A History of English Literature

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reason for being discussed, it is a reason which would apply to William Faulkner,
Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Patrick White, Saul Bellow, Wole Soyinka,
Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, V. S. Naipaul and J. M. Coetzee, to mention only
Nobel laureates who write in English but are not English.
Scope is a problem of principle, but affected by history. The practical problem of
a history such as this is space. Few authors can be given any fullness of attention, and
fewer books, although the major works of major authors should find mention.
Literary merit has been followed, in defiance of partisanship.

Canon, anti-canon, mini-canon

A literary canon is a selection from those works which have become classics. The first
writer in English to refer to other writers by name is Geoffrey Chaucer (d.1400).
Fifteenth-century poets in England, and in Scotland, took Chaucer as their ancestor,
a poetic tradition accepted by Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Milton and
their successors. The tradition widened at the Renaissance to embrace drama, and
prose; it then branched out further, changing shape every generation or so. When,
for instance, 18th-century scholars looked into English literary history they found a
medieval phase far longer and richer than had been suspected. In the 19th century,
the novel became stronger than drama.
Approaches to the study of English diverged after 1968, and university English has
had to fight off ideology, with some success, and premature research specialization,
with less success. ‘English’ had long included other writing in English: American first,
then that of other colonies. Neglected work by women writers has been uncovered.
Disavowing literary pretensions, Cultural Studies addressed writing of sociological
inter est,magazine stor ies, advertising, the unwritten ‘texts’ of film and television.
Special-interest courses were offered for sectional interests – social, sexual or racial.
The question ‘What’s in this for me?’ was asked. The hierarchy of literarygenres or
kinds was challenged:poetry and drama had long been joined by fiction, then came
children’s books, travel writing, and so on. Yet the literary category cannot be infi-
nitely extended – if new books come in, others must go. Two questions about a book
have to be answer ed: is it well written, and does it have wide human interest? Attacks
on the canon have brought some changes in content and detail, but what is studied
at school, college and university keeps familiar names at its core. Thirty years ago,
those who disputed the existence or propriety of a literary canon, if they needed some
‘literature’ to illustrate their ideas, used Shakespeare. In non-historical degree courses,
Shakespeare now isthe canon,the only prescribed author before 1800. Chaucer,
Milton, Pope, Fielding and other pre-Romantic writers rotate through the syllabus of
sixth-form examinations, sometimes with Aphra Behn. Contemporary authors
change more quickly and do not always return.
In this situation, it becomes all the more true that students need to place authors
in an intelligible order and to get a feel for how they relate to literary and non-liter-
ary history. This book, being a history of 1340 years of English literature, concerns
itself with what has living literary merit, whether contemporary or medieval.


While taking things, as far as it can, chronologically, the priority of a history of liter-
ature is more literary than historical. Shakespeare ends a sonnet ‘So long as men can


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