This page provides a comprehensive chronology of English Literature. It is designed to work in tandem with this site’s Anthology of English literature (which provides a large number of editable PDF text and audio files). Together, this chronology and that anthology are designed to accompany this site’s Literary Analysis section (which provides detailed guidance on how to analyse and critique poetry and prose and a comprehensive glossary of all associated terminology etc.). This page covers the following periods:
1. The Middle Ages
¶ Medieval Estates and Orders: Making and Breaking Rules
¶ King Arthur: Romancing Politics
¶ The First Crusade: Sanctifying War
¶ The Linguistic and Literary Contexts of Beowulf
2. The 16th c.
¶ The Magician, the Heretic, and the Playwright
¶ Renaissance Exploration, Travel, and the World Outside Europe
¶ Dissent, Doubt, and Spiritual Violence in the Reformation
¶ Island Nations
3. The Early 17th c.
¶ Gender, Family, Household: 17th c. Norms and Controversies
¶ Paradise Lost in Context
¶ Civil Wars of Ideas
¶ Emigrants and Settlers
4. The Restoration and the 18th c.
¶ A Day in Eighteenth-Century London
¶ Slavery and the Slave Trade in Britain
¶ The Plurality of Worlds
¶ Travel, Trade, and the Expansion of Empire
5. The Romantic Period
¶ Tintern Abbey, Tourism, and Romantic Landscape
¶ The Gothic
¶ The French Revolution: Apocalyptic Expectations
¶ Romantic Orientalism
6. The Victorian Age
¶ Industrialism: Progress or Decline?
¶ The Woman Question
¶ The Painterly Image in Poetry
¶ Victorian Imperialism
7. 20th c. and After
¶ Representing the Great War
¶ Modernist Experiment
¶ Imagining Ireland
1. The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages covers a wide time-span. Caedmon’s Hymn, the earliest English poem to survive as a text, belongs to the latter part of the seventh century. The morality play, Everyman, is dated “after 1485” and probably belongs to the early-sixteenth century. In addition, for the Middle Ages, there is no one central movement or event such as the English Reformation, the Civil War, or the Restoration around which to organize a historical approach to the period.
When did “English Literature” begin? Any answer to that question must be problematic, for the very concept of English literature is a construction of literary history, a concept that changed over time. There are no “English” characters in Beowulf, and English scholars and authors had no knowledge of the poem before it was discovered and edited in the nineteenth century. Although written in the language called “Anglo-Saxon,” the poem was claimed by Danish and German scholars as their earliest national epic before it came to be thought of as an “Old English” poem. One of the results of the Norman Conquest was that the structure and vocabulary of the English language changed to such an extent that Chaucer, even if he had come across a manuscript of Old English poetry, would have experienced far more difficulty construing the language than with medieval Latin, French, or Italian. If a King Arthur had actually lived, he would have spoken a Celtic language possibly still intelligible to native speakers of Middle Welsh but not to Middle English speakers.
The literary culture of the Middle Ages was far more international than national and was divided more by lines of class and audience than by language. Latin was the language of the Church and of learning. After the eleventh century, French became the dominant language of secular European literary culture. Edward, the Prince of Wales, who took the king of France prisoner at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, had culturally more in common with his royal captive than with the common people of England. And the legendary King Arthur was an international figure. Stories about him and his knights originated in Celtic poems and tales and were adapted and greatly expanded in Latin chronicles and French romances even before Arthur became an English hero.
Chaucer was certainly familiar with poetry that had its roots in the Old English period. He read popular romances in Middle English, most of which derive from more sophisticated French and Italian sources. But when he began writing in the 1360s and 1370s, he turned directly to French and Italian models as well as to classical poets (especially Ovid). English poets in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries looked upon Chaucer and his contemporary John Gower as founders of English literature, as those who made English a language fit for cultivated readers. In the Renaissance, Chaucer was referred to as the “English Homer.” Spenser called him the “well of English undefiled.”
Nevertheless, Chaucer and his contemporaries Gower, William Langland, and the Gawain poet — all writing in the latter third of the fourteenth century — are heirs to classical and medieval cultures that had been evolving for many centuries. Cultures is put in the plural deliberately, for there is a tendency, even on the part of medievalists, to think of the Middle Ages as a single culture epitomized by the Great Gothic cathedrals in which architecture, art, music, and liturgy seem to join in magnificent expressions of a unified faith — an approach one recent scholar has referred to as “cathedralism.” Such a view overlooks the diversity of medieval cultures and the social, political, religious, economic, and technological changes that took place over this vastly long period.
“The Linguistic and Literary Contexts of Beowulf” demonstrates the kinship of the Anglo-Saxon poem with the versification and literature of other early branches of the Germanic language group. An Anglo-Saxon poet who was writing an epic based on the book of Genesis was able to insert into his work the episodes of the fall of the angels and the fall of man that he adapted with relatively minor changes from an Old Saxon poem thought to have been lost until a fragment from it was found late in the nineteenth century in the Vatican Library. Germanic mythology and legend preserved in Old Icelandic literature centuries later than Beowulf provide us with better insights into stories known to the poet than anything in ancient Greek and Roman epic poetry.
“Estates and Orders” samples ideas about medieval society and some of its members and institutions. Particular attention is given to religious orders and to the ascetic ideals that were supposed to rule the lives of men and women living in religious communities (such as Chaucer’s Prioress, Monk, and Friar, who honor those rules more in the breach than in the observance) and anchorites (such as Julian of Norwich) living apart. The Rule of Saint Benedict, written for a sixth-century religious community, can serve the modern reader as a guidebook to the ideals and daily practices of monastic life. Though medieval social theory has little to say about women, women were sometimes treated satirically as if they constituted their own estate and profession in rebellion against the divinely ordained rule of men. An outstanding instance is the “Old Woman” from the Romance of the Rose, whom Chaucer reinvented as the Wife of Bath. The tenth-century English Benedictine monk Aelfric gives one of the earliest formulations of the theory of three estates — clergy, nobles, and commoners — working harmoniously together. But the deep- seated resentment between the upper and lower estates flared up dramatically in the Uprising of 1381 and is revealed by the slogans of the rebels, which are cited here in selections from the chronicles of Henry Knighton and Thomas Walsingham, and by the attack of the poet John Gower on the rebels in his Vox Clamantis. In the late-medieval genre of estates satire, all three estates are portrayed as selfishly corrupting and disrupting a mythical social order believed to have prevailed in a past happier age.
The selections under “Arthur and Gawain” trace how French writers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries transformed the Legendary Histories of Britain into the narrative genre that we now call “romance.” The works of Chrétien de Troyes focus on the adventures of individual knights of the Round Table and how those adventures impinge upon the cult of chivalry. Such adventures often take the form of a quest to achieve honor or what Sir Thomas Malory often refers to as “worship.” But in romance the adventurous quest is often entangled, for better or for worse, with personal fulfillment of love for a lady — achieving her love, protecting her honor, and, in rare cases such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, resisting a lady’s advances. In the thirteenth century, clerics turned the sagas of Arthur and his knights — especially Sir Lancelot — into immensely long prose romances that disparaged worldly chivalry and the love of women and advocated spiritual chivalry and sexual purity. These were the “French books” that Malory, as his editor and printer William Caxton tells us, “abridged into English,” and gave them the definitive form from which Arthurian literature has survived in poetry, prose, art, and film into modern times.
“The First Crusade,” launched in 1096, was the first in a series of holy wars that profoundly affected the ideology and culture of Christian Europe. Preached by Pope Urban II, the aim of the crusade was to unite warring Christian factions in the common goal of liberating the Holy Land from its Moslem rulers. The chronicle of Robert the Monk is one of several versions of Urban’s address. The Hebrew chronicle of Eliezer bar Nathan gives a moving account of attacks made by some of the crusaders on Jewish communities in the Rhineland — the beginnings of the persecution of European Jews in the later Middle Ages. In the biography of her father, the Byzantine emperor Alexius I, the princess Anna Comnena provides us with still another perspective of the leaders of the First Crusade whom she met on their passage through Constantinople en route to the Holy Land. The taking of Jerusalem by the crusaders came to be celebrated by European writers of history and epic poetry as one of the greatest heroic achievements of all times. The accounts by the Arab historian Ibn Al-Athir and by William of Tyre tell us what happened after the crusaders breached the walls of Jerusalem from complementary but very different points of view.
Summary of the Middle Ages
Relating to the Middle Ages
Listen to:- The Middle Ages
2. The 16th c.
Literary works in sixteenth-century England were rarely if ever created in isolation from other currents in the social and cultural world. The boundaries that divided the texts we now regard as aesthetic from other texts were porous and constantly shifting. It is perfectly acceptable, of course, for the purposes of reading to redraw these boundaries more decisively, treating Renaissance texts as if they were islands of the autonomous literary imagination. One of the greatest writers of the period, Sir Philip Sidney, defended poetry in just such terms; the poet, Sidney writes in The Defence of Poetry, is not constrained by nature or history but freely ranges “only within the zodiac of his own wit.” But Sidney knew well, and from painful personal experience, how much this vision of golden autonomy was contracted by the pressures, perils, and longings of the brazen world. And only a few pages after he imagines the poet orbiting entirely within the constellations of his own intellect, he advances a very different vision, one in which the poet’s words not only imitate reality but also actively change it.
We have no way of knowing to what extent, if at all, this dream of literary power was ever realized in the world. We do know that many sixteenth-century artists, such as Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare, brooded on the magical, transforming power of art. This power could be associated with civility and virtue, as Sidney claims, but it could also have the demonic qualities manifested by the “pleasing words” of Spenser’s enchanter, Archimago , or by the incantations of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. It is significant that Marlowe’s great play was written at a time in which the possibility of sorcery was not merely a theatrical fantasy but a widely shared fear, a fear upon which the state could act — as the case of Doctor Fian vividly shows — with horrendous ferocity. Marlowe was himself the object of suspicion and hostility, as indicated by the strange report filed by a secret agent, Richard Baines, professing to list Marlowe’s wildly heretical opinions, and by the gleeful (and factually inaccurate) report by the Puritan Thomas Beard of Marlowe’s death.
Marlowe’s tragedy emerges not only from a culture in which bargains with the devil are imaginable as real events but also from a world in which many of the most fundamental assumptions about spiritual life were being called into question by the movement known as the Reformation. Catholic and Protestant voices struggled to articulate the precise beliefs and practices thought necessary for the soul’s salvation. One key site of conflict was the Bible, with Catholic authorities trying unsuccessfully to stop the circulation of the unauthorized Protestant translation of Scripture by William Tyndale, a translation in which doctrines and institutional structures central to the Roman Catholic church were directly challenged. Those doctrines and structures, above all the interpretation of the central ritual of the eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, were contested with murderous ferocity, as the fates of the Protestant martyr Anne Askew and the Catholic martyr Robert Aske make painfully clear. The Reformation is closely linked to many of the texts printed in the sixteenth-century: Book 1 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, for example, in which a staunchly Protestant knight of Holiness struggles against the satanic forces of Roman Catholicism, or the Protestant propagandist Foxe’s account of Lady Jane Grey’s execution, or the Catholic Robert Southwell’s moving religious lyric, “The Burning Babe.”
If these windows on the Reformation offer a revealing glimpse of the inner lives of men and women in Tudor England, the subsection entitled “The Wider World” provides a glimpse of the huge world that lay beyond the boundaries of the kingdom, a world that the English were feverishly attempting to explore and exploit. Ruthless military expeditions and English settlers (including the poet Edmund Spenser) struggled to subdue and colonize nearby Ireland, but with very limited success. Farther afield, merchants from cities such as London and Bristol established profitable trading links to markets in North Africa, Turkey, and Russia. And daring seamen such as Drake and Cavendish commanded voyages to still more distant lands. The texts collected here, which supplement the selections from Ralegh’s Discoverie of Guiana and Hariot’s Brief and True Report, are fascinating, disturbing records of intense human curiosity, greed, fear, wonder, and intelligence. And lest we imagine that the English were only the observers of the world and never the observed, “The Wider World” includes a sample of a foreign tourist’s description of London. The tourist, Thomas Platter, had the good sense to go to the theater and to see, as so many thousands of visitors to England have done since, a play by Shakespeare.
A permanent, freestanding public theater in England dates only from 1567. There was, however, a rich and vital theatrical tradition, including interludes and mystery and morality plays. Around 1590, an extraordinary change came over English drama, pioneered by Marlowe’s mastery of unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse. The theaters had many enemies; moralists warned that they were nests of sedition, and Puritans charged that theatrical transvestism excited illicit sexual desires, both heterosexual and homosexual. Nonetheless, the playing companies had powerful allies, including Queen Elizabeth, and continuing popular support.
Summary of the 16th c.
3. The Early 17th c.
The earlier seventeenth century, and especially the period of the English Revolution (1640–1660), was a time of intense ferment in all areas of life — religion, science, politics, domestic relations, culture. That ferment was reflected in the literature of the era, which also registered a heightened focus on and analysis of the self and the personal life. However, little of this seems in evidence in the elaborate frontispiece to Michael Drayton’s long “chorographical” poem on the landscape, regions, and local history of Great Britain (1612), which appeared in the first years of the reign of the Stuart king James I (1603–1625). The frontispiece appears to represent a peaceful, prosperous, triumphant Britain, with England, Scotland, and Wales united, patriarchy and monarchy firmly established, and the nation serving as the great theme for lofty literary celebration. Albion (the Roman name for Britain) is a young and beautiful virgin wearing as cloak a map featuring rivers, trees, mountains, churches, towns; she carries a scepter and holds a cornucopia, symbol of plenty. Ships on the horizon signify exploration, trade, and garnering the riches of the sea. In the four corners stand four conquerors whose descendants ruled over Britain: the legendary Brutus, Julius Caesar, Hengist the Saxon, and the Norman William the Conqueror, “whose line yet rules,” as Drayton’s introductory poem states.
During this period there were tensions, conflicts, and redefinitions that are evident in the literature of the period. It is Albion herself, not King James, who is seated in the center holding the emblems of sovereignty; her male conquerors stand to the side, and their smaller size and their number suggest something unstable in monarchy and patriarchy. Albion’s robe with its multiplicity of regional features, as well as the “Poly” of the title, suggests forces pulling against national unity. Also, Poly-Olbion had no successors: instead of a celebration of the nation in the vein of Spenser’s Faerie Queene or Poly-Olbion itself, the great seventeenth-century heroic poem, Paradise Lost, treats the Fall of Man and its tragic consequences, “all our woe.”
The first topic here, “Gender, Family, Household: Seventeenth-Century Norms and Controversies,” provides important religious, legal, and domestic advice texts through which to explore cultural assumptions about gender roles and the patriarchal family. It also invites attention to how those assumptions are modified or challenged in the practices of actual families and households; in tracts on transgressive subjects (cross-dressing, women speaking in church, divorce); in women’s texts asserting women’s worth, talents, and rights; and especially in the upheavals of the English Revolution.
“Paradise Lost in Context,” the second topic for this period, surrounds that radically revisionist epic with texts that invite readers to examine how it engages with the interpretative traditions surrounding the Genesis story, how it uses classical myth, how it challenges orthodox notions of Edenic innocence, and how it is positioned within but also against the epic tradition from Homer to Virgil to Du Bartas. The protagonists here are not martial heroes but a domestic couple who must, both before and after their Fall, deal with questions hotly contested in the seventeenth century but also perennial: how to build a good marital relationship; how to think about science, astronomy, and the nature of things; what constitutes tyranny, servitude, and liberty; what history teaches; how to meet the daily challenges of love, work, education, change, temptation, and deceptive rhetoric; how to reconcile free will and divine providence; and how to understand and respond to God’s ways.
The third topic, “Civil Wars of Ideas: Seventeenth-Century Politics, Religion, and Culture,” provides an opportunity to explore, through political and polemical treatises and striking images, some of the issues and conflicts that led to civil war and the overthrow of monarchical government (1642–60). These include royal absolutism vs. parliamentary or popular sovereignty, monarchy vs. republicanism, Puritanism vs. Anglicanism, church ritual and ornament vs. iconoclasm, toleration vs. religious uniformity, and controversies over court masques and Sunday sports. The climax to all this was the highly dramatic trial and execution of King Charles I (January 1649), a cataclysmic event that sent shock waves through courts, hierarchical institutions, and traditionalists everywhere; this event is presented here through contemporary accounts and graphic images
Summary of The Early 17th c.
Relating to The Early 17th c.
4. The Restoration and the 18th c.
The period between 1660 and 1785 was a time of amazing expansion for England — or for “Great Britain,” as the nation came to be called after an Act of Union in 1707 joined Scotland to England and Wales. Britain became a world power, an empire on which the sun never set. But it also changed internally. The world seemed different in 1785. A sense of new, expanding possibilities — as well as modern problems — transformed the daily life of the British people, and offered them fresh ways of thinking about their relations to nature and to each other. Hence literature had to adapt to circumstances for which there was no precedent. The topics in this Restoration and Eighteenth Century section of Norton Topics Online review crucial departures from the past — alterations that have helped to shape our own world.
One lasting change was a shift in population from the country to the town. “A Day in Eighteenth-Century London” shows the variety of diversions available to city-dwellers. At the same time, it reveals how far the life of the city, where every daily newspaper brought new sources of interest, had moved from traditional values. Formerly the tastes of the court had dominated the arts. In the film Shakespeare in Love, when Queen Elizabeth’s nod decides by itself the issue of what can be allowed on the stage, the exaggeration reflects an underlying truth: the monarch stands for the nation. But the eighteenth century witnessed a turn from palaces to pleasure gardens that were open to anyone with the price of admission. New standards of taste were set by what the people of London wanted, and art joined with commerce to satisfy those desires. Artist William Hogarth made his living not, as earlier painters had done, through portraits of royal and noble patrons, but by selling his prints to a large and appreciative public. London itself — its beauty and horror, its ever-changing moods — became a favorite subject of writers.
The sense that everything was changing was also sparked by a revolution in science. In earlier periods, the universe had often seemed a small place, less than six thousand years old, where a single sun moved about the earth, the center of the cosmos. Now time and space exploded, the microscope and telescope opened new fields of vision, and the “plurality of worlds,” as this topic is called, became a doctrine endlessly repeated. The authority of Aristotle and Ptolemy was broken; their systems could not explain what Galileo and Kepler saw in the heavens or what Hooke and Leeuwenhoek saw in the eye of a fly. As discoveries multiplied, it became clear that the moderns knew things of which the ancients had been ignorant. This challenge to received opinion was thrilling as well as disturbing. In Paradise Lost, Book 8, the angel Raphael warns Adam to think about what concerns him, not to dream about other worlds. Yet, despite the warning voiced by Milton through Raphael, many later writers found the new science inspiring. It gave them new images to conjure with and new possibilities of fact and fiction to explore.
Meanwhile, other explorers roamed the earth, where they discovered hitherto unknown countries and ways of life. These encounters with other peoples often proved vicious. The trade and conquests that made European powers like Spain and Portugal immensely rich also brought the scourge of racism and colonial exploitation. In the eighteenth century, Britain’s expansion into an empire was fueled by slavery and the slave trade, a source of profit that belied the national self-image as a haven of liberty and turned British people against one another. Rising prosperity at home had been built on inhumanity across the seas. This topic, “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Britain,” looks at the experiences of African slaves as well as at British reactions to their suffering and cries for freedom. At the end of the eighteenth century, as many writers joined the abolitionist campaign, a new humanitarian ideal was forged. The modern world invented by the eighteenth century brought suffering along with progress. We still live with its legacies today.
Summary of The Restoration and the 18th c.
5. The Romantic Period
In a letter to Byron in 1816, Percy Shelley declared that the French Revolution was “the master theme of the epoch in which we live” — a judgment with which many of Shelley’s contemporaries concurred. As one of this period’s topics, “The French Revolution: Apocalyptic Expectations,” demonstrates, intellectuals of the age were obsessed with the concept of violent and inclusive change in the human condition, and the writings of those we now consider the major Romantic poets cannot be understood, historically, without an awareness of the extent to which their distinctive concepts, plots, forms, and imagery were shaped first by the promise, then by the tragedy, of the great events in neighboring France. And for the young poets in the early years of 1789–93, the enthusiasm for the Revolution had the impetus and high excitement of a religious awakening, because they interpreted the events in France in accordance with the apocalyptic prophecies in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; that is, they viewed these events as fulfilling the promise, guaranteed by an infallible text, that a short period of retributive and cleansing violence would usher in an age of universal peace and blessedness that would be the equivalent of a restored Paradise. Even after what they considered to be the failure of the revolutionary promise, these poets did not surrender their hope for a radical reformation of humankind and its social and political world; instead, they transferred the basis of that hope from violent political revolution to a quiet but drastic revolution in the moral and imaginative nature of the human race.
“The Gothic,” another topic for this period, is also a prominent and distinctive element in the writings of the Romantic Age. The mode had originated in novels of the mid-eighteenth century that, in radical opposition to the Enlightenment ideals of order, decorum, and rational control, had opened to literary exploration the realm of nightmarish terror, violence, aberrant psychological states, and sexual rapacity. In the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), the ominous hero-villain had embodied aspects of Satan, the fallen archangel in Milton’s Paradise Lost. This satanic strain was developed by later writers and achieved its apotheosis in the creation of a new and important cultural phenomenon, the compulsive, grandiose, heaven-and-hell-defying Byronic hero. In many of its literary products, the Gothic mode manifested the standard setting and events, creaky contrivances, and genteel aim of provoking no more than a pleasurable shudder — a convention Jane Austen satirized in Northanger Abbey. Literary Gothicism also, however, produced enduring classics that featured such demonic, driven, and imaginatively compelling protagonists as Byron’s Manfred, Frankenstein’s Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel, Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and, in America, Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick.
The topic “Tintern Abbey, Tourism, and Romantic Landscape” represents a very different mode, but one that is equally prominent in the remarkably diverse spectrum of Romantic literature. Tintern Abbey, written in 1798, is Wordsworth’s initial attempt, in the short compass of a lyric poem, at a form he later expanded into the epic-length narrative of The Prelude. That is, it is a poem on the growth of the poet’s mind, told primarily in terms of an evolving encounter between subject and object, mind and nature, which turns on an anguished spiritual crisis (identified in The Prelude as occasioned by the failure of the French Revolution) and culminates in the achievement of an integral and assured maturity (specified in The Prelude as the recognition by Wordsworth of his vocation as a poet for his crisis-ridden era). In this aspect, Tintern Abbey can be considered the succinct precursor, in English literature, of the genre known by the German term Bildungsgeschichte — the development of an individual from infancy through psychological stresses and breaks to a coherent maturity. This genre came to include such major achievements as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh in verse and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in prose.
However innovative, in historical retrospect, the content and organization of Tintern Abbey may be, a contemporary reader would have approached it as simply one of a great number of descriptive poems that, in the 1790s, undertook to record a tour of picturesque scenes and ruins. There is good evidence, in fact, that, on the walking tour of the Wye valley during which Wordsworth composed Tintern Abbey, the poet and his sister carried with them William Gilpin’s best-selling tour guide, Observations on the River Wye … Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty. As Gilpin and other travelers point out, the ruined abbey, however picturesque, served as a habitat for beggars and the wretchedly poor; also the Wye, in the tidal portion downstream from the abbey, had noisy and smoky iron-smelting furnaces along its banks, while in some places the water was oozy and discolored. These facts, together with the observation that Wordsworth dated his poem July 13, 1798, one day before the anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille, have generated vigorous controversy about Tintern Abbey. Some critics read it as a great and moving meditation on the human condition and its inescapable experience of aging, loss, and suffering. (Keats read it this way — as a wrestling with “the Burden of the Mystery,” an attempt to develop a rationale for the fact that “the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression.”) Others, however, contend that in the poem, Wordsworth suppresses any reference to his earlier enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and also that — by locating his vantage point in the pristine upper reaches of the Wye and out of sight of the abbey — he avoids acknowledging the spoliation of the environment by industry, and evades a concern with the social realities of unemployment, homelessness, and destitution.
“The Satanic and Byronic Hero,” another topic for this period, considers a cast of characters whose titanic ambition and outcast state made them important to the Romantic Age’s thinking about individualism, revolution, the relationship of the author—the author of genius especially—to society, and the relationship of poetical power to political power. The fallen archangel Satan, as depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost; Napoleon Bonaparte, self-anointed Emperor of the French, Europe’s “greatest man” or perhaps, as Coleridge insisted, “the greatest proficient in human destruction that has ever lived”; Lord Byron, or at least Lord Byron in the disguised form in which he presented himself in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Manfred, and his Orientalist romances; these figures were consistently grouped together in the public imagination of the Romantic Age. Prompted by radical changes in their systems of political authority and by their experience of a long, drawn-out war in which many of the victories felt like pyrrhic ones, British people during this period felt compelled to rethink the nature of heroism. One way that they pursued this project was to ponder the powers of fascination exerted by these figures whose self-assertion and love of power could appear both demonic and heroic, and who managed both to incite beholders’ hatred and horror and to prompt their intense identifications. In the representations surveyed by this topic the ground is laid, as well, for the satanic strain of nineteenth-century literature and so for some of literary history’s most compelling protagonists, from Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein to Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, to Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab.
Writers working in the time period from 1785 to 1830 did not think of themselves as “Romantics,” but were seen to belong to a number of distinct movements or schools. For much of the twentieth century scholars singled out five poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Percy Shelley, and Keats—and constructed a unified concept of Romanticism on the basis of their works. Some of the best regarded poets of the time were in fact women, including Anna Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Robinson. Yet educated women were targets of masculine scorn, and the radical feminism of a figure like Mary Wollstonecraft remained exceptional.
The Romantic period was shaped by a multitude of political, social, and economic changes. Many writers of the period were aware of a pervasive intellectual and imaginative climate, which some called “the spirit of the age.” This spirit was linked to both the politics of the French Revolution and religious apocalypticism. The early period of the French Revolution evoked enthusiastic support from English liberals and radicals alike. But support dropped off as the Revolution took an increasingly grim course. The final defeat of the French emperor Napoleon in 1815 ushered in a period of harsh, repressive measures in England. The nation’s growing population was increasingly polarized into two classes of capital and labor, rich and poor. In 1819, an assembly of workers demanding parliamentary reform was attacked by sabre-wielding troops in what became known as the “Peterloo Massacre.” A Reform Bill was passed in 1832, extending the franchise, though most men and all women remained without the vote.
Wordsworth and Coleridge’s sense of the emancipatory opportunities brought in by the new historical moment was expressed in their Lyrical Ballads (1798), which revolutionized the theory and practice of poetry. Wordsworth influentially located the source of a poem not in outer nature but in the psychology and emotions of the individual poet. In keeping with the view that poetry emphasizes the poet’s feelings, the lyric became a major Romantic form. It was held that the immediate act of composition must be spontaneous—arising from impulse and free from rules. For Shelley, poetry was not the product of “labor and study” but unconscious creativity. In a related tendency, Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and later Shelley would all assume the persona of the poet-prophet.
Romantic poetry for present-day readers has become almost synonymous with “nature poetry.” Romantic poems habitually endow the landscape with human life, passion, and expressiveness. Wordsworth’s aim was to shatter the lethargy of custom to renew our sense of wonder in the everyday. Coleridge, by contrast, achieved wonder by the frank violation of natural laws, impressing upon readers a sense of occult powers and unknown modes of being. The pervasiveness of nature poetry in the period can be linked to the idealization of the natural scene as a site where the individual could find freedom from social laws.
Books became big business, thanks to an expanded audience and innovations in retailing. A few writers became celebrities. Although we now know the Romantic period as an age of poetry, the prose essay, the drama and the novel flourished during this epoch. This period saw the emergence of the literary critic, with accompanying anxieties over the status of criticism as literature. There was a vibrant theatrical culture, though burdened by many restrictions; Shelley’s powerful tragedy The Cenci was deemed unstageable on political grounds. The novel began to rival poetry for literary prestige. Gothic novelists delved into a premodern, prerational past as a means of exploring the nature of power. Jane Austen, committed like Wordsworth to finding the extraordinary in the everyday, developed a new novelistic language for the mind in flux.
6. The Victorian Age
In 1897 Mark Twain was visiting London during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations honoring the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s coming to the throne. “British history is two thousand years old,” Twain observed, “and yet in a good many ways the world has moved farther ahead since the Queen was born than it moved in all the rest of the two thousand put together.” Twain’s comment captures the sense of dizzying change that characterized the Victorian period. Perhaps most important was the shift from a way of life based on ownership of land to a modern urban economy based on trade and manufacturing. By the beginning of the Victorian period, the Industrial Revolution, as this shift was called, had created profound economic and social changes, including a mass migration of workers to industrial towns, where they lived in new urban slums. But the changes arising out of the Industrial Revolution were just one subset of the radical changes taking place in mid- and late-nineteenth-century Britain — among others were the democratization resulting from extension of the franchise; challenges to religious faith, in part based on the advances of scientific knowledge, particularly of evolution; and changes in the role of women.
All of these issues, and the controversies attending them, informed Victorian literature. In part because of the expansion of newspapers and the periodical press, debate about political and social issues played an important role in the experience of the reading public. The Victorian novel, with its emphasis on the realistic portrayal of social life, represented many Victorian issues in the stories of its characters. Moreover, debates about political representation involved in expansion both of the franchise and of the rights of women affected literary representation, as writers gave voice to those who had been voiceless.
Key issues in this era are: evolution, industrialism, what the Victorians called “The Woman Question”, and Great Britain’s identity as an imperial power. Norton Topics Online provides further texts on three of these topics: the debate about the benefits and evils of the Industrial Revolution, the debate about the nature and role of women, and the myriad issues that arose as British forces worked to expand their global influence. The debates on both industrialization and women’s roles in society reflected profound social change: the formation of a new class of workers — men, women, and children — who had migrated to cities, particularly in the industrial North, in huge numbers, to take jobs in factories, and the growing demand for expanded liberties for women. The changes were related; the hardships that the Industrial Revolution and all its attendant social developments created put women into roles that challenged traditional ideas about women’s nature. Moreover, the rate of change the Victorians experienced, caused to a large degree by advances in manufacturing, created new opportunities and challenges for women. They became writers, teachers, and social reformers, and they claimed an expanded set of rights.
In the debates about industrialism and about the Woman Question, voices came into print that had not been heard before. Not only did women writers play a major role in shaping the terms of the debate about the Woman Question, but also women from the working classes found opportunities to describe the conditions of their lives. Similarly, factory workers described their working and living conditions, in reports to parliamentary commissions, in the encyclopedic set of interviews journalist Henry Mayhew later collected as London Labor and the London Poor, and in letters to the editor that workers themselves wrote. The world of print became more inclusive and democratic. At the same time, novelists and even poets sought ways of representing these new voices. The novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her first novel, Mary Barton, in order to give voice to Manchester’s poor, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning tried to find ways in poetry of giving voice to the poor and oppressed.
The third section of this Web site, “The Painterly Image in Victorian Poetry,” investigates the rich connection in the Victorian period between visual art and literature. Much Victorian aesthetic theory makes the eye the most authoritative sense and the clearest indicator of truth. Victorian poetry and the Victorian novel both value visual description as a way of portraying their subjects. This emphasis on the visual creates a particularly close connection between poetry and painting. Books of fiction and poetry were illustrated, and the illustrations amplified and intensified the effects of the text. The texts, engravings, and paintings collected here provide insight into the connection between the verbal and the visual so central to Victorian aesthetics.
Britain’s identity as an imperial power with considerable global influence is explored more comprehensively in the fourth topic section. For Britain, the Victorian period witnessed a renewed interest in the empire’s overseas holdings. British opinions on the methods and justification of imperialist missions overseas varied, with some like author Joseph Conrad throwing into sharp relief the brutal tactics and cold calculations involved in these missions, while others like politician Joseph Chamberlain considered the British to be the “great governing race” with a moral obligation to expand its influence around the globe. Social evolutionists, such as Benjamin Kidd, likewise supported the British dominion through their beliefs about the inherent developmental inferiority of the subject peoples, thus suggesting that Europeans had a greater capacity for ruling—a suggestion that many took as complete justification of British actions overseas. Regardless of dissenting voices, British expansion pushed forward at an unprecedented rate, ushering in a new era of cultural exchange that irreversibly altered the British worldview.
Summary of the Victorian Age
Relating to the Victorian Age
7. 20th c. and After
Global war is one of the defining features of twentieth-century experience, and the first global war is the subject of one of this period’s topics, “Representing the Great War.” Masses of dead bodies strewn upon the ground, plumes of poison gas drifting through the air, hundreds of miles of trenches infested with rats—these are but some of the indelible images that have come to be associated with World War I (1914-18). It was a war that unleashed death, loss, and suffering on an unprecedented scale. How did recruiting posters, paintings, memoirs, and memorials represent the war? Was it a heroic occasion, comparable to a sporting event, eliciting displays of manly valor and courage? Or was it an ignominious waste of human life, with little gain to show on either side of the conflict, deserving bitterly ironic treatment? What were the differences between how civilians and soldiers, men and women, painters and poets represented the war? How effective or inadequate were memorials, poems, or memoirs in conveying the enormous scale and horror of the war? These are among the issues explored in this topic about the challenge to writers and artists of representing the unrepresentable.
Red Stone DancerAnother of the twentieth century’s defining features is radical artistic experiment. The boundary-breaking art, literature, and music of the first decades of the century are the subject of the topic “Modernist Experiment.” Among the leading aesthetic innovators of this era were the composer Igor Stravinsky, the cubist Pablo Picasso, and the futurist F. T. Marinetti. ElectricityThe waves of artistic energy in the avant-garde European arts soon crossed the English Channel, as instanced by the abstraction and dynamism of Red Stone Dancer (1913-14) by the London-based vorticist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Other vorticists and modernists include such English-language writers as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Mina Loy, who also responded to the stimulus and challenge of the European avant-garde with manifestos, poems, plays, and other writings. This topic explores the links between Continental experiment and the modernist innovations of English-language poets and writers during a period of extraordinary ferment in literature and the arts.
Another of the defining features of the twentieth century was the emergence of new nations out of European colonial rule. Among these nations, Ireland was the oldest of Britain’s colonies and the first in modern times to fight for independence. The topic “Imagining Ireland” explores how twentieth-century Irish writers fashioned new ideas about the Irish nation. It focuses on two periods of crisis, when the violent struggle for independence put the greatest pressure on literary attempts to imagine the nation: in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the later outbreaks of sectarian violence from 1969 (known as the Troubles) in Northern Ireland. How do poems, plays, memoirs, short stories, and other literary works represent the bloodshed and yet the potential benefits of these violent political upheavals? Do they honor or lament, idealize or criticize, these political acts? And how do these literary representations compare with political speeches and treaties that bear on these defining moments in modern Irish history? “Imagining Ireland” considers these and other questions about literature and the making of Irish nationality, which continue to preoccupy contemporary writers of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Irish diaspora.