In this introductory lecture it better to say something about the intimate connection between English literature and English history. They go hand in hand: they are both sides of the same coin. English history is considered as the fundamental base for English literature. A history of English literature has therefore a national, as well as a personal character and interest. The inner life of each generation is revealed in the literature. In studying English literature, according to the chronological method of history, let us always try to think of it as the progressive revelation of the mind and spirit of the English people.
We shall look in detail at the social and cultural history of the centuries in which the British literary tradition has grown, and explore the historical experience as well as the literary importance of the writers it considers. English literature as an integral part of the world cultural heritage English literature is an integral part of the world cultural heritage. The best traditions of English art have enriched the world literature. The masterpieces of English prose and poetry were translated into almost all languages, thus winning the recognition far overseas. Together we shall explore the long, jagged /?
d? ag? d/ history of writing in the British Isles, from the Anglo-Saxon and the early Christian period up to the present day. Strong emphasis is made on the growth and development of the English language, and how changing understanding of the nature of language has affected the growth of writing. The British Isles have always been a multilingual landscape, and the language or rather languages have always been in constant change. The Celtic /? k? lt? k/ heritage, the Viking invasion, the Norman invasion, the deep penetration of Latin as the lingua franca /? l?? gw? ?fra? k?
/ a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different. – all are part of the great word-stock we call English. And that has led to no less profound changes in language’s most developed form of expression – that is, in its oral and, above all, its written literature. Today, for a variety of different historical reasons, English has become the world’s first language, the modern lingua franca. It is used in all six continents as first, second or third language. Over 300 million people today speak it as a mother tongue; another 300 million use it regularly as a second language.
All over the world, authors write in English, to describe worlds, landscapes, cultures for which the language itself was not originally devised. This has led to an extraordinary expansion not just in the spread but also in the vocabulary, structure and power of the language, which some contemporary writers ignore at their peril. Literature written in the British Isles is read everywhere. This vivid, expanding, difficult language is one of the world’s richest. Part of that richness comes from the remarkable history of its literary use. This is a language that has constantly recreated itself.
The Anglo-Saxon of the Beowulf poet is a quite different English from that of the travelled and educated Geoffrey Chaucer, writing under the influence of court French, even while he was recreating the contemporary vernacular /v?? nakj? l? / the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people of a country or region. The rich Elizabethan /?? l? z?? bi?? (? )n/ English is something else again – and different from the more formalized, Latinate /? lat? ne? t/ language of John Milton. Dickens’s English carries the noise of the Victorian streets of London when it was the world’s biggest city.
The language of writers today is shaped by contemporary multi-culturalism, by streets that are noisy with different sounds and by the universal spread of travel and contact. So there is still a tradition to be remembered: a sequence of forms, myths, preoccupations, cultural debates, literary and artistic trends, great and influential literary movements. The flowering of verse in Anglo-Saxon times and again in the Middle Ages constructed a poetic tradition that still has influence on the most experimental poets of today.
The flowering of drama in the Elizabethan age has, despite many transformations, founded a lineage /? l? n?? d? / direct descent from an ancestor that still has its impact on the theatricality of modern playwrights. The remarkable emergence of the novel as a popular form in Britain in the early eighteenth century not only composed a form in which some of the essential stories of national life have been told, but helped create what is now one of our most important and popular of literary genres, practised right across the world.
Any writer draws in many ways on the previous heritage of the form he or she uses, the devices and artifices /??? t? f? s/ clever or cunning devices or expedients it has developed, the cultural energies it has acquired, the themes and experiences it has explored. The same is true of the history of the language, that elegant instrument of expression which has taken on such a complicated shape over time. A literary language goes through a great range of adventures and experiments.
Forms and genres take shape: the comedy and the tragedy, the ode /??d/ and the epic /?? p? k/, the novel and the dramatic poem, blank verse and stream of consciousness /? k? n?? sn? s/. Literary language moves between high formality and vernacular ease; common speech frequently transforms conventions when they grow fixed, so creating – as with the Romantic movement – a major literary and emotional revolution.
Tradition deposits a vast stock of words and meanings, complex grammatical and artistic devices: simile and metaphor, irony and burlesque /b??? l? sk/ and satire.
Literature is our link with great humane /hj??me? n/ and moral ideas; it is part of the advancement of learning and the imaginative /?? mad?? n? t? v/ understanding of other people’s lived experience. Literature is always an experiment, as significant and innovative as any in medicine and science – as well as an eternal story of the power of the human imagination. The true tradition of literature is never simply national; it never has been. Writers constantly venture out of their own landscapes, borrow from other traditions and other tongues, welcome in travellers or influences from elsewhere.
This course rightly emphasises the relationships among the different traditions within the British Isles, and their relation with other traditions beyond. But every new writer of significance shifts the tradition slightly, adding something of his or her own, extending, sometimes totally upturning, what has gone before. At the beginning of the twenty first century, a time with its own conviction of deep and fundamental change in political, gender and global relations, as well as in science and the technologies, that extending and upturning is visibly happening again, as it did at the start of the twentieth century.
Yet writing still needs the past and the tradition – if only as a help in discovering the present, and prospecting the future. So, my task as a lecturer is to lead the way as effectively as possible to the works of past and present that show you British writing does have a long and fascinating history. Periodization For the sake of convenience, the history of English literature is divided into periods.