The purpose of this course is to encourage you to gain an insight into, and broad awareness of, the development of English literature from its perceived origins in the ninth century until the end of the nineteenth century. Attention will be paid not only to influential writers and movements, but to themes such as the influence of Greek mythology, religion, politics, and the rôle of Ireland. Some writers, poets and playwrights considered are Langland, Chaucer, Malory, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Pope, Swift, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and Dickens. I apologise to the many superb but deceased writers whom I cannot include in this all too brief summary, and even to those whom I have included, for treating them somewhat summarily.
The course takes the form of a series of lectures, which form but the tip of the iceberg, providing you with a door to your own research and study. You are encouraged to share the results of your studies, helping not only your fellow students, but the lecturer. We are, after all, in the same boat, even if I am at the helm. Evaluation will be by unseen short written essays. I shall provide some examples of examination questions at the end of this hopefully helpful guide.
The course kicks off by considering English literature’s fairly late entry into the world of writing, a fact explained by the destruction of Roman Britain by barbaric German tribes, and a series of subsequent invasions that made it difficult to standardise the language and create high-level writing until the late Fourteenth Century. Naturally, once the area later to be known as England began to settle down during the reign of Alfred, priests began to translate Latin texts into Anglo-Saxon/Old English. Churchmen had an advantage, since they were literate. Gildas, born around 500, wrote The Destruction and Conquest of Britain in Latin, while Bede (who died in 735) wrote the Eclesiastical History of the English People, also in Latin. They cannot therefore be included as writers using Old English exclusively, although their works were later translated into Old English. Although the story of Beowolf is the longest known epic poem in Old English, it is a Scandinavian tale dating from the Eighth Century.
English literature begins to define itself more clearly following the Norman invasion, which resulted in a minor transmogrification, with the importation of thousands of French words. By 1150, we can therefore identify the result, known as ‘Middle English’. Here we have two superb works, one by the poorish priest, William Langland (1332-1400), Vision of William concerning Piers the Ploughman, which is a religious journey through morality, mentioning the seven Deadly Sins of sloth, avarice, anger, gluttony, lust, envy and pride, concluding that it is better to be good than rich. In contrast, his counterpart, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), was well off, working in senior government and as a diplomat, going on various European trips. He is said to have met Petrarch or Boccaccio. Certainly, his renowned Canterbury Tales seems to betray elements of Boccaccio in its earthiness and methodology. He wrote several works, including Troilus and Cressida, and The Legend of Good Women.
The next well-known piece of work with which we deal is Mallory's (c. 1405-1471) Morte d’Arthur, extrapolated from old French and some English tales, and written in early modern English. One can truly say that it has been impregnated in the British national consciousness. Many scholars think that Arthur was a Romanised Briton who fought against the German invaders. He probably was, but in the centuries of literary Chinese Whispers since then, the tale has probably been considerably embellished.
Before now moving into the Sixteenth Century, let us mention that the invention of printing, which was taken up by William Caxton in 1476, had a big impact on literature, in that it became more widespread among the ordinary population. Edmund...