English Literature

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English Literature, literature produced in England, from the introduction of Old English by the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century to the present. The works of those Irish and Scottish authors who are closely identified with English life and letters are also considered part of English literature.

This period extends from about 450 to 1066, the year of the Norman-French conquest of England.

The Germanic tribes from Europe who overran England in the 5th century, after the Roman withdrawal, brought with them the Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, language, which is the basis of Modern English. They brought also a specific poetic tradition, the formal character of which remained surprisingly constant until the termination of their rule by the Norman-French invaders six centuries later.

All these qualities of form and spirit are exemplified in the epic poem Beowulf, written in the 8th century.

Beginning and ending with the funeral of a great king, and composed against a background of impending disaster, it describes the exploits of a Scandinavian culture hero, Beowulf, in destroying the monster Grendel, Grendels mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. In these sequences Beowulf is shown not only as a glorious hero but also as a savior of the people. The Old Germanic virtue of mutual loyalty between leader and followers is evoked effectively and touchingly in the aged Beowulfs sacrifice of his life and in the reproaches heaped on the retainers who desert him in this climactic battle. The extraordinary artistry with which fragments of other heroic tales are incorporated to illumine the main action, and with which the whole plot is reduced to symmetry, has only recently been fully recognized.

Another feature of Beowulf is the weakening of the sense of the ultimate power of arbitrary fate. The injection of the Christian idea of dependence on a just God is evident. That feature is typical of other Old English literature, for almost all of what survives was preserved by monastic copyists. Most of it was actually composed by religious writers after the early conversion of the people from their faith in the older Germanic divinities.

Sacred legend and story were reduced to verse in poems resembling Beowulf in form. At first such verse was rendered in the somewhat simple, stark style of the poems of Caedmon, a humble man of the late 7th century who was described by the historian and theologian Saint Bede the Venerable as having received the gift of song from God. Later the same type of subject matter was treated in the more ornate language of the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf and his school. The best of their productions is probably the passionate Dream of the Rood. In addition to these religious compositions, Old English poets produced a number of more or less lyrical poems of shorter length, which do not contain specific Christian doctrine and which evoke the Anglo-Saxon sense of the harshness of circumstance and the sadness of the human lot. The ...

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