History of English Literature Notes for Subject Specific Exams-Part1


History of English literature particularly for PPSC, FPSC, CSS or any other English specific exam preparation, everyone recommend “Critical history of English Literature” by Dr. B.R Mullik. Especially this book is best for history of literature preparation. But book is lengthy and have some extra information too. If you have less time you cannot learn each thing and everything of this book then you may skip some information, but it is doubtful that may be it is important. You can either get some help from WriteMyEssay4Me or here is a series of short notes of this book. Altogether in the form of key points it includes almost all important information.

Following is the part 1 of the series: This part includes:

  • Anglo Saxon period
  • Anglo Norman period
  • Renaissance Period

Anglo Saxon/ Old- English Period:

Period: 670-1100

  • Angles and Saxons were tribes and also the ancestors of English race.
  • Before they occupied Britain they lived along the coast of Sweden and Denmark.
  • The land they occupied after that was called Engle-land.
  • These tribes kept the British coast in terror when Britain was a Roman province.
  • Tribes had qualities like fearlessness, adventurous and were also very brave.
  • Furthermore they sang songs at their feasts about battles, gods and their ancestral heroes and chiefs.
  • Songs have themes: religion, wars, agriculture.
  • They also embraced Christianity. Thus they took up religious themes.
  • Popular Anglo-saxon king: “Alfred the Great” ruled till 1066.
  • Last Saxon king “Harold” defeated at the battle of Hastings by William (conqueror of Normandy, France).
  • Anglo Saxon language was a branch of Indo-European family of languages.
  • This language was also the base of modern English.


  • Ancient Engle-land started the English poetry.
  • Themes: battles, religion, agricultures, historical background, all sort of references and allusions to great events.
  • Poets:  “Widsith”, “Waldhere”
  • Famous poetry: “Beowolf”/ “fall of the Angles”(adventure tale)
  • Poems: “The Fight at Finnesburg”, “Complaint of Deor”.
  • Religious Poets: “Caedmon”(sang in series the story of fate of man), “Cynewulf”(poem: “Christ”).


  • No break in prose.
  • Prose was religious.
  • Chronicles began in King Alfred time.
  • Prose writers: 2 Pioneers
  • One was “Alfred the Great”( king of Wessex+ anglo saxon king): translated number of Latin chronicles in English.
  • Other one was “Alferic”(priest): wrote sermons.

Five great principles:

  1. Love for personal freedom
  2. Responsiveness to nature
  3. Religion
  4. Love for womanhood
  5. Struggle for glory

Anglo-Norman/ Middle English Period:

Period: 1100-1500

Dark ages: 1400-1500 (no literature was written)

  • Normans who lived in Normandy (France) conquered England.
  • They totally transformed the taste of English rulers.
  • Anglo Saxon lost their importance.
  • Normans brought their artisans, traders and also scholars with them.
  • Anglo Norman had nothing in common with the Anglo Saxon.
  • Court language: French
  • Church Language: Latin
  • French established as natural speech of cultivated and high born.
  • English was somewhere in the background.

Important forms of Middle English period:

 The Romances:

  • Anything that was beyond reality called romances.
  • Romances were notable for their story rather than poetry style
  • Romances borrowed from Latin and French sources.
  • Chief mental recreation of time was drama.
  • Dealt with stories of: King Arthur, The war of Troy, Mythical doings of Charlemenge and Alexander the Great.

The Miracle Plays:

  • Flourished in reign of Henry II to Elizabeth (1154-1603).
  • Miracle plays also called mystery plays.
  • Themes: bible story, creation and fall of man, banishment from Garden of Eden, Old Testament and life of Christ.

Morality Plays:

  • Allegory was the distinguishing mark of morality plays.
  • Protagonist always an abstraction.
  • Characters’ personifications were: friendship, charity, sloth and wickedness.
  • Uniform themes: for mastery of soul of man struggle between powers of good and evil, sacred history.


William Langland:

  • Satiric poet.
  • Famous work: “A Vision of Piers the Plowman” (archaic style).
  • This poem was the classic work of English.
  • It was a satire on corrupt religious practices.
  • He threw lights on the ethical problems of those days.
  • Represented the dissatisfaction of lower and more thinking class of society.
  • He was in favored of feudal system.
  • He decorated the style with allegory.

John Gower:

  • Great stylist and moralist.
  • Initiated the use of English again.
  • Important work: “Confession Amantis” (conversation between poet and divine interpreter).


  • Father of English poetry.
    • Praised by Spenser, Milton, Tennyson and William Morris.
    • Gave the fresh beginning of English poetry.
    • Two fold education as a poet: (i) part of it from French and Italian literature and (ii) part of it came from life.
    • A man of world and affairs.
    • Land mark of the history of English poetry was: “Cabterbury Tales” which was a collection of stories of pilgrims who were going towards the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury.
    • He removed the poetry from the region of Metaphysics and Theology and made it hold as “twere the mirror up to the nature”.
    • He represented the aristocratic middle class.
    • Chaucer’s Successors at Dark age were: Occleve, Lydgate, Hawes, Skelton, Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas. They all did little but copy him.
    • Chaucer works falls in 3 periods:
  • First period:
    • He imitated French models.
    • Famous poem: “Remount of the Rose” (translation of French poem “Le Roman de la Rose”).
    • Elegy: “Book of Duchess”.
    • Shorter poem: “Complaint unto Pity”
  • Second Period:
    • He imitated Italian Literature.
    • Influenced with Dante’s Divine Poetry” and Boccaccio’s poems.
    • Works: “Parliament of Fowls”, “Troilus and Criseyde”, “Story of Griselda” and “The House of Fame”.
  • Third Period:
    • It was called the English period.
    • Threw of foreign influences.
    • First time use of heroic couplet.
    • Works: “Legend of Good Woman” and “The Canterbury Tales”.

The Renaissance Period:

Period: 1500-1600

  • This period also called: “Age of Shakespeare”, “Age of Transition” and “Elizabethan period”.
  • Renaissance means rebirth.
  • It was a movement began in Italy in 15th century.
  • There was a revival of learning at this age.
  • Revival of Greek Literature.
  • Fall of Constantinople 1453 A.D.
  • Introduced new art of printing.
  • Many discoveries were done:
    • Vascoda Gama circumnavigated Earth
    • Columbus___ America
    • Copernicus___ Solar system
  • Truth was only authority.
  • Emphasis on Humanism:
    • Movement started in Italy in 14th century by Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.
    • It means man’s concern himself as an object of contemplation.
    • Focused on mankind.
    • Aspects of Humanism:
      • (i) Revival of Ancient Greek’s Classical antiquity.
      • Sir Thomas Moore: first English man (Greek influence), “Utopia” written in Latin.
      • Sir Philip Sidney: “Defence of Poesie”.
      • (ii) Discovery of External universe.
      • Focused on: Individuality, uniqueness, problems of human personality, qualities of man.
      • Rise of literary form; Essay by Bacon.
      • Shakespeare did Humanism to perfection.
      • Lyrical poetry: problems of death, death, decay, transitoriness of life.
      • (iii) Enhanced sensitiveness to formal beauty + aesthetic sense.
      • Humanism was that men came to be regarded as responsible for their actions.

Elizabethan Poetry:

  • Reflection of discovery, enthusiasm, excitement and freshness.
    • Characteristic: imagery
    • First volume: “Tottle’s Miscellany” by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Earl of Surrey in Petrarcan model.
    • Thomas Sackville: “Mirror of Magistrates”.
    • Sir Philip Sidney: soldier, courtier and poet.
      • Ideal Elizabethan.
      • Especially known as “Jewel of Elizabethan crown”.
      •  Poems: “Arcadia” and “Apology of Poetrie”.
      • He written also “Astrophel and Stella”. In this it celebrated history of his love Penelope Devereux sister of earl of Essex. It came to a sad end due to the intervention of Queen Elizabeth.
    • Spenser:
      • Poet of chivalry and medieval allegory.
      • Charles Lamb remarked Spenser as “Poets Poet”.
      • Greatest contribution: Spenserian stanza.
      • Works: “Faerie Queene” (allegory), “Shephard’s Calendar” (pastoral poem), “Astrophel” (elegy +death of Sidney).
      • Melodious verse: “Four Hyms”.
      • “Amoretti”: (88 sonnets) described for his love Elizabeth Boyle (married 1594).
      • Marriage Hymn: “Epithalamion”.
      • Spenserian stanza was used by Thomson in “The Castle of Indolence”, by Keats “the Eve of St. Agnes”, by Shelley in “The Revolt of Islam” and by Byron in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”.

Elizabethan Prose:

  • Style: decorative expression and flowery style.
    • Main prose writers are following:
    • Jhon Lyly:
      • “Euphues”.
      • Its purpose was to instruct the courtiers and gentlemen how to live so that people should knew the attributes of ideal person.
    • Sidney:
      • Highly poetical and exhaustive style.
      • Poem: “Arcadia”.
      • Full of pathetic fallacy.
    • Malory:
      • Pastoral romance: “Morte de Arthur”.
    • Richard Hakulyt:
      • Poem: “Voyages”.

Elizabethan Drama:

  • Memorable achievement in drama was done in this period.
    • Development of Latin drama study.
    • There was growth practice of Latin plays by Terence, Plautus and Seneca.
    • Performances were done by amateur actors and students.
    • Educated class was in contact with high developed drama.
    • In mid-16th century original attempts were made to write original plays of English on Latin model.
    • First two comedies: Nicholas Udall’s “Ralph Roister Doister” and John Still’s “Gurton’s Needle”.
    • First tragedy: Thomas Sackville’s “Gorbuduc or Ferrex and Porrex”.

University Wits:

It was secondly this period Elizabethan drama. Following were the university wits of Elizabethan period.

  • Lyly:
    • Work: “Endymion”.
    • Mythological and pastoral plays were also written.
    • Furthermore he wrote prose intermingled with verse.
  • George Peele:
    • Actor and writer.
    • “The Arraignment of Paris” (eulogy of Queen Elizabeth).
  • Thomas Kyd:
    • First work: “Spanish Tragedy”.
    • Introduced also “blood and thunder” element in drama.
  • Robert Greene:
    • Lived a most dissolute life.
    • Finally he died in distress and debt.
    • Plays: “Orlando Furioso”, “Friar Bacon” and “Friar Bungay”.
  • Christopher Marlowe:
    • Central sun of the university wits.
    • Made blank verse flexible.
    • Called as “Father of English dramatic poetry”.
    • Also gave coherence and unity to drama.
    • Raised subject matter to a higher level.
    • Works: All tragedies
      • “Tamburlaine”, “Tragical History of Doctor Faustus”, “The Jew of Malta” and Edward II.


  • William Shakespeare (1564-1616) also known as “father of English drama”. Shakespeare had no proper education but he undergone proper training first as an actor, second as a reviser of old plays and last as an independent dramatist. However romantic drama reached its climax through him. He was also from Elizabethan era. Furthermore he was very imaginative and sympathetic.
    • He wrote: 154 sonnets, 37 plays.
    • Shakespeare also wrote no dramatic poetry____ “Venice  and Adonis” The Rape of Lucrece”
    • He worked as a dramatist for 24 years.
    • His works divided into mainly 4 periods and these are following:
    • (i) 1577-93:
      • Firstly Shakespeare period included early experimental works.
      • Revision of old plays had also being done in this period.
      • Famous works are following:
      • First comedies: “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, “The Comedy of Error”, “A Midsummer night’s Dream”.
      • First chronicle play: “Richard III”.
      • Youthful tragedy: “Romeo and Juliet”.
    • (ii) 1594-1600:
      • Secondly, this period was belonged to great comedies and chronicle plays.
      • Famous works: “ The Merchant of Venice”, “As You Like It”, “Much Ado About Nothing”, “Twelfth Night”, “Richard II”, “King john”.
    • (iii) 1601-1608:
      • Thirdly, this period was belonged to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies or bitter comedies.
      • Showed darker side of human experience and also destructive passions.
      • It emphasized on evil.
      • Famous works: “Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “Othello”, “King Lear”, “Antony and Cleopetra”, “Troilus and Cressida”.
    • (iv) 1608-1612:
      • Last 4th period belonged to later comedies or dramatic romances.
      • like previously period tragic passions still played their part in fourth period also.
      • Finally evil was now in controlled and conquered by good.
      • Also declined in power of expression and thought.
      • Famous works: “Cymbeline”, “The Tempest”, and “The Winter’s Tale”.

Ben Johnson:

  • Unlike of Shakespeare.
  • Mainly writer of comedies.
  • Used “unities of time” along with “unities of place”.
  • Also introduced humors.
  • Works: “Volpone” was a satirical study of avarice on the heroic scale. “The Silent Woman” was written in a lighter mood. “The Alchemist” was the most brilliant comedy .

In the next article which is the history of English Literature part II, we will going to discuss the key points of 17th Century which is also known as “Puritan Age” and “Restoration Age”. These ages have many restrictions on enjoyment of public especially on theatres.

Continue to Part II(17th century) in next article.

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