User:Dr. Koyel chakrabarty/*English Literature
Tracing the History of Middle English Literature
The phase Middle English Period in Literature starts after the Old English Period which is characterized by two opposite but distinct features: bloodshed and religious fervour. It continued till the after effects of the Norman Conquest in 1066 A.D. bringing in significant change in the social demography of England. After the arrival of Saint Thomas Aquinas and popularization of his sermons on Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons had mellowed down to religious contemplation and verse poetry. But this did not stop the surge of ups and downs in the socioeconomic backdrop of England. Soon after William the Conqueror sat on his throne of England after the Norman Conquest, England had to face the Battle of Hastings which he had won with flying colours.
Rise of Feudalism
In William’s reign, the Norman Lords were given a large amount of autonomy by their king and so they independently ruled their lands thus giving rise to a new phenomenon called feudalism. With the introduction and strengthening of feudal lords, two distinct changes were noted: the increasing power of the monarch and the Church and the deteriorating economic condition of the common people. With Henry I (1100-1135) the king had become the central arbitrator and custodian of wealth collected and generated by the feudal Lords. But due to the overwhelming religious vivacity of the people and the importance of the Church in their minds, the king used the Church as an administrative tool to get access to people and their lives indirectly. Land was given to the Church which again was distributed it among people creating a second layer of feudalism. With the death of any hierless vassal (person to whom the Church had given the property), the Church retained all his property and this way it became richer and more popular.
Another event that had shaken the pillars of urban England was the Black Death which occurred in 1384 in the urban England. One-third of the English population was killed in the bubonic plague. This outburst of plague was due to the major reason of overcrowding of population, lack of sanitation, underdeveloped treatment facilities and ignorance of the people. As an impact of the Black Death people now started moving back to the countryside and sheep rearing, cotton, cloth industry gradually developed in the rural England. The urban centres developed newer economic circumstances this time in a better planned manner to avoid the effects of any sudden calamity.
Wycliffe and the Lollards
In 1350’s the Church with its indomitable power started to exploit the people variously which raised questions in the mind of the people. John Wycliffe (1330-1384), an eminent Oxford based religious reformer and ardent follower of St. Aquinas started revolting the ways of the Church. He started to question the election procedure of the Priests and pointed to the misuse of power by the clergy. He felt that there was a need for replacing the corrupt Church officials with secular personnel so that the whole clerical institution was turned up to the doctrines of Christianity. His movement was supported by the aristocracy but his questions about the basic institution of the Church moved many nobles away from him. His death saved the contamination of the Church but his followers called Lollards continued the fight and spread the teachings of Wycliffe. Because of these Lollards the Church could not take severe measures against the common people and many of their suggestions were implemented. With the rise of the reformists, the Lollards became inclined politically towards them and the original religious fervour declined. After Henry V, the Lollards got gradually integrated with Protestant Reformists of the Tudor period.
The Peasants’ Revolt
With a heavy decline in population after the Black Death, there was an evident scarcity of labour in the agricultural sector. As the demand of labour was high and the supply low, there grew a problem of unequal wages and work hours. The tenants wanted higher wages but feudal lords were adamant as a result of which anxiety was noticed in the labourers. When the situation became uncontrollable, the feudal lords appealed to the Parliament which then imposed heavy laws on the peasants. Every peasant had to work under the master for as many hours at a fixed rate that was defined in the 1347 Act. No person was allowed to show any allowance for any labour or give any alms to any sturdy beggar. With this kind of a heavy domination, the Parliament failed to foresee the seeds of revolt germinating in the peasants. Moreover, in 1377, the Parliament imposed poll tax on the labourers and increased it in the subsequent years. The peasantry was left helplessly groaning with anger and public riots against the nobles, even murdering of government officials started in 1379. With the killing of the Archbishop and the Mayor the riot ran free until Richard II ruthlessly subdued the revolt with false excuses and promises to the peasants. Even though the peasants did not gain any good after the revolt, yet this can be regarded as the first major conflict of the labour against the nobility in English history. Glimpses of anxiety and non-satisfaction of the peasants can be noted in the writings of Langland which will be discussed later in this unit.
Medieval Romance and Poetry
Medieval Poetry and Romance was one of the most popular verse forms of the history of English Literature. Medieval verse was widely based on gallantry, chivalry, adventure story, idealism of virtues, love and romance. It was heavily influenced by the French Romances; in fact, many French verses were translated into English in this era. Medieval epics epitomized an inclination towards heroism while the Romance stressed on chivalric conditions. The epics on one hand, created a sense of heaviness, tragic intensity, had a narrative unity and heightened sense of drama while on the other hand, the Romance talked about mystery, fantasy, lightheartedness and love ; it had a loose structure but narrative control. Medieval Romance was highly trailed by the theme of quest and religious framing. The early Romances drew its content from the Chronicles of France, Rome and were based on the legendary heroes. Jean Bodel characterized the Medieval Romance into three groups: the ‘matter of France’, ‘the matter of Rome’ and the ‘matter of Britain’.
The matter of France was the dominant theme of the early medieval period. It is also popularly known as Carolingian Circle. The stories of Charlemagne and his knights, Roland were very popular. Some Romances were indebted to France but were composed in England. Among them the stories of King Arthur and his round-table Knights were very popular. Later on Edmund Spenser adopted the theme of the ‘matter of France’ in his seminal work The Faerie Queene.
The ‘matter of Britain’ had majorly dealt with the Arthurian Legend and this was continued further in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Michael Drayton and Layamon. Some of the famous works of this period are: Le Morte Aurthure, Morte Aurthure and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Three other verse romance, Pearl, Patience and Cleanness, were composed in the West Midlands dialect and seemed to be compositions of a same anonymous poet. These poems contain the essence of the medieval romance. King Horn is another famous Romance based on the adventures of the son of the King of England.
The ‘matter of Rome’ as its name signifies, is again influenced by the stories of Rome. It has major two cycles: Alexander and Troy. All verses are based on these two legends. The verses strive to highlight the mythical glory and eliviate the characters from its normal height. Some of the important works of this period are: The Lyfe of Alisaunder, Alexander Buik, Histories of Troye, Sir Torrent of Portyngle, Sir Triamour, Sir Gowther, The Earl of Toulus, The Seege of Troye etc. Many of them are direct translations of the original Italian writings.
Fabliau, Dream Allegory and Ballad
Apart from the Romances, medieval England was also famous for Fabliau, Dream Allegory and Ballad. The fabliau was a popular verse form with its characteristic elements of satire, ridicule humour present in it. Chaucer used this technique in describing some of his tales in The Canterbury Tales. The three poems mentioned earlier, Pearl, Patience and Cleanness are dream allegories in proper written by the author inspired by his dream sequence of Mother Mary marked with the pious features of chastity, purity, loveliness and the colour white signifying all these. All three poems have a Biblical theme and the names stand up to become obvious symbols of the religious flavor that runs underneath the entire poem. Chaucer’s Romaunt de la Rose is a significant work influenced by the French original Le Romaunt de la Rose which created a new dimension in the dream allegory form and became highly popular. Along with these dream allegories, Piers Plowman is another great important dream allegory that portrays the condition of the peasants and the domination of the Church on common people. The ballad on the other hand, were of mainly two types: the folk ballad and the minstrel ballad where the former were soft, emotional having a refrain in the end of each stanza while the latter were long, heroic and adventurous in nature. Some of the important ballads of the time were The Ballad of Chevy Chase, The Robin Hood Ballads, The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens etc.
Chaucer, Gower and Langland
Geoffrey Chaucer is the most arguable and remarkable poet of the medieval English Literature. Chaucer had contributed so much to English Literature alone that he is often called as the father of English Literature. Chaucer had not only written high quality verse but also standardized English Language. It was because of him that the East Midlands dialect got standardized as English Language. Chaucer beautifully mixed in all the traits of contemporary writings in his works and added his own creativity to create medieval masterpieces. His The Canterbury Tales takes a story telling style adopted from Decameron of Boccaccio. The poem is remarkable in representing 14th century spectrum of life in which most of the characters, belonging to different professions of the then society, are pilgrims who take a consolidated eclectic effort to visit the holy shrine of Canterbury. In 14th century faith played a big role in people’s life and the poem uses irony, humour and satire to portray the underlying presumptions in the lives of different characters. This poem for the first time shows certain dramatic features but on the whole reflects several contemporary characteristics of verse poetry: the allegory, romance, fabliaux, sermon, courtly love, and eclecticism. Chaucer’s dexterity was also visible in his other poems such as Legend of Good Women, The Parliament of Fowles, and Troilus and Criseyde. He used several non-conventional bold styles, decameter, rhetorics to underline the contemporary issues.
Chaucer’s contemporary, John Gower had a special place in the history of medieval English writing for his use of language. He used different languages for three different poems: French for Speculum Meditantis, Latin for Vox Clamantis and English for Confessio Amantis (1390). All the three poems represented the current issues of the contemporary society focusing on corruption of the Church and the nobles in great detail. The French poem is an allegory focusing on the Seven Deadly Sins that destroy man; it highlights examples of the seven sins taken the real life situations making it realist in nature. The Latin poem, Vox Clamantis is based on the experiences of the Peasants’ Revolt, described earlier, featuring the protest of the labourer and the wrath of the landowner. It also features Edward II who had imposed heavy taxes and laws on the poor peasants. Confessio Amantis is one and unique among all other works of the period as it shows traits of confession poetry at its earliest and deals with the eclectic fervour. The poet in a most concentrated manner brings out his confession about his sins and there is an emotional handling of the poem.
The most vibrant allegories of all is found in the writings of William Langland who wrote Piers Plowman in a dram vision mode explaining the human conduct. He uses his knowledge of Christian theology to provide the argument which is sometimes close to reality and sometimes not. Social responsibility, faith and individual salvation constitutes the major themes of the poem. On the whole, middle age poetry is a mix and match of the contemporary faith, belief, topical issues and reflection of the society handled by different authors in a different way but definitely helped England in attaining a standard language at the end of the 14th century with the help of the writings of Chaucer, Gower and Langland.
The Renaissance & Reformation
With Caxton’s printing Press, Renaissance came forth in England in great vigour. Italy which was the harbinger of new ideas, literary ideas and forms, scientific inventions inspired the British poets in bringing Renaissance in England. The effects of Renaissance in English literature came in through the sonnets of Sir Thomas Wyatt who had fell in love with Italian sonnet form and had a significant role in introducing sonnets in the British Literature except for Shakespeare who had completely given a new shape to it. The matter and manner of Elizabethan literature owed an enormous debt to foreign influence, but Elizabethan individuality survived the foreign invasion. One of the prominent poetry anthologies of English Renaissance is Tottel’s Miscellany (1557,) a poem collection written by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Surrey, was published to introduce the deluge of sonnet structure in England adding a rhyming couplet in the end. Wyatt not only imitated the Italian sonnet form but also adapted the difficult style and fitted it well into the native language. In both Spain and England, the literary energy of the era devoted itself most earnestly to the same branch of literary effort; the finest literary genius alike of Englishmen and of Spaniards at the close of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century was absorbed in the production of drama. In Spain and in England, alone among civilized nations, the literary Renaissance of the sixteenth century ran its course contemporaneously. The early Tudor experiments in poetry lacked harmony or complexity of tone. It is even more worthy of remark that the work done by Surrey, Wyatt, Lord Berners, and their contemporaries practically ceased with their deaths. Wyatt’s poems were published posthumously. No one or for that matter, very few, for the time being carried it further. The generation that followed the close of Henry VIII's reign was almost destitute of genuine literary effort.
After Tottle’s Miscellany English poetry reached its heights in the Elizabethan period in the hands of Edmund Spenser. Spenser revived English poetry from the classical tradition and added to it special characteristics. With The Shepherd’s Calander, Spenser took the readers to the gleams of the pastoral thereby bringing out the crisis in the lives of the shepherds. It represented the social problems that were going on between the feudal lords and the serfs. It is however, The Faerie Queene that remains Spenser’s masterpiece focusing all the moral virtues as characters in different cantos of the poem. With Spenser, imagination through religious, moral grounds started opening up. His sonnet sequence Amoretti was a celebrated collection proving his skills in lyrical poetry.
Apart from Spenser Philip Sydney’s literary output covered various genres as a poet, writer of romance, a dramatist and a literary critic. In each of these genres, Sydney’s contribution was historically significant. His sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella was one of the better examples of the practice that had many exponents in Elizabethan England. An Apologie for Poesy is a remarkable piece of criticism that Sydney is widely known for.
The poetry of two Elizabethan greats, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe’s, is of importance not only for the fact that they excelled as dramatists but also for the merit of the verses themselves. Marlowe’s Hero and Leander reflects a tradition that found many illustrious exponents in the Elizabethan period. It was the genre of the long poem which took for its contents a mythical or classical subject. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593) is characterized by the temper of eroticism and draws from an Ovidian source. Shakespeare shows deliberate use of rhetoric for wooing of Adonis by Venus. The Rape of Lucrece (1594) exhibits great drama in sustained verse. Shakespeare’s use of Roman history shows the influence of age over him. His fondness for verbal playfulness has been seen as a condition marring the poem as it tends to overweigh the tragic sense through an emphasis on language. Shakespeare’s greatest achievement in poetry (not talking of the drama) is found in his sonnet sequence written in dedication to his fair friend and dark lady. Shakespeare had written 154 sonnets in the sequence dealing with the themes and motifs like Art vs Life, Death vs Immortality, Beauty vs Deccay, Creativity vs Destruction, Time vs Beauty. His sonnets are most individualistic in style and mode and the dialectical argument forwarded through thesis, antithesis and a jerky synthesis make the poems unique is nature.
Apart from these great poets, Thomas Lodge wrote some individual poems and some in collection which deserves a special mention. Glaucus and Scylla, Endimion and Phoebe (1595) were some of his memorable poems that carry a mark of the Elizabethan age and Renaissance. Michael Drayton and John Marston were also sonneteers whose poems have created a sensation in the public. Like other Elizabethan sonnets, they owe a large debt to the vast sonneteering literature of sixteenth century Europe ; but their supreme poetic quality sets on that literature a glorious crown.