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A History Of English Literature

"A little knowledge of the world is a dangerous thing, especially in literature." (Endymion by Benjamin Disraeli)

Westminster Abbey, home of Poet's Corner

The most influential book in English literature is The Bible. And yet as a keen first year student studying English at university in the 1980s, I soon realised that The Bible was off limits. When I added a copy of The Bible to a pile of other books I was required to buy for my course, there were raised eyebrows. "You won't find that on any reading list" was the comment from a rather snooty assistant in the university bookshop. He was right though. The most influential book in English literature is not read on any literature course. The Bible is considered different, something other than "normal" literature, too special to be treated in the same way. For many hundreds of years general reading of The Bible was not permitted. Even when reading was possible, it was above the kind of discussion that took place with other writing. It seems to me that the history of English literature is best understood as a secular exploration of a closed book. Secular literature was ordinary enough for people to argue about and explore within. This is a story of a literature that made a virtue of being unimportant, and perhaps lost something when it did achieve importance.


So to begin this short history, the origins of what we might call English literature lie in a pre-Roman spoken culture. Writing did not exist, though poetry almost certainly did. Unable to record anything in writing, people used poetic rhythms and patterns as an aid to memory. No doubt the patterns of poetry became enjoyable for their own sake, and a great reverence surrounded information considered important enough to be preserved in this way. It is clear from the way poetry was treated in largely pre-literate societies during recorded history, that poets served almost as holy men. Britain's oral culture largely came to an end when the Romans invaded in 43AD. Roman society introduced the revolution of writing, and in England old oral traditions were largely suppressed, although as Irish poets, Welsh preachers, and Dylan Thomas were later to illustrate, echoes of the old spoken cultures were to survive more strongly in the west.



Anglo Saxon burial mounds at Sutton Hoo

The Romans were not a particularly artistic people. Although they brought Britain into written history, Britannia was a Roman province and had no national literature. When the Romans left early in the fifth century, subsequent Saxon invasions created a society that generally had little time for learning and literacy. Nevertheless the Anglo Saxon period produced a story known as Beowulf, written some time between the eighth and eleventh centuries. It tells of a great warrior who fights battle after battle, until he finally finds a monster he cannot defeat. Beowulf's will eventually meets the will of what we might call fate, known in those days as "wyrd". There was certainly a sense of spiritual searching in Beowulf. This searching seems pagan in nature, but already there might be Christian elements. Andrew Sanders comments on this in The Short Oxford History of English Literature. Talking of Beowulf's final instructions for his pagan burial beneath a memorial mound, Sanders says: "The last lines of Beowulf invoke a pre-Christian spectacle, but the poem's insistent stress on morality and the determining nature of wyrd (fate) might have equally conveyed to a Christian audience a message of heroic submission to the just commands of a benevolent but almighty God" (P22).





Southwark Cathedral

The story of Beowulf was written at the time when pagan Saxon traditions were giving way to Christianity. St Augustine had arrived on a Thanet beach in 597AD, and the influence of Christianity was spreading rapidly. The burial mounds for Anglo Saxon kings at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, created between 590AD and 630AD, reveal a combination of pagan and Christian religious observance, the country making its religious transition at this time. Christianity, with its hidden Bible, became dominant, and made great efforts to maintain a monopoly on what is considered sacred. But already there were people trying to break down those barriers. The most lasting work of literature to emerge from medieval England, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, told the story of a group of people on a pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury. Chaucer's fourteenth century pilgrims went on a spiritual journey told in every day English. On their journey they were searching for something sacred, but found the sacred and profane existing together. The sacred was not, like a hidden Bible, confined to some exclusive place. In fact there's a little joke that makes this point right at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales. Spring time is vividly described. At this time of sunshine and rising sap, a young man's fancy turns to, well, pilgrimages. As Terry Jones says: "Chaucer cheerfully equates the urge to go on pilgrimage with the natural urges of sex and love" (Who Murdered Chaucer P188). Because of such cheery notions, Jones thinks Chaucer may well have been murdered by the agents of Henry IV and the fearsome Archbishop Arundel.


Although Chaucer is now the best remembered medieval English writer, other leading writers of his time were making similar religious explorations - or at least they were until Henry IV and Archbishop Arundel came along. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by an anonymous fourteenth century author, tells the story of a knight who tries and fails to live up to the virtues of knighthood. Knighthood was a combination of a secular military life, and a life of religion. In writing about a knight, the Gawain poet was automatically writing about a man whose life straddled the religious and secular worlds. Chaucer's contemporaries William Langland and John Gower were also profoundly religious writers, expressing their views in secular literature. John Gower, the "moral Gower" as Chaucer called him, was an earnest writer, highly respected during his lifetime. He produced long surveys of mankind's corrupt state and suggested universal repentance and prayers to the Virgin Mary as a remedy. In the 1380s he relaxed a little with The Confessio Amantis. This book was about the control not of society, but of oneself, and is not without humour. The book is an attempt to take religious ideas and apply them to problems of everyday life. William Langland, meanwhile, clearly knew the Vulgate Bible very well. The Vulgate was the first complete English translation of The Bible, undertaken in the 1380s by followers of John Wycliffe, an English theologian, and early agitator for Church reform. Langland's The Vision of Piers Plowman, written between the 1360s and the early 1380s, is one of the earliest secular responses to a reading of The Bible in English. Piers is a Christ-like figure trying to come to terms with the religious and social life of his times. Piers Plowman is remarkable not least for the way Latin ceremonial church phrases sit side by side with ordinary secular English. Up until this time secular English wouldn't have been considered good enough to rub shoulders with biblical Latin. The fact that they sit together in Piers Plowman illustrates the beginnings of a new access to a once hidden text.



The Globe Theatre

The fifteenth century was to see another revolutionary innovation, the printing press. In 1476 Joseph Caxton established England's first printing press at Westminster. Caxton worked closely with Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote Morte d'Arthur 1469 - 1470. This story of King Arthur was, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, about a character straddling the religious and secular worlds. Arthur was half warrior, half priest, and his home at Camelot was half castle and half church. This was a time when, fittingly, the border between a formerly closed religious world and the secular world was becoming vaguer. More efficient printing meant that traditional restrictions on the reading of The Bible became more difficult to impose. Soon The Bible was once again being translated, notably by William Tyndale, and distributed in ever greater numbers. 1526 saw Tyndale's translations of The Bible arriving in England. In 1546 German theologian Martin Luther started the Protestant movement, which actively encouraged people to read The Bible. However, then as now, The Bible was still considered different and could not be discussed in the same way as other books, no matter how respected. In fact when protestants began encouraging people to read The Bible, the effect in some ways was actually to reduce freedom of thought. Many must have felt intimidated in their personal responsibility to find their own salvation in The Bible, and played safe by reading the book in a very literal way. When, in 1543, Copernicus first published his idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun, the Catholic Church initially took no notice. But Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, jumped up and down and ranted on about how it was the Sun and not the Earth which Joshua commanded to stand still. The Bible, even when people were allowed to read it, was still not a place for doubts, questions or explorations. This kind of reading was simply not permitted. Seemingly with the future of a reader's soul at stake the risk was too great. Secular literature remained the only place where true discussion of spiritual dilemmas could take place.

It was around this time that theatre in England began to emerge from church ritual. Although a great dramatic tradition had existed in ancient Greece, Church authorities had vigorously suppressed theatre since the fall of the Roman Empire. Ironically drama in England had slowly been re-evolving since the thirteenth century, through religious ritual. The Feast of Corpus Christi, first observed in England in 1318 required the sacrament to be carried around the streets of a parish. In larger towns the procession would have been accompanied by guildsmen representing various trades. Street theatre organised by these guilds started to become popular. Drama related to The Bible was acted out on moveable platforms. These plays have been described as books for the illiterate. In the hands of secular guilds, drama once again became a secular way into The Bible . Eventually drama began to move away from Christian stories. This happened early in the sixteenth century when intolerance and censorship led to the banning of all plays which conflicted with authorised religion. Drama was thus pushed into turning away from overtly religious subjects. By the late sixteenth century a drama ironically liberated by religious intolerance had evolved into the theatre of Marlowe and Shakespeare.



Shelley's house in Marlow on Thames

Towards the end of Shakespeare's life King James supported a new translation of The Bible. The "Authorised" or "King James" version of 1611 was in the words of Andrew Sanders "the single most influential work of English prose" (Short Oxford History of English Literature P191). And yet even with the King James version widely available, The Bible, as before, remained in its own little box. The Bible would go on to become the world's best selling book, left poignantly in lonely motel rooms and in cabinets beside hospital beds. But this ubiquity continued to exist alongside exclusivity. It was a case of being able to look but not touch. The Bible remained closed off, which meant that literature was still the only place where people were able to explore much of what lay within it. The seventeenth century saw Satan and God arguing and debating in Milton's Paradise Lost. In 1678 John Bunyon could write of his own personal pilgrimage in A Pilgrim's Progress. Bunyon clearly knew The Bible back to front, but when Bunyon came to think about the directions of his own journey through life, it was a secular work that gave him the freedom to do so. In his "Apology" for The Pilgrim's Progress Bunyon describes the mixed feelings that people had about his work. Some readers thought he should stop being so metaphorical and say what he wanted to say. But then Bunyon points out that metaphorical aspects of his book which some readers criticise are actually features of a book that no one would dare criticise:


Solidity, indeed becomes the pen

Of Him that writeth things divine to men:

But must I needs want solidness, because

By metaphors I speak; was not God's laws,

His Gospel-laws in olden time held forth

By types , shadows and metaphors? Yet loth

will any sober man be to find fault

With them, lest he be found for to assault

The highest wisdom


Bunyon makes it clear that "Dark clouds bring waters, when the bright bring none." What is apparently worthwhile and worthless must both be accepted. Bunyon's frivolous little secular work with, apparently, few fans and many detractors, is in a sense more useful than a book which can never be criticised.


The eighteenth century was to see the first novelist in Daniel Defoe. Puritan self confession narratives evolved into fictional moral tracts, which became what we now know as the novel. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, was one of the first of this new genre. Soon novels moved away from morality tales, a development encouraged most obviously by cheeky eighteenth century novelists Henry Fielding and Lawrence Stearne. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, literature was becoming an overt alternative to religion. The nineteenth century atheist writer Percy Bysshe Shelley declared that "the poet is priest and prophet to a world which can move beyond religion and magic".


The Boathouse at Greenway, home of Agatha Christie

And it was at this point that English literature perhaps began to suffer the fate that had befallen The Bible many centuries previously. Adam Smith, best remembered for his works on economics, pioneered the study of English literature at Edinburgh University in the 1740s. His successor Hugh Blair began a course in rhetoric and "belles-lettres" at Edinburgh in 1760, and was appointed to the new Regius Chair in 1762. This was in effect the first professorship ever in English literature. By the nineteenth century, the poet and school's inspector Matthew Arnold had decided in a famous essay called Culture and Anarchy that literature could work with religion as a "social cement". With Arnold's enthusiastic support "English literature" really came into being as an adjunct to official religion. Authors are provided with memorials in Westminster Abbey, and in Southwark Cathedral, where John Gower is buried, and where stained glass windows commemorate the plays of Shakespeare. All these memorials symbolise powerfully the way literature has taken its place alongside official religion, just as Matthew Arnold intended. William Blake saw The Bible as the work of poets, whose work had been usurped by the Church for its own purposes. He feared a similar fate for the poetry of his own time, and the influential views of Matthew Arnold, and others like him, meant that those fears in many ways became reality. A sad result of official veneration was to make literature, by definition, difficult, the opposite of "easy reading". Hard labour was required if English was to seem a respectable academic subject, and in this way literature was in many ways taken away from the people it was written for. Literature became something different, set apart, just like The Bible it had once served to replace in people's lives. It is true that in the twentieth century literature continued its role as a secular outlet for spiritual exploration, in the work of TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, James Joyce, and many others. It also served to open up and explore the ramifications of the huge changes brought about by the closed world of science. Thomas Hardy, who read Darwin's Origin of Species when it first appeared in 1859, and George Eliot who published Mill on the Floss in the same year, are good examples. And yet English literature in its accepted forms was itself becoming shut away by the very official veneration that aimed to value and preserve it. A new literature had to be found. This literature would have to fulfill the need for spiritual exploration, and yet not be so special that it was excluded from people's everyday experience. I might suggest Agatha Christie. Her long career from the 1920s to the 1970s produced books that sold in their billions. If novels arose out of religious moral tracts, then her detective stories provide a fascinating development. A Christie novel offers a clear and comforting picture of morality where a supreme, seemingly all-seeing detective will always solve the crime. And yet alongside this reassurance there is an accurate reflection of the true complexity of human morality where the innocent and the guilty are almost interchangeable. There are the hugely popular novels of P.G. Wodehouse who wrote so entertainingly of the all knowing, all seeing butler Jeeves. You could also consider the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling which both disguise complex religious themes in chidren's stories.



Interior of Dylan Thomas's study at Laugharne

Perhaps, however, the new literature that people needed was found most powerfully in the late twentieth century in popular music, which ironically takes us back to the oral tradition where this history started. In my view Dylan Thomas was the last great poet. Until his death in 1953 poetry could be considered an influential part of popular culture. In the nineteenth century the poems of Tennyson and Byron sold in huge quantities, and Byron in particular was treated almost as rock stars are today. Dylan Thomas marks the very end of the age of poetry as it is known in the hallowed halls of English literature. This watershed is indicated by the fact that Thomas did not make money from selling books, but from the sale of records, particularly in America. Following his death it was record sales that provided for his wife and children. Historically Dylan Thomas stood on a border line. He died at the end of 1953. In 1954 Bill Haley and the Comets released Rock Around The Clock, marking the beginning of a style of popular song writing that would lead to the work of artists such as Bob Dylan or the Beatles. The Beatles for me were the greatest poets of my youth, and in large part this was because they were not the poets I was taught at school. They were special, and yet they were frivolous pop music, and this divine balance carried me along. As Chaucer described in his Canterbury Tales the sacred and the profane are not separate states: they exist together.