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Eagleton, Terry. 1996 'The Rise of English' In: Literary Theory : An Introduction / Terry Eagleton. 2nd ed. Oxford : Blackwell, 1996, Chapter 1, pp. 15-46 This file is a digitised version of printed copyright material. Due to the process used to create it, its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Please refer to the original published version if you have any concerns about its accuracy.
The Rise ofEnglish
In eighteenth-century England, the concept ofliterature was not confined as it sometimes is today to 'creative' or 'imaginative' writing. It meant the whole body of valued writing in society: philosophy, history, essays and letters as well as poems. What made a text 'literary' was not whether it was fictional- the eighteenth century was in grave doubt about whether the new upstart form of the novel was literature at all- but whether it conformed to certain standards of 'polite letters'. The criteria of what counted as literature, in other words, were frankly ideological: writing which embodied the values and 'tastes' of a particular social class qualified as literature, whereas a street ballad, a popular romance and perhaps even the drama did not. At this historical point, then, the 'value-Iadenness' of the concept of literature was reasonably self-evident. In the eighteenth century, however, literature did more than 'embody' certain social values: it was a vital instrument for their deeper entrenchment and wider dissemination....