British literature

From Academic Kids

British literature is literature from the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The largest part of this literature is written in the English language, but there are also separate literatures in the Welsh language, Scottish Gaelic, Scots and other languages. Northern Ireland is the only part of Ireland still part of the United Kingdom and it possesses literature in English, Ulster Scots and Irish. Irish writers have also played an important part in the development of English-language literature.


Old Celtic literature

Literature in the Celtic languages of the islands is the oldest surviving vernacular literature in Europe. The Welsh literary tradition stretches from the 6th century to the 21st century. The oldest Welsh literature does not belong to the territory we know as Wales today, but rather to northern England and southern Scotland. But though it is dated to be from the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries, it has survived only in 13th and 14th century manuscript copies. Irish poetry represents a more or less unbroken tradition from the 6th century to the present day.

Old English literature

Main Article: Anglo-Saxon literature

The earliest form of the English language developed after the settlement of the Saxons and other Germanic tribes in England after the withdrawal of the Romans and is known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon. The most famous work in Old English is the epic poem Beowulf. (The oldest surviving text in English is Caedmon's hymn of creation.) The precise date of the manuscript is debated, but most estimates place it close to AD 1000.

Chronicles contained a range of historical and literary accounts, for example: Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum by Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Late medieval literature in England

Latin literature circulated among the educated classes.

Following the Norman conquest, the development of Anglo-Norman literature in the Anglo-Norman realm introduced literary trends from Continental Europe such as the chanson de geste.

In the later medieval period a new form of English now known as Middle English evolved. This is the earliest form which is comprehensible to modern readers and listeners, albeit not easily.

The most significant Middle English author was the poet Geoffrey Chaucer who was active in the late 14th Century. His main works were The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde.

The multilingual audience for literature in the 14th century can be illustrated by the example of John Gower, who wrote in Latin, Middle English and Anglo-Norman.

Religious literature, such as hagiographies enjoyed popularity.

Women writers such as Marie de France and Julian of Norwich were also active.

Other medieval literatures

For a comparatively small country, Ireland has made a disproportionate contribution to world literature in all its branches, and especially to the other national literatures of the islands. The Irish literature that is best known outside the country is in English, but the Irish language also has the most significant body of written literature, both ancient and recent, in any Celtic language, in addition to a strong oral tradition of legends and poetry.

In Medieval Welsh literature the period before 1100 is known as the period of Y Cynfeirdd ("The earliest poets") or Yr Hengerdd ("The old poetry"). It roughly dates from the birth of the Welsh language until the arrival of the Normans in Wales towards the end of the eleventh century.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae spread Celtic motifs to a wider audience.

The Jersey poet Wace is considered the founder of Jersey literature and contributed to the development of the Arthurian legend in British literature.

Since at least the 14th century, poetry in English has been written in Ireland and by Irish writers abroad. The earliest poem in English by a Welsh poet dates from about 1470.

Among the earliest Lowland Scots literature is Barbour's Brus (14th century). Whyntoun's Kronykil and Blind Harry's Wallace (15th century) From the 13th century much literature based around the Royal Court in Edinburgh and the University of St. Andrews was produced by writers such as Henrysoun, Dunbar, Douglas and Lyndsay.

In the Cornish language Passhyon agan Arloedh (The Passion of our Lord), a poem of 259 eight-line verses written in 1375, is one of the earliest surviving works. The most important work of literature surviving from the Middle Cornish period is An Ordinale Kernewek (The Cornish Ordinalia), a 9000-line religious drama composed around the year 1400. The longest single surviving work of Cornish literature is Bywnans Meriasek (The Life of Meriasek), a play dated 1504, but probably copied from an earlier manuscript.

Early modern English literature to 1660

The sonnet form and other Italian literary influences arrived in English literature. The sonnet was introduced into English by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century.

In the later 16th century English poetry was characterised by elaboration of language and extensive allusion to classical myths. The most important poets of this era include Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney.

The most important literary achievements of the English Renaissance were in drama. William Shakespeare wrote over thirty-five plays in several genres, including tragedy, comedy, history and romance. Other leading playwright of the time included Ben Johnson, and Christopher Marlowe.

At the Reformation the translation of liturgy and Bible into vernacular languages provided new literary models. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible have been influential on the literatures of the islands.

The major poets of the 17th century included John Donne and the other Metaphysical poets, and John Milton, the author of the religious epic Paradise Lost.

English language literature from 1660 to the late 18th century

The position of Poet Laureate was formalised in this period.

The early 18th century is known as the Augustan Age of English literature. The poetry of the time was highly formal, as exemplified by the works of Alexander Pope.

Although the documented history of Irish theatre began at least as early as 1601, the earliest Irish dramatists of note were William Congreve, one of the most interesting writers of Restoration comedies, and Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who were two of the most successful playwrights on the London stage in the 18th century.

The English novel developed during the 18th century, partly in response to an expansion of the middle class reading public. One of the major early works in this genre was Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. The 18th century novel tended to be loosely structured and semi-comic. Major novelists of the middle and later part of the century included Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollett, who was a great influence on Charles Dickens.

Although the epics of Celtic Ireland were written in prose and not verse, most people would probably consider that Irish fiction proper begins in the 18th century with the works of Jonathan Swift (especially Gulliver's Travels) and Oliver Goldsmith (especially The Vicar of Wakefield).

Non English language literatures from the 16th century to the 19th century

As the Norman nobles of Scotland assimilated to indigenous culture they commissioned Scots versions of popular continental romances, for example: Launcelot o the Laik and The Buik o Alexander. In the early 16th century, Gavin Douglas produced a Scots translation of the Aeneid. Chaucerian, classical and French literary language continued to influence Scots literature up until the Reformation.

The earliest datable text in Manx (preserved in 18th century manuscripts), a poetic history of the Isle of Man from the introduction of Christianity, dates to the 16th century at the latest.

The first book to be printed in Welsh was published in 1546. From the Reformation until the 19th century most literature in the Welsh language was religious in character.

The earliest surviving examples of Cornish prose are Pregothow Treger (The Tregear Homilies), a set of 66 sermons translated from English by John Tregear around 1555-1557.

The Book of Common Prayer and Bible were translated into Manx in the 17th and 18th centuries. A tradition of carvals, religious songs or carols, developed. Religious literature was common, but secular writing much rarer.

In Scotland, after the 17th century, anglicisation increased, though Lowland Scots was still spoken by the vast majority of the population. At the time, many of the oral ballads from the borders and the North East were written down. Writers of the period include Robert Sempill (c.1595-1665), Lady Wardlaw and Lady Grizel Baillie.

The first printed work in Manx dates from 1707: a translation of a Prayer Book catechism in English by Bishop Thomas Wilson.

In the Scots-speaking areas of Ulster there was traditionally a considerable demand for the work of Scottish poets, often in locally printed editions. Alexander Montgomerie's The Cherrie and the Slae in 1700, shortly over a decade later an edition of poems by Sir David Lindsay, nine printings of Allan Ramsay's The Gentle shepherd between 1743 and 1793, and an edition of Robert Burns' poetry in 1787, the same year as the Edinburgh edition, followed by reprints in 1789, 1793 and 1800. Among other Scottish poets published in Ulster were James Hogg and Robert Tannahill.

In the 18th century, Scottish writers such as Ramsay, Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott continued to use Lowland Scots. Scott introduced vernacular dialogue to his novels. The Habbie stanza was developed as a poetic form.

The first printed Jèrriais literature appears in the first newspapers following the introduction of the printing press at the end of the 18th century. The earliest identified dated example of printed poetry in Jèrriais is a fragment by Matchi L'Gé (Matthew Le Geyt 1777 - 1849) dated 1795.

Some 60 to 70 volumes of Ulster rhyming weaver poetry were published between 1750 and 1850, the peak being in the decades 1810 to 1840. These weaver poets looked to Scotland for their cultural and literary models and were not simple imitators but clearly inheritors of the same literary tradition following the same poetic and orthographic practices; it is not always immediately possible to distinguish traditional Scots writing from Scotland and Ulster.

The importance of translation in spreading the influence of English literature to other cultures of the islands can be exemplified by the abridged Manx version of Paradise Lost by John Milton published in 1796 by Thomas Christian. The influence also went the other way as Romanticism discovered inspiration in the literatures and legends of the Celtic countries of the islands. The Ossian hoax typifies the growth of this interest.

Increased literacy in rural and outlying areas and wider access to publishing through, for example, local newspapers encouraged regional literary development as the 19th century progressed. Some writers in lesser-used languages and dialects of the islands gained a literary following outside their native regions, for example William Barnes in Dorset, George Métivier (1790-1881) in Guernsey and Robert Pipon Marett in Jersey. George Métivier published Rimes Guernesiaises, a collection of poems in Dgèrnésiais and French in 1831. The poems had first appeared in newspapers from 1813 onward. The first printed anthology of Jèrriais poetry, Rimes Jersiaises, was published in 1865.

Scots was used in the narrative by Ulster novelists such as W. G. Lyttle (1844-1896). Scots also regularly appeared in Ulster newspaper columns.

Scottish authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, William Alexander, George MacDonald and J. M. Barrie also wrote in Lowland Scots or used it in dialogue.

The first major novelist in the Welsh language was Daniel Owen, author of works such as Rhys Lewis (1885) and Enoc Huws (1891).

Edward Faragher (1831-1908) has been considered the last important native writer of Manx. He wrote poetry, reminiscences of his life as a fisherman, and translations of selected Aesop's Fables.

19th century English language literature

The Romantics

Major political and social changes at the end of the eighteenth century, particularly the French Revolution, prompted a new breed of writing now known as Romanticism. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge began the trend for bringing emotionalism and introspection to English literature, with a new concentration on the individual and the common man. The reaction to urbanism and industrialisation prompted poets to explore nature, for example the Lake Poets.

The major "Second generation" Romantic Poets were Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. They flouted social convention and often used poetry as a political voice.

The 19th century novel

At the same time Jane Austen was writing highly polished novels about the life of the landed gentry, seen from a woman's point of view, and wryly focused on practical social issues, especially marriage and money.

Charles Dickens emerged on the literary scene in the 1830s, confirming the trend for serial publication. Dickens wrote vividly about London life and the struggles of the poor, but in a good-humoured fashion which was acceptable to readers of all classes. His early works such as the Pickwick Papers are masterpieces of comedy. Later his works became darker, without losing his genius for caricature.

It was in the Victorian era (1837-1901) that the novel became the leading form of literature in English. Most writers were now more concerned to meet the tastes of a large middle class reading public than to please aristocratic patrons. The best known works of the era include the emotionally powerful works of the Brontë sisters; the satire Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery; the realist novels of George Eliot; and Anthony Trollope's insightful portrayals of the lives of the landowning and professional classes.

An interest in rural matters and the changing social and economic situation of the countryside may be seen in the novels of Thomas Hardy and others.

Literature for children was published during the Victorian period, some of which has become globally well-known, such as the work of Lewis Carroll.

Victorian poets

Leading poetic figures of the Victorian era included Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning (and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning), and Matthew Arnold, whilst multi-disciplinary talents such as John Ruskin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were also famous for their poetry.

In the 19th century, the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault was an extremely popular writer of comedies. However, it was in the last decade of the century that the Irish theatre finally came of age with the emergence of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. All of these writers lived mainly in England and wrote in English.

The Celtic Revival (c. 1890), also known as the Irish Literary Revival, was begun by William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, John M. Synge, Sean O'Casey, James Joyce and others. The Revival stimulated new appreciation of traditional Irish literature. The movement also encouraged the creation of works written in the spirit of Irish culture, as distinct from English culture.

Nonsense verse, such as by Edward Lear, taken with the work of Lewis Carroll, is regarded as a precursor of surrealism.

Anglo-Welsh literature is a term used to describe works written in the English language by Welsh writers, especially if they either have subject matter relating to Wales or (as in the case of Anglo-Welsh poetry in particular) are influenced by the Welsh language in terms of patterns of usage or syntax. It has been recognised as a distinctive entity only since the 20th century. The need for a separate identity for this kind of writing arose because of the parallel development of modern Welsh literature, ie. literature in the Welsh language.

English language literature since 1900

The major lyric poet of the first decades of the 20th century was Thomas Hardy, who concentrated on poetry after the harsh response to his last novel, Jude the Obscure.

The most widely popular writer of the early years of the 20th century was arguably Rudyard Kipling, a highly versatile writer of novels, short stories and poems, often based on his experiences of British ruled India. Kipling was closely associated with imperialism and this has damaged his reputation in more recent times.

From around 1910, the Modernist Movement began to influence English literature. Whereas their Victorian predeccsors had usually been happy to cater to mainstream middle class taste, 20th century writers often felt alienated from it, and responded by writing more intellectually challenging works or by pushing the boundaries of acceptable content.

The major poets of this period included the American born TS Eliot and the Irishman William Butler Yeats. Free verse and other stylistic innovations came to the forefront in this era.

The experiences of the First World War were reflected in the work of war poets such as Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon. Many writers turned away from patriotic and imperialist themes as a result of the war, notably Kipling.

Important novelists between the two World Wars included the Irish writer James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.

Joyce's increasingly complex works included Ulysses, an interpretation of the Odyssey set in Dublin, and culminated in the famously obscure Finnegan's Wake. Lawrence wrote with understanding about the social life of the lower and middle classes, and the personal life of those who could not adapt to the social norms of his time. He attempted to explore human emotions more deeply than his contemporaries and challenged the boundaries of the acceptable treatment of sexual issues in works such as Lady Chatterley's Lover. Virgina Woolf was an influential feminist, and a major stylistic innovator associated with the stream of consciousness technique. Her novels included To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway, and The Waves.

Novelists who wrote in a more traditional style, such as John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett continued to receive great acclaim in the interwar period. At the same time the Georgian poets maintained an more conservative approach to poetry.

The leading poets of the middle and later 20th century included the traditionalist John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and the Northern Irish Catholic Seamus Heaney, who lived in the Republic of Ireland for much of his later life.

Major novelists of the middle and later 20th century included the satirist Evelyn Waugh, William Golding, Grahame Greene and Iris Murdoch.

In drama, the drawing room plays of the post war period were challenged in the 1950s by the Angry Young Men, exemplified by as John Osborne's iconic play Look Back in Anger. Also in the 1950s, the bleak absurdist play Waiting for Godot, by the Southern Irish playwright Samuel Beckett profoundly affected British drama. The theatre of the absurd influenced playwrights of the later decades of the 20th century, including Harold Pinter, whose works are often characterised by menace or claustrophia, and Tom Stoppard. Stoppard's works are however also notable for their high-spirited wit and the great range of intellectual issues which he tackles in different plays.

Non English language literatures since 1900

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Welsh literature began to reflect the way the Welsh language was increasingly becoming a political symbol. Two important literary nationalists were Saunders Lewis and Kate Roberts.

In the early 20th century in Scotland, a renaissance in the use of Lowland Scots occurred, its most vocal figure being Hugh MacDiarmid. Other contemporaries were Douglas Young, Sidney Goodsir Smith, Robert Garioch and Robert McLellan. However, the revival was largely limited to verse and other literature.

The end of the First World War saw a decline in the quantity of poetry published in Jèrriais and Dgèrnésiais in favour of short-story-like newspaper columns in prose. The imported eisteddfod tradition in the Channel Islands encouraged recitation and performance, a tradition that continues today.

Sorley MacLean's work in Scottish Gaelic in the 1930s gave new value to modern literature in that language.

Highly anglicised Lowland Scots is often used in contemporary Scottish fiction, for example, the Edinburgh dialect of Lowland Scots in Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Edwin Morgan is the current Makar (Scottish national poet) and also produces translations of world literature.

Translations are an important feature of the literatures of the regional languages of the islands, for example: Contoyryssyn Ealish ayns Cheer ny Yindyssyn a Manx translation of Alice in Wonderland by Brian Stowell, published in 1990, or the 2004 Scots version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Rab Wilson. Alexander Hutchison has translated the poetry of Catullus into Scots, and in the 1980s Liz Lochhead produced a Scots translation of Tartuffe by Molière. Original literature continues to be promoted by organisations and institutions such as the Eisteddfod or the Mod.

Literary prizes

Recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature from the isles include Rudyard Kipling (1907), George Bernard Shaw (1925), John Galsworthy (1932), T.S. Eliot (1948), Bertrand Russell (1950), Winston Churchill (1953), William Golding (1983), Seamus Heaney (1995) and V. S. Naipaul (2001).

Literary prizes for which writers from the United Kingdom are eligible include:

See also


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