A brief outline of English Literature



 The History of the English Language

 OLD ENGLISH   (500-1066). A West – Germanic language spoken by  the Angles.

Old English was split into four different dialects:

  • West Saxon
  • Mercian
  • Northumbrian
  • Kentish

It was influenced by other languages:  Old Norse (the Vickings), Celtic.

(Old English  had five cases.)

 MIDDLE ENGLISH (1100-1450)

It originated from the blend of the following three languages:

  • Anglo-saxon spoken by the majority of the people.
  • Latin was the language of the Church and of learning.
  • French was the language of the ruling class and the aristocracy.(new words such as pork,beef..)

EARLY MODERN ENGLISH (1500-1650/1700 )

The language was much like the English that we know today, but there are some differences  in spelling and grammar. The press printed materials that helped to standardize the language grammar and spelling.

 LATE MODERN ENGLISH (1800- up to now)

The growth of the British Empire, the current  expansion of the American influence on the world, neologism from other languages, the Internet,etc…due to all these factors modern English is a very rich and flexible language.



                 The Anglo-Saxon Period (400 – 1066)  

  • CharacteristicsIt begins with the invasion of Celtic England by Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians)  c.450 and lasts until the conquest of England by the  Norman-French William the Conqueror in 1066. The earliest written works in Old English (as their language is now known to scholars) were probably composed orally at first, and may have been passed on from speaker to speaker before being written.                                                                                                               We know the names of some of the later writers (Cædmon, Ælfric and King Alfred) but most writing is anonymous. Old English literature is mostly chronicle and poetry – lyric, descriptive but chiefly narrative or epic. The greatest Old English poem is a long epic called Beowulf, whose author is unknown.Major Writers or WorksPoetry: Beowulf, The Wanderer, The SeafarerProse:  Writings of Alfred the Great.



                            Middle English Period (1066-1500)

  • CharacteristicsSocial background: the Norman conquest under William, Duke of Normandy, the battle of Hastings in 1066; the mark of establishment of feudalism.
    After the Norman invasion, there were linguistic, social, and cultural changes and also changes in the literature. In the 15th century, literature aimed at a popular audience grew.
    A range of genres emerged, including chivalric romances, secular and religious songs, folk ballads, drama, morality and miracle plays.Major Writers or WorksPoetry: William Langland’s Piers Plowman, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.Prose: Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’ArthurDrama: 

    • The three main types of medieval drama are mystery plays, about Bible stories, miracle plays about the lives of saints and the miracles they performed, and morality plays (Everyman) which are semi-religious drams trying to teach a moral lesson through allegorical personifications of Virtues and Vices.



                             The Renaissance 1500-1660


Social background: Hundred Years’ War ; the weakening of nobility and the rising of bourgeoisie; the new Monarchy; the Reformation; Enclosure movement and commercial expansion.

The Renaissance marks the transition from the medieval to the modern world. The period is characterized by a rebirth among English elite of classical learning, a rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman authors, and a recovery of the ancient Greek spirit of scientific inquiry.The new outlook places emphasis on Man rather than on God.

The Renaissance period in British literature spans the years 1500 to 1660 and is usually divided into five subsections:

  • Early Tudor
  • Elizabethan
  • Jacobean
  • Caroline
  • Commonwealth (or Puritan Interregnum)


 Early Tudor Period (1500-1558)


The Early Tudor period is the first phase of the Renaissance period.This period is known for its poetry and nonfiction prose.The first theatres are built in the outskirts of the City..

 Major Writers or Works


  • The Earl of Surrey is the first to use blank-verse. Sir Thomas Wyatt introduces into English verse Dante’s terza rima and Petrarch’s sonnet.
  • Prose: Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Sir Thomas Elyot.
  •  Drama: English literature’s first dramatic comedy, Ralph Roister Doister, was first performed in 1553 John Heywood, Nicholas Udall, Ralph Roister Doister.

Elizabethan Age (1558-1603)


The second era of the Renaissance period in British literature, spanning the reign of Elizabeth I, was a period marked by developments in English commerce, nationalism, exploration, and maritime power. It is considered a great age in literary history, particularly for drama.

 Major Writers or Works


  • Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella,
  •  Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen,
  • William Shakespeare’ Sonnets


  • Francis Bacon and his philosophical works.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh.


  • Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus,
  • William Shakespeare: The texts of Shakespeare’s Plays:The First Folio 1623 is mainly based on the manuscripts.His work is generally divided into four periods which roughly represent the development of his career as dramatist.


Jacobean Age (1603-1625)


The third era of the Renaissance period in British literature refers to the period that coincides with the of King James I. The Jacobean Age, was more interested in the mind than in heart or eye. A group of poets, known as the Metaphysical poets, began to write poems which were less beautiful and less musical, but contained tricks of style and strange images. These poets tried to say what they hoped had never been said before. They had their own thoughts and they found their won manner of expressing them. They searched all fields of knowledge, science, as well as, nature, for comparisons. This mad their poetry difficult to understand. The metaphysical style was started by John Donne, early in the 17th Century.

In this era, there were significant writings in prose, including the King James Bible.

Drama and poetry also flourished.

Major Writers or Works

Poetry:  John Donne, George Chapman

Prose:  Francis Bacon, Robert Burton.

Drama: William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Webster, John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, George Chapman.

Caroline Age (1625-1649)


The Caroline Age (it refers to the reign of Charles I) marks the period of the English Civil War between the supporters of the King (called Cavaliers) and the supporters of Parliament (called the Roundheads).

Literature of this period is characterized by  poetry, nonfiction prose, and the Cavalier Poets who were associated with the court and wrote poems of gallantry and courtship.

A group of poets, known as the Metaphysical poets, began to write poems to represent an era of crisis in which the dichotomy between body and soul is fully felt and expressed. Their characteristics are the interior structure of poetry,basically dialectical, and the use of conceits to convey mental visions.  The metaphysical style was started by John Donne, early in the 17th Century.

Major Writers or Works

Poetry: John Milton, George Herbert. Cavalier Poets,John Donne

(Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, Thomas Carew, and Robert Herrick).

Prose: Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne

.Drama:  Philip Massinger, John Ford


jd John Donne

Commonwealth (or Puritan Interregnum)1649-1660


In this era, England was ruled by Parliament and Oliver Cromwell , and then briefly by his son, Richard, until 1659.

Theatres were closed on moral and religious grounds.  While drama did not flourish, significant examples of nonfiction  prose and poetry were written during this period.

 Major Writers or Works

Poetry: John Milton’s Paradise Lost,Andrew Marvell, Abraham Cowley,John Donne

Prose: Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, Sir Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor. John Milton

10a                              10b                                                      Oliver Cromwell                                                                 John Milton                          


                        Neoclassical Period (1660-1785)


The Neoclassical period is often divided into three sub-areas:

  • The Restoration Era
  • The Augustan Age
  • The Age of Sensibility

12     13


  The Restoration Era (1660-1700)


The Restoration era begins with the crowning of Charles II and  the restoration of the Stuart line in 1660 and ends around 1700.  A great change in literature happened after Charles II became king. After a period of closing, the theatres were reopened and new forms of drama appeared. The main forms of drama of this period are the heroic plays, as written by John Dryden; and the comedy of manners, as written by Richard Sheridan and William Congreve.

 Major Writers or Works

Poetry: John Milton’s Paradise Lost, John Dryden, Samuel Butler.

Prose: Samuel Pepys’ Diary, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, John Dryden, Isaac Newton’s Principles of Mathematics.

Novels: Aphra Behn’s

Drama: William Congreve’s The Way of the World


   The Augustan Age (1700-1745)


It was the age of Enlightenment or the age of Reason, a progressive intellectual movement, to enlighten the whole world with the light of modern philosophical and artistic idea, to celebrate reason, equality and science, call for a reference to order, reason and rules.

Many writers in this period identified themselves with writers in the age of the Roman Emperor Augustus. Augustan writers imitated the literary forms of Horace, Virgil, and Ovid and drew upon the perceived order, decorum, moderation, civility, and wit of these writers.

 Major Writers or Works

Poetry: Alexander Pope, John Gay, Jonathan Swift.

Prose: Richard Steele, Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope

Novels: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Drama: Henry Fielding, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.




The Age of Sensibility (1744-1785 )


The Age of Sensibility anticipates the Romantic period.In contrast to the Augustan era, the Age of Sensibility focused upon instinct, feeling, imagination, and sometimes the sublime.

New cultural attitudes and new theories of literature emerged at this time.

The novel became an increasingly popular and prevalent form.

 Major Writers or Works

Poetry: Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in a Church-Yard, William Collins, William Cowper

Prose: Samuel Johnson’s essays and Dictionary, Edmund Burke, James Boswell.

Novels: Tobias Smollet, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne

Drama: Oliver Goldsmith, Sheridan’s The School for Scandal.


                      The Romantic Period (1785-1837) 


Social background: two important revolutions: the French Revolution of 1789-1794 and the English Industrial Revolution.

Many writers in the Romantic period emphasized feeling and imagination and looked toward nature for insight into the divine. The individual and his or her subjective experiences and expressions of those experiences were highly valued. Many scholars see the artistic and aesthetic freedoms in romanticism in contrast to the ideals of neoclassicism. In addition to a wealth of poetry, the Romantic period featured significant innovations in the novel form, including the Gothic novel.

Major Writers or Works

Poetry: Robert Burns, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, P.B. Shelley, John Keats.

Prose: Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Lamb, Dorothy Wordsworth.

Novels: Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe.



                      The Victorian Period (18371901)         


Social background: the struggle between workers and capitalists; the Chartist Movement; the Victorian morality.

Varied in form, style and content, Victorian literature reflects a changing social, political, economic, and cultural climate. Industrialization, urbanization, technological advances, and economic and political changes are just a few of the forces reflected in Victorian literature. Recurrent issues include poverty, class, gender, philosophy, and religious issues.

 Major Writers or Works

Poetry: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Prose: Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Florence Nightingale,  Charles Darwin.

Novels: Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy,

Anthony Trollope, William Makepeace Thackeray,  Elizabeth Gaskell.

Drama:  George Bernard Shaw



             Literary trends at the end of the 19thcentury

 Naturalism; Neo-Romanticism; Aestheticism.

  • Naturalism: literature must be true to life, and exactly reproduce real life, including all the details without any selection. Naturalists usually write about the lives of the poor and oppressed, or the “Slum life”.

Thomas   Hardy : Wessex Novels, novels about characters and environment, the    description of vicissitudes of people who live in an agricultural setting menaced by the forces of invading capitalism;

  • Neo-romanticism: adventures and fascinating stories.

Robert Stevenson was a representative with “Treasure Island” and “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”

  • Aestheticism : theory of art-for-art’s sake, art was not meant to serve moral or didactic or purpose; art’s value was in its beauty.

           Oscar Wilde  with his  The Picture of Dorian Gray



                        Modern Period (1914-1939)


A period in British and American literature spanning the years between WWI and WWII.

Works in this period reflect the changing social, political, and cultural climate and are diverse, experimental, and nontraditional.  Modernism rises out of skepticism and disillusion of capitalism, takes the irrational philosophy and the theory of psycho-analysis as its theoretical base.

Major Writers or Works

Poetry: Wilfred Owen, W.H Auden , T.S. Eliot

Prose: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot.

Novels: Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, D.H Lawrence.

Drama: William Butler Yeats, G. B. Shaw.


                     Contemporary Period  (1939-present)


In British and American literature, the postmodern period refers to literature written after WWII. The postmodern period reflects anxieties concerning, and reactions to, life in the 20th century. Postmodern works are often highly experimental and anti-conventional.

 Major Writers or Works

Poetry: Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Stevie Smith, Seamus Heaney.

Prose: George Orwell, Jeanette Winterson, Martin Amis.

Novels: George Orwell, William Golding, Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Salman Rushdie.

Drama: Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter.



Glossary of Common Literary Terms

¨ Allegory: an allegory is a narrative in which the characters often stand for abstract concepts. An allegory generally teaches a lesson by means of an interesting story.

¨ Alliteration: the repetition at close intervals of consonant sounds for a purpose. For example: wailing in the winter wind.

¨ Allusion: a reference to something in literature, history, mythology, religious texts, etc., considered common knowledge.

¨ Ambiguity: Double or even multiple meaning.

¨ Analogy: a point by point comparison between two dissimilar things for the purpose of clarifying the less familiar of the two things.

¨ Antagonist: the character or force that opposes the protagonist. (It can be a character, an animal, a force, or a weakness of the character.)

¨ Apostrophe: the device, usually in poetry, of calling out to an imaginary, dead, or absent person, or to a place, thing, or personified abstraction either to begin a poem or to make a dramatic break in thought somewhere within the poem.

¨ Assonance: the repetition at close intervals of vowel sounds for a purpose. For example: mad as a hatter.

¨ Ballad: a narrative poem that was originally meant to be sung. Ballads are generally about ordinary people who have unusual adventures, with a single tragic incident as the central focus. They contain dialogue and repetition, and imply more than they actually tell.

¨ Cacophony: Harsh, clashing, or dissonant sounds, often produced by combinations of words that require a clipped, explosive delivery, or words that contain a number of plosive consonants such as b, d, g, k, p, and t; the opposite of EUPHONY.

¨ Catalog: a long list of anything; an inventory used to emphasize quantity or inclusiveness.

¨ Character: the vehicle (person, animal, creation) that moves the story forward. A character may be main or minor, depending on his or her role in the work of literature. While some characters are twodimensional, with one or two dominant traits, a fully developed character has a unique complex of traits. A) dynamic characters often change as the plot unfolds. B) static characters remain the same.

¨ Characterization: refers to the techniques employed by writers to develop characters. 1) The writer may use physical description. 2) Dialogue spoken by the character and by other characters reveals character traits. 3) A character’s action may be a means of characterization. 4) The reactions of another character may also be revealing. 5) A character’s thoughts arid feelings are also a means of characterization.

¨ Climax: the point at which the conflict of the story begins to reach a turning point and begins to be resolved.

¨ Conceit: an elaborate figure of speech comparing two very dissimilar things.

¨ Conflict: the struggle between two opposing forces that is the basis of the plot. 1) internal conflict character struggling with him/her self, 2) external conflicts – character struggling with forces outside of him/her self. For example. Nature, god, society, another person, technology, etc.

¨ Connotation: the associations, images, or impressions carried by a word, as opposed to the word’s literal meaning.

¨ Consonance: the close repetition of identical consonant sounds before and after differing vowel sounds.

¨ Convention: In general, an accepted way of doing things.

¨ Denotation: the precise, literal meaning of a word, without emotional associations or overtones.

¨ Denouement: the final unraveling or outcome of the plot in drama or fiction during which the complications and conflicts of the plot are resolved.

¨ Diction: word choice.

¨ Enjambment: the carrying of sense and grammatical structure in a poem beyond the end of one line, COUPLET, or STANZA and into the next.

¨ Epigram: any witty, pointed saying. Originally an epigram meant an inscription, or epitaph usually in verse, on a tomb. Later it came to mean a short poem that compressed meaning and expression in the manner of an inscription.

¨ Epigraph: a motto or quotation that appears at the beginning of a book, play, chapter, or poem. Occasionally, an epigraph shows the source for the title of a work. Because the epigraph usually relates to the theme of a piece of literature, it can give the reader insight into the work.

 ¨ Epitaph: the inscription on a tombstone or monument in memory of the person or people buried there. Epitaph also refers to a brief literary piece that sums up the life of a dead person.

 ¨ Euphony: A succession of sweetly melodious sounds; the opposite of CACOPHONY. The term is applied to smoothly flowing POETRY or PROSE.

 ¨ Exposition: background information at the beginning of the story, such as setting, characters and conflicts. In a short story the exposition appears in the opening paragraphs; in a novel the exposition is usually part of the first chapter.

¨ Fable: a brief tale told to illustrate a moral.

 ¨ Falling Action: events that lead to a resolution after the climax.

¨ Figurative Language: language employing figures of speech; language that cannot be taken literally or only literally.

¨ Flashback: a scene, or an incident that happened before the beginning of a story, or at an earlier point in the narrative.

  ¨ Foil: a character who provides a striking contrast to another character.

 ¨ Foreshadowing: a writer’s use of hints or clues to indicate events that will occur later in the narrative.

 ¨ Hyperbole: an exaggeration for emphasis or humorous effect.

 ¨ Imagery: words and phrases that create vivid experiences or a picture for the reader.

¨ Irony: a contrast between appearance and actuality:

  • Verbal irony: a writer says one thing, but means something entirely different.
  • Situational irony: occurs when something happens that is entirely different from what is expected.
  • Dramatic irony: occurs when the reader knows information that the characters do not.

 ¨ Literal: A word for word interpretation for what is written or said.  

¨ Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a comparison or analogy is made between two seemingly unlike things, as in the phrase “evening of life.”

  ¨ Metonymy: a figure of speech that substitutes the name of a related object, person, or idea for the subject at hand.

¨ Mood: the feeling, or atmosphere, that a writer creates for the reader. Connotative words, sensory images, and figurative language contribute to the mood of a selection, as do the sound and rhythm of the language.

  ¨ Motif: A unifying element in an artistic work, especially any recurrent image, symbol, theme, character type, subject or narrative detail.

¨ Narrator: the person from whose point of view events are conveyed.

  • First person: the narrator is a character in the story, uses the pronoun “I.” The first person narrator does not have to be the main character in the story.
  • Third person: is indicated by the pronouns he, she and they. The third person narrator is not a participant in the action and thus maintains a certain distance from the characters.
  • A) In third person omniscient point of view, the narrator is all-knowing about the thoughts and feelings of the characters.
  • B) The third person limited point of view deals with a writer presenting events as experienced by only one character. This type of narrator does not have full knowledge of situations, past or future events.
  • C) In third person objective the story conveys only the external details of the characters—never their thoughts or inner motivations.

¨ Onomatopoeia. The formation or use of words. Such as: buzz, or cuckoo, whose meaning is suggested by the sound of the word itself. (boom, click, plop).

¨ Oxymoron: a figure of speech in which two contradictory words or phrases are combined in a single expression, giving the effect of a condensed paradox: “wise fool,” “cruel kindness.”

  ¨ Paradox: a statement or situation containing obvious contradictions, but is nevertheless true.

 ¨ Parallelism: the use of similar grammatical form gives items equal weight, as in Lincoln’s line “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Attention to parallelism generally makes both spoken and written expression more concise, clear and powerful.

¨ Parody: an imitation of a serious work of literature for the purpose of criticism or humorous effect or for flattering tribute.

  ¨ Personification: a figure of speech in which human qualities or characteristics are given to an animal, object, or concept.

¨ Plot: the plan of action or sequence of events of the story.

 ¨ Point of view: the vantage point, or stance from which a story is told, the eye and mind through which the action is perceived. (See also narrator.)

¨ Protagonist: the central character in a story; the one upon whom the actions center. The protagonist faces a problem and must undergo some conflict to solve it.

 ¨ Pun: A form of wit, not necessarily funny, involving a play on a word with two or more meanings.

 ¨ Resolution: the final unwinding, or resolving of the conflicts and complications in the plot.

 ¨ Rhyme scheme: the pattern of end rhyme in a poem.

 ¨ Rising Action: That part of the plot that leads through a series of events of increasing interest and power to the climax or turning point. The rising action begins with an inciting moment, an action or event that sets a conflict of opposing forces into motion.

¨ Satire: a literary technique in which foolish ideas or customs are ridiculed for the purpose of improving society.

 ¨ Setting: the time and place in which the action of a story occurs.

 ¨ Simile: a figure of speech in which two seemingly unlike things are compared. The comparison is made explicit by the use of a word or phrase such as: like, as, than, similar to, resembles, or seems— as in: He was strong as a bull.

¨ Soliloquy: A dramatic convention in which a character in a play, alone on stage, speaks his or her thoughts aloud. The audience is provided with information about the characters’ motives, plans, and state of mind.

 ¨ Stream of Consciousness: the technique of presenting the flow of thoughts, responses, and sensations of one or more characters is called stream of consciousness.

¨ Style: the way in which a piece of literature is written. Style refers not to what is said, but how it is said.

¨ Suspense: the tension or excitement felt by the reader as he or she becomes involved in the story.

 ¨ Syllogism: a logical argument based on deductive reasoning.

 ¨ Symbol: a person, object, idea or action that stands for something else. It is usually something literal that stands for something figurative. For example: Roads can stand for choices.

 ¨ Synecdoche: a figure of speech in which a part of something stands for the whole thing.

¨ Syntax: sentence structure (see handout).

 ¨ Theme: the central idea in a literary work. The theme is usually an idea about life or about people. Writers sometimes state the story’s theme outright, but more often they simply tell the story and let the reader discover the theme. Therefore, theme is an idea revealed by the events of the story; plot is simply what happens in the story; it is not the theme.

 ¨ Tone: the writer’s or speaker’s attitude toward a subject.

 ¨ Understatement: a type of verbal IRONY in which something is purposely represented as being far less important than it actually is; also called meiosis.