What is English Literature?

Posted in category: General

The never-ending dilemma – what is English literature? Does it ever cease to be? Do we ever stop thinking this question? As a student, first year, I constantly thought it and tried to explore for the possible answers. I was helped by my professors. I read in the books. I also searched online (Google used to be new those days). However, let me confess, the more I moved deep into this research, the more problematic this situation became. When translated into English, can Kalidas’ Abhigyan Shakuntlam be called English literature? Can we call The Bible English Literature? Can we call the literature produced in England English literature? What exactly is English Literature?

At the early stage, academicians offer simple arguments. More specifically, they tend to define literature; English literature is automatically deemed to be ‘literature’ (at least in Indian context). So, to begin, English literature (as the popular version goes) is a major course offered by universities across the world. In another context, the literature produced by England (in the past when it was united and at present) is English literature. In another context, English literature is the literature which is produced in English language. So, these are the basic definitions of English literature in various contexts.

For most of the occasions, the appropriate dominion of English literature is taken to be as the literature produced in English language. And for English literature students, this is what they should keep in mind. The syllabus, most of the times, includes literature produced in English language in various countries, not necessarily in England only.

English Literature (in England) has been divided into different parts. Some of them are named after the Kings and Queens of England and some others are named after the popular literary figures and a few have been named after the predominant effect (various) on the particular period of time. Most will agree that English Literature has been divided into the following major periods:

  • The age of Chaucer
  • Pre-Elizabethan Literature
  • Elizabethan Literature (Shakespearean age of English Drama)
  • Jacobean Literature (Websterean age of English Drama)
  • The Restoration Literature (Paradise Lost by Milton)
  • The Augustan Literature (Pope and the Neo-Classical pursuit of form)
  • The Johnsonean Literature of Reason
  • The Romantic Literature (Wordsworthean Poetry, Austen’s novels)
  • The Victorian Literature (Reason, intellect, Arnold, Tennyson, Dickens, Industrial exposure)
  • The Early 20th Century Literature (Chaos, Eliot, Waste Land)
  • The Later 20th Century Literature (Eliot drags the dilemma, Irish absurdity, Orwellian dystopia)
  • The Contemporary Literature (strange happenings… liberal literature… entertaining literature)

One should keep in mind that English Literature took various shapes in countries other than England as well. Even in our country India, which was enslaved by the British, English Literature was taking shape a long time ago. In the countries like America, there were figues like Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound who were influencing their respective times a lot. Also in the Caribbean, there were the literary figures who were paving the way in English literature. However, none of the countries other than England and the then parts of the Kingdom could exhibit so much vividity and transitions like England did. And therefore, any student has to study mostly England’s literature figures when he takes up English Literature for graduation.

We will further bring more about the specific ages of English Literature in England and then we will bring more about the development and emergence of English Literature in other countries as well.


by Amit Mishra for English Literature Education

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • The article focused on the vital parts of English literature. The dilemma and contradiction we have to face as a student of English in defining English literature. The world of English literature is very vast and it pronounces large information.


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