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Introduction.—We have now followed the history of English literature from the prehistoric twilight of the race to our own day, a period of nearly fifteen hundred years. Let us take a hasty glance backward, and try to see the story of English letters in its broad features, as it unfolds itself with the centuries.
The Making of the Race and of the Language.—The English are a mixed race, and English literature owes its remarkable scope to the fact that many different peoples and different branches of peoples have been mingled together to form the national character to which literature gives expression. The history of English literature is, during its early period, largely the history of the mingling together of these different peoples and tongues, to form a single nation and language, in which many diverse elements are held in solution. This period of preparation begins, perhaps as early as the fourth century, with the songs chanted by pagan Saxons in their early home upon the German Sea, and ends with Chaucer, the first great writer in whom we feel the modern spirit, and whose language is near enough to our own to be read by modern men with only a small amount of preparatory training. If we neglect the earliest scraps of song which scholars have ventured to assign to a remoter antiquity, and date the true beginning of Anglo1Saxon poetry from the middle or end of the sixth century, when the great epic of Beowulf probably arose, we still have a period of nearly eight centuries during which the nation and the language were being formed.
The earliest historic inhabitants of Britain were of the Celtic race; but the basis of the English race and language was furnished, not by the Celts, but by the Anglo1Saxons, who invaded and possessed Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries. They mingled, to some degree, with the conquered Celts, and absorbed a small portion of the Celtic tongue, together with some words left behind by the Roman occupation. Toward the end of the eighth century, and during the ninth, England was overrun by the Danes and the Northmen, men of allied race to the Anglo-Saxons, but sufficiently different to contribute some new ingredients to the national character. In 1066, the country was conquered by the Norman-French, who had originally been Teutonic, like the Anglo-Saxons and Danes, but who had become by intermarriage half French in blood, and were wholly so in civilization. Thus a second and far greater infusion of Celtic characteristics was made in the already blended English character. For a period of three hundred years the process of amalgamating the natives and the conquerors went on; by the time of Chaucer it was virtually completed.
Old and Middle English Literature.—The literature of these eight centuries divides itself into two parts; first, that produced before the Norman Conquest, and written in Anglo-Saxon, or Old English; second, that which began to be produced at the beginning of the thirteenth century, in Middle English, a tongue recognizably like our own, and becoming gradually more so as it absorbed French ingredients. Old English literature, in turn, divides itself into two parts; first, the early pagan poetry of which Beowulf is the chief monument; second, the Christianized literature of North- umbria and Wessex, of which Caedmon, Cynewulf, and King Alfred are the chief figures. Middle English literature, likewise, includes two periods; first, the pre-Chaucerian period, during which the metrical romance was the great staple of production; second, the period of Chaucer and his followers. During this latter period literature was greatly widened, both in form and matter. The verse tale was the most vital form which it took; but the lyric (especially the elaborate French lyric) was cultivated, the popular ballad flourished, and the miracle play took its rise.
The Renaissance and the Reformation.—During the fifteenth century the wave of creative impulse which had risen so high in Chaucer, ebbed away, chiefly because of the disturbed state of the country. But in the sixteenth century the life of England began again to be stirred by two great impulses. One of these was a literary and artistic influence, which came from Italy, and which we call the Renaissance. The other was a moral and religious influence, which came from Germany, and which we know as the Reformation. Under this double stimulus, aided later by the excitement of great geographical discoveries, the growth of commerce, and the national enthusiasm aroused by England's struggle with Spain, literature was again quickened. During the first quarter of the sixteenth century the wave of creative literature began to rise; and it continued to rise more and more rapidly until it reached its climax in the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth and in the reign of James I. It then ebbed rapidly away; but the great Puritan writers, Milton and Bunyan, continued on into a later age the double impulse of the Renaissance and of the Reformation.
Three Stages of the Renaissance Period.—We may profitably consider this period as divided into three stages. The first stage is represented by Sir Thomas More, by the translators of the second great English version of the Bible,* Tyn- dale and Coverdale, and by the courtly figures of Wyatt and Surrey, who brought the Renaissance influence into English poetry. This first stage of the new era also saw the rise of early English comedy and tragedy, developed out of the miracle plays and moralities, and given definite form by the influence of the Latin drama.
The second stage represents the high tide of Elizabethan literature. Its greatest figures are Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Bacon; and grouped around them we find a great crowd of poets, romancers, and playwrights. A wonderful efflorescence of the human mind, a wonderful energy and gayety in human life, mark the last years of Elizabeth and the first years of James I.
The third stage is marked by the over-ripeness and decline of the drama, and the growing sternness of the Puri* The first was Wyclif, whose age was marked by a movement somewhat similar to that of the Reformation.
tan temper. To this stage belong Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, and the later dramatists; it saw the rise of a great pulpit literature and a fervid religious poetry; the earlier work of Milton, in which he shows himself half-Elizabethan and half-Puritan, falls in it. It ends amid the confusion of the great Civil War, and the military despotism of Cromwell. By this time the great wave of imaginative energy which had begun to rise in the reign of Henry VIII. was exhausted; and with the restoration of Charles II. to the English throne a new epoch opened, an epoch of reaction and criticism. But as we have said before, there are two great survivals of the spirit of the Renaissance and the Reformation into the age of the Restoration; for it was under Charles II. that Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim's Progress were written.
The Era of Classicism.—The epoch of English literary history which opened with the return of Charles II. was preeminently an epoch of prose, as the previous one had been pre-eminently an epoch of poetry. It is called the era of classicism, because it believed that it had found in the older classic literatures the kind of moderation and polish which formed its own literary ideal. As the previous age had drawn its inspiration from Italy, the age which we have now reached found its example in France, where the classical fashion in literature, long since firmly established there, exerted its influence first upon the men of letters who were exiled with Charles II., and afterward upon the English nation as a whole.
Three Stages of the Classical Era.—The domination of this "classical" ideal in English letters divides itself into three parts. The first is the age of Dryden, dating from the Restoration to the end of the seventeenth century. It saw the heroic couplet take the place of all other forms of verse (with trifling exceptions); it saw a flippant society comedy in prose, and a bombastic rhymed tragedy, take the place of the Elizabethan blank verse drama; it saw the development of a systematic literary criticism, and the development of a useful prose style.
The second epoch of the classical era is signalized by the final perfecting of the heroic couplet, and of the "rational" type of poetry, in the masterly hands of Pope; it also witnessed the development of a magnificent prose satire at the hands of Swift, and the creation of a new type of literature in the essays of Addison and Steele, which deal directly with the social life of the time, in a light and graceful way. Finally, it saw in the work of Defoe, the beginnings of the modern novel, the greatest literary discovery of the eighteenth century.
The third stage of the reign of "classicism" is represented by Johnson, Goldsmith, and Burke. In Johnson culminated eighteenth-century scholarship. In Goldsmith and Burke, along with a pronounced classical bias, we discover the workings of a more ardent, sympathetic, and ideal temper; in other words, we note in them the signs of a new feeling toward life and art, a feeling destined soon to grow strong enough to overthrow the classical standards and usher in a freer and more impassioned literature. This age of Burke and Goldsmith is also the age of the great eighteenth-century novelists who followed Defoe—Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. The work of the novelists, though thoroughly realistic, tended, by its intimate truth to life and its keen human sympathy, to contribute toward the triumph of the new spirit.
The Romantic Movement.—Finally, this latter half of the eighteenth century witnessed the beginnings and progress of a movement to regain for poetry the romantic freedom and wayward beauty of which the classical school had deprived it. This movement, known as the Romantic Movement, began with Thomson, was continued by Gray, Cowper, and Blake, and came to a more or less complete realization in Burns. Burns died four years before the end of the century; and two years after his death the publication of Lyrical Ballads, by Coleridge and Wordsworth, marked the decisive triumph of the new romantic poetry.
The Nineteenth Century: First Period.—The nineteenth century divides itself naturally into two parts, the first extending, roughly, to the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837; the second covering her long reign, 1837-1901. Throughout both the romantic tone prevails, but it is more conspicuous in the earlier period, which, like the romantic age of Eliza1