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What is English Literature? -


History & Definition
Chapter 14 / Lesson 18 Transcript

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

English literature is hundreds of years old and continues to be one of the most popular courses of
study in high schools and universities around the world. Learn about what defines English
literature and a few of its greatest writers.

What Is English Literature?


English literature is the study of literature written in the English language. The writers do not
necessarily have to be from England but can be from all over the world. It includes some of
history's most famous writers: James Joyce (Ireland), William Shakespeare (England), Mark
Twain (United States), Arthur Conan Doyle (Scotland), Dylan Thomas (Wales), and Vladimir
Nabokov (Russia), just to name a few.

English literature dates back more than five centuries. It represents writers not only from different
parts of the world and time periods, but it covers every major genre and style of writing as well.

Why Is Studying English Literature Important?


Okay, so there are about a thousand things for a teenager, or even a 50-year-old adult, to do in
today's wired, 500-channel cable television world. We can watch feature films on our phones or
hop in a car and drive a hundred miles away in just a couple of hours. That's not how things used
to be. People used to read literature for entertainment because even just 50 years ago, there
were simply not many readily available entertainment options.

Despite these other entertainment options, English literature remains popular. It is time-tested
and well worn for a reason. English literature deals with universal themes and values that help us
grow in our everyday lives. It also teaches us about different time periods and faraway places.

History of English Literature


It's difficult to discuss such a broad range of work in just a short lesson, so let's take a look at the
first three major periods of English literature.

Middle English Literature (1150-1485)


Some scholars would argue that the Middle English period started as early as the 1100s.
However, because the English language did not evolve into a dialect we could understand today
until about the 12th century, 1150 seems like a better place to start.

By far, the most popular and influential writer during this period was Geoffrey Chaucer. He was
considered the first great English poet. His works encompassed a variety of tones, styles, and
genres. One of his most renowned works, The Canterbury Tales, is an epic story of pilgrims
playfully pitted against each other in a storytelling contest. Each pilgrim's tale takes on a narrative
of its own. The poem is structured as a frame narrative, or 'story within a story:' a literary device
that would go on to become one of the most popular storytelling techniques in the history of
literature.

In the middle part of 12th century, there was a revival in alliterative poetry, or poetry that uses
alliteration as its key literary device. Perhaps the most popular example was Pearl, Purity and
Patience, a grouping of poems written by an unknown poet. A fourth work found in the same
manuscript and presumed to be of the same author, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is one
of the finest Arthurian romances from this time period. Towards the end of the 14th century, a
philosopher named John Wycliffe translated the first complete vernacular (common people's
dialect) English version of the Bible.

Other popular poets from this period include William Langland, Sir Thomas Malory, and John
Gower.

16th Century Renaissance (1485-1603)


First off, the word 'renaissance' means revival or rebirth. The Renaissance period marks the true
start of a major artistic movement throughout Europe. We can attribute this rebirth in part to the
invention of the printing press, which took the written word to a new mass-produced territory. The
written word became king of the English-speaking world during this era.

Without a doubt, the most famous writer from this time period, if not the most famous writer ever,
was William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was both a poet and a playwright who penned over 30
plays and 150 sonnets, many of which we have read in books, seen on stage, and watched in
movie theaters. Of course, these include classics including Romeo and Juliet, King Lear,
and Hamlet. If you're wondering what defines a great artist, just think about the test of time:
Shakespeare died in 1616, and we're still adapting his stage plays and reading his words almost
400 years later.

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You are viewing lesson 18 in chapter 14 of the course:

SAT Literature: Help and Review


14 chapters | 201 lessons
Ch 1. Reading and Understanding Essays in...
Ch 2. Interpreting Theme & Meaning in...
Ch 3. Figurative Language in Literature:...
Ch 4. Language and Sentence Structure: Help...
Ch 5. Writing Structure & Organization in...
Ch 6. Literary Genres: Help and...
Ch 7. Poetry Terms & Types: Help and...
Ch 8. Drama: Help and Review
Ch 9. Literary Periods in American History:...
Ch 10. Analyzing American Literature: Help...
Ch 11. Prominent Plays & Playwrights: Help...
Ch 12. American Novelists: Help and...
Ch 13. Periods in English Literature: Help...
Ch 14. Authors & Works from English Literature:...

Beowulf: Story, Characters, and Old English13:51

Introduction to Chaucer: Middle English and the Canterbury Tales14:53

Introduction to Shakespeare: Life and Works16:45

Shakespeare's Sonnets: Reading and Interpreting the Major Poems14:38

Introduction to John Milton: Life and Major Poems12:08

Introduction to Alexander Pope: Biography, Essays and Poems12:53

Emily and Charlotte Bronte: Sisters and Authors6:29

Jane Eyre: Summary, Characters and Analysis8:01

Jane Austen: Biography and Major Novels12:02

Pride and Prejudice: Plot and Character Analysis9:45

Lord Byron: Poems and Biography12:32

John Keats: Poems, Biography and Quotes9:24

Introduction to Charles Dickens: Works, Style, and Influence12:48


Introduction to George Bernard Shaw: Life and Major Plays12:41

Introduction to T.S. Eliot: Author Background, Works, and Style7:28

John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism, Quotes and Theory9:40

Dryden's Mac Flecknoe: Summary & Analysis6:12

What is English Literature? - History & Definition6:44

7:36

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Go toAuthors & Works from English Literature: Help and Review

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