MacLachlan, Rhiannon Purdie and Michael Wheeler, who each read a chapter for me, Further reading Alexander, M. Old English Literature (Basingstoke. of English Literature Author: Michael Alexander A History of Old English Literature (Blackwell History of Literature). Read more · Anonymity: A Secret. This comprehensive text traces the development of one of the world's richest literatures from the Old English period through to the present day, discussing a wide.
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Michael Alexander: A History of English Literature Description A History of English Literature has received exceptional reviews. Tracing the. A History of English Literature by Michael Alexander, , available at Book Depository with free delivery worldwide. A History of English Literature book. Read 12 reviews from the world's largest community for readers. The second edition of this best-selling book has.
Joseph Anne. William J. The Cambridge Companion to English Poets. Claude Rawson. Enzo Sardellaro. Samuel Durham. Britannica Educational Publishing.
Andrew Gordon. Shakespeare and Biography. David Bevington. The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide. Dr Emma Smith. A Short History of Ireland's Writers. Norman Jeffares. The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama. Thomas Betteridge. The Shakespeare Claimants. N Gibson. A History of Literary Criticism. Michael Morony. A Preface to Milton.
Lois Potter. Deborah Payne Fisk. Poetic Sisters. Deborah Kennedy. A Brief History of English Literature. John Peck. A Short History of English Literature. Harry Blamires. The Profession of English Letters. A History Of English Literature. William Vaughn Moody. English Literature from the Restoration through the Romantic Period. Halleck's New English Literature. Reuben Post Halleck. Routledge Revivals: English Literature Ifor Evans.
Thomas E. Thomas N. The Palgrave Literary Dictionary of Tennyson. A Preface to Pope. Ian Robert Fraser Gordon. Key Concepts in Romantic Literature. Jane Moore. The Collected Works of W. Yeats Volume IV: Early Essays. William Butler Yeats. Renaissance Literature and Culture. Professor Lisa Hopkins. Archibald T. English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century, David Fairer. English Drama. Richard W. Poetical Dust. Thomas A. The Oxford English Literary History. Margaret J. Yeats Vol X: Later Article.
A Literary History of England Vol. A Baugh. On a Darkling Plain. James Haydock. English Poetry in the Later Nineteenth Century William Edward Simonds. Michael Hattaway. The Spirit of England. Stephen Medcalf. The Anatomy of Tudor Literature: Mike Pincombe. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson. By Avon River. Austin Dobson. Jacobean City Comedy. Brian Gibbons. Plotting Early Modern London. Dieter Mehl. Studies in the Eighteenth Century.
Helen Hackett. The First Poems in English. The Paradox. The Seventh Day. Reading Shakespeare. Professor Michael Alexander. How to write a great review. Yet ever since the theatres reopened in he has had audiences, readers and defenders. So continuous a welcome has not been given to other English writers, even Milton. This is not because it is more fun to go to the theatre than to read a book, but because human tastes are inconstant.
William Blake and G. Hopkins went unrecognized during their lives. Nor is recognition permanent: who now reads Abraham Cowley, the most esteemed poet of the 17th century, or Sir Charles Grandison, the most admired novel of the 18th? The mountain range of poetry from Chaucer to Milton to Wordsworth has not been eroded by time or distance, though a forest of fiction has grown up in the intervening ground.
Prose reputations seem less durable: the history of fictional and non-fictional prose shows whole kinds rising and falling.
The sermon was a powerful and popular form from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. In the 18th century the essay became popular, but has faded. In the 18th century also, the romance lost ground to the novel, and the novel became worthy of critical attention. Only after did drama become respectable as literature. In the s, while theorists proved that authors were irrelevant, literary biography flourished.
As for non-fiction, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded in to the philosopher Bertrand Russell and in to Winston Churchill as historian. Thereafter, non-fictional writing drifted out of the focus of literature, or at least of its professional students in English departments in Britain.
There are now some attempts to reverse this, not always on literary grounds. What is it that qualifies a piece of writing as literature?
There is no agreed answer to this question; a working definition is proposed in the next paragraph. Dr Johnson thought that if a work was read a hundred years after it had appeared, it had stood the test of time. This has the merit of simplicity. Although favourable social, cultural and academic factors play their parts in the fact that Homer has lasted twenty-seven centuries, a work must have unusual merits to outlive the context in which it appeared, however vital its relations to that context once were.
The contexts supplied by scholars — literary, biographical and historical not to mention theoretical — change and vary. A literary text, then, is always more than its context. This is a history of a literature, not an introduction to literary studies, nor a history of literary thought. It tries to stick to using this kitchen definition as a simple rule: that the merit of a piece of writing lies in its combination of literary art and human interest.
A work of high art which lacks human interest dies. For its human interest to last - and human interests change - the language of a work has to have life, and its form has to please. Admittedly, such qualities of language and form are easier to recognize than to define. Recognition develops with reading and with the strengthening of the historical imagination and of aesthetic and critical judgement. In practice, though the core has been attacked, loosened and added to, it has not been abandoned.
In literary and cultural investigations, the question of literary merit can be almost indefinitely postponed. But in this book it is assumed that there are orders of merit and of magnitude, hard though it may be to agree on cases.
It would be unfair, for example, to the quality of a writer such as Fanny Burney or Mrs Gaskell to pretend that the work of a contemporary novelist such as Pat Barker is of equal merit.
And such special pleading would be even more unjust to Jane Austen or to Julian of Norwich, practitioners supreme in their art, regardless of sex or period. It is necessary to discriminate. The timescale of this history extends from the time when English writing begins, before the year , to the present day, though the literary history of the last thirty years can only be provisional.
A one-volume history of so large a territory is not a survey but a series of maps and projections. These projections, however clear, do not tell the whole story. Authors have to be selected, and their chief works chosen. If the discussion is to get beyond critical preliminaries, authors as great as Jonathan Swift may be represented by a single book. Readers who use this history as a textbook should remember that it is selective. Language change As literature is written language, the state of the language always matters.
There were four centuries of English literature before the Anglo-Saxon kingdom fell to the Normans. Dethroned, English was still written. It emerged again in the 12th and [p. With the 16th-century Reformation, and a Church of England for the new Tudor nation-state, English drew ahead of Latin for most purposes.
English Renaissance literature became consciously patriotic. English literature is the literature of the English as well as literature in English. Yet Milton wrote the official justification of the execution of King Charles I in the language of serious European communication, Latin. Dr Johnson wrote verse in Latin as well as English. But by Johnson's death in , British expansion had taken English round the world. Educated subjects of Queen Victoria could read classical and other modern languages.
Yet by the year , as English became the world's business language, most educated English and Americans read English only. Other literatures in English Since - at latest - the death of Henry James in , Americans have not wished their literature to be treated as part of the history of English literature.
Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are not English poets. For reasons of national identity, other ex-colonies feel the same. There are gains and losses here. The English have contributed rather a lot to literature in English, yet a national history of English writing, as this now has to be, is only part of the story.
Other literatures in English, though they have more than language in common with English writing, have their own histories.
So it is that naturalized British subjects such as the Pole Joseph Conrad are in histories of English literature, but non-Brits are not. The exclusion of non-Brits, though unavoidable, is a pity - or so it seems to one who studied English at a time when the nationality of Henry James or James Joyce was a minor consideration.
In Britain today, multi-cultural considerations influence any first-year syllabus angled towards the contemporary. This volume, however, is not a survey of present-day writing in English, but a history of English literature.
The author, an Englishman resident in Scotland for over thirty years, is aware that a well-meant English embrace can seem imperial even within a devolving Britain. The adoption of a national criterion, however unavoidable, presents difficulties. Born near Dublin in , when Ireland was ruled from Westminster, Beckett is eligible, and as his influence changed English drama, he is in. Writing in English from the United States and other former colonies is excluded.
A very few nonEnglish writers who played a part in English literature - such as Sir Walter Scott, a Scot who was British but not English - are included; some marginal cases are acknowledged. Few authors can be given any fullness of attention, and fewer books, although the major works of major authors should find mention here. Literary merit has been followed, at the risk of upsetting partisans.
Is drama literature? Drama is awkward: part theatre, part literature. Part belongs to theatre history, part to literary history. Plays live in performance, a point often lost on those whose reading of plays is confined to those of Shakespeare, which read unusually well.
In most drama words are a crucial element, but so too are plot, actors, movement, gesture, stage, staging and so on. In some plays, words play only a small part. Likewise, in poetic drama not every line has evident literary quality.
The words are right, but their power comes from the actions they are part of, and from the play as a whole. Only the literary part of drama, then, appears here. It is a part which diminishes, for the literary component in English drama declines after Shakespeare. The only 18th-century plays read today are in prose; they have plot and wit. In the 19th century, theatre was entertainment, and poetic drama was altogether too poetic.
The English take pride in Shakespeare and pleasure in the stage, yet after the best drama in the English tongue is by Irishmen: Congreve, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Shaw, Wilde and Beckett.
As the quantity of literature increases with the centuries, the criterion of quality becomes more pressing. Scholarly literary history, however exact its method, deals largely in accepted valuations. Voltaire also said that ancient history is no more than an accepted fiction. Literary histories of the earliest English writing agree that the poetry is better than the prose, and discuss much the same poems.
Later it is more complicated, but not essentially different. Such agreements should be challenged, corrected and supplemented, but not silently disregarded. The priorities of a history can sometimes be deduced from its allocation of space.
Yet space has also to be given to the historically symptomatic. This does not mean that the Elegy is worth more than the whole of Old English prose or of Jacobean drama, which are [p. Space is given to Chaucer and Milton, poets whose greatness is historical as well as personal.
Where there is no agreement as about Blake's later poetry , or where a personal view is offered, this is made clear. Texts The best available texts are followed. These may not be the last text approved by the author. Line references are not given, for editions change. But most are modernized in spelling and repunctuated by their editors. Variety in edited texts is unavoidable, for well-edited texts can be edited on principles which differ widely. This inconsistency is a good thing, and should be embraced as positively instructive.
Further reading Primary texts Blackwell's Anthologies of Verse. Longman's Annotated Anthologies of Verse. Penguin English Poets, and Penguin Classics as a whole. Oxford Books of Verse. Oxford and Cambridge editions of Shakespeare. Oxford University Press's World's Classics. Secondary texts Drabble, M. The standard work of reference. Rogers, P. Well designed; each chapter is by an expert scholar. Jeffares, A.
Other volumes cover Scottish, Anglo-Irish, American and other literatures. The Cambridge Companions to Literature Well edited. Each Companion has specially-written essays by leading scholars on several later periods and authors from Old English literature onwards. In the 7th century, Christian missionaries taught the English to write. The English wrote down law-codes and later their poems. Heroic poetry, of a Christian kind, is the chief legacy of Old English literature, notably Beowulf and the Elegies.
A considerable prose literature grew up after Alfred d. There were four centuries of writing in English before the Norman Conquest. These cliffs are part of what the Romans, from as early as the 2nd century, had called the Saxon Shore: the south-eastern shores of Britain, often raided by Saxons.
The Romans left Britain, after four centuries of occupation, early in the 5th century. Later in that century the Angles and Saxons took over the lion's share of the island of Britain. By , they had occupied the parts of Great Britain which the Romans had made part of their empire. This part later became known as Engla-land, the land of the Angles, and its language was to become English.
It is not always recognized, especially outside Britain, that Britain and England are not the same thing. But Lear was king not of England but of Britain, in that legendary period of its history when it was pre-Christian and pre-English.
And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England's mountains green? Blake here recalls the ancient legend that Jesus came with Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury, in Somerset. Human settlement, in Britain as elsewhere, preceded recorded history by some millennia, and English poetry preceded writing by some generations.
The people eventually called the English were once separate peoples: Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The Jutes liked what they saw, and by about the lion's share of Britannia had fallen to them, and to Saxons and Angles. The Celtic Britons who did not accept this went west, to Cornwall and Wales.
Other Britons, says Bede, lived beyond the northern moors, in what is now Strathclyde, and beyond them lived the Picts, in northern and eastern Scotland. The coming of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries [p. English literature, ; and Modern English, after The author of two After the English wrote in Latin, as they had done before the Conquest, but now also in magnificent verse epics: French.
English continued to be written in places like Medehamstead Abbey modern The Iliad, about the siege Peterborough , where the monks kept up The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle until Not very much of Troy and the anger of English writing survives from the hundred years following the Conquest, but changes in the Achilles; and The language of the Peterborough Chronicle indicate a new phase. The modern academic convention of calling the people Anglo-Saxons and their from Troy to Ithaca.
See Franks Casket. Only then could they take their place in English literary history. Old English is now well understood, but looks so different from the English of today that it cannot be read or made out by a well-educated reader in the way that the writings of Shakespeare and Chaucer can: it has to be learned. Linguistically, the relationship between the English of AD and that of AD might be compared to that between Latin and modern French.
Culturally, the English of had none of the authority of Latin. In terms of literary quality - which is the admission ticket for discussion in this history - the best early English poems can compare with anything from later periods. Literature changes and develops, it does not improve. The supreme achievement of Greek literature comes at the beginning, with the Iliad of Homer 8th century BC ; and that of Italian literature, the Commedia of Dante d.
Any idea that Old English poetry will be of historical interest only does not survive the experience of reading Old English poetry in the original - though this takes study - or even in some translations.
Old English literature is part of English literature, and some of it deserves discussion here on literary merit. Besides merit, it needed luck, the luck to be committed to writing, and to survive.
The Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes were illiterate: their orally-composed verses were not written unless they formed part of runic inscriptions. The Britons passed on neither literacy nor faith to their conquerors. The English learned to write only after they had been converted to Christ by missionaries sent from Rome in Strictly, there is no Old English writing that is not Christian, since the only literates were clerics.
Oral origins and conversion It would be a mistake to think that oral poetry would be inartistic. The Germanic oral poetry which survives from the end of the Roman Empire, found in writings from Austria to Iceland, has a common form, technique and formulaic repertoire.
It dealt with a set of heroic and narrative themes in a common metrical form, and had evolved to a point where its audience appreciated a richly varied style and storytelling technique. In these technical respects, as well as in its heroic preoccupations, the first English poetry resembles Homeric poetry.
As written versions of compositions that were originally oral, these poems are of the same kind as the poems of Homer, albeit less monumental and less central to later literature. Just as the orally-composed poetry of the Anglo-Saxons was an established art, so the Roman missionaries were highly literate.
His most influential successor, Theodore [p. His chief helper Hadrian came from Roman Africa. Theodore sent Benedict Biscop to Northumbria to found the monastic communities of Wearmouth and Jarrow Throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, clerics from Ireland and England travelled through western Europe, protected by the tonsure which marked them as consecrated members of a supranational church with little regard to national jurisdictions.
English literature, as already noted, is both literature in English and the literature of England. In the 16th century, England became a state with its own national church. Before this, English was not always the most important of the languages spoken by the educated, and loyalty went to the local lord and church rather than to the state.
Insular art, the art of the islands, is distinctive, but of mixed origins: Celtic, Mediterranean and Germanic. The blended quality of early English art holds true for the culture as a whole: it is an AngloCeltic-Roman culture.
This hybrid culture found literary expression in an unmixed language. Arriving as the Roman Empire faded, the Saxons did not have to exchange their Germanic tongue for Latin, unlike their cousins the Franks, but Latin was the language of those who taught them to read and write. As they completed their conquest of Britain, the Saxons were transformed by their conversion to Catholicism.
King Alfred thought Aldhelm unequalled in any age in his ability to compose poetry in his native tongue. There is a tradition that Aldhelm stood on a bridge leading to Malmesbury, improvising English verses to the harp in Border to attract his straying flock.
Aldhelm's English verse is lost; his surviving Latin writings are exceedingly sophisticated. Aldhelm c. Yet Britain, placed, if you like, almost at the extreme edge of the Western clime, has also its flaming sun and its lucid moon Britain has, he explains, Theodore and Hadrian.
Aldhelm wrote sermons in verse, and a treatise in verse for a convent of nuns, on Virginity. He also wrote an epistle to his godson, King Aldfrith of Northumbria, on metrics, which is full of riddles and [p. Exodus [p. Genesis B ? Even if Aldfrith and the nuns may not have appreciated Aldhelm's style, it is clear that 7th-century England was not unlettered. More care was taken to preserve writings in Latin than in English.
Of his English writings in prose and in verse, only five lines remain. Even this precious text is lost. On his deathbed, Bede sang the verse of St Paul Hebrews that tells of the fearfulness of falling into the hands of the living God.
This is a Northumbrian version: Fore thaem neidfaerae naenig uuirthit thoncsnotturra, than him tharf sie to ymbhycggannae aer his hiniongae hwaet his gastae godaes aeththae yflaes aefter deothdaege doemid uueorthae.
Literally: Before that inevitable journey no one becomes wiser in thought than he needs to be, in considering, before his departure, what will be adjudged to his soul, of good or evil, after his death-day. Its laconic formulation is characteristic of Anglo-Saxon.
Oral composition was not meant to be written. A poem was a social act, like telling a story today, not a thing which belonged to its performer. For a Saxon to write down his vernacular poems would be like having personal anecdotes privately printed, whereas to write Latin was to participate in the lasting conversation of learned Europe. Bede employed this system in his History, instead of dating by the regnal years peculiar to each English kingdom as was the custom at the time.
His example led to its general adoption. Bede is the only English writer mentioned by Dante, and the first whose works have been read in every generation since they were written.
The first writer of whom this is true is Chaucer. But we can learn something about literature from the account of the final acts of Bede, a professional writer. Composition was not origination but re-creation: handing-on, performance.
These features of composition lasted through the Middle Ages, and beyond. Bede presents the calling of this unlearned man to compose biblical poetry as a miraculous means for bringing the good news to the English. At feasts when [p. On one such occasion he left the house where the feast was being held, and went out to the stable where it was his duty that night to look after the beasts.
There when the time came he settled down to sleep. Suddenly in a dream he saw a certain man standing beside him who called him by name. Next day the monks told him about a passage of scriptural history or doctrine, and he turned this overnight into excellent verses. He sang of the Creation, Genesis, and of Exodus and other stories of biblical history, including the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost and the teaching of the apostles, and many other religious songs.
Here is my own translation. Praise now to the keeper of the kingdom of heaven, The power of the Creator, the profound mind Of the glorious Father, who fashioned the beginning Of every wonder, the eternal Lord. For the children of men he made first Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.
Then the Lord of mankind, the everlasting Shepherd, Ordained in the midst as a dwelling place -The almighty Lord-the earth for men. English is a stressed language, and the Old English verse line is a balance of two-stress phrases linked by alliteration: the first or second stress, or both, must alliterate with the third; the fourth must not. Old English verse is printed with a mid-line space to point the metre. Free oral improvisation in a set form requires a repertory of formulaic units.
The style is rich in formulas, often noun-phrases. The image of heaven as a roof and of the Lord as protector is characteristically Anglo-Saxon. In Old English verse, all vowels alliterate. About 30, lines of Old English verse survive, in four main poetry manuscripts.
These were written about the year , but contain earlier material. Much is lost, but three identifiable phases of Old English literature are the Northumbria of the age of Bede d.
The artistic wealth of Northumbria is known to us through Bede, but also through surviving illuminated books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus, and some fine churches, crosses and religious art.
The Ruthwell Cross is from this period: in this high stone cross near Dumfries, in Scotland, was smashed as idolatrous by order of the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland. In , however, the minister reassembled and re-erected it, and it now stands 5.
It was an open-air cross or rood, covered with panels in deep relief showing scenes from the life of Christ, each with an inscription in Latin.
On it is also carved in runic characters a poem which in a longer MS. This longer text in the Vercelli Book c. The Ruthwell text, which once ran to about 50 lines, is itself a great poem. If carved c. The Dreamer in the poem sees at midnight a glorious cross rise to fill the sky, worshipped by all of creation. It is covered with gold and jewels, but at other times covered with blood.
They made me a hoist for wrongdoers. The soldiers on their shoulders bore me until on a hill-top they set me up; Many enemies made me fast there. Fast I stood, Who falling could have felled them all. Almighty God ungirded Him, eager to mount the gallows, Unafraid in the sight of many: He would set free mankind. Stand fast I must. I raised the great King, Liege lord of the heavens, dared not lean from the true. They drove me through with dark nails: on me are the deep wounds manifest, Wide-mouthed hate-dents.
I durst not harm any of them. How they mocked at us both! These last lines appear on the Rood at Ruthwell. The Ruthwell Cross is an expression of the veneration of the Cross which spread through Christendom from the 4th century.
Constantine had been granted a vision of the cross, which told him that in that sign he would conquer. Victorious, the new emperor declared toleration for Christianity, and built a basilica of the Holy Sepulchre on Mt Calvary. In excavating for the foundations, fragments of what was believed to be the Cross of the crucifixion were discovered, and miraculous cures were attributed to it.
Encased in reliquaries of gold and silver, fragments of the Cross were venerated all over Europe. One fragment was presented by the Pope to King Alfred, and is now in the 10thcentury Brussels Reliquary, which is inscribed with a verse from The Dream of the Rood. In warrior culture, it was the duty of a man to stand by his lord and die in his defence. But the lord in The Dream is an Anglo-Saxon hero, keen to join battle with death.
The three crosses are also buried. It boldly adapts the Gospel accounts to the culture of the audience, employing the Old English riddle tradition, in which an object is made to speak, and telling the Crucifixion story from the viewpoint of the humble creature.
The poem fills living cultural forms with a robust theology, redirecting the heroic code of loyalty and sacrifice from an earthly to a heavenly lord.