A history of English literature is simply a chronological account of the books which have been written in English since we cannot think of a book without language, and — thinking also of its author — of the men who wrote them. In a history of literature, it is better and fitter to fix attention upon the personalities of the men by whom this literature has been made. In a short sketch, it is not possible and feasible to examine in detail, their lives, experiences, and characters. This must be left for a more extended study.
In the history of English literature, we must try nonetheless to understand the distinctive quality in the genius of each man who comes before us. Genius means many things; but at the bottom, it means strength of personality and as a consequence, what we call originality. It has been well said that every great writer brings one absolutely new thing into the world — himself; and it is just because he puts this one new thing into what he writes that his work bears its own special hallmark, and has something about it which makes it unlike the work undone by anyone else.
Besides, a history of English literature is concerned to indicate the nature and value of the particular contribution which each writer personally has made that literature.
Besides, a history of English literature is concerned to indicate the nature and value of the particular contribution which each writer personally has made that literature. A mere list of authors, taken separately and of their books, does not constitute a history of literature, for literature as a whole grows and changes from generation to generation and in tracing this growth, history must show the place which each writer occupies in it, and his relations with those who went before, and with those who came after him. No doubt an exceptionally powerful writer is certain to stamp his impress upon his age; the followers of such writer reveal his influence in their thought and style. This paves the way for the foundation of ‘schools’ and the initiation of ‘movements’. They last for a while, and then when tastes presently change, and other ‘schools’ and ‘movements’ arise and disappear. Thus we speak of the ‘school’ of Pope, ‘classic’ and ‘romantic’ movements.
The history of English literature, then, must take account of all these things of the age of Pope, Dryden, Scott, and Shakespeare. It must bring out the relationships between writer and writer and group and group; it must trace the rise, growth, and decline of schools’ and ‘movements’; and whenever any given writer had been especially prominent in their evolution, it must consider the influence, he exerted in making literature either by keeping it in the old channels or in directing it into new.
It goes without saying that each age has its own particular lines of interest and its own particular way of thinking and feeling about things. So the literature which it produces is governed by certain prevailing tastes; that these tastes last for a time only; and that the tastes of one age are sure to differ, and are often found to differ enormously, from those of every other. This can be well illustrated in the following lines :
In Spenser’s day there was boundless enthusiasm for ‘The Queene’; in Pope’s for the ‘Essay on Man’ in Scott’s for ‘The Lady of the Lake’.
Immense enthusiasm for classics is highly responsible for literary products. For example one of the principal forces behind the English literature of the Elizabethan era was the immense enthusiasm for the Greek and Latin classics, which had come with what we call the Renaissance. The writers were first influenced by Italian literature; then by French literature and then by German literature. From above, it is very obvious that the literary influences introduce new currents of taste, which carry even the most independent writers along with them.
Every age is responsible for new literary products — The Reformation, Puritanism, the French Revolution, the enormous progress Of science during the nineteenth century and so on and so forth. So it is, enough to mention these, to show the intimate connection between the history of literature and the general history.
In short, the principal object of the history of English literature is to trace the progress of English literature through all its transformations from age to age and in following the varying course of its development to explain the successive changes which have taken place in its matter, form and spirit. No wonder, it becomes a record of both of individual men and their special contributions to literature and of the forces, personal and impersonal, which went to the shaping of their work.
In this introductory chapter, it is better to say something about the intimate connection between English literature and English history. They go hand in hand: they are both sides of the same coin. English history is considered as the fundamental base for English literature. A history of English literature has, therefore, a national, as well as a personal character and interest. The inner life of each generation is revealed in the literature. In studying English literature, according to the chronological method of history, let us always try to think of it as the progressive revelation of the mind and spirit of the English people.
For the sake of convenience. the history of English literature is divided into periods. In tabulating these periods, various methods may be adopted. It is very usual to label them with epithets derived from history and to speak, for example, of the Elizabethan Age, the Age of Restoration, the Victorian Age and so on. Here in literature, it is better to designate each period by the name of its most characteristic and representative writer. Now we shall have the age of Chaucer, the Age of Shakespeare, the Age of Milton, the Age of Dryden, the Age of Pope, the Age of Johnson, the Age of Wordsworth and the Age of Tennyson, as the large divisions of our study.
READ ALSO: English Literature Before Chaucer (500-1340)