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English literature

English literature, literature written in English since c.1450 by the inhabitants of the British Isles; it was during the 15th cent. that the English language acquired much of its modern form. For the literature of previous linguistic periods, see the articles on Anglo-Saxon literature and Middle English literature (see also Anglo-Norman literature).

For literature written by English speakers elsewhere, see American literature; Australian literature; Canadian literature, English; New Zealand literature; and South African literature.

The Tudors and the Elizabethan Age

The beginning of the Tudor dynasty coincided with the first dissemination of printed matter. William Caxton's press was established in 1476, only nine years before the beginning of Henry VII's reign. Caxton's achievement encouraged writing of all kinds and also influenced the standardization of the English language. The early Tudor period, particularly the reign of Henry VIII, was marked by a break with the Roman Catholic Church and a weakening of feudal ties, which brought about a vast increase in the power of the monarchy.

Stronger political relationships with the Continent were also developed, increasing England's exposure to Renaissance culture. Humanism became the most important force in English literary and intellectual life, both in its narrow sense—the study and imitation of the Latin classics—and in its broad sense—the affirmation of the secular, in addition to the otherworldly, concerns of people. These forces produced during the reign (1558–1603) of Elizabeth I one of the most fruitful eras in literary history.

The energy of England's writers matched that of its mariners and merchants. Accounts by men such as Richard Hakluyt, Samuel Purchas, and Sir Walter Raleigh were eagerly read. The activities and literature of the Elizabethans reflected a new nationalism, which expressed itself also in the works of chroniclers (John Stow, Raphael Holinshed, and others), historians, and translators and even in political and religious tracts. A myriad of new genres, themes, and ideas were incorporated into English literature. Italian poetic forms, especially the sonnet, became models for English poets.

Sir Thomas Wyatt was the most successful sonneteer among early Tudor poets, and was, with Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, a seminal influence. Tottel's Miscellany (1557) was the first and most popular of many collections of experimental poetry by different, often anonymous, hands. A common goal of these poets was to make English as flexible a poetic instrument as Italian. Among the more prominent of this group were Thomas Churchyard, George Gascoigne, and Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford. An ambitious and influential work was A Mirror for Magistrates (1559), a historical verse narrative by several poets that updated the medieval view of history and the morals to be drawn from it.

The poet who best synthesized the ideas and tendencies of the English Renaissance was Edmund Spenser. His unfinished epic poem The Faerie Queen (1596) is a treasure house of romance, allegory, adventure, Neoplatonic ideas, patriotism, and Protestant morality, all presented in a variety of literary styles. The ideal English Renaissance man was Sir Philip Sidney—scholar, poet, critic, courtier, diplomat, and soldier—who died in battle at the age of 32. His best poetry is contained in the sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591) and his Defence of Poesie is among the most important works of literary criticism in the tradition.

Many others in a historical era when poetic talents were highly valued, were skilled poets. Important late Tudor sonneteers include Spenser and Shakespeare, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, and Fulke Greville. More versatile even than Sidney was Sir Walter Raleigh—poet, historian, courtier, explorer, and soldier—who wrote strong, spare poetry.

Early Tudor drama owed much to both medieval morality plays and classical models. Ralph Roister Doister (c.1545) by Nicholas Udall and Gammer Gurton's Needle (c.1552) are considered the first English comedies, combining elements of classical Roman comedy with native burlesque. During the late 16th and early 17th cent., drama flourished in England as never before or since. It came of age with the work of the University Wits, whose sophisticated plays set the course of Renaissance drama and paved the way for Shakespeare.

The Wits included John Lyly, famed for the highly artificial and much imitated prose work Euphues (1578); Robert Greene, the first to write romantic comedy; the versatile Thomas Lodge and Thomas Nashe; Thomas Kyd, who popularized neo-Senecan tragedy; and Christopher Marlowe, the greatest dramatist of the group. Focusing on heroes whose very greatness leads to their downfall, Marlowe wrote in blank verse with a rhetorical brilliance and eloquence superbly equal to the demands of high drama. William Shakespeare, of course, fulfilled the promise of the Elizabethan age. His history plays, comedies, and tragedies set a standard never again equaled, and he is universally regarded as the greatest dramatist and one of the greatest poets of all time.

The Jacobean Era, Cromwell, and the Restoration

Elizabethan literature generally reflects the exuberant self-confidence of a nation expanding its powers, increasing its wealth, and thus keeping at bay its serious social and religious problems. Disillusion and pessimism followed, however, during the unstable reign of James I (1603–25). The 17th cent. was to be a time of great upheaval—revolution and regicide, restoration of the monarchy, and, finally, the victory of Parliament, landed Protestantism, and the moneyed interests.

Jacobean literature begins with the drama, including some of Shakespeare's greatest, and darkest, plays. The dominant literary figure of James's reign was Ben Jonson, whose varied and dramatic works followed classical models and were enriched by his worldly, peculiarly English wit. His satiric dramas, notably the great Volpone (1606), all take a cynical view of human nature. Also cynical were the horrific revenge tragedies of John Ford, Thomas Middleton, Cyril Tourneur, and John Webster (the best poet of this grim genre). Novelty was in great demand, and the possibilities of plot and genre were exploited almost to exhaustion. Still, many excellent plays were written by men such as George Chapman, the masters of comedy Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger, and the team of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Drama continued to flourish until the closing of the theaters at the onset of the English Revolution in 1642.

The foremost poets of the Jacobean era, Ben Jonson and John Donne, are regarded as the originators of two diverse poetic traditions—the Cavalier and the metaphysical (see Cavalier poets and metaphysical poets). Jonson and Donne shared not only a common fund of literary resources, but also a dryness of wit and precision of expression. Donne's poetry is distinctive for its passionate intellection, Jonson's for its classicism and urbane guidance of passion.

Although George Herbert and Donne were the principal metaphysical poets, the meditative religious poets Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne were also influenced by Donne, as were Abraham Cowley and Richard Crashaw. The greatest of the Cavalier poets was the sensuously lyrical Robert Herrick. Such other Cavaliers as Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace were lyricists in the elegant Jonsonian tradition, though their lyricism turned political during the English Revolution. Although ranked with the metaphysical poets, the highly individual Andrew Marvell partook of the traditions of both Donne and Jonson.

Among the leading prose writers of the Jacobean period were the translators who produced the classic King James Version of the Bible (1611) and the divines Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and John Donne. The work of Francis Bacon helped shape philosophical and scientific method. Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) offers a varied, virtually encyclopedic view of the moral and intellectual preoccupations of the 17th cent. Like Burton, Sir Thomas Browne sought to reconcile the mysteries of religion with the newer mysteries of science. Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler (1653), produced a number of graceful biographies of prominent writers. Thomas Hobbes wrote the most influential political treatise of the age, Leviathan (1651).

The Jacobean era's most fiery and eloquent author of political tracts (many in defense of Cromwell's government, of which he was a member) was also one of the greatest of all English poets, John Milton. His Paradise Lost (1667) is a Christian epic of encompassing scope. In Milton the literary and philosophical heritage of the Renaissance merged with Protestant political and moral conviction.

With the restoration of the English monarchy in the person of Charles II, literary tastes widened. The lifting of Puritan restrictions and the reassembling of the court led to a relaxation of restraints, both moral and stylistic, embodied in such figures as the Earl of Rochester. Restoration comedy reveals both the influence of French farce (the English court spent its exile in France) and of Jacobean comedy. It generously fed the public's appetite for broad satire, high style, and a licentiousness that justified the worst Puritan imaginings. Such dramatists as Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve created superbly polished high comedy. Sparkling but not quite so brilliant were the plays of George Farquhar, Thomas Shadwell, and Sir John Vanbrugh.

John Dryden began as a playwright but became the foremost poet and critic of his time. His greatest works are satirical narrative poems, notably Absalom and Achitophel (1681), in which prominent contemporary figures are unmistakably and devastatingly portrayed. Another satiric poet of the period was Samuel Butler, whose Hudibras (1663) satirizes Puritanism together with all the intellectual pretensions of the time. During the Restoration Puritanism or, more generally, the Dissenting tradition, remained vital. The most important Dissenting literary work was John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1675), an allegorical prose narrative that is considered a forerunner of the novel. Lively and illuminating glimpses of Restoration manners and mores are provided by the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.

The Eighteenth Century

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 firmly established a Protestant monarchy together with effective rule by Parliament. The new science of the time, Newtonian physics, reinforced the belief that everything, including human conduct, is guided by a rational order. Moderation and common sense became intellectual values as well as standards of behavior.

These values achieved their highest literary expression in the poetry of Alexander Pope. Pope—neoclassicist, wit, and master of the heroic couplet—was critical of human foibles but generally confident that order and happiness in human affairs were attainable if excesses were eschewed and rational dictates heeded. The brilliant prose satirist Jonathan Swift was not so sanguine. His "savage indignation" resulted in devastating attacks on his age in A Tale of a Tub (1704), Gulliver's Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729).

Middle-class tastes were reflected in the growth of periodicals and newspapers, the best of which were the Tatler and the Spectator produced by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele. The novels of Daniel Defoe, the first modern novels in English, owe much to the techniques of journalism. They also illustrate the virtues of merchant adventure vital to the rising middle class. Indeed, the novel was to become the literary form most responsive to middle-class needs and interests.

The 18th cent. was the age of town life with its coffeehouses and clubs. One of the most famous of the latter was the Scriblerus Club, whose members included Pope, Swift, and John Gay (author of The Beggar's Opera). Its purpose was to defend and uphold high literary standards against the rising tide of middle-class values and tastes. Letters were a popular form of polite literature. Pope, Swift, Horace Walpole, and Thomas Gray were masters of the form, and letters make up the chief literary output of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Lord Chesterfield. The novels of Samuel Richardson, including the influential Clarissa (1747), were written in epistolary form. With the work of Richardson, Fanny Burney, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Laurence Sterne the English novel flourished.

Probably the most celebrated literary circle in history was the one dominated by Samuel Johnson. It included Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and James Boswell, whose biography of Johnson is a classic of the genre. Other great master prose writers of the period were the historian Edward Gibbon and the philosopher David Hume. Dr. Johnson, who carried the arts of criticism and conversation to new heights, both typified and helped to form mid-18th-century views of life, literature, and conduct. The drama of the 18th cent. failed to match that of the Restoration. But Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan rose above the prevalent "weeping comedy" —whose sentimentalism infected every literary genre of the period—to achieve polished comedy in the Restoration tradition.

Among the prominent poets of the 18th cent. were James Thomson, who wrote in The Seasons (1726) of nature as it reflected the Newtonian concept of order and beauty, and Edward Young, whose Night Thoughts (1742) combined melancholy and Christian apologetics. Anticipations of romanticism can be seen in the odes of William Collins, the poems of Thomas Gray, and the Scots lyrics of Robert Burns. The work of William Blake, the first great romantic poet, began late in the 18th cent. Blake is unique: poet, artist, artisan, revolutionist, and visionary prophet.

In prose fiction, departures from social realism are evident in the Gothic romances of Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliffe, "Monk" Lewis, Charles Maturin, and others. These works catered to a growing interest in medievalism, northern antiquities, ballads, folklore, chivalry, and romance, also exploited in two masterpieces of forgery—the Ossian poems of James Macpherson and the "medieval" Rowley poems of Thomas Chatterton.

The Romantic Period

At the turn of the century, fired by ideas of personal and political liberty and of the energy and sublimity of the natural world, artists and intellectuals sought to break the bonds of 18th-century convention. Although the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau and William Godwin had great influence, the French Revolution and its aftermath had the strongest impact of all. In England initial support for the Revolution was primarily utopian and idealist, and when the French failed to live up to expectations, most English intellectuals renounced the Revolution. However, the romantic vision had taken forms other than political, and these developed apace.

In Lyrical Ballads (1798 and 1800), a watershed in literary history, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge presented and illustrated a liberating aesthetic: poetry should express, in genuine language, experience as filtered through personal emotion and imagination; the truest experience was to be found in nature. The concept of the Sublime strengthened this turn to nature, because in wild countrysides the power of the sublime could be felt most immediately. Wordsworth's romanticism is probably most fully realized in his great autobiographical poem, "The Prelude" (1805–50). In search of sublime moments, romantic poets wrote about the marvelous and supernatural, the exotic, and the medieval. But they also found beauty in the lives of simple rural people and aspects of the everyday world.

The second generation of romantic poets included John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. In Keats's great odes, intellectual and emotional sensibility merge in language of great power and beauty. Shelley, who combined soaring lyricism with an apocalyptic political vision, sought more extreme effects and occasionally achieved them, as in his great drama Prometheus Unbound (1820). His wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wrote the greatest of the Gothic romances, Frankenstein (1818).

Lord Byron was the prototypical romantic hero, the envy and scandal of the age. He has been continually identified with his own characters, particularly the rebellious, irreverent, erotically inclined Don Juan. Byron invested the romantic lyric with a rationalist irony. Minor romantic poets include Robert Southey—best-remembered today for his story "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" —Leigh Hunt, Thomas Moore, and Walter Savage Landor.

The romantic era was also rich in literary criticism and other nonfictional prose. Coleridge proposed an influential theory of literature in his Biographia Literaria (1817). William Godwin and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote ground–breaking books on human, and women's, rights. William Hazlitt, who never forsook political radicalism, wrote brilliant and astute literary criticism. The master of the personal essay was Charles Lamb, whereas Thomas De Quincey was master of the personal confession. The periodicals Edinburgh Review and Blackwood's Magazine, in which leading writers were published throughout the century, were major forums of controversy, political as well as literary.

Although the great novelist Jane Austen wrote during the romantic era, her work defies classification. With insight, grace, and irony she delineated human relationships within the context of English country life. Sir Walter Scott, Scottish nationalist and romantic, made the genre of the historical novel widely popular. Other novelists of the period were Maria Edgeworth, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Thomas Love Peacock, the latter noted for his eccentric novels satirizing the romantics.

The Victorian Age

The Reform Bill of 1832 gave the middle class the political power it needed to consolidate—and to hold—the economic position it had already achieved. Industry and commerce burgeoned. While the affluence of the middle class increased, the lower classes, thrown off their land and into the cities to form the great urban working class, lived ever more wretchedly. The social changes were so swift and brutal that Godwinian utopianism rapidly gave way to attempts either to justify the new economic and urban conditions, or to change them. The intellectuals and artists of the age had to deal in some way with the upheavals in society, the obvious inequities of abundance for a few and squalor for many, and, emanating from the throne of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), an emphasis on public rectitude and moral propriety.

The Novel

The Victorian era was the great age of the English novel—realistic, thickly plotted, crowded with characters, and long. It was the ideal form to describe contemporary life and to entertain the middle class. The novels of Charles Dickens, full to overflowing with drama, humor, and an endless variety of vivid characters and plot complications, nonetheless spare nothing in their portrayal of what urban life was like for all classes. William Makepeace Thackeray is best known for Vanity Fair (1848), which wickedly satirizes hypocrisy and greed.

Emily Brontë's (see Brontë, family) single novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), is a unique masterpiece propelled by a vision of elemental passions but controlled by an uncompromising artistic sense. The fine novels of Emily's sister Charlotte Brontë, especially Jane Eyre (1847) and Villette (1853), are more rooted in convention, but daring in their own ways. The novels of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) appeared during the 1860s and 70s. A woman of great erudition and moral fervor, Eliot was concerned with ethical conflicts and social problems. George Meredith produced comic novels noted for their psychological perception. Another novelist of the late 19th cent. was the prolific Anthony Trollope, famous for sequences of related novels that explore social, ecclesiastical, and political life in England.

Thomas Hardy's profoundly pessimistic novels are all set in the harsh, punishing midland county he called Wessex. Samuel Butler produced novels satirizing the Victorian ethos, and Robert Louis Stevenson, a master of his craft, wrote arresting adventure fiction and children's verse. The mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, writing under the name Lewis Carroll, produced the complex and sophisticated children's classics Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871). Lesser novelists of considerable merit include Benjamin Disraeli, George Gissing, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Wilkie Collins. By the end of the period, the novel was considered not only the premier form of entertainment but also a primary means of analyzing and offering solutions to social and political problems.


Among the Victorian masters of nonfiction were the great Whig historian Thomas Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle, the historian, social critic, and prophet whose rhetoric thundered through the age. Influential thinkers included John Stuart Mill, the great liberal scholar and philosopher; Thomas Henry Huxley, a scientist and popularizer of Darwinian theory; and John Henry, Cardinal Newman, who wrote earnestly of religion, philosophy, and education. The founders of Communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, researched and wrote their books in the free environment of England. The great art historian and critic John Ruskin also concerned himself with social and economic problems. Matthew Arnold's theories of literature and culture laid the foundations for modern literary criticism, and his poetry is also notable.


The preeminent poet of the Victorian age was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Although romantic in subject matter, his poetry was tempered by personal melancholy; in its mixture of social certitude and religious doubt it reflected the age. The poetry of Robert Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was immensely popular, though Elizabeth's was more venerated during their lifetimes. Browning is best remembered for his superb dramatic monologues. Rudyard Kipling, the poet of the empire triumphant, captured the quality of the life of the soldiers of British expansion. Some fine religious poetry was produced by Francis Thompson, Alice Meynell, Christina Rossetti, and Lionel Johnson.

In the middle of the 19th cent. the so-called Pre-Raphaelites, led by the painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, sought to revive what they judged to be the simple, natural values and techniques of medieval life and art. Their quest for a rich symbolic art led them away, however, from the mainstream. William Morris—designer, inventor, printer, poet, and social philosopher—was the most versatile of the group, which included the poets Christina Rossetti and Coventry Patmore.

Algernon Charles Swinburne began as a Pre-Raphaelite but soon developed his own classically influenced, sometimes florid style. A. E. Housman and Thomas Hardy, Victorian figures who lived on into the 20th cent., share a pessimistic view in their poetry, but Housman's well-constructed verse is rather more superficial. The great innovator among the late Victorian poets was the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. The concentration and originality of his imagery, as well as his jolting meter ( "sprung rhythm" ), had a profound effect on 20th-century poetry.

During the 1890s the most conspicuous figures on the English literary scene were the decadents. The principal figures in the group were Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, and, first among them in both notoriety and talent, Oscar Wilde. The Decadents' disgust with bourgeois complacency led them to extremes of behavior and expression. However limited their accomplishments, they pointed out the hypocrisies in Victorian values and institutions. The sparkling, witty comedies of Oscar Wilde and the comic operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan were perhaps the brightest achievements of 19th-century British drama.

The Early Twentieth Century

Irish drama flowered in the early 20th cent., largely under the aegis of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (see Irish literary renaissance). John Millington Synge, William Butler Yeats, and Sean O'Casey all wrote on Irish themes—mythical in Yeats's poetic drama, political in O'Casey's realistic plays. Also Irish, George Bernard Shaw wrote biting dramas that reflect all aspects of British society. In fact, many of the towering figures of 20th-century English literature were not English; Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, O'Casey, and Beckett were Irish, Dylan Thomas was Welsh, T. S. Eliot was born an American, and Conrad was Polish.

Poetry in the early 20th cent. was typified by the conventional romanticism of such poets as John Masefield, Alfred Noyes, and Walter de la Mare and by the experiments of the imagists, notably Hilda Doolittle (H. D.), Richard Aldington, Herbert Read, and D. H. Lawrence. The finest poet of the period was Yeats, whose poetry fused romantic vision with contemporary political and aesthetic concerns. Though the 19th-century tradition of the novel lived on in the work of Arnold Bennett, William Henry Hudson, and John Galsworthy, new writers like Henry James, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad expressed the skepticism and alienation that were to become features of post-Victorian sensibility.

World War I shook England to the core. As social mores were shaken, so too were artistic conventions. The work of war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the latter killed in the war (as were Rupert Brooke and Isaac Rosenberg), was particularly influential. Ford Madox Ford's landmark tetralogy, Parade's End, is perhaps the finest depiction of the war and its effects. The new era called for new forms, typified by the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, first published in 1918, and of T. S. Eliot, whose long poem The Waste Land (1922) was a watershed in both American and English literary history. Its difficulty, formal invention, and bleak antiromanticism were to influence poets for decades.

Equally important was the novel Ulysses, also published in 1922, by the expatriate Irishman James Joyce. Although his books were controversial because of their freedom of language and content, Joyce's revolutions in narrative form, the treatment of time, and nearly all other techniques of the novel made him a master to be studied, but only intermittently copied. Though more conventional in form, the novels of D. H. Lawrence were equally challenging to convention; he was the first to champion both the primitive and the supercivilized urges of men and women.

Sensitivity and psychological subtlety mark the superb novels of Virginia Woolf, who, like Dorothy Richardson, experimented with the interior forms of narration. Woolf was the center of the brilliant Bloomsbury group, which included the novelist E. M. Forster, the biographer Lytton Strachey, and many important English intellectuals of the early 20th cent. Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh satirized the group and the period, while Katharine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen captured their flavor in fiction.

Moved by the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and English policies of appeasement, many writers and intellectuals sought solutions in the politics of the left—or the right. Wyndham Lewis satirized what he thought was the total dissolution of culture in Apes of Gods (1930). George Orwell fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. The experience left him profoundly disillusioned with Communism, a feeling he eloquently expressed in such works as Animal Farm (1946) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). The poets W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and C. Day Lewis all proclaimed their leftist respective political commitments, but the pressing demands of World War II superseded these long-term ideals.

The Postwar Era to the Present

After the war most English writers chose to focus on aesthetic or social rather than political problems; C. P. Snow was perhaps the notable exception. The novelists Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Joyce Cary, and Lawrence Durrell, and the poets Robert Graves, Edwin Muir, Louis MacNeice, and Edith Sitwell tended to cultivate their own distinctive voices. Other novelists and playwrights of the 1950s, often called the angry young men, expressed a deep dissatisfaction with British society, combined with despair that anything could be done about it.

While the postwar era was not a great period of English literature, it produced a variety of excellent critics, including William Empson, Frank Kermode, and F. R. Leavis. The period was also marked by a number of highly individual novelists, including Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, William Golding, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, and Muriel Spark. Anthony Powell and Richard Hughes continued to work in the expansive 19th-century tradition, producing a series of realistic novels chronicling life in England during the 20th cent.

Some of the most exciting work of the period came in the theater, notably the plays of John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, David Storey, and Arnold Wesker. Among the best postwar British authors were the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and the Irish expatriate novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett. Thomas's lyricism and rich imagery reaffirmed the romantic spirit, and he was eventually appreciated for his technical mastery as well. Beckett, who wrote many of his works in French and translated them into English, is considered the greatest exponent of the theater of the absurd. His uncompromisingly bleak, difficult plays (and novels) depict the lonely, alienated human condition with compassion and humor.

Other outstanding contemporary poets include Hugh MacDiarmid, the leading figure of the Scottish literary renaissance; Ted Hughes, whose harsh, postapocalyptic poetry celebrates simple survival, and Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet who is hailed for his exquisite style. Novelists generally have found as little in the Thatcher and Major eras as in the previous period to inspire them, but the work of Margaret Drabble, John Fowles, David Lodge stands out, and the Scottish writer James Kelman stands out.


See A. Fowler, A History of English Literature (1987); The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, ed. by G. Watson (4 vol., 1969–72); The Penguin Companion to English Literature, ed. by D. Daiches (1972); The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. by M. Drabble (1985); The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, ed. by F. Kermode and J. Hollander (2 vol., 1973); St. Martin's Anthologies of English Literature, ed. by M. Alexander et al. (5 vol., 1991); The Oxford English Literary History, vol. 2 by J. Simpson, 1350–1547, Reform and Cultural Revolution (2002), vol. 8 by P. Davis, 1830–1880, the Victorians (2002).

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ENGLISH LITERATURE Short form Eng lit. An ambiguous term used and understood in at least five ways: as the LITERATURE of England, the literature of Great Britain (and Ireland) written in English, all literature in English (whatever the place of origin), a varying mix of all or any of these (depending on circumstance, preference, and emphasis), and any of these as a subject taught in schools and colleges.

The literature of England

In its first sense, English literature is on a par with other national literatures, such as Italian literature seen as the achievement and heritage of the people of Italy. This is the commonest sense of the term, widely used to contrast not only with Italian or French national literature but also with the national literature of the US, as in:
When we think of modern literature, we almost invariably associate it with national groups. English literature does not include American, and there is even hesitation in including Austrian literature under German. In the Middle Ages such national groups either did not exist at all or existed only in a rudimentary form. We can speak only of works written in a particular language ( W. T. H. Jackson , Medieval Literature, 1966)

The literature of Great Britain

In its second sense, the term refers to literature in English in the nation-state made up of England, Scotland, and Wales (and at certain times and in various ways all or part of Ireland), or of the British Isles:
For coherence, I have focused on the literature of the British Isles, and specifically of England—although with many necessary side glances at Scotland and Ireland( Alastair Fowler , A History of English Literature, 1987)

This dimension is often inconsistently perceived and described: for example, Scottish writers like Walter Scott, John Buchan, and J. M. Barrie are included unreflectingly in lists, studies, and histories that do not precisely specify the ‘Englishness’ of the canon in question. This imprecision sometimes confuses the narrower heritage of England with the broader heritage of Britain and Ireland. The use of the term British literature, however, is complicated by the existence of literatures that are not in English (Gaelic, Welsh, and Cornish, and Scots when defined as distinct from English). The term is, however, sometimes used in contrast with literatures in English elsewhere.

All literature in English

The third, non-national or supra-national sense includes the preceding and such terms as African literature in English, American literature, Australian literature, Canadian literature in English, Irish literature in English. It may or may not have a capital L. The sense dates from the 19c, with changing emphases:
Around 1900, not many literary historians in Europe or the United States would have been prepared to argue that there was such a thing as an American literature, or that the literature so far produced in America was worth an extensive analysis. Able American authors were conceded to exist. But they tended to be treated as men of individual merit—contributors (as Matthew Arnold saw it) to ‘one great literature—English literature’( Marcus Cunliffe , American Literature to 1900, 1986).
This literature of English at large is sometimes referred to as literature (written) in English, as in The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (ed. Ian Ousby, 1988). It includes not only the British and American traditions, but also COMMONWEALTH literature. The usage world literature written in English includes all literatures created in English and all literary works translated into English.

A mixture of senses

Because of the possible confusions and misunderstandings, resentment can arise among those interested in the literature and its description. Critics discussing such writers as Chinua Achebe, Robertson Davies, James Joyce, V. S. Naipaul, and Walter Scott, as part of ‘mainstream’ English literature with its supposedly ‘universal’ messages may or may not recall or appreciate that such writers have Nigerian, Canadian, Irish, Trinidadian, Scottish, or other dimensions as significant for their work as the English dimension of William Wordsworth and the American dimension of Mark Twain. Such problems arise partly from ambiguities inherent in the word ‘English’ itself and partly from distinctions and tensions among the peoples who use English, some of whom have no other language, some of whom are bi- or multilingual, and some of whom have seen English replace other languages important to them.

The development of English literature

Imaginative works have been written in English for over a thousand years, and, in historical terms, most of them are primarily the heritage of England. As with the language itself, such literature can be divided into Old, Middle, and Modern periods, the modern phase subdividing conveniently into compartments whose labels relate to monarchs (Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Victorian), cultural phases and assumptions (Augustan, Romantic, Modernist, etc.), centuries (16c drama, the 18c novel, etc.), and, most recently, varieties (American literature, Indian English literature, etc.).

The language of literature

Although English literature has not been so detached from everyday usage as some literatures, it is closer to everyday life in the 20c than previously. The concept and practice of a ‘high style’, to be kept apart from common usage, has been steadily eroded; the idiom of speech has thoroughly penetrated the literary text and become the norm for those genres of cinema and television which have inherited so much from literature. The tradition has been public and responsible; few writers have taken a position of total withdrawal and alienation from society. The language has in all periods been a literary medium; conversely, literature has enriched the language with neologisms, allusions, and quotations. People regularly use literary quotations, often without knowing their origins: to the manner born, not wisely but too well, what's in a name? ( Shakespeare); a little learning is a dangerous thing (Pope); God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb ( Sterne); a sadder and a wiser man ( Coleridge); the female of the species (is deadlier than the male) ( Kipling); some animals are more equal than others ( Orwell).

Literature in education

The academic study and examinable subject known as English Literature (short form Eng Lit) is comparatively recent. Appreciation of English as a literary language began in the late 16c, but literary works in the vernacular were valued mainly for recreation and moral instruction, while the classical languages and literatures continued to dominate education at every level. However, knowledge of English writers was gradually encouraged as a social accomplishment and a mark of breeding, especially among women, for whom a classical education was not usually available.

The dissenting academies

The first movement away from the classical monopoly in education came in the 17c, among the English Protestant dissenters, for whom texts in English served as sources for exercises in grammar and rhetoric. When the Act of Uniformity (1662) excluded dissenters from the universities, a number of clergymen dispossessed of their livings opened schools in their own houses, and after the restrictions were slightly eased by the Act of Toleration (1689), some of these schools developed into the dissenting academies, offering an alternative to the ancient universities. Their curricula were usually similar to those of Oxford and Cambridge in the study of the classical languages, but gradually broadened to include history, science, modern languages, and English literature. The Northampton Academy, founded by Philip Doddridge in 1729, was one of the first to teach English authors, and John Aikin lectured on Milton and 18c English poets at Warrington Academy, founded in 1757. The influence of those academies was widespread, not only in the UK but in many other parts of the English-speaking world.

The universities

The first chair of English Literature was in Scotland, at the U. of Edinburgh (1762), and was known as the Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Its first occupant was the rhetorician Hugh Blair. This was followed in the 19c by the first colleges of the U. of London: U. College (1828) and King's College (1831). Chairs of English Literature were then created at Owens College, Manchester (1850) and at the U. of Glasgow (1862), after which the practice extended widely. In 1848, Frederick Denison Maurice and others founded in London the Queen's College for Women. Here, in 1848, Charles Kingsley, in his inaugural lecture as Professor of English, spoke of literature as suitable preparation for women's lives. In the US, the academic study of English literature was established in the early 19c. The first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, in 1806, was John Quincy Adams (later US president). In 1851, Francis J. Child occupied the same chair as Professor of English.

Oxford and Cambridge were slow in taking the subject up, but when they did their prestige helped establish it firmly in the English-using world. At Oxford, English literature was offered in the pass degree in 1873 and the Merton Chair of English Language and Literature was created in 1885. After much controversy, the Oxford honours school of English was founded in 1894, its growth owing much to the work of J. C. Collins and W. A. Raleigh. At Cambridge, the Edward VII Chair of English Literature was first held in 1912 by Arthur Quiller-Couch. In 1917, it became possible to take English with another subject, for a degree, but English did not rank as a sole honours subject until 1926. However, Cambridge made up for this late start by its influence on literary criticism, notably through the work of I. A. Richards (1893–1979) and F. R. Leavis (1895–1978). There was considerable controversy about the study of early forms of the language, especially Old English, in an honours school of English, although Old English had been studied by some Oxford scholars since the 17c. A chair of Anglo-Saxon had existed at Oxford since 1849 and at Cambridge since 1878.

Canons and classics

The literary texts of a language can be many things to many people; attitudes vary regarding the social and educational value or the appropriateness of certain texts and authors. Many people, whether or not they read acknowledged works of literature, regard them as a repository of ‘good English’ and as models for both the written and spoken language. The works form a canon (the classics), a greater or lesser knowledge of which is shared by the culturally literate. Historians, lexicographers, and other scholars, regardless of whether they share this view or gain aesthetic as well as academic satisfaction from their studies, find in the body of English literature a record of language usage over many centuries. Currently, many teachers and critics of English literature waver between a traditional aesthetic and value-laden approach to their subject and linguistic, Marxist, Freudian, postmodernist, feminist, or deconstructionist views of the inherited canon as texts to be dissected to provide proof of the rightness of a doctrine or reveal a writer's hidden agenda. They may seek at the same time to enlarge the canon by including overlooked writers (especially women) or adjust it by reassessing writers whom they see as overly revered, including Shakespeare.

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English literature

English literature Body of written works produced in the British Isles in the English language. The earliest surviving works are from the Old English period (475–1000). Mainly poems in the heroic mould, epics such as Beowulf belong to an oral tradition but were written down in the 7th century. Alfred the Great translated a number of Latin works into the vernacular and initiated the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Norman French replaced Old English as the language of the ruling classes after 1066, and the influence of French literature was reflected in the numerous romances centred around the stories of Charlemagne and the legends of King Arthur. The native tradition of alliterative poetry re-emerged in the 14th century in the works of Langland, Malory and Geoffrey Chaucer, whose talent was unrivalled until the 16th century. Humanism and the Renaissance influenced English writing in the 16th century. William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were the leading figures in Elizabethan drama. Shakespeare's late works formed a bridge with the Jacobean era. Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney ensured the period was also a golden age for poetry. John Donne and the metaphysical poets continued this tradition, but the poetry of Milton was unsurpassed in the 17th century. English prose flourished with the production of the Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611. After the Restoration, drama revived in the comedies of Congreve, while the satiric prose of Swift, the poetry of Pope, the drama of Goldsmith, and the criticism of Samuel Johnson, typify the classical ideals of the Augustan age (c.1690–1740). The novel emerged during the early 18th century, with works by Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, and Smollett, and was developed further in the 19th century by Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Eliot, and Dickens. The Romantic movement, presaged by Blake's visionary poetry, gained full expression with Wordsworth and Coleridge, and was developed by Keats, Byron, and Shelley. The major Victorian poets were Tennyson and Robert and Elizabeth Browning. The wit of Shaw and Wilde, and the bleak novels of Hardy, gave way to the cynicism of war poets such as Sigfried Sassoon. The novels of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence, and the poetic dramas of T. S. Eliot, best realised the formal inventions of modernism. W. B. Yeats looked back to the visions of Blake. The novel diversified with the writings of Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. In the 1930s, W. H. Auden produced explicitly political poems and Noel Coward lampooned the British class system. The 1950s saw the emergence of the ‘Angry Young Men’, including John Osborne and Kingsley Amis, and the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett. Post-war novelists include Anthony Burgess, William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Angela Carter, and Salman Rushdie; dramatists include Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton and David Hare; poets include Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and Seamus Heaney.

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