English literature is considered to be one of the richest literatures in the world. It is the literature of a great nation inhabiting an island in the west of Europe. It goes without saying that literature is the reflection of nation and society, so changes which have come about from the early to the modern times have influenced English literature in a variety of ways. Thus, English literature has passed through definite periods: the Anglo-Saxon, or Old English period, Middle English and Modern English. Naturally, each of them has its own characteristic features, which are to be compared in four areas: genre/type of literature, literary techniques and styles, important themes and patterns, and heroes and characters.
Genre/Type of Literature
Anglo-Saxon literature was composed between 650 and 1100, and it developed both in poetry and in prose. However, poetry was considered to be a dominant genre, and there were two types of poems: heroic and Christian ones. Heroic poetry was influenced by pre-Christian Germanic Myth. Among the most popular genres were the epic (Beowulf), dream vision (The Dream of the Rood by Cynewulf), riddle, gnomic poetry, charms and other verses. Speaking about prose, it needs to be mentioned that it was written in Latin before the reign of King Alfred, who translated the most significant Latin texts and encouraged writing in the vernacular language.
Middle English literature covers the medieval period, and it was composed in 1100 to 1500. The literature of this period was influenced by the domination of French culture, which took place after the Norman Conquest. The early Middle English period was characterized by the further development of poetry. The good examples were the Orrmulum (verse translation of the Gospels) and The Owl and the Nightingale (the first example of a debate poem). The prose of this time continued the tradition of the Old English period (saints’ lives genre). Among completely new genres in literature were the romance, the fabliau, the moral tale and the animal verse. The dream vision was also still popular. Geoffrey Chaucer developed the genre of frame story and moral tale.
Modern English period covers time from 1450 till now, and it is subdivided into several ages. Each of them has its own characteristics and dominating genres. For example, in the Tudors and Elizabethan era, poetry was represented by epic poems, history verses and sonnets. In the Jacobean Age, drama was of the major importance (Shakespeare) as well as metaphysical poetry (Donne and George Herbert), political tracts (John Milton) and prose (translation of the King James Version of the Bible). The 18th century was characterized by the development of satire prose (Jonathan Swift), polite literature, and romantic poetry. The Victorian era is famous for the domination of novel (Charles Dickens, Robert Luis Stevenson, George Elliott and many others), nonfiction, and poetry. And finally, present-day literature continues the tradition of the literary genres and writers who worked during the early 20th century and the postwar era.
Summing up, the development of English genres is a complicated process and changes in it are caused by the changes in society, and while in Old English period genres were very few and simple, today there is a great variety of them ,and the majority of genres originated during the development of Middle English and Modern English literature.
Literary Techniques and Styles
Another area for comparison of different periods of literature is the literary techniques and styles. Anglo-Saxon poetry was characterized by the oral tradition and unique verse forms. It usually had caesura, alliteration, four-beat rhythm and repetition. In many poems, writers used metaphors alongside with the common usage of kennings (literary tropes that employs figurative language in place of a concrete noun). Literature of that period was also characterized by alliterative verse (alliteration as the main device to unify lines of poetry).
In the Middle English literature, the situation changes, and continental line forms based on rhyme and metrics replaced the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse and it was revived only in the 14th century. Writers continued to use vivid metaphors, epithets and kennings. Geoffrey Chaucer used the continental accentual-syllabic meter, the alternative style to the alliterative meter. Chaucer invented the rhyme royal and used the five-stress line. Later this poetic form became one of the most typical for English literature. He also influenced the development of the satire in Modern English literature. In the 15th century, poetry was mostly satiric.
The development of Modern English literature is marked by the usage of various literary styles. For example, during the Renaissance age, writers began to write dramas in verse and use unexpected metaphors in the metaphysical poetry. In Victorian period, poetry became simpler and easier to understand with the dramatic monologues. At that time, novels became popular for the first time.
Important Themes and Patterns
Speaking about the major themes during the different periods of English literature, one should mention that the themes changed with the development of society, changing people’s worldview and ideology, development of the religion, science and other aspects of life.
The main themes of Anglo-Saxon literature were connected with the strong belief in fate. Later, the literature was influenced by the correlation between the church and pagan worlds, so writers expressed religious faith and gave moral instruction through literary works. Besides, they admired heroic warriors and wrote about them.
This tendency was continued in the Middle English literature, and it instructed the illiterate masses in religion and morals. The prominent theme was religious devotion and person’s morality. The point is that church instructed people through the morality and plays and made all possible for illiterate people to be able to see and hear the literature.
During the Renaissance, the world view shifts from religion to human life on earth, and the most popular themes were the development of human potential and different aspects of love (constant love, timeless love, unrequited love, etc). In the Victorian age, there was a conflict between the powerful and poor people, so shocking life of poor people was described to appeal to power for reformation; country life was opposed to city life. Modern period is characterized by the description of loneliness, loss of traditions and absolute values; fantasy is mixed with nonfiction. Contemporary literature tends to display the relations between people, it interprets the past in different ways and tries to escape the life, that dull human spirit.
Heroes and Characters
As Anglo-Saxons’ life was centered on clans that ruled themselves, people believed in fate and portrayed believers in their writings. Besides, as it was mentioned, people were warriors, so they used to write about strong and heroic warriors who prevailed in battle.
With the introduction of Christianity, religion became the dominant theme, and the church wanted all people to read literature and become educated. Writers usually depicted masses and did it very vividly. As an example, one may still single out the same Chaucer, who managed to portray people from different strata of society.
The representatives of the Renaissance focused their attention upon human and the problem of human existence or purpose of living. As one of the main themes was love, writers portrays lovers either happy or not.
In Neoclassical Period, writers described individuals and the way their minds were organized. They poked fun at human’s foolishness in order to change something in human behavior. In Victorian period, the main characters were the heroines in danger and aristocratic villains.
Again, all was changing with the changing of society and peoples concerns and beliefs.
It is obvious that English literature is rich and abundant. To my way of thinking, the periods of its development are very difficult to compare and contrast as they constitute the whole and are influenced by the changes in history and society which differed in different times. It goes without saying that Modern English literature, namely contemporary one, reflects all the aspects that took place during the whole literature development, including the Old English and Middle English periods.