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(600 – 1100)
English Literature I
• In English, the first signs of oral literature tend to
have three kinds of subject matter – religion, war,
and the trials of daily life – all of which continues
as themes of a great deal of writing.
• The Old English Language, also called AngloSaxon, was the earliest form of English. It is
difficult to give exact dates for the rise and
development of a language, because it does not
change suddenly; but perhaps it is true to say
that Old English was spoken from about A.D. 600
to about 1100.
• Caedmon´s Hymn
→ The first fragment of
literature known.
It dates from the late 7th century (around 670).
The story goes that Caedmon was a lay worker on
the state of the monastery of Whitby, in
Northumbria, and the voice of God came to him.
His hymn is therefore the first song of praise in
English culture, and the first Christian religious
poem in English, although many Latin hymns were
known at the time.
It was preserved by the monks of Whitby, and it is
not certain whether the few lines which have
survived through the ages are the complete hymn
or not.
• Christian monks and nuns were, in effect, the guardians
of culture.
• The most of the native English culture they preserved is
not in Latin, the language of the church, but in Old
English, the language of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.
• It is the voice of everyday people, rather than of a selfconsciuous “artist”, that we hear in Caedmon´s Hymn,
and in such texts as Deor´s Lament or The Seafarer.
These reflect ordinary human experience and are told
in the first person. They make the reader or hearer
relate directly with the narratorial “I”, and frequently
contain intertextual references to religious texts.
Figurative Language
• Old English poetry is characterised
by a number of poetic tropes
which enable a writer to describe
things indirectly and which require
a reader imaginatively to
construct their meaning. The most
widespread of these figurative
descriptions are what are known
as kennings, which often occur in
• Beowulf → The greatest Old
English poem.
• Belongs to the 7th century.
• It is a story of about 3,000 lines,
and it is the first English epic.
• The people and the setting are
both Germanic.
• The poem recalls a shared heroic
past, somewhere in the general
consciousness of the audience
who would hear it.
• The name of its author is
• Beowulf is about Hrothgar, King of the Danes,
and about a brave young man, Beowulf, from
southern Sweden, who goes to help him.
• Hrothgar is in trouble. His great hall, called
Heorot, is visited at night by a terrible
creature, Grendel, which lives in a lake and
comes to kill and eat Hrothgar´s men. One
night Beowulf waits secretly for this thing,
attacks it, and in a fierce fight pulls its arm off.
It manages to reach the lake again, but dies
there. Then its mother comes to the hall in
search of revenge, and the attacks begin
again. Beowulf follows her to the bottom of
the lake and kills her there.
• In later days, Beowulf, now king of his people,
has to defend his country against a firebreathing creature. He kills the animal but is
badly wounded in the fight, and dies.
• The poem ends with a sorrowful description
of Beowulf´s funeral fire.
• Beowulf (about 1000) stands out as a poem which
makes extensive use of figurative language. There are
over one thousand compounds in the poem, totalling
one-third of all the words in the text. Many of these
compounds are kennings.
• The word “to ken” is still used in many Scottish and
Northern English dialects, meaning “to know”.
• In the lines of Beowulf, each half-line has two main
beats. There is no rhyme. Instead, each half-line is
joined to the other by alliteration (middes/maerne;
haeleth/hiofend/hlaford; beorge/bael;
wigend/weccan/wudu; sweart/swiothle/swogende).
The most interesting piece of prose is
the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the main
literary source of Anglo-Saxon history,
an early history of the country.
There are, in fact, several chronicles,
belonging to different cities.
King Alfred (849 – 901) had a great
influence on his work. He probably
brought the different writings into
some kind of order.
He also translated a number of Latin
books into Old English, so that his
people could read them.
He brought back learning to England
and improved the education of his
(1100 – 1485)
• The gratest poet of the time
was Geoffrey Chaucer.
• He is often called the father of
English poetry, although, as we
know, there were many English
poets before him.
• The language had changed a
great deal in the seven
hundred years since the time
of Beowulf and it is much
easier to read Chaucer than to
read anything written in Old
English. Here are the opening
lines of The Canterbury Tales
(about 1387), his greatest
The Canterbury Tales
Whan that Aprille with his shoures swote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote
When April with his sweet showers has struck to the roots the dryness of March...
• The Canterbury Tales total altogether about
17,000 lines – about half of Chaucer´s literary
• Le Mort D´Arthur
(1470), → Sir Thomas
The stories of Arthur and his knights have
attracted many British and other writers.
Arthur is a shadowy figure of the past, but
probably really lived. Many tales gathered
round him and his knights.
One of the main subjects was the search for
the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.
(This cup is known as The Holy Grail.) Another
subject was Arthur´s battles against his
enemies, including the Romans. Malory´s fine
prose can tell a direct story well, but can also
express deep feelings in musical sentences.
Myth and history
Chivalry as as a kind of moral code of honour.
Supernatural and fantastic aspects of the
story, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,
are played down, and the more political
aspects, of firm government and virtue,
English plays
• Miracle or Mystery Plays → Told religious stories and were
performed in or near the churches.
• They are in four main groups, according to the city where they
were acted: Chester, Coventry, York and Wakefield.
• Their subjects: the disobedience of Adam and Eve; Noah and the
great flood; Abraham and Isaac; events in the life of Christ.
• Acted by people of the town on a kind of stage on wheels called
a pageant.
• Often several Miracle Plays were being performed at the same
time in different places.
• Although the Miracles were serious and religious in intention,
English comedy was born in them.
• Morality Plays → The
characters were virtues
(such as Truth) or bad
qualities (such as Greed
or Revenge) which
walked and talked.
• The plays presented
moral truths in a new
and effective way.
• Interlude → common in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries.
• Perhaps they were played between the acts of
long Moralities, in the middle of meals or the
name means a play by two or three
performers. They are often funny, and were
performed away from churches, in colleges or
rich men’s houses or gardens.
(1485 – 1660)
The conquest of the America by Columbus
Copernicus / Galileo
Discoverings (science, mathematics and
• Shakespeare
Many imitators of Chaucer appeared after his death in 1400, but few are of great interest. More
than a century had to pass before any further important English poetry was written. Queen
Elizabeth ruled from 1558 to 1603, but the great Elizabethan literary age is not considered as
beginning until 1579.
The direct literary influence on the English Renaissance love sonnet was the Italian Francesco
Petrarca – known in English as Petrarch – who wrote sonnets to his ideal woman, Laura. This
idealisation is very much a feature of early Renaissance verse. Classical allusions, Italian
Renaissance references, and contemporary concerns make the poetry of the sixteenth century
noticeably different in tone and content from the poetry of the early seventeenth century, when
Elizabeth was no longer the monarch. There is a universalisation of personal feeling and a concern
with praise in the earlier verse. This becomes more directly personal and more anguished as the
sixteenth century comes to a close.
Poetry became the pastime of educated high society. It is poetry of love and loss, of solitude and
change. The theme is transience, which was to feature strongly in all Shakespeare’s work, began to
appear with greater frequency through the 1570s and 1580s.
A number of contrasts, or binaries, begin to emerge; these, from the Renaissance onwards, will be
found again and again to express the contrasts, the extremes, and the ambiguities of the modern
• Spenser invented a special metre for The Faerie Queene. The verse
has nine lines; of these the last has six feet, the others five. The
rhyme plan is ababbcbcc. This verse, the “Spenserian Stanza” is
justly famous and has often been used since:
Long thus she travelèd through deserts wide,
By which she thought her wand´ring knight should pass,
Yet never show of living wight espied;
Till that attn lenght she found the trodden grass
In which the track of people´s footing was,
Under the steep foot of the mountain hoar;
The same she follows, till attn last she has
The damsel spied slow-footing her before,
That on her shoulders sad the pot of water bore.
Italian Sonnet Form
• The original form of the sonnet was the Italian sonnet, developed
by the fourteenth-century poet Petrarch.
• It consisted of an eight line octet (also known as the "Italian
octave") and a six line sestet (also known as the "Sicilian sestet").
• Each section of an Italian sestet has a specific rhyme scheme and a
specific purpose.
• Octet rhyme scheme: ABBA ABBA, and the purpose of the octet is
to present a situation or a problem.
• Sestet rhyme scheme: CDECDE or CDCDCD, and its purpose is to
comment on or resolve the situation or problem posed in the octet.
When this (or any sonnet form) is used in English, it is traditionally
in iambic pentameter, and, "the tradition is a strong one."
Petrarchan sonnet
LONDON, 1802
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: - A
England hath need of thee: she is a fen - B
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen, - B
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower, - A
Have forfeited their ancient English dower - A
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men; - B
Oh! raise us up, return to us again; - B
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power. - A
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart; - C
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea: - D
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free, - D
So didst thou travel on life's common way, - E
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart - C
The lowliest duties on herself did lay. – E
William Wordsworth
Spenserian Sonnet Form
• It is a sonnet variation developed in the sixteenth
century by English poet Edmund Spenser. While few
poets have used this form, it serves as a bridge
between the Italian sonnet and the form used by
• In a Spenserian sonnet, the rhyme scheme used is
ABAB BCBC CDCD EE, and there does not appear to be
a requirement that the initial octet sets up a problem
which the closing sestet answers. Instead, the form is
treated as three quatrains (linked by the connected
rhyme scheme described above) followed by a couplet.
Again, iambic pentameter is used.
Spenserian Sonnet
Fresh Spring! the herald of Loves mighty king, - A
In whose coat-armour richly are displayed -B
All sorts of flowers, the which on earth do spring - A
In goodly colours gloriously arrayed - - B
Go to my love, where she is careless laid, - B
Yet in her winters bower, not well awake; - C
Tell her the joyous time will not be staid, - B
Unless she do him by the forelock take: - C
Bid her, therefore, herself soon ready make - C
To wait on Love amongst his lovely crew, - D
Where every one that misseth then her make, - C
Shall be by him amerced with penance dew. - D
Make haste, therefore, sweet Love! whilst it is prime; - E
For none can call again the passed time. - E
Edmund Spenser
English Sonnet Form
• The rhyme scheme of the English sonnet is ABAB CDCD
• Shakespeare has eliminated the close linking, via
rhymes, of the individual quatrains, presumably to
allow more flexibility in English, which does not
provide as many rhyming possibilities as Italian.
• One of the interesting elements of Shakespeare's
sonnets is the "enjambment" of "phrases" with
"sonnet lines." This is done frequently in Shakespeare's
plays (which use a great deal of non-rhymed iambic
pentameter, a form known as "blank verse"); less
frequently in the sonnets.
Shakespearean Sonnet
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? - A
Thou art more lovely and more temperate: - B
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, - A
And summer's lease hath all too short a date: - B
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, - C
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd; - D
And every fair from fair sometime declines, - C
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd; - D
But thy eternal summer shall not fade - E
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; - F
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, - E
When in eternal lines to time thou growest: - F
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, - G
So long lives this and this gives life to thee. - G
Revelation or