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people; but, of great inspiring contributions to the world's literature, there would be little loss.
The Middle English Period is made notable by the names of Chaucer, Wiclif, Gower, Langland, and Malory, but all of these names belong to the latter part of the period. Before their times there had been produced a host of metrical romances and homiletic verse.
The people of England did not use a homogeneous language. In addition to the many dialects of the common people there were the Anglo-Latin of the church and the NormanFrench of the court. As London became the political and commercial center of the kingdom, the Midland dialect gained the supremacy. As Chaucer is the subject of the next chapter, we need not now discuss the influence of this notable poet,
The Elizabethan Era is the period glorified by the colossal achievement of Shakspere. He was fortunate in living in an age when the great influences of the Reformation and the Renaissance were quickening English life. By way of Italy and France came the learning of ancient Rome and Athens; while modern Italy contributed poetry, fiction, and the drama, which reappeared in new English forms of tragedy, allegory, song, pastoral, and sonnet. English prose had not yet attained simplicity of diction. Euphuisms and perversions of style prevailed. A fuller discussion of this remarkable period will be found in the chapter on Shakspere. We need but add that this period would be noteworthy even without the name of Shakspere, for in it are included the dramas of Ben Jonson, Chapman, Dekker and Heywood, Middleton and Webster, Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher, and the brilliant Marlowe; in pure poesy we have Spenser, and in prose More's Utopia, Ascham's Schoolmaster, and Holinshed's Chronicles.
The Puritan Period. — If the Elizabethan Period was marked by the Renaissance of the intellect, the Puritan age was marked by the Rebirth of the moral nature, for this was the time when occurred "that greatest moral and political reform which ever swept over a nation in the short space of half a century.” Liberty with the righteousness that exalteth a nation
was the ideal of the Puritan. It is an age which cannot be sharply defined, for at one end it overlaps the Elizabethan and at the other the Restoration Period. In spirit, however, it is sharply defined. The exuberant vitality of the Elizabethans, expressing itself in sonnet, lyric, masque, and drama, has given place to the passionate seriousness of the religious and polemic Puritan. In Paradise Lost the deep moral earnestness of the age finds its immortal expression.
The Restoration Period. With the return of the monarchy, 1660, there was an intense reaction against the strictness of the Puritan ideals. The Restoration Period in English literature is the reflection of the gay, irresponsible, indecent portion of English life which now gathered about a dissolute king and his court. French literature as embodied in Racine, Molière, La Fontaine, and Bossuet dominated English ideals. The Latin and Greek classics passed into England through the modernizing influence of Boileau and his school of critics. About the court buzzed the wits who complimented and amused the king.
Poetry ... became gallant and social, and also personal and partisan; and satire was soon its most vital form. ... Prose came nearer to living speech, it became more civil and natural and persuasive."
The prose of Dryden and Bunyan shows a simplicity and clearness which had been hitherto lacking in English literature. The great name of this period is that of Dryden. His influence on English prose especially was altogether good. As a dramatist, in spite of some excellent work, he does not rise above the level of his age. His comedies smack of the vulgarity and shallow gayety of his contemporaries, Wycherley, Congreve, and Vanbrugh.
Age of Classicism, or the Augustan Age, as it is sometimes called, includes the celebrated names of Swift, Pope, DeFoe, Goldsmith, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, Addison, Steele, Locke, Gibbon, Burke, and Johnson. With the beginning of the eighteenth century all classes began to read.
There was a demand for new types of literature. The light essay, the biography, tales of adventure, history, and finally the novel appeared and gave a variety to a literature which had usually been limited to poetry, the drama, and political and theological prose. Perhaps the most important of all the groups of the famous men of this period, at least with reference to the influence their work has exerted on the stream of English literature, is the quartet of novelists - Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. These four “first thoroughly fertilized this important field.” But as purely literary forces no names stand higher than those of Swift, Pope, and Johnson. In the three chapters which deal with these men, the spirit of the Age of Classicism will be more fully explained.
The Romantic Age had its beginnings long before the dawn of the nineteenth century. Thomson, Burns, and Cowper produced a poetry very different from the formal classicism of the school of Pope. The most significant event in modern times is the French Revolution. Literature, a reflection of life, could not escape the far-reaching influences of that upheaval. The same influences that resulted in the breaking away from political traditions led to the breaking away from literary traditions. Individualism became the dominant note. Byron, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth in poetry; Scott and Jane Austen in fiction ; Lamb and De Quincey in the essay - each followed the bent of his genius, producing a literature as rich as it was at times bewildering in its infinite variety.
What is romanticism? In its best sense romanticism is, in the language of Victor Hugo, “liberalism in literature;" in a less noble sense it is a “morbid and restless intensification of the personal emotions.” An American critic, Paul Elmer More, referring especially to the tendencies of the twentieth century, has defined it as “the infinitely craving personality, the usurpation of emotion over reason, the idealization of love, the confusion of the sensuous and the spiritual.”
The Victorian Era. — The growth of democracy and the achievements of science are the two impressive characteristics
of that large portion of the nineteenth century often called the Victorian Era. It might appear that while the spirit of democracy has found free and forceful expression in poetry and prose, the achievements of science, as exemplified in steam and electricity, in surgery and medicine, have not found expression in literature. This is, however, taking too narrow a view of science, for the theory of evolution must be included among the achievements of science, and, whether true or false, this theory has influenced art and literature. It might be expected that Huxley and Spencer, scientists who had preeminently the gift of expression, would emphasize the idea of development under law, but Tennyson, the poet, Carlyle, the historian, and George Eliot, the novelist, have emphasized the same idea.
In poetry, Tennyson and Browning are the names that lead all the rest; but this period is also enriched by Matthew Arnold, Swinburne, Morris, and Rossetti, and a score of lesser names; in fiction we find the great names of Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot, closely followed by Kingsley, Charlotte Brontë, Trollope, Reade, Meredith, Stevenson, and Hardy; in prose other than fiction we find Macaulay, Carlyle, Ruskin, Newman, Mill, Froude, Pater, Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, and Wallace.
As we look back over the achievements of the nineteenth century, impressed by the notable list of talented men and women who have given literary distinction to that period, we ask ourselves whether our own age is not pitifully barren of productive genius. Time, however, is the great critic. In the words of Mr. Gosse, “As time passes on, it takes the sheep and goats of literature and gradually divides them. The latter are very numerous, and they are allowed to escape on the open moors of oblivion, whence they never return." Five centuries from now the many great names of the Victorian Era may be reduced to but one or two. In the dome of the National Gallery of London there is this sobering inscription, “ The works of those who have stood the test of ages have a claim to that respect and veneration to which no modern can pretend."
We are too close to our own age to estimate its literary
value. There are those who think we have fallen into decadent times, that commercialism and utilitarianism have absorbed the creative energies of man and clipt the wings of poesy. On the other hand, there are many who with Keats believe
“The poetry of earth is never dead,” and that the same spirit of self-expression which has always characterized the English-speaking nations shall continue to impel their daughters to prophesy, their old men to dream dreams, and their young men to see visions.