As the world around us changes, so does the way that we see the world, and express that vision. Literature, arts, and philosophy evolve to mirror their historic and social context. An appreciation of literature is grounded by an understanding of the work’s context. Looking at the literary movements helps students articulate the common approach and ideas of each movement and time period. It is important for students of British Literature to understand the author and characters’ attitudes. Connecting a piece of writing to the ideologies of its time is an significant component in this task.
Characterized by an oral tradition of epic poems, songs, and poetry. Old English or Anglo Saxon literature was well established by pre-Christian Germanic settlers. One of the most well known works of this time period is “Beowulf”, an epic poem about the eponymous Geatish warrior.
Medieval or Middle English was prompted by the invasion of the Normans into Britain. Famous works during this period include the History of the Kings of Britain (containing the legend of King Arthur) and the Canterbury Tales. This period had a large focus on Roman Catholic church, as it was an essential part of everyday life for both royalty and peasants.
The English Renaissance saw the rise of the merchant class in Britain. Math, science, technology, education, and exploration became more accessible to the masses. The feudal system was slowly dissolving as middle class merchants rose in wealth. Plays became popular as they appealed to all classes. Notable playwrights include William Shakespeare.
Neoclassical writers tried to imitate the style of the Roman and Greeks. Characteristics of writing focused primarily on people's appearances rather than their true feelings or intentions. In contrast to the renaissance that saw people as inherently good, Neoclassical literature saw man as ‘flawed’.
Romanticism shifted from reason, logic, and science to a belief in the senses. Feelings, imagination, and experiences were valued above all. Works consisted of extremely personal works that touched on the mysterious and infinite world. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is a famous work from the Romantic Period.
The Victorian era saw a battle between romantic/gothic and neoclassical/enlightenment ideas. Characters and authors of this time period are often stereotyped as stuffy, hypocritical, and narrow-minded. Charles Dickens is a well known Victorian author.
Modernist British authors had a sense of betrayal after being devastated by two world wars in Europe. They no longer saw their government or even their religions as reliable means to provide answers in life, therefore turning away and looking to seek the answers themselves. Sometimes using allegory or even fantasy to do so.