A History of English Literature

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

Why literary history?

Literary history can be useful and the need for it becomes greater. English teachers
teach single works, scholars work in small fields. Even university teachers of
English may know little of classical, biblical or European literature, or of fields of
English literature remote from those which they themselves cultivate. Larger narra-
tives, longer perspectives, are lost. Students of English usually leave school know-
ing a few isolated texts. They would not like to be asked to place an unread writer
in a context or in a century. ‘How many thousands never heard the name / Of
Sidney or of Spenser, or their books!’, wrote Samuel Daniel, a poet a little younger
than they. The students of English literature now number hundreds of thousands.
They read some Shakespeare and have heard of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund
Spenser, though not of Samuel Daniel. We know that Shakespeare read Sidney and
Spenser, since he made use of their work in his King Lear.Even a little literary
history can help.
I once read an essay in a final examination paper for a degree in English litera-
ture which began ‘Charles Dickens was an 18th-century novelist’. The difference
between the eighteen-hundreds and the 18th century is usually realized before
university. A slip of the pen – a confusion of names, not of periods? But someone
who, after years of study, thought of the author ofA Tale of Two Citiesas having
lived before the French Revolution might not be reliable on other matters. A reader
of this book will follow chronological sequence, and some (mostly literary)
history; will see what English literature consists of; and how this author or text
might relate to that, time-wise or otherwise. A reading of the book – and it is writ-
ten to be read through – offers a series of views on the relations between writings
and their times, of one literary work to another, and of the present to the past.
Apart from the interest of discovery and comparison, literary history also offers
angles on the present.

Literary status

The historian of a literature tries to do justice to its great things, knowing that liter-
ary status is earned and can fade. Storytelling and verse go back a long way:Beowulf
shows the ancestors of the English as valuing poetry which related things both soth
ond sarlic, true and sad; and as passing appreciative comments on poetic skill. Later,
King Alfred decided to put key books from Latin, the language of clerks, into
English, making his people’s tongue the earliest European vernacular to survive in
any quantity. The first assertion of the dignity of writing in a modern vernacular
rather than in Latin was made in about 1307 by the Italian poet Dante. Sidney made
the claim for English in his Defence of Poetry,1579, a response to a Puritan attack on
theatre.Parliament kept the public theatres closed from 1642 to 1660, when the
court ret urned from France. Literature became central to English civilization: see
Samuel Johnson’s remark at the head of this Introduction. From 1800, Romantic
poets made high claims for the value of poetry, and Victorians saw English literature
as equal to that of Greece or Rome. ‘In the importance and noise of tomorrow’, as
one poet wrote on hearing of the death of another, ‘the death of the poet [is] kept
from his poems’: literature lives on. The category of literature springs from an
instinctive recognition that words can be put together more or less memorably,
more or less well. Merit, what deserves to survive, is decided by processes in which


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

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