A History of English Literature

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breathe and eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’ The belief
that literature outlives the circumstances of its origin, illuminating as these can be,
guides the selection of writers and works. Ben Jonson claimed of Shakespeare that
he was ‘not of an age, but for all time’. This is at odds with historicizing approaches
which return a text to a reconstructed context. Beliefs and priorities apart, not many
of the 230,000 words in this book can be devoted to the contexts of thirteen
centuries. Essentials are indicated briefly, and placed in an intelligible sequence.
Critical debate may earn a mention, but a foundation history must also sometimes
sketch the story of a novel. Another priority has been that literary texts should be
quoted, as far as permission fees permit. But the prime consideration has been that
the works chiefly discussed and illustrated will be the greater works which have
delighted or challenged generations of readers and have made a difference to their
thinking, their imaginations or their lives.

Who are the major writers?

The history of taste shows that few names are oblivion-proof. In Western literature
only those of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare are undisputed, and the first two were
long lost to view. Voltaire, King George III, Leo Tolstoy, G. B. Shaw and Ludwig
Wittgenstein thought Shakespeare overrated; they were not wholly English. Yet ever
since the theatres reopened in 1660, he has had audiences, readers and defenders. So
continuous a welcome has not been given to other English writers, except Chaucer.
This is not because it is more fun to go to the theatre than to read a book, but
because human taste is inconstant; luck is also a factor. William Blake was unappre-
ciated; Gerard Hopkins was unpublished;Sir Gawain and the Green Knightwas
unread for centuries until printed in 1839. Fame also fades: who now reads Abraham
Cowley, the most esteemed poet of the 17th century, or Sir Charles Grandison, the
most admired novel of the 18th? The mountain range of poetry from Chaucer to
Milton to Wordsworth has not been eroded by time or distance, though a forest of
fiction has grown up in the foreground. Prose reputations last less well: the history
of fictional and non-fictional prose shows whole kinds rising and falling. The
sermon was powerful and popular from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. In
the 18th century the essay became popular but has faded. The romance lost ground
to the novel, and the novel was found worthy of study; romance has now revived. As
for non-fiction, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded in 1950 to the philoso-
pher Bertrand Russell and in 1953 to Winston Churchill as historian. Non-fictional
writing then drifted out of the focus of professional students of literature. A gener-
ation ago, English literary biography suddenly became very popular. It has lasted
better than a French theory of the death of the author.
So genres rise and fall, but outstanding examples of a genre now obsolete can
survive, as do Chaucer’s dream visions, Addison’s best essays and Richardson’s epis-
tolary novels. Verse drama is rarely attempted now, but we read Shakespeare.

Language change

As literature is written language, the linguistic medium always matters. There were
four centuries of English writing before the Norman Conquest. Dethroned, English
was still written. It re-emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, gaining parity
with French and Latin in Geoffrey Chaucer’s day. With the 16th-century


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