A History of English Literature

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The chief glory of every people arises from its authours: whether I
shall add any thing by my own writings to the reputation of English
literature, must be left to time.
Dr Johnson, Preface to the Dictionary

England has a rich literature with a long history. This attempt to tell its story, from
its beginnings to the present day, is written to be read as a whole. Issues arising from
the discussion of one author, genre or period often arise elsewhere. So the book will
give more to a reader who reads it through, although it can be read in parts, and its
apparatus and index allow it to be consulted for reference.
To be read as a whole, a book must be a reasonable companion; it should not
discuss everything. There are said to be ‘nine and twenty ways of reciting tribal lays’,
and there is more than one way of writing a history of English literature. This
Introduction says what kind of a history this is and what it is not, where it begins
and ends,which writer s fall within its scope and which do not; and what ‘English’
and ‘literature’ are taken to mean.
‘Literature’ can mean writing in general, but here the term has a qualitative impli-
cation. Without such an implication, and without a belief that some qualities of
literature are best appreciated when it is seen roughly in the order in which it
appeared, there would be no point in literary history. This effort to present the most
memorable English writing in historical sequence is offered as an aid to public
understanding. It is assumed that the readers of this book like literature, and that
they will want chiefly to know about works such as Shakespeare’s King Lear and
Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the major poems of Chaucer and of Milton, Wordsworth
and T. S. Eliot, and the novels of Austen and Dickens. The major earns more space
than the minor in these pages; minor literature may be discussed, but writings whose
historic importance is not of a literary kind will not be. Thus, to take an extreme
case,Alice in Wonderlandis briefly discussed and quoted, whereas On The Origin of
Speciesand The Descent of Man are mentioned for their effect on writers. In a history
of literature Charles Dodgson (whose pen name was Lewis Carroll) may earn more
space than Charles Darwin.

Why literary history? 2
Liter ary status 2
What is liter ature? 3
Scope: English, British,
English 4
mini-canon 6
Pr iorities 6
Who are the major writers? 7
Language change 7
Is drama literature? 8
obligation, allocation 8
Te xts 9
Further reading 9
Primary texts 9
Secondary texts 9



Alexander Introduction 16/11/12 2:21 pm Page 1

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