English

EnglishEnglish literature is the literature written in the English language, including literature composed in English by writers not necessarily from England; for example, Robert Burns was Scottish, James Joyce was Irish, Joseph Conrad was Polish, Dylan Thomas was Welsh, Edgar Allan Poe was American, V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad, and Vladimir Nabokov was Russian, but all are considered important writers in the history of English literature. In other words, English literature is as diverse as the varieties and dialects of English spoken around the world in countries originally colonised by the British. In academia, the term often labels departments and programmes practising English studies in secondary and tertiary educational systems. Despite the variety of authors of English literature, the works of William Shakespeare remain paramount throughout the English-speaking world.

Old English

The first works in English, written in Old English, appeared in the early Middle Ages, the oldest surviving text being the Hymn of Cædmon. The oral tradition was very strong in the early English culture and most literary works were written to be performed. Epic poems were thus very popular, and many, including Beowulf, have survived to the present day in the rich corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature that closely resemble today’s Icelandic, Norwegian, North Frisian and the Northumbrian and Scots English dialects of modern English. Much Old English verse in the extant manuscripts is probably adapted from the earlier Germanic war poems from the continent. When such poetry was brought to England it was still being handed down orally from one generation to another, and the constant presence of alliterative verse, or consonant rhyme (today’s newspaper headlines and marketing abundantly use this technique such as in Big is Better) helped the Anglo-Saxon people to remember it. Such rhyme is a feature of Germanic languages and is opposed to vocalic or end-rhyme of Romance languages. But the first written literature dates to the early Christian monasteries founded by Augustine of Canterbury and his disciples and it is reasonable to believe that it was somehow adapted to suit the needs of Christian readers.

Middle English

n the 12th century, a new form of English now known as Middle English evolved. This is the earliest form of English literature which is comprehensible to modern readers and listeners, albeit not easily. Middle English lasts up until the 1470s, when the Chancery Standard, a form of London-based English, became widespread and the printing press regularised the language. Middle English Bible translations, notably Wycliffe’s Bible, helped to establish English as a literary language.

There are three main categories of Middle English Literature: Religious, Courtly love, and Arthurian. William Langland’s Piers Plowman is considered by many critics to be one of the early great works of English literature along with Chaucer’sCanterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (most likely by the Pearl Poet) during the Middle Ages. Piers Plowman also contains the earliest surviving allusion to a literary tradition of the legendary English archer, swordsman, and outlawRobin Hood.

The most significant Middle English author was Geoffrey Chaucer who was active in the late 14th century. Often regarded as “the Father of English Literature,” Chaucer is widely credited as the first author to demonstrate the artistic legitimacy of thevernacular English language, rather than French or Latin. The Canterbury Tales was Chaucer’s magnum opus, and a towering achievement of Western culture. The first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love is in Chaucer’sParlement of Foules 1382.

The multilingual audience for literature in the 14th century can be illustrated by the example of John Gower, who wrote in Latin, Middle English and Anglo-Norman.

Among the many religious works are those in the Katherine Group and the writings of Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle.

Since at least the 14th century, poetry in English has been written in Ireland and by Irish writers abroad. The earliest poem in English by a Welsh poet dates from about 1470.

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