV.
(4) Julius Caesar
Republicanism vs. dictatorship.
gap between appearance and reality.
(7) King Lear
Ambition vs. fate.
(9) Antony and Cleopatra.
Passion vs. reason
(10) The Tempest
Reconciliation; reality and illusion. 3. Non-dramatic poetry
(1) Venus and Adonis; The Rape of Lucrece.
a. theme: fair, true, kind.
b. two major parts: a handsome young man of noble birth; a lady in dark complexion.
c. the form: three quatrains and a couplet.
d. the rhyme scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
VI. Ben Jonson
1. life: poet, dramatist, a Latin and Greek scholar, the ―literary king‖ (Sons of Ben) 2.contribution:
(1) the idea of ―humour‖.
(2) an advocate of classical drama and a forerunner of classicism in English literature.
3. Major plays
(1) Everyone in His Humour—‖humour‖; three unities.
(2) Volpone the Fox
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thChapter 4 English Literature of the 17 Century
I. A Historical Background
II. The Overview of the Literature (1640-1688)
1. The revolution period
(1) The metaphysical poets;
(2) The Cavalier poets.
(3) Milton: the literary and philosophical heritage of the Renaissance merged with Protestant political and moral conviction
2. The restoration period.
(1) The restoration of Charles II ushered in a literature characterized by reason, moderation, good taste, deft management, and simplicity. (school of Ben Jonson)
(2) The ideals of impartial investigation and scientific experimentation promoted by the newly founded Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (1662) were influential in the development of clear and simple prose as an instrument of rational communication.
(3) The great philosophical and political treatises of the time emphasize rationalism.
(4) The restoration drama.
(5) The Age of Dryden.
III. John Milton
1. Life: educated at Cambridge—visiting the continent—involved into the
2. Literary career.
(1) The 1st period was up to 1641, during which time he is to be seen chiefly as a son of the humanists and Elizabethans, although his Puritanism is not absent. L'Allegre and IL Pens eroso (1632) are his early masterpieces, in which we find Milton a true offspring of the Renaissance, a scholar of exquisite taste and rare culture. Next came Comus, a masque. The greatest of early creations was Lycidas, a pastoral elegy on the death of a college mate, Edward King.
(2) The second period is from 1641 to 1654, when the Puritan was in such complete ascendancy that he wrote almost no poetry. In 1641, he began a long period of pamphleteering for the puritan cause. For some 15 years, the Puritan in him alone ruled his writing. He sacrificed his poetic ambition to the call of the liberty for which Puritans were fighting.
(3) The third period is from 1655 to 1671, when humanist and Puritan have been fused into an exalted entity. This period is the greatest in his literary life, epics and some famous sonnets. The three long poems are the fruit of the long contest within Milton of Renaissance tradition and his Puritan faith. They form the greatest accomplishments of any English poet except Shakespeare. In Milton alone, it would seem, Puritanism could not extinguish the lover of beauty. In these works we find humanism and Puritanism merged in magnificence.
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3. Major Works
(1) Paradise Lost
a. the plot.
c. theme: justify the ways of God to man.
(2) Paradise Regained.
(3) Samson Agonistes.
4. Features of Milton’s works.
(1) Milton is one of the very few truly great English writers who is also a prominent figure in politics, and who is both a great poet and an important prose writer. The two most essential things to be remembered about him are his Puritanism and his republicanism.
(2) Milton wrote many different types of poetry. He is especially a great master of blank verse. He learned much from Shakespeare and first used blank verse in non-dramatic works.
(3) Milton is a great stylist. He is famous for his grand style noted for its dignity and polish, which is the result of his life-long classical and biblical study.
(4) Milton has always been admired for his sublimity of thought and majesty of expression.
IV. John Bunyan
(1) puritan age;
(2) poor family;
(3) parliamentary army;
(4) Baptist society, preacher;
(5) prison, writing the book.
2. The Pilgrim Progress
(1) The allegory in dream form.
(2) the plot.
(3) the theme.
V. Metaphysical Poets and Cavalier Poets.
1. Metaphysical Poets
thThe term ―metaphysical poetry‖ is commonly used to designate the works of the 17
century writers who wrote under the influence of John Donne. Pressured by the harsh, uncomfortable and curious age, the metaphysical poets sought to shatter myths and replace them with new philosophies, new sciences, new words and new poetry. They tried to break away from the conventional fashion of Elizabethan love poetry, and favoured in poetry for a more colloquial language and tone, a tightness of expression and the single-minded working out of a theme or argument.
2. Cavalier Poets
The other group prevailing in this period was that of Cavalier poets. They were often courtiers who stood on the side of the king, and called themselves ―sons‖ of Ben Jonson. The
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Cavalier poets wrote light poetry, polished and elegant, amorous and gay, but often superficial. Most of their verses were short songs, pretty madrigals, love fancies characterized by lightness of heart and of morals. Cavalier poems have the limpidity of the Elizabethan lyric without its imaginative flights. They are lighter and neater but less fresh than the Elizabethan’s.
VI. John Dryden.
(1) the representative of classicism in the Restoration.
(2) poet, dramatist, critic, prose writer, satirist.
(3) changeable in attitude.
(4) Literary career—four decades.
(5) Poet Laureate
2. His influences.
(1) He established the heroic couplet as the fashion for satiric, didactic, and descriptive poetry.
(2) He developed a direct and concise prose style.
(3) He developed the art of literary criticism in his essays and in the numerous prefaces to his poems.
thChapter 5 English Literature of the 18 Century
1. The Historical Background.
2. The literary overview.
(1) The Enlightenment.
(2) The rise of English novels.
When the literary historian seeks to assign to each age its favourite form of literature,
he finds no difficulty in dealing with our own time. As the Middle Ages delighted in long
romantic narrative poems, the Elizabethans in drama, the Englishman of the reigns of
Anne and the early Georges in didactic and satirical verse, so the public of our day is
enamored of the novel. Almost all types of literary production continue to appear, but
whether we judge from the lists of publishers, the statistics of public libraries, or general
conversation, we find abundant evidence of the enormous preponderance of this kind of
literary entertainment in popular favour.
(3) Neo-classicism: a revival in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of classical standards of order, balance, and harmony in literature. John Dryden and Alexander Pope were major exponents of the neo-classical school.
(4) Satiric literature.
II. Neo-classicism. (a general description)
1. Alexander Pope
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