Literature has always had a powerful impact on society. Since ancient times, it has been the mirror of the current world, which reflected substantial historical movements and was a method of self-expression. The narrators represent literature’s artistic origin as they record their sensitive impressions of the world. In this way, such reactions combine with imagination, unique style, fantasy, and diverse literary techniques. Due to such a complex origin, literature transformed into a great variety of genres and numerous books. Nowadays, in the XXI century, people have an endless number of choices, from classic samples to modern books. Nevertheless, for a proper understanding of the literary phenomenon, it is necessary to open the veil behind its historical periods and different challenges. Therefore, classic English literature proposes ten books from diverse epochs, each being a perfect example of a distinct literary period.
Classic English literature, having its roots in the Anglo-Saxons times, from 658 to 1100 CE, and the Middle Ages that lasted from 1100 to 1500 CE, prompted the creation of Old and Medieval Literature. Thus, the primary goal of literary works of these epochs was to record old tales and wisdom that had existed only as the oral tradition before. These epochs depicted the hardship of life and the ongoing conquest with the wild nature. However, the reality was complemented with diverse imaginary objects — fantastic creatures such as dragons or various spirits, mysterious forests,or pagan gods (Long and Heidelberg). All of the mentioned features made Medieval literature a captivating mix of threatening historical chronicles and the weird imaginary world of the ancestors.
Old and Medieval literature can be defined by the Anglo-Saxon poem — Beowulf . An unknown author wrote it somewhere between the XVIII and the XI centuries. Beowulf is an epic heroic poem, which tells the story about Scandinavian kings. However, it is not an ordinary historical chronicle because it also depicts mythical events, especially battles with the dangerous fantastic devil creatures. The plot of the story is based on the northern legends of Beowa, which illustrating the bloody fight between the monster Grendel and a half-divine Scandinavian hero (Long and Heidelberg). Beowulf is an exceptional example of classic English literature because it laid the foundation for the development of poetic genres.
The Renaissance Era, the epoch of literary advance, started in England in the XV century. During this period, numerous changes in politics and religion forced literature’s transformations. Thereupon, this spontaneous historical period was represented primarily by drama. That is because only this genre was able to depict the Elizabethan era in detail, with all its controversial circumstances of life. Renaissance signifies the prosperity of tragedy and comedy, two principal kinds of dramatic play. What is more, mysteries, morality, miracle, and regular drama plays appeared on the stage (Moody). Consequently, this epoch impresses by a variety of themes.
Undoubtedly, William Shakespeare will always stay the most famous drama writer of the Renaissance. His play, Henry IV, provides an in-depth understanding of this period of English literature. In this play, Shakespeare shows his talent in a new engaging light. This genius play describes real London without any stereotypes. The author engages many different characters. Such a technique lets him define the multifaceted city throughout the greatness of its kings and their majestic victories (Moody). However, this is not the only Shakespeare’s play that is worth the reader’s attention because his literary works contain numerous masterpieces.
In 1660, classic English literature moved to the era of Restoration. This period lasted for the whole century and was modified by social, political, and economic influences. During this epoch, several new genres developed, for instance, the laudatory ode. Moreover, the Restoration period started with the kingdom of Charles II, who also affected literary development with his political approach (Carter and McRae). Finally, poetry became one of the leading genres of Restoration.
Although literary critics often do not regard John Milton as a writer of Restoration, his literary work includes the greatest poems of this historical period. As the religious concept was typical for that era, his “Paradise Lost” is an epic poem that illustrates the tragic Biblical story. Thus, Milton tends to represent the spiritual side of life, the Christian heroism against evil forces. The same as most poems of this genre, his work consists of ten thousand lines. “Paradise Lost” tells the story about a fallen man, which, in Milton’s interpretation, becomes autobiographical. The author uses traditional protagonists, Adam and Eva, to show the problem of morality in contemporary society (Long and Heidelberg). Milton’s poem is a unique sample of Restoration literature as it denies the familiar martial heroism and proposes a moral concept instead.
The Restoration period led to the Age of Enlightenment, which became the peak of philosophical thought. Additionally, the XVIII century signifies the scientific approach to life. Thereupon, religious beliefs were replaced by rationalism. That is why it is also called the Age of Reason. This epoch can be characterized by different genres, such as drama, poetry, novel, and satire. During this age, the authors often criticized governmental and religious institutions. Discrimination, restriction on freedoms, and censorship also became vital literary themes (Moody). The Age of Enlightenment was a mix of philosophy, science, and human right reflected in literary works.
“The Rape of the Lock” by Alexander Pope is a satiric poem that criticizes the authority. Pope managed to represent the dark side of England’s ruling classes. Hence this poem enlights corruption, injustice, and society’s failure in an understandable way — through humor. Due to such multiple plots, “The Rape of the Lock” also becomes a manifestation of the wrong beauty and appearance perception (Long and Heidelberg). This poem also regards many moral concepts and religious questions.
The Romantic era, which started at the beginning of the XX century, was a response to the Industrial evolution. The society of the XVIII century massively moved from the countryside to developing towns. In this way, the social movement became a foundation for literary themes. Romanticists had various inspiring topics: the lifestyle of industrial cities, its polluted streets, lonely habitants, and numerous factories. Unlike the Age of Enlightenment, Romanticism rejected the scientific and rational approach to nature (Bateson). Due to its sensitivity and simple language, Romantic literature still has many admirers.
Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is a lyric emotional piece of literature. Wordsworth regarded this set of poetry as an experiment. That is because he only wanted to share his challenging emotions and different impressions. Furthermore, the authors mixed diverse writing styles to represent the changing times. As a result, Lyrical Ballads are easily understandable for all generations (Long and Heidelberg). This exceptional collection proves that real emotions do not depend on wealth or high social status because it is a universal experience.
The same as Romanticism, Transcendental movement resisted rationalistic ideas. It lasted for thirty years, from 1830 to 1860, and highly appreciated human spirituality. It was the epoch of God’s power, the prosperity of religious world perception. According to Transcendentalism, spiritual conceptions became the core ideas for literary discussions. Nevertheless, such literature raised against governmental and religious control of one’s life (Carter and McRae). Finally, Transcendentalism became a powerful philosophical, spiritual, and literary movement in New England.
Louisa May Alcott, the famous British Transcendental writer, was one of the most prominent personalities of this epoch. She wrote Little Women, which is often considered to be a sample of a children’s romance. Besides, this literary work illustrates the nostalgy of the coming-of-age period. Alcott’s family members were the adherents of Transcendentalism; that is why their spiritual thinking inspired her to create this book (Long and Heidelberg). Little Women forces readers to think of their own lives, again and again, reminding youth, failures, happy moments, and crucial decisions.
The XIX century was the epoch of real-world perception — literary Realism. The literature of this period depicted contemporary life and society as it was, with all its positive and negative features. Realists chose for their literary works familiar topics such as family, community, society’s structure, and native places. Therefore, the protagonists of most realistic stories are ordinary people, with ordinary work and life. Thus banal experiences are the foundation for literary works of that century (Moody). The era of Realism is a challenging vital period for literature as it provided society with the real picture of their everyday life.
Middlemarch, a genius book created by George Eliot, is one of the greatest English novels. Eliot depicts Midlands town and its citizens. Though from the first glance, such a plot may seem too ordinary or even boring, the author managed to create a captivating story based on real life. He uses numerous plotlines full of small details. Eliot illustrates real-life issues and everyday problems so masterfully that in combination with each other, they create a complete novel (Long and Heidelberg). Consequently, Middlemarch does not lose its significance even over the centuries.
The second part of the XIX century is a Victorian era defined by the famous Queen Victoria. Both poetry and classic novels were the leading genres of this era. Victorian writers such as Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, William Thackeray, Oscar Wilde, and the Bronte sisters made a significant contribution to the classic English literature. The combination of romantic and realistic features creates a unique Victorian style of writing. Although these authors depicted hard work and struggles, at the end of their novels, morality always wins. In addition to these qualities, the authors represented heroic stories of the past (Long and Heidelberg). The Victorians also tried to classify and explain the entire natural world.
Among all the mentioned writers, Charles Dickens not only represents the Victorian era but also stays one of the most recognizable authors of all time. His captivating story about a little boy, Oliver Twist, depicts urban poverty. Dickens shows Victorian London through the lens of the young orphan’s vision. Oliver Twist is a romanticized novel as it provides a wide range of childish experiences, worries, and hardships. On the contrary, the protagonist-kid represents Realism because he perceives the world around him as honestly as possible (Long and Heidelberg). Oliver Twist makes the readers smile and cry, feeling sympathy and sorrow at the same time.
At the turn of the XIX and XX centuries, literature faced a new movement — Modernism. This period brought innovative utopian ideas to society. While the other epochs rebelled against the previous literary attitudes, this era forced the beginning of a new writing tradition. It was a radical answer to certainty and strict literary rules. Modernists described the struggles of an individuality contradicted to terrifying reality. They used a wide variety of topics, from the horrors of the First World War to intimate personal emotions (Carter and McRae). Though such an individual perception makes their literary works unique, they are not understandable for everyone.
James Joyce, a master of self-consciousness, demonstrates the whole modernist movement by his works. His book Ulysses is a modern prototype of Homer’s The Odyssey. To retell the famous story, Joyce explains the protagonist’s experiences in contemporary Dublin. Ulysses impresses by the variety of represented genres because, for each chapter, the author uses a different literary style (Carter and McRae). As a result, this literary work is a captivating journey through the protagonist’s stream of minds expressed in different ways.
Last but not least, Postmodernism occupied the post-World War Two years. It is complicated to define this period, as it has no rules or principles. Postmodernism is a follow-up to Modernism, a broader and enhanced version of the previous movement. There are plenty of postmodernist writers; that is because this literary period still lasts untill today. What is more, Postmodernism is a state of fantastic contemporary literature that continues to transform (Huber). Joseph Heller, Sylvia Plath, or George Orwell — all of them has broken classic literary borders with their revolutionary works.
1984 by George Orwell seems to be the most controversial book of the XX century. In his literary work, Orwell managed to predict the future, the era of growing technologies that occupied control. Although 1984, for a long time, was considered to be a science fictional imaginary idea, modern technological progress truly makes readers think that everything is possible, even Orwell’s vision (Huber). Consequently, this book shows the chaos and multiple origins of contemporary reality, rapid technological movement, and its relation to human life.
To sum up, classic English literature has a long puzzling history. Thus historical transformations affected not only society’s life but also changed literary movements. Although it is hard to gain an in-depth understanding of all these periods, having read several books from these epochs, it is possible to plug into literary chronicles. All in all, Beowulf, Henry IV by William Shakespeare, “Paradise Lost” by John Milton, “The Rape of the Lock” by Alexander Pope, Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, Ulysses by James Joyce, and 1984 by George Orwell are worth reading because of their historical significance and exciting content.
Bateson, Frederick Wilse. A Guide To English Literature. 3rd ed., Routledge, 2017, pp. 130-144.
Carter, Ronald, and John McRae. The Routledge History Of Literature In English. 3rd ed., Routledge, 2017, pp. 115-134, 243-245, 311-314, 372-380.
Huber, Irmtraud. Literature After Postmodernism. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 7-12, 215-230.
Long, William J., and Ph. D. Heidelberg. English Literature (Illustrated): Its History And Its Significance For The English-Speaking World. Full Moon Publications, 2014.
Moody, William Vaughn. A History Of English Literature. 2017.